Installment #17 / But I Didn’t Die / a fictional memoir

I know it was Mr. Barnes’s wake and all but I still couldn’t help thinking as I watched Mrs. Barnes smile, cry, stagger as if she would fall, and otherwise glad-hand these people (including family members), what a phony she was. Oh there was probably real grief somewhere inside her but I wasn’t even willing to allow her that, though of course I had no say in the matter. Still, it was Mr. Barnes’s night, and I kept my thoughts to myself as I watched the procession of people passing by, the juxtaposition of the Barnes’s friends, family, and later, some of my friends, classmates, and teachers all in the same room incredible as it was so unexpected, so incongruous, something I think Mr. Barnes would have approved of, all in all a fitting sendoff.

Rory was probably off somewhere getting high, which he’d been doing all day every day since Mr. Barnes died. He would barely talk to me, only reiterate in a hollow voice, You should have been there, you should have been there, refusing to talk about the details and I didn’t press him, didn’t really want to know anyway if you want to know the truth.

I was uncomfortable at the funeral home what with the stifling odor emanating from the bank of hothouse flowers flanking the casket palling the air, and the obsequious undertaker hovering expectantly over the proceedings, hoping to be useful, a necessary interloper, expert at his craft. I’ve never seen so many flowers here, he intoned, clasping his harpy hands, it’s quite a tribute to your father I must say.

Spying an unusually plain arrangement with a tiny card in its center, I went to get a closer look at it. As I read the card, which said, “With sympathy from John and Charles Jones,” it didn’t register at all. I knew I didn’t know anybody by that name and while puzzling over who it could possibly be it struck me: John and Charley Chambers. It had to be them. It made sense, I thought, the biggest snobs in Wilsonville making the transparent attempt at anonymity at a time like this, as if it might cause a scandal that I had been staying at their house when Mr. Barnes died.    They didn’t bother to show up at the funeral home in person either, which I thought the unkindest cut of all, though I couldn’t really blame them as they didn’t really know our family (such as it was) and who knew how Mrs. Barnes would react if she saw them. Besides, it wasn’t the time or place for recriminations.

But it was time for was most the difficult part. I had been waiting all evening for an opening and now the coast was clear, with no one anywhere near Mr. Barnes’ casket. It was time to say goodbye (I who hadn’t had the chance the night he died), make my peace, explain myself, pay my respects, whatever I was about to do. I gingerly approached the casket, steeling myself not to look up until I was right next to him, and when I finally took a peek at a corpse for the first time in my life I was shocked at what I saw.

Mr. Barnes lay there in his best blue suit but otherwise I wouldn’t have recognized the man I knew it looked so little like him, this after I had heard person after person say how good he looked after viewing him. I’m not sure what I expected but certainly not this ravagement. If his face was any indication what an awful thing it must be to pass over to the next world. No matter how much they tried to sugarcoat it or how much skill the undertaker had, his face was not only “transfigured” (as our pastor would put it in his funeral sermon) it was completely and utterly blasted.

It was so dredged in makeup that exaggerated his nose, eyes, the whiskers on his upper lip, his jowls, hands fingernails and hair, that seeing this, combined with the overpowering smell of the powder they’d used and the cloying odor of the myriad floral arrangements, made my head swim. I began sweating profusely and felt as though I might faint any second but instead dropped to the kneeler ostensibly to pray and felt much better.

Kneeling I was better able to contemplate on the body and as I did so suddenly it seemed as though his eyes might open or his hands move. I looked behind me to see if anyone was watching then got shakily to my feet as I had no prayers left to say.

I still wasn’t ready to leave Mr. Barnes’s side, however, and as I again viewed him from a loftier vantage point various memories began to flood in: how I had liked him from the first, how he made everything, even the simplest things come to life with his colorful, allusive way of talking, especially in his repartee with us, using phrases like Alibi Ike, Yehudi, Message to Garcia, the boy from Medina, wass you dere Chollie (when he felt we were fudging things a bit), Slops McGurk when we spilled something, sick ‘em towsie when he let one go on the golf course, the smell of the Kreml hair tonic he used to maintain his spit curl, and Vademecum toothpaste as well, his beloved iced Ballantine Ale, how anything he wore looked good on him- a man’s man to be sure, something I’d never be.                                                                                                             

I was actually surprised when I later discovered the literary and cultural references of some of those expressions, as I thought Mr. Barnes only read James Bond and Perry Mason paperbacks. I guess I never really knew him that part of him.

