Every five years or so when the invitation arrive publicizing the class of ‘64 reunion I’d temporarily entertain the overture then file the letter bottom of a desk drawer, unwilling to permanently assign to a waste can. It wasn’t like I was a particularly bad student or one of the invisible faces with few friends or found my name attached to an enemies list, but having more to do with emotional detachment. Sure, we’ve all felt the hurt from more than one promising love interest and suffered a scarred heart long after rejection, but my ambivalence really had more to do with the situation itself rather than any distasteful encounter. Once I left Northport High behind, I promise never return!
I was never the center of the universe like a dozen or so of my classmates - a politician, track star, prom king or dating fool, just this guy who got on well with most everyone and prayed for a day when Susan Genova would sacrifice her supple body to my carnal intentions. Outside of that, I just smoked a lot and marked time until graduation.
Northport High was this dip-shit campus stuck in downtown Salem resembling a forgotten boy’s reformatory from the 30’s. Everything was neat and tidy- as were the high-end students. The front line intelligentsia paraded up and down the hallways in neatly pressed pleats and tweeds conferring mostly with one another on matters of self- importance. I’d spy on their conversations mostly inviting frightful scowls especially from the mob’s self-anointed leader Martha Bridgestone, student council activities director.
Martha positioned herself mid-western royalty, in fact she acted as if her blood was purely aristocratic in volume. When addressing her, those less than noble were shown the left side of her face. Martha only recognized those privy to her social responsibilities worthy of direct eye contact. I’d disrupt her charade forcing myself in her visual field then utter something outrageous like “Remember me, Earl Friendly, the guy who mops up after your wet dreams.” Damn, did she ever hate me for that. Her favorite come back was, “Stay away from me loser or I’ll tell Richard.” Scary stuff! Now if you knew Richard you’d understand the gravity of the warning.
Richard Ditmark would eventually rise to admiral in the U.S. Navy and command his own fleet. Back then he was class president, in fact he was president of everything from grade one to twelve, even the chess club, although he rarely won a match. How this came about, I never really understood other than he acted like a high ranking genetic mutant from some master race. I assumed it was a birth defect.
Martha would run to Richard when an individual or situation annoyed her and rain on his shoulder. After notifying Ditmark of my callous remark he tracked me like a fugitive, caught and admonished for the unchristian remark.
“Earl, don’t make me bring you before student council….I’d have to render judgment and my punishment will be quick and severe.” I near piss myself laughing. Here I am standing in the hallway with ‘Royal Dork’, judge and jury in his mobile kangaroo court, thinking to myself how easy it would be to pop the weasel in the snozz. Instead, I look directly at Ditmark and reply, “Back off or I’ll site you for harassment?” Where that came from I can’t exactly recall, maybe some reoccurring episode of Dragnet.
Ditmark wore this pompous smirk - coming after he gave one of those America first speeches at assembly, lasting for days at a time. “Earl, think about your future, I don’t want your actions today represent what the future is planning for you.” I asked myself, how the hell this guy could read into my future without me being there first .Was Ditmark clairvoyant or something? It was down right spooky.
The more I ponder the invitation I forget entirely about childish misadventure and sense this might be the last chance to stare down a few despised apparitions dredged from the past. As I unseal the envelope and withdraw the neatly engraved invitation I see Martha Bridgestone’s name stamped above steering committee, next line down Richard Ditmark, next line Lloyd Tichner, next Olivia Danbridge then Susan Genova. “Susan Genova?” There it is, ample reason to attend.
Susan Genova used to warn me about smoking. Back then I restricted my habit to a pack of Lucky Strikes a week. I’d conceal them in her presence but she’d easily detect the lingering odor and make this fake gagging sound. “Earl, one day you’re going to make some girl very happy, but first you have to kick the awful habit, it’s disgusting,” she’d lecture pointing three inches of crimson nail. Oh, how I wanted to kiss her all over. I thought if I could convince her to try one of those feminine like menthols we’d suddenly connect then I’d could swing my best move.
Genova wasn’t an original member of Bridgestone’s cabal only after her figure burst free like one of those big-busted fifties movie stars- much healthier looking than present day wax figurines. Everywhere she walked she drew a crowd , mostly males hopped up on testosterone. A boy could only speculate about what treasures hid beneath the blue and white angora sweater. My lusty eyeballs would trace the curve of her sumptuous breasts to a radical peak, over a nipple precipice back down skin valley to the waist line. You had to see to believe. I figured what I needed for success was the right words and a classic look.
Rather than fight with Genova, which certainly was a loosing proposition seeing that she had a rather sweet innocent demeanor and strong fan base, the Mafia voted her in. From grade ten on she was elected to student council - usually stuffing envelopes or making campaign posters for Martha and her compatriots.
Three days before I’m about to leave for Salem I get this unexpected call from Tara Higgins. Tara and I sat opposite each other throughout high school - rarely uttering a word. From time to time I’d sense her presence but for the most part she was mute. Occasionally, she’d cast a smile. There wasn’t much I could do with that until the last month of senior year when I discover her smoking off campus.
I see her cramped in her dad’s old VW, buried in a dense smoky haze. I just happen to recognize her face peeking through the fumes and catch a smile. Tara invites me in and points a Lucky Strike my direction. Oblivious to the world outside, we sat most of lunch hour outside huffing and puffing our way through half a pack. I can’t really say it was the most glorious smoking adventure of my short life but it was as close to an oral orgasm I’d ever come.
When Tara called, I fantasized this youthful image of her that would later be proven myth. Keep in mind serious smokers don’t grow handsome with age, I’m proof of that. There were days I’ve been mistaken for a galloping corpse. In fact, my wife Naomi would regularly check my pulse thinking the perpetual gray pallor meant I had suddenly crossed over. I swear I couldn’t kick the habit and had little desire to do so. Naomi eventually hooked up with this fitness buff. She’d brag about how many miles this guy could limp around a “Stairmaster”. The thought frightened me. I preferred exercising my thumb and index finger on a long satisfying draw of a Camel. I had to cut Naomi loose. She may say otherwise.
I was thrilled with Tara’s telephone call and made a date for the reunion. I figured the two of us could handle any abuse thrown our way. Tara would call nearly every Sunday leading up to the big event. She had this plan to shame Martha’s now oversized physique with her paper thin waist. At the twenty-fifth reunion she barely recognized her nemesis. It seemed Martha hung so much beef on her large frame you couldn’t tell where head and shoulders connect.
I go digging through the basement for high school yearbooks dating back thirty-five years. I figured I should at least try remembering a few prominent names and faces. Up from the bottom of a foul smelling mildew trunk I pull three annuals all bearing the school insignia, the feared Blue Devil. My first thought was to catch a fresh look at myself and see how little I’ve aged. I spot a small photograph on page twenty-eight of my sophomore yearbook, and recognize one lonesome looking geek. I remember it took me a year and three months to manufacture a new persona. At this point I was wavering between klutz and full blown garage toad. Martha may have been on to something that year, but over the summer I reinvented myself. I really got into Brando and Dean. I seriously needed to develop something cool about me so I soiled my head with Vitalis and took to pouting a lot. When anyone spoke to me I’d lower my chin, lift my eyes crinkling the lines in my forehead, nod and let a cigarette talk for me. It worked like a charm. Everywhere I went people would defer to me, “How’s it hangin’ Earl?” I’d shake my head, flick some ash, wink and look away with disinterest. I even took to practicing in front of a mirror. It wasn’t until I flipped through my senior yearbook when I discover the metamorphous complete. There I am, a genuine dude with whiny eyes and puffy lower lip, exuding tortured sexuality. How could any co-ed say no to this look? Well, most times they did. They hated the smoking, the ones that didn’t were outcasts like me.
The morning of the main event I get a call from Tara warning me she’d be a bit late due mainly to car problems and her own physical preparations. I thought why rush, take your time, all the more beautiful. I go about the day - pick up dry-cleaned pinstriped suit with gold lame vest and blue shirt, have a peaceful shower then attend to the remaining follicles perched judiciously on my crop-damaged head. Last count there may have been near fifty, not enough to fill the gap but still enough to give a man hope for a resurrection.
