I adjust my hair in the mirror. Well, it's essentially my hair. No, yes, it's my hair. It appears just like it, even if I haven't grown a strand in ten years. I just came to have this piece today, actually. But it looks so honest sitting there! They'll think it must really be mine, the audience, or else be too amused in my speech to pay such close attention.
I'll practice once more. If only this mirror didn't have so many streaks, and I could see myself properly. Never mind that, though. Nothing upsets me tonight!
I look around the bathroom—my old high school bathroom—turning left and right, just as I'll greet the crowd. I'll flutter an eyelid at Mary. And Lisa. It was true that I saw them both at the same time back then, and I was still never quite pleased. Sometimes, I saw Pauline, too. Then perhaps I ought to give her a wink!
I take a deep breath of satisfaction.
"Good evening, friends and family. I must say, I'm impressed..."
... Ah, my surroundings pause me. It looks even as it did thirty years ago, this bathroom. Perhaps a bit dirtier all about, but otherwise so much the same. The upperclassmen told us it was "hoodooed" by a hideous, bodyless phantom. Yes, bodyless. Its lower part was said to be missing so that all anyone had ever seen was a floating head, and eyes weeping in blood beneath the ghost's damp, slovenly hair. We passed the same story to our freshmen three years after. Every school had an urban legend in those days, circulating as quickly as any other word might about such-and-such and so-and-so. Sweet traditions!
A few months ago, I asked my nephew Peter whether he'd heard of the haunted bathroom with no windows, and when he said he hadn't, I determined to scare him so well with it he'd have to race off to class the next day and share what he heard.
Of course, my sister railed at me for weeks about it. She said Peter suffers now from nightmares and writes dark pages in his journal, which he never lets her see. Ha! A rite of passage, I told her, for I had terrors at night, too, about the bathroom with no windows.
I always did believe the urban myth to be true, a haunting, a shadow, a being still in the past, from the past, stuck in now. Why the bathroom, the story never said, but I believed. It seemed natural, eerily matter of fact.
My senior captain, John, agreed with me, although he would never admit it. He and I spent a lot of time together before he went off to college in Norwich, and one summer night we resolved together to have a Schmidt's or two and find whether the story was real.
When we got to the back entrance of the school, I stepped up to the door and saw the chains.
"Ah, it's locked," I said. I gave it a few weak tugs, then turned to him and raised my shoulders, feeling we should head off.
"That's it, Weaver?"
He constantly called me by my last name.
"You give up too easy."
Ah, too easy! I felt bruised by his comment, but I didn't show it. I merely turned back toward the building with a heavy decisiveness on my face. He was right.
Sometimes John was harsh with me, but I took it particularly well from him. Oh, my captain, of course! In most other circumstances, I was not so willing to listen. I got easily angered when my father criticized me, for example—his mustache would jerk up and down as he said about the car not being washed, or the dishes not being done, or something or other, and I would simply holler back or bang my door. But with John... I felt an uncommon bond with John, and his words motivated me, hardened me up. I'd think, I want to be a man, and watch his every move.
I remember how effortlessly he tore the back entrance open, as though it were merely a lace or a twig shutting those doors up, and not metal chains. I admit they were rusty, but still, I'd never seen such power before, and though I was by then already in awe of him, I couldn't help but stare, astounded! What a man... what a man!
John led the way into the building, setting one of the lengths of the chain between the doors just in case.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
I shook and followed him in. For the first little time, we could not get our bearings together. No, as everything was the most indefinite black, and our eyes could not see yet where we went.
What a weird sense those halls gave me then! The quiet, the deadness, like being in a vault on the ocean floor. It was the place I knew, the one I treasured, my stomping grounds, as they're called, vanished in the shadows, dark, empty, forgotten. I scarcely knew it, or it scarcely knew me, as though neither of us ever existed.
Soon enough, the moon made through the large casement windows, and we were able to go along and find the bathroom.
That's when suddenly, though I could hardly believe it, I heard a whooshing sound. Let me remind you it was a hot, airless night. There was no wind at all outside, and no systems in the building were on.
We crept up to the bathroom door where the sound came from, and I saw a shadow... a trace of something that could have been... I can't say what. A figment? The phantom with the monstrous head? It all happened so fast, and as you'd imagine, I was thoroughly afraid. I immediately ran for the back door, and John followed me, quickly passing me, of course, and grabbing my arm to haul me faster. What a startle!
I described the night to him over and again in the next few months, as though he weren't there himself. The hall, the airless wind, the ghost. Why was it haunting still? Had the school imprisoned it? Was it seeking something? I wished I could relive that night, I said to him more than once. The summer! We didn't tell anyone about what we did or saw. He didn't want to. It was, as he put it, our secret.
But anyway! I digress. Time to practice my speech. The clock is ticking! I think I've got ten minutes, do I? Maybe fifteen. Fifteen minutes before I address my class. How I've been waiting!
I wet my lips a bit with the liquor Tom brought me from the bar. Tom is my closest friend of 50 years. A good man altogether, he is. That's why I was wounded a bit when he moved a town over and we lost touch. But his wife died a few years ago, and we've been close again since. I've helped him get through it, bringing him to all of our old places, putting him back in touch with Gale, his high school flame. I never liked his wife much, but never mind.
And as I think of him just now, Tom gently opens the bathroom door and sticks half of his body in.
"It's looking to be a good night, my friend," he says.
He handles the breast cancer pin he's wearing. I don't think he's taken it off in five years, maybe longer. In all honestly, sometimes I just wish he'd move on for his own sake, stop dwelling on the past! But I always stop myself from saying it, for Tom can be sensitive.
"Is it crowded?"
"Oh, yeah," he says.
"I'd say," twisting his hand this way and that way, "a bunch."
