“I don’t remember any of that. I remember the way he treated us kids to sodas, each got our choice, every time. And treated us as bigger than we were, always joking and nice. How over the snooker table, light bulbs flickered half the time, there’d be at least one out and it’d take forever for it to be replaced and he’d do it, not Bud. And spicy onions on his breath. I remember how he laughed, short and loud, shot out of his body like a ball pocketed fast. His eyes were intense, happy or sad, it was hard to look away.”
I took a long swig of my beer, leaned forward, eyes on my old friend’s tanned, lined face. “Old” more than “friend” at this point but I’d wanted to see him. Catch up in the cautious way people do after so long and such changes. I had avoided high school reunions so long that I had to manage one, at last.
Jerry shifted in the bench seat. “You always pointed out good stuff, even when we were kids, that sorta Pollyanna attitude, naive, you know? You folks didn’t get to suffer enough to know any different…” He gave a snort, waved his hasty words away as my eyebrows rose. “Hey bygones be bygones, we were friends, we are now. But your memories, that’s not much to retain. You missed a few things but, then, you got out of Dodge fast.”
He scratched at his grey stubble, mouth slack as he noted my crisp blue sport shirt and stone colored khakis and sock-less loafers. Should have worn the sandals. He tried to not stare at the Apple watch on my wrist, a custom ring with lapis lazuli and two small diamonds on my right hand. I moved both below the table. I’d maybe take those off tomorrow. I didn’t need to stand out, there was no reason to prove anything; everyone knew that if I was honest with myself. We all had our paths, some harder, some much better, like Jerry’s.
“I could go on, Jerry, but you wouldn’t likely hear it. Some arguments never quit but I hope you’re still not so against him. He was a mix of things like anyone. I hope to see him again, he still lives here, right? He didn’t die, I guess.”
Jerry examined his dirty fingernails. He’d just gotten off the job, had apologized for his state, after all, we were meeting after so long, but he wanted to get there faster. A faint ring of dried sweat stained his t-shirt around the neck. I didn’t care about that but wished we’d met later for drinks at one of the new places, not here for the indigestible greasy burger and fried okra in Bud’s Bar and Grill aka Mash and Fritters. It was like revisiting the scene of old tales and petty crimes, plus I never got what tasted so delicious at the place. I liked the shiny jukebox, now long gone. I scrounged in a pants pocket for a chewable antacid, popped one in my mouth.
“How would you know what I have done or do– or not? Hello, Madison, you’ve missed the past thirty years. Gone up over the Ozarks, never came back except for funerals twice, gone in a flash.” But he gave me a kindly look as he grinned wide to show teeth yellowed by chew and coffee. “Clary was someone you had to know a lifetime to really know at all.”
Everyone here had nicknames, even me–“Mad” or the obnoxious “Madi” for Madison– but I started at hearing that one. “Clary.” Short for Clarence Maine. I’d called him by his CB handle, “Ghost Panther”, the few times we’d used our truck CBs, and like a private joke when passing each other on the street (mine was “Navy Boy”, I liked boats). So it stuck in my mind. And that’s what he’d looked like to me, pale, muscular, stealthy. Something untamed at heart.
There weren’t that many times we’d talked much, otherwise–he was seven years older than my friends and me, so there was little reason to call him anything. I watched him at the bar and grill–we kids came and went despite the alcohol. At the rundown community center where he showed kids on how to better shoot baskets or dive in the semi-scummy outdoor pool, or how to faster tie high top Converse sneakers. In the street as I grew up… even as he became half-notorious. The crafty Lothario, Snooker King, a tough fighter who stopped most of that after he broke his best friend’s collarbone, the drag racer who won more than lost and wrecked a few junky cars in the process. But he could be attentive, good to others, that was plain to me; people just didn’t want to see. My parents, especially, would never commend him and even condemned him for the increased erroneous ways. And I still secretly thought he had more going than most. More life, more nerve to just jump in and live it.
“Well, you got Marvel in the end, not Clary, so you should have put that to rest. And you’re still married–what a testament to Marvel’s strength! I always liked her, no bull, fun to be around. Glad to hear she did become an RN–I know she’s an excellent nurse.”
Jerry punched my arm playfully. “Yeah, she’s a good one and she didn’t do too bad. I own my own roofing company and she–we– got the four kids. Plus two pampered, fussy poodles and a house that we built.”
“That’s what I call good fortune.”
“It’s a damned lucky thing, my happy ending.”
The chilled bottle sweated in my hand. I rolled it across my forehead. It was screaming hot in Missouri, a swelter that clings to your pores and dares them to leak out more sweat. It near suffocates. The cicadas were buzzing with abrasive constancy and the sky was heavy with threat of rain that wouldn’t leave the air freshened only saturated with the same degrees. I suddenly longed for Seattle, cooler, leafier, busier. Home. That comforting if at times grating silence. Waves lapping near my house overlooking the expanse of water.
