Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Boy on Sargent Road

Friday’s rush-hour traffic has me looking for a path of least resistance. I exit the interstate in favor of surface roads. Driving home toward Fishers, I turn onto Sargent Road -- a shaded route that lazes its way northeast through Marion County.

Settlers first entered the Mud Creek Valley here in 1824. The farmhouse with chipped white paint and a latticed porch still stands where Johnny Sargent's father built it in the 1880s. 

Across the road and obscured by overgrowth, a sagging barn guards the entrance to the fallow field where Johnny would fly in with his J-3 Piper Cub in the mid-1950s. 

Mini-mansions and gated neighborhoods now encroach to the north and south of Sargent’s homestead. It's a place out of time, this turn-of-the-century farmhouse that still stands across from a barn probably built with the helping hands of neighbors, still nestled near the bend of what could still be called a quiet country road.

The air smells warm and clean this afternoon. I drive slowly and recall being that 12-year-old boy who traveled this road a hundred times, riding his bike out to Mooney’s farm to bale hay with Billy, to ride horses or shoot soup cans with a .22 rifle. We’d drive this road at dawn on a Saturday, my dad and me, taking our family’s turn to milk the cow in return for our share, two inches of heavy cream settled at the top. Square dancing and pressing cider and young love and John Deere tractors.

Sargent Road led to it all.


I turn the bend onto this stretch of road that modernity has not yet touched. The last mansion is clear of the rearview and the next has not yet appeared. I glance at my phone and find "No Service." I haven’t seen another car for what seems like a mile. Johnny Sargent’s place is coming up just before the next bend. The farmhouse now looks tidy and the barn seems to sport a fresh coat of brick-red paint. Ahead, a boy pedals a Schwinn toward the Mooney place, an army-surplus ruck on his back and a green plastic canteen on his belt.  As I slow and pass him, I recognize his mop of blondish hair and that faded Notre Dame jersey and know that this boy’s mom calls him Joey.

I stop my truck under the shade of a honey locust. I get out slowly, as not to scare him. Or myself. As my shoes hit the asphalt, the trill of summer cicadas seems to shift in tone, dropping a half octave. Their song is joined by a low hum that seems to have an underscore of static, like an AM radio station just moving out of range. I perceive this as more a feeling than a sound and I momentarily go unsteady on my feet.

I shake it off. I give a wave and call the boy by name. “Hey. Joey?”

He brakes his bike at a safe distance. “Yeah?”

“Are you… are you Joey Jansen? You live in Avalon Hills?”

“Huh?  On Hampstead. What did I do?” He looks past my shoulder. “What kind of truck is that?”

“Nothing. You didn’t do… Truck?” I look back at a sport utility vehicle that won’t be designed or built for another 35 years. “Listen. I’m not sure what... Your birthday is June 30th, right?”

“I just turned 12. Who are you?”

“I don’t know exactly what’s…. This is going to sound a little…. Look, my name is Joe Jansen.   I think I'm…. I mean, I think you're…. I think I’m you.”

His eyes narrow and then go wide. He puts a foot on his bike pedal and grips the handlebars. He eyes the road ahead and looks at me, seeming to assess my fitness level and his chances of a hasty getaway.

I know I’ve got only a moment before he bolts.

“That.” I point to a pink scar on his left calf, bare and summer-tanned. “Five stitches from crashing your dirt bike last summer.” I hoist my trouser leg to show my own scar, now faded white by time. “It looks like this now.” Of its own accord, one hand comes off the handlebar and moves toward his leg.

“At the cabin in Michigan, you’ve got a stack of Playboys stashed in the basement closet, under a bunch of old beach toys. Nobody knows that but you. But us.” A flush blossoms across his cheeks and his head tilts like a pup interrogating a high-pitched whistle.

“You shoplifted once. Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. You knew it was stealing, but you told yourself that since it was a book, ‘that made it kind of okay.’”

