I meant to take a look at my old dorm. Everything I passed on campus was nostalgic. Here was the grassy slope where I had ditched class to sit talking with a young woman named for a painter. Here was the time capsule, left by the generation of students before mine and meant for those yet unborn, jutting like a marble mushroom into the geometry of the flower garden. And here, almost the last thing to see before my dorm, was Theta Pond.
The pond is eternally haunted by my memory of the first weekend I spent at college: sitting on a bench in my loneliness, soothed by the waters and the shade, wishing, paradoxically, for greater solitude—for I had never felt at home since we left our country house on the High Plains, and here I was in a town of tens of thousands, where trees loomed all around. And as I sat feeling lonely and admiring a wooden footbridge that spanned a part of the pond, a rat emerged from beneath it and foraged at its footed support. I took it as an emblem of despair.
Often in the past I have regretted being such a fool when I was young, but on this sentimental journey I wasn’t so hard on my former self. I felt tender toward him. He’s young enough to remind me of my sons. I chose a bench of weathered boards in old-fashioned cement, one that might feasibly have been the very one from that lonely memory. The pond has parts that flow into each other, and several bridges, and many cypresses, and a dedicatory slab—none of that was clear in my memory. I looked at the particular footbridge; it was ratless. Further out, however, a white duck with chocolate trim inverted itself in the water and paddled its fleshy legs like mad against the air and finally righted itself with something stringy hanging from its beak.
I took a berry fallen from a cypress, and a lichened flake of its bark. Something to remember it by. And then I sat on a bench, drenched in a sadness beyond my power to describe, but a kinder sadness than the one I’d felt when I was young. And as I sat a detail with no nostalgia value finally made its way into my attention: a police car with active lights. In fact I had noticed it when I arrived at the pond and assigned it no particular significance; I suppose I thought someone had been caught speeding.
Now I noticed that the police car with active lights was not singular. And I became aware of something that was, I think, obvious, if I hadn’t been so drenched in memory: That all along the avenue something solemn was going on. Yellow police tape, and cops stationed on foot at each compass point, facing outward, hands on their belts, staring at nothing. An ambulance; many other cop cars. I counted a dozen sets of rotating lights. Something awful had happened—just before I arrived for my reverie, as it turns out. I wandered up. A motorcycle lay on its side. A huge planter stood beside the crosswalk. Ceramic pieces of the planter lay broken out. Skid marks suggested the geometry: the bike had hit a speed bump, ricocheted off the planter, and come to rest twenty feet beyond. Next to the planter lay a sheet covering a shape, but the sheet looked like a Japanese flag, for a red sun coincided with the human head beneath.
I asked other rubberneckers what had happened. Someone said the cyclist had been fleeing police when he hit the speed bump. (Next morning, the campus newspaper quoted the police as denying the pursuit.) I stood there as the afternoon mellowed into dusk. The red and blue lights kept turning. The police moved within their cordon, seeming to accomplish nothing. The sap of the cypress lay in the whorls of my fingers, too viscous to rub away.