The Girl from Chippewa Lake (1980)

By Kori Frazier Morgan

Iweb 2t was just after two in the morning when Penny called Lyle during the late night broadcast drive at WAKR and asked him for advice about sex. Usually, the only calls he got that late were from drunk college students who just got dumped, or stoned thirty-somethings reliving their glory days as he played “Wild Thing” and “Louie Louie.” But Penny sounded breathy and childlike, her voice breaking the trancelike state working late always put him in. At first he thought it was a prank, maybe some kids having a slumber party who drank too much Mountain Dew. But then, Penny asked him what guys liked most in bed, and Lyle knew that this was no kid.

He didn’t ask how old she was and he didn’t want to know. She seemed too young to be making that kind of call. There was something frightening about how her speech intermingled teenage awkwardness (“dang,” “bitchin’,” “dream on!”) with mature references, how she said she stole a book of sex positions from her friend’s dad and had been studying it. He wondered about what kind of relationship she was in, how it was obviously with someone more experienced, enough that the only person who could help her with this matter was a radio disc jockey.

Lyle tapped his fingers across the soundboard as she talked. His wife Maddy had been adventurous from the beginning, a crusading hippie, and he realized that even before her, he’d never been with a woman who was hesitant to do anything. Drunken, jilted singles were one thing, but this was way out of his field. “I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “Really, you shouldn’t…uh, get in a tough spot. You sure you want to be with this guy?”

“Would I be calling you if I didn’t?”

“But that’s the thing, honey.” Lyle fiddled with a stack of records, unsure of how to handle this. “I don’t understand why you called me. Why don’t you hang up, have some sweet dreams, and talk to your mom about this in the morning?”

Penny breathed into the phone, a little faster, and he knew he’d hit a nerve. “You kidding me? My mother doesn’t even know I have a boyfriend and she’d shoot him if she did. The truth is—” Her voice hung in hesitation. “I like your show. I like your voice. I like the stuff you play. I figured maybe you’d know a thing or two.”

Lyle glanced at the record spinning on the turntable. The song was almost over and he hadn’t done an aircheck in awhile. But something about what she said stuck in his head. He wasn’t sure why being a disc jockey at a third rate radio station qualified him to give relationship advice to teenagers – but he had a listener, who liked his music, who liked his voice. The program director had been needling him about how he wasn’t playing enough current material, that everything about his show seemed about a decade behind everything, all love children and dissent. He wasn’t used to getting compliments. “Well thanks,” he said. “Look, I’ve got to go back on the air. Can I play something for you?”

“No,” she said. “You’ve helped a lot. Thanks.”

The phone clicked off as the record ended. Lyle didn’t know what he’d done to help, but hoped that maybe she would work things out for herself. He swiveled in his chair toward the microphone. “WAKR Akron, it’s one thirty, and you just heard ‘Don’t You Care’ by The Buckinghams. A personal favorite of mine, one they played when my old band The Purple Orange first opened for them at Chippewa Lake Park in 1969—”

Someone pounded on the glass window that looked into the studio. The station manager was creasing the edges of a folded paper, a grave expression on his face. Lyle went to a commercial and motioned for him to come in.

*          *          *

It was four in the morning when Lyle got home. Usually, leaving after a long shift prompted relief, but the drive from Akron was heavy and anxious instead, the news from the station manager still stewing in his mind. He hoped Maddy wouldn’t be awake and he could save this discussion for tomorrow.

When he walked in the house, she was lying on the couch, eyes still open, white noise playing on the TV set. Lyle sat on the edge of one cushion and brushed her hair off of her cheeks. “You okay?” he said.

Maddy sat up and stretched, then reached behind her to flip on the lamp on the end table and smoothed her cropped hair. “Yeah,” she said. “Must’ve conked out.”

“That’s good.” Lyle took her hand, stroking the rough skin of the scars on her knuckles. She had an anxious habit of biting them, scratching her teeth along the skin until it peeled into thin shreds and bled. When they’d first met, she had smooth, creamy skin he loved to touch, and long blonde hair, straight and shiny, that she’d toss back as though she hadn’t a care in the world. “I’ve got bad news,” he said, forcing out the words.

