I never thought of Ladd Callander as a boyfriend, let me establish that from the jump. God, I haven't taught high-school algebra in four years and I can't get the hip-hop jargon (as interpreted by white kids in Lake Orion) out of my head. I never was his shorty or his boo. Ya feel me? OK, I'll stop. More like a cousin. Like a kissin' cousin, I suppose, though I don't recall ever kissing him. But I believe I may have gotten off with a boy for the first time while playing around with Ladd. Sounds complicated, right?
Our parents played pinochle or bowled together nearly every weekend, it seemed like. From 3rd grade until when the Callanders moved to Lapeer, just after Ladd graduated. After Bonanza they'd tuck us into the same bed, for instance. Ladd would have been nine, maybe, and no one would have thought it was some kind of twisted shit. They figured we'd talk ourselves to sleep. I remember this hockey game he taught me, flicking a poker chip back and forth across the tight sheet. He said he invented it. There must have been a nightlight in the room. Or streetlight coming in.
My husband Charlie and I had only been down in Florida full time for a couple of years when I got my invitation to a 50th Class Reunion. The Celeryville Alumni group organizes these events. They hand out our Golden Diplomas but there would also be many weathered, vaguely familiar faces in attendance, not just the Class of '68. That's because the All-Class reunion is held on the same weekend. Charlie asks, am I supposed to use the diploma to look for a job again.
Ladd has assured me via Facebook that I won't recognize the town ( a twenty-five year estrangement in that regard). He always goes and he says the ceremony for his bunch last year was pretty cool. See, we found each other on social media a few years ago but I still haven't seen him in 51 years. Does it give away something psychological if you searched for a name? There has probably been a study. Anyway, at least we won't have to catch up on deaths and divorces, family tree issues. The communications have been mostly about grandkids' achievements and the geriatric crisis of our parents. Did Charlie ever do any elder law? Ladd wanted to know.
My husband is a sweetie about the trip. He was from Oakland County and we met at State. He won't know anybody, but no complaints. He's a good looking man, still, and likes to be shown off, even with his defunct prostate. Also, turns out Punta Gorda is like a sauna in July. A sauna with reptiles. Duh, right? Storms start to shape up out by Africa around that time. So we took the hint this year and got plane reservations. Our kids are safely out of Michigan, but Charlie looked forward to playing golf with his old law partners; hear how the unions they worked for are faring against Trump; see if workman's comp has gotten even tighter.
This is actually my first visit to the new high school in Celeryville. When we get there from the Best Western, the lobby is like some kind of modern museum--polished marble; tall, lighted trophy cases; a Wall of Honor for Valedictorians and another for veterans. Lots of buffed nickel and brass hardware. A perfect repository for all these parchment faces. I feel I'm adding a positive accent in all my white cotton and tropical jewelry. We sign the guest book and stick on our name tags. Charlie wanders off to study the history while I get smothered in a scrum of serial hugging.
"Carole Ward? Oh, my God! You look like a kid!" I recognize a much-revised Sue Beth Halas. The married name on her sticker says Brown.
"Well, Sue! I was hoping I'd see you here!" Now. Oh, Lord, now I love my skinny frame. How many here will remember me as the flat breasted burgundy bird? I think some little bastard even figured out the Latin which went around in the halls for awhile. Yeah, I was in love with that color for a year or so, before avocado came in. At least I never got into madras. Hip-huggers in all shades were standard issue, sure. And has far as my tits, I never suffered all this major sag I see going on. Udder city!
I tried to grow a mod hairstyle--big dishwater blond Sassoon waves molded around juice cans (from concentrate) framing my face. I may have ended up with the first-known shag in the back.
"Carole? My favorite chem-lab partner?" A tall, stooped guy with a male-patterned golf sunburn gives me an engulfing two-handed shake. The clasp lingers. Yeah, I remember the hands.
"Fredrick?" I look up into the bluest eyes on our basketball team. A blue you could see all the way out at the center jump. Those long arms finally retract the liver-spotted oven-mitts. The first Celeryville Saber ever to jam the ball in a game. "You look like you could still suit up."
"Aww, thanks. But my Teflon knees wouldn't like that. Anyway, I just need to know where you're sitting," he snickers. "My eyebrows finally grew back."
Wow. That seems almost hostile. I thought time healed all...But I didn't owe him any prom date reparations from that incident of the leaky Bunsen burner.
Charlie comes up behind me. He's supposed to rescue me, if necessary, from any encounters that might look awkward. He pulls me back gently, not to startle me, like I might be about to step off a busy curb. Personal space is reestablished. "Fredrick, this is my husband, Charlie. Charlie, this is..."
