One strange day in my youth, on a Monday, the headmaster, Mr. Werman, interrupted my English class and Mr. Plimpton’s lecture on the Romantics, Wordsworth in particular.
We were supposed to have read “Lines” the night before. I wasn’t paying much attention and was instead doodling lazy daydreams in my mind. Mr. Plimpton, when he recited lines of the poem, had a sleepy, deep, and sonorous voice.
Since I wasn’t paying attention, Mr. Plimpton called on me and asked, “How would you describe the force that Wordsworth believes connects us all to nature and to each other, Mr. Rowland?”
Before I could answer him, and long before the chilling fear of an audience could sink in, Mr. Werman entered, shuffled across the room, and whispered into the long raisiny ear of Mr. Plimpton. After a moment of listening, Mr. Plimpton said, “Edward, Mr. Werman would like to have a word with you.”
The class made a jocund noise, and Nathan Miller, who sat beside me, exclaimed, “You’re in trouble now!” I smiled half in embarrassment and said, “Whatever it is, I didn’t do it!” They all snickered, and Mr. Plimpton knocked on his desk to quiet them.
I followed Mr. Werman out of the hallway, worried Nathan might be right, yet relieved at the same time because I did not have to lose any marks by giving an incorrect answer in class. Mr. Plimpton was a stickler about class participation, and I had been having a rather languid year. I had told my mom on the phone a few days beforehand that I was just practicing for my senior year and that I would eventually pull my grades back up to the expected summit of B’s. Why be a failure? was my motto.
Mr. Werman lead me down the hall towards his office. “You have some important visitors, Edward,” he said. “Please let me know if there’s anything we can do for you. Don’t be afraid to ask. Just let me know, okay?” He smiled, not at me but at the moving wall behind me.
“Okay,” I said. But I was confused. Who would visit me? My mom, worried about my grades? She was always talking about potential, but it seemed kind of extreme for her to drop by the school all of a sudden without calling first or letting me know. The hall was tall and long and empty. Pictures of ancient trustees lined the walls like solemn inmates.
I was fourteen then (turning fifteen in May) and nearing the middle of my sophomore year at Bloomberg Private School. We had to wear the standard uniforms: gray suits for the boys, plaid gray skirts for the girls. In 1956, one hundred or so years after being founded by Paul Bloomberg (a wealthy spice merchant born in Boston in 1828), the school had opened its doors to girls so as to end the long-running protest by some local women’s groups. I wrote an essay on it in eighth grade entitled “The Girls of Bloomberg: Twenty Years Later.” I was able to interview numerous girls from the school, mostly upperclassmen, to get their insight into the topic. It was a good essay.
Sarah Brooks was the prettiest girl in school, and it was rumored she had a crush on me. I had planned to write her a note but had not gotten around to it. Bloomberg taught from 7th to 12th grade, and I was going to be there for the whole run, just like my older brother Richie had a few years before me. I really liked the school, I had a lot of friends, and as I said before, I usually got good grades. During my freshman year, I was even voted treasurer of the student council, but all I did was just sit around during meetings and listen to other kids talk seriously about regulations and upcoming events (pie-bake, spring dance, do we have to wear these stupid ties all day?, etc.). I say this in all honesty: I liked everybody and everybody liked me. Sarah Brooks even had a crush on me. I had a tight group of friends who helped me study and have fun.
I loosened my tie as I passed the secretary and neared Mr. Werman’s office. After I crossed the threshold, Mr. Werman quietly shut the door behind him and went around to his desk. His office had a bland brightness to it that day, the curtains were wide open, and a large block of anemic daylight leaned into the room.
A policeman in a dark jacket stood near the center of the room and turned to face me as I entered. He removed his cap, ran his hand through his thick brown hair, and then fitted the cap snugly back on his head. Ginger was sitting beside the desk in her overcoat, half covered in pale sunlight. I sat down across from her and looked at her rosy nose, feeling deeply unsettled by her presence and somber appearance. She reached out and touched my hands, holding my fingers for a long time. Her wild strawberry smell came over me.
Ginger was my brother Richie’s girlfriend; they had been dating for about six or seven years and had planned to get married in the spring after they graduated from college. She was twenty-three years old and my brother was twenty-four, turning twenty-five next August. They had actually met here at Bloomberg and, with a bit of odd luck, discovered that they were both from the same town, St. Louis. Improbable but true. I had always thought my brother had gotten far too lucky. She had a light and dancing voice, tinkling and coy—a little bell in a dull room.