“What happened?” Maddy positioned herself against the back of the sofa, pulling her legs up against her chest, her hands tight around her calves. She had always been a small person, and even though she’d put on some weight since she began to recover, she still was tiny enough to draw herself into a tight, tucked form.

Lyle was quiet for a moment, enjoying how calm she seemed, knowing he was about to bring her back into the same fight they always ended up in. “WAKR is folding,” he finally told her. “Manager just told me tonight – said he wanted to give me the news in person.”

Maddy’s chin and lips curled upward. Lyle hated that look. “We just can’t compete anymore,” he tried to explain. “We’re nothing flashy – no big concert promotions, no merchandise. No persona at all. WMMS is killing the competition. They’ve got bumper stickers. T-shirts. Live broadcasts of concerts, lunchtime shows at the studio. Bruce Springsteen even loves them. No way we can beat that.”

Maddy braided her fingers through the holes in the afghan. She didn’t look up. “So what you’re telling me is you’re out of a job,” she said. “Again.” When she did glance at him, it was with a hard, biting stare he’d seen too much of. “I told you not to take that job,” she said in the absence of his response. “If you’re absolutely burning to work at a radio station, then maybe you should have picked WMMS – something that’s actually doing well. Not some hole in the wall buried behind the Goodyear factory that hasn’t updated their song catalogue in five years.”

“I told you,” Lyle said, “I liked their style more. I’ve got to have some incentive to stay up until five in the morning three days a week.”

Maddy hoisted herself up from the couch and walked across the room, facing the black and white static of the TV set. “You do have an incentive,” she snapped. “Making money. So we can live?”

“Why does it always have to be me? Take on more hours at the animal shelter if you’re so worried about money.” He regretted saying it as soon as it came out. Maddy turned around, her profile visible, the other half of her face shadowed by the light of the TV.

“Well,” she said, “some of us don’t have the luxury of working full-time at our dead-end jobs.”

Lyle sank into in the mousy orange recliner they’d kept from their first apartment in Kent, when they got married nine years ago, several months after Maddy’s nervous breakdown. He knew she was right. Maddy was fragile, too fragile for the world. Her anxiety came on so easily that a part-time job taking care of animals was all she could manage. She’d checked into a psychiatric hospital in Akron just a few months after they married – her life was too much to handle, altered and disoriented by the music and party scene in Kent, culminating with that day in May when the students at Kent State got shot. She’d seen one of them die, only a few feet away from her. It was just within the last few years that she’d been able to get back on her feet.

Meanwhile, this was the third job Lyle’d held in a year and a half, along with a failed attempt at ticketing for the Agora Theatre because he was too haunted by memories of the show there that broke up his band, and writing music reviews for the Akron Beacon Journal before they decided they could no longer put up with his rants about how punk was killing rock and roll. He knew that to be the man Maddy needed him to be, he had to get away from music altogether. The trouble was that music was the only thing he knew.

“Maddy,” he began. She had already headed to the dining room, but whirled around to shoot him a cold stare. “I’m sorry, okay? I’ll get work. Don’t worry about it. I swear on my life.”

She turned off the TV and crossed her arms. “Well, you better find one that will stick. Face it, Lyle – bands break up. Just get over it, okay?”

Maddy stormed into the dining room, leaving Lyle alone. He didn’t want to be angry. She’d been so hard to hold onto, her vivaciousness disappearing as quickly as it made him fall in love with her. Maddy could never be herself again; he knew that. But in the short time it took her to fall apart, the brief happiness they had was stripped to a thin thread. He sat by her bed night after night, in the harsh glow of the florescent lights around the perimeter of the hospital room, holding her hand and singing that old song she loved, slipping away, sitting on a pillow, waiting for night to fall. Except night had already fallen, and that was the hardest part.

