THE CLASS REUNION
I knew the acoustics there; the sound always blossomed. I could feel it curling around everything, like vapor, floating over the parquet floors and upward, past the great mirrors like some disembodied spirit. Then it would expand in the cavernous ceiling, colliding with the gold brocade and chandeliers. The emotion was invisible, too. Where did it come from, this Polish melancholia and French charm? It was not something you could see but only feel; high strung, but always dignified, like a nervous breakdown that refused to happen, “a cannon buried in flowers.” Chopin, always, Chopin. I could feel the audience as the massive chords built up. They rode the wave of sound, until, suddenly, exhaustion then silence as the great Fantaisie in F minor dissolved into a simple chorale. My teacher used to say, “After he sins, he goes to church.” Slow moving chords in quiet consonance, releasing all turmoil before the deluge. The last dramatic return of the theme required my body mass to press the keys to the bottom of the key bed. The Steinway concert grand roared like a full orchestra, its majestic sound engulfing the Royal Palace there in the old part of Warsaw. Finally, diminution came. A rivulet of notes crept quietly up the keyboard, becoming gradually extinguished in a perfumed spray. Silence. Then two final masculine, powerful chords and the stormy journey was over.
The American Ambassador was the first on his feet, followed by everyone else. It was a standing ovation like most, without the spontaneity and electricity of a real one; more like “follow the leader” in piecemeal. But that was indistinguishable in the pictures published in the papers the next day.
There was the usual receiving line outside of the dressing room. This was the easiest part of giving a concert. The discipline was over; I could say anything now and it would be
accepted. Poles were standing, their passion constrained behind an exterior of civility and proportion, like Chopin’s music. They had, after all, given birth to him just outside the city.
A pianist talked about my interpretation. “Very unusual. You take the lyrical theme in the last impromptu in the same tempo as the beginning. But I think it works.” That kind of detailed comment by a peer is appreciated at concerts. But polite indifference is like a cold rain. Then came the music lovers that cultured contingency that depend on beauty to sustain them. An elegant, older man said, “You made me feel every joy and every sorrow I’ve ever felt.” Another said, “I thought only a Pole could play Chopin like that.” And yet another: “Thank you for taking me away from myself.” The spell was broken by an American woman with a large feather hat.
“However can you memorize all those notes?” she said. “They go by so quickly!”
I replied that you can train a cat to jump through a hoop. Her brow furled, she cocked her head to one side and surveyed the entire trunk of my body, from my feet back up to the
head, until our eyes met. It was obvious what she was thinking: that I in no way resembled a cat.
The Minister of Culture followed, presenting me with a bouquet of roses. I gave it away later that evening, since I couldn’t take it on the plane the next day. I was going home. The tour was over – Iceland, Germany, Russia and now Poland.
Even though the flight to Washington, DC, was direct and jet lag is always easier going back, there was still no energy left after the trip. I poked around the house aimlessly for days, unpacking and coming down gently. No rush. I would have the rest of the summer off. When I got around to the pile of mail, I almost overlooked a small postcard that fell out between two large envelopes. It caught my eye with the insignia, motto and colors of my high school alma mater; the same configurations that made up the “letter” jackets worn by varsity players in football, basketball and golf: a big “C” for Charmsburg High School set in white against a reddish maroon backdrop. It brought back memories of Middle America in the 1950s’ and 60s’, of ice cream sundaes, hot rods with noisy mufflers, and a graduating class of 125 souls. I turned the card over and read an invitation to the forty- fifth reunion. Beneath that was a picture of the head of the planning committee, Beda Furholtzer. I reread the card. Was it really that long ago? Then I looked at the picture and realized that Beda could not have reached her present state of corpulence in anything less than that amount of time. I had gone back to one other reunion already a quarter of a century ago, and had gotten reacquainted with her. It was equivalent to being ensconced in another culture. One starts taking on the trappings of the environment, like being in England and developing a broad “a” and soft “o” in pronunciation. I remember thinking, in the parlance of Charmsburg, that Beda Furholtzer was a “stuff faced lard ass.” I refrained from saying so lest my circle of acquaintances grow even more limited than it had after my recent divorce. They had a nice enough house built on the crown of a windswept hill in an adjacent village to the little hamlet of Charmsburg (pop. 10,000). I had grown up deep in the bosom of the Midwest. Beda still lived there with her third husband, Sam, she being his fourth wife. Their combined seven mistakes had made them preternaturally disposed toward getting along with each other. “I’ve lost three fortunes to women,” said Sam, who was fourteen years her senior. “I’m not about to lose a fourth.” But it was Beda who filled the house. Talking quickly with considerable authority, she moved from room to room like some great refrigerator, giving orders for the day while replaying past grievances in the theater of her mind. You never wanted to make Beda mad, as she was already well practiced in orneriness and was willing to expand her empire. Unfortunately, her therapist was not good. He had relegated her to self-help slogans which she would interject gratuitously into any serious conversation: “whatever makes you comfortable, baby...whatever gets you through the night.” This self-validation was played out in the soundless, flannel cocoon of Charmsburg’s environs, an area not unlike others in the middle of America. People were trying to find wholeness in the chaos of life: standing, falling, loving, hating, muddling through, and in the end just trying to die well. But if Balzac was right and everyone’s life is a novel, then Beda’s was a thriller. The chapters on her raging battles with inner demons made it apparent that the demons were winning. I asked Sam how he handled it.
“I don’t hear anything, I don’t see anything and I don’t say anything.” He looked at me slyly, as if to be congratulated.
The call from Beda came in the morning. I was still tired from the concert tour and was slowly gathering myself, unprepared for the fast paced words and the girlish abrasiveness at the other end of the line. It broke through the early April dew like the whir of a motor boat.
“Hello, Mr. John Barnes.” The formality was jocular. Beda and I had known each other since early grade school. “We hope that you can come to our class reunion in August. Everyone would like to see you, and it would be great if you’d play the piano for us. We’re going to do it at the Swiss Hall, not the country club. I’m not going to do the country club anymore. If you want to go out there and play with your old high school golf team, that’s fine, but if you’d rather bowl, the shoes will cost you three dollars to rent. You really should come back, because, after this one it’s all wheel chairs and oxygen.”
Her laughter was at a lower pitch than her conversational tone. It was throaty, the bar room laugh of a divorcee at the American Legion fish fry. Suddenly, images of my home town came with jolting intensity: the courthouse in the old town square, the civil war canon that, for some reason, pointed toward the medical clinic, and the clank and clatter of bowling pins.
“Let me think about it, Beda.”
“Hey, baby, I’m not going to push. I don’t want to move you out of your comfort zone! The committee did want me to ask you to be Master of Ceremonies, though.”
Suddenly that was different. It gave some focus, some reason for going. Besides, I had always wanted to do a “shtick,” a stand up routine, and wondered if I could. I had a taste of it when I was in charge of entertainment for my college fraternity, and earlier with the lead in the high school class play. It was one thing to play concerts and try to move people emotionally with great music, but quite another to make them laugh. The last reunion had been raucous; everyone was lit and laughs were cheap, so maybe it would be easy. And the golf appealed to me, too. I had practically grown up at the country club and knew its every blade of grass. Golf was the only thing to do in Charmsburg, unless you were into adultery, booze, or some lonely effort toward enlightenment.
“I’ll need a bass drum.”
“Why?” she shot back,” I thought you were a pianist.”
“No piano this time. I want to do one liners and I’ll need somebody to hit the drum right after the punch line. It’s a little corny, but they used to do it in vaudeville. It makes people
“We don’t do drums back here, baby. No drums. If you broke it, we’d have to pay for it, and we can’t afford that.”
“Beda, I’m not asking for the New York Philharmonic, just….”
I paused, knowing that I made a mistake. I had engaged her, confronted her.
“If you can’t live with our restrictions then maybe this isn’t a good idea,” she said. “You’d better think about it. I was just relaying what the committee had asked me to.”
The committee? I was imagining a bunch of eunuchs with tape over their mouths.
