THE CLASS RING
By Michael Kelly Blanchard
I usually took the interstate that bypassed my hometown when business pulled me in that direction. It was bland and detached from human mercantile or domestic interchange like most of them, but successfully skirted the place I grew up. This was to be desired. Wed moved there when I was in elementary school and my mother and father died and are buried there. Between those events, our familys mark on the place was less than stellar. Most of the problem, at first anyway, was due to my father. He was a closet drunk who happened also to be superintendent of schools. This made for a family life of public fiction and private friction.
Dad, it must be said, was not a very nice man
with or without a tumbler of Scotch in his hand. He was too power hungry and proud to allow any endearing, likable traits to come to the surface. On top of that, booze brought out the bitter in the man. He was a mean drunk and this meant our family life, most of the time, resembled the regime of a repressive dictator.
My mother was our spin doctor to the world, accommodating his unacknowledged addiction with disarming charm and restraint. Her lifelong performance as loving wife and mother to his two children, my three-year-older sister Elaine and me, would have been flawless had she not contracted bone cancer the fall of my senior year in high school. I always found it ironic that only something so primal as her marrow would house the profound dysfunction of her life. Everything else was perfectly disguised, effortlessly covered in a veneer of sweet affectations and social proprieties. She was dead two months before my graduation. The weekend of her funeral my sister came home from college, privately confessing her sexual preference for her own kind. My father stayed smashed and weepy-belligerent in that order for what was to stretch out to a four-day bender and my girlfriend, the daughter of a prominent local minister, finally succumbed to my hormonal demands and, as would follow, our daughter Michelle was conceived. Our marriage (Yes, it was pushed by her parents. My father couldnt have cared less.) lasted about as long as it takes for a ship full of holes to sink. Somewhere during those subsequent "Titanic" days, Dad had a stroke at a volatile town meeting called to voice growing concern over his unraveling leadership abilities and died four days later. His wake and funeral were a circus of badly performed grief and condolences from countless enemies masquerading as colleagues and friends. The entire lesson in small-town political irony was capped by the liquor-loosened lips of no less than three former female friends at the reception in the church basement. All three confessed that for several years theyd shared something more than just a platonic relationship with the old man. Each claimed they had been promised sizeable portions of his not so sizeable estate. It all amounted to nothing except that my pitiful mothers memory as the pathetic enabling wife of a high-visibility drunk was now further tarnished with the revelation of his clandestine sexual escapades. All in all, a pretty dismal accounting of one family in a small New England town. And because of it, my sister and I scrupulously stayed clear of the place. Thirty years had not altered our desire for distance from this womb of early notoriety though it had seen substantial change in us. For half of those three decades, Elaine has been happily married to a hardworking, urban minister in Cleveland, Ohio. I know, I know, she explains it this way. In her late teens and twenties she concluded that being heterosexually involved meant eventually marrying someone like Dad. With those limited options, the gay lifestyle had obvious appeal. In her early thirties, a change of her sexual preference was proceeded by a dramatic conversion to conventional Christianity. (We were nominal Methodists growing up, on the books but rarely in the pews.) This spiritual change led to weekend work in a soup kitchen where she met, fell in love with, and eventually married a former Catholic priest. They and their two children are very happy. She attributes this fact to the grace of God. I think that likely, but wouldnt stop short of giving her and Steven some of the credit as well. And speaking of happy marriages, from all accounts that describes my daughter Michelle, her husband, and baby girl. (Yup, Im a grandfather at 48. Thats what can happen when you conceive a child at 18.) Well for that matter, happiness describes Colleen, her mother, who chose more wisely the second time around. David is a high school teacher and just a hell of a nice guy. Michelle, who was 8 when they married, blossomed in their wholesome, stable home. She has three half sisters and loves them all.
Now I, on the other hand, took the best part of the last 30 years to figure out that God invented the AA organization for me. I told myself I could be a drunk as long as I wasnt a mean one like Dad. For 25 years I was a happy-go-lucky lush who believed everything was fine because I wasnt nasty when bombed. Trouble was, everyone close to me got nasty. There is almost always someone nasty with too much booze. And it doesnt matter a fig whether it is the drunk, his family, or associates. I saw two other marriages and three jobs go south before I wised up. Im a pretty broken teetotaler these days, do the meetings at least twice a week. Im on the road a lot as a precious metal salesman for an aerospace company so I try to find AA groupings along the way. This ostensibly was what led me to take the local route through my hometown after all these years. But by the time I arrived, delayed by a five-car pile up out on the pike, it was too late for anything but lights out at the Super 8.