I looked around the room again to see who was there, not quite knowing what to do next. I certainly wasn’t going to join Mrs. Barnes’ and Penny’s, Uncle Clyde’s and Aunt Johnnie’s little coterie of grief. I don’t know who else I was expecting to see, most of my friends and teachers having already left while I’d been standing in a daze beside the coffin, perhaps the McKenna’s, whom I’d been looking for all evening. What is it with these stuffed shirt upper crust types that they don’t deign to share a family’s grief, especially when their son had a significant role in the events leading up to it? Then again, I realized, maybe that’s the reason they weren’t there. Not that I wanted to see Ray’s mug anytime soon as I’d probably punch him in his pus gut.

I had a vague notion there were still people I wanted to come, though I couldn’t tell you who they might be, when suddenly my English teacher Mrs. Adams suddenly appeared and I lost it, crying for the first time since his death. I couldn’t go near her because I didn’t want her to see me like that, but when I looked up she gave me a slight nod and just as quickly was gone.

I had the strongest urge to kiss Mr. Barnes before I left but couldn’t bring myself to do it and the next thing I remember we were in the kitchen at home. The doorbell was constantly ringing and I suppose there were a lot of people but I had no interest in finding out. Rory had reappeared just before we left the funeral home and we would have left the crowded kitchen and gone upstairs to our room if we’d had our druthers but Mrs. Barnes had her eye on us and shook her head vehemently each time we made even the slightest attempt to do so.

The people in the kitchen were mainly composed of our relatives and several close friends of the Barnes’s, including a couple of their drinking buddies, the Privateras and Mrs. Thurman. We were supposed to work the room, make everyone feel comfortable, and accept their condolences but we didn’t budge, for some reason, standing with our backs against the kitchen sink, listening to the hubbub, which to our way of thinking exhibited too much hilarity, and once more I lost it.

This isn’t a party so why don’t you all leave, I yelled, breaking several plates and glasses in the sink as I did so and stalked out of the kitchen, Rory, dazed and confused, following behind me.

In the aftermath we wondered what would become of us, or if we even had a say in the matter. There was a lot of bad karma between Mrs. Barnes and me, Rory not as much because he’d been the dutiful son, and I knew no reconciliation was possible nor did I want it. We wanted nothing more than to walk out the front door and not look back. We had imagined this scenario many times, this urge vying with an equally strong one to knock Mrs. Barnes flat on her ass just once before we left.   We had overheard her talking about her plans to move to Cleveland with Aunt Johnnie and Uncle Clyde; we were welcome to come along if we were willing to accept Uncle Clyde as our surrogate father. Everything was being formalized now that the legal wheels had been set in motion with Uncle Clyde being appointed our legal guardian. He’d already partially sealed our fate by marching us up to Town Hall to register for the draft with Mr. Barnes barely in the ground, and since we had no plans to go to college any time soon, we were classified 1A, which meant we could be drafted at a moment’s notice.

We were aware that going with them to Cleveland would make things a lot easier as far as having a roof over our heads, getting a job, even going to college, but we didn’t want any part of it. Why continue the charade any longer? We were willing to take our chances on our own if it meant we never had to see Mrs. Barnes again. As she would put it in her maudlin way, it would be the end of an era, but it was only in her mind, and was an “era” I would never want to revisit again for a single instant.

We went back and forth about this for months, Mrs. Barnes telling us we had no choice in the matter and warning us we’d have to straighten up and fly right, Uncle Clyde was no pushover like Mr. Barnes had been, which made us even more certain we could never live under the same roof with her again.

Oddly enough, in spite of what she was saying it seemed like she was giving us an out, that she didn’t really want us to go with her either. I don’t remember how it was all finally decided, I’m fairly certain it never came to an ultimatum, but that on an agreed upon day we would walk through the door for the last time and never look back.

