Reunion: Chapter One
A big leather laptop bag hangs on one shoulder, a satchel on the other, a dinging, vibrating iPhone in one hand, and a double shot latte with coconut milk in her other hand. There, Roger's sister stands at the entry door of her fifth-story condo, not able to punch in her access code to unlock her deadbolt.
Always resourceful, Bekka puts her iPhone between her teeth to free up a hand and eases her door open. She turns sideways and glides through the door without banging her laptop or dropping her latte. She empties her shoulders on the coffee table, spits out her phone onto the couch, and opens a drape to the narrow view of downtown Denver. In the background stand the Rockies, darkened to a deep purple by the sun setting behind them.
Bekka isn't done working yet. She has a very heated Twitter battle going with some U.S. Senator's aide. She grabs her phone and sits on her legs on the couch and leans back with a fighting smirk on her face. Back and forth the battle goes until it has become so personal, so nasty, they mutually block the other at nearly the same time. There are just so many ways to express sex with your mother and to invoke the power of a God you don't believe exists. But her followers have been following along, and her phone pings and buzzes the rest of the night with all of their comments. She reads them all, even those from the 'other' side. Some simply call her names. They refer to her sexual organs using the foulest of terms. They tell of what they would do to her if in a dark alley.
She’ll read what she’s just typed and hits ‘send’ with an evil smirk knowing the smirk is just as evil on the other end. Back and forth. Not a single cerebral cell will change its mind. It’s not even the goal as the discourse always turns personal. Bekka is addicted to being at the center of the Twitter storms she starts. She gives what she gets.
Once the digital dustup calms down, she grabs her mail. Mostly junk, but the white linen paper with gold embossed edging and the beautifully handwritten, curly calligraphy of her name and address catches her attention.
The invitation to her college's 10th reunion takes her by complete surprise. "God… ten years already," she mutters under her breath. A curl of excitement forms on her lips. Some folks she'd love to talk to, out of curiosity mostly. What happened to so-and-so? Did her marriage last? Is Sheila still looking for a rock star to tame? Is the professor I shacked up with for a year still higher than a kite? The names, the faces, the 10-year-old memories have her lost as she stares blankly at the invitation.
Her reminiscing turns gray. Ten years ago, she was an angry young woman. Pissed at the world, some thought. Her parents had divorced when she was just ten. The 'fairy-tale' life her mother had planned for her only daughter hadn't materialized. No husband or children. Her mother is disappointed. She doesn't say as much, but Bekka senses it. Or maybe she projects it. She hasn't seen her father in years, he had all but abandoned her. "Got himself a new family," she tells others bitterly. But he did pay for her college. She shamed him into doing that.
Then several of her professors had enlightened her to all the other injustices in the world: the misogyny, the racism, the bigotry. They taught her that forces, evil, culturally-entrenched forces would attempt to keep her down and enslaved. That through-out all of history, men, white men had constructed a corrupt, unjust, and immoral scheme to keep Bekka from ever realizing her potential. In the shadows of her simmering indignation and anger lurked a distant holograph of her father, Sam Hobart. The sperm donor. The virtuoso of evil fossil fuels. The master of carbon filth. The CEO and chairman of the board of one of the largest oil companies in America making him the architect of the coming doom.
Bekka has come to believe her enlightenment is perhaps a burden. Her heightened sense of what is unjust and unfair requires her to fight. She finds some happiness being on the front lines. A sense of purpose. A higher calling. She enjoys being told of her growing intellectual and moral superiority. She carefully monitors her growing number of followers. She tries to imagine being an old lady and still fighting twitter battles. Will she always be a warrior? She quickly laughs off the foray into the future. It makes her uncomfortable. Always has.
Bekka always figured she'd go to her 10th reunion. But now she gives not going a thought. In the end, her curiosity and her competitive nature wins. If she is going to go, she is going to look the part. She'll play the game.
With her eyes but an inch or two from the mirror, she stays perfectly still while she crimps her false eyelashes with a curling device. She takes the opportunity to think about her brother. Is there a chance Roger will show up? And if he doesn't, where is he? She bats her eyes critically for just the right flutter, then moistens her finger with her tongue and dabs a corner that hasn't correctly curled. A re-flutter while she swings her face back and forth, and she declares victory. Her eyelashes curl like calligraphy.
