The laughter bubbled up slowly as if deep from within an ocean and rose in spurts, as I ate my lunch in the university cafeteria. I pretended not to notice and looked down at the book I was trying to study, for the upcoming class. They were the popular group of young and beautiful people, and as always my old nemesis John, was there leading the laughter. His booming laugh finally broke forth as it was wont to do, at a particularly funny recollection, and it was infectious, and the others joined in. The hall rang with their merriment and I tried to burry myself deeper into my book. Jenny besides me poked me and pointed, and I looked up just in time to see John stand up and act out a scene, which had everybody around him in stitches.
The scene reminded me of one of our last classes together, and I became embarrassed that John may be showcasing my utter incompetence to his group, as I had stumbled especially hard in that class, trying to explain an esoteric question on values and relationships. My sandwich turned to cardboard in my mouth, and I grabbed my soda to swallow it down, fascinated by John’s antics. Giving up on my reading, I closed my book, and gathered my bag and things, and got up to leave.
“Hey, wait for me,” Jenny cried at my imminent departure, as she was quite used to my sudden change in moods, and started to pack up her tray for disposal.
“I have to go,” I mumbled as I saw John look across at my sudden movement, and then he raised his eyebrows in recognition, as if asking me what was up.
Jenny followed me as I turned away heading for the exit, almost dropping my bag and clutching it up at the last moment, and swinging it over my shoulder, as I balanced the tray in my other hand. We dropped off our trays and I hurried off, with Jenny calling out after me “Hey what is the rush as we still have twenty minutes for the class?”
The bright sun blinded me as I entered the green of the quad where other students were enjoying the springtime sunshine. The brick structures of the college rose all around and the beauty which had brought me here, was lost on me, as I walked under the tall and ancient oaks, which lined the walk. This was my college and my father’s before me, and my study of philosophy which I had felt is my calling, was giving me second thoughts, as the rest of junior year loomed before me. I felt I had more questions about my own abilities now, than when I had joined the school, so many semesters before.
In the winter break the realization had suddenly hit me when I was enjoying the holidays with my parents, that all was not as it appeared in the world, and all my learning was not enough. Ours was a typical middle class family with my mother working at a bank, and my father at an insurance company. We were well off but by no means wealthy, and lived in the desirable part of the Philadelphia. My sister and I had gone to all the right schools, before moving on to the universities of our choice; which was me to Dad’s, and my sister to Mom’s college. Life was good and one day John had called for me to visit with him, as I had become infected by his gregarious personality at school, and discovered he lived just a few miles away from me in Philadelphia.
I borrowed my Mom’s car and drove to John’s home to meet him and it was in the seedier section of town, that I was not familiar with. I got lost and came upon this blighted inner city homes, with boarded up windows and doors, and some burned down structures. I stopped on the side to fire up my GPS, as I knew I was totally lost, as all the streets looked the same. On a nearby brownstone steps, there were some tough kids hanging around listening to some rap music, and seeing me parked there, one of them walked up to me, and knocked on my window. I rolled it down and he asked me what he could do for me, and looked down at my phone. Just then the GPS kicked in and Sarah my phone mime, started to read out the directions. I hurriedly thanked the young man saying I did not need his services, and drove off in John’s direction.
John lived just a few blocks away and the street was slightly better, with fewer abandoned houses, but still the people looked like they were living a hardscrabble life. Grandparents sat on the steps watching the children play in the street, as I found a spot to park. I got out and found John’s home and rang the bell and a woman’s voice asked who it was, and I announced myself, and a buzzer rang and I pushed the door open. I followed the instructions and took the stairs to the second floor walkup, where I found John waiting, smiling and welcoming me with open arms. He introduced me to his mom who was sitting on the kitchen table busy shelling some peas, and getting ready to prepare a meal.
“Ma – this is Peter and he lives close by, and I asked him to come and help me with our holiday celebration today,” John said in introduction.
She stood up and wiped her hands on her apron and shook mine, and said that she was glad to meet one of John’s college friends, and her face broke into that wide easy smile, which her son had obviously inherited. “I know who he is, as I just buzzed him. Peter, it is good to meet you, as John has told me how good you are at the school, and have helped him meet so many new people. I was afraid he would get lost, being the first in our family to go to the big University you know.”
