(page 7 of 7)
The 80’s hits were left behind, replaced by celebratory contemporary pop, as though to say look at us now, how we on the dance floor have arrived, triumphant, all grown up. I watched the dancing from the outskirts. There was Gretchen with her husband. She caught me staring and looked away. Jim K— and all the other former nerds, geeks, and dweebs, now rich execs with business degrees and trophy wives, were cutting it up with abandon, snapping their fingers and jiggling their hips in full view.
My old tribe never found me. Only Joe did, coming in stolid as ever, finding me in the dark. He came nearer, his eyes lit up, beaming with a grin, then his laugh came next, which overtook the poppy soundtrack and was a laugh that said it all—just like always, those who danced were fools!
We began drinking it up at our very own table from the bottle in his jacket, a chair between us like tough guys. The noise made it impossible to talk, but our derisive eye rolling and outright cackles sufficed. We watched just long enough to convince ourselves that we didn’t want to belong in the middle, that the outside was the happiest of all possible worlds. Eventually, we staggered out to the casino area to mingle with our new-found confidence. Sooner or later, and I don’t remember which, old coach Harrison emerged from a pair of potted plants and positioned himself between us. He seemed the same, wrinklier maybe, but very stiff about the joints. He said he’d quit coaching and teaching to go into administration before finally retiring last year. Then I listened to Joe launch into the most amazing monologue I’ve ever heard outside a theatre stage. He told Harrison how thankful he was now that he’d had the coach to kick him in the ass for all those years, and, if anything, he wished he’d kicked him a hell of a lot harder. He attributed all the right moves he’d made in his life to this hated man. His gushing knew no bounds and his certainty and sincerity trembled in his chin. If you saw him and didn’t hear what he was saying you’d think he was angry, livid even. It was tough love expressed on a whole new plane. I doubt Harrison remembered him, but when Joe was finished the old guy was blinking tears and speechless.
“That said,” Joe sighed, patting his chest. “I now need a smoke.”
He left us, winked at me over Harrison’s massive shoulder while giving him a double dose of the middle finger.
Harrison stood next to me and we watched people in silence. It felt past time for me to go, but I didn’t want to be rude and leave him alone. His body radiated warmth and his breathing was labored. It was clear that nobody cared to speak with the old teacher, the man they used to fear and now pitied, nor the guy who claimed himself to currently be a teacher. An extended awkward moment, the term “two peas in the same pod” came to my mind. Then Harrison turned to me and said, with some level of confidentiality, “So, what subject you teach?”
I looked at him with wonder. His face was giant, round as a dinner plate. Did he really say this? “English,” I said. “But how? How did you know?”
His eyes were clear and twinkled with a disturbing kinship. Then he invited me with those eyes to gaze down past his extended waistline to the floor where presently his feet were wriggling. They were massive, bloated feet, aged and tired. His shoes were untied and loose, but most of all they were the same brand and style as mine.
“Nice Clarks,” he said. “Nice Clarks.”