We both hung up the phone gently, without saying good bye, but in my mind I had already said goodbye to the reunion. It was about a week later that the pre-paid hotel confirmation came, and a week after that, another call.
“Jack, this is Duncan Standish.”
“Duncan, how long has it been, forty years?”
“About that. I got a call from Beda Furholtzer and I actually remembered her from high school. I told my new bride that my mind must still be intact.”
Duncan had lost his teenage whine, which always reminded me of a cow bawling. Now, the voice was corporately tight with a tinge of Midwestern flatness.
“I told her that the only reason I’d come back to this reunion was to see you, and for us to play golf again. After all, you and I are half of the Charmsburg varsity golf team. I also hear that they’ve asked you to be MC. Are you coming?”
“I guess so.”
“Good, then I’ll buy plane tickets….and may I ask you to get a tee time at the country club on the day before the reunion? And would you indulge my bride by allowing her to play with us? She’s heard so much about you”
“Yes to both.”
“Excellent. Make it around 10 AM. By the way, what are you doing now? Is it this type thing, the after dinner speaker circuit?”
“No, I’m an artist, a musician.”
”Wonderful. I’m retired, too, and have been for a while. But we’ll catch up. Bye for now.”
I began to learn some new repertoire and enjoyed the leisure of doing it at home; a new concert program for a new season. But I was also thinking about the reunion, which meant making peace with not being able to have my drum. I started to look forward to it, and settled on a format: it would be a “roast,” starting with affection and blending into irony. I began collecting jokes, calling friends and having things faxed to me. The phone rang again.
“Jackie….Jackie…it’s Bob Wertenweiller.” His voice was
unnaturally sing song.
“Old times again, huh? Too bad Tommy’s dead, or all four of us could charge the field again. But now it’ll have to be just you, Duncan and me.”
Bob was the shortest one on the golf team and had to live with the nickname, “runt.” Perhaps there was a cause and effect between that and his obsession to hit the ball harder and farther than anyone else. But it was the water that I remember, the splash in the sun on that brilliant day and then the water calming with only air bubbles on the surface and no other sign of life. Bob had hit a pitch shot into the lake and, instead of hitting another ball, he dove in after that one. Now, forty-five years later, he was telling me about the details of a golf event that he was organizing on the Friday before the reunion. But there was something odd in his enunciation, a sort of lisping and emitting of little air whistles. This was common in people who were missing multiple teeth.
“Bob, I’ve already agreed to play with Duncan and his wife at an earlier time.”
“I’ll straighten this out with Duncan,” he said, obviously piqued. The line abruptly disconnected.”
The phone message later that evening was brief.
“Duncan said that he had no previous conversation with you about golf, and that he’s going to join my event.” The words were slurred. It was a short step from instability to alcohol; a sad decline from the high school lover who smoked a pipe at seventeen and took his dates to the library where he read them poetry.
I worked on my routine, organizing the jokes into a meandering sort of orderliness, and decided to give awards, as well. After printing it out on the computer, I found that I already had it memorized. Dinner parties were a good place to try out some of the lines, and also on the phone. Friends gave me encouragement: one, who had organized entertainment at the White House as a social secretary decades ago, said, “dahling, the jokes are adorable. Just make sure they’re all drunk;” a syndicated columnist said, “just make sure the mike is set up near the exit in case you have to make a fast getaway.” But it was the third exhortation that struck resonance. “Make sure that the guy who’s the foil for the divorce jokes has actually been divorced. If you joke about his first wife and she’s sitting next to Him...well!!!”
I had decided on Larry Squattling. We had known each other since the second grade, and I had seen him at that previous reunion. Larry was smallish with a bushy mustache, personally
expansive and a lush. I figured he had probably been divorced, but had to make sure. That would mean a call to Beda.
“I need Larry’s phone number.”
“Why?” she said.
“Because I want to talk to him.”
“Look, Beda, I want to clear some jokes with him so people don’t get hurt. Why don’t you just give me his number.”
“Because these are plain, simple people and privacy is important! But I approve of the reason so I’ll give you the number. Nobody gets hurt here. We don’t do hurt. Everybody’s gotta be comfortable, everybody’s got their own zone……”
I got through the conversation by imagining a public crucifixion of her therapist for malpractice. I said nothing as she gave me the phone number, but afterward noticed that my nails had scraped some varnish off the edge of the desk.
Days went by and I lost the number, but remembered the town and called directory assistance. “Larry Squattling in Muskat, Wisconsin.”
“Is that as in muskrat?” asked the operator.
“Yes, but without the ‘r’.”
“Wow!” she said.
I called several times with no answer, until late one night he picked up.
“Jack, I hope you’re gonna be as funny as you were back ...oh, hell… whenever it was. You told me a joke once and I still remember it.”
The words were slurred and he began laughing at that joke. It started with a wheeze and a rattle in the lungs, moving up like Vesuvius, through phlegm in the larynx, until a “haw, haw,” exploded into the chamber of the phone receiver. I figured he was a two pack a day man.
“What are you doing now, Larry?”
“I sell fried cheese curds.”
“Is there much of a market for that in Muskat?”
“Only with customers who have a clean cardiovascular system...at least at the beginning. Tell me, are you still tickling the ivories?”
”You know, a lot of people in the class never heard you play.”
“There wasn’t any place to show off.”
“I never saw you play golf, either, but I remember when most of the varsity was kicked off the team for drinking underage. You escaped on that one, but I think you took a nip when they weren’t looking.”
“Only at football games. I hated football. Don Friedberg would bring a flask and it helped pass the time. Then his father found out and padlocked the liquor cabinet in their recreation room. But Don found a way to unscrew the back of the cabinet.” I was starting to get into to the swing of it.
“Larry, have you ever been divorced?”
Pause and silence.
“Hell, I’m on number four! Wait a minute, does it count if she don’t live with you; is that still a wife? The one I’m married to now won’t live with me cause of my drinking. But I’ve lived with
other women that I wasn’t married to, so I guess it evens out. It’s complicated.”
“I just want to do some jokes about your first wife. They’re all fictional, of course. I didn’t even know her, but I don’t want to hurt anybody.”
“Jack, I’ve known you since the second grade so you can say whatever you want. In fact, Lulu lives in Charmsburg, so maybe I’ll call her. She might like to come and hear what you’ve got to say.”
“My first wife.”
The conversation played in my mind for a day afterward. It was not only because I had never met anyone named Lulu. I hadn’t thought about that flask at the football game for decades. It seemed so stupid now. I remembered that we all had false ID cards to get us into the bars in Madison. But that was a long way from the evening piano lessons at Mrs. Berkeley’s when afterward she would read to us late into the night from Marcus Aurelius. Time drifted into other centuries. Then there was Lee Lamboley’s house down the street. It seemed like a mansion with big white pillars that overlooked the little pond where we used to ice skate in the winter and fish bullheads in the summer. Lee was not only one of the few people in town who read novels, but he was actually writing one, and his hobby was classical music. He had a 1950’s state of the art, German made Fisher High Fidelity player which dominated his elegant living room. As a kid, I didn’t always understand the music spinning off of those vinyl records, but when I heard the Tuba Mirum from Berlioz’s Requiem, I realized that there were people before me who had felt the same things I did and were able to translate that into sound.
I got on the plane at Reagan National in Washington, DC. It was a Midwest Express flight directly to Madison, Wisconsin, where I had a rental car waiting. It would be a short drive to Charmsburg from there. The seats were soft leather, and wide, an upgrade from the
usual. I was able to settle in and let my mind relax. Maybe this would be fun, maybe my routine would be well received. It wouldn’t be like the ovation I got for the all Chopin program at the Royal Palace in Warsaw, Poland a few months back, but it would go toward the same reality: uplifting people from their mundane existence, giving them pleasure. Why then, did I feel some trepidation? It would be the first time I had been back in years, and never without my parents being there. I was the only child, so I had moved them near me after dad could no longer remember how to get home from the downtown square. Without their physical presence, there would be a void. But it was always more his town than mine. Chambersburg didn’t understand art or practitioners of it, or even culture. Hard physical work transcended dreams. I looked around at people on the plane. Men had large extremities, farmer hands and baggy stay-press slacks; it was the heartland. I recognized it, but was I part of it, was it somewhere in me, an elemental essence so deep that I couldn’t even touch it? It took only a couple of hours before the descent started. I looked out the window at the green hillsides and corn, the highways winding
through valleys, and lakes. I knew it all. Suddenly, I felt no pressure. Was I home?
