Crossing Decembers: Chapter 11 – Pennies and Splinters
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
Chapter 11 – Pennies and Splinters
As I headed out of Bryan, I zipped through a yellow light near the center of town, across the square from the jeweler’s darkened storefront.
A twitching lump of nerves rose from deep in my gut, squeezed into my shoulders and jawline, and suddenly I was shaking, breathing rapidly. I chewed nervously at my thumb, the irritated spot around the embedded splinter throbbing.
Jesus, I hadn’t thought I’d get that scared and guilty over stealing a busted watch.
That’s not it, though, is it? The watch? That’s nothing. Where you headed, Simon?
The voice drew a sneer out of the last word, and I glanced at Kallie’s watch, the small scrap of wood, and my penciled map to Five Mile Bridge on the passenger seat beside me.
Oh my God, I thought.
I’m on my way to kill her.
When I reached the edge of town, the moon passed into view, a swift river of high, wispy clouds racing over its face, wavering it like a quartz pebble in a shallow stream. Great hunter Orion hefted his shield overhead.
And his sword, too, don’t forget, cocked back over his shoulder there in the heavens, ready to smite and cleave and destroy. Orion’s been there forever, just waiting to strike, but his hand’s never dropped.
Sure you can do this?
My teeth began to chatter, and I pushed harder on the gas pedal.
The blue-green lattice of Seven Mile Bridge was gleaming in my headlights when I heard the first distant call of a train whistle. I skidded to a stop above the tracks and peered away west, where a newborn star blazed on the horizon and brightened imperceptibly with each passing second.
You can sit right here, you know. Sit right here, and that train will shudder these girders with a summer storm howl and a blast furnace gasp, and you’ll grow goosebumps skull to toes and cry later at the might of it.
That train will pass on, into and past Bryan, Ohio, the town where a girl who barely remembers your name grew up, but she won’t matter, and you’ll have your locomotive and your thunder and you can go back home to your wife and your daughter and when they get back from vacation, you’ll tell them how great it was driving to see Alex in Michigan.
I sat at the steering wheel, hands frozen at ten-and-two, eyes locked on the distant headlamp. I could, I thought. I could wait right here and burn down Five Mile Bridge in a roar of invisible flame, wash away the charred timbers in a screaming wind and build myself a new memory of Seven Mile Bridge, painted and steel and lasting. Far-off train whistles would pull me back to this moment, this perfect winter night over still fields, alone and –
– alone and alone and alone.
The horn blasted and echoed again, nearer, and I pulled the car forward, leaving Seven Mile Bridge behind.
Five minutes later I was parked at the tracks, my car leaning in the weeds and gravel to one side, the bleached-bone crossbucks faintly reflecting the arc-light from the nearby farmhouse.
I got out of the car and walked a few yards onto the tracks with my hands in my pockets, eyes on the train, still a ways off. A steady, cold wind rubbed my face.
Out here where everything’s flat, I had written in Kallie’s notebook, you can see forever, but it makes things look closer than they are, and it takes them longer to vanish behind you.
Stepping back to the car, I retrieved my trinkets. They felt miniscule and laughable: a scrawled notecard map, a junked watch, and a piece of an old log. Stupid, worthless things.
Like a plastic ring called Fuzzy, I thought next, or a rubber ball or a Disney name tag or a cheap brass bell or –
“Hey, this is a penny from a train track, isn’t it?”
Kallie’s voice came so clear and close I whirled, expecting to see her standing behind me, a dingy brandy snifter in one hand, and in the other, a shiny flattened copper piece.
When she wasn’t there, a realization hit me so suddenly that I spoke out loud to no one.
“I need a penny.” My voice fell flatly into the air.
Placing the map, the watch, and the wood on a tar-black railroad tie, I scraped into my pockets. Nothing. Mined through my coat, and came up empty.
I turned and ran to my car.
Not for one second did I abandon the thought of that penny. It became the absurd key to my dream, and with the train slipping closer – whispers of schick-schick-schicka, schick-schick-schicka skittered along the rails now – I felt like I was going to fly to pieces.