*          *          *

A few days later, Lyle woke up around noon, exhausted from his radio show the night before. Typically, he loved his job, playing favorite songs and talking out to his audience, what audience he had left, but now, the knowledge of his coming unemployment weighed him down. Maddy was at work and wouldn’t be home until around five. The only person with cause to show up at their house was the mailman, and when the doorbell rang around noon, that was who he thought it was.

The girl standing on the doorstep was quite obviously a teenager – maybe fifteen or sixteen – of medium height with dark hair that ran down to her shoulders and big brown eyes. She wore a sleeveless red t-shirt, rolled up jeans, and tennis shoes. He didn’t know what to make of her. It was a bright sunny day. She should be out with her friends.

“Hi Lyle,” she said, and the minute she spoke, he knew who she was.

“Oh great.” Lyle raised his hand to his forehead, hiding his eyes. He could still see her in the cracks between his fingers, her head cocked to the side, waiting for him to say something else. “Listen, you need to go. This isn’t a good time. You probably haven’t heard, but WAKR bit it, I lost my job, my wife is ready to hang me upside down in the broom closet by my balls—” She kept holding up a finger, a motion to interject, but Lyle couldn’t slow down, his frustration with Maddy, with everything, rushing out. “–and if she comes home, I’ll have to explain who you are, and she’ll probably come to her own conclusions first. The last thing I need is for her to think I’m screwing some girl who’s young enough to be my daughter. So why don’t you run along now and find some girlfriends to go to the ice cream store? That’s good. Okay. Thanks. Buh-bye.”

“I do know about your job,” the girl said. He turned around. Her hands were poised against her bony hips, and he recognized the irritation in her eyes, the same look Maddy gave him when he started to drive her nuts with his records and rambling stories about playing music. “There was an article in the paper. That’s why I’m here. I looked you up in the phone book. I wanted you to know how sorry I am. And I’d like to, you know, try to help.”

Lyle raised his eyebrows.

“Nononono,” she said, “not like that. I mean, I thought we could have some lunch. Come on. I’m buying.” She reached out and touched the sleeve of his Cleveland Indians t-shirt, just for a moment. “I really did mean it when I said I like your show. I spend a lot of time by myself. I don’t like being alone—” Her eyes drifted down to the concrete walkway in front of the door. “I just want to do something for you. For all those nights you made me feel like someone else was out there.”

Lyle looked across the yard, at the empty road, the absence of people. Maddy wouldn’t be home for awhile, and anything was better than sitting in the recliner watching game shows and thinking about what he might do when the station shut down. “What’s your name?”

“Penny.” She sounded like a Penny, he guessed – a small, subdued jangle in the corner of a pocket. There was something pathetic about her, like she needed him, like he really had been there for her, not just over the airwaves. He thought about what would happen if Maddy were to find out he was talking to her, if he did this thing at all. Then, he thought of the way the manager told him about the station, like an army sergeant, we regret to inform you, how Maddy blew up at him and had spent the last three days at his throat. Lyle tried to stop his body from tensing, but couldn’t, as if eventually, all that frustration had to give.

“How old are you?”

“Fifteen.”

“Well, I guess that means we’ll be taking my car,” he said. “Follow me.”

Penny settled into the passenger seat, brushing her long bangs away from her eyes. Lyle watched her from the driver’s side as he started the car. “You like music?” he said. Of course she did. When he turned on the radio, she immediately set the dial to WMMS, but he didn’t say anything, just gripped the steering wheel and kept driving. It made sense, after all – she was young, and it was the hot local station. She probably listened to it all the time when he wasn’t on the air. They weren’t playing top hits at the moment though – instead the music was older, fast paced, minor key, punctuated by a horn section that seemed almost out of place. “This is Simon and Garfunkel,” Lyle pointed out. “‘Hazy Shade of Winter.’” She didn’t respond, and he imagined she probably didn’t care. An image of Maddy lying in the recliner in the first apartment they lived in, pale and tired and thin, flashed into his mind, the Bookends album playing on the stereo. Time it was, and what a time it was, he thought.

