It’s always dark when I think of high school. Dark at Friday night football games I walk to with my friends in my red and green leather D’Artagnan jacket, the world spread out before us westward in spokes of sprawling suburban streets. Dark at the Beaux Arts Ball where Trey Kuhl and the 360s sing “Baby It’s You,” while I slow-dance with my girl in her silk-sleeved green gown. Dark at paste-ups.
I am not reminiscing, or pining for the old days. Those people are there now, strung across contour lines of a dark and timeless universe. Nothing I can do about it, I’m one of them. I might whisper a tune in their ear, but they’re not listening for me. Too wrapped up in their own lives to see that every moment is a place, all the moments of our lives strung together in the thread of memory and forgetting.
It isn’t clear where we are now. Virus-driven solitude dams up neuron flows. Zones of eviscerating superstition puzzle the landscape. Loopholes and doubt bond with black plaque craters, embedding the mineral interior with seeds of dementia. Oil levels in the social machine are flashing red, showing friction dangerously high, the trust that lubricates the gears unreplenished. People speak of normal now not with derision or air quotes but with an existential
thirst that fracks nostalgia. Nobody asks what is normal any more. If you live in the desert, you know water.
Used to be, we relied on each other to mirror ourselves, our ideal worth, spending our days in reflection like little moons. Now we must be stars that give without waiting, trees that touch each other down below.
* * *
Paste-ups. North Hall, a cavernous one-story white stucco building on the northwestern edge of the spacious campus, bus depot in the basement. The room where they work is the only one in the building with a light on.
Cat Dietrich sits sprawled at a classroom desk, chin set determined as she reads Jack Ritter’s squished cursive in a story about the soccer team’s prospects for next year. She has short hair, small nose and thick glasses with black frames. When she finds a word she can’t read, she writes her own word over it in red pen.
Becky Guttenberg and Margaret Bland, always together, have jockeyed their desks toward each other and sit in tacit communication, never appearing to speak.
Sally Overstreet and Greg Mayfield study the stiff, oversize pages laid out in the back room, trying to shape the fragments they see and smell in front of them into the nascent, slippery high school newspaper they know is there underneath.
René Dufort stands with arms folded at the front of the classroom in a muted plaid blazer and ascot of royal blue, relaxed on his feet without leaning his Italian linen against the chalkboard, looking more like an old world aristocrat the wind might blow away than a faculty advisor. His Gallic nose protrudes from his face as if it has been slapped on as an afterthought, overcompensating for his otherwise recessive features. He stands alert for problems, arguments, anomalous mechanical sounds.
He hopes they can finish the paper before they go home. It would be nice not to come in on a Saturday of paste-ups week. But he’s not counting on it. In his late fifties, he wonders how relaxed can teenagers be?
Jack Ritter leans forward to hear Suzie Blue’s order for Chuck A Burger. Suzie has just returned from covering a chess tournament across town. Her camera doubles as an accessory, offsetting her height and effervescent smile, its brightly colored neck strap a rein on her potential momentum. Jack’s left side hearing was compromised by a body slam at a wrestling match as a freshman. He’s angling for the boys’ sports page editor job next year.
Keith Phillips and Brenda Hill are at the foot of the steps in the bus depot (having thought they heard a noise), going mouth to mouth in a groping clinch they neither planned nor knew they desired.
Somewhere in the dark hallway a girl strums a guitar, her alto voice singing Where Have All the Flowers Gone.♪
* * *
The people in the building are experiencing the high school at night. This place that clanged with ear-splitting bells calling throngs to come here and go there, with different bosses every forty minutes, that throbbed with hormonal longing, that simmered with aching to get the answer first, the highest grade, the attention of the one sitting across the room –light years away, that one– now reveals dimensions of time and space that are human. There are no seating charts here, no bells to break the quiet rhythms of time into fragments. Everyone works toward a future with a tangible product. The deadline they face is not for themselves or the teacher, but for the Envoy.