Joey’s look of skepticism and fear shifts to a mix of confusion and curiosity. He edges his bike closer and scrutinizes my face. I can’t tell which of us is more bewildered. He has the appearance of a kid coming out of a hard slumber, trying to figure if he’s awake yet or still swimming in a dream.

He considers my shaved head. “You’re bald,” he says, giving in to a provisional acceptance of the barely imaginable, and clearly disappointed.

“Nothing to do about nature, Joey. I wouldn’t worry about it. Comes a time when people think it looks tough.” He seems unappeased.

“So…  you’re me in the future. Is that it?” He looks again toward the burgundy SUV cooling under the honey locust. “Nice truck.  Are we rich then?” He steps his bike yet a foot closer, wanting to get a better look at what is apparently his future self. He reaches out with a tentative hand and gently tests my bicep. 

His hand on my arm feels solid enough, and he appears to have drawn the same conclusion. I can smell summer on him, a sweaty 12-year-old boy. My vision flickers. As solid as his hand feels, his form goes briefly transparent. For a moment I think I’m seeing through him to the red siding of the barn beyond. The light-headedness washes over me again. In the haze, I sense him bordered in a thin white cirrus, its tendrils like vapor wafting up from dry ice. My eyes refocus and my balance returns and I wag my head like a fighter shaking off a punch.

“Rich? I don't know, Joey,” I say. “I have a job that pays. Some people have less. Some have more. We have enough, I guess.”

"Enough" seems to satisfy him. "What do I grow up to be?” he says, curiosity now overtaking fear and he’s fully engaged in whatever warp this is.

“I don’t know. I still don’t know what I grow up to be.”

“You don’t have many answers, do you? Damn. I mean, you’re old already.”

“Nice mouth. Here’s what I know. I’m your future self. I think. But if I am, I’m not the only possible one.” I struggle for what to tell him. Into mind floats the memory of a story I’d read, a story that hasn’t been written yet.

“It's clear you love books. Enough to steal a few, anyway.” His face reddens again. “In about 15 years,” I say, “you may start reading a writer named Richard Bach. I did. He writes a story called One, where he finds different versions of himself -- all living in parallel. Instead of a universe, a “multiverse.” He and his wife fall into this space between time, where all these worlds overlap and they can meet their other selves. Maybe that’s what’s happening here, happening now.”

Joey pulls his canteen from his belt, takes a long draw, and offers it over to me. “Richard Bach? Isn’t he that Jonathan seagull guy? I don't get it, 'all in parallel.'"

“Yeah, seagulls. And later on he writes about ferrets, but that’s not important now. The idea goes like this: every time we make a choice, the universe splits. Say you’re riding out to Mooney’s to bale hay. You fall off the wagon and break your wrist and you miss out on 8th-grade football. No 8th-grade football, no high-school football.  No high-school football, no college football scholarship." 

"Or, your bike gets a flat and you call Mom to come pick you up and you miss out on work today. You end up not falling off a hay wagon and not breaking your wrist and playing football and getting a scholarship to Butler. Both Joeys continue on. One football player. One who doesn't play.  Each completely real, each in separate but parallel worlds.”

“I like football,” he says, tugging on his ND jersey.

“I know you do. But you’re asking me about your future and I’m telling you I can’t know. There's too many... I don't know, variables.... I couldn't guess what's going to happen to you tomorrow, much less in 10 or 20 years.”

A wave goes over me again, like that rush from standing up too fast. This time it’s stronger and I teeter back against the door of my truck. I look past Joey to the farmhouse and see what looks like old Johnny Sargent, a full head of white hair and overalls, rocking on the front porch and smoking a cigarette. He’s looking our way but doesn’t seem to notice us. This is trouble, I’m thinking. The old man passed in 1991, so as far as I can tell, we’ve got three timelines overlapping now and my head feels like I’ve taken a big blast off a hookah. The cicada/electric/static hum seems now to be coming from my chest. And it’s feeling louder.