They passed a strip of restaurants that ran across both sides of the road. Lyle pulled into the A&W Rootbeer drive-in, figuring the girl couldn’t have too much money. “This is where you want to eat?” Penny said.

“Yeah,” Lyle said. “I want a burger. That okay?”

She shrugged and said sure and they pulled in. A waitress in an orange blouse and brown skirt took their order – Lyle had a cheeseburger and a cream soda. Penny didn’t ask for anything.

“You’re not one of those girls who doesn’t eat are you?” he said.

Penny half laughed and leaned against the window. “Nah,” she said. “I just don’t see the point of eating when you aren’t hungry. You just carry more around.”

He stared out the windshield, across the drive-in parking lot. The radio played. He didn’t have anything to say to Penny, and again he asked himself what he was doing here, letting a fifteen year old take him out for a burger. “So,” he said. “Tell me about yourself.”

“What do you want to know?”

It had been so long since he’d talked to a kid, and he wasn’t sure what kids liked to talk about anymore. “Whatever. You like school?”

For some reason this made her laugh. “Right. Me. Like school.” She shook her head. “I don’t go if I can help it. It just doesn’t do anything for me.”

“Your mom can’t like that,” he said.

Penny crossed her arms over her chest and slid down farther in the seat. “She doesn’t care. She’s always working. And then at night she usually calls and says she’s in Seville with her boyfriend Ronnie the City Planner.” She waved her hands on either side of her cheeks in an expression of mock awe. “So if I can help it, I just don’t go. Mom doesn’t know. Sometimes my friend signs me in on attendance sheets.”

“Where do you go instead of school?” Lyle said. Something about this was making him uncomfortable. For a moment, he felt like telling her to get out of the car, that he didn’t know doing therapy was part of the lunch deal and he wasn’t qualified for that, especially when he couldn’t even talk to his own wife.

“Usually my boyfriend’s house,” she said.

The uneasy feeling he’d gotten hearing her talk on the phone that night at the studio returned. “Shouldn’t your boyfriend be in school, too?”

“He doesn’t go to school,” she said. “He’s twenty-five.”

Lyle swallowed. “You know, you shouldn’t go around saying that,” he said. “About how old he is.”

“Yeah, what’s wrong with it?”

“You’re too young. It’s against the law. He could go to jail.”

“I am not.” She emphasized the last word so hard she spit on the last letter. “Look – I’m five times as mature as all those dweebs at that school. I’m not an ant. I don’t want to turn out like my mother and be a slave to a stupid job at some bank. Kevin’s going to get me out. He loves me.”

“Penny,” Lyle said gently, and before he realized it, his hand was resting on her shoulder. He could feel it rising and falling and for a minute, he thought she was crying. When she looked up, her face was dry, the crackled black liner of her eyelids intact. He opened his mouth to say something, but then realized that there was nothing he could tell her that would mean anything. He couldn’t tell her what he wanted her to do – go back to her mother, to school, get rid of this older guy who was pushing her toward what he wanted, his own version of Penny. So he just sat there, holding her shoulder in the rounded bowl of his palm.

“Excuse me?” The waitress had clipped a metal tray onto the window and was calmly waiting for her payment.

“Oh.” Penny reached for her wallet, but Lyle shook his head and passed the money toward the waitress. Penny looked at him, confused. “But I said—”

“Don’t worry about it.” Lyle took the aluminum wrapper off the burger and held it out to Penny. “Want a bite?”

“Okay.” He handed her the sandwich, and she bit in. That look of relief swept back into her face, her eyes closed, and for a moment, Lyle saw her smile. “That’s good,” she said, and handed it back.

When they finished, the waitress took away their tray and Lyle fired up the car. “Wait,” Penny said. The expression on her face had changed, a frantic flush. “Do you mind taking a drive? There’s somewhere I want to go. It’s not far away. I can’t ask anyone else to take me.”

“What about Kevin?”

