This Year, Next Year

There’s something about the last day of school, something in the air or on teachers’ faces, like someone focused sunbeams just right and captured that radiance we all feel on the best days – days on the quad without any worries when we bask in the light and tell the same jokes over and over again and everybody laughs. I told this to Decker back home last summer, and he shrugged it off, sneered that it was like that everywhere, what’s so special about you? And maybe there’s something to that, but I don’t buy it, not at Brookfield – everything feels a little magical and we hear about the war every day, some of the seniors are going to be drafted and it’s a shame not to volunteer, so maybe it’s a little surreal is a better word. Surreal, then. The last day of school for us not graduating is a bit like watching a clock tick down and holding your breath and knowing that something very exciting is about to happen.

After the final exam, we fling open the chapel doors and a hundred of us schoolboys pour out into the oppressive Carolina mugginess, cheering and swearing and jeering at each other for the last time before we’re whisked off by our guardians across the country – and indeed countries for some – and sequestered in beautiful sun palaces from June till August with what I imagine are fast-talking trader Uncle Jacks and smiling charitable Aunt Lauras. Except me. I think about the job in the luggage warehouse, my first shift tomorrow night.

The seniors are clustered together, whispering quietly with tight lips and shooting glances at the rest of us – graduation is tomorrow morning and they’ll stay the night together and celebrate their future military successes but they’ve said their goodbyes to the rest of us.

Most of the juniors have decided on a course of action for the night, reasoning us 17-year-olds have just as much a right to proclaim our eventual achievement as the 18-year-olds who can vote and smoke and buy lotto tickets to their hearts’ content. We waste no time and set off downtown, some of us waving the first and second years a chuckled goodbye, as if to say we were on our way to Bigger and Better things this summer and the others could stare and wonder all they liked. Frank Stubbs puts a cigarette to his lips, lights it, then tosses the pack to the rest of us as we make our way down State – headed to the ballpark. The more daring ones take out flasks from hidden places. Eddie Archer keeps his in the front of his briefs because he says its assault if anybody touches him there.

The heat is contagious, almost, some of us are running and climbing trees as we go, whooping with delight. I burn my fingers with the first cigarette, it’s been so long since I’ve had one. The sun is eye level when we get to the diner, which refuses to serve us just about because we’re loud as hell and Archer nearly breaks the handle off the front door trying to get in, but Stubbs and Jeffrey Cotton turn out their wallets and Jeff explains who his dad is – yes that Cotton – and we sit down to burgers and shakes. Some of the guys take their shakes to the bathroom and come back with giant drunken smiles because the world is their oyster.

We head to the ball game a little early, because Ralph Hurstman wants the best seats, so we’re pretty much alone in the stadium. The Bulls got Bull Durham a dozen years ago, sure, but it’s the turn of the millennium now and nobody can be bothered with that shit, Archer says when Ralph asks where the crowd is. Archer hasn’t actually watched Bull Durham, I’m sure – what he means is it isn’t 1988 and if Eddie Archer can’t be bothered with that shit than by god nobody can. School is over, and so Archer becomes the Universalist, the eloquent educator that our teachers spent the past nine months trying to transform him into. He and Stubbs leave to find a hot dog, and I can tell Ralph is pretty miffed, so I say, just ignore him, you know, you’ve got the whole damn summer in front of you, nobody’s gonna remember something about Bull Durham then if they can’t remember it now. I think I’m being pretty funny, but nobody laughs, and instead Ralph turns to Jeff and asks where Martin’s gotten off to.

Martin’s not coming, Jeff says, a little confused. Remember, he says, remember he backed out real fast when we told him about the strippers.

Oh sure, Ralph says, always knew he wasn’t into that.

He turns back to me then, maybe remembers I’ve spoken.

Say, Fletch, he goes, you ever got with a stripper?

No, geez Ralph, who do you think I am?

Well, Stubbs has, he says.

Bullshit.

No, it’s not – no bullshit, he smirks. Says Archer and Jeff bought him one for Christmas, tell him, Jeff, why don’t ya.

Sure thing, sure thing, Jeff says without looking away from something he’s seen. Say, who’s that girl over by the dugout, she’s got legs. Those are some primo legs.

Ralph and I turn and whistle – she does, that’s a fact. She looks up at us – can she hear? Ralph swears, and she grimaces. She’s older than us, looks like, a Duke student then. She’s got nice long legs, the kind of legs you dream about wrapping round you when it’s chilly and you tuck the sheets in and its heaven. The stuff we’ve imagined since we saw American Pie last year.

Someone slaps me on the back hard, I stumble forward and grab at the seat in front of me.

You done stargazing, Fletch? somebody jokes, laughing.

