Tuesday, September 13, 2016

"Boy on the Curb," a 1990 short story that inspired a 14-minute song

During my first month of college (26 years ago today, in fact), I wrote a short story inspired by the feel of walking the New England campus at night. It's about two boys, Oliver and the mysterious James.

I forced my new friends to read it. One of them was named Adam Gelles.

At 6 p.m. on 9/16/90, the day after he read the story, he entered my dorm room, handed me a cassette, and said "I wrote a song about it."

He'd gone into the music building, sat at a piano, and recorded the song in one take—spinning out the words as he went along. I was the one who wrote them down...and named the song, too, since he didn't. Pulling from his lyrics, I called it "James's Song: Sacred Light."

I was floored that his (largely rhyming) lyrics had unspooled spontaneously and, of course, humbled that anyone would write a song based on anything I wrote. And I did not like the song only because of its genesis. I thought it was genuinely beautiful.

The story and (with Adam's permission) song are below. This is as I wrote it at age 18, aside from minor edits. For example, I did delete "James said" after James says "I'm James" but resisted the urge to weed out the distracting parade of synonyms for "said" (replied, revealed, confessed).

Back then, the story inspired the song, but now, for me, the song must come first.

"Boy on the Curb"


How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn't see?

Some things have to be believed to be seen.

Sometime during my youth I came across a saying that I have since tried to uphold religiously. I remember it as reading, "To think about doing something for too long becomes its undoing." When I repeat it to myself I think of all the times I wanted to call up a given girl but managed to convince myself not to because she probably wasn't home. I also recall planning on auditioning for a play or two but deciding against it because I didn't feel that it would fit into my schedule. Of course, I desperately desired to go through with these and many other similar tasks, but came to the conclusion that saving myself the possible humiliation of rejection far outweighed the chance that my risk-taking could have positive results.

Of all the stories I have from my college days, there is one that definitely stands out above the rest. Putting it into words is already proving to be difficult, but not impossible. If there's one thing I learned from the story I am about to tell, it is that nothing is impossible. I have kept it to myself for many years, and it wasn't until now that I decided to undo what I undid some twenty years ago. In other words, after this incident happened, I deliberated long and hard for many weeks whether or not I should tell anyone about it. As the saying goes, I ended up sharing my story with no one but myself and an occasional listening wall. But in this day and age, people are conditioned to believe just about anything, so the time for this story to surface has arrived.


The most appealing New England weather to me has always been the blustery day—not cold, but pleasantly cool. In the early nineteen-sixties, my nicest article of clothing was my fall jacket, perfect for days like those. New on the college scene, I tried to be as fashionable as I could. Looking back, it seems funny that I went out of my way to dress nicely in the clothes that are laughed at by my children's generation.

Maybe it was because I was so conscious about people's appearances that I noticed him. I remember it so clearly: it was one of those blustery days, and I was walking to class. Naturally, I was wearing my jacket. I also wore a black cap and a comfortable pair of jeans. My book bag was over my shoulder. I hurried along a brick path between two rows of trees and bushes that dotted the lawns of two buildings. There was a walkway that led to the building on my left, and at the end of the walkway was a curb. On the curb sat a boy.

He was rather unusually dressed. It was unlike any style I had seen recently, so I figured it wasn't current. His hair looked strange, too. Maybe he was from Europe or something, or maybe I just didn't know what was hip. But nonetheless, I passed right by him and pretty much put him out of my mind. That was until I saw him the following day sitting in the exact same place. He hadn't changed clothes, and he still sat by himself. He didn't even say hello to anyone who walked by, although I saw him make eye contact with several students. Unlike the previous day, he was reading a book. For some reason, a word came out of my mouth.

"Hey," I said, in my rather profound way of introducing myself. The boy looked up and I saw his face clearly. He was probably my age. But he had a very unsettling look on his face, as if he wasn't used to people talking to him.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt your reading..."