Bekka moves to her lips. Thin when thick is the rage. She thinks again of getting a Botox treatment. She can afford it. But her thoughts return to her brother, her only sibling. He, too, had graduated in the same class ten years ago, despite their age gap. He was older and possibly smarter, but she was the better student. Mother was so proud of her two graduates that she drained the batteries of her point-and-click camera before 'Pomp and Circumstance' began. Dozens of nearly identical photos in front of almost every building on campus. Even the big statue of Aldon Smith, school founder, served as a backdrop. Bekka and Roger, for a brief time, hid all their hurts and disappointments under their green gowns with gold tassels. Their father was on his way but running late. Asshole.
Bottles and sprays and lipstick occupy every square inch on her bathroom vanity. Next to it is a week's worth of her dirty clothes. Three electric devices that could blow and heat hair hang from the towel bar, dangling dangerously close to a sink that hasn't been cleaned in months. From this disorganized mess of chemicals, mechanical 'shaping' devices, and things that manipulate hair, would exit an attractive young woman. Bekka is now ready to compete with all the other 'best efforts.'
As she dresses, her mind wanders back to her brother. She doubts that he'll come to the reunion. She wishes he would. She hasn't seen him in nearly a year. She doesn't really know what's happened to him. Calls to his last known number go unanswered. Mother hasn't heard from him either. Poor Mother. She's likely sobbing on the back of her black horse chasing little, farting eco-monsters around the hills of Montana.
Bekka is possibly the best-known graduate of her class. Her articles have been printed in some of the nation's leading environmental publications and websites. Some have gotten picked up by major newspapers, and even Time magazine pays her to write articles. She works for one of the most progressive climate change organizations in the world. But the real currency of her young career is the million-plus followers she has on the half dozen social media sites she contributes to. Her activism has made her a rock star in the 'save the planet' movement. They see her as a gifted, articulate advocate. Fearless in how she goes after the ideological opponents of the movement. Show any sign of possible skepticism, and she'll rip your head off with the precision of a fundamentalist jihadist. With sharp words, of course.
When Bekka does get invited to appear as an expert on a cable television panel, her supporters quickly spread the word. TV knows that, and that is why she's repeatedly brought back. Ratings and clicks and virtue signaling.
The makeup has been applied. Her most flirty black business suit, the one that hugs her hips tightly and exposes an extra inch or two of cleavage, has been slipped into and all adjustments made. A glance at the mirror, and she's nearly ready to head out the door. But she struggles with the sense that this ritual, this reunion, is a silly exercise in vanity and shallow competition. The preening and strutting and posturing are so much a lie. She considers briefly shit-canning the whole charade; cleaning her face, throwing her clothes into the growing pile in the corner, and curling up with Netflix. Another look in the mirror and her competitive instincts click in like a snarling boxer. She checks her hair for bounce; she leans forward for one final boob scan; she turns her butt to the mirror for any sign of a panty line. Bekka pouts her lips and claims herself ready for the world. She lets herself smile. It's a confident, fighting smile. Let the games begin.
"Has anyone seen Roger Hobart?" asks a former classmate while twirling an empty wine glass between his fingers. A small group of other grads has gathered. They each look at each other and shrug, suggesting a 'nope.' The conversation soon heads back to careers and how messed up Dana looks. Dana is completely sloshed, held up by a support column that also supports a big poster of a naked statue of David on the other side of the large hall.
Some say the 10th reunion is the one reunion not worth attending. But we almost always do. One's physical manifestation has not yet begun its steady march to decline and decay. And if by chance, lousy genetics has taken an unfair claw to your eyes or elsewhere, then a plethora of chemicals, treatments, and devices stand ready to obscure the evidence. Otherwise, the beautiful are still beautiful. Heads are mostly still full of thick hair.
Some of the women have thriving careers, some have crying babies left with babysitters, and some have altered their physiques. They've augmented their breasts to a size and shape more befitting of their expectations and the desires of others. They have taken their unfortunate deformity, had it fixed, and then texted to one another their newfound sense of confidence above and below the sheets. One curious classmate, who is endowed well beyond her needs, thinks differently about what a deformity is. She asks the gathering for the name of a good plastic surgeon so she could possibly diminish Mother Nature’s generosity.