“Glad to meet you too Mrs. Brenner,” I replied feeling her calloused hands as she was obviously a working class woman, “John is quite bright and settling in well at our school you know.”
“Aye, he was always a smart lad, as his High School swimming coach always said, ‘He swims like a fish and reads, questions and talks like a philosopher.’” Mrs. Brenner said wrinkling her eyes as she giggled, and all the laugh lines appeared again on her round face. I smiled back as her memories came alive and I could feel their happiness in that little kitchen, begin to overflow into me.
“Ma, we have to go or we will be late,” John said and he started to pick up the brown paper bags, which we were apparently supposed to take with us. “Come give me a hand Peter, as we have to carry all of this down to your car, and then take them with us.”
I got busy and gathered up some of the bags and noticed that they contained food items, that John must have been collecting for some time. His Mom also arose and gave us a hand and we made two trips down to the car loading up the food and drinks, into the trunk and back seat. She told me to be careful with the bags containing the casseroles, as she had cooked them herself that day, and she had been busy since last night in preparing the meals with one of her neighbors, a Mrs. Smith apparently. She waved us off saying “You boys be good now and don’t get up to any mischief and Peter, you drive slowly and don’t spill the food, ya hear.”
We drove off and John gave me directions on where to go, as we were headed to the VFW hall which was in the next neighborhood. He talked casually about our friends at school as we drove, and also discussed the last semester where we had both been in an introduction to philosophy class together, and I had become his friend. He would often sit next to me in class, and he was struggling with some of the concepts, and I had invited him to join our study group, and he had been happy to do so. Soon he had become a regular and we had become close, and his easy outgoing nature had quickly made the others in our group comfortable, and he was invited to their outings also. He was tall and athletic and on the varsity swim team and quite popular with the girls, and they would hang out together in the cafeteria being loud and boisterous.
We got to the hall and pulled into the lot and parked near the back entrance. John jumped out and we started to unpack and carry the packages into the hall. John directed me to the kitchen area as he was familiar with the place, and some of the veterans obviously knew him and referred to him as Junior, and slapped him on his back and said they were happy to see him again. There were two old ladies there who also helped us with the casseroles and took them and popped them into the oven for heating, in the aluminum pans that they had come in. There was another large oven and I could see two large turkeys baking. There were other trays of food heating up in the oven, brought by the ladies. There was a lot of canned food that they started to open and prepare.
Having unpacked the car, John led me into the main halls where there were these old and tired men and women, who were steadily trickling in for the evening. John quickly got me pulling out the folding tables and chairs and setting them up at one end of the large hall away from the entrance. He had some white plastic table cloths and paper napkins and plates and plastic cutlery, which we started to arrange. Another man helped to bring out the drinks and one of them started off the hot water for the tea and the coffee percolating and soon the smell of coffee, started to take over from the stale smell in the room.
We then started hanging up the banner for Happy Holidays and decorations to bring some cheer to the dreary room. The ladies joined us and hung up some more holiday banners and soon the room started to look more festive, as the people continued to come in from the street. A man brought in and hooked up the music system and soon holiday music flooded the hall, and the place seemed to cheer up at the sound of the Christmas Carrols and some of the couples even started to dance and others were enthusiastically asked by John, to sing along to the music. He grabbed my hand and dragged me along and introduced me to some of the old folks, and they grabbed my hand and talked to me excited to meet one of Junior’s friends, from the big university.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith, John’s neighbors were there and they put their arm around me, and invited me to their table. Mr. Smith had been with John’s father in Vietnam and he started reminiscing about their old times, when they would get up to all kind of mischief in their High School days. He told me that John and his son Marty had grown up together and Marty had moved away now and was somewhere in St Louis, working as a mechanic as his new girlfriend was from there. Marty had swum with John in school but had no head for college, and just loved automobiles, and tinkering with them since he was a kid.
“That boy is a wonder under the hood of a car, and can fix almost anything,” old man Smith told me proudly about his son.
“Yes we miss him, but he is a young man now and all grown up and gone away,” Mrs. Smith said.
