It was my only and much-younger brother who finally got me to talk about Jill. Jill, the incredible girl, who was, as was I, barely a teen when the tragedy happened.
In retrospect, my parents, perhaps with wisdom that I never appreciated, did not challenge my immensely private way of grieving. Also, maybe showing the temporal nature of teenage life, my classmates—many of whom were Jill's as well—almost never spoke her name when I was around.
Jill's teachers, and her ninth-grade homeroom teacher had been mine as well, also never spoke of her, at least in my hearing. But in retrospect, one teacher remembered Jill in a way I did not realize at the time. Jill was to sit in the fourth row, second seat from the back, this I knew because our ninth- and tenth-grade homeroom teacher assigned seats in alphabetical order, and our class, tenth grade, was unchanged from ninth grade. But, when school started, Miss Babbage left Jill's seat vacant. And vacant it stayed the full year. None of my classmates, at least in my hearing, ever asked "Why?" December 16, which would have been her birthday, there was a tiny sprig of forget-me-nots in the smallest and daintiest of bowls, on her desk. I remember feeling tears in my eyes when I saw them. Maybe our teacher put flowers and that bowl there, maybe someone else did, I never knew, or asked.
In our high school yearbook are photographs of three students who might have graduated with us, had they lived. Jill was one of them, even though the tragedy happened just before she would have been in tenth grade. My parents saw the yearbook, saw the photograph. They said nothing. Maybe they knew the photograph was identical to the one I had in my wallet in ninth grade, tenth grade, eleventh grade, twelfth grade, and yes I have it there now. In fact, I hope my brother will see to it that that photograph will be in the wallet in the suit coat pocket of the suit ... in which I will be buried. In fact, now that he knows the story of Jill, I will ask him to be sure that Jill's picture is buried with me. He might tell my wife, if I do marry, why that would be so important. For I think any woman I marry ... will not see that picture.
But the narrative that caused me, Hal, to say to Jim, my barely-teenage brother, "You know, Jill did that once to me," had yet to be shared with me when Jim began that narrative, a breathless account of an unexpected but clearly enjoyed first date with the very lovely Ginny.
As Jim started his narrative, the wind howled and drove snow swirling about; occasionally a few flakes forced their way into the house, for a strong wind can find chinks in almost any home, especially a January wind in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. Once inside, the snowflakes disappeared; the fireplace and a very efficient furnace effectively concealed that the two brothers were in one of the few buildings near the lake that was used twelve months of the year.
Shadows from the fireplace danced about in a room that otherwise was as dark as the night; an occasional spark would fly past the screen, startling Jim, who would snuff each out before any could singe the wine-colored rug. Although an heirloom clock had just chimed midnight, the younger brother was very much awake, and anxious to relate the evening's events.
"When I first saw her, I didn't think she was my type. Long blonde hair and freckles. She is pretty, and she knows it." "She" was Virginia, barely a teen, but already with several boys noticing her. For her, the evening began as a lark, a chance to flirt with a new boy, and spite her current boyfriend at the same time. New to the ways of dating, and visiting his brother for only a week, Jim did not know this. Hal knew otherwise, but made no comment.
"At first," Jim continued, "my fear was that I'd freeze to death. The whole thing seemed kinda' dumb, being with this girl and a bunch of strangers. But I guess you were right—a sleigh ride is fun."
Two brothers, talking in front of a slowly-dying fire. The younger one, Jim, almost fourteen. Just at the stage when he'd glare at you if you called him "Jimmy", but slow to react if addressed as "James" or even "Jim". Thick blonde hair, a bit disheveled, like his erratically changing voice often hard to control. Glorying in a week of freedom from parental control, and obviously enjoying this chance to be with his only brother who, as Jim remembered him, seemed to be an adult even before Jim entered kindergarten.
Hal was in his early thirties, a bit over six feet, reddish brown hair, no glasses, and his sideburns stopping right where they did during his pre-shaving days. Right now, he was quite pleased with himself, for that sizeable age gap had not prevented instant rapport with the brother he had seen so seldom. An only child for so long, Hal had paid little attention to the squalling bundle that had just begun to take steps and mouth incomprehensible gibberish when he had left for college. Visits home during and after college had been few, and Hal's brother had remained a stranger.
