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Perennial

Your life begins anew with every passing day.
A little bit about this story before you read it. I am currently working on a book of short stories based upon songs written by John Mellancamp -- whose music I adore and whom I consider to be one of the most thoughtful and intelligent song writers ever. This story is based upon his song "Cherry Bomb," which in case you don't know is about someone looking back on their high school days and thinking of all the time that has gone by.

1

Barry sat at his kitchen table, staring at the piece of mail he had just gotten; it had nearly made his heart stop. He hadn’t really expected this, even though he surely had seen it coming. He had had plenty of time and warning, but somehow time had simply slipped through is fingers. All he had to do was to have looked at the calendar a few times along the way, and he surely would have noted what was happening.

Despite all the economic hardships going on at the time, with so many of his neighbors falling on hard times, this was not a foreclosure notice, nor a repossession letter, nor a letter closing his credit cards. This was something far more troubling.

Barry held the invitation to his 20 year high school reunion in his hands. It read:

The Westwood High School Class of 1989 Reunion Committee Formally Requests the Pleasure of your Company and Invites You to Our

20 Year Reunion Celebration!!

WHO TOUGHT WE WOULD HAVE MADE IT THIS FAR?!

Spouses Welcome. RSVP Requested.

He kept reading and re-reading the words on this cream-colored piece of thick stationary, somehow thinking he had misunderstood the content.

How could it be this long? he thought to himself as the meaning of the words truly began to sink in. How could it be twenty years already?

And then, What have I done with my life?!

That was really the point that bothered Berry the most. He could accept the fact that he was very close to being a 40-year-old; Barry ate well and stayed active, so he felt like he was healthy and looked quite good. He could accept the fact that the memories he cherished, the ones that he kept closest to his heart and freshest in his mind, were now older than his students at the school in which he taught. He could accept the fact that despite his generally juvenile attitudes and light-hearted dispositions, he was really the only person that still saw himself as an oversized-kid.

He accepted all these cruel realities of his life.

The issue that troubled him, the thing that disconcerted him so much that he could only sit there and mutely stare at his invitation, was that gnawing sense of failure, the horrible feeling that he had wasted what may have been the better part of his life away and had nothing at all to show for it.

2

On that day twenty years earlier when he had walked off the auditorium stage with diploma in hand, Barry was convinced he knew the direction of his life and was going to pursue it relentlessly. He planned to go to college, but not right away. He first intended to “bum around” for a few years, as he put it, to live life and gather real stories for a book he wanted to write, a book that he believed would be his magnum opus. Barry knew his parents wouldn’t really approve of this plan, at least not if he was unemployed, so he got a job at a local factory to pay his bills.

But along the way he met a fine young woman at the factory named Kate whom he began to date, and felt that living in his parents’ home was stifling his creative abilities as well as his romantic desires. So he moved out the spring after graduation, believing his income from the factory would be more than enough.

Barry soon discovered, however, that having an income and living with one’s parents was a far cry from having the same income and living on one’s own. He now had bills of which he had never thought – renter’s insurance, electricity, garbage, cable, and a whole host of other things his parents had previously paid – and was finding his income to be woefully inadequate. Barry soon found himself drowning in a sea of bills. As his expenses became more and more, his writing became less and less.

Far too stubborn to admit the mistake and move back in with his parents, Barry decided that because his relationship with Kate was going well he would ask her to move in with him. That would double the income while cutting down on the bills – as they could carpool to their jobs – while having his girlfriend with him whenever he wanted her.

They lived like this for just over two years, working hard at the factory and barely getting by. They were at least young and happy at that time, so they never really felt like they were wanting for anything all. However, Barry had clearly noted that what he had originally thought would be some kind of artistic foray into the real world of the working man’s life had somehow become his real world, and that he had not written an artistic word in years. As he began to approach three years since leaving high school Barry realized the factory job could not possibly support him and the family he hoped to have at some point in time. So, even as Barry became aware of friends almost wrapping up their college experiences, he started to prepare himself to begin college himself that very fall.