I dip into a vat of gel - wax the hair fibers then stroke into vertical posts leaving my head looking like an environmental disaster. Standing before a tooth paste speckled mirror peering into my own eyes, I can’t help but wonder why cosmologist hadn’t invented a skin creme for serious male smokers something that could restore vital facial color and fill in the sprawling fractures. Naomi was right. The last time I ever did anything physical was when I loaded a beer cooler in the trunk of the station wagon, then overcome with exhaustion, slept most of the trip up to Shangdon’s Point. My shoulder’s hurt for days.
Cocktails were scheduled for six PM and here it is near five-thirty and still no Tara. I find myself pacing with anticipation and smoking more than normal when the telephone rings.
“Sorry Earl, you handsome man, it took longer than expected to get the water pump fixed, I’m right outside. Honey, bring some matches.”
Yes! Tara Higgins; goddess of the brown leaf, sleek of figure, hair golden as corn silk. I make one last stop through the bathroom and douse my throat with mouth rinse then spray another layer of Musk Oil over my suit, then out the front door. A few yards beyond the driveway I see this whipped-to-shit Camero trembling from the strains of “ Old Time Rockin’ Roll” and what seems a five alarm fire swelling the interior with noxious smoke.
“Get in honey,……look at you , all dressed up with some place to go.” The words arrive before I see her face. “ Roll down the window and let some fresh air in, it’s a bit stuffy,” she says.
As soon as our eyes couple, I freeze, nearly collapse from shock then ask myself what the hell happen to that innocent young girl whose skin I remember as smooth as polished marble and the connection with this woman whose face looks like it’s suffered one to many summers of violent erosion. I mean, it was disheartening …only the hair and eyes remain youthful.
“Earl, look at you…you’ve still got those playful eyes. Remember when we used to have those great smokes in the VW? Now that was a good car. This piece of shit dies anywhere it feels. I just spent another $140 on a pump just to get from Atlanta to here. I can’t afford this crap.”
I still hadn’t recovered from the facial damage let alone contemplate anything beyond our arrival at the reunion. I tried not starring or in anyway appear ungrateful.
“Tara, it’s been so many years. What have you been up to?” I figured a safe question could buy me a few miles nearer Moose Lodge, where healthier classmates await.
“Earl, you look so good…I mean you are a bit gray in the face but cancer will do that to people.”
Did I actually hear her say that? She couldn’t have used my name in the presence of the big C, ….did she? I decide to act as if I hadn’t heard the remark.
“Earl,… doctor’s give you long to live?” she says with a hint of sympathy. I lose it.
“Hold it Tara,… I’ve never had cancer or been that ill, …I don’t know what you’re getting at..”
“Earl, you can’t fool me. I see it in people’s skin and believe me you’ve got cancer.”
I considered a fatal leap from the moving smokehouse, anything to get away from Tara’s morbid words but then decide patience makes a trustworthy companion when she suddenly zings me with another one of her diagnostic bulletins.
“There ain’t much cure for what ails you…I can tell you that,” she calmly exclaims.
“What are you doing, signing my death certificate?” I ask.
“No Earl, I don’t think you look medically sound.”
This was no way to greet an old friend let alone treat an invited guest. I began to wonder if this is the reason we never shared conversation in or out of the classroom other than, “ hold the match still.” I figured it was essential getting Tara focus back on her own history rather than inventing mine so I give a inquisitive stare and ask her to fill in the missing years.
“Well, O.K. You remember Jim Coates….well, Jim and I were married and had Sarah…have I showed you her picture, she’s twenty-eight now and my best friend,” she says while slapping a partially damaged button on the glove compartment. “Anyway, Jim got to drinking heavily and we lost everything, the trucking business, split-level home and fifteen acres of prime land near lake Saginaw where we planned to build a cottage then retire. Earl, you can’t imagine how disastrous my life has been.” By this point I had a fair idea. “I seems I’ve been in partying to much since high school, but hell what else is there to do. You ever been to New Orleans….the drinks are so cheap. I got down and dirty drunk there for a week and can barely remember a thing….then went to Madi Gra in Biloxi. Bet you never knew they had a Madi Gra in Biloxi. I met Sharon Thompson there….she’s my best friend. That girl can party hearty. What have you been up to…I hope your feeling better since the..”
“Since the what?” I abruptly shoot back. Tara acts if she were deaf.
“Once again, I am not ill….or have I been seriously ill, except for the painful separation from Naomi.”
“Do I know her?”
Namoi and Tara were worlds apart. For every two shots Tara downed of Kentucky bourbon, Namoi would spend an equal amount on art and craft supplies. The kitchen table looked like some kind of weird experiment where wet clay and stencil meet leaving the surface covered in the letters from the alphabet. Namoi would paint each individual letter and glue a small magnet on the back and sell at arts festivals.
“Naomi is from Missouri… met her in Chicago nearly twenty-one years .”
“Do you still love her?” Tara interrupts.
“Of course I still love her…just can’t live with her and the jock.”
Here I go equating physical activity the sole domain of the athlete.
“I really don’t know what came over her. For years we planned each day around our favorite nightly television shows, then one day she decides it’s time to get fit and joins the Y. Next thing I know she’s complaining about my stamina and tells me to get a program. Hell, I already had my programs; Cheers, Barnaby Jones, Mannix and those good old Andy of Maybury reruns. Whatever happened to Opie?” I halt the confessional before sounding to much like a boring middle-age slob.
“I’d have left your sorry ass sitting there too,” says Tara.. “A girl has got to be near the action and get a little herself. Earl you’re hopeless.”
I watch the miles click off the odometer biding time until my grand escape. For someone who’d run through the mill, Tara still had a keen sense of humor and great spirit.. Life either toughens or defeats you, in Tara’s case it was a standoff.
“There it is…oh, look they’ve fixed the lodge since I was here five years ago. Isn’t that Brice Pace and his wife…oh, I forget her name.” Tara was well ahead of me at the identity game. Brice Pace, who the hell is Brice Pace,” I ask.
“Don’t they make a nice looking couple?”
“Tara, I don’t remember Brice Pace.”
“Come on Earl, you two used to play touch football in the court yard.” Now, when did Tara ever see me pick up a football. She never hung around the sports facilities at Northport as far as I know. Brice Pace…still can’t recollect the face.
“I’ve never thrown a football in my life,” I remind her.
“Just pretend Earl, they won’t remember”
Tara was beginning to scare me. I didn’t need invent a history, I knew mine forwards and backwards. I graduated high school then landed a job in plant protection at Devon Industries. I’ll work there until I retire in two years with full benefits. Nothing much has happened out of the ordinary except for Namoi and the man of steel.
“Earl, stay calm…some of these people will piss you off.” I hadn’t even made it to the lobby and Tara’s setting me up for disaster. “Honey, pin the corsage near my right breast. Don’t be afraid if they see us.” Just as I suspected….Tara was using me to inspire rumor.
“Oh look Earl, it’s Guy Stevens…isn’t he handsome, all he has to do is ask and the answer’s where - and when.” Naomi would never say anything as bold and outright aggressive as that. All of the suggestive talk leaves me cold. It seems almost disingenuous hearing this come from a man.
“Do you have a cigarette, I’m getting nervous Earl…oh my God I better take a nerve pill, be back in a moment.”
Tara sprinted to the lady’s room wobbling like her legs were bound in duc tape in a dress designed more for an eighteen year than a woman past fifty. I use the opportunity to slip inside were a different kind of activity transpire near the reception desk.
“Earl Friendly, class of ‘64”
“Oh yes, I remember you…..Martha Bridgestone, student council activities director…glad you could make it. You remember my husband Van Walters.” Van extends a limp hand…. “You’re Earl Friendly……. I thought you were dead,” ha, ha, ha.
Van Walters was this ass hole who would turn you in for the smallest infraction. I had a run in with this clown nearly every month of my senior year. Kevin Towns and I collected a dozen rolls of toilet paper in the boys washroom and tossed them from an open window where they unraveled and hung like vines above the campus snack house which happened to be positioned where all pedestrian traffic intersects. Walters just happen to be conversing below when a couple loose spools fall at his feet. He spots Towns and myself then immediately reports us to the principle office. We had no defense. I spent the next month in detention after school.
I pause for a moment then reply… “Yes, Van, I‘ve been dead nearly a quarter century then I get this invite to the ‘Monkey Town’ reunion then whamo Tara Higgins comes busting in my house and opens my crypt….free at last! Still have that gray pallor Van?”
