Cornfield Meet

Things collide here.

Massillon Meets The Cincinnati Kid

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Urban art in Massillon. Kels & I think it looks like Bruce McCulloch.

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August 27, 2011 Posted by | 1990s, geek, Ohio | , , , | Leave a comment

College Radio Daze

Summer, 1991: Chuck Treece visits WBGU, thanks to the connections of my pal Ivan, the station’s metal director:

Chuck Treece at WBGU, 88.1 fm, Bowling Green State University

Photo by Ivan Knapp. Click to embiggen.

The year that Chuck Treece released his Dream’n album, Ivan and I had stayed in Bowling Green for the summer after our sophomore year. Ivan was the metal director at 88.1 fm WBGU, and had managed to bring Chuck to town for a publicity visit. We drove to Toledo to pick him up, and he crashed at our apartment for a couple nights, did some on-air interviews, recorded some show promos, and just hung out. Nice guy. Fun couple of days.

This snapshot is quite the little slice of college flashback pie, from the Nine Inch Nails shirt I’d gotten at a show in Columbus in January that year (1991) to the flyers for Howard’s Club H and a few bands which featured friends of mine – Gone Daddy Finch and the Escaped Fetal Pigs. (What? You’ve never heard the Pigs’ rock anthem “Oompa Loompa Love?” You. Haven’t. LIVED.)

“Violin” was my favorite Chuck Treece song – the sound is good in this 1990 clip of his band McRad performing it:

– but this one’s better for watching him play:

May 18, 2011 Posted by | 1990s, Music, Ohio | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Return of the Jim

I was a huge Jim’s Journal fan from my first exposure to the comic during my freshman year at Bowling Green State University, fall of 1989.

Which means I’m hugely excited that Scott Dikkers has brought him back.

Jim's Journal at GoComics.com

New strips and classics running daily at GoComics!

May 8, 2011 Posted by | 1980s, 1990s, Books, eighties | , , , | Leave a comment

Today in Geek History: Quantum Leap

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Today in #GeekHistory 5/5/1993: Quantum Leap airs its final episode on NBC. Maybe his next leap, will be the leap… home.

May 5, 2011 Posted by | 1990s, geek, science fiction, Television | , | 2 Comments

05/04/96

Fifteen years ago today:

May 4, 1996

Jenn and I set our wedding for 2 p.m. in her uncle’s backyard near Springfield, Virginia.

That morning, there was:

  • rain
  • wet paint on the window frames, marking the last, last, LAST minute touches to a week’s worth of serious clean-up and moderate remodeling
  • more rain
  • an alarming moment involving a car with a not-quite-set parking brake
  • a commode sitting alongside the house, right next to the driveway where everyone would be parking, and
  • rain

The sun came out just after lunch(though the rain returned with a great lashing, blinding storm around dinnertime), my middle brother Nick got white paint on his jacket, we hid the commode,  and then a few dozen really awesome people came over and spent a few hours on a nice afternoon while another couple people who had no idea how young they were and what lay ahead stood on a freshly-swept back porch and decided that it’d be a fine day to get married after all.

Happy Anniversary, Jenn.

May 4, 2011 Posted by | 1990s, Family history | , , , | 1 Comment

Twenty years went under the bridge like time was standing still.

Two decades ago tonight:

It was my sophomore year at Bowling Green.

So, Tobi showed me around her hometown, and after dark, we drove out to this place she called Five Mile Bridge and waited for a train to come rushing beneath while we stood there and leaned on the railing.

For some reason, that night mattered to me. Maybe because I was barely 20 and everything like that mattered to me. Maybe because it was a strange sort of fluxing time in my life, when my closest friends had moved away and I felt oddly on my own. It grew to matter even more when Tobi died a few years later.

By that time, you couldn’t drive across Five Mile Bridge anymore.

Here’s how it looked when Jenn and I visited in June 1996:

I’ve been there four times in all, but not since a couple weeks before Christmas 1999, and never again after dark. I don’t even know if the bridge is still standing.

A few weeks after my last visit, I started writing the first draft of what grew into Crossing Decembers, which, while a work of fiction, has very real roots out there in the vast fields of Northwest Ohio.

For the sake of sharing, I serialized the entire book online this spring and summer. With winter a week away, and the 20th anniversary of two goofy college kids standing on a cold bridge in the middle of nowhere upon me, it seemed the right time to collect all the chapter links together.

It’s snowy and windy today, and I’ll be listening for train whistles.

Introduction

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

Click here for information on ordering the book in paperback or electronic editions through Amazon or Lulu.

December 14, 2010 Posted by | 1980s, 1990s, Books, Fiction, geek, Ohio, writing | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Pop Culture Parking Zone

Click to visit the Flickr page and see larger versions.

