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July, July

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Class of '69

The reunion dance had started only an hour ago, but already a good
many of the dancers were tipsy, and most others were well along,
and now the gossip was flowing and confessions were under way and
old flames were being extinguished and rekindled under cardboard
stars in the Darton Hall College gymnasium.

Amy Robinson was telling Jan Huebner, a former roommate, about the
murder last year of Karen Burns, another former roommate. "It's
such a Karen sort of thing," Amy said. "Getting killed like that.
Nobody else. Only Karen."

"Right," Jan said. She waited a moment. "Move your tongue, sugar.
Details."

Amy made a weary, dispirited movement with her shoulders. "Nothing
new, I'm afraid. Same old Karen story, naive as a valentine. Trust
the world. Get squished."

"Poor girl," Jan said.

"Poor woman," said Amy.

Jan winced and said, "Woman, corpse, whatever. Still single, I
suppose? Karen?"

"Naturally."

"And some guy — ?"

"Naturally."

"God," Jan said.

"Yeah, yeah," said Amy.

Earlier in the evening, they had liberated a bottle of Darton Hall
vodka, which was now almost gone, and both of them were feeling the
sting of strong spirits and misplaced sentiment. They were
fifty-three years old. They were drunk. They were divorced. Time
and heartbreak had exacted a toll. Amy Robinson still had her
boyish figure, her button nose and freckles, but collegiate
perkiness had been replaced by something taut and haggard. Jan
Huebner had never been perky. She'd never been pretty, or cute, or
even passable, and at the moment her bleached hair and plucked
eyebrows and Midnight Plum lipstick offered only the most dubious
correctives.

"What I love about men," Jan was saying, "is their basic overall
cockiness. That much I adore. Follow me?"

"I do," said Amy.

"Take away that, what the heck have you got?"

"You've got zero."

"Ha!" said Jan.

"Cheers," said Amy.

"Pricks," said Jan.

They fell quiet then, sipping vodka, watching the class of '69
rediscover itself on a polished gymnasium dance floor.
Unofficially, this was a thirtieth reunion — one year tardy
due to someone's oversight, an irony that had been much discussed
over cocktails that evening, and much joked about, though not yet
entirely deciphered. Still, it made them feel special. And so, too,
did the fact that they were convening on a deserted campus, in the
heart of summer, more than a month after the standard
graduation-day gatherings. The school had a forlorn, haunted feel
to it, many memories, many ghosts, which seemed appropriate.

"Well," Jan Huebner finally said. "Bad news, of course —
Karen's dead. But here's some good news. Gal never went through a
divorce."

"That's a fact," said Amy.

"I mean, ouch."

"Ouch is accurate," Amy said.

Jan nodded. "Twenty-nine years, almost thirty, and guess what? That
slick ex-hubby of mine, Richard the Oily, he grins and waves at me
and strolls out the door. Doesn't walk, doesn't run. Strolls. Talk
about murder. Am I wrong about that?"

"You are not wrong," said Amy.

"We're discussing the male gender, aren't we?"

"We are."

"Well, there's your moral," Jan said. "One way or the other,
they'll kill you dead. Every time, flowers and gravestones. No
exceptions."

"Stone dead," Amy said, and leaned back to scan the crowd of aging
dancers. Thirty-one years, she thought. A new world. After a time
she sighed and freshened their drinks and said, "What say we get
laid tonight?"

"Yes, ma'am," said Jan. "By pricks."

"For sure."

"Big, dumb, bald ones."

Amy raised her glass. "To Karen Burns."

"To divorce," said Jan, and then she turned and waved at Marv
Bertel, a come-dance-with-us motion, but Marv shook his head,
tapped his chest, and leaned back heavily against the bar.

Marv was recovering from a dance with Spook Spinelli, wondering if
his heart could take another hit. He doubted it. He doubted, too,
that he should risk another bourbon, except the drink was already
in his hand, cold as a coffin, and might quiet the jump in his
heart. Partly the problem was Spook Spinelli: those daredevil eyes
of hers, that candid, little-girl laugh. Over half a lifetime,
through two tepid marriages, Marv had been massaging the fantasy
that something might develop between them. Pitiful, he thought, yet
even now he couldn't stop hoping. All those years, all that
wee-hour solitaire, and he was still snagged up in Spook Spinelli.
Also, of course, there was the issue of a failing triple bypass,
the butter in his arteries, the abundant flab at his waist. All the
same, Marv reasoned, this was a goddamn reunion, possibly his last,
so he knocked the drink back and asked the bartender for one more,
on the rocks, double trouble.

