Crossing Decembers: Chapter 10 – Bridging Backward
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
Chapter 10 – Bridging Backward
It was at once the voice of a friend and a stranger.
A handful of thoughts stampeded through my head in the moment I drew a breath to reply: What if she’s married? Think she’ll even remember you? What if she doesn’t? Jesus, seven years is a long damn time – why the hell would I be calling her anyway? I should have at least thought up something to say before kicking in with Hi, you might not remember me, but there’s this bridge you took me to, and it’s not there anymore and you’re sort of hooked up with it somehow.
And the loudest, and the one that seemed the most right: Told you so, stupid.
“Hi, um, is this Kallie?”
There was a tangible hesitation, then: “Yes, may I ask who this is?”
“This is Josh Kendall. From college. I know it was a long time ago, but we did The Second Shepherds Play together up in the Elsewhere Theatre.” Three sentences, and I could already hear how lame I sounded.
“Okay,” she replied, drawing it out and leaving the so what hanging unsaid. “What’s up?”
She sounded like a girl at a junior high dance who’s watching the cool guys across the gym, and is suddenly interrupted by a skinny guy with a bad haircut.
Still, I allowed myself the slightest exhalation of relief. At least she remembered me.
“Well, I know it sounds weird, but I’m driving through Columbus tomorrow, and, well, maybe I’m just feeling old and I miss the theatre gang from school, but I was wondering if you’d want to meet me for lunch or something.” God, I was pathetic.
“I don’t know,” she said, and as she paused, I heard a television set in the background get louder. “I don’t think so. I have to work.”
I could see her sitting on a couch, looking bored and flicking the remote, struggling to ditch the phone and me with it.
A click on the phone line signaled that she had another call coming in, and she leaped to end the awkward pause. “Can you hold on a sec?” she asked rapid-fire, and the line was silent before I could answer.
Jesus, I didn’t think it would be this bad.
Bad? What’s bad? You seem to be forgetting that you’re the one probably coming off like some stalker, calling up seven years after a mediocre college play and asking this girl out for lunch. She’s lived her life since then just fine, thank you very much, without Josh Kendall, without any goddamn trains, and without Five Mile Bridge.
“Um…Josh?” she said, clicking back to my line.
“My boyfriend’s on the other line. I gotta go. Sorry about lunch.”
Doesn’t sound too sorry, does she?
“Not a problem.”
“Okay, then. Bye.” She hung up.
Wait! I wanted to scream: It’s about Five Mile Bridge! It’s gone, Kallie! Gone! God, please try to remember – if you remember, it will all come back and I can go back and remember, too and –
and she’ll be dead again. Nice thinking.
I slouched back to my car, sat in the driver’s seat.
Done? Your wife and kid are still here, you know. Alex is still up in Michigan, waiting for a weekend of hanging out and talking up old times, and your life isn’t too damn bad. Suck it up and go home. A year from now you won’t care any more about Kallie Tabitha Greenburke than she does about you, because those trains will have chugged away over your brain’s horizon, yanking that bridge with them.
And would that be so bad?
It was ice water in my face. Would it?
That gut-twisting, gnawing nineteen-hour drive from Florida to Ohio, dead tired and blinking away tears every forty miles, shaking from no sleep and too much caffeine? Never happened.
Lying awake, surrounded by the painted smiles of an army of wooden toys the night before Kallie’s funeral, praying to God to scare the hell out of me, and send her ghost for a midnight conversation; waking up at six a.m. to a cold reality? Never happened.
All of it – from the phone call from Jen Carmen late on a Florida afternoon to the wrenching dreams years later that would leave me empty, despite my blessings. Never happened.
I just needed to get back in my car, and drive off, and it would all begin to fade.
True, I really couldn’t tell how long it would take. What if it wasn’t a year – what if it was ten, or twenty? I imagined a great glacier, roving inexorably through my memories, eradicating the past, dragging and crushing and scraping.
I was more afraid of feeling the loss, of knowing what was happening, and being unable to change it I think, than I was of actually giving up on those memories.