I decided to stop and see Charlie on my way from the airport. He was now living on the outskirts of Madison, having sold his bungalow in Charmsburg in order to move in with caregivers. Charlie was a friend of my parents, part of that depression - war generation which had helped to build the town. He had been a salesman for Standard Oil and a fixture at the country club scene including after hours. He was the gin man, twice stirred, a “cool” guy in the lexicon of the 1950’s, initially gaining pioneering prominence for having the first gas-driven golf cart at the club. Amidst that status he traveled with a tweed hat, pipe, relaxed manner and a smooth golf swing. If he could have carried a tune, it would have been a warble like Bing Crosby.
“How are your folks, Jack? I haven’t heard anything since you moved them out east six years ago?” His denture slipped down, but he maneuvered it back into place with a clack. He was gaunt now and had a cane, but still carried himself with a prepossessing awareness.
“They’re OK, Charlie.”
“Listen I got something you might be able to use for the class reunion.”
He handed me a faded, loose leaf filler pad of jokes, written out by hand. “I’ve collected these over the years and used some myself.”
As I turned the yellowed pages, I could imagine those Kiwanis and Rotary meetings from the 1940’s and 50’s, martini luncheons and respectable guffaws. Most of the jokes were about booze and divorce; nothing kinky or pathological, just simple bogey men that a simpler age could relate to.
A boney finger pointed to one paragraph. “You might be able to use this one about the white rabbit.” Then he smiled. “They might not get it though. I don’t think most of your classmates have ever left the area.” Suddenly, he pointed the same finger at me for emphasis. “But you be sure and get them laughing right at the beginning. You hear me!”
I looked at Charlie and felt like a boy again, peering over the heads of older people as I tried to get glimpses of him as Master of Ceremonies at the Minstrel show, the interlocutor, querying his colleagues on the stage of the high school auditorium.
“Tell me, Rastus, did you go to bed early last night?”
Local storeowners, car dealers and insurance salesmen sat on either side of him wearing blackface and spats. One would say something ridiculous and roll his eyes while the others would slap their knees. The civil rights movement put an end to it, but the Chamber of Commerce kept it going for a while by changing everyone to white face. The audience didn’t think it was as funny. “Say, Jack, have you heard from any of your old high school golf pals?”
“I got a call from Duncan Standish. He said the only reason he’s coming back is to see me and play golf together again.”
“Bullsquash! He’s coming back to beat you.”
“No way, Charlie! I already explained to Duncan that my game isn’t in shape for any kind of match. We agreed that we’ll just be out for a stroll down memory lane.”
Charlie turned to his Hispanic caregiver. “Jack used to beat everybody at the club, and do it all the time. He played first man on the high school team when he was fourteen, and later won all the county championships. It used to drive people nuts that a piano player could beat them at golf. There was a lot of envy toward Jack and poor Eddie Goecks was the worst. He owned a filling station in town and had a weird, home made golf swing, but he could get the ball in the hole. Even so, he couldn’t beat Jack, and the piano player thing just raised the ante. Eddie thought a piano player should be home knitting.” Charlie turned toward me. “Eddie passed away a few years ago.” Then he looked out the window. “Maybe God’s teaching him how to play the piano about now.”
The thirty minute drive to Charmsburg was still familiar to me. I took country roads and old junction PB, which had been a shortcut for fifty years. The big light and dark spots on the side of the hill outside the little town of Paoli were still there; from a distance, the white rock, burnt grass and dirt gave the impression of a spotted Holstein cow. My father always dreamed of building a house on that hillside. Meanwhile, the curves in the road were still there, too. I thought of Tom Siedschlag. His folks gave him a convertible when he was sixteen and we all thought he was an expert, so I asked him to teach me how to drive. We came out to old junction PB for a trial run, and he told me, “whenever you come to a sharp curve, always go into the other guy’s lane and increase your speed…that will bank the car.” This, of course, is what race car drivers do, except that they have don’t have anyone coming at them in the other lane. I gave silent thanks for not taking Tom’s advice, and wondered if he was still alive.
The water tower soon came into view and the Methodist church steeple. There was a new bypass which caused a rash of signs as you came into town. I drove past the welcome sign which listed the population; it was about the same. Then I merged into the town square with the old courthouse, and immediately thought of the Spring Prom of 1962. I double dated with Billy Klemm because he had wheels. We drove around the square the wrong way at 3 AM, giddy with delight at breaking the rules, smug in our dinner jackets and crew cuts. We knew then what tomorrow would bring, that our parents would protect us and that God was in heaven. Every night was a sound sleep. Our dates sat next to us, fresh faced with strapless gowns and pale corsages, outwardly maintaining decorum but barely able to suppress delight at the ungodly thing we were doing at this ungodly hour. It was an image in the mist of memory that dissolved when you tried to grab it. Billy Klemm was dead now. I looked at the courthouse and mused about the ancient irony that brick and mortar remain but people pass away. Who was it that said: “Time stands still while we pass by”?
As I rounded the square, I passed the confectionary shop where juveniles were standing out front smoking. Around the corner was the barber shop with a barber pole, needing only a cigar store Indian to qualify for the cover of Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post. Needing a haircut, I parked the car and walked up the steps and into the masculine smell of lather and cologne.
“A light trim,” I said.
“Hello, Jack,” was the response.
I looked at the barber and searched for a name.
“Catholic School,” he said, seeming to sense my predicament.
“Of course, Roger.” The name came out of the recess of my memory and I was relieved. He put the sheet over me and started reminiscing about junior high school at St. Mary’s.
“Remember Sister Mary Karate,” he said.
“You mean Sister Thomas Aquinas,” I said smiling.
“Right! You know she slugged Bill Stoker once, right in front of the class.”
I saw Bill in my minds eye, a tall, gangly prepubescent with a duck-tail haircut, trying to emulate Elvis Presley.
“Yeah,” he continued. “Bill must have smarted off to her, so she brings him up in front of the class, hauls off and cracks him on the side of the face. Then he says, ‘Sister, Jesus said to turn the other cheek.’ So she hauls off and slugs him on the other side.”
“Guess a lot of the class left the church,” I said.
“Yeah, but as time goes by we’ve drifted back. The whole thing is bigger than a few screwed up people.”
It was the first comment I heard after my return, and a generous one. I decided to hold it tight.
I walked down the street to the Corner Café for lunch. As I went up the four crooked steps I thought of the times I had been here with my parents for early breakfast before beginning a family vacation. Farmers in overhauls were seated on stools at the counter and the fry cook wore a white apron. A sign listed the day’s specials: “Roast beef sandwich on white bread with mashed potatoes and gravy, and lemon pie with graham cracker crust.”
A voice called out,” Jack!” I turned toward three men
seated in a wooden booth.
“You probably don’t remember me,” He had a walrus mustache and a John Deere tractor cap. “Richard Zeitler’s the name.” He gestured toward an empty seat in the booth and introduced the other two, who were also classmates. One had a shaved head and body tattoos, the other wore slacks and a sweater. I finally recognized the last man.
“Frank,” I said, “you’ve still got that nice smile.”
His face clouded and he looked down at his coffee, as if I were making a pass.
“I carried a spear,” Richard said suddenly.
“I beg your pardon.”
“In the class play. That’s why I came back, Jack. You
were so damn funny back then. When I saw you were going be MC I thought…well, I gotta go!”
They started speaking about the deceased; sixteen in a class of one hundred and twenty five.”
“I heard that Lance Bacher died. What happened?”
“I know!” Richard volunteered., “He was supposed to have a kidney transplant but he didn’t make it.”