Wine is flowing like the River Danube. It serves to lubricate rumors, with the latest being that Jeb has just arrived in a big black limousine that is still parked under the portico. Sure enough, dressed to the nines and wearing a bright red power tie, Jeb is in the middle of the hall surrounded by dozens of classmates. Confident, bold, and adorned with thick gold chains, Jeb doesn't see a reunion; he sees an opportunity.
Jeb claims his company doesn't allow him to drive his own car. Something about owning a fleet of firefighting air tankers in Arizona that puts his life at risk. No one asks why. He also claims the demand is so high for his planes, he'll be buying more. "Might be an easy way to double your money," he pretends to whisper to the group that has gathered. Soon, some are asking for his business card. He's got them by the pocket full. Someone does a quick search on their smartphone to find out he's being investigated for securities fraud.
Those who graduated with a degree in women's studies are off in a corner by themselves. From their perch and to their disgust, the male patriarchy has not yet been extinguished. The room is full of indiscretions.
The evening before, the women's studies classmates met up for a lecture in Smith Hall, named for the school's founder. A statue of an overweight, Aldon Smith, stands proudly in the Commons courtyard, surrounded by a pool of water glittering with pennies and dimes. Pigeons have found Aldon's head to be poop-perfect. As one might expect, birds defecating on the head of the illustrious founder bothersome. So the maintenance department had been asked to place a strip of sharp nails on his head to discourage the birds from sitting and shitting. It didn't intend to be a crown, but the hard-pointy nail sized metal pins placed on his head as a loop looked like one. A crown of thorns, actually. It was an entirely practical solution with unexpected consequences. Soon the student body could no longer resist the delicious temptation an Aldon adorned with a crown of thorns presented. Captioned images of Aldon were everywhere. Each more humorous than the last. Letters to the student newspaper nearly always referenced 'Aldon the Messiah.' Some wealthy alumni saw it differently. With all the righteous indignation they could muster, they petitioned the president personally to remove the crown. Today, free of his thorns, Aldon stoically accepts the fowl fecal excretions that sometimes drips from his nose. It's the most popular place for a graduation picture.
The marketing for the women's studies lecture was actually amusingly clever. Giant banners were printed and installed around the campus with the lecture title, Neutering Toxic Masculinity, and a life-size picture of Michelangelo's David. One of the banners made its way to the reunion hall, where it is attached to a support column, also holding up Dana. Some see it as humorous, and in jest, pose for a picture with the naked and unneutered David. Others see it as a severe symbol of a misogynist's world and take their picture with it. The observant eye can catch a subtle difference in the smile. There is such a thing as a righteous, indignant smile.
If Dana is an alcoholic, her introduction to its benefits and disadvantages started in college. Nearly everyone drank, but Dana binge drank. She was frequently the life of the party. She would dance with a certain recklessness. Being drunk set her free and easy. Parties would end with who was going to take a nearly passed out Dana home. The volunteers were often guys hoping to possibly take advantage of the situation. And many did. Her reputation has survived the ten-year hiatus.
"Good to see you, Dana," a classmate will sometimes lie. Some are truly happy to see her but disappointed that she doesn't remember them. These are the boys who slobbered over her sweet but nearly comatose body. A few consider lingering a bit longer, hoping for the opportunity of a reunion of a more intimate type. They have yet to notice the handsome chap she came with. When he comes to check on her, they slither away like discouraged snakes back into the crowd or back to the wife they came with.
Those who graduated with advanced degrees in economics remember Roger Hobart. They are hoping to renew their relationship with him since most haven’t seen him since graduation. Several run into Bekka, remembering that she and Roger are brother and sister. When asked of his whereabouts, Bekka is torn between telling the truth, which she doesn’t really know other than he is possibly living in his car, and covering for him. She decides a lie will reflect better on her. Why not? This place is nothing but lies. She's grown contemptuous of the gathering, so she lets her imagination loose.
"He doesn't have much time for me anymore, but I'm really quite proud of him. He runs one of the largest hedge funds on Wall Street. Makes some gazillion dollars a year. Lives in London part of the time." She decides to stop there and see what the reaction might be. Several other of his school cronies have joined the small circle.
