It didn’t take Einstein to see the Bret was upset.
As a regular of the Red Baron, Bret normally had an easy disposition, one of those quiet guys girls call “Nice,” a milk-toast personality that had survived high school by hiding in the audio-visual department, and whose job as a parts man at the local auto store gave him immunity to the usual thugs that plagued the bar on Thursdays and Friday nights.
Bret usually came in right after work, stayed through happy hour, then wandered home via Burger King to eat his Whopper while watching sitcoms. Most of us knew him, nodded at him when he came in and again when he left, buying him a beer at some point in-between.
A thin, wiry man with premature graying curly hair, Bret spent most of his bar time talking to Tommy, the bartender, or one of the girl’s Tommy deputized to tend bar while he cleaned the toilets. Bret had a few buddies, generally men just like himself, who got excited over the latest issue of a Spiderman comic, or chatted on about the religious significance of Star Wars.
If Bret displayed emotion, it came in the form of an exaggerated sigh if depressed or a soft laugh if happy. He rarely drank more than two beers, so rarely needed assistance to find his car in the lot.
This had changed somewhat during a period just after the Superbowl when he chatted more than usual, and managed to tell Tommy about his ten-year high school reunion.
“The poor fool is looking forward to it,” Tommy told me later. “He actually thinks the thing might be fun.”
Tommy, who was in his mid-forties had been through two such events in his life, once at 28 and again at 38, and vowed never to return.
“Something always happens to remind you about why you hated high school in the first place,” he said. “The people there never change. They were assholes in high school, and they turn out to be assholes later on.”
The first Monday after Bret’s scheduled reunion, he showed up agitated, saddling up to the bar in his usual spot, but ordering nothing close to his usual beer.
“I want a shot of the strongest thing you got,” he said, hands shaking so much he could hardly get his wallet out of his back pocket.
Tommy gave me a disturbed glance, as if to say something was seriously wrong here, even if he didn’t know what.
“Hard alcohol?” Tommy asked.
“As hard as you’ve got, and as much as possible. Just keep refilling the glass when I empty it.”
Tommy glanced at me again and tilted his head towards Bret, as if to say: “This fellow needs a friend and you’ve been drafted.”
This was nothing new. As the bar’s most notorious busybody I often stuck my nose into other patron’s business, most often talking to appealing young women whom wandered in by mistake.
I slid my beer down the bar to the seat next to Bret’s. He was so caught up in his woes, he gave me only a glance and a nod, before draining his glass and tapping it on the bar for a refill. He was drinking Jack Daniels straight, hardly the stuff for milk toast.
“So how was your reunion?” I asked, figuring the subject topical enough to be safe. But I was wrong. He stared sharply at me and his eyes erupted with a hint of a storm roaring inside his head.
“What do you mean?” he asked with the same edge I’d heard from punks in Paterson grilled about a local armed robbery, thinking they had been accused of the crime.
“I didn’t mean anything,” I said, catching Tommy’s creeping towards us, pretending to be trying beer glasses while listening to us. The large blonde man’s frown grew more concerned. “I was just making conversation.”
“I wish you wouldn’t,” Bret mumbled, and then tapped his glass again because Tommy had not come to refill it.
Tommy corrected this, filling it to the brim before moving away.
“Why not?” I asked Bret. “You were very excited about going, weren’t you?”
Bret sipped his drink, grimaced – although whether this was from the taste or the memory, I couldn’t be sure.
“Yeah, I was looking forward to it,” he mumbled, sipped again, and then put the glass down, a little of the liquid sloshing onto the bar top near his fingers. “If I had known what would happen there, I wouldn’t have one anywhere near the thing.”
Tommy gave a knowing nod.
“It was that bad seeing your school mates?” I asked.
“Worse than you could ever imagine.”
“I don’t know,” I said, chuckling. “I can imagine some pretty silly stuff when it comes to the people I went to school with.”
“This wasn’t silly,” Bret snapped.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you,” I said. “I just figured you might want to talk about it, get it out of your system so to speak.”
“Well, I don’t,” Bret said, drained his drink and tapped his glass again.
I glanced at Tommy, but he motioned for me to press for more, too chicken to grill the man for answers himself.
For a moment, we just sat. Someone put a quarter in the jukebox and played a Leonard Skynard song. The bass notes clattered glasses behind the bar. Perhaps Bret’s thoughts grew too painful to keep inside his head or maybe the unusually strong drink for him began to lower his guard against invasion of privacy. He sighed once, then a little while later, again.
When he looked more directly at me, his eyes showed doubt, but also some deeper terror that had nothing to do with me.
“You really want to know what’s bothering me?” he asked.