It was nearing 12:00 on a Tuesday night as I rolled down the sleepy main street of my former life. All the standard cosmetic changes had been made to the local McDonalds-like plasticene storefronts that grew up along the strip where Mom-and-Pop establishments had flourished in my time. Given nearly thirty years since my last visit, these were probably second and third generation joints since the day of family-run restaurants. I expected nothing less, but it was still disconcerting. Everything was closed, of course. I had resigned myself to a big breakfast rather than a late night snack, but spotted an all-night diner across the street and down a block from the motel. It hadnt been there thirty years ago, but by its settled, somewhat dated look, had probably been built shortly after our departure. I intended to scoot over for a piece of pie, but by the time I got settled, answered a bunch of e-mail, and cable surfed a bit, it was almost 1:00. Too late to eat and I sure didnt need any coffee. So I climbed into bed and stared at the ceiling for 20 minutes.
The lone waitress behind the counter maybe ten minutes later looked almost as surprised to see me as I was to be sitting there. I decided to have that piece of pie after all. It gave her something to do. The place was empty but for a couple sitting in the last booth of a row of booths to the left of the entrance. The womans back was to me, her outline for the most part eclipsing the face of the man who sat across from her. They were quiet and I had almost forgotten them when the man stood up and shuffled off to the restroom behind them and to the right. In the mini-second his face came in view (Id looked up from my bored perusal of the sports section from a USA Today on its last legs.) I knew that I knew the face. There was more of it than I remembered and the body underneath it had grown considerably too. But hiding behind a middle-aged disguise of jowls and gut was at least a passing acquaintance of my youth. Who was it? I turned on the swivel stool at the counter to face him directly for his return from the john. With a full beard and something much less than full on top, I had no worry hed recognize me, so I boldly propped myself up for a better view. My second observation as he made his way back to the booth cast doubts on my first. Whatever ancient familiarity initially seen had seemingly evaporated in the bathroom. The overweight, middle-age man who briefly stared back at me was a stranger and I quickly turned to my coffee and pie, mildly embarrassed by the mistake. The observational gaffe somehow reminded me of the hour and I suddenly felt exhausted. I gobbled down the last few pieces of pie then made my way to the register. As the young woman yawned her way through my ringup, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, that the big guy in the booth had gotten up again and after whispering something to his companion was heading my way. The discomfort over my earlier goof kept my eyes focused straight ahead.
"Sam, is that you?" The voice, a high-end baritone with just a hint of a rasp revealed my original suspicions. I looked into his face but still drew a blank. My confusion visibly conveyed, he cleared up the mystery with his next utterance.
"Kyle Ford. We ran cross-country together in high school."
I dont look at eyes as a rule. Not intentionally anyway. Too revealing in both directions. But if I had, the identification would have been easy. The distinctive mischievous little-boy glint in Kyles dark brown peepers hadnt changed an iota in 30 years and no amount of wrinkle, bag, or flab could cover it up. The smile was the same too. And as he cracked it while shaking my hand, a dossier of memory showed up on my minds internal screen.
He was a great runner, clearly the best on the team. One of the best in the state. Never remembered him taking anything but first or second place, though often that wasnt enough to win the meet. The rest of us, mediocre at best, frequently couldnt muster enough talent to place. It never bothered Kyle, though. He didnt give a rip about cross-country. I had the impression he was on the team for the back of the bus laughs to and from the meet, nothing more. He had a tireless sense of humor that reached its zenith in the practical joke. Next day recountings of the meet more often spoke of some trick Kyle played on one of us than the results of the race. Sport was just an excuse to have an audience for him. He rarely trained and when he did would fudge with the calisthenics or when running take shortcuts through the woods to get it over sooner. Coach threatened to dock him from a meet or two, but never made good on it. He knew without Kyle we didnt have a meet. He had the constitution of a rock and routinely sucked down a couple of ice cream sandwiches while the rest of us were doing warm ups. I remember he was smart too. Breezed through all the advanced science and math courses like they were study halls. Should have gone to college. Even though they didnt have much money, he should have gotten a track scholarship and one for his brains, too. In fact, I think he did but for some reason I dont recall, he turned them down. He was a grade ahead of me and I remember hearing with some puzzlement about him working down at the bearing plant across town after high school.