For half a moment, I actually saw myself back on Interstate 75 northbound to Michigan, and later, at the Akron-Canton airport, my wife and daughter coming home, and Five Mile Bridge nowhere in my being.
What about the summer afternoon on the bridge with my wife, watching her eyes glisten in the hot, still air, staring west and calling her own train from the horizon. The matching initials she and I carved in the wooden railing and her cry of joy, a wide grin on her face even as she winced in the scream of the onrushing locomotive?
And the poem I wrote? That poem and Kallie’s quaking arms around my neck, and the tears in her eyes, and the choke in my heart that I can still feel like a deep bruise, and the letter I got from Ray Bradbury years later because of that moment?
The hour after I found out Kallie was killed, where did I go?
Straight to the McDonald’s where I worked with my unknown wife-to-be, who read the pain on my face and wordlessly gathered me in while I sobbed into her shoulder.
And I realized that the loss of that past would not be the surgical, precise removal of a mole from the small of my back, or even the demolition of a skyscraper that implodes in a cataclysm of dust but leaves the neighboring buildings unscathed.
I saw instead the upheaval of a great, spreading tree, the roots cracking and ripping from the soil, a million hairlike fingers clinging to life in countless unseen depths, unwilling and unable to release their grip.
Too many connections, too many strands to pull and unravel.
Too much to risk losing.
And when I realized what I had decided – that what I wanted most in the world was to be back in my own life, with my memories intact, a lump swelled in my throat, and I couldn’t stop the tears that ran hotly down my cheeks.
“Kallie, forgive me,” I whispered, burying my face against the backs of my hands on the steering wheel.
It felt like I was sacrificing her. She was going to die in that car wreck after all, and this time, I’d be the cause of it, because I’d be the one rebuilding Five Mile Bridge, respanning that gulf between my past and this future, and reopening the door for her death and my lifetime of missing her.
My problem, of course, was that I had no idea what had pulled me into this situation in the first place. I didn’t go out to the cemetery or the bridge that afternoon to change anything.
Didn’t you? Sitting on the dirt of Kallie’s grave, and that wind hissing across the fields, folding a fortune-teller out of notebook paper, it never crossed your mind that you were wishing for magic? You babble endlessly about the extraordinary hidden within the mundane, about the powerful unseen tensions that bind lives and worlds, about desire and will and change. You sat there at a crossroads, blind to possibility, but when that new path opened, you walked it without question.
I flashed back, and my fingers went numb in the cold air, the memory of working the sheet of paper twitching my knuckles and fingertips. I saw myself tucking the fortune-teller into the Christmas tree at her grave.
I hadn’t written anything on it that day, but as I watched myself stand and walk away, the wind caught a fold in the page and flipped it open.
Pencilled there were the words, “It will be so.”
And my wish, cast from the deeps, had brought itself to life.
So then, I almost said out loud, I can undo it.
From down the block, I heard in my head the erratic ticking of one watch among hundreds.
“It seems to jam up like this every December now for, let’s see, seven years now.”
Kallie’s watch. One thin, gleaming wire link to my past, even if I was the only person in the world who’d recognize it.
Gather more, I thought, and maybe I could pull Five Mile Bridge back into existence.
I headed back down the street to the jewelry store.
Through the storefront, I didn’t see the shopkeeper, so I pushed the door open, my eyes focused on the broken, faceless watch behind the counter. Just grab it and run, I told myself, this is downtown Bryan. You’ll be gone before –
The door struck a delicate bell just inside the jamb that jingled merrily. It sounded like a thousand brass bells dropped on the marble floor of a cathedral.
The jeweler emerged from his curtained back room, his eyes creased and shining.
“Back for another look?” he inquired, smiling thinly.
“Yeah, well, I couldn’t get that one out of my mind,” I said, feigning a sheepish grin and pointing at the moon-and-stars watch. “I’m thinking it would be perfect for my wife, as long as I can keep it a secret ’til Christmas.”
