It was four days before Christmas, as cold and dark and dry at five o’clock as the world had ever been, out in the corn near the wild stretches of Wooster, Ohio. The town’s lights blinked in the distance like an elusive mothership, calling Jordan onward. The rest of the car had fallen quiet—his friends, Maria and Peter, slept in shrouded bundles in the back and Simone, next to him, seemed still awake though gazing absently ahead as Jordan drove. The radio bleated soft static. The road had narrowed before them, a tunnel amid the dead corn as the wind swirled the wisps of salt over the scarred asphalt. Five hours in with five more to go, Jordan found himself thinking of nothing more than home, on this, the longest evening of the year.
“Why are we off the highway?” Maria asked from the back.
“Fuel,” Jordan said.
“For me or the car?” Peter asked.
Jordan could see them gently unwinding into separate entities, a splitting of the atom as Maria gave Peter a quick strike on the shoulder. White faces sprouted from under blankets.
“Both, I bet,” Simone said, turning to rub Jordan’s head with her knuckles. “Whaddya say? One big stop before we push on home?”
Jordan jerked his head away—an old reflex—leaving Simone’s half-fist hanging in the air.
“Just for something quick,” Jordan said. “Not sure what we’ll find, anyway.”
Wooster, Jordan believed, was one of those towns straight out of black-and-white television, the “Welcome” sign rearing up in the headlights, proclaiming its namesake as Revolutionary General David Wooster, and its status as the hometown of the Wayne County Fair and the mid-Atlantic Wooster Warriors hockey club. The cold evening had apparently buttoned up the place, with the exception of a few poor souls fumbling to string candy-caned banners in the dark. As they pulled onto the broad, main drag, the street lamps seemed like matches on end, flickering in the wind. He knew his mother would give him hell if she knew he was in some strange little town so far off the highway, as if Jordan had forgotten the color of his own skin.
“All these folks know about black people is what they see on TV,” his mother liked to tell him during their road trips. “We’re not stopping.”
“What about down there?” Simone asked, pointing toward the end of the block where a fiery glow emanated from a storefront. Her face shone pale as the moon amid the streetlights, illuminating the arresting green of her eyes.
“The Broken Stone,” Peter said as he saw the restaurant name when they pulled to a stop. “Sounds like a hick dump.”
“Christ, Pete, don’t be such an asshole,” Maria said. Peter pushed himself upright in his seat and snorted.
“What? Do any of you all speak yokel?” Peter asked.
Jordan hadn’t brought a warm enough jacket—he felt it as soon as he opened the car door, the wind cutting through his coat. The night rolled in like a wave, as if it might swell up and sweep him away. His hair was too long and becoming unkempt—Simone kept rubbing his head—he knew his mother would take him to his old barber in Englewood the minute she saw him. The cold sapped him of all his energy and paled his skin to a dusty brown, and he imagined himself an astronaut on a sparse moon crater, staring out into the inky void of space.
“Get the fuck in here,” Peter said, holding the restaurant door open and jumping up and down. “What is it with you people?”
The girls stood in the little vestibule, hugging themselves, with Peter at the door and Jordan having stopped dead on the sidewalk.
“Peter,” Maria said, whacking him again. Simone frowned, knitting her brow. She ran out and grabbed Jordan’s arm.
“C’mon,” she said, and pulled him on.
The restaurant had a pale shine to it—the light from the hanging bulbs reverberated off the whitewashed brick of the walls. The furniture was mostly piped steel and green vinyl chairs that squeaked when they sat down and mint-colored Formica tables that, to Jordan, seemed to belong just as much in an airport lounge from 1968 as in some podunk country diner.
“Four, please,” Maria said to the hostess. It was a slow night—they were seated immediately.
“Here for the Christmas fair?” the hostess asked.
“No,” Simone said. “Just passing through on our way to Chicago.”
He had met Simone a little over a year ago, at a birthday party where neither of them had known the guest of honor, and when they had traded numbers he had been sure to give it the joking equanimity of being “no big deal,” or so he had told her and himself. They were friends, not just token acquaintances, and he was friendly when he bought her coffee or when he told her how nice she looked; he was friendly when he smiled and friendly when they walked through parks on warm evenings. He had made the mistake of mentioning her to his mother—maybe offhand as another stranded Chicagoan out east—but her response was definitive: is that all, Jordan? Of course it wasn’t. He wasn’t dumb, just unsure, unsure of if he liked her or just liked being with her. When they were together she never made him feel that he was anything other than just Jordan: no prophet, no soothsayer, no interracial translator, and for that he could let slide her strange affinity for his hair. After all, Jordan had prided himself on control in all things, from his thoughts and speech to the filed tips of his fingernails, but it still occurred to him, in moments like this, how tenuous it might all be, their delicate friendship, his delicate control.