Then the screen flashed a female face. She was at all the home meets, wore his letter sweater, and dangled his ring around her neck. They were serious cause for all his joking, in such matters you knew Kyle was serious. No player, he. Something about him made it very conceivable that the woman back at the booth would be the very same girl he took to the prom. What was her name? Susan
"Come back and say hello to Carolyn," he said pulling my hand after shaking it. Bingo! Carolyn Boyer. She was from my class. Sweet and pretty, but emotionally taut. She emoted a certain sense of high maintenance. This last evaluation was based on a handful of times Id seen them off in a corner while waiting for the late bus. Her face red, eyes moist. His big Indian arms wrapped around her like a bear rug. Did I mention he was half Indian? At least half, maybe more. I forget the tribes name, probably because I couldnt pronounce it. I think I attributed in some way most of his extraordinary giftings as well as his paradoxes to his ethnic origins. In my mind there was something about having Indian blood coursing through your veins that made you different, special. In a good way, of course, but not altogether easy. Visions of those stoic Native Americans enduring all sorts of torture without a peep of complaint came to mind with Kyle
the "different drummer" kind of thing with all its attendant loneliness and ambivalence as well as rewards. He didnt tote his ethnicity. It was more an explanation than a definition of who he was.
If Kyle had visibly ballooned in 30years, Carolyn had shriveled. Well, that wasnt it exactly. She sat throughout our entire visit so I couldnt tell for certain if she was truly smaller in size. Actually her face and upper torso had stayed about the same as I remembered. There were the predictable middle-age accommodations. Her then sandy hair was now dyed platinum and curled in a fairly tight perm as opposed to the straight pageboy she boasted in the sixties. Her cheeks were cosmetically rosy now while naturally so back then. Her lipstick darker than the light powdered gloss of our high school fashions. On one level all outward adjustments had been made for the passage of time. Yet something about her looked fragile, breakable, older than Kyle. Her voice hinted of this as well. It seemed chronically tired, wavering, inhabiting a higher register than I recalled for her. Raspier too. The kind of sound more frequently emanating from the elderly than the middle-aged. I didnt hear her speaking too often either. Most of her vocalizing was in laughs or in monosyllabic responses to Kyles carefully worded questions or statements. It didnt seem obvious at first, but later I thought her overall correspondence a little odd. But then again, having a full-blown meal at 1:30 in the morning wasnt that normal either. She seemed to be finishing up as I joined them in the booth. The waitress followed us and Kyle insisted on buying me something. Decaf was all I could muster. The young woman cleared Carolyns half-eaten plate while Kyle ordered a side of onion rings in hopes Id be tempted later on. He had some fried chicken extravaganza in front of him and by the looks had most of it yet to consume.
"I told you it was Sam, honey." I shook her slightly raised hand as I sat down next to Kyle. It seemed cold but her smile was warm enough though tinged with mild apprehension.
"How long has it been, Sam?"
That was easy. "Close to 30 years. Left town right after me and Colleen broke up. Aint been back since. Oh, Ive driven by on the pike tons of times, but this is the first actual visit since then."
"Her family moved away around then, too. Didnt they? Colleens, I mean. Her dad was the minister at the Baptist church, right?"
A mild wrinkle of concern registered on Carolyns face following Kyles inquiry. He spotted it and quickly translated with the pained look of a chronic foot-eater. I intervened to ease both their minds. "Oh, its okay. Ancient history. Actually, our daughter just had a baby."
My cropped-for-the-traveling-salesmans wallet family photo quickly surfaced. There were the appropriate ooos and ahs. Then, as if on a middle-aged cue, I asked to see whatever portable progeny album they might have. The microsecond look of pain between them spoke of the basic heartbreak. A follow-up downcast of eyes from Carolyn assigned Kyle the duty of explaining the specifics.
"No, no children. I guess the good Lord knew Carolyn would have more than she could handle with me. On any given week I can go from baby through adolescence to old fart and back again. She should have read the small print before getting involved with an old Indian."
He laughed; she smiled with eyes still staring at the table. I opened my mouth to redirect the subject, but Kyle had more to say. "Like for instance my insomnia. Never get but three or four hours sleep a night. That would drive most women crazy. Or theyd roll over and go back to sleep. Not my Carolyn."
He glanced at her with a love in his eyes that was palpable. "She just said, if Im going to be up anyway shed take an afternoon nap and wed avoid the crowd down here. Shes always been able to take a minus and turn it to a plus."
He looked over at her again and realized she was discomforted by his compliments. He turned back at me, slapped my shoulder, and headed in a different direction. "So how long are you in town for? You got some business here?"
The temptation is always there with recovering drunks to leave your most embarrassing identifiable trait out of the conversation. Particularly when you are with people youll probably never see again. The little voice says, "Do they need to know this?" And the answer, of course, is thats not the question. To the question, "Do I need to tell them," the answer is always the same. "Well, I intended to make an 8:00 AA meeting over at the grange, but a pile up just west of here had us in a parking lot for close to three hours."
Had not Carolyn found my eyes with the most merciful look of shared pain, I wouldnt have known theyd even caught my confession. I immediately wanted to spend the rest of my life with them in that booth.