“Stellar Embrace, that one’s called,” he mused, sliding open the back of the cabinet. He drew the watch out with his spindly fingers, draping it over one leathery palm. “It’s from the 1930s, if memory serves, and should -” he pinched it delicately and wound it for a few seconds, “ – ah, yes, it runs impeccably.” Lifting the watch to his left ear, he closed his eyes for a moment. “Every one sounds different, you know, like heartbeats,” he said in a faraway voice. He gathered himself. “Oh! I’m terribly sorry. At any rate, I may have an older watch box for it in the back if you’d like. I think it would give the gift that much more character.”
He handed the watch to me, and I eyed it with as much interest as I could muster, turning it over in my fingers.
I nodded, and handed the watch back. “I’ll take it.”
He straightened up and grinned as I added, “Could you find one of those old boxes you mentioned? I think my wife would love it.” I was physically forcing my eyes into his, trying not to look at Kallie’s watch on the workbench.
“I’m sure we’ll find one to her liking,” he replied, and he slid silently into the back room through the narrow doorway.
I didn’t even think to hesitate when he was gone, lunging across the display cases and closing my fist on Kallie’s watch. It ticked impotently against the heart of my palm.
And now you’re a thief, too, I thought. Damn conscience.
I opened my hand and looked at the back of the watch.
It was engraved: Kallie Tabitha: Happy 18th, Love, Mom and Dad.
Kallie, you’ll get your watch back, I silently promised. But I’ve got to borrow it for awhile.
A hollow bumping noise came from the back room. “Won’t be but a moment,” the jeweler called, “I’ve several for you to choose from.”
I was out the door and down the street before the bell in the doorway stopped jingling behind me.
Ten minutes later, I was in the gravel parking lot of a neighborhood park, willing my heart to slow down, staring at the broken watch lying on the passenger seat next to me.
I had dashed back to my car madly, leaped in, and thrown it in reverse so quickly that I’d nearly backed out into the path of a green pickup truck with a red Christmas bow hung crazily on its grille. Somehow, I’d calmed down enough to leave the town square behind, and I vaguely remembered wheeling the car sharply through a series of turns, though God knows I hadn’t made any conscious decisions about where I was going or what to do next.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to.
High oak trees and swingsets, motionless in the dying dusk, caught my eye from behind a sign reading “City of Bryan, Vandenberg Park.”
I got out of the car, fingering the watch in my pocket.
On an arc-lit swatch of blacktop at the park’s far edge, four guys were playing basketball. I watched for a moment, fascinated as I saw each bounce of the ball just a half beat before the soft pinging thump reached my ears over the playground.
For a second, the scene felt like the night that Anne and I sat on the swings in Bowling Green. I was a half step towards the swingset when I noticed a sort of memorial or something sitting beside a curved section of the sidewalk.
Inside a paved circle was a squat block of granite with a chunk of wood about three feet long bolted to the top of it. It looked kind of like a section of a railroad tie, but it had an odd, ancient air about it. It also felt strangely familiar.
Embedded in the granite was a small brass plaque that read:
In 1982, the city of Bryan, Ohio, U.S.A., and the city of Quanzhou, China joined in an international exchange program called “Bridges” to celebrate both the diversity and unity of people worldwide.
The sister cities embarked on a journey of shared exploration, establishing pen-pal programs between schoolchildren and collecting residents’ stories of life to share.
Each city also sent part of a local bridge to be placed in the other, a symbol of the connection between two such different cities and the hope of understanding.
From Bryan, a sandstone brick was sent from one of the original rail bridges spanning Franklin Street in the 1800s.
From Quanzhou came a section of wooden beam from Anping Bridge, built during the southern Song Dynasty, somewhere between 1127 and 1279. In the Middle Ages, it was the longest beam bridge in the world. Anping is also named for its length: Five Mile Bridge.
May our distant lives be forever linked.
Dedicated May 5, 1983.
