Authors: Howard Owen
There is an uncomfortable quiet. Cully says “Damn” again, and pretty soon someone changes the subject.
It had to happen, Jack figures. Bobby Witt and Posey Atkinson could not stay buried on a night like this.
He looks around the room. Some of those not hell-bent on defying their age are leaving. He has a brief moment of panic.
“Hey,” he says to Cully. “You see Gerald Prince?”
“Oh, yeah,” Cully says. “He's over there in the corner. I have never seen anybody so goddamn impressed with himself. You know the SOB has got a Mercedes parked outside. Probably rented it just for the occasion. Hey, why don't we sneak outside and tie some cans to it, put a potato in the tailpipe or something? A nostalgia trip, you know?”
But nobody seems to have the energy or will any more to torment Gerald Prince, who has a group around him and does appear to be enjoying holding court. His wife is nowhere to be seen.
Eventually, Susan Edmonds either comes to or wakes up, and soon afterward, a small group is making plans to reconvene at the all-night truck stop.
Jack tells them he'll meet them later.
Jack sets his course across the dance floor, dodging inebriated former classmates. It's almost 1 a.m.
At least half the partiers have left. The ones who remain are not in the best of shape. Milo Wainwright seems to be dancing with the papier-mache Gladiator. Martha Sue Levens Bain is trying to wrest it away from him, although it is almost surely beyond saving at this point. Each tug back and forth sends chunks of red and white debris falling to the floor.
Jack and Martha Sue are able to take his car keys away from him, and Ray Bain finally earns his keep by insisting on driving him out to the truck stop.
“Jack can drive me,” Milo says. “Jack's sober. Jack's always sober. Hey, we got to talk about the code. Remember the code?”
They see each other all the time, and Jack can't remember anyone mentioning the code in 20 years.
“Damn,” Ray Bain says, shaking his head. He obviously hasn't thought about it in a while. “You need to drink either more or less, Milo. You're startin' to have flashbacks.”
The small crowd around them includes Gerald Prince and his wife, who has reappeared and hangs on his jacket sleeve. She holds up her wrist and checks her watch, then yawns.
Ray finally gets Milo out the door.
Jack watches them work their way toward the car. They look like an entry in a three-legged race. He walks back toward Gerald and Caitlin.
“So, what's it like, being a big shot in New York and all?” Jack cringes at his own clumsiness.
Gerald looks at his wife, shakes his head and smiles like a man indulging a graceless child.
“I'm not a big shot,” he says. “It's taken me 25 years to get this far.”
Me, too, Jack thinks.
“Your own imprint. That's really something, isn't it?”
Gerald smiles. He seems pleased.
“Can I tell you a story?” Jack asks him.
“Stories are my life,” Gerald says. He leans back against the cafeteria wall and tells him to fire away.
Jack starts with the old man, working his way through his disappearance, and then Jack's decision to quit his job, sell his truck and spend all the time he can spare writing his novel. He tells Gerald the title and as much of the story as he can summarize without risking boredom.
” Gerald says. He says the name again and looks down at his shoes. His wife is now sitting in a chair a few feet closer to the door.
“So, do you think that if I sent you a copy, you, or somebody at Mayfair, or Gerald Prince Books, could, you know, look at it, tell me if it's any good?”
“Sure. Sure. Send it on up. Here.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a card with his name embossed in gold. “Just mail it to me when you're finished, or whatever.”
“Oh, I'm finished already.”
“Really?” Gerald Prince raises his almost-nonexistent eyebrows. “Well, that's something. Now, don't expect to hear from me overnight or anything like that.
“You know, I thought I wanted to be a novelist. That's what got me to New York. You probably don't even remember I did write oneâwell, I wrote several, but I got one published.”
Jack nods, although he's long since forgotten someone telling him Gerald Prince had written a novel.
“I was 25, and I thought I owned the world. I thought if you had a novel published, they'd just come and carry you away in a golden chariot.
“It didn't sell enough to cover the advance, and the advance wasn't that great. It was a sign. Those who can't write, edit. But send me what you've got. I'll take a look at it.”