Walters stares at me like I’m some whacked out devil worshipper - turns and walks away.
Before I can load up on Budweiser, Tara reappears. “Just look at this room…I could have been as fat as these women…I never let any extra meat hang off this body other than my firm babies. What’ll you think?”
I’m at a loss for words until something quite unexpected happens, without trying the lyrics arrive. “You look awfully sexy Tara. I don’t see another woman in this room with quite your figure.”
“Earl,….listen to you, …you might get lucky latter….that’s if Guy Stevens doesn’t have a stroke.”
After signing the guest book, pinning my name tag on and securing a beer I notice several yearbooks arranged as if placed on a sacred alter. I wander over and observe quotations written underneath individual class photos .
“Johnny Ray Horn…handsome, smart, most popular guy on the football team. Love him to death.”
“Victor Attles, …six feet six of thunder and lightening..
“Lloyd Tichner” ..a real nut..”
“Karen Bledsoe”..never washed under her finger nails. Icky!”
“Earl Friendly,” …sicko loser!”
Sicko loser? Who the hell had the audacity to write loser next to my name, I muse. While skimming the index page I find Martha Bridgestone’s autograph top right hand side - withdraw a ball point pen and locate her oversized photo surrounded by neatly crafted passages oozing words of glowing promise then scribble, “ dime store whore.” I could barely control vengeful ecstasy. It was like the first draw of a Camel the morning after rinsing the mouth clean of residue. I wanted to share my act of defiance with Tara but felt I should wait and she how she fares after a few mixed drinks.
“Earl , you remember Herb Smith don’t you…I slept with him…look… over there…he hasn’t changed a lick.” Sure enough, Herb looked like he could still play forward on the conference champion Blue Devils. “Biggest dick I’ve ever held…..I swear to you Earl, I couldn’t stick that thing anywhere… I told him to rope it and drive it to the Cincinnati zoo, then put it in a cage.” The remark nearly sent me over the top ….I had no response to that other than I found Tara’s frankness disturbing…besides that she wasn’t lying about Herb Smith.
It was grade ten and we’d just finished gym class and were having showers when this voice comes from behind. “Spit me some shampoo, Friendly?” I turn around, it’s Herb standing with one eye half-cocked the other nearly blind from soap. Herb sticks a hand in my face, so I squirt some Johnson’s in his palm when suddenly this enormous appendage starts flopping about like a struggling giant sea bass. I’m serious this thing had a mouth on it like a human. I remember laughing to myself about the possibility of Herb and his alien counterpart starting this ventriloquist act and doing the Sullivan Show. Guys had serious problems with a girl if they knew Herb had been there first. Most just shy away. I was just to horned up to care.
Herb still had the same afro from when he was the sixth member of the Jackson Five. His body hadn’t lost any of it’s powerful contours and he still moved with the same grace that elevated him above the basketball rim. I could see Anita, Billie, Olivia, Mary all the African queens buzzing around Herb. I decided to walk over and introduce myself.
“Herb, Earl Friendly….”
Herb stared for a moment then said, “ you don’t look to healthy…still eating meat?” How did he know I ate meat and not suffer from some other dreaded disease.
“No Herb, I gave meat up in high school, I’m strictly vegetarian. How about you?”
“You don’t look like you’re a vegetarian…you sure you don’t eat meat?” I began to wonder if cigarettes were only part of the problem.
“Herb, what’s with this meat shit…I just came over to say hello.”
“Sorry, about that Ed…
“It’s Earl..” Herb spins around. “Anita you foxy thing….where have you been all my life?” Goodbye Herb. Now that was the kind of conversation two old buddies could warm too. As I recall Herb had the attention span of a trained goose in high school and by all counts exhibited no measured improvement.
I was feeling fairly insecure and scan the room for Tara. I recognize her talking with what looks to be Billy “Fruitcake” Hammond. I decide to swing by and fall into some natural conversation, after all Hammond used to be one of us. I mean he was an outsider not one of those politburo members. He just got pretty crazy with that cult shit. I heard he was a follower of Jim Jones before the cult moved to Guyana and then he fled to some bizarre commune in Oregon where everyone walked around decked in orange jump suits.
“Billy, what be the word?” I say like a lost love child hitching a ride up the coast.
“Billy you remember Earl Friendly,” says Tara. Hammond examines me before answering.
“Sure do remember you Earl. Why didn’t you get in the van?”
The van,…what van, I ask myself.
“Come on Earl you deserted your buddies…. you left us waiting half the night. Don’t you remember…California, the Maharajah?”
Billy jarred my memory. I had almost forgot I was supposed be a passenger with Hammond and six or so believers, and split transportation costs. Instead, I took this job at Devan Industries and forgot to tell anyone.
“So…..what happened?” asks Hammond.
“I got a job, as simple as that.”
“You never called.”
“Billy, that was thirty something years ago. You’ve got to let it go.”
“Easy for you to say,” a dispirited Hammond replies.
Tara grabs me under the armpit and leads me away. “Earl, you don’t have any idea what Billy’s been through. Remember Waco?”
“Waco? Billy was in Waco?”
“No , but he could have been,” says Tara.
“But I thought he was in Jonestown at one point?”
“He almost went, but that was years ago.”
“How the hell did he get hooked up with all of these lunatic cults?” I ask.
Tara puts two fingers to her lips then gives me the shssssh signal then drags me to an empty table back of the hall.
“Sit down Earl, we’ve got to talk.”
“You remember Billy’s old house over on Pinewood with all of the religious figures painted on the wall like they were ascending the stairway to heaven and the conversations the two of you had. You were like brothers.” As she speaks, I remind myself Tara has developed this knack of rewriting my past - maybe this is why Jim and her fought so violently.
“Come on Tara, everyone thought he was gay…I discovered he was whacked out Eastern religions. To me, that was far worse. All that nonsense about ripping up sidewalks and letting goats run free totally escaped me.”
“Earl, you know we all got caught up in those things.”
“Maybe you Tara,… not me. Billy was susceptible to any dogma no matter how preposterous the teachings. What did he call his play toy….’Lotus Flower’…didn’t she sew him a coronation robe and cook a vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner with a stewed tomato casserole wired in the shape of a turkey…. I realized he had serious issues to deal with. I wasn’t going to California with some freakin’ gang of lunatics. Tara, I swear I think he did it so he could screw all of the young girls.”
Hammonds had this aura about him that attracted the strangest mix of young women. I can’t say exactly what his appeal was other than he paced himself and had this contrived spiritual thing going for him that made you feel like you were in the presence of a deity. We’d argue over the goats issue and he’d tell me to wait and see and watch all of Salem revert back to a nature sanctuary. The only reason I allowed him an extra moment was the golden hash oil the cult sold. They called it honey oil, I called it a near God experience. Hammonds and his followers charged near double the street price but you were assured the high was clean.
“Earl, are you with me?….lighten up…Jesus, I need a smoke…let’s go outside,” says Tara.
We walked past this black DJ playing old Lionel Ritchie ballads, past Martha and who the hell knows outside to a warm gentle breeze. The hot wind blowing across the golf course was certainly more inviting than the glacial air gusting about inside.
“You look uptight,” says Tara taking a slow draw from her prized Virginia Slim
“Do I?…well you’d feel a bit out of sorts if more than one person tells you they thought you were dead. Where did this come from?” Tara takes another draw.
“We all lost contact with you, and a lot classmates died in the war. I guess they just put your name on the same list.” What list, I wondered.
“Doesn’t someone check those things out,” I ask.
“They did, but you never answered the questionnaire…I only found out recently through a friend of your sister what you were up to,” says Tara.
“I got the invites…just didn’t want to come…I don’t really know these people.”
“That’s your own fault.”
I couldn’t really argue the point. I thought about making the trip for the 10th reunion but it landed dead center of a planned vacation to New Mexico and the twenty-fifth coincided with my daughter Denise’s high school graduation.
“Tara., I’m not so sure this whole trip was such a wise decision.”
“Why not…I’m having fun…the night’s still young and you’re no fun…I came to party!”
Tara wouldn’t allow me precious minutes loitering inside a self-induced blue funk.