"You didn't interrupt anything," he replied, putting his book down beside him on the curb. "In fact, I'm glad you did—this book was getting boring anyway."

"What book is it?"

"What's your name?"

"I'm Oliver. Oliver Eisenhower. No relation to Dwight D.," I joked. He didn't laugh, much less smile.

"Nice to meet you, Oliver. I'm James." He never took his eyes off me as he added, "I'm the one who should apologize. You see, I'm not really..." It looked as if he didn't intend to finish his statement.

"...used to this," he concluded, disproving my thought.

"Yeah, college is new to me, too."

James didn't give me the impression of being a wild conversationalist, and I was late enough to class as it was, so I conveniently looked at my watch and rather insincerely said, "I really gotta go...it was nice meeting you!" I smiled; he smiled back.

As I started to head off, I heard him respond, "I have to go, too." I turned to tell him not to forget his book, but both the book and its owner were nowhere in sight.


James was back on Monday. He was reading again, and I really hoped he went to a laundromat because he was wearing the same clothes as before. I was almost going to ignore him, but he looked up from his book just as I neared.

"Hi, Oliver. How are you?"

"Not bad," I said, stopping. "And yourself? I see you're still into that book."

When I first asked what book he was reading the week before, I really didn't care; I was just making conversation. I decided to bring it up again because James seemed to have a short attention span.

He said, "Yeah, but it hasn't gotten any better."

"Well, listen, I'll see you later," I muttered, trying to appear in some kind of a hurry. He spooked me; every time he talked to me, he looked me right in the eye. I wasn't sure if he did it because that's the way people were in college or just because he was a weirdo. Either way, I wasn't used to that. I slowly started walking on by, wondering why I ever said anything to him to begin with.

"Do you have a class now?" he said. His question acted as a magnet, forcing me to walk back to him.

"Yeah, I do. I have chemistry. And I guarantee that's ten times more boring than anything in your book."

"I have no choice but to read my book, and you probably have no choice but to take that course." I found that to be an odd statement, but as I was about to nod politely and walk away, he asked, "What did you do this weekend?"

I assessed that to be a harmless inquiry, so I proceeded to answer him.

"I went to the football game Friday night, did nothing Saturday night, and studied somewhere in between. As you can tell I definitely live the fast-paced life it appears I do..."

Without even a chuckle, James said, "So you're a big football fan."

"On campus it's kind of hard not to be. It's such an integral part of the social life, not to mention the excitement, around here."

"I know what you mean."

"I hate to be rude, James, but I have to get to class. But listen, do you live around here? Maybe I'll see you around. Hey, maybe you can tag along when we go to the next game."

"I'd really love to. We'll have to see—"

At that point a rather large, and apparently clumsy, boy bumped into me.

"What the hell is your problem?" he snapped. He walked away bitter, and I heard him mumble, "Stupid idiot, standing in the middle of the way, babbling..."

"Friend of yours?" James said. Even though it was cliché, I appreciated his comment because it showed that maybe he did have a sense of humor.

"Not yet," I mused. "James, again, it's been a pleasure, but I must go. I'm sure our paths will cross yet again." He nodded, and I said, "Bye."

I walked about sixty more feet down the way when I had a mysterious feeling that I should look back. But I didn't.


It must have been two weeks since I first encountered James, and every day that I walked that way to class, I would see him. And I would stop and talk to him. Our discussions were never very interesting, and due to the circumstances under which we had them, never lasted very long. I always had somewhere to go; he always seemed to be waiting for someone or something. I felt that he might be offended if I were to ask just what that may have been, so I didn't.

He often seemed distracted, having the tendency to ignore or simply disregard many of my questions and comments. No one else ever stopped to talk to him, nor did he ever stop anyone. In fact, many people looked at me as if I were crazy when I was talking to him. I guessed he didn't have many friends yet. The funny thing was that he didn't seem to care.

"What, do you have a class in this building?" I asked. "You sit out here every day."