“So where did Dina go? After she left?” He thumped his bottle down. “If I can ask.”
I looked away. Dina was not a topic I indulged in with people who didn’t know her. She had accompanied me to my father’s funeral and made quite the splash with her quirky, stylish dress, her fast, smart talk. Jerry had texted me that the townswomen had wanted to know where she got such clothes. Dina designed and made them. I’d referred him to her Etsy site and heard nothing more. They’re pricey. Dina is motivated to make money even more than I’ve been. Now I’m content with my work, the lifestyle I’ve built and not looking for more peaks to conquer.
“Dina is still in the city but we seldom talk. Her first brick and mortar store is doing well, I hear. I’d say it was best for her to leave and better for me, too.” I cocked my head at him. “In time, anyway. It’s been two years now.”
“Sorry, Mad, no doubt you loved her.” He leaned into the table, spoke quietly. “Sarah Dennison likely wishes you were available. She’s single…”
A teen-aged Sarah flashed before my eyes: pale blue eyes, skinny and energetic, shy. Plump lips, first real kiss. Her talent for math, a full scholarship to Southern Methodist University–but after that? Did she get what she wanted?
“Not open to returning to the past! I’m fine on my own. But I’m surprised she’s living here.”
“One marriage might just be enough for any of us… No, in California but she’s here for the reunion. She’s in touch with Marvel–they’re so different but still friendly.” Jerry’s head jerked up and he waved toward the door. I looked through the growing numbers of diners and drinkers and spotted who it was. One person only had that bright penny hair–still!–and wide smile bestowed on everyone.
Jerry shook his head. “Well, what do you know? Here comes Melba. Big surprise. She and everyone else knows you’re finally in town for a class reunion. It’s just starting, Madison Townsley, so get ready.”
Melba, Clary’s first love and first wife, I heard, had stopped at the snooker table. She picked up a cue stick, bent over and laughed louder than everyone; several people crowded about her. She beat her boyfriend a few times, I recalled, and that was that, they were in love, more or less.
The air swirled about the swamp of it all: steaming dusky air, faded faces with blurred names, hard luck stories and better ones, rasp of insects a hum under a shock of lightning, grumble of thunder. If only the rain would let loose.
I stood up. “I’m going to watch Melba play.”
Jerry followed past the noisy round tables to the end of the room. People squinted at me; Jerry nodded their way as I avoided the curiosity. Who had I become? No one should be surprised I’d followed the family trajectory laid forth from an early age.
She was bent over, swaying bulk of her skimming the tabletop as she took aim. I counted the fifteen red balls, six colored ones, one cue ball. Just as always. All readied, taunting the player to tap or slam them away. Contact was made, crack, it shot across the table, left side pocket.
A ripple of energy shot up my back. I’d been here with cue stick in hand so often my parents at last forbade me to play: I had to study harder, had to make something more of myself, get out of that town. In the end, I got it. But what a game it was, what fun as we all shared those hours and more.
Now I owned a luxe pool table. There had been times I’d played with the same enthusiasm–she and I even played. It had given me such pleasure. But for months it has sat abandoned in the great room that overlooks Puget Sound with its carnival of boats, the mystic orcas, reflections of changing skies above our grand, green city.
Sadness swept over me and I refocused on the game.
Melba was in her stride working the table, her adversary barely keeping up. Spectators admired every pause, each stroke, cheering or booing as they saw fit. In a short time she trounced the other woman and was ready to flounce off to her spot packed with friends. Then she turned, her body seeming to follow that red ruffled skirt that swirled about her. She bumped into me with a force of voluptuousness that had taken over her sturdy frame. Time had made the most of who she was. I held out my arms to her.
She tossed an arm about my shoulders and we moved through the crowd, Jerry at our heels.
“Where you sitting?” she asked, linked her arm with mine.
They found the booth at the back, ordered more drinks; hers was whiskey on the rocks.
“I was just telling my girlfriends you weren’t due ’til tomorrow, in and out for our fancy dinner and dance. How sly are you? Welcome back, darlin’.”
She clinked her bottle against mine and Jerry’s and surveyed me openly.
“Looking good, Madi,” she murmured.
“Ditto,” I said, as it was true. Her large amber eyes flashed the same. All that hair swung in a high ponytail, a flag that unfurled in the overhead fan’s breeze.
“Tell me all in a nutshell, then I’ll leave you alone awhile.”
“Wait, Melba, he just flew in this afternoon and had to drive from St. Louis, he’s tired out. Give him room to breathe, love.”
