Crossing Decembers: Chapter 9 – Cornfield Meet
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
Chapter 9 – Cornfield Meet
So I remembered.
The Second Shepherd’s Play, Five Mile Bridge, Kallie’s funeral, and the December day that began with my return to the bridge and ended in Kallie’s Columbus apartment with the world falling into the unknown.
Growing up, I used to split logs in the back yard some summers: tree trunks and limbs that dad had cut for firewood. Now and then there would be a really thick piece from low on the trunk, or a burly Y-shaped section sawed from the junction of two great limbs, and it would take more than the usual splitting wedge, hammer, and swing.
I’d tap the splitting wedge until the log would defiantly absorb it like a steel splinter, and then I’d take the first swing and watch the wedge sink into the log without effect. The second, too, and maybe the third, until the top of the wedge was nearly even with the wood surface, clenched like a cigar in a tight grin. And then I’d let loose with a swing I started in my toes and gathered up through my legs and back and shoulders and arms, rising on the balls of my feet and sliding my hands together at the very end of the sledge handle so that the hammer was like a hot, smoking meteor in the wavering air, and it crashed onto the immobile wedge with a thick chinking sound, maybe a spark or two, and at the same moment, there’d be a loud, popping CRACK!
And I would stand in the sun’s soundless blaze for a moment, listening as the wood continued to crack, just sitting there, spitting tiny bangs and creaks, tearing itself apart.
That’s what the moment of Kallie’s death had become, spawning the impossible memories.
Five Mile Bridge had never existed. Never. It might, sometime in the future, but my feelings told me probably not.
But I remembered that bridge, I remembered being there and seeing the train that December, feeling that wind, tasting that smoke, and that afternoon following her funeral I was there again, she was lost, and no trains came, and yet she was alive, reborn, though she didn’t know it, saved, and yet nothing was right, nothing was good, and nothing was real.
I had memories of places and things that did not and could not have happened, but I knew them vividly, not just with my mind, but with every corner of my being. My eardrums remembered the thudding and the scream of a train whistle, my hands remembered the dry, cold wood rails, my eyes remembered blinking away ash and still burned with the image of a headlight plunging out of the darkness like a comet. The memories were so detailed, so concrete, so powerful and definite, and yet they were all things that could not have happened, but did.
But not here.
I drove back toward Bryan, numb and confused, the fields and trees and streets at once detached and foreign, but as familiar as the thirty-three pines in the backyard of the house where I grew up.
How was I even supposed to begin? Just call up this girl whose life I may have saved but bastardized into another tapestry? Was she out there fighting the same demons I was? And if she didn’t know, didn’t care, didn’t remember, then what the hell was I supposed to do to make my world right again if it was going to twist hers around yet again?
And it wasn’t like my whole life had changed.
The differences in my memories were like an earthquake fissure, yawning widest at ground zero, narrower cracks splintering off, tapering to distant hairline splits.
My memories clashed mostly at the heart of the chasm: Kallie and Bowling Green and Five Mile Bridge grappled there as two separate pasts, opposing truths.
My life changed in a tornado one December on a bridge out here, I thought, and a contradiction immediately sprang forth: I never stood in that spot until the second I got there and found myself hallucinating about some lost, rusty bridge that never was.
Kallie Tabitha Greenburke: I swear I loved her, and after she died, all I could do was wonder if I ever knew anything about her at all. She was in that play I did about Jesus and the shepherds, I think. And I’m pretty sure she sat in the front row of that History of the American Economy class I was forced to take in college, and I hated every minute of it.
Far off, she died. She’s alive, out there, somewhere, this very second, and maybe, just maybe, remembers you as the guy in the back of that economics class who struggled to stay awake through that fat professor’s lectures.
I loved her. I can’t even tell you what she looks like.
The rest of my life stretched out from either side of that canyon, seemingly solid, mostly unchanged: My skin crawled at the thought of the time when I was three and stepped in an antpile in my backyard, and a wriggling black mass swarmed up to the knees of my railroad conductor overalls; my heart clutched as I pictured my daughter’s face, peering backward over my wife’s shoulder, he lower lip starting to quiver as the two of them boarded a plane to Florida the week before.
So why not just go on? Why not get back in the car and drive up to Michigan just like I was going to, and spend the weekend mulling old times over beer and pizza with Alex?