Across the gym, under a flashing blue spotlight, Spook Spinelli was
dancing with Billy McMann. They were hamming it up, making faces,
being sexy for each other, but Billy did not once take his eyes off
Dorothy Stier, who stood talking near the bandstand with Paulette
Haslo. After three decades, Billy still hated Dorothy. He also
loved her. The love and the hate had hardened inside him, one
reinforcing the other like layers of brick and mortar. In a few
minutes, Billy decided, he would treat himself to another drink, or
maybe three or four, and then he would amble up to Dorothy and
explain the love-hate dynamic to her in all its historic
detail.

Dorothy knew Billy was watching. She knew, too, that Billy still
loved her. Later, she told herself, there would be time to take him
outside and admit to the terrible mistake she had made in 1969. Not
that it was a mistake, not in the long run, because Dorothy had a
sweet husband and two incredible kids and memberships in a couple
of smart-set country clubs. Still, if Billy needed a lie, she saw
no harm in offering one. Almost certainly she would kiss him.
Almost certainly she would cry a little. For now, though, Dorothy
was busy telling Paulette Haslo about her breast cancer, which
thank God was in remission, and how supportive her sweet husband
and two incredible kids had been.

It was July 7, 2000, a humid Friday evening.

The war was over, passions were moot, and the band played a slow,
hollowed-out version of an old Buffalo Springfield tune. For
everyone, there was a sense of nostalgia made fluid by present
possibility.

"So sad, so bizarre," Amy Robinson was saying, "but so predictable,
too. The old Karenness, that's what killed her. She never stopped
being Karen."

"Who did it?" said Jan Huebner.

Amy wagged her head. "Nobody knows for sure. Some guy she had a
crush on, some creep, which is par for Karen's course. Never any
luck."

"Never, ever," Jan said. "And the thing is, she could've been a
knockout, all the ingredients. That gorgeous red hair, tons and
tons of it. I mean, she was a knockout."

"Weight problem, of course," said Amy.

"So true," said Jan.

"Plus her age. Face it, she was piling up the mileage like all of
us." Amy sighed. "Total shame, isn't it? The golden generation.
Such big dreams — kick ass, never die — but somehow it
all went poof. Hard thing to swallow, but biology doesn't have
politics. The old bod, you know? Just keeps doing its silly,
deadly, boring shit."

"True again," said Jan, and blinked down at her hands. "What
happened to us?"

"Got me," said Amy.

"Maybe the Monkees."

"Sorry?"

"Plain as day," Jan said. "A whole generation kicks off with the
Monkees, how the heck could we expect things to work out?
‘I'm a believer, I couldn't leave her' — I mean, yikes,
talk about starting off on the wrong foot. So naive I want to cry.
Last train to Clarksville, babe, and we're all aboard."

Amy nodded. "You're right," she said.

"Of course I'm right," said Jan.

"May I ask a question?"

"Ask."

"Where's our vodka?"

Similar conversations were occurring all across the darkened gym.
Death, marriage, children, divorce, betrayal, loss, grief, disease:
these were among the topics that generated a low, liquid hum
beneath the surface of the music. At a table near the bar, three
classmates sat discussing Amy Robinson's recent good fortune, how
after years of horrid luck she had finally met a decent guy, a math
teacher, and how on her honeymoon the two of them had won a
sweepstakes or a bingo tournament or a state lottery, something of
the sort, no one knew quite what. In any case, Amy was now very
well off, thank you, with a fat bank account and a brand-new
Mercedes and a swimming pool the size of Arkansas. Her marriage,
though, had failed. "Barely two weeks," someone said, and someone
else said, "Talk about irony. Poor Amy. Finally gets lucky, lands a
guy, and then the guy turns unlucky. Back to square one. Even her
good luck goes rotten."

