This is a chapter from my novel-in-progress, THE START OF SOMETHING. Within the chapter is a short story written by my main character, Bill McKenzie. That’s probably confusing. Sorry…
“A Reunion of Sorts” – Bill McKenzie – age 24- story outline
[note to self]: this is inspired by this book a girl named Melody was reading for some sort of Children’s Literature class she was taking. The book was about this kid who has to go to the four extreme corners of the continental US to place a memorial for a teenager the narrator kid was friends with before the kid died in a drunk driving accident. The cross-country trip was his dad’s idea, I think. Pinwheels, maybe, was the name. It got me thinking about how people deal with sudden deaths in ways we may not ever hear about.
Story idea: Each year, on the last day of classes, this teacher pulls aside one student and hands him or her a sealed envelope. They are instructed not to open it for five years or earlier if they finish college. He tells them he almost didn’t finish and knows several fine, successful people who not only didn’t finish but some never started.
The letter is an acceptance letter into a club of sorts. Once a year, and never the same time of year, the teacher meets with the members of the club for dinner out, dinner in, a day at the park, or some other fairly private event. These are students he would have never admitted were his favorites of the year. They were favorites for all sorts of reasons—many were academically successful, but some were C students or worse. Over half have earned M.D.s or Ph. Ds but some of the others never left that town.
The story is what turns out to be the final meeting of the group—the teacher’s funeral. People from ages 23 to over 50 attend. One mother-daughter combination (neither knew the other had been a member??) shows up. They’d all been sent a letter prior to his death to attend the visitation, but not the funeral. After the visitation, the letter read, someone, maybe all of them, would know where to go.
They meet in his classroom and they eventually talk. Maybe the story ends with an unnamed person finally saying something out loud.
The power of the piece could be that nothing is ever stated until that final line.
That was all he had. A single sheet of notes scratched down and never more. Bill McKenzie had gone home after having drinks with his old writing teacher to sift through notebooks and flash drives and could only find that one page. His shoulders drooped, defeated, and he shook his head and told the invisible people around his apartment that he had written more. He had been sure of it.
With just the sheet, however, he knew it was time to finally put it together. Opting for a water instead of one of the three beers in his fridge, he sat down at his writing table and tried to remember those characters.
To the non-writer, this may seem implausible—the guy had access to his notes and the memory of what he’d thought of a long time ago when the idea first entered his mind. Todd’s words, though, struck something in him and he tried to find it again.
“A Reunion of Sorts” – Bill McKenzie age 28
The old man was so sly about it. Every year, he did something very subtle, but this time was fairly easy. He had had a contest with his English 12 students: They average 90% or higher on their last exam of the year and he’d let them watch any movie they wanted over the last two days of classes before finals. The class won the contest and eventually decided on a film made from a popular teen love story. He’d made fun of the story and genre countless times and this was their playful payback.
This time, he was subtle in passing a note to Marianna Jenkins, seated in the middle chair of the middle row. The center of the room and the center of his Platonic heart.
The old man was perfectly harmless. Don’t get the wrong idea about him. He had had a wife, but she passed ten years earlier of a violent cancer that had not been caught at the right time. They’d had a child—a boy—and he was fine and successful. He loved his old man almost as much as the students who had been in his room year after year.
The subtlty toward Marianna Jenkins was in the form of a sticky note. In the darkened classroom, she didn’t even know he’d put it down while the movie was playing. He had been watching with the class—laughing when they laughed. Awwing when they awwed. Marianna Jenkins’ note simply said “Pls stay after class.”
She lingered as was told and waited until all of her classmates left and wished the old man a great summer. He nodded and didn’t look anyone in the eye as they passed on to another room on their final day.
Marianna Jenkins stood at the doorway—closed—with her remaining materials clenched tightly to her chest. She waited patiently for the reason for the note.
The old man began this year’s speech the same was as he had for the last thirty-seven years. He held the envelope the entire time, but the student he kept after each year never knew what it held. His words were crinkled and sentimental. Tears usually ensued, always by the student and never his. They were honored to be the recipient of such kindness.
The old man smiled under a long salt-and-pepper mustache. He reminded her the terms—that she may not open it for five years from today or sooner, if she’d earned a bachelor’s degree.
Marianna Jenkins stepped toward the emptying hallway and shot back, hugged him tightly, and thanked him for everything he’d done for her over the last two years. The old man reminded her that she had done the hard work, not him.
This year’s meeting, according to the letter sent out, was going to be at his residence. The first time since his wife’s passing. He’d been debating whether or not to sell it and eventually contacted a realtor who warned him that at the price he was asking it was going to go quickly. That would be okay with him.
The event at his house was to occur on the second Saturday. In June. In the late afternoon. The invitations were always worded just like this. Come if you can, he used to add. It’d be wonderful to reunite. For a teacher who valued the English language above his own diet and, some argued, his own family, the old man included few words on the handwritten invitations. For those who had come regularly over the years, they knew less was more. The first-timers, like Marianna Jenkins, had to do a little digging.