“You guys will be missing out,” the waitress said. “Santa Claus’ll be there and everything.”
Jordan found himself nodding vaguely as he pulled himself up to the table. He still hadn’t looked at Peter, unsure of what might come roaring out of either of their mouths, especially his own. Another woman came by with water and named the specials. Jordan heard none of it: the restaurant was desperately warm, even without his coat on, his chest and shoulders suddenly impossibly itchy under his button-down, the bright paleness of the light doing something strange to his eyes. He could feel Simone next to him and the long fibers of her sweater when they grazed his arm.
“I’ve never been in Ohio before but I think this is why,” Peter said, sweeping the restaurant with his eyes.
“Seems like a nice little spot,” Simone said. “I feel like if you lived here this kinda place would be a ‘haunt’ where they put your order in when you walk through the door.”
Jordan erected his menu like a rampart, his eyes flickering over the top.
“I think that only happens in movies,” Maria said. “No one goes anywhere like that anymore.” She took off her glasses, dabbing her napkin in the water glass before vigorously scrubbing the lenses and blinking rapidly. She and Simone were roommates back east, in the city, and when Jordan let slip that he would be driving the long haul home—and would Simone be interested in accompanying him—it seemed that Maria and Peter were necessary complications to the invitation. Out east, after college, he had moved to work in the nearby city, and he had become used to the long solitudinous drives back to Englewood. So Jordan had told himself he was grateful for the company as he was for the gas money, which had allowed him to buy presents for his family. Though he wasn’t so sure if Peter might not be of better use stapled to Maria’s futon. He was unsure if he wanted to hate him—hate them both—really, for the endlessly stupid drip of words that drained out of Peter’s mouth. Jordan could never say it, but there was something more candid and raw he never wanted to put a voice to, that left him feeling troubled and broken when Peter spoke.
“So, how far out are we?” Peter asked, pushing his hair back, his face coming to a well-honed point at the tip of his nose
“Five hours, give or take,” Jordan said, speaking slowly and focusing on his breathing, trying to keep the light from dazzling him. He had promised to take them as far as Wicker Park before the two had to find their own way out to Kenilworth. A lot more people were coming in, others milling about outside the windows. The restaurant had started to fill and the noise began to squeeze in around him Jordan did not have to look around to notice how singular and alone he both looked and felt, right there amidst all that corn.
The waitress returned for their orders. She was older and spoke slowly to the point that it made Jordan uncomfortable. The grey bar of her bangs reached down to her eyebrows, with the rest of it pulled back behind her ears in a loose jumble. She scribbled everything furiously in her notepad, coming to Jordan last.
“And you?” She finally peeked up now to look at him, vaguely bored.
“I’ll have the chicken-fried steak,” he said, handing her the menu that she took wordlessly, “and the mashed potatoes.”
“Oh,” Simone added, leaning in on her elbows, “and a bottle of wine for the table—a, uh, a red I guess. A cheap one.”
Simone smiled, which seemed to be enough. The waitress stacked their menus and nodded.
“This place has a liquor license?” Maria asked. Simone shrugged.
“You sure you wanna drink wine from a joint like this?” Peter asked. “They probably brew it in a combine out back.”
“What was up with her, though?” Jordan asked, in spite of himself.
“She probably thinks we’re a bunch of rotten college kids on a stupid bender or something,” Simone said, rubbing Jordan’s head again, a warm kindling spreading throughout his arms and chest such that, despite his better self, he could not help but let the moment happen. He had always hated when people touched his hair.
“A bottle of wine, though?” Peter asked, dropping his head on the table. “Are you trying to camp out here or what?”
“I think it’s sophisticated,” Simone said. “Besides, isn’t that what adults do in the movies? A bottle of wine. It isn’t that strange, right?”
“It’s strange in a town like this,” Jordan said.