When we return, the party was at full throttle. The heavy girls commanded the dance floor letting wide bodies bump and grind to En Vogue. Herb stood like a windup mannequin in the center, knees bent and arms flying around doing some kind of early seventies version of the cool jerk. The women would occasionally throw off an approving squeal or two.
I couldn’t shake the melancholy. Somehow, the occasion was revealing more to me than I wished to know. For the first time I begin to recognize my own mortality. I can see it in the eyes of the other men my age. Christ, I could barely recognize anybody. The eyes are the only constant, the only connection with the past. I used to have an ass, now look at me, it’s like some heavy equipment landed backside and leveled it. Most of these men lost neck or chin in a pool of fatty tissue. God can be awfully cruel. The whole time I’ve been here I haven’t seen a woman looking as vivacious Susan Genova. Maybe, she’s just another depressing illusion withered by time.
“Earl, you chunk of dog shit…how the hell are you?”
That voice,….that voice suddenly shook me out of a morbid stupor. “Hart, …that’s got to be Hart Robbins.”
“You can bet your mother’s dirty drawers…what the fuck happen to your head?”
“Hart, please don’t go there…I’m depressed enough.”
“Here , have a swig of this…it’ll revive the dead.”
“Robbins, please don’t speak ill of the dead or in anyway connect them with me.”
“A little sensitive huh?”
Hart Robbins was an incredibly smooth operator throughout high school. He professed a desire to be a writer, I guess that’s why we hooked up in journalism class. I was the cartoonist and he wrote those hard hitting editorials about selling beer at sporting events. If Hart had his way there would have been a wet bar in every classroom. He did everything with great humor. The tall gangly man possessed well sculpted features. I wouldn’t say he was classically handsome but well aware of the value of proper grooming and a tasteful wardrobe. These essential items accentuated his dark eyebrows and deep blue eyes
“Earl, did you see Susan Genova….man, she still looks good,” says Robbins. My neck suddenly pops through the turtleneck like a periscope - rotates and scans the crowded room.
“No, no Earl, you’re not going to find her in here, I saw her standing near the 18th hole with “ The Bomb” and Teddy Reynolds,” says Robbins. Just as I rise from my seat, Hart forces me back down. “You can’t go out there looking like that…don’t you have a hair piece?”
“What the fuck I need with a rug?”
“I’m just trying to help you old boy…a stylish hair piece will make you look younger and more confident.” I have no idea why Hart has taken me under his wing other than his youthful reputation as a scam artist lives on.
“Look Earl, let’s take a walk to my car. I’ve got something you should have a look at. See my head…that’s no cheap tapestry , that’s real art.”
“Come on Hart, I am who I am…no rug is going to change that.”
“Bullshit! Are you really satisfied with who you are? You can walk out of here tonight with a hot pair of titties in your hands, …. trust me.”
The last time I trusted Robbins we both served hard time at lunch hour detention for unseemly behavior. Robbins talked me into tying condoms to all of the lab facets in chemistry class, then partially filling with water until they hang like swollen cow utters. As the class fills up everyone stood gawking like this beast from beyond was using the lab to procreate. When Mr. Simpson arrives all hell breaks loose. Robbins and I didn’t stand a chance …everyone in our class was either a B or A student except the two of us who ventured near flunking. Needless to say we were tried and convicted and condemned to spend the rest of the school eating lunch hour meals in the principle’s office.
“Go around back and I’ll roll the window down,” Hart says directing me towards the rear of his late model station wagon. “You’re going to be knocked out with what I’ve got in store for you.” I could only guess.
“How’d you like a full head of hair just like you had back in high school?”
“It’s not going to happen, Hart.”
“Never say never…”
“Get serious…what are you going to do wrap a varmint around my skull?”
“Better than that…how about the Mark Anthony look…something Roman. Maybe a Greek God. I know, how about the Hugh Grant look…now there’s a head of hair I’d kill for.”
“There’s no way I’ll ever look like Hugh Grant,” I respond in a dour voice.
“Don’t kid yourself Earl….wait until I find the hair piece.. it’ll blow you away.”
Hart fumbles around this old suitcase that may have belonged to his great grandfather before pulling this weedy clump of hair from a shopping bag.
“Ah yes…it’s a beauty.”
“Ah yes…it’s a beauty.”
“Hart, where the hell did you trap that thing, in your backyard?” I ask.
“Shut up and give me your head. You’ll have a different opinion after you see the new you.”
I don’t know why I submitted so easily, I guess being so depressed made me recognize any positive gesture a glimmer of hope. “Put your thumb there and hold this while I ease it over your head. Amazing…simply amazing.”
“Something about this whole situation seems awfully weird Hart…”
“Earl, give it a chance…what have you got to lose.. the ten remaining stubs?”
I felt like a medical experiment and Hart, Joseph Mengelet.
“Have a look…absolutely stunning.” All of a sudden Hart seemed more like a gay hair dresser than journalist. “You’ll have to slip inside and have a peek in the rearview mirror.” Hart unlocks the side door allowing easy entry. “ Wait… I’ll turn on the interior lights”
“That’s all right, I’m embarrassed enough,” I plead.
“Look ahead and face the mirror and don’t say a word. You’ll have to give it a chance…it can be unsettling at first like a patient after a nose job.”
I position myself dead center of the seat and stare upward at the broad mirror. Zap! Lights on. I froze.
“Oh my God, it looks like someone crayoned my face in the middle of a yak’s ass,” I say as the horror of the experiment confronts me.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself…relax for a moment,” says Hart.
“Hart, I can’t leave this car with this retched thing on my head. For Christ’s sakes, it’s jet black, my face looks like a plaster cast.”
“Stop the whining Earl, you look twenty years younger…come on, lets go for a walk.”
“I’m not walking anywhere like this.”
“Give me your hand…. I’ll show you the way.”
What was I thinking letting this buffoon lead me back into this nightmare. I can only surmise the one last drop of testosterone reserved for this day was a fair reminder the power it may still hold over Susan Genova. If the hairpiece worked as good as a quality fishing lure, how could I loose.
Hart escorted me back to the porch area of the lodge then left me stranded among more unknown faces. There were at least five with less hair than me smoking at will. I draw a Camel and beg for a light.
“Anyone got a match?”
“Sure, I do. ….. Do I know you?”
“Earl Friendly, my God it’s been years….and you’ve still got a beautiful head of hair…you lucky shit.”
My God, Albert Stinson, the murderer…the man who supposedly killed his parents. I can’t shake his hand. “Albert, I think I need a drink,” I use as an escape clause.
“Great, me too…let’s hit the bar.” Just what I didn’t need…. a former death row recipient escorting a head full of rodent fur. And the winner is?
Albert “ the bomb” Stinson scared the shit out of all of us in high school. He was tops in biology and chemistry; subjects I failed twice. He could make a Molotov cocktail in ten minutes with a few items stolen from the janitor’s closet. He’d always be laughing just before something cataclysmic occur like the time the cafeteria blows up. Police tried to connect him with the crime but all evidence went up in the flames. He was also tried for bombing a Selective Service building in West Virginia and still beat the law. It wasn’t until after his parents explode in their car that he was tried and convicted on fiber evidence. Two years on death row and the governor commutes his sentence over the state’s mishandling of the evidence. This was big news all around the world.
“Earl, what’s your poison?”
“Yeah,…what are you having?”
“Just a beer….”
“Any particular brand?”
“No, any beer will do.” All I can think of is getting as far away from this character as possible.
“Tell me something Earl, that thing on your head don’t look so real under lights.”
“I’ve got to go….”
“No, you can’t,…I’m thinking of getting me something like that, but a bit more alive.”
“Albert, I’ve got to go..”
“Are you a commie?” The remark arrives like a arrow through the chest.
“A commie ? What are you getting at Stinson?”
“You sure walk like a commie.”
“I walk like a commie? Just how does a commie walk?”
“Look at the way you cower when you walk, a proud American stands tall.”
The comment brought mixed emotions in me. I’m thinking 1968 and all of the head bashing going on and that ‘pinko commie’shit. Why would anyone want to open old wounds or revisit such a painful time in American history. I’m thinking this guy is baiting me for some future thrill.
“Are you a fascist?” I ask defensively.
Stinson looks away then slowly refocuses on my eyes.
“There’s no such thing as a fascist - there’s right and wrong, then extremely right. I guess you could say I’m white right.”
