I walked alone into my 10th high school reunion in August 1993. I scanned the crowd at the F.O.P. Lodge in Cassopolis, MI, and I didn’t see a late-bloomer in the bunch; the pretty girls were all still pretty and the fat people had all gained weight. Except for spouses and dates, every face was familiar. In Cass the 80 or so people I graduated high school with were pretty much the survivors of the 100 or so people I started kindergarten with. I ran into Lance Wilson, an’ he says, “Ken, meet my girlfriend, Rachel meet the guy who’s responsible for my bad back.”
“What’d I do?”
“Jumpin’ off that cliff behind your house.”
“You guys jumped off cliffs for entertainment?” Rachel said, “This is a small town.”
“Well,” Lance said. “It wasn’t a 90-degree drop off cliff, maybe 45 degrees. It was an old, overgrown gravel pit. Still, it wasn’t such a smart thing to do.”
“You only did it that one day, right when Elron wan’t there.” I said.
“That was the whole thing.” Lance said, “I jumped farther than any’a you guys and all you said was, ‘that’s pretty far, but that’s not as far as Elron Stakauski jumped.’”
Rachel was like, “What the hell kind’a name is Elron?”
“Yeah, E-L-R-O-N, Elron.” Lance said, “I don’t know where his parents got it. I thought it was a normal name when I was a kid.”
“Of course, growin’ up in Cass we thought Tamika, Ula, and Damien were all normal names too. But I swear I’ve heard Elron somewhere else. Anyway, after we got done jumping we all sat there in the grass and started talking about something else, and Lance disappears and the next thing I hear is this loud yell and I look up just in time to see this guy’s feet flying over my head.”
“An’ I came down hard, waaayyyy down that hill.” Lance said.
“An’ you jumped up screaming like a second grader. You left this enormous butt-print in the dirt. We just laughed and laughed.”
“An’ all you guys said was ‘that’s pretty far but that’s still not as far as Elron Stakauski jumped.’ I’ve had a pain in same place in my back for the last 15 years, and that was all you could say.”
“Oh, man, I’m sorry. That sucks. But, uh, you didn’t jump as far as Elron Stakauski. He just had the brains not land on his buutt.”
Elron really did jump farther than Lance. The farther out you jumped, the farther down you’d fall. It was just a matter of how much of a fall you were willing to take. Elron excelled at games like that. He wasn’t competitive; he was just willing do stuff other people were afraid to do. He once climbed up a two-story drainpipe, just so he could surprise me when I was playing on the roof of the church. When we’d climb trees, he’d climb way higher than anybody else would. Those little branches way up there that you just didn’t think could support your weight—he thought they could, and they always did. Elron invented this vicious version of tennis ball tag played in the water and on the swimming raft, where you’d just whip the ball at people as hard as you could. We’d come home with these big red marks, “It’s nothing, Mom.” We ended up sinking the raft playing that game, then we sank the neighbor’s raft, but they never used it.
I moved on to mingle around the room. I ran into Jim Olds in front of the Ted Bodine memorial table. He told me how he and Pam had been married for nine years already, “I dropped out of the ag[*] program at Michigan State after only a year and got started farming.”
“Wasn’t Pam like still in high school?”
“Yeah, she was a junior. I had to go down to the courthouse to get the parental consent form to marry a 17-year-old. Everybody thought she must be pregnant, but it was just that when Ted died, I just didn’t want to wait to start my life.”
I come from a very small town. After 4 years at Cornell and 6 years in New York City. I guess I just forgot that. But I never really fit in there anyway. My parents were the big city professionals who came to the small town for God knows what reason.
