The fire alarm could be heard two neighborhoods away. Voices–someshouting, others mumbling–all combined in the same growing echo. The odor of water on raw smoke stung my nose. In the Christmas shopping hustle, The All-Star Memorabilia store had somehow ignited and literally gone up like a house of cards. A 1971 Topps Roberto Clemente, warped and bloated beyond salvage floated by in a current of hydrant water. I kicked a toe through the new creek bed.
Folks stood, arms folded, entertained by the spectacle. There were more than a few mirror images of myself, we of thinning hair and softening places. I parked beside a clone and folded my arms accordingly.
“Just went up like that, huh?”
The man nodded. His folded arms pushed his stomach forward; an outee bellybutton poked at his t-shirt like a fetus that wanted out. And like a man who knows his fire insurance policies, he said “well, I guess it’s all for the best.” He then turned and walked back to the used book store that had been All-Stars competition. I think the police had their primary suspect. Into his place stepped another clone.
“Just went up like that, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said.
The felt the clone staring. “Hey… aren’t you the guy who dressed up like the Easter Bunny in our sophomore year?”
My eyes shifted his way, then I turned my whole body, scrambling to place his face. Who would know such a vague and embarrassing fact, and what ransom would he demand to erase it from memory? His face grew familiar, like a distant car coming into focus. It was Peter Mansfield, former classmate, one-time owner of a green 1971 Volkswagen 311. We’d endured three years of fifth period high school auto shop, right after lunch, using the 311 as our guinea pig. I think I still owe him for the time my lunch money slipped out of my shirt pocket and into the VW’s carburetor. By the friendly smile on his face, I think he’s forgotten.
But fifteen years later, he’d have his revenge. Here Peter stood, having survived perhaps only to remind me that in 1994 I dressed up in a pink rabbit suit. I hip-hopped through the school dispensing jelly beans during first period. It was still the cold part of spring, somewhere around 30° in the early morning, and a fuzzy tail was a blessing in disguise – especially to those of us assigned first period outdoor gym class and a ridiculously thin uniform. Standing out in that frosty morning air, the previous night’s dew still touched everything from the cold blacktop to the tips of our noses. Wet blankets were warmer. But no one bought that story. They took me for every bean I had and hopped off to Biology class. I proved my true intentions immediately after first period phys ed – I was out of that suit and back into a t-shirt and jeans. But word had spread, the die was cast, I’d forever be The Guy Who Wore the Bunny Suit. Mansfield seemed to understand. Undersized gym uniforms motivate teens in strange ways; my then 16 year-old brain – which had plotted night and day for two grueling years to walk, talk, and be as cool as possible – somehow believed that coming to school dressed as a pink idiot was a really good idea.
We summed up our high school experience in a single mutual statement. “High school sucked.” Neither of us can recall a single memory that stood up to our post-graduation days, other than the rabbit suit. With the blaze that had been All-Stars nearly out, I invited Pete to dinner at my house. He said he’d be there, and that he’d bring along his old yearbook.
Fine, I nodded. My yearbook had disappeared years earlier under mysterious circumstances. I’d been reading it beside the snap crackle and pop of an early December fireplace. I walked off to refresh my hot chocolate and returned and find the book in flames. A soaring ember had landed right smack on Gary Prescott’s forehead. When I saw old Gary with a third eye burning his memory, reaching clear thru to page 87 I just gave up and heaved the whole thing into the fireplace. I’d lived without the cauldron of bad memories until just last week when I found an untouched, unsigned copy in a second hand store. What were the chances, I thought, of having no record of your high school years, only to find a virgin copy of your senior yearbook in a thrift store fifteen years later for a buck? If it brought on too many bad memories, I figured I’d just leave it beside the fireplace again.
When Pete arrived, I prepared a feast of corn dogs and flat soda, identical to those wolfed down before fifth period auto shop. “Some things are worth remembering,” he said of dinner. Pete dipped his corn dog into a short bowl of bright yellow mustard and relaxed with a pleased smile. “Lunch always was my best subject.” I patted my belly and told him I’d often repeated the course.
We adjourned to the fireplace. I dragged out my yearbook and Pete lift his from the coffee table. As the fire’s heat wafted toward us I opened the book to a wide angle shot of the Class of ‘96, lining the balcony and lawn of their alma matter. We were lucky to have got the shot; a week earlier the scheduled shoot was canceled on account of a suspiciously timed fire alarm. I’d been absent this day too. The first familiar face that came into focus was Karl Kline. I pointed him out.
Karl amazed students and faculty alike by passing every class, semester after semester, without ever lifting a pencil. Pete & I had shared auto shop with Karl. Every student’s first duty was to retrieve their personal assignment folder from a rack, or the Folder Holder as we called it. Every day, Karl timed his effort to reach his folder with someone’s motion to stand, then he’d casually ask: “could you grab my folder, Bud?” He always ended a favor with Bud to let you know you were in with him – and once that folder was in his hands, there you’d stay. He soon began putting his folder beside mine as the semester wore on, making my next retrieval easier, Bud that he was, until after three weeks I told him to shove it. Pete laughed; he’d sat behind Karl and picked up Folder Duty where I’d left off until graduation. We both agree Karl is in middle management somewhere today.