In a week, my wife and daughter would be back from Florida, my life would go on, and the other voices, the other life, the memories of the bridge, Kallie, all of it would eventually grow distant and hazy and meaningless.
And I would no longer be me, for their loss.
Some stringy neuron in the corner of my brain cells that once fired the pulse of a clacking locomotive through my memory would dessicate, maybe, and I’d never know it, but the change would be there.
On the soft, wet sheen of my retina, a tweezer-scraping of pulpy rods and cones would die, and with them the sun glare of a headlamp miles away across cold fields.
And the ever-present soft buzzing in the recess of my ears that lies dormant for weeks and months, and swells to a summer insect storm on nights when I lie awake and remember when she said “I love you, Joshua Kendall,” would drop silent.
So my reconstruction began, with the realization that not only did I have to somehow weave Five Mile Bridge into existence from the threads of this world, but I was the only person who had ever known of it.
I had to find Kallie.
Fifteen minutes later, I was shivering, huddled at a pay phone across the street from the Williams County courthouse, flipping through the slim telephone directory. I found the listing for Todd and Carol Greenburke, punched the number in, and held the receiver to my ear as my stomach wobbled with uncontrollable tension.
I just did this, didn’t I? Her parents are gonna think I’m some nut, losing her number a day after I just called and asked for it the other day.
No you didn’t, I thought, you called and talked to a Todd and Carol Greenburke whose daughter was a day away from death. You don’t even know these people, and whether you like it or not, they might still be the parents of a doomed young woman. Car accidents happen all the damn time.
My mouth went dry, and I felt my tongue peel away from the back of my lips with a crackle in the earpiece.
“Yes, I’m trying to reach the Greenburkes?”
I tried to feel and sound relieved at that – at least her mom was the same – but I heard my attempt at familiarity fall flat.
“Hi! This is Josh Kendall -”
For a bare, fleeting moment, I paused, hoping and willing that the woman on the other end of the phone would interject, cut me off with a friendly greeting of recognition, the jog of a memory. She didn’t, and I stumbled.
“I, uh, went to school, at BG – in Bowling Green – with Kallie, and we did some plays together. Um, I had moved to Florida, but I’m back in Ohio now – in Canton – and I thought I’d see if I could get in touch with Kallie – she’s still in Columbus, right?”
“Yes, but I’m not sure…you say you knew her from the theater department?”
An icy breeze swept across the street, shook the strings of Christmas lights draped from the courthouse tower, rattled my teeth and cramped my shoulders.
The sun dropped away at the western edge of town.
Lord, but these winds are cold. And I am ill-dressed.
“That’s right – we did The Second Shepherd’s Play just before Christmas break of our sophomore year. I don’t know if you came to see it or not, but I was the old guy who croaked instead of singing. I’m a horrible singer.”
In my head, I was screaming, “It’s me! The peanut butter guy! Your lasagna is fantastic…” The silent, pathetic plea faded as she tried to remember me. I knew she wouldn’t.
“We did come to see that show…” her voice trailed off for a moment, just long enough for me to think I’d have to drive to Columbus and try and find Kallie myself, and then I heard a short riffling of paper. “Here it is,” she said, reading me the number. “I’m sorry I don’t remember you exactly, but Kallie’s been close to so many of her theater friends it’s hard to keep track sometimes.”
She had no idea who I was, and my heart caved in. I wasn’t so sure I should call Kallie after all, but what else did I have to try?
“Thanks,” I managed. “I really appreciate you helping me get in touch with her. If she calls before I talk to her, let her know I’m in town, could you?”
“I’ll tell her. Bye now.”
I couldn’t make myself dial Kallie’s number, and I walked away from the phone, numb.
She was gone, and I knew it. I’d pried her from a crumpled heap of metal and set her free, and because of it, I’d lost her.
You did it. Go back and live your life, you stupid, selfish, obsessed bastard, and quit whining.
God, it was like I’d made one of those deals with the devil where he grants wishes and then pulls the rug out from under the soul he’s just won.
