Cornfield Meet

Things collide here.

BG 89-91: A quarter century and a mix CD

Twenty-five years ago this month, I started my freshman year of college at Bowling Green State University.

Tonight, I drove a few miles out on some of the narrow, field-lined roads here in Lake Township. The sun hadn’t completely set, and there was an unusual (for early August) bit of coolness to the air, even though the corn is tall yet. Perfect night to put the windows down and crank the CD I burned a few years ago and labeled BG 89-91. It’s a mix of songs that take me back the most powerfully to my favorite years at BGSU. The songs are not all from those years, but they’re definitely among those that I listened to the most, and which still dig up the deepest memories and impressions of the friends and the places and the times.

My drive wasn’t long enough to get through the whole CD, but I had a few in particular that I wanted to hear, and as always, they mixed heartbreakingly well with the smell of the fields and the lingering pink-orange clouds.

Here they are, in the order they appear on the CD:

New Order – Blue Monday

Real Life – Send Me An Angel

Depeche Mode – Strangelove

Pixies – Dig for Fire

Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart

Depeche Mode – A Question of Lust

Yaz – Only You

Don Henley – The Boys of Summer

The Cure – A Few Hours After This

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August 6, 2014 Posted by | 1980s, 1990s, Music, Ohio, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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

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

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

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


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

Crossing Decembers: Chapter 9 – Cornfield Meet

Note: Click here for some background on Crossing Decembers and why I’m serializing it online.

Previously: Chapter 1 – Return; Chapter 2 – Another December; Chapter 3 – A Glimpse of Orion; Chapter 4 – Bowling Green, Ohio; Chapter 5 – And We Danced; Chapter 6 – Steering A Train; Chapter 7 – 7:41; Chapter 8 – Another December

Chapter 9 – Cornfield Meet

So I remembered.

The Second Shepherd’s Play, Five Mile Bridge, Kallie’s funeral, and the December day that began with my return to the bridge and ended in Kallie’s Columbus apartment with the world falling into the unknown.

Growing up, I used to split logs in the back yard some summers: tree trunks and limbs that dad had cut for firewood. Now and then there would be a really thick piece from low on the trunk, or a burly Y-shaped section sawed from the junction of two great limbs, and it would take more than the usual splitting wedge, hammer, and swing.

I’d tap the splitting wedge until the log would defiantly absorb it like a steel splinter, and then I’d take the first swing and watch the wedge sink into the log without effect. The second, too, and maybe the third, until the top of the wedge was nearly even with the wood surface, clenched like a cigar in a tight grin. And then I’d let loose with a swing I started in my toes and gathered up through my legs and back and shoulders and arms, rising on the balls of my feet and sliding my hands together at the very end of the sledge handle so that the hammer was like a hot, smoking meteor in the wavering air, and it crashed onto the immobile wedge with a thick chinking sound, maybe a spark or two, and at the same moment, there’d be a loud, popping CRACK!

And I would stand in the sun’s soundless blaze for a moment, listening as the wood continued to crack, just sitting there, spitting tiny bangs and creaks, tearing itself apart.

That’s what the moment of Kallie’s death had become, spawning the impossible memories.

Five Mile Bridge had never existed. Never. It might, sometime in the future, but my feelings told me probably not.

But I remembered that bridge, I remembered being there and seeing the train that December, feeling that wind, tasting that smoke, and that afternoon following her funeral I was there again, she was lost, and no trains came, and yet she was alive, reborn, though she didn’t know it, saved, and yet nothing was right, nothing was good, and nothing was real.

I had memories of places and things that did not and could not have happened, but I knew them vividly, not just with my mind, but with every corner of my being. My eardrums remembered the thudding and the scream of a train whistle, my hands remembered the dry, cold wood rails, my eyes remembered blinking away ash and still burned with the image of a headlight plunging out of the darkness like a comet. The memories were so detailed, so concrete, so powerful and definite, and yet they were all things that could not have happened, but did.

But not here.

I drove back toward Bryan, numb and confused, the fields and trees and streets at once detached and foreign, but as familiar as the thirty-three pines in the backyard of the house where I grew up.

How was I even supposed to begin? Just call up this girl whose life I may have saved but bastardized into another tapestry? Was she out there fighting the same demons I was? And if she didn’t know, didn’t care, didn’t remember, then what the hell was I supposed to do to make my world right again if it was going to twist hers around yet again?

And it wasn’t like my whole life had changed.

The differences in my memories were like an earthquake fissure, yawning widest at ground zero, narrower cracks splintering off, tapering to distant hairline splits.

My memories clashed mostly at the heart of the chasm: Kallie and Bowling Green and Five Mile Bridge grappled there as two separate pasts, opposing truths.

My life changed in a tornado one December on a bridge out here, I thought, and a contradiction immediately sprang forth: I never stood in that spot until the second I got there and found myself hallucinating about some lost, rusty bridge that never was.

Kallie Tabitha Greenburke: I swear I loved her, and after she died, all I could do was wonder if I ever knew anything about her at all. She was in that play I did about Jesus and the shepherds, I think. And I’m pretty sure she sat in the front row of that History of the American Economy class I was forced to take in college, and I hated every minute of it.

Far off, she died. She’s alive, out there, somewhere, this very second, and maybe, just maybe, remembers you as the guy in the back of that economics class who struggled to stay awake through that fat professor’s lectures.

I loved her. I can’t even tell you what she looks like.

The rest of my life stretched out from either side of that canyon, seemingly solid, mostly unchanged: My skin crawled at the thought of the time when I was three and stepped in an antpile in my backyard, and a wriggling black mass swarmed up to the knees of my railroad conductor overalls; my heart clutched as I pictured my daughter’s face, peering backward over my wife’s shoulder, he lower lip starting to quiver as the two of them boarded a plane to Florida the week before.

So why not just go on? Why not get back in the car and drive up to Michigan just like I was going to, and spend the weekend mulling old times over beer and pizza with Alex?

In a week, my wife and daughter would be back from Florida, my life would go on, and the other voices, the other life, the memories of the bridge, Kallie, all of it would eventually grow distant and hazy and meaningless.

And I would no longer be me, for their loss.

Some stringy neuron in the corner of my brain cells that once fired the pulse of a clacking locomotive through my memory would dessicate, maybe, and I’d never know it, but the change would be there.

On the soft, wet sheen of my retina, a tweezer-scraping of pulpy rods and cones would die, and with them the sun glare of a headlamp miles away across cold fields.

And the ever-present soft buzzing in the recess of my ears that lies dormant for weeks and months, and swells to a summer insect storm on nights when I lie awake and remember when she said “I love you, Joshua Kendall,” would drop silent.

So my reconstruction began, with the realization that not only did I have to somehow weave Five Mile Bridge into existence from the threads of this world, but I was the only person who had ever known of it.

Maybe.

I had to find Kallie.

Fifteen minutes later, I was shivering, huddled at a pay phone across the street from the Williams County courthouse, flipping through the slim telephone directory. I found the listing for Todd and Carol Greenburke, punched the number in, and held the receiver to my ear as my stomach wobbled with uncontrollable tension.

I just did this, didn’t I? Her parents are gonna think I’m some nut, losing her number a day after I just called and asked for it the other day.

No you didn’t, I thought, you called and talked to a Todd and Carol Greenburke whose daughter was a day away from death. You don’t even know these people, and whether you like it or not, they might still be the parents of a doomed young woman. Car accidents happen all the damn time.

“Hello?”

My mouth went dry, and I felt my tongue peel away from the back of my lips with a crackle in the earpiece.

“Yes, I’m trying to reach the Greenburkes?”

“Carol speaking.”

I tried to feel and sound relieved at that – at least her mom was the same – but I heard my attempt at familiarity fall flat.

“Hi! This is Josh Kendall -”

For a bare, fleeting moment, I paused, hoping and willing that the woman on the other end of the phone would interject, cut me off with a friendly greeting of recognition, the jog of a memory. She didn’t, and I stumbled.

“I, uh, went to school, at BG – in Bowling Green – with Kallie, and we did some plays together. Um, I had moved to Florida, but I’m back in Ohio now – in Canton – and I thought I’d see if I could get in touch with Kallie – she’s still in Columbus, right?”

“Yes, but I’m not sure…you say you knew her from the theater department?”

An icy breeze swept across the street, shook the strings of Christmas lights draped from the courthouse tower, rattled my teeth and cramped my shoulders.

The sun dropped away at the western edge of town.

Lord, but these winds are cold. And I am ill-dressed.

“That’s right – we did The Second Shepherd’s Play just before Christmas break of our sophomore year. I don’t know if you came to see it or not, but I was the old guy who croaked instead of singing. I’m a horrible singer.”

In my head, I was screaming, “It’s me! The peanut butter guy! Your lasagna is fantastic…” The silent, pathetic plea faded as she tried to remember me. I knew she wouldn’t.

“We did come to see that show…” her voice trailed off for a moment, just long enough for me to think I’d have to drive to Columbus and try and find Kallie myself, and then I heard a short riffling of paper. “Here it is,” she said, reading me the number. “I’m sorry I don’t remember you exactly, but Kallie’s been close to so many of her theater friends it’s hard to keep track sometimes.”

She had no idea who I was, and my heart caved in. I wasn’t so sure I should call Kallie after all, but what else did I have to try?

“Thanks,” I managed. “I really appreciate you helping me get in touch with her. If she calls before I talk to her, let her know I’m in town, could you?”

“I’ll tell her. Bye now.”

I couldn’t make myself dial Kallie’s number, and I walked away from the phone, numb.

She was gone, and I knew it. I’d pried her from a crumpled heap of metal and set her free, and because of it, I’d lost her.

You did it. Go back and live your life, you stupid, selfish, obsessed bastard, and quit whining.

God, it was like I’d made one of those deals with the devil where he grants wishes and then pulls the rug out from under the soul he’s just won.

Wait, though, wait, wait! If I can be stuck here, with these irreconcilable memories creasing my mind, daring me to look for truth, couldn’t she be doing the same thing? Couldn’t she be crouched in the corner of her apartment in Columbus this very second, screaming as the recollection of twisting steel collapses in about her? Couldn’t she be clutching at the images of a bridge even as half her brain rips the memory apart in a tornado of haze and conflict? It doesn’t make sense for everything to happen to just me, does it?

Everything changed. You’re just the only one who knows it, and the only one who cares. And here, that makes your memories lies. Go ahead, call her – CALL HER! You’ll see – lies.

I’d been staring at the sidewalk, shuffling past the storefronts of the Bryan town square, when a door opened as I walked past, and warm breath of wood polish and glass cleaner swept outside. I was outside the jeweler’s shop where Kallie had taken her watch to be fixed on the first night I visited Five Mile Bridge.

A woman in a wool coat shifted past me. I caught the brass handle of the door before it swung shut and stepped into the still, twinkling air. The shop’s interior was softly pierced by a million scattering glints and refractions. Framed in deep oak, handfuls of rings and necklaces gleamed from the display cabinets.

The door closed behind me, and I stood for a second in the apparent silence before a muffled ticking tapped like quick rain at my ears.

Splayed beneath the panes of a long glass case were dozens of antique watches, a glimmering school of sleek fish, twitching just under the surface of a stream, ready to dart at the pass of a shadow overhead.

I ran my eyes over the collection.

A silver and copper salamander clung to one pebbled band, a tiny clock face set in its back. Another was in the shape of a crescent moon cradling a ring of twelve stars.

There were the more ordinary ones, too, with creased bands and yellowed faces, dull numbers and matter-of-fact hands.

Along the wall behind the case, a low, narrow work shelf glittered with magnifying lenses, small lamps, and sets of diminutive tools: screwdrivers the size of toothpicks, hairlike tweezers, and bug-jaw pincers.

And lying on a square of black velvet, next to a fist-sized magnifying glass, was Kallie’s watch. The same watch she’d brought in to be fixed the night she took me to the bridge. It had a smooth band of narrow silver, and a transparent, numberless face that revealed the gears inside.

Leaning over the counter, I peered at it, and strained to hear its ticking. The second hand flinched back and forth in place as the wheels behind it clicked one direction, then the other. I was staring at the watch when the jeweler stepped from a doorway at the back of the store.

“May I help you, sir?” His voice was as measured and clipped as the sound of the watchworks. He was thin and ancient, but held his height as steady as a grandfather clock. A jeweler’s loop hung around his neck on a thin silver chain. “Is there one in particular you’d like to see?” he asked, spreading a set of bony fingers on the glass.

“No, no. Just looking.” I answered, maybe a little too quickly, as I straightened up, pulling my gaze from Kallie’s watch.

He’d noticed my attentive gaze anyway.

“Very unique, isn’t it?” he said, picking up Kallie’s watch, and lying it across his palm. “The young lady to whom it belongs must adore it completely. It seems to jam up like this every December now for, let’s see, seven years now, and she just keeps bringing it back year after year. Wouldn’t think of retiring it, she says. I’ve stopped charging her to fix it, since all I really do is pick it apart, find nothing, and put it back together.”

My mouth went dry, and I cracked out a half-interested, “Really?”

“Indeed,” he nodded. “Still,” he added, holding it up to the light, “marvelous timepiece.”

I couldn’t get out of the store fast enough, and I hustled back to the pay phone, clutching Kallie’s number, with a line from one more old Bowling Green favorite running over and over in my head: Seven years went under the bridge like time was standing still. OMD again, “If You Leave.”

The warm, safe glow of downtown Bryan swirled around me, and a surge of hopeful adrenaline was convulsing in my chest.

Every December, he’d said. Every December, that watch, that very same watch, and every December, she can’t throw it away. There’s at least one connection between where I am and where I was, I thought. There had to be more.

Maybe even in Kallie’s own memory. She had to know. Had to. Part of her, somewhere, lost in echo, knew about a bridge this world had never seen, remembered our train, our winter, our summer, and knew I loved her.

I reached the pay phone, jabbed madly at the numbers, hung without breath as the distant, electric ring burbled in my ear.

“Hello?” she said.

Next: Chapter 10 – Bridging Backward

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

June 17, 2010 Posted by | 1990s, Books, Fiction, Ohio, writing | , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Crossing Decembers: Chapter 7 – 7:41

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

“Mr. Greenburke? Hi, it’s Joshua Kendall, from Florida – yeah, the peanut butter guy.” (He remembered!) “I’m in Columbus for a day or two, and I don’t have Kallie’s number.”

I held on for a minute, heard: “- her friend Josh – where’s it written down again? Got it.”

I’d waited until eight in the morning to call her mom and dad, so I’d stopped at a White Castle for breakfast. Those oniony little burgers sounded so good, and I wound up eating five of them before calling her parents from a pay phone.

I wrote her Columbus numbers down – her Dad had pointed out that she’d likely be at work, so he gave me the number for some communications office in addition to her home phone – and two minutes later, I was jabbing at the silver keypad, trying to keep my breath from shivering while her office phone rang.

