Here’s the first part of a story I started awhile ago, about what surprises a man finds when he returns home for his ten year high school reunion.
“You’re all set, Mr. Lancey,” Rhonda said, handing me a manila folder. “I’ve included directions with alternate routes in case of traffic.”
I thumbed through the pages. Rhonda winked at me and gave me a motherly smile.
“They’ll all be so impressed with you, I just know it. Ten years since high school, and who else will be able to say they are in charge of an entire division? Is there… anyone special that you’re looking forward to seeing at your reunion? A high school sweetheart, perhaps?”
I chuckled noncommittally, and saw Rhonda’s smile droop. “You know me, Rhonda. I’m sure I’ll find myself a dance partner or two.”
Rhonda raised her eyebrows. “Well, make sure you only talk to the nice girls.”
“I doubt I’ll find anyone as nice as you,” I said, and Rhonda’s smile returned.
I got on the elevator and pressed the button for the parking garage.
“Oh, Mr. Lancey,” Rhonda called as the elevator doors slid shut. “Call Mr. Cannizarro on your way.”
I nodded and the steel doors closed on the view of the office. My electric blue Corvette chirped as I walked toward it, and while I lowered the convertible top, I agreed with Rhonda: no one else will be able to lay claim to the success I’ve achieved. The job, the car and even the city were each the top in their class. I maneuvered through the city, and when I exited the Holland Tunnel and was finally on the Jersey side, I dialed Freddie Cannizarro.
“Sammy,” Freddie shouted. “So what is it this weekend? Some bars, some clubs? Some exclusive parties?”
“My reunion, Fred,” I reminded him.
“Oh yeah,” Freddie said. “Going to show off a bit?”
“That’s the plan, right?”
“Always, son,” Freddie droned. “You driving? You sound distracted.”
“This is what you need to do: you gotta find the most popular girl from high school. I mean, the one who would never give you the time of day, right? Then you pull up in your sweet ride and lower your sunglasses and say something hot and sexy to her. You get her back to your hotel room – “
“I’m staying at my parent’s house, I mean, my dad’s house,” I said.
“Well, you can still do the whole thing and then go back to her hotel room…”
I listened to Freddie plan out my reunion weekend the entire two hour drive back to the town where I grew up. When I pulled onto my street, he was trying to decide whether I’d have a better weekend with the popular cheerleader chick, or the nerdy but seductive ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ chick.
I slowed my car to look at the houses on my street, which I hadn’t seen in over five years. The new up-and-coming suburbs of New York City had nothing on this old neighborhood. My colleagues who moved out of the city were always showing off their brand new houses, which were packed tightly together with identical cookie-cutter frames. My street’s old age was made even more apparent by the mature trees whose tops skimmed the clouds, and the large yards that spread out from the homes in every direction. Each house sat on at least an acre of land, with a small wooded area sprawling across the property lines. Those woods were the source of many of my childhood adventures and explorations.
A neighbor, Ann Holmes was out watering some flowers, and she peered at my car trying to distinguish the driver. When she recognized me, she waved and dropped the hose, jogging to the edge of her yard. I pulled over.
“Hang on, Fred,” I said.
“Sam? Oh my goodness, Sam! Look at this fancy car! Your father said you’d be in town this weekend. If you have time at some point, I’d love to have you and Keri over for coffee,” Ann said.
“Thanks, Ann,” I said. “I’ll let you know. How is everything? How’s Tom?”
Ann beamed. She looked as happy at the mention of her husband’s name as she had when they got married almost fifteen years ago. “He’s great. Working like a mule, you know.”
“Well, the house looks amazing,” I said, putting the car into gear.
Ann backed away, calling, “Just trying to keep it as ship-shape as it was when my parents lived here.” She waved as I continued down the street.
“Who’s that, a desperate housewife?” Freddie shouted through the phone.
“Crap, Fred, no! It’s a neighbor. I was in her wedding, kind of, when I was in high school,” I said.
I rounded a curve and my house came into view. As soon as I saw my house, the front porch, the wooden rocking chair that looked so empty without a blanket draped across the arms, I felt a pressure come over my chest.
“Okay, okay. Well, tell me if you run into anyone exciting, alright? And have a good weekend,” Freddie said, hanging up.
