The Ghosts of Brookline High
By Bill McCool
Illustrations by Hugo Herrera
When jet-setting Mark returned home for his 20th high school reunion, he didn’t know it would turn into anything more than Old Fashions and awkward hellos. Awaiting him the morning after was a cup of joe— and sense of community.
09 Min Read Time
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“Mark! Mark, it’s me, Bobby!”
That voice — shouting into his cell phone — was almost too Boston, too on the nose. What his boyfriend David would call an “Afflecktation” whenever Mark let one slip out (and it almost never slipped out if he could help it).
“Mark,” Bobby shouted into his phone. “I’m downstairs. I got you Dunkin’. I don’t know how you like your coffee, so I just told them to put everything in it.”
The night before the abrupt phone call, Mark had gone to his 20th high school reunion. He hadn’t originally planned to go, but after traveling home to settle matters with his mother’s estate and watching the Facebook event notifications pile up, his curiosity got the best of him.
The night of the reunion, he stayed at the Boston Marriott Cambridge, just across the river and a few miles from where he grew up in Brookline. He preferred to stay among the harried tourists, the business creatives, where he knew that every person had a precise itinerary and he could work freely in peace. Besides, he hadn’t really kept tabs on the few old friends he did have in Boston.
Mark did not know Bobby at all, had no recollection of who he was or if he had ever met him in his past. But at the reunion Bobby had greeted him warmly, even hugged him before he could slip away to the bar where Mark would nurse the same Old-Fashioned and smile weakly at the few faces he did recognize.
Bobby talked to Mark as if they were old friends, about everything from his mother’s recent hernia surgery to Rogaine and the misfortunes of being 6-feet-7-inches tall.
“People don’t like you hanging over them, you know?” Bobby said.
Mark tried to excuse himself, but Bobby insisted on continuing the conversation over lunch the next day. Though Mark was heading back to San Diego the following morning, Bobby offered to take him to breakfast and the airport — and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Mark checked the status of his flight as he walked through the lobby, and he grimaced. Two hours late. He was to have dinner with David that night, and the following day he would be back on the road, bound for Napa to conduct a series of interviews in the wine country.
Bobby stood outside of the hotel in front of his nondescript Japanese car, the windows tattooed with ride-share stickers. The commitment these stickers conveyed about Bobby’s time on the road reminded Mark of his own time spent in the air.
Mark was a travel writer, and he had crossed the globe nearly three times over. The day he graduated high school, his mother had given him an oversize backpack, $500 and a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires. He had asked her why she had chosen Buenos Aires, and she explained to him that she had spun a globe and her finger landed there.
They did not own a globe.
Mark went to Argentina a month later, and as soon as he stepped off the plane, he bought himself a journal. He drank a beer that night at an outdoor café in Plaza Serrano and was so intoxicated by the nightlife and the energy of the city that all he could do was write. In some form or another, he had been on the road ever since.
“I didn’t think you were serious about the ride,” Mark said to Bobby as he walked outside. “
Why you gonna’ pay all that money to go to the airport when you know me?” Bobby asked. He handed Mark his cup of cream-and-sugar coffee. It didn’t matter anymore that Mark took his black.
“My flight is two hours late. I’m sure you have work,” Mark said in a last attempt to free himself and Bobby.
“I make my own hours,” the Boston resident smiled. “Let’s get some breakfast.”
They stopped at a small café run by one of their former classmates, Carol, who was wearing the same grin, and perhaps the same sequined top, as the night before.
“Wicked hangover, Bobby,” she said as she showed them to a booth overlooking Beacon Street, “But who else will open the door if I’m not here?”
“My mother lived two blocks from here,” Mark heard himself say as Carol handed them menus.
“Why, of course,” Carol said “Nancy was the greatest supporter of my cinnamon rolls.”
“You knew her?”
“We all knew that showstopper,” she said as she turned back for the coffee pot. “Want some fuel?”
“Hurry!” Bobby joked.
“Funny,” Mark muttered, “Everyone knowing each other.”
Immediately he was transported to his youth. As a child, it seemed to him as if his mother knew everyone in the neighborhood. When they passed someone on the street, she would inevitably gab for the next hour, making them late for whatever destination they were bound for. And they were always late. He hated being late.
Mark was more insular than she was, preferring to live in his imagination and — in his adult years — in the air. He wrote for several publications, but he also kept a fairly successful travel blog with a large following. For Mark, while he could engage with his audience about where to get the best cheese in Brittany or what breakfast spots one should frequent in Vermont via his article comments, he knew that was as far as it went for him. His mother often wondered if he had chosen to be a writer just so he could live in his own head and dissect the minutiae of hiking boots.
