Tuesday, May 25, 2010

No. 11: Leaving Rossville

Ashley Wray closed her copy of Eli Sullivan’s In a Gray Called Heaven. She laid it beside her bed on her nightstand and strectched as there was a knock at her bedroom door. “Yeah?”

The door opened and Ashley’s roommate Leslie Mathews walked in. “What are you still doing up?” she asked. “It’s nearly three in the morning.”

“I was finishing reading my book.”

Leslie glanced over at the nightstand and saw the thick 602-page hardcover book lying on it. “How many times have you read that?”

“You should read it,” Ashley got out of bed and stretched some more. “It’s a beautiful book and I think you would like it.”

“I’ll stick to thinner books that have pictures in them, thanks,” Leslie chuckled.

“What do you want?”

“Your notes from American History. I want to compare them with mine and add on if I need to.”

Ashley walked over to her file cabinet, opened it and pulled out several pages of notebook paper. “Here you go.”

“Can I see your book?” Leslie asked referring to In a Gray Called Heaven.

“Sure,” Ashley climbed over her bed to retrieve the book and handed it to Leslie.

Leslie carefully ran her fingers across the cover that had a snowy overhead shot of a small town that casually led into a gray that filled the upper right corner. She turned the book over to a picture of Eli Sullivan. He had messy brown hair and a beard that only covered his jawline. His blue eyes sparkled from the back cover and the corners of his mouth were turned up, even though he was not smiling himself. “Cute,” Leslie said and handed the book back to Ashley. “Has he written anything else?”

“No, he wrote this five years ago and then disappeared.”

“It says he lives in Kansas. You should hunt him down, force him to write another book, maybe even sleep with him,” Leslie smiled.

“Leslie,” Ashely rolled her eyes.

“I’m just saying. He’s cute,” Leslie started to leave the room. “Thanks for the notes.”

“Anytime,” Ashley smiled. She shut the door, turned off her light and laid down on her bed. She sighed and slowly drifted off to sleep.

Ashley was a junior at the University of Colorado in Denver. Ashley wasn’t a daring girl but she was incredibly smart and very pretty. She looked almost exactly like her mother which was good considering that Ashley wanted nothing to do with the bastard that was her father. The drunken abuse and rape had always gone on but was aimed at her mother. It wasn’t until Ashley was eleven that her father began seeing the possibility in not only her but her friends as well.

Ashley’s mom was at work and her friends, Lindsay and Tom, were over. Her dad came home from work and started drinking. After a couple beers, he began chiding Tom and Ashley for being married. They both shot back stating that they were only friends. Things quickly went downhill. Ashely’s dad had said it was the greatest feeling ever and before the children knew it, her dad was inserting Tom’s penis inside of her and Lindsay was going down on her father. It didn’t feel good at all to Ashley but Tom shuddered and ejaculated a small amount of semen into Ashley. After that, they remained friends but refused to come over. Hearing this, Ashely’s dad used his own daughter for his release.

Nearly every day and a few nights after her mom would fall asleep her dad would have sex with Ashley for the next eight months. After that eight months, Ashley took Lindsay’s sister’s pregnancy test and finally had to do something. She went downstairs and with big tears in her eyes, told her mom that she was pregnant. As they raced to schedule a doctor’s appointment, her mom asked who the father was and with even more tears and nervousness, she whimpered “Daddy.”

Within only a few days, restraining orders were produced, an abortion was performed and Ashley’s dad moved out and away, never to be seen again. Ashley, despite everything, grew up normal and had a bright future ahead.

She rarely remembered her dreams but when she did, they never made any sense but for the first time, she remembered a dream and it made complete sense and that helped make up her mind to find Eli Sullivan.

Rossville, Kansas is located along U.S. Highway 24 in Shawnee County 15 miles from Topeka and 8 miles north of exchange 346 on Interstate 70. Rossville had lived a relatively quiet existence since it’s founding in 1871. Before then, Rossville had been part of the Prairie Band Pottawatomie Indian Reservation. Eli Sullivan had lived in Rossville for the last five years and taught second grade for Kaw Valley Unified School District #321 at Rossville Grade School. Nobody knew that Eli had written a book, let alone a national bestseller that won a Pulitzer. Eli’s days were filled with teaching children and making sure the Rossville district stayed a good district.

Eli lived in a two-story white on Orange Street in close proximity to the school. His evenings and weekends were spent throughout the small town talking with the local people at the post office, Hallmark Store and the library. He loved Rossville, the seclusion, the people and the area. He was known throughout the town and for the first time in a long time, he was happy.

