Orin Hargraves‎ > ‎Oeuvre Groove‎ > ‎

Reunion

Reunion                                                                                       ©2018 by Orin Hargraves, all rights reserved

The class I would have graduated with is having a reunion this weekend. There’s a small item about it in the paper, which my father’s wife has helpfully drawn a box around. “You should go,” she says, handing it to me, “Your old friends would be happy to see you.”

My old friends whom I haven’t seen or talked to since tenth grade I’m thinking, and like I need something else to do this weekend besides sort through my Dad’s already picked-over stuff before she throws it out. But after more hours alone in the house with her than I can stick, I decide to go anyway, on Saturday when the paper said the class would gather on Main Street in front of the old courthouse to watch the homecoming parade. Everything in this town has to happen on the same weekend, otherwise no one would ever come back. Unless, of course, you never left, which I expect might be the case for most of the reunioners.

I figure I can walk casually along the other side of the street, blending into the spectators, and scope out the gathering incognito to determine whether it’s worth going through all that—there’s only a couple of people I have any curiosity about anyway. This way it will be easy to just keep on walking if it looks like the gathering would be a huge downer. So that’s the plan, I’m moseying along Main Street, not able to recognize a single face on the other side, and about to decide I’ll bypass the whole thing. Then a voice bellows out: “Will Wainright?”

My head has to turn, and then the same voice, coming out of a big man with a big belly, says “Over here, on this side.”

So the awkwardness begins immediately. The hailer is Roland Shelsky. He introduces himself to me when he sees that I don’t recognize him. With the name, a memory congeals and I recall him as the class clown, an amiable guy back in the day. He used to always have a crew cut. Now he’s got a comb-over, which sits atop a fleshy mass, obtrusively large around the middle and tapering slightly towards the feet. We barely get through tense how-do-you-dos before he drags me like a trophy kill towards one of the small klatches on the sidewalk. “Look who I found!” he says, “Will Wainright!”

“Hi!” I say, without a name to put to anyone. I survey the small circle, three guys, two girls, and catalog their looks of surprise or confusion. Maybe the last girl looks a bit familiar: Amy—Something. She reaches out to shake my hand.

“Will! How nice to see you. Amy Palmer. Amy Archer now, but used to be.” Another memory congeals. She was fun; we were buddies, in some classes together, both of us B-list in popularity but not bothered by it. She introduces me to the circle and other recognitions slip into place as the names conjure random memories.

“Do you all still live here?” I ask.

“Albuquerque,” says Amy. “My folks are still here, I came back for the weekend.”

 Of the others, two are still local, one just an hour away, one has come all the way from Texas. And Roland: he has been a missionary in Peru. I catch on quickly that this is his only subject, because when he starts in on it the others begin to fidget. Before it becomes too tedious, I throw out a question: “What ever happened to Hector Velasquez?”

Nobody knows—maybe nobody remembers him, and I remember the governing paradigm of Cranberg High School, which was that Anglo kids and Hispanic kids were two different societies that occupied the same space, hardly ever intersecting. Hector and I sat next to each other in choir. I thought about him often after I moved away, even though we had never been to each other’s houses.

“What about Chuck Farrell?” I ask.

“Oh he passed,” a local girl says. “Didn’t you hear? Buried in snow. He was pulling it off a roof with a rake and it all came down on him at once. He suffocated and froze, they didn’t find him till the next day.”

“No, I didn’t know. That’s terrible.” The looks all around confirm my feeling. Chuck and I were friends, and rivals of a sort in math class, always trying to outdo each other. He was a golden boy: intelligent, handsome, athletic, sociable, from a good family. He and I were contenders for class president the year that I left. He won. My constituency, if you could call it that, mostly didn’t take part during the lunch hour allotted for the election. I expect that most of them were behind the bleachers, smoking cigarettes or making out. It’s unbearable to think of Chuck slowly suffocating and freezing in a snowbank. The class presidency couldn’t have been any comfort.