I tore the wide angle front page from the book, Folder Boy and friends, and tossed it into the flames. Pete and I watched the glossy page float momentarily, then the paper ignited like phosphorus and brightened the room – along with the smiles on our faces. Pete tore away his own copy of Folder & Friends and added to the pyre. We continued all night, peeling away full-page layouts of senior picnics we’d passed up, even the picture of Chris Christian, who’d punched Pete in the mouth during junior year. Chris had announced to everyone at our lunch table that he was dumping his girlfriend because she didn’t know how to go down on him. The guys were full of macho suggestions but Pete, who was in the marching band, suggested she sleep with the boys in the brass section to pick up some tips on polishing the old horn. Chris must have loved her more than he knew; Pete produces a newspaper clipping dated a year after graduation, announcing their engagement. Into the fire it went, each page bringing the systematic relief of burning off a tick.
“Did that fifteen year anniversary committee find you?” I asked.
“Yeah. Leave that crap to the people who look back on high school as a good time. There is noresemblance between the person on page 68 and the me of today.” I too had mailed back the little card that told everyone I’d died in my sleep at age 24. It’s made for some interesting reunions at the local Starbucks.
Pete & I shared plenty more “Hey, remember him/her?” moments, but not a single page contained a current friend, particularly ironic for Pete as his book was graffiti’ed with the signatures of a hundred strangers vowing eternal friendship. Pete throws his own picture in the flames; he doesn’t want to be remembered by anyone as the bright eyed moron who’d been beat up weekly by the school drug pusher. I reminded him of the 302 other senior yearbooks out there but he insists that the crusade starts here.
Next went Norma Ferret (pronounced fair-aay), our business teacher, who lived in the sloppiest part of town and let us slide on any assignment if we could muster up a decent excuse. She was exactly the kind of business teacher who led us into sparkling retail careers. I saw Norma at a yard sale a few years ago. Pete and I agree she was probably updating her wardrobe.
In go the Spanish Club, the Literature Club, the Girls Varsity Soccer team, which Pete says his ex-girlfriend had been on. They broke up so he could date another girl on the team, then he split with her to date the goaltender, a title Pete insists was more than just her position on the field. I wonder how he could part with such good memories. “Once they all found out, I couldn’t turn a corner in the halls without getting kicked in the shins.” I tell him he’s lucky it was his shins. He says he wore a cup to school for three weeks until he was sure it was. We’re up to page 185 now.
The Auto Club. Among the motley crew of flannel-shirted, wise-guy smirks stand Pete and I, side by side, me with a wrench held high above my head like a high school Atlas and Pete, subtle and satisfied, probably just having finished off a big lunch at Weinerschnitzel with the girls from the soccer team. We study the shot, perplexed whether the photo captured the way we really were – or simply a fluke of the lens. Were we once so young? I motioned him to follow, and before the mirror in the living room I hold up the book. We study the page, then back at the mirror. Book, mirror. Book, mirror. We return to the fireplace and hurled in the Class of ‘96.
“Haven’t felt this good in years” he says. “I don’t know why I held onto this so long.”
“Maybe,” I say, “you just have to dispose of it the right way.”
Pete thought a moment. “I’ve often thought, if I’d been the person in high school that I am today, I’d have had a much better time. High school fit me like a cement suit. I couldn’t wait to leave. If I’d taken the GED after my sophomore year and gone right to college, my memory of high school probably would’ve been much better.”
“And shorter,” I agree.
The cardboard covers burn away. On top of it all we drop a pine log, fresh from the wood bin, and all that speaks for a long while is the pop of the old wood warming the room.
* * *
Winter passed, spring arrived, and it was around late March when Pete called again. He was working at the vintage book place. The owner of the store had knocked out a wall and rebuilt the frontage vacated by All-Star Memorabilia. They’d be up and moving Easter weekend. Pete had only one question:
“Still got that bunny suit?”
It never ends. For Pete, and in homage to that single day of individuality, I rented a bright pink bunny suit, handed out 100 pounds of jelly beans, and posed with mothers and their children. When a carload of teenagers roll up in a new Mustang the heat of helpless terror overcomes me, knowing I couldn’t outrun a souped-up Ford in size 22 feet. They roll past, thumbs held skyward out the windows and yell: “dude you rule!” Where were they were fifteen years ago? Sarcasm sure beats a beating.
When the sun softens and my shoulders can no longer bear the burden of a twenty pound rabbit head, I duck in the backroom of the bookstore to change into my street clothes. The irony isn’t lost. No one ever gets away from shared memories. We just find ways to get paid for it as adults.
Matt McGee never wore a bunny suit in high school but did dress up as a leprechaun one St Patrick’s Day. He has since lived long enough to realize that no one remembers those things unless you remind them, which takes nothing more than your mere presence, or a big, fat reminder in a national publication. He claims to hate his high school years with a curse though his ghost is often reportedly seen buying corn dogs in the school lunch line.