Ashley exited I-70 onto Carlson Road and headed north toward Rossville. She passed the small unincorporated town of Willard and began to cross the Kansas River on a long grate bridge. She tensed up as she crossed but loosened as she arrived on the other side and saw a water tower with a green top in the horizon. She rounded two sharp curves and came upon the city limits, marked by a small white sign. The water tower rose out from the trees that hid the houses and businesses of Rossville.

She stopped at the stop sign with the intersection of Highway 24 and Main Street. She looked both ways and crossed, going over the railroad tracks and entered the downtown area where she slowed her car to a crawl. Downtown consisted of an American Legion Post, a U.S. Bank and the Rossville Barbershop. Also, the city hall and the post office lined Main Street. She rolled down her window and passes the community center, which had a fiberglass lion in front. On the driver’s side was the community library, a woman walked out so Ashley stopped and shouted out the window, “Excuse me! Where’s the elementary school?”

“You turn right here on Pottawatomie and you can’t miss it,” the woman directed.

“Thank you,” Ashley turned onto Pottawatomie next to Wehner’s Mid-Town Mall and drove down the street until turning into the school parking lot at the end of the street. She walked to the front of the school and headed to some door, passing flagpoles and stone benches. One bench had the district mascot—-a bulldog, another had the University of Kansas Jayhawk and the third bench had a memorial to who Ashley assumed was once a teacher at the school.

Ashley entered the school in a large room where several kids were sitting and doing some arts and crafts. Ashley went over to one of the teachers. “Hi, I’m looking for the second grade classrooms.”

The teacher looked up and pointed at a hallway in the corner. “Through that hall and down the stairs. It’s to both the first and second grade classrooms.”

“Thanks,” Ashley headed to the hallway and disappeared around the corner. She found the classrooms and peered into both second grade rooms. One was being taught by a woman but the other by a tall, handsome young man with brown hair.

“…So I want you all to reach into the back of your mind for this. Come up with the most crazy, wild, fantastic idea you can…” the man said using grand hand gestures. Ashley walked in and sat in a chair by the door. All the kids turned their heads and looked at her causing the teacher to look. “Hello,” he said. “Um, I guess we can have recess a few minutes early. Head on out, gang.”

The kids got up and raced out of the classroom and out the nearby doors to the playground. “Mr. Sullivan?” Ashley asked.

“Yes?” he invited, confused.

“’And as the dawn silently rose over the land outside of Indianapolis, my brother’s crying finally stopped but unfortunately, another day was beginning,’” Ashley quoted.

“Ah, I see you are a well-read young lady. Do you want me to autograph your book or do you want an exclusive interview for a college paper?”

“Neither,” Ashley said.

“Come on, people don’t find reclusive authors and not expect something in return.”

“No, I’m serious that I don’t want anything. I loved In a Gray Called Heaven and I just wanted to thank you,” Ashley pleaded and got up to walk over to Eli.

“Where are you from?” he asked.


“People don’t drive 400 miles to say thank you for anything,” Eli began to get angry.

“Well, this person did. Your book helped me put everything in life into perspective and gave me hope after realizing that there are other people who have went through what I did,” Ashley explained. “You have done something that most authors can only ever dream about: you have reached inside me, pulled at my heart and touched my soul. I don’t want anything, Mr. Sullivan. I just wanted to thank you,” Ashley turned and started walking out of the classroom.

“Wait,” Eli stopped, “wait, um…”

“Ashley. Ashley Wray.”

“Ashley,” he sighed, “school’s out at three-thirty, why don’t you come back at four-thirty and we’ll talk over dinner?”

“Okay, I’ll be here,” Ashley smiled.

The only place to eat in Rossville is a small diner on Highway 24 called Swirley Top. Eli and Ashley sat at a table in the corner with her copy of In a Gray Called Heaven sitting between them.

“This is a nice town. Kind of small,” Ashley tried to get a conversation going.

“I love it,” Eli said smiling. “It offers everything I ever wanted.”

“But there’s no…anything! How far do you have to drive for a Big Mac?” she asked.

“I can either go to Topeka nearly twenty miles away or I can head to Wamego which is a nice…twenty miles away,” he laughed.

“You’re in the middle of nowhere!”

Eli reached over and turned the book over. “I don’t want anyone to know. And I’m not in the middle of nowhere. I’m surrounded by friends and co-workers who love and respect me for being a citizen and teacher of Rossville,” Eli started explaining.

“You won a Pulitzer for God’s sake,” Ashley said under her breath.

