This is a slightly overdue flashback.
In the fall of 1990, I was a sophomore at Bowling Green State University, and my friend Dave – whom I’m pretty sure I’ve known longer than anyone who’s not related to me – was a sophomore at Miami University. Prior to the start of the school year, James Taylor announced a concert date at Miami U. shortly after fall classes started, and Dave got tickets for me and my friend Jennifer.
Something came up, though, and Jen couldn’t make the trip, so she loaned me her car (Bob – for Bucket Of Bolts), and I invited my high school friend Amy, who had just started her freshman year at BG.
It was about a three-hour drive from Bowling Green to Oxford, a great concert, and an all-around fun trip. I have a few snapshot memories of specific songs – “Never Die Young”, “You’ve Got A Friend”, and the show-closing “Steamroller” – and remember having a really good time seeing Dave and catching up with Amy on the drive. Looking back, I realize what a bridging sort of night it was, where faces and voices of high school past and college present and future swirled and collided and ricocheted.
After the concert, Dave & his friends offered us each a place to crash if we wanted, but Amy and I both needed to get back for early classes the next morning, so we hit the road north again.
It was pretty cold, which I remember because Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” came on the radio, and both of us were all “VOLUME UP, WINDOWS DOWN!” To this day, when I’m alone in the car, that rule still stands, a quarter-century later. It’s been bent here & there, of course – but even in the dead of winter, I will blast the heat and crack the window just enough to get some outside air swirling through.
Well, Jenn and I are officially the parents of a kid who’s off at college.
After some late-night car-packing-Tetris (including a late-game miracle “hey-where’s-the-chair-going” solution from Kelsey) last Thursday, the three of us got up a couple hours before dawn on Friday and headed west, then north, to Eastern Michigan University.
EMU seems to have the traffic flow and vehicle unloading system down to a science: Plenty of signs on the roads in directing everyone to their specific buildings; efficient use of the small adjacent parking lots to get stuff out of cars and onto the sidewalks and grass, then redirecting to larger, more distant parking for the rest of the day. Kelsey queued up to get her key and get signed in while we waited by her belongings. An army of student volunteers helped everyone’s families carry their things to their rooms when it was time.
I’ve thought a lot over the past few weeks about moving over to Bowling Green State University with my friend Adam in the fall of 1989, and I raided the family photo albums in search of pictures.
This one looks like it’s from a day or two prior to our move. I seem to be sick of packing.
Which reminds me: I think it’s time for me to bring back my distinctive three-wristwatch look, this time with each timepiece set to a different city.
I feel like moving to college was a much bigger hassle for Adam & me, although Kelsey and her roommates smartly planned ahead and combined their resources – so she didn’t need to bring a refrigerator, for instance. The biggest things we packed were a folding living-room chair, a microwave, and an unassembled floor fan.
Here’s a shot from my own college move-in, with half-hidden flashback joys such as rabbit ears on the black & white TV and a bowling pin (room aesthetics, y’know). Also, that thigh-high box there next to the fridge? That, kids, is a single speaker from Adam’s kick-ass stereo. There was another just like it, plus the stereo system itself, slightly larger. Occupied a nice chunk of precious dorm room real estate, but it was (at least in memory) unparalleled in our hall.
Also: I do not know what is up with that striped shirt I’m wearing. I seem to think Adam gave it to me, but he claims to have no memory of it. (Heck, if it wasn’t for these pictures, I wouldn’t admit to having worn it either.)
So here’s me, first day of college:
…and here’s the shot my parents took from the parking lot. Adam and I lived in Chapman Hall, Harshman Quad.
It occurred to me that this picture reflects my parents dropping their first kid off at college, and Adam’s parents dropping off their last.
Now, that’s all there was that day at BGSU, as far as I can recall. My brothers remember it similarly: We drove to Bowling Green, moved in, probably ate lunch at the McDonald’s or Wendy’s across the street, and then they left.
After we got Kelsey moved into her dorm at EMU, there was a picnic lunch for students and families, so we picked up some sandwiches, salad and pasta, and ate at the edge of the campus pond. There was a convocation planned for 2 p.m., so before that, we went and picked up Kelsey’s books and a few supplies, and walked them back to her room.
The ceremony at the convocation center was only about an hour long, I think. When it was done, we said goodbye, and the students headed out as a group for a class photo on the football field:
I’m proud and excited and nervous for all of us – Kelsey, Jenn and me – as the journey continues.
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
Summer, 1991: Chuck Treece visits WBGU, thanks to the connections of my pal Ivan, the station’s metal director:
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:
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.
Click here for information on ordering the book in paperback or electronic editions through Amazon or Lulu.
Note: Click here for some background on Crossing Decembers and why I’m serializing it online.
Previously: Chapter 1 – Return; Chapter 2 – Another December; Chapter 3 – A Glimpse of Orion; Chapter 4 – Bowling Green, Ohio; Chapter 5 – And We Danced; Chapter 6 – Steering A Train; Chapter 7 – 7:41; Chapter 8 – Another December; Chapter 9 – Cornfield Meet; Chapter 10 – Bridging Backward
Chapter 11 – Pennies and Splinters
As I headed out of Bryan, I zipped through a yellow light near the center of town, across the square from the jeweler’s darkened storefront.
A twitching lump of nerves rose from deep in my gut, squeezed into my shoulders and jawline, and suddenly I was shaking, breathing rapidly. I chewed nervously at my thumb, the irritated spot around the embedded splinter throbbing.
Jesus, I hadn’t thought I’d get that scared and guilty over stealing a busted watch.
That’s not it, though, is it? The watch? That’s nothing. Where you headed, Simon?
The voice drew a sneer out of the last word, and I glanced at Kallie’s watch, the small scrap of wood, and my penciled map to Five Mile Bridge on the passenger seat beside me.
Oh my God, I thought.
I’m on my way to kill her.
When I reached the edge of town, the moon passed into view, a swift river of high, wispy clouds racing over its face, wavering it like a quartz pebble in a shallow stream. Great hunter Orion hefted his shield overhead.
And his sword, too, don’t forget, cocked back over his shoulder there in the heavens, ready to smite and cleave and destroy. Orion’s been there forever, just waiting to strike, but his hand’s never dropped.
Sure you can do this?
My teeth began to chatter, and I pushed harder on the gas pedal.
The blue-green lattice of Seven Mile Bridge was gleaming in my headlights when I heard the first distant call of a train whistle. I skidded to a stop above the tracks and peered away west, where a newborn star blazed on the horizon and brightened imperceptibly with each passing second.
You can sit right here, you know. Sit right here, and that train will shudder these girders with a summer storm howl and a blast furnace gasp, and you’ll grow goosebumps skull to toes and cry later at the might of it.
That train will pass on, into and past Bryan, Ohio, the town where a girl who barely remembers your name grew up, but she won’t matter, and you’ll have your locomotive and your thunder and you can go back home to your wife and your daughter and when they get back from vacation, you’ll tell them how great it was driving to see Alex in Michigan.
I sat at the steering wheel, hands frozen at ten-and-two, eyes locked on the distant headlamp. I could, I thought. I could wait right here and burn down Five Mile Bridge in a roar of invisible flame, wash away the charred timbers in a screaming wind and build myself a new memory of Seven Mile Bridge, painted and steel and lasting. Far-off train whistles would pull me back to this moment, this perfect winter night over still fields, alone and –
– alone and alone and alone.
The horn blasted and echoed again, nearer, and I pulled the car forward, leaving Seven Mile Bridge behind.
Five minutes later I was parked at the tracks, my car leaning in the weeds and gravel to one side, the bleached-bone crossbucks faintly reflecting the arc-light from the nearby farmhouse.
I got out of the car and walked a few yards onto the tracks with my hands in my pockets, eyes on the train, still a ways off. A steady, cold wind rubbed my face.
Out here where everything’s flat, I had written in Kallie’s notebook, you can see forever, but it makes things look closer than they are, and it takes them longer to vanish behind you.
Stepping back to the car, I retrieved my trinkets. They felt miniscule and laughable: a scrawled notecard map, a junked watch, and a piece of an old log. Stupid, worthless things.
Like a plastic ring called Fuzzy, I thought next, or a rubber ball or a Disney name tag or a cheap brass bell or –
“Hey, this is a penny from a train track, isn’t it?”
Kallie’s voice came so clear and close I whirled, expecting to see her standing behind me, a dingy brandy snifter in one hand, and in the other, a shiny flattened copper piece.
When she wasn’t there, a realization hit me so suddenly that I spoke out loud to no one.
“I need a penny.” My voice fell flatly into the air.
Placing the map, the watch, and the wood on a tar-black railroad tie, I scraped into my pockets. Nothing. Mined through my coat, and came up empty.
I turned and ran to my car.
Not for one second did I abandon the thought of that penny. It became the absurd key to my dream, and with the train slipping closer – whispers of schick-schick-schicka, schick-schick-schicka skittered along the rails now – I felt like I was going to fly to pieces.