There is an implicit notion that once it’s in their hands, the fragments will cohere.
* * *
Chunkety chunk chunkety chunk comes reassuringly from the back room, separated from the classroom by a wall with a single large window, through which René Dufort can see Greg Mayfield carefully feeding the ticker tape copy into the justifying machine. In between these sounds comes the murmur of students in scattered groups or pairs.
René Dufort gazes at Sally Overstreet as she talks with Greg Mayfield. There is a disarmingly frank aspect to Sally’s oval face, as if she hides nothing while she listens. She is the editor. René Dufort has decided that Greg will be editor next year, although he hasn’t told him yet. He walks to the back room, sticks his head in the doorway, —How’s it going?
Sally looks up and smiles. —We’re trying to fix a headline.
—I set the disc for the wrong font size and now it won’t fit, Greg says.
—Are we gonna get out by 10, or what? Mr. Dufort says softly.
Sally looks across the tables where pages are pasted on boards, the smell of glue thick in the room, calculates. —Maybe we should go home soon, come back in the morning.
—All right, he says, sounding disappointed but unsurprised. He wanders over to the slanting layout boards and scans the pages. He sees prominent gaps awaiting headlines, cutlines, sub-headers, pix. Most of the stories are done. The obit for the drama teacher killed on her honeymoon. A piece on the construction of the Gateway Arch. The opinion survey in which almost everyone supports the war in Vietnam, where the first combat troops– two marine battalions– have just been sent. At least no faculty got insulted this issue.
Having given Jack her order, Suzie Blue picks up her camera and snaps him as he holds his arm bent at elbow in muscle pose. — Get me right, he says. That’s what we do here. We get the story right.
Cat Dietrich looks up from Jack’s story and hears a female chorus sing a snatch of lyrics to a song that hasn’t been written yet and won’t be for 50 years.
Head over heels but right side up
What’s soft is hard what’s smooth is rough
Want to be more than just not you
More to you than just not you ♪
It must be coming from her, she thinks. Her ears must be writing this song on their own.
She has written a few songs but she usually doesn’t get the words and melody at the same time. She’s been trying to write a song for the 360s, most of whose members she has dated; she was just thinking, we’re on the cusp, we’re already imagining it gone, but it hasn’t happened yet,— her reverie is interrupted by Keith Phillips, who comes in and quickly sits down. The thread is cut. Melodic phrase pffft.
—Done with your chores, Junior?
He would have a crush on her if she gave him the slightest encouragement, but it is mostly needling he gets. He nods.
. —Did you find anything downstairs? she asks slyly.
—Well since you don’t have anything to do, you can finish Ritter’s story.
—Why can’t he do it?
—He just left. Food run.
—Oh, man. I can’t read his marks.
—You don’t have to, Junior. I did the heavy lifting. She holds the paper out to him. Keith sighs theatrically and takes it from her. There’s a chair free back there, you can type.
—Ok, you can stop calling me junior.
—But that’s what you are. You’re a junior.
—I heard we’ll be leaving soon. Why start now?
—We have to eat, don’t we? At least those of us who’ve taken care of business.
The photo editor has a deposit box in the hallway where Suzie Blue drops her roll of film.
She glances toward the guitarist, who is a senior, but they don’t say hi. They’re not friends, although Suzy knows who she is. The girl seems very far away.
—Young girls picked them every one. ♫
Keith takes Jack’s marked up copy into the back room where two typewriters are set up next to the paste-up tables. He looks out the window and sees it has begun to rain. He imagines feeling the warm moist breeze on his face.
Sally sits looking at the page in front of her, glue ball in hand. Greg stands, scanning paragraphs. looks over at Keith —You gonna type? Keith holds up Jack’s paper in answer, then sits down next to Brenda, who is also typing. He does not now think of her as the one with whom he shared a subterranean embrace.