“I like it here,” Maria said. “It’s quaint, you know? It’s like, old timey, the sorta place where you know everyone you meet on the street. Very mom and pop. Very safe.”
Jordan imagined it: the endless, eerie dark, stretching out all around them, an uncertainty amid the miles of fallow fields. He had never so longed for the halogen bulbs of the city streetlights until he had turned off the interstate and found this darkness swelling around him. Yet Jordan knew better than to disagree with Maria, a scientist at a large hospital in the city. She had a way of looking at him as if he were a petri dish and she was there to assess him for empirical evidence. By her standards, Jordan felt he often had very little.
“Safe how? Don’t you feel safe in the city?” Jordan asked. He looked to Simone but found she was staring at the table, folding and refolding her napkin.
“No,” Maria said, sitting up straighter, her palms flat on the table, her voice increasing in pitch. “I certainly don’t.”
“Oh boy,” Peter said, putting his head down on the table. “Here we go.”
Maria tugged his ear hard and he grunted in pain.
“What happened?” Jordan asked. The question slipped out before he could think better of it. Maria spoke loud enough now for the entire restaurant to hear her.
“I was walking home—it couldn’t have been two weeks ago—and a man tried to follow me.”
“Like, from a bar?” Jordan asked.
“No, from the subway, I think. I’m not sure, really.”
“Followed you where?” Jordan asked.
“To our apartment,” Simone said.
“You think he followed her to someone else’s apartment?” Peter asked, his head still on the table.
“Pete—shut up,” Jordan said before he could keep it in, but it seemed to slip past unnoticed.
“Look, I didn’t talk about it because I just—I just didn’t know if it was all real. I didn’t want to tell you and have it be real. I was walking home from the hospital one night, not that late even, and I noticed this guy behind me and right away I can tell something’s not good, you know? Like I can feel it in the pit of my stomach, and this guy—he’s following me down every street I’m on. He’s big, too, or at least he just seems really big. He has on these baggy clothes and this hood up that’s covering about his entire face so I can’t even see really what he looks like so I think I should pull out my phone and call for help, but what if he sees my phone and decides to grab me right away? I’m going crazy, as if walking is the only thing keeping me safe. So I think maybe I should walk somewhere public and well lit, you know? But I just wasn’t thinking straight, I felt like an animal and the only thing I could think of was getting home because home would be safe. So I’m walking faster and faster, that kind of walk you do when you’re basically sprinting with your feet on the ground. So then I turn the next corner and see our building. I’m just gasping and sobbing by then and so I think ‘I’m just going to kill him before he can get me. I’m gonna kill him first.’ So I stick my key blade out from my knuckles and I know I’m gonna take him by surprise before he gets me. So I run up the stoop and I’m waiting, but he’s not coming up into the light, so I open the door really quick and slammed it shut behind me. I remember sitting in our hallway just a complete mess, yelling and sobbing on my knees and unable to think I was really safe even.”
They were all quiet for a moment, even as the chatter about them sped along at an unimpeded clip. Jordan didn’t want to believe it. He felt as if he was sinking into a hole in the earth and his friends were all standing around the edge, chatting. Maria was blinking quickly, rubbing her nose and letting out a big sigh as the other three merely sat there, taking it in. The waitress came back with their food, except Jordan’s.
“It’s going to be a few more minutes on yours,” she told him as she topped off the other water glasses. Jordan nodded. After she left they anxiously sat about eyeing their food.
“Don’t let it get cold on my account,” he said, sighing a bit. “So, Maria. What happened next?”
Maria was stirring her potatoes in orbit around her meager-looking pork chop.
“I think that was the worst of it. I could see him for just a moment still, through the little window, standing on the sidewalk, looking at me. He didn’t even touch me but I felt so violated. Eventually the first floor neighbors, they must have heard me and came out to help calm me down and then I called Peter to come over—Simmy was asleep by then.”
“Did you call the cops?” Jordan asked.
“No,” Simone said. “I thought we might be in danger or something. This guy does sound like a stalker or worse—”
“We didn’t want to get the police all involved,” Peter said. “I mean, we were all pretty upset and just wanted to call it quits.”
“But what did he look like—I mean, could you pick him out?”
“He probably looked like a thug,” Peter said.
“What are you trying to say?” Jordan asked. His place setting was empty but he still had a death grip on his fork.