“How are you, Eddie?” she asked.
“Fine.” Why in the world was she here? Why was she with a policeman? I looked at Mr. Werman, at the policeman, and then back at Ginger. I instantly reviewed all of my past actions but found none that would warrant a visit from a policeman and my brother’s girlfriend, or either of them by themselves for that matter. Her eyes were ringed and reddish.
“Edward,” the policeman said suddenly. “My name is Officer Lane, from the Bent Oak Police Department.” He seemed to be only a few years older than Ginger and had a dark, bushy mustache and sideburns. He shuffled his feet a bit as he spoke. “I’m afraid I have bad news.”
I turned to Ginger, who was crying and covering her face.
“At about 5 p.m. last night,” Officer Lane continued, “your family was involved in a fatal car accident near your home. I’m told that it was very quick and that they didn’t feel any pain. The officers at home will be able to give you more information and any assistance you might need. I know this is difficult, but they wanted me to let you know that there will be someone there at the station who you can talk to and who will try to help you get some sense out of this tragedy. Miss Barrett will take you home, and I know from just the short conversation I’ve had with her that she cares a lot about you. You’re going to be in good hands.”
“I’m sorry, Eddie,” Ginger cried, touching my leg with her hand. I stared at the desk but did not see it. I could not feel my body; my head was floating away, then expanding and snapping like a wounded balloon.
“What?” I heard a strange, hacking voice struggle to speak. “What?”
“They didn’t make it, Eddie,” she said. “Richie, your mom and dad… I’m so sorry. I came to get you right away. I know how terrible this is.”
Mr. Werman, clearing his throat, nodded to the policeman, who then followed him out of the room and left us alone. Ginger, holding both my hands, moved closer and began to whisper.
“They were just going to get hamburgers,” she said. “Some idiot fell asleep and crashed into the car. He knocked it over the median. There was a truck coming the other way.” I saw the immediate horror of it in my mind—the blood, glass, and metal wreckage. Ginger rubbed her eyes and continued, “Your neighbor called me at about three in the morning. Mrs. Larson. I couldn’t believe it. She was going to call your school, and I told her I would do it. I had to go to the police station, to the… and I came here as fast as I could, Eddie. I didn’t pack any clothes. I just got in the car and left. Even though I’m so scared to have to drive now… after something like that happened. But Eddie, I didn’t want you to be alone when the police got here. I came as fast as I could, I drove all night. I’ve been trying not to think much.”
I heard a car horn beep somewhere outside the window, and I flinched. I couldn’t feel her hands anymore, although they had swallowed my own.
“Uh, Edward,” Mr. Werman said from the doorway, “you can go collect your things from your room now if you’re ready. You don’t need to worry about schoolwork or anything like that. We’ll get things worked out later. Miss Barrett, we will need for you to sign a release form; rules, you know. I know it’s hard to focus on these things, but you understand if anything were to happen… well…”
“I understand, Mr. Werman,” Ginger said, rubbing my shoulder and gliding quickly out of the room. Mr. Werman stepped back into the office for a moment, but I couldn’t understand anything he was saying. Some other people, a secretary or two, another teacher, Officer Lane, drifted in and out like concerned ghosts. All my senses were gone, ripped out at the roots. I tried to stand up, but I had no feeling in my legs and my head was still shrinking and expanding, shifting from lightness to darkness and retreating again. I closed my eyes and sat back down. I don’t know how long I sat there—at least fifteen minutes, I think. Next thing I knew, Ginger was hurrying back to me; her pale hair bouncing into the room, her blue eyes big and wet, her arms suddenly tight around my neck, her woolly coat irritating my chin, her warm soft hands pulling me out from the depths.
I went with Ginger up to the room I shared with Nathan Miller on the second floor. Mike, the old custodian, was mopping the floor at the far end of the corridor. He raised his head as we approached the room. He kept swinging his mop back and forth and mumbling. He did not wave to me as he often did and instead seemed merely annoyed by the intrusion. In the room, I sat stiff and dizzy on the bed while Ginger tossed my clothes into the suitcase and asked if I wanted to take any books or not. I can’t remember if I said yes or no.