—–o—–

Soon track season was upon us but of course I wouldn’t be able to participate (at least on school grounds) because of my suspension, which was devastating. Besides the fact that I loved to run I was embarrassed that I couldn’t even practice with the team, I needed to figure out a way to compensate for this, and pronto.

In the meantime I had to find something to do with the relative freedom I now enjoyed, freedom to do pretty much anything I wanted while Mrs. Barnes was preoccupied with devising her exit strategy.

I began taking the Main Street bus every morning to a plaza (now Clled mini-malls) across from UB, hanging out at a coffee shop there. I’d just begun getting into poetry in Mrs. Adams’ class when Mr. Barnes died, and since there was a bookstore nearby I’d stop into it and peruse the poetry section there. For some reason Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind” caught my eye; maybe it was because it was so slim, a New Directions paperback with a black and white picture of Coney Island on the cover, or maybe it was the poetry itself, very informal, with poems literally of all shapes and sizes, that were unlike anything I’d read before.

I bought a copy with my meager savings which would soon have to become meagre earnings and devoured it, poring over it several time a day during that two-week period, and I’d never be the same again. Another feature of the poems and again something I’d never come across before, was that they were very political, which began another awakening in me.

Oh, I was aware of most of the current events taking place: the music, the war, the draft, civil rights, assassinations, protests, the rioting, looting, in the ghettoes across the land, drugs, but wasn’t conversant on any of them, but only at a very removed distance. The one time Rory and I had brought up Viet Nam at the dinner, and began repeating the popular catch-phrase “Hell no we won’t go, Mr. Barnes had reached across and banged our heads together, end of discussion. But I was gradually becoming more politically aware, discovering there were alternative ways of thinking besides what was in the popular press and media, and it was a real revelation. You had to seek it out but it was there if you wanted to find it.

Along with that I’d finally figured out a way to train for the upcoming season that was even better than what I would have been doing with the team. Just past the border of Wilsonville was the town of Clarence, and it just so happened they had a much more developed track program than we did (as well as a much better track), which recently had produced great results.

I was familiar with most of the runners and they with me, particularly the Blackmore brothers, Keith, a junior, and Ron, a sophomore, who, unbeknownst to me, looked up to me, and were thrilled I’d be working out with them. Their coach, Mr. Johnson, was also very welcoming, which made things go smoothly.

The workouts were very structured, something I was unused to, but it meant we were through fairly early, even with my tendency to do more reps and run faster than what was required.

I even was invited over to the Blackmore brothers’ house for dinner, and met the rest of his family, his father and sister. The brothers were slight but tough as nails, both often doubling in the mile and two-mile, which we weren’t allowed to do at our school. I was a little rusty at first, and they had trained over the winter, but, in spite of this, with my natural speed and strength I was able to lead the workouts, much to their amazement.

I felt like a rock star and sometimes acted like one. Case in point: fell asleep under the sunlamp Rory and I had gotten to combat our fierce acne, also hoping to get a head start on a tan, which suddenly seemed important to me, probably because it was during spring break, and a lot of kids would come back with real ones.                                                                                                                                                                                                                    When I awoke I could literally smell my burned flesh and my skin was the color of a very rare steak, especially on my shoulders; in a day or so I had orange blisters, which were very painful in and of themselves, but excruciatingly so when I sweat, which made it difficult to run, though I didn’t let it stop me for one second or interval.

Meanwhile Rory was nowhere to be found, at the house or in school, which worried me, especially when it was rumored he was living with some druggies in a house in a bad part of the city. He seemed to have gone off the deep end since Mr. Barnes’ death, but I had enough on my plate, and didn’t really think about it all that much.

In fact, in keeping with my newfound freedom (although I’m a little ashamed to admit it), I was somewhat relieved to be completely on my own for once (an out of sight out of mind kind of thing); I think Rory wanted to have his own little hiatus like the one I’d had the two weeks I’d spent at the Chambers’ and I understood completely. Besides, I couldn’t worry what kind of trouble he’d get into, for once he’d have to fend for himself. And until I heard otherwise, I figured he was.