Then Kate told him the news: She was pregnant.

The news struck him like a thunderbolt, feeling like a piano falling on his head. Despite the feelings he was developing for Kate, and despite the fact that he wanted children at some point in time, he was devastated by the news. He was just 20-years-old at the time, was stuck in a terrible factory job with few prospects, and just didn’t feel ready for all the responsibility.

Yet ready or not, the responsibility was his. The message was clearly given to him by Kate, Kate’s family, as well as his own family, that there was only one acceptable option in a case like this: The two would have to get married. And so, in the same year that some of his friends from high school were graduating with college degrees, moving on to impressive careers or graduate school, Barry married his pregnant girlfriend. He was forced to scrap his plans to begin college that fall, instead telling himself that he would start next year…maybe the year after that…the year after that at the worst…once things got more settled and they had a bit more money.

But they never seemed to have a bit more money; with all of his new responsibilities, Barry pushed thoughts of writing further and further back into his mind. He grudgingly accepted the fact that he was a factory worker, was one of the great oppressed masses working for pitiful wages and even less respect. Barry didn’t care for that moniker one bit, even with his promotions and increased income, but felt he had little choice. By the later 90s, he had a wife, a young child, and twins on the way, and had to be thankful for the steady income and security his factory job gave him.

Barry knew he simply had to look at it as a blessing rather than as “just” blue-collar work. Yet, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t. Barry just couldn’t be contented with his life as a factory floor supervisor.

And so it was that in 1999, ten full years after graduation, Barry finally went to college. He found it exceedingly awkward and uncomfortable at first. Having been out of school for ten years, Barry found he forgot many of the basic dynamics of being a student. He was unable to quit his job, so instead had to switch to working the overnight shift; between full-time work and full-time studies, Barry had to juggle a killer schedule. He also felt like an old man – even though he was only 28-years-old at the time – surrounded mostly by students just out of high school. At times he felt foolish, at times he felt like a joke, like the old man playing a school game.

But in time, Barry found a pleasant balance between his work demands and his school demands. Even though he was usually exceedingly tired at either work or school, he somehow was able to meet the expectations of both. Barry found he was quite a good student and had never forgotten how to write well. In fact, going to college reignited that burning desire within him to write and publish a book; short of that, he realized he would be very happy teaching young people the joys, challenges, and rewards of writing, so he declared Secondary Education and English as his dual majors.

Everything was going remarkably well for Barry in the winter of 2003, as he entered his last semester of college and began his student teaching experiences. He was lined up to student teach at a high school a few districts over, and was all prepared to graduate that May. Barry had been told by his supervisory teacher that there would be several openings in the English department at the end of the year, and so he had unintentionally maneuvered himself into a potential job after graduation. His children – a boy and twin girls – were now 13-years-old and 8-years-old. The family owned a neat, comfortable little house in their home town, had a bright future to look towards, and Barry was very eager to begin his teaching career. He had even been working on his book lately; timidly at first, like former lovers reuniting after a painful breakup, but with greater passion and ease recently. For the first time in a long while, Barry was truly happy.

Then came that night he found his wife in bed with another man.

Barry had gone to work like normal, but when he got there he realized he wasn’t scheduled that night. Annoyed at this mistake but pleased to be able to go home – especially because the kids were at their grandparents – he decided not to call Kate and surprise her instead. But when Barry pulled into his driveway he immediately feared something was amiss when he saw an unfamiliar pick-up truck in his spot. Entering the house quietly, he was clearly able to hear Kate and her lover making love loudly upstairs.

The divorce proceedings went amicably, both sides working together to end it as quickly, quietly, and painlessly as possible. Barry carried on with his career plans despite the divorce and was able to get a job at that high school, but his heart was shattered. It was so shattered, in fact, that he had simply found it impossible to begin writing again because he had no heart to put into his book.

They sold nearly everything, splitting the funds fairly. With this little windfall Barry bought a new, small house for himself he jokingly called his “bachelor pad.” It was in this small home that he now sat, shocked by his 20 year high school reunion, and feeling like the preceding 20 years had been a colossal waste of time.