I pulled into my driveway, and through the rearview mirror, I could already see the screen door of the house across the street opening and a figure crossing the lawn. I parked behind my dad’s old truck and could glimpse the doghouse in the backyard that my dad and I had built together for Buddy, our old beagle who died when I was fourteen. The pressure in my chest stretched, like the tightening and strumming of guitar strings. By the time I raised and latched the top, popped the trunk and got out of the car, Keri Free was already pulling my bag out of my car.
As neighbors, we were each others first and best friends. She had always just been Keri Free, the girl at the bus stop with me, or the girl who brought me my homework when I stayed home sick from school. In high school, she did the whole marching band thing and I went out for the football team. Neither of us was part of the popular crowd in high school, and it seemed like that was something she never even tried for. She always wore her long brown hair in a thick braid – every single day – and she had these huge glasses that seemed like a barrier between her and the rest of the world.
The last time I saw her was during winter break of our junior year of college. She’d let her hair out loose, in these thick, dark waves that clawed down her back. There were no glasses, and her body had gone from girlish gawkiness to a woman’s graceful frame. And now, six years later, she looked even better.
“Holy cow, Sam,” Keri grunted, letting my bag drop to the driveway and hugging me. “Were they out of Maseratis at the rental place? Oh my gosh, I haven’t seen you in a million years.”
Her hug was tight and it suddenly felt good to be home. She let go and heaved my bag onto her shoulders and started walking to the front door.
“I, uh, own the car.”
She laughed, like I’d made a joke and then stopped, staring at me. “You’re serious? You own a car – a Corvette – and you live in New York City? Isn’t that … cumbersome?”
“Well…” I started, but Keri was already dropping my bag on the front porch. She left it there and started to cross the lawn back to her house.
“Come over for dinner, if you want,” she said, opening her screen door, and then she disappeared as quickly as she’d appeared.
I stood alone on the front porch and took a deep breath. I wasn’t sure whether I should knock or just walk right into the house. It hadn’t been quite the million years that Keri said, but I hadn’t been home since I’d graduated from college, not even for holidays. I looked around at the porch. The bricks looked older, more cracked, and the front windows looked like they needed a good washing, but otherwise everything looked the same. I closed my eyes and imagined an alternate universe, in which my mother would be inside baking a cake, and maybe my older brother, Jim, would be over for the weekend watching baseball with my dad. My niece and nephew would be splashing and playing in the pool out back. And maybe we’d even have a new dog for that old doghouse.
I opened my eyes and turned the knob. The door opened and the front hallway was dark. I could hear the sound of a television in the back of the house.
“Dad?” I called into the darkness.
“Sammy?” My father appeared in the hallway. He was wearing an old college sweatshirt and jeans and drying his hands on a rag. “Hey, Sammy. Good to see you.”
He hugged me and took my bag. “I got your old room all set up for you.” He started up the stairs.
My father and I went to Keri’s parents’ house for dinner. It would have been a quiet dinner if we’d stayed at home, and I’m not even sure what we would have eaten, so we were both happy for the invitation. I got the feeling my father ate at their house a lot.
The Frees asked about Jim and his family and my father told them about a promotion Jim got at his job in Connecticut.
“How old are his kids now?” Keri asked me.
“Uh, five and six, I think?” I glanced at my father, who shook his head.
“No, Sarah is seven and Nathan is eight,” he said.
I shrugged. “They look younger in those Christmas pictures,” I muttered.
After dinner, my father checked the wooden mailbox he’d made when I was young. It was carved from a tree stump, and there was a hole near the ground in the back that I instinctively ran my hand over when my father got the mail. He caught me and chuckled.
“Oh, you and those letters,” he said, remembering. “You spent about three summers trying to figure out who sent you on those adventures.”
I laughed. “It was the great mystery of my youth. I thought I might have had a secret admirer, but some of the tasks were definitely a punishment of some sort.”
From the ages of thirteen to sixteen, a weekly letter appeared in the hole. The letter was never signed but it sent me on missions that I had to complete before I could get the next letter. Sometimes there were rewards in the hole instead of letters.
“You know, I thought it was Mom sending those letters at one point, because every few weeks one of the tasks would be to clean my room.”
My father quieted at the mention of my mother and rifled through the mail. “Well, whoever it was …” he trailed off, sounding old and tired.
My father went to bed early, a habit he must have picked up in recent years. I stayed in my room, flipping through channels on the tiny black and white television. The TV got about seven channels, so I watched the news on three different stations.
My eyes closed on the news and opened again on a late night talkshow host interviewing the new “it” girl from the summer’s projected blockbuster. I stumbled across my wood floor, turned off the television and grabbed at the tiny chain switch hanging from the lamp by my window.