—–o—–

When my suspension was finally over and I got back into school, specifically English class (because that was the only one I was going to with any regularity), I was pretty full of myself as well as Ferlinghetti, and, on a class essay ripped apart all the traditional poets we’d been reading, with their stodgy rhyme schemes and metrical devices, dismissing them out of hand in favor of the Beats.

Mrs. Adams very patiently critiqued my essay, pointing out all the traditional poets Ferlinghetti referred to in his own work, which were many, and how Ginsberg said it was necessary to know all the rules before you discarded them. Long dead, God bless her always for instilling an everlasting love for poetry in me, patiently piercing through my vainglorious façade to reveal an avid learner, something I hadn’t realized in myself, not to mention her being at Mr. Barnes’ wake.

I continued to train with the Blackmore brothers, and by the time my first meet was approaching, I was in as good shape as I’d ever been. I sailed through the remaining meets, breaking some sort of record each time I stepped on the track (though still not breaking the school two-mile record, as the girl in my homeroom kept reminding me), but still anxious about how I’d do in the league meet and then the sectionals.

It was right about this time that I began to get serious about a girl in school I’d met earlier that year named Holly (another Holly by the way), a freshman. Fortuitously, when the new high school had been built in East Amherst and our 10th through 12th grade classes were divided up, the 9th graders from the middle school were now merged into the high school, otherwise this would have never happened. Adding to everyone thinking it was strange I liked someone so much younger was the fact that her sister was in my class, although I didn’t know her very well. I don’t remember exactly how it started, but I believe it was because Greg’s girl friends’ younger sister was of friend of Holly’s and told Greg that Holly wanted to meet me, which was very surprising as didn’t even know who she was.

Not long after we were formally introduced as she was standing among her tittering friends one day in the hallway. There seemed to be an instant connection although at first she seemed even shyer than I was, so we began talking whenever we ran into each other in the hallways, and I realized she was much more mature than her age, actually more mature than most of the girls in my class, and it didn’t hurt that she was very pretty.

I would have been content to have things continue on the same path- chance meetings, hitting it off when we did talk, our conversations so interesting that I looked forward to the next one, not expecting anything more out of it than that, but everything was disrupted when Mr. Barnes died, and I was so preoccupied with that I didn’t see or really even think about her much after that. But, as is often is the case in a life changing event, you find out who cares the most about you, and Holly turned out to be one of those people.

It began with a lovely note from her, done in calligraphy, scented with what I would later find out was her fragrance of choice Shalimar, on Crane stationery, a simple genuine expression of sympathy, unlike anything I ever received before or since, and it touched my heart. The fact that she hand-delivered it to my hall locker as I wasn’t around at the time made it even more special. We still proceeded very circumspectly, though we were on a deeper level from that point on, extending our time together to after school hours.

She was a cheerleader, and played on the girl’s tennis team and I attended her matches whenever I could, so what with that and my newly found free time we were together a lot, and gradually grew closer and closer.

Her living behind the high school made things so convenient for seeing each other we took it for granted, and didn’t push our relationship any further along as far as going out on actual dates. Then again, I’d only been on one formal date in my life, so things were going smoothly as far as I was concerned.

But as it was my senior year prom discussions/rumors became rife, her sister even coming up to me in the hall one day (I’d never even spoken to her before) and asking me what my intentions were concerning that. I hadn’t even thought about it, to be honest, I replied, I guess my intention is not to go. Well, if you do, she said, you should go with someone your own age, then walked off in a huff. I never mentioned this to Holly, even when the ensuing problems arose, in fact, nothing more was said about the prom, which to my way of thinking was still a long way off, by either of us, and we kept on seeing each other as often as possible.

—–o—–

Before I knew it, the biggest meet of the year was fast approaching over Memorial Day weekend. It was the sectionals, and it was at our school, which made me slightly more nervous than usual. In addition, there was a guy I hadn’t run against in our dual meet earlier that spring because he’d doubled in the mile and half-mile instead of his usual two-mile, in an attempt beat us, although we won anyway.

