or “wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then”
by S.M. Berberich
He steers his brand new silver BMW Z3 convertible over effortlessly into that familiar left turn to enter Campus Drive. “What a kick this will be,” he says to himself. “Man-o-man, the old campus again.”
The first thing he sees on campus is a gigantic new Jordon Athletic Center he didn’t know about. He drives past a new, avant-garde Perlman Fine Art’s Theater that wasn’t around in his day. He doesn’t recognize the campus and frowns.
He books the Beemer past expansive parking lots. “Oh no. This was where Agriculture College students tended the cattle herd. Pity.”
When he reaches campus center things become more recognizable—Georgian red brick monoliths all over, just where they should be. Huge pillars are still holding up the Georgian porch of the Student Union. “Of course they are.” There’s the ivy, much more of it, creeping over the Lockheed Physics Building and into his old lab windows, it appears to him.
And then, “Oh, my,” he says. There was the same familiar bus stop beside the undergrad library. A very special bus stop. “I thought it would be long gone.”
He hasn’t been back since his college days there, almost 30 years ago.
He slows the car to a crawl, obsessed by memories of that bus stop, Is returning such a good idea, he wonders. It was so very long ago.
He can’t help staring. The bus stop is unchanged. Just the 2010 circa flyers and bulletins taped all over its plastic shelter are different, instead of flyers from 1980. He tries to read one while coasting. “Hey, look out!” someone shouts. A girl on the bus stop bench is pointing at him, signaling to others standing by.
He slams on the brakes, skidding to an inch of a campus shuttle bus idling at a red light for pedestrians.
Those students at the curb look so very young, mere babies, he thinks while waiting.
He finds himself snickering at the kids. “Now that I’ve got your attention, … “ He presses a button on the dashboard. The convertible top slides back. Passing students all turn to notice the old man’s silver rocket, a mid-life extravagance, for sure.
Bet if I tooled such a sexy ride back then instead of my old Malibu jalopy, things would have been different, he thinks. He tries to smirk. Not his nature. The thought instead makes him sad. Such an idea is absurd.
His Janey comes to mind. He takes a deep, painful breath. Now, there’s no denying it. The real reason he is cruising Campus Drive again is right there at that bus stop where Janey once entered his life, long, long ago.
He strains to see the faces on the young students waiting at the bus stop. There she is. Janey is there. Okay, she’s gone … again, and again, and again. Oh this was not a good idea, he contemplates.
He smiles as he flips on the Harmon Kardon sound system with the subwoofer. The kids should love this. But, the trick’s on him. The radio is playing the very song that always brings Janey back to mind. It’s torture for him.
“Oh my God, no,” he says. He is loud enough for the students at the bus stop hear him and stare.
The light turns green. He stays, staring. He’s frozen, listening to the lyrics from rocker Bob Segar’s “Against the Wind” from 1980.
It seems like yesterday But it was long ago Janey was lovely, she was the queen of my nights There in the darkness with the radio playing low And the secrets that we shared The mountains that we moved Caught like a wildfire out of control Till there was nothing left to burn and nothing left to prove
“Sir? is there something wrong?” a girl came to the car, just as Janey did that night. He sees Janey’s face on the girl. His mind flashes to an incredibly unlikely meeting of Janey late one.
“Sir? Are you okay? “Sir?” He focuses. It is just a strange student, very young, just like Janey was. This girl bears no resemblance, brunette and fully dressed in jeans and T-shirt. Unlike Janey, who was blonde and nearly naked that fateful night.
“Oh,” he says, embarrassed.
He drives down the familiar campus hill on Campus Drive. Intuitively, he pulls into the campus chapel’s parking lot. He listens. Memories numb his mind and entire body.
Against the wind We were runnin’ against the wind We were young and strong, we were runnin’ Against the wind.
“Well yes, I’ll say, we were,” he says to himself.
He dreads hearing the heartbreaking stanza:
And I remember what she said to me How she swore that it never would end I remember how she held me oh so tight Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then Against the wind We were runnin’ against the wind We were young and strong, we were runnin’ Against the wind And the years rolled slowly past And I found myself alone Surrounded by strangers I thought were my friends …
He flips it off the radio violently.
He lets the little sports car drift under the shade of the great white oak where his love for his Janey took hold, next to the tall chapel steeple.
He ponders. He called her Janey. Everyone else knew her as Jane. She was the wildest party girl on campus.