When the light was off, a small flash of some movement, some flurry of activity drew my attention to my window, which overlooked the front yard. My eyes were still adjusting to the dark after turning off my lamp, so I couldn’t be sure, but I thought there might be something outside, near the driveway. I felt around my bag for some sneakers and pulled them on while I descended the stairs as quietly as I could. My father’s bedroom door was shut, no light shone from under his door, and I could hear his quiet snores breaking the silence in the sleepy house.
I went out the back door and found an old flashlight in the garage. I grabbed a metal baseball bat at the last minute, though what I would do with it, I had no idea. Once outside, I swung the flashlight back and forth, sweeping the front lawn with the beam of light. Nothing.
I walked to the end of the driveway, and let the light illuminate the street in either direction. The night was totally still. Unlike the endless noise of the city that never sleeps, the only sounds in this neighborhood were coming from my sneakers on the pavement.
I turned my gaze up to my bedroom window, dark and nondescript against the house. What did I even see earlier? I tried to picture it again. A shadow? A glimmer? Did something move, or was it my own reflection that I saw in the window?
I sat down on the curb in front of my house and leaned on my knees. I stared across the street at Keri’s house. It sat on a slight hill, and I remembered the feeling of running down that front hill, across the street, and up the lawn to the front door of my house.
As a last ditch effort, I grabbed a stick and walked down the road a bit, to the edge of our yard, closer to Ann’s house. There was a cluster of four tall evergreens at that edge of the lawn, and I poked the stick through the branches over and over, shining the flashlight into any spaces to see if there was something hiding in the thicket. Again, there was nothing.
From the house, this part of the curb was blocked from view by the trees, and because of the way the road curved, it was invisible from the other houses on the street as well. Standing in that concealed part of the street, I flashed back to when Ann first told Keri and me about the night she met her husband. Ann got married when Keri and I were fourteen, so we must have only been in elementary school the night she and Tom met. Her parents were away for the weekend, and like any normal, red-blooded teenager, she threw a party and invited all of her friends. Her friends invited their friends, and so on.
At some point, the tall, shy boy from the next town caught Ann’s eye, and they came outside to talk. They walked down the street until they reached the sheltered curb where I was now standing, jabbing at branches with a long stick. They stayed out here for hours, until the music from the party died down and most people left. They stayed until the sun started to rise and the sounds of morning snapped them out of their reverie.
They sat on this curb, talking all night, and then in the morning when Tom realized he needed to go before his parents reported him missing, they kissed. And they’ve been together ever since. Ann told Keri and me that story the week before she got married, and then she invited me and Keri to her house to help her get ready before the wedding. At the time, it didn’t feel odd to me that a fourteen year old boy would help his neighbor get ready to walk down the aisle. Ann babysat us for years, and it just seemed normal that since my yard had played a part in her romance, I should be involved in the wedding. So, there we were – Ann’s little helpers – chatting with her while she put on her make-up and bringing her water while she was photographed in her home.
Ann and Tom moved in with her parents to save money after they got married, but they never moved out. Ann’s father suffered a stroke shortly after they were married, and Ann helped her mother take care of him until both of her parents died, her father about ten years ago, and her mother several years later. Now Ann and Tom lived in the big house by themselves.
I dropped the stick and walked back to the driveway, suddenly exhausted. As was my habit, I reached down and felt at the back of the mailbox, just like I’d done after dinner. This time though, my fingers brushed against paper.
I grabbed the folded paper and straightened up, staring first at the surprise in my hand and then looking up and down the street again. Of course, whoever had left the paper was long gone, so I took the paper, the flashlight and the metal baseball bat back up to the house.
Once inside, I bounded the stairs to my room, stopping outside my father’s bedroom door again to make sure he was still inside, asleep. I went into my room, turned on the lamp, locked the door and unfolded the paper.
It was regular lined notebook paper, and the words written on the page were carefully printed in block letters in pencil. A weird feeling came over me, like a rush of nausea. The handwriting, the block letters, the pencil – it was all familiar to me. This note was from the same person, delivered the same way, as the tasks I received years ago.
I forced my eyes to focus in on the words. There were three phrases; short, like bullet points.
BREAKFAST WITH DAD ON PORCH
LUNCH WITH NEIGHBOR IN PIANO ROOM
DINNER WITH GIRL NEXT DOOR ON PIER
These were my new tasks for the weekend. I lay back in my bed, and fell asleep considering who could have left the note.