I told them how Lance had called me once in Los Angeles about thirty years ago. “It was at 3 AM in the morning,” I said. “He woke me up to tell me he was gay, and I hung up on him. I always
All three seemed embarrassed and started to stir their coffee. The waitress brought the bill and they left amidst polite admonitions about seeing me at the reunion. Then I started stirring my coffee
thinking that this might be a long week after all. But there was still golf.
I started out for my motel which was on the outskirts of town but got lost on the new bypass. I finally found it behind a bowling alley just off the highway and pulled up under the big portico. I looked around for familiar faces but there were none. The place was new, unlike the two other generic motels that had served the town for years. They were brick pill boxes with rooms that smelled of air freshners, and the anemic bar of soap by the wash basin that always felt like sand on your skin. But this motel was spacious. My cousin from the farm would have said it was “just like downtown,” with a king sized bed, cable television, and a large bathroom with a whirlpool. After an early dinner that night, I watched a movie in the room and turned in early. I wanted to be rested for my game with Duncan Standish.
The next morning dawned heavily with a soggy humidity and mist over the cornfields. It was like so many other summer days that I remembered, sloshing through the golf course in the early morning dew. School age kids could play all day Monday, Tuesday until noon, Friday
until 3 and Saturday morning. The earlier you got out there, the longer the day was, and the more holes you could play. But there was no practicing allowed, no range balls to hit; that was reserved for stockholders. I felt like a spurned lover. When I turned twenty-one, old Joe Weinraub, the president of the club, bought me my first legal drink in the locker room bar. Flushed with chemical inducement I challenged him: why could we never play on men’s day, or in the club championship: “why all this discrimination against youth?”
He downed his scotch in one gulp. “Because we didn’t want all you pissants in our way. We went through the depression and won the war.” He pointed out the window. “So this belongs to us!”
He bought me another drink. It was like a rite of passage. I had been brought into a manly realm, old enough now to be initiated into the full consciousness of being a prick.
I ate breakfast and put my golf shoes and clubs in the trunk. The drive to the country club was something I had done ten thousand times. I decided to go by the high school and down 8th avenue past the newspaper editor’s old house. The big fir tree was still there that I chased the neighbor girl around fifty years ago, knowing what I wanted but not knowing how to get it. I rounded over to 21st street and made a left at the sign: “Charmsburg Country Club.” The pro welcomed me. He’d been there 29 years, but to me he was still the new guy, unlike the late Jimmie Casey, the little Scotsman, who had been there since the 1920’s and taught me the game. Jimmie gave me that long, slow hickory shaft swing and would remain as indelible in my memory as my lowest score. He held classes for kids early on Tuesday mornings after he hoisted the flag on the big pole. Sometimes that was an effort because he usually had a hangover. But he was a stickler for etiquette and taught us a respect for the game. Like a stern, dour parent, he presided over the real estate, refusing to tolerate disorder. If we had a tantrum, threw our clubs or played too slowly, he’d take away our bag for a week. No one knew if Jimmie’s “shakes” were from the booze or a pathological disorder. It didn’t bother his game from tee to green but short, delicate putts were another matter. If you freely gave Jimmie any putt within a six foot radius, he could still shoot in the seventies, even when he was in his seventies. We all thought that it was a rare privilege to play with him as so few were given that honor. I later learned that those were the few that gave him all the short putts.
The pro greeted me in the golf shop. “Good thing you’re starting play now, Jack. Bob Wertenweiller’s group went off earlier and it was like General Patton’s third army. There were carts everywhere and some of those people couldn’t even get the ball air borne. It was like croquet. They hit it in the parking lot, the subdivision and even the ball washer.” He handed me a bag of practice balls so I went to the range just down the hill. Half way through the bag I finally hit a particularly good three wood and heard applause. I turned around. It was Duncan Standish. A shock of white hair and a slightly thicker body had not changed him that much in forty years. We embraced, like two explorers after a long journey, meeting once again on the continental divide of life. He introduced me to his wife, who was as cheerful as her flower print golf skirt. Marilyn was a decade younger, and had the quality of seeming interested in whatever I said. As we walked to the first tee, I obliged her by expressing every thought I had ever had. Sensing my delight, Duncan said, “I was never really happy until I met her. We lived together for ten years, then finally got married last year.” He read my thoughts about his first wife whom I dimly remembered and patted me on the shoulder. “Never get divorced in California,” he said. “You’ll lose your shirt.”
No one hit a very good shot off the first tee, although Duncan’s was the best. His swing was the same, in two pieces with a little hitch at the top. I studied him as he walked down the fairway with that purposeful gait as though he were going into a board meeting. But there was something different, a poignancy that I had never seen before. It betrayed an attitude that life might deal him a deadly blow at any moment, and that he could handle one more, but only barely.
Duncan beat me easily during the eighteen holes, but was gentleman enough not to keep score. He confessed that, having been retired for some time, he played several times a week at his country club outside of Seattle. I remembered, in particular, one of his shots, a three wood of about 230 yards on the long par 4, fourth hole. It drilled its way toward the green, unerring and straight, like a clothes line, settling about ten feet from the pin. He and his wife had the slightly bourgeois habit of kissing whenever they hit a good shot. No matter which one was out of the cart, or however far away, a good shot would elicit chirps and coos and a running leap back into the cart to smooch. I made a little joke about it, but he didn’t respond. His wife said that he had trouble hearing.
On approaching the eleventh tee I heard some crowd noises. We got to high ground where we had a view of the pond below. People were walking back and forth along the edge of the water shouting.
“He hasn’t come up yet….Fish him out…He went in over here!!!” Suddenly Bob Wertenweiller surfaced with a woosh. His hair was matted down and, spitting water, he held up a handful of golf balls.
“Look what I found! I don’t have to buy any now.” Then he went under again.
Duncan shook his head. “Glad we didn’t play with them.”
By the end of the round, I felt that my game was starting to come back and suggested that we play an extra nine holes. By then, everyone was more relaxed and seemed to play better. I settled into a swing rhythm that started to feel like old times, and on the par 3 sixth hole hit a four iron to within 2 feet of the hole for a birdie. I covered the pin again on the eighth, although I missed the short putt. By the final hole, I was quite sure that Duncan and I were about even up. I stroked the last putt delicately and watched it crawl thirty feet downhill over a slight undulation. Duncan moved toward
the ball while it was still rolling. It hesitated on the lip of the cup and then dropped in while he stood over it. He reached down and rolled it back to me. “I knew you were going to make it,” he said. “You usually do. It’s too much pressure playing with you.” He walked toward his cart and drove toward the clubhouse. I went to the parking lot to put my clubs in the trunk, and then started back for a drink. As I walked into the bar, I saw Duncan already sitting on a stool. He was looking down at his drink shaking his head. “I knew you were going to make that putt,” he murmured. “Nothing’s changed. It’s just too much pressure.” Then he and his wife left for the hotel.
I stayed for a while, perusing the place. I was alone at the bar. They had redecorated it, but the tables were the same, thickset and round. My father used to play cards there every Thursday, and the next night was the beer battered fish fry. Mother made us dress up for that and it was like going to a Hollywood premiere. The elite of Charmsburg congregated, and everybody knew everybody. The principle influence on behavior was the movie culture. Whenever Bob Smitz, the richest man in Charmsburg, put the moves on some of the wives at the bar, the dialogue was right out of “Mogambo” with Clark Gable and Ava Gardner. There was a parade of short haircuts, suits with narrow lapels, chiffon cocktail dresses and ‘Gibson’ martinis with the sour onion. I watched it all at sixteen, sitting at a table with my parents thinking: this is the closest I’ll ever get to the ‘big time.’ And people knew me, too. I had won the Junior Club Championship and that was something they could relate to and comment on as they passed our table. They didn’t know about the Bach Three Part Inventions, or my discovery of the Grieg Lyric Pieces. That was too personal for me to share, like having invisible friends. But, finally, with cosmic irony, those friends had taken shape while all the others were gone. Sitting at the bar I could only hear their voices, like ghosts hovering around me singing a strange dirge to the clink of ice cubes.