Isn’t that what you always heard as a kid? ‘A penny on a train track can derail the whole thing,’ went the refrain. Sure, it turned out not to be true literally, but it looks like maybe it means something after all, doesn’t it?
I dove across the driver’s seat, clawing frantically at the floor of the car, shoving aside the rubber floor mats, stirring up grit and lint, finding no coins. I jammed my hands underneath both seats, the springs tearing at the backs of my knuckles, but came up clutching only pen caps and paper clips.
As I turned to check the back seat, a screaming whistle cut across the fields. I shot a glance at the train – maybe a mile off, no more. I had about a minute or so.
“Dammit!” I hollered, scrabbling through the backseat and still coming up empty. “A goddamn penny! Just one lousy cent is all I’m asking for here!”
Constant, machinating thunder pulsed the air, and I jumped out of the car and slammed the door in fury.
I raked my eyes desperately over the roadside gravel, half-dove at a pop can tab that glinted for a second in the oncoming glare, cast it away in disgust. I dashed across the road, found only broken pieces of reflector and a rusted washer.
The farmhouse. Run, I thought, bang on the door and beg for a penny and they just might think you’re insane enough to want you to go away, and they’ll give you your penny and call the cops the second you’re gone. I turned, saw the pool of light encircling the house, and my eyes focused on an overturned tricycle in the side yard as my legs tensed to spring me into a dead run, but another deafening shockwave blast of the train’s horn froze me.
I’d never make it there and back, and even supposing the train was a mile-long mammoth, I couldn’t get a penny on the tracks once the engine passed.
The train bore down, a hundred yards off, and I knew I was going to miss it.
I ran back to the spot between the rails where I’d set my feeble treasures, failing completely to convince myself that maybe I’d get another shot if I could run off, find a penny, and come back again.
As I scooped up the map, the wood scrap and the watch, three calls from the whistle rang like gunshots as the driver must have caught sight of the lunatic hunched on the tracks.
The pounding clamor of the engine filled my head like an ocean, and the brunt of an onrushing wind swept by, tugging at my coat and my hair and my eyelashes, and the horn cried again, get out of the way, you fool, get out of the way –
And above it all came a soft, sharp clink to my right, and there was a gleaming penny lying on the smooth rail.
I just had time to notice the figure-eight drawn sideways over Lincoln’s profile as I sprang from the train’s path.
A roiling cyclone roar consumed me, my eardrums shattering inward as a final detonation bellowed from the horn. I rolled over and over on the rockpile embankment until I sprawled on my back at the roadside, the world a baking, churning cataclysm blurring above me.
Beyond the rush, Orion glimmered in the sky.
And in the creases of my memory, sandwiched between the folds of my two pasts already in conflict, a third life trickled into existence like mercury, a thin vein of silver deep in desert sandstone.
The recollections of an eight-year-old who’d found a map to Five Mile Bridge and grew up believing in it:
The night before I turned ten, I was sadder than I had ever been, and I choked tears into my pillow long after bedtime, crying because tomorrow was my birthday, and I would never, ever be nine years old again.
Dad came to check on me, probably after the 11 o’clock news, the faint buzz of which hummed up the stairs nightly until my parents went to bed. When I told him what was wrong, he was surprisingly tender.
“You’re right. But think of all the things you’ll get to do now, all the new things to discover, all the places you have to go and find,” he said, sitting on the edge of my bed. “You can’t do all that when you’re nine.”
And when he said that, the first thing I thought was: I’ll be able to visit Five Mile Bridge.
Even as the remembrance came into my head, it separated itself – my memories, yes, but belonging to that boy who grew up in this world, made this bridge, and showed me the road home.
One afternoon, when I was in creative writing class in high school, Mrs. Starcher gave us one minute, ticked away by a plastic kitchen timer on her desk, to describe a place.
“Don’t think,” she said, clutching a fist at her stomach, “write with your gut. Don’t pause, don’t stop, and that’s how you’ll capture reality. Go!”
I had written of Five Mile Bridge: It grew from the weeds and the streambed on a night before the eyes of man had begun to blink in the new sunlight of the world, among dark and peering glints in the eyes of creatures lurking in the fields, clustered in awe and fear and wonder at the lumbering invader that had silently humped its great back upon the ever flat plain.
A wind attended the arrival smelling of ash and clover, skittering the high grasses against the flanks of this new beast, and picking up the scent of cool steel from its bones to carry to the watchers.
It had not been created.
It had been born.
The earth at my feet swelled like a bubble, and from the mound of weeds and soil a ghostly rust-skinned girder burst forth like a tree, stretching and towering skyward, but still translucent, so that I could see the stars beyond. In the ground under my back, I could feel it spreading great concrete roots as anchors at the field’s edge, unseen tons of dirt groaning and compressing and shifting. I sat up, saw three others, felt more than heard the creaks and strain of their growth as they bent and branched toward each other, reaching with thick limbs of wood and steel, arching over the tracks and the train thundering beneath.
With each thrust of a passing car, the bridge grew more solid: now shimmering thickly like a heatwave, now fleetingly seen like breath in December, now fog-dense and obscuring the trees and the road beyond.
Sounds drifted from deep within the surrounding din: notes cracked and squeaked forth clumsily from an unseen saxophone; hoarse whispers of dry rustling cornhusks in October; a brass bell jangling Christmas forever.
Before me, Five Mile Bridge was a reality again.
I began to cross. The screaming wind and driving howl buffeted me from all directions as I headed up the bridge, squinting against windborne flecks.
At the midpoint, I stared west, saw the train’s end rolling toward me. Looked east to the lights of Bryan, and wished one more time that Kallie would send some message, some touch, some voice that I’d be able to wrap up neatly and keep for good.
And I realized she didn’t have to.
She’d sent me a train, hadn’t she?
A lump swelled in my throat, and I felt my eyes begin to sting.
Thank you, Kallie.
I continued crossing, down the other side of the bridge.
A fierce pain suddenly tugged at the back of my right eyeball, deep in my head, and I stopped short and let out a yelp of surprise.
My memories of Kallie and the day I stopped her from dying were tearing themselves away.
The embrace on a sunny Columbus sidewalk, the ringing of her voice over the phone line, the taste of the blue-corn nachos and cheese we’d shared, and the notebook I’d scribbled full of our past. Kallie’s watch. The sliver of a Chinese bridge. My sketched map.
You can’t have them, I thought. You can’t have those any more than you can have the memories that belong to that eight-year-old you sent the map to, or any more than you could have kept your memories of Kallie and the summer of ’91 if you’d stayed here. It doesn’t work that way.
The splinter in my thumb blazed painfully for the merest pinprick of a second.
The smallest things, I had always said, were worth keeping. Maybe something would remain.
A few feet from the gravel road, I turned to look across the length of the bridge for the last time, and the full, blinding grief of Kallie’s death wrenched itself back into memory. I fell in wracking sobs, laying my forehead on the cold floorboards, hot streams of air from the train below whistling up from the cracks.
After a minute, I managed to slow my breathing, soothed myself with recollections I once again fully knew, from Kallie and I on the bridge, December 14, 1990, to the summer afternoon I stood there with my wife years later, a sweet, slow summer drifting past.
There were no clashes, no contradictions.
“It ends here,” I whispered, my nose dripping and tears streaming onto the wood, “Goodbye.”
I stood quickly and took the last few steps down to the gravel road. Behind me, the last car passed with a vacuum whoosh of swirling air and dirt.
I wiped my face. My eardrums were numb, humming.
The headlights of my car illuminated the bridge and the fresh graffiti of my last words there.
I sat for the shortest of moments, took a deep breath, and wheeled around to head back toward Bryan and Bowling Green and Michigan and home.
In my rearview mirror, the girders of Five Mile Bridge glowed briefly red in my taillights, then darkened until I could no longer see them against the fields.
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.
Note: Click here for some background on Crossing Decembers and why I’m serializing it online.
Previously: Chapter 1 – Return; Chapter 2 – Another December; Chapter 3 – A Glimpse of Orion; Chapter 4 – Bowling Green, Ohio; Chapter 5 – And We Danced; Chapter 6 – Steering A Train; Chapter 7 – 7:41; Chapter 8 – Another December; Chapter 9 – Cornfield Meet
Chapter 10 – Bridging Backward
It was at once the voice of a friend and a stranger.
A handful of thoughts stampeded through my head in the moment I drew a breath to reply: What if she’s married? Think she’ll even remember you? What if she doesn’t? Jesus, seven years is a long damn time – why the hell would I be calling her anyway? I should have at least thought up something to say before kicking in with Hi, you might not remember me, but there’s this bridge you took me to, and it’s not there anymore and you’re sort of hooked up with it somehow.
And the loudest, and the one that seemed the most right: Told you so, stupid.
“Hi, um, is this Kallie?”
There was a tangible hesitation, then: “Yes, may I ask who this is?”
“This is Josh Kendall. From college. I know it was a long time ago, but we did The Second Shepherds Play together up in the Elsewhere Theatre.” Three sentences, and I could already hear how lame I sounded.