Feeling a bit guilty, Hal had invited Jim to visit him during Jim's mid-year school vacation. With a co-worker and his son who was Jim's age, Hal and Jim had gone bowling the night before. Out of the comradeship that had developed during bowling had come the invitation to go on a sleigh ride. Hal had reason to be pleased with himself, for the breathless haste with which his brother recounted the night's experiences was clear indication that Jim had had a really good time.
Basically, there are two types of sleigh rides ... no I don't mean using or not using a team of horses—the one Jim went on was tractor powered, a neighbor of Hal's co-worker providing tractor and driver. One type is couples in splendid isolation, with innocent caresses (and some not so innocent) only sometimes interrupted by conversation from couple to couple. The other type, and that was the one Jim experienced, is conversation that usually includes the entire group, and only the boy-girl seating indicates that this was a gathering of couples, instead of unpaired friends.
"Ginny, did you bomb the math?" one fellow asked.
"Nope," she replied, "it bombed me. It is bad enough to try to figure out how old a 12-year-old was X years ago, but when someone tries to tell me that 11 could equal three, I'm all at sea."
Ginny, the name Jim's date used in place of the hated Virginia, had had the misfortune of being far above average in almost every subject but mathematics. As a consequence, she was struggling with algebra. Of course used to the decimal system, she found it difficult to deal with binomial numbers. Shy though Jim was, he couldn't resist an opportunity to show his mastery of math.
"Ginny, that's simple. Eleven is three because you work in powers of two." And for a few moments he explained how to figure according to the binomial, or any other base system. At first annoyed that even on a date she could not escape algebra, she soon realized that the boy beside her was explaining things so clearly she quickly grasped the principles involved. Jim sensed this, and somehow found the courage to do what the other boys had done long ago: he slipped an arm around his date.
"Hey! What's going on back there? You two having a private conversation?" The voice was that of Tom Banks, Jim's friend from bowling Jim and Ginny had been talking low enough that sounds, but not words, could be heard.
His curiosity piqued, Tom turned around to look at them, then couldn't repress a hearty, "Well I guess we got some action in the back row!" when he saw Jim's arm around Ginny.
Embarrassed and flustered, Jim pulled his arm back. "It's all right," was Ginny's unexpected response. With her right hand, she took Jim's right hand, returned it to the shoulder it had just left, and then snuggled closer to him. Jim, at first fearful to even touch Ginny, was very pleased that an oft-hand remark about math and a chance wisecrack had somehow conspired to place a pretty girl's head on his shoulder.
Snow fell gently as the sleigh continued down narrow unpaved roads. The crest of a hill loomed ahead; beyond it the dark of a moonless night was occasionally invaded by headlights from cars speeding down the interstate a mile distant. In unspoken deference to Jim, conversation basically avoided school subjects and nobody mentioned that Ginny had agreed to this quickly arranged and very blind date only to spite another boy. Blankets, and yes a bit of cuddling, only slightly cancelled out the winter's chill, so Jim was glad when the tractor pulled into a nearby driveway. A porch light was soon on, and a cheery voice invited the couple in for hot chocolate before the trips home. The house, Jim realized, was Tom's, the voice that of his mother.
In the presence of a parent, some of the magic of the sleigh ride disappeared. Tom and his date sat primly apart on the soft, other couples occupied nearby chairs. Hot chocolate was drunk, proffered cookies sampled, then enjoyed.
Eventually sensing the lag in conversation, Mrs. Banks got up from the couch she had been sharing with her son and his date. She walked to the closet, put on her coat, then her overshoes. She opened the front door, walked down the steps, then returned. She took off her boots, walked back to the living room, and mumbled, "I thought I had the car keys."
Tom, who had been gathering up coats, took the hint and began the search. Eventually, the keys were found, and a slightly-flustered mother again put on her boots, opened the front door, and walked down the steps towards the family station wagon. The car door was opened, then was slammed shut; the engine started, stalled, started again, and then roared.
.... There is more of this story ...