Aside from Lance there was a real dearth of people I’d been close to. No Dan, no Steve, no Greg, no Elron. Well, Elron’s no surprise. This isn’t his kind of thing, but still I’d really like to see him. We were best friends in like 4th grade, and then we sort’v drifted apart by Junior High. We never had a falling out, and we never completely stopped being friends, but we hung out together a lot less. We just started hanging out with totally different crowds. I remember one day, I don’t remember what grade we were in when people were talking about what their parents did and he said that his mom worked at 7-11 and everybody laughed. That was the first day I realized that it’s not cool for somebody’s mother to work at 7-11. It was real cool when we were little kids. We’d come by anytime and she’d give us a slushy or some candy. But, that’s just not cool in the socially stratified junior high. So, I began to realize that because his mom worked at 7-11 and my mom was a lawyer and my dad worked for public radio: That made us different. We didn’t fight, I don’t think I treated him differently, but I hung out with the upper middle class kids that were too brainy to be part of the cool crowd and he hung out with the group they called the scuds or the FDAA (future drug addicts of America). It still didn’t quite hit me at the time that that just meant the poor kids.
I’m spending too much time wandering around by myself. I looked for a table. There was an empty chair next to Lance and Rachel. Lance and Rachel seemed like the biggest mismatch. He wore a suit jacket and tie and she wore used clothing, she had a nose ring and a big tattoo of the sun on her back. When dinner came, Lance dug into the prime rib. Rachel had the vegetarian option, which was fish, which of course she couldn’t eat either. So we all shared our peas and potatoes with her.
In a conversation lull, Lance asked, “Remember drafting class?”
“That had to be the highest fun to work ratio of any class.”
“Oh, I have to explain this to the babe.” He turned to Rachel. “Drafting is an ancient craft that flourished in this society before computers. It involved making very exact drawings with pencils. About a year after I graduated they ripped up the drafting room to put in a computer lab.”
So I jumped in, “We’re the in between generation. We were born too late for flower power and too early to get computers in school—a little too old for a Big Wheel or a BMX bike. I don’t even want to talk about Supersoakers or computer games.”
This led us into a discussion of Lance and Rachel’s differences. He’s a Lawyer living in Evanston, and Rachel was a 22-year-old senior at Northwestern. They’d only been seeing each other for a few months. It’ll never last.
Rachel said, “We met when I gave him a Tarot card reading.”
“You got a Tarot card reading?”
“Only to meet the Tarot card reader.” And then he turned to say something to her.
Elron was in that drafting class. That’s when we started hanging out again. It was 4th hour. Right after lunch. He walks in everyday’n says, “Are you high?”
I’m like “No.”
And he’s like, “Well, I am.”
You’re sitting there drawing for an hour everyday and you’ve got time to talk. It turns out he’s been learning to play guitar too. He’s into AC/DC; I’m not, but I like that one song.[†] I’m into the Clash; he’s not, but he likes that one song[‡] so we can get along. We became friends again real fast. Junior and senior year in high school were great years for me compared to the four years before. It was also not real long after I learned how to drive and play guitar. My life seemed to change. It felt like you were just waking up after years of the oppressive social structure of junior high and the first half of high school to realize that that’s all fucking bullshit and I’m happier just hanging out with the people I like than trying to fit into something, or maybe it was that I found some things I fit into. We got a band together. We sucked, but mostly we just got together and drove down to South Bend or Elkhart. This was when going out with a group a guys for a pizza was just sooo cool. We’d drive around and annoy people.
We walked into Simonton Lake Drugs and spontaneously started punching the stuffed animals. The woman behind the counter says, “you know if you did that at Aleck’s Drugs, they’d kick you out.”
“Oh, reeally?” So immediately we stopped. Left the store. Went to Aleck’s Drugs. Punched the stuffed animals. And sure enough they kicked us right out. “Mission accomplished.”
