Solomon's Porch

All God's Creatures

Par for the Corpse >> by Sean Bonniwell

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Copyright © 2012 Uncle Helmet's Music, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

I spent the better part of five years living across the street from a golf course. On the weekends, my apartment building was bombarded by a raining hail of errant shots launched from the driving range — not a good thing for a writer, and it scared the hell out of the cat. With his black and white markings he looked like a police car. I called him Sarge. It took me nearly a year to coax Sarge up the stairs to my door, and another three months before he'd come in for a visit. Someone had left him at the apartment building. Alone and homeless, he lived as might be expected, a day-to-day existence for survival. We had a lot in common.


When I received an invitation to my 25th high school reunion in San Jose, I worried that no one would care for Sarge. He seemed to sense I was leaving that weekend, and tried by way of demanding attention to hinder my preparations. This behavior was most unusual, so I asked the neighbors to feed and shelter him in my absence. He jumped up on the hood of my car and refused to be intimidated by the start of the engine. As I backed out, a golf ball pelted into my empty parking space and Sarge scurried for safety. But when I left, he was sitting forlorn in the middle of the driveway, staring at the car as I drove away...


A class reunion after twenty-five years is a time warp, a wake-up call at 3:00 A.M. — a fistful of sand in the mouth and a bucket with your foot stuck in it. You have to go as yourself. Pretending you're not who you were only makes you more remembered as the same person; you can't fool these people, you might as well be nude. Wear a hat and it's assumed you're going bald. Dress with too much formality and you'll look as if you’re prepared to accept an award. Dress too casual, and people give you their loose change. You have to be who you've become, because everybody at a class reunion knows why.


The first problem is name tags. They make you look like you're on sale. They make a hug too presumptuously personal, a handshake too informally distant, and kissing someone with a name tag on is like kissing somebody you've never met. The second problem is lying about how people look after twenty-five years; very few of us reach middle-age without the wear and tear of lessons learned from bridges burned. The truth of it is, "You haven't changed" means you look exactly like an older version of yourself. You're just a piece of the puzzle in the big picture, and you can't make yourself fit into the present by pretending the past didn’t mold you. Basically, there's no such thing as an identity crisis at a class reunion, because everybody is one.


That's what makes these affairs so profoundly revealing. These people you've shared your teenage years with are now parents, married, divorced, and blissfully perplexed. They're lean, flabby, fair, foolish, favored, feudalistic, fanciful, fickle, forthright, functional, furtive and fried, and not one of them has changed. The continuity of life's predictions is just now what it should be, time-travel by way of a two-way mirror, and it's damn strange if you ask me.


I arrived a little late for deep recognition and a little early for shallow anonymity. Actually, one doesn't make the other possible. Entering a time warp from a wormhole is still hip at these gatherings; nobody cares what planet you've come from. A high school reunion is the perfect setting for little gray men from space conducting reconnaissance prior to world domination. Could I breathe this air, avoid contamination, eat crow while communicating friendly intentions? Everything was a big question mark, I was a big question mark.


As I was standing in the lobby gazing into the banquet room where everyone was gathered, a pair of hands covered my eyes. "All right Bonniwell, guess who this is!" I didn't have a clue. My mind was a slab under the Great Pyramid. After a long silence, the voice from behind my head reminded me of shared, notable, ass-headed blunders colliding with ca-ca: "Don't you remember? We joined the paratroopers together, at least two of us did — they wouldn't let you in because of your arm!" DePaste? Is that you?" "No, but he's the other one," and with that he took his hands from my eyes and turned me around.


Of the high school friends deserving the classification, Buddy Johnson was the ideal one to greet me. He was all smiles and warmly enthused by my presence — looking precisely as he did when I last saw him. "Remember Julie? I told you I'd marry her and guess what, here she is!" And there she was. Julie was one of those late bloomers. Now she was the flower of choice in what had become a garden of weeds. She glowed with American health, they both did. "Let's go! Everybody wondered what happened to you! Come on... You're with us!"


The banquet room was packed with the class of '58. The most conspicuous was Mike Doyle in a tux with his pretty blonde wife on his arm. Mike's nickname was "Horny," as in toad, and it was he who had coached me into taking my first leap into the swamp of hollow sex. Having been the head cheese in high school, he considered himself the reunion's official greeter — shaking hands and kissing cheeks as he made the rounds with as much authentic generosity as a cold slice of pizza. Without the music of the late '50s playing, this lack of genuine warmth would have been like shaking hands with a dead fish. But the atmosphere of reunification condescended to his airs. I couldn't fault him for trying to be gracious until it was my turn. Before he could invite me I said, "You're having a small gathering in your suite later on, and you'd like me to know I'm invited." I thought his reaction less attentive than anticipated when he asked, "How did you know?" "I could tell by the way you've been ending conversations with selected individuals." He looked at his wife then back at me, "Well, anyway, we certainly want you included" — he said with a smile no different than the one he'd been wearing, and no different from the one he wore for the next invitation. I wasn't flippant or in any way rude, I just didn't want to play in a game that made me a taken pawn. Buddy seemed quite pleased, "He hasn't changed," he said, then added, "I guess none of us have." No, everybody was the same.


Bob Lacy was still himself, slightly confused by life passing him by as if he wasn’t eligible. His high school sweetheart was married to someone else, and Mike, once his best friend, pretended nothing so much as gallant assumptions that he was plant life. It came as no surprise that most of the nerds were now successful professionals, and that most of the "cool" had been eating humble pie and little else. Tim DePaste looked and behaved like a punctured Don Rickles. My friend Hank was dead, as were others from heart attacks, fatal accidents, and AIDS.