“Okay,” she replied, drawing it out and leaving the so what hanging unsaid. “What’s up?”
She sounded like a girl at a junior high dance who’s watching the cool guys across the gym, and is suddenly interrupted by a skinny guy with a bad haircut.
Still, I allowed myself the slightest exhalation of relief. At least she remembered me.
“Well, I know it sounds weird, but I’m driving through Columbus tomorrow, and, well, maybe I’m just feeling old and I miss the theatre gang from school, but I was wondering if you’d want to meet me for lunch or something.” God, I was pathetic.
“I don’t know,” she said, and as she paused, I heard a television set in the background get louder. “I don’t think so. I have to work.”
I could see her sitting on a couch, looking bored and flicking the remote, struggling to ditch the phone and me with it.
A click on the phone line signaled that she had another call coming in, and she leaped to end the awkward pause. “Can you hold on a sec?” she asked rapid-fire, and the line was silent before I could answer.
Jesus, I didn’t think it would be this bad.
Bad? What’s bad? You seem to be forgetting that you’re the one probably coming off like some stalker, calling up seven years after a mediocre college play and asking this girl out for lunch. She’s lived her life since then just fine, thank you very much, without Josh Kendall, without any goddamn trains, and without Five Mile Bridge.
“Um…Josh?” she said, clicking back to my line.
“My boyfriend’s on the other line. I gotta go. Sorry about lunch.”
Doesn’t sound too sorry, does she?
“Not a problem.”
“Okay, then. Bye.” She hung up.
Wait! I wanted to scream: It’s about Five Mile Bridge! It’s gone, Kallie! Gone! God, please try to remember – if you remember, it will all come back and I can go back and remember, too and –
and she’ll be dead again. Nice thinking.
I slouched back to my car, sat in the driver’s seat.
Done? Your wife and kid are still here, you know. Alex is still up in Michigan, waiting for a weekend of hanging out and talking up old times, and your life isn’t too damn bad. Suck it up and go home. A year from now you won’t care any more about Kallie Tabitha Greenburke than she does about you, because those trains will have chugged away over your brain’s horizon, yanking that bridge with them.
And would that be so bad?
It was ice water in my face. Would it?
That gut-twisting, gnawing nineteen-hour drive from Florida to Ohio, dead tired and blinking away tears every forty miles, shaking from no sleep and too much caffeine? Never happened.
Lying awake, surrounded by the painted smiles of an army of wooden toys the night before Kallie’s funeral, praying to God to scare the hell out of me, and send her ghost for a midnight conversation; waking up at six a.m. to a cold reality? Never happened.
All of it – from the phone call from Jen Carmen late on a Florida afternoon to the wrenching dreams years later that would leave me empty, despite my blessings. Never happened.
I just needed to get back in my car, and drive off, and it would all begin to fade.
True, I really couldn’t tell how long it would take. What if it wasn’t a year – what if it was ten, or twenty? I imagined a great glacier, roving inexorably through my memories, eradicating the past, dragging and crushing and scraping.
I was more afraid of feeling the loss, of knowing what was happening, and being unable to change it I think, than I was of actually giving up on those memories.
For half a moment, I actually saw myself back on Interstate 75 northbound to Michigan, and later, at the Akron-Canton airport, my wife and daughter coming home, and Five Mile Bridge nowhere in my being.
What about the summer afternoon on the bridge with my wife, watching her eyes glisten in the hot, still air, staring west and calling her own train from the horizon. The matching initials she and I carved in the wooden railing and her cry of joy, a wide grin on her face even as she winced in the scream of the onrushing locomotive?
And the poem I wrote? That poem and Kallie’s quaking arms around my neck, and the tears in her eyes, and the choke in my heart that I can still feel like a deep bruise, and the letter I got from Ray Bradbury years later because of that moment?
The hour after I found out Kallie was killed, where did I go?
Straight to the McDonald’s where I worked with my unknown wife-to-be, who read the pain on my face and wordlessly gathered me in while I sobbed into her shoulder.
And I realized that the loss of that past would not be the surgical, precise removal of a mole from the small of my back, or even the demolition of a skyscraper that implodes in a cataclysm of dust but leaves the neighboring buildings unscathed.
I saw instead the upheaval of a great, spreading tree, the roots cracking and ripping from the soil, a million hairlike fingers clinging to life in countless unseen depths, unwilling and unable to release their grip.
Too many connections, too many strands to pull and unravel.
Too much to risk losing.
And when I realized what I had decided – that what I wanted most in the world was to be back in my own life, with my memories intact, a lump swelled in my throat, and I couldn’t stop the tears that ran hotly down my cheeks.
“Kallie, forgive me,” I whispered, burying my face against the backs of my hands on the steering wheel.
It felt like I was sacrificing her. She was going to die in that car wreck after all, and this time, I’d be the cause of it, because I’d be the one rebuilding Five Mile Bridge, respanning that gulf between my past and this future, and reopening the door for her death and my lifetime of missing her.
My problem, of course, was that I had no idea what had pulled me into this situation in the first place. I didn’t go out to the cemetery or the bridge that afternoon to change anything.
Didn’t you? Sitting on the dirt of Kallie’s grave, and that wind hissing across the fields, folding a fortune-teller out of notebook paper, it never crossed your mind that you were wishing for magic? You babble endlessly about the extraordinary hidden within the mundane, about the powerful unseen tensions that bind lives and worlds, about desire and will and change. You sat there at a crossroads, blind to possibility, but when that new path opened, you walked it without question.
I flashed back, and my fingers went numb in the cold air, the memory of working the sheet of paper twitching my knuckles and fingertips. I saw myself tucking the fortune-teller into the Christmas tree at her grave.
I hadn’t written anything on it that day, but as I watched myself stand and walk away, the wind caught a fold in the page and flipped it open.
Pencilled there were the words, “It will be so.”
And my wish, cast from the deeps, had brought itself to life.
So then, I almost said out loud, I can undo it.
From down the block, I heard in my head the erratic ticking of one watch among hundreds.
“It seems to jam up like this every December now for, let’s see, seven years now.”
Kallie’s watch. One thin, gleaming wire link to my past, even if I was the only person in the world who’d recognize it.
Gather more, I thought, and maybe I could pull Five Mile Bridge back into existence.
I headed back down the street to the jewelry store.
Through the storefront, I didn’t see the shopkeeper, so I pushed the door open, my eyes focused on the broken, faceless watch behind the counter. Just grab it and run, I told myself, this is downtown Bryan. You’ll be gone before –
The door struck a delicate bell just inside the jamb that jingled merrily. It sounded like a thousand brass bells dropped on the marble floor of a cathedral.
The jeweler emerged from his curtained back room, his eyes creased and shining.
“Back for another look?” he inquired, smiling thinly.
“Yeah, well, I couldn’t get that one out of my mind,” I said, feigning a sheepish grin and pointing at the moon-and-stars watch. “I’m thinking it would be perfect for my wife, as long as I can keep it a secret ’til Christmas.”
“Stellar Embrace, that one’s called,” he mused, sliding open the back of the cabinet. He drew the watch out with his spindly fingers, draping it over one leathery palm. “It’s from the 1930s, if memory serves, and should -” he pinched it delicately and wound it for a few seconds, “ – ah, yes, it runs impeccably.” Lifting the watch to his left ear, he closed his eyes for a moment. “Every one sounds different, you know, like heartbeats,” he said in a faraway voice. He gathered himself. “Oh! I’m terribly sorry. At any rate, I may have an older watch box for it in the back if you’d like. I think it would give the gift that much more character.”
He handed the watch to me, and I eyed it with as much interest as I could muster, turning it over in my fingers.
I nodded, and handed the watch back. “I’ll take it.”
He straightened up and grinned as I added, “Could you find one of those old boxes you mentioned? I think my wife would love it.” I was physically forcing my eyes into his, trying not to look at Kallie’s watch on the workbench.
“I’m sure we’ll find one to her liking,” he replied, and he slid silently into the back room through the narrow doorway.
I didn’t even think to hesitate when he was gone, lunging across the display cases and closing my fist on Kallie’s watch. It ticked impotently against the heart of my palm.
And now you’re a thief, too, I thought. Damn conscience.
I opened my hand and looked at the back of the watch.
It was engraved: Kallie Tabitha: Happy 18th, Love, Mom and Dad.
Kallie, you’ll get your watch back, I silently promised. But I’ve got to borrow it for awhile.
A hollow bumping noise came from the back room. “Won’t be but a moment,” the jeweler called, “I’ve several for you to choose from.”
I was out the door and down the street before the bell in the doorway stopped jingling behind me.
Ten minutes later, I was in the gravel parking lot of a neighborhood park, willing my heart to slow down, staring at the broken watch lying on the passenger seat next to me.
I had dashed back to my car madly, leaped in, and thrown it in reverse so quickly that I’d nearly backed out into the path of a green pickup truck with a red Christmas bow hung crazily on its grille. Somehow, I’d calmed down enough to leave the town square behind, and I vaguely remembered wheeling the car sharply through a series of turns, though God knows I hadn’t made any conscious decisions about where I was going or what to do next.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to.
