The Story of a Path (first draft)

Chicago author Nelson Algren said, “A writer does well if in his whole life he can tell the story of one street.” Chicagoans, but not just Chicagoans, have always found something instructive, and pleasing, and profound in the stories of their block, of Main Street, of Highway 61, of a farm lane, of the Celestial Highway. Tell us the story of a street, path, road—real or imagined or metaphorical.

My house sits on the ring finger of a four-digit hand, stretched out to reach for a busy hill known as Vine Street. Down the arm of 56th and directly beneath the hand sit both my elementary and high school. Like a loose ribbon draped across the hand’s wrist, a winding bike trail physically distinguishes my home and school. Really, the ribbon is more a bridge than a divider. It is a crossing point between two separately familiar worlds. That modest bike trail knows and reconciles each pool of memories with intermixing rivers blurring its yellow centerline.

9:00 on a Sunday night. I ventured out from my home in a night storm, beckoned by the raindrops as they rapped like a harbinger on my front door. My mom and I followed the runoff water down our sloping street to the Mopac Trail, turned, and set off leisurely towards a silently flickering wall of clouds. Like explosions in space, the enormity of the distant lights echoed beneath sound. I was captivated, then awestruck. The strobe flashed again, not pure white, or cold blue, or electric purple, but Christmas-light red. What! Did you see that? Our voices spun in the empty hallway between branched shadows, and again the trail lit up, this time in complimentary green. Craning my neck, I swerved across the dotted line to get a better look. There was no danger of oncoming bikers at that hour; my mom and I were alone with trail. You are my witness if dad doesn’t believe me, I either whispered or shouted to the glowing dark of her grinning face.

8:00 on a Saturday morning. With sleep encrusted in the corner of my wide eyes, I tried to wrap my mind around 8 miles of running. If this practice murders me, you will be my witness, I promised Jon under my breath, then tried to readjust my air gulping to our trail pace. We were out where the paved Mopac turned to gravel and exited the city. Huffing past old grain elevators and open fields, my conversation spark died to fatigue and left us each with our own morning thoughts. Part of my mind was doing fractions (2nd mile post = ¼ of the way done). Another part was synchronizing the tempo of my breathing with an encouraging song. My internal dialogue was arguing about pseudo-psychology or philosophy, trying to hash out teachers’ actions, friends’ actions, their motives, and how I should handle them. All the while, I was trying to ignore the part of my mind pitying my aching calves and cramping side.

7:00 on a Tuesday night. We won the basketball game 43 to 40. I flung the open the gym door and the roar of a hundred conversations flickered as if blown by the cool dusk air. With a slam, the noise was snuffed out, and I slowly began to notice the rising and fading rush of passing cars. I pulled up the hood of my sweatshirt and disappeared onto the trail. For a brief time, social obligations dissolved into the sky’s deepening blue. Venus was hanging on the edge of the transition, winking confirmation that my homework would wait for me, even if I were late shuffling home. With a deep breath and a sigh, I realized I had the whole bike trail to myself.

4:00 on a Friday evening. A dizzyingly brief middle school track season was running to an end, and the team was celebrating with Wendy’s shakes. The bones in our skinny legs urgently angled our bodies over the trail and down a steep dirt walkway to the inviting smell of grease and bread. We piled in and coagulated by the cashier until our coaches formed a line that snaked around to the bathrooms. Once everyone had ordered, we trooped our Frostys back up the dirt hill and took our time walking back. We slurped and made jokes and laughed, stopping and backtracking to join up with the stragglers. We were hardly moving at all, and still the migration ended too soon. Without ceremony, we tossed our bright yellow cups in the trash bin and changed out of our running shorts for the last time.

12:00 on a Wednesday. An immovable One and two bulky Zeros guarded the smudged and dirty corner of the whiteboard in the back of my 3rd grade classroom. After a half-day of school activities, we were twitching with excitement. Throughout the school year, we had accumulated 100 “behavior points” to meet our goal, and the reward on that last day was a walking field trip on the bike trail.

Summertime. Buzzing like scouts, my best friend, Quinn, and I cut around the bend in the trail, leaving the slowpokes behind. My mom and two sisters were in no hurry, chatting and holding hands behind us, but we had an agenda with the tire swing we couldn’t miss. Encountering the street, we diligently halted like cattle to an invisible electric fence. You coming? The crew caught up and we flooded the intersection together. Again, Quinn and I rushed ahead with our feet loudly clomping the old wood of the Bethany Park bridge. From a secluded dead end circle, an ice cream truck’s chime carried, and our heads whipped. Sprinting back to my mom, we panted out our petition. Hurry; the ice cream truck is here!