 

I took this on the Backstage Studio Tour – the “Catastrophe Canyon” ride – in 1991, at what was then still known as the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park in Orlando. (Spring break trip, sophomore year at Bowling Green. My friend Mike and I were visiting Adam.)

Center stage, naturally, goes to the Spinner from Blade Runner. To the right of the light post is a car from Total Recall, and cut off there at the far left is the Coyote X from – remember, ’80s fans? – Hardcastle and McCormick.

All three were still there (though they’d been relocated and were much more weather-worn), when I worked on that tour a couple years later, from around 1993 to 1995. IT’s been a few years, though, since I’ve been on this tour, so I have no idea if these relics are still hanging around.

October 27, 2010 Posted by | 1980s, 1990s, eighties, Film, geek, science fiction, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Steve Sansweet and the Tales of the Blue Snaggletooth

18 years ago, Steve Sansweet – who’s leaving his position at Lucasfilm next spring – validated a tiny, almost-forgotten piece of my childhood.

From Collect All 21!

During this second surge of Star Wars stuff, my family and I paid a visit to grandma over in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. Among Upper Sandusky’s claims to fame are an old Wyandot Indian mill, a cemetery headstone recognized by Ripley’s Believe It or Not because it says “Feb. 31”, and being the home of a character in the Infocom text adventure “Leather Goddesses of Phobos” when those games were the computer geek rage in the 1980s.

My grandma was a librarian at the Carnegie Public Library in Upper, so I spent a lot of time there. Classic old brick building with narrow staircases and a basement that felt dark all the time. I can almost imagine into existence the wood and plaster and book-page smell of the place.

Up near the front door was a glass case where people would display collections of things, and on one visit, my grandma wanted me to see the collection of Star Wars toys in there. And that’s where I saw something that would confound me for years: an action figure that looked kind of like the short, red-suited Snaggletooth I had – same face, same hands, same belt buckle design – but this guy was tall and blue and had shiny silver moon boots.

I stared at this thing, trying to figure out what it was and where it had come from and why wasn’t it in any of the Kenner Star Wars catalog booklets and how, good God, could I get my hands on one?

I remember telling my friends about it, and none of them had seen or heard of one of these things either, and I probably sounded like that kid on my street talking about his supposed Grand Moff Tarkin toothbrush. It didn’t help that I never saw another Blue Snaggletooth as a kid.

I was eight or nine years old at the time. Fast-forward to 1992, when I’m 21 and in the middle of a difficult stretch of my life. Walking toward a Waldenbooks in a Toledo, Ohio mall, I see this staring out at me from a storefront display:

Star Wars: From Concept to Screen to Collectible by Stephen J. Sansweet.

Though it’s hard to remember, this was a time when there weren’t whole shelves full of Star Wars books and piles of Expanded Universe comics – so seeing this black-and-gold Darth Vader visage was a very cool sort of shock.

Inside is the incredibly detailed story of how the Kenner Star Wars guys I loved as a kid had come to life. And as I flipped through these pages, taken back years by the pictures of action figures and spaceships and sketches and models, here’s the one that had me giddy:

Because there it was: That BLUE Snaggletooth that I hadn’t seen or heard of in ages, and which part of me had maybe started to believe had been a figment of my imagination after all. It was REAL – and it had a HISTORY – and I wished somehow I could reach back through time to those incredulous looks I got from my friends when I was talking about this figure and point them to that page and say, “See? Seee?!?!”

I still think this is the best book Sansweet’s ever done, partly because it holds a special place in my memory, and partly because from a purely journalistic point of view, his writing and reporting roots shine through in the interviews and research and the level of work he put into in covering the early Star Wars merchandising history – work which hadn’t been done by anyone at that point. I think it’s fair to say a large part of the roots of vintage collecting archaeology trace back to this book, and I know it played a big role in re-igniting my own memories and fandom.

I got to meet Steve for the first time at Celebration V in August, and had him sign that very same and by now well-worn paperback. “Gee,” he wrote inside the cover, next to a smiley face, “can’t you afford a better condition book?”

Not one that would be worth as much to me as this one.

October 20, 2010 Posted by | 1990s, Books, Current Affairs, Film, Games, science fiction, writing | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Gone.

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.

###

If you enjoyed Crossing Decembers, I hope you’ll consider picking up a copy: Click here for information on ordering the book in paperback or electronic editions through Amazon or Lulu.

July 1, 2010 Posted by | 1990s, Books, Fiction, Ohio, writing | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

“Yeah.”

“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.

Nowhere?

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.

Still…

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.”

“Okay, grandma.”

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.

Next: Chapter 11 – Pennies and Splinters

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June 23, 2010 Posted by | 1990s, Books, Fiction, Ohio, writing | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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