I’d won the league meet the week before, although he wasn’t there for some reason, having already qualified for the sectionals because he had the best time in the section. I found out later he’d run in an Invitational Meet in Rochester, against top amateurs and college kids.

He was a good runner, with a better kick than I had, though I’d beaten him in the previous races we’d run against each other in cross-country and track. He, too, was having as successful a season as I was, so I’d have to plan my race strategy more carefully than normal. Usually I stayed back at the start of race or, if I knew my competition wasn’t that good, led from start to finish, but because I was worried about that kick of his my plan was to stick to him like white on rice, letting him push the pace in hopes that would diminish his finishing kick. It wasn’t the most valorous strategy, drafting on him, I’d have liked to go way out in front of him and stay there, but he was so unfamiliar to me I figured that was the best way to approach it.

When the day came I knew as soon as I woke up it was going to be the happiest day of my life. I couldn’t explain why I felt that way I just did. To be happy and know I was happy, I’d never felt that way before, never even thought it was possible.

It began as a normal school day in May, but after homeroom was over, however, there the similarity ended, for it was also the day of the Senior Class Party. There were no classes that day for the seniors and this was to be the big blow-out before finals and graduation. I figured I’d go for a while, if only to get my mind off the race, even though I had the utmost confidence in my strategy.

The party was off-campus at an old factory owned by Mr. Chambers, behind Academy Street School, whose fields we’d played Little League football on. I was able to wear jeans and a tee-shirt for the first time ever in school, which also added to the day’s uniqueness. I stopped by Holly’s locker before I left and we made plans to meet up as soon as school was over.

As a couple of friends and I took a leisurely stroll to the party, I wondered suddenly if Rory would come to my race, as I knew for sure he wouldn’t miss this party, but hoped he still would.

As soon as we arrived it was apparent the revelry was in full swing, with several kids already inebriated. A band comprised of seniors had been cobbled together and was tuning up for the shindig. I went over there and shot the sh*t with several of them, asking what songs they were going to play and requesting “Substitute,” which they agreed to do.

My friends went off to get something to drink and I decided to lay low, literally, settling down on the grass underneath a tree to watch the proceedings. I was starting to regret having come in the first place. I had a lot of time to while away before the race and what was I going to do in the meantime? It was getting pretty boisterous as more and more kids arrived and I was having difficulty getting to that quiet place I needed to be before putting myself through a grueling two-mile race on my home turf against my number one competitor. In addition, I was wondering where Rory was, finding my friends hadn’t seen him there as yet.

I got up and walked toward the party, seeing my friends up front near the band, quaffing drafts out of plastic cups and encouraging me to have one, completely oblivious of my upcoming race. Knowing it was hopeless to gear up for it in the midst of all that I left the party altogether, seeking some quiet. Besides, I was so distracted I couldn’t enjoy it anyway, which wasn’t their fault, I had been foolish to think I could.

I needed to eat something before the race but it would have to be something different from my normal pre-race meal of a salad and an ice cream sandwich, something I was loathe to do because it had always been good luck, and hated to vary my routine. But since I didn’t want to go all the way back to the school cafeteria, there was nothing for it but to do so.

So I stopped in to Bihr’s and, feeling emboldened, ordered a blood sausage sandwich on a hard roll, and a bottle of Vernor’s. What the hell I thought, I’d always wanted to try it blood sausage anyway. Time to break out of my routine. Besides, I just knew I was going to win the race.

I took my lunch and went over to Island Park and sat at a picnic bench and ate it. When I was finished I threw some remaining bits of bread to some nearby seagulls, then lay down on the picnic bench and looked up at the sky, as I was often wont to do.

I loved this perspective of watching what clouds there were in the sky moving effortlessly across it, it completely relaxed me and took me out of the mundane world, something I needed at that moment, just a few hours before my great effort would begin. I drifted off just as the clouds did, still conscious of where I was yet not thinking about a thing, just being, knowing I would know when it was time to leave.

And so it was, just as I had thought, when the time had come, after my brief reverie, I made my way back to the high school, and as I did, who do you think I saw out of the blue walking toward me on Main Street?. Paul Barr, my old Martin Luther School classmate! We caught up and I assumed he was performing in some event but it turned out he’d played baseball instead. He seemed to already know I was a runner and wished me luck, promising to look for me after the race. Only if I win, I said, half in jest.