She was a golden-haired blur in a black overcoat floating from wall to wall, swinging shirts and pants over her shoulder and shoving my socks and underwear in the gaping suitcase with little thrusting motions. She packed nearly all of my clothes, tossing in everything she could as if I would never return—I hadn’t even wondered about that possibility. It was vaguely disconcerting to see her at school, shoveling though all my things like that. I had once seen a dim photograph of her from when she was a student here (pigtails, slim arms full of books, plaid dress swaying in the wind, blurry tennis court in the background), but I always had trouble believing it was her. I might only have believed it was and that she had truly gone to this very same school, if I could have seen her for myself some bizarre day, with her golden pigtails and slim arms near the tennis courts, on my way to Geometry.
She stopped packing only once to recuperate, rubbing her eyes and taking in a deep, trembling breath. Then we were moving down the stairs, down the hall, and out of the doors of Bloomberg.
I put my suitcase in the trunk of her tiny green car and crammed into the front seat. The policeman had already left. I didn’t believe what they had told me, not completely anyway.
Ginger sat holding the steering wheel for a while, peering blindly out the windshield at the cold stone steps leading up to the colossal front doors of the school. An impressive crow fluttered clumsily out of the snowy grass, its massive Plutonian wings pounding through the swirling gray air. A lean shape moved across one of the higher windows—a curious or bored student, like a shadow, fading away. Fresh snowflakes melted on the car windows. I wanted to take Ginger’s hand. I started to reach out, but she pulled away without seeing my effort and blew her nose.
Ginger’s parents and my parents lived in St. Louis, and Bloomberg was about a hundred or so miles outside of Chicago in tiny Bent Oak, Illinois. She and my brother had been on winter break since last Friday (today was only Monday), and it had been decided that she and her family were going to have Christmas dinner at our house. The dinner alternated from house to house each year (since neither of us had any other relatives in town) and last year we had eaten at Ginger’s. Bloomberg’s winter break wasn’t until the end of the week, and I still hadn’t bought presents for anybody.
Ginger’s hands gripped the wheel tightly as she pulled out into traffic. She flinched each time a car passed us, which was pretty often considering how slowly she was driving. I could not even imagine how she had managed to drive all the way to my school in such a state. Eventually she turned off the highway and stopped at a gas station to collect herself. She fumbled in her pockets for a cigarette and then struggled with the lighter. She inhaled deeply and leaned back.
“I can’t drive anymore,” she said, blowing out a puff of smoke. “I just can’t do it. We’ll have to get home another way.”
“Could we take a plane?” I asked, aware from the crackle in my throat that I had not spoken for quite a long time. The car smelled of increasing warmth, crawling up our legs and expanding.
“God, no,” she said. “There’s no way in hell you’re getting me on a plane. Damn. What are we going to do? Think, Virginia, think! Oh, we can take a train. Do you know where a train station is?”
I shook my head. I had never really gone much farther than the school grounds and did not know where anything in Bent Oak was (except maybe the restaurant my parents often took me to when they picked me up for summer and winter break). And I wasn’t even sure if we were still in Bent Oak anymore. I had thought she would have known her way around better, having also gone to school here, but she was probably just bewildered by the long drive and still in a haze.
Ginger decided to run into the gas station to ask for directions. I watched her slide past the pillars of silvery gas pumps and disappear behind the glass door, her blonde hair spotting my eyes like a hard glance at the sun. A woman was talking on the pay phone, waving mittened hands ecstatically in the air. Two older men and a girl got into a car and drove away. A large group of people talked loudly beside a dirty black truck, gesticulating and hollering. I saw a freckled girl my age wearing a bright red scarf dotted with snow. I wondered briefly why she wasn’t in school.
Traffic howled from the nearby street and wind shook the car. I thought of a million wheels flying through the air, rolling like big black coins on the sidewalk. I listened to the scream of crushing metal, the soft patter of broken glass scattering over the pavement. My stomach tightened. The snow continued falling with increasing indifference and the clouds drifted in the ashen sky as one enormous mass. The sun had quit trying.
Her absence was suddenly unbearable. I could not sit still. I longed for her. The dashboard crowded my legs. Ginger had taken the keys and heat with her. The cold seemed to instantly fill the car. I was about to pound on the horn and kick my feet when she finally ran back, slid into the seat, and slammed the door, which she immediately reopened to pull the end of her coat back inside.
“He didn’t know where it was either,” she said, out of breath. Her nose was a pale cherry. “We had to look at a street map. I think we just have to follow this road for a couple miles and it should be somewhere on the right.”
She looked over and grazed my cheek with the back of her fingers. “Are you okay?” she asked, but I could only peer down at my hands.