"He runs what?" asks a late arrival.
"Roger runs ah… I think … an $800 billion hedge fund for SolsticeSaks. It's one of the largest funds in the world. He travels all the time. I talked to him a few days ago. Told me to say 'hi' to all you folks. He wishes he was here, but he had a meeting in Bangkok. He was over the Arctic in the company jet when he called me."
She stops, not quite believing how easy she finds telling a tale on the fly. Making things up as she goes. And they stand staring at her with open mouths, believing her bullshit. “This is too easy,” she thinks to herself. But why not. Nothing but lies are told at a 10-year reunion. Just visit their Facebook pages, Bekka muses. She's just playing the game.
Bekka also wants to play with the one significant curiosity she remembers her classmates had of Roger. For some, it is one of the biggest unresolved questions of their four years in school: What was his sexual orientation?
"You remember how Roger never had a girlfriend?" she offers. The gathered collectively edge closer to make sure they don’t miss this next giblet of info.
"Well…" Bekka pauses for effect. "Roger married Ms. Argentina. She was a contestant in the Ms. Universe pageant in… oh… I can't remember what year. Anyway, Roger has four children. Wonderful father, he just doesn't see his kids much. They live in one of the old seaside Vanderbilt mansions in Rhode Island."
Some find the info a bit of a head-scratcher. But the more they recall the handsome, smarter-than-they Roger, the more believable Bekka's story becomes.
"You know," one tells another, "it does not surprise me that Roger has done well in finance. There was something about him that I think foretold a great future." Others will nod their heads in agreement. But a few are clearly perplexed, sending them to a quick phone search of Roger Hobart. The search brings up nothing. No Facebook, no Instagram, no Twitter. Nothing. Strange. Very strange.
Roger is remembered as a unique fella. He was as gentle as a koala bear, never appeared angry. Intelligent but humble and very good looking. With his classmates at their sexual peaks, many speculated endlessly as to why Roger never had a girlfriend. He never had a boyfriend either, but that didn't douse the whispering. God knows how many of both sexes attempted to gain his attention.
Roger found it a bit ironic that his sexual orientation was of such interest. By his way of thinking, real tolerance would dampen overactive curiosities and leave everyone alone to pursue their path unimpeded and without judgment. Instead, he saw his classmates often willing to make broad assumptions based on little information. It confounded Roger as to why so many think it's essential to give their blessing to those just because they are perceived to be different. As for him, he would have preferred to be left alone.
Some believed he was possibly the smartest of the group. His grades didn't reflect that, but when asked to explain a complex theory, he seldom embarrassed himself.
When it came to accepting contemporary conclusions, Roger seldom did. He saw conclusions like a dog sees a bone. When everyone else quit thinking because it got difficult or they convinced themselves that they had swallowed the last morsel of truth, he kept chewing.
A few of his friends remember getting gloriously high with Roger. They'd have in-depth philosophical discussions punctured with fits of laughter. They'd talk about celestial bodies light-years away and the big bang and the purpose of a 'conscience.' They'd delve into various economic theories and then breathlessly head over to theology before ending with contemplating the value of 'free will.' These were fertile minds asking big questions and turning over any rock that might offer some sense of what this was really all about. Eventually, the high would turn into a fog and then a numbing before petering back to reality. Damn reality!
Some in his group marveled at how little effort Roger actually put into his studies. He'd miss classes because he was too stoned. But in the end, his raw intellectual abilities carried the day. No honors, but he graduated.
His old pals spend the rest of the reunion in pleasant conversation, recalling quirky profs and the occasional pranks they pulled. Roger is in Bangkok working on a mega-deal, or so they are told. Some are amazed that Dana left with who she came with. Bekka leaves swearing off any future reunions and is a bit worried by the car that appears to be following her home.
At nearly the same moment Roger is the object of some curiosity at his 10th reunion hundreds of miles away, he is on his knees gently blowing at a piece of kindling, willing it to burst into a flame. He has found his campsite just outside of Buffalo, Wyoming, along Interstate 90, by accident. A dirt road led him far enough away from the freeway so he can hear the nature around him and avoid curious state troopers. Roger has stumbled upon a small sandy crest that reaches out into Lake De Smet, which is just starting to make nighttime noises. The bullfrogs are looking for lovers. Loons can be heard but not seen. The sun is setting over a small range of mountains, causing just the peak of Cloud Peak to glow like a warm ember.