I blush, turn, see Stubbs and Archer are back. They’re toting souvenir cups and two dogs apiece, loaded with mustard and relish.

Geez, we just ate, I say.

So what, Archer asks, eyebrows up, takes the flask out of his pants and unscrews it.

So you don’t need that stuff, you’re just gonna throw it away, you’re—

I catch myself, know better than to bring that up. Back home, sure, but not here with these guys. I make a grab for Archer’s hot dog, contort my face into something awful.

He holds it out of reach, a sort of pitying smile across his face.

We’re what, Fletch, we’re wasting money, is that what you’re going to say? Archer quips.

Stubbs laughs and joins in, flicks the ash off his cigarette.

You want some? Shit, I can buy you a hot dog, if that’s what you want, Fletch.

Yeah yeah, don’t worry, Fletch, we all know you’re the brains here, you and Martin, we’ll help you out, says Archer.

The brains don’t have a cent to his name, that’s for sure, Jeff joins in.

Stubbs makes a show of pulling out his wallet to the other boys. All of them are rapt.

Let’s see, Fletch, what do you think that’ll be, huh, a twenty should do – oh, no! He throws up his hands. Wait!

Stubbs whips out a Ben Franklin, clutches it in the air above him like he’s set to pray.

A drink, he proffers to the sky, you might want a drink – here. Stubbs sweeps the hundred down, an absurd gesture, offers it out. This way you don’t feel gypped, Fletch, he says, get a big ole soda and a hot dog, why make you choose!

The others find this uproariously funny, Ralph cracks a laugh and Stubbs slaps his back. Jeff snatches up his own wallet and empties it on the ground, does some shtick of looking through the empty folds.

I laugh, join in, I have to.

Alright, here, Fletch, enough’s enough, Stubbs says when the laughing has subsided. You want a dog or not?

Hey, hey, I say, I can have your mom for free already Stubbs, you don’t have to offer her up like that!

The boys are rolling again. Archer shrieks.

Your mother, Stubbs, your mother’s worth a dog!

Maybe a soda too, I offer generously, to more laughter.

Stubbs takes the hundred in two hands, holds it dramatically as if to tear it in half.

I hereby pronounce, he begins in a terrible imitation of our law professor, a sentencing for the guilty.

For the guilty, for the guilty! Archer shrieks again.

I hereby pronounce Finnegan Fletch Thomas guilty of poverty, of mooching, Stubbs booms, and sentence him to starve!

With that, he rips the bill right down the middle, tosses the two halves at me.

To you, Finnegan, Stubbs says in a drawl that is steering farther and farther away from Professor Brestwick, I sentence you to starve—

And eat hot dogs for eternity! Archer finishes, twirls one of his hot dogs in the air and jabs it at my mouth. Mustard rains everywhere, splatters my face.

Get down, get down! he shrieks, mustard gas, mustard gas will get us all! Put on your masks!

He turns the hot dog, stuffs it in his own mouth, raises his plate for cover.

All of us dissolve in laughter, me among them.

And hey, Stubbs, I say, watch out with those impersonations. You can’t have unrealistic expectations for yourself, you know?

Huh?

Well – Brookfield wouldn’t just hire up a retarded professor. That’d be a tough sell to the board, huh – you’d have to graduate first, wouldn’t you?

There’s enormous laughter, Stubbs’ face goes red and I worry that I’ve gone too far but then his face shifts and he smiles with his teeth. Before the smile can die down, to make up for the joke, I need to stay in Stubbs’ good graces, so I dart towards the torn halves of the hundred-dollar bill, snatch them up.

I am revenged! Parole! I shout and dash off towards the hot dog stand, laughing wildly. Stubbs and Archer chase in hot pursuit. Stubbs is the central midfielder for the team but Archer is all bluster and probably a little drunk, so we leave him behind and chase each other across the stadium. Stubbs calls after me – Thief! Stop him! But if anyone turns it’s only to give us disapproving looks, the hooligans sprinting through their ballpark.

I’m almost out of breath and Stubbs is following just behind – he could catch me if he wanted to, he’s being highly recruited by the Ivies of course, but he slows his pace for the game of it all, is laughing hysterically in a weird sort of way. It’s more fun if he doesn’t catch me and we both know that.

The perfect joke – where we circle the whole stadium and end up back where we started and everybody else sees us and can’t get enough of it. The perfect joke on the perfect day.

Drew Guerra is an undergraduate at Northwestern University, where he studies Creative Writing, Psychology, and Settlers of Catan strategy. His taste in music is impeccable – for playlist additions, he wholeheartedly recommends Taylor Swift, Ty Dolla $ign, and the entire Hercules soundtrack. Upcoming and recent publications include The Quotable, PROMPT and Helicon.

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