High oak trees and swingsets, motionless in the dying dusk, caught my eye from behind a sign reading “City of Bryan, Vandenberg Park.”
I got out of the car, fingering the watch in my pocket.
On an arc-lit swatch of blacktop at the park’s far edge, four guys were playing basketball. I watched for a moment, fascinated as I saw each bounce of the ball just a half beat before the soft pinging thump reached my ears over the playground.
For a second, the scene felt like the night that Anne and I sat on the swings in Bowling Green. I was a half step towards the swingset when I noticed a sort of memorial or something sitting beside a curved section of the sidewalk.
Inside a paved circle was a squat block of granite with a chunk of wood about three feet long bolted to the top of it. It looked kind of like a section of a railroad tie, but it had an odd, ancient air about it. It also felt strangely familiar.
Embedded in the granite was a small brass plaque that read:
In 1982, the city of Bryan, Ohio, U.S.A., and the city of Quanzhou, China joined in an international exchange program called “Bridges” to celebrate both the diversity and unity of people worldwide.
The sister cities embarked on a journey of shared exploration, establishing pen-pal programs between schoolchildren and collecting residents’ stories of life to share.
Each city also sent part of a local bridge to be placed in the other, a symbol of the connection between two such different cities and the hope of understanding.
From Bryan, a sandstone brick was sent from one of the original rail bridges spanning Franklin Street in the 1800s.
From Quanzhou came a section of wooden beam from Anping Bridge, built during the southern Song Dynasty, somewhere between 1127 and 1279. In the Middle Ages, it was the longest beam bridge in the world. Anping is also named for its length: Five Mile Bridge.
May our distant lives be forever linked.
Dedicated May 5, 1983.
I couldn’t help laughing and gaping open-mouthed while I walked around the pedestal, running my hand along the relic. My fingers and palm remembered the deeply-grooved rails of the bridge over the train tracks, recognized the beam at first touch, and impossibly knew it as the same wood.
With a glance toward the basketball court and quick look around at the otherwise empty park, I pulled out my car keys. My eyes scrambled over the surface of the wood searching for an errant splintering or a keyhole crack. Got it.
Jamming a key slightly into a small crevice near the bottom edge, I gave a sharp twist downward. A piece of the beam about an inch and a half long and about dime-thick snapped and bent outward. When I grabbed to break it fully off, the jagged edge lanced into my left thumb, and I yanked my hand back and upward to my mouth, sucking at the flesh.
I pushed my keys back into my pocket and ripped at the piece of wood with my other hand.
My thumb was still hurting as I got back in my car and started driving for the second time that night with no destination in mind.
I was trying to spot the courthouse tower for a directional reference point when I passed the Bryan Public Library and got an idea.
“I need a map of Williams County,” I explained to the librarian, “but not like a regular road map. I’m looking for one like they used to bind together in atlases, with not just the roads, but the railroads, too. Maybe like those big ones they keep on the wall in the county zoning office, with all the land parceled out and everything?”
I absently bit at my thumb again, which still smarted from where I’d jammed it on the broken piece of Five Mile Bridge. I peered at it, saw a dark splinter buried neatly beneath my skin.
The librarian was maybe in her mid-thirties, brilliant blue eyes and chestnut hair, and she was chewing at the inside of her bottom lip, thinking.
“How new does it need to be?” she asked. “I mean, we’ve got older ones that have what you’re looking for as far as the railroads and highways, but we don’t have up-to-date plat maps. Is there something specific you’re looking for?”
“Kind of. You know those train tracks out west of town, if you go out High Street a couple miles and then turn right? There’s this blue-green bridge, and it goes over a double-set of train tracks -”
“Seven mile bridge,” she interrupted, “I know where you’re talking about.”
“That’s the area I need. Just west of there, actually, but not much more than a mile, maybe two. That’s the nearest landmark I could think of.”
She was nodding and already heading to walk around the end of the reference desk.
“We’ll have that in our local history room,” she said, motioning for me to follow. “This way.”
Half-hidden around a corner at one end of the library, the local history room was probably bigger than it seemed. A wide set of tightly-spaced wooden shelves sat along one wall about waist-high, the edge of each shelf marked with a small typewritten label. The librarian scanned the labels, stopped, and ran an index finger over a series of about a half-dozen shelves.
“These are the nice, detailed county maps,” she explained. She slid one shelf out, lifted it by the sides, and placed it on a tabletop. “This one shows all of Williams County, then there are four with the quadrants, and then a few newer ones.” She pointed to a section on the left hand side of the map. “I think what you’re looking for is going to be around in here. If you need anything else, feel free to ask.”
She left me alone, and the history of Williams County, Ohio wrapped me in a musty spice smell of dust and ink, crumbling pages and yellowed pictures.
On one wall hung a wide oil painting of the town square. Attached to the bottom of the frame, a small brass plaque read: Bryan, Ohio – Williams County Courthouse. Designed by E.O. Fallis, it combines French Baroque and Romanesque Revival styles. Scottish stonecutters crafted the Chicago brick, Berea and Amherst stone, and Georgia marble. It officially opened for business in the summer of 1891.
Exactly a hundred years before my summer with Linc and Kallie.
A meaningless coincidence, sure, but why not just go ahead and imagine that maybe a hundred years to the day after the doors swung open on that red stone midwestern castle, Kallie and Linc and I were transfixed by the northern lights over the wastelands of the ketchup factory. Or maybe it was the afternoon I spent on Kallie’s back porch, or the day I climbed to the roof of Overman hall. It would have been a somehow fitting anniversary on just about any day that summer, I guess.
And I was latching onto any thread of coincidence I could find, real or imagined.
I turned my attention to the county map the librarian had extracted from the shelves and traced a bold inkline west out of downtown with my fingertip until it made a north-south T-intersection. My eyes darted up a half inch on the paper, and scanned to the left again, checking the lines on the map against my memory of the roads outside Bryan. I noted the names where the routes were marked: High Street West, County Road 63, Ohio 19. The spot where Five Mile Bridge should have been wasn’t apparent, but I had enough of an idea that I pulled out the more detailed map that covered western Williams County for a closer look.
A diagonal line labeled “CSX R.R. Tol/Chi” stitched across the second map from the upper right to the lower left.
CSX railroad, Toledo to Chicago.
I found it strange for just a moment that the trains that roared beneath Five Mile Bridge actually had destinations, connections, and schedules, so wrapped had I become in their passing. And my wonderment, my belief, was suddenly ridiculous.
These trains, I thought, these magnificent hellbreath tornadoes – Jesus, they’re just noisy trucks on rails hauling coal or scrap metal from one rotten trainyard to another across this flat dirt nothing. Those engineers behind the square-eye, grime-smeared windows? They pass a hundred ugly bridges in an afternoon without a second thought, and it would never cross their minds to imagine standing in the stink that comes choking out of the engine while they rip under another vandalized pile of wood and steel. They squint hours away facing nothing but endless blazing rail glare or driving rain or low, heavy skies, and they stuff foam plugs in their ears because that goddamn whistle will crack your head open if you have to hear it a dozen times an hour.
It was like being back on stage in college, after two solid months of rehearsals, when the memorized lines and gestures become automatic, and I’d find my mind wandering separately out on its own. It was stepping back and looking at myself wearing theater make-up and talking in rhymed couplets, hearing the words come out of my mouth, and at the same time wondering how I got there, what I was doing, and wasn’t it odd that I could be thinking these asinine thoughts even in the middle of a performance?
In the history room of the Williams County Public Library, the same kind of things went through my head: How did I get here, in this bird’s egg of a town in the far corner of Ohio, with a stolen watch in my pocket and some crazy idea that I was going to change fate, even while my life was unfolding along a different path where none of this mattered?
And the same question that used to ping around in my skull onstage: What am I doing here, pretending to be someone else?
All these things while I stared at the creased map, not really seeing it, running my fingers lightly, absentmindedly over the page. I caught myself, and blinked my attention back just as my right hand drifted over the spot where the bridge should have been marked –
and an unseen hand clasped itself over mine, gripped hard for a heartbeat, and was gone.
I jumped, let out a cry of surprise, cut it short, and stared at my hand while my pulse raced wildly and I struggled to breathe.
It hadn’t been the suffocated blue cold of a dead hand touching mine, but the surface chill of a one out on a winter night with no gloves. The clasp of fingers that have been anxiously clenching a wooden bridge rail on a December night.
What if she’s out there? I thought. What if Kallie, my Kallie, who remembers and knows and loves, is lost out there in some other half-real Bryan, trying to do the same thing I am? Staggering blindly and reaching for any piece of hope, what if she’s out there and she almost managed, almost succeeded, almost reached me?
What if it had been my imagination?
Christ, too many what ifs. I couldn’t sit and wait, even if the crazy idea that there was another Kallie out there was true. I didn’t think I had time. Sitting and waiting might mean forgetting, and I’d seen that road and didn’t want to take another step on it.