I couldn’t help laughing and gaping open-mouthed while I walked around the pedestal, running my hand along the relic. My fingers and palm remembered the deeply-grooved rails of the bridge over the train tracks, recognized the beam at first touch, and impossibly knew it as the same wood.
With a glance toward the basketball court and quick look around at the otherwise empty park, I pulled out my car keys. My eyes scrambled over the surface of the wood searching for an errant splintering or a keyhole crack. Got it.
Jamming a key slightly into a small crevice near the bottom edge, I gave a sharp twist downward. A piece of the beam about an inch and a half long and about dime-thick snapped and bent outward. When I grabbed to break it fully off, the jagged edge lanced into my left thumb, and I yanked my hand back and upward to my mouth, sucking at the flesh.
I pushed my keys back into my pocket and ripped at the piece of wood with my other hand.
My thumb was still hurting as I got back in my car and started driving for the second time that night with no destination in mind.
I was trying to spot the courthouse tower for a directional reference point when I passed the Bryan Public Library and got an idea.
“I need a map of Williams County,” I explained to the librarian, “but not like a regular road map. I’m looking for one like they used to bind together in atlases, with not just the roads, but the railroads, too. Maybe like those big ones they keep on the wall in the county zoning office, with all the land parceled out and everything?”
I absently bit at my thumb again, which still smarted from where I’d jammed it on the broken piece of Five Mile Bridge. I peered at it, saw a dark splinter buried neatly beneath my skin.
The librarian was maybe in her mid-thirties, brilliant blue eyes and chestnut hair, and she was chewing at the inside of her bottom lip, thinking.
“How new does it need to be?” she asked. “I mean, we’ve got older ones that have what you’re looking for as far as the railroads and highways, but we don’t have up-to-date plat maps. Is there something specific you’re looking for?”
“Kind of. You know those train tracks out west of town, if you go out High Street a couple miles and then turn right? There’s this blue-green bridge, and it goes over a double-set of train tracks -”
“Seven mile bridge,” she interrupted, “I know where you’re talking about.”
“That’s the area I need. Just west of there, actually, but not much more than a mile, maybe two. That’s the nearest landmark I could think of.”
She was nodding and already heading to walk around the end of the reference desk.
“We’ll have that in our local history room,” she said, motioning for me to follow. “This way.”
Half-hidden around a corner at one end of the library, the local history room was probably bigger than it seemed. A wide set of tightly-spaced wooden shelves sat along one wall about waist-high, the edge of each shelf marked with a small typewritten label. The librarian scanned the labels, stopped, and ran an index finger over a series of about a half-dozen shelves.
“These are the nice, detailed county maps,” she explained. She slid one shelf out, lifted it by the sides, and placed it on a tabletop. “This one shows all of Williams County, then there are four with the quadrants, and then a few newer ones.” She pointed to a section on the left hand side of the map. “I think what you’re looking for is going to be around in here. If you need anything else, feel free to ask.”
She left me alone, and the history of Williams County, Ohio wrapped me in a musty spice smell of dust and ink, crumbling pages and yellowed pictures.
On one wall hung a wide oil painting of the town square. Attached to the bottom of the frame, a small brass plaque read: Bryan, Ohio – Williams County Courthouse. Designed by E.O. Fallis, it combines French Baroque and Romanesque Revival styles. Scottish stonecutters crafted the Chicago brick, Berea and Amherst stone, and Georgia marble. It officially opened for business in the summer of 1891.
Exactly a hundred years before my summer with Linc and Kallie.
A meaningless coincidence, sure, but why not just go ahead and imagine that maybe a hundred years to the day after the doors swung open on that red stone midwestern castle, Kallie and Linc and I were transfixed by the northern lights over the wastelands of the ketchup factory. Or maybe it was the afternoon I spent on Kallie’s back porch, or the day I climbed to the roof of Overman hall. It would have been a somehow fitting anniversary on just about any day that summer, I guess.
And I was latching onto any thread of coincidence I could find, real or imagined.