What, really, do I have to show for these two decades? Ten years spent wasting my life in a factory, a failed marriage, three kids that share parents, and a teaching career that started after I was 30-years-old. That’s all just great. And a book that remains unwritten and largely forgotten. Wow. I’ll be able to tell lots of great stories to my friends.

Barry hadn’t really kept in touch with his high school mates, but would occasionally run into people here and there and chat about the old days. He would get updates about random members of their graduating class, some of whom were doing incredibly well. One he knew of one who was a major player in international banking and finance, and earned in a year what Barry could expect to earn in his entire life. Another he knew had designed, implemented, and – most importantly -- patented most of the technologies that made modern wireless networks possible, and was also making a ridiculous amount of money. Then there were also numerous doctors, lawyers, therapists, and others doing less impressive yet no less important work across the county, all of whom could point to things far more tangible and worthwhile than could Barry.

But there was one classmate he kept tabs on, Jack Gordon, not only because they were close in school but because Jack had accomplished the goal Barry had as of yet found impossible: Making his living by the written word. Jack had attended school in New York, but before he even graduated was writing stories for several city papers. After a few years of this stringer work, Jack was hired by the Gray Lady herself, the New York Times, and quickly made a name for himself as a fearless reporter who often put himself in harm’s way for the sake of a great story. He had covered events in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Balkans, nearly getting himself killed several times but somehow always just barely escaping.

He put a book out in 1998 which was basically a collection of his past stories and adventures which sold moderately well, giving him at least a modicum of fame. After 9/11, however, he spent several years covering not just the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but also the people involved – locals, American soldiers, NATO nation soldiers, UN staff, even the insurgents and Taliban when possible – writing stories of unparalleled depth and quality. He also gathered these stories into a book, one that did far better and made him a well-known and respected writer, at least to the literati.

While Barry honestly was pleased for Jack’s success, he had to admit he was jealous as well. They had gone through all the years of school together, and Barry knew full well that when the female anchors on CNN ogled all over him – because, as always seems to be the case with the financially successful, Jack was ruggedly handsome as well as rich – they were only seeing a thin and carefully crafted shell. He knew what a total nerd Jack was in 9 th grade, always having his nose in a book and honestly spending hours on writing assignments because he couldn’t find that elusive prize, the perfect descriptive word. He knew Jack was still more of a bibliophile than a lady’s man in 12 th grade, skipping the prom because of his total inability to get a date. Of course, Barry was equally nerdy and bibliophilic while in school, but there were never any sexy CNN anchors ogling him so that at least seemed fair.

And it was this very fact from which so much of his jealousy came. The two went up through the grades together. They were friends all the years of school, shared their love of the written word and swapped stories with each other. Both were wonderful writers. So why was it that Jack had enjoyed so much success whereas Barry’s life had been such a struggle? Why did Jack have so many accomplishments whereas Barry had none?

And this, in the end, was what made Barry feel like such a miserable failure as he sat there that late winter day, holding his invitation dumbly.

3

The months since he received his invitation passed quickly, winter melting into spring and spring giving way to that blessed event for teachers – summer vacation. But as his school wrapped up classes for another year, Barry knew he only had a few weeks left before the reunion actually occurred.

He had skipped the 10-year reunion because that was at just the point he was going back to school. Although Barry told anyone who would listen that he just couldn’t swing getting to the reunion between work and school, the truth of that matter was that he was ashamed. Ashamed that it had taken him ten years even to begin college, ashamed that he still worked in the same lousy job he had just a few months after graduation, ashamed at the general track his life had taken. At that time, however, Barry told himself things would be so different, so much better come the 20-year reunion, he’d show up for that one and get everyone caught up to his magnificent life.

Oh, sure, he imagined himself saying to a circle of impressed classmates, I took a little time off and worked for a while, but I’m glad I did because it gave me so much material for my writing. So I got my degree, wrote my book, and now Oprah can’t put it down. It’s all been very easy, actually.

