Crossing Decembers: Chapter 6 – Steering A Train
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Chapter 6 – Steering A Train
I burned my tongue on the first bite of hash browns, I was so hungry for them. They came in a red plastic basket lined with wax paper, the way the best food almost always does.
After blowing on another steaming forkful, I shoveled them into my mouth and inhaled sharply – they were still hot.
I wrote some more.
Damn, these hash browns are awesome. Three guesses where I’m sitting now.
I remember coming here the night after your friend Sue’s wedding over in Napoleon – the one where you were the organist, and you needed a page-turner, so I sat up there beside you on the piano bench.
Tiffany from the BG News was at the reception, and we went with her to buy a bottle of rum at an IGA because she was 21. Then we came back to BG, made rum and Cokes, and watched “The Graduate” at my apartment.
“Good Lord, Simon, there’s hardly anything left in here.”
Kallie was standing in the kitchen, swishing the dregs around the bottom of a rum bottle. She set it down on the counter and leaned her face close to the window screen above the sink, her eyes shut.
“I don’t know about you,” I called from the living room, where I was flopped on the overstuffed blue couch, “but I am pretty drunk.”
The VCR stopped its rewinding whir, spit out “The Graduate” with a kerchunk.
I saw her step away from the window and push her hair away from her eyes.
“Whew. It’s hot. Let’s take a walk.” Her face was glowing with summer perspiration and the flush of alcohol.
The cool two a.m. air felt good as we walked through the narrow alley behind the house and headed toward Main Street.
We passed the library and walked another block or two, to the edge of the city golf course, where an immense, smoky-peach full moon was just floating at the treeline.
It just seemed so close, like a trick photograph of a baseball-sized clay model that I’d be able to reach out and grab in my fist to destroy the illusion.
“ Oh, Jesus,” Kallie whispered, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the short, wet grass on a fairway. “Look at that.” She never took her eyes off the moon.
I sat close next to her. “It’s like it’s right over in Napoleon,” I said. “Like we could get in the car, and drive those 33 miles over there, and when we got there, there’d be the moon, right overhead, close enough to touch, silent and orange and perfect.”
She put her head on my shoulder, and I tried hard not to shiver.
“You are charming me,” she said quietly, “in spite of myself.”
I don’t think I was ever closer than that moment to telling her how much I was in love with her. My mouth went dry like it does in the heartbeat before you spill a secret you’ve rehearsed a hundred times but you know is just going to burst awkwardly forth like a wet frog plopping out of your mouth.
But I didn’t.
In spite of myself, she said.
What I heard in those four words still hurts, especially before I fall asleep on a June night, with the sound of wind and insects and fields coming in an open window.
I might be falling for you, is what I heard above the blood pounding in my ears, but I wish I wasn’t.
I stared at the moon, watched the horizon dip and sway slightly, felt the damp grass at the small of my back, the sweat on the backs of my knees, where I had my hands clasped.
She left her head on my shoulder, and rested a hand on my stomach.
The moon’s edge touched an ink-sketched tree branch tip as it continued to set.
Linc and Amy came home sometime after we got back from that walk to the golf course, where we saw the orange full moon, I remember. They made this huge salad – Amy was a vegetarian – and the four of us milled around in the kitchen while we sobered up a little and you went home.
Didn’t we go to one other wedding that summer? – yes, we did. I don’t remember even who it was, but it was in Findlay, in a tan brick church on a really sunny afternoon.
I remember more about the reception, actually, because it was 15 miles away, in this really little town called Bascom, in a park with old, high trees and ornate iron lampposts with white globe lights.
You know something weird, Kallie? About a year ago, I was talking to my grandma about where she raised my dad, where she was born (I was on this family history kick after she gave me a book with some of my ancestors back to the 1500s) and stuff like that, and you know what?
My Aunt Dorothy was born in Bascom, Ohio. Yep, that tiny intersection of a town out there. And I just started thinking about that park, and the dark, shiny wood floor in the hall where the wedding reception was.
All these strange connections, you know?
“Look at those kids,” I said, leaning in to Kallie’s ear and pointing at a middle-school aged boy and a girl, slow dancing in the center of the Bascom park pavilion. “It’s like a junior high dance.” I sat back and extended both arms stiffly forward as if I were resting them on the waist of a mannequin, and rocked back and forth like a metronome, looking around with my eyes, not moving my head.
She leaned her chin into her palm and turned to look, then grinned back at me.
What I’d have given to have known you in seventh grade, I thought.
Kallie occasionally greeted someone she recognized and introduced me simply as “my friend, Josh,” earning her a few not-so-subtle inquiring tilts of the head.
I blushed inwardly when she’d reply only by raising her own eyebrows and smiling coyly, and I pretended not to notice, drawing fingerprints in the condensation on the side of my plastic cup.
Later, we were walking around the park in the vanilla glow of the lamps and the warm night.
With its sloping roof and big glass windows all around, the pavilion looked like a house for a merry-go-round.