I turned my attention to the county map the librarian had extracted from the shelves and traced a bold inkline west out of downtown with my fingertip until it made a north-south T-intersection. My eyes darted up a half inch on the paper, and scanned to the left again, checking the lines on the map against my memory of the roads outside Bryan. I noted the names where the routes were marked: High Street West, County Road 63, Ohio 19. The spot where Five Mile Bridge should have been wasn’t apparent, but I had enough of an idea that I pulled out the more detailed map that covered western Williams County for a closer look.
A diagonal line labeled “CSX R.R. Tol/Chi” stitched across the second map from the upper right to the lower left.
CSX railroad, Toledo to Chicago.
I found it strange for just a moment that the trains that roared beneath Five Mile Bridge actually had destinations, connections, and schedules, so wrapped had I become in their passing. And my wonderment, my belief, was suddenly ridiculous.
These trains, I thought, these magnificent hellbreath tornadoes – Jesus, they’re just noisy trucks on rails hauling coal or scrap metal from one rotten trainyard to another across this flat dirt nothing. Those engineers behind the square-eye, grime-smeared windows? They pass a hundred ugly bridges in an afternoon without a second thought, and it would never cross their minds to imagine standing in the stink that comes choking out of the engine while they rip under another vandalized pile of wood and steel. They squint hours away facing nothing but endless blazing rail glare or driving rain or low, heavy skies, and they stuff foam plugs in their ears because that goddamn whistle will crack your head open if you have to hear it a dozen times an hour.
It was like being back on stage in college, after two solid months of rehearsals, when the memorized lines and gestures become automatic, and I’d find my mind wandering separately out on its own. It was stepping back and looking at myself wearing theater make-up and talking in rhymed couplets, hearing the words come out of my mouth, and at the same time wondering how I got there, what I was doing, and wasn’t it odd that I could be thinking these asinine thoughts even in the middle of a performance?
In the history room of the Williams County Public Library, the same kind of things went through my head: How did I get here, in this bird’s egg of a town in the far corner of Ohio, with a stolen watch in my pocket and some crazy idea that I was going to change fate, even while my life was unfolding along a different path where none of this mattered?
And the same question that used to ping around in my skull onstage: What am I doing here, pretending to be someone else?
All these things while I stared at the creased map, not really seeing it, running my fingers lightly, absentmindedly over the page. I caught myself, and blinked my attention back just as my right hand drifted over the spot where the bridge should have been marked –
and an unseen hand clasped itself over mine, gripped hard for a heartbeat, and was gone.
I jumped, let out a cry of surprise, cut it short, and stared at my hand while my pulse raced wildly and I struggled to breathe.
It hadn’t been the suffocated blue cold of a dead hand touching mine, but the surface chill of a one out on a winter night with no gloves. The clasp of fingers that have been anxiously clenching a wooden bridge rail on a December night.
What if she’s out there? I thought. What if Kallie, my Kallie, who remembers and knows and loves, is lost out there in some other half-real Bryan, trying to do the same thing I am? Staggering blindly and reaching for any piece of hope, what if she’s out there and she almost managed, almost succeeded, almost reached me?
What if it had been my imagination?
Christ, too many what ifs. I couldn’t sit and wait, even if the crazy idea that there was another Kallie out there was true. I didn’t think I had time. Sitting and waiting might mean forgetting, and I’d seen that road and didn’t want to take another step on it.
I gingerly extended my fingertips toward the map to touch the spot of Five Mile Bridge again, the wild streak of hope imagining Kallie’s hand outstretched from someplace else to tentatively brush my own.
There was only the soft crackling of brittle paper under my fingers.
And as I stared at the map, there was a distant twinge of recognition, of familiarity.
I’ve seen this before, somewhere. Where?
I peered at the lines and intersections on the map: Township Road D, County Road 10, and the cross-hatched line of the railroad. Five Mile Bridge marked the crossing of the latter two, at least it should have. But the gnawing whisper of something greater than déjà vu was insistent: Where did this map come from? Where would I ever have seen this in a million years? Nowhere.