After two rings, my chest was tight, practically spasming.

“Telemetry Communications, this is Cynthia, how may I help you?”

“Yes, is,” – throat catch, and a passing shadow thought of ‘oh my God what am I doing, hang up and pray, hang up and pray, hang up and – “May I speak with Kallie Greenburke, please?”

It was like watching myself stand in the open door of an airplane, and feeling my feet leave the deck and my ears swallowed in the tornado of descent before my mind was ready.

She transferred my call with a snick before she had even finished saying “Hold, please.” There was no discernible pause in Cynthia’s voice, and after all, why should there be? It was March 30, 1994, and I was the only person in the world who felt the air thick with a distant static crackle of lighting.

And then I heard her voice for the first time in five years.

“Hello, Kallie speaking.”

It was like spring.

“Kallie? It’s Josh.” My heart clacked and thudded like that train long gone.

Josh! Josh Kendall?! Oh my God, what in the world…?” There was joy, I could hear it, and I squeezed my eyes shut at the thought that she would be silent forever in less than a day.

Then I remembered that I was going to change that.

“You are not gonna believe where I am, Kallie. I’m here , in Columbus, at- ” I looked around. “Well, somewhere over by campus, anyway, and I’m here for the day, until just after dinner (that will be long enough, I hope) , and I wondered if you wanted to hang out after you got off work or something.”

“You are kidding me! That’s awesome – I’m off around 4:30 or so, well, I can be if I take a short lunch, which I definitely will now, and – oh.” The last was an interruption of thought. She was realizing what I already knew, although there was no way I could have:

“I’m supposed to sing tonight with this guy, at a coffee place, kind of goofy, but – ”

I broke in: “No, that’s fine, we can just hang for an hour or so.”

“- buuut,” she re-interrupted, “I’ll have him set it up so we can go last. That way I don’t have to be there until like 9:00 or so.”

“Sure you don’t mind?”

“It’s not a big deal. Please, it’s a coffeehouse – like there’s any structure there anyway.”

“All right, cool. You want me to meet you at your place – which I don’t know where it is – or what?”

“What’re you going to do all day?”

“Probably wander around and check out a record store or two. I’ve been trying to get hold of Jen Carmen but she’s not home.” Lie. If you get hold of Sniffer, it’s like throwing a jackhammer in with the wrench you’re already tossing into the works.

“If you want, you could swing by here and I’ll give you the key to my apartment, and you can hang out there. My roommate’s probably going to be at work until six or seven anyway.”

“Well, if that’s okay with you, it sounds great. Frankly, I’m likely to crash on your couch for a couple of hours – I’m beat. Where’s your office?”

“Right downtown. Why don’t you just meet me at the Wendy’s across from COSI there on Broad Street in, what, twenty minutes or so?”

“Sure thing,” I hesitated once more, “You sure this is okay?”

“Joshua Kendall, please. Just don’t go opening all our jars of peanut butter.”

As I hung up the phone, I looked towards the Ohio State University campus nearby, felt a twinge in my gut.

When I was 16, Denise Kritsen, a girl who would wind up breaking my heart, came down to OSU for a summer theatre program.

She was the kind of girl you found yourself thinking, “Oh, I trust her , I just don’t trust other guys when they’re around her.”

I’d given her my high school ring, something I think she found a little kitschy and small-town. Big aspirations were her thing – I met her doing community theater in North Canton, and when we started dating, she made up stage names for us. (Jonathan Joel and Kristine London – yes, I swear.) Anyway, I was pretty sure she cheated on me while she was down at OSU, because she lost my ring that summer.

Because of her, I never quite felt comfortable around OSU. Ever.

I started for Broad Street, but that tugging in my gut didn’t fade as fast as I wanted it to.

I saw Kallie’s hair in the morning sunlight, caught in the glare from a high, glassy office building long before I could make out her face. She was standing in front of the Wendy’s looking the other way up Broad Street, and I felt all the blood drain from my head, went completely numb and froze in my steps.

I remembered her puffy, bruised face against the satin pillow in the casket, her pale hands, her hair brushed back stiffly from her forehead, her eyes closed, her utter stillness.

And there she was in front of me, small against the skyscrapers and the crowds on the sidewalk, but vivid and…real.

I put my hands in my pockets to keep them from shaking, managed to start walking toward her again, played a dozen funny greetings over in my head, and another dozen that were nothing more than saying “I love you,” and gathering her to me.

When I was within two steps, she turned and saw me, and my mind went blank, and all I could do was smile.

“Josh Kendall!” she cried, and her arms were tight around my neck, and she shook like that day in the hallway when she’d read my poem.

When my family used to visit Florida over Easter break when I was growing up, my best friend Allen and I would talk every year about how we couldn’t wait to smell the air on the Gulf of Mexico: the salt breath and the vastness of the water mingling with a million inland groves of orange blossoms and cabbage palms. We drank those breezes every year, sucking them in lungfuls all week long to saturate our blood enough to last the trip back to Ohio and the whole year until the next vacation.

And every year, we found when we reached Florida, the air was a hundred times better than we’d ever remembered. Back home, we’d try to keep the memory, the sensation of that air, but over and over, it was miraculous when we’d catch that first inhalation, that taste.

That’s what happened to my memory of Kallie’s embrace as she hugged me in the sunlight.

She was real. This was real. It was all happening.

“Oh, my God, Kallie, Kallie, Kallie,” was all I could manage. “It’s good to see you. You have no idea…”

We pulled away, and she held my wrists. “What is it?”

I was just staring with wonder and relief and hope, and I shook my head and blinked, and I could suddenly feel the ache of exhaustion as the adrenaline of the past nine hours fled my system. The sun felt too bright, the morning uncomfortably warm, and all I wished for was a couch in a cool room where I could pull the blinds and throw my forearm over my eyes.

“Sorry,” I said, grinning lopsidedly. “I got no sleep at all last night. Weird, amazing, strange stuff, and I cannot wait to tell you all about it – and, while I’m at it, I have a present for you, but it’s in my car, so you’ll have to wait until this afternoon – but really, what I need, my friend, is a nap. God, it’s good to see you,” I finished, out of breath.

She just laughed, and it was like rain running down windows and rattling quietly on the roof.

“I gotta get back to work,” she said. “Go take your nap, and we’ll spend a few hours talking later.”

She handed me her apartment key. “It’s over on Ninth Street, just about five minutes from here. Third house on the left, apartment B. Help yourself to whatever’s in the ’fridge, okay? My room’s the one closest to the kitchen – crash wherever you want.”

She stopped, then added, almost in a whisper, “I’m really, really glad you went out of your way to stop in. Thanks.” She gave my hand a squeeze, and then was jogging across the street through a break in traffic.

I watched her disappear through a chrome and glass revolving door, and then walked back to my car in a daze.

Her apartment took up half the first floor of a brown brick house. On the gray front door, there was a painted wood carving of a bright yellow crescent moon, with deep wrinkles at the corners of its eyes.

The living room was small and blue, and there was a bricked-in fireplace framed by a dark, gleaming wooden mantle. On one wall was a framed print of a piano keyboard with a droplet of ink beaded on one of the ivory keys. I remembered that picture from her dorm in Rodgers and thought it was strange to see it someplace else.

There was a fresh orange kitchen, glowing with sunlight, and the door to her bedroom stood open just beyond.

I went in, and sat on the edge of her bed.

The room smelled like her college dorm: lavender candles, clean laundry, strawberry shampoo.

There were other pieces from her Rodgers room, too: a nameplate she had from the bank in Bryan where she worked summers as a teller, a pair of misshapen multi-colored candles the size of softballs (“So ugly,” she once told me, “that I had to have them.”), a giant Midnight Oil poster of the Australian desert.

Jesus, I thought, all these things are so familiar to me, but how well do I really know her?

I remembered the last time I had sat on the edge of that bed, just before I left Bowling Green for Florida. I had stopped over with a gift for Kallie: the skeeball from Cedar Point. (Was it here somewhere?) She had something for me, too: a plain, black T-shirt with an extreme close-up of the face of Bullwinkle J. Moose. (“I don’t know, Josh, but when I saw this, there was nothing I could do but buy it for you. It was a force of nature.”)

We were sitting side by side, the afternoon sun slanting into the room.

That shirt, rarely worn, is still in my dresser, folded neatly. Every spring or so, when my wife and I go through the house for Goodwill donatables, Bullwinkle is set aside in the pile of keepers, and returned to the drawer. There is no doubt in my mind I will pass it onto my kids someday, not by design, but through my inability to part with it.

I would not see Kallie again until the days she visited me in Orlando – the last time I saw her alive.

Until this morning.

Oh, my God, what was I doing?

What right did I have? I looked again at the fingerprints of Kallie’s life: a picture of her with her parents in their backyard, with a red and yellow swingset just behind them, and a smeared sunset glare; a silver glass vase barely bigger than my thumb, shaped like a narrow trumpet bell, sitting on a corner of her dresser.

You barely knew her – you say you want to save her life, but what are you really after? You want to find out she loved you or something? You have a life, and it’s pretty damn good, you selfish bastard. Sometime you gotta stop pitying yourself – she’s the dead one, not you.

I shook my head, hoped and prayed I was just overtired.

I walked into the bathroom, squeezed some toothpaste onto my finger, and swished it around in my mouth with a handful of tap water. I winced, looking in the mirror at how puffed and sagging my eyes were, the dirty stubble in the hollows of my cheeks.

But I washed my face and hands in bracing cold water, scrubbed off the sticky grunge feeling I’d gotten staying up all night, and when I looked again, I felt a thrill once more: Kallie was alive, and in a few hours, I’d be saving her life.

And she’d never know it.

I took a pillow from her bed – the one furthest from the nightstand where her alarm clock sat – and headed for the living room couch. There was a knitted afghan there that reminded me of my grandma’s house, and in less than five minutes, I was asleep, the sound of traffic outside humming softly in my ears.

Rodgers Quad was empty, the air still and silent and stale.

I stood in a third floor junction, looked down one long, vacant hall, and then another, the dorm room doors all hanging half open. My heart began to beat a little faster – I imagined figures, hidden, softly slipping their heads in and out of the doorways, ducking back out of the corner of my eye as I looked back and forth down the pair of hallways.

When my footfalls echoed in the stairwell, I heard others, but they silenced themselves each time I froze to listen.

Down in the main lobby, I ran my hands over the wall of campus mailboxes, each with its small metal knob and thumbnail plastic window to peek through.

I half-expected some weird, prophetic note in my mailbox, an omen among the empty rows.

There wasn’t one.

The laundry room, by the back loading dock, still smelled like detergent and dryer softener sheets, and the coin slots on the second washer from the wall were still jammed with hard, dirty gum.

I walked back to the room that had been mine, overlooking East Wooster Street and a large maple tree next to the building.

I had a torch in my hand, and I glanced furtively around once more. I could feel eyes, hear whispers, even though I knew the building was vacant.

And I dropped the flame on the gray-brown carpet and headed outside. A crackling rose behind me.

Kallie was in the courtyard, staring at the smoke suddenly pouring into the glaring blue sky. She had black hair though, cut short and straight at her jawline, and her eyes were dark.

An inexplicable sense of relief, tension flooding itself out of my pores, the muscles in my neck and shoulders suddenly loose and capable of flight.

I ran and threw my arms around her, but she stood stiffly, her breathing shallow.

I tried to kiss her, but she wouldn’t look at me, and as she turned her face, I saw a small, brown mole under the left side of her chin, just where my wife has one.

I could no longer feel her embrace, she was so distant, and in her unblinking eyes, I saw the blaze and the sky, and I heard the screams of those trapped and dying inside.

I woke up, fitful, burning, sweating, and threw the afghan from the couch.

Why had she looked different? It wasn’t Kallie at all, now that I thought about it – but in the dream, it was her, without question. Awake, I couldn’t even recall if I had seen her face clearly.

As much faith as I have put into some of the dreams I’ve had, I tried to understand: the first thing I thought was, was she warning me to let go? Yes, it was weird, and obvious, and simplistic, and I immediately thought I was trying to see too much.

But even when I backed away, tried not to peer so intently, I couldn’t forget how she wouldn’t look me in the eye.

I dug my fingertips into my eyelids, kneading the dream and the sleep away, pulling at the corners of my eyes, then blinking the world clear again.

The round, green-faced clock on the wall said it was 3:30, and the sun coming in the window was deep afternoon yellow.

My stomach abruptly knotted with a noisy skuuurl.

In the refrigerator – there was a magnet on its door that said Space-time portal inside: Enter With Caution – I found a package of deli ham and some Swiss cheese, and I made a sandwich with the wheat bread I found in a basket beside the microwave.

While I was washing the sandwich down with a cool swig of milk, surreality smacked me upside the head.

In my thrill, in my fervent hope and ecstasy, I had all but forgotten that I carried with me, always, two reminders of Kallie’s passing.

One was simply her signature, in purple ink, on the back of a WBGU business card. I found it in the months after her death, just sifting through the paper flotsam in a shoebox from that summer of ’91. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember why she had ever signed it, but it has been in my wallet ever since.

I set the glass of milk on the bright yellow tabletop, leaned forward slightly and pulled my wallet from my back pocket.

For about ten seconds, I sat there, staring at it, chewing my sandwich, wondering.

I opened it up to find nothing had changed.

There was a picture of my wife and daughter and me, and then one of just me and my little girl, taken when she was about a year and a half old, in a two-dollar photo booth in K-Mart, her tiny fingers clutching a baseball.

In the next slot was a trading card from The Empire Strikes Back, a shot of the heroes – Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewbacca – in an icy cave, with “The Defenders of Freedom!” in boldface red at their feet.

And finally, the WBGU business card, with its blue shark and the yellow 88.1fm logo, and Kallie’s Kallie T. Greenburke on the reverse.

I gingerly slid my second reminder from behind the card and flattened it on the table. It wasn’t even brittle, because it had been opened and re-folded so many times.

COLUMBUS — Kallie Tabitha Greenburke, 23, of 615 W. Ninth Street, died in Columbus at 7:41 p.m. Wednesday, March 30, 1994, of injuries arising from an auto accident.

She was born September 14, 1970, in Bryan, Ohio, a daughter of Todd and Carol Greenburke, and graduated from Bryan High School in 1989.

Miss Greenburke attended Bowling Green State University, where she studied communications and marketing.

Active in the theater since high school, she performed on stage at Bowling Green as well, with roles in University, The Music Man, The Second Shepherd’s Play, and the annual one-act play festival.

Miss Greenburke was a member of First Christian Church of Bryan, and sang in the choir for several years.

After earning her degree, she was employed by Telemetry Communications in Columbus.

She is survived by her parents and two brothers, Thomas and Jeffrey Greenburke, all of Bryan.

Friends may call from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, April 2, at the Hoffner Memorial Home in Bryan. A service will follow at the First Christian Church.

Burial will be at Shady Elms Cemetery in Ridgeland.