Except, of course, his life had been anything but easy.

During the intervening months, Barry had run into several classmates, many of whom seemed to be coming out of the woodwork, all of whom were simply bubbling with excitement for the reunion. Whenever he would run into classmates Barry would always get updates whether he wanted them or about who was coming, who wasn’t coming, who was doing this and who was doing that now. Whom had this many kids. Who had been married the longest. Who had just gotten married. Who was still screwing around after all these years of marriage.

It had started to seem to Barry more and more as the year progressed and the reunion loomed closer that everyone from the Westwood High School graduating class of 1989 was going to be there, and that they were all doing far better than he. And to make matters worse, as the reunion grew closer Barry felt old. Very, very old.

Barry was obviously no older than any other classmates. But his sense of extreme age wasn’t so much a comparative thing, it was more a global statement, a sense that his life was, for all intents and purposes, over. He felt used up, blown, as if he had but one chance to get the life he wanted, and somewhere along the line he had gotten horribly misdirected. He now felt lost in a dark thicket of woods, totally unable to ever find his way back out again. Barry felt as if the chance he had was squandered, gone for all time, and so the rest of his life was for mere existing, not living.

4

And so it was that, on a hot July afternoon, Barry stood outside the hotel at which his high school reunion was being held, feeling very much like he was going to his own execution. Despite the invitation’s assurance that spouses were welcomed he had no one at all on his arm, making his awkward sense of being all used up even worse.

He stood there, staring at the hotel doors from the parking lot, no doubt appearing rather ridiculous. Barry was fighting with that terrible sense of failure and shame, and was seriously considering leaving right now, before anyone spotted him.

“Barry?” a silky female voice said from behind him.

Too late.

He turned, and saw a vaguely familiar yet highly attractive woman walking up to him, inspecting his face as if trying to peel away 20 years’ worth of change. “Barry is that you? It’s me, Morgan. Morgan Wills.”

Barry cocked his head slightly, trying to place the name with the face. Then it all came rushing back to him, a minor love ache that lasted the better part of the 80s. Back then she had been Morgan Simms, but Barry had recalled hearing that her marriage had ended in a painfully similar way to his own.

Morgan was one of those rare high school-aged girls who were truly thoughtful and kind, an independent spirit who refused to lump people into convenient labels, and had been cruel to no one – not even the bibliophilic nerds like Barry. She had been a cheerleader, but had as many friends in the band as on the football team. She had been in the AP classes, but liked to go four-wheeling with the tech kids on the weekends. Morgan came from an upper-middle class family, but had never had a mean word to say to the kids who lived in the dilapidated old houses.

Morgan had been the object of Barry’s adolescent adoration from about the middle of 6 th grade right through the end of high school. He had always loved and admired her from afar; in middle school he’d had several classes with her but never felt confident enough to speak to her more than was needed, and had certainly never confessed his feelings for her. As their high school years proceeded they developed a friendship, but it had always remained within the confines of the school itself, never blossoming outward the way Barry had wanted.

And here she was bow, 20 years later, rushing up to Barry to give him a hug and looking better than she had in high school.

“Oh, it is so good to see you,” she said, squeezing his neck tightly as she hugged him. “How have you been?”

He thought for a moment. That question, in one form or another, is the one he had been dreading since he first received his invitation in February. He didn’t want to burden people with the details of his life, nor did he want to be overly focused on the troubles of his life. “Well, it’s been a pretty bumpy ride, Morgan. But I’m doing alright now.”

She took his arm as they slowly walked towards the hotel. That gave Barry a thrill that immediately made him feel all the delightful anxiety high school could so often create. “Yeah, ‘bumpy ride.’ Tell me all about it. I don’t think my ride’s been bumpy, I think it’s been off-road. Don’t you wish sometimes someone could have warned us before hand?”

“I’m sorry, Morgan, I’ve actually been a little unplugged from people since we graduated; what do you mean? I know you’re divorced, but what else has gone on?”