“Your friend John here is a proper young man,” she continued, “he takes after his Pa, always ready to lend a helping hand and always there for the poor and needy. He helped organize this affair, just as his Pa used to do when he was alive. His coach used to say he will go far, as he has a good heart in him, this boy. Your friend is a gem in the rough ..” She stopped midsentence as her neighbor Mrs. Brenner had arrived and she waved to her, to join us at the table. Just then John came and grabbed me and led me away to help him entertain some young ladies, who had been reluctantly dragged in by their parents, to the holiday celebration.
I shook hands and John introduced me as his philosopher friend, and soon rattled off a joke from one of our classes, and the girls giggled. John was called by the others and soon took off for the dance floor with Ruby, and I followed him with the other pretty young lady, as the music became lively and we joined the other couples dancing and talking on the floor. The place by now was bubbling with the holiday spirits, and there was a shine in my companion’s eyes, as she obviously enjoyed the music and the dancing. We danced for some time and then John pulled me away to help serve the food from behind the tables.
I stood and served the people as they came and took the plates and stood by John, as he smiled and talked with the folks, and welcomed them in his bright and easy manner. As I served them I noticed the frayed sleeves, the ill-fitting suits, the worn Sunday dresses, and tried to smile and keep up the cheer like John besides me. We kept the line moving and Mrs. Benner came by and told me proudly, that a lady had just complimented her on her casserole. Mr. Smith was down the line busy carving up the turkeys and serving them, asking loudly white or brown meat to anyone who pushed their plate for helpings?
We must have served over a hundred people and still more came by, and John kept up his enthusiastic welcome and banter with his folks. They were opening up the canned food and filling the serving trays as the freshly cooked food started to run out. Now they started to roll out the apple, pumpkin and pecan pies for dessert which had been heated in the ovens, once the Turkeys were done. Someone had brought those large tubs of ice cream to go with them, and he came and slipped John back some money saying, that it was the change left over. John leaned across and winked and whispered to me that his summer work at the library had come in handy, to help pay for the ice cream.
We were tired by the time the line ended and John and I finally grabbed some plates, and we joined Mrs. Brenner and the Smiths at their table to eat. Mr. Smith had a big slice of some hot apple pie and a big blob of vanilla ice cream on top and Mrs. Smith was reminding him of his diabetes but he just ignored her and said “Look it is Johns’ feast and I have been working hard all evening helping him, let me at least enjoy my well-deserved dessert, woman. John come on you tell my old lady to lay off for once, as I know she will listen to you.”
John just gave Mrs. Smith one of his lovely smiles as he was busy eating, and she smiled back and patted him on the shoulder lovingly. Mrs. Benner asked me if she could make me a plate of dessert as she was going to get John his favorite pumpkin pie, before it all disappeared. My mouth was full and I just pointed to Mr. Smith’s apple pie a la mode, and she nodded in understanding, and left to get me some before all the ice cream melted or disappeared.
The music was still playing but there were fewer people dancing now, as they must be getting tired now, and some had started to leave having eaten their fill. Others came up to say bye to us at our table. John knew a lot of them by name and they would call out to junior and pass a remark or invite him over to their house, when he was free. He would respond cheerfully with a joke or a smile and there were a lot of hugs exchanged and hands shaken, even with me.
When the folks had left John grabbed me and we started to clean up the hall. We took down the banners and cleaned up the tables, and folded them away. Some of the diehard veterans had stayed behind, and helped us stack the folding chairs and sweep and mop the floors. Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Brenner had taken up the cleaning of the kitchen and taking out all the trash to the dumpster outside. We were finally done and John, Mrs. Benner and the Smith’s piled into my mother’s car and I drove them home. John and Mrs. Smith started singing and I realized they were both quite good at carrying a tune, and the other clapped along with the beat.
After dropping them off I drove off to my house making sure the GPs was on this time. I looked at my watch and realized how late it was as I entered the driveway to our home. I pulled up to the garage and parked and sat and though about the evening, and how John had introduced me as his philosopher friend. I saw his life and mine and realized there was emptiness in mine, which I could not fill. I went in and my sister was watching TV in the living room and my parents had already gone to bed. She turned to me and said, “What kept you out so late?”
“Oh nothing much, just a holiday celebration,” I said.
“Did you have fun and which club was it at?” she inquired ever the social butterfly.
“The casserole was nice.” I said, as she turned back to her show. I shrugged and headed to the books in my room.