Above the obit was a black-and-white photo of Kallie, close-cropped to show only her face, but with a blur in the corner that looked like a branch on a Christmas tree. She had that genuine sort of goofy grin you find in family snapshots, not posed studio pictures, and her eyes looked sleepy.

I let my fingers caress the newsprint, tried to feel an electric crackle, waited for the shock of sudden wakefulness, listened for the passage of a train whistle – anything to pull me back into my own reality, tell me this was all a dream and not the impossibility presented by that faded newspaper clipping.

I wondered if anything would happen to that slip of worn-soft paper when the moment of her death passed, whether it would vanish or crumple itself and flake to powder, or simply lie quietly in my pocket, a remnant of an averted fate.

And what makes you so sure you’ll succeed? I heard myself ask. How do you know you won’t shove her out of the tidal wave’s path so she can get cracked by a lightning bolt on the beach?

I heard, in that second of doubt, a thousand voices of death, whispering to me that across town, in that moment, two men were planning a random robbery that would end here, tonight, with Kallie lying in a tapestry print of blood.

A tomato-faced executive, the whispers taunted, was fuming at his desk, already salivating and craving the comforts of the bar down the street. He would wind up plowing his Mercedes through the gray front door, smashing the yellow moon to bits, crushing Kallie while she sat on her couch.

They kept muttering of spider bites and heart attacks and freak electrocutions, and I saw the words of obituary on the table shifting in a rippling tattoo of letters, black on gold-brown like a crawling, buzzing carpet of bees on a hive as the possibilities plowed through my head.

I squeezed my eyes tight, wrenched my fist over the clipping, crushing the bees, shutting out the whispers.

Any of those fears could be true, yes, I thought, but at least one – the one that ended in a hissing and sliding of tires while slithering demon wisps of steam curled up from the pavement, Kallie’s car twisting into the guardrail to flip once, twice, and finally rest on its side, shattered – that one, I thought, opening my eyes, I could make into a lie.

I folded the clipping and tucked it back into my wallet, burying it in my pocket.

I cupped the glass of milk in both palms until I stopped shaking.

After a while, it occurred to me that I should somehow wrap Kallie’s notebook, so I walked out to my car to get it. I blinked a million times in the sun, squinted in the hot glare coming off the sidewalk. The warm air was still, like mid-June, and the smell of blacktop baking was thick, and it mixed with sweet grass cuttings from the small lawns.

I grabbed the notebook from car.

Just up the block, near the busy intersection at High Street, there was a Columbus Dispatch paperbox, so I fished a pair of quarters out of my pocket and bought a copy.

Back in her room, I found a pair of orange-handled scissors and some masking tape. Pulling out about three full sheets of the Dispatch, I wrapped the notebook with the comics page facing outward, and strapped it in tape like a slab of roast from the butcher.

I clumsily folded the ends over and taped them shut, and as I did, I heard the front door open.

“Josh? You here?” her voice grew louder as she came into the kitchen.

With the package behind my back, I stepped into the hall.

God, she was beautiful.

“Sorry – I had to raid your desk,” I said, “Got a present for you, though.” I held the newspaper bundle toward her. “Nice wrap job, I know. You oughta see me at Christmas. It’s a nightmare.”

She shook her head, arched one eyebrow, smiled and took the gift with both hands, like she was sandwich-catching a Frisbee.

“What are you up to, Simon?”

Simon. The song from that cartoon played in my head: Well you know my name is Simon, and the things I draw come true…

Oh, do they now, my friend? We’ll see…

She ran a palm over the package and turned it over, then looked at me and back to the gift.

“Can I open it now?” she asked. There was a note of eagerness in her voice, an excitement, that, as it always did, made me love everything. Not just about her, but everything.

“No,” I answered, trying to deadpan and failing miserably, breaking into a broad grin.

She punched me on the arm and walked into the living room, where she flopped on the couch and began picking at the wads of masking tape on the present.

I followed her, sat on the floor with my elbows resting on my knees and watched her small fingers peel back the Dispatch pages. She pulled the notebook out with a quizzical look for just a moment, then thumbed the edges.

I caught a glimpse of the ink blur that was page after page of my own handwriting as she lifted one hand to her chin, and with the other, stopped in the middle of the book and looked at me.

“You did not write all this,” she said wonderingly, “just to give to me?” Her eyes were shining and stunned as they fell back to touching page after page, resting on each for just a moment.

“Sure did, my friend, and have I got some stuff to tell you about just how and when I did.” “And now would be the perfect time for that,” she said, closing the book and setting it on the couch. “I’ll read it all later, but for the time being, we’ve got catching up to do, and I am just dying for some blue corn nachos.”

And she hopped off the couch, extending a hand to me, and pulling me up and into a hug for just a second before squeezing my hand and heading toward the front door.

“C’mon,” she said, looking over her shoulder, “I’m driving.”

And won’t that be some irony when the two of you get nailed head-on by a city bus just a few hours before she’s supposed to die anyway? Thanks for the help.

A chill ran up my neck, and was gone a heartbeat later.

I didn’t even try to hide my elation, sitting in the passenger seat of her car, the same one we’d ridden into the fields west of Bryan and onto Five Mile Bridge. I don’t think I stopped smiling or staring at her for more than a second.

“You are an absolute nut, Josh Kendall,” she said, looking over at me as we sat at a traffic light. “When do I get to find out what you’re doing here?”

I shook my head and tightened my smile. My stomach muscles wouldn’t stop quivering. She was sitting right there, within arm’s reach.

“I told you, I was in Bowling Green last night, started thinking about you, and took a road trip. And this,” I dramatized, pounding my fist on the dashboard and wailing, “this is the thanks I get?”

“So,” she said, drawing out the word and pointedly ignoring my theatrics, “when exactly did you write that notebook?”

“Really?”

“Really,” she answered a bit confusedly. “What’s the secret?”

“No secret at all. It’s just goofy. I did it last night.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah,” I was laughing at myself now. “Until I hit your couch this morning, I hadn’t slept since” – since some rapidly fading night in a far off year, truth be told, but I can’t very well say that – “maybe eight yesterday morning.”

“Have I,” she began, “told you,” she measured a pause, “that you are insane? Do you have someplace to stay tonight? Because you’re sure not getting back behind the wheel without crashing for a good sleep. Jesus!”

And she burst into laughter and put her hand on my knee.

“I love you, Joshua Kendall.”

“Love you too, Kallie.”

Later, we picked at the remnants of an immense heap of bruise-blue corn chips and used our fingertips to scrape at the drippings of Monterey cheese on the plate.
“I swear, I could eat two piles of those myself,” she said, popping a chip into her mouth and pointing at the dish. “Love ’em.”

We were in the King Ave. Coffeehouse – concrete, bare floors, a mishmash of tables in linoleum and chrome, local artist’s paintings hanging from wire on the walls. The place smelled like patchouli, coffee, cookies, and vegetarian sandwiches.

I nodded, wiped my mouth and leaned forward, elbows on the table.

“So, tell me about this place you’re singing tonight,” I asked.

She should have already given her last performance. The people in that bar tonight, they’re not supposed to hear her voice again, you know.

“It’s nothing, really. Seriously,” she said, looking around, “it’s a lot like this place. Casual, open mike stuff. My friend Joe plays his guitar, I play hippie minstrel chick.”

I was resting my chin in the palm of my hand, just staring, listening, remembering. A paragraph from one of my old journals played itself through my head.

“Hey, you in there?”

“Sorry,” I said, shaking my head slightly and blinking. “Just zoning.”

“C’mon, what’s going on in there?” she gently tapped the middle of my forehead. “What’re you thinking?”

“Honestly?”

She nodded.

“Okay,” I grinned. “Be warned: Babble alert.”

“Shoot,” she said, crossing her arms on the table and leaning forward.

“I was thinking about this one night in Florida, when I got off work around 1:30. It was really warm and humid, but the sky was clear, and there was a full moon. Everything was just dripping in that blue moonlight, with shadows as sharp as they would be in the sunshine – sharper, even. It was like I could really feel it, the way you feel sunlight, but this was like cool, liquid sheets pouring down over me, and running over the yards and the streets and the trees.

“And I remember thinking how tired I was, and that I really wanted to go to bed, but I couldn’t make myself go inside, out of that moonlight. And I thought how our whole lives we take for granted that there’s a future, and we leave times too soon and find ourselves looking back and wishing for things we can’t have. That night, even as I turned to go into my apartment, I thought that someday I’d remember that moon and that air and I’d wish I had stayed outside even for just a minute more.”

I had written that in one of my journals two weeks after Kallie had died.

Two weeks from now, are you still going to write it?

She was quietly running her eyes over my face, so I sat back a little and grinned sheepishly. “You asked,” I offered in defense.

Because she remained silent, I asked, “What?”

“I was just thinking of the last night of ‘Second Shepherd,’ when we were all striking the set, and you went to the bathroom and shaved, because you had a date or something -”

“Yeah, I was kind of seeing this girl Karlie who belonged to a service sorority, and she’d asked me to a date party – ”

“- and because you hadn’t shaved during the last three weeks of production,” she continued, “you nicked up your chin pretty good. But what I really remember was seeing you without that scraggle and thinking, ‘Simon’s back!’ because you looked like that little kid in the cartoons again.”

And then her eyes were deep in my own, and she covered one of my hands with both of hers.

“Missed you, Simon,” she said.

“Come on,” I said, getting up and giving her hands a squeeze. “I want you to read something back at the house before you have to go sing.”

As we walked out to her car, fat raindrops began to spatter, sharply on the sidewalk, the street, and my face. Leaves on nearby trees showed their pale undersides in a gust of wind.

“I love the way the air just crackles before a good storm, don’t you?” she asked, inhaling deeply, closing her eyes and leaning her head back.

Like in one of those National Geographic ultra-slow-motion pictures, I saw a fat pearl of water frozen in the instant it burst on the thin, fluttering skin of her left eyelid. I watched a handful of still smaller droplets spray outward and catch themselves on eyelashes that whipped and recoiled, and still hung onto the jewel.

It started to rain harder as we drove back to her house.

“Hey, before you start reading that, I meant to ask: Do you still have that skeeball I gave you?”

We were on the living room floor, side by side, our backs against the couch. On her lap lay the green notebook.

“Of course I do,” she replied. “It’s on my dresser. Surprised you didn’t see it when you swiped my scissors and tape.”

“Mind if I go get it?”

“Be my guest. Make sure you notice its display stand.”

The talisman of summer was perched in the wide mouth of a plastic Cedar Point souvenir cup. When I picked it up, I could feel my shoulder involuntarily drop and my back bend, preparing to swing the ball like a pendulum back and then forward in a smooth roll up an imaginary lane.

There was a dull gleam from the bottom of the cup, and I suddenly couldn’t stop smiling.

It was a train-flattened penny.

“I need to get another one of these for myself,” I said, flopping back down on the carpet beside Kallie, hefting the skeeball hand to hand. “Dunno why, but they’re just cool. Anyway,” I said, motioning to the notebook, “let me know what you thi-”

Remember the summer you were eleven, and Rick dared you to jump off the roof of the tree fort, fifteen feet down into the edge of the wheat field, and you did? Remember your heart squeezing itself up next to your Adam’s apple the second you realized both feet were planted firmly on nothing but the air rustling the weeds? That’s what no going back is, then and now.

Look at the clock.

It was 7:41, March 30, 1994, and Kallie was dying in a burning, wet scream of a car accident, except she wasn’t, she was there, next to me and I saw her fingers bend back the edge of the notebook cover, caught her eyes focus on the page, watched them flick over one word, maybe two, and then the moment she was supposed to die was upon her –

– me –

– everything.

I gripped the skeeball in my hands, white-knuckled, like something to hang onto while the walls, the world, the sky, began to quake and fall away.

What have you done?

The second hand on the wall clock swung over the face like the terminator of the Earth bringing nightfall, and a slow glacial shriek split my world, sliding in a great sideways avalanche, the sound of a hundred million tons of ice creaking and groaning and tearing free in a horrific ripping motion.

A train whistle rammed itself into my ears like the unbending fingers of a great hand, pushing, filling, deafening until I could feel it against the back of my eyeballs, and I tightened my grip on the skeeball fighting for consciousness, struggling not to let the spinning, whirring blur of the world go dark, but it was too late, and there was no light save a headlamp receding in the trackless void.

The peak of an iceberg loosed along a crystalline scar, a molecular tap spreading and growing into a rift, a frozen blade scything its refractory rainbows beneath my feet, cold.

My fingers collapsed together, and the skeeball was sawdust running between my hands, and I smelled faintly the oil and dirt of a summer fairgrounds for a second before it was gone in the maelstrom.

And the floor at my feet hung in space for a breath before it and I dropped into a black, silent arctic sea while the iceberg that was my life floated off, higher in the water.

Next: Chapter 8 – Another December

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

June 2, 2010 Posted by | 1990s, Books, Fiction, Ohio, writing | , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Crossing Decembers: Chapter 6 – Steering A Train

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

I burned my tongue on the first bite of hash browns, I was so hungry for them. They came in a red plastic basket lined with wax paper, the way the best food almost always does.

After blowing on another steaming forkful, I shoveled them into my mouth and inhaled sharply – they were still hot.

I wrote some more.

Damn, these hash browns are awesome. Three guesses where I’m sitting now.

I remember coming here the night after your friend Sue’s wedding over in Napoleon – the one where you were the organist, and you needed a page-turner, so I sat up there beside you on the piano bench.

Tiffany from the BG News was at the reception, and we went with her to buy a bottle of rum at an IGA because she was 21. Then we came back to BG, made rum and Cokes, and watched “The Graduate” at my apartment.

“Good Lord, Simon, there’s hardly anything left in here.”

Kallie was standing in the kitchen, swishing the dregs around the bottom of a rum bottle. She set it down on the counter and leaned her face close to the window screen above the sink, her eyes shut.

“I don’t know about you,” I called from the living room, where I was flopped on the overstuffed blue couch, “but I am pretty drunk.”

The VCR stopped its rewinding whir, spit out “The Graduate” with a kerchunk.

I saw her step away from the window and push her hair away from her eyes.

“Whew. It’s hot. Let’s take a walk.” Her face was glowing with summer perspiration and the flush of alcohol.

The cool two a.m. air felt good as we walked through the narrow alley behind the house and headed toward Main Street.

We passed the library and walked another block or two, to the edge of the city golf course, where an immense, smoky-peach full moon was just floating at the treeline.

It just seemed so close, like a trick photograph of a baseball-sized clay model that I’d be able to reach out and grab in my fist to destroy the illusion.

“ Oh, Jesus,” Kallie whispered, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the short, wet grass on a fairway. “Look at that.” She never took her eyes off the moon.

I sat close next to her. “It’s like it’s right over in Napoleon,” I said. “Like we could get in the car, and drive those 33 miles over there, and when we got there, there’d be the moon, right overhead, close enough to touch, silent and orange and perfect.”