“You know me, I’m a sucker for a hard luck story,” I said.
The joke went over his head; he only nodded, clearly aware of my nosy reputation. He tapped his glass, but when Tommy paraded over to refill it, Bret asked for a beer.
“I should have had a good time at the reunion,” he said, staring down at his hands. “Unlike the rest of you, I didn’t have it bad in high school. I had a group of friends and that was enough. That’s why I went to the thing, to see them. I missed them a lot. Even Kyle.”
Kyle, it turned out, was not like the rest of his gang. Kyle hung around with them from time to time, but he was mostly a loner.
“Kyle didn’t come until the rest of us were seated,” Bret explained. “I recognized him right away when he came through the arch of balloons. Unlike some of the others from that class, he hadn’t gone bald or gained weight, looking pretty much the way I remembered him from school, the same dark shirt and same pointed shoes. He still greased his hair back as if we had graduated 1956 instead of 1970.
“He moved the same uneasy way, glancing around the gym as if some teacher was about to crack down on him for smoking a joint behind the library. To tell you the truth, I was surprised he’d come at all. He seemed too glad to get out of school ever to come back. And by the way he stared around, I could tell he didn’t recognize a lot of people. He seemed to ponder each face, trying to subtract ten years to come up with one that looked more like the yearbook photo.
“He didn’t see us right away, but more or less wandered in our direction. The closer he got the more I noticed subtle changes. While he wore the same style clothing, it clearly cost a lot more than anything we wore. A thick gold chain hung around his neck, dwarfing the religious metal it was supposed to hold. He had clearly come up in the world the way the rest of had not.
“That’s when Jake noticed Kyle coming towards us, and shoved back his chair so sharply that it gave off a loud scrape.
“Ten years had not been kind of Jake, and his frayed shirt cuffs hinted that he did less well financially than he claimed. He seemed in a particular foul mood, especially when any of us talked about how we got on.
“Billy scolded Jake for his mood, saying he should cheer up now that he’s among old friends.
“`I’m not being grumpy,’ Jake snapped.
“Dominick, a huge, bear-like man, who had gone so balk as to seem twenty years older than the rest of us, disagreed: `Yes, you are, and we want you to stop it. We all came here to have fun.’
“`You call this fun?” Jake snapped, then started to say something else when Kyle reached the table.
“Kyle stared straight at Jake for a moment, something dark stirring in his eyes. Then he looked at the rest of us, and his look eased. His smile said he had missed us, as if we meant more to him than we ever imagined.
“`Hello,’ he said, in the same soft voice we all remembered.
“`I’m surprised you could find time to come,’ Jake grumbled, taking a long draught from his glass of beer – his third or fourth by that time.
“`I wouldn’t have missed this,’ Kyle said, as we made room for him at the table, so that he sat squarely across from Jake, in just the way it should have been, like card sharks facing each other over a poker table. `I made a vow with myself to look you up someday. This saved me the trouble.’
“Kyle glanced around, his clear eyes gazing up at the hoops and rafters, the pennants and trophy cases.
“`This place does bring it all back,’ he said, in a voice touched with pain and perhaps a bit of anger.
“School kids here had not shown him any kindness, abusing him with taunting and unmerciful nicknames.
“Jake, of course, took note of the expensive emerald ring on Kyle's right hand, the green gem leaving a stain of green light on the table near where it rested.
“`Who did you mug to get the jewelry?’ he asked.
“Kyle's smile was not kind, like a knife slash across the bottom of his face as his hard eyes focused in on Jake.
“`Why would I have to mug anyone?’ he asked. `I could have earned it.’
“`The way you earn everything in school?’
“`I don't believe you earned a thing, then or now,’ Jake said viciously, then waved for the waitress to bring him more drink. `I think you had a system down that made people think you were better than everyone else.’
“`Is that why you picked on me all the time?’ Kyle asked, still smiling. `Jealousy?’
“`Who’s jealous?’ Jake exploded. `I'm twice the man you are.’
“`I’ll admit you had potential,’ Kyle said. `But you never lived up to it.’
“`Hey!’ Billy said, trying to make light of the confrontation. ‘This isn’t why we came. We came for a reunion, not a fight.''
“Kyle looked at him, his cold stare silencing even the unstoppable Billy, who had talked himself through grammar school, high school and college, gotten decent grades and hours of detention, yet managed somehow to get himself a medical degree -- and now most likely talked his patients into slumber during surgery, saving them on drugs to put him asleep.
“`Don't look at me like that, Kyle,’ he said sounding wounded. `I just thought we had enough of that kind of thing when we were kids.’
“`Why don’t have you have a drink?' I suggested to Kyle.
“`A coca cola would be fine,’ Kyle said softly.