With a fire started, Roger uncovers a small folding chair from the back of his Chevrolet Caprice station wagon. The rusty tailgate squeaks loudly when opened, causing the bullfrogs to momentarily consider something other than lovemaking. He goes back for his journal and the mail he had retrieved earlier that day.
Roger lives in his station wagon. Everything he owns is stowed inside. Roger doesn’t always know where to find things, but he knows where he keeps his joints. Roger had carefully pulled back the rear corner of the vinyl this particular model Caprice came with. Considering the age of the old car and what the hot sun does to vinyl tops, another flapping piece wouldn't raise the suspicions of a police officer who might pull him over.
He had taken a hammer and pounded an indentation into the metal part of the top, which the floppy vinyl would nicely conceal even if carefully examined. The indentation is just enough for an empty chewing tobacco tin to fit in. And this is where Roger kept his drugs.
The homeless seldom have an address, which makes perfect sense. No home means no place to mount a mailbox. Roger once considered screwing a mailbox to his Caprice just for shits and giggles.
Roger's last known address is that of his mother and Frank, who live on a big ranch in Montana. He was coming back from getting his mail when he stopped for the night. The crackling campfire, the disappearing light, and a joint will allow him to relax.
For Roger, getting his mail is his biggest challenge in life. It stresses him more than being pulled over by a trooper looking for dope. He counts down the days in dread. He spends most of his days avoiding reality. He has little reason for doing anything. His days consist mostly of driving between nowhere and somewhere. In between, he smokes dope and drinks and, if hungry, grabs something to eat. Even when he has cash in his pocket, he is not above poking through garbage cans near fast food joints. Half a cold burger and a few fries for dinner satisfies Roger.
The second biggest challenge Roger has is getting resupplied. It requires him to employ all the discipline he can muster to save enough of his money to pay the dealer. His need for weed has gotten expensive.
He needs to retrieve his mail without his mother knowing, which requires a bit of organization and physical stamina. He can't just drive up, knock on the door, give his mother a hug, and chit-chat for a few minutes while she hands him his mail. Hell no. Roger can't do that. He wishes he could but he can't.
It isn't that he doesn't love his mother, and he knows his mother loves him. He just doesn't think he is in a lovable condition. Seeing him homeless and gaunt, caked with grime, will hurt her. To see his old Caprice, more a trash can than safe transportation, will deeply worry her. He wants nothing to do with hurting his mother. The thought would depress him and send him into a fit of self-loathing. He’ll bang on the steering wheel, yelling and cursing himself. It will take a joint or a bottle of wine for him to back away from that cliff.
Frank and Karla live in a beautiful, sprawling, rustic log home surrounded by century-old evergreens alongside a fast-moving river four miles from a two-lane road called Angus Hills Road. Roger has to park on this road and hike the four miles to reach the house unnoticed. There are detectors at the driveway entrance that will make a chiming noise in the house and the stables whenever something or someone crosses it. Roger knows about this part of the security system because he helped install it when he still lived with his mother.
The hike along the river is the most strenuous part of retrieving his mail. Roger can hike alongside the grassy edge for part of the way, then he has to traverse big river boulders for the rest. It will typically take him two or three hours to make this journey during the summer months. Longer in the winter months. That's why he only grabs his mail once every two months.
There are parts of the trek he actually enjoys. Once, he disturbed a momma deer with a flimsy newborn fawn desperately learning how to use its toothpick legs. Roger had waited patiently for momma and fawn to disappear into the thicket.
Once near the house, he has to determine if his mother is inside. He sits on a river boulder just behind a big evergreen tree so he remains unseen. Through the branches, he can see the window over the kitchen sink.
By this time of day, Karla is usually in the hills with Frank or working her horses in the corral. She has a dozen or so. They all require grooming, training, and food. This was his mother's life. Frank and her horses and a thousand Angus beef animals roaming the canyons and hillsides of Big Sky country.