She put her head on my shoulder, and I tried hard not to shiver.

“You are charming me,” she said quietly, “in spite of myself.”

I don’t think I was ever closer than that moment to telling her how much I was in love with her. My mouth went dry like it does in the heartbeat before you spill a secret you’ve rehearsed a hundred times but you know is just going to burst awkwardly forth like a wet frog plopping out of your mouth.

But I didn’t.

In spite of myself, she said.

What I heard in those four words still hurts, especially before I fall asleep on a June night, with the sound of wind and insects and fields coming in an open window.

I might be falling for you, is what I heard above the blood pounding in my ears, but I wish I wasn’t.

I stared at the moon, watched the horizon dip and sway slightly, felt the damp grass at the small of my back, the sweat on the backs of my knees, where I had my hands clasped.

She left her head on my shoulder, and rested a hand on my stomach.

The moon’s edge touched an ink-sketched tree branch tip as it continued to set.

Linc and Amy came home sometime after we got back from that walk to the golf course, where we saw the orange full moon, I remember. They made this huge salad – Amy was a vegetarian – and the four of us milled around in the kitchen while we sobered up a little and you went home.

Didn’t we go to one other wedding that summer? – yes, we did. I don’t remember even who it was, but it was in Findlay, in a tan brick church on a really sunny afternoon.

I remember more about the reception, actually, because it was 15 miles away, in this really little town called Bascom, in a park with old, high trees and ornate iron lampposts with white globe lights.

You know something weird, Kallie? About a year ago, I was talking to my grandma about where she raised my dad, where she was born (I was on this family history kick after she gave me a book with some of my ancestors back to the 1500s) and stuff like that, and you know what?

My Aunt Dorothy was born in Bascom, Ohio. Yep, that tiny intersection of a town out there. And I just started thinking about that park, and the dark, shiny wood floor in the hall where the wedding reception was.

All these strange connections, you know?

“Look at those kids,” I said, leaning in to Kallie’s ear and pointing at a middle-school aged boy and a girl, slow dancing in the center of the Bascom park pavilion. “It’s like a junior high dance.” I sat back and extended both arms stiffly forward as if I were resting them on the waist of a mannequin, and rocked back and forth like a metronome, looking around with my eyes, not moving my head.

She leaned her chin into her palm and turned to look, then grinned back at me.

What I’d have given to have known you in seventh grade, I thought.

Kallie occasionally greeted someone she recognized and introduced me simply as “my friend, Josh,” earning her a few not-so-subtle inquiring tilts of the head.

I blushed inwardly when she’d reply only by raising her own eyebrows and smiling coyly, and I pretended not to notice, drawing fingerprints in the condensation on the side of my plastic cup.

Later, we were walking around the park in the vanilla glow of the lamps and the warm night.

With its sloping roof and big glass windows all around, the pavilion looked like a house for a merry-go-round.

“ God, it’s weird sometimes, coming to these things,” she said, looking into the bright hall, watching the guests dance past the tall windows. “The DJs all playing the Hokey Pokey and the Chicken Dance, people our age getting married and looking all domestic and “Leave It to Beaver.” I don’t know, it just feels like something I’m not sure I’m ever going to want like this, you know?”

She got quiet, and stared into the dark wooded area near the park’s lake for a moment, then blinked and shook her head.

She laughed. “Sorry about that. There’s just a lot of cheesiness in there, and it sort of got to me.”

“ Don’t worry about it,” I told her. “I can handle the cheese.”

Sitting in the Corner Grill, my tongue aching with a coffee scald and rubbed with potato crisp salt, I stared out the window and remembered that park in Bascom, and the night of that wedding, sitting on folding wooden chairs at long, linen covered tables, watching little kids crawl around and their parents and grandparents drink watery scotch and bad champagne.

You know what else I remember? Playing DJ, we called it – hanging out at the apartment, you and me, just babbling (okay, that was mostly me) and taking turns picking songs and popping CDs into the stereo.

There’s a whole set of music I associate with that summer, and a lot of it comes from those nights in that stuffy living room.

“Lucky Ball and Chain,” by They Might Be Giants. “I lost my lucky ball and chain/now she’s four years gone/she’s five feet tall and sick of me/ and all my rambling on.” That’s also got one of my favorite song lines ever in it: “Sure as you can’t steer a train, you can’t change your fate.”

“Alison” and “The Other Side of Summer,” by Elvis Costello – that’s your influence, naturally, oh, and let’s not forget “The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes.”

“Dig for Fire,” by the Pixies. You again.

You know, I made one of my signature tapes around June that summer, staying over at WBGU past my shift one day and putting a bunch of those songs together. I used to listen to it driving back from your grandma’s in Grosse Ile, and I called it “A Sunlit Bridge, A Duck in the Clouds, and A Dream of a Boat Called ‘Birdhouse’.”

“Life’s too rough, my friend,” I said, feeling the July sun hot on the outside of my eyelids. “Much too rough.”

In a park on Grosse Ile, we had stretched ourselves full-length at the crest of a footbridge, but the occasional passerby had plenty of room to step around our feet.

The concrete was warm under our backs, the sky blue enough to shatter with a baseball.

“I used to come to this park a hundred times a summer,” Kallie said. “There is no other place on Earth that can still make me feel like I’m six years old like this. You and me, we come here, we swing on the same black rubber swings hanging from the same metal chains I remember from my whole life, we walk beside the river and it practically snows that cottonwood fluff, and you can see it clumping in the shade underneath the slides. The cars coming and going, the people and Frisbees and coolers and blankets – they change, but it all stays the same.”

I turned my head, squinting in the white glare of pavement, the cement baking the side of my face.

She was gazing skyward, her eyes almost shut, a ponytail resting back over the edge of the bridge, blowing softly in the breath of the water and the sky. I knew that later, in the car, when I was driving back to Bowling Green, I would be able to smell the summer that she’d caught in her hair and left clinging to the headrest of my passenger seat.

“There’s a cat’s tail up there,” she said, pointing with her chin. “No cat, though.”

“Huh?”

“Up there – that cloud looks like a cat’s tail just floating around, looking for a cat butt to attach itself to.”

“I see a monk,” I said. “He’s sort of kneeling, with his feet out behind him, and there’s a map of Asia over his shoulder. He’s over – Forget it. He just turned into a duck.”

I heard her inhale a lungful of the summersweet wind of grass and river, looked over at her again.

She cupped a hand over her eyes I could see them, blue-green in the shade of her palm, when she turned to look back at me.

“I don’t remember a single time when I was growing up that I did this,” she said. “I mean, looking for stuff in the clouds like this. Sure, I did it in cars on trips and stuff, but I can’t think of another perfect afternoon like this, when that’s all I was doing, looking at shapes of sharks and Mickey Mouse phones and – rgh! Bee!” she said with a gentle push at the fat gold insect buzzing between our faces.

“Say I’m the only bee in your bonnet,” I replied, quoting another of our favorite They Might Be Giants songs, “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” and looking again at the sky. “You know what?,” I continued, “I think I want a boat to sleep in on the river at night, and I’m going to call it ‘Birdhouse.’”

“I like it. ‘Lucky Ball and Chain’ invited over for spaghetti and beer once in awhile?” (Responding to my ‘Giants’ references with her own, naturally.)

“You? Sheesh, I dunno – can you pass for ‘five feet tall ?’”

“On the button, and yes, also ‘sick of you and all your rambling on ,’” she said, rolling her eyes and laughing as she stood. “Come on, I want to go get some ice cream at the Tam O’Snack. It’s off-island, but close. Awesome stuff.” She held out a hand and helped pull me up, and we walked off the bridge.

I craned my neck back and stretched my arms along the back of the booth, looking at the grease-darkened ceiling tiles, feeling my eyes suddenly aching.

My right hand felt knotted, and I poured myself another cup of hot coffee – the waitress had just left the pot on my table, since I was the only customer – and wrapped my hands around it, clamping and flexing my knuckles against each other, letting the heat work into the meat at the base of my thumb.

The first light of day was probably less than an hour off. I figured I’d find a good place to watch the sun come up, write a last entry or two in the notebook, and then head for Columbus.

Suddenly, I began to feel like there were a million things I needed to keep, to save to remember, and I’d never be able to write them all down in time, and they’d slip my mind’s grasp.

I fumbled for my pen and scribbled feverishly.

Oh, my God, Kallie – you have no idea what a weird night I’m having, and how late it is, and what’s led me to all this babbling that’s about to follow, but let’s just blame it on too much coffee and no sleep, okay? I’m trying to think of a place to see the sunrise and wrap this book up nice and neat as a present for you, but it feels less and less like that’s going to happen.

I mean, dumb little things I can’t seem to live without, like the warm, dusty smell of my car on a sunny morning, and rolling the windows down to let the field grass wind roll through.

Or the time we went to Giminy’s and I ordered a burger and fries, and as I was talking to you, I picked up the ketchup bottle to squirt my fries. But what I’d grabbed was my iced tea, which I sloshed over my basket of food.

The dusk falling on your grandma’s front porch as the insect hum in the trees grew steadily, and we blew bubbles over the yard, sharing the small bottle and plastic wand.

There’s just too much, and while it seems awful damn important at this very second, in the Corner Grill, with the plastic Pepsi menu board leaning against the wall behind the counter, and the neon sign of Uptown hanging dark across the street, there’s a part of me that really wonders If It Matters, to quote Gone Daddy Finch. (One more toast for Good Tymes pub and local band night, my friend, so raise that bucket.)

I just feel like I’ve got to run –

I tried hard to think of a fantastic place to spend dawn. Nothing came to mind, so I just got in my car and started driving around northeast of town, out past the sewage treatment plant.

I had ridden my bike out here, late one afternoon that summer, picking roads at random as I went, and carrying a small tape recorder I’d borrowed from Linc. I was going to try and speak aloud the stream-of-consciousness that would unwind itself whenever I went riding. All the stuff that floated through as the pavement crackled by, and my tires popped tar bubbles in the heat, and sometimes I’d try and tear a little piece of mental notebook paper and stick it in the middle of the voice to remind myself to write the thought down when I got home.

Of course, no matter when I returned to the apartment – minutes, hours later – it was all gone, always, left somewhere out over the fields.

Once, I passed a yellow sign warning: DIRT ROAD AHEAD. I kept going anyway, seeing that the road passed through a small woods not far on. This got me thinking about an urban legend I’d once heard about a woods somewhere around here, where a school bus full of kids had supposedly crashed or something. The ruined shell of the bus was still sitting deep in shadow amidst the trees, and the story went that if you drove on the road where it had crashed, at night, and turned off your car’s headlights, the bus would appear behind you with a horrendous grinding and screaming of metal and children, and then vanish into the darkness.

That’s what I was thinking about just as I rode my bike into the shadow of the trees. Gave me chills, being alone out there, even in a bright afternoon, and I quickened my pedaling, and to make it all even weirder, the tape recorder shut off as I passed through the heart of the woods. No reason. When I listened to it later, there I was talking about this ghost bus, and then there’s a strange series of clicks and clutter, then a few seconds of silence, and then me saying, “Wow, that was weird! I’m out of the woods now…”

I also remember riding past a barn, and though it was much smaller than the one I used to sneak into for kicks when I was a little kid, it reminded me of it to such a degree that in the half-minute or so it took me to ride past, I had a full-sense picture of what the inside of that barn felt like: cool and still in the afternoon, the late sun’s rays slanting in through narrow cracks in the dark wood, lighting shafts of drifting dust and hay, a smell of hard-packed dirt soaked with the oil of long-gone machinery.

The eastern sky lightened, and I pulled over to the road’s edge to finish Kallie’s notebook.

Well, I wish there was a great bullroar of an ending to this, but I’ve been driving around for about an hour now, and the only thing that came to mind was this babbling sentence fragment that has stuck in my mind ever since that summer. I said it out loud one day while out bike riding. (You ever want to look like a complete fool, just ride around Ohio on a bicycle talking into a tape recorder. Trust me.)

And never forget: I truly appreciate…oh, never mind. (Almost gotcha!)

Anyway, this is what I said:

You get out here…you get out here where everything’s flat, and you can see forever. That’s what it looks like. Only thing is, it makes things look closer than they really are. From way off, you can see trees or stop signs or farmhouses, but it feels like forever ’til you reach them.

It also takes things longer to vanish behind you.

Thanks, Kallie.

Hope you like it.

Love, Josh

When the sun finally came up, I was already headed to Columbus.

Next: Chapter 7 – 7:41

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

May 26, 2010 Posted by | 1990s, Books, Fiction, Ohio, writing | , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Crossing Decembers: Chapter 5 – And We Danced

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

There were two statues of horses flanking the Great Seal of BGSU. On warm afternoons they’d sweat an odor of hot copper.

During my freshman year I’d named them Rocinante and Bucephalus after the steeds of Don Quixote and Baron Munchausen.

Passing MacDonald Quad, the all-girls dorm, I caught the yellow glow of the front desk light through a glass entrance door. One semester, I had two classes about an hour apart, and the buildings in which they were held were fairly close to each other, although almost all the way across campus from my own room.

Consequently, I took to spending the time between them lying on a couch in the MacDonald lobby, a thirty-second walk from both classes. Once, when I was lying there with my eyes shut, head propped on my bookbag as a pillow, I heard one girl whisper to another, “That guy sleeps there every day – I think he’s homeless.”

Anyway, on the nicer days I’d flop out on the grass near the horses and let the sun heat up my eyelids while I napped in the shadow of the beasts.

The Great Seal of the university was set in brass on a pedestal at the confluence of about five sidewalks crossing the lawn.

Sophomores and juniors giving tours to prospective students always granted extraordinary power to the seal. They’d speak with bubbly reverence about the legend that if you stood on the seal and kissed someone at midnight, you were destined to marry.

Or they’d note with a whisper while leading tour groups toward it, “Look how everyone passes the seal on the right – passing it on the left brings bad luck, usually in the form of failed tests.”

Kallie and I, we made other plans, one night, after we saw a showing of “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” in the Lillian Gish Theater.

It was right around midnight, and there was an ice-shaving of crescent moon up near the top of the Admin building.

“ Check it out,” I said, nodding skyward.

“ Magic,” she replied. “Look, you can see it in the horses’ eyes.”

She pointed ahead to Rocinante and Bucephalus, and she was right – in each dark, smooth orb, the moon was thumbnailed in reverse.

“ Did you come here for one of those tours when you were applying to college?” I asked.

“ Yeah, why?”

“ They feed you all that goofy stuff about the power,” I lowered my voice to a wizard’s growl, crooked my fingers and raised my arms, “of the Great Seal?”

“ Ah, yes, yessssss,” she answered like a gypsy, swaying her hands before her eyes.

We stopped and looked down at the seal.

“ You know what would be funny?” she asked, looking sideways at me. “Would be to come out here and do some sort of silly fake sacrificial ritual – you know, have you lie on the seal with a textbook on your chest, and we would put candles around you and I’d sing the BG fight song backwards or something. Can you imagine the looks we’d get?”