"Actually, I used to have a class here. I don't anymore," he revealed.

It was his usual generic answer, but I didn't press it because I was lucky even to get an answer at all.

I prepared myself to ask him something he probably didn't want me to know. After moments of hesitation, I asked, "Where did you say you lived?"

"I live on campus," James confessed.

"James, I know that. I meant where, specifically."

Another passer-by asked me who I was talking to. Ever since I began talking to James, a lot of people would ask me that. Jesus, I thought, doesn't anybody know this guy?

James's face displayed a feeling of insecurity. It apparently took a lot for him to finally say, "In Penville Hall."

I had never heard of Penville. Either it was off campus, or I really didn't know anything about my new home.

"Is that far from Logue? That's my dorm."

I really couldn't explain to myself why I was making such an effort with this guy. He never made an attempt to be friendly. Everything he said was either one of his trademark pointless statements or a random question.

To further dig his own grave with me, he asked, "How's your chemistry class?"

"Uh, James, I'm on my way to lunch. My friends have probably already finished—I should get going."

I walked away, this time without even saying good bye.


I soon began to realize that James seldom manifested himself elsewhere on campus. Come to think of it, the only time I had ever seen him was on that path. James never told me his last name, so I couldn't find him in the student directory, and I wasn't about to check every James on the list. Whenever I asked people where Penville was, I would get answers like, "What, are you kidding?," "Where do you think?" or "I don't know." It was like everyone was hiding something from me, as if I were the butt of some campus-wide practical joke. But it didn't make me laugh. Actually, it scared me.

I decided to go to one of my closest friends there.

Her name was Eleanor Willoughs, and if I ever had a problem, she was there for me. We had known each other, if only casually, before college, but when we arrived we hit it off instantly. It was good to have someone you feel close to in a place far from home, especially during the first few weeks and months. I wondered if James had someone like that.

Sitting in her pleasantly decorated dorm room somehow eased the tension that had developed within me because of this rather minor scenario, which, for some reason, bothered the hell out of me. I told her all about our talks, and how he was always there but never seemed to give the time of day to anyone but me. She asked me a slew of philosophical questions such as "Were you the first to strike up a conversation?" and "Does he sound like he could be dangerous?" All I could say was, "He's just weird."

"Weird how? In what way?" Eleanor asked.

"Well don't you think it's odd that I never see him around campus—not at meals, not walking around? And no one seems to know where he lives, including himself. This Penville he named isn't on the current map, and you want to hear this? I went to the archives in the library...I looked on old maps. Penville hasn't been on a map here for thirty years."

"This is all very interesting, Oliver. But what do you want me to say? That he's a ghost or something? I'd have to meet him to see what you're talking about, to see how he is."

"No...I don't expect you to meet him. It's just that, every time I walk away from him I get the most uncomfortable feeling. I don't know if I feel sorry for him, or if I'm scared of him...I'm probably just making a big deal out of absolutely nothing."

Eleanor smiled and ruffled my hair. "You definitely are. If it bothers you, just go another way to class. It's a big campus—you might never see him again." After getting no response from me, she added, "Don't let one person get to you, especially one you don't even know."

She was right, and very understanding, and I knew I should take her advice.


That night, I couldn't sleep. It must have been close to three in the morning when I got up and went outside. I felt the chill immediately, seeing as I was wearing only a T-shirt and a pair of sweat pants. The steady breeze swayed the trees, and the sound was like a thousand whispers lifting from a forest floor. I walked, basically oblivious of my direction, for several minutes. When I stopped walking I found myself on a small flat area of campus that was surrounded by several dormitories. The trees that grew in random spots throughout the confined plot further added to the slight feeling of enclosure. I felt the pine needles, both underfoot and as they gently fell from the branches. The brisk air kept my senses sharp. The area was relatively well-lit, and I could see my breath. I noticed a few dorm lights were still on, a few more pages still being studied.