I gingerly extended my fingertips toward the map to touch the spot of Five Mile Bridge again, the wild streak of hope imagining Kallie’s hand outstretched from someplace else to tentatively brush my own.
There was only the soft crackling of brittle paper under my fingers.
And as I stared at the map, there was a distant twinge of recognition, of familiarity.
I’ve seen this before, somewhere. Where?
I peered at the lines and intersections on the map: Township Road D, County Road 10, and the cross-hatched line of the railroad. Five Mile Bridge marked the crossing of the latter two, at least it should have. But the gnawing whisper of something greater than déjà vu was insistent: Where did this map come from? Where would I ever have seen this in a million years? Nowhere.
I shook the feeling off long enough to grab a short, eraserless pencil from a cardboard cup on a table. There was a stack of notecards there, too, that looked as though they’d been cut from old file folders.
As I sketched a crude thumbnail map of the bridge and the roads around it, my head filled with a sudden sensation of familiarity, of knowing what was going to happen next and yet not being able to quite see around the corner, frustrating and maddening and –
– a memory, sudden and complete:
“Where’s Josh?” It is my dad’s voice. I can smell the foam insulation and dusty corners of my grandmother’s basement. I am eight years old.
“We’re gonna go buy sparklers and bottle rockets, and we’re leeAAVING! Josh! You wanna go, we’re going noooOOW! Okay, then! We’ll be back in awhile. He’s around here somewhere, so don’t worry…”
Dad’s voice fades, punctuated by the light aluminum bang! of grandma’s front door. I am crouched in the basement in front of grandma’s old wooden file cabinet in the corner, the bottom drawer open.
My grandmother comes downstairs, the third step squeaking lightly.
“Josh? How come you didn’t answer your Dad? He wasn’t mad, you know.”
“I know. I’m just looking at stuff, that’s all. They’ll bring enough fireworks back. Is it okay if I look in here? I’m not breaking anything.”
“Just old people’s stuff in there,” she says, smiling. “If you want any lunch, just come up to the kitchen, and I’ll fix you a sandwich.”
And then I am burrowing through corn-husk receipts and the occasional photograph. The long Fourth of July weekend at Grandma’s is getting boring.
The only toys she has are mostly from when I was little, kept in a cardboard box under the spare bed, and I am in search of anything remotely interesting in the basement.
Seemingly out of nowhere, in my right hand there is an old folded notecard, worn soft at the corners.
Drawn on it in pencil is a simple map. One line is labeled “Twp. Hwy D,” another, “10.” And where the “10” line meets a row of dashes, there is a circle, and the words, “Five Mile Bridge” in careful lettering.
The recollection was fleeting, the memory old and familiar and comforting.
And absolutely nonexistent.
The instant my reverie had faded, a single thought flooded into the space it had filled: That never happened to you.
It was the truth. A moment from childhood seemingly forgotten, but engraved on some hidden inner stone, excruciatingly rich and palpable, and yet it was not a memory that belonged to me.
How could it? How could that have happened to me when I was eight and then some ten years later not pop in my head like a firecracker the instant Kallie said to me “I have to take you to Five Mile Bridge?” As if I’d just forgotten finding that penciled map; forgotten the way I’d tucked it into a book that weekend, kept it at home for years in a desk drawer of pencils, wheat pennies and Star Wars cards; forgotten that when I went off to college and read Richard Bach’s Illusions that I knew my old notecard treasure map had found its permanent bookmark home.
Again, all things I unequivocally remembered, and yet had not done.
When I looked at the map I had just drawn in the Bryan Public Library, it was exactly as I remembered from the day I’d found it in Grandma’s basement but still crisp at the corners, and unbent.
It slowly dawned on me that I remembered finding that map, as surely as I had just unthinkingly sketched it.
In that moment, I felt a seed plant itself in a far corner of my mind: the day that boy, that unknown me, found that strange map in Grandma’s basement, he had no reason to doubt that it was anything but a set of directions to some bridge. It must have existed somewhere, or why have a map to it? I’d never seen Bucyrus or Wooster or Mansfield either – they were just signs we passed on Route 30 when we came to visit Grandma, but I never questioned their existence.
To that eight-year-old me, Five Mile Bridge was as permanent and real as Grandma’s wooden file cabinet.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the watch, touching its face with a fingertip.
“- like heartbeats,”
I pressed the watch flat to the right side of my head, the way the jeweler had, and a ice water ran through my eardrum and down the side of my neck, and a lump thickened in my throat: From inside the tiny watchworks came the unmistakable chickerchickCHAKchickerchickCHAK of steel train wheels.
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Previously: Chapter 1 – Return; Chapter 2 – Another December; Chapter 3 – A Glimpse of Orion; Chapter 4 – Bowling Green, Ohio; Chapter 5 – And We Danced; Chapter 6 – Steering A Train; Chapter 7 – 7:41; Chapter 8 – Another December
Chapter 9 – Cornfield Meet
So I remembered.
The Second Shepherd’s Play, Five Mile Bridge, Kallie’s funeral, and the December day that began with my return to the bridge and ended in Kallie’s Columbus apartment with the world falling into the unknown.
Growing up, I used to split logs in the back yard some summers: tree trunks and limbs that dad had cut for firewood. Now and then there would be a really thick piece from low on the trunk, or a burly Y-shaped section sawed from the junction of two great limbs, and it would take more than the usual splitting wedge, hammer, and swing.
I’d tap the splitting wedge until the log would defiantly absorb it like a steel splinter, and then I’d take the first swing and watch the wedge sink into the log without effect. The second, too, and maybe the third, until the top of the wedge was nearly even with the wood surface, clenched like a cigar in a tight grin. And then I’d let loose with a swing I started in my toes and gathered up through my legs and back and shoulders and arms, rising on the balls of my feet and sliding my hands together at the very end of the sledge handle so that the hammer was like a hot, smoking meteor in the wavering air, and it crashed onto the immobile wedge with a thick chinking sound, maybe a spark or two, and at the same moment, there’d be a loud, popping CRACK!
And I would stand in the sun’s soundless blaze for a moment, listening as the wood continued to crack, just sitting there, spitting tiny bangs and creaks, tearing itself apart.
That’s what the moment of Kallie’s death had become, spawning the impossible memories.
Five Mile Bridge had never existed. Never. It might, sometime in the future, but my feelings told me probably not.
But I remembered that bridge, I remembered being there and seeing the train that December, feeling that wind, tasting that smoke, and that afternoon following her funeral I was there again, she was lost, and no trains came, and yet she was alive, reborn, though she didn’t know it, saved, and yet nothing was right, nothing was good, and nothing was real.
I had memories of places and things that did not and could not have happened, but I knew them vividly, not just with my mind, but with every corner of my being. My eardrums remembered the thudding and the scream of a train whistle, my hands remembered the dry, cold wood rails, my eyes remembered blinking away ash and still burned with the image of a headlight plunging out of the darkness like a comet. The memories were so detailed, so concrete, so powerful and definite, and yet they were all things that could not have happened, but did.
But not here.
I drove back toward Bryan, numb and confused, the fields and trees and streets at once detached and foreign, but as familiar as the thirty-three pines in the backyard of the house where I grew up.
How was I even supposed to begin? Just call up this girl whose life I may have saved but bastardized into another tapestry? Was she out there fighting the same demons I was? And if she didn’t know, didn’t care, didn’t remember, then what the hell was I supposed to do to make my world right again if it was going to twist hers around yet again?
And it wasn’t like my whole life had changed.
The differences in my memories were like an earthquake fissure, yawning widest at ground zero, narrower cracks splintering off, tapering to distant hairline splits.
My memories clashed mostly at the heart of the chasm: Kallie and Bowling Green and Five Mile Bridge grappled there as two separate pasts, opposing truths.
My life changed in a tornado one December on a bridge out here, I thought, and a contradiction immediately sprang forth: I never stood in that spot until the second I got there and found myself hallucinating about some lost, rusty bridge that never was.
Kallie Tabitha Greenburke: I swear I loved her, and after she died, all I could do was wonder if I ever knew anything about her at all. She was in that play I did about Jesus and the shepherds, I think. And I’m pretty sure she sat in the front row of that History of the American Economy class I was forced to take in college, and I hated every minute of it.
Far off, she died. She’s alive, out there, somewhere, this very second, and maybe, just maybe, remembers you as the guy in the back of that economics class who struggled to stay awake through that fat professor’s lectures.
I loved her. I can’t even tell you what she looks like.
The rest of my life stretched out from either side of that canyon, seemingly solid, mostly unchanged: My skin crawled at the thought of the time when I was three and stepped in an antpile in my backyard, and a wriggling black mass swarmed up to the knees of my railroad conductor overalls; my heart clutched as I pictured my daughter’s face, peering backward over my wife’s shoulder, he lower lip starting to quiver as the two of them boarded a plane to Florida the week before.
