The Woods

At the end of my street was a place we called the woods. At the entrance there was a sand dune to the right and a trail that went through the area. It served as a drainage ditch for the healthy houses on High and Low road, million-dollar estates that belonged to some of the healthiest families in Kalamazoo. When it rained the lowest parts of the woods flooded with streets and ponds that had a short lifespan. On a good day you could find deer roaming around and on a bad day college student met with their drug dealers and they would question what to do when you were spotted walking through.
The woods served as a place of solitude within the city, the closest thing to getting away while only a hundred yards away from the nearest street. There were abandoned bridges that had collapsed long ago, pieces of concrete dumped to prevent erosion. The plants and trees changed every year as the rain dropped of seeds from plants found all around the area.
The woods were often the place for people to dump their trash. On one hike I came across a large bag filled with tripods and camera equipment. Everything was new and had not been out for long. I took it back home and called the police. There was a name on the bag and the police were able to trace it back to the owner who already had an insurance payout for the tripods. The police believed that it was a simple case of insurance fraud and that the owner had tossed them for the money he needed.
While cleaning out his closet my step-dad found a large mason jar filled with marijuana seeds from the 1980s. After 15 years it was time to get rid of them. My parents debated what to do with them but my step-dad was insistent he wanted me to dump them in the woods. I was given this jar of seeds that I didn’t know what they were at the time. This must have been seventh or eighth grade and I stuffed the jar in my backpack acting like I was going for a walk. Out in the woods, surrounded by streets that overlooked the area and neighbors who didn’t like kids hanging out in there, I took out the seeds and dumped them around the area. I brought the jar back home and threw it in the trash.
A few weeks later squad cars were parked at the entrance to the woods and the police carried out garbage bags filled with god knows what. We thought it was bodies or maybe one of those satanic sacrifices we were always hearing about on the news. That night the news did a story on the marijuana farm that had been found in the city. The police had pulled all the plants and were seeking information on the people responsible. “We think this is the work of local college kids that were bold enough to attempt a stunt like this. It’s clear this was an organized production.” The police never did find the farmers.
The woods attracted all kinds of people from the area. Young couples trying to get their grove on. The occasional homeless man that set up a tent at the right spot not to be seen for a while. While walking through the dunes, the one place you did not want to be on a hot summer day I came across a tree that had been turned into a Wing Chun wooden dummy. The arms and punching pad tied around the trunk were obvious to me. Someone was learning kung fu. I never learned who it was or if they ever used it. As I became older the woods were deemed off limits and the fun of exploring was over. When I was able to go through it was while walking the dog or riding my bike but there wasn’t much in there and no reason to pass through. The charm of the woods had vanished along with my childhood.
At the end of the trail was the entrance to the sewer. Spray painted and the iron door had been broken open long ago. It was tall enough for someone to walk down but thirty yards in it narrowed down to a crawl space and until you came to the manhole cover over the street. You could hear the metal clanking of cars driving over as you stood in that small space. That was the farthest I had every ventured in and thanks to Stephen King’s It I’m surprised I ever made it that far.
At the end of the trail was the Gilmore house. One of the richest families in the city, the Gilmores had donated this house to western to be used for some fraternity. The brick building with large picture windows overlooking the woods and an overhang for guest to exit their cars, the house looked like something out of a German landscape painting. On the edge of the yard was a large brick oven with its own chimney. I pictured people making pizzas and flipping steaks on the ranks but it was never used. I could never understand rich people. That had all of these things and they never used or enjoyed them.
The woods are still there. A former co-worker of mine lives next to the entrance and told me about the deer that come into his yard at night and feed on the apples he leaves for them. His kids play in the woods and venture out into my old stomping grounds. I hope they are able to enjoy them more than I could. For a kid who read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn the woods were a magical place and thanks to that place I still find myself going to larger versions of the same thing, hiking through trails and finding all sorts of trinkets to take home to the wife. There is a comfort in knowing that when the houses are gone and nature reclaims what once belonged to it the woods will still be there, the place that was permanent in how hit changed while never changing at all.



When I was growing up my mother ran a daycare out of our apartment. Kids came and went but there was one that stood out. Jessica was a year older than me, a girl who in the short time that we knew one another would never be forgotten, and for one summer impacted my life for years. Jessica was the girl next door, except she lived a few streets over from me. She was smart, athletic, funny, and in the backyard when nobody was watching gave me my first kiss. This might explain why I always thought Jessica’s were immediately attractive but I never dated any.
Jessica had a brother who was younger than both of us. While Jessica had long curly brown hair and big brown eyes her brother had the Ricky Schroder straight blonde hair and blue eyes that had people asking questions.
That summer we spent most of our time outside drawing graffiti on the side of a barn with chalk, playing on a swing set I was quickly outgrowing, and riding our bikes through the neighborhood. I cannot remember any of the conversations we had, only the feeling and sense of her personality as images come back to me and I try to recall what life was like before the accident.