Suddenly, the door swung open and, as if on cue, Dr. Guthrie Tittle came in with customary flair. Too outrageous to belong to the choir of angels, he had been left behind in flesh and bone. A British émigré who was my grandmother’s doctor, he was always Charmsburg’s greatest tourist attraction. Bald with an eagle’s beak for a nose, he had a perfect English public school accent. I remembered long ago when he came here with his wife and young family from England. He was the new cardiologist at the clinic, and thereafter an alcoholic. He was more stooped now, with a beet red face,
“Jacko! What a lovely surprise. It has been a while”
“How are you Guthrie? How’s your health?”
“Well, as the Duke of Wellington said about the Battle of Waterloo, ‘it’s the damndest near run thing you ever saw.’ But nothing lasts forever, Jacko.”
“Do you still want to be buried on the seventeenth tee?”
“I’ve rather gone off that now. I’m thinking cremation and then a scattering on the ninth tee. That way, when one reaches down to pick up their tee and they come across a silver bicuspid in a pile of ash, mankind will be enriched.”
He bought me a drink and lit a cigarette.
“How’s your love life, Jacko? Divorce can be lonely?”
I rattled my ice cubes and some recent memories of divorce recovery. I decided to trump his capacity to shock.
“Well, there was this woman in Florida…. a pretty good cellist. She’d been married four times and the aggregate total of her marriages was four years. Her mother was a minister who lived a few blocks away and had been married six times, but five of them died. Then there was the bi-polar herpetic who was an executive at the World Bank in Washington; a real beauty. She went to Afghanistan on danger pay and that country’s been sliding into chaos ever since. Then…..”
He cut me off. “Jacko, why don’t you stop all this crap and just get a boyfriend?”
I stared at him with incredulity. I couldn’t top that.
“That’s what I’ve done,” he said with a weird air of confidence.
I stammered. “Guthrie, you must be seventy-five years old. I’ve known you my whole life, and your wife and kids. You ..you were even my grandmother’s doctor. When did this start?”
“Well, it’s not sudden like a car accident. It requires some
“But you told me years ago that you had a mistress, and swore me to secrecy.”
”Yes, but it wasn’t enough. One needs supplemental income.”
He looked out the big picture window overlooking the practice putting green and made a sweeping gesture. “Jacko, it has taken me to the last stages of my life to discover that it is simply delightful to be whacked off by a man in the bushes.”
I drove to the hotel very slowly, not just because of the four or five drinks I had consumed. I was unclear. Things seemed in inverse proportion to what I had remembered. The golf course seemed less difficult, more like any other generic course that you might play on your way to somewhere else. Then there was my grandmother’s doctor. What a stunner: as if discovering that your brother was your sister and your aunt was really your mother. I began to wonder about my comedy routine for the next night. Would the shtick work? Would people understand or be able to relate to my humor as they once had during the class play? But that was back in another century. Now, everything was backwards, Things had changed so much that maybe I should just play it safe, give some homilies and say goodnight.
“Like hell you will.” Duncan Standish’s voice crackled over the phone the next morning. “Marilyn and I didn’t fly all the way back from the west coast just to hear you give a prayer! Make people laugh. Stick with your routine.”
After the pep talk, we discussed appropriate dress. A suit would be too much, maybe a sport coat and shirt without a tie. He asked if I would like to accompany them on a tour of the high school. I politely declined, but we agreed to go to the reunion together that evening. I settled back, propped up in bed, and went over my notes trying to relax. Room service helped and so did a movie on television. Finally it came time to dress for the evening. I allowed myself a lot of time because I recognized that feeling, the state of mind. Everything was tightening, like being in an iron suit. I had walked on stage around the world: at the Wigmore Hall in London, the Great Philarmonic Hall in St. Petersburg, the Kennedy Center in Washington, the Sala Cecilia Meireles in Rio de Janeiro. It was always the same. There was never to be found an arrogant artist standing backstage waiting to face an audience: the breathless silence at that moment of truth, the loud drum beat in your breast, the worries about memory slips and acceptance all contribute to residual meekness. Finally, the lights dim and there is no turning back. You accept your fate with as much dignity as possible and move into the glare of humanity. The applause begins and the piano stands like an oasis in the middle of a battlefield. It takes forever to get there, and then the bow. But it is not until the first homophonous strains of the opening piece, that you realize that you can do it again. The miracle has returned and, with it, your confidence. The harmonies begin to strike respondent chords behind the silent eyes of hundreds or thousands of people. There is a strange, palpable wave of energy drifting over the footlights. People are feeling what you are. I went into the bathroom and looked into the mirror. What the hell is the matter with you? This is Charmsburg! What are you so nervous about? You’re not a comedian, anyway. Just have fun. In one hundred years, nobody will remember.
Duncan’s rental car was spacious and more than was needed. Nowhere was too far from anything in Charmsburg, and shortly after I shut the door and put the seat belt on, I was taking it off. We had arrived at The Swiss Hall, a two story imitation of a Swiss Chalet with a restaurant on top, a bowling alley on the main floor, and the Rathskellar and dance hall underneath. We descended the stairs and followed the crowd noises through double doors into a cavernous room that smelled like a beer. I could tell that the acoustics were bad. It would take an oom-pah-pah band with blown out cheeks and beads of perspiration to push the sound through that dead air. I walked toward what appeared to be the bar. A man wearing a jacket that had patched on it all of the insignias of the cantons of Switzerland was pouring beer into heavy liter mugs.
“Do you take credit cards,” I asked.
“Nope! But I’ll keep track of what you drink and when it’s over, we’ll find a machine somewhere.”
I asked for a glass of white wine to steady my nerves. That was not an experience I would otherwise permit myself when giving a performance. But, if getting half smashed would help my presentation tonight that would prove that being a comedian was obviously a lower art form. I looked around the room for someone I knew. People’s faces were all different but there was a sameness in the bodies that supported them underneath. The raging battle for maintenance had given way to self-indulgence; a certain resignation or surrender to various shapes of enormity. A man came over with a walrus mustache, a protruding belly and thick suspenders.
“How are you, Jack?” He slapped me on the back so hard I
rammed into the bar. “You know, you’ve done what I always wanted to do. You’ve traveled around the world. That was my dream. Then I discovered sex and never left the county.” He spread out his fleshy
hand and held it in front of my face. “Five...” he said. “Five kids!”
It could only be Tom Kurtzstein. “Are you still driving a truck, Tom?”
“No, I’ve slowed down. But I still make more money on unemployment insurance than my old lady does bagging groceries.”
Little Kay Blitzen came over. Her father had owned the hardware store on the east end of the square. Her parents had a Christmas party for our class each of the four high school years which included sledding down the snowy road in front of their cul de sac, and then platters of freshly baked sugar cookies afterward. I used to play carols on their grand piano in front of a roaring fire and people would sing along, shaking off the snow.
“Oh, Jack, we bought one of your CD recordings and it’s so beautiful!”
“But how do you remember all those notes? They go by so fast.”
“Well, you can train a…..I mean, I’ve been doing it all my life, I guess”
She introduced her husband who was a minister and explained that they lived in a little town up north.
“Where did you get my recording?” I asked
They looked at each other quizzically. “I remember” the minister brightened. “It was at the Goodwill Industries.”
“I wonder if the Red Cross is selling it, too.” I smiled, but they didn’t get it. That was a bad omen. I reached for my drink and suddenly felt that my space at the bar was overcast, like an eclipse of the sun. I turned and saw Beda Furholtzer standing like a fortress, staring at me impassively.
“I see you made it,” she said. “How’s the hotel?”
I nodded positively.
“How long are you staying?” She looked suspicious, like I was going to rip somebody off.
“I’m checking out tomorrow.”
Her face slackened.
“Don’t worry, I know that my voucher expires. But I’m sticking around a few extra days and checking into the Mountain Chalet on my own nickel. I’ve always wanted to stay there.”