“Are you okay?” Joey says and reaches to his own temple. “I feel kinda dizzy.”

“Yeah, Joey. Stay with me. I don’t think we have much time.” The boy starts to go gauzy again and the dry ice vapors reappear and start to look more like smoke. 

And what can I tell him that will be true? My wrong choices may be his right ones. My right choices, in his world, might lead him crashing into a brick wall.

Fine. I should have stayed longer in the Marines. If I tell him he should enlist – and stay – maybe his own path as a gunnery sergeant comes to a bloody end in a firefight with Fedayeen in Nasiriyah, or getting schwacked by a Taliban sniper in Helmand.

Should I warn him against liking Jack Daniels too much? Do I counsel that if he can hold the reins, he can have a lifetime of quiet sipping, instead of 10 years of car crashes and fist fights, followed by a lifetime of abstinence?  But what if his own journey needs him to hit bottom? And needs him to hit that bottom hard enough to bounce him up and out of some hole he’s dug for himself?

If choices are infinite and the universe splits with each one, how could I possibly advise him, possibly chart it all out for him? Could God even do that? Maybe even He sits back with a Glenfiddich and a Partagas.  Having equipped His people with their respective gifts, He watches with hope as they use what they’ve been given. He watches with love as their infinite dramas play out.

The cicadas’ chorus is amplifying. My spine feels like guitar string, plucked once and hard. Joey is leaning against his bike and his face looks pale.

“What’s happening?” he says. Joey looks at the sky and then back to me. “You’re getting all blurry.” He seems about to sink to his knees so I reach for him and take him by the shoulders and pull him to me. I wrap my arms around him and he feels solid still, but with a sense of impending evanescence. I'm afraid that if I hold him too tightly, he’ll evaporate.

I raise my voice over the deepening hum. “Joey, I can’t give you a roadmap. You have to find your path for yourself. All I can say is: remember that time seems long, but it’s not. Treat it like you’d treat water in the desert – use every drop and don’t let any of it spill wasted in the sand. And don’t be afraid to be alone. Just don’t plan on being alone forever.”

The air around us seems to be thrumming, pulsing. The sound has shifted from a hum to more like a… like what? Like a musical chord. The chord is joined by the sound of voices – a choral multitude conversing in low tones on some solemn topic, all speaking at once. Joey’s arms are wrapped tight around my waist, mine around his shoulders. He’s fading from my view and his face is looking up into mine and I see his eyes are full and wet.

“Don’t be afraid, Joe. Listen to your intuition. Pay attention to coincidence. That stuff might be the voice of guiding spirits or guardian angels -- or maybe God. It could even be the voice of one of us, some other Joey or Yusef or Guiseppe or Jose, right there beside us."

"Maybe no single one of us can know the whole path, but together, we can know enough. Maybe intuition is that higher us, trying to get us all home.”  It occurs to me that the multitude of voices conversing in low tones sound like his voice. And mine.

The light is becoming intense and even painful. I bury my face in his hair. I sense something is ready to snap. I’m holding him as tightly as I dare, wanting to hold him for as long as I can. I glance to the farmhouse and Johnny Sargent is gone.

“Don’t go,” Joey says. “I can hear you. I can feel you. But I can’t see you.” He’s fading from my sight, but I can still hear him, too. I can feel him, his shoulders convulsing with what must be sobs.

Maybe this is how it works: we can hear and feel, even when we can’t see.

“Will I see you again?” he says, his voice rising to compete with the din. “When will I see you again?”

“Yeah, Joe,” I say. “I think we’ll see each other again. Me and you and all the rest of us. I think we’ll all meet around a fire and we’ll know each other. We'll remind ourselves of the times we tapped each other on the shoulder and whispered help to one another. Until then, take time to be still. Sit. Listen. The silence is where we can hear each other.”

His form is now a shadow and the sound of his voice is distant.

“I promise,” I hear him say. “I promise to listen. You promise, too! Don’t forget about me. I love….”