“Yeah…God made us white ‘cause it took time to get it right. He made you pink ‘cause you don’t think.”
I beg myself to get away from this conversation but yet I’m fascinated with his logic.
“You know Stinz a commie’s just a fascist in a cheap uniform.”
“What are saying?”
“I’m saying there’s no difference in mentality - the both of you kill for the thrill. It’s about imposing your views on others, and the totalitarian way is to intimidate and subjugate.”
“You’ll need me when the shit comes down.”
“There’s no shit coming down beyond the drivel pouring out your mouth.”
“I’ve got a ranch and we’re training.”
“You don’t look like you’re in much shape.”
“It’s not about shape it’s about having a sharp eye and good aim. I can shoot the wings off a fly at 40 yards.” Now there’s a most needed skill for survival in the techo age.
“You know good buddy, I just wanted to have a drink with you. You piss me off”
By now I’m not sure where Stinson’s coming from. The night’s been weird enough without the added drama. Just as I’m about to leave Stinson says the right words.
“Have you seen Susan?” I freeze.
“Susan, you saw Susan…where?”
“She’s around here somewhere…just look for the most voluptuous creature this side of heaven.
“What’s she wearing?”
“Black satin……What I’d give to jump that body…I swear, it’s like she’s all ready for bed.”
I slide past Albert and search for Tara hoping for a bit of grounding. I’d already suffered to many emotional ups and downs. I figured a good laugh could boost morale.
The dance floor, crammed with spastic dance teams, is where I spot Tara’s large blond hair bobbing about. I lean to one side and catch her grinding away on Herb Smith. So be it. I wait until the song finishes then drift by.
“What’s that on your head?” she asks with a pinch of sarcasm.
“A gift from Hart.”
“Earl, you know Herb don’t you?”
“Yes…yes, yes, we’ve spoke.” Herb looks away.
“Perhaps you two can answer a question I’ve wondered about for years…does a man’s penis shrink the older he gets?” Only Tara could ask an embarrassing question like that and expect to get away with it. Neither I nor Herb respond, just laugh and ignore the topic.
“Well,… if that’s the case, Herb’s a lucky man tonight.” Good luck Herb, I thought.
I leave Tara in the clutches of the old jock and take a seat at a table far from all the nonsense. I can see Martha and Olivia Danbridge milling about when I spot Richard Ditmark twisting the microphone of a makeshift podium.
“Testing, testing…” Squeal, bizzzzzzz, squeal,…..bizzz…bizzzz
“Sorry about that.” Bizzzzz….squeal, squeal….bizzzzzzz
The piercing squeal from the faulty connection sends Martha into a frenzy. Desperately, she cuts through three or four groups of people absorbed in conversation then lunges at the microphone. Ditmark quickly shifts into a bumbling cartoon character.
“Let me have that Dick,” yells Martha through a wide open mike.
The room falls silent until Hart Robbins screams out…” Well Dick,….. do as she says.”
Ditmark stands down in embarrassment allowing Bridgestone complete domination over the sound system.
“Hart Robbins, you apologize,” she says in a ferocious voice. All eyes bend towards the tall gentleman standing alone near the southern exit clutching a silver flask.
“Cuff me you big cow,” Hart replies nearly collapsing in laughter.
“You’re to leave now Mr. Robbins. I won’t allow that kind of talk in here.” Hart takes another swig lifts a free arm and points directly at Martha.
“You scare me, big sow….I tell you what…….let’s go eight rounds , the winner takes home one of those wilting motherfuckin’ Blue Satan centerpieces. You devil worshipper you.”
“That’s enough Hart……Richard, do something.”
By now the room has fallen under the Hart Robbin’s curse. Ditmark confers with a couple ex-council members and marches towards a by now totally giddy Robbins.
“Fly me to the moon….fuck it….doesn’t anyone ever play the good songs….how ‘bout some Sinatra or something…….this is supposed to be a mature party,” says Robbins as he begins doing the mambo towards the podium.
“I’ve got an announcement to make……I’ve got an announcement to make,” he screams. Just when he’s about to grab the microphone Ditmark and company secure his left arm.
“Get the fuck away from me….admiral Byrd!” Robbin’s slaps at Ditmark with the ball of the mike. “Give me a few moments to thank my fans!” A struggle ensues when Robbins hauls off and smacks Ditmark square in the mouth with the ball of the microphone. A stunned Ditmark checks his mouth for broken teeth, then runs towards the men’s washroom. The others back off. Robbin’s proceeds.
“He never learns, does he,” says a testy Robbins. “You’d think all that time at sea someone would have drowned his sorry ass…..Well folks, I guess you’re wondering why I’ve called you all here………very simple….excuse me for a second.” Robbins reaches inside his blazer and withdraws the silver flask. “Just a moment please………….there. O.K……..my friend, Earl Friendly….let me rephrase that, my dying friend Earl Friendly came all of the way here to meet for the last time the girl of his dreams,…. Martha!……just kiddin’….I’m sure you all know who I’m talking about. Hell, I dreamt so much about her I injured my right hand…had to wear it in glove.
Anyway, I gave Earl a gentleman’s makeover….it wasn’t easy…I mean with the illness and all….but, at this time in our lives when thirty or forty of our classmates have already perished…….I thought we should bring this lovely twosome together for a spotlight dance…..Earl……Susan Genova….would you approach the bench?.”
Talk about life’s most embarrassing moment, this one reigned supreme. I duck my head and face the tiled floor. “Earl, where are you….come on let’s give Earl a big hand….Earl, Susan come on up here,” a relentless Hart demands.
“He’s over here,” yells a voice unknown to me.
“Earl, Earl. Earl. Earl…” Here it comes…Robbin’s starts the chanting. It didn’t take long for the whole room start barking my name like they were coaxing some psychotic dweeb to leap from a fifty story building. As quickly as the chant begins the intensity diminishes as all eyes shift towards center room. I see Herb standing on a chair - waving his arm around like it was victory lap at the Daytona 500. Then the music starts, “ Midnight.-----Not a sound from the pavement. Has the moon lost her memory? She is smiling alone. In the lamplight the withered leaves collect at my feet---------and the wind begins to moan,” It’s that puking Barry Manilow song. Give me Buddy Guy or give me death, I beg.
The procession continues down a makeshift path. I forget my involvement, ascend the table for a clean view. I mean the whole thing was surreal. I spot Genova moving ceremoniously like the Queen Mother past well wishers towards a clearing near the podium. She was wrapped tightly in black satin and arm length white gloves, a raging beauty like one of those forgotten Hollywood divas from the forties only a drag queen would hold dear.
“Earl, Earl, Earl….let’s get Earl up here”, shouts a loud and by now obnoxious Hart Robbins. Suddenly, all hands reach for me and kindly escort from the table then shove towards the main Blue Devil centerpiece. I envisioned ‘Fruitcake Hammonds’ planning this whole evening as some kind of cult ritual where they disembowel the class loser in front of his peers then toss the flesh to starving crows, as his special way of getting even.
Once at the podium a wild cheer erupts as I meet Genova for the first time in thirty-five years. I get serious chills like I was a transplant recipient awarded the liver of a ten year child, smile and wave. Genova extends a hand offering me the lead. I awkwardly pull her near and begin circling the floor. Genova, sporting a metallic smile only a welder could remove, speaks first.
“How have you been Earl, so nice to see you,” she asks while casting the occasional approving glance at her fan club.
“Really well…can’t complain.”
“I don’t mean to be personal, but what is that you’re wearing on your head?”
Genova wore cologne so rich it smelled as if it purchased by prescription only.
“So, tell me something about you. Are you married?” I ask
“So what does the lucky husband do?”
“Husbands!” I pause and rethink my approach. “How many husbands are there?”
“There have been eight,… one living- seven deceased.” Suddenly, I lose the appropriate words and search my heart for a correct sympathetic phrase.
“I’m truly sorry…I know it must have taken a huge toll on you emotionally?”
She quietly listens then looks up, “ Forget it.”
Forget it, she actually said forget it, I ask myself. By now I’m more than certain Hammond’s rigged this whole affair just to bleed me before my former classmates.
“You don’t look so good Earl, your health faltering.” Here we go again.
“No, it’s the makeup, I’m the picture of health, I’m a vegetarian,” I say.