As I stood there, I imagined what the view of the scene would look like from above. I thought a lot about solitude. I thought about how strange it was to be outside in the middle of the night by yourself. I wondered what someone would think if he or she were to look out his or her window right then and see me standing there. I wondered what I would think if I were the one who looked out my window and saw someone.

I closed my eyes for a second to test my exhaustion level. If they were heavy, I would have known that I was tired and that I could fall asleep if I went back to my dorm. There was no resistance at all when I reopened them. I wasn't tired. I don't know why. I also don't know why I picked up a rock and threw it right through a nearby window. Why I ran back to my dorm as fast as I could, however, should be self-evident.

They never caught me. And I never turned myself in.


The paths less travelled were travelled by me in the weeks that followed. I went the long way to my classes to avoid James. Fall was in full glory by then, it being sometime around the second week in October. Many afternoons compelled me to take solitary walks, often off the beaten path. One day I decided to go into the woods behind my dorm.

I felt as if I was becoming more and more of a loner. I hadn't spoken to Eleanor about James since our first talk, and I really hadn't been able to concentrate on much of anything. Up until that point, I accused the enigma of James of being the cause for my desolation. But my radical change in character started to feel like a condition a lot more serious than anything one person could incite.

The late afternoon sunlight created a much more soothing image of trees than the ones I had recently encountered. Leaves, not pine needles, were dropping gracefully from all around. Serenity took on a whole new meaning to me.

"Hello, Oliver. I didn't think I'd see anybody else out here."

I didn't even have to turn to know it was James.

"Hi, James," I said, turning. "What are you doing in the woods?"

It was the most gorgeous time of day to be outside.

The air was not too cold, not too warm. The sunlight was in its most stunning form. Shadows were long.

James smiled and began to walk further into the woods. Actually, it wasn't a very deep woods; a clearing lay within sight from where I stood. I could see boys playing ball.

"We still on for that football game?" he asked.

"You name the day," I graciously responded. My glance once again shifted to the game on that nearby field. I longed to be there, not here in the woods alone with this rather maddening individual.

James suddenly started to head for the clearing. Maybe he did have friends. I got excited because, for a moment, I thought I would get to see him interact with someone other than myself.

I tried to speak, but found my throat to be inexplicably dry. I managed to squeeze out the words: "Are you going to play?"

"No," James stated, "I'm going to my room."

"What room?" I demanded.

"My dorm room. In Penville."

"James, there's no dorm here. And there's no dorm Penville on this campus. Hasn't been for thirty years." I stopped myself, then as calmly as possible, asked, "Where are you going?"

He lifted his arm mechanically and pointed. We looked each other straight in the eye, then my head slowly turned to follow his outstretched arm. He was pointing towards the clearing.

I suddenly recalled from seeing old maps of campus that the clearing was the former sight of Penville Hall.


Before I had a chance to say anything, something happened that distracted both of us. We were pretty close to the edge where the woods met the field, and the shouts of the boys playing were very distinct. In particular I am referring to a rather exuberant outburst of "Incoming!" by someone who had apparently thrown the ball a little too hard. It was heading in our general direction.

James raised his arms to a cradling position. I looked up and saw the pigskin spiraling down. James was right underneath it; there was no way he could fumble this. But the ball went right through his arms...and his entire body. It landed on a soft, damp bed of leaves. Looking at the ground behind where James stood it became clear that he cast no shadow.


James looked me right in the eye. I looked at him for a moment, then quickly focused my attention on several boys who were running towards us to retrieve their ball. James looked at them, too, then back at me. He had an apologetic look on his face, as if he was about to say, "I'm sorry." I didn't understand that, but with James, that was nothing new.

Two boys entered the woods. I recognized one; it was Eli, from my chemistry class. The other I did not know.

"Hey, Ollie, how ya doing?“ Eli yelled. "You see our ball come in here?"

I didn't really listen to his question; in fact, I'm amazed that I can remember it at all.