Isn’t that what you always heard as a kid? ‘A penny on a train track can derail the whole thing,’ went the refrain. Sure, it turned out not to be true literally, but it looks like maybe it means something after all, doesn’t it?
I dove across the driver’s seat, clawing frantically at the floor of the car, shoving aside the rubber floor mats, stirring up grit and lint, finding no coins. I jammed my hands underneath both seats, the springs tearing at the backs of my knuckles, but came up clutching only pen caps and paper clips.
As I turned to check the back seat, a screaming whistle cut across the fields. I shot a glance at the train – maybe a mile off, no more. I had about a minute or so.
“Dammit!” I hollered, scrabbling through the backseat and still coming up empty. “A goddamn penny! Just one lousy cent is all I’m asking for here!”
Constant, machinating thunder pulsed the air, and I jumped out of the car and slammed the door in fury.
I raked my eyes desperately over the roadside gravel, half-dove at a pop can tab that glinted for a second in the oncoming glare, cast it away in disgust. I dashed across the road, found only broken pieces of reflector and a rusted washer.
The farmhouse. Run, I thought, bang on the door and beg for a penny and they just might think you’re insane enough to want you to go away, and they’ll give you your penny and call the cops the second you’re gone. I turned, saw the pool of light encircling the house, and my eyes focused on an overturned tricycle in the side yard as my legs tensed to spring me into a dead run, but another deafening shockwave blast of the train’s horn froze me.
I’d never make it there and back, and even supposing the train was a mile-long mammoth, I couldn’t get a penny on the tracks once the engine passed.
The train bore down, a hundred yards off, and I knew I was going to miss it.
I ran back to the spot between the rails where I’d set my feeble treasures, failing completely to convince myself that maybe I’d get another shot if I could run off, find a penny, and come back again.
As I scooped up the map, the wood scrap and the watch, three calls from the whistle rang like gunshots as the driver must have caught sight of the lunatic hunched on the tracks.
The pounding clamor of the engine filled my head like an ocean, and the brunt of an onrushing wind swept by, tugging at my coat and my hair and my eyelashes, and the horn cried again, get out of the way, you fool, get out of the way –
And above it all came a soft, sharp clink to my right, and there was a gleaming penny lying on the smooth rail.
I just had time to notice the figure-eight drawn sideways over Lincoln’s profile as I sprang from the train’s path.
A roiling cyclone roar consumed me, my eardrums shattering inward as a final detonation bellowed from the horn. I rolled over and over on the rockpile embankment until I sprawled on my back at the roadside, the world a baking, churning cataclysm blurring above me.
Beyond the rush, Orion glimmered in the sky.
And in the creases of my memory, sandwiched between the folds of my two pasts already in conflict, a third life trickled into existence like mercury, a thin vein of silver deep in desert sandstone.
The recollections of an eight-year-old who’d found a map to Five Mile Bridge and grew up believing in it:
The night before I turned ten, I was sadder than I had ever been, and I choked tears into my pillow long after bedtime, crying because tomorrow was my birthday, and I would never, ever be nine years old again.
Dad came to check on me, probably after the 11 o’clock news, the faint buzz of which hummed up the stairs nightly until my parents went to bed. When I told him what was wrong, he was surprisingly tender.
“You’re right. But think of all the things you’ll get to do now, all the new things to discover, all the places you have to go and find,” he said, sitting on the edge of my bed. “You can’t do all that when you’re nine.”
And when he said that, the first thing I thought was: I’ll be able to visit Five Mile Bridge.
Even as the remembrance came into my head, it separated itself – my memories, yes, but belonging to that boy who grew up in this world, made this bridge, and showed me the road home.
One afternoon, when I was in creative writing class in high school, Mrs. Starcher gave us one minute, ticked away by a plastic kitchen timer on her desk, to describe a place.
“Don’t think,” she said, clutching a fist at her stomach, “write with your gut. Don’t pause, don’t stop, and that’s how you’ll capture reality. Go!”