“That explains it. I’ve never seen a healthy looking vegetarian. You may want to get some beef protein back in your diet. Do you still smoke?”
“Nope! Gave it up.”
I prance around the dance floor with first prize attached to my waist. Genova’s breasts swelled twice as large as I remember , covering a greater portion of her frontal exterior. The exposed cleavage was enough to bury seven husbands and the one in waiting.
“Can I ask without bringing back the pain what happen to the other seven husbands?”
“It’s to sad to recall on such an extraordinary night.”
“Rupert, died of an overdose. Hal was killed in an automobile accident. Rene, oh how I miss those French hips, took his own life with a hunting knife. Clemson drowned off Wakaki. Lamar choked to death on one of those oversized vitamin pills, Samson was murdered. Vincent just plain disappeared.
“That leaves who?”
“What’s Robert’s story,” I inquire.
“He’s twenty-nine, extremely handsome, gay,….and the best friend a woman could have.”
“Yes, gay Earl…I don’t need any more body climbers. My breasts can’t take the pounding.”
“But….you’re still quite young and attractive.”
“Earl, I have more than enough funds to support me the next thousand years…a lovely home, three beautiful grandchildren….a personal trainer….and a sweet mutt named Goofie. How many more years do I have left to enjoy such bliss?”
“What about you? Who’s the lucky lady?”
Depression returns and rips a path through my veins causing me to nearly halt the once-in-a-life-time dance. While locked in conversation I forget the other hundred and ninety-six classmates either embracing or standing close by. I don’t wish to revisit the past but Susan persists. “Talk to me Earl….I’ve been straight with you,” she orders.
“Naomi… or , it used to be Namoi.”
“Used to be…did she change her name?”
“No, we’re separated…..she ran off with one of the Dallas Cowboys.”
“She’s got good taste………….Earl, speak the truth!”
“It’s over,…I’m nearly over….look at me Mr. Security guard.”
“That’s nothing to be ashamed of,… you’re still very sweet.”” she replies.
“Sweet brings me no comfort. I’ve seen and did nothing. At least you had seven different men; seven different lovers, now that’s excitement! Maybe I should have backpacked around the world?”
“You still can.”
“Not at my age….kids do that stuff.”
“Earl, stop acting like you’ve got both feet in the grave…..It’s all in your head …Give me your hand.”
Genova squeezes my right sending my heart into a passionate stupor. The music returns. “ When the dawn comes tonight will be a memory too and a new day will begin.” Susan twists my wrist so my palms face upward.
“Breathe into your hands!” Genova orders.
“This is too silly.”
“Earl, breathe in the damn hand and shut up for a moment.” I do as she asks.
“What did you feel?” she inquires. I pause looking for the right words to satisfy her.
“You mean what do I smell….your cologne?”
“Don’t fool with me Earl….you’ve got to be honest.”
“Just my breath…”
“Was it warm or cold?”
“It was warm, like it always is.”
“Then by all accounts you are not dead yet?”
“I guess I’m here for real,” I say.
“Then stop the childish whining and get on with your life. Nobody stops you from sipping champagne in Paris, camping on the Nile, or swimming in the Pacific. It’s all in your head.”
I bask in my own confusion then reply…“I don’t know where to start?”
“You can always visit me in Palm Springs…..Robert and I will show you a good time….” The music ends. “ Get on with your life Earl.”
As soon as the last note fades every male in the house arrive vying for a dance with the incumbent sex Goddess. I leave Susan and wander back towards my secluded corner. Tara was nowhere in sight, I could only suspect she took Herb for a joyride. I wondered, how the hell anyone could be so horny at this age . I’d read accounts of women getting more sensuous as they turn older…men supposedly going the opposite direction. No longer in the limelight I hit the buffet line.
“Earl, you looked good out there. Not to many guys every get a chance like that.” Albert Stinson’s back. “Stinz….it looks like every guy in the room will have a turn,” I say before skipping ahead to the creamed chicken. “Earl, you don’t have to keep running from me,” Albert says catching me near the punchbowl. “I’m not running…just looking for a little peace of mind.”
“You want to smoke some pot?” He asks in a seventies tie-dyed hippie tone.
“Hell know….the last time I did that I had an anxiety attack at McDonalds. I was twenty then…never touched the stuff again.”
“How about a drive around town?”
“Albert, I’m not going anywhere with you….I came with Tara, I will leave with her.”
“I doubt that ole boy. I saw her leave about twenty minutes ago with Herb Smith, you know what that means.” Stinson almost pushes me over the edge when I spot Tara squeeze through a sliding door back into the room looking disheveled. “Excuse me, Albert.”
With plate in hand I clumsily weave around unevenly spaced chairs until I corner Tara, peering into a small makeup mirror grooming her face.
“Where have you been?” I ask.
“What are you , mother superior?” she blasts back.
“No…no, I didn’t mean it like that.” Tara lets go a long-winded sigh, then stares at me.
“Prostate problems…..Herb’s got serious prostate problems.” Like a family doctor I offer consultation.
“You’re telling me, even you couldn’t motivate it?”
“It was dead, had to toss it back. ”She says in a dispirited voice.
“Maybe you overwhelmed him?”
“I’d settle for half that much if it were still alive.” Tara never ceases to amaze me. I keep up the questioning. “What are you going to do now?”
“Earl, you don’t get it…..I’ve waited thirty-five years to jump that man.”
“There are other men in this world just as appealing.” I say in a supportive tone.
“Bullshit…you got your wish…I saw you drooling all over Genova.”
“Come on , we were just dancing…I didn’t lay her out on the floor.”
“I know, I know….. I bet all her best parts are in working order.”
“Maybe so, but my guess is she has plenty dysfunctional qualities too…..look at all the corpses she’s collected.”
“I bet Jim’s humping some fifteen year old.”
“What the hell does Jim have to do with anything.”
“I was just thinking.”
“Do you want to dance?” I ask.
I tried my best to invite any kind of physical attraction to Tara but couldn’t locate it within me. She was full of life and for the most part easy going. More than anything I think it was the mileage. Tara traveled ruff terrain. All of those tearful episodes with Jim, the drinking and excessive smoking, and one night stands left her most revealing feature, her face, a map of wrong turns and misadventure.
“Why don’t you caress me with both arms,” asks Tara. “ You’re not afraid of me are you Earl?” I was hoping she wouldn’t ask that. “I was just thinking,” I say in a soft voice.
“Earl, you should stop worrying so much, I think we can go about this naturally.”
“I’m trying.” Tara, reaches up and draws my face near , then softly kisses.
“When was the last time you got laid Earl?” I was hoping she wouldn’t ask me that.
“A couple years.”
“Not even a hooker?”
“I’d never do something like that….Christ, I’d faint in my shorts.”
“Earl, I’ll be very honest with you…three years. It’s been three dry years sleeping in an empty bed. You can’t believe how lonely that feels.”
Loneliness…..loneliness, my uninvited room mate. If she only knew the depth of despair I feel most hours of the night. My job is a lonely job. Eight hours a night I sit in front of a computer terminal facing ten television monitors. Nothing ever crosses the screens out of the ordinary other than a janitor and his wife moping the same floors night after night. The hallways, boardrooms, work stations, and loading dock look like a corporate graveyard. It’s hard to believe six hundred or so living beings inhabit the premises during the day. Four times during my shift I walk the length of the building floor by floor validating the building’s security. When seven AM comes I slide in my Honda Civic and grab a bite at Good Eats then hit the sack. By three o’clock I’m up and ready for what? The same old shit!
“Earl…..I didn’t scare you did I?” I could almost hear Tara’s voice interrupt.
“Are you having a spell or something….I’m worried about you,” she asks in a concerned tone.
“No….nothing to worry about, I just drifted….”
“I need a smoke….let’s catch some air.” She was right about that. It had been nearly an hour between puffs.
The lodge had a lovely garden to the rear facing the golf course with a bench and bug zapper in partnership. The noise inside was rising to a feverish pitch as Martha and her army commandeered the black DJ forcing him to play classic white-bread music from our era. We left with the organ riff’s of ‘Wully Bully’ pumping a nauseous beat and big asses bouncing high above the floor. I don’t know what the secret ingredient in that music was but it sure made big flesh ride high.