“And I keep it on a mantle in my office at home. I didn’t write it to win awards or make money. I wrote it to tell a story—my story.”

“And it’s a beautiful one…”

“Yeah, beautiful if you don’t count the molestation, rape, murder, suicide. But then the book would only be a hundred pages long.”

“I didn’t go through exactly what your family did but there were some parts that made my memories resurface,” Ashley said and looked down at the table.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. You didn’t write the book for me,” Ashley took the book and put it back in her bag. “What are you doing here?”

“It’s getting late,” Eli looked at his watch. “I’ll get you set up in my guest room.”

Eli’s house was a big, beautiful white house about a half block from the school on Orange Street. Ashley marveled at how clean and orderly this bachelor house was. Eli gave her a quick tour and made some tea.

“So what brought you to Rossville?” Ashley asked.

“After my book got published and I won the Pulitzer, I moved to New York City and after spending about a month there, I was crazy,” Eli started. “In New York, I had no friends and no family. The therapist I saw said I needed to make friends and reconnect with my family. I packed up what I wanted and left New York, determined to find a place to spend the rest of my life. I got on Highway 24 in Kansas City, Kansas and followed that through Tonganoxie, Lawrence, Perry, Topeka and Silver Lake but when I arrived in Rossville, something came over me and I smiled. I found this house, paid cash for it and became a teacher,” Eli concluded, Ashley hanging on every word and sipping her tea.

“You really like it here.”

“Moving here opened a new kind of creativity. I’m halfway through a second novel and have written over a hundred short stories. I have friends here and the kids in this town have got to be the best kids in the state.”

“Well, I’m sorry I bothered you. I’m gonna go now,” Ashley got up from the stool she was sitting on.

“No, it’s too late for someone to traipse across Kansas. You can stay here in the guest room and leave in the morning,” Eli smiled and took Ashley’s hand.

It was a beautiful Saturday morning when Eli and Ashley woke up. Eli made some scrambled eggs and hash browns. At eleven, Ashley decided to leave. “It was great meeting you Eli,” she said and shook his hand. “And again, thank you for writing this book,” she held up In a Gray Called Heaven.

“It was my pleasure,” Eli took the book in his hand and opened it to the first page. He scrawled ‘To a wonderful girl-Eli Sullivan’ in thick black pen and handed it back.

“Thank you,” she said. She tore a piece of paper off a nearby notepad and wrote her name, address and phone number on it. “If you ever want to visit or call, you’re welcome anytime,” she handed the paper to Eli.

Eli walked Ashley out of her car and they said their good-byes. She drove away, heading back the way she came toward Interstate 70.

A week had gone by and Eli continued to think about Ashley. He hadn’t written in his book or gotten a good night’s sleep. It was started to affect his performance at school and his best friend, Jeff Mackey, a fifth grade teacher, began noticing the change.

Jeff approached Eli in the teacher’s lounge and put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve seen the way you’ve been moping around and falling asleep during recess,” Jeff sat down.

“I don’t know how to say this without it sounding hopeful. I met a girl,” Eli said.

“It’s about time,” Jeff smiled. “Who is she?”

“Her name was Ashley and she tracked me down to thank me for writing my book. She didn’t want anything. We talked and she accepted my lifestyle. I never thought I’d meet a girl like that.”

“I’ll have to meet her.”

“She went back to Denver,” Eli sighed.

“The girl of your dreams and you let her go? A chance to be ultimately happy and you let it slip through your fingers,” Jeff chided.

“I know but...she did give me her address.”

“Go see her. You haven’t missed a day of school in five years. Take a week off and go to Denver. Find her and tell her how you feel. To hunt you down and drive from Denver to the middle of nowhere must mean something.”

“You’re right, Jeff. I finally meet someone who understands me and why I’m here and I just let her go. Her visit made me the happiest I’ve been since moving here. I’m gonna leave first thing in the morning. I’m gonna get the vacation approved,” Eli got up and left the lounge.

In Denver, people gathered in a funeral home near the University of Colorado campus. Most were dressed in somber clothing and country music played softly. A limited number of people gathered around the coffin. “Leslie?” asked an older woman.

“Yes, Mrs. Wray?”

“Why was Ashley in Kansas?”

“To get her book signed,” Leslie pointed to Ashley’s copy of In a Gray Called Heaven laying with her in the casket.

“Are you ready, Mrs. Wray?” asked one of the funeral home workers, placing his hand on the casket lid.

Mrs. Wray nodded stoicly and Leslie led her away but looked behind her as the lid closed. “Good-bye, Ashley,” Leslie whispered and began crying.