So why not just go on? Why not get back in the car and drive up to Michigan just like I was going to, and spend the weekend mulling old times over beer and pizza with Alex?
In a week, my wife and daughter would be back from Florida, my life would go on, and the other voices, the other life, the memories of the bridge, Kallie, all of it would eventually grow distant and hazy and meaningless.
And I would no longer be me, for their loss.
Some stringy neuron in the corner of my brain cells that once fired the pulse of a clacking locomotive through my memory would dessicate, maybe, and I’d never know it, but the change would be there.
On the soft, wet sheen of my retina, a tweezer-scraping of pulpy rods and cones would die, and with them the sun glare of a headlamp miles away across cold fields.
And the ever-present soft buzzing in the recess of my ears that lies dormant for weeks and months, and swells to a summer insect storm on nights when I lie awake and remember when she said “I love you, Joshua Kendall,” would drop silent.
So my reconstruction began, with the realization that not only did I have to somehow weave Five Mile Bridge into existence from the threads of this world, but I was the only person who had ever known of it.
I had to find Kallie.
Fifteen minutes later, I was shivering, huddled at a pay phone across the street from the Williams County courthouse, flipping through the slim telephone directory. I found the listing for Todd and Carol Greenburke, punched the number in, and held the receiver to my ear as my stomach wobbled with uncontrollable tension.
I just did this, didn’t I? Her parents are gonna think I’m some nut, losing her number a day after I just called and asked for it the other day.
No you didn’t, I thought, you called and talked to a Todd and Carol Greenburke whose daughter was a day away from death. You don’t even know these people, and whether you like it or not, they might still be the parents of a doomed young woman. Car accidents happen all the damn time.
My mouth went dry, and I felt my tongue peel away from the back of my lips with a crackle in the earpiece.
“Yes, I’m trying to reach the Greenburkes?”
I tried to feel and sound relieved at that – at least her mom was the same – but I heard my attempt at familiarity fall flat.
“Hi! This is Josh Kendall -”
For a bare, fleeting moment, I paused, hoping and willing that the woman on the other end of the phone would interject, cut me off with a friendly greeting of recognition, the jog of a memory. She didn’t, and I stumbled.
“I, uh, went to school, at BG – in Bowling Green – with Kallie, and we did some plays together. Um, I had moved to Florida, but I’m back in Ohio now – in Canton – and I thought I’d see if I could get in touch with Kallie – she’s still in Columbus, right?”
“Yes, but I’m not sure…you say you knew her from the theater department?”
An icy breeze swept across the street, shook the strings of Christmas lights draped from the courthouse tower, rattled my teeth and cramped my shoulders.
The sun dropped away at the western edge of town.
Lord, but these winds are cold. And I am ill-dressed.
“That’s right – we did The Second Shepherd’s Play just before Christmas break of our sophomore year. I don’t know if you came to see it or not, but I was the old guy who croaked instead of singing. I’m a horrible singer.”
In my head, I was screaming, “It’s me! The peanut butter guy! Your lasagna is fantastic…” The silent, pathetic plea faded as she tried to remember me. I knew she wouldn’t.
“We did come to see that show…” her voice trailed off for a moment, just long enough for me to think I’d have to drive to Columbus and try and find Kallie myself, and then I heard a short riffling of paper. “Here it is,” she said, reading me the number. “I’m sorry I don’t remember you exactly, but Kallie’s been close to so many of her theater friends it’s hard to keep track sometimes.”
She had no idea who I was, and my heart caved in. I wasn’t so sure I should call Kallie after all, but what else did I have to try?
“Thanks,” I managed. “I really appreciate you helping me get in touch with her. If she calls before I talk to her, let her know I’m in town, could you?”
“I’ll tell her. Bye now.”
I couldn’t make myself dial Kallie’s number, and I walked away from the phone, numb.
She was gone, and I knew it. I’d pried her from a crumpled heap of metal and set her free, and because of it, I’d lost her.
You did it. Go back and live your life, you stupid, selfish, obsessed bastard, and quit whining.
God, it was like I’d made one of those deals with the devil where he grants wishes and then pulls the rug out from under the soul he’s just won.
Wait, though, wait, wait! If I can be stuck here, with these irreconcilable memories creasing my mind, daring me to look for truth, couldn’t she be doing the same thing? Couldn’t she be crouched in the corner of her apartment in Columbus this very second, screaming as the recollection of twisting steel collapses in about her? Couldn’t she be clutching at the images of a bridge even as half her brain rips the memory apart in a tornado of haze and conflict? It doesn’t make sense for everything to happen to just me, does it?
Everything changed. You’re just the only one who knows it, and the only one who cares. And here, that makes your memories lies. Go ahead, call her – CALL HER! You’ll see – lies.
I’d been staring at the sidewalk, shuffling past the storefronts of the Bryan town square, when a door opened as I walked past, and warm breath of wood polish and glass cleaner swept outside. I was outside the jeweler’s shop where Kallie had taken her watch to be fixed on the first night I visited Five Mile Bridge.
A woman in a wool coat shifted past me. I caught the brass handle of the door before it swung shut and stepped into the still, twinkling air. The shop’s interior was softly pierced by a million scattering glints and refractions. Framed in deep oak, handfuls of rings and necklaces gleamed from the display cabinets.
The door closed behind me, and I stood for a second in the apparent silence before a muffled ticking tapped like quick rain at my ears.
Splayed beneath the panes of a long glass case were dozens of antique watches, a glimmering school of sleek fish, twitching just under the surface of a stream, ready to dart at the pass of a shadow overhead.
I ran my eyes over the collection.
A silver and copper salamander clung to one pebbled band, a tiny clock face set in its back. Another was in the shape of a crescent moon cradling a ring of twelve stars.
There were the more ordinary ones, too, with creased bands and yellowed faces, dull numbers and matter-of-fact hands.
Along the wall behind the case, a low, narrow work shelf glittered with magnifying lenses, small lamps, and sets of diminutive tools: screwdrivers the size of toothpicks, hairlike tweezers, and bug-jaw pincers.
And lying on a square of black velvet, next to a fist-sized magnifying glass, was Kallie’s watch. The same watch she’d brought in to be fixed the night she took me to the bridge. It had a smooth band of narrow silver, and a transparent, numberless face that revealed the gears inside.
Leaning over the counter, I peered at it, and strained to hear its ticking. The second hand flinched back and forth in place as the wheels behind it clicked one direction, then the other. I was staring at the watch when the jeweler stepped from a doorway at the back of the store.
“May I help you, sir?” His voice was as measured and clipped as the sound of the watchworks. He was thin and ancient, but held his height as steady as a grandfather clock. A jeweler’s loop hung around his neck on a thin silver chain. “Is there one in particular you’d like to see?” he asked, spreading a set of bony fingers on the glass.
“No, no. Just looking.” I answered, maybe a little too quickly, as I straightened up, pulling my gaze from Kallie’s watch.
He’d noticed my attentive gaze anyway.
“Very unique, isn’t it?” he said, picking up Kallie’s watch, and lying it across his palm. “The young lady to whom it belongs must adore it completely. It seems to jam up like this every December now for, let’s see, seven years now, and she just keeps bringing it back year after year. Wouldn’t think of retiring it, she says. I’ve stopped charging her to fix it, since all I really do is pick it apart, find nothing, and put it back together.”
My mouth went dry, and I cracked out a half-interested, “Really?”
“Indeed,” he nodded. “Still,” he added, holding it up to the light, “marvelous timepiece.”
I couldn’t get out of the store fast enough, and I hustled back to the pay phone, clutching Kallie’s number, with a line from one more old Bowling Green favorite running over and over in my head: Seven years went under the bridge like time was standing still. OMD again, “If You Leave.”
The warm, safe glow of downtown Bryan swirled around me, and a surge of hopeful adrenaline was convulsing in my chest.
Every December, he’d said. Every December, that watch, that very same watch, and every December, she can’t throw it away. There’s at least one connection between where I am and where I was, I thought. There had to be more.
Maybe even in Kallie’s own memory. She had to know. Had to. Part of her, somewhere, lost in echo, knew about a bridge this world had never seen, remembered our train, our winter, our summer, and knew I loved her.
I reached the pay phone, jabbed madly at the numbers, hung without breath as the distant, electric ring burbled in my ear.
“Hello?” she said.
Next: Chapter 10 – Bridging Backward
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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
On a Saturday in December when my wife and daughter were in Florida for a weeklong visit, I got up early, packed a change of clothes in a duffel bag, and put two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and six Cokes in a cooler on the passenger seat of my car.
I was headed to Michigan for an overnight visit with Alex, whose wife was also out of town, and we were planning to swing down to Bowling Green and spend an afternoon wandering campus, grab a coffee at Grounds for Thought and a pizza from Pisanello’s.
The great thing about hanging out with Alex was the way we played conversations out for hours based on the smallest, most trivial memories of moments. It was like sitting down with old shoe boxes of bits and pieces, pulling out odd shapes of glass and worn keychains and ticket stubs, and tossing them to each other, challenging ourselves to remember their histories in every detail.