But then someone begins clanging an old-timey school bell. It echoes out of the bright and cavernous cafetorium. Up on the dais, the seats for Class of '68 await empty. The Alumni President, some even older grad I don't remember, puts the ceremonial bell down on the lectern. He uses the mic to announce that luncheon is being served. Everyone moves into line for the enhanced cafeteria food. The digital, scrolling menu board is sure new. I start looking around for Ladd. He could be up the line, already sliding his tray along, or way back in the lobby.
I guess if I ever did have a crush on him, it would have been in fifth grade. We'd moved down the block from the Callanders so Ladd and I often walked to school together. In March he began going on about buying a used mimeograph machine and putting out a neighborhood newspaper. This was his passion for about a month. I don't know if he'd gotten the idea from something he was reading (he was about three levels ahead) or maybe he'd seen some old movie with Extra! Extra! editions flying off the press, reporters yelling into dial phones. His own column would be called Window on Fifth Street. Just as soon as he could buy a fresh ribbon and replace a bent carriage return bar on an old Royal portable his Grandma had given him. Next morning, bitter cold, the paltry light filled with die-hard flurries, I handed him an envelope with $.67 cents in it. Did that make it a crush? I never heard any more about Window on Fifth Street but a couple of years later, Celeryville Times made him their high-school correspondent.
The food is decent--salads, subs, veggie wraps, freshly cut fruit; all the stuff we should have been eating fifty years ago but which the kids get now. There are also sloppy
Joes and tater tots just for nostalgia. Clever idea, but probably not for twelve bucks. Milk in flimsier cardboard but they offer low-fat now. You punch the attached straw through the foil like a juice box. Remember those fold-out spouts that always tore.
Charlie's Italian sub looks pretty substantial. He's trying to get a bite into a good cross-section when I spot Ladd. I recognize him from Facebook pics but I think I would have anyway. He's coming out with his tray in one hand and a crutch under the other armpit. Oh, yeah, that's right. He mentioned an ankle surgery he hoped to have healed up by summer. And that looks like his brother behind him. I think Chick married one of the VanDriessen sisters. Ladd has his hands full but he's looking around, looking. He can't wave but has a nice smile and wink when he finds me.
"Is that good?"
Charlie nods, keeps chewing. "Not bad." He covers up with a touch of the paper napkin. "I'm guessing Jimmy John catering."
"That's my old friend Ladd. Over there." I point with a glance.
"I'm not going to turn and look."
The Callanders scan the room and locate the table for Class of '69, Chick's bunch. Charlie discretely cranes around to look, finally, but Ladd is facing away.
Ladd's appearance hasn't changed much except for wearing contacts. The last time I saw him was pretty dumb. We'd gone our separate ways in high-school as far as dating went, but we must have both been unattached at the time of his graduation. He invited me to the Senior Lock-In at Port Huron YMCA. The school bussed grads for an alcohol-free overnighter: dancing, pizza, pool and gym open all night so they'd all live into the first day of so-called adulthood. I told Ladd I'd go, but then he got appendicitis. The hospital released him to receive his diploma, but then he had to go straight home to recuperate. I called him and said to get well soon. I teased him that he was just trying to get out of our date. He went off to Port Huron College and I never saw him again until now.
He places his tray on the table next to Chick's and then looks for somewhere to prop the crutch. He sits down and lifts his foot onto an empty chair.
"Well, go on over so he doesn't have to walk." Charlie has resumed eating.
I pause my own meal to do just that. I give Ladd a big hug around the shoulders from behind. Chick stands up so I hug him too. "It's so good to see you guys again."
"You look terrific," Ladd says. "Tennis? Golf?"
"Well, thank you! Yes, to the golf. And my Peleton when it's raining," I reply.
"I want one of those," Ladd says. "But I'll be happy just to get back on my bike." He lifts the hard plastic boot and thumps it down on the chair. For some reason I can't take my eyes off it. It's just a stocking, not a surgical dressing so he must be nearly healed.
"I quit the bike after too many reptile encounters," I tell them. "But some of the golf courses are hazardous, too."
I can see the organizers playing with the lectern and adjusting the height of the mic. Our Senior Class President, Eddie Fillmore, has taken a seat up on stage. He and the head of Alumni are shuffling through their notes, making sure the diplomas in alphabetical order. I rest my hand on Ladd's shoulder. His hair is almost that long, grey-blond in one of those ponytail deals that's knotted at the crown. I don't know what they're called. "Hey, we're hanging out after the program, OK? It's been so long."