“Oh, my…well, thumbnail sketch is that I went to college to be highly trained in a career I loved only to find my skills no longer needed – not in America, anyway, although I’m told I could snap up a job in India in a heartbeat if only I was willing to move – so I was down-sized into unemployment at just about the same time my marriage ended and my son was born. Since then, it’s been…well, bumpy.”

Barry was truly shocked by this simple revelation. He had gotten to the point that he believed he was actually the only person that had been suffering; Morgan’s statements were like a slap across the face telling him lives are not always what people want them to be.

“But,” Morgan said as they reached the doors, “I’m sure I’ll go into more detail for you as the night goes. If I have too many drinks I may tell you way more than you really want to know!”

Barry chuckled and said, “Well, as it seems that neither you nor I have a date for this evening, will you do me the honor of allowing me to accompany you?”

Morgan looked at him, touching his cheek gently and smiling. “There it is at last,” she said. “It only took you 25 years to ask me on a date.”

He stared back, thunder struck. “Wha…?”

Morgan giggled playfully at him. “What, you think I never noticed? I know you were crazy for me in high school. All that time I was just waiting for you to ask me out. I started to think it was me.”

Barry was now truly embarrassed, turning a shade redder than his blood red tie. “I…I…I don’t even know what to say to that,” he said, laughing nervously.

“Well, don’t worry about it now,” Morgan said. “Things are so…strange, when you’re a teen!”

The pair had been going through the sign-in table as they chatted, getting the ubiquitous name tags, saying hello and nodding to people, and came now to the ballroom at last. Barry thought this all seemed strange and surreal somehow, the ballroom decorated in much the same way one would expect a senior prom to be. Numerous balloons and streamers with the school colors festooned the ballroom almost everywhere, and a large banner in the back that simply had 1989 emblazoned on it. Adding to the surreal scene were numerous enlarged photos taken from their yearbook, pictures of footballs games, bonfires, and generally fresh looking faces.

“Hmm,” Barry said to Morgan. “Nothing like the subtle look. Refined, yet understated. Nice.”

Morgan laughed happily. “Oh, Barry. You always made me laugh…This is nice.”

I did? I always made her laugh? Why did I not know these things then?!

They found a table, and then went in different directions. Morgan saw some of her old cheerleading friends; Barry spotted some of his fellow book worm types. He was headed to the bar to grab a few drinks when he heard his name said loudly near him, and before he could fully turn he was wrapped in a pair of strong male arms.

When he finally pulled himself free to see who this was accosting him, Barry was very pleased to recognize Jack’s wind-beaten and perpetually sun burned face.

“Hey, man, how the hell are you?!” Jack asked, his voice gravely and grinding from the endless stream of cigarettes he smoked. “It’s been way too long, Barry!”

Barry was a little surprised by this show of affection. Barry and Jack were close in high school, certainly, but this was an unusual amount of outward emotion for the Jack he remembered. But it did eliminate one of the worries he’d had about the reunion as it approached. Barry had been wondering how he would react when he saw Jack, his closest friend during those years. He wondered if he would play it cool and say, Oh, hi Jack. What’s that, you have a book? No, I never heard of it, or would he be the one to pour out the effusive happiness and unrestrained hugs, or would Jack be too full of himself to even speak to his old friend? All of these questions were succinctly answered when Jack bear hugged Barry.

The two stood at the bar for a while, drinking their beers and catching up. Barry kept asking Jack about details of his assignments and writing, intentionally trying to steer the conversation away from his own life. Jack, however, kept steering it back towards Barry, so he finally used the same “bumpy ride” line he had earlier with Morgan.

“Mmm, I hear you, buddy,” Jack responded, taking a long drag on his cigarette. “I’ve been so lucky lately, but the first ten years or so after school were a complete nightmare for me.”

Barry looked at him, trying to determine if he was being picked on or not. “What are you talking about? You were writing for a bunch of different papers, you were all over New York. Then you got hired by the Times and made it big. You seemed like you were doing so well.”