We did eventually find the station. I realized we could have taken a bus instead, but decided not say anything about it. She was focused on the train; “It’ll get us home,” she kept saying. But the word “home” seemed to trip her up, and she kept pronouncing it oddly, like a question. Inside, there was a large family (father, mother, three sons, two little daughters) sending off a grandmother with broad smiles and niceties. Dark wet streams of mush made paths from the main doors to the cashier, spreading out from the counter like an inky octopus before being pulled into a knot at the opposite row of doors. Paper snowflakes dangled from the rafters—the same kind I made in first and second grade. A forgotten Christmas tree sat in the corner dropping needles on the floor. Ginger told me to sit on a bench against the wall while she checked the train schedule and went to buy our tickets. She rubbed the top of my head and darted off.
The station was cavernous and sweltering. The walls were brown and peeling with the leprosy of neglect. Sweat beaded up instantly on my brow. I took off my coat and draped it over my suitcase next to me on the bench. I was still wearing my school uniform, plaid tie and stiff jacket, but I didn’t care. The needles under the Christmas tree nearby were already a rusty brown. I watched Ginger run up to the cashier sitting behind a portal of smudged glass. I watched her tilt her head to side while she chewed on her index finger, listening, I supposed, to the terms and prices. She rocked back and forth impatiently on her heels and shivered. A man behind her dropped a quarter on the floor, and it rolled and wobbled until his wet black shoe stepped on it.
“I got our tickets,” Ginger said after walking back to me. “It’s going a kind of roundabout way, but we have a cabin room—I could only afford one. We’ll be okay, sweetheart. I’ll be with you tonight; we’ll both be okay. I called my parents, and they’re going to meet us in St. Louis. They were furious. I forgot to tell them that I was coming up here for you. I don’t know what we’re going to do about my car though. I guess we can worry about that later, huh? The train’s here now, so we need to go. Who would’ve though it’d be on time?”
I grabbed my suitcase and slid into my coat. She handed me my ticket, and I glanced hastily at it without really even seeing it. I had never been on a train before. Outside, voices mingled across the platform. A man checked our tickets and ushered us into the train with a swinging arm motion. “Let’s step a little faster, people,” he said. “The train won’t wait all day.” We walked through several cars before entering our designated cabin. I can’t remember if it had a number on it or not, but I remember the smooth wooden door, my shiny and red and indistinct reflection on the way inside.
I spent the next half hour whimpering. Ginger held me, and I clung to her. The train began to rock and howl as it slowly lurched forward. Ginger, stepping with the sharp undulations, walked over and closed the blinds. The light retreated, leaving us in a cavern of darkness. I watched her slide through the shadows back to our seat, her bobbed hair simmering to a dim, yellow glow. There was no other sun in the system. There was no world outside of that jarring box, no blurring forests, no powdery stretches of flat and jutting land, no more highways or roads. In short, I could not imagine a hint of life anywhere else but in that darkened room. The time of other things had passed and all their joys were no more. It was me and Ginger, Ginger and me. I understood that now even if I couldn’t quite believe the disaster.
A loud child yelled and stomped outside the door like an elephant. A woman’s voice came after it from down the hall.
“Are you hungry?” Ginger asked. “I just heard your stomach growling.”
“No,” I said. “Maybe a little.”
“Well, let’s go get some food. Food’s a good thing.”
Ginger had three cups of coffee. Her hair was in a sort of disarray, sticking up in spots but still bright and sunny. Her eyes and nose were red, her cheeks were pale, and her hand across the table was warm. I devoured a ham and cheese sandwich, three bags of potato chips, half an apple, and three glasses of orange soda. A strange guilt went through me at each bite, a hard, sharp feeling that I should not be eating at a time like this. But I was so hungry I probably could have gone on eating for hours, filling up that emptiness with whatever I could stomach. Ginger watched me push aside my plate when all the food was gone.
“Iowa,” she said vaguely. “We’re going to Iowa first. I’m not ready to go back yet. I’m just not… ready… I can’t…”
I looked at her. She had covered her mouth and was staring out of the window. Her reflection in the glass was paler than any ghost. I felt sick. For a second I thought I heard my brother’s voice escaping the mechanical concord of the train, rising up suddenly with a friendly shout. Someone behind us coughed, and it withdrew.
Outside the window, the flat, white land, dotted with the skeletons of trees, rolled by under a vast and bleak sky.