“I dunno. It was dark. I couldn’t see. I was scared,” Maria said.
“I’m saying that a thug is a thug,” Peter said. “It’s not like they’re easy to tell apart.”
“I’m still not sure we’re safe,” Simone said. “We probably need to do something, I dunno, move out probably.”
“Maybe he didn’t want to hurt you. What if he just recognized you from school or something?” Jordan asked.
“Or what if he was Jesus Christ himself?” Peter asked him. “And now none of us get to be saved because Maria just didn’t give the poor guy a chance.”
The waitress had returned and finally placed Jordan’s food in front of him, which shut them all up for a moment, at least, and they all sat and ate as quietly as they could.
“I’m not so hungry anymore. Maybe we should just pay and get back on the road,” Maria said. The wine bottle still sat only half empty. The rest of the table nodded in silent agreement. Peter flagged the waitress down, and Simone lurched over the table and grabbed the check as soon as it landed on the table.
“OK, but we’re paying on one check like grownups,” Simone said as they all groaned. “All right, fork it over—I take cash and IOUs redeemable for your kneecaps.”
Jordan had spent the last of his cash on gas at their last stop and found himself scribbling out debts on a scrap of paper and circulating them around the table, but eventually it seemed they covered the bill—he checked the math himself—and they sat in moderate quiet as Peter tried in vain to wave the woman over. She came soon enough, cautiously picking up the leather folder.
“OK, so how many ways am I splitting this?”
“Oh, we’re all set,” Simone said, beaming. The waitress broke into a broad smile.
“I don’t get you people often but every time it’s always ‘split this six ways’ and it never adds up with hardly any tip. God bless you kids and have a Merry Christmas,” she said, glancing at Jordan for only the briefest moment. Jordan felt something ferocious building in his throat, but he forced himself to stare into his hands and tamp it down as she gathered up the bills and turned to go. He couldn’t help himself.
“What’re you trying to say?” Jordan asked, the words rising out of his mouth much louder and more forceful than he had intended. The waitress stopped gathering up the bills.
“Merry Christmas is all I was saying,” she said, perplexed, her hands still bulging with the money.
“You don’t get us often, huh? Don’t tip well—is that what you’re saying? You saying it about them or about me?” Jordan stood up now, his chair scraping across the floor, all of the restaurant watching him now to see what he might do next. The waitress had started to back up slightly. The other staff poked their heads out of the kitchen.
“She must have thought we were a bunch of awful college brats or something,” Maria whispered. “Relax.”
“Merry Christmas is all I was saying,” the waitress said again.
“OK—time to go,” Simone said, grabbing him by the arm again and the rest of them hurriedly packing up. “We gotta hit the road, right Jordan?”
Jordan didn’t say anything, and he could feel a tremendous shame welling up in his chest.
“I’m sorry about my friend,” Peter yelled back as they made for the door and then, to Jordan, “what the hell is the matter with you?”
“Let’s just leave it for now, OK? I just want to get home already,” Simone said. But as soon as they headed for the exit there was not even the opportunity for discussion—the town had appeared to completely change. As Jordan opened the door the cold air caught in his lungs and made him gasp, the rush of voices roared in his ears, the light filled his eyes and for a moment he could not see.
“Whoa,” Maria said.
“That’s amazing,” Simone said.
The Christmas fair had taken over the entire main street—lights strung between the lamp posts, tables and booths filled with mulled ciders, candy canes, ceramic crèches, felt dolls, and tin soldiers. Jordan was still blinking his eyes clear: how had his friends not noticed it before?
“The car’s boxed in. How’re we going to get it out?” he asked. Everything was different and disorienting under the bright lights and with all these people. It seemed to him like a whole new place.
“I dunno,” Simone said. “Looks like we’ll have to wander around a bit before we leave.”
Jordan looked at her, his breath siphoning out of his nose like smoke. He could not shake the awful bile lurking in the back of his throat, he couldn’t believe that he had made such a scene in the diner and had sunk not just himself but the next brave, dumb, or desperate soul to wander in, one who might not be from “around these parts” enough to receive more service than a snide, sidelong glance from that woman. Jordan knew he would live on in that diner like a snarling mug shot to be held up against anyone darker than Wonder Bread: “remember that boy and the nasty things he said? No wonder, no wonder at all.” He had failed, spectacularly so.
