by Todd Farris
Six months ago, give or take half a year, I fell into a conversation with a stranger at the bus stop on Naples Street. The stranger was a girl, and she had a faraway look about her. She sat at the end of one of the long benches, tucked in the even longer shadows of twilight. I tried to strike up a conversation. I made a stupid joke and she gave me a mercy laugh. I soon learned the reason for the faraway look — it was because she was indeed from somewhere far away. From Georgia, to be precise. She went to school at UCLA and was her in Chrislip, Michigan, visiting some friends. Needless to say, the girl was pushing the boundaries of the geological envelope.
I couldn’t help but notice that she was holding onto an issue of The Chrislip College Journal.
“Like it?” I asked, gesturing at the mag. I didn’t tell her that I was the editor. That would’ve been grandstanding.
The faraway girl looked up and smiled. “I grew up in a little town like this,” she said in a Georgian drawl that had overtones of California surf in the inflections. “Isn’t it funny how a hometown can seem so boring and restrictive? Then you move away, and when you look back you see that the place where you grew up has charm and wisdom and a distinct personality all its own.”
“Funny,” I agreed.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she continued. “UCLA’s great. It’s got excitement and opportunities. But sometimes…”
She paused and looked down Naples Street. A slight breeze was blowing from the west, carrying the scent of poignant drive-in food. Laughter echoed from Silly Sam’s Arcade, a den of innocence despite the neon. Little kids traded baseball cards up and down the sidewalk. A pair of Chihuahuas were mating in front of Segal’s Deli and we pretended not to notice. And beyond the row of shops, past the highway and the trees, the frogs at Fish Lake tuned up the first chorus of their evening song.
“…I think a place like this is the place to be. A small school in a smaller town. A person could be happy here.”
“And the magazine?”
She grinned. “Neat and sweet and slightly offbeat,” she poemed at me. “It reminded me of quainter times.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes, enjoying the piney vapors that blew in as the wind shied to the north. Little towns are mystical things, gently alive and gently doomed. They have their stories.
All too soon I heard the rumble of the eight-thirty bus. I stood and stretched my legs. “Are you getting on?” I asked.
“No, I just sat down for a rest. I needed one.”
“Oh, well, nice talking to you. Maybe I’ll see you around.” I walked to the curb.
“Wait.” said the girl. She came quickly after me, and somehow I sensed what she was going to say. She was going to tell me that she wanted to stay in Chrislip. The she had found her place, her Eden. That she had found the Mayberry that forever drifts just under the wavewash of the human soul. That she wanted to be a part of our town — the laughter, the love, the life and times.
“Give me all your money,” said the faraway girl, “Or I’ll say you tried to rape me.”
I sighed, pulled out my wallet, and gave her my last twenty dollar bill.
“That’s all you got?” she said, sounding peeved.
“Oh, wait,” I dug two more dollars out of my jeans and forked them over.
“Thanks, sport,” she said, and walked away. I should’ve told her I was the editor.
But some good came out of the incident. Because of the stranger’s comments — at least the ones before all that rape stuff — it was decided that we ought to branch out and make The Chrislip College Journal available to a national audience. And so we did, and you’re now holding the fruits of that decision in your hand.
Chrislip College was founded in 1899, in the town of Chrislip, Michigan. To pinpoint the location, lay your left hand palm down on a tabletop and drink until you hand begins to resemble the mitten shape of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Chrislip is just above the second knuckle of your middle finger. The Journal came into being fifty-one years later, in 1950. It languished here, a little local thing, until now. Most of the credit for our expansion had to go to out dean, Harvard Marner, who saw a possibility and acted upon it. There are those who say our previous dean, Norbert Shacklett, might have been trying to nudge the magazine in a national direction. We’ll never know for sure, though, because Dean Shacklett spontaneously combusted on a golf course at the age of forty.
Norbert was a quiet man, thin, bespectacled, soft-spoken, serious, and very shy. If you were looking for a person to play the role of small-town dean, you would’ve needed look no further. Dean Shacklett’s great pleasure in life was golf. He loved the game with as much passion as his timid nature would allow. As I said, it was on the golf course that he met his end. He was playing a match with Lee Darden, the gym instructor, and was leading him by three strokes as they headed for the last green. The twosome enjoyed a good-natured golf rivalry for years. That with Dean Shacklett always coming out on the short end. That day was different. “Well Norb,” Mr. Darden is reputed to have said, “The only way you can lose now is if you have a heart attack.” But Dean Shacklett didn’t have a heart attack. He spontaneously combusted instead. Witnesses said it was a remarkable thing to see. He hit a nice approach shot from 120 yards out, turned to accept a compliment from Mr. Darden, and FOOM! He went up like a roman candle, just burst into flames like the Human Torch on the Fantastic Four program. Dean Shacklett wasn’t the type of man who likes to draw attention to himself, and even under these bizarre circumstances his character didn’t change. He didn’t scream or cry. He just said “Oh my,” and with his face set in a slightly alarmed, slightly determined expression, went running in a zigzag pattern up the fairway, trailing plumes of fire and smoke, no doubt willing to trade his kingdom for a water hazard. Mr. Darden chased him to try to put him out, but by the time he caught up to him on the green there was nothing left to save. The case was a real challenge to the medical examiner. He wasn’t well-versed in the mechanics of spontaneous combustion, but he theorized that maybe Dean Shacklett’s excitement over beating Mr. Darden at golf had triggered the fire. The incident put the fear of God into the school; it was feared that a combustion epidemic might be underway. Everyone did their best not to get too excited about anything. Students in particular had nightmares about sitting in class, getting a test handed back, saying “Wow! I got an A,” and FOOM! It didn’t happen, of course, but to this day the teachers say that Chrislip College was never more orderly and well-behaved than in the spring of 1969, in the weeks after Norbert Shacklett went out in a blaze of glory.
Of course, that was a long time ago. People don’t go around catching fire for no good reason anymore. These days we stick with more conventional things. We do not, in spite of popular opinion, just sit in our dorm rooms drinking beer and watching bootleg Traci Lords movies all day. On the contrary, sometimes we eat pizza in there.
And we have this magazine, the Journal. I, Todd Farris, am the seventeenth editor in the magazine’s history. I was born and reared along with my little brother Herkos and my kid sister Sissy, an angel come to earth if ever there was one. I honestly can’t tell you how many people have written for the Journal over the years. My educated guess would be scads. The current staff is a good group. We have Ann-Marie Waterhouse, whose story “Pals” is forthcoming. Mead Mills, journalist extraordinaire, doesn’t appear in this issue, but he’s waiting in the wings, ready to dazzle us with his adequacy. Buddy Fenster will put in an appearance. Buddy is a sophomore at Chrislip High School who occasionally drops by to let us know what’s going on in the world of lower education. The news is compiled by Michael Wright, Stacy Eberhard, and Ted X. McCall. There are many other people who provide invaluable assistance without which The Chrislip Journal would not be possible, but they’re not really writers so screw them.
So this post signals a new and exciting beginning for the Journal. Let’s hope it’s a happy experience for all concerned.
Faraway girl, if you’re reading this, I owe you a debt of thanks.
And you owe me twenty-two bucks.