She kept staring at me. Her fatty face had smoothed out any wrinkles.
I motioned toward the stage. “Beda, how is the speaker system at the lectern because the acoustics are…..”
“It’s the best we can do,” she said testily. “This is a small community and we have a small budget.” She had one hand behind her back, like she might be holding a grenade.
“You’ll introduce me, I hope.”
“Why?” she shot back. “Nobody else is being introduced. We don’t do special treatment here. We’re all the same!”
I bought some drinks for Duncan and his wife and carried them across the room to their table at the base of the lectern.
“We saved a place for you,” said Marilyn.
“Good. I hope it’s a friendly one.” I was glad to sit down. I gently slid their drinks across the table. Duncan picked his up and was about to propose a toast when Beda Furholtzer waddled up to the lectern and turned on the speaker system with a big electrical pop. We looked up, startled. I glanced at the small unit on the floor that the mike was plugged into. It resembled a portable “boom” box.
She cleared her throat.” Ladies and gentleman… Jack Barnes.”
Everybody at the table looked at each other. I stood up and my chair shot backward. I hurried to the podium to almost no applause. Beda was still standing there, holding the swinging stick mike. She shoved it in my face and then moved it around. “You want it like this, or like that?”
“I’ll take care of it Beda.”
It was an inauspicious beginning. Any drama or magnetic sense of the occasion was already lost. I looked out to take a quick measure of the audience. There was a grayness and heaviness about the hundred or so; many had their heads down. My heart started to sink. What if my whole audience were clinically depressed? But I plunged ahead.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the class of…….”
“WE CAN’T HEAR YOU,” someone shouted.
I tried again.
“My fellow classmates!” Now I was shouting.
“What an awesome occasion...that we should be gathered here under the same roof after all these decades. That we should have survived all the history we’ve lived through. Our hearts were beating when Franklin Roosevelt was still alive at the very end of World War II. Within months after our graduation, there was the Cuban missile crisis, which we now see in flickering black and white images in documentaries, then the revolution of the 1960’s, the civil rights movement, more wars, and now a new century. As I look out at your faces, I am struck by the amount of life that has been lived in this room, the choices made that have affected your lives and others.”
There is rapt attention.
“And as I look out, I am also overwhelmed by the fact that I don’t recognize anybody.”
“The years have been kind to you but the problem is the weeks and months in between?”
“But I’m glad to see such a big turnout. It’s not that there are that many people here, it’s just that those who are here…are unusually large.”
More silence. A few people exchange glances.
“Was it really only yesterday that we walked across that stage and Judge Beerbaum gave everyone a diploma and then took it back from a few?”
A choked snicker.
“There are people in this room who went to kindergarten with each other. I remember North School when Mrs. Langstan issued a punishment to little Harry Burwanger. He wanted to go to the bathroom and she said, “No!” Today she’d wind up in San Quentin, but in those days behavior was a big deal. But little Harry had an ingenious solution: he simply peed on the carpet. And today, fifty five years later, he’s still doing the same thing but for different reasons.”
Harry Burwanger gets up and leaves.
“And over there I see Larry Squattling. I’ve known him since the second grade. And I even remember his first girl friend whom he actually married. It was a big wedding, too...a military wedding. Well, there were guns there, anyway.”
“His bride was only fifteen, but Larry said that was 105
in dog years.”
“And she was no rocket scientist, either. She once stared
at a can of orange juice for twenty minutes because it said,
Larry Squattling’s fourth wife laughs.
“She even tried to study for her own blood test.”
“And she had a drinking problem. She saw a sign that
said, “Drink Canada Dry,”...so she went there.”
Someone cleared their throat. I wondered if the mike was still on.
“Larry met his mother-in-law for the first time at the wedding. He said, ‘turn around when I’m talking to you!’ She said, ‘I am.’ She was so ugly that whenever she walked into a bank they turned the cameras off.”
Chuckles from a couple of men on the right side of the room.
“But the marriage didn’t work out. Larry said that you can always tell when a relationship goes south when the woman starts kissing the dog and tells you to go out and pee.”
Larry Squattling’s first wife, Lulu, laughs.
“So Larry had to learn how to date again. He walked up to a woman in a bar and said, ‘Where have you been all my life?’ She looked at him and said: ‘For the first half, I wasn’t even born.’ He tried to change the subject. He looked at her T-shirt. TGIF? I guess that means: ‘Thank god it’s Friday.’ She said, ‘No, it means, ‘This Goes in Front’.’”
There is a thud as Larry Squattling passes out at his table.
“I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the committee
for putting this on tonight. By the way, you know what a camel is? That’s a horse that’s put together by a committee.”
I was dying. A voice inside said ‘find a get-away car.’
“Now, folks we’re going to give awards for significant accomplishments by people in the class. The first award goes to Bob Timberstein for inventing the best bumper sticker. It reads like this: I AM THE PROUD PARENT OF A SON WHO MADE YOUR HONOR ROLL STUDENT PREGNANT.”
Tom Kurtzstein, the truck driver, lets out a belly laugh, then looks around and suddenly stops.
“The pithiest comment ever made by anyone in our class goes to Rodney Smeltzer. Even though this comment has been attributed to Confucius over the years, I know that it was Rodney who first said it because I was standing there….was at a basketball game, I think. It goes like this: Woman who send husband to dog house, soon find him in cat house.”
“An award for the kindest person in the class goes to Alan Kuphoffer, who once read an article about how you can support a child in India on three dollars a month, so…..he sent his kids there.”
“An award for the most creative diet goes to Connie Winter. As we get older, it’s harder to loose,,,right? Well, Connie came up with this gem: only steamed vegetables and red wine. And in the space of two and one half weeks, Connie lost ten pounds… and her driver’s license.”
Connie laughs, God bless her!
“The Miss Lincoln Award of the class of 1962 goes to Beda Furholtzer. The Lincoln Award was so named, because every guy in the balcony wanted to take a shot at her.”
Beda stands up in the middle of the aisle looking like a sofa with two legs. She starts shouting with one fist clenched and the other on her hip. But the acoustics are so bad I can’t hear what she’s saying. I ignore her and go on. It was like a death march.
“The second best bumper sticker goes to the civics teacher at the high school, our own Ralph Bladensburg. His bumper sticker reads: DEMOCRATS ARE SEXY! WHO EVER HEARD OF A GOOD PIECE OF ELEPHANT.”
Laughter for the first time. They like “ass” jokes, but I haven’t got any more.
“Horst Creepentrog….a lot of courage, that guy. Instead of retiring, he started a business up north….and he gets an award for the best advertisement. Horst put a sign up outside his new restaurant that read: “COME ON IN BEFORE WE BOTH STARVE.”
“And what about our own, Butch Larson. A lot of people didn’t know Butch is a romantic. He gets and award for the best entry in a Hallmark valentine card. It reads like this: “Sometimes, someone unexpected comes into your life out of nowhere, makes your heart race, and changes you forever. We call those people cops.”
“And we can’t forget Gwendolyn Siedschlag, one of our favorites. So sweet! Gwendolyn gets an award for having the most patience and persistence of anybody in the class. She actually stuck with her therapist even after he told her that whenever he was late, she should just start without him.”
It was so quiet. Someone picked up their drink and you could hear the ice cubes clink.
“Folks, this last award “…
One person applauded.
“…. this last award is important because it goes to the heart of an age old moral and philosophical premise which is: one should not pass judgment on people, or perhaps, even events, because they may not be what they seem... We must learn to believe in what is unseen as well as that which is apparent. Tom Kurzstein goes to the heart of this complicated theorem with his very special bumper sticker. It reads like this: JUST BECAUSE MY EYES ARE RED DOESN’T MEAN I’M DRUNK. I MIGHT BE A WHITE RABBIT. “
People seem confused and I sensed some anger on the left side of the room. Things were getting desperate so I had to ‘push the envelope.’ I felt this urge to strangle them for a laugh…anything!! So I got off script. It just bubbled up. So what if it was a lie.
