Crossing Decembers: Chapter 8 – Another December
Note: Click here for some background on Crossing Decembers and why I’m serializing it online.
Previously: Chapter 1 – Return; Chapter 2 – Another December; Chapter 3 – A Glimpse of Orion; Chapter 4 – Bowling Green, Ohio; Chapter 5 – And We Danced; Chapter 6 – Steering A Train; Chapter 7 – 7:41
Chapter 8 – Another December
On a Saturday in December when my wife and daughter were in Florida for a weeklong visit, I got up early, packed a change of clothes in a duffel bag, and put two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and six Cokes in a cooler on the passenger seat of my car.
I was headed to Michigan for an overnight visit with Alex, whose wife was also out of town, and we were planning to swing down to Bowling Green and spend an afternoon wandering campus, grab a coffee at Grounds for Thought and a pizza from Pisanello’s.
The great thing about hanging out with Alex was the way we played conversations out for hours based on the smallest, most trivial memories of moments. It was like sitting down with old shoe boxes of bits and pieces, pulling out odd shapes of glass and worn keychains and ticket stubs, and tossing them to each other, challenging ourselves to remember their histories in every detail.
Driving the turnpike west into the yellow afternoon, my college years in BG felt like a ream of paper, every sheet stamped with a blur of unending letters and words of recollection, every page some silly or serious minute I swore I’d keep because they all mattered. I felt them, stacked but unordered in a thick, waxed cardboard box, and as I drove, I’d flip through, grab a sheet at random, and let a memory come back, if just for a second.
The great black granite monument that stood at the edge of Oak Grove Cemetery bearing a single word: FISH.
A cloudbursting afternoon, our dorm window cracked enough to let the wind howl while fine raindrops spit inside, and we sat cross-legged on the floor playing rummy, waiting for Jen and Jeff to come over so we could head down to the cafeteria for dinner.
The parking lot of University Hall after my stage debut in the freshman production, my whole family over from North Canton, meeting my college friends for the first time under a warm fall night.
Me, sitting at my desk, scribbling feverishly into a journal because I’d just staggered across campus, my veins full of coal smoke and earthquake because I’d been down near the railroad tracks, standing in the roar of a freight train’s wake.
“I DO NOT BELONG HERE!”
It was like a bash to the head, that scream, and I clutched at the steering wheel, managed to keep my car on the road, felt my eyes stab southwest across the fields toward Bowling Green, heard my pulse ticking and buzzing in my ears.
It was my own voice, but different, like when you hear yourself out of a tape recorder. And I didn’t so much hear it – even though my eardrums stung like they’d been slapped – as I just knew it and almost saw it, as if it were typewritten plainly in the center of a blank sheet of paper.
After a second or two, I shook it away for the most part, but I still felt out of whack, somehow. Detached.
A dull ache spread across the tops of my eyeballs, and I pulled into the next travel plaza.
Leaning over a Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate, I folded my hands, rested my forehead on my knuckles and pushed my thumbs against my eyelids. With each breath, the ache faded, slowly.
I took a sip of the hot chocolate, burning the tip of my tongue.
I was sitting in a booth by the window of the Roy Rogers fast-food stop just past exit 10A, telling myself I’d never had a premonition or a vision or anything like whatever that howl in my head had been, and that the Ohio Turnpike in winter was a pretty damn strange place for it, if that’s what it was.
But it wasn’t, really. A vision, I mean. At least it didn’t feel like it. I mean, there was nothing visual about it – in fact, there was nothing sensory at all, the way some people say they smell oranges before having psychic experiences, for example.
It was like trying to remember learning to breathe: Suddenly, I simply couldn’t remember not feeling that I was somehow out of place, even though I knew that just ten minutes ago, my life was clicking along as normal as a train over golden fields.
At that thought, something snagged in the back of my mind: the tiniest fragment of a passing image from a dream I had as a little kid, but when I tried to pull it to the forefront of my consciousness, it slipped away, ducking below the surface again.
I looked out the window at the parking lot full of semi-trailers. The low winter sun was reflecting itself in the great sheets of windshield, scattering and catching its rays on the unseen debris in the blacktop, glinting from invisible bits of chrome flake and tiny flints of broken glass. A single beam burned itself briefly into my retina in the second before a burly man in a jean jacket stooped and scooped up the penny from which it had fired.
That sense of something big below the surface swam up to the top of my thoughts again, that coin from the parking lot shimmering and waving just inches out of reach, shifting in green water, daring me to grab for it.
Closing my eyes, I reached delicately inward, found the gleaming copper, allowed my fingertips to run along its thin edge. It had been flattened, somehow, but not by one of those souvenir machines at the amusement parks with the black iron cranks – it was more stretched, warped. Changed.
