Moving On: The Long Walk Back

Isle-of-the-Dead-Version-II-by-Arnold-BocklinIt was the Saturday after Thanksgiving and the majority of college students were enjoying one last night at home, eating leftovers, watching cable on the floor. Marci and I were not enrolled, nor were we sentimental. And as such, we had committed to one more night on the town.

Marci picked me up in a Chevy Cavalier, the champagne frame of which appeared almost identical to the Impala I had crashed back in October. A state trooper had helped me replace the blown-out tire on that vehicle, yet I remained on the hook for another 350 in damages – necessary replacements for the front axle, wheel and guard. The owner had proven patient, yet persistent, leaving messages on our answering machine at State College once a week.

Marci made a left onto MacDade, continuing north past Tom N Jerry’s, which used to be Discovery, which used to be Mattero’s, which rarely had a use for its industrial-sized marquee. We passed Laspada’s. We passed Italian Village. We passed that old-school Carmen’s Pizza sign with the quarter-eaten pie that looked like Pac Man. We crossed a four-way intersection, conjuring images of a night in 1990 when I had coasted through that four-way on my torso, full body splayed across the rooftop of a Chevrolet Caprice.

Marci made a left onto 420. She parked her car a block away from Folsom Field. We joined a half-a-dozen others near the dugout. Marci was the only female, and she kept referring to everybody as either brother, punk or dude. She introduced me. A guy in sweatpants nodded. I took a seat along the bench and smoked my cigarette alone.

In the interest of inclusion Marci mentioned I was a student at Penn State. I ran with this, deflecting questions about the football team, its record (10-2), and whether Joe Paterno should retire. I described what the campus felt like during the aftermath of a recent shooting. Every detail was a lie, emphatically so, given I hadn’t even returned to State College until a week or so after the incident. Undeterred, I shifted gears, relating a story about how my roommate and I had hopped the fence at Beaver Stadium, enjoying a six-pack at midfield during the first snow of the season.

Beer and football seemed to be the obvious touchstones, and so I stuck to those, avoiding any references to Swarthmorewood or high school. It had been my experience that – in circles such as these – admitting one had graduated from a semi-rival school (a catholic school, no less) represented grounds for immediate McCarthyism. It made no difference I was 22, or that every other person on that field was 21. We were drinking on a township lot, smack-dab in the middle of a place where childhood labels still applied. Three feet from where I was sitting, the words, “Folsom Forever,” had been hand-carved into a post, the bottom bar of one F representing the top bar of another. Nothing had changed here. Not even the words.

By 11 PM, the nostalgia of drinking outside had given way to frostbitten fingers. Marci spent 10 minutes encouraging a pair of friends to leave with us, regardless of where we were going. I found this frustrating, given I had assumed Marci and I would eventually end up alone. We were good that way; we had always been, going belt-for-belt in the post-party hours before dawn. Marci had grown up three blocks away from me, yet we hadn’t actually met until she started dating John. For half-a-decade, our relationship had never graduated beyond the platonic. And yet, there was an unspoken charge in the air now, filtered clean in the burgeoning period after John and Marci called it quits.

Marci looked fantastic. She was wearing a cream-colored coat over a shimmering pantsuit, in contrast to the stagnant array of denim in her car. Marci had blonde hair and her body smelled like perfume. For as long as I had known her, she had always smelled superb.

We were driving on MacDade now, Marci, Barry, Jimmy Nicholson and I. I was drunk, in the backseat, making jokes about how Marci wouldn’t do this or wouldn’t do that. “The old Marci would’ve offered that guy on the corner a blowjob,” I’d say, or, “A year ago Marci would’ve laid on her horn.” Jimmy Nicholson took a shine to this idea, and as Marci made a right on Milmont Avenue, he began to riff on it alone.

“You won’t run that stop sign,” Jimmy Nicholson would say, or, “You won’t do a hundred down this road.”

Marci responded by pressing her foot down on the gas pedal. She accelerated through a red light, barreling hard into a turn. Marci’s car began to serpentine, careening left, jumping a curb. The entire chassis seemed to plummet; the engine cut across a lawn.

Everything went quiet. I thought I heard a dog bark. Marci’s car began to rattle, sliding
down into a pole.

“BOOM!” I banged my head against the window. “FLAP!” A dozen beer cans hit the floor.

“Is everybody OK?” Marci whispered. For a moment no one answered. I was scanning nearby porches, expecting to see a light outside each door.

Marci put her car in Drive. She maneuvered free of the pole. She eased us down onto the roadway, rear bumper scraping like a hoe. Marci made a right, wedged her car into an open lot. She told us to get out. There was no humor in her tone.

Jimmy and Barry began to leave. “You weren’t with me,” Marci reminded them.

She and I remained there in silence. We were sitting outside a bar known as the Friendly Cafe.

Marci got out. We surveyed the damage. The back tires were blown, and they appeared like spools of mud sprouting patches of green grass. The car looked like a sinking ship with a running dent along its side. We followed several scrape marks up the street. They led onto a lawn that was eviscerated. Beyond that, a pair of skid marks, dark as night. Collectively, these beacons told a story with an indisputable beginning, middle and end.

Marci just kept walking. She showed no sign of turning back.