If she is running late, she'll likely be finishing cleaning the kitchen and standing at her sink window. Roger hates this part the most: seeing his mother but needing to stay hidden. He lowers his head and closes his eyes until he hears the back-screen door close. Then he watches her walk the quarter mile up the lane to the stables. Sometimes tears well up. This is worse than being a petty thief, but he needs the check that comes for him every month.
Once inside, he quickly rifles through the growing box his mother nicely labeled, 'Roger's Mail.' He finds two envelopes so non-descript that his mother never knows that a check is inside each one. He also finds the invitation to his college reunion. It is on rich linen paper and gold embossed. 'Mr. Roger Hobart' has been hand-lettered as if he were a somebody.
He quickly stuffs the three envelopes into his coat, leaving all the credit card solicitations and other junk mail behind. This way, his mother will never know he was there. As far as she is concerned, the pile of mail continues to grow.
Today's mail run also happens to be his mother's birthday. The only birthday, other than his own, that he remembers. He had made her something. Hopefully, it will fit into the mailbox at the bottom of the driveway. It does.
In Wyoming, as soon as the sun goes down, the evening chill sets in. The fire warms his face and the bottom of his feet. Roger grabs his mail and opens the reunion invitation. "Sumbitch!" mutters Roger in mock shock. The reunion was tonight. He missed it. He flicks the fancy invitation into the fire. Just another reminder of a different time. A time when all his hurts and disappointments were at the surface and now, he works to keep it all submerged. He takes a long pull on his still-lit doobie.
Roger's financial situation makes him a comfortable homeless man. He has a car and a source of cash to keep some gasoline in it. His old flip cell phone is loaded with minutes. But he is generous with his mobility and his phone. He picks up every hitchhiker alongside the road and sometimes drives them hundreds of miles to their destination. Some call everyone they can because… well, because it is someone else's minutes. Some decline his rides once they see the mess he is driving. It would take a pitchfork to clear a space for a passenger unless you are all right with sitting on the equivalent of a garbage pile. And some do accept, especially his homeless friends. But his generosity sometimes turns him penniless. He calls his sister mostly. Often, she comes through for him. Sometimes he called his dad. Dad never did. Over a year ago, he quit calling altogether.
Roger was maybe nine or ten years old and just baptized when his father set up a small annuity for him. After Roger turned twenty-five years of age, he would get monthly checks. Six hundred dollars, to be exact. His father, Sam, had long forgotten all about that. But for Roger, it is a lifeline. It brings enough gas and weed to keep him mobility rich while driving in a fog.
Generally, Roger does not read the fine print of anything. But for some strange reason, he had read the entire letter that accompanied his check from a few months ago. It said that he could 'cash-out' his annuity at any time. Just mark this box and send it here, and his next check would be in the mail for $37,322.67. That was the balance as of a specific date. And that is what he did, firmly planting himself in the rarified air of one of the wealthiest homeless persons to have ever lived. That thought briefly amused him.
But he has nearly forgotten that is what he had done. So, when he opens the next envelope, the nondescript one, he about falls back in his folding chair. Roger stands straight up, staggers a bit from his high that is now coming on strong, and starts singing a song from Fiddler on a Roof. "If I were a rich man…" He gets as far as "doobie-doobie-doo," sits back down and takes a long, deep draw.
Usually, this time of night is when Roger is at his emotional lowest. He crawls into his sleeping bag with his journal. Most nights, he writes nothing. Some nights he reads the financial section of a newspaper he found at a truck stop. If inspired or if he feels close to the edge of his will to carry on, he writes his mother a letter. Over the years, he’s written many letters to his mother. Of course, they are never ripped out and sent. He doesn’t think he could ever send them. They'd hurt her too much. They'll disappear when he does.
The next morning, he has nearly forgotten that he is rich. It hadn't improved his torturous sleep, often including dreams of him smothered by giant slithering black slugs. One time he dreamt that a brilliant, radiant image appeared between layers of clouds. A finger, maybe. It was moving as if beckoning him. That particular dream was significant enough for him to write about it.
This morning, while stopped at the entrance to I-90, Roger decides he has enough money to move. He wouldn't have to pick up any more mail from his mother in Montana. He has his final check in his… where? He makes a quick check of his coat pocket and there it is. He heads west.