Jack blew a long stream of blue cigarette smoke out of his mouth, laughing slightly. “Well, maybe that’s because I’m a story teller and I wanted things to look better than they were. Man, I was a stringer for those papers. They only paid me per story, and they only paid 50 bucks a pop. I was living in this crappy little apartment in what was pretty much a slum, living on those damn instant ramen noodles, and there were some weeks that I had not a single story to get paid for. I can’t tell you how many times I had to eat down at the mission center, the same place where they were feeding the homeless people. Oh, and don’t forget that everything in New York is expensive, so even that crappy little apartment cost an arm and a leg.”

“Wow. This is really…a surprise to me. I had always thought of you as this great New York writer, living in the lap of luxury, so this is…just…wow.”

Jack laughed again. “Even working for the Times it’s not like I was drowning in money. But, I guess I have to thank George Bush for starting a war in Iraq that led me to so many good stories. It wasn’t until the second book came out that I’ve made any real money.”

“Well, brother, I’m glad you’re doing well. Here’s to you,” he said, holding up his pilsner for a toast.

“Here’s to us and the best of times yet to come. So, where are you sitting?”

“Over there, with Morgan.”

“Morgan?”

“Yeah, Morgan Wills…well, she was Morgan Simms when we knew her.”

“Morgan? Morgan is here? Damn, man, you were always so crazy about her! Are you guys…uh…?”

“No, we just ran into each other, and since neither had a date we figured we’d sit together.”

“Oh. I hear her husband was a real dirt bag.”

“Um, yeah, I guess,” Barry said, trying desperately not to show that he had already been thinking about the possibility of him and Morgan actually dating.

“Well,” Jack said, gathering up his beer and cigarettes, “if you don’t mind I do believe I will join you guys.”

Barry, Jack, and Morgan sat at their table with two other classmates and their spouses; the three of them, however, felt like they had the entire ballroom to themselves. They talked about the classes they had together, the good teachers and the bad. The recalled the high points and the low points during school, then they started to discuss the ups and down of their-post high school lives.

Morgan discussed how she was so happy to finally get out their little town, so happy to go to technical school in Massachusetts and begin her career in Boston, only to have her world come crashing down around her as she lost her job, her marriage, and her finances all at around the same time she gave birth to her son. Barry told them about his gnawing sense of failure and disappointment, while Jack discussed the fact that he had had a somewhat severe cocaine addiction in the mid 90s, had been mugged no less than three times in New York and that he, too, had a child. This was not a well known fact, but he explained that two years earlier he had met someone whom he said was the only person for him; unfortunately she felt the need to follow her artistic muse and didn’t want to be tied down to one man. He rarely saw his daughter.

Over drinks and dinner, dancing and chatting, gaudy streamers and 80s music, the trio encapsulated the past 20 years of their lives. Barry was amazed, truly amazed, that apparently everyone had had serious struggles, had had pain, had had embarrassments and disappointments and broken hearts, decisions they wished they could get back and wounds they feared would never heal. Barry was far from a foolish or stupid man, but he had been so wrapped up in his own issues that he’d convinced himself he was the only one suffering.

One thing he had certainly learned by the time dessert was served was that he did not suffer alone.

5

Barry and Jack sat at the bar much later that night, recalling their high school days, drinking and laughing.

“Do you remember that time Mark Cohen put that cherry bomb in the toilet, just as Mr. Bing walked into the bathroom,” Jack asked, laughing so hard he started coughing. “Mark couldn’t get out of the bathroom because Bing was confronting him about smoking and BOOM! Up went the toilet. They both got covered with all kinds of nastiness! You remember?”

“Yeah, yeah I do!” Barry said, laughing just as hard as Jack and nearly choking on his beer. “Oh, man, that is too funny!” He looked around at the remaining classmates, and said, “Where is Mark these days? I haven’t heard about him…jeez, since ’91 or ’92.”