"I heard the sirens. Knew something was up. Pretty bad, huh?" Kyles avoidance of my alluded to problem was very like the boy I remembered.
"I think so. Judging from the ambulances that went by. I was too far back to see anything. By the time I got up to it, most everything was cleared off."
Kyle looked over to Carolyn whose eyes turned, anticipating his stare. "Parnell must have been there. Hes on tonight." She nodded then shifted her gaze to me while fingering a simple gold chain that circled her neck and disappeared down her blouse. By its tautness I knew something fairly heavy like a cross or a brooch hung on it just out of sight. Her fingers looked stiff as they moved up and down on it and for the first time I wondered if she might not be chronically ill with something.
"So what has you traveling, Sam?"
I gave them the mercifully short version of my aerospace escapades. Somewhere in there I mentioned my two other marriages and previous jobs. Somehow laying it all out again in their forgiving presence felt good. Purging. They listened in knowing nods and appreciative sighs.
"We were doing some aerospace business just before I left," Kyle added.
My raised eyebrow was all I had to ask. Carolyn for some reason looked a little uncomfortable with the statement. "Yeah, when you start at a place at 18, if youre fool enough to hang around you will get the gold watch at 48."
His laugh tried to resurrect a smile from her face but it didnt work. Impervious he kept on. "Were going traveling in the last half of our lives, aint we babe?"
She looked at me and gave her eyes an exaggerated roll. "Kyles a dreamer, Sam. You probably remember that."
"Dreams, schmeams. I got the Airstream picked out down at Doyles RVs. Its used but better than a new Winnebega."
"They are pretty comfortable," I added. "Cadillac of the mobiles."
"Now there you go. Listen to the man, honey. Well leave here and never come back. Im telling ya Sam, you wont find us if you come by in six months. Well be on the road like that TV guy, Charles Whats-His-Name?"
In what seemed like at first a curious reversal of position, Carolyn now cheered him on. "Thats right, Kylie. Well get to that place in Montana, wont we?"
Now something other than enthusiasm flecked across Kyles face but he shook it off and answered my quizzical look. "Little Big Horn
You know where that idiot Custer bought it."
I still wasnt quite up to speed. "You got your Gettysburgs and your Valley Forges. My people got Little Big Horn. Crazy Horse kicked some serious white butt there and were going to see where it happened, aint we babe?"
"We sure will, Kylie." A soft willowy pride filled her eyes.
"So dont bother lookin us up next time youre passin through, cause my guess is well be long gone, long gone." Though he was still half done with his meal, something in his last statement felt like a benediction, a subtle cue for me to head back to the hotel. I tested the waters and found out I was right.
"Well, I suppose I should be goin. Got three hours of travel before a noon appointment tomorrow. I mean, today."
"God, it was good to see you, Sam. Hell, think of the probability of us connecting like this."
"Well, its good for me to see you two still together. Aint that many make it that long. Glad you have." I reached my hand out for hers as I rose but she didnt see it. Just kept caressing the chain around her neck and staring lovingly into Kyles smiling face. Pulling as she was, the weighted object finally flipped free of its cloth hideaway revealing a large, tarnished, gold class ring with a burgundy red stone in its center. She squeezed the free treasure gently in her right hand. "What God has joined together, Sam, never breaks. No matter what. No matter what."
It was maybe a month later I found the picture. Awhile back my sister had dropped off an old suitcase full of my stuff that she had dragged around for years. It was full of old letters, diplomas, a couple of term papers, and some report cards. I had forgotten about it, but one Saturday morning while looking for a missing sock, I pulled it out from under my bed. It was my own personal time capsule and it made me late for a T-off that day. Amidst the collection of intimate artifacts was my class yearbook. This held special affection as I was one of three editors and had taken at least half of the photos in the thing. Photography had been my artistic outlet back then, as well as an emotional escape valve while dealing with my mother's physical disintegration. It also was what initially linked Colleen and me. Our circles never would have intersected had it not been for some darkroom rendezvous. (No, no, mustn't go there.) Suffice to say photography was my thing then. My hands had what I thought was a permanent stain from the foul smelling developing fluid, and I walked with a stoop from all the cameras that perpetually dangled from my neck. I even entertained the idea of making it an occupation in some way. Michelle's conception and the ensuing entanglements backburnered those kinds of thoughts, though. Probably was just as well. I don't even own a camera nowadays. Anyway, in the back of the yearbook was a manila envelope with maybe thirty 8x10 extra or flawed photos we never used. Mingled with outtakes from the future teachers' club and candids after the class play were action shots from various sports. Most proved, once again, why they weren't included in the yearbook. They were blurry from motion or just plain out of focus. As I looked at the track shots, however, I remembered that spring sports were shot the year before because the book went to press in