Gently, delicately, I pulled at the memory…pennies, handfuls of them, rattling inside a clunky plastic Mickey Mouse bank in my bedroom of the house where I lived when I was two…an ancient cent brown and dull, with a smooth hole drilled off-center, that Denise gave me the night I met her when I was fifteen…a neat row of five pennies lying on the shiny surface of a steel rail in the sunlight, while around a bend in the field comes a train…
Grab that, hold on, pull slowly: my freshman year of college, after Alex had told me about standing by the rapid transit trains in Cleveland, I had taken a clutch of pennies to flatten one afternoon outside Bowling Green.
I imagined, nearly into existence, the hot late-August fields, felt my face burn and my eyes squint at the recollection of the nonstop wind from across the unbroken landscape.
“Hey, this is a penny from a train track, isn’t it?”
A girl’s voice, softly thrilled and wondering, in my head, a cloudy feeling that I’d once had a dream about her. My nostrils filled with the scent of snow, and I struggled to find a face to go with the voice, grabbed too quickly, lost the connection, and was back in the turnpike rest stop clutching at a cup of lukewarm cocoa.
You’re alone, I told myself, for the first time in a year, with your wife and daughter a thousand miles distant, and you’re feeling that pull from BG, out there, and you’re just missing your college days and feeling like a guy pushing thirty, wondering where twenty-two went. You’ve been in the car two and a half hours, staring at the passing concrete, listening to REM, saying nothing, and thinking too much. That’s all.
I do not belong here – what the hell did that mean, anyway? I love this damn place so much that of all the places to go, I chose to bring my bride to this land of cornfield forevers and flea markets and summer baseball and lightning bugs. I brought my wife here on our honeymoon – yes, Ohio for our honeymoon – because I wanted her to know more than anything why its air nestles and remains in small, dark, wet corners of my lungs to catch in my nostrils on lost nights, why its gravel dust and tree bark silt my blood, and why nights of insect calls hum faintly but incessantly in my ears. Jesus, I didn’t belong anyplace on Earth more than I belong here, and yet that voice, my voice, spoke so soundly, that to question its truth seemed to question breath.
More than the words, though, was the constricting chill that wound its way up my neck, prickling the hairs at the base of my skull. It was a cold, draining feeling of a terrible revelation:
I do not belong here.
My head was suddenly filled with a knowledge of a few narrow, weed-lined roads between endless winter-furrowed farms clearer than any map, but the place to which they led was clouded and stormed and fogged in wind-driven rain and snow and muffled December lightning, and while I could not see or know where I had to go, I knew how to get there, even if I didn’t know why. There would be no question. I would simply get back in my car, unblinking, and drone westward as my eyes regained an impossible familiarity with sights they’d never taken in and an unerring compass in my brain pointed itself in guidance, sending the impulses to my hands, my feet, my ears, all to bring me where some part of me I could not touch knew I had to be.
When I saw the stadium looming at the eastern edge of BGSU, for one clear breath of a moment, one snapshot heartbeat of the dormitories and the water towers and the radio antenna against the afternoon sky, everything was as it should be, clicking into place. The feeling ripped itself from my gut a second later, left a hole filled with sloshing ice water because nothing felt right.
I tried to stare at the pieces of the landscape, struggled to show them to that incredulous voice of doubt: See, I told myself, there’s Chapman Hall – three windows up, three in from the north side, there’s my old room. There’s the McDonald’s I worked at the summer of 1991, when Linc and I stayed in the East Murray apartment, and there’s the tree whose acorns I gathered in a plastic cup one fall afternoon. I flipped through the pictures, grasping for proof, for reassurance, for reality.
I found none.
But there’s something, isn’t there? Something elusive and intangible in every sidewalk, vanishing like the Pleiades on a clear winter night when you try to look right at them, and they disappear until you only watch out of the corner of your eye. This isn’t your college town at all, but you don’t know why. Those aren’t your fields, that isn’t your library, these aren’t your trees or leaves or memories at all, are they?
So, whose are they?
I kept going west.
Out Route 6, I knew, was the way to Napoleon, where the road circled around the town, swinging over the wide Maumee River before curling back and straightening itself for the unblemished flatlands stretching to the horizon.
“It’s like it’s right over in Napoleon,” – I heard my own speech this time, not an insistent thought in my own mind, but me actually talking to someone else – “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.”
As I heard the words, I saw in my mind’s eye the distant, lonely intersection of the road I was traveling and another, running north and south, and planted at the corner, a sign with an arrow pointing to the right reading: BRYAN 2.
The same scene was unchanged when I reached it forty minutes later.
I pulled over and stared into the crossroads.
Plow-rutted fields planed away west, split by the yellow-lined seam of the two-lane.
I’ve driven that road. I can see my hands on the steering wheel of my car, that stretch of highway beyond my fingers, a slow line of cars tolling toward a far-off cluster of buildings, a town nearly lost in the fields, and a cemetery under high elm limbs.
