You learn the rules of the reunion right away:
You don’t talk to the people you remember the best. You talk to the people who are easy to talk to. This means that ancient alliances and feuds are quickly buried, and you find yourself having a grand hilarious talk with someone who, for all you know, is either someone who sat in front of you in biology or the spouse of the bartender. It doesn’t matter.
Corollary: all the smokers are instant friends. Every time you go out to work on a cigar you find a raucous assemblage, including one bald shouting bull telling a story that involved considerable profanity and policemen; you have no idea who he was. You don’t remember anyone that big in Fargo, let alone your class, but there he was, lacking only a ring in his nose and chuffing blasts of steam from his nostrils as he told his tale.
Addendum to corollary: when you meet some old classmates, you know you’ll find them outside with their sixth drink and a smoke and a wry expression, because they just have that look. The ol’ ah hell, hallelujah look. It fits them. When they were 12 they had the look of someone at the end of the bar working on the third double with patient pleasure.
As wine ages better than beer, so did the women look better than the men. Sometimes the intervening years appeared to have absolutely no effect whatsoever, and you wonder what Black arts had been employed to keep them looking so astonishingly youthful. Then you run into the Class Stoner, who was missing most of the up-front teeth and had facial lines of a sun-baked octogenarian crone, and you realize the truth: of course, they cast a spell on him back in high school, and feast on his life essence. At least he seems okay with that.
When the social hour ends you must find a seat for dinner. You choose carefully. You end up next to the spouse of the only person from your clique to show up. That’s just fine. He’s an airline pilot based in Texas. He has opinions about the European initiative to build a jumbo-jumbo jet, and you learn a lot; he also has deep roots in the area, and provides a corrective detail: the ultra-cool 1960s café you remember by Detroit Lakes wasn’t called the Hi-Ten; it was the Erie Jr. And he tells you what happened to it, too. (Burned down.)
Before the meal there’s a prayer. A prayer! No one complains or files a lawsuit; everyone bows. The benediction is led by a guy who went to Thailand to do missionary work. (He also handles China.) You talked to him during the tour – cheerful man, same grin as high school (and he’s one of those people for whom the word grin, with all its lengthwise resonance, was invented.) He married a Thai woman. He has a toddler. They all flew over – wife, new kid, and the seven other children in their family.
Amen, he says. Salad course!
You might wonder if they’re going to serve meat, chicken, or fish. When the plate is put before you, you remember that this is Fargo. You get steak, chicken, and fish. With a potato the size of a watermelon. Dig in.
After the meal you will, at first, feel a stab of sudden horror when the MC starts the post-dinner program by bounding into the audience to sing “Rock the Boat,” but A) his enthusiasm is absolutely contagious, and B) damn, he can sing! The rest of the program is a hoot as well – moldy jokes and ancient call-backs. As we remember that Bicentennial Year of 1976, something odd happens; you’re not in our late 40s anymore. you’re not teenagers, either. You’re somewhere in between. Ye don’t feel young but we don’t feel older, either. This is good. How did this happen? The return to the old home? The flood of memories, the reappearance of so many forgotten faces? The extra-shot for a dollar at the bar?
The program concludes with a memorial for the dead. Ten out of 300. You’d seen the memorial when you first came in the Harvest Room. Some of the names shocked you, frankly. You’d forgotten than the Class Clown dropped on a basketball court a few years ago. You’d forgotten about the boy who shot himself in 10th grade, but only because that’s a memory you long ago wrapped in plastic and sent down the river. You were, as far as you knew, his only friend. He never said a word about what was bothering him. Never gave a clue. Big lanky goofy guy. Bang. Might as well have done his parents first, given the effect it had; you see his picture and you feel the same horrible emotions. Pity swamped by anger soaked with guilt wrapped in fury. Goddammit. Next to him, a kid whose sister you dated for a summer – what? How did that happen? Then you see the face that makes your knees go fluid.