“Listen, folks the committee is putting together a commemorative booklet about this reunion. Some of you have sent pictures in and many of them will be included… By the way, I see Ralph Bunting sitting out there…. Ralph, we can’t use that picture of you in Tijuana…. If you would have lost some weight and the donkey looked better….maybe.”
Ralph Bunting gets up and leaves.
“Anyway, the booklet will be something you can show your children and grandchildren, and an opportunity for them to learn more about you. Better than anecdotes or stories passed down through word of mouth, this will actually be in print. So I’d like to do a little survey which will be included in the booklet. If the questions apply, just raise your right hand. Ok, here we go with the first question…. How many here have herpes?”
At one table, five people suddenly got lockjaw, staring with their mouths open. But I was on a roll.
“Hey, anybody bi-sexual? Wow, there’s a hand that went up…..nope, it went back down again? I don’t know whether to count that or not. Anyway, I think we have enough data. Let’s move on.”
Somebody said, “That’s for sure!”
It was time to get off. I didn’t have a close, and it didn’t matter anyway, so I lamely thanked everyone and went back to my table. On the way I saw that the five people from that other table still had their mouths open.. I passed another and someone said, “ Gwendolyn Siedschlag never had a therapist!”
The smattering of applause didn’t start until I had already sat down. Then it stopped almost immediately. I stared straight ahead, stunned. My mind and body were on high alert, in a primordial sort of fight or flight instinct. Seventeen minutes of sheer hell that I had never experienced. “I bombed,” I said to no one in particular.
Marilyn Standish looked at me. “You didn’t bomb. They did.” I could see why Duncan married her, but it still didn’t help. Then she brought me a plate of fried pork from the buffet table. It tasted like flour held together with glue. The coup de grâce was the sauerkraut and mashed potatoes, which had the texture of brick mortar. It all went right to my ankles. I wanted another drink but the bar was too far away. I was miserable.
Lydia Buholtzer went up to the microphone to give a prayer. As she came to the most sublime part which talked about forgiveness, she looked in my direction with a snarl. Then Beda Furholtzer came carrying a bunch of letters that had been sent by classmates who couldn’t be there.
“I want you to hear these,” she said, shouting into the mike. It sounded like an order to a platoon. ‘This is from Bob and Kathy Booberlutz who are out in Windburn, Iowa.”
Bob and I were just sitting around killing time at the kitchen dinette because our Zenith is on the blink. I said, ‘Hey, Bob, let’s write Beda!’, and he said ‘yeah!’
We want to tell you that we are SO SORRY we can’t be there with you, but Bob had a very delicate operation and he’s still recovering. I won’t tell you what they put in him, but it’s going to improve our marriage SO MUCH!”
Light laughter. People were charmed.
I looked at Duncan. “Let’s get the hell out of here!”
I woke up the next morning as dispirited as I was the night before. I stared at the ceiling wondering why I had come back. I thought about how much the plane ticket had cost, and the amount of energy I’d put into this. Depressing, too, were the few more days that I still had left in Charmsburg. My only motivation was to check out of this hotel and move into the Mountain Chalet. That was far enough outside of town to help close the door, put me in a new environment and gobble up time before my scheduled departure. Once there, I could pretend I was in Europe with the hotel’s little gasthaus bar and continental menu. A nice glass of German Riesling in front of the big fireplace might salve my disappointment, my concussion from the night before. I bounded out of bed, packed and checked out.
On my way out of town, I stopped by my home parish for Sunday Mass. I had made my first communion there at Saint Monica’s and went to parochial school. They had redecorated the altar but the ancient little confessional booths were still there. I thought about all the conflicts and burgeoning sexuality that had been played out in those silent, abandoned boxes, the groans of adolescent confidences that were whispered through the screens. I looked around at the congregation but recognized no one. Then, the priest came out with his servers. He was a heavy set, bald man who went through the ancient liturgy. But after the reading of the word, he proceeded to the base of the sanctuary and gave an extraordinary sermon. I wondered who he was. After mass, he walked up the aisle in procession past the congregation. As he passed me sitting on the end of the aisle, he paused and turned.. “Welcome home, Jack. You’re always welcome here….never forget that! And if you ever need a place to stay, you’ve got one.” I was stunned. It was a grace descended, like a white light that pierced the blackness of an ocean at midnight. How did he know who I was? There must be archangels after all.
I drove several miles outside of town to the Mountain Chalet, checked in and took my bags to the room. Then I went back downstairs with a laundry bag and asked the woman at the desk if they had a washer/dryer. She said it was right there behind the registration desk. I had never done my laundry in a hotel lobby but I was ready to proceed just as she handed me a phone message from Bob Wertenweiller. I put the laundry in the wash and called him on my cell phone during the wash cycle.
“How did you know I was at this hotel, Bob?”
“Hard to keep a secret in this little town. Say, how was the reunion, anyway? I wasn’t able to go because I caught a chill during the golf game.”
“It was miserable,” I replied. “The food was lousy, the venue was lousy, the speaker system was lousy and Beda Furholtzer couldn’t organize a two car funeral.”
“A couple of people are sayin’ that you stiffed the bartender.”
“What!” I said angrily. Then I realized that I never did settle with that guy in the Swiss jacket. “Look, I didn’t stiff anybody. They weren’t set up for credit cards so I was supposed to settle up at the end of the evening, but I forgot. I just wanted to get out of there.”
“Well, they apparently passed a hat to cover it.”
“How much was it?”
I was fuming when I took the clothes out of the dryer. After dropping them off in my room I went for dinner. There was another Swiss hotel that was supposed to have good kitchen and just around the corner so I started by foot. As I crossed the parking lot, two police officers intercepted me.
“Could we see some identification/”
“What’s this about?”
“The receptionist said you were talking loudly on the phone in the lobby and she was afraid you might be violent….might even have a weapon or something.”
“Well, anyway way, we don’t know you.” He handed back my driver’s license. “So you’ll have to get out of town. There are no more rooms here. Maybe in the next town. We’ll help you pack.”
I knew that Beda lived up the hill and these were probably the only two police officers in town. Wasn’t hard to put it together. What a lovely, tight knit community. I went back to my room in a daze. Should I call a lawyer? It was already evening so I packed as quickly as I could and drove back to Charmsville. I couldn’t believe what was happening and registered at the first motel that came into view just wanting to get the whole evening and trip over with. The room was on the dingy side, like a monk’s cell; a bed, a night stand and a forlorn swearing off of all comforts. But it would shelter me for the night. I laid in bed the next morning trying to process everything. This was the town where I grew up, that my father helped to build. At least now I was hunkered down out of sight and I would be gone within an hour. Nothing more could possibly happen. Soon it would become just a bad a memory. I got on the phone and changed my plane reservation so that I could leave that afternoon. Momentum was staring to build; it was like the great escape. I dressed, packed my night bag and hurried to the office to check out. The clerk was wearing a Swiss vest which didn’t fit.
“Here’s your bill.”
I glanced at it. “Your flier says the room is $45 with tax, but this bill is for $55. What’s the extra ten for.”
“That’s what you stiffed the class reunion for.”
I stared open mouthed.
He just shrugged his shoulders. “It’s all over town.”
I started to stammer.
“Oh I know what you want to say…that it was covered when they passed the hat. But we thought there should be some interest charged.”
A man and woman came out from an office in back of the desk and stood impassively, glaring at me with folded arms.
As soon as the plane landed, I drove over to see my parents in a nearby assisted living facility. I had moved them out east from Charmsville already seven years before and felt a tinge of guilt because they acted like they were in exile, never having returned to their home of fifty years. I also needed to see some friendly, loving faces. I knew, too, they wanted to know how everything went…how was the town, did I see any of their friends who might still be around, and how was I received? I decided to tell them the truth. My father listened quietly having by now difficulty in processing information. My mother on the other hand, closed the book on my “guilt” issue. When I finished she said quite simply, “I do not wish to be buried in that town.”
Dad cleared his throat. “Well…“I’d like to hear it.”
“Hear what?” said my mother.