The intense heat of the day gave way to a humid night sky causing the air to still. The flower petals and plant leaves lay silent. I watch Tara fumble through her red purse then extract a pack of Virigina Slim lights.
“Here, have one…,” she offers.
“That’s all right…I’ve got a couple Camels left… now’d be the perfect time to savor.”
We both toy with the precious objects until she pushes forward a bright red lighter and ignites the tip of my cigarette. “Best smoke of the day - you know I really needed something to calm my nerves. This whole trip is ripping me apart. There are people I want to see, yet there are too many I should forget,” I say before inhaling.
“Go on,” says Tara.
“I’m not a whiner….I never told Naomi to much of what was in my heart other than I love her. Maybe I should have met ‘Fruitcake’ that night and hobnobbed with devil worshippers….it probably would have done me some good……he’s still alive!”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” says Tara.
“I’ve got to be hard on myself or I’m going to die a wasted man.”
“Come on Earl, you’ve got children and a long marriage, surely you’ve seen some wonderful times.” I pause for Namoi and the children’s faces swimming in Ft. Lauderdale, ripping paper from Christmas presents and charge through the living room door everyday after school. Suddenly, my eyes well up and tears flow.
“I’m sorry….this shit is to emotional.” Tara tosses the last remnant of cigarette aside then slides close , pulls my head to her shoulders and gently strokes the tears from my cheek. A comforting warmth rushes in as if summoned to defeat and conquer every misery plagued cell . I lower my head and listen to her heart beat perfect meter, inhaling a pungent mix of sweat, drugstore perfume, and synthetic fabric doused in acrid cigarette vapors, then bury my face deep into exposed skin. Tara runs her fingers the back of my neck along the ears connecting with the ridiculous hairpiece.
“This has got to go”….she laughs while yanking Hugh from my protected scalp. I offer no resistance. As we quietly sit I think to myself about all the times I so desperately wanted to bed another woman other than Naomi and fantasize about a monstrous orgasmic joyride lasting a week or two, but here I am with a woman I feel no sexual bond with and having one of the most sensual, passionate and revealing experiences of my life. Even a shrink couldn’t have hit the button as accurately.
A good portion of an hour passes before Olivia Danbridge comes staggering by with her husband Dr. Phil. “You all coming in…they’re about to do the draw for the trip?” Suddenly Tara reaches for her purse. “I’ve got to find those tickets…I bought sixty….
Tara spent sixty dollars hoping to win her dream vacation to Washington D.C. I valued the prize at three dollars and spent no more. Of all the destinations, only Martha and her committee could have come up with such an exotic locale. I have no interest in monuments or tracking celebrity politicians let alone suffering sweltering east coast heat this time of year. For all I know, the winner probably travels Greyhound and bunks at a Day’s Inn. Ahhhh…the buffett, the smell of chicken fried steak submerged in milk gravy.
The excitement in the room was extraordinary, considering a good portion of the faces were successful business people perfectly capable of financing and planning their own vacation. I figured most the ones that didn’t attend probably lived in the same rooming house. The mind does strange things. Tara moved front and center. I suspected she wanted to clearly hear the digits roll off Ditmark’s lips.
Squeal….bizzzzzz..squeal….. “Can I get your attention”……..squeal…fappppp…zip zip zip , bizzzzz…
“Qui…….et”. The sound of metal chairs scrapping the high gloss floor suddenly halts.
“Qui…….et”. The sound of metal chairs scrapping the high gloss floor suddenly halts.
“As you already know, it’s time for the draw. We’ve got several prizes to give away before the grand prize….a vacation for two to our country’s historic capitol…”says Ditmark.
“I want to sleep with Hillary.” A voice from the side rudely interrupts.
“Quiet…there will be no more remarks from the peanut gallery,” says a rather embarrassed Ditmatk. “Peanut gallery…what is this Howdy Doody time?” The voice continues. “I want to watch Martha dance naked.”
The standing crowd separates opening a crevice between Ditmark and the heckler.
“It’s you again Robbins…..can’t you shut up until we’ve finished the draw?” A general quiet reigns until Robbins says, “ Only if you promise me the last dance.” Ditmark looks up, abandons his confrontational nature and says, “I accept…now shut up.”
The first ten prizes were an assortment of decorative coffee mugs with the date of graduation inscribed around the circumference. Then comes my personal favorite, thirty junior floral Blue Devil centerpieces which had to be lifted and carried front an center by Danbridge. Then there is the junior archery kit of which I come within two digits of winning.
I can see Tara clutching a fistful of stubs recounting each set of numbers as if committing to memory. Between the draw and winner’s cry, Tara begs Ditmark for more time.
The archery set which I appraised at no more than eleven dollars seemed to catch people’s attention. I think it had more to do with the size of the box rather than the contents. Some guy named Pete Gibson walked off with the crossbow.
“Dinner for two at Starling’s Roadside Mexican Village,” Ditmark announces. As Martha slides a hand down the inside slope of the glass bowl a hush silences the room.
Ditmark waits, then presses his nose to the microphone, “Ticket number 4142”
Tara fumbles then springs from her seat…. “It’s me,….it’s me… No more than ten feet forward of the podium Tara races to Ditmark grabs the passes and waves into a glaring makeshift spotlight at her approving classmates - the trip back to her seat a two act play, one moment, over-riding joy, the next, ultimate depression. I sit next to her for encouragement..
“I’ve used up all of my luck,” she whines in a defeated tone.
“No, you haven’t used up everything, ..you’ve still got fifty-nine chances,” I respond.
“I bet Bridgestone wins…in fact, I bet this whole thing is rigged, “she says casting a disparaging glance at Martha.
“And now for the grand prize - a vacation for two in the nation’s capitol, and surely a visit to the White House.” By now all conversation had ceased and all eyes focused on Ditmark’s lips.…..the winner is….ticket number 4405.” A lengthy moment passes without a response. “Does anyone have ticket number 4405,” asks Ditmark. “Wait a minute Dick, I can’t read that fast,” calls Tara as she tries in vein to skim the crumpled numbers . “O.K. I’m going to have to draw another number if I don’t hear something soon,” says Ditmark. “Hold still Dick….I’m nearly there…did you say 05 or 55?”
“Nothing….not a damn thing,” replies a now frustrated Tara.
“I tell you what , let’s get Tara Higgins make the final draw…what’ll you say?” says Ditmark in a conciliatory spirit. Tara looks around as if suddenly crowned class queen - rises slowly then moves towards the large fishbowl with the grace of a runway model. She cautiously plunges her delicate hand the basement of the glass bowl- stroking several possible candidates as if encrypted in Braille before retrieving a chosen one, then hands to Ditmark.
“The person with number 4376 can now pick up two all-expenses paid tickets to Washington D.C.,” announces Ditmark who is beginning to sound more and more like an accomplished game show host. “It’s me….it’s me….Oh, God it’s me,” A voice comes blaring from back of the room.
“I’ve never won anything in my life…how mysterious the ways of the world,” the voice continues.
I can see the silhouette of a man stumble from the shadows then weave a path through a crowd gathered near the registration table. Tara turns to me… “My God, Hart Robbins won the trip….Hart Robbins of all people.” I could hear nearby whispers, “can you believe”, “how could that drunk win”….
“Congratulations Hart, I looks like you’re on the way to D.C. - do you have a companion in mind,” asks Ditmark. Hart grabs the steel neck of the microphone stand and pulls to his mouth. “ I’m taking Mother Teresa…we fell in love years ago in Calcutta,” Robbins says in a dry comic delivery. Incensed, Ditmark wrestles the microphone from his hand and is about to apologize to a near bewildered audience when Susan Genova approaches from behind. Robbins rambles on about nothing of any consequence when a reinvigorated Ditmark lifts the microphone. “May I get you attention please…may I get your attention….there has been a grave mistake. Hart could I see your ticket?”
Robbins fumbles with his jacket, makes a heartless pass at an inside pocket then raises his hands as if to say, “I don’t know.” Ditmark waits patiently before declaring a new victor. “ Are you sure you can’t find the ticket,” he asks a totally flustered Robbins. “Well, in that case there is only one surviving ticket with the number 4376 and it belongs to …….Susan Genova.” The crowd erupts in wild approving applause. Robbins slowly fades back into the shadows.
“Susan is there something you’d like to say,” asks Ditmark. Under the intense scrutiny of spotlights Genova leans forward exposing a foot of cleavage then morphs into this Mae West pose before speaking.