late winter. Now in the official yearbook only the photos of the graduating class were kept, but in this batch of outtakes several of the seniors from the previous year were included. It took me no time to local Kyle Ford coming across the finish line (first, of course) in the mile and the two-mile events. (By that time in my high school career I'd left athletics for more cerebral, soul-destructive activities. So I wasn't on the team.) It was chilling to see how thin and sinewy he had been compared to his present shape. But there was another difference, harder to define but terribly apparent. It isn't just fat and wrinkles we acquire through the years. There is sometimes a weight of sorrow that takes its toll. That young, hardly-winded boy crossing the finish line showed traces of it, but who would have guessed how thoroughly it defined him thirty years later. Only in looking at Kyle's (the boy's) face could I sense the weight in
Kyle's (the man's) soul. I hoped in my heart that Carolyn and he were wheeling their way that very moment to Custer's bones. Quite by accident while studying a shot of another track friend grimacing on his broad jump attempt, I noticed a familiar couple arm in arm in the background. Closer scrutiny confirmed it was Kyle and Carolyn in an almost spooky perfection of how I remembered them...he holding a half-eaten ice cream sandwich in his right hand while his left arm swooped around his "girl". She, shivering in his way-too-big-for-her letter sweater, snuggled into his embrace with the slightest hint of sadness on her teenage face. It was, I thought, a promise caught in time and space...a promise poignantly fulfilled and betrayed thirty years later. I had their section of the photo blown up and clarified as best as modern science would allow, then tried to give them a call to get their address. Kyle's unlisted number really didn't surprise me given his authentic indifference to most forms of social human interchange. I reckoned it as just another example of his ascetic Native American origins. But I did wonder if Carolyn didn't feel a tad isolated by such a move. The perception of her fragility bordering on infirmity had only grown in my mind since our visit. I wondered just how frequently they got out to dinner these days...and if perhaps there was not some more desperate, dignity-sustaining reasons than Kyle's insomnia that had them there in the middle of the night. An unlisted number certainly keeps the courtesy calls to a minimum, but might they not be a welcome diversion to a mostly housebound semi-invalid? And the more I thought about Carolyn, the likelier that seemed. I then remembered the feel of her cold, stiff hand at the restaurant and entertained the thought that perhaps it was she who wanted the number kept secret. If there was something degenerative happening inside her body, maybe it was too readily accentuated by bungled attempts to pick up the receiver. I put the photo in my briefcase and resigned to swing by next road trip.
The Frontier Steel Ball factory was in the south part of town, hugging the river the way plants of a century earlier often did. The big, sprawling, three-story brick structure had housed this company for almost 50 years a plaque on the wall next to the office entrance said. It had no doubt adjusted to all sorts of economic tides in that time, yet was still a viable organization, running all three shifts with a collective labor force of almost 150 laborers. I had a tiny midday window to climb through before a battery of afternoon appointments took me down the road. My plan was to get the Fords' address (I presumed the plant still had Kyle on file), find out if they were around, and if that were the case, drop the picture in their mailbox before booting out of town. Something told me a measure of "cover" would be blown if I delivered it in person. With such a focused mission, I completely forgot what town I was in and the possibility I might bump into another old acquaintance. The front desk receptionist straightened that oversight out but fast.
"Good God, Sam. Is that you?" Martha Bradley and I had enjoyed a fairly innocent dalliance the fall of our junior year. She introduced me to smoking, rum Cokes, Stan Getz (or more correctly Bossa Nova), and kissing till your mouth hurts. Every one of those but Bossa Nova I've given up for good. Well, I may try kissing till your mouth hurts again, but with three marriage misfires, I'm pretty sure I won't. I knew her all through high school, but the junior class play drew us together for a season of romance. She was the stage manager and I was the lead. We parted with remarkable congeniality and respect right before Christmas that year, which seemed at the time a terrible waste of mistletoe. To her credit, I do recall considerable tenderness when she found out about Colleen's condition the summer after we graduated. She was a good balance of heart and head, though I suspect that some of her empathy towards our situation was simple relief it wasn't her. At any rate, I've always felt a fondness for her and wasn't at all uncomfortable with this impromptu reunion.
"Good Golly, I wondered whatever happened to you! Marcia Lancaster, you remember Marcia?"
"She and I coordinated the last two reunions. She said you dropped off the face of the earth. Couldn't find anyone who knew where you were. "
"Did she try Colleen?"
"Yeah, the first time."
There was a telling pause as discretion ruled her next words. "Colleen made it pretty clear, Sam, she didn't want anything to do with the class."
"You should have called. She had no gripe with you."
