by George Carlisle
Jon Corey was my nemesis. He lay sprawled across from me with his arm around Jenny, who was his girl friend. Jon, my nemesis, was the most hateful senior at St. Bart’s School. He knew I was in love with Jenny. That’s why he had invited me to his party Saturday night, and that’s why I accepted.
Eight of us sat together on an old rug in Jon’s little hut, located in the School woods. These last days before Graduation were supposed to be special, part of the grand, final windup. Nobody knew exactly what “special” meant, but I knew it shouldn’t be as painful as this; watching Jenny snuggle with Jon.
We sat there in the hut, hidden away and out of reach of the school, enjoying Jon’s good pot in exchange for listening to him revisit every tiresome detail about constructing his hut – ordering lumber from town, finding roofing in the school dump, stealing the rug from the school storehouse, and hiring juniors to help put it all together. Eventually he ran out of details, and took a long drag. I hoped for some blessed silence, but this was not to be.
“Well, Albert.” Jon paused for effect and continued. “Are we rich yet?” I realized that he was referring to the investment club that he and Albert had started.
“We’re on track,” Albert said.
Then the two of them proceeded to enlighten us about the astute purchases the club had made during the year. Apparently each member had put up two thousand, and their investment had grown to some unbelievable amount that Albert couldn’t divulge.
“Oh come on, Jon. Enough already!!!” Jenny said. She and I were co editors of “IMAGINE,” the school’s literary magazine, and I knew her gift of putting people down, but with a warble in her voice to pretend she was joking.
Only encouraged, Jon asked Albert what he thought of Starbucks. This time Jenny groaned, and I thought she closed her eyes in horror, but in the candlelight I couldn’t be sure, but I hoped so.
Jon began to banter with Albert about who might run the club next year, pretending to be very important. The rest of us drifted off into dreamland without really listening. Jenny leaned her head against a big cushion. Her hand rested only a few inches away from me, and I reached over and laid my hand on top of hers. She gave me a squeeze before moving it away. My heart leapt as I worked out the possibilities of what Jenny might have been conveying.
Bored by the talk, Jenny interrupted. “Well, Jon, now that you’re are all rich, let’s turn to something really boring, like how many Coreys are carved on the wall.’
Instead of being annoyed, Jon seemed pleased.
“Yes,” I interjected. “Tell us about Coreys you spit on as you walk past.” I was trying unsuccessfully to imitate Jenny’s humor. Each year the school would carve the names of the graduates on the walls of the dining hall, and students would give their family name a spit shine as they passed by. I hadn’t mastered Jenny’s warble, and I realized how sarcastic I sounded. Still, it didn’t matter. Jon happily told us about the first Corey, who graduated in the very first class, back in 1828. And twenty years later it was his family’s company, of course, that built the railroad north of Boston, right up past the school.
“”Everybody buckle your seat belt. We’re in for a long ride.” Jenny said. There was that warble in her voice, but, I was disappointed to note, affection as well.
Then the chapel bell tolled eleven. The cool breeze carried the sound our way through the trees so that it sounded close. I took a drag and was struck by a thought I wanted to share with the others.
“Strange,” I said, “that only three months ago ice and snow still lay under these trees.” I wanted the others to understand that the evening was surreal in some way. It was as if this place in the woods had been especially prepared just for us by arrival of spring. Yet all this would cease to exist after we graduated and went away.
Cathy, sitting next to me, said I was stoned, and the others laughed. Maybe I was, but I felt so overwhelmed that in only a week we would all be leaving forever.
“I think I’m following you,” said Jenny, but before she had time to explain, Jon cleared his throat and took over.
“Now for some entertainment,” he said. He rose to his knees, and everyone watched as he pulled his cell phone from his jacket and dialed a number.
“Hello, Vance Henderson here.”
We all heard Mr. Henderson’s voice. He was Jon’s head of house. The voice jerked us into the real world of the school, even though it was only from the I phone.
A conversation continued. “It’s Jon, sir. Good evening.”
Hello Jon. How can I help you?” Jon had turned up the speaker so that Mr. Henderson seemed to be sitting there among us.
We sat shocked. The teacher’s voice was a violation. It didn’t belong here our sanctuary in the woods. We waved our arms to make Jon disconnect, Saturday night, and I’m on duty, you know. I just wanted to affirm that all is quiet in Winthrop House. ”
” Thanks, Jon. It’s a comfort to know you’re backing me up.”
”Yes, everything is quiet.”
I hated Jon, sitting there so confidently. This was Mr. Henderson’s first year, and he was young and trusting, never suspecting that his house proctor was in the woods getting stoned.
“Thanks so much, Jon. I hope you’re having a good evening.”
“Yes, a few of us are in the woods smoking pot.”
We waved our hands wildly to make Jon stop. Jenny leaned over and tried to snatch away the phone.