“I think I’ll visit my man Lincoln and rock him out of that granite seat?” Suddenly, the room explodes with laughter. “You could rock me all night long, yells Herb Smith as he high-fives every male in the vicinity. “Herb you talk a good line ….. I hear you’ve got as many children as George Foreman and they’re all named Herb, even the girls,” Genova shoots back. The hoots and ahhs…catcalls and back slapping escalate. “What’d you do with all those husbands,” Herb fires back.
“Buried them!” Genova says as she poses with hand on hip. “Herb, I hear say your garden hose is barely a sprinkler.” The remark sends the crowd into an uproar. “It works overtime for you …..”, he yells.
“I hear it don’t work at all,” shouts Genova now delivering lines like they were vintage staples.
Through all the exchanges I couldn’t believe this was the prudish class I graduated with. A few hours of drinks and familiar conversation had finally taken it’s toll, and it’s pretty damn funny. Who’d ever think Genova could bring so much laughter. It’s like she’d was a natural.
“I’d just like to thank all of you for making this a special evening for me and…yourselves… …lookout D.C., lookout Mr. President….bye, bye…
Genova left with much fanfare. All of this coming from a woman who’s celebrity was purely regional. Any thoughts I had about resurrecting teenage fantasy had all but evaporated. Genova was now larger than life, more woman than a guy my stature dare hustle. Or at least that’s how I perceived her. Besides, she married some gay hair dresser or something like that, which can only mean she gave up on sex long ago. All this was sort of after-play.
Though amused by Genova’s terrific performance, Tara wore the face of discomfiture.
“What the hell is she going to do with a trip to Washington…she could go anywhere at anytime.
I mean…..Sterling’s Roadside Mexican Village….come on!”
“You did good Tara…at least you didn’t win one of those nasty looking Blue Satan centerpieces, hell, I didn’t even win a mug,” I say trying to console her. “Earl, I can’t afford to go anywhere…I would have died for that trip…..”
“Don’t do this to yourself…it’s all over….I need a smoke.”
I curl an arm around Tara and escort her out into the stilled night air.
There were several brothers replaying Genova’s brilliant performance to Herb, who by now was growing weary of her near immortal words. Tara spots Brice Pace embracing wife Peggy - kissing as if they were on their first date.
“How do couples do that…..they’ve been married at least thirty years….it’s sickening…”, says Tara. I watch for a minute. “It’s not sickening….that’s first prize for sticking it out.”
“It’s pure luck…damn luck Earl..”
“I don’t think it’s luck….obviously they’ve worked their way through the bad times and appreciate the good ones.” Tara rolls her eyes, then takes a long draw.
“Maybe we’ve made poor choices….”, she says.
“Not necessarily. Maybe Namoi made a poor choice and now she’s rectifying it,” I say admitting my own guilt for the first time. “I let her down……..I’m being honest, she did everything for me…I didn’t share her motivation…I see it clearly.”
“Christ,…this whole visit seems like some form of clinical therapy. All I want is someone to love me, someone to make me happy.”
I know Tara loved her daughter like I loved my children, they were never far from our thoughts. But for some untold reason we chose tonight the occasion to speak selfishly of ourselves.
Just as Tara was about to shove the both of us down a dark hole, Genova arrives.
“Earl, I’ve been looking all over for you….can we talk….privately.”
Tara looks disdainfully at Genova, then waves the both of us away. “You got your wish…” she mumbles as we move out of view.
“Earl, I want you to have these tickets. What use are they to me…….D.C….can you imagine. I could catch a stray bullet or have may ring finger sawed off… Besides, I rarely travel east…mostly north, south, and west…east is where the beasts feast,…. to dangerous.” Genova passes the tickets.
“I can’t accept this…you won them,” knowing full well I’d welcome the opportunity. “Hush up Earl…take Tara with you.”
“Are you sure,” I ask.
“Of course I’m sure…now take them so I can have a few more dances…the rude boys are waiting.”
I lean over and kiss Genova then dash back to Tara who’s by now trimmed a quarter pack of Slims and lighting another.
Tara looks at me with hell in her eyes. “Are you two getting a room with a waterbed? Maybe one of those massage beds with porno movies…” I move closer and say nothing.
“Earl, what’s her story….she likes being tied up and spanked?” I move my right hand slowly across my jacket and reach an inside pocket, then withdraw the winning tickets.
“What’s that?’ she asks, as I hold the prize without speaking.
“Earl, stop fucking with me…what the hell’s going on?”
“Genova gave me the tickets and told me to take you.”
Tara looks suspiciously at the paper strips. “Fuck off Earl…I hurt enough without you playing some kind of prank one me.”
“It’s not a prank…” I move closer and expose the tickets under reflecting moonlight.
“Read that….American Airlines….open…two passengers.” Suddenly, Tara jumps to her feet and throws herself at me. “Oh Earl…we could…I mean, just think how much fun we’d have together. I’ve alway’s said Genova’s an angel….when are we going ?”
I hadn’t seriously considered traveling with Tara other than the ride to and from the reunion. I needed a fresh start and time to discover for myself. Genova gave me much more than a free trip; the desire to experience the world beyond personal limitation.
“The tickets are for you and your best friend…Sarah. I want the two of you to have the most amazing vacation of your lives.” A startled Tara refuses. “Earl, why are you doing this, don’t you want the both of us go together?”
“I have no desire to travel east…..unless it’s across the Atlantic. I’ll pick my own destination.”
Just as the two of us were about to embrace, this figure comes hobbling from behind the bushes.
“Those tickets belong to me and Mother Teresa you assholes,” screams a flat out drunken Hart Robbins swiping at Tara’s hand as if trying to steal the passes away then falling face forward onto the cast iron bench. “Oh my God, he’s bleeding…..Earl, he’s seriously bleeding…..get an ambulance,” cries Tara.
I run inside looking for assistance and place a 911 emergency call. The party at this point was winding down with a few drunken stragglers mostly hanging behind. I spot Martha Bridgestone clearing a table and convince her to call for help. Fortunately , Olivia Danbridge’s husband Phil, was a physician . He grabs some cloth napkins and water then proceeds towards the patient. By now Robbin’s is completely unconscious.
“Is he breathing….check his pulse…somebody do something,” screams a partially delirious Tara.
“Will everybody just calm down…he’s breathing…..what’s happening with the ambulance,” asks Dr. Phil.
Martha returns with a bundle of table cloths and slides them beneath Robbins head and shoulders. By now, Dr. Phil has plugged the severe gash causing the blood to coagulate.
“It’s not as bad as first thought. I’d still have him checked out,” says the Dr.
The piercing shriek of a siren could be heard a mile or so away, then a beaming red light comes in view. The parking lot had all but emptied by the time medical assistance arrived allowing easy access to the gardens.
Two young medics attend to Hart then walk him to the van. It was hard knowing whether Robbins had any knowledge of the fall or understood the drama he created. He seemed totally oblivious to his surroundings. Within minutes he was situated and carted away leaving Tara, Martha , Dr. Phil, Olivia and I, last behind..
“You know Earl, I once had a serious crush on you,” says a slightly inebriated Bridgestone.
“You were so sexy there for awhile….then you just moved away. Did you hate us so much…”
“No, not really…I just needed a change,” I say knowing full well my feelings for Martha.
“But, you said so many mean things to me..”
“I truly regret it…we were kids…kids are cruel…I don’t think that way now, “ I say feeling the urge to repair the damage. “Well, I’m glad…everybody always liked you, we were never sure how you felt about us.”
Martha was right, I really never expressed any true emotion or opinion only that of part-time clown and carefree teenager. For some unexplained reason I feel less hostility and greater compassion for my classmates. Time has a way of altering priorities and changing attitudes.
“Come on Earl, let’s eat Mexican,” says Tara.
“You really that hungry,” I ask.
“No.. but, if I don’t at least offer you a good meal you’ll more than likely disappear with Genova… what chance for romance would I have against those odds.” Tara pinches my rear and laughs.
I don’t know if it was the time of evening or lighting but Tara looked quite attractive. I know this sounds witless almost immature but she caused me to locate that strange helpless feeling I got as a kid just before kissing a girl…. and you know something,…. I doubt I have the will to fight it.