Driving the turnpike west into the yellow afternoon, my college years in BG felt like a ream of paper, every sheet stamped with a blur of unending letters and words of recollection, every page some silly or serious minute I swore I’d keep because they all mattered. I felt them, stacked but unordered in a thick, waxed cardboard box, and as I drove, I’d flip through, grab a sheet at random, and let a memory come back, if just for a second.
The great black granite monument that stood at the edge of Oak Grove Cemetery bearing a single word: FISH.
A cloudbursting afternoon, our dorm window cracked enough to let the wind howl while fine raindrops spit inside, and we sat cross-legged on the floor playing rummy, waiting for Jen and Jeff to come over so we could head down to the cafeteria for dinner.
The parking lot of University Hall after my stage debut in the freshman production, my whole family over from North Canton, meeting my college friends for the first time under a warm fall night.
Me, sitting at my desk, scribbling feverishly into a journal because I’d just staggered across campus, my veins full of coal smoke and earthquake because I’d been down near the railroad tracks, standing in the roar of a freight train’s wake.
“I DO NOT BELONG HERE!”
It was like a bash to the head, that scream, and I clutched at the steering wheel, managed to keep my car on the road, felt my eyes stab southwest across the fields toward Bowling Green, heard my pulse ticking and buzzing in my ears.
It was my own voice, but different, like when you hear yourself out of a tape recorder. And I didn’t so much hear it – even though my eardrums stung like they’d been slapped – as I just knew it and almost saw it, as if it were typewritten plainly in the center of a blank sheet of paper.
After a second or two, I shook it away for the most part, but I still felt out of whack, somehow. Detached.
A dull ache spread across the tops of my eyeballs, and I pulled into the next travel plaza.
Leaning over a Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate, I folded my hands, rested my forehead on my knuckles and pushed my thumbs against my eyelids. With each breath, the ache faded, slowly.
I took a sip of the hot chocolate, burning the tip of my tongue.
I was sitting in a booth by the window of the Roy Rogers fast-food stop just past exit 10A, telling myself I’d never had a premonition or a vision or anything like whatever that howl in my head had been, and that the Ohio Turnpike in winter was a pretty damn strange place for it, if that’s what it was.
But it wasn’t, really. A vision, I mean. At least it didn’t feel like it. I mean, there was nothing visual about it – in fact, there was nothing sensory at all, the way some people say they smell oranges before having psychic experiences, for example.
It was like trying to remember learning to breathe: Suddenly, I simply couldn’t remember not feeling that I was somehow out of place, even though I knew that just ten minutes ago, my life was clicking along as normal as a train over golden fields.
At that thought, something snagged in the back of my mind: the tiniest fragment of a passing image from a dream I had as a little kid, but when I tried to pull it to the forefront of my consciousness, it slipped away, ducking below the surface again.
I looked out the window at the parking lot full of semi-trailers. The low winter sun was reflecting itself in the great sheets of windshield, scattering and catching its rays on the unseen debris in the blacktop, glinting from invisible bits of chrome flake and tiny flints of broken glass. A single beam burned itself briefly into my retina in the second before a burly man in a jean jacket stooped and scooped up the penny from which it had fired.
That sense of something big below the surface swam up to the top of my thoughts again, that coin from the parking lot shimmering and waving just inches out of reach, shifting in green water, daring me to grab for it.
Closing my eyes, I reached delicately inward, found the gleaming copper, allowed my fingertips to run along its thin edge. It had been flattened, somehow, but not by one of those souvenir machines at the amusement parks with the black iron cranks – it was more stretched, warped. Changed.
Gently, delicately, I pulled at the memory…pennies, handfuls of them, rattling inside a clunky plastic Mickey Mouse bank in my bedroom of the house where I lived when I was two…an ancient cent brown and dull, with a smooth hole drilled off-center, that Denise gave me the night I met her when I was fifteen…a neat row of five pennies lying on the shiny surface of a steel rail in the sunlight, while around a bend in the field comes a train…
Grab that, hold on, pull slowly: my freshman year of college, after Alex had told me about standing by the rapid transit trains in Cleveland, I had taken a clutch of pennies to flatten one afternoon outside Bowling Green.
I imagined, nearly into existence, the hot late-August fields, felt my face burn and my eyes squint at the recollection of the nonstop wind from across the unbroken landscape.
“Hey, this is a penny from a train track, isn’t it?”
A girl’s voice, softly thrilled and wondering, in my head, a cloudy feeling that I’d once had a dream about her. My nostrils filled with the scent of snow, and I struggled to find a face to go with the voice, grabbed too quickly, lost the connection, and was back in the turnpike rest stop clutching at a cup of lukewarm cocoa.
You’re alone, I told myself, for the first time in a year, with your wife and daughter a thousand miles distant, and you’re feeling that pull from BG, out there, and you’re just missing your college days and feeling like a guy pushing thirty, wondering where twenty-two went. You’ve been in the car two and a half hours, staring at the passing concrete, listening to REM, saying nothing, and thinking too much. That’s all.
I do not belong here – what the hell did that mean, anyway? I love this damn place so much that of all the places to go, I chose to bring my bride to this land of cornfield forevers and flea markets and summer baseball and lightning bugs. I brought my wife here on our honeymoon – yes, Ohio for our honeymoon – because I wanted her to know more than anything why its air nestles and remains in small, dark, wet corners of my lungs to catch in my nostrils on lost nights, why its gravel dust and tree bark silt my blood, and why nights of insect calls hum faintly but incessantly in my ears. Jesus, I didn’t belong anyplace on Earth more than I belong here, and yet that voice, my voice, spoke so soundly, that to question its truth seemed to question breath.
More than the words, though, was the constricting chill that wound its way up my neck, prickling the hairs at the base of my skull. It was a cold, draining feeling of a terrible revelation:
I do not belong here.
My head was suddenly filled with a knowledge of a few narrow, weed-lined roads between endless winter-furrowed farms clearer than any map, but the place to which they led was clouded and stormed and fogged in wind-driven rain and snow and muffled December lightning, and while I could not see or know where I had to go, I knew how to get there, even if I didn’t know why. There would be no question. I would simply get back in my car, unblinking, and drone westward as my eyes regained an impossible familiarity with sights they’d never taken in and an unerring compass in my brain pointed itself in guidance, sending the impulses to my hands, my feet, my ears, all to bring me where some part of me I could not touch knew I had to be.
When I saw the stadium looming at the eastern edge of BGSU, for one clear breath of a moment, one snapshot heartbeat of the dormitories and the water towers and the radio antenna against the afternoon sky, everything was as it should be, clicking into place. The feeling ripped itself from my gut a second later, left a hole filled with sloshing ice water because nothing felt right.
I tried to stare at the pieces of the landscape, struggled to show them to that incredulous voice of doubt: See, I told myself, there’s Chapman Hall – three windows up, three in from the north side, there’s my old room. There’s the McDonald’s I worked at the summer of 1991, when Linc and I stayed in the East Murray apartment, and there’s the tree whose acorns I gathered in a plastic cup one fall afternoon. I flipped through the pictures, grasping for proof, for reassurance, for reality.
I found none.
But there’s something, isn’t there? Something elusive and intangible in every sidewalk, vanishing like the Pleiades on a clear winter night when you try to look right at them, and they disappear until you only watch out of the corner of your eye. This isn’t your college town at all, but you don’t know why. Those aren’t your fields, that isn’t your library, these aren’t your trees or leaves or memories at all, are they?
So, whose are they?
I kept going west.
Out Route 6, I knew, was the way to Napoleon, where the road circled around the town, swinging over the wide Maumee River before curling back and straightening itself for the unblemished flatlands stretching to the horizon.
“It’s like it’s right over in Napoleon,” – I heard my own speech this time, not an insistent thought in my own mind, but me actually talking to someone else – “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.”
As I heard the words, I saw in my mind’s eye the distant, lonely intersection of the road I was traveling and another, running north and south, and planted at the corner, a sign with an arrow pointing to the right reading: BRYAN 2.
The same scene was unchanged when I reached it forty minutes later.
I pulled over and stared into the crossroads.
Plow-rutted fields planed away west, split by the yellow-lined seam of the two-lane.
I’ve driven that road. I can see my hands on the steering wheel of my car, that stretch of highway beyond my fingers, a slow line of cars tolling toward a far-off cluster of buildings, a town nearly lost in the fields, and a cemetery under high elm limbs.
Cynthia, a girl I used to work with at McDonald’s, is there, and she’s wearing too much mascara, as always. Streaks of makeup and tears tug at the edges of her pale blue eyes. Hers is the only face I recognize among the dark-coated knot of mourners.
Some of that was familiar: of course I remember Cynthia from that summer, and the hayride with her head on my shoulder and the smell of her hairspray, but there was more.