“I didn’t wait for forty years to find out how this ole buddy has been doing, settle down. But it looks like you did good, look at your handsome self, all shined up, smart as can ever. You a high paid corporate attorney now or what?”
Laughter spilled from her like a warning or a friendly offering, I wasn’t sure which. I wasn’t sure of much here so far, caught in a time warp. It wasn’t feeling all that supportive of a need for privacy and ease. What did I expect?
“That’s right, making the rich richer. Naw, I’m an engineer, Melba, work in aeronautics.”
Her eyes widened and she whistled. “Planes, space stuff? And where’s the wife?”
“Doing her own thing…ten years and done. Where’s your spouse or whatever?”
“Whatever is right. Which one?” She flashed neon white teeth, tapped silvery oval nails on the table top. “Oh, maybe you mean… Clary?” She winced but a bold smile came back on. “It’s been a long time since you lived here. I forgot for a minute. And sorry about the wife situation. If you loved her, I mean. Of course you did, divorce is a pain for us all. I’ve had three. But Clary…yeah, well…”
She glanced sideways at Jerry who’d slouched over the last of his third beer, now looking for another. A long night already, what the hell, he seemed to telegraph, so I raised a hand to a waitress who took our order. Though two was enough for me. I had no interest in inadvertently spilling my adult life story here or elsewhere on this trip. And it was stuffy there. I wanted to step outdoors to catch a breeze, then absorb chilled air conditioning in my motel room, that aging and questionable Bel Air Suites now a well reworked Motel Six.
“Madi, he’s in prison, you know that, right?”
It was like she punched me with both fists.
“What? Behind real bars for a long time?”
Jerry took drinks from the waitress then gazed at the table, a broad palm sliding over stains and scratches.
“Yeah, he’s doing time, likely ten to fifteen years.”
“What? Why?” I shook my head hard.
“Money, it all boils down to money! He burgled a place, a 7-11. Armed robbery, St. Louis. And probably more. They caught him on tape, found him, convicted him.” She rolled her shoulders back hard as if unpooling years of hurt and anger, then downed the whiskey. “What could I or anyone do? He gambled too much. Snooker became his worst enemy in the end, and pool–then cards and horses. For so long he was rode an easy wave ’til he came up against bigger fish in the sea, if you follow. And he listened to nobody, right? Not even me. Always the joker, the wiseguy and always his way.” She touched her lips with glittery fingernails as if to still them. Stop the memories. “So that’s that, ole boy.”
“I can’t believe it or maybe I can, but I don’t care to think of it.”
“That’s just how it is, Mad, it went sideways for him.”
I leaned back in my wooden chair, balanced on two legs. Clarence, Ghost Panther, Clary: he was a guy I wanted to model myself after, even if only in private. Swagger meant confidence. An easy way with people. I might also be a whirlwind snooker shark. I might become smart in all the ways I was not yet: how to fix cars, how to drink right, how to make a fire at the river so it glowered low and long into night. How to evade blame if necessary. How to fight without making a ruckus. How to hold a woman just so when she wanted to be held.
I had watched and learned a little. But the gambling and the terrible price paid…I felt sucker punched. Like the good times had been squelched. I actually had suspected I’d see him, catch up some.
“OK, enough of that.” Jerry patted Melba’s arm.
“Yeah, I should get back to my girlfriends. Sorry to break the news. I’m glad to see you– you seem great. We’ll talk more tomorrow, right?”
When she left it was like a vacuum opened up. We were quieter, extra careful to say less that might rock the leaky boat of the present reality. I stretched after our bottles emptied. We looked about as people came and went; now and then he’d point out someone. Most I barely remembered. His eyes were bleary and he mentioned Marvel, she’d be waiting for him and likely me.
“I’m tired out, think I’ll head to my room, Jerry. Why not let me give you a ride in my rental car and we’ll call it a night?”
“Yeah, sounds good for now though we could talk for hours.”
As we threaded our way through the dimly lit room and busy tables, people called out to Jerry and he waved; a few exclaimed my name then started to rise. I waved, moved faster, overheated, overdressed, over-informed and a little sick to my stomach.
I flung open the entrance door. Heavy air embraced me, half-smothering rather than relieving me of the lingering heat and a vise grip of tension.
Jerry whistled. “Some car! Is that called, what–ocean blue?”
“It’s a Mazda RX-8, not a Cadillac or Tesla, Jerry! Hop in, enjoy a ride.”
I stopped myself from saying it was what I drove at home most of the time. The rest of the time I drove a refurbished, finely tuned 2010 BMW. Kerry got in as I looked back at Bud’s Bar and Grill, peered into yellow lit, rectangular windows.
The cicadas were rasping their wings off. I wondered how I endured it all those years. I closed my eyes, smelled rain coming over the mountains. Heard tree branches rattle like bones.