Turning off the motor, he slides the seat back to look up at the steeple spire. He imagines the crescent moon up there, as it was when they first kissed. He closes his eyes. He pictures her at the bus stop again. His memory is perfect and he relives the highly unlikely, and yet wonderful moment when he first saw a pretty blonde girl, intoxicated and seemingly helpless, leaning on the bus stop just outside the infirmary. She was barefoot and wearing only a big man’s white dress shirt.
He dozes off, lost in the memory of Janey’s enchanting deep blue indigo eyes:
It happened on a very late Sunday night, about 2 a.m. The campus was empty.
He was a college sophomore driving around feeling lonely. He wore as dress shirt and pleated slacks from church that morning. He was entertained by straining to listen through heavy static to the AM dial on his old Chevy Malibu. A baseball game from St. Louis, a thousand miles away.
He was introverted, skinny; with close cut straight brown hair. Gangly and awkward. His social life was zero, just books and a passion for baseball.
He motored the Malibu past the college infirmary and slowed to focus on something moving at the bus stop at the corner. It was a pretty blonde girl with bare legs under a bright white shirt, looking ghostly and quite alarmed.
As his car got closer, she waved. He slowed cautiously. The skinny boy watched as the image of the girl in white came toward him. His self-pitying demeanor was altered shiftly and surely that moment. This boy realized he needed to help this person, for he was a good boy and she was in some kind of trouble.
She came to the open window, passenger side, of his white 1966 Malibu coup. She somehow trusted the nerdy boy in the 14-year old heap with a hole in the muffler and scratchy AM radio.
“Hey, can you get me out of here? They don’t know I escaped,” she said breathlessly. With only a trace of a reassuring glance from the driver, she climbed in.
He watched her climb in and didn’t object. Her quick, jerky movements caused her big puffy white shirt to puff up to her waist, exposing herself for a second. That was just long enough for the shy boy to see the nakedness of a girl for the first time in his life. No panties. Nothing. She quickly pulled the shirt down, saw him look, and was unphased. She yelled, “Quick, quick. Pleeeese, can you take me with you?”
“Where?” he said, bewildered, not moving at all.
“Just go … anywhere, but here.”
The boy virgin surprised himself. He was not anxious about what he saw, despite a momentary shortness of breath. The vibrant young female who’d just hurdled herself into his car was in trouble. His job was to behave.
He drove down the hill on Campus Drive with his pretty passenger nestled into the black bucket seat of his old coup, knees to her chest, face looking out that window, ignoring the boy.
“Do you need clothes?”
“Well … do you think so? Whatever gave you that thought,” she snapped, and then turned to face him. She softened when they exchanged a look that neither would ever forget. It was a look of trust, belonging, comfort, and true affinity with another soul, completely unrehearsed, unexpected, and unlikely.
He felt it too and was dumbfounded.
He recovered after some heavy heartbeats, “I’ll get you some clothes, okay? We have to go to my apartment.”
He saw that she looked cross, perhaps a bit threatened. But again, they exchanged an intriguing glance, as if their mutual fate was sublime, and time stopped with their curious eyes. He would always remember that epiphany of two hearts, minds and souls without a single word spoken by either of the two human beings who were each idly adrift in the shadows of their now-lost evenings.
She broke the spell after seconds that seemed an eternity, “Fine … I mean, okay … thanks.” She turned quickly back to the side window, and then slowly returned to study his face, maybe wondering what had just happened between them. “Janey” relaxed.
He felt her contentment. “My name is Michael,” he said without looking at her. Although she did not respond with a name, he thought she was harmless, despite being so loose and sharp with her words.
They said no more until 2:35 a.m. when he unlocked the three-bedroom apartment he shared with two other boy students. “Stay here on the couch. I’ll be back with some clothes.”
“Where am I going to go?”
He was getting fond of her tough attitude. Her sarcasm hinted to her true nature, her fast party life.
Michael figured he was not dealing with just a stormy girl but a hurricane, “Jes, why me,” he muttered to himself, entering the apartment building hallway. He was for his luck to meet such a girl.
Janey was a sexy sorority girl with a habit of sleeping around, hard drinking, and a foul mouth. After less than two years at college, she was a rock star socially, a racy chick with a winning personality around the clubs and bars.
Yet, that night, she crossed paths with a mere boy, a loner, at the same college, who was likely the last guy she would ever want to meet or know socially.
On the couch by the door, Janey could hear Michael pounding on a neighboring door. This is where a single young woman lived.