Mr. Henderson laughed; playing along with what he thought was a joke.
“I guess I’ll say good evening, sir,” Jon continued. “ A very good evening to you.” He turned off the I phone. “Done,” he said with great satisfaction.
We sat stunned. Jenny shook her head in disbelief, moving across the carpet to get as far from him as possible.
“Now, wasn’t that fun?”
No, it wasn’t. Not yet satisfied that we were suitably impressed, Jon waved his I phone above his head. We might be interested, he said, to know that he saved it all. Who knew when he might need a friend in high places, a kind of insurance policy?
Nobody spoke, but just sat there staring.
Then we heard Jon’s voice again as he replayed the tape. “We’re all out here smoking pot,” we heard again.
Jon fell backward, laughing. I wished him dead.
The next to speak was Jenny. “Really, this is nothing but shitty, and I….” She stopped, unable to find the right words. She gave up trying. “Would someone walk me back to the dorm? I didn’t bring a flashlight a flashlight.”
I was the first to volunteer. I held out my hand, and she took it, and off we went, before the others.
“He was just too much,” she said. “I had to get away.”
These were magic words to me, but all I could manage to say was “yes.”
I held the flashlight that guided us along the twists and curves through the woods, past the glows that came from several other huts along the way. The path veered around a marshy place, and the spring peepers momentarily stopped singing as we passed.
I finally thought of something to say, but I was so pathetic. “There’s a log up ahead we have to step over.” My voice broke.
“Yes, thank you.” Her voice was soft and lovely, and gathered up enough courage to put my arm around her shoulders to guide her.
The path opened up too quickly onto the school lawns, and I saw the dark shadows of the chapel and the library against the light of the moon. I just had to prolong our time together, but only managed to clear my throat.
She spoke first. “I need to go back to the dorm, but thanks for being my guide.”
“Any time.” I said. “Any time.” Oh God, I thought. Oh God, God, God. My last chance, and this was all I said? I headed back to my dorm. I was going to bed. One thought was that maybe, just maybe, she had finally seen the true Jon and decided to quit.
The next morning I stationed myself after Sunday chapel to find out. I saw Jenny and several girls walk down the steps talking together, and a moment later Jon appeared in the doorway and surveyed the crowd. He spotted Jenny and headed towards her, and I saw her smile at him. I saw that nothing had changed. The two of them walked together towards Sunday brunch. Yes, they were still a couple, and I was still the outsider.
Still I managed to console myself by looking forward to the next evening when I would have one last chance. As co-editors of IMAGINE, Jenny and would preside at the annual literary reception, just the two of us together, side by side.
We had reserved the common room of the Union and ordered for seven o’clock crackers, two kinds of cheese, and grape punch. Students would stop by after dinner, when Jenny and I would introduce our special visitor, Eric Thompson, the alumni writer. It seemed impossibly wonderful that Jenny and I together would be hosts. This would undoubtedly be the high light of my four years at school.
We left the dining hall early and walked together to the Union to tend to the final details. Mattie, the school maid, was just filling the big punch bowl from one of the big jugs that had been delivered. We said hello to her, and she arranged the crackers and cheese on the platter.
Then I set up the kindling in the fireplace. Jenny struck the match ceremoniously, and we watched the fire transform the room.
I had her all to myself, and I imagined that we were together, arranging a party in our own home. I pictured us descending the stairs from our bedroom, down to where our guests were waiting.
The dream ended when Jon entered – first — wouldn’t you know — dressed like the lord of the manor with a bow tie and a silk handkerchief in his jacket pocket. He wore glasses with the heavy dark frames, which he thought made him look intellectual.
He strode up to us. “You’ve been seeing a lot of my girl working on your little magazine.” He smiled condescendingly. Jenny laughed and, failing to think of a response that was damaging enough, I managed a laugh.
I watched as he fastened upon Mr. Thompson, telling him how much he enjoyed reading his work. I was sure he was lying. I was disappointed when Mr. Thompson forfeited his chance to unmask him, but instead asked if he himself wrote short stones.
Undeterred, Jon said he simply enjoyed reading, not writing. “After all,” he said, “without readers, there would be no point in writing, would there? Why would you write if you had no readers?”
Finally Mr. Thompson was a bit more forceful. “Have no fears, serious writers will keep writing regardless. It’s just the way we are.” He looked at me for confirmation, and I looked at Jon victoriously.
Any person with an ounce of sensitivity would have retreated, but Jon continued. “An interesting way of looking at it,” he said, feigning great interest. “Yes, I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.”
Next he joined the crowd at the refreshment table. He reached for a glass of punch, and smiled condescendingly at Mattie. “Good evening, Matilda. Your special brew I presume?”
I hated his mock formality.
Mattie laughed happily. “Get on with you,” she said.