I pointed at James and said very weakly, "Do you see him?"

Eli and his friend both looked. James looked back with an expressionless face. The two football players exchanged puzzled shrugs, then turned to me.

"Who?" they said together.

I cast a helpless glance towards James and replied, "Sorry. I thought I saw someone running through the woods."

They looked at each other again, then at me. Eli's friend saw the ball on the ground, and went to get it. He had to walk right through James. James remained unaffected.

Eli offered, "Hey, you wanna play? We still need guys..."

"No, I...I should be getting back...," I stammered.

"Thanks anyway."

"Yeah, sure," he responded. The duo walked back onto the field. As they started running back to the game, Eli called out, "See ya later!"

I turned back to James. He had wandered off in another direction. I called out to him.

"Hey, James! James! You gonna answer my questions now?"

He stopped and turned around.

I guessed that meant yes.

"Wh-what happened...to you?"

"I was playing football. On the path you take to your chemistry class. We were just throwing the ball around on a Saturday. I was backing up to catch it, and I got to the curb before I got to the ball. I tripped and hit my head, and..."

"When did this happen?"

"Oh...," he pondered. "Nineteen twenty-eight."

"My God..."

"I guess I died instantly."

"And Penville?"

"It burned down, about five years later. It was a great place to live, though—new, clean. It was named after a kid who went here, although it didn't last long enough for anyone to remember."

"James, I don't understand. I don't understand all this. I mean, why can I see you? Why am I the only one who can? Why are you here? Why didn't you just tell me all this when you first realized I could see you? I remember the surprised look on your face. I'll never forget it..."

I don't know what responses I expected to hear for these celestial questions, but I guess I couldn't have asked for any answer but the one I got.

"I don't know, Oliver."

My mind started wandering, and I casually said, "By the way, Eisenhower was a president."

"Oh," he said.

To try to swallow this whole thing was an overwhelming task. It was ironic because even though Eleanor didn't know how right she was about James, I knew I couldn't tell her about it. For the time being, it would remain sacred, just between James and me. And now, I would be able to sleep.

"So what's next?" I asked. "What do you do, stay on campus? Maybe you'll be happy there. Maybe you can still watch one of the games..."

"I can't. I think I have to go somewhere else now. I didn't catch the football just now, and I didn't catch it back then. I guess I'll never catch a football again. It's time I learned that."

"I don't get it..."

"I know it's hard, Oliver. You see something for a period of time and you are unsure, maybe even afraid of it. So you look away, tell yourself nothing's wrong. Then, once you discover what it is, you want more of it. Now you no longer want to ignore me, but now it is time for me to go."


"It's the way of the world. Let me just tell you I wish more than anything that I could go to that game with you. I wish you all the luck in the world. What I wouldn't give to be you..."

Although a tear fell from my cheek like the leaves that had been falling all around us, I was able to say, "Thank you…"

James began walking away. I was going to call out to him again, but I hesitated. I let him walk. But when he reached the edge of the woods, he stopped. I felt like I had to say something, so I shouted, "What's your real name?"

He answered quite honestly, with a tone implying that I had no reason to doubt him in the first place.

"It's James. James Penville."

He walked away, and I did, too. I looked back this time, and he was gone.

*    *    *

So that is the story. I went on to graduate from college, and I attended graduate school. I ran a successful business, got married and had a son. I am a perfectly sane, happy individual. I have no proof that this story happened; the best I can say is that I hope you believe it. There WAS a James Penville; that can be proved through many records. That day in the woods was the last I saw of him, but I have an old photo of him. He's wearing a football uniform. I took it from the school library. I taught my son how to catch a ball in that clearing. This year, at my twentieth reunion, I finally confessed to the dean that I threw that rock. He retires this year, and I can't blame him for not even remembering the incident. And sometimes, when I happen to be on campus, I'll go and sit on that curb. And I no longer see James, but I know that he is there.

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