I had written of Five Mile Bridge: It grew from the weeds and the streambed on a night before the eyes of man had begun to blink in the new sunlight of the world, among dark and peering glints in the eyes of creatures lurking in the fields, clustered in awe and fear and wonder at the lumbering invader that had silently humped its great back upon the ever flat plain.
A wind attended the arrival smelling of ash and clover, skittering the high grasses against the flanks of this new beast, and picking up the scent of cool steel from its bones to carry to the watchers.
It had not been created.
It had been born.
The earth at my feet swelled like a bubble, and from the mound of weeds and soil a ghostly rust-skinned girder burst forth like a tree, stretching and towering skyward, but still translucent, so that I could see the stars beyond. In the ground under my back, I could feel it spreading great concrete roots as anchors at the field’s edge, unseen tons of dirt groaning and compressing and shifting. I sat up, saw three others, felt more than heard the creaks and strain of their growth as they bent and branched toward each other, reaching with thick limbs of wood and steel, arching over the tracks and the train thundering beneath.
With each thrust of a passing car, the bridge grew more solid: now shimmering thickly like a heatwave, now fleetingly seen like breath in December, now fog-dense and obscuring the trees and the road beyond.
Sounds drifted from deep within the surrounding din: notes cracked and squeaked forth clumsily from an unseen saxophone; hoarse whispers of dry rustling cornhusks in October; a brass bell jangling Christmas forever.
Before me, Five Mile Bridge was a reality again.
I began to cross. The screaming wind and driving howl buffeted me from all directions as I headed up the bridge, squinting against windborne flecks.
At the midpoint, I stared west, saw the train’s end rolling toward me. Looked east to the lights of Bryan, and wished one more time that Kallie would send some message, some touch, some voice that I’d be able to wrap up neatly and keep for good.
And I realized she didn’t have to.
She’d sent me a train, hadn’t she?
A lump swelled in my throat, and I felt my eyes begin to sting.
Thank you, Kallie.
I continued crossing, down the other side of the bridge.
A fierce pain suddenly tugged at the back of my right eyeball, deep in my head, and I stopped short and let out a yelp of surprise.
My memories of Kallie and the day I stopped her from dying were tearing themselves away.
The embrace on a sunny Columbus sidewalk, the ringing of her voice over the phone line, the taste of the blue-corn nachos and cheese we’d shared, and the notebook I’d scribbled full of our past. Kallie’s watch. The sliver of a Chinese bridge. My sketched map.
You can’t have them, I thought. You can’t have those any more than you can have the memories that belong to that eight-year-old you sent the map to, or any more than you could have kept your memories of Kallie and the summer of ’91 if you’d stayed here. It doesn’t work that way.
The splinter in my thumb blazed painfully for the merest pinprick of a second.
The smallest things, I had always said, were worth keeping. Maybe something would remain.
A few feet from the gravel road, I turned to look across the length of the bridge for the last time, and the full, blinding grief of Kallie’s death wrenched itself back into memory. I fell in wracking sobs, laying my forehead on the cold floorboards, hot streams of air from the train below whistling up from the cracks.
After a minute, I managed to slow my breathing, soothed myself with recollections I once again fully knew, from Kallie and I on the bridge, December 14, 1990, to the summer afternoon I stood there with my wife years later, a sweet, slow summer drifting past.
There were no clashes, no contradictions.
“It ends here,” I whispered, my nose dripping and tears streaming onto the wood, “Goodbye.”
I stood quickly and took the last few steps down to the gravel road. Behind me, the last car passed with a vacuum whoosh of swirling air and dirt.
I wiped my face. My eardrums were numb, humming.
The headlights of my car illuminated the bridge and the fresh graffiti of my last words there.
I sat for the shortest of moments, took a deep breath, and wheeled around to head back toward Bryan and Bowling Green and Michigan and home.
In my rearview mirror, the girders of Five Mile Bridge glowed briefly red in my taillights, then darkened until I could no longer see them against the fields.
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