Before she died he rarely visited, and now, sitting in this diner just blocks from home, he felt awful. He loved to bring her with him when he traveled; everything they did felt like an Homeric adventure, but in her later years, transcontinental trips became less feasible.
“Neighborhood’s always been this way,” Bobby said, bringing him back to the present. “Everything you’d want in just a few blocks. Isn’t that right, Carol?”
Carol smirked from a table over, a look that warned Bobby she was holding hot coffee.
“It’s hard to come back,” Mark said, “I’m always learning about a new place.”
“Fun, isn’t it?” Bobby asked.
“Is it. Sometimes I think I spent so much energy soaking in new languages, cultures and people that I forget what it was like to be here, to be home. I lost touch with so many people, you — “
“Ain’t you got friends?” Bobby interjected with a playful smile and concerned eyes.
“I have my boyfriend, David.”
“That’s not a friend,” Bobby said as Carol poured their coffee. He quickly drank the cup as they ordered breakfast, and to Mark’s surprise, Bobby gestured for more.
“You gotta’ get some friends,” Bobby said as Carol headed for the kitchen. “I was married eight years. Marion was definitely not my friend. Believe that. Not even in my top ten. She wouldn’t even go with me to see my painting.”
“Your painting?” Mark tried to imagine Bobby’s imposing hands cradling a palette.
“The Isabella Gardner Museum,” Bobby said, “You ever been?”
Mark shook his head no.
“I go there, I don’t know, maybe once a month. There’s this painting of this gypsy dancer. I just can’t get enough of it. It’s very beautiful. I mean, the shadow she cast. There are even these musicians in the back. My mother says it looks like one of them is asleep in the back, but I don’t think that’s true. I think he’s feeling the music. Anyway, she’s doing this dance. The Tarantella. They say that if you got bit by a spider, you might get all hysterical, so you gotta’ shake all your demons out. You know that?”
Bobby gesticulated wildly, waving his own demons away. It was something Mark’s mother would do, too, as if the only way to propel the overflowing of words and stories was to conduct them with your hands. Bobby reminded Mark of her, the way she would hold court.
“I have to be honest with you,” Mark said, in a fit of honesty, “I don’t remember you.”
Bobby smiled. “That’s OK,” he said. “You know, we never said a word to each other in school, even when we were in a class together senior year. Mr. Tinney, world history. Remember him?”
“Your memory is much better than mine.”
Carol refilled Bobby’s fourth cup.
“Take it easy,” Carol playfully cautioned. Bobby smiled and took a polite sip.
“See,” Bobby explained, “Tinney liked to have his pop quizzes every Friday, and he’d grade them right in front of us. So he’d pick on the people that didn’t do so good, and me, I never did so good. Some people thought it was funny, or like, it made ’em work harder because he called you out. But that never worked for me. He told me I reminded him of his dog that he couldn’t potty train. He’d always lay out the newspapers, but the dog always missed. And that was me, that was what he said. And everybody laughed and thought was pretty funny. I think he told that story a couple times, if I’m being honest. Anyway, I cried.”
“I’m sorry,” Mark said. He studied Bobby, could see that it still gnawed at him.
“But you said something. You said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ You told him to quit bothering me. You yelled! And then you stormed out and flipped him off on the way out the door. None of this rings a bell, huh?”
“No one ever did anything like that for me.”
Bobby paused and quickly shot back the rest of his coffee.
“That’s what people do,” Bobby said as he wiped his upper lip. “They got to be good to one another. You didn’t have to do that, you see. I don’t know if I would have.”
Carol set down their breakfast sandwiches.
“But we’re all just trying to do our best, right?” Bobby went on. “It ain’t just you or just me or any of these here people out there by themselves, you know? … Hey, you gonna’ eat that pickle?”
“It’s yours,” Mark said.
After breakfast the two men walked over to his mother’s old house. Once she’d died and Mark had cleaned it all out, he’d given the keys to a real-estate agent and hopped on a plane. Any feelings that arose were quickly surrendered to the altitude sickness he experienced in a tiny yurt in the Himalayas. Within a month, some other family occupied the space Mark had for so long called home.
“Well, that’s the nice thing about brick,” Bobby said.
“What’s that?” Mark asked.
“You can’t paint it, so that house is always gonna look the same,” Bobby said, surveying the house. “You ready to go to the airport?”
“Let’s go see your painting,” Mark said.
“Won’t you miss your flight?”
“You know, it will be good to be late.”
Boston Marriott Cambridge