Culture

The Ghosts at the High School Reunion

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Editor’s Note: Since March, PJ Lifestyle has been highlighting some of the most innovative fiction writers at the recently-launched new media publishing platform Liberty Island, featuring interviews and story excerptsClick here to see our collection of 24 so far. To learn more check out this interview Sarah Hoyt conducted with CEO Adam Bellow: “It also has a unique mission: to serve as the platform and gathering-place for the new right-of-center counterculture.” Also see COO David S. Bernstein’s recent essay here in which he defines Liberty Island as, “an imaginative playground where brilliant and creative people can test their ideas without being harassed or threatened by the new breed of ‘community activists’ who police thought and speech in the media.” Also see Bellow’s recent cover story at National Review: “Let Your Right Brain Run Free.” 

This is the fourth of several new stories that PJ Lifestyle will be excerpting. Check out Jamie Wilson’s, “The Enforcement of Happiness,” excerpted Monday, Pierre Comtois’s on Friday, “The Future That Used To Be,” and this one from Michael Sheldon on Thursday, “‘Do You Make Your Dark’n’Stormies With the Proper Bermudian Ingredients?’” More author interviews will be coming soon too.

Thunder. Then, fear in a cold wave. Bill saw thick, black smoke, squat fuel drums linked by flame, men in white running. He hefted the heavy fire hose. The heat on his face was suddenly unbearable. 

“It’s gonna BLOW,” he yelled, and it did. And then he was on fire. “Wendy. Oh, Wen–“ 

Headlights. Bright, coming right at Wendy, from her side of the road. Try to swerve. Can’t. Too close 

“Bill,” she screamed. But he was far away, engulfed in flame.

Jack Melton found himself suddenly awake, sitting on the edge of his bed, the covers thrown back, breathing rapidly, blinking at the lightning that flashed outside his bedroom window.

“Wendy,” he said to no one, then, “Bill.” Jack shuddered in the air conditioning. Both dead, all these years. And tonight it was as though he had been there with each of them, when it happened, that one day, fifteen years ago. He had thought of them often through the years, had dreams about them from time to time, but…not like this.

“Not a dream,” he muttered. But it had to be. What else? Never mind he’d felt the fire in his lungs, saw the headlights in his eyes. It had to be a dream.

“Damned reunion.” He closed the drapes to the storm outside, and returned to bed alone.

Fourteen hours later, Jack carefully knotted his tie, slipped on his suit jacket, and surveyed himself in the Holiday Inn mirror.

He was rather pleased with his appearance, he had to admit. If anything, he was slimmer than fifteen years ago and the dark pinstripe, white oxford pinpoint button-down and regimental tie made him look more so. The afternoons spent walking up and down the beach a few weeks earlier had tanned him to a pale brown, and bleached his dark brown hair so that it had sandy highlights

“Well, you look healthy, and I hope you are,” he told the mirror, “and prosperous, even if you’re not.” He picked up the brown bag from the dresser and turned to the door.

Alone.

There was a time when he’d looked forward to his fifteen-year class reunion. Bringing Susan. Showing her off.

But Susan turned out to be–or became–a tight-assed, sexually suppressed Junior Leaguer who didn’t like Statesville, didn’t like the hours his law practice required, but who thought his rise through the ranks to junior partnership was much too slow, his earnings much too meager for the lifestyle she wanted.

Not the person he thought he’d married five years ago. Not someone like Wendy.

The divorce earlier that year shouldn’t have been a shock, but it was. It hit him like a tornado hits a trailer park–with complete devastation. Oh, legally, it was small potatoes. He and Susan had no children, and dividing their property was easy enough. But almost before Jack knew what was happening, the house was sold, he was living alone in an apartment, and Susan was in Charlotte, where she worked for a public relations firm. And Jack was alone.

He had planned to skip the reunion, all things considered. But a week ago, Dave and Sheila, good old friends still living in Glen Arden, phoned him, insisting.

Well, he’d planned on using this weekend to write a brief; but here he was, after all. Dave and Sheila wanted him to stay with them, but he preferred the new hotel off the interstate. He wasn’t ready, yet, for a big dose of someone else’s happy marriage.

He drove to the Elks’ Lodge with the radio at full blast. Golden oldies. Elvis was singing “Heartbreak Hotel.”

On the way, Jack noted the new restaurants, new office buildings, new subdivisions. Even Brainerd County was growing up. Glen Arden had never been more than a wide spot in the road. Now it had grown almost to the Martintown line. New development. New real estate deals. New lawsuits. Legal business. Maybe he should have come back here.

Jack shook his head. No. He would still have been Jack Melton, stuck with everyone’s high school notions of how Jack Melton should look, dress, and act. No good for him and no good for Susan. He smiled at the empty passenger’s seat. If Susan hated Statesville, she would have loathed Brainerd County.

Elks’ Lodge was just outside the Martintown city limits. It was a sprawling, one story brick building with a gravel parking lot at the rear, one of the two Brainerd County places where you could get a drink. The Country Club was the other; but Martintown Senior High School Class of ’70 was holding its 15th year reunion there. Little Glen Arden High had to make do with what it could get–and what it could afford. Same as always.

As Jack parked behind the Lodge Building, he saw a thundercloud building on the ridge to the west.

Jack frowned up at the sky. Not again. The Statesville nights had been filled with thunder and lightning all that July, and his sleep had been restless with nightmares. He shuddered, thinking of last night’s storm and last night’s dream

Someone had strung a banner across the front of the Lodge: G.A. CLASS OF ’70–LAST OF THE JOHNNY REBS. True enough; in the Fall of 1970, school consolidation had brought the opening of West Brainerd Comprehensive High School; and so Glen Arden High and Martintown Senior High, heated rivals on the gridiron, were memories.

Like my marriage, Jack thought. But I’ve pieces of paper to prove they once existed.

Inside, a folding table held nametags and booklets listing the members of the class, where they now lived, and other vital statistics like jobs, spouses’ names and hobbies. Behind it sat Laura Perkins and Trudy Smith (except their name tags said they were now “Watkins” and “Boatwright”), girls he remembered with more or less ambivalence.

“Jack Melton,” Laura gushed as she found the tag with his name emblazoned in black amateur calligraphy, “You haven’t changed a bit.”

“Uh, thanks.” Jack thought he looked a great deal more mature and self-assured. Laura, though, had changed; she was now a blonde and was a great deal fatter.

Click here to read the rest at Liberty Island…