But now that death has entered our circle, one of the girls says, “Sorry to hear about your Dad. I guess that’s what you came back for?” And maybe there’s just a slight accusatory lilt in her question, as if to say you clearly didn’t come back to see us, but I ignore this. She’s apparently the only one who knows he died, judging by the looks. But there was no service, and it’s not like he was a town father or anything.

“Yeah, I’m going through some of his stuff and sorting out his estate.” Estate is a grand word for a guy that dies penniless but how else do you characterize all the loose ends?

Amy says “I remember when he came to the awards ceremony at school, everyone thought he was so cool!”

“Yeah.” I remember that too.” I’d won a science prize. He came off, successfully to the others, as the super dad everyone wanted to have. He had even sobered up for the event, it was probably the first time in a week that he wasn’t slurring his speech.

“So what are you doing now? Where do you even live?” Roland asks.

“I teach music at San Diego State University. Live just outside of San Diego.”

Nods acknowledge this just as the high school marching band rounds the corner and we all advert to the demands of Sousa. The band kids look good and they sound good. There are even majorettes and their batons twirl high in the air, casting off glints of sunshine as they tumble downwards. There are a lot more brown kids in the band, and I remember that my stepmother told me, in a voice edgy with dismay and indignation, that Cranberg is majority Hispanic now. The band uniforms are the same bright green and gold that we all remember and we utter oohs and ahs of nostalgic appreciation.

The band is followed by some sorry-looking floats. We all agree that effort in this direction is much slacker than when we were young; we wonder why people don’t bother anymore. Following the floats there are vintage convertibles carrying local dignitaries. A woman from our class does a pretty good simulation of modest embarrassment when others point out her brother, the mayor. A cadre of rifle-toting cowboys on horses saunters through; no one can identify who they are but their air of self-importance seems to justify their spot in the parade. Then more floats, some of which throw out candy that kids along the street scurry after. And now suddenly, the homecoming royalty. They’re beautiful, a cheerleader-quality girl in a prom dress, and next to her, a tall and good-looking brown boy in a tux. That’s new too, the whole homecoming culture was an Anglo domain back in the day. Everyone applauds and whistles.

The parade is a great rebonding experience for the reunioners. It gives us all an agreeable focus and obviates the need for us to feign abiding interest in each other. Our small klatches intermingle and recombine, and I shake hands with and vaguely remember a bunch of other guys and girls. This prompts memories of some others I don’t see, but I don’t ask any more questions, my record in this having already tanked.

There’s new music coming around the corner now and it’s not what anyone expects: mariachi. There’s a bit of squirming among the reunioners and the feeling I pick up is that perhaps this is a bridge too far: the Cranberg they know can’t have a mariachi band in the high school homecoming parade. But the music is bright and catchy, and the crowd—yes, they’re mostly brown too, as we look around—are cheering them on. So we listen and tap our feet, like everyone else.

It’s not a big band and they’re not all kids: some guys our age and a bit younger, some high school boys and girls. They’re dressed in mostly matching, flashy costumes of bright orange with decorations in black and gold, and they’re rocking the obligatory gigantic sombreros. There are singers in the front on guitar and guitarrón, trumpets in the middle, fiddles in back. My gut does a somersault when they’re about to pass us because the trumpet nearest us points his bell in our direction and I’m sure it’s Hector Velasquez. And I think he recognizes me, his eyebrows shoot up and his lips, in a death grip on the mouthpiece, seem to turn up a bit on the ends.

Nobody else in the group reacts and as they pass by, I remark: “Wow, they’re really great!”

That doesn’t even get lukewarm assent and Roland makes a sour face. “I don’t think they’re from here.”

After this, the dregs of the parade muddle past and the little reunion party is breaking up, with talk of other planned activities for the weekend: a tour of the new high school that one of the classmates had a hand in building, a tailgate party, and of course the football game tonight. All of these sound excruciating and I make excuses about having to do stuff at home.

