By: T.R. Healy
Travers scarcely got across the suspension bridge when the top of the Chesterton Column appeared in a corner of the windshield. He winced. Just a shade over a hundred feet, the marble obelisk was built shortly after the end of the Second World War as a memorial to the soldiers from the state that perished in the conflict. It was designed to resemble the Washington Monument in D.C. and was without question the best known structure in the city of Chesterton. Inside the Column was a cast-iron spiral staircase that led to an observation deck at the top.
Driving past a scrawny kid on a skateboard, he recalled the first time he climbed the staircase. He was nine and a half years old when his fourth grade class visited the Column on a field trip. Smiling, he could still hear Sister Mary Margaret, their teacher, cautioning them not to run up the stairs but to little avail as he and the other boys raced to see who could get to the top first. It was so windy that afternoon he had to grip the slick handrail with both hands because he was afraid if he didn’t he might be blown off the staircase.
“I’ve got an idea,” Brodie Cummings whispered to him as they leaned over the railing that enclosed the deck.
Grinning slyly, he pulled from his back pocket the sheet of information everyone was given at the entrance to the Column, bent down to get out of the wind, and folded it in half. Next, he folded in the top corners so they met along the center crease then deftly folded the paper again and again until he held in his right hand an airplane that was about the size of a sparrow.
“You think it’ll fly?” he asked Brodie.
“Well, there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?”
Nodding, he sailed the plane over the railing. Quickly it rose nearly a dozen feet above the Column then turned on its side and started its descent. It moved so slowly Travers wondered if it would ever land as he watched it careen through the air. Suddenly he wished he could be aboard an aircraft that would never return to the ground. It was such a peculiar notion to enter his head but it did and he could not understand it at the time.
Owen Travers was born and raised in Chesterton but he had not been back there in nearly eighteen years. He certainly would not have returned today if he had not been officiating a tennis tournament the past week at Oakmont College which was about a half hour drive from his hometown.
For the past three years, he had worked full-time as a tennis official, usually as a line judge but sometimes in the chair as an umpire. He had been interested in the game since he was a small boy, played all four years for his high school team, but knew even before he injured his left hand he would never be good enough to earn a livelihood as a player so he eventually got involved in officiating games. At first, he just did it part-time, often without receiving any compensation, but gradually, as he became more proficient, he started to earn a little money. He did this for several years until he was offered the chance to work on the professional women’s circuit which he accepted at once and happily left his job as a real estate appraiser.
Before he arrived at the tournament at Oakmont, he had thought about returning to his hometown but after changing his mind several times dismissed the idea because he knew he wouldn’t be welcome there even after all these years. So he was stunned when he got to the airport this morning and cancelled his flight and rented a car to drive to Chesterton. He supposed he did it as a kind of penance because he had such a lackluster performance as a line judge during the tournament. He had missed calls he should have made and made more than a few he shouldn’t have made.
One player from Bulgaria, a stocky woman with a faint mustache, said to him after a match she won, “You were the pits today, Travers. That glove on your hand might as well have been over your eyes.”
He could not disagree with her, either, because he had trouble staying focused on games the way he should. Increasingly, his mind wandered to thoughts of what it would be like to go back home if only for an afternoon. It was something he had considered doing for years but didn’t know if he had the nerve.
Travers parked the rental car in the lot at the base of the Column. For several minutes, he just sat there behind the steering wheel, looking at the wrinkled compression glove he wore on his left hand and wondering if he had the nerve to get out, then he opened the door and walked over to Tyding’s Pond where his father taught him how to swim almost before he could walk. The water was so cold his teeth often started chattering before he even put a toe in the pond. This afternoon there were only half a dozen swimmers who all looked strong enough to cross the English Channel.
While he watched them plow through the murky water, their strokes almost in unison, he recalled the first couple of times he went to the pond with his father. He would have him lie face down, supporting him with the palm of his right hand, which seemed as large as a waffle iron, then gradually slip it away until his son was floating all by himself. He was so scared he wanted to scream but he didn’t because he knew his father wouldn’t be pleased. The man was one of the sternest people he had ever met. He never laid a hand on him but his looks of disappointment were as hurtful as any slap across the face.
Travers, startled by the gruff voice, turned away from the pond and saw a lanky guy in a black swallow-tailed coat and a stovepipe hat with a bundle of papers tucked under his left arm.
“Here,” he said, handing him one of the papers.
Travers saw that it was an advertisement for a chimney sweeping business and started to hand it back, saying, “Sorry, friend, but I live in an apartment.”
“Oh, well, keep it anyway. Maybe you know someone with a home who needs his chimney cleaned some day.”
Not interested in continuing the conversation, he didn’t tell the chimney sweeper he hadn’t lived in Chesterton for close to eighteen years and folded the advertisement in half and slipped it in a side pocket of his suede jacket.
Walking around the grounds, past swarms of people in bright scarves and jackets, he thought a few were looking at him a little too closely and wondered if they recognized him. He didn’t recognize any of them but he never had much of a memory for faces so it was certainly possible they remembered him. And shortly, as he stepped past a drinking fountain that was out of order, a freckle-faced guy with a camera bag slung over his left shoulder walked toward him on the gravel path. He nodded faintly and was almost past him when he stopped and asked, “Are you who I think you are?”