Greg skims the columns of text anxiously. His eyes catch a hanging indent, takes an exacto knife and begins cutting away. Sally is erasing something on the page adjacent with her glue ball. Keith glances at them and slides paper under the roller bar, glad to not have to think about columns and inches. to be free of the attention to detail he thinks would push him away from the drama he senses close at hand. Brenda whispers —Why did we run back upstairs?
He looks at her to see how serious she is, understands her plump comfort zone has been bumped.
—I don’t know, Keith smirks, fingers poised above the keyboard. Maybe we thought we were being bad.
—I heard something. I thought you did too.
He starts typing, trying to locate himself on a glittering slow-motion roulette wheel, intermittently imagining he has enough agency to not land on the wrong number. He hates soccer.
Margaret Bland is doing her math homework. —Jack, she says. The subject is the hottest boys.
Becky Guttenberg looks up with raised eyebrows in tacit agreement. It seems to her they are all just beginning to really see each other. Her breasts developed early, which caused her some embarrassment until her mother explained they were nothing to be ashamed of. Now she sees from her stable perch how her sudden bounty gives her a place to be generous, to understand what is happening. We’re all filling out in our own way she thinks. We’re presenting to each other for the first time even if we see each other every day, even if we have known each other all our lives. We are luminous beings. We think being one of many makes us fractions, but we’re every one of us whole numbers. Margaret is her best friend, but she could never explain these thoughts to her.
Having handed off Jack’s story, Cat remembers being called a slut today as two girls passed her in the hallway. She understands her directness of speech and the way she says yes to boys give some this idea, or at least that she is an extrovert. She wonders what she actually is, and if it matters. In study hall she imagined a black orb materialize on the wall above a door, and above, a half-circle of red delicious apples in silhouette. Starting on the right, the apples were black, but grew paler in their trajectory as they lost definition of outline, gradually disappearing from view as the arc moved left. The vision inspired her with a dread she didn’t understand. She made a quick sketch before the bell.
Brenda leaves her typing, anticipating the arrival of food. Keith looks up to rain splattering the glass. He tries to focus his ragged attention on Jack’s story. He wonders if he did hear a noise downstairs.
—Gone to graveyards every one ♪
* * *
He doesn’t go to class reunions, but keeps track of these phantoms as they fade into something like the river’s mist. He understands they exist but can’t hear him whisper or feel his touch, as he turns over the cards of his memory to reveal the other side of what he saw in time. They are part of who he has become, and to turn his back on them would be like cutting off a thumb, like leaving a winning hand on the table.
Although there is a black football player who will be named Prom King next month, and who will be killed in Vietnam, students at D’Artagnan are mostly white. They live a life apart from the aging, bipolar city to the east, where businesses and estates and theaters and shops all sit clustered with moneyed veneer alongside houses and factories in decay. Some D’Artagnanians, as they like to be known, have driven into the city across bridges by slaughterhouses, glimpsing late night corner tavern windows with neon Stag Beer logos, Roy Hamilton singing Don’t Let Go on KXOK. Some have gone to Gaslight Square to watch mini-skirted go-go dancers shimmy in raised cages at the Butterscotch Lounge, and hear reedy organs twine through electric bass and drums like sinuous vines sluicing up massive palms.
Already Becky is beginning to sense how evanescent and tenuous are the patterns she sees taking form. She can see a seating chart in the future. But not the colorless eyes of the singer in the hallway as she leaves.
But not the Lorraine motel, a four hour drive down the river,.
She begins to see the sunrise, the light of her waking self, is also the light that moves from right to left, the light that leaves the night in darkness.
Cat tries to get back the melody that briefly surfaced, but never got close enough to memory. It’s gone now, like the sound in the basement. She vows to herself she’ll take notes if it comes back.
Jack returns with their salty food in crinkled paper and grease-stained bags, sticks his head in the back room where Keith is alone, typing, says, —Food’s here. No lies now.