"Yeah, I thought of that afterwards. Anyway, with the vibe Marcia was getting she didn't think it would go over too well asking after you. And I mean it, Sammy, no one else had a clue."
She paused again having what I would surmise as a fairly rare moment of social discomfort. Turning the page, she came back perkier than ever. "Jeez, you look good. Been takin' care of yourself. Looks like you were out of town when they handed out the 50 extra middle age pounds to the rest of us. What, you got some lady keepin' you buff in your old age?"
Strike two. I explained my other two train wreck marriages. She deflated again and could barely muster a reply. "Jeez, Sammy. I'm sorry. Did the big "D" once myself. Just hell. Two teenagers and their father decides he never loved me. Or put another way, his mistress was getting tired of hide and seek. All old news now, of course, but hell to go through. Got lucky the second time, though, Sammy. Married Dickie Delmonico. Do you remember him? He was in the class ahead of us."
Remember him? He was the only other runner who regularly placed besides Kyle. Couldn't have asked for a better lead in. "Sure I remember him. Next to Kyle Ford he was the funniest man on the cross-country team. God, what a cut up."
Martha's confirming laugh was loud. Her head nodded. "Still is. If he was the ugliest man alive, which he is far from, I still would have married him because he makes me laugh fifty times a day."
The smile lingered on her face. I was happy for her and felt a certain hope for humans rising up in me.
"He sometimes talks about those track meets. Practical jokes Kyle played. He works here, you know."
The present tense threw me off. "I know he did. Retired awhile back, didn't he?"
She reached for a roster somewhere in a lower desk drawer while her face registered considerable doubt concerning my last statement. "I know he changed shifts, but I didn't hear nothin' about callin' it quits. You in contact with Kyle these days?"
I felt a certain threat to an ambivalent sense of confidentiality I'd developed surrounding Kyle and Carolyn. "Little bit. Got an old track picture I'd like him to have. Tried calling him but his number's unlisted. Thought you might have a mailing address."
She put the roster down, success clearly visible on her face. "Got a better idea. Come back here at 3:30 and give it to him in person. He ain't retired. Just does the swing shift now. Though God knows why. Amount of years he's been here he ought to get bankers' hours."
"No can do," I said aware that my face described a conflict beyond disappointment. "I'm running late as is. Besides, the photo is at home," which was a lie but I felt a need to stack the deck. Something was mighty peculiar and I felt much more discussion and I might set off a land mine of curiosity. "You got a mailing address?"
"Just that. It's a box number over at the post office. I think he rents a room some place up on East Main. Least he used to for years. I remember seeing him bicycling to work when he had the first shift. Don't think he drives, or at least he doesn't own a car." She glanced out the window and spotted a man walking across the front parking lot with his lunchbox. "Wait a minute," she said and went past me to the front entrance. "Elwood. Elwood. Over here," she shouted. "Could you come up here for a minute."
Moments later a tall, jean and t-shirted black man in his early to mid-thirties entered the room. Seems he was a local expert on Kyle Ford, such as there could be. "Yup, still has a room back of Mrs. Sawyer's place. She's been dead a couple of years, but her daughter took over the house and let Kyle and another guy stay on."
"So he never married?" I said in an offhanded manner betraying the profound confusion I was presently feeling.
"Oh, no. Not Kyle. Jeez, if I heard it once, I've heard it a zillion times, 'No skirt's gonna get me.' He sure ain't married. I don't know if he ever even went with a girl."
There was a pause that filled up quickly with silent, modern ambivalences. He filled it in. "I mean he's a regular guy and everything, just not interested in that kind of commitment."
"Why'd he change to swing shift, Elwood? Wasn't he in the bowlin' league?" Martha asked.
"Yeah, he was. Real good, too. God, that guy can bowl. His team's in last place now. Ain't no doubt why."
She asked her earlier question again with a follow-up stare. Elwood replied, "Oh, he's got a day job. And it's a beauty too. He's one of a handful of maintenance troubleshooters over at the Rand Corporation. Tommy Miezer says they send the limo to pick him up and to bring him home every day. So yeah, he must not drive."
"Two jobs and all he's got is a room up town? What does he do with all his money?" Martha was obviously amazed that such goings on had alluded her to this point.
"Got me. I used to have lunch with Kyle regular when he worked the first shift. I like him a lot. But I know no more about his private life today than when I started working here 15 years ago. He knows a lot about a lot of things, but he don't reveal squat about himself."
Elwood left. I lingered as he did. I entertained asking Martha one last question. What did she know about Carolyn Boyer? Clearly there were some gaps in the conventional town knowledge about her and Kyle. But maybe she knew another side that would shed some light on the riddle I unwittingly tripped over at the diner.