We made a right on Woodland Avenue, a dead-end block that ran deserted, the midnight air unfurling slow, like rolling mint against my tongue. The moon hung in the west, as if it had been smeared across a chalkboard. Notre Dame, the elementary school I’d once attended, loomed 300 meters in the distance. Its frame ran pale and ambient, like some factory whose only output was its furnace. To our left, Grace Park, the red-brick elementary school that Marci had attended. There was a football field between, all divots and dead earth. That field gave way to Nelson Hall, a banquet space equipped for basketball and bingo. Growing up I had attended summer masses in that hall, an air-conditioned alternative to the whirl of fans inside our church.

“What are you gonna do?” I said to Marci.

“What am I gonna do about what?” she said.

“About the car?”

“Nothing,” Marci said. She was laughing. “Whatever I was gonna do, I’ve already done it. So far as I can tell, somebody must’ve stolen that motherfucker.”

“Stolen the car?”

“Fuck, yeah,” Marci said. “You think I’m stupid enough to drive my Cavalier across a lawn?”

“So how did we get home?” I said.

“I walked,” Marci said. “Fuck if I’m supposed to know how you got home. Who would even think to ask?”

We parted ways at Fairview Road. Marci wandered off toward her parents’ house, and I continued southeast toward mine. I passed Notre Dame, and then the Lieper Cemetery, continuing down along a string of houses, TV tubes against drawn curtains. I passed the jaundiced blinking of a school zone, lights still operating after midnight. On this night, much like any, the only traffic was an occasional jalopy, burning pistons back and forth from either Wawa or MacDade.

Swarthmore was a Quaker settlement, and it still retained that Quaker air, right down to borough ordinances that forbid the sale of alcohol within its limits. There were signs all over town: “Do Not Enter – Local Traffic Only”. Behind closed doors, civil unrest was known to ensue. As a child, one might experience this at home before running into it at a friend’s house, perhaps even encountering it through walls. Swarthmore thrived upon the idea of domestic issues being handled “in-house” – a friendly euphemism meaning nothing ever changes, from a lack of transparency to several costly levels of shame.

I made a right into my parents’ driveway, squeezed my body between cars. I pulled the gate and let myself into the yard. I grabbed a chair and lit a cigarette. I cracked a beer that I’d kept stashed inside my pocket.

For a moment I could remember being happy here, could remember playing with my action figures, or riding around on a Huffy Extreme. I could remember hanging out two yards to the north, dressing up in homemade capes with David Fox. The Foxes moved away in 1981, and I lost touch with David Fox a few years after. From what I understood David was working as a tattoo artist now. He was competing as a freestyle biker and playing electric guitar in a band. All of this while I sat smoking in my parents’ yard, dangling a cigarette behind my back for fear that somebody might see.

Across the street, at an angle south-southeast, I could make out the red-brick twin where Joe Kennedy, my best friend throughout high school, still lived. In years past I might wander over there around this time of night, wake Joe up and talk him into drinking with me. Those days were over now. I had no idea whether Joe would even be at home, and his parents were getting older. Besides, I hadn’t spoken to him in months. My late-night privileges had been repealed.

Everything felt so tainted, from the streets that ran so empty to duplex houses I could hurdle. The only thing that lingered was the memory. I had turned on my father. I knew that now, just as I was aware that I had done it with good reason, my reason; the type of reason one resorts to when practicality is gone.

A week before I left, in May of 1992, I had gone out one evening with friends. There were eight of us – six guys and two girls – all of whom had just completed finals. We bought a case of Busch Light pounders and a plastic gallon full of vodka. We were drinking in the Arboretum behind Swarthmore College, in a clearing that ran perpendicular to Lang Auditorium. We passed that bottle till it emptied, causing me to black out before 11 PM. Based on what I was told, security had descended upon the area around 11:30, giving chase by way of flashlights. I was unable to walk, and so a friend tossed me over his shoulder, carrying me out like a sack of potatoes. Upon arriving at his car, a group of friends threw me in the hatch. They drove me to my parents’ house, where they carted me along the driveway, then watched me timber in the door.

My father came downstairs, attempted to stir me. He turned me over. I asked him who he was. He helped me up, allowed me to go to the bathroom. I leaned my weight against a window and put my forearm through the glass. The only thing I can remember after that is static, freeze frames of me lying in bed, very possibly in tears, my father talking sense as I began to babble incoherently. Looking up from where I was sitting, I could see the Tot Finder sticker still affixed my old bedroom window, a reminder of Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren’s claim that  “There remains in the atmosphere of an empty room a little of the human soul.”

My parents assumed I was on drugs. I wasn’t, but who could blame them? I mean, the level of frustration that must accompany finding one’s son lying face down on the floor? Even prior to that, the rift had reached a point where there could be no equal ground. My father’s only mode of communication was anger, and my response had gone from apathy to silence. Putting sentiment aside, there appeared to be no point in sparring. What the two of us were suffering from was a fundamental split, a separation in our stars. One might argue it ran deeper, and I might counter that I had benefited immeasurably from slowly learning how to disengage.

I dropped my cigarette. I listened to it fizz inside the can. I hid the two of them beneath some garbage and made my way toward the door. It was late now and I was cold and tomorrow I’d be returning to Penn State. So far as what I knew about the accident, well, who would even think to ask?

Day 1,171

(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB.)

©Copyright Bob Hill