Travers, swallowing hard, pretended not to hear him and continued walking.
“Hey, buddy,” the guy persisted, “I know you, don’t I?”
Pausing, he turned and looked at the freckled man. “I don’t know. Do you?”
“You’re Owen Travers, right?”
“I thought so,” he said, smiling with satisfaction. “You were a couple of years ahead of me in high school.”
“Is that so?”
“You probably don’t remember me?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t.”
The man’s eyes crinkled with suspicion. “The last time I heard anything about you had to do with that accident you were involved in.”
He didn’t say anything.
“Hell, I thought you were dead. I haven’t heard your name mentioned in such a long time.”
“Is that so?”
“You probably wish you were sometimes, don’t you?”
Stung by the vicious remark, Travers spun around and walked away from the odious man.
“Don’t you, Travers?”
Back in the rental car he slipped the key into the ignition but didn’t turn on the engine. Instead, he just sat there, looking at the Column that was directly in front of him. He knew if he ever returned to Chesterton he was bound to meet someone as obnoxious as that freckled guy near the drinking fountain and be reminded of what happened the night of his high school graduation. It was the reason why he had not been back the past eighteen years.
After he received his diploma, he had dinner with his family then he and Brodie went to a party at a cabin on the edge of town that belonged to an uncle of one of their classmates who invited them along with several other new graduates. Allison had the place all to herself because her uncle was out of town so there was plenty to drink. Travers had a few beers while Brodie drank shot after shot of tequila. Both had more than they should but Brodie was clearly the more wasted so Travers insisted that he drive Brodie’s car back to his house.
“You sure you guys don’t want to spend the night here?” Allison asked, concerned about all the alcohol they had consumed. “There are some air mattresses upstairs so you are welcome to sleep on them if you like.”
“I can’t,” Brodie said, slurring his words. “My old man would kill me if his car isn’t back in the garage tonight.”
“You’re sure you don’t want to stay?”
“All right,” she said, after giving them both a brief hug. “Drive safely.”
Travers had never driven the car, a year old Mercury Cougar, and was not used to the power steering and power brakes it was equipped with so he started out slowly. It took Brodie nearly half an hour to drive to the cabin but Travers was sure it would take him a little longer to drive back because he was not comfortable driving such a powerful vehicle. His father owned a decrepit Volkswagen which was the only car he had driven for any significant distance.
Soon after they got underway Brodie fell asleep, snoring noisily with the side of his head resting against the window. Travers was glad his friend’s breathing was so loud, figured it would keep him from also falling asleep during the drive. There were very few street lamps so far away from the main part of town so Travers turned on his bright lights. Still it was very dark out, making it difficult for him to see more than a few feet of the narrow two-lane road.
Some ten minutes into the drive, as he wound through a slight curve, a coyote, spooked by the headlights, darted into the road. Startled, he swerved to avoid hitting it but forgot he had power steering and cranked the wheel so frantically that he slammed against a boulder on the other side of the road. The car rolled over on its side with Travers pressed against the steering wheel and Brodie lying on the ground with his empty eyes wide open.
Two boys, who appeared to be brothers, wandered past the rental car and, on an impulse, Travers got out and trailed after them as they headed toward the Column. They seemed in a hurry, as if someone were waiting for them, and went inside to go up to the observation deck. He had not been up there since that field trip he went on in the fourth grade with Sister Mary Margaret. Vividly he recalled how tired his legs were after climbing up all the stairs and he was sure they would be even more tired this afternoon. Still he went up, gripping the brass handrail with his good hand. He moved so slowly that several people passed him, including an older man in a flat tweed cap who offered him a sip from his water bottle.
On the observation deck he leaned over the iron railing, breathing hard, and gazed at all the national flags that circled the base of the Column. They were not there the last time he was in town, he thought, there was just a bed of white stones.
At the time of the accident he was assured by many people, including Brodie’s parents, that he was not responsible for his friend’s death. It was the fault of the coyote they said. But he didn’t believe them and, after a while, they didn’t believe what they told him, either. He was to blame because he lost control of the car. Few people actually said that to him, the encounter with the freckled man was unusual in that sense, but more and more people, if they looked at him, looked with pity and regret. He was convinced they believed Brodie should have been the one who survived the accident, not him whose only serious injury was a damaged left hand that required him to wear a compression glove to prevent it from swelling up with blood. He had little doubt, should he remain in town another day, he would see those harsh, accusatory looks again.
After he regained his breath, he turned to head back down the stairs then paused and removed from the pocket of his jacket the sheet of paper he was handed earlier by the chimney sweeper. He looked at it for a moment then got down on one knee and set it on the ground and, as if he were Brodie, folded it into a crude semblance of a plane. Smiling, he stood and walked back to the railing and, with the plane cocked behind his right ear, leaned back and threw it as high and far as he could into the misting air.