The Girl from the Sticks
When I left my mother’s memorial service, I felt lost. I was very fortunate to have made my peace with her years before, with no questions left unanswered, no feelings, or other truths left unsaid. But I had this nagging feeling of “Why am I here?”
The ceremony, which consisted of an automated slideshow of her life accompanied by Beethoven’s “Pastoral,” was held in a small mortuary east of town, and no one else showed up. My mother had outlived most of her friends, most of the kids I had known from high school had moved away, and I had never really kept up with those who had stayed behind.
I had grown up in Bloomington, but I had seen very little of those dozens of tiny towns nestled within the rippled landscape of South Central Indiana. My flight back to LaGuardia wasn’t until the next morning, so that afternoon, I decided to explore.
As with most trips back to Bloomington, I found myself driving down my own personal memory lane, which included two of my childhood homes, one of which was now used for student housing, and the site of my elementary school, which was now an upscale condominium complex. I passed the courthouse square and started heading toward the west side of town, not consciously sure why I chose that direction.
One corner was a real estate office, which had taken over the spot inhabited by a dry cleaner when I was in high school. I remembered that girl who worked there, Denise De La Croix.
I hadn’t thought about her in years. She was remarkably pretty in a quiet way with dirty-blonde hair and an impish smile that didn’t bring unwanted attention. She had sat behind me in Creative Writing class, and we constantly found ways to crack each other up, much to the consternation of the stern old lady who taught the class. I had often thought about asking Denise out, but she was a year ahead of me and, thus, I thought, out of my league. Besides, I had managed to flunk my driving test, so what kind of date could we have?
In retrospect, I could understand why she was drawn to me. Being from “the Sticks,” as we called rural Indiana, she was probably used to people looking down on her in a university town with a lot of “faculty brats.” Yet, I was an outsider myself. I didn’t belong to the townies because my dad was a professor, and I didn’t feel at home with the other faculty kids because I was born in Bloomington, and most of them were originally from out of town. Denise and I always seemed to get along just fine.
In my yearbook, when she was a Senior, and I was just a Junior, she wrote, “Thank you for making Creative Writing a blast! Hope to see you this summer?”
I didn’t see her that summer but, the following summer, when I finally had my driver’s license and was about to head east to college, I figured out that it was now or never. She didn’t seem surprised that I had called. With no impatience whatsoever, she said, “I was wondering when you’d call.”
She lived in the small township called Zion, which I’d never visited. She had given me directions to her house, which was way off the main highways, where the landscape turned to a patchwork of forest land, rolling knolls, muddy creeks (“cricks”), cornfields, and the kind of unassuming little cemeteries with uneven rows that seemed to exist only in very small towns. I had gotten a little lost and arrived a half-hour late, but she was sitting on the porch swing in front of a small white house shaded by sycamore trees when I arrived.
She showed me around her small neck of the woods, including the nearby Solsberry Trestle, which I’d been hearing about for years. Sixteen stories high and spanning over half a mile, it was the longest train trestle in the United States, and crossing it or even standing on it was a rite of passage to teenagers in the area. I parked my car next to one of its supports, and we climbed a small hill to gain access.
I was nervous about heights and a little timid stepping onto it, but Denise led the way with seemingly no care in the world. It was wide enough that, if I kept to the dead center of the track, I could probably stumble with impunity. Yet, instead of walking normally, I would put my right foot forward and follow it timidly with my left. When I looked down at my feet, I could see through the railroad slats just how sickeningly far we were from the ground.
The view, what little I let myself see of it, was miles and miles of forest, with no sign of civilization but the trestle itself. Denise approached a wooden platform, hundreds of yards away, and when she got near it, she turned to me and beckoned. And then she actually walked backward as she encouraged me onward. When I got to the platform, I placed my hands firmly on the rail. I was tempted to test its strength but was terrified that it would suddenly break off and send me hurling into space.
If Denise had touched me just then, I probably would have screamed, but I just sensed her presence beside me. When I turned to face her, her face was mere inches from mine, and something possessed me to try kissing her. I didn’t know how she’d react, but suddenly she was kissing me back, the fear of heights only adding to my exhilaration. (I forgot to mention that another local rite of passage was making out on the Solsberry Trestle.)
After taking her out to dinner at one of the nicer restaurants between our towns, I walked her back to her front door, but she gently tugged me back to the porch swing, where we made out until the porch light mysteriously went on and her mother quickly came out to introduce herself. If she knew we’d been making out, she didn’t seem to mind, but she seemed ready for me to leave.
I called her the next time I was in town for Christmas, and she told me, apologetically, “I’m seeing someone.”
Following my mother’s funeral, I drove aimlessly along those country roads. It was a typically hot and humid summer day in Indiana, and even the sound of cicadas, like thousands of invisible maracas, was oppressive. I wondered whether I could find Denise’s house. There weren’t many landmarks to go by.
Then I remembered that one of the cemeteries was almost directly across the road from Denise’s house. What was the name of it?
Luckily, there was cellphone coverage, so I was able to do an Internet search of “Zion” and “cemeteries.” Several names came up, but only one had stuck in my mind: “Woodlawn.” I entered the name in Google Maps, and it led me down a series of narrow, winding roads without names.
It was crazy, of course. What were the chances she still lived there after 30 years?