Topic A out of the way, Jack asks how he enjoyed the reunion.
“Well,” Gerald says, scratching his head and looking around the fast-emptying room, “it was interesting. I don't think I'd have come if it hadn't been for you writing me. And I might not come to another one for another 30 years.”
He leans closer to Jack. “You know, everybody's got to grow up someplace, but when I got down to Duke, about two days after I got there, I knew there weren't enough wild horses to drag me back here. Hell, you might remember I got jobs waiting tables up on Nantucket in the summers.”
“I wasn't around those summers, either.”
“Oh, right. The Navy, right?”
Gerald looks up at Jack, who is staring off into the distance. He lowers his voice. Maybe, Jack thinks, he doesn't want his wife to know that he was class weenie a million years ago. How, though, could that matter now?
“No offense. I mean, I'm sure you and Cully and Milo and all the guys are happy as clams down here. But you guys were jocks. You owned the place. There wasn't any Speakeasy Code for little Jerry Prince. There was just the Jerry Prince code, which was to try to get out of Buster Gladden High alive. I looked at my junior class yearbook the other day, just to bone up.
“You know how many people signed it? Six. And three of them were kids, like ninth- and tenth-graders. I made a point that spring of not asking anybody to sign my yearbook until they asked me to sign theirs. I got tired of that look, like, âOh, God, if I sign Jerry Prince's yearbook, I'll have to ask him to sign mine. And then people will think I'm queer or something.'”
“I signed it.” Jack surprises himself by remembering this.
Gerald Prince smiles. “Yeah, you did, bless your heart.” His mouth twists a little as he adds, “I don't think I even had to ask you.”
Jack can recall the day the yearbooks came their junior year, although he's not sure who won the last Super Bowl. He finds, more and more, that memory is a brimfull jar in which each new drop of liquid displaces not the old, fermented slop at the bottom but instead something off the top, something new and fresh that landed there itself only recently and might be worth keeping.
He was the cock of the walk his junior year, no clouds, no whispers. Everyone wanted him to sign their yearbooks, even the seniors. And then he saw Jerry Prince standing over by his locker, just staring, nobody near him, waiting to be picked on. And for some reason, he went through the crowd and asked the boy who lived down the road, the one to whom he hardly ever spoke any more, if he'd sign his yearbook. Hell of a thing to remember.
“Tell me,” Gerald says, “can you even remember what the goddamn Speakeasy Code is any more? I mean, do you all talk about it all the time? Has it been your Ten Commandments, the light unto your path?”
Jack surprises himself by ticking them off from memory: no lies; no bullshit (a whole different thing from lies); no backing down; no quitting (a whole other thing from backing down); no shortcuts; no stop 'til we hit the top.
It was a club within a club. The seven town boys who would be senior starters on the football teamâJack, Milo, Cully, Mack, Ray Bain, Puffer Sensibaugh and Bobby Wittâhad come up with it when they were in ninth grade. They were sure they were something special. They'd always been able to beat the older boys in whatever sport was in season. They wanted something that would define and seal their specialness.
They swore each other to secrecy. They would give the sign when they passed in the hall, index finger and middle finger curved to form a rough âS' The next year, when they were all 16, they went together to a tattoo parlor on the Jeff Davis Highway down in Richmond and each got a small red âS' burned into their upper arms. Jack's parents grounded him for two weeks when they finally saw it.
Their senior year, when the football team was attracting attention all over the area, unbeaten through nine games, it was Milo, of course, who let it slip. A reporter from The Times-Dispatch asked him about the tattoo, and he spilled the whole code. Mack McLamb didn't speak to him for a month.
Somebody put it in the yearbook that year, on the page with the team picture. It was a bad joke by then to Jack.
“So,” Gerald Prince says, smirking, “have you been true to the code?”
“I haven't thought about the code in about two lifetimes. It was a kids' game, something friends do.”
He's lying. He opened the yearbook, searching for some trace of who he used to be, the day he got back from that last long-haul trip. Looking back was not something he was prone to do. The book opened right to the page with the football team, and the code.