“ To the great gods of knowledge, we deliver the soul of Josh,” I intoned, laughing.

“ Do you remember the bit about standing on the seal at the stroke of midnight, and kissing the person you were destined for?” She wrinkled her freckled nose and grinned while she asked it.

“ Yeah.” I half-shrugged and shook my head lightly, chuckling. “You’d think there’d be a line for this sort of thing,” I added, gazing across the empty lawn.

“ What time is it?”

I looked at my watch, felt a tickling in my gut. “About three after.”

In her eyes, I saw the crescent moon.

“ Three minutes,” she said, with a tight smile and a mock sad shake of her head as a breeze stirred her hair. “I guess we’ll just never know.”

Well, they’re still here. So’s the seal.

You know, I swear, it looks like there are tiny puddles of candle wax hardened around it…

Okay, so I made that up. But – sacrilege! I’m sitting on the thing right now. Why, I’m not sure exactly, but like the planetarium, it just seemed appropriate.

Here’s a memory to share with you from that summer: I was out walking one afternoon, and stopped by your house – that green one over on Crum and Wooster.

You were on a lawn chair on the back porch, that small concrete stoop, supposedly studying.

I couldn’t even tell you what we talked about, but I know you made me a glass of iced tea, and we lounged away a lazy hour or so just hanging out.

That’s one of those perfect memories of what that summer was, you know?

Of course, I remembered more than that.

I had come around the back of the house to knock on the door, and Kallie was lying there suntanning in a modest two-piece bathing suit.

It was almost a shock to me that she didn’t have a model’s body. I mean, she was pretty petite, but I happened to see that she had just the tiniest tummy bulge right above the top of her bathing suit bottom. We sat there in the sun, drinking iced tea, and the freckles on her nose danced when she squinted at me in the bright afternoon.

Do you remember the day you came in and did the radio show with me? (I just happened to look up and see the blinking red light of the WBGU transmitter on top of the Admin building, and I thought of my noon-to-three shift on the air, Mondays.)

I had a huge crush on this red-haired girl that did a show right after mine. Her name was Anne, and she and her best friend Amy had the Monday three-to-six slot. We actually wound up hanging out that summer because Linc and Amy hooked up.

After signing off one afternoon, I asked the girls to come over for macaroni and cheese (spare no expense at Chez Josh, eh?) and much to my surprise they did. For some reason, Linc wasn’t there, but when he came home, he could hardly believe they had come over.

Not long after that, he started dating Amy.

I think Anne really just looked at me as someone to talk to during Linc and Amy’s dates.

Seriously, we were like chaperones. The four of us walked over to the city park one night, Linc and Amy hand in hand, and Anne and I tagging along behind like kid siblings.

We were sitting on the swings, Anne and me, and I must have made some remark about being a little kid, and she got kind of uneasily quiet, and said something along the lines of “I didn’t have that kind of childhood.” I didn’t push it, and she never mentioned it again.

There was this one really awkward time when Anne and Amy were over, and Linc lit all these candles in the living room, turned out the lights, and put Peter Gabriel’s “Passion” on the stereo. For what seemed like years, Linc and Amy sat on the couch, their eyes just locked into each other’s, while I sat on the floor, and Anne sat in the chair by the air conditioner.

I remember my eyes trying so hard not to rest on anything, and watching the flickering shadows on the walls, the melting candle wax, the sky and the tree branches outside the window. When I’d glance at Anne, I’d see her doing the same thing.

Finally, without a word, Linc and Amy got up and went to his bedroom and closed the door, and there was just this tangible relief.

Anne and I wound up playing cards on my bed and telling stupid jokes (How many surrealist artists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: The fish!).

She was wearing a dark green men’s button-down shirt and a tie that I used to have that looked like a rainbow trout. (She had put it on to prove that she knew how to knot a necktie.)

In that moment, I felt close to her, and her laughter was genuine.

Do you ever wonder where people disappear to?

I thought about that for a minute and looked past the statues to the glass doors of West Hall, where the WBGU studio was.

There was a newspaper wedged in the doorframe for the poor saps who had to come in for the overnight shifts. I knew this from experience: Linc and I had run a three-to-seven a.m. show during our first radio stint.

While I just liked being on the air a couple hours a week, Linc took over as the WBGU heavy metal music director.

Essentially, this meant he’d get boxes of free new CD’s sent to him every couple days, and free tickets to local shows from bands trying to get noticed.

That summer, Linc drove to Toledo to see a band performing at a bar up there called Frankie’s. He’d arranged for a pre-show interview as well, and came home with an autograph for me and a good interview tape for his show. The group was the Smashing Pumpkins, and while I don’t think they ever did another album as good as their first, they did hit it really big a few years later.

Pretty weird, though: the lead singer, Billy Corgan, signed a WBGU business card for me, “To Josh, sorry about your father.” At the time, I wrote it off as just odd behavior, but now and then I think about it and how Dad died about two years later.

Another cool thing was that a guitarist named Chuck Treece visited Linc that summer as sort of a promotional thing.

He had this instrumental called “Violin” that I played on the air all the time.

I remember we got all excited when the arrangements were made, and we left to go pick him up at the Greyhound station in Toledo. The guy only brought his backpack and a couple of posters to sign, and asked if it was OK if he just stayed at our place that night. We drove through a Wendy’s for dinner on the way back to BG.

Linc interviewed him on the air that night, and he recorded a promo for my show, too, which I still think I have on tape somewhere.

I also remember we went over to somebody’s house for awhile that night, hung out, and then the three of us went over to the fountain in front of the BG administration building and messed with it, making the water shoot higher by plugging up some of the pipes with our feet.

Somewhere along the way, Chuck got thirsty and we bought a jug of orange juice from the 7-Eleven on Wooster Street.

I’ve looked up his name a few times in record stores, and even seen his CD in a couple racks, but I don’t know if he ever made any more albums.

Now I’m sitting on the loading dock of West Hall, looking over toward the smokestack at the power plant.

I remember one night, walking on the train tracks behind there, from Wooster Street all the way to the Wasteland, trying to see if I could go the whole way just balancing on the rails. I had to hop from rail to rail once or twice, but I made it without touching the ground.

And remember the morning I parked my car here that summer, in this faculty-permit-only lot, when I raced back from Grosse Ile in about 45 minutes because I had a class to get to? Not only did I not go home to shower or comb my hair or anything, I took my Ethics of Journalism notes that morning on the back of a yellow oil change receipt that I dug out of my glove compartment.

Kallie visited her grandmother in Grosse Ile, Michigan every couple weeks that summer, and a few times, she called to see if I wanted to come up and hang out. She liked to show me the places where she’d been as a little kid: the ice cream stand out by the island’s small airfield, a park with a high, arching bridge, and a library by the Detroit River.

Twice I stayed up there overnight, sleeping out on the living room couch. Kallie’s grandma lived along a canal, and the back windows that opened up to a small yard sloping down to the wooded edge of the water. Insect sounds filled the nights, and occasionally, I’d hear a small boat engine idling past, with a familiar comfort like hearing your neighbor’s car pull into the driveway.

“In a very weird way, the air here reminds me of the place I grew up,” I told her once.

It was after dusk, and the streetlights were coming on as we walked through the neighborhood.

“ I mean, it’s completely different, but there’s just this sweet, distinctive taste to the air – it comes from the river, I think,” I continued. “You spent a lot of time here as a kid, do you know what I mean?”

“ Yeah, I do,” Kallie said, craning her neck and inhaling. She was looking up through the tree branches at the stars. “It’s…faraway. Someplace far-off but kind of familiar.”

I nodded and said, “I grew up on a little dead-end street that’s surrounded by fields and woods, and it comes from Ohio summer grass and cornfields and forest shade, and when I go back there, to Whitmer Avenue, it’s – well, it’s just really kind of heartbreaking, you know?”

She stopped walking and looked around the street. The blacktop was still cooling from an afternoon baking, and we were standing in the middle of the road.

“ I’m pretty sure I do,” she replied.

I tried to explain again.

“ It’s like it’s the air of the best place at the best time, and summer vacation and staying out late playing in the yard, and lightning bugs,” I rattled. “And with it comes that sadness of knowing that part of you is gone forever, but at the same time, you love that it’s in your blood forever.” I was staring into the darkness behind a small brick house, where a single window flickered with the blue glow of a television.

Anyone else watching Kallie at that moment might have thought she was just staring into space, slowly turning her head, rolling a thought over and over.

But somehow, I knew what she was seeing – herself, younger, tennis shoes pounding up the street past dark, smelling like mosquito spray, her breath coming in sweaty, huffing gulps while she hollered “Ready or not, you guys, here I come!” And she was hearing wind high in the trees and a skittering and whishing of footsteps and other breaths desperately held.

“ You used to play hide-and-seek out here, didn’t you?” I ventured.

“ It was awesome,” she replied. “All these backyards and no fences, lots of trees and all these kids I only knew from visiting Grandma’s, but in summer it was hide-and-seek with ’em all, night after night.”

“ It was always Jailbreak on my street,” I answered. “Basically, hide-and-seek, except if you got caught, you sat on the porch until someone broke you out, and if you got caught three times you were it. We had this huge bush at the front corner of the house, and it was all prickly. We kept the hose underneath it, so there was sort of this little cave, and I’d hide right there, maybe ten feet from the porch, and I’d just break people out every time someone got caught. I can close my eyes right this second and imagine that I can smell that bush – it was kind of piny.”

“ Do you ever wonder,” she asked, looking up at the stars, “if you could talk to yourself across time?”

I had the best time when I used to visit you at your Grandma’s. Do you know that’s where I first got hooked on W.P. Kinsella’s books about baseball and magic? You and I were sitting in the den – I think that’s what that little green room up at the front corner of the house was – you know, the one with the funny lamp – and I remember picking “Shoeless Joe” off the bookshelf to read that night, sleeping out on the couch.

Man, I did a lot of reading that summer. It started off with the one class I was taking – we read ten books and wrote ten essays in six weeks. Let’s see, we read “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” by Zora Neale Hurston, and James Joyce’s “Dubliners,” (which has a great story about a kid at a flea market/bazaar place), and…crap, I can’t remember.

I know I read a bunch of stuff on my own, too, because I got myself a library card from the Wood County Public Library. “Noonan: A novel about baseball, ESP, and time warps,” and “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” were two of the ones I checked out. Both of those are sort of kids books, but I remembered liking them so much that I decided to reread them.

This is insane, isn’t it? But somehow, I think you know what it means to save all these things.

You know what sounds good right now? A beer. Something real cheap, but without being gross. Linc and I went through a few cases of Keystone Light that summer. I don’t even know if they make the stuff anymore.

One night, we were planning on going out, I think, and we sat down at the kitchen table and decided to chug beers.

Believe it or not, it was the first time I’d even sat and tried to just guzzle a beer. Linc, too.

So we got these big, plastic Pepsi cups from the cupboard and filled them with beer, and because we were heading downtown, we tucked dishrags into our T-shirt collars in case we slopped.

And we raced.

Oh my God, Kallie, it was nuts, just trying to suck down this monster cup of beer – foul-tasting stuff – watching Linc across the table, his face just covered by a stupid Pepsi cup and a dishtowel over his chest.

And then we were slamming down our empty cups and letting out these ungodly burps, and my stomach was just washing back and forth inside me. Ugh.

I would say you had to be there, but it’s probably good for all that you weren’t.

Then again, three words: Good Tymes. Uptown.

It was the one time that summer I think that you and I actually got together and went downtown to go dancing, remember?

I know we went to Good Tymes first, that dark little bar right next to the Sunoco, because we were both a few months shy of 21 and nobody ever got carded there.

Sidenote: I just remembered that Thom from the radio station was working the door that night – it was odd because I had gone to high school with him, and yet somehow you knew him, too, and that weasel gave you an “Over 21” stamp without a second thought, then turned around and low-stamped me!

The bar was serving beer in these humongous bright-colored cups shaped like garbage cans, and we just started in on a couple.

I know we weren’t there very long – it really was just everybody’s sort of warm-up bar, with the cheapest beer and dirty walls covered in black paint, and I swear, someone’s old sofa along one wall and a picnic table in front of the speakers stacked in the corner.

Good Tymes, indeed.

So then we went to Uptown to do some dancing, and you had this fake ID that you’d gotten in Florida, so you got high-stamped again. You bought me, to this day, the only whiskey sour I’ve ever had. And we were sitting there at the bar, sucking down these drinks you kept buying, and I made some comment about a girl I had once seen tie a maraschino cherry stem in a knot with her tongue.

(What can I say? You kept buying me alcohol – you want intelligent conversation after beer from a mini trash can?)

Before I had even completed that thought, you gave that ornery grin of yours, and showed me the knotted cherry stem in your teeth.

I kept that damned thing for years, Oballobieomokay, with the yellow Fuzzy ring and the flattened pennies, in that glass of mine.

And we danced. (Yes, that’s a blatant Hooters reference solely for your benefit.)

Truth: I am certain I look like an idiot when I dance.

Truth: That night, I didn’t care.

You had on a short, white dress with big black polka-dots on it, and halfway through the night, I gave you the crystal that I was wearing around my neck because it kept smacking me in the head while I bounced around.

And, as many times as I had been to Uptown, the DJ never, ever, not once, fulfilled the only song request I ever made.

You, it took one trip to the disc jockey’s window above the dance floor (I clasped my hands and you used them as a step to reach up there) and within five minutes, my song was blaring, and we were flailing and jumping and howling and drunk, all energy and joy and life.

It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and I Feel Fine.”

Years later, I saw REM in concert, and wore that crystal, and when they finished up the show with “End of the World,” I smiled a head-splitting grin, fought tears, and swore I’d never let the song stop buzzing in the corners of my head.

Kallie and I walked back to the apartment around 2 a.m., half-deaf and still punchy, stinging the cool summer air with our own sweat-and-smoke pungency. She had driven to our place, and sitting in my room, on the corner of the bed, I told her it’d be okay to crash if she didn’t feel like she could drive home. God, I was later ashamed at how I practically begged her to spend the night, just to hold her and have the smell of her hair on the pillow the next day. Even to know that she was just there, on the other side of the bed, or even in my room, because I offered to sleep on the couch.

But without making me feel like an idiot, without pointing out that I was really being a big baby, she said no, she’d be fine, but thanks. And she never mentioned it again, no matter how many times we talked about what an awesome time we had that night.

There are times when remembering my blunt, stupid plea burns and itches because I never got to apologize for it.

And there are times I cry because I wish she had said yes.

You know, I had all but forgotten until this moment that I was a camp counselor for awhile that summer.

I spent six weeks as the Assistant Director of the North Baltimore Summer Recreation Program.

North Baltimore’s about 15 miles south of BG, straight down I-75. Through a friend of a friend thing, I snagged the job as a second income just after buying my saxophone.