My pulse quickened when I saw that small limestone archway bearing the name “Woodlawn.” I parked the car in front of it and began walking around. The cemetery looked just the way I remembered it, with uneven rows and headstones that had settled into a slight tilt. The side of the street opposite the cemetery was dense with trees, creating refreshing shade. The smell of nearby damp, clay-like mud mingled with the rich, pervasive smell of fertile soil.
I wondered whether I stood out and whether the denizens of Zion would be suspicious of a curious stranger. Yet, an old man standing next to one of the graves smiled at me and waved. I waved back.
“Can I help you find anything—or anybody?” came a lilting voice with a Midwest twang. I looked up and actually shivered. It came from a young woman sitting on a porch swing in front of a little white house shaded by sycamore trees.
It was Denise.
She appeared older, but so much of the face I remembered still shone through. Whether or not she recognized me immediately, she clearly recognized me now and said, “I’ve been expecting you! Took ya long enough!”
“You’ve been expecting me? Really?”
“I heard about your mother’s service and figured you might stop by. Sorry, I couldn’t make it there, but I’m kind of stuck at home these days.”
“You look just like I remember you!”
“You too! Come sit and let’s catch up,” she said, pronouncing it like “ketchup” but with the accent on the second syllable.
As I sat on the porch swing, the conversation was one-sided. Denise wanted to know everything I’d done in the last 30 years. “Did you wind up being a writer like you wanted to?” she asked, and I launched into a lengthy description of the writing jobs I’d had, the places I’d visited, my brief marriage and divorce, and life in New York. She didn’t seem to mind that I was monopolizing the conversation. In fact, she appeared enthralled.
When I finally asked what she’d been up to these last 30 years, she said, “Not much.”
“I doubt that! Why don’t we go for a drive, and you can fill me in?”
Concern darkened her face like a passing cloud, and then she said, “Sure, but I can’t go very far.”
As we drove around town, she pointed to restaurants where she used to eat, people she used to know, where her many relatives were buried, and what they were like. When a sign saying “Solsberry 5” appeared hundreds of yards down the road, Denise said, “We have to turn back now.”
“What’s the hurry?”
“I have to put flowers on my family grave. I know it sounds silly, but it’s something I have to do.”
“But don’t you want to visit the Solsberry Trestle for old time’s sake?”
“I told you I have to go back!” she pleaded and then started to moan. Startled by the sound, I turned toward her, and her face had changed. It was whiter, thinner, almost emaciated, all within a matter of seconds. Her eyes rolled back into her head until they were completely white. A few seconds later, her skin had begun to melt away, and she covered her face with her hands. “Go back!”
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“No, but I will be once I get home.” I pulled a U-turn and started heading back to the center of Zion. I braced myself as she began to uncover her face, but fortunately, her color and flesh were back and fully intact. “I need to get back and lay down those flowers.”
When we got back to her house, I joined her as she began her solemn ritual, gathering up the prettiest wildflowers from along the road and putting them in a clay vase. Then we walked across the street to Woodlawn Cemetery, where there was an obelisk that said “De La Croix.” She laid the vase down between two headstones bearing the names “Laurent” and “Renee,” respectively.
Just beyond it was another one. It read “Denise De La Croix, May 9, 1968 – April 12, 1989.” As I was staring at it, she said, “Yeah, that’s me.”
My head was swimming. “What is it you’re saying?”
“It means I belong here. I can’t go very far.” She took my hand and led me back across the street. “Come sit,” she said, and we sat down on the porch swing again. “Maybe a year or two after you left, I developed double vision. They sent me in for a brain scan at Bloomington Hospital, and it turned out I had a brain tumor. Fast-growing and inoperable. I died within just a couple of months. It was a small obituary and easy to miss, so that’s why you probably never heard about it.” She sat for a moment in contemplation. “Speaking of which, did you ever read your mother’s obituary?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Don’t you find that a little strange?”
I hadn’t really thought about it, but I said, “I suppose so.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, how did she die? The papers never said.”
“She was in an automobile accident on her way to Indianapolis.”
“Was anyone else in the car?”
“I don’t remember reading about that.”
“Because you never read their obituary,” she said.
“But when you really think about it, you know who else was in the car, don’t you?” Now that she mentioned it, there was someone else in the car, and I remembered being in the passenger’s seat as a car suddenly appeared behind an oncoming truck and into our lane. It led to a head-on collision.
“How did you survive the car crash that killed your mother?”
After a moment, I came to a realization. Staring off into space, I said, “I guess I didn’t.”
She put her fingers gently on my chin and turned my head to face her. “It’s a lot to absorb. Take your time letting it sink in. Are you okay?” she asked and then added, with a little giggle, “Other than being dead, I mean?”
We both laughed hard at that one. I looked back toward the road to see that my car was now gone. “You know the car you drove here never really existed, don’t you?” Denise asked. “It was just a kind of mental construct to help you find your way here.”
For the first time, I realized that there was nowhere else I had to be. After drifting about, I now belonged here–and I could now sit with her on that porch swing for as long as I wished.
About the Author
Rob Dinsmoor, a frequent contributor to Lowestoft Chronicle, has published three memoirs: Tales of the Troupe, The Yoga Divas and Other Stories, and You Can Leave Anytime. His short story collection, Toxic Cookout, was recently published by Big Table Publishing.