The old man deplored social media. A junkpile, he often called it. Eliot’s new Waste Land, he once offered in class. Did you ever notice that people don’t shake hands anymore, he said the previous year when he was asked why he isn’t connected.
That term used to mean something else, he told them.
He told them spending his youth indoors would have been tragic.
What’s the point of leaving the house if you’re only going to stare at your phone, he posited.
That shut them up.
And they actually talked.
While they maintained possession of their phones during their visit, they all but forgot about them.
But that was all last year. When the old man was a little healthier.
But it was also the summer before he met Marianna Jenkins.
Marianna Jenkins was, to the old man, the proverbial shining star student. She was genuinely respectful, smart as a whip (he’d tell her after she aced test after test), and always put others before herself.
She was one of the few students who never even had the time to request a recommendation letter; he had it ready in early November.
She offered to organize a toy drive and spearheaded a Coats For Kids campaign while others students filled out wish lists for their parents.
Marianna Jenkins, however, also had opened up to the old man. It had been in October when she told him that she’d spent many of her single-digit years in foster care before she was finally officially adopted. She loved her adopted parents so much that she didn’t think twice about changing her name to theirs.
It had been bad, she’d told him, in foster care. Sleeping in four different beds throughout a given week because so much drama was happening within the house and family. Verbal and physical abuse. It’d had made her stronger, she told him.
When she’d gotten her letter three years earlier, the old man had told her it might be the last one he gives out. That was all he said about it.
Marianna Jenkins finished her bachelors degree in eight semesters over three calendar years. She took the sealed letter with her to her graduation ceremony. She didn’t know it, but he watched her cross the stage before excusing himself out of his aisle and pumping his fist.
The June letter reached Marianna Jenkins a week later at her apartment. A dog she’d adopted two days after graduation yelped with enthusiasm but she kindly explained the letter was not for him.
The following Wednesday morning, for reasons she’ll never know, she was standing in line at the local convenient store. Something turned her around. Not a force from a person but a sensation. Her eyes peered downward to see the old man’s picture on the front page of the daily newspaper. Heart attack takes local teacher, it read.
In the same way she knew to turn around at the convenient store, Marianna Jenkins also called in to work (she’d never done that before) to attend the visitation. There was a modest crowd, given the limited time between the announcement of the old man’s passing and his celebration of life. That’s what they called them nowadays, he’d told her class once before. Funerals must be too morbid a term for this sensitive generation.
Marianna had driven to the funeral alone but sensed togetherness as soon as a young spirited man who introduced himself as Jack from Tennessee had smiled as she approached the door he had been holding open for her.
Once inside and slightly embarrassed as she revealed to Jack that it was her first funeral, he glazed that smile again and said it was nice to meet what he presumed to be a new member.
Jack walked Marianna Jenkins down the plush carpeted hallway, past an empty page on a signature sheet, and toward the room that held the casket. She bit her lip, suggesting she was not ready. He shushed her as if he were his older, wiser brother. The first row of seats were the only ones occupied. Marianna Jenkins immediately recognized the unmistakable bob of a recently retired teacher and the height of the school’s basketball coach.
He didn’t look real, but then again they never do. In class once, he’d talked about going to his own mother’s funeral and said he regretted it. Those words stunned Marianna Jenkins and probably her classmates, but he went on to state how he appreciated what the funeral home people do, but he wished he could erase that image of her permanently.
The open casket, she realized, might have been another lesson from the old man. He battled over irony with students (presumably year after year) and this was his final nod to, well, himself and his humor. Take that, he was telling them. I told ya it’s not how I really look!
She turned from the casket and nodded at the familiar teachers. Before awkwardness set in, Jack came from behind and pushed her on as if a train of people were waiting to see the old man one last time.
In here, he whispered.
The room where she was guided had four different colored walls and dozens of uncrying faces. These people weren’t sad, which seemed very odd to Marianna Jenkins.
A beat later, and Marianna found herself shaking hands with the people who bore these faces. They had to be club members, she realized. As she made her rounds, two faces fell into place as she remembered seeing younger versions of them in the school hallways.
Introductions done, Jack took the lead and suggested everyone follow him. He had a pretty good feeling where they were really supposed to be that day.
The caravansary led down Hall Street a mile and a half, through the light, and left at the curve. Marianna Jenkins drove in silence and held back every emotion that tried to muster its way through her heart and out her eyes. He was gone. It was done. Unlike her, these people knew what to do next.
In less than fifteen minutes, though it seemed like a longer drive to Marianna Jenkins, one by one the cars parked in a row at the back of the school, typically where teachers parked during the year. A few nods of hello passed between the group who had just seen each other back at the funeral home. She watched as Jack, the tallest of the group, produced a key and allowed everyone access to the back hallway. Everyone toed to the old man’s classroom door. Using a non-verbal circular motion, Jack instructed the rest to organize the desks into something of an oval—large enough for all twenty-three members to sit comfortably. Marianna Jenkins took a position she remembered from high school and adjusted accordingly into the shape.
Jack cleared his throat and eyed the group in a round again.
“So,” he said with a clap. “Who wants to go first?”
Jack slapped his knees and darted his eyes around the ring of classroom desks. “So. Who wants to go first?”