— Cole —
People want to forget. No one would ever say it, but I think this town will be glad to see our class leave. They put up all the memorials you’d expect, but there was no need: we’re living reminders. Year after year, walking the streets, sitting in the diner, popping up in marching band and on the baseball team.
Teachers retired right before we got to them. Like we were a wave slowly sweeping from grade two to twelve, washing away all the old and tired ones, the ones who were sick of telling people they taught school in East Ridge, New Jersey, and getting that horrible look back. The ones who couldn’t deal with staring out at our faces for a whole year. And now those who made it all the way to this afternoon have convinced themselves that they need to get through only a few more hours, as if they’ll be able to forget us after we’re gone.
Even the weather knows the script today. Low gray clouds, black in the distance. A warm wind, midsixties. It will rain later, but it will hold off until after we’ve all gone home for quick parties with our parents before coming back to be bused off for Project Graduation. It will rain on empty chairs, eighteen of them still draped in black, and it will turn this field into mud.
There are lots of people here now, though. Teachers, some parents, and other students who are helping to set up. Mom is toward the back, unfolding chairs from a cart. The principal and superintendent are going over paperwork together, probably making sure the superintendent knows how to pronounce all the last names. Lots of police, not surprisingly, some of them leaning against the back wall of the school and some in the parking lot, holding the press at bay. It’s a few minutes past one; we’re supposed to line up in half an hour.
I’m trying to stay busy and starting to get frustrated with this uncooperative row of chairs. It’s the tenth row back, left-hand side. I can get every chair to align with the one next to it, but somehow when I get to the center aisle, the line in its entirety is veering off on a slant. I start back to try again when I hear someone calling my name and see Mrs. Kennedy, my tenth-grade history teacher, waving to me from the front. I look around to see whether anyone’s watching, push my sunglasses up the bridge of my nose, and make my way down to her.
The black draperies aren’t staying on in the wind. “Help me with this, Cole,” she says. “I don’t want poor Mrs. Maiden to have to.” The fabric is a weird sort of material, heavier than a bedsheet, kind of glossy. It’s draped over the same flimsy chairs that we all have to sit in and it’s taped in a few key spots so that it folds right, but the tape isn’t holding. I study the third chair in from the aisle. If they were arranged alphabetically, whose seat would this be? Abrams, Clemson, Edwards. Susie Edwards. Unless Principal Schultz got the aisle, in which case everybody would be pushed in by one. Poor guy, having to show up for a high school graduation ceremony eleven years after his death. We should let him rest in peace. So let’s just say that this one belongs to Susie. She was a funny little girl with pigtails. We played tag together. When we went out for recess that last winter, she used to ask me for help getting her snow boots on the right feet. I go in search of stronger tape so that her chair will look good.
Mrs. Maiden is collating programs at the edge of the risers, and she pauses what she’s doing to smile at me and squeeze my arm as I pass. I smile back and then instinctively look down. Some of the parents are coming today and some aren’t, but I think Mrs. Maiden is the only one who’s actually volunteering with setup, as though she had a living child getting ready to walk. I move past her as quickly as I can.
Families are filtering in, setting bags and umbrellas down to reserve long lines of seats. The media is back behind the police line on the far side of the parking lot. They’ve been around all week doing retrospectives, just like they were at the first and the fifth and, to a lesser extent, the tenth anniversary. We’ve been told to notify one of the police officers if we see someone suspicious taking pictures, although I don’t know how you enforce that at a graduation, since everyone’s going to be taking pictures of everything. Anyway, I think that most people they’d want to interview have already said no. I don’t think that’s right. There’s a responsibility that comes with being a survivor.
Someone nudges me hard, and I turn. “What’s up, bro?” Eddie Deangelo asks, swinging his hand around in a wide arc to grab mine. Awkward. I never know how to respond when someone calls me bro. Like, do I have to call him bro back, or is it a one-way street? And the sideways handshake, the hand clasp, I can never get the angle right. Are we shaking hands? Is it a high-five? Are we supposed to do something afterward, like a secret handshake? I manage to grab his hand and mumble a greeting that may or may not include the word bro, not that Eddie seems to notice. He slaps me hard on the shoulder. Eddie is the only other person who’s wearing sunglasses under the overcast sky, and seeing him makes me realize that mine must make me more noticeable, not less. I push them up on my forehead.
“We good?” he asks. Eddie’s somehow managed to rumple and stain his gown, even though this is the only time he’s worn it. Probably will be the only time he ever wears a graduation gown, I think. Even with the wind, he reeks of pot. Eddie’s one of the select few not going off to college in the fall. Me and Eddie Deangelo: Who would have thought?
“We’re good,” I say.
“Your boy had some cash-flow problems, huh?”
“Your bro, Matt!” Eddie must live in a world of people who are all bros. “Don’t sweat it,” he continues. “We got it all worked out. I’m looking forward to seeing what you got.” He slaps my shoulder again, wags his finger in my face, and turns away, leaving me to wonder what the hell he was talking about.
Matt Simpson and I made an arrangement with Eddie, one I’m counting on, but Matt didn’t tell me about any problems with money. If there’s one thing you can usually count on Matt for, it’s having cash. I scan the crowd, looking for him. If there’s something you can absolutely always count on him for, it’s turning up at the last minute.
Over on the other side of the field, Mom has finished setting up the chairs and is talking with some other parents. People are milling around. There’s a family standing nearby, and the mother is whispering to the grandmother. They both look in my direction. I freeze for a moment, the way I always do, feeling like a bug under a microscope. Is she pointing me out? Are they looking at me? The Boy in the Picture, all grown up. That photo won a Pulitzer for the reporter and a lifetime of wearing sunglasses for me. I pull them back down over my eyes and hurry toward the school.