Thirty-one years ago, in the brutal spring of 1969, Amy Robinson
and many others had lived beyond themselves, elevated by the times.
There was good and evil. There was moral heat. But this was the
year 2000, a new millennium, congeniality in public places, hope
gone stale, morons become millionaires, and the gossip was about
Ellie Abbott's depression, Dorothy Stier's breast cancer, Spook
Spinelli's successful double marriage and the fact that she seemed
to be going for a triple that evening with either Marv Bertel or
Billy McMann.

"The terrible thing," Jan Huebner was saying, "is that Karen was
obviously the best of us. Huge heart. Full of delusions, I'll grant
you, but the girl never once gave up hope."

"Which is what killed her," said Amy.

"Sorry?"

"Hope. Lethal."

Jan thought about it for a while. She also thought about her ex-
husband, how he waved and strolled out the door. "Maybe we should
just stop hoping," she said. "Maybe that's the trick. Never
hope."

"You think so?" said Amy.

"Sort of," said Jan.

After some consideration Amy Robinson shrugged and said, "Boy,
let's hope not," and the two of them laughed and moved toward the
bar to check on Marv Bertel's heart.

The music now was hard-core Stones translated for the times by
clarinets.

Techs were tumbling. Portfolios were in trouble.

Karen Burns was murdered.

"Hard to believe," classmates would say, about this, about that,
about belief itself. And as people conversed, shaking their heads,
disbelieving, a pair of slide projectors cast fuzzy old photographs
against one of the gymnasium walls: Amy Robinson as a pert,
freckled, twenty-year-old rabble-rouser; Jan Huebner dressed up as
a clown; Karen Burns eyeing a newly hired professor of sociology;
David Todd looking trim and sheepish in his blue and gold baseball
uniform; Spook Spinelli posing topless for the Darton Hall
yearbook; Dorothy Stier in a pink prom gown, ill at ease, glaring
at the camera; Billy McMann clutching Dorothy's hand; Marla Dempsey
chasing Paulette Haslo with a fire extinguisher; Ellie Abbott and
Marv Bertel and Harmon Osterberg playing cantaloupe-soccer in a
crowded noontime dining hall. According to a reunion brochure,
sixty-two percent of the class had settled in the Twin Cities area
— Amy Rob-inson and Jan Huebner lived seven blocks apart in
the nearby suburb of Eden Prairie. Forty-nine percent had paid at
least one visit to divorce court. Sixty-seven percent were married.
Fifty-eight percent described themselves as "unlucky in love."
Almost eighty percent had selected "romance and/or spiritual
fulfillment" as the governing principle of their lives. In the
gymnasium that evening, under cardboard stars, there were six
attorneys, twelve teachers, five physicians, one chemist, three
accountants, nineteen entrepreneurs, fourteen full-time mothers,
one chief executive officer, one actor, one minister, one Lutheran
missionary, one retired librarian, one lieutenant governor. Billy
McMann owned a chain of hardware stores in Winnipeg. Amy Robinson
practiced criminal law. David Todd, who had lost a leg in 1969, and
who was now divorced from Marla Dempsey, ran a successful
custom-made furniture business. Paulette Haslo was a Presbyterian
minister, although currently without a church, which was still
another topic of conversation. "Hard to believe, isn't it?" said a
former point guard for the Darton Hall women's basketball team, now
a mother of three. "Little Miss Religion, our own Paulette, she got
caught breaking into this . . . I shouldn't say. Big scandal. God
fired her."

"Wow, that's horrible," said a former teammate, an accountant for
Honeywell. "Maybe we should — you know — go say
something."

"About what?"

"I don't know what. Try to help."

The former point guard, now a mother of three, shook her head and
said, "No way, I'm in heat, I deserve some fun," and then she moved
off swiftly toward the bar.

A solid one hundred percent of them, the brochure declared, had
come to the reunion "ready to party."

It was a muggy evening, oppressively hot. In an open doorway at the
rear of the gymnasium, Ellie Abbott fanned herself with a fallen
cardboard star, sharing a cigarette with David Todd and Marla
Dempsey. The three of them were cordial enough, even laughing at
times, but here too, as with Amy Robinson and Jan Huebner, hope was
a problem. Marla was hoping that David would stop staring at her.
Ellie was hoping that Marla would stop talking about their
classmate Harmon Osterberg, who had drowned last summer in the
waters of northern Minnesota. David Todd was hoping that Marla
regretted leaving him in favor of a glib young stockbroker with a
wallet only slightly fatter than his head.

