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.
"She does that every damn time," Jim said Tom had said, and both Hal and Jim laughed at the image.
"Com'mere, you." Expecting, perhaps wanting those words, Tom's date paused in the hallway after the others, coats on, traipsed out to the station wagon. One kiss, and a few whispered words. Then, hand-in-hand, they too left the house, carefully trod the path made by five pairs of boots, and climbed into the car. As if maternal proximity mandated caution, hands were folded in laps.
"Ginny's house was the third stop. I thanked Mrs. Banks for driving us home—I'm getting pretty good at that stuff. The light," Jim remembered, "was on."
The classic situation, Hal thought. Porch lights scare away porch kisses, and the inevitable parental reception scares away any action in the living room.
As Jim closed the car door, he realized that the shyness had returned. He walked behind Ginny, not touching her, afraid even to think about trying to hold hands. But as she climbed the one star leading to her porch, Ginny paused, sensed how close to her Jim was, and linked her fingers within his. At the door she stopped, Jim later remembered, turned around, and faced him.
"Hold my glove," she said as she opened her purse to find the house key. Scrounging around in her purse, she found the key, and silently handed it to Jim. From Jim she took her glove, placed it in a coat pocket.
His hand trembling, Jim tried to insert the key into the lock—upside down!
"Not that way, silly, this way." Her ungloved hand on his, the two of them together correctly inserted the key, unlocked the door, and let it open slightly. Jim took the key out of its lock and placed it in Ginny's ungloved hand.
"Then she slipped the key in her purse, let the purse slide down her left arm, and looked at me a moment. 'Good-night, mathematician', she said, and put her hand on my cheek, just briefly. Then she turned and was gone. I don't think I said anything!"
Hal sensed that the story was over, and for a second could not understand why shivers ran through his entire body. Was he just feeling sorry for his brother, apparently so taken by a girl who probably considered him just a new face, to be seen, then forgotten? Or was there more to it than that?
Suddenly, he remembered his brother's words—"She put her hand on my cheek, just briefly." And then he knew.
"Jill did that once."
"Huh, who did what?" asked Jim, genuinely puzzled.
Hal took a deep breath. He had said her name, out loud. Then he realized his brother was much too young to have heard anything about Jill.
"I was your age," Hal said. "Jill was in my homeroom and a few classes. We really liked each other, and then I—everyone—lost her. And the last time we talked, I think I let her down. And I never told her I was sorry. And I never said goodbye ... I never thought I would lose her the way I did. And maybe I could have saved her. But I didn't." The agony, the hurt, in Hal's words changed everything, for it was the younger brother who tried to think of some way to comfort his brother ... words, a touch, something. Finally, he said, "Hal, tell me what happened."
Hal could have said, "This was before you were born. Mom, Dad and I went on vacation. When we came back, she was gone. I even missed her funeral."
Instead, he said, "Yes, maybe it is time to talk about Jill. I don't think I have said her name out loud, all these years. Just kept everything bottled up. Mom and Dad probably realize this, or maybe they think I have forgotten her. Okay, add a log or two to the fire, and I will tell you about Jill."
Without a word, Jim added several logs to the fire, sat down in front of it, and listened ... for an hour or more. And then he understood.
Hal began sharing some of his memories of the lovely Jill. Not every memory, for many are forever locked within the deepest recesses of his heart. But he shared enough that, Hal felt, his brother might realize why, almost two decades after he had lost Jill, he had not forgotten her.
Jill, Hal remembered and haltingly told his brother, had arrived in his high school a few weeks after Christmas, just past the 20-week marking period. Where she had come from he learned later, but soon after he first saw her in the halls he sensed there was something very special about her. Jill—for he had quickly learned her name—had dark brown eyes, a pert nose, plus lips, cheeks, and a chin that combined to give her a low-keyed beauty that, Hal, at least, found irresistible. Her chestnut brown hair was combed back, wavy, and almost reached her shoulders. Like occasional, very fortunate, eighth grade girls, her shape augured well for pleasing proportions before many months would pass.