There was so much I didn’t want to share, things I didn’t want noticed. Things were better than ever in some ways but emptier, too, since Dina had left. In the end, my life was just not like theirs, anymore. Was it ever? Yet I had missed this from time to time. Even longed for it. For the invisible traces those beautiful if uncertain times had left on me–the same ones I had tried to scour off. It had been easier than I had imagined. Go to college, get a couple degrees, get a decent job that pushed me up the ladder and marry a woman with plenty of her own talents. No kids, but hey, I couldn’t expect everything, could I? Still, I could adjust my life, discover what was missing, re-calibrate. There was a great deal I didn’t know.
“Wait! Is that…Madison!”
Sarah Dennison came toward me like she always had, swiftly, arms outstretched. long legs reaching for more ground, pixie face strangely illumined by the bluish-green tint of mercury lights in the parking lot.
“Is it really you?” she asked, a little breathless. “I just got in a couple hours ago, I called Marvel and she said–oh, hello, Jerry!–she said you two were here, so here I am!”
She placed her arms around me gingerly as if asking permission, and I gladly brought her to my chest a moment, then held her away from me. One person I understood better than the rest. At least once.
But this was that Sarah? Sleek, swinging silver-streaked hair and so quick to speak? She leaned her head to one side, took my hand into hers.
“Madison, a pleasure once more.”
“I’m glad to see you, Sarah, such a long time.”
“It is. From Missouri to professorship at Stanford University for me; for you, Seattle, and aerospace, Marvel says. We need to talk.” She peered at the car, patted it. “Nice. Are you guys leaving already or going on a spin?”
“I need rest and so does Jerry. We’ll chat tomorrow.”
I beamed back at her but felt noncommittal. I was in need of more antacids and sleep and still had to run Jerry home. It was just a lot to take in the first few hours back in the ole hometown. So much felt the same but Ghost Panther, in prison. He wasn’t exactly my childhood hero but he meant something. It set badly with me. The small fire in my belly was roiling, likely to carry me into a long, restless night.
“Alright, see you tomorrow at dinner or before?”
“Tomorrow,” I agreed and folded into the car.
I dropped Jerry off at his pleasant two-story house at the edge of town not far from where he had grown up. Gabbed for ten minutes with Marvel, who was feisty and warm as before. Sped back to Motel Six, flung myself on my bed. Stared up at the at the popcorn ceiling, then took a cool shower and pulled on shorts. Studied my face in the mirror to make sure I still had a grasp of who I was. I had a mind to pack up the few things unpacked and leave in the morning. Who needed nostalgia or jolts of current reality? It was too much in one visit. I wanted life stories to unfold carefully, slowly. I wanted to hide my own longer though it wasn’t that sad, just not what I expected it to be. But, then, did anyone of us?
My nightly ritual had to be kept even in this room, this time warp. I pulled out a notebook and my drafting pen and began to loosely sketch those I had seen. Melba, flare of laughter, a wealth of generosity but eyes hard and sparking, too. Jerry all rough angles and weariness made stronger, sweeter with contentment. Sarah, beauty revealed and brilliance undimmed, her soft shyness finally undone. And Clary’s–Ghost Panther’s–face came to the fore. But it was of the past. A person I did not the least bit know had evolved. He was…older now, too, much older, in case I forgot that time had slipped away.
How to make heads or tails of the news? On the clean white page, at least, a creature elegance rising from leanness. Eyes that delved, captured everything, committing it to mind for reference. Future acts. Dangerous capers. Yet he had been kind to me. He had taught me to be braver than I felt: a steady gaze back, a solid stance, head held up. He had given me tips on how to win some snooker games. How to withstand losing–with a shrug and “see you turkeys later” tossed over a shoulder, striding without rush out the door. He’d applauded my jacknife dives.
A person could be deeper and better than the wrong things done. I had faith in greater possibilities. He no doubt still carried some magic, had more to offer if he’d get through the misery and wake up. But it wasn’t for me to know, I conceded.
I closed the sketch book. Popped another antacid. Wondered what was on the dinner menu at the reunion. Punched up my pillow so it fit about right under my too-stuffed skull. Turned out the pearly plastic bedside light. Turned over, avoided thinking of Dina. Wondered about Sarah.
The cicadas were singing above the purring A/C, a comfort, after all. A mournful wail of a train whistle tunneled through sodden Missouri air, the same one that used to set me to dreaming as a boy. Tomorrow would arrive one way or another. I’d not often been stymied by people or places. I chose to take in what I needed or wanted then moved forward. But it was clear some of us got left behind, like it or not. I shut my eyes. It was only a quick time travel to finish up, then back home.
Ten-four, Ghost Panther, I know you’re around, wherever you are. Sorry I missed you this time. Good numbers, 10-7.