This girl Stephanie was the girlfriend of Tony, who was WBGU’s Metal Director when Linc and I started on the radio. He and Linc became good friends when he was training Linc to take over his position.

Anyway, Stephanie was being paid $1500 to run this six-week day care program, and she was also budgeted $500 for an assistant – which turned out to be me.

So, five days a week for a month and a half, we got up at six in the morning and shared a ride to the North Baltimore Community Park for glorified babysitting from eight to one. Played a lot of dodge ball and kickball. Had a friend of Stephanie’s bring his electric guitar and play for the kids one day, took them by bus up to the BG student rec center on another occasion. Once, Stephanie needed the day off, and the kids led me on a bike ride to the rock quarry on the northwest side of town, and we threw stones from the weedy cliffs and watched them fall. I even got my picture in the North Baltimore paper once, standing next to the monkey bars while the kids climbed all over them.

One afternoon, another day I was working solo, (Angie went on vacation for a week, actually, I think. Did I get paid extra? Of course not. What a chump!) the mother of two of the girls was a little late in picking them up, but when she got there, she’d brought me two heaping paper plates of homemade lunch – barbecue beef and potato salad, and some baked beans, and a bottle of Coke, too.(A glass bottle, no less! Coke never tastes as good as it does from glass, and I hate that you can only get it now in those crappy little 8 oz. bottles. The people in the TV commercials are always still knocking it back from 16-ouncers, though – where do they get them? Bastards. Anyway…)

We hiked up the creek one day, the kids wading in the water and chasing newts and frogs and crayfish, climbing on exposed tree roots sticking out of the banks, hopping on stones.

The last day of the camp we had a huge water balloon war, and after the kids had all gone, Stephanie and I shared a couple beers in the park recreational building.

It was only six weeks, but it seemed like such a big chunk of that summer.

Sitting here, remembering that tiny town off the interstate, I think about all those kids, and that Mom who made me a lunch, and I think: I’ll never see any of them again. Weird.

I think I need to walk some more.

No, wait, you know what just came to mind? The day we went up to Put-In-Bay, and it was all gray and rainy and windy in the morning. I know you don’t need me to remind you of the details.

Sincerely, Josh the Towel-Boy.

The memory of that clouded sky descended and filled my vision, replaced in the next stomach-churning moment by Lake Erie’s grey, churning surface as the bow of the Put-In-Bay ferry alternately dove and rose in the waves.

Kallie and I were standing at the prow, side by side, arms outstretched and trying to maintain our balance.

“This is awesome!” she hollered, grabbing at my wrist as the boat pitched upward, throwing an ecstatic smile my way.

We were the only ones on deck, the other passengers sitting in the stuffy, glassed-in cabin area.

Before I could reply, I saw a wall of water and spray looming, the ferry crashing down into its heart, and even as I turned my back, I caught a glimpse of Kallie, for a half of a half of a second, still watching me, framed on all sides by the drenching mountain about to break itself over and around her, and smack me full-on in the back with a wet, cold shove.

I felt the boat rise once more, lifted my head to see her shivering, clothes and hair plastered to her body, her grin undying.

“Okay, inside!” she said, and we sloshed in our tennis shoes to the cabin, out of the reach of the wind and waves.

Half an hour later, we were pedaling a red tandem bike past the Put-In-Bay airfield and toward the town at the eastern edge of the island.

The breeze as we rode pulled goosebumps by the handful from our arms and necks. We were still soaked from the boat trip.

Thick clouds raced low past the tower of Perry’s Monument, creating the illusion that it was falling toward the lake.

When we reached town, we stopped in the first beach-house-boutique we came to. A middle-aged red-haired woman, her face wrinkled with sun and smile lines, stood behind a small counter.

“Excuse me,” I asked, “is there a laundromat around here?”

She looked at us, our sopping clothes clinging, our teeth chattering, and pointed back out the door. “Go up that road toward the airport, and there are some apartments off to the left. I think they have a laundry room there.”

The laundry room was where she said it would be, in a small building painted the same robin’s egg blue as the apartments. Inside, we saw it was connected by a narrow hall to the front office.

No washers or dryers were running, and the room was empty.

There was a stack of large white bath towels folded neatly on a counter, but no basket, hangers, or any other signs that someone would be coming back for them.

I walked to the front desk, pulled two limp, sodden dollar bills from my wallet, and asked the girl sitting there reading her magazine if she had change.

She hardly looked up as she handed me eight quarters.

I returned to the laundry room.

“Go ahead,” I whispered to Kallie. “I’ll stand here -” I leaned in the hallway, facing the front office area – “You can keep your own eyes on the windows. Grab a towel, and let’s get our clothes dried so we can go have lunch.”

“This is crazy,” she said, peering out the door at the back of the apartments, “I can’t believe we’re doing this.”

But she pulled her arms through the sleeves of her shirt, and I forced myself to turn back to the hallway and stare at the brown-orange carpet in the office.

“All right, your turn,” she hissed, suppressing a giggle. “Here.” She held out a towel.

I turned and took it as nonchalantly as I could, found myself entranced by the freckles on her small shoulders, the thin necklace around her neck that dipped towards the shallow gap between her breasts, tucked neatly behind the top of the white towel she now wore.

“Gee, maybe you’re right,” I mused with a smile, “this does seem a little insane. You know, I think my clothes are feeling drier already.” I patted myself down theatrically and stretched my arms wide. “Yeah, I think I’ll just wait.”

She grabbed another towel from the pile and threw it in my face.

So we spent the next half hour sitting on the washers, towel-clad, paranoid, and laughing our heads off at the whole thing. When our clothes were dry, we again took turns guarding the hallway, leaving the towels neatly folded and stacked on the counter again.

It was 3:35 a.m. when exhaustion caught up with me.

I rubbed my eyes and looked at the empty sidewalks, the dark signs at Myles’ Pizza Pub and Dairy Queen. I suddenly wanted nothing in the world more than a hot plateful of shredded hash browns slopped in ketchup, grizzled with salt, and a sweet cup of coffee, double sugar, double cream.

I felt in my pocket, pulled out a pair of crumpled dollar bills and hopped off the West Hall loading dock.

The Corner Grill would be open all night.

Next: Chapter 6 – Steering A Train


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

May 19, 2010 Posted by | 1990s, Books, Fiction, Ohio, writing | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Crossing Decembers: Chapter 4 – Bowling Green, Ohio

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

I had gone a hundred yards in reverse before I realized I was in the wrong car.

I slammed on the brakes, stalling.

What hit me next was that I was behind the wheel of a car I knew: my long-gone 1979 Mazda GLC station wagon. The half-inch wide ugly split in the dashboard cemented it. I only had that car six months before it died on me, but those six months included the perfect summer of 1991. Sitting on the torn seat, I tentatively put my right hand on the gearshift and jiggled it – the top, as always, was loose. My car. My first ever “this-is-mine-not-Dad’s” car. I called it the Millennium Falcon: “She’s not much to look at, kid, but she’s got it where it counts,” I used to lie.

I got out and ran my hands over the hood, the door handles, the bent-in door of the gas tank cover.

Full of questions, I could only stare around at the fields and empty roads, wondering how the Mazda had wound up out here, where my other car had gone, and what else had changed while I was on the bridge.

And I remembered Orion.

I was in a car accident once in Florida, late after work one night. This girl that I worked with was in her car next to mine at an intersection, and when we both pulled through on the green light, some drunk being chased by the cops ran a red light and plowed into both of us.

Sarah, the girl from work, got broadsided, and my car got shoved by the back end, since I’d been making a left-hand turn.

When I went to sleep that night, I realized, playing the moment of impact over and over, that I had heard the heavy thud-crunch of Sarah’s car getting smashed just before I got hit, but my mind didn’t recognize it until long afterward.

I climbed onto the front of my car and looked up at the sky.

Orion had vanished.

The spring constellation of Bootes and the telltale gleam of Arcturus soared noiselessly.

I leaned back against the Mazda, picturing the fields falling away, the glow of streetlit towns seen through storm clouds, the great dark lakes to the north, the oceans and continents, and the Earth in its path around the sun in a distant arm of the galaxy, and when I tried to imagine all of humanity gathered in perpetual motion on the swirled blue glass hanging in orbit, all I could find were two figures on a bridge and a train screaming beneath on a cold December night in Ohio.

All my life, there has never been so concrete an image of the infinite as the winter stars: Orion, the Pleiades, Cassiopeia. When I was five, I stayed up one Christmas eve and opened my bedroom window to the cold, and looked out over the neighborhood, the chimneys curling smoke skyward, the silence of the streets, the shadowed driveways. And above all, an amazing dusting of stars. I didn’t know it then, but I was seeing Orion, the trio of suns marking his belt resting sideways over the house next door.

The hunter had floated over the Ohio fields that night on the bridge, and the seven sisters in blue, and the captive princess.

Now they were gone, and it was seemingly spring.

When I was little, our house had a sliding glass door facing the backyard. Winters after dark, I used to stand and press my nose against the glass during snowstorms, watching the flakes whirl and fly. If I stared long enough, I felt as though I were the one moving, wheeling and rushing through the wind. Then I’d blink, and I’d be still again, fogging up the glass with my breath.

Like the night of my car accident, my mind began to slowly reel out those last few moments at the bridge – the note, the train, the stars, the bell, and my own footsteps pounding as I ran away.

Orion, I now realized, had flickered, and then he had blinked out.

In that moment on the bridge when I had seen the sky, it was me careening through space, thrown in rollercoaster loops and stomach-flop turns through a maelstrom of stars and blackness. And then I had blinked, and run, and found myself in my old Mazda.

I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding and got back in the driver’s seat.

I restarted the car – it took two tries, naturally – and pushed the clutch in. Fumbling instinctively under the seat, I felt a cassette tape amidst the sagging springs and foam rubber. Without looking at it, I pushed it into the player and turned up the volume. A hiss crackled out of the sole speaker beneath the crack in the dashboard, and I headed back towards State Route 6, singing along at the top of my lungs: “That’s GREAT it starts with an EARTH-quake, birds and snakes and airplanes, LENNY BRUCE is not afraid…”

I stopped at a gas station in Bryan to get gas and a Coke. The gas gauge in the Mazda had never worked, frozen mockingly about seven-eighths full. I asked the girl behind the counter for a receipt. Without taking her eyes off the portable black-and-white TV she had beside the register, she printed out the slim paper and handed it to me. She was chewing bright blue gum. It was March 29, 1994, 11:54 p.m.

In just under twenty-four hours, Kallie’s car would skid sideways on a rain-slicked road in Columbus, hit a guardrail, and flip over. Forty-five minutes after that, she would die in an emergency room.

“ Is there a phone book back there I could look at?” I asked the clerk.

She looked toward the window, and before she could reply, I answered myself. “Ah. Payphone outside. Didn’t even look when I came in. Thanks.”

She went back to her TV.

I looked up Kallie’s parents in the Bryan phone book, scribbled their number on the back of the gas receipt. Way too late to call now, but I was headed to Columbus, and I figured I’d find time in the morning to call and get Kallie’s number from them.

I wasn’t going to sleep anyway.

I got into the car, popped open the Coke, and headed east toward Bowling Green.

It was a quiet hour-long drive, after I turned off the tape player and rolled the windows down to let the summer wind in.

The weirdness of the situation began to impress itself upon my mind. I think the first clue of this was when I found myself reasoning that it would be okay to stop in Bowling Green for a couple of hours, because it was March of 1994, and I would have already graduated and left town. I saw no need to possibly screw up my whole plan by running into myself. And if I saw someone who might recognize me, well, hell, I could play that by ear. Maybe I was in town for a day, just passing through, or maybe they had me confused with someone else. Who cared? I’d wing it.

Still, it kept flashing through my mind like distant, silent heat lightning beyond the horizon: Orlando, Florida, humming its way through this very same summer night, and under the orange glow of a streetlamp, the heavy door to an apartment where, younger and unaware, I slept.

In a day and a half, that guy would be heading this way.

Tomorrow afternoon, I would be in Columbus.

The summer that I bought the Mazda and stayed in BG instead of going home to North Canton began as a casual conversation the March before, late one night, in Linc’s dorm room in Rodgers Quad.

I had met Lincoln Harbaugh during the one-act-play festival my freshman year, and he wound up two doors down from me when I went back for my second fall at school.

The two of us goofed off one afternoon and made a tape of songs for a friend of his, interjecting our own smart-ass jokes and stupid stuff, and we had so much fun doing it we got a radio show at WBGU, the campus FM station.

He was thinking of staying in town for the summer, to work on his radio program – he’d been named Heavy Metal Director at the station – and just hang out somewhere other than St. Marys, his western Ohio hometown.

Me, I was planning on staying in BG for about six weeks or so to take a few classes, so I said, hey, let’s get an apartment, and I’ll stay here all summer!

That was a Wednesday night.

By Thursday afternoon we’d found a place, and that night we called our parents.

And so was born the summer of ’91: Linc, me, and the upstairs cubbyhole apartment at 656 1/2 E. Murray Street.

A collage:

That summer, Kallie and I split a bottle of rum, mixed it with a two-liter of Coke, and watched “The Graduate,” which I’d never seen. I took my little brother to Detroit for a Tigers’ game. I had a crush on a girl who looked like Ariel, Disney’s red-haired Little Mermaid. I sat on top of the storage garages across the street and stared at the sky. Linc and I watched “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “The Twilight Zone” on a twelve-inch black-and-white TV. I acted as Assistant Director of a kids’ summer camp in North Baltimore, Ohio. We won concert tickets from a Butterfinger candy bar. I did a radio show from noon to three on Mondays at WBGU. We tangled with a dinosaur of an air conditioner. I wrote ten essays for a six-week English class. I sat on a golf course at 2:30 a.m. and watched a full harvest moonset with Kallie. I read a lot: Shoeless Joe, Tales from Margaritaville, the Great Gatsby , and others. I turned the pages for Kallie when she was an organist at a wedding. I tie-dyed a shirt, wore it once, and washed it before it had set. Linc and I doggedly pursued the two girls who did the radio show after mine, with varied success. Unable to find a better summer job, I worked at McDonald’s. I sat on Kallie’s sunny back porch and talked an afternoon away. We propped open our apartment windows with wooden spoons and spatulas. I walked a long way out towards the west edge of town, and rode my bicycle out even farther. We went to see Backdraft at the dollar cinema with Kallie and her roommate Andie. Green northern lights appeared one night over the flat cement wastes of the old ketchup factory. I climbed onto the roof of Overman Hall late one afternoon, barefoot, chasing a rubber ball. We ordered a lot of Pisanello’s Pizza.

I drove the same silver 1978 Mazda GLC station wagon that had now been returned to me, lay awake in bed at night and listened to the trees and the trains outside my window, and generally drank life deep and long amidst the great waving fields of Ohio.