Hal and Jill had different homerooms, but, after 20 weeks, Hal's first period class was taught by Jill's teacher and vice versa. The result of all this was that the two classes marched down otherwise deserted hallways to get to their new first period classes. Passing the same students day after day helped break down barriers otherwise present in a school system that grouped classes by ability and, until ninth grade, scheduled classes not according to student, but according to the classroom.
For his first 20 weeks of eighth grade, Hal learned more than he wanted to know about the business world in "Introduction to business", while Jill's classmates has been introduced to "science", partly earth science, but occasional coverage of Archimedes and his lever, pyramid building, and even a bit of celestial navigation.
It was during those journeys down otherwise deserted halls that Jill noticed Hal, for his dusty red hair and pale blue eyes reminded her of an older boy she had dated in Ohio the previous summer. Although they passed each other in the halls five mornings each week, they did not speak at first, for Hal was afraid of the inevitable ribbing his acid-tongued friends would start if they realized that he had noticed this attractive new girl. For her part, Jill was not so interested in Hal that she would make the first move.
Apparently, Jill came from a musical family, and her talents were soon noticed by the music department, for Jill auditioned for, and received, the role of Cousin Nettie in "Carousel". Cousin Nettie, of course, sang the hauntingly beautiful "You'll Never Walk Alone" as her way of cheering up Julie Jordan when Julie was in the depths of despair. When the school put on "Carousel", though, Jill was just a girl in the hallway, so Hal had no reason to go to that musical, or any musical. Never, after the tragedy, though, would he hear that song without thinking of her, in fact doing his best to hide his tears, if anyone was around to see them.
One beautiful spring day, Hal and Jill spoke to each other for the first time. His uncle had invited him to join his cousins for an afternoon of roller skating at an indoor rink. One of his cousins was to be picked up after church choir practice; she was not in sight when his uncle's car arrived at the church. Hal volunteered to find out what was keeping her. He left the car, entered the church's side door, went down a hallway, up a flight of stairs, nearing a door with the self-explanatory girl's silhouette on it. As he was about to pass that door, it opened, and out walked Jill!
Surprised to see Jill in his cousins' church, and embarrassed to see her leave the Ladies' Room, Hal sensed he was blushing, but somehow mumbled a "Hi Jill".
Successfully concealing her surprise at seeing Hal in her church, Jill replied, "Why, hello, Hal," and continued down the hall in the opposite direction.
"She knows me," Hal thought, then heard his cousin's laughter as she said, "Hey, cuz', you're blushing!"
As he skated around the rink that afternoon, it seemed to Hal that his skates were repeating his thoughts—"She knows me, she knows me!"
Next day in school, during the first period pilgrimage, Hal said "hi" to Jill. She was silent, but smiled, and, for Hal, that was enough.
Later that week, Hal took a longer way to his fifth period class, and pretended that it was sheer chance that he passed Jill's locker and saw her there. He said "Hi" and she said "Hi". Then shyness took over, and for the few remaining days of school he avoided her locker, although they frequently "hi'ed" each other during the first period pilgrimage.
Hal remembered that summer came and summer went, and that it would have been easy to pick up the phone and call Jill. But he never did, because he feared his parents would hear him talking to her, or that he would stammer and stumble over words. He was also afraid that she would have at least a couple of boyfriends, and not be interested in him. Even when his cousin said, "I saw Jill in church and she asked about you," he could not convince himself that he should phone her.
Jim interrupted his brother's narrative by commenting, "I thought I was shy with Ginny, but you take the cake!"
"Yes, Jim," Hal admitted, "I was shy with Jill. In fact I had very few of those 'ring the doorbell' dates. But we did talk, and I did get teased."
"For instance, our algebra class was with Mrs. Raye, an older but really good teacher. She let us sit where we wanted to, so I took front seat, second row from window. Jill was in the class, too, and man did she surprise me!"