"It's P.O. Box 115, Sam. That's probably the safest way to get something to him. Sure is curious. What in the world would he be doing with all the money he's making?" She asked the question, I felt, in hopes I might know a possible answer. And, in a sense, I thought I might. But it sure wasn't my place to speculate. So I said my good-byes and made for my first meeting.
The blowup of Kyle and Carolyn stayed in my briefcase for three weeks. The post-it note Martha had scribbled his box number on eventually fell off the hard cardboard envelope I'd bought to mail the memory, wrinkle free. I had plenty of opportunities to send it along before then, just didn't do it. Don't know why. I'm not naturally nosey the way some folks are. Didn't need to have an explanation for the curiously conflicting information I'd acquired about Kyle Ford. Somehow, though, I felt my present knowledge of the situation was too much and too little to send off that black-and-white "moment" caught so long ago. I resigned myself to pretty much forget about the whole thing. Would have, too, but for a curious encounter I had a week after that. I was driving by on the pike again with no intention of swinging into town. It was that time in the afternoon when middle-age salesmen need a Java jolt to keep them from drifting into the median. I normally would have gotten it to go (having no love of interstate restaurants) but a cancellation had given me some slack time. I sat at the counter and let the pretty GenXer with a diamond the size of Gibraltar talk me into a piece of strawberry rhubarb pie. I was one seat away from the register so I could hear the checkout transactions while scrutinizing the advertised homemade-ness of the pie. Two men in their high twenties or early thirties got up from a booth directly in back of me and came up to pay. The shorter of the two gave his bill and some money to the other. Then hurried off down the hall leading to the restrooms, he hollered back, "Take your time, Parnell. I'll be a while."
I glanced at the company patch on his shoulder as a subliminal circuit connected in my head. It read, "Northside Ambulance" and under that "Certified EMT". I looked up into his face and thought I saw another's peeking out through the Blue Jay eyes and sun-rosy cheeks. He looked my way and I overrode my primal misgivings and signaled for him to lean closer. His natural affability sat him down next to me displaying a big, welcoming grin. "What can I do for you?"
"I overheard your buddy call you Parnell."
"Yup. Pretty unusual, huh? Is that your name, too?"
"No." I wanted to mention the context in which I'd last heard that name but felt a check. I was certain he was the Parnell Kyle and Carolyn had mentioned concerning the highway pile up that had delayed me a month back. How many EMTs with that name can there be? Yet, what was common knowledge to them most certainly was not to lots of folks. I decided to leave Kyle out of it and see if Carolyn was his connection. "Does the name Carolyn Boyer mean anything to you?"
The smile left his face and was replaced by puzzlement tinged with distrust. I immediately regretted bringing it up and determined to downplay my association.
"She's my mother. Only her name is Davis. Boyer is her maiden name. How'd you know that?"
He was edgy about it as if bringing up her past name would resurrect old bogeymen. "We were in high school together. Didn't know her married name, so..."
"How'd you know I was her son?"
I hadn't passed his test yet. In fact, I was still on the verge of failing big time. "I met a mutual friend over at the Frontier Ball Company, Martha Brad...I mean Delmonico. We got talking about your mom and I think your name came up. As you said, it is kind of unusual. So when I heard your buddy yell out, it all came back."
I haven't liked lying since my AA involvement. Those folks are of the opinion it's at the core of the problem. I believe they are right, but with 40 years of practice it didn't take much for me to get it back. Still, I didn't like bringing other people like Martha into my half-truths. I wanted him to just go away, but of course he didn't.
"She must have told you about Mom, huh?"
Be sure, your sins will find you out. I rolled with the statement, hoping a clue would appear as to where to go next. "Well, we didn't talk much. Actually there were many people I was inquiring about. Why? Is she okay?"
My concern won the day. I had passed over from foe to friend and was now eligible for a brief history of Carolyn Boyer Davis. "She's had MS for the last 14 years, since I was a senior in high school. Was pretty mild at first. It's really bad now. She's over at the new full-care facility they built a couple years back, Maple Glen Convalescent Care. State of the art, but it don't do no good. She's failing."
"How about your Dad?"
"Oh, he's dead. Five years now. The bastard left us when she got it. He's been better to her dead than alive. Guess there's some trust he signed over to her in his will. A whole lot of money. I don't see none of it, but then I don't want to either. It's the only way she could be over there, so I guess we owe him that. Damn little else."
"Would she mind a visitor?"