Cynthia, a girl I used to work with at McDonald’s, is there, and she’s wearing too much mascara, as always. Streaks of makeup and tears tug at the edges of her pale blue eyes. Hers is the only face I recognize among the dark-coated knot of mourners.
Some of that was familiar: of course I remember Cynthia from that summer, and the hayride with her head on my shoulder and the smell of her hairspray, but there was more.
It was like I remembered remembering her. What was coming back so strongly was not Cynthia, but of having that same sense of recall. As if where my reaction to the memory should have been something like, “Wow, I haven’t thought of Cynthia in years,” it was instead, “I was just thinking this exact same thing last-”
Only there was no “last.” No last week, no last month, no last time I was here because I hadn’t thought of Cynthia in years, and that was a truth. And yet running from the top of my skull to the base of my spine, I felt a taut silver cord plucked once, vibrating with a whine I could feel in the roots of my teeth, and which told me unerringly that my truth was wrong.
A swell of wind gathered itself from the horizon’s haze, came rumbling like a tornado rolled on its side across the land, passed in a cold shudder.
I got back in the car and headed north into Bryan.
The strange thing about Bryan for me, was I never felt that seclusion of being at the edge of the midwestern plains nothingness like I did when I’d visit my grandma in Upper Sandusky when I was little, or later, when I was in college, and we’d take road trips and pass through places like Carey or Bucyrus.
I wasn’t exactly what you’d call a city kid, but I grew up within ten minutes of Canton, an hour’s drive from Cleveland, and half that to Akron. Sure, there was a lot of farmland around those areas, but nothing like the isolation I’d feel, passing through those small towns in the western half of the state.
Bryan, I never got that feeling at all, and it was further out in Ohio’s plains than any place I’d ever been in my life. In fact –
I’d never been to Bryan before. I didn’t even know the place was there until thirty seconds before, when I’d seen that highway sign. So where in the hell was that childhood memory thing from? Of course I remembered Carey and Bucyrus and Upper Sandusky, why wouldn’t I? But how could I feel like Bryan was different when the place didn’t mean a thing to me –
– other than it was that little town where they made Etch A Sketches and Dum-Dum suckers-
-and how the hell did I know that ?
I was at the edge of town, passing a Burger King and a BP gas station when I caught a glimpse ahead of an orange-red stone clock tower and almost ran a red light because I had to tear my eyes away while my brain clicked and buzzed and struggled, trying to find a place to file this new image, and finding the spot taken by a picture that was already there somehow.
The Christmas decorations are already set up on the Williams County Courthouse lawn, and there’s a crackling red and orange tissue paper fire in a Santa’s cottage made of plywood.
I cruised into the town square a moment later, again felt the collision in my mind between the present and memory and dream, swung my car left on High Street, felt my eye catch on the dark wood and glass of a jewelry store – where a thin, old man with nimble fingers uncorks a jeweler’s loop from his right eye and reaches out to take a delicate silver watch from the hands of a girl with hair like the sun – and headed west out of town again with a humming in the back of my head like bees in a pop can.
I watched with detached fascination as my hands steered the wheel, felt my eyes dart and alight with ephemeral recollection on a gnarled roadside tree; a stop sign with a rust scar worming along its edge; a cluster of whitewashed beehives half-hidden in a forest.
Every slight crack in the road that jarred the wheels of my car sent a jolt up my spine that was recognized by the nerve pathways it traveled.
The narrow highway dove gently through a woods past the edge of Bryan, rose again suddenly upon the fields, and as I sped toward the sunset, the sharp blast of a train whistle seared the air, echoed itself from the land and sky, ringing in my ears the way a lightning flash remains in your eye after it passes.
Ahead, and to the right, I saw a blue-green steel bridge
“This is Seven Mile Bridge. We’re almost there.”
-her voice came as I crossed it, closer, from beside me in the empty passenger seat and I heard myself answer aloud, “Almost where?” while I unconsciously wheeled northward over the bridge.
As I did so, the whistle burst again, and I felt it pierce my eardrums, and I whipped my head to the left like I’d been slapped, and saw running to the horizon a set of double railroad tracks below, and against the distant treeline, the a single glaring headlamp of an oncoming train.
last year, taking a walk down by the railroad tracks by the power plant – it was my own voice again, words I’d never spoken but whose depth and reality were unquestionable – the trains would rush by like three feet in front of your face – everybody’s heard about pennies on train tracks – the hot wind and this huge blur pounding – like thunder and an earthquake, I guess –
While the echo of the whistle faded and left my ears aching, the buzzing in the back of my head grew and gathered itself into a throbbing rhythm of far-off steel wheels sending high, warning electric echo pulses ahead through the rails. It was like in the movie Stand By Me, when the kids are crossing the railroad trestle, and the smart one puts his hand on the track because you can feel a train coming long before you see or hear it, telegraphed over fields and rivers and miles.
