Beth Wolpert was bragging about her son James’s old high school accomplishments again. Sitting at the VFW, waiting for another Natural Ice, she went on about how he won senior class president, how handsome he was and how many girls she used to catch him with when he thought she was working. “Once,” she started, “he had three girls in the basement, two blonds and a brunette—no shit—all of ‘em naked as the day they was born!” she laughed.
“And I said to ‘em, ‘What in the hell are yinz doing down there?’ And y’know what Jimmy said? ‘Oh they just want to be models, mum. I’m taking their pictures n’at!’ He had one of those disposables with black and white film, the kind they use for weddings. He’d go to Eckerd’s and get it developed; honestly, I don’t know how they didn’t call the cops or something! ‘I’m taking pictures n’at.’ I started wondering what that ‘N’at’ was exactly, y’know? HA!”
Anyone sitting near Beth was inclined to crack a smirk and nod in vague agreement, to what they didn’t even know anymore. All anyone understood was that she was going to rattle on about it all either way; if they just nodded and let her go, she was more likely to wear herself out by the time karaoke started. Someone muttered, “Jesus, past is past.”
Beth shouted, “What? What’s that?”
Everyone nodded again, unsure how she meant that. Then she kept on. But nobody had seen James in a long time, including his mum. He moved away just before graduation, never came back. Holly Kolanski said she saw him at the Pittsburgh airport once, where she was a waitress at the TGI Friday’s, but she said he looked tired, waiting to board a plane to California, and she chose not to talk to him. Nobody really believed her because the stronger rumor, from Mike Gibson, was that he was dead. He got in a bad crash off Route 30 that Gibson swore he heard about on the police scanner. The make of the car he remembered sounded right, and Beth knew Jimmy used to pine after a girl up that way, in Greensburg, the girl that ruined him. She knew what the girl looked like; Jimmy had taken a picture of her that Beth found on his bed the night after he left.
Ronny Caulfield thought out loud, “If it happened up on Route 30, that ain’t but a half-hour away; they’d have sent a letter.” Then he spoke up, “Beth, did any cops send you a letter?”
She said nothing. Her eye twitched.
Fuzzy Wilson kicked off karaoke with that one goddamn KISS song, singing real sweet and slow—and pointing right at Beth whenever he crooned her name—just to be a jackass. By the time he got to the line with “our house just ain’t a home,” Beth was struggling to hold back tears. She tried shaking all the talk off, all the rumors. She couldn’t listen to any of that either way. She wasn’t the kind of person to pay attention to that sort of crap, even if it was true.