“His routine. Let him do it here. The entertainment they have downstairs is crap. This has to be better.”
Mom thought for a second and her face brightened. “What a wonderful idea.” She looked at me for approval. “I’ll call Vivian Van Wie, the director and set it up. You’ll have another chance at this, Jack.”
I had to think. Did I want to go through it again? But maybe she was right, the wells of regeneration run deep. It would be better to go out on a positive note with one more chance to redeem myself. I nodded. “But when you talk to her, ask her for a list of names of residents who usually go to these things. I don’t need to know or meet them, just the names.”
“Why?” my father asked.
“Because I’m going to give out awards.”
It was the next week I drove over there; it was only about twenty minutes from my house. When I walked in, people smiled including the staff. I even saw a sort of makeshift poster on the wall behind the reception desk. I don’t know where they got that picture of me. We went up the elevator to the dining room which had been converted into an open area with a standing mike.
“People will start coming in any moment now,” said the director. She ran the place with a strict code of behavior that my father didn’t like. A broad shouldered, mannish sort of woman, the two of them had tangled on several occasions.
“I’ll just introduce you briefly, and then it’s all yours.”
I was pleased that so far it seemed more accommodating than Charmsburg. How ironic that people who had mostly lost their independence seemed nicer and more cheerful than those who still had enough ambulatory energy to sidle up to the bar. I seated myself on the sidelines and watched people come in. Many were in wheel chairs, and some with walkers. Soon a crowd of about sixty people filled the partitioned area. I had a good feeling. They couldn’t leave even if they wanted to. All of them were hostages to their infirmities. Then I admonished myself.
Vivian gave a decent introduction. I don’t know where she got some of the information but it was mainly correct. Then it was my turn. I walked to the mike accompanied by a small, gentle smattering of applause. I saw in the audience a number of very elderly white haired women sitting in the back with soft, almost beatific smiles on their faces.
“Thank you Ms.Van Wie, and thank you ladies and gentlemen for that very warm round of applause. I will remember that for….well, at least until I get to the parking lot. Frankly it sounded like you were clapping with one hand.”
There was silence and the smiles from the snow haired women disappeared. Then I realized that one of them was an amputee…no right arm. Socrates had famously said, “Know thyself.” He should have said, “Know thine audience.”
“Folks, some of you have probably asked yourselves, how did I wind up here in an assisted living facility? Well, it’s called aging. Nothing you can do about that….except for one thing: gray hair. The French came up with a cure for gray hair. It’s called the guillotine.”
Silence, as from a white sepulcher….not even a buzz from the florescent lights above.
“I myself am getting older. I can feel it. Even though it’s the first time I’ve ever been this age. I find that food has now taken the place of sex in my life. In fact I’ve had a mirror put over the kitchen table.”
I waited for what seemed an eternity. Only a couple of ‘h..r.r umphs’ from one old timer that had dandruff and his zipper open.
“…And priorities change. Have you noticed that you’re no longer worried about your career and getting a leg up on the world? My main concern now is how to tell my dog that he’s adopted.”
People were stone faced. I had to get more personal.
“You know my folks live here, too. Yeah, Jack and Purnice Barnes.”
A number of people nodded their heads.
“Now you probably know my dad is a character. But, I have to say, things have been said about him that just aren’t true. For example, and I want to make this clear…. he does NOT hate black people. I was at his place last week and he had a couple of black people for dinner… and they were delicious.”
A frail black man with a red toupee sitting in a wheel chair against the wall, started to cry. It morphed into loud sobs. Vivian raced over and whispered something to him. His chest was heaving as she wheeled him out of the room. I stood wondering what to do. I had to lighten the mood but I felt I was on a battlefield with the Red Cross.
“I’ll just take a flier here folks, and guess that many of you have reached a point where you review your life from time to time. I know that any man who has reached my age, and I hope to do that soon, has already started. And in so doing, you realize that Sigmund Freud was right decades, even a century ago. Through his research he came to the conclusion that men had sex on an average of 30,000 times during a lifetime… and about 28 times if there was a partner.”
This time at least the men laughed, but I didn’t have any more sex jokes. That boat had already left the dock for most of my listeners.
“Folks, let’s move to some awards I want to give. You’re all unique and you deserve some recognition.”
I took a list of names out of my pocket.
“Fred Corrigan…..Fred are you here.”
A hand went up.
“Fred gets an award for being the most in tune with American history. Fred once said to Eli Whitney, ‘I’m tired of cotton…let’s try the gin.”
There was a rustle of feet. I wondered if they were going to form a posse. A male voice said in a stage whisper, “Who in the hell is Eli Whitney?”
I looked again at the piece of paper. “Madge Lowry? Is she here?”
“Yes,” said a voice.
“Madge, you get an award for ‘getting away with murder’…..Now wouldn’t we all like to do that from time to time?”
Interest picked up a little. People were waiting.
“A lot of you may not know that Madge was married three times and the first two died. The first husband died from eating poison mushrooms… the second one from a fractured skull. He wouldn’t eat the mushrooms.”
Madge let out a high pitched soprano yelp. “Oh. My god, that’s just awful. It’s not true! It’s NOT true.” A woman walked over to hold her hand.
But an obese man on a folding chair in front of her said, “I kinda liked that one.”
I was dying. I had to push the envelope. I went for that piece of paper again.
“Elke…. Elke Rheingold are you here?”
“I’m not sure,” said a voice.
“Elke gets an award for being the best teacher in the facility. She gave a seminar to employees here on how to handle difficult situations. As a demonstration she took the next call that came in and put it on speaker. This way the employees could see the proper rhythm and diplomacy necessary. The voice on the receiver said, “How’s my grandfather?”
Elke said, “He’s like a fish out of water.”
“Oh,” the man said. “You mean he’s having trouble adjusting.”
“No,” she said. “He’s dead.”
Several people winced. It was time to shut it down and head for the big close. One more look at the piece of paper and the last chance to ‘bring the down the house.’
“Gwendolyn Culpper? Is there a Gwendolyn…….?
“Yes, I’m here.”
“Gwendolyn, you get an award for ‘hutzpah.’ You managed to light this place up with interest and something to talk about. Gwendolyn recently went ‘streaking’ throughout the whole facility. One guy said, ‘What was that?’, and the other said, ‘I don’t know but it needs some ironing.”
The groans from the women were so intense that I thought they might come toward me. I looked at Gwendolyn. Her eyes were wide open as was her mouth. She grasped her throat.
“I can’t breathe.” There was a gurgling sound and her breathing became more obstreperous.
“Call for help,” someone yelled.
Vivian ran over and pressed a button on the wall that went directly to the paramedics. Some of the staff hurriedly brought an oxygen tank and put a mask on her. The paramedics arrived almost immediately, wrapped Gwendolyn in some blankets and carried her out on a gurney. All I could do was stand there in front of the mike and watch….like a helpless supplicant praying for it to end. But it just did. I looked at the audience, they looked back at me then turned or wheeled around to leave. It was over before it really started. I sat down heavily into a chair feeling, as a college fraternity brother used to put it, “lower than a whale turd.” I was running up a string of abject failures…wanting to make people laugh but instead they either cried, ran me out of town or called the paramedics.
Vivian walked over. “Well, this has to be the most riveting evening we’ve ever had. A couple of people said they wanted your folks out of here because they don’t want any living memory of it. But I thought that was unreasonable though so I overruled it. However, I can’t say we’ll have you back any time soon. And, in the greatly distant future, if we ever did have you back, it would only be to play our rickety little piano.” She turned and started to leave but had an afterthought. She turned again with a suspicious look on her face. “You don’t do jokes in your piano act…do you?”
My mother had already disappeared but my father came over. He stood next to me silently peering out at the room, his head moving across the expanse of it like a ‘black jack dealer’ surveying the evening house. Then he put his hand on my shoulder. “Well, son, you’d better keep you day job. Oh, wait…most of those concerts are at night, aren’t they? But some of em’ are far away and you have to travel…right? So at least that’ll keep you safe and out of town.”