In a few minutes, with borrowed cloths including underwear over his arm, he returned. “I’ll put these in the bathroom, okay? Just let me know where you need a ride home to tonight,” he said politely.
She watched him as she got up and walked across the room, noticing he was not gawking at her like most boys did.
Michael was a studious recluse. He feared the spells that attractive females could cast over him with one word, gesture, or a comment in class. He feared any girl half this attractive.
But to Michael, this one was different. She was not spellbinding to him. She needed him. He liked that. He like her.
He nodded to her with a kind smile as she emerged again, fully clothed in baggy jeans and a Pittsburgh Steeler sweatshirt.
“Listen, you’ve been so kind. I don’t think I can get back into my house this late. I don’t have a key. Can I crash on the couch?” she said sweetly and a bit flirty, while twisting the ends of her hair seductively with one hand.
Again, Michael ignored or didn’t understand his opportunity to make time with a female. If she was hinting or teasing about sleeping with him, it went right past him. “Okay. I’ll get you a blanket and a pillow.”
He spread a cover over her gently as she stretched out. “Goodnight. I have a class at 9 a.m. I can get you home before that.” He walked toward his bedroom but felt her eyes on him.
“Goodnight, sweet prince,” she said and turned her head away, to the pillow.
That got to him. He whispered, “And flights of angles sing thee to thy rest!” Safely behind his bedroom door, Horatio from Hamlet slept a mere 20 feet from his sexy guest. “Who is that girl?” he asked himself over and over.
………….TO BE CONTINUED
by S.M. Berberich
Late evening, June 22, and the last hint of daylight is just a faint glow on the western horizon. The moonless night obscures the surrounding mountains.
He pulls the old Chevy pickup off the interstate onto a state highway when the headlights flash across the outline of a farm produce stand.
The driver squints through the windshield for a brief moment and then dowses the headlights. With his right hand, he pulls a black bandanna over his nose and feels for the truck door handle with his left. He tugs a dark green baseball cap down to meet his tinted glasses.
He steps out silently, leaving the truck door open, all the while eyeing the movement of a lone, slender figure still working behind the stand by a single, incandescent bulb dangling over a counter. It’s an old farmer tending to business as usual. He doesn’t notice the customer from the green truck any more than other customers who stop for his fresh fruits and vegetables.
It’s closing time. The farmer is busy packing away piles of sweet corn and small baskets of tomatoes, peppers, yellow crook-neck squash, and strawberries—his daily closing chores.
The masked ‘customer’ has anticipated that the old man would not look up. Old men are slow. The farmer’s behavior is the same every closing time for the past two weeks as the man drove the green truck passed at exactly this time. Each time, he would see the farmer bending down, packing away produce or counting his take for the day, mostly with his back to the darkened, lonely West Virginia State Highway Route 7.
Yes, the masked customer has planned well. He won’t be seen or found out. He is not nervous or hesitant. Yet, his only concern is about how he will be characterized in the press, and by Sassafras County Sheriff Roger Deeds. He wants the bumbling Sheriff to discover a senseless crime with no obvious motive.
The man closes swiftly on the old man’s produce stand.
“Mister, you’re to stay on the other side of the counter please,” says the farmer, bending over a crate of green peppers, seeing only the customer’s black sneakers next to him.
Instead of moving away, the masked man steps in closer. “I can’t right now, Pops,” he says. Before the old fellow can argue, a gloved hand pulls the farmer’s head roughly against the day’s last customer’s knee. His 8-inch, serrated fishing knife slashes deep across the farmer’s throat. The killing is swift and neat, with just a muffled “Awhg” from the farmer gagging on his own blood.
The killer runs to the pickup clutching $413, the farmer’s daily take, wrapped around the bloody knife. Behind the wheel again, the killer chuckles as he reaches across the truck seat for a special gift he’s brought along for Sherriff Deeds, a single clue to help the lawman solve the crime.
He removes his bandana and smiles. As he turns the ignition key, the killer reaches out of the window and drops the sheriff’s gift, a crack pipe. The Sheriff will surely link a senseless killing on a rural highway to a crazed druggy from the city.
He checks the road. No headlights nearby. The killer drives off slowly, assured of his perfect getaway as he merges back onto the interstate.
CHAPTER 1: Hank’s Next Pulitzer Dashed
This is not the book I intended to write. It was supposed to be a memoir of my triumphs. Instead, as I sat down to begin writing early one ill-fated morning, … Well, you’ll see.
On that morning, I was pumped up and ready. This is going to be my best book, I thought.