The water tower marking the western limits of Bowling Green swung into view, and I felt an odd tightening in my stomach. A patch of woods across the roadside field obscured the floodlit beige landmark a moment later. Much of the magic I have come to believe in sprung from the time I spent in this small university town on the Ohio plains. It was like a well that, for just a universal blink, burbled forth small miracles and impossibilities, running crystalline and unseen beneath our unsuspecting feet, sanctifying the ordinary, canonizing the everyday. It’s a sort of fluid resonance of wonder that I think everyone feels someplace, whether it’s a hot, sunny baseball field or the basement of grandma’s house, or a woods just before sunrise. I had begun to feel it during my freshman year at BGSU, sitting with a friend beside a motionless pond, scooping reflected moonlight from the chill water with our hands. But after Kallie took me to Five Mile Bridge, I realized more truly than ever that the sources of awe are all around, even, or perhaps especially, in the most common places and voices and winds.

The water tower slipped back into my line of sight as I neared the sleeping edge of town. Downtown would still be buzzing this time of night. Even in summer, there were enough students to keep the bars open late. The west side of town, though, was the residential side, where most of the permanent residents of BG lived. The houses on this side were owned, not rented, and the cars parked on the streets had Wood County license plates. Apartments were rare. The locals ate at the McDonald’s on South Main instead of the one across from the freshman dorms, and there weren’t any bookstores over here that would buy back your used texts for half-price. A detail popped into my head that pretty much summed it up: I was taking a walk, late one afternoon that summer, and it had rained that morning. I was over near the city park, past the county library, and I saw a Green Machine sitting in the soft, wet grass and mud in someone’s front yard. The Green Machine was the badass mutant brother of the Big Wheel most kids had when I was little. You sat way back in the plastic seat, and steered with levers at the side instead of handlebars. Right there was the difference between the west side of town and the east. Someone’s kids were growing up here, throwing rocks, riding bicycles on the sidewalk, hollering at sunset for just ten more minutes before having to go inside. East side of town, generally speaking, you didn’t see many Green Machines in front yards.

I was still thinking about the Green Machine when I heard a saxophone.

I slowed the car and pulled to the side of the road, the white gravel lying still in the beam of the headlights. The fields rustled. And I heard it again: a saxophone, distant but clear. I was still a mile or so from town, and there were no houses or lights nearby. When I think about it now, I guess it was a sort of echo.

I’d bought a saxophone that summer. Spent an afternoon driving to Toledo, searching for a music store I’d looked up in the phone book at the Wood County public library. It was an E-flat alto sax, I think. Used, of course. Cost me a hundred and fifteen bucks, plus reeds.

I checked out an elementary sax instruction book from the university library, and bought another at a small music shop downtown.

Funny thing about that library book: I returned it a few weeks later, before it was due, and though it sounds weird to remember a particular day in the middle of that summer, I know I took it back because I ran into Kallie on campus, on the sidewalk near the carillon. I also remember wondering whether she liked my Indians baseball cap better facing forward or backward on my head, since I’d worn it backwards that day. At any rate, those details gave me the assurance I needed for what followed.

A few weeks later, I got a card from the library telling me the sax book was overdue. Called them up: Nope, I said, I turned it in. Okay, they said, we’ll look again. Just to be sure, I ransacked my bedroom, then the rest of the apartment, looking for it, even though I remembered that bright afternoon, Kallie, and my Indians hat. The library people called back a few days later: haven’t found the book, you must still have it. I assured them I did not. They remained unconvinced. Still a few days later, a lady called, really condescending (and that made me even more stubborn), and told me that several searches of the library had not turned the book up, and I’d have to pay for it. I insisted, again, that I had returned it.

“ Fine,” she said, sounding completely convinced I was both a thief and a liar, “We’ll do a top-to-bottom search, which means I have to call in all our librarians, and we start on the top floor and do a shelf-by-shelf, book-by-book search for it.”

I hung up, pissed off and indignant as ever. Two days or so after that, I got another call from the library. They’d found it. Ha-goddamn-friggin’-HA, I thought, and I wanted so much at that moment to meet that snooty librarian face-to-face and just be rude and smug about her oh-so-painfully-difficult BG Library SuperSearch. God, ma’am, I hope nobody was hurt or dehydrated or lost in the process.

I have been very wrong about many things more important than that $3.79 library book, but few times have I been as right about something so petty and had it feel so good.

Back to the sax:

One night, I drove west on Route 6, south on a road I’d never seen, and west again on another, until the lights of Bowling Green were a far orange glow.

The fields were dark and alive with summer.

I slowed, gravel crunching under my tires, and the roadside weeds whisking the passenger side door as I pulled over.

It was spooky, out where the only light came from the moon. That part of my mind that will always believe in the boogeyman conjured him up for me, just out of eyesight, padding softly and steadily across the rows of shin-high corn shoots.

Maybe even more frightening than the boogeyman were the headlights I’d see passing in the distance. Better wrapped in a phantom’s chill than be discovered, a bad sax player standing at the side of a lonely road well past nightfall, cracking the sweet sky with bitter squeaks and awful groans and ear-picked half-tunes.

The air and the sky and the growing corn did strange things to the music. No concert hall echoes, no pavilion reverberations into the night, but a strange absorption of the notes – no walls anywhere to send the sound back to me. It just went … out. Up, down, beyond, behind, far, just … away. It wasn’t the muffled effect of a snowstorm on a December holler, no cotton-eared deafness, just the sensation that the night was drinking up the song silently, the way a wide subterranean river disappears under a mile of stone, inhaling itself into dark infinite lungs.

I was there for only a few minutes before a white beam arced across the tender corn leaves: a car was heading my way. I scrambled, tossing the horn on the passenger seat and jabbing my jangling keys into the starter, sputtering the engine to life and stirring the weeds and dust at the road’s edge.

Another time, I woke up just before sunrise, strapped the sax on my back, and got on my bicycle. Headed east – Poe Road past the airport, over I-75 as the sky brightened. Took a left onto a narrow road and stood at the side as the sun came up, played a few notes of something or other, sent them into the dewy air with the bird cries and the inaudible breathing and stretching and awakening of a small town in a midwestern summer.

Most of me knows that my love affair with that sax was more about image than ability or desire, but there is the corner of me that really misses that horn, badly as I played it, working on scales in the living room as the air conditioner thrummed into the night.

I used to try and figure out tunes by ear.

One night, I managed to put together the opening bars of the Star Wars theme, and after a few warm-ups, I ran out across the street, where there was a great expanse of concrete rubble we called the Wasteland, where there had once been a ketchup factory.

So I dashed out there, and it was well after dark, the summer sky starry and endless, and I started blasting out “Star Wars,” sending it caroming off the cement and the brick walls of a nearby warehouse, until I heard the first angry calls from an open window, and I ran back to the apartment, grinning like an idiot.

One night, I blundered my way into “Dreaming,” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. For a new wave pop song, it kind of sounded neat, drawn out in the wind a little bit.

I called Kallie on the phone as I tucked the sax carefully into its case. “Kallie?”

“Speaking.”

“It’s Josh. Whatcha doing?”

“Studying. What’s up?”

“Can you come over for a few minutes? Bring your car?”

“Sure. I could use a break. I’ll be over in ten minutes.”

I was watching from the kitchen window, and I called down to her: “Do me a favor, okay? Stay in your car, but open the trunk and don’t look in the rear-view mirror.”

“Where to, Josh Kendall?”

“Bill’s Hill.”

Off we went.

Bill’s Hill rises from a corner of the golf course at the eastern edge of the BG campus. Tucked into the northern side of it is the sixteenth green. The other sides of the hill are wide and steep, and in the winter, kids hike there from the dorms carrying cafeteria lunch trays to use as sleds.

Kallie shut her car off and looked at me, raising her eyebrows.

“ Pop the trunk,” I said.

She did.

I opened my door and headed around to the back of the car.

Her eyes lit on the saxophone case, then met mine with a gleam.

“ Come on,” I said, slipping the strap around my neck, cradling the sax with one hand, and extending her the other. “Up we go.”

A low blanket of clouds rolled west to east, reflecting the glow of Toledo, thirty miles up the Interstate. The campus lay quiet, eclipsed by the great dark form of the stadium, and the face of the Wood County courthouse clock glowed beyond like a parchment moon.

As she turned east to look over the dark fields, I worked my way about halfway through the first verse.

Kallie looked back at me, grinning.

I started singing along in my head:

With every day that passes, I fall nearer to the ground…

I missed a note because I made the mistake of looking at her smiling face.

“ Sorry,” I said. “Gimme another shot.”

She stepped back, and sat cross-legged on the grass.

It seems that I’ve been looking for something that won’t be found-

She had her hands folded in her lap, and she just sat, listening.

I was only dreaming. I was only trying to catch your eye.

I was only wishing you would notice me.

Instead you said goodbye.

I lowered the sax and shrugged, and offered her a hand to help her up.

“ That’s it, really. I figured it out tonight,” I said.

She didn’t take my hand right away, but when she did, I saw tears in the corners of her eyes.

Then the music was gone, and I was alone at the roadside again. The breathing fields that had drawn in my music that summer and exhaled it slowly into my waiting ears on this night out of time were beginning their cycle again, and the air and the notes and the stars and the smell of growing corn were being gathered once more.

I pulled back onto the road and drove into Bowling Green.

On the way in to town, I’d been thinking about how to pass the night. I had nowhere to stay, but I figured I’d be better off in BG than hitting Columbus in the wee hours.

So I thought I’d just wander and recall.

And then I thought of getting a notebook for Kallie.

My senior year of high school, I dated a German exchange student named Julie. Fell madly in love with her and set myself up for that first great, true heartbreak.

After Christmas vacation, I began to fill a notebook for her to take back home – one of those monster, five-subject 180-page books about an inch thick.

It started with bad high-school poetry, of course, free-form verses titled “For Julie, No. 12” and things like that. It took about two months to fill the first section, but it didn’t seem to matter because she wasn’t leaving until summer anyway.

About halfway through the second section of the notebook, I realized I would be hard-pressed to fill all the pages. I started writing down everything – things I wanted her to remember, like the cloudy day she taught me how to waltz on the shuffleboard courts at Monument Park, or the time in the McDonald’s parking lot when I slapped her in the ear with a ketchup-sogged french fry.

The second section filled in four weeks, the third section in a week and a half, and by then I was doing things like writing goofy rhymes one line on a page, or writing in crayon, or taping in blades of grass from my back yard.

And then, suddenly, she was leaving in three days.

The fourth section took forty-eight hours to fill, and I began the fifth section after dinner the night before her flight would take off from the Akron-Canton Airport while I stared and stared from the unshaded concrete observation deck.

I was up until four-thirty in the morning, dragging my pen along the bridge of my nose, my arms sprawled across the desk in my room. Summer insects and a breeze came in through the screen.

The last thing I wanted was to sleep, to fail, to say goodbye.

I fell three pages short, but managed to write my final poem, “For Julie, No. 50,” before the sky started to get light outside.

I wonder if she still has it?

A block from downtown Bowling Green, I stopped at a 7-Eleven and bought a green, 60-page spiral notebook, a Pilot rollerball pen, a two-pound bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and a six-pack of Coke.

Kids from the bars were heading home in twos and threes, sweaty, red-eyed and smiling, their teeth chattering in the early spring chill.

There was a line at Taco Bell, and the window booths at the Corner Grill were already full when I drove past.

Now, I thought, where to start?

I took a right onto Court Street and headed for the Wasteland.

Blue-white moonlight lay pale over the flat acres of cement along the railroad tracks. There were broken chunks of concrete and small piles of crumbled bricks casting short, sharp shadows on what was once the floor of a ketchup factory. Rusty umbilical cables crawled from dark, narrow stumps of pipe, and in the middle of the expanse stood a broken cement monolith about six feet high, covered in graffiti.

The Wasteland spread along the western edge of campus, between the railroad tracks and North Enterprise Street. It was a great place to sit and watch the trains go by on cold, sunny days in winter.

A black, spidery signal gantry arched over the tracks nearby. Sometimes I thought about what it would be like to climb it and wait for a train to rush under, holding onto the steel with white-gripped fingers, lying against the bars, feeling my rib cage crushed against them as the tornado rushed hotly below.

Our apartment from the summer of 1991 overlooked the Wasteland and a small set of storage garages beside it.

I parked my car under the streetlight that stood at the corner of the garages and got out, with a Coke, the Doritos, and my notebook.

There were L-shaped iron steps in the streetlight pole, the lowest about eye-level.

After two trips up the pole, one with the bag of chips clenched in my teeth and the can of Coke resting coldly against my belly inside my shirt, the other with the notebook and pen, I scrambled over to the side of the garage roof away from the street and sat.

A breeze stirred the leaves of an oak tree above me, and I opened the chips and the notebook, and running my eyes over the Wasteland.

I sat there, trying to remember a time when I crossed that expanse daily and knew every twisted stump of steel cable and time-darkened bit of iron plating.

The smell of cold concrete rose from the rubbled plain. There was always a strange beauty I found in the Wastelands, and when I walked it, I often imagined a journey through desolation, a lonely quest through a hostile, mysterious land. I wondered if there were tunnels below the ground, hinted at by a slightly askew steel plate held barely open by a rust-knobbed bolt. I wondered if my ear at the dark opening would catch the far-off dripping echoes of great unknowns, or merely be brushed by hidden weeds growing from a shallow, gravel-filled crack.

Brushing the Cool Ranch powder from my fingertips, I began to write.

Kallie, or, if you’re feeling adventurous, Oballobieomokay,

I found myself back in Bowling Green tonight, a place where we once breathed and walked. There’s a lot here that’s different, now that you and Linc and me and all the others have passed through, like college kids do.

And yet, when I saw the kids tonight, at the bars, downtown under the lights, walking across campus, I realized that somehow, an awful lot stays the same out here in the fields.

I haven’t seen you in awhile, so I thought I’d write you this present, just wandering our old haunts and sharing my trip with you.

Obuchomomay Oboveomolay,

Oboshomojay.

First stop: The Wasteland

I am sitting on the roof of the garages across from the Murray Street apartment. Remember the night we climbed up here? Linc had some friends over, and I had wandered over to your house – where else WOULD I go, Kallie? – and we watched the end of that terrible movie “Men at Work.” Then we wound up walking and talking all the way back over here, across the Wasteland, and we noticed that this light pole by the garages had these convenient pegs on it, so we climbed up here and watched the lights go on and off in the rooms of the Offenhauer Towers, wondering about the people up there.

I don’t know if you remember, but there was a guy in a red shirt, and we very clearly saw him pull open his curtain and slap something on the window, and I swear, we thought it was a banana peel.

We also saw the northern lights here, remember?

I can’t remember what we were doing, but outside my apartment one night, we happened to look up and see these shifting green lights in the sky, and it was just amazing! Especially now, when I think how weird it was, not only to see them, but thinking that this had to be May or June, and that’s just bizarre. You ran inside to call your Mom and Dad to ask if they could see them over Bryan, and we got Linc to run out with us to the middle of the Wasteland, and the three of us climbed that big cement block in the middle and were just mesmerized by the emerald-black sky and the stars.