"He was a dentist," Marla said. She looked at Ellie, then at David,
then down at her folded arms. "Harmon, I mean. And a good dentist,
too. Super gentle. At least that's what people said." She stopped,
looked away. "Maybe you already knew that."

"I did," said Ellie.

Marla sighed. "God, it makes me sick. Such a dear, dear guy, always
so happy, and now he's just — no offense — he's this
dead dentist. I mean, if Harmon could be here tonight, I bet
anything he'd be telling dentist jokes."

"And drowning jokes," said David.

Ellie said nothing. For eleven and a half months she had said
nothing.

She made a vague flipping motion with her wrist, took a last drag
on David's cigarette, excused herself, slipped inside, sat alone on
the bleachers for a time, waited for the loons to leave her head,
waited for Harmon to finish drowning, and then went off to find her
husband.

In the gymnasium's open doorway, David Todd and Marla Demp- sey
watched Ellie slide away into the crowd of dancers.

"Take a guess what I'm thinking," David said.

"Ellie and Harmon," said Marla. "They came close a million times.
Maybe finally . . ."

"Like us?"

"No. Not like us."

A quiet came between them, which they recognized from their years
of marriage: power failure. They'd always wanted different things.
It was no one's fault. Even while they were together, Marla had
made it clear that she could not wholly commit, that their marriage
was an experiment, that David's missing leg sometimes gave her the
creeps. She hated touching the wrinkled stump, hated looking at it.
And there was also the scary suspicion that this man could
sometimes read her mind, like a fortuneteller, as if some spy or
peeping tom had been slipping him all her secrets over the
years.

Even now, as David smiled at her, Marla wondered what the smile
concealed. He was a good man, yes, but even his goodness frightened
her.

"So go ahead," David was saying. "I'm ready."

"Go ahead what?"

"Ask where I'm staying."

Marla frowned. "I'll bite. Where are you staying?"

"On campus. Flarety Hall. We can be there in sixty seconds."

"If we run?"

"Gimp," he said, and slapped a hand against his prosthesis. "Take
our time, move slow, it'll be like —"

"Stop."

"Right. Sorry. I'm stopped."

Marla studied him with flat, neutral eyes. "Anyway, look at me.
Eight extra pounds. Not a clue where it came from."

"You look exquisite," said David.

"Sweet, sweet lie."

"My pleasure." David took the cigarette from her lips and threw it
to the ground. "Don't do that to yourself. Makes a girl
infertile."

Marla glanced at him, surprised.

"I hadn't noticed that you've stopped."

"No. But I'm me, my love. You're you."

"‘My love'?"

"Sorry again. Divorced, right?"

"Light me another one, David."

"No can do. What about those unborn babies?"

"Pity," Marla said, "but they'll have to live with it. Come on,
fire me up."

David tapped out a cigarette, slipped it between her lips, struck a
match, and watched her lean in toward the flame. Lovely woman, he
thought. Steel eyes. Silver-blond hair, cut short. Trim. No hips.
No sign of any extra eight pounds. They'd remained friends over the
years, sharing lunches, sometimes sharing a bed, and David found it
impossible to believe that they would not somehow end up living
together and getting old together and finally occupying the same
patch of earth. Anything else seemed mad. Worse than mad. Plain
evil.

Marla blew smoke into the July night.

"Much better," she said.

"Not for our babies."

"David, please, just lay off the baby bit. I'm low on the estrogen.
Empty tanks. I'm old."

"You're not old."

"Oh, I am. Always was." She looked away, looked back at him, went
up on her toes to kiss his cheek. "It's this reunion crap, David.
Makes people mushy."

"Mushy, mushy me," said David.

"Absolutely. Mushy you."

"I need to ask something."

"Is it mushy?"

"It is," he said.

"No," she said. "Don't ask."

Marla folded her arms and stepped back.