Jon made a salute with his glass and treated her to a wink. He sipped and made a clicking sound with his tongue. “Not bad, but a little weak, don’t you think?” The others standing near the bowl smiled expectantly. Jon was not one to disappoint, and sure enough, after making sure Mattie wasn’t looking, he removed his big silver flask from his jacket pocket.
It was full, and he poured the entire contents into the punchbowl. I was sure it was vodka, and the stream seemed to continue forever. Immediately, of course, he became the star of the moment. Never in the history of the school had anyone ever displayed such audacity.
Then he topped off his performance by asking Mattie if she wouldn’t mind stirring the punch. “It seems that all that good stuff is on the top,” he said.
Unaware of what had happened, she stirred and gave him a cupful to sample.
He sipped carefully and noisily and then handed back the cup for a refill. “Thank you, Mattie, much better. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Absolutely delectable,”
“You’re the best,” she said.
The crowd became electrified and gathered at the punch bowl. Of course, it was Jon who now became the hit of the evening. I wanted retaliation, but he seemed impregnable. He had won. I knew it.
Jon moved up to me and said; “I thought I’d add a bit of spirit to your dull little party.”
Precisely at this moment Albert suddenly pushed against me as he reached for a refill. My arm flew up, and the contents of my full cup few up and splattered on Jon’s face.
I pulled back and stared. It was impossible that so much punch could have come from my cup.
Jon stood stock-still. Then exhibiting great coolness, he pulled out a handkerchief from his back pocket, took off his glasses, and slowly wiped them. Then deliberately he patted his face dry.
I couldn’t believe what had happened. “ It was Albert’s fault,” I said. “He hit my arm.” I stared at him. “Look what you did,” I said.
Albert simply stared at me. “You’re out of your mind. You threw it. Everybody saw you.” He looked around for confirmation.
“Perfect shot,” someone said. A few laughed, but most everyone simply stared.
Jenny came forward with a handful of napkins and handed them to him. ” My, you are a mess, aren’t you?” I heard laughter in her voice.
Jon glared at both of us. “I’ll leave you to your little party,” he said, and marched out the door.
Standing there, I tried to relive the scene. Without a doubt If Albert hadn’t hit my arm, such a thing wouldn’t have happened.
I stood there repeating this in my mind as Jenny took charge and introduced Mr. Thompson, who began to read one of his stories. Only when he began answering questions did I begin to pay attention to him.
It was Jenny, not me, who finally brought the evening to a close. “We’ve worked Mr. Thompson too hard,” she said. “Just one more question.” I saw three people raise their hands. The evening was a success.
Together, Jenny and I walked with Mr. Thompson back to the school guesthouse and said goodbye to him, I suggested that we head over to the Union, but Jenny didn’t hear me. She wondered about Jon and began sending him a text. He was in his dorm, she learned. Would I want to come too? At first I thought she was joking, but she wasn’t. I said goodbye and headed off alone.
The last few days passed far more quickly than I wanted. My mother emailed me, reminding me to start packing. She knew my father would want us to leave soon after graduation. I deleted her message.
My room stayed unchanged, just the way it had always been and the way I wanted it to stay — my posters of Hemingway and Paris still on the walls, the worn out Oriental carpet on the floor, the story I was writing on the computer, the books crammed on the shelves and scattered on the desk.
I realized the end was near when my Mother and Dad arrived Saturday morning, the day before Graduation. I allowed myself to be swept along with demands for small talk. Yes, I was sad to be leaving (and I was), but excited about the future (and I wasn’t).
They were appalled, they said, by the state of my room, and they insisted on helping me pack. They brought in packing boxes that the school had put in the hall for seniors, and I only watched, leaning against the wall as they tore everything apart.
By five o’clock, they finished to their satisfaction and went to the hotel to change clothes for the last night party. Jon’s parents and a few others had rented the local Audubon Society nearby so we could all celebrate together.
I entered the party room with my mother and father, who immediately saw old friends to hug and kiss, leaving me free to join my friends. Of course, the bar was forbidden to us because of drinking laws, so we carried our own flasks, and the bartender secretly poured us setups that we could top off.
“I paid off the bar tender,” explained Jon, who, as always, was the showman.
I pretended not to hear him. The effect of vodka began mercifully to take effect, and I walked over to some friends to talk. I began to feel better. We formed a nucleus of friends — close, bonded, but together for the last time. Tomorrow we would be broken up, scattered across the country.
Jenny walked over to our group. Her hair was tied up in a special way that I loved. Jon followed her, of course, and gave me a superior smile as he put an arm round her waist to show me that she belonged to him.
I moved over to some others and tried to put him out of my mind, but I always seemed hear him. With his drink in his hand, he made his rounds about the room, grandstanding as usual, in a very cool way, of course,
He was too drunk to notice that he was scuffing up a wire that led across the floor to the sound system. I watched as the wire started to form a lasso around his right foot as he performed a little pirouette to illustrate something to a group of people.