Now I was really pumped- who’d have thought I’d see someone from MLS- and it had served to take my mind completely off the race. It had to be a good omen, I thought. I just knew I was going to do well now.

No one was in the locker room yet when I got there, which was good, giving me more time to get psyched. I suited up quickly in my track suit and grabbed the Adidas Azteca Gold spikes I had gotten especially for this race (no one had seen them yet), went outside past the athletic fields and sat down under a tree. Between growing my hair out longer than it had ever been and those spikes I knew I was looking cool as hell. Soon I saw Holly’s familiar amble coming into view; she had her hair in a ponytail, was wearing tennis whites, and carrying her tennis racket.

Conserving as much energy as I could I didn’t get up, instead I waited until she arrived and patted the grass next to me, where she sat down. That was the closest her golden brown legs had been to me to this point and I couldn’t help but notice, not the best thing to be thinking about before a big race. Holly noticed my new track spikes right away and did a double-take. Those are fantastic!!! she said, Where did you get them?

I had gotten them from Craig Muma, a legendary runner known for running 200 miles a week, usually barefoot. Runners were considered weird enough in those days, but Craig even more so, as he had long hair and a zen-like religious quality about him. I saw him wearing them at a local college track meet and immediately fell in love with them and had to have a pair of my own. Those spikes had to be pretty special for him to be wearing them and if they were good enough for him they were more than good enough for me.

When I asked them where he got them he merely said, you like them, they’re yours. I was speechless, I’d always admired him so much, but that was just the kind of guy he was, and only hoped I could be worthy of them. I tried them on many times before the race, walking around in them after unscrewing the spikes to get the feel, which wasn’t really even necessary, they felt like my own skin, like I was wearing nothing at all.

Once again I became aware of the proximity of Holly’s legs, and before I knew it I almost kissed her for the first time, which thankfully she hadn’t seemed to notice because I wanted to save it for something really special, like maybe later that evening after I’d won the race. I just know you’re going to win, Holly said, looking into my eyes. I don’t know about that, I said, my mouth very dry from nervousness, but I’ll do the best I can. With that I got to my feet, helped Holly up, and we ambled slowly toward the track. Though it was undoubtedly sacrilegious, I often compared the wait just before a race to Christ’s ordeal in the garden, and silently mouthed Father, let this cup pass before me. I could be very melodramatic at times.

I loved track meets, both watching and participating, what with the diversity of skills on display. It was the ultimate team sport, and I made sure I supported all the guys by walking around to all the different events, even the shot put and discus, which were held way beyond the football field.

But today would be different. I needed to be by myself, and in the shade, as it was the first real hot day of the year. As Holly and I made our way toward the stands I heard someone yell out from above, Hey Barnes, you’re gonna get beat by Mucci! No way you’re gonna beat him!

I didn’t look up as a chorus of assent and boos followed me until I said goodbye to Holly (Good luck! she said, interlocking her fingers with mine) and descended beneath the grandstand to a nice cool quiet spot in a patch of grass and fell immediately asleep.

—–o—–

I woke with a start and panicked for a second, not knowing where I was or what time it was, surely someone would have come to get me if  the two-mile (the second last event) was about to start. I heard a starting gun go off and jumped up to see what event it was, and when I saw it was the high hurdles event, breathed a sigh of relief, knowing I still had some time before my race.

I went out through the back of the bleachers so nobody would see me and took off on a jog through the school parking lot and over to Farber Lane, a shady grove next to the school, just a warm up run, nice and easy. I felt good, loose and strong, but I was getting nervous and had to remind myself to stick to my plan and not go out too fast, which would be difficult with all that adrenalin pumping. I headed back to the track, got my spikes, and went out to the grass infield to stretch.