* * *

The next day warms up by late morning, at about the time I’ve reached my limit again with my stepmother and her steady diet of loud and alarming cable news. My old bike, mercifully, proves to need nothing more than air in the tires and I take it out for a ride. Not a random ride, because since the parade yesterday I can think of nothing except Hector Velasquez and how I might find him. The old-school method—look in the phone book—is a washout, there are two dozen Velasquezes listed and I don’t have a clue who his parents are or where he lived. Maybe he’s one of the dozens of Hector Velasquezes on Facebook but the first page of them seem to all be insolent-looking 19-year-old Californians and it doesn’t feel productive to trawl through any more. And even if I found him there, would he log in? And all that. So I’m riding along Sixth Street, the outermost of Cranberg’s paved east-west streets, and I’m feeling distinctly how dumb this is, that 25 years on I still have a block against going into a part of town that was advertised back in the day to me and every other Anglo kid as a no-go area.

Everything south of Sixth Street was called Escondida, and it still looks and feels like a place apart. Its dirt roads meet the pavement of sixth street with fantails of dust and gravel. The houses and trailers look as down-at-heel now as they did long ago, though the cars and pickups in the driveways are mostly as new and expensive-looking as those in the rest of town. I almost turn down one of the dirt streets on the bike, but then I don’t: it still feels like it would be a trespass, even in broad daylight, just like it would have felt when I was 15. And what’s my excuse anyway if someone asks me, a gringo on a bike: that I’m looking for an old classmate who might live here because I thought I saw him in the parade yesterday?

A couple of blocks further along Sixth, and not for the first time, there’s a pack of dogs howling at me from one of the houses on the Escondida side of the street. I look over and see a guy putting his guitar and a sombrero in the back of an SUV. It’s one of the mariachi. I ride over to the post-and-wire fence. This drives the dogs wild and they shift into their highest threat level with snarls, barks, and teeth-baring as they run to meet me there, the mariachi just behind them, trying to get them under control. Just when I’m sure this will end really badly he subdues them and looks up at me, politely but without warmth.

“You guys were fantastic in the parade, I’ve never seen a marching mariachi band!”

“Thanks.”

“Are you from Cranberg?”

“The kids are from here”—he gestures around the area with his head—“Escondida and Cranberg.”

“Is one of the trumpets Hector Velasquez?”

“Yeah. He’s from here too.”

“I went to school with him.”

All of my heart is poured into these six words but it doesn’t impress the mariachi, who continues to look at me politely, apparently failing to see any claim on his attention that would arise from this fact.

“Is Hector still here?” I ask.

“His parents live over that way,” he says, gesturing with his hand deeper into Escondida. “I think he’s spending a few days here.”

“Do you know the address?”

“It’s—“ He frowns a minute, then smiles, and at last the ice is melting. “We didn’t have street names when I was a kid, I don’t know what it’s called. I’ll show you.”

So now I’m walking my bicycle south into the heart of Escondida with a native guide. We chat along the way. He (David) was a couple of years behind Hector and me in school. After three or four failed attempts to find any other common acquaintance we stop trying. I learn that he and Hector met up after high school in Las Cruces, live in El Paso now, do weddings and other gigs here and there, have day jobs.

After crossing Eighth Street we go west for a couple of blocks and then David turns us into a driveway on a corner, leading to a trailer surrounded by a tidy yard with a line of mature spruce trees. I appreciate that he doesn’t abandon me here—a conceivable sequel in other circs. He goes up to the door, knocks, waits for an answer. A man answers the door and they have a few exchanges in Spanish. Next minute, Hector bounds down the three steps to where we’re standing and wraps me up in a quick-release bear hug.

“Hey, man! You moved away! I didn’t even know!”

“I should have kept in touch.”

“Great to see you, man!”

Now we just stare at each other and I think we both know that everything else we need to say and do isn’t going to happen right here. He looks as good out of a mariachi outfit as he did in it, taller than I remember, none of the boy left in him now, all man. It’s awkward and intense because he hasn’t stopped smiling at me and looking into me with his dark brown eyes in a way that is setting off fireworks on my insides.