I shook the feeling off long enough to grab a short, eraserless pencil from a cardboard cup on a table. There was a stack of notecards there, too, that looked as though they’d been cut from old file folders.
As I sketched a crude thumbnail map of the bridge and the roads around it, my head filled with a sudden sensation of familiarity, of knowing what was going to happen next and yet not being able to quite see around the corner, frustrating and maddening and –
– a memory, sudden and complete:
“Where’s Josh?” It is my dad’s voice. I can smell the foam insulation and dusty corners of my grandmother’s basement. I am eight years old.
“We’re gonna go buy sparklers and bottle rockets, and we’re leeAAVING! Josh! You wanna go, we’re going noooOOW! Okay, then! We’ll be back in awhile. He’s around here somewhere, so don’t worry…”
Dad’s voice fades, punctuated by the light aluminum bang! of grandma’s front door. I am crouched in the basement in front of grandma’s old wooden file cabinet in the corner, the bottom drawer open.
My grandmother comes downstairs, the third step squeaking lightly.
“Josh? How come you didn’t answer your Dad? He wasn’t mad, you know.”
“I know. I’m just looking at stuff, that’s all. They’ll bring enough fireworks back. Is it okay if I look in here? I’m not breaking anything.”
“Just old people’s stuff in there,” she says, smiling. “If you want any lunch, just come up to the kitchen, and I’ll fix you a sandwich.”
And then I am burrowing through corn-husk receipts and the occasional photograph. The long Fourth of July weekend at Grandma’s is getting boring.
The only toys she has are mostly from when I was little, kept in a cardboard box under the spare bed, and I am in search of anything remotely interesting in the basement.
Seemingly out of nowhere, in my right hand there is an old folded notecard, worn soft at the corners.
Drawn on it in pencil is a simple map. One line is labeled “Twp. Hwy D,” another, “10.” And where the “10” line meets a row of dashes, there is a circle, and the words, “Five Mile Bridge” in careful lettering.
The recollection was fleeting, the memory old and familiar and comforting.
And absolutely nonexistent.
The instant my reverie had faded, a single thought flooded into the space it had filled: That never happened to you.
It was the truth. A moment from childhood seemingly forgotten, but engraved on some hidden inner stone, excruciatingly rich and palpable, and yet it was not a memory that belonged to me.
How could it? How could that have happened to me when I was eight and then some ten years later not pop in my head like a firecracker the instant Kallie said to me “I have to take you to Five Mile Bridge?” As if I’d just forgotten finding that penciled map; forgotten the way I’d tucked it into a book that weekend, kept it at home for years in a desk drawer of pencils, wheat pennies and Star Wars cards; forgotten that when I went off to college and read Richard Bach’s Illusions that I knew my old notecard treasure map had found its permanent bookmark home.
Again, all things I unequivocally remembered, and yet had not done.
When I looked at the map I had just drawn in the Bryan Public Library, it was exactly as I remembered from the day I’d found it in Grandma’s basement but still crisp at the corners, and unbent.
It slowly dawned on me that I remembered finding that map, as surely as I had just unthinkingly sketched it.
In that moment, I felt a seed plant itself in a far corner of my mind: the day that boy, that unknown me, found that strange map in Grandma’s basement, he had no reason to doubt that it was anything but a set of directions to some bridge. It must have existed somewhere, or why have a map to it? I’d never seen Bucyrus or Wooster or Mansfield either – they were just signs we passed on Route 30 when we came to visit Grandma, but I never questioned their existence.
To that eight-year-old me, Five Mile Bridge was as permanent and real as Grandma’s wooden file cabinet.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the watch, touching its face with a fingertip.
“- like heartbeats,”
I pressed the watch flat to the right side of my head, the way the jeweler had, and a ice water ran through my eardrum and down the side of my neck, and a lump thickened in my throat: From inside the tiny watchworks came the unmistakable chickerchickCHAKchickerchickCHAK of steel train wheels.
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