She was fond of David, and wished things could be otherwise, but
what he wanted from her had never been a possibility. Ordinary love
— what most people thought of as love — meant little to
her. All she'd ever wanted was to be alone.

"Let's dance," she said. "I'm not good at this."

"At what?"

"This. Talking."

"Fair enough. But if you don't talk, I don't dance."

"The leg?"

"Not the leg," he said. "I was just hoping . . . Forget it."

"You could watch, couldn't you?"

"Sure," he said.

He followed Marla inside and stood watching as she danced with
Dorothy Stier and Spook Spinelli. It was true, he thought, that
she'd put on some wear and tear. The sockets of her eyes had
yellowed, and her skin had a brittle, crumbly texture that took him
by surprise. She looked her age, which was fifty-three. But even
so. A stunning fifty-three. In point of fact, he decided, a sublime
and heartbreaking and drop-dead magnificent fifty-three. For all
the years, there was still the essential Marla glow, a magnetic
field, whatever it was that made Marla into Marla, and that made
his own life worth the pain of living it.

After a time Marv Bertel cut in and took Spook off into a corner,
and a moment later Dorothy Stier went off to make peace with Billy
McMann, and then Marla danced alone.

Well, David thought.

Dream girl.

He turned away.

The evening had been hard on him, because he wanted Marla so badly,
and because she'd lived inside him for so many years, through a
whole war, then through a nine-year marriage, and then for the
decades afterward. To her great credit, he real ized, Marla had
never feigned passion, never promised any-thing. David believed her
when she said she cared for him. But he'd come to despise the word
"care." He did not care for it. Nor did he care for the terrible
truth that Marla only cared for him.

After two drinks David left the gym. He made his way across campus
to Flarety Hall, took the elevator up to his room, removed his
trousers and prosthesis, popped a Demerol, popped a half sheet of
acid, lay down on the tile floor, and allowed the narcotics to
carry him away to a shallow, fast-moving river called the Song Tra
Ky.

Ellie Abbott left not long afterward with her husband Mark and with
the sound of waterfowl in her head. Harmon would not quit drowning
on her. She had dared two affairs in her life, and the second had
gone very, very badly, and for almost a year now Harmon Osterberg
had been drowning in her dreams. It was something she could never
talk about. Not with Mark, not with anyone. The affair had
developed by accident, a mild flirtation, never serious, but the
consequences were enough to make her believe in Satan. For the rest
of her life Ellie would be living with the terror of a ringing
telephone, a midnight knock at the door. Secrecy was squeezing the
future out of her.

In the cab, as they returned to their hotel, her husband said, "Was
it fun?"

"Fun?" she said.

"The reunion. Old friends. What else?"

There was a vacuum, as if a hole had opened up between them, and
for a few seconds Ellie wondered if she might find the courage to
fill it with the truth.

Instead, she said, "Oh, fun."

Almost everyone else partied well past midnight. There were door
prizes, and later a limbo contest, and later still a talent show
designed for laughs. Marv Bertel was among those who stayed. Bad
heart and all, he danced several times with Spook Spinelli, who was
already married, doubly, and who divided her time between two
adoring husbands and a now-and-then lover on the side. By one in
the morning Spook's head was on Marv's shoulder. "I'm a lardass,"
he told her, "but I'd make a fantastic third husband. Hide me under
your bed. Beds, I mean. Plural."

Spook said, "Nice dream, isn't it?"

"Just say maybe."

"Maybe," she said.

Dorothy Stier stayed late too. She stood outside with Billy McMann,
trying to explain away her mistake, or what Billy called a mistake.
She blamed it on religion and politics and the vast differences
between them in 1969. "I was Catholic," she reminded him. "I was a
Nixon chick. What else could I do?"

"They have churches in Winnipeg," Billy said. "They have tea
services."

"At least dance with me."

"No, thanks," he said.

"Please?"

"Can't. Won't. Very sorry." He would not look at her. "So where's
Ron this evening?"

"Stop it."

"Let me guess," said Billy. "Home with the kids?"

"Correct."

"You bet correct. Home. Kids. Correct's the fucking word."

Inside, Marla Dempsey still danced alone, down inside
herself.

Sixty seconds away, David Todd lay shot through both feet, dumb as
dirt, sky high, listening to the sound of everness cut through the
tall, bloody grass along a shallow river west of Chu Lai.