David rattles off some Spanish to the Dad that I recognize as his leave-taking. I shake his hand and thank him while Hector is talking rapid-fire to his Dad. David leaves, Hector makes the formal introduction to his Dad, we shake hands in a friendly way, me on the ground, Dad on the steps, and then Dad goes back inside.

“Leave your bike here,” Hector says, “we can walk. It’s a beautiful day, no?”

In the two blocks that take us to the western edge of Escondida it’s all small talk about what we do, where we live now, the homecoming scene, how Cranberg has changed. We dead-end at the Lariat Road which leads either out to the highway or up to the mountains and he turns us in the scenic direction.

"So do you sing with the mariachi or just play the trumpet?”

“Sometimes I sing. What about you, do you still sing?”

“Yeah, I sing in a choir. I conduct some choirs too, for my job.”

“I think about us in choir. It was a really good thing.”

“Yeah. It was a great thing. I think about it too.”

We look at each other again, and then we are right back there. This is the way we used to look at each other, when we sat together in the back row tenor section. It was the only time and the only place that we ever connected, but we really connected, as much as two guys sitting on chairs with their clothes on can connect. We built a little world that had only the two of us in it, where everything was always OK, even if both of us were having shitty days, as both of us often did. As we learned the music we could always hear each other’s voices. So often when one of us didn’t have the note, the other did and it was always a beautiful thing, to make music together and to hear ourselves laying down the tenor line and weaving it in with the choir. I always wanted it to be more than this. I always wanted him to give me a green light, without knowing how or where I would go with it. But all I ever saw was yellow, and I expect that’s the color that I showed him too.

But now here we are, 25 years on, on a perfect fall morning, walking between harvested fields with no one in sight, and I dare to do something I always wanted to do: I take his hand. He smiles at me as big as a summer day. Then he turns to face me, wraps his free arm around me, and plants his lips square on my kisser. This, like his bear-hug, is quick-release.

“Wow, man, I always wanted to do that.”

“Your lips are—incredibly powerful. It must be the trumpet. I always wanted to do that too.”

So we do it again.

 “I used to think about kissing you a lot,” I say, steering us back onto a conversational track. “Some days I thought about it all the time.”

“Me too. Days and nights.”

“I’m glad we did it now. Thanks.”

“Did you get married? Do you have children?”

“I’m married now. My husband is also a professor. No kids. What about you?”

“I was married to a woman. We’re divorced now. Still friendly. We have two kids.”

There is a bend in the road and inside the corner of it, two big old cottonwoods side by side, long ago grown together in their upper branches and touching at their bases. Hector walks to the other side of them, away from the road, and there is a place to sit, where one of the trees has a hollow where a trunk fell away.

“I used to come here when I was a kid. The trees were big then. They’re really big now. It’s a good place to chill.” So we sit down.

“How old are your children? Do you have pictures of them?”

He pulls out his phone and after a few swipes shows me a picture of himself with two young teens, a boy and a girl, both of them with his features. “Armando and Gabriela,” he says.

“They’re gorgeous. Just like their father.”

“And your husband?”

I pull out my phone and show him a picture. “This is Michael.”

“Really? Michael who?”

“Michael Atencio.” My husband looks remarkably like Hector.

“Ay, you married a hermano!”

“I had to see what it was like.”

He laughs. “And how is it?”

“It’s really good.”

I squeeze his hand, study all the little black hairs on the backs of his fingers, and again we look deep into each other. In my mind there flashes a long storybook in which we connected all the way, like we wanted to back then, made a go of it, had a life together. And maybe he sees that because his eyes stop smiling for a minute and his forehead wrinkles. A breeze rustles the leaves over our heads; a few yellow ones fall to the ground around us.

“Why did you move away?”

“My mother died—in the summer after sophomore year. Cancer. I was never close to my dad, and in fact he was already seeing another woman before my mom died. So when she moved in I moved out. I went to Tucson and lived with my grandparents.”

