Below, Jessica tells the story of Daniel, a man going back to his high school for his 10 year reunion, trying to tackle the nostalgia among the devistation of post WWII America.
Welcome Back, Class of 1940! 10 Year Reunion! The blue and gold banners hung from the stonework of Register Hall with its heavy hewn blocks stacked with posterity in mind. The banners lifted and fell in the breeze of the evening behind the statue of Albert Winston Fogsworth – The Old Foggy – who would greet the prep school boys upon this pedestal (though his body lay long interred) until the day his countenance crumbled to dust. Even now his granite face, intricately carved down to the curve of his eyebrow and curls of his beard, gazed with blank eyes towards the athletic grounds where young men contended for glory. It was on those fields that Daniel thought he knew battle, hoisted onto the shoulders of his teammates after scoring the winning touchdown, playing hard and aching hard, returning to a silent locker room in the wake of defeat. There were photographs of that winning team that would line the hallways of Bettinridge Academy, photos he would see in a few short moments as they passed under the stone arches into the hall. Photos of men he gained a line with and ran laps with and fell to the field huffing with after Coach pressed them further, men who really were just boys at the beginning of all of this, men who all looked like one another in that recruitment office, men who were boys who were bold in their gear, men who were fearless taking that beach and then were just boys again.
“Danny?” Kate’s voice brought him back from the places he tended to go too often. But she had become good at that. Or maybe not good at it, but accustomed to it, and in their two years of marriage she became the ballast to his tiny boat with torn sails more than once. She stood a bit lower than him, even in heels, and tucked her fingers into his palm for comfort. “You’re starting at Old Foggy.”
Daniel nodded his head, and looked up again to the old headmaster, still keeping watch over his charges. What that statue could not see with those blank eyes.
What man could see with his eyes of flesh.
What things man would never want to see again.
Some of the men wore their uniforms to the ten year reunion, and could be seen ahead mounting the steps of their alma mater, passing through the oak doors propped open for the occasion. The facade of Register Hall was lit up like a movie premier. Since leaving the army Daniel wanted nothing to do with the army, the habits and the protocol, and had grown his hair back to its length, combed neatly to the side. He wore a black suit with cufflinks his father left him when he died, and a blue silk tie that best aligned with Bettinridge’s primary color. Kate had matched her dress to his tie, and it could make him weep, the way she took care of the small things. It was her who brought him here, back to here.
Scotty and Maria caught their attention, and conversation turned to the jobs, the babies, the new decade (“1950, can you believe it?”) and what it would hold. Daniel barely knew Scotty in school, remembered he was one of the Latin club kids, yet tonight, it seemed, everyone’s memories were fond and everyone’s associations were tight. It didn’t matter if you ran together in high school, it didn’t matter if you beat the kid up out back of Sage when lunch period was over, it didn’t matter that you parted ways and lived your life and moved into your own preferred thing away from those you spent four years cramming for tests with and playing ball with and rubbing against at dances and falling in love with and falling out of love with. Tonight, they were all good friends. No bad blood. Water under the bridge.
A waiter offered a tray of champagne, and Daniel commented on how rich the school was, again. Kate just stared in wonder at the vaulted ceiling, the stonework. It was the first time she was seeing his prep school, and his comments about this or that never deterred her curiosity. She whispered, “You went here,” still discovering the depths of the man she married. She exclaimed in the car that she wanted a complete tour, though how that would be possible with half the buildings closed, Daniel didn’t know.
At the end of the long hallway, through another set of doors, was the gymnasium, and from its atmospheric interior they could already here the band playing songs from their year, Artie Shaw and Jimmy Dorsey and of course, Glenn Miller. And the Andrew Sisters, whom Kate loved, and when he had told her he saw them in France at the USO, she beamed. Yeah, it was a good evening, he said.
A good evening, the night before the land mine took off Jimmy Frank’s leg, Jimmy who had been an all-star pitcher at his college before joining up, and he wailed about the cutters, the sliders, the change-ups he would never throw again.
Daniel saw his face in those photographs lining the wall of the hall, behind glass, specimens preserved. Jimmy was a face with the other faces in the photograph of the varsity baseball team. Down the line was Charles, second base, who was still lost somewhere in Germany. A baseball bat from the ‘20s lay upon the blue fabric someone had delicately arranged inside the cases. Kate laced her arm through his and asked if he knew anyone.
I know everyone.
When you’re in these halls between classes, talking Shakespeare and Crimean War and the weekend dance, you don’t think there will be war, and you don’t think you’ll go to the office with your buddies to sign up because someone bombed American soil, and you don’t think there will be a clerical error that will result in most of the guys from Bettinridge ending up in the same units, and going up on that beach, and pressing into a faulty fight, and when you’re in these halls with Brian and Jake and Max and Robert you never think you’ll watch them die.
Brian and Jake and Max stared at him from that photograph of his varsity football team. Brian, who nervously asked out the woman who would be his widow in this hallway after school, trembling as his buddies huddled in the storeroom doorway eavesdropping on the conversation. Jake, who broke in to Register Hall and ran a midnight bowling game with all the guys who boarded in Willis, pins crashing and the sounds of the balls rolling over the granite floor echoing into the vaults. Max, who would make up stories about the guys in the photos that came before them, the class of ’08 and ’24 and the first class of ’87, detailing their adventure and their glory and their demise, and they knew all the men in that first class were probably dead, and they all passed by and never took the time to look, and what junior in some future class would look back on the class of 1940 and say, “They are all dead too.”
Kate tucked her fingers into his palm and they joined his classmates in the gym. The band was loud and good, and the food was a high, catered affair, the tables draped in blue cloth with gold accents, and the champagne flowing. Daniel remembered old classmates, and old classmates remembered Daniel, and he told Kate of the triumphs in this gym and the lousy dances in this gym, and while the reunion just felt like another lousy dance it was much more than that. How so, he couldn’t say. He swirled his champagne. That point in his chest, which ached so much these days, flared with emotion.
He left when they came to the tribute of the fallen Bettinridge men overseas.
She followed, heels echoing in the hall, and tucked her fingers into his palm as he lead her through the empty, but lit campus. The doors were opened, strangely, and he wondered if they just trusted their returning students or if they were expecting the alumni to stalk about campus reliving their past. Daniel wanted no part in reliving. He wanted a part in living.
The classroom doors were locked, but the lights from the quad illuminated the classroom enough to see through the glass in the door: desks lined in neat rows, a map of the world, Friday’s lesson lingering on the board in quick hashes of the chalk.
“They taught us about geography here, all of us. I remember learning about Europe in this room –” He tapped the wood of the door. “– and so did the guys, and when we were in London preparing for the invasion we went through the maps in our brains and talked about Mr. Murray’s class and his pointer striking the cloth map, and how Europe looked so big and multi-colored from those desk, and who ever thought we’d end up there, in Europe, crossing territory that was just flat on a map and moving into countries that we could only take Mr. Murray’s word for? Brian argued with me over where Poland was, saying it was south of Germany, and I said, ‘No, don’t you remember that day, that day when Mr. Murray was really quiet and he showed us on that map?’ He still contended it was south, near Italy, and I told him that maybe he would get there and he thought maybe he would, but he got shot through the head before that.”
Kate nodded in silent understanding. She let Daniel have his past. And from within the campus the class of 1940 were attempting to forget, but remembering all the same.
Jessica A. Kent is currently pursuing her MFA at Emerson College in Boston. Her work has appeared in such places as Boston Literary Magazine, Emerson Review, Corkboard, and Relevant Magazine. Find out more at www.jessicaakent.com.