September 21, 2014
Book Preview: ‘The Fall’
Posted on Mar 25, 2011
By Ryan Quinn
INT./EXT. CAR. DAY.
A silver JEEP crosses the bridge to campus. Behind the wheel is IAN — good-looking, athletic, slightly taller than average — gazing warily up through the windshield as if he’s not sure he wants to be here.
Two roads diverge in a y-shaped fork beyond the bridge tethering River Bend to the university that supports it. You can see the town’s namesake, that abrupt kink in the river, curving out of view downstream. The channel narrows slightly at the bend, hurrying the currents and frustrating the crew teams who have been rowing the otherwise straight and gentle waters for the last fifty years. At the spot where the road splits, the well-maintained right fork sweeps up to the main gate, a stone and iron behemoth that loomed in my windshield as I faced my return to campus. The left fork—the road less traveled—makes a dash for the woods, disintegrating into a potholed strip of gravel as it enters the trees and narrows toward its terminus at the fire-gutted remains of a small church.
My name is Ian, and I have a secret. Something I have to confess. But I’ll get to that. It’s only a matter of time. So much is only a matter of time.
In the meantime, I’d driven all day. Driven and driven and now I was back here, back where things remained the way you left them. Students converged on campuses around the nation—a great autumn migration webbing out across the country like the route maps in airline magazines. Millions of students—most of us never meaningfully encountering one another, like planes that never collide in flight—living out more or less the same College Experience. Three years at Florence and I’ve learned, if nothing else, how hilariously arbitrary was my decision to come here. What’s here in this whitish-toned melting pot of formative youth that I couldn’t have found closer to home or farther away? The gate up ahead says only Est. 1950 in small engraved letters on a moss-covered stone. It ought to proclaim: Welcome to Florence University—not quite Ivy League, not quite New England, not quite what you thought you were getting.
But that’s life. That’s your education. A series of opportunities and missed opportunities. Exams and grades and blue books and blue balls and majors and minors and liberal arts and liberal minds. The scam of it is: no matter how much you paid or how far you traveled everybody’s receipt says pretty much the same damn thing. B.A. M.B.A. J.D. PhD. M.A. B.S.
B.S. That’s all it is, right?
I was thinking seriously of transferring. Not simply changing my major but transferring schools. The drive down Main Street, with its one coffee shop, gift shop, used bookstore, gas station, diner and sports bar, confirmed for me that I needed a bigger city. Main is the unnerving kind of street that put a great deal of effort into remaining quaint, as though that were some kind of virtue. I vowed to look immediately into the application deadlines for colleges that were located in an actual city. Something even farther away from home.
As I turned onto the quiet streets lined with off-campus housing my chest thumped wildly as if its most vital organ had slipped out of place, like a fish on land. I never should have agreed to live here. The house was on a cul-de-sac at one end of Oak Street. Somehow I’d passed the property many times before without retaining any specific memory of it. As I climbed the front lawn I saw that the two-story bungalow was larger than I’d imagined. I heard laughter and clinking bottles from the backyard. The smell of charcoal drifted on the breeze.
Casey met me on the front porch, grinning in his familiar way. The dilemma over whether a hug or a handshake was expected flooded me with panic. I’m telling you it was awkward. But Casey switched his beer to his left hand without hesitation, thrusting his right to meet mine. It seemed at the same time inevitable and unlikely that we’d be able to pick up where we’d left off. I spoke first.
“Your bedroom is upstairs. Did you come on the train?”
“No. My car was at my aunt’s in Boston.”
“Then you’ve been driving all day. You must be completely sober. Come on back, we’re barbequing.”
Woods bordered the backyard on three sides. The dark façade of the baseball stadium rose above the trees looming massive in the dusky light. The underside of the stadium’s upper deck sloped out like an overhanging cliff. Though the ballpark was dark you could imagine how it would transform the yard during a game, the banks of lights casting their artificial moonlight over the neighborhood and the sounds of a healthy crowd ebbing and flowing like waves crashing against rocks.
Casey introduced me around. A broad-framed guy named Jerrell rose from a lawn chair by the grill. At the end of thick forearms his hands seemed small and delicate. Tabular trapezoids raised the fabric of his tee shirt on either side of his neck. His grip was solid and steady and lacked any display of extra strength. No need to prove anything here. He called me man, as in how you doin’ man, and then he lowered himself back into the lawn chair, supporting both hands on the armrest in a way that activated ridges of triceps descending from his short sleeves. Case explained that Jerrell played tight end and was one of our housemates.
Next Case introduced me to Todd Fleming. The guys call him T-Smalls. He was shorter and white and didn’t live in the house. Two girls that had come with Todd were leaving for a party and I wasn’t introduced to them before they went. Todd dug a beer out of the cooler for me and you could tell from his first two attempts at the bottle cap that he was gone.
Case disappeared inside and Jerrell and Todd laughed about something that had happened at practice. I stood alone by the grill, picking at the label on my beer. When I turned to sit on the porch steps, where I hoped at least to appear less uncomfortable, I bumped into a girl in tiny pink shorts and an oversized sweatshirt coming out of the house. She looked me over and then sat down on the top step, hugging her knees to her chest.
“It’s you. You used to play football with Casey? And your dad is like some famous coach or something.”
Of course she was. You might have guessed Mandy or Brittany or Tara, but Krista definitely was one of the first names that sprung to mind. She was pretty, as in pretty average. You couldn’t have picked her out of a lineup of the sororityish girls I imagine she goes around with.
“I’m Ian,” I said, struggling in my mind to give Case the benefit of the doubt.
“So how long have you and Casey been friends?”
“Junior high, I guess. That’s when we started playing football together.”
“And then you quit.” She smiled—pure bitch.
“Yeah, I stopped playing ball after high school.”
“Why’d you switch to tennis?” Her tone left no doubt as to where my new sport fell in the hierarchy of acceptably cool activities.
“It’s just the way it worked out.”
“God, I was just asking.” Bitchbitchbitch. “Casey likes you a lot,” she added after a silence.
“We’re good friends.”
“Yeah, well, he talks about you all the time.”
If she was trying to make peace or flatter me or make me uncomfortable, it was working. I’d finished the beer I was holding and was prepared to use the need for another as an excuse to duck away. But suddenly I felt obligated to hold up my end of the conversation.
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