Ladd looks up from his turkey wrap. "That's pretty much why I'm here," and he kinda leans back into me before I go. The toe wriggles uncomfortably in the white athletic sock and it all comes back to me, the reason I care about any of this enough to write it down.
When all the survivors of the Class of '68 are gathered on the dais, that foot is all I can think about. Eddie Fillmore drones his anecdotes and the Alumni President adds a few, but I'm back in the Callender's front room. I'm thirteen years old and we're watching an old western. There's this new program called Saturday Night at the Movies, so the movie was only medium old. Our parents are laughing and shouting at the kitchen table in the back of the house, A new card game.
Gary Cooper was the lead, I remember that. Ladd closed the French doors to keep out the racket. He said. Mid-October so it was chilly. We were under this crazy mohair afghan Mrs. Callander had. Warmer than it needed to be and then Ladd's foot was moving incrementally up my leg. So unexpected and out of character that I couldn't breathe. Richard Widmark and Susan something. A gambler on the run and a Mexican scout rounded out the party. Characters there to be picked off one at a time Ladd went right on explaining the historical inaccuracies. How guys on the way to the Gold Rush wouldn't have repeating rifles. His stocking slid smoothly and he reached my thigh. The prospector's had been beached by a break-down of their steam ship and Ladd scoffs that they would have come to California by clipper.
Why in the world was I in a skirt? And hose I think, which could not have fit my bony legs very tight. More crush evidence? Had I just come from some dress-up function? But Mom had been letting me experiment with a pale lipstick around that time. Maybe I was just practicing all of it. The so-called Apaches would not have had Mohawk haircuts, Ladd alleged. Susan whatever had recruited the stranded prospectors to save her husband who was trapped by a mine cave-in. They could have his share of the gold, I believe, was the deal. But the Apaches wanted her husband to die right there because he violated sacred ground. Ladd's toe was past the garter, touching something I don't think I even knew the name of. But I knew what was going to happen. And probably soon. Same as dangling my leg out the side of my bed, pressing myself against that mattress edge, that thick roll of seams. Same as laying on my hand, moving pressure against the....I meant to look it up in Health class. The woman was screaming. The Apaches had captured someone. The prospectors find him later, hung upside down and full of arrows. Susan Hayward maybe? I'm biting my lip. I swallowed a new voice of my own. Ladd wasn't saying anything either, his glasses reflecting the rocks and cacti. I made no conscious decision to accept this or wriggle out of it. Couldn't think fast enough so just enjoyed but didn't acknowledge. Embarrassing how good it felt at the time. I wondered for the rest of my life up to the present why it was so difficult for some; Well, let me back up: I began wondering when women started actually verbalizing it ten years later.
Holed up in an old mission, one of the prospectors was chosen to go for help and to get that Susan out of danger. It was the old priest there who blamed the group's bad luck on the desolate mountains he called the Garden of Evil. Ah-ha moment, right? But I hadn't even wondered at the movie's title. The other guy, Richard Widmark, I think, would stay behind to hold off the hostiles and buy time. Once clear though, Gary Cooper just has to go back.
"I think they're making popcorn," Ladd broke our determined silence. "Want some?"
"Uh-huh. And some more ginger ale," I croaked.
"Carole Ward Bernhardt?" Eddie Fillmore announces. Sue Beth Hallas-whatever, sitting next to me, gives me a nudge. Feels like I must have gotten it wet, daydreaming. I'm almost afraid to walk. If I'm flushed, I'll just blame it on the stage lights. Hot flashes were long ago. I make it to the podium. The Alumni President, who's even older than us, hands over the diploma along with a handshake. A clammy one from the current Superintendent, too. Nice applause. Not raucous like some of the old class clowns or troublemakers got. In my defense, I look for Charlie first then return to my seat. There have never been any second thoughts about him.
We move to their table when there is room. We drag over some abandoned chairs. Trays and dishes have been cleared. More hugs. This time I bend in and embrace Ladd from the front so he doesn't try to get up. I hold the hug just short of awkward. Then guess where I sit? Right next to the chair where he's resting the big moon boot. We reminisce about our parents and friends, classes and teachers. I'm going to have a hard time keeping my eyes off that athletic stocking. The Under Armour logo. My glances are furtive and discrete so, once again, nothing has to get started.
Christopher Dungey is a retired auto worker in MI. Ride mountain bike, feed two wood-stoves, sing in a Presbyterian choir, follow Detroit City FC, spend much time in Starbucks. More than 65 published stories. In 2018 at Likely Red, Magnolia Review, Far Off Places. Hope you enjoy this one.