He rubs my hand between his. “I was so bummed when you disappeared. In choir I thought maybe you were just absent on the first day—but then you never came back. I asked but nobody knew what happened to you.”

“I missed you too. Thought about you. But I just shut down everything about my life in Cranberg when I left. You were the only thing that was any good here and it didn’t seem like there was a road we could go down then.”

“But you came back for the reunion?”

“No, I didn’t know about that till I got here. My stepmom told me. My dad died a month ago, I came back to sort out some stuff about that.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No big deal. It was expected and we weren’t even in touch.”

“I am happy that we both came back.”

“Why did you come? Were you here just for the parade?”

“Yeah, pretty much. My niece is in high school here now. She was on the organizing committee for the parade. She wanted us to come so she and her friends could play with us. She was one of the violins. She organized the whole thing.”

“My good luck then. You weren’t here for the reunion at all?”

“ I only heard about the reunion after I got here too but I didn’t have a plan to do any of that.”

We talk for most of an hour, until the wind comes up and clouds roll in. When we walk back to town I’m working on him to pay a visit to San Diego so he can meet Michael and Michael can see who his archetype was. He invites me to come in, meet his parents properly, eat some lunch—but this seems like it would jostle the fragile reconnection we’ve made, and I think he’s actually a little relieved when I make excuses about stuff to do at home. We part the way we met, with a bear hug outside of his parents’ trailer.

* * * *

On Monday it’s time to head back to Denver for my flight home. My last stop in Cranberg is a strip mall on the outskirts of town, where I find the Hidden Treasures Thrift Store, a place I’ve never visited and wouldn’t visit now except for the revelation, at the end of a long Q&A with my stepmother, that it was the last known home of the only possession of my father’s that I coveted—the coat to a suit for which I somehow inherited the pants long ago. It took me forever to drag out of her that she’d given all of his clothes to the shop before he died—at the point when she saw he wasn’t going to get any better. It would be crass to say that the coat was the only thing I came back to Cranberg for, but it was my idea of the reward for what I thought would be a mostly thankless trip. So I stop in the shop on the way out of town, moderately hopeful that I’ll find the coat because its moment in the fashion spotlight is long past. The pants, which I wear from time to time, are perfectly cut, tailor-made for my dad in the 1950s when he could afford such things and fit into them, and I expected the coat would be a useful addition.

And it’s my lucky day. The store is empty but for me and the woman at the till, a stout, somber and guarded woman who only nodded stiffly when I came in. I find the coat, in perfect condition, after only a minute of flipping through the “All Coats $5” rack. I take it on its hanger to the checkout where the woman, sporting a Mennonite hair cap and home-sewn dress, waits for me. I hand her six dollars; she hands one back to me, says “No tax,” and then “You’re Will Wainright, aren’t you?”

“Yeah. And you’re . . . I’m sorry, I just saw a bunch of people from the class I was in here and it was terrible, I didn’t recognize anyone. I haven’t lived her for a really long time.”

“Glenda. Glenda Schultz back then.”

We shake hands. I remember her: she was popular, smart, from a prominent farming family. I would never have recognized her now. “Oh yeah, I remember you. We were in Mrs. Haugh’s English class together. Front row. I didn’t know you were . . . Mennonite.” This doesn’t make perfect sense, but it seems so much more diplomatic than I didn’t recognize you with 25 years and 40 extra pounds on you.

“You were the only boy that ever sat in the front row of English class. Your achievement wasn’t challenged in the rest of high school.”

“Ha. You didn’t go to any of the reunion stuff. Or I didn’t see you, I didn’t go to all of it myself.”

“No. I heard it was happening. I don’t really keep in touch with anyone, though I see an old classmate in here once in a while. Like today!”

“But you still live here.”

“Yes. Never left. Except four years in Greeley for college.”

She wears a modest wedding ring, and so it seems reasonable to ask: “Did you marry someone local?”

“The first time. I was married to Chuck Farrell.”