He thinks about Milo, well-off enough but still jumping from flower to flower at 48; about Cully, rich from all his real estate deals, but a guy even an old friend couldn't truly and whole-heartedly trust; about Mack, who he hopes isn't an alcoholic; about Ray Bain, who was going to join the Navy with Jack and then just didn't show up that day; about Puffer Sensibaugh, who is supposedly now living somewhere in the New Orleans area and has made a point of disappearing from all their lives; about Bobby Witt, who never had a chance to betray the code.
And, of course, Jack Stone, Most Likely to Succeed, who stopped long before he hit the top.
“Well,” Gerald Prince says, “I've developed a code, too. I might have come up with mine about the time you and your buddies were inventing yours. Here's mine: Look out for Gerald Prince, because no one else is going to.”
Jack wants to tell him that he's got it pretty good, that from where he's standing, it appears he's done all right for himself. But he remembers the boy in grammar school, standing to one side, too shy to ask if he could play, too inept to be asked. He remembers all the teasing, books slapped out of his hands, lunches ruined or stolen. He remembers half-heartedly coming to his aid, just enough to keep him from getting killed. Not nearly enough.
Yeah, Jack Stone thinks to himself, that might be the code I'd have come up with if I'd been Jerry Prince.
“Are you all staying at your mother's tonight?” Jack asks.
“Ah, no. We've gotten a room at the Hyatt, out by the interstate. Some place where we can have our own bathroom. We're taking Mother to lunch tomorrow, and then we're going to head back north. Got to get back to the kids.”
Jack tells him about his family. He says he's sorry Gina didn't come tonight, that he would have liked for them to meet.
“Some wives have all the luck,” Caitlin's voice comes from behind him.
“Time to go,” Gerald says, looking at what appears to be a Rolex.
They walk outside together, the three of them. Jack stops and says he'll send his manuscript soon, and Gerald says that'll be fine. As the couple walk somewhat unsteadily across the parking lot, Jack can hear Caitlin's laughter.
He goes back inside, where Martha Sue, whom he hasn't seen standing still the entire night, is trying to orchestrate the clean-up detail.
By the time Jack crawls into bed, it's almost 4 a.m.
Ray Bain came back to the school sometime after 2 and tried to get him to join everyone at the party, which had migrated to Cully's new house, but he begged off.
“We've poured enough coffee in Milo that he can just about remember his name now,” he told Jack. “And Susan's getting her second wind.”
Jack, who was putting some folding chairs back in the storage room, said, “Nah, I think I'll head on home. I just can't keep up with you young people any more.”
“I could use some help in here.” Martha Sue's voice drifted across the empty cafeteria.
Ray Bain made an exaggerated effort at tiptoeing out the door he'd just come in.
They finished up sometime after 3:30. When Martha Sue gave him a thank-you kiss for being such a help, she surprised him by opening her mouth and exploring his with her tongue. Gina, he realized, hadn't kissed him with that much enthusiasm in some time.
In Jack's years on the road, he has become an expert navigator of temptation's waters. He hasn't strayed since Shannon was born. He was amazed, though, at how easy it would have been right then, how tempted and turned on he was. He has known Martha Sue Levens Bain since they were babies, and even when they were 18, there wasn't much of a spark there. They had never shared more than a demure kiss. Why now?
He reached around by instinct and put his left hand on her still shapely ass, and then, at perhaps the last second short of embarrassment or insult, he pulled his hand and his mouth away. She pulled back, too, and began a distracted search for her purse. They found it, over in a corner where she'd put it probably 12 hours earlier. Jack kissed her on her forehead. She smiled and told him to drive carefully.
Jack slips out of his clothes, dumping them on the floor on his side of the bed, where he can properly hang them up in the morning.
He's still awake, a little revved up from his conversation with Gerald Prince and from Martha Sue's kiss. He slides over next to Gina, who has not awakened and has her back turned to him. He smells the skin on the nape on her neck and slides closer, his erection touching her through his shorts and her panties.