“ What are you staring at?” Albert asked. He tried to follow my gaze, but didn’t notice what was happening.
“You lose something?”
“I thought I heard something fall,” I said.
Albert shrugged his shoulders and walked away.
The noose began to tighten, as Jon appeared to be doing in some kind of dance. He shuffled from one foot to another. He thought he was being very funny, and I heard Jenny laugh with appreciation.
The wire grew taut as he tried to take a step forward. I watched Jon lurch forward and slam to the floor.
. “I’m OK! OK!” I heard him scream. All conversation stopped as everyone turned to stare.
Then, there on the floor, he did pushups, three of them. “I’m all right, just needed a little exercise!” He was trying so hard to pretend he wasn’t drunk that he didn’t notice he was pressing a hand down into the broken glass.
“Always do pushups this time of evening – good for the health” He tried to sound forceful, but he was out of breath, and then his voice broke as he saw all the blood. He jumped up and held the hand against his chest. Blood soaked his shirt and ran down onto his pants.
Jon’s parents rushed up to him. “You’re drunk, that’s the problem,” said his father.
“Can’t you see he’s hurt?” His mother tried to embrace him. and I saw blood soak the front of her dress.
“He’s drunk I tell you!” his father repeated.
“No he isn’t,” I rushed over to him. “It was the wire. There it is. That one!” I pointed to it. “It tripped him up, and he fell.”
“He’s right,” Jon said in a weak voice.
Mr. Tomlin, Ike’s father, stepped up and guided Jon down into a chair, “We need a tourniquet,” he said.
Before anyone else had the chance, I tore off my tie and handed it to the man, who doubled it up and wrapped it around Jon’s arm. Someone handed him a fork, and he inserted it in the knot and twisted.
Then I grabbed a cloth from the bar and rushed forward. I pushed though the people gathering around Jon. I crouched down pressed the cloth against the blood.
“ The wire. That’s what did it. The wire!” There on my knees I called to the others in the room. “ It wasn’t his fault. I saw it happen.”
“You should know,” came a voice behind me. It was Albert,
“Meaning what?” I stood and forced myself to look at him.
“You were watching what happened,” he said.
“Meaning what?” I asked again.
I panicked and looked around to see if Jenny was listening. I saw. She knelt in front of Jon, and cupped his chin in her hands and said something in a low voice.
She hadn’t heard, but Albert would tell her everything soon enough.
“I think he needs the school infirmary,” said Mr. Corey, He seemed calmer now. He stood beside John helping him to stand and supporting his arm with the tourniquet. Then both Mr. and Mrs. Corey began to steer Jon to the door. Mrs. Corey turned to the crowd and assured everyone that Jon would be all right. Everything was under control, and everybody should continue to enjoy the party. she said.
I moved towards Jenny and said. “Don’t worry. It’s OK,” Pathetic words, I knew, but all I could manage. Jenny ignored me or at least didn’t see me. “May I go to,” she asked Mr. Corey
“Yes, do come, of course.”
“I want to go too.” said Albert. They left together with Jon in the middle. The door slammed shut behind them, and I stood alone.
If only I could relive again what had happened. Only five minutes would be enough. Then I could call out to Jon. “The wire,” I would shout. Watch the wire.”
Many people hurried back to the bar, but I stood there with Jon’s blood on my hands and I became some kind of a hero. You’re a true friend, someone said, and the others agreed. My mother whispered that I go wash, but I shook my head no. His blood needed to remain. It showed I had tried to help.
It was then I told the truth. The praise was intolerable. The enormity of the situation was too much for me. “It was my fault, I said. And then I added, “I saw him. I saw what happened. I saw the wire, and I didn’t say anything. Still no one seemed to hear. or, worse, they couldn’t understand.
I told the truth, but it didn’t make anything any better. I tried again. I walked over to a group if parents and said, “I could have warned him.” People nodded pleasantly, but didn’t hear. “You’re a good friend,” they said.
Now they started saying goodbye to each other. The party was breaking up.
My parents walked over to me. Maybe you could wash your hands now,” Mother said.
“And then we can go out to dinner,” my father said.
I would go with them, of course. I had no choice. I would have preferred to go back to my room and be alone and think, but it was not my room anymore. Everything had been packed. I had nowhere else to go.
About the Author:
George Carlisle graduated from the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, and taught as an intern at Phillips Exeter Academy, before moving on to St. Paul’s School, New Hampshire, until his retirement. His specialty was teaching creative writing and he was long-time adviser of the school literary magazine. Former students are staff writers at the New Yorker and others have published poems and short stories in other publications. Carlisle and his wife spend time in Boothbay Harbor, Maine; Cambridge; and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.