by Jim Noonans

A light snow falls as I slip into the distance of the deserted highway, the billboard’s logo—a red and white checkerboard like the one I always put on her letters—flashing by my eyes, then dancing in flashbulb-violet haze before melting in the stab of my headlights.

We ran in different circles, if “circles” is the word you use in a high school graduating class of seventy-six. I ran in the circles of her smile and the way her eyes sparkled blue and her neat script read “Seventy-six in 76!” as she touched my arm and handed the yearbook back.

We exchanged addresses with yearbooks, like everyone did, but she was cheerleaders and girls in school colors, breasts hidden behind textbooks. I was pot-smoking boys in jeans, splay-legged in study hall, waiting. Her father was the principal. Mine drank. Still, I saw her every day in band and in the halls and she smiled at me in soft sweaters, brown hair framing her face.

I stare at black beyond my headlights and see red pencil scratches in the corner of an envelope, a checkerboard, red filling in, white showing through, that winter after graduation. Letters. Hers kind and thoughtful with deep shades of homesickness, “lost without circles in South Bend!” Mine awkward, but strengthened with longing and the encouragement I put on like my Navy-issue coat that winter in Waukegan—and the way she smiled when I arrived on campus after she pleaded, “I need to talk to someone I know. Notre Dame’s only an hour by bus!” And we laughed about the letters, the red and white logo I drew on every one, the checkerboard—“Purina Mailbox Chow!”—she sang it as she kissed my cheek, and how sweet she was, introducing me to her friends in their short college skirts and black tights, clear young eyes, and how the beer was stale in plastic cups at the mixer, the band too loud, and how my polite refusal to dance at each friend’s invitation stayed on my lips all night, waiting for her to ask, for her to look up at me from behind her sleepy eyelids, and then the long night awake on the floor of her dorm room, chattering until I knew she was asleep, listening silently to the soft fall of her breath in the bed just beyond my reach, wondering if she would say any word but “friend.”

But we ran in different circles.

And checkerboards no longer on letters over the years, arriving like echoes through a valley, each fainter and farther from the last, until just yesterday morning it’s been two years. And the letter in my pocket, in her husband’s hand, saying, “She would have wanted you here.” And I’m driving, lost in red and white checkerboards as snowflakes dance in my headlights.