Soon the announcement of the two-mile came over the loud speaker. It was time. Out of nowhere the other runners appeared: there was Mucci, a lean dark-haired kid, in crimson and white. I stood right next to him on the track, I was the third one in. There wasn’t anyone else in the field I was worried about, mostly underclassmen whose time hadn’t come yet. It was going to be a two-man race.  I jumped up and down on the cinder, my long spikes cutting cleanly through; I looked over at Mucci and nodded good luck as the gun went off.

As I said, my usual strategy was to go out fast and get into the lead, but luckily Mucci had gone out so fast- too fast I thought- that I had no choice anyway but to tuck in behind him and follow. This unnerved me a little, making me wonder if he was in much better shape than I was, not sure I could keep this pace up, but not daring to let him get too far ahead, especially knowing about that kick of his.

But I was staying right behind him with no problem now, actually feeling strong, loose, and relaxed, even having to quell the urge to go right by him and forge a substantial lead of my own. This went on for two and a half laps until I suddenly heard his breathing become labored; mine was fine, except for a slight stitch in my side, which forced me to take deep breaths until it was gone.    Otherwise I felt great, supremely strong and confident, in cruise-control tucked in behind him, knowing I had a lot left. Taking smaller strides so as not to run up his back, I could feel the power growing inside me.

We were nearing the beginning of the crucial final lap, and as soon as I heard the gun something told me to make my move, which I did, accelerating past him, running as hard as I could until I was well out in front, when I shifted over into the first lane and just took off, knowing I had the race to myself, not even bothering to look back, running (bounding really)  harder and harder, lengthening my lead all the while, trying to look calm and smooth though I was beginning to labor, but I knew I had it, which was an unbelievable feeling, unlike anything I’d ever felt in my life, I had done it, my eyes were focused on the finish line, and  suddenly I saw someone on the track and it was Rory, cheering me on, Go Wes, Go! You got it! Bent on escorting me to the finish line, a beer stein his hand, I have to admit that it flashed through my mind that maybe I’d get disqualified as I churned down the cinder path all the way through the tape.

Ecstatic, I immediately stepped off the track and onto the infield and bent over, my hands on my knees, struggling to get my breath back, and as I looked down noticed there was blood running down my leg. I soon realized what had happened, that I’d followed Mucci so closely at one point his spikes must have grazed my knee and I hadn’t even noticed until now.

I looked up and there was Rory, patting me on the back, something he never did, saying, You did it, you did it, you won! I could tell how vicariously proud he was of me and that felt good enough, though it hadn’t really sunk in what I’d accomplished.

Once I recovered I hoped to get out of there as soon as possible. Several of my team mates and even Mucci came over to congratulate me as I got ready to watch the final event, the 880 relay. Then I remembered Holly and as I began to look for her she suddenly appeared before me on the infield, smiling, looking proud and happy.

Great job Wes, she said, what a race. I thanked her but told her I hadn’t broken ten minutes or gotten the school record, which had been two of my goals (besides winning), but was glad I had won as I’d had my doubts I could do it. She told me she knew I could, there was no doubt in her mind, and I told her how having there made it even better.

Then I said I wanted to take a shower, telling her I’d meet her by the awards podium. As I turned to go I could sense her lingering there, not wanting the moment to end. Normally I liked to be by myself after a race, run a little more, cool down, take a shower, relive the race in my head, but this was different. This was our day, and I didn’t want Holly to miss a minute of it. I’ll be back as quick as I can I told her.

The rest of the day was spent in a golden haze, feeling unlike I’d ever felt before or would again, at one with the universe, pleasantly tired from my exertions and blissfully triumphant. I’d finally accomplished something in my young life, and was the best at something for however brief a time.

It was as though we were somnambulant, I don’t remember eating or drinking, or much of anything else, just that we were in a lush field behind her grandmother’s house, where she came often, lying on the grass beside each other, holding hands, looking up at the sky, happy and knowing we were happy, just being.

Eventually we got up and walked toward the high school, the warm night air and the smell of flowers, grass, and trees in bloom accompanying us. We silently walked through the parking lot and sat in the bleachers above the track, holding hands; I could hear vestiges of the crowd and saw myself on that final turn heading in the straightaway toward the finish line, a white blur wearing phosphorescent shoes powering towards victory. I put my arm around Holly, who put her head on my shoulder, neither of us wanting to move forever.