The air pops and the barn sags. The paint on the farmhouse peels and fades. The cicadas trill their familiar song.


And an epilogue, which just happens to be a true story:  Link to "What if the kid writes back?"


Colleen said...

So, you're going to publish this, right? Moving, compelling, poignant. And JLS is one of my favorite books. ; )

Colleen (Totz Diamond)

John April said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Joe said...

Coll... thanks for taking a look at it. I'm combing Writer's Market and looking for a likely candidate. I'm liking your writing -- hope you and Dave enjoy seeing the Dalai Lama in October. Have you seen him before?

John: Thanks for sharing your writing. I made a connection between this Sargent Road piece and your observations that we struggle " even recognize between an office worker’s life and a writer’s life and a father’s life and a husband’s life." Regardless of any "multiverse," we clearly have these separate but parallel selves that exist alongside each other in this world as we see it.

Paul Berg said...

Hey Joe - another good piece. I, too, read Bach in my early 20's - thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks for the memories!

Joe said...

Hi Paul... glad you liked it.

If you read some Richard Bach, you may be interested to know that he was injured in a plane crash last week. The news says he's in serious condition, but improving.

betsybru said...

Greetings to you, Joe, from a resident of the Mud Creek Valley. Your fictitious piece is captivating because it weaves reality with conjecture. And the way you wrote it is a way that we over 50 can identify as our continuing desire to figure out who we are and whether or not we made the best choices, etc. When I pass the old barn about which you write, I am always tempted to stop the car and go exploring inside it. Of course that would be trespassing, so if you know some way that I could do that, please let me know. Would also like to have some pictures taken there. I have read several books by Andy Andrews where he mixes reality with fiction and they are really fun reads. We go to Orange Beach, AL quite often and the novels Andy has written are often based in that area. So fun to read a story and know the landmarks mentioned. Thanks for your creative flair and for being willing to blog it for comments. Would love to meet you sometime. Betsy

Joe said...


How nice to hear from someone like you who lives where this story takes place. You know, it is sometimes heart-breaking to look back to our other selves (or to look forward to our potential future selves). We recognize that that the 12-year-old on that road, should we meet him or her, is in some regard "US," but is also a completely different person than the ones we are today (universe or multiverse, notwithstanding).

Imagining this story, I felt this boy was more "a little brother" than "another version" of the narrator. I don't know what that means, but it's the feeling I had.

I'm not sure who is the owner of the property with the old barn. Maybe knocking on the door of the old farm house across the road there at 8420 Sargent would yield an answer. I know the feeling, though. I was hesitant even to stop by the side of the road and step down into the tall grass to take a few picture from a distance. I didn't want to intrude.

I'd be glad to meet for a coffee. Feel free to send me a note at and we can set it up.

Anonymous said...

Please check your facts. The Johnny Sargent you refer to DID NOT build that house in 1905.

Phyllis Jo Dean said...

I realize this is fictional story but if other readers are curious about the facts on house, barn, and John I would be happy to contribute the truth that I know. I am John Sargent's great niece and have recently returned to the old Sargent place to tour the barn and meet the people now owning the house. There is a lot of misinformation going around out there about John Sargent and those of us who are descendants of the Sargent family would like to clear up that information to make sure that history is as correct as possible.

Joe said...

Hi Phyllis,

How great to hear from a member of the Sargent family! If you have time, I'd love to meet you, buy you a cup of coffee, and learn more about John Sargent.

I'd certainly want to revise this little piece of fiction to make sure your great-uncle is represented here as accurately as possible.

My contact e-mail is: joejansen1 at

Look forward to meeting you!

Joe said...

Thanks to Jo Dean for helping to clarify some of the facts and timelines related to her great-uncle, John Sargent.

I've corrected the references to the approximate date the farmhouse was constructed, that it built by John's father (Jacob) and not by John himself, and corrected the reference to the date of John's passing.

Thank you, Jo!