“`A Coca Cola?’ Jake exploded `Don't tell me you’ve turned into a tea toddler?”
“`I drink a little from time to time. Wine mostly. I'm just not in the mood right now.’
“`In the mood?’ Jake mocked and turned to the rest of us. `Why, boys, I think we're being snubbed. This son of bitch doesn't want to drink with us.’
“`That's not what he said,’ I protested, drawing Jake's enraged gaze.
“`What do you know, pip-squeak?’ Jake asked.
“`Jake, quit it,’ I said.
“`Quit what?’ Jake asked savagely, glaring at me across the table.
“`You know,’ I said, hearing the echo of countless other conversations that had gone on like this when we were young.
“`No, I don't know,’ he said. `Here I am proposing to have some fun and the two of you are making it impossible.’
“`No one's saying you can't have a drink if you want,’ Kyle said.
“`It's the only real pleasure I've got left,” Jake snapped. `You’re drink too if you had my miserable life.’
“`I thought we agreed not to talk that way, Jake,’ Billy said
“`You agreed with yourself the way you always do,” Jake said. `In fact, you’re all just the way I remember – everyone but Kyle. How about you, Kyle? Do you still fly off the handle when people pick on you?”
“`No,’ Kyle said softly. ‘I've gotten over that.’
“`Even when pushed really hard?’
“`I'm still human. But I resist fools better now than I did then.’
“`I'll bet you can't,’ Jake said. `I'm sure I can set you off.”
“`Don't try,’ Kyle said, his eyes growing hard again. `I don't react the same way as I used to. I've stopped taking out my frustration on lockers.’
“`What do you take your frustration out on then?’
“`The people who cause me grief.’
“Jake howled so loudly with laughter that people across the gym looked over. `Now that is a treat!’ he said. `Here I thought I was going to be bored to death at this reunion and along comes sweet little Kyle to liven up the party. How's this one, then? Do you remember little Suzy Brett?’
“Kyle’s face paled. We all remembered her, lipstick and legs, and a propensity for trouble, boys crowding around her constantly, boys constantly fighting each other for her attentions. Kyle along had hung back.
“`You really liked that little girl, didn't you, Kyle, hanging around, watching her, watching her when she went off to my car with me?’ Jake said. `You even tried to take the blame when she came up pregnant. Did you think she would marry you for being such a hero? Did you think anyone would really believe you were the father?’
“`Stop it, Jake!’ I shouted. `You're not being funny any more.’
“`I'm not trying to be funny,’ Jake said savagely. `I'm trying to prove a point.’
“`What point?’ I asked.
“`That he’s no better than the rest of us.’
“`He never said he was.’
“`Then you’re as dumb as everybody said you were,’ Jake barked. “Everybody else knew about how Kyle promised to get even with me.’ Jake threw open his jacket unveiling his hefty stomach. `Here you go, Kyle. Come and get me.’
“No laughed as Kyle's long fingers uncurled from his fist and touched the silver surface of the knife beside his plate.
“`You know, Jake,’ Kyle said, his voice even softer than before `You're not far off the mark. I was a strange boy. I'm an even stranger man. I guess I've taken on something of the grim reaper. But I'm no longer so needy as I was as a boy. I don't need to be one of your little gang of thieves.’
“Something in the way he said this made the rest of us stir.
“`Oh don't act so innocent,'' he told us. ``You're as much to blame as Jake is, building him up the whole time we were in school as if he was someone important, each of you knowing how mean he was and how little he would really amount to, letting him hurt me and rape Suzy, sitting here now, shocked at what he's become.’
“`Now wait a minute!’ Jake said and struggled to rise.
“`Sit down, Jake,’ Kyle said sharply. `I'm not telling you anything you don't know. You just didn't think I knew. But I saw you, hovering in the shadows of the gym, watching me when I wrestled or had a karate match. Your eyes used open wide every time I hit a bull’s eye during archery. You must have really thought I was going to kill you.’
“`Kill me?’ Jake laughed unconvincingly. `Not in your wildest dreams could you have killed me.’
‘`Not then,’ Kyle said
“`Are you threatening me?’
“`Threatening you? No,” Jack said, pushing himself up from the table before he started away to vanish the way he had come.
“`Coward,” Jake laughed, wiping his sweating face. `I saw we should all get drunk.’”
Bret stopped talking, and tapped his glass again.
“So what is the point of all that?” I asked.
Jake glanced at me. “After Kyle was gone, I noticed the knife missing,” he said, sucked down the fresh drink in one gulp, then wiped his mouth.
“So I didn’t bother to tell Jake when he left later. I’m sure I’ll never see either one of them again,” he said. “Alive.”