Wait, though, wait, wait! If I can be stuck here, with these irreconcilable memories creasing my mind, daring me to look for truth, couldn’t she be doing the same thing? Couldn’t she be crouched in the corner of her apartment in Columbus this very second, screaming as the recollection of twisting steel collapses in about her? Couldn’t she be clutching at the images of a bridge even as half her brain rips the memory apart in a tornado of haze and conflict? It doesn’t make sense for everything to happen to just me, does it?
Everything changed. You’re just the only one who knows it, and the only one who cares. And here, that makes your memories lies. Go ahead, call her – CALL HER! You’ll see – lies.
I’d been staring at the sidewalk, shuffling past the storefronts of the Bryan town square, when a door opened as I walked past, and warm breath of wood polish and glass cleaner swept outside. I was outside the jeweler’s shop where Kallie had taken her watch to be fixed on the first night I visited Five Mile Bridge.
A woman in a wool coat shifted past me. I caught the brass handle of the door before it swung shut and stepped into the still, twinkling air. The shop’s interior was softly pierced by a million scattering glints and refractions. Framed in deep oak, handfuls of rings and necklaces gleamed from the display cabinets.
The door closed behind me, and I stood for a second in the apparent silence before a muffled ticking tapped like quick rain at my ears.
Splayed beneath the panes of a long glass case were dozens of antique watches, a glimmering school of sleek fish, twitching just under the surface of a stream, ready to dart at the pass of a shadow overhead.
I ran my eyes over the collection.
A silver and copper salamander clung to one pebbled band, a tiny clock face set in its back. Another was in the shape of a crescent moon cradling a ring of twelve stars.
There were the more ordinary ones, too, with creased bands and yellowed faces, dull numbers and matter-of-fact hands.
Along the wall behind the case, a low, narrow work shelf glittered with magnifying lenses, small lamps, and sets of diminutive tools: screwdrivers the size of toothpicks, hairlike tweezers, and bug-jaw pincers.
And lying on a square of black velvet, next to a fist-sized magnifying glass, was Kallie’s watch. The same watch she’d brought in to be fixed the night she took me to the bridge. It had a smooth band of narrow silver, and a transparent, numberless face that revealed the gears inside.
Leaning over the counter, I peered at it, and strained to hear its ticking. The second hand flinched back and forth in place as the wheels behind it clicked one direction, then the other. I was staring at the watch when the jeweler stepped from a doorway at the back of the store.
“May I help you, sir?” His voice was as measured and clipped as the sound of the watchworks. He was thin and ancient, but held his height as steady as a grandfather clock. A jeweler’s loop hung around his neck on a thin silver chain. “Is there one in particular you’d like to see?” he asked, spreading a set of bony fingers on the glass.
“No, no. Just looking.” I answered, maybe a little too quickly, as I straightened up, pulling my gaze from Kallie’s watch.
He’d noticed my attentive gaze anyway.
“Very unique, isn’t it?” he said, picking up Kallie’s watch, and lying it across his palm. “The young lady to whom it belongs must adore it completely. It seems to jam up like this every December now for, let’s see, seven years now, and she just keeps bringing it back year after year. Wouldn’t think of retiring it, she says. I’ve stopped charging her to fix it, since all I really do is pick it apart, find nothing, and put it back together.”
My mouth went dry, and I cracked out a half-interested, “Really?”
“Indeed,” he nodded. “Still,” he added, holding it up to the light, “marvelous timepiece.”
I couldn’t get out of the store fast enough, and I hustled back to the pay phone, clutching Kallie’s number, with a line from one more old Bowling Green favorite running over and over in my head: Seven years went under the bridge like time was standing still. OMD again, “If You Leave.”
The warm, safe glow of downtown Bryan swirled around me, and a surge of hopeful adrenaline was convulsing in my chest.
Every December, he’d said. Every December, that watch, that very same watch, and every December, she can’t throw it away. There’s at least one connection between where I am and where I was, I thought. There had to be more.
Maybe even in Kallie’s own memory. She had to know. Had to. Part of her, somewhere, lost in echo, knew about a bridge this world had never seen, remembered our train, our winter, our summer, and knew I loved her.
I reached the pay phone, jabbed madly at the numbers, hung without breath as the distant, electric ring burbled in my ear.
“Hello?” she said.
Next: Chapter 10 – Bridging Backward
Click here for information on ordering the book in paperback or electronic editions through Amazon or Lulu.