Elron had this idea where we’d go to 7-11 and we’d all get root beer Slushies. “It’s got to be root beer because it’s light brown.” We’d start driving and he’d get a whole bunch of it in his mouth. And then we’d pull up next to another car. And he’d open his window or the door and he’s make it look and sound just exactly like he was barfing all over their car. Nobody could do this as well as Elron because nobody else could hold as much crushed ice in their mouth without getting a headache. But, needless to say, this kept us entertained for hours. We did it at stoplights, at the McDonald’s drive thru, at some high school’s band practice while the girls in shorts were coming in off the football field. We were 20 miles from home. We don’t know anybody around here. Who cares? And then pretty soon it’d be about time to get to the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
By the time I graduated we’d already started to drift apart again. He dropped out of school about half way through senior year. Or he was pushed out. I don’t even know the whole story. He rode away on his minibike making this huge tire mark all the way down the parking lot. It lasted for months before it faded away. I was like, “but it’s just one semester, stick it out for that much longer.” But it turned out he really had the credits of like a sophomore. A few months later I left for Cornell. I made some efforts to keep in touch but it was hard.
I heard he got arrested for doing something really stupid like stealing gas out of the bus parking lot at the high school. Then he became a fundamentalist Christian. Then he quit that and went into the army. Then he got kicked out of the army or discharged or maybe his time was up or something. I don’t even know.
I remember the last time I tried to find him. I think it was the summer after I got out of college or the summer after that. I stopped by his house. His mother said he’d gotten married and had two stepkids and told me where he lived. I went over there but nobody was home. I knew it was the right house because there was this microphone stand on the porch. Still doin’ the music. So was I at that point. But, I didn’t catch up with him that summer or ever again.
I’m really detached from the conversation at this table. I got up and I went to the bathroom. I ran into Joe who was on the reunion committee. As we walked in, stood next to each other at the urinals and then at the sinks, I asked him about people that didn’t make it.
“Greg sent a letter saying he’s ‘living in Grand Rapids and loving the Lord,’ Steve’s a Chiropractor in Atlanta and he said he wouldn’t come if we paid him.”
“What about Elron Stakauski?”
“Haven’t you heard? He accidentally shot himself about a year or two ago. He was joking around pointing it at his head and it went off.”
“No, he was cleaning his gun and it went off.” Said a voice from a stall.
But Joe was like, “No, I heard he was fooling around at a party.”
“No, I hadn’t heard.” I said. I hadn’t even heard. I walked back toward the table, then turned and went out side. I pace around, then went back into the main room past the memorial table. I turned around and went to the bathroom again and then back to the table and sat down.
Rachel immediately asked, “What’s wrong?”
I told them about Elron. They gave me condolences, and I told them I was OK. “I hardly knew him anymore. They’ve got fuckin’ shrine over there for Ted, but I didn’t even hear about Elron ’till a year or two later when I went to the bathroom. It was a year or two ago that I had a dream about him.”
“What was the dream?” Rachel asked.
“This was after I’d moved to New York, and started to realize that there were a lot of old friends that it wasn’t that I just hadn’t talked to them in a while, but it was that I wasn’t likely to see them again. I felt guilty for letting a lot of good friends just fade away. Especially Elron. Like I let him down. One night, I dreamed I saw him again, but something was chasing us and we had to run away’n split up. I said I was so sorry that we finally get to see each other but this happens...and he stopped me and said, ‘It doesn’t have to last forever to be real.’ I still wanted to see him again, but I never felt guilty about it after that.”
“That was him.” Rachel said. “That must’ve been the night he died. When a person dies they give off a huge amount of psychic energy. He knew you needed to see him once more so he visited you before he moved on to the next life.”
“I know you think that’s comforting, but it’s just a lot of crap,” Lance said, and then he turned to me. “For all we know you could’ve had that dream a year before or a year after he died. Your subconscious figured out the truth you needed to know before you did, so it told it to you in a way you’d understand. You don’t need to add any psychic bullshit to give meaning to it.”
It doesn’t matter who it was that said it to me. All that matters to me is that I believed what was said. Now it’s been probably 10 years since Elron died. Once in a while when I’m driving alone I think about old friends I’ve lost and I wonder what they’re up to and what they’re doing, and when I think about Elron I catch myself and remember that he’s not doing anything anywhere anymore. I guess that feeling never goes away. But I’m glad I knew him.