“I know it hurts,” she whispered a few moments later, “but we’ll be all right. I swear we will. It’s okay, baby, sweetheart. Come sit with me over here, honey. Come here, Eddie. I promise, baby.”
I went to her. She squeezed my hand, and we quickly returned to our cabin. Ginger was with me; we had each other. We were trees and soil. Our lives, I believed, were more deeply entangled now than they could have ever been before, if she had married my brother and all that. This new connection with her was as strong to me as I imagined love was, stronger even. Ginger would be the constant nurse of my woes, the infallible guide of my life and unimaginable future ways. I felt there were no clouds she could not brighten and chase away.
In the cabin, we sat side by side in silence, watching time slip like quicksilver down the long red door, down into the far corner, and turn to shadow. All was darkness until the train stopped for a while so another car could be added. Her hand sought mine as we waited. It was getting darker and darker outside. I felt so much older, beaten into immediate dotage. Other kids had magazines and guns, sage advice, sex, and instinct, but this was how things would be for me. Through the small gap in the window and the shade, I could see great mounds of snow falling from the sky, turning the world into a stark white nothingness. I looked over at Ginger as often as I could when the train started moving again.
There were two small benches facing each other and both could be flipped over and used as minuscule beds. I put on my pajamas in the small, cramped, narrow, frustrating bathroom and when I came out Ginger was down on her knees, elbows propped up on the newly formed bed, her head bowed in prayer.
She stood up when she realized I was watching her and finally removed her overcoat. She took off her shoes and sweater (she was wearing a white T-shirt underneath) and folded them neatly on the other seat with her coat.
“Can we, I mean, could we…?” I was mumbling.
“Yeah,” she said, looking down at the bed. “It’ll be a tight fit though.”
We climbed into the bed, maintaining a respectable but profoundly intimate distance as that of soldiers crowded in a ditch. “Go to sleep, sweetheart,” she whispered. “Go to sleep, baby.”
I fell asleep quickly and woke up just as suddenly. I dreamt that I was falling from some impossible height into a great, white emptiness, and everything I tried to slow my decent only increased the speed of my fall. I didn’t know which was worse, the dream or having to wake from it.
Ginger was on her back, taking up most of the bed. Her lips were slightly parted, and I could see the low shine of her teeth, which were so close to me I could feel the warmth of her breath. Her chest heaved and sank under the covers. In a prickly wave of embarrassment, I felt we were too close, that I should have slept in the other bed, but there was warmth here, and I did not want to leave it. She was so warm. Mindlessly, I touched her plump bottom lip with my thumb. A dreamy smile filled her lovely round face like the bright sun fills the sky, and she kicked her legs slowly as if she was running. Then—and I have never exactly understood why—I leaned down and kissed her. She shook, rubbed her mouth with the back of her wrist, rolled halfway over, and then jumped as if out of an amazing dream.
“What are you doing?” she muttered sleepily. She was looking at me, but I had already retreated and turned away. I could feel her body shift abruptly on the tiny bed as she sat up. “What was that?”
“Nothing,” I whispered. “Nothing. I was half asleep.”
She turned her back to me, pulling most of the blanket off my legs and over herself. The cold flooded across my legs and chest.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Go to sleep.”
On and on the snow fell, covering the world in thick shrouds, falling over houses and empty streets, filling the pine trees and windowsills at Bloomberg. I thought about Ginger’s crappy green car in a mausoleum of snow; I don’t know why. I thought about Sarah Brooks’ face, but I could not remember it was well as I would have liked. There was no doubt she could see the snow from her window, watching those fragile shapes dissolve on the glass and in the ground. And in the far distance, across the gaping void of my mind, I could see snow blanketing the wreckage of my parents’ car. The snow would fall here forever if I had that power.
“Eddie?” Her voice was a silver bell in the box of shadows, a familiar jingle.
A long time passed, each second echoing the shaky wheels of the train as it clambered onward, forever and forever. I closed my eyes. A great pressure was slowly pushing down on me in the darkness of that cabin—it engulfed me like a slow but certain avalanche. I knew then how things would be for me in this life.
“Eddie, you… you can hold me now if you want to,” she whispered. “Eddie? Please. You can hold me now and you can… I’ll let you kiss me again, Eddie. If you want to…”
Her voice was smaller this time, tiny and fading beneath mounds of comfortable snow. Her arms came over me at last, and I pretended I was asleep because something was changing inside me, and I did not want her to notice.
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF MARCUS COOPER.