Finally, I can sit down and write it, I thought.
I was sitting on the porch of my new cabin, my sanctuary in the woods. I even thought of working of titles. Hmm, maybe, Untold Truths, and Other Lies! by Henry Clyde Ford. Or simply How to Expose Corporate Criminals.
Another Pulitzer? Sure. I was that confident. This was my long-awaited perfect day to begin writing at my cabin in the woods.
After all, I deserved it, deserved all of it!—the log cabin, the solitude, the memoir writing. For 30 years, I’d worked hard. More than 25 years as an investigative reporter at the Washington Inquirer. I needed the cabin to escape from my demanding job, some serenity for a change, maybe a few days a week…maybe a lot more…maybe retire? No, no, I couldn’t yet. But, I digress.
That morning, sipping my coffee on the porch of my newly completed cabin, I was finally ready to begin writing my book, as I said. It was a beautiful July morning in Appalachia. I took a deep breath and smelled the musty air, a moist breeze drawing off the mature oak and beech trees around me. I admired the folds of distant mountain crests of lighter and lighter shades blue gray that rose behind each other.
Yes, I’d write this one, my third book on the porch of my new cabin, overlooking “my” river. She flowed steadily, whispering softly, continuously below me, her massive power muffled by the mature woods between us. I watched her flowing beyond that natural forest the huge trunks of mature hardwoods perfectly randomly placed.
My retreat was also perfect: the Sassafras River was my new best friend, plus the magnificent the view of the forested hills beyond her, and my laptop, my memories, and the new book already in my head waiting for my fingers to bring it to life.
As for the view, I’d carefully chosen this spot for my cabin, for writing my best book yet.
Alone. Relaxed. Focused. Ready.
Go Henry, go.
But something was not quite right. The atmosphere seemed different that morning than things were during many long days sitting by the unfinished cabin dreaming of that day I could relax and write. But on that particular morning, there was an eerie silence. The rush of the river was the only sound I could hear. No chirping squirrels. No song birds. No cries of circling hawks or eagles. No cicadas or even crickets.
Well okay, so it’s quiet; all the better. Here goes, I thought … just before they came.
The first ones arrived just as I sat down in my log bench, put down my coffee on my log table, opened my laptop, and put my fingers to the keyboard. Directly in my line of sight, just above my laptop screen, just over my log porch railing, out across my river, dead center-top on opposite mountainside, bulldozers roared like mechanical lions. I closed my eyes, opened and squinted. Yep, they were still there.
Within minutes, the horrible machines, the roar, the oily stench, were raping nature, spoiling my hard-earned view of the West Virginia hills, my ideal writing post, my dream.
Why were bulldozers so devastating to me? I’ve given you hints for Lord sake. I was burned out at 50 and I was convinced that I had earned my piece of mind. But before I could begin writing my glorious memoir of my best work–exposing swindlers, wise guys, corporate frauds–I sat there stunned, watching the first cancerous seed of urban sprawl germinate and take root right in MY view, MY woods, next to MY river.
Well, be prepared to be shocked or amused. Take your pick. The bulldozers were one thing. Deal with it, right? Surely I might have. But, I could not have imagined how those rude, filthy mechanical beasts—as shocking as their sudden presence was—would actually foreshadow a whole sequence of tempests blowing into my world.
Okay, okay. I’m getting carried away. All those tempests can wait—the girl, death threats, the seedy Vacation Inn, the visitor from outer space, the lake of monstrous creatures, yes, all that. First, let me for my own satisfaction underscore how damned humiliated I felt that day on the porch of the new cabin. I just have too. Bear with me, please.
CHAPTER 2: Almost Heaven, Meet Chaos
It soon became apparent that the bulldozers’ intent was to present me with a magnificent first look at a newly hatched 7-Eleven store on a country dirt road on the mountain facing me, which until then had been invisible to me. It was surely a deliberate act to ruin my perfect venue for publishing a book on all my clever newspaper investigations. Was it vindication by one of the victims of my pen?
The scribe, that’s me, absolutely groaned when I learned it was not about me, just bad luck. “Oh, thank heaven for 7-Eleven, even here, in Almost-Heaven West Virginia,” I said to myself. That first morning, even before I knew it would be a conveniences store, I could feel my beautiful dreams turning ugly.
I have to add at this early point in my story that before the dozers arrived, I had been very lucky to find this 29-acre lot with a view of the Sassafras—lucky to be working for the Washington Inquirer, that is.
TO BE CONTINUED