Once summer was over, I never expected to see Jessica again. Most of the kids who came to the daycare never returned and I learned over the years that friends were temporary, even in school. There were a few times when there was a knock on the door, Jessica and her brother had ridden their bikes over and asked if I could hang out with them. My step-dad said no and they left in disappointment while I retreated to my room.
On May 18th, 1992 I had to learn what happened from the local newspaper, Drunk Driver Kills Teen. Like most news articles that wasn’t the whole story. Jessica was thirteen then, almost two years since our summer together. She was still receiving good grades and was on a softball team. She was doing everything she should be doing even with coming from a broken home. Then her mother had a new boyfriend.
Jessica was finished with softball practice and so her Mother, brother, and the boyfriend went to pick her up from the field. On the way home, the boyfriend drove through a red light, the car was side swiped on the passenger side caving in the rear passenger seat and the trunk, Jessica’s side of the car. Her head hit the glass and frame of the door on impact. Trauma to the brain caused swelling and internal bleeding and she died later at the hospital. Everyone else in the car was unharmed.
I was stuck at home with my grief. Every day I waited for the newspaper to arrive so that I could learn more, maybe read that it was some horrible mistake and that they had printed the wrong information. The gazette didn’t help when they published a picture of the softball team praying on the front page and one of the girls with a full head of long curly brown hair and her head down wearing their hat, looked exactly like Jessica. For a brief moment I thought they had the wrong girl. I showed the picture to my mom and she thought they must have used an old picture. The story was about a memorial service for Jessica and listed the date and time of the wake and funeral. We went.
I still have vivid memories of that afternoon. Jessica’s brother sat in the corner in a chair by himself, likely feeling more alone than ever. The boyfriend was in jail. Jessica’s mom was greeting everyone at the wake. I had to see the body. Seeing her lying there in a box, it didn’t look like her. The pale skin didn’t look like the girl who played softball and rode her bike in the summer sun. Her hair appeared stiff unlike the curly locks that would whip in the breeze. I couldn’t see her brown eyes and her lips were not the warm Kool-aid flavored lips that had once kissed mine. My great grandpa had died a few years before and after the long process of watching his cancer until his death it seemed natural. I didn’t have questions about that, he was old and by then I knew that people died when they were old. This was something totally different.
“I don’t know why they are blaming him. He only had two beers. He wasn’t drunk. We didn’t drive through a red light the other guy did. He wasn’t drunk, you can’t get drunk on two beers.” These were the comments I remember Jessica’s mom making during the wake.
Before we left, I put my hand in the coffin, touching her arm. Nothing seemed real. Her flesh was cold and stiff. We weren’t able to ride our bikes through the neighborhood together and she would never knock on the door again. That would be the only kiss we would have, the first and the last. We left the wake after that and I never saw her buried. Life did not make sense after that. I couldn’t figure out why she would be the one chosen to die in that car that afternoon. The drunk boyfriend survived. Her mother who was absent in their lives every time she had a new man in her life survived. The brother who was already starting trouble before the accident survived. And yet for some reason Jessica was the one that died. Religion had no answers and when I heard it was God’s plan, I thought he must be a huge asshole and the churches around me might as well have been churches to Satan. Who could worship someone that would do something so horrible to the wrong person?
A few years later Jessica’s brother was in the newspaper. I can’t remember if it was armed robbery or theft, but he was wanted for some crime that warranted having his picture and name posted in the paper. I can’t say that I blame him for the path he was on. Watching your sister die in the backseat of a car, having no father figure in your life, and nobody else who bothers to stick around and care about you will send you on a dark path. It was not uncommon for the kids in my neighborhood to make it onto the news for something horrible. The Vine street neighborhood wasn’t called the Student Ghetto for nothing. People try to focus on the student part, affordable housing for Western Michigan University students who can’t afford much after their student loan debt. The ghetto portion is thought of as a joke, something to laugh about when the name is said, ignoring the crack houses and broken homes that make up a third of the population. This was the place her brother found himself after his sister died. The ghetto is not a place to grow up alone without someone their to guide you. I wonder what his life would have been like if Jessica had not died that day.
When I talked about Jessica later people acted like it was something that should be forgotten. When I told my mother that Jessica was my first kiss she said “that never happened.” I couldn’t talk to the kids at school about it because they didn’t know her. Like Jessica’s brother I was alone in trying to figure things out, and I never would. There were no answers. There wasn’t a plan from on high. Bad things happen to good people and there is no reason for it. Horrible people continue on in life and die as horrible people never to account for the things they have done. Meanwhile good people die everyday leaving large holes in the lives of those around them. I don’t remember what I did in my room after I wasn’t allowed to ride my bike with Jessica. As time slips by and the things of the past become hazy under a blanket of fog, I realize it was the things that I wasn’t able to do that I miss the most.