The man's eyes dropped to a kind of dead stare at the counter. "Like I said, she's had it a long time. At first it wasn't bad. Nobody knew. She was funny about it. Didn't want nobody to know. When it got so she couldn't hide it, she just sort of shrunk back. I was away in the Navy a lot of that time. When I got home for good she'd sold the house and moved into a place way down in the South part of the state. Didn't want no one to know where she was or nothin'. I was real surprised when she moved back here a couple years ago. But she still don't see nobody. Mostly just hangs with her friends there." He broke from his stare and turned to me straight on. "I guess what I'm saying is I don't think she'd be comfortable entertaining friends from the past. She's in a wheelchair all the time now and actually can't even talk all that well."
I cut him off with the wave of my hand. "No problem."
"Any time you are ready, Parnell," his friend called from the door.
"I gotta go." He got up then stopped with a thought. "Hey, I try to visit her a couple times a week. She might like to hear an old friend's been asking for her."
For a split second I panicked. If I told my real name she'd know I knew all about the reality they had hidden in the diner. I didn't know all the reasons, but didn't feel like popping their balloon. I raced through the pages of our yearbook in my head for a person most likely to be a million miles away and landed on a guy I met years ago living on the other side of the country. Real handsome. She might even be flattered he was asking. "Peter Andrews," I said with a parting handshake.
"That's easy enough to remember. Thanks for asking."
Before leaving I called Martha Delmonico over at Frontier Ball. I used Kyle's misplaced box number as my excuse. "While I got you, another person came to mind when I was thinking about Kyle. Actually, they went together for a while I think. Have you had any contact with Carolyn Boyer?" (If my AA sponsor knew the sort of lying I was doing, he'd report me.)
Martha was mute for way too long. I began to worry she was on to me. "Oh, Jeez Sammy. You are picking the sad ones. But you know, you are right. They did go together. Elwood was wrong about Kyle, but then he couldn't have known about her, could he? I remember she and Kyle were very close. Jeez, that would have been nice."
"If Kyle and Carolyn had stayed together. I remember they were so sweet."
"But she married someone else?"
"Oh God, yes. Al Davis."
"I don't remember him."
"Oh he wasn't from around here. I think her family moved away right after graduation. Someplace in the Midwest. She met Al out there. Brought him back a couple years later with a little boy. Don't know why she came back, but then I don't know why she married Al."
"You knew him?"
"Brian did. My first husband. They had a weekly poker game, but that weren't the only gambling he did. Kept the family in the poor house. What I heard was the bum left after she got sick."
To maintain the ruse I couldn't know about that. "Sick?" I asked.
"Yeah, that was the other thing, Sammy. Some years back she got MS. She was real private about it, but everyone knew. Anyway, that bum Al Davis walked out on her and the boy as soon as he found out. I don't know where he went but I did hear he died a few years back. Car accident, I think."
"Did he send them money, I mean child support or anything?"
"Who...Al? Brian was a skinflint but Al made him look like Daddy Warbucks. I don't know how she survived after he left. I suppose her family helped, though I seem to remember they didn't have much."
"Do you know how she's doing now?"
"She's in a pretty bad way, I guess. Dickie bumps into her son now and again. He's on one of the ambulances in town. He says she's in some convalescent home. Don't want to see no one. Can't blame her. Mercy, Sammy, you do pick the sad ones. Hey, when I told Dickie I saw you, he said next time you were around you should come over for steaks. How about tonight?"
"Rain check, Martha. But I will take you up on it. I promise."
The saddest and last piece to the puzzle I wasn't trying to put together came from (of all people) Colleen, my first ex. A month or so later our granddaughter was having her one-year-old birthday party. I was invited to the bash. Colleen and I broke up too young to carry old, unhealable wounds. And so for many years it has been pleasant between us. Her Dave had the flu and being the only Boomers in a sea of GenExers we naturally found a pot of coffee and a kitchen table to catch up around. As I went on about my little adventure with Kyle and Carolyn and the tragic truth I discovered, I could tell something was bothering Colleen, something that made hearing their story almost too painful for her.
"What is it?" I said bringing back a box of tissues from the bathroom for her waterfall of a face.
"That dear man. Oh, God. I can't bear it."
She blew her nose, dried her eyes, then looked straight at me. "Carolyn was pregnant before she left town."
My stare needed no words for her to continue. "She visited me before they left. Thought I was some saint for going public about it. She just couldn't do it when she told me who..."
"So Parnell is their son?" I said. "Good God Almighty, why don't they say something now? Who's going to care after all this time?"
"What are you talking about?" Her confusion brought me up short. Then the unthinkable arced across her eyes to mine.
"You mean Kyle wasn't the father?"
"She had an uncle. Shot up pretty bad in the war. He lived with them off and on for years. Couldn't hold a job. Drank too much."
"She told me all she ever wanted was to marry Kyle and have a family. Grow old together."
"Well," I said as our hands collided at the tissue box, "at least she got that."