"Really?" I worry he's seeing things, doubles, triples maybe, for there's a spot of drool on his chin he invariably gets once he's passed a point. And then he can hardly see two feet in front of him. He's been drinking quite a lot since Heidi passed. But then, he always was the soul of the party, a real good-time guy, that Tom!
"Oh, yeaaaaah," he says again.
Then he says, holding up his glass, "and the class of '68 is already well away out there!"
"Good," I say. That means everyone's keen for this night to go. They've been waiting as I have, anxiously, eagerly. And it's nearly time! My heart punches in my chest.
"So when'll you come out?" he asks. His voice has always had something of a madman in it.
"I'll take ten minutes."
He nods and leaves, misstepping and nearly tumbling into a waitress passing by. Precious old friend.
Now, to rehearse the speech finally, one more time. For it has to be perfect. I hear Donny's coming from almost the edge of the earth to be here. I always think, maybe he'll move back for good. That would be something.
I told him last time I spoke to him we could watch my nephew play football on Friday nights if he did. Wouldn't it be grand!
"He dresses in 25, just as I had," I said. I was talking about Peter's older brother, Ron.
Donny chuckled slightly, and it felt as though he was—what's the word I'm looking for?—condescending me. I could still get pretty sore about it now if I wanted to, but never mind. This was many years ago.
"What's the point of going anywhere else?" I said. "You always end up back home."
He shook his head.
"There's more than this place, you know."
Oh, that made it all feel like a schmaltzy movie I've seen too often! The same old conversation. Did he not know what he sounded like? And I suppose he never watches until the end, when the person realizes it was what they had, home, yesterday, always...
"I don't see it that way," I said.
"Yeah, you won't if you shut your eyes to it."
I gave him the cold shoulder for a good time after that, so long that he stopped calling entirely. But I hear he'll be here tonight, and I plan to make right with him straight after my speech.
My speech! Oh, I digress again.
How long do I have? I grab myself together and smile in the mirror. A streak is going straight across my face. Never mind. I have five minutes!
But what's that? A stain on my tie. Blood. It must be coming from my nose. I touch my nostril and—yes, there is the source. This happens when I get in a state about something. I'm starting to feel a bit itchy, too, I have to say.
My mother knows most how to do away with stains—peroxide, I believe. Cold water. Or is it warm water?
I wet a paper towel and rub it savagely. I hate the tie, anyway, and consider just taking it off. But then I remember what the woman at the store told me.
"It ties the whole look up! Get it? Ha! Ha! Ha!" She had a very raucous laugh, and it made me question everything she said. However, the same woman helped me pick out the rest of the suit, so I suppose she'd know best about the tie.
"What's the occasion?"
I told her it was a very special one, and I had to dress to the sevens. Normally, I wouldn't spend that type of money on clothes, but my father put me $200 as a gift. To be honest, I thought he might do more, and if he had, I could have chosen the other tie I liked better. But never mind.
The woman hung up three options on my dressing room hook. They were nothing like I expected, and I hated all of them instantly. Loose, giant, wool. She told me "that's what's in these days," and I wanted to retch. The whole thing was a terrible experience, but in the end, I decided to trust her. And look what now!
I stand beneath an air dryer—this part of the bathroom is new, I'm certain—and hold out my tie. The spot comes out slightly, and the water stain starts to dry up.
My hair is the real thing I'm worried about. That's why I revealed the truth to Tom about it. Sure, I would have rather kept that all to myself, but I need someone to tell me if it seems to be messy or pitched to one side. Oh, it is, isn't it?
I look in the mirror. My nose is still bleeding, and now I look extremely pale for some reason. Do I always look like that? Or does this suit wash me out? And is that a rash on my forehead? The salesperson said some people have allergic reactions to synthetic material in the wig. Oh, heaven! I feel an odd wind. I lose my breath.
What time is it? I can't tell very well since there are no windows in the bathroom. I never wear a watch.
I bet they're out there wriggling their silverware, moving their necks left and right at all the doorways, wondering where I am.
I'm always a bit tardy. The class voted me "Most Likely to Miss the Bell." I'm sure they haven't forgotten. No, I'm sure they're saying, "classic Weaver, late."
But even so, they're jittery, hungry. Waiting for me to speak so they can eat. I will be along soon now. They can wait just a moment. Haven't I done my waiting? For decades! Waiting in the dark.
I hear Tom shouting at a distance. It gets louder, louder, and louder until he plunges headlong through the door.
"Hey! Hey! Everyone's waiting out there!"
I turn to him, and he jumps up, suddenly sober and filled with fear, as though he saw a ghost.
"Jeez, are you alright? Your nose!"
My heart starts racing faster.
"Tom! Please! Is my hair... does it look... right?"
He stares with a bewilderment I never saw of Tom before, scanning my face, scrutinizing my tie. It was like he'd never seen me in his life.
"Never mind," I say. I feel my legs buckle and wipe the blood from beneath my nose, mixing it with sweat. I've got a great deal of that by now, too.
I look in the mirror once more, and I'm struck by my ashen hue. I suddenly feel very weak and tired, and my hands begin to tremble.
I wish I could move back the clock, get ten more minutes, rehearse my speech one last time. What have I been doing here? I am not ready!
I am not, but I turn to the door. I get a capful of wind. I don't know from where. I look around. If there were a window in this room, I'd leave through it now. Perhaps I could dash to the left or right as soon as I exit the bathroom and leave through the back door?
If only I took more time to prepare, or perhaps if I only never agreed to this in the first place, it would all be just fine. But now... now, I have no good solution. I cannot go back. I cannot move forward. Stuck, is the word.
"Weaver, are you coming?" Tom says. Is it Tom? I can't hear well. I have such anxiety through me, I feel out of my very body, as if I were floating, paddling in the air.
I walk toward the door. I pause...