A Class Birthday
by Jerry Bradley

Having determined the day on which your class
will theoretically turn sixty, a former chum
sends an invitation. Cheery news that!
And because you are younger than the mean –
but not so mean as the old – you plan to join them
in a motel near the historic stockyards
in a city never your home to bear witness
to how the mighty have gone hairless
and the beautiful turned stunningly to stone.

The girl you wanted to take to the prom
will not be there in her shimmering gown,
but your home room pals will,
repeating sad declarations of sobriety
mastered by rote as they swig tumblers of tea
instead of swill. And your first girlfriend,
the one who thought every stoplight a valentine,
will be there too,
if only to show she has learned
to manage sorrow far better than you.

But it’s the feigned politeness
that brings you most to account,
the questions about wives you’ve had
and the life you don’t, and how proud
everyone was of you back then.
You were the smart one all along, they insist
(though not so much to have made
your fortune and called it quits),
and that stream of success
they always knew you’d swim
has proven merely to be
the patio pool of a motel with them.

And the DJ will play surfing tunes,
endless as a California wave,
a silly soundtrack for kids from a landlocked town
named for water unfit to drink, float on, or bathe.
Then – because at some point you’ll have to – you dance,
choosing the unfamiliar blonde in the semi-indecent dress
who came in with the guy on the motorized scooter.
You understand why there is whiskey on her breath
and offer to buy her another shooter,
though neither of you has uncovered the answer to cancer.

In time another woman, one you barely knew, will cut in,
and the three of you will give way to two
as you return to your stool to peel the label from your beer
and hum an old Jackson Browne tune
(just your age and not quite empty,
still trying to run down love in the night,
though, if you did, you’d miss tomorrow’s early tee).

And while you drink, you pray
you won’t be too well recalled
in this modern-day auto-da-fe,
as someone trivial or was part of a curse –
who put the city limits sign in the toilet?
threw up at Boys’ State? quit FFA?
posed in the yearbook with Daddy Bush? –
egged the dead boy’s hearse?

And coincidence or not, it’s San Jacinto Day,
but, if you’re lucky, your disaster too will be brief,
although this time it will be Texans disappointed;
no hero returning to tell how well he handled life at the front
or was remembered, historicized, or anointed,
and nothing will stop the former homecoming queen
from sobbing when she learns the home-ec teacher died.
Remain uncaring that everyone’s kids are grown
and the illegitimate ones still not spoken of,
that they tore the old stadium down.
And if the whole town were to burn
to a single cinder hotter than teenage love
or the last woman in the bar ask
what you have planned for later,
tell her the past is the ditch you crawled out of
on your way here. Tell her it’s late, too late for her,
too late for you, too late even for later
as your watch reminds you that later is already here.

Copyright 2021 by Red River Review. First Rights Reserved. All other rights revert to the authors.
No work may be reproduced or republished without the express written consent of the author.