—–o—–

I came back to reality with a thud of course. I ran very well in the State Trials but finished 4th with a time of 9:52.4, beating my best time by 13 seconds and breaking the school record, so I was an alternate for the State Meet. Mucci had beat me and a kid named Roger Dill, only a junior, ran out of his mind and won. Missing those first three meets had come back to haunt me I realized, my victory at the Sectionals no consolation.

In addition I’d asked Holly to the Senior Prom, something I thought I’d never do but felt I owed it to her, and she readily accepted, ending the debacle concerning the propriety of asking a freshman- Holly’s parents as well as the girls in my class wondering why they weren’t good enough. As in all things formal the social ramifications for such a seemingly innocent event became endlessly entangling.

First there was what to wear, and while I finally relented and rented a tux I didn’t cut my hair and wore the bowling shoes I’d bought at a second hand store, the heels run down in the back. Then I had to meet her mother (her father wouldn’t even meet me) with the all too typical living room scene the night of the prom, Holly descending the stairs in her new gown just like Cathy at the beginning of The Patty Duke Show, her mother and sister waiting at the bottom of the stairs oohing and aahing, then the obligatory corsage, tears and photos before we set off into the blithe night air where anything seemed possible, to the waiting limo my friend Greg had insisted on renting, another thing I thought I’d never do.

The night went off without a hitch, though maudlin as hell (“Love is Blue” was the theme if you can imagine that in the summer of Woodstock), formal dinner and dancing and all that (my shoes were a big hit), seemingly all the girls crying when it was over. Since Holly was underage I was spared the agonizing decision of which after-prom party to attend and had her home before midnight as promised.

As Mrs. Barnes had resurrected the eleven o’clock curfew for the occasion, assuring me that all the doors and even the cellar windows would be locked, I’d made plans to stay over at Greg’s that night, reading his Sports Illustrateds, while he and his girlfriend went to Niagara Falls afterwards.

—–o—–

Things were never quite the same between us after that although we still managed to have a fairly halcyon summer in spite of everything. It seems Holly’s parents had only allowed her to go to the prom so she could experience it and shortly after that she was forbidden to see me.

Upon hearing this Holly ran away from home (albeit just a few houses away to her grandmother’s house) and soon after her father came over to my place, laid on the horn, insisted I get in his car, and drove to the end of my street where he parked and read me the riot act: I was a cradle robber who had no future, a long-haired hippie who was not nearly good enough for his Holly and by god I was no longer to darken their door.

He was a first generation Polish immigrant, Stanley (Stashu) was, a very hard worker who ran a very prosperous floral business in a bad section of the city, which afforded him the luxury of living on a nice street in the burbs, but still very rough around the edges, one might say crude, with a heavy accent and flagrant body order.

As he gesticulated and ranted I sat very quietly, admittedly intimidated, and when he was finished he started up the car, turned around and drove back up the street to my place, where he let me off and sped off without another word. Thankfully that was the last time I ever saw him.

Right before graduation it was the tradition for the senior class to sleep out on the front lawn of the high school. As you might imagine it was a night of raucous partying, drinking, drugs and indiscriminate sex, and the dubious tradition was jettisoned immediately after what took place that night. Even Rory had deigned to show up (it was a party after all) and during a discussion of previous sleep outs it was mentioned that each year an unsuccessful attempt had been made to break into the principal’s office to steal the demerit records. Rory, already lit at that point, said immediately, Let’s do it, I know we can. Who’ll come with me? I advised him not to do it but there was no way he would be dissuaded, and in the end, they were successful, burning them in a bonfire we had going, and not one of the quartet of perpetrators was caught. As you might imagine, the administration was furious, asking classmates to come forward with any information as to who had done this, telling us we were ruining it for future seniors, but not one single person did.

Rory disappeared right after but showed up again the night of graduation. He couldn’t go (he hadn’t graduated) and I’d already decided I wasn’t going as I hated that formal stuff and besides, there would be no one there to see it, certainly not Mrs.  Barnes. We both got drunk outside during it and attempted to get in, but they wouldn’t let us of course.

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