“He’d think it was stupid. Come on. Please?”

Lyle knew he could have easily said no to her, turned the car around, and let her out on the curb a long walk from his house. But he couldn’t make himself do it. She was more alone in the world than he could have imagined. The least he could do was take her where she wanted to go. He backed out onto the street and waited for directions.

She told him to take I-76 west out of Wadsworth. They left the city behind them, the squat buildings and little white houses, for the bleak highway, surprisingly empty for a weekday afternoon. Lyle drove down the interstate with anxiousness curling in his stomach, still imagining what could happen if Maddy found out about this. In the background, the radio played a song by a local group about how there’s no surf in Cleveland. WMMS played it constantly because there was a line in it that mentioned their nickname, The Buzzard. Lyle thought it was fitting – a bird that picks at the bones of dead things. Penny stretched her legs toward the front of the passenger seat and quietly sang along, her hair ruffled in the breeze from the half cracked window. Her contentedness calmed him, and it pleased Lyle that he had given her that.

Then she sat up like a shot. “Get off here!” she said, jerking her finger toward the turnoff for Route 3. Lyle put on his turn signal and headed off the interstate, where the land seemed to grow even flatter, darker, offsetting the cloudless blue sky. Penny told him to make a right onto a long stretch of road that seemed to go on and on, green and rocky and freshly plowed, and it was then – a certain bump in the road, an ascent where the winter thaw had cracked the pavement, the rise and fall of the tires against it – that something switched on in his head. A chill of familiarity tingled through him, followed by flip book images: his band riding down the same road to a gig in their old VW bus, he and Maddy sitting in the corner while he played the bassline for “No Sugar Tonight” on his unplugged hardbodied instrument. They were going to Chippewa Lake, an old amusement park that had been closed now for a year or two, where he’d played with his old band at its outdoor theatre ten years ago.

Penny started to tell him where to turn, but before she could get the words out, he already had. She seemed surprised by this, like the place was a private thing that no one else had ever touched, and he had somehow cracked it open. They passed the empty sign that used to mark the park entrance, then continued through a housing development where there were once patches of pine trees, and Lyle was momentarily lost as the road dead-ended into a chain linked fence. She told him to pull over.

“They arrest people for trespassing here,” she said matter of factly, like she was giving a tour. Lyle cringed, thinking of the phone call Maddy could receive that evening. Your husband got arrested breaking into a shuttered amusement park with a jailbait teenage girl. But then he pictured the park when the band played there, the blur of red painted steel and sandy roads, and couldn’t help himself. He followed her. Penny scaled the fence with the agility of a gymnast, and while Lyle could feel his weight unbalancing against the links of the metal, he felt a certain exhilaration letting his body fall to the ground. Straight ahead were the lime colored ticket booths, no line of waiting cars, no cashiers. They walked straight in.

The park was almost exactly as Lyle remembered it, but ghostly and empty. An enormous ballroom waited in vain for girls in frothy dresses to arrive with their dates. He could see the steel ghost of the Big Dipper rollercoaster in the distance, and remembered riding it with Maddy, her wild screams, how she was hoarse the next day and the two of them spent the afternoon in bed drinking lemon tea with honey. “Come on,” Penny said.

They walked through the barren midway, past the grin of the Fun House clown’s chipping face, the staring carousel horses, the white pavilion entrance to the Dipper with its cars stalled on the track. It was the first time Lyle had seen it without a line stretching out from the entranceway. In the distance he could hear the lapping of the lake on the sand.

“There!” Penny said, and grabbed his hand. She’d been scanning the horizon of the park since they arrived, looking for something. She dragged him behind her as though she was a child herself, ravenous to go on some ride. Finally, she came to a stop in front of a rotating coaster of rounded cars, the ride’s sign – “THE ‘BUG’” – dangling sidewise from a steel entranceway. Penny ran up to the boarding platform, dragging her hand over the red railing in a way that seemed reverent, like she was trying to gaze out through a smudged window, stuck halfway here and halfway there, wherever there was to her. Then, she climbed into one of the cars and settled back, staring up at the sky with her legs stretched out across the seats, and she let go of a long sigh, a thick blanket of relief.