“ God, it’s weird sometimes, coming to these things,” she said, looking into the bright hall, watching the guests dance past the tall windows. “The DJs all playing the Hokey Pokey and the Chicken Dance, people our age getting married and looking all domestic and “Leave It to Beaver.” I don’t know, it just feels like something I’m not sure I’m ever going to want like this, you know?”
She got quiet, and stared into the dark wooded area near the park’s lake for a moment, then blinked and shook her head.
She laughed. “Sorry about that. There’s just a lot of cheesiness in there, and it sort of got to me.”
“ Don’t worry about it,” I told her. “I can handle the cheese.”
Sitting in the Corner Grill, my tongue aching with a coffee scald and rubbed with potato crisp salt, I stared out the window and remembered that park in Bascom, and the night of that wedding, sitting on folding wooden chairs at long, linen covered tables, watching little kids crawl around and their parents and grandparents drink watery scotch and bad champagne.
You know what else I remember? Playing DJ, we called it – hanging out at the apartment, you and me, just babbling (okay, that was mostly me) and taking turns picking songs and popping CDs into the stereo.
There’s a whole set of music I associate with that summer, and a lot of it comes from those nights in that stuffy living room.
“Lucky Ball and Chain,” by They Might Be Giants. “I lost my lucky ball and chain/now she’s four years gone/she’s five feet tall and sick of me/ and all my rambling on.” That’s also got one of my favorite song lines ever in it: “Sure as you can’t steer a train, you can’t change your fate.”
“Alison” and “The Other Side of Summer,” by Elvis Costello – that’s your influence, naturally, oh, and let’s not forget “The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes.”
“Dig for Fire,” by the Pixies. You again.
You know, I made one of my signature tapes around June that summer, staying over at WBGU past my shift one day and putting a bunch of those songs together. I used to listen to it driving back from your grandma’s in Grosse Ile, and I called it “A Sunlit Bridge, A Duck in the Clouds, and A Dream of a Boat Called ‘Birdhouse’.”
“Life’s too rough, my friend,” I said, feeling the July sun hot on the outside of my eyelids. “Much too rough.”
In a park on Grosse Ile, we had stretched ourselves full-length at the crest of a footbridge, but the occasional passerby had plenty of room to step around our feet.
The concrete was warm under our backs, the sky blue enough to shatter with a baseball.
“I used to come to this park a hundred times a summer,” Kallie said. “There is no other place on Earth that can still make me feel like I’m six years old like this. You and me, we come here, we swing on the same black rubber swings hanging from the same metal chains I remember from my whole life, we walk beside the river and it practically snows that cottonwood fluff, and you can see it clumping in the shade underneath the slides. The cars coming and going, the people and Frisbees and coolers and blankets – they change, but it all stays the same.”
I turned my head, squinting in the white glare of pavement, the cement baking the side of my face.
She was gazing skyward, her eyes almost shut, a ponytail resting back over the edge of the bridge, blowing softly in the breath of the water and the sky. I knew that later, in the car, when I was driving back to Bowling Green, I would be able to smell the summer that she’d caught in her hair and left clinging to the headrest of my passenger seat.
“There’s a cat’s tail up there,” she said, pointing with her chin. “No cat, though.”
“Up there – that cloud looks like a cat’s tail just floating around, looking for a cat butt to attach itself to.”
“I see a monk,” I said. “He’s sort of kneeling, with his feet out behind him, and there’s a map of Asia over his shoulder. He’s over – Forget it. He just turned into a duck.”
I heard her inhale a lungful of the summersweet wind of grass and river, looked over at her again.
She cupped a hand over her eyes I could see them, blue-green in the shade of her palm, when she turned to look back at me.
“I don’t remember a single time when I was growing up that I did this,” she said. “I mean, looking for stuff in the clouds like this. Sure, I did it in cars on trips and stuff, but I can’t think of another perfect afternoon like this, when that’s all I was doing, looking at shapes of sharks and Mickey Mouse phones and – rgh! Bee!” she said with a gentle push at the fat gold insect buzzing between our faces.
“Say I’m the only bee in your bonnet,” I replied, quoting another of our favorite They Might Be Giants songs, “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” and looking again at the sky. “You know what?,” I continued, “I think I want a boat to sleep in on the river at night, and I’m going to call it ‘Birdhouse.’”
“I like it. ‘Lucky Ball and Chain’ invited over for spaghetti and beer once in awhile?” (Responding to my ‘Giants’ references with her own, naturally.)
“You? Sheesh, I dunno – can you pass for ‘five feet tall ?’”
“On the button, and yes, also ‘sick of you and all your rambling on ,’” she said, rolling her eyes and laughing as she stood. “Come on, I want to go get some ice cream at the Tam O’Snack. It’s off-island, but close. Awesome stuff.” She held out a hand and helped pull me up, and we walked off the bridge.