“He’s dead,” Jack said, with a finality that was like punch in the gut. “He was going nowhere fast in the mid-90s, so he joined the Marines. Seems like the only thing he could do well was march and shoot, but apparently he was damn good at it. He got killed in Afghanistan in…2005, I think it was.”

“Wow,” Barry said. “Well, here’s to him” This had become their impromptu tradition that evening at the bar. For everything that they enjoyed, for every classmate who did something noteworthy, for everyone who never made it to see 20 years later, they would raise their pilsners and drink to them.

“To Mark, the slayer of toilets and Taliban everywhere!” Jack agreed.

Barry sighed heavily as his beer went down. “I just…I just can’t help but feel I’m done for.”

Jack looked at his friend. “What do you mean? You sick?”

“No, I mean…look, it’s been 20 years since we graduated high school. When does life begin for me? Man, I feel like the boat to the chance I had in life, whatever chance that was, left the dock long ago without me on it. Damn, man, we’re almost forty. These,” Barry gestured around at the oversized photos, “were the days. That was the time.”

Jack laughed loudly. “That? That was the time? Are you really telling me we reached our peaks when we were 17 or 18? Then rest of our lives was just for show?”

“Well, Jack, things were a lot easier back then.”

“Things were easier because we were kids and we had no clue. None. Everything looks easy when you have no idea what you’re doing. Really, what was high school but teen angst and raging hormones and always feeling unwanted and misunderstood and awkward? Cliques and petty differences and catty comments. No way, man. I’d much rather be 40 than 14 again, no questions asked!”

Barry took a long swig of his beer. “I don’t know. I just feel so…old. Used up. What have I done with my life? What have I accomplished? Nothing, Jack. Nothing. I feel like my chance was there, somewhere, but I missed it.”

Jack put his hand on Barry’s shoulder, and said, “Barry, I love you like a brother, but you are stupid.”

That was not quite the response he was expecting. “Gee, thanks, Jack. You really are so good with words, you know that?”

“You are very welcomed. But seriously, man, do you not think you have done anything with your life?”

“No, I don’t. My book remains unwritten, my marriage is over, my grown up career started just a few years ago. Look at you. You’ve been all over the world. You write for the Times, you have two books published, and I know that hot little anchor on CNN has a thing for you.”

At this Jack smiled thoughtfully, and said, “Yeah…she does.”

“What have I done? Zip. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. Nothing at all.”

“And this, my friend, is why you are stupid. What have you done with your life? How about you provided for your family for ten years on a lousy factory job income, not because you wanted to, not because it was sexy or glamorous or popular, but because you are a man, and you did what you had to do. Or how about you went to school after ten years, regardless of how hard that was. You worked full time and went to school full time. How about that? Or how about now, you’re having the chance to give kids that love of writing you have, to shape young writers.”

Barry rolled his eyes. “Oh, c’mon. I wonder if any of them even listen.”

“Uh-huh,” Jack said dismissively. “Do remember what you told me, back in…I think it was 10 th grade? When I asked you why you loved writing so much?”

Barry shrugged his shoulders. “That was a long time ago. I don’t remember.”

“I do. You said you loved writing because of a lesson Mr. Haynes, your 8 th grade English teacher taught. You remember? You said he did a week or two on visualization, on seeing what you want to write and writing what you see. You said you were hooked on the idea of creating something, making a picture in your head and then describing it on paper. Making a whole world that only you could create, and the stories in that world only you could tell. Do you remember now?”

Barry did. He recalled the power of those lessons old Mr. Haynes taught, having them sit there with their eyes closed, creating a picture of something in their minds, then sketching it on a piece of paper. They were then to write in detail what it was they drew. Barry now remembered that thrill of seeing an entire image and describing it. It was after this lesson that Barry, encouraged by Mr. Haynes, entered a creative writing contest and won second place. After that he seriously believed he could write for a living.

“Yeah, I remember. So? Mr. Haynes was a great teacher.”