I felt myself speed the car up, careen through a sharp left turn and charge westward again. The speedometer read 80, the grass at the road’s edge screamed past my window for a full minute. A white farmhouse swung into view to the south, and I turned toward it, onto a gravel-and-tar-slapped road, feeling the oncoming train thunder out of the plains, nearing.
Up ahead, the road humpbacked, a bony, weathered crossbuck marking the intersection with the rails.
“We followed the silent calling of the lonely roads -”
My voice, reading.
“on a moonless night, out where even the fields are asleep.”
Crashing into my field of vision from behind a treeline, the locomotive screamed again, and I saw the broiling atmosphere in its wake, shimmering the sky a quarter-mile off.
“The road grew soft, and narrowed as it rose over the tracks -”
Reading a letter, something, a story, a poem – a poem – damn if I’d remembered anything from English class, who the hell wrote any poems about trains, anyway?
“ – crowned by Five Mile Bridge.”
I must be in the wrong place, then, because there’s no bridge here, and I’m going to be stuck at this godforsaken nowhere train crossing for days because these trains from Chicago are like twelve miles long and just because there was no bridge, how would I know I was in the wrong place if I hadn’t –
“Graffiti-tattooed, rusting iron beams crisscrossed in the glare of the headlights -”
– if I hadn’t been here before.
I slammed on the brakes, jumped out of the car, ran, grabbed onto the crossbuck, stared for one throat-clutching heartbeat moment into the towering face of the rushing train, a stone-faced, wrath-eating and vengeful god with a blazing eye and a churning heart. It slammed past in a roar of heat and smoke, and the gravel at the roadside flew into a blizzard of grit, whicking painfully at my face and squinching tears from my eyes. I gripped the signpost, afraid of being torn away, sucked into the gnashing steel and hot wind maelstrom.
It was like being thrashed in a heavy surf, drowning in the iron thunder, surfacing long enough to gasp, catching sight of not sky or sun but
stars over the great concrete ring next to the tracks at the cement wasteland where the ketchup factory had stood and the song of an angel taking flight and the sound of time measured in footsteps
the slamrush of millstone wheels shoved my head beneath the surface of the din, shutting out the memory, chokchokBAMbamchokchokBAMbam and another gasp
a sunlit bridge a duck in the clouds and a dream of a boat called birdhouse on an island in the summer and the smell of hide and seek and the trees along the river
every mountaincliff of steel that rocked past chokchokBAMbamchokchokBAMbam threw rust flakes in my eyes and sucked the breath from my lungs, bellowing them full instead with searing air and coal
It’s the end of the world as we know it and if I were going to be in love, right now, if I wanted to be in love with someone and have someone to hold at night and be with, it would be you and she slammed her hand down over mine, clutching, holding tight to keep me from flying off the bridge and into the low winter sky and the world spun and tilted and the train grabbed at the bridge under our feet threatening to shatter the iron and rip the beams and scatter them over the fields
chokchokBAMbam – Kallie, her name was Kallie – kaWHAMwhamchokchok – there, in the cold, fading sunlight, there was a phantom, a mirage, and it was a bridge over the train, rising from my feet – slaBAMkachokchock
the parchment face of the courthouse clock, a harvest moon framed in stone, its countenance frozen at 7:41 while down the street and behind the trees in the cruddy little apartment, I saw her face, flushed and fresh as a peach in a summer basket, Please stay, I ask, please stay, and I wonder if my pillow would smell like leaves in the morning if she rested her head there for one warm July night. Lasagna and peanut butter and milk and her haircut and the Haunted Mansion and Florida storms rolling in over scrubland, the sky crawling thick with lightning on the last day I ever spent with her. I love you, Joshua Kendall, I love you, too Kallie.
Kallie Tabitha Greenburke, 23, of 615 W. Ninth Street, died in Columbus at 7:41 p.m. Wednesday, March 30, 1994 – KaWHAMchokchok -Burial will be at Shady Elms cemetery in Ridgeland.
– of injuries arising from an auto accident –
An all-night notebook scrawled in desperation, blue corn nachos, a skeeball, the clock on the wall and I did it, I did it, she’s not dead she’s not dead, she’s here in her living room reading my notebook and I love her and in my next breath I’ll tell her that she’s not dead I did it I did it
She called me Simon, and the things I dreamed came true.
With a final kaWHOOSH the last car swept its vacuum through the crossing, and the poem I had once written for her concluded itself in my head:
“And the chill, the silence, and the darkness slowly descended on the fields once again.
As we drove away, they reclaimed Five Mile Bridge once the glow of red taillights had faded from its view.”
Next: Chapter 9 – Cornfield Meet
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