Lyle didn’t know what she was thinking about as she lay there. But he knew that whatever it was, it couldn’t have been much different from what was on his mind on the drive up. Although he’d forgotten the place for so long, there were things he’d left behind here, and whether she knew it or not, she was helping him get them back. Maybe he was meant to come with her – to find a piece of him in the dead park that was still alive. He figured it was the same for her.

Lyle wandered away from The Bug and across the park, letting her be alone with whatever she was remembering. He’d walked the length of what used to be the midway when he approached a clearing. The outdoor stage was up ahead, just the way he remembered it, the letters that spelled out CHIPPEWA in an arch across the top already starting to fade. He climbed onstage, found the exact spot where he stood as bass player in the band, and looked out across the lawn where the audience used to gather. He didn’t remember the show itself, not much. What remained clear to him was what happened after: cruising the grounds with Maddy, that moment on the Big Dipper, holding onto her as they rode The Bug – maybe in the same car where Penny was lying now – because Maddy was so small and scared she’d go flying out of the ride. That was before everything went bad, before she really did fly off, and Lyle kept holding on to what was left.

Already, the grass was curling up from the ground, the once manicured tree branches twisting like gnarled arms. He tried to picture this place in five, ten years – left to nature’s devices, nascent trees creeping up around the steel skeletons, until it all became a giant forest, blotting out the sun, the buildings rusting, rotting, caving in. Maybe, Lyle thought, that’s just the way it is. You have to dig down deep to get at whatever is still there, let it rise up from the ruins of rot and dirt. But even though it never comes up the same, you hold onto it anyway, watch it crumble and corrode, and keep going round and round.

Over the top of the old Ferris wheel, the sun was moving across the sky. It was almost four o’clock; Maddy would be home in an hour. He’d never make it back before her now. Lyle didn’t know what he’d tell her, and decided not to think about it – a good story would come to him. Instead, he made his way back to The Bug and sat on a wet park bench, studying the quiet smile on Penny’s face. Maybe a memory was drifting across the lids of her eyes, a jumbled, free association of thoughts. What he did know was this: it was the kind of peace she needed, that for just a moment, she was in the right place. He hoped that he was, too.

*          *          *

Penny asked Lyle to drop her off in front of her mother’s house. “I thought you wanted to go to your boyfriend’s,” Lyle said as they pulled up to the curb.

She shrugged. “Yeah, well. Mom’ll give me hell if I don’t come home.” She reached toward the steering wheel and patted his hand, in a way that was comforting, friendly. “Thanks, Lyle,” she said. “Sorry I won’t get to hear you on the radio anymore.”

He patted her shoulder. “There may be other jobs. You never know.”

When he got home, Maddy was in the kitchen, drinking a cup of coffee and seeming to study the yellow-checkered pattern on the plastic tablecloth as her face rested in the palms of her hands. “Hey,” he said.

She didn’t look up. Lyle came closer and placed his hands on her shoulders and began to rub them, digging into muscle and skin. Maddy made a soft sound in her throat, and he wondered if it was out of genuine emotion, or just involuntary, like being tickled, or if she even wanted him to touch her at all. Then, he pulled up a chair and sat down beside her. She looked up at him with an expression that was unreadable, her eyes narrowing, lips bunched together. “Why’d you stop?” she said.

Lyle leaned forward and pulled her close to him. It had been a long time since he’d held her, maybe even since she’d gotten out of the hospital. But it still felt the same, a warm weight, a presence, all blood and breath. He reached around her back, and began to rub her shoulders again.

___

Kori Frazier Morgan received her MFA in fiction writing from West Virginia University. Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Shenandoah, Summerset Review, SN Review, Rubbertop Review, Stone’s Throw Magazine, Up the Staircase, and other publications. She lives in northeastern Ohio.


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