All of my ex-girlfriends were there, including Carmen and Roz. Carmen's mother had been dead and buried for ten years, but was still regulating her daughter's priorities from beyond the grave. Roz was a little on the plump side but pretty as ever; her eyes were shining with gladness to see me. The girl I was kissing when I smashed my '46 Ford into a telephone pole was now living in Hawaii. Sharon was into Tarot cards and occultism. She finished our little visit with the suggestion I spend the night with her, and even tried to give me her room key. My response was, "It's possible, anything's possible." She was every bit as beguiling as I remembered her; the Queen of diamonds looking for the Jack of hearts. But was I going to commemorate this reunion by having sex with a self-proclaimed witch?


I didn't feel like dancing, but I can tell you the songs of our generation were no less magical for the years having passed. They made us all who we used to be, to ourselves and to each other. Some songs received more applause than others only because romance that could have been ideal was cherished and remembered that way. The DJ's timing was impeccable, and when about midway through the evening he announced that the next record was by someone known to all, I knew what was coming. "Talk Talk" blasted across the banquet room into the ears of those who had played their part in its egregious inspiration, and when its minute and fifty-six seconds of pre-punk delirium ended, there was complete silence. Even those with entrepreneurial curiosity were unresponsive. A once-in-a-lifetime moment had come and gone; not one of my peers had any reason to acknowledge the intimate history of "Talk Talk’s" emphatic accusations. The stage had been set to smack Murphy in the face with his own law — but because no other history but my own was awakened, the curtain was raised on a sleeping man. When that happens you stand, and bow to the absurd.


The party in Mike Doyle's suite ended at sunrise. The soiree included cheese and crackers — an open bar for five hours — and Sharon eyeing me and asking the question with an expression of "when" that became more and more demanding. Roz picked up on what was supposed to go down, and for her own reasons, stayed the course. There was a handful of us in the lobby saying good-bye, and then finally just three; me, Sharon, and Roz. "Are you coming up?" Sharon asked. "I'll take a rain check," I said, and Sharon walked away with Valley-Girl syndrome, totally pissed. Roz gave me a big hug and a kiss. Her eyes said she was proud of the man I had become, and she looked back at me with the same expression just before bouncing away like a happy teenager.


The five-hour drive back to Porterville was a wet one. The storm became worse the further south I traveled, until the rain came from a blanket of darkness. It seemed as if a chapter in my life had been edited for pulp fiction by a guy who pounded out a cheap novel and phoned it in. Everything from high school had been reduced to a bonfire for the vanities.


How do exceptional people arrive at habitual mediocrity contented? immersed in lives discipled and captured by the security of predictability? What about me? What was so different about my confident assumptions — how was I perceived, and wasn't who and what I had become more or less predictable? It was all so dissatisfying, so configured by resolutions that were basically meaningless. I had no connections to my past, except for those manufactured by neurotic fantasies. Was this true for everyone? Are we so alone with the frozen delusions of our past that we can only internalize affectionate nostalgia for people and places by inventing it? My God how empty we are, how self-serving; we care nothing for each other, not really. The commonality of our trials and triumphs are never identified as reciprocal preparation. We overdramatize our troubles and depreciate our blessings. Life's moments of significant identity are impossible to defend, our days of insecurity impossible to number. We are so awed by the malevolent indifference of preserving the realm, "dog eat dog" becomes the rationale for rituals of intolerance, isolationism, and ultimately, despair. Our defense is to perpetrate a world dominated by the anarchy of personal survival, and this we do until the last dog dies. To this evil confusion we have added blaming God for not creating — and sustaining — perfect order. As the English would say, the philosophy is positively barking.


The storm was a fury of nature's release as my headlights illuminated the driveway to my apartment. There, sitting exactly where I had left him, was Sarge. The rain was torrential, and I immediately wondered why he had not found cover. I parked the car and ran over to him — furious with my neighbors for their careless inattention. Sarge didn't move. He couldn't. I picked him up and carried him inside. He tried to meow, but the effort rendered no sound. I laid him on a bundled blanket and did my best to dry him off. He was too weak even to take warm milk, and when I tried to give him tuna, he gallantly did his best to swallow but could not. He looked up into my eyes and my heart just exploded. I was all he had in the world.


The next morning I took Sarge to the veterinary. It must have looked odd, what with me cradling an old tomcat in my arms. The receptionist could see my depth of sadness, and she carefully tried to assure me that all creatures great and small deserved to be loved. I was too stricken with worry to be embarrassed for her or myself, and as I waited for the diagnosis she graciously pretended not to notice me.


Sarge tried to get up and greet me when I came into the holding room. The vet smiled and said that we must have been together for a long time. I asked what the verdict was; he said kidney failure. He could operate, but there were no guarantees. He went on to explain that a nine-hundred-dollar operation for Sarge at his age, well, he didn't recommend it. I asked him what the fee was for the obvious, and heard — after a sincere hesitation, "thirty-five dollars." The vet then asked me if I wanted to be with Sarge when he administered the shot. I said no, but would he give me a few minutes alone to say good-bye? I swear they know. Sarge knew. He was too weak to rise up as I caressed him, but his dignity for the moment of our sorrow was bright and brave: farewell old friend, farewell.

Sean Bonniwell, age 18