“We have no choice now,” Simone said, with a certain serenity. “Besides, Peter and Maria have already wandered off.”
It was true: they were alone in a sea of people. Simone grabbed Jordan’s arm and tugged him along.
“What happened in there, by the way?” Simone asked. “Are you OK?”
“It—I just got—did you not hear what she said?” Jordan asked. Simone shrugged.
“I mean, yeah. Sometimes people don’t like all the hassle—I get it, you know? We’re not big spenders, whatever. You got really worked up though. It was scary,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” Jordan said. She had sounded concerned more than anything and he just wanted it over.
“Doesn’t this town remind you of that painting? The one at the Art Institute at the diner—I feel like you’d find that diner in a place like this,” he said. In Englewood, Jordan had never known people like Simone or Peter or Maria or the waitress, not until he found his way to college. He remembered being a boy and taking a school trip up to the Art Institute to see the famous paintings—the Hoppers had always stuck with him, the strained lonely people in their singular spotlight, the couple at the diner, watched by thousands of visiting eyes every day.
“Nighthawks?” Simone said, smiling. “I think that’s somewhere in Greenwich Village, pretty far from here, don’tcha think?”
It was almost Christmas, and to see Simone smile was still a magical thing, nestled away in this tide of pink faces bundled tightly against the cold. Jordan tried to stop himself from shivering on this, the longest and suddenly brightest night of the year.
Simone picked up a pair of hand-sewn antlers and placed them on his head, pinching his cheek.
“See?” she said. “You fit right in.”
Jordan took them off and threw them on the table.
“Doesn’t it feel strange out here?” he asked. They had moved on to a table of marionettes, horrific in their blank-eyed stillness. “No tall buildings, no one like you. All alone in farm country?”
“Stop being all dramatic,” she said. “They’re just people. People are the same just about anywhere you go.”
She picked up one of the marionettes by the strings—one of a man in a robe on a horse—and bounced him through the air. Behind them, Santa Claus held court from his mountain of wrapped boxes, his gaudy laugh ringing out over the entire street. Jordan watched Simone’s hands, looking past the wires and into the bright fields of her eyes, green and spring-like. He wondered if she had grabbed his strings, too. He felt the crowd jostle against him and he could not hold her in view among the dancing wires, as if at any moment he, too, might fall prostrate on the ground or have his limbs fly high into the air.
“Ride a horse to Boston, ride a horse to Lynn,” Simone sang, “you better watch out or you might fall in.”
She dropped the horse and rider into a heap on the table. It had started to snow. Jordan felt it on his shoulders, the fresh, white scales, and he was quite cold.
“C’mon,” he said. “We should find the others. We should go.”
The rest of the way to Chicago, his passengers slept, and through the night Jordan imagined his headlights as the tip of the spear through the darkness. In the New Year, Jordan did not truly see any of them again, and when the thought lurked in the back of his mind he filled it with the phrase, “drift apart.”
It would be a long time before he thought of Wooster again. A few years had passed when he received the postcard from Simone saying she’d moved out west to live with an alfalfa farmer. It made his mind wander, and he tried to put the pieces of that night together like the edges of a discordant frame. It had not been a crucial nor even a notably terrible moment in his life, as he remembered it, but still, for several days, the postcard stayed on his bedside table, as if there might be some secret in that snapshot of the Columbia River Valley. He did not know why. In the morning, he promised himself to throw the postcard away—it was a superfluous thing—but that night, lying awake in the cold solitude of winter, he thought of Simone, and this last moment when they all had broken bread. Time unwound in his mind, the relational cracks mended, and undone was the certain loss of the people they had been once, in that car. Like one of those paintings he had seen at the Art Institute, Jordan stared out the window of his hi-rise bedroom, into the halogen-filled city night, and he saw the deep stretches of barren fields rush up to meet him. The rhythm and the beat of the road filled his ears and he was in Wooster again, as he sat there, on his bed, his gaze deep into the dark beauty of his palms. He would not be able shake those five hard hours left to Chicago, to rid himself of what was still out there, in the corn.
Mike Broida is originally from Cleveland, Ohio. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Economist, The Virginia Quarterly Review The Los Angeles Times, The Times Literary Supplement, and Electric Literature, among others. He received his MFA from Johns Hopkins University in 2018 and is currently on a Fulbright grant to Portugal.