If I had an art school, creative writing would be part of my Visual Arts program. Nothing fancy here – just think of it as a few found literary photographs in a shoe box from an imaginary yard sale.
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Charles Ficelle didn’t know when things changed, but it happened while traveling west on interstate 70 somewhere between Topeka and Salina, Kansas on the way back from one of his darkest days.
Maybe things began unraveling when he had answered the phone three days earlier. Charles and his wife Baye never talked about when it happened or why. They were just glad it did.
. . .
“What time is the funeral,” Charles still heard himself ask the stranger who had asked to speak to the father. For the rest of his life, a part of Charles would hope to find out someday that the caller had been mistaken.
Even as he and Baye drove back from the funeral service, he prayed that he would wake up in their old Nebraska farmhouse to the smell of breakfast and sounds of dogs barking, and of a boy playing outside.
. . .
It started to rain. Charles flicked on the wiper knob of his truck and the wipers squealed against the windshield. Drops flashed through headlights.
“Charles, do you think the old truck will get us there,” she had asked as they packed for the trip.
“Yeah she’ll do fine. It’ll do her good to get a few extra miles on her. There are two women in this world I trust. You’re one and she’s the other.”
He hoped he was right.
. . .
Baye pushed the old radio knob and turned the dial. Soon she found sounds of a baseball game. Charles had a thing for baseball on the radio at night. It seemed cozy like a good childhood memory.
“There you go Charles. Maybe the game will help you stay awake.”
“I’m not sleepy,” he said. “I was but I’m not now.”
“I am,” she said.
With that, Baye fell into a deep sleep of grief-induced fatigue.
Then it happened.
. . .
After a life of pleasant predictability, without warning, something inside Charles broke free. Shock had loosened a changed life. Something inside him turned sideways and dislodged. It now pressed uncomfortably against his pragmatic nature.
Instead of taking the exit to 29 North back to Omaha, Charles continued west on Interstate 70 toward Kansas City for no good reason. Baye slept as Charles continued driving on Interstate 70 West through Topeka, Kansas past their exit to route 75 north and the route back home.
The baseball game was over. He dialed through the stations and found a station where the narrator talked about the world’s largest ball of sisal twine wound by a man named Francis Johnson from Minnesota.
Johnson began winding twine into a ball in 1950. At the time of his death, his twine ball weighed 17,000 pounds and was twelve feet in diameter.
That’s what 29 years of work gets you, Charles thought. A big knot.
The story continued.
The radio told of a man named Frank Stoeber who saw Johnson’s growing ball of twine. Stoeber took up the challenge to break Johnson’s world record. When he died, Stoeber had wound over 1.5 million feet of twine into a ball of 11 feet in diameter. After almost 30 years of winding string, he had failed.
Is there such a thing as a happy ending anymore, Charles asked out loud. Baye slept.
Turns out that citizens of Stoeber’s hometown of Cawker City, Kansas got together and agreed to carry on the old man’s dream. They initiated an annual get-together for a twine-a-thon. Each year the community added to Stoeber’s ball. It was now 40 feet in circumference and contained over 1,400 miles of twine.
The world’s largest community-made ball of twine was on display under an open-air gazebo in Cawker City. The reason for the story was to advertise the 50th birthday of the twine-a-thon.
The radio speaker said Cawker City is northwest of Salina, Kansas on I24, near the north shore of Waconda Lake. Without thinking, Charles took the next exit off I70 and onto an unknown route with the name “North” after the route number. He drove until he saw a sign to Route 24, then another that said, “To Cawker City”.
. . .
The stranger agreed to photograph the elderly couple in front of the huge brown spectacle. Baye brought her camera along for family photographs after the funeral, but the camera had never left her purse. Charles placed an arm around his wife.
The free hand of Charles seemed to have a mind of its own. It reached behind his back and felt the miles and the years of rough twine. His hand slid across the curve. He was surprised at how rough and uneven the surface was. From a distance it seemed a perfect sphere. Up close, it was drooping, uneven and browning with years of exposure and touch.
Charles let his fingers play with a frayed piece of twine behind his back. It felt like something between barbed wire and sheep’s wool. He began to roll the piece of twine between thumb and forefinger. The more he played with the twine, the more convinced he became that his hand had located the end of nearly two million feet of twine.
“Smile… Got it,” the stranger said, reaching the camera back to the elderly couple.
“I have an idea,” Charles said. “How about a picture of the two of us in front of the ball from four sides – North, South, East and West? Then we can say we’ve seen America from all angles. Baye, I told you I’d get you off of that farm and show you the country someday.”
Baye laughed for the first time since the phone call.
The stranger obliged. The first photograph was with the morning sun in the couple’s eyes. The next was with left-side lighting. The third was backlit. The final image was with the sun coming from the right.
Baye took her camera and thanked the stranger. Charles gave a thank-you nod keeping one hand behind his back. For all four poses the couple made their way around the circumference of the ball of twine. His thumb and forefinger had never let go.
Now back where they started, Charles looked at the tailgate of his old truck backed into the parking space in front of the living monument to persistence. He was thankful for the handicapped tag. Age had its privileges. The ball was 40 feet in circumference. Simple farm math told Charles that he was close enough.
. . .
“Let’s get a room with a vibrating bed and a wet bar. You up for some fun tonight?”
Baye laughed. “You bet I am you little devil! Let’s stop and get plenty of quarters first!”
She slid over next to him. After comfortable silence, Baye spoke.
“What about the farm,” she asked. “It’ll be harvest time in a month.”
“What about it?”
“Yes,” she agreed. “What about it!”
“Ever skinny-dipped in the Pacific Ocean,” Charles asked, knowing his wife had never left the state of Nebraska until this week.
“Not yet,” Baye giggled.
She squeezed his free hand, liking the new man she was with.
“I love you, Charlie.”
He glanced in the rear view mirror and watched the world’s largest community-made ball of twine getting smaller and smaller in the world they left behind.
Charlie passed a speed limit sign. The rebellious teenager inside depressed the accelerator. The old engine roared.
“I love you too Baye. I love you too.”
Charlie never wanted to wake up from his new unraveling life.
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