I craned my neck back and stretched my arms along the back of the booth, looking at the grease-darkened ceiling tiles, feeling my eyes suddenly aching.
My right hand felt knotted, and I poured myself another cup of hot coffee – the waitress had just left the pot on my table, since I was the only customer – and wrapped my hands around it, clamping and flexing my knuckles against each other, letting the heat work into the meat at the base of my thumb.
The first light of day was probably less than an hour off. I figured I’d find a good place to watch the sun come up, write a last entry or two in the notebook, and then head for Columbus.
Suddenly, I began to feel like there were a million things I needed to keep, to save to remember, and I’d never be able to write them all down in time, and they’d slip my mind’s grasp.
I fumbled for my pen and scribbled feverishly.
Oh, my God, Kallie – you have no idea what a weird night I’m having, and how late it is, and what’s led me to all this babbling that’s about to follow, but let’s just blame it on too much coffee and no sleep, okay? I’m trying to think of a place to see the sunrise and wrap this book up nice and neat as a present for you, but it feels less and less like that’s going to happen.
I mean, dumb little things I can’t seem to live without, like the warm, dusty smell of my car on a sunny morning, and rolling the windows down to let the field grass wind roll through.
Or the time we went to Giminy’s and I ordered a burger and fries, and as I was talking to you, I picked up the ketchup bottle to squirt my fries. But what I’d grabbed was my iced tea, which I sloshed over my basket of food.
The dusk falling on your grandma’s front porch as the insect hum in the trees grew steadily, and we blew bubbles over the yard, sharing the small bottle and plastic wand.
There’s just too much, and while it seems awful damn important at this very second, in the Corner Grill, with the plastic Pepsi menu board leaning against the wall behind the counter, and the neon sign of Uptown hanging dark across the street, there’s a part of me that really wonders If It Matters, to quote Gone Daddy Finch. (One more toast for Good Tymes pub and local band night, my friend, so raise that bucket.)
I just feel like I’ve got to run –
I tried hard to think of a fantastic place to spend dawn. Nothing came to mind, so I just got in my car and started driving around northeast of town, out past the sewage treatment plant.
I had ridden my bike out here, late one afternoon that summer, picking roads at random as I went, and carrying a small tape recorder I’d borrowed from Linc. I was going to try and speak aloud the stream-of-consciousness that would unwind itself whenever I went riding. All the stuff that floated through as the pavement crackled by, and my tires popped tar bubbles in the heat, and sometimes I’d try and tear a little piece of mental notebook paper and stick it in the middle of the voice to remind myself to write the thought down when I got home.
Of course, no matter when I returned to the apartment – minutes, hours later – it was all gone, always, left somewhere out over the fields.
Once, I passed a yellow sign warning: DIRT ROAD AHEAD. I kept going anyway, seeing that the road passed through a small woods not far on. This got me thinking about an urban legend I’d once heard about a woods somewhere around here, where a school bus full of kids had supposedly crashed or something. The ruined shell of the bus was still sitting deep in shadow amidst the trees, and the story went that if you drove on the road where it had crashed, at night, and turned off your car’s headlights, the bus would appear behind you with a horrendous grinding and screaming of metal and children, and then vanish into the darkness.
That’s what I was thinking about just as I rode my bike into the shadow of the trees. Gave me chills, being alone out there, even in a bright afternoon, and I quickened my pedaling, and to make it all even weirder, the tape recorder shut off as I passed through the heart of the woods. No reason. When I listened to it later, there I was talking about this ghost bus, and then there’s a strange series of clicks and clutter, then a few seconds of silence, and then me saying, “Wow, that was weird! I’m out of the woods now…”
I also remember riding past a barn, and though it was much smaller than the one I used to sneak into for kicks when I was a little kid, it reminded me of it to such a degree that in the half-minute or so it took me to ride past, I had a full-sense picture of what the inside of that barn felt like: cool and still in the afternoon, the late sun’s rays slanting in through narrow cracks in the dark wood, lighting shafts of drifting dust and hay, a smell of hard-packed dirt soaked with the oil of long-gone machinery.
The eastern sky lightened, and I pulled over to the road’s edge to finish Kallie’s notebook.
Well, I wish there was a great bullroar of an ending to this, but I’ve been driving around for about an hour now, and the only thing that came to mind was this babbling sentence fragment that has stuck in my mind ever since that summer. I said it out loud one day while out bike riding. (You ever want to look like a complete fool, just ride around Ohio on a bicycle talking into a tape recorder. Trust me.)
And never forget: I truly appreciate…oh, never mind. (Almost gotcha!)
Anyway, this is what I said:
You get out here…you get out here where everything’s flat, and you can see forever. That’s what it looks like. Only thing is, it makes things look closer than they really are. From way off, you can see trees or stop signs or farmhouses, but it feels like forever ’til you reach them.
It also takes things longer to vanish behind you.
Hope you like it.
When the sun finally came up, I was already headed to Columbus.
Next: Chapter 7 – 7:41
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