It was like I remembered remembering her. What was coming back so strongly was not Cynthia, but of having that same sense of recall. As if where my reaction to the memory should have been something like, “Wow, I haven’t thought of Cynthia in years,” it was instead, “I was just thinking this exact same thing last-”
Only there was no “last.” No last week, no last month, no last time I was here because I hadn’t thought of Cynthia in years, and that was a truth. And yet running from the top of my skull to the base of my spine, I felt a taut silver cord plucked once, vibrating with a whine I could feel in the roots of my teeth, and which told me unerringly that my truth was wrong.
A swell of wind gathered itself from the horizon’s haze, came rumbling like a tornado rolled on its side across the land, passed in a cold shudder.
I got back in the car and headed north into Bryan.
The strange thing about Bryan for me, was I never felt that seclusion of being at the edge of the midwestern plains nothingness like I did when I’d visit my grandma in Upper Sandusky when I was little, or later, when I was in college, and we’d take road trips and pass through places like Carey or Bucyrus.
I wasn’t exactly what you’d call a city kid, but I grew up within ten minutes of Canton, an hour’s drive from Cleveland, and half that to Akron. Sure, there was a lot of farmland around those areas, but nothing like the isolation I’d feel, passing through those small towns in the western half of the state.
Bryan, I never got that feeling at all, and it was further out in Ohio’s plains than any place I’d ever been in my life. In fact –
I’d never been to Bryan before. I didn’t even know the place was there until thirty seconds before, when I’d seen that highway sign. So where in the hell was that childhood memory thing from? Of course I remembered Carey and Bucyrus and Upper Sandusky, why wouldn’t I? But how could I feel like Bryan was different when the place didn’t mean a thing to me –
– other than it was that little town where they made Etch A Sketches and Dum-Dum suckers-
-and how the hell did I know that ?
I was at the edge of town, passing a Burger King and a BP gas station when I caught a glimpse ahead of an orange-red stone clock tower and almost ran a red light because I had to tear my eyes away while my brain clicked and buzzed and struggled, trying to find a place to file this new image, and finding the spot taken by a picture that was already there somehow.
The Christmas decorations are already set up on the Williams County Courthouse lawn, and there’s a crackling red and orange tissue paper fire in a Santa’s cottage made of plywood.
I cruised into the town square a moment later, again felt the collision in my mind between the present and memory and dream, swung my car left on High Street, felt my eye catch on the dark wood and glass of a jewelry store – where a thin, old man with nimble fingers uncorks a jeweler’s loop from his right eye and reaches out to take a delicate silver watch from the hands of a girl with hair like the sun – and headed west out of town again with a humming in the back of my head like bees in a pop can.
I watched with detached fascination as my hands steered the wheel, felt my eyes dart and alight with ephemeral recollection on a gnarled roadside tree; a stop sign with a rust scar worming along its edge; a cluster of whitewashed beehives half-hidden in a forest.
Every slight crack in the road that jarred the wheels of my car sent a jolt up my spine that was recognized by the nerve pathways it traveled.
The narrow highway dove gently through a woods past the edge of Bryan, rose again suddenly upon the fields, and as I sped toward the sunset, the sharp blast of a train whistle seared the air, echoed itself from the land and sky, ringing in my ears the way a lightning flash remains in your eye after it passes.
Ahead, and to the right, I saw a blue-green steel bridge
“This is Seven Mile Bridge. We’re almost there.”
-her voice came as I crossed it, closer, from beside me in the empty passenger seat and I heard myself answer aloud, “Almost where?” while I unconsciously wheeled northward over the bridge.
As I did so, the whistle burst again, and I felt it pierce my eardrums, and I whipped my head to the left like I’d been slapped, and saw running to the horizon a set of double railroad tracks below, and against the distant treeline, the a single glaring headlamp of an oncoming train.
last year, taking a walk down by the railroad tracks by the power plant – it was my own voice again, words I’d never spoken but whose depth and reality were unquestionable – the trains would rush by like three feet in front of your face – everybody’s heard about pennies on train tracks – the hot wind and this huge blur pounding – like thunder and an earthquake, I guess –
While the echo of the whistle faded and left my ears aching, the buzzing in the back of my head grew and gathered itself into a throbbing rhythm of far-off steel wheels sending high, warning electric echo pulses ahead through the rails. It was like in the movie Stand By Me, when the kids are crossing the railroad trestle, and the smart one puts his hand on the track because you can feel a train coming long before you see or hear it, telegraphed over fields and rivers and miles.
I felt myself speed the car up, careen through a sharp left turn and charge westward again. The speedometer read 80, the grass at the road’s edge screamed past my window for a full minute. A white farmhouse swung into view to the south, and I turned toward it, onto a gravel-and-tar-slapped road, feeling the oncoming train thunder out of the plains, nearing.
Up ahead, the road humpbacked, a bony, weathered crossbuck marking the intersection with the rails.
“We followed the silent calling of the lonely roads -”
My voice, reading.
“on a moonless night, out where even the fields are asleep.”
Crashing into my field of vision from behind a treeline, the locomotive screamed again, and I saw the broiling atmosphere in its wake, shimmering the sky a quarter-mile off.
“The road grew soft, and narrowed as it rose over the tracks -”
Reading a letter, something, a story, a poem – a poem – damn if I’d remembered anything from English class, who the hell wrote any poems about trains, anyway?
“ – crowned by Five Mile Bridge.”
I must be in the wrong place, then, because there’s no bridge here, and I’m going to be stuck at this godforsaken nowhere train crossing for days because these trains from Chicago are like twelve miles long and just because there was no bridge, how would I know I was in the wrong place if I hadn’t –
“Graffiti-tattooed, rusting iron beams crisscrossed in the glare of the headlights -”
– if I hadn’t been here before.
I slammed on the brakes, jumped out of the car, ran, grabbed onto the crossbuck, stared for one throat-clutching heartbeat moment into the towering face of the rushing train, a stone-faced, wrath-eating and vengeful god with a blazing eye and a churning heart. It slammed past in a roar of heat and smoke, and the gravel at the roadside flew into a blizzard of grit, whicking painfully at my face and squinching tears from my eyes. I gripped the signpost, afraid of being torn away, sucked into the gnashing steel and hot wind maelstrom.
It was like being thrashed in a heavy surf, drowning in the iron thunder, surfacing long enough to gasp, catching sight of not sky or sun but
stars over the great concrete ring next to the tracks at the cement wasteland where the ketchup factory had stood and the song of an angel taking flight and the sound of time measured in footsteps
the slamrush of millstone wheels shoved my head beneath the surface of the din, shutting out the memory, chokchokBAMbamchokchokBAMbam and another gasp
a sunlit bridge a duck in the clouds and a dream of a boat called birdhouse on an island in the summer and the smell of hide and seek and the trees along the river
every mountaincliff of steel that rocked past chokchokBAMbamchokchokBAMbam threw rust flakes in my eyes and sucked the breath from my lungs, bellowing them full instead with searing air and coal
It’s the end of the world as we know it and if I were going to be in love, right now, if I wanted to be in love with someone and have someone to hold at night and be with, it would be you and she slammed her hand down over mine, clutching, holding tight to keep me from flying off the bridge and into the low winter sky and the world spun and tilted and the train grabbed at the bridge under our feet threatening to shatter the iron and rip the beams and scatter them over the fields
chokchokBAMbam – Kallie, her name was Kallie – kaWHAMwhamchokchok – there, in the cold, fading sunlight, there was a phantom, a mirage, and it was a bridge over the train, rising from my feet – slaBAMkachokchock
the parchment face of the courthouse clock, a harvest moon framed in stone, its countenance frozen at 7:41 while down the street and behind the trees in the cruddy little apartment, I saw her face, flushed and fresh as a peach in a summer basket, Please stay, I ask, please stay, and I wonder if my pillow would smell like leaves in the morning if she rested her head there for one warm July night. Lasagna and peanut butter and milk and her haircut and the Haunted Mansion and Florida storms rolling in over scrubland, the sky crawling thick with lightning on the last day I ever spent with her. I love you, Joshua Kendall, I love you, too Kallie.
Kallie Tabitha Greenburke, 23, of 615 W. Ninth Street, died in Columbus at 7:41 p.m. Wednesday, March 30, 1994 – KaWHAMchokchok -Burial will be at Shady Elms cemetery in Ridgeland.
– of injuries arising from an auto accident –
An all-night notebook scrawled in desperation, blue corn nachos, a skeeball, the clock on the wall and I did it, I did it, she’s not dead she’s not dead, she’s here in her living room reading my notebook and I love her and in my next breath I’ll tell her that she’s not dead I did it I did it
She called me Simon, and the things I dreamed came true.
With a final kaWHOOSH the last car swept its vacuum through the crossing, and the poem I had once written for her concluded itself in my head:
“And the chill, the silence, and the darkness slowly descended on the fields once again.
As we drove away, they reclaimed Five Mile Bridge once the glow of red taillights had faded from its view.”
Next: Chapter 9 – Cornfield Meet
Note: Click here for some background on Crossing Decembers and why I’m serializing it online.
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,” 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?”
“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 –
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