By Tim Hayes
Jim had heard his parents argue before, so this time didn’t faze him much. Something about picking up the wrong Greek yogurt at the store, which then escalated into “You never listen to me,” which then leapt higher to “If you said anything worth listening to, then I might listen better,” and so on, until a heavy silence fell and the aw-shucks apologies came that returned everything to an even keel again.
Except this time, the escalations kept escalating. Voices became louder and higher-pitched. Lines began to get crossed into virgin and scarier emotional territory. The silence eventually fell, but not heavy this time. Instead, in its wake the air felt electric, alive, pregnant with still-untapped verbal energy that could explode like a spark in an oxygen tank any second.
Not the best time to be preparing for one’s high school graduation ceremony, thought Jim. The Class of 1976. The Fighting Bisons. Or, this year only, the Fighting Bison-Tennials.
A popular student, leader of the marching band, president of the Kiwanis Club, and member of Student Council, Jim had also been voted by his peers to speak at commencement. The event had been scheduled for the city’s main sports arena, a structure that Jim’s Pap had helped to build some 50 years earlier. Such a large venue became necessary thanks to the enormous number of seniors. The ceremony began at 7 p.m. Graduates needed to be in the staging area behind the draping by 6:15. The kitchen clock now read 5:55. Time to go.
With a big speech ahead of him in front of thousands of people, Jim felt the need to relieve himself. Urgently. While Jim fumbled with the slippery graduation gown and started taking care of his bathroom business, his Dad grabbed the car keys and headed out the front door to the driveway, mumbling something about letting Momma drive her Momma’s Boy to graduation.
At the same time, his Mom clicked her high heels through the kitchen into the garage, muttering that if he’s so smart, then he can drive Jim to the commencement.
Who knows how these things happen, but Jim, mortarboard slightly askew, emerged from the toilet and found himself alone, with no way to be a passenger to his own rite of passage. He had not learned to drive at 16, living in the city with access to public transportation and a cadre of friends, all of whom drove him anywhere he needed to go. But tonight, all of those friends already had driven and parked at the arena – to graduate, like him. Or, perhaps, not like him.
“Well, looks like you’re in a real pickle there, boy,” came a small, wispy sound from the top of the stairs. Jim’s 84-year-old Pap. “Heh, heh. Those two really outdid themselves this time, didn’t they?”
“Yeah, Pap. I guess they did. What am I gonna do? I have to get to graduation. I have to give a speech! It’s after 6 now, and I can’t catch a bus or call a cab that would get me there in time.”
“We’ll get you there in time, and you’ll give your little speech, Jimmy. No worries.” And then the picture emerged in his mind’s eye, a picture of both deliverance and dread. Pap would roll his ’64 Rambler out from behind the garage – a car that had not been driven in six years – and get Jim there himself.
Listening to Pap try and turn the engine over – a noise that sounded like bagpipes being punched – Jim started wondering what he’d tell his friends. They’d never believe the truth, so he’d have to invent some even wilder story. While squeezing the creative juices from his brain, he heard the Rambler rumble to wheezy life, followed by a reedy “Yee-hoo!” from Pap.
Meanwhile, inside the arena, Jim’s folks sat and listened to the elegant strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” as the senior class filed in. Scanning faces for Jim, neither one could spot him. To be fair, there had to be 500 kids down there, but soon came the realization of 500 minus one. The senior class had been shorted one Jim.
Panicked, then shocked, then mortified, they simultaneously cried to each other, “I thought you brought him!” They ran out to the lobby, found a pay phone and called the house – just in time to miss Jim and Pap begin their route-by-Rambler to Downtown.
Later that night, back home, after sharing drinks and snacks with Jim and his fellow graduates, they recounted the story of how Pap’s Rambler – plugging bumpily along, chugging weird blue fumes out the exhaust, and fiercely hugging the right lane as semis and cars flew past them – finally made it to the arena, parking acres away from the main doors.
Then, after realizing those doors had been locked once the event began, Pap drew on his knowledge of the building he helped build – sneaking he and Jim into a service door beneath the main floor. Snaking their way around pumps and pipes and valves and clouds of hot steam, Pap and Jim finally emerged – just as the emcee prepared to introduce Jim for his big speech.
With grease streaks across his gown, and his battered cap barely clinging to his matted-down, steam-flattened hair, Jim walked from the far corner of the arena floor up on to the dais, to at-first stunned, then growing, applause. He fished his crumpled prepared remarks from inside his gown, looked at them for a second, and let them fall.
Instead, he leaned his elbow on the podium, cocked his head to the side, found his humiliated parents in the sea of seats, leaned into the microphone, and simply said, “Fellow Bison-Tennials, I have one word of advice that I hope you remember the rest of your lives. Then I’m going to finally take my rightful seat. Ready? Here it is. Never leave without checking the damn toilet.”
And from behind the platform, Jim could hear a chuckling “Yee-hoo!”
Copyright 2016 Transverse Park Productions LLC and Tim Hayes Consulting