Harmon Osterberg was drowned.

Karen Burns was murdered.

In a downtown hotel room, Ellie Abbott lay under the sheets with
her husband Mark. At one point Ellie began to reach out to him. She
almost said something.

Just after 1:30 in the morning the band stopped playing. The lights
came up, people began drifting toward the door, but then someone
found a radio and turned up the volume and the party went on.

At the rear of the gym, six former football players ran passing
plays.

The twin slide projectors pinned history to the wall. RFK bled from
a hole in his head. Ellie Abbott swam laps with Harmon Osterberg in
the Darton Hall pool, and Amy Robinson hoisted a candle for Martin
Luther King, and a helicopter rose from a steaming rice paddy west
of Chu Lai, and David Todd bent down to field a sharp grounder, and
Spook Spinelli grinned her sexy young grin, and Billy McMann
dropped a fiery draft card from the third- floor balcony of the
student union, and the Chicago police hammered in the head of a
young man in whiskers, and Paulette Haslo led a pray-in for peace,
and Apollo 11 lifted off for the moon, and the President of the
United States told heroic lies in the glaring light of day. Out on
the dance floor, Minnesota's lieutenant governor and his
ex-fiancée, now a Lutheran missionary, swayed slowly to fast
music. A chemist explored the expansive hips of a retired
librarian. A prominent physician and one of the full-time mothers,
formerly a star point guard, made their way toward the women's
locker room. Unofficially, this was a thirtieth reunion —
officially a thirty-first — and for many members of the class
of '69, maybe for all of them, the world had whittled itself down
to now or never.

Billy McMann and Dorothy Stier had gotten nowhere. They stood near
the bar, apportioning blame.

Paulette Haslo was on her hands and knees, drunk, peering up at the
cardboard stars. "All I ever wanted," she was telling no one, "was
to be a good minister. That's all. Nothing else."

The chemist kissed the weathered throat of his retired
librarian.

Minnesota's lieutenant governor had vanished. So, too, had his ex-
fiancée, now a Lutheran missionary.

Spook Spinelli sat in Marv Bertel's lap. Marv was certain his time
had come. Spook was certain about nothing, least of all her own
heart. After a while she excused herself, got up, and went off to
call her two husbands and a now-and-then lover named Baldy
Devlin.

At a back table, over the last of their vodka, Amy Robinson was
confiding in Jan Huebner about her disastrous honeymoon, explaining
how packets of hundred-dollar bills had ended up in her purse. Good
luck, Amy said, always came in streaks, and she was afraid she'd
used up every last bit of hers on the honeymoon. "It sounds
superstitious," she said, "but I wonder if I've got any left. Luck,
I mean. For the real world."

"Divorce sucks," Jan said.

"Big-time," said Amy.

Jan looked around the gym. "Maybe we'll strike gold. This whole
place, take a look around. Nobody left except a bunch of wretched
old drunks like us. People who need people."

"I hate that song," said Amy.

"The universe hates it," said Jan. "Except for my
ex-husband."

"Screw the guy," said Amy.

"All the guys," said Jan.

"Cheers," Amy said.

"Cheers," said Jan.

Amy finished off her drink, closed her eyes, blinked out a smile.
"Crazy, crazy thing, isn't it?"

"Crazy what?"

"Oh, I don't know, just getting old," said Amy. "You and me, our
whole dreamy generation. Used to be, we'd talk about the Geneva
Accords, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Now it's down to liposuction
and ex-husbands. Can't trust anybody over sixty." Amy shook her
head. For a few seconds she tapped her empty glass against the
table. "And you know the worst part? Here's the absolute worst
part. Our old-fogy parents — yours and mine, everybody's
— they didn't know jack about jack. Couldn't spell Hanoi if
you spotted them the vowels. But one thing they did know, they knew
damn well where we'd end up. They knew where all the roads
go."

"Which is where?" Jan said.

"Here."

"Sorry?"

"Right here."

Jan sighed. "True enough," she said. "But look at it this way.
Things could be worse. We're not Karen Burns."

July, July
by by Tim O’Brien

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0142003387
  • ISBN-13: 9780142003381