I’ve seen the northern lights three times in my life.

The first was a deep red display over Hartville during my senior year of high school, while I was out walking with Julie. She was afraid, she was telling me at the time, of falling in love with me and then having to go back to Germany. My argument – namely, that you don’t ignore your feelings just to spare them later – was strengthened by the waves of scarlet and white that silently formed overhead in a great, encompassing band.

The second time was during my freshman year at BG, walking alone across campus one night. I was looking up at the Jerome Library, and from behind the highest orange bricks I noticed a green shadow so faint I thought it was a retinal remnant from the streetlamps shining in the corner of my vision. When I got to the space between the quads, where Peregrine Pond shone still under the stars, I made out the faintest aurora low in the sky, dark green, stretching like tentacles waving underwater.

And that summer, with Linc and Kallie.

Maybe not so coincidentally, three pivotal times in my life. I don’t know – maybe not “pivotal,” but certainly wide-eyed, gasping, swollen-sea moments just crackling with possibility. Sure, I’m attaching the importance in hindsight, but still, there it is.

I’ve thought so much about that summer when Linc and I stayed in the Murray Street apartment, and sitting here, now, I’m just overwhelmed, immersed in the air and the wind and the sky, you know? Was it really only three years ago? Everything I loved about that summer is running warm in my blood right now.

And I’ve got Doritos!

You lived in that house over on Wooster, so I don’t know how often you crossed the Wasteland, but I sit here staring across it, and even though it’s been years, my feet remember how it was to walk here every day. It’s as familiar as the wooden bench on the front porch of the house where I grew up.

I can see over to that big cement ring where you took Linc and me once, remember? About five feet high, over right next to the tracks?

Tell you what I think forever is…

You and Linc and me were over there one night, and you were showing us how if you passed through a narrow gap and stood in the very center of the ring and spoke or sang or yelled, you got this really neat echo from all sides that seemed to come from right out of your head where it began. So the three of us were standing there singing and talking, all back-to-back in the center, listening to these echoes in our skulls.

Linc and I climbed the wall and begin pacing towards each other around the circle. Not goose-stepping, but not ambling either. Just a measured pace, like slow ticking hands on a great deep clock, carefully but precisely noting our footing, just walking and walking in silence.

And you began to sing. From the center of the ring, your voice echoing up and out over the wall, skyward. I don’t even remember what you sang, but I can hear you in the July air, your song circling in the gathering dew of night, in time with the metronome padding of four sneakers on the wall.

When Linc and I met, and our paths crossed, our eyes hardly met as we somehow navigated around each other – that wall was only a foot or so wide, so I still don’t know how we managed – without missing a tick or tock.

In real life, sure, eventually you stopped singing, and Linc and I hopped down from the wall, and we all headed back to the yellow glow of our apartment, laughing.

But forever? Forever is the measurement of that broken ring clock, footstep seconds, a heartbeat song, and three kids with a summer night falling among the timeless fields and immeasurable stars above Ohio.

I munched a few more chips and gazed over at that circle, wondering what I might hear if I stood there tonight, in this time already gone, somehow delivered back to me.

I half-turned to look at the apartment building where Linc and I had lived. It was still ugly: a two-story cinderblock cube, painted brown, with a cracked, square chimney running up one side, and a barely sloping roof.

Inside, a gray staircase led up to our front door and into the kitchen. The place had two bedrooms, – pale yellow and sky blue – a living room, a kitchen, and a pink bathroom. All the doorways were crooked, and most of the narrow, dirt-streaked windows had to be propped open with wooden spoons. A single air conditioner effectively cooled the one chair in the living room sitting underneath it.

The girls we had sublet it from for the summer were coming back in the fall, so they left the furniture there: two couches, lamps, and a brown chair with the bottom falling out of it in the living room, box springs and mattresses, without bed frames, and a wobbling trio of a kitchen table and two chairs.

We had loved it from the second we walked in.

Summer mornings, the kitchen would be bright, the sun glaring off the Wasteland’s lake of cement, and I’d sit at the table with a bowl of cereal in the warm breeze from the window, watching the tree across the street.

The boxy rooms held onto the hot afternoons, and we’d sprawl on the couches for naps until evening began to cool the place with sparse cross-breezes.

In the stairwell that baked dust and cobwebs, we plastered posters from video stores and promotions for rock bands that Linc would bring back from the radio station. We strung an Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade advertising banner across the living room wall next to an immense green Roger Waters: Radio KAOS subway poster. Above the nine-inch black and white TV I brought to the apartment, we tacked posters from the original Star Wars trilogy.

A flea-market sculpture I’d bought for five bucks sat above the air conditioner, a monkey on a pile of books pondering a human skull that we named The Icon of Jebediah. (It’s the same one shown on the back of that Van Halen album OU812, but I didn’t know that until a long time after I bought it. The statue, not the album.)

I remember sitting on one of the couches in the afternoon as the sun would set over downtown. All you could see from our west-facing windows was a double-rutted narrow alley accessed by dusty gravel backyard driveways. There was a patch of bubbly tar that got soft in the sun on the edge of the alley tracks, below the window. And as the sun went down, a small piece of glass stuck in that blacktop would catch the orange rays and glimmer faintly for awhile, like a star above a summer haze.

Beside the TV table, we put my stereo and a couple of wooden boxes of CDs. Since Linc was WBGU’s metal director, he’d get free music mailed to him by the carton. That summer, he gave me an advance copy of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” He also brought home the promo CD of “Alive” by Pearl Jam.

I’d get home late at night from working at McDonald’s and be all wound up with no place to go, and I’d crank the volume up and just thrash and jump and wail myself around the living room, bouncing on the couches and air guitaring badly.

That was the first time I ever felt like I had left home, you know? Did you feel that way, that summer?

Before Linc and I moved into the apartment, I went home for two weeks just after school let out. I wish I could remember every second, every breath of those weeks. They were the last I truly lived in the house on Whitmer. I mean, I’d only been away at school for two years, and the summer after my freshman year I’d gone back home, leaving only for the month of July when I visited Julie in Germany.

Does it break your heart ever, to visit Bryan and sit in your old room with the windows open, listening to the insect songs at night?

I think about that summer, and you, and Linc and me, and sometimes it seems like a snapshot of a chess game. All the pieces have their spots, but depending on whose point of view you take, the board looks different: Some things are hidden behind others, some seem closer, and no one can see all the moves that brought them there, but the memory of their motion still hums like an undercurrent.

Ugh, that sounds so goofy, but it’s really a strange, strange night, and even though you’re not here – and I couldn’t explain it if you were anyway – it is somehow important that these things are saved.

Remember Fuzzy, the ring, in my glass? And the flattened pennies?

That’s what this notebook is full of.

Here’s another one: the FBI paid us a visit one Monday morning while I was getting ready for my shift at WBGU.

I’m in the living room, sifting through a pile of CDs to take to the station, and there’s a knock at the screen door..

So Linc gets up from the kitchen table and lumbers down, still carrying his bowl of cereal, and I hear him talking to someone, but their voices aren’t getting closer, so I know it’s not someone coming in to see us.

Linc comes back up, sets his bowl on the table, and says, “Josh. The FBI’s here. I want you to check out this guy’s ID, and see if you think it’s real.”

Huh?” I was already up and heading to the stairs to see.

So there’s this guy – he probably wasn’t much older then than we are now, late twenties, tops – in a dark blue suit and tie and sunglasses on our dirty little stoop in the hot morning sun, and he asks me if we’ve ever gotten any mail for Maria Gonzalez, or something like that.

Could you show him your ID?” Linc interrupts the guy and points at me.

Well, it said FBI in big, blue letters, and had the name JOHN TAYLOR ADDIS at the bottom, and it looked as real as any FBI tag I’d ever seen, which was none, of course, so I just nodded in approval, like a bouncer carding somebody.

We never had gotten mail for any Gonzalez, so he just left. Weird.

I don’t remember moving into that apartment, or moving out. We were there for barely four months. Years later, I wonder at the speed of time’s passage, and yet I think about those scant summer weeks and I think, my God, it was forever. I remember the night we saw an ad in the BG News, and Linc and I went over to check the place out, and we were just so excited about moving in for the summer, but I don’t remember actually arriving or leaving.

Know what? I’m going to close up the Doritos, climb down, and go stand in the middle of that ring.

And I will imagine that you will know I am there.

With the blue-white glare of the streetlight at my back, my shadow raced long and silent ahead of me over the Wasteland as I walked toward the dark cement ring.

I jammed my hands into my jeans pockets and snapped my arms tight against my side to keep them from shaking, because I believe in ghosts and thieves, and the shadows they frequent.

I thought I saw a flickering slide of motion from a black pile of debris to my left, forced my eyes to focus on the circle’s empty center, rammed my feet forward against the urge to turn and run.

A moment of gooseflesh horror ran chill water from my scalp to the base of my neck. Mostly, these things come from my own imagination and the corner shadows, but something passed over me then, and as I felt my skin tighten, I looked around at the ring glowing white in the moonlight.

I stepped on a pebble as I reached the midpoint, and the small snap-crunch beneath my foot pinched itself as a sound in the middle of my own head, magnified into the crash and explosion of a train, and in that second I heard a distant whistle, and I jumped.

Blood thrummed and buzzed in my ears, then subsided.

The tension and fear broke, and were gone, but I didn’t stay any longer.

Campus was a short block east, so I wandered that way. Passing the Offenhauer towers, I found myself suddenly drawn into the past’s tide as the bricks and sidewalks and windows of campus assaulted me silently, each bit of gravel, each wavering orange streetlamp, each brown-and-white campus building sign triggering sense recalls and associations.

I walked over toward the Physical Science building, where the planetarium was, and thought about the roof of Overman Hall.

Linc had bought a 3-pack of rubber balls somewhere that summer – the kind with that bitter, plasticky smell and an outer layer that cracked like a gumball shell after a few hours use. One afternoon, I went walking barefoot, bouncing one of these balls.

During summer semester, the campus felt strange, especially in the quiet afternoon hours.

I stopped alongside the Math/Science Building and started bouncing the ball off the four-story expanse of orange brick.

Bit by bit, I began throwing the ball a little harder, changing the angle slightly, stepping a few feet backwards with each throw to catch the ball on the return as it got closer and closer to the rooftop of Overman Hall, behind me. Of course I knew exactly what I was doing, even if I was trying to make it look and maybe even feel like an accident, and I tried to seem surprised when the ball finally soared back over my head and onto the Overman roof.

There’s a glass-enclosed hallway that connects Overman to the newer wing of the Physical Sciences Building. The steps leading up to the back door of Overman meet the building at the same junction as this hallway, and I noticed that it would be relatively easy to stand on the railing beside the steps, and with a bit of a reach and a quick pull-up, I could be on top of the glass hallway, and then it would be another step up to the first level of the roof.

I spent more time being paranoid about getting caught than it actually took me to get up there, find the ball and climb back down.

In the moment after I levered my upper body onto the roof and yanked my feet up behind me, I just looked around, and it was weird, because here in the middle of the campus where I’d lived for almost two years was a landscape that was alien to me. I was still on top of the walkway between the two buildings, and anybody passing by would have easily noticed me, so I made for the metal ladder I saw disappearing over the roof of Overman Hall, another six feet or so above me.

The roof was covered in chunky white gravel, and there were dozens of blocky air ducts, heat vents, chimneys and things that looked like small brick sheds with half-size doors in the sides spread out everywhere. And because I wasn’t wearing shoes, I was thankful for the network of paths laid out in flat cement squares across the area. It felt odd, like I was in an abandoned city on another planet, and I fought off an urge to wander around and explore.

I found the ball after couple minutes, then went back to the walkway and climbed down.

Kallie told me once she had a similar experience in the new wing of the building over by Administration: On a whim, she tested the door at the very top of a triangular stairwell, above the third floor landing. To her surprise, it opened, and she found herself wandering alone on the rooftop.

I’m sitting on that little ledge that runs around the planetarium dome – it’s a pretty clear night, and when I lean back against the curve of the cement and look up, I can see a swath of the Milky Way like a bridge between the dark rooftops.

Here’s a cool thought: I’m between the heavens. There’s the sky above, and beneath me, through the roof of the planetarium, a second sky.

The cement ring at the Wasteland was pretty freaky – it was still cool, but when you go there alone, especially at night, it can give you the willies. Remind me to tell you about it sometime.

Anyway, I also thought of you on the way over here, when I crossed the train tracks.

I put my hand on one cold rail and looked to the north, where it curved away and led out of town. A ways up there, I knew, out past the mall and the Wood County airport, the tracks crossed a small creek, and there was actually a tiny trestle maybe 20 feet across. I rode my bike out there once and saw it from the roadside, and waited for a train to pass. When one finally came, I crouched under the rails and looked up through the ties, catching black dirt and rust in my face as the train roared overhead.

I was going to try and write to you from the roof of Overman Hall, but you know what? There’s a lot more people here than there were in the summertime, and frankly, since I’ve graduated, I can’t fall back on the “hey-I’m-just-a-college-kid-what-do-you-expect” defense if I get caught wandering up there.

Between the heavens will just have to suffice, Oballobieomokay!

Here’s something weird that I found out after —

I almost wrote: you died.

Strange, knowing I was in the time before her death, still thinking of her in the way I’d grown used to, writing to her like I did so much in my journal after her funeral.

I wanted to tell her an odd little story about a connection we shared, unknowingly, during our freshman year, before we met. Jen Carmen shared it with me one night when she visited me in Florida the summer after Kallie was killed.

I scribbled out the last word, after , and continued.

Here’s something weird that I found out from Jen Carmen awhile back: You remember Jen? With the short, red hair, my best friend during my freshman year? Well, she and I were talking, about BG, and she mentioned that during our first winter at school, she had gotten really sick, and had a sore throat that was just on fire.

So this girl who’d never even met Jen, but knew her roommate Laura, braved the wind and the snow and walked the length of campus to get Jen some ice cream for her throat, and, of course, that was you.

And so, in a tiny sense, we almost knew each other a year early.

I don’t know, it’s a silly thing to think of, maybe, but would we have been different people?

We would just have been beginning our first year away from home. I wouldn’t have known Linc yet, or performed onstage during the freshman production, or sat with a girl named Karrie and a basket of Oreos at the edge of the pond behind the student rec center.

How would you have been different?

All this stuff, all these bits and pieces, they matter, you know? Yes, I really believe that, and yes, it’s the sort of babbling you have to put up with in this notebook, so ha, ha.

Hey, I’ve got an idea.

Let’s go see Rocinante and Bucephalus.

I hopped down from the planetarium ledge and crossed campus towards the central lawn.

Next: Chapter 5 – And We Danced

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May 12, 2010 Posted by | 1990s, Books, Fiction, Ohio, writing | , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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