AT THE GANDER • by David Clayton

I walk in. They hand me a name badge. Immediately I ask myself why am I attending my fiftieth college reunion? The few who aren’t dead look like they should be. I’m gone. No boring stories, bad food and cheap drinks. I’ll wander the town, see if I remember anything. I know I remember the Gander, my college watering hole, and head down Amicus Street. Sure, the joint closed years ago but I still want a look.

The building’s dark but a light’s shining out the cellar door that once led to the bar. There’s music. The Beatles. The Stones. I move closer, descend the crumbling steps and enter a crowded room. A bartender’s filling pitchers and mugs. Tables and booths are packed with long haired college kids wearing bellbottoms and tie-dyed shirts. Is this some fraternity Sixties party? I don’t get it. Over the noise I hear, “Dave, Dave, over here.” I look. Two guys are waving at me. I shake my head, close my eyes then open them slowly. No mistake. It’s Frank and Greg.

Frank’s my old college buddy. Somehow through forty-some years of marriages, divorces, hirings, firings, new jobs and old haunts we stayed in touch. Five years ago Frank died. Greg? Another dorm rat. He’s gone too, one of thousands back from Nam in a bag. It’s them but it can’t be. They’re young but can’t be. I’m here but can’t be. The scene’s familiar but wrong. Lightheaded, confused, I stumble toward them and fall into their booth.

“Greg, prop him up. I’ll get another pitcher.” Frank grabs the empty and heads to the bar. He returns to refill our glasses. They look at me.

“What’s with you? Sleepwalking? Drunk already? You dropped this.” Greg slides a pack of Camels my way. Cigarettes? I don’t smoke. In college, yeah, but not since. Besides, it’s 2018. You can’t smoke in bars these days. I look around. I’m wrong. The air is hazy with cigarette smoke. I light up like I never quit. I take a swig of beer.

This isn’t real. It can’t be. Still, I’m part of it so I play along. We laugh, joke, talk of new and old girlfriends, our futures, the lives we plan. These are conversations of fifty years ago…with a difference. I know what we said, what we planned, what we thought. I also know a lot of it turned out differently. I know the future and they do not.

I look around and see familiar faces. Charlie’s here with Jeff. Secret lovers, they came to know the full tragedy of AIDS. Dick’s at the bar. Drunk. Gung ho for ROTC, he volunteers for Viet Nam then goes AWOL rather than die in a rice paddy. Barry and Susie are in a corner booth wrapped around one another, lovebirds since freshman year. After ten years of marriage Barry’s arrested for killing her. Chet walks in. Awarded a fellowship at Yale, he leaves it behind and goes to Canada with the draft after him. For Frank and Greg, for all of them, it’s 1968. For me it’s all history. I say nothing. They wouldn’t believe me. I don’t believe it either.

“You sonofabitch.”

We turn. I see a tall guy pointing at me. Familiarity and forgetfulness clash as I struggle to identify who it is. Andy Gordon? He’s part of this? I feel his fist on the side of my face followed by a thud as my head hits the table.

“Stay the hell away from her,” he yells and dashes out the door.

Frank, Greg and everyone else is looking at me. I look at the blood on the table and grab a napkin.

“What was that about?”


“Sure didn’t look like nothing.”

“He’s just pissed about Donna.”

“Donna? Who’s Donna?”

“Donna McGrath.”

“That chick you went with two years ago? Man, that’s some long term grudge.”

How can I explain something from fifty years ago as if last week? “Yeah, well, I ran into her recently. We spent a weekend, um, reconnecting at the hippie place in Greenfield. After we get back she tells me she’s engaged to Gordon. I guess she told him.”

Everything I say is true except the part about Donna telling Gordon. I don’t know if she did. I kept looking over my shoulder for a couple weeks then I graduated. I never saw either of them again. Until now.

Frank looks at me and grins. “Good story. Anyway, you stopped dripping in the beer so let’s have another.”

We did. And more after that. How many? Can’t say. When it’s time to leave my compass tells me too many. Frank and Greg ask if I need a hand. “Nah, I’m good. See you,” I say, too drunk to realize the folly of that statement. They leave as I steer a wandering path toward the door. Everything’s going well ’til I get to the steps.

I open my eyes into the beam of a cop’s flashlight.

“You okay, sir? Can you stand up?”

Seconds ago I was stumbling drunk. No longer. Cold sober, I stand without a wobble. I touch my face. It hurts.

“Yeah. Stopped in at the Gander for a beer.”

“Not likely. Place closed years ago. Looks like you tripped on the steps and hit your head. You sure you’re okay.”

“I’m fine. Just a scrape. I got a room at the Inn. I can wash up there.”

He leaves. I walk away. Tripped? Hit my head? I touch my face. It’s bleeding again. I reach into my shirt pocket for a tissue. I pull out a half empty pack of Camels.

David Clayton writes in Florida and New England. His fiction explores worlds that exist as well as worlds that might exist and examines the lives and actions of those who inhabit these worlds whether they are there through their own volition or the actions of others.

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