Jack lit a fresh cigarette, sighing heavily as he exhaled his first drag. “Oh, dear Lord, what am I going to do with this guy? Barry, do you not get it? Don’t you think Mr. Haynes ever felt like he was teaching to a wall? Has it ever occurred to you that he was just as frustrated as you? And yet you were inspired by him, are still inspired by him, and that was 25 years ago! Don’t you think you are now inspiring some kid in one of your classes to be a great writer?”

Barry truly never had before. He had always felt like the inspiration he received from Mr. Haynes was due to some special talent among the great old teacher himself, not so much a talent among teachers in general. Nor had he considered that Mr. Haynes had ever felt angry or frustrated by teaching; Barry always assumed he knew what an impact he had on his students. Like so many other things this evening, the possibility that he was having as much of an impact on his students as Mr. Haynes had on him was quite a revelation to Barry.

“And I’ll tell you what,” Jack continued after a moment of thoughtful silence. “I am much more impressed by what you do than what I do.”

“What? Are you sure you’re not still on drugs?”

“Just nicotine these days…but I mean that. Hell, man, I never even finished college. You did. All I do is see what’s going on and write about it. A report; I file a report. I’m a reporter, that’s not writing. Even my ‘books’ are just expanded newspaper stories. Nothing impressive in that. But the writing you do, and the writing you teach these kids to do, that’s art, man, that’s impressive. I know the struggles you’ve had, but I’m telling you, man, I know you’ve already done amazing things with your life. And…the best is yet to come for you.”

Barry appreciated his friend’s kind words, but wasn’t really convinced. “I just feel so…old.”

“One thing I’ve learned from going all over this world is that life is always what you make of it. You are as old as you make yourself. Your age is what it is, but if you make yourself old at 21 then you’re old. If you make yourself young at 81, then you’re young. You know when life begins?”

“When?”

“Tomorrow. And the day after that…and the day after that…and the day after.” Jack took a long, deep drag off his cigarette, thought for a moment, and then said, “Yeah, 17 has turned into 37. In a heartbeat, it feels like. But so what? Our lives are always just beginning.”

6

Barry caught up with Jack for the rest of the evening, interrupted occasionally by Morgan’s desire to dance to her numerous favorite 80s slow songs. Not that Barry minded one bit, of course, finding in Morgan’s gentle embrace something he had desired from an early age but also something that had been seriously lacking in his life the past few years.

Once the reunion came to an end, the trio went out for a very early breakfast, and stayed up until the early hours of the morning chatting, remembering, and laughing. When Barry finally stumbled into his bed at nearly 5:30 that morning, he was exhausted, content, and excited because he and Morgan had made plans to go out for dinner the following Friday.

The months flew by and his relationship with Morgan developed into deeply felt love, and the two made plans to marry. It was a full year after the reunion that Barry heard the news everyone eventually expected they would: Jack had been killed while doing what he loved most, pursuing another great story.

Barry was very sad to have heard this and to have lost such a friend, but not surprised Jack’s luck eventually ran out. What Barry was, more than anything else, was grateful to have known Jack and to have been able to spend those hours with him at the reunion. Jack’s words were like a slap across the face, and in the year since having that conversation Barry was able to look at the course of his life – and the course of his life as of yet unlived – and feel happy, satisfied, and eager for more.

And it was with this new attitude in his heart that he sat down at his computer the very night after Jack’s funeral. He and Morgan had held each other and cried, but life went on as it always does for the living, and they went on too.

He sat, staring at the computer screen. His Word program eagerly waited for him, urging him on with a blank sheet.

Barry recalled Jack’s words. But the writing you do, and the writing you teach these kids to do, that’s art, man, that’s impressive…the best is yet to come for you…You are as old as you make yourself… You know when life begins? Tomorrow. And the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after...Yeah, 17 has turned into 37. In a heartbeat, it feels like. But so what? Our lives are always just beginning.

Barry continued to stare at the Word program, and for the first time in a great many years the blank sheet of paper didn’t make him feel taunted or mocked, but instead excited.

“This one’s for you, buddy,” Barry said softly, and started typing.

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