“Really? I’m so sorry. I heard about Chuck at the reunion—such a terrible thing to happen. Was that a long time ago?”

“About ten years ago. But I’m remarried now.”

This is delivered matter-of-factly and without any feeling that I recognize. In the silence that opens up I try to imagine how her life had unfolded, how her world must have collapsed when Chuck died. Chuck also came from an old valley family with farmland. They would have been a storybook couple, high school sweethearts probably, the kind of couple for whom anything other than happily ever after would seem like a rude departure from how it’s supposed to be.

I look around at the collection of forlorn goods in the shop. She catches, and then copies my inspection of the shop and then for a moment a look of such longing overcomes her, in which I imagine she sees, in a flash, any number of possible outcomes to her life that were something other than this. But that passes quickly, and then she gives me an odd warning look, like I need to pull back from the parts of her mind that I think I’m exploring.

“I volunteer here a couple of days a week during the school year. Once the potatoes are in it’s pretty quiet on the farm. We only have a daughter at home now, my boys with Chuck are off at college.”

“And your new husband is—from here?”

“Gary Ortiz. I don’t think you’d know him, he’s from Frontera.”

All of that speaks volumes more than the mere words of it and I see in a flash why she’s adrift from our classmates. And she’s put it out there for me to chew on: either as a way to put me off prying any further into her life, as punishment for prying as much as I already have, or as bait for a story she wants to tell. Which is it?

 “Frontera. Isn’t that—just a tiny place with a few houses?” Actually, as I remember it’s tiny place with a few shacks, a bunch of trailers, a falling-down church, dirt streets, no jobs, and no prospects. It’s Escondida without the benefit of being annexed to an Anglo town with services and amenities.

“Gary worked for us on the farm. Actually he had worked for Chuck’s father. And his father had worked for Chuck’s grandfather. When Chuck died he held the farm together. We wouldn’t have gotten through without him.”

“It must have been a pretty rocky road. I’m so glad that it worked out for you guys.”

“It did. But with some costs. There was a lot of wrangling between the families about the land. And a lot of talk at the time, some of it not very nice. So who did you see at the reunion? Did you enjoy it?”

I rattle off a few names and facts for her; she takes it all in deadpan, doesn’t seem much interested in any of it, not even Roland Shelsky’s missionary work.

“There was one surprise,” I say, “a marching mariachi band in the homecoming parade. And Hector Velasquez was in it. I don’t know if you knew him, he was in our class. He played a trumpet with the mariachi.”

“I know who he was. But only because he got suspended once. For fighting.”

“Really? He didn’t tell me about that. He doesn’t seem like he would be a fighter.”

“Were you friends with him?”

“We were both in choir. Back in the day. We were buddies there.”

“He got picked on a bit in high school. At first. I don’t think I would have heard about it except the fight was with an Anglo boy, a friend of Chuck’s, and we were already dating then.”

“What happened to the other boy?”

“Hector won the fight. Pretty decisively as I remember. I think they both got suspended.”

It seems like we’re finished now and I pick up the coat to go. “This coat belonged to my father. My stepmother said I might find it here and I’m glad I did.”

“We might have the pants too—did you look? Sometimes things get separated.”

“I already have the pants.”

“Well. Reunited then.” She reaches into the till and pulls out the five I had given her, hands it back to me. “I can’t let you pay for your own father’s coat.”

“No, please keep it. As a donation. I’m sure the church does good work, I always hear great things about the Mennonites.”

So the five goes back into the till. We smile and shake hands again and I turn to go.

“I didn’t even ask you where you live now,” she says, and it sounds more like obligatory politeness than interest.

“San Diego. I’ve been there about twenty years.”

“Did you marry? Do you have a family?”

“I have a husband. His name is Michael—Michael Atencio.”

And she gives me the most beautiful smile. “Oh! I’m so happy for you. I hope you have a good life there.”

“I have a great life there. And I’m so glad things have worked out for you. I hope your kids all do great things.”

“It’s nice to see you again, Will. God bless. Safe travels.”

 

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