It wasn’t that you knew her well, even though you’d been in school together since tot-hood. Perhaps you had a sneaky crush on her, like the rest of the nerds. She was smart, killer smart; she was pretty, achingly pretty, but she carried herself in a way that deflected your attention. She hunched, as though she was trying to draw in her beauty and keep it from spilling out, making a mess. Everything about her seemed an improvised defense. Her smile could melt coal. She died.
You look at the faces, you ask around, you get the stats: rare blood disease. Parking garage accident in Vegas. Car crash. How about her? What happened?
You discover that she married a fellow who founded a software company known in these parts as the A-1 code factory. Microsoft bought the company. Lots of people made lots of money; you have relatives who owe their lake cabin to a judicious stock position.
She went down in a small plane with her husband.
You don’t remember a word you said to her or a word she said to you, but you stand there looking at that photo and you know you will never forget her. You’ll never knew her, either, but that’s a different matter.
The band is too loud. Of course, the band is always too loud. Everywhere. It’s what bands do: be too loud. This has the effect of driving everyone into the hallway, but by the end of the night the magic effects of Mr. Liquor will drive a few couples onto the dance floor, which allows you the chance to stand by the wall, watch other people dance, and remember the other side of High School.
Then you go outside and have a cigar with a cheerleader, which reminds you how things can change.
You catch up with other people’s profession. Giant retail mall manager. Gravestone coordinator. Gas-pump repairman / musician. Photographer extraordinaire. Corporate-function entertainer. Educator, realtor, high-end small-market auto detailer. Computer chip designer.
Corollary to the Mr. Liquor issue: you wonder, at some point, if any group of 100 strangers would eventually become as genial and all-embracing as a high-school reunion party. Possibly. On the other hand, the old & ancient associations mean you can pose questions you would never otherwise ask. You might find yourself talking to three – three! Women from the foxy / fast-girl cohort, and you can ask them what all the other girls in your class thought about That One Girl. Miss Thermonuclear Bosoms. The Stone Fox who exuded some sort of brain-melting pheromone that turned every guy into a gape-faced pudding-headed fool, who made entire fields of wilted corn stand up just by driving past – in a parka! The one for whom men would have sold their soul not to date her but just see her in Penthouse, about whom Usenet groups are still carefully moderated so mere mortals can reminisce about the time she took off her clogs and the guys in the back row got a glimpse of her instep.
You know, that one.
Turns out she took a hard path, which you do not find surprising. You ran into her 20 years ago at a big hip social event in Minneapolis, and once she got over the mortifying shock of finding someone from high school here, at the big hip social event, she revealed something you’d never quite noticed: she wasn’t very smart and she didn’t have much to say, two deficiencies that were unfortunately equaled by her sense of entitlement. Given the high quantity of women in the city who were gorgeous and smart and skilled in navigating the shoals, she was utterly out of her league.
One of the guys wanders by and notes that he got a brochure for some light-industrial equipment related to his business. She was the model.
When you go back for another drink you will remember that you missed the cake. Dang. Any cake left? Yes! Cake! Is this the best night ever or what? You finish the cake and head back out to Smoker’s Cove. Last time someone asked if you’d brought the Gnat; this time someone asks if you brought Child™. Because your kid has two distinct public personas, you know. One loud brassy dame (no idea who she is; none) admits that she doesn’t have a BLLLOGGGG, whatever that is, and another fellow tells you how a co-worker showed him your site five years ago, and he said “I went to high school with that guy.” Someone mentions one of your books. You’re pretty damn happy with the world about now.
(You have a vague impression of the next hour)
You find yourself saying goodbye to everyone at 2 AM. One of the organizers tells you she put your Stuff at the front desk. That would be your class photo and DVD compilation. You head to the front desk and ask for it; the security guard starts pawing through a box. The night manager wanders over.
“Just say something nice about us in the paper,” she says.
“I always do,” you say. “It’s my favorite Holiday Inninna worl.”
Stairs, hall, card, lock, loo, teeth, face, pillow, done.
You get one shot at this sort of thing every decade, and you think: