Mike tossed his mortarboard into the air along with the other graduates from JFK High's class of 2020, both glad that one chapter in his life was over and yet sad knowing he would never step inside its hallowed halls again as king of the mountain. His entire being, it seemed, had been geared for years to this single event, but now what? How had it prepared him for the real world? Now that he and fifty-two other former seniors finally had unmitigated freedom, what would they do with it?
The immediate answer was nothing much, as it turned out. His girlfriend, Jessica, a shy wallflower he'd been dating the past two years, was uncharacteristically loud as she hollered across the gymnasium through the celebration and hoopla to get his attention. "Mike, let's get some pictures while there's still time!" she said, familiar crown of red hair fanning about as she waved to get his attention.
He waded amongst a sea of cell phones and relatives snapping photos of their graduates to where Jessica stood off on one side with six or seven similarly robed classmates.
"Yo, Montgomery, get your ugly mug over here and pose for posterity!" Adam Diggs, a tall lanky receiver that Mike had been playing pitch and catch with since going varsity sophomore year, said.
They exchanged tooth barring grins as both wrapped brotherly arms around each other's shoulders. People held up portable devices. Flashes popped briefly, but not enough to blind Mike. "I'm going to miss you most out of anyone, buddy. Good luck at Oregon!" he said to his teammate.
Adam, who was getting a four-year ride from a football scholarship, enveloped Mike into a full-on bearhug. "Same to you, bro. Give them hell at Minnesota!" he said, sincerely. "Just remember, when we both turn pro in four years, I want to be catching my touchdown passes from you. We'll take the league by storm!"
"First things first; he's got to get an education," Jessica said, interrupting the male bonding.
It was true. Mike may have been accepted at the biggest university across the state line, but unlike Adam, would be forced to nickel and dime his way with a part-time job and the partial grant he'd received. The only saving grace was that his girlfriend would be joining him there. "Hush, babe. Don't remind me about that just yet!" The quarterback kissed the side of Jessica's head.
"Yeah, first we need to have the party to end all parties!" That was big offensive lineman Matt Crockett, who crashed the gathering by nearly crushing everyone within his muscular wingspan. "Business before pleasure, after all!"
"Well, I can see that you've definitely got your priorities in order," Jessica said, laughing.
Matt, who would probably go on to work for his father at the local used car dealership, pointed at her in acknowledgement. "Seldom wrong and right again, sweet thing!" he said, winking.
Mike groaned, but then couldn't help smiling afterwards. The lineman's unrequited crush on Jessica had been the worst kept secret for the duration of high school. Nothing had ever come of it, of course, but that didn't stop Matt's flirtation. "Better watch the way you talk to me, buster, otherwise I'll have you brought up on sexual harassment charges," she said, tongue sticking out.
Despite the fact that Jessica was only kidding, Mike found such concept utterly ridiculous. He certainly believed women should be treated as equals, but his stream of consciousness trended more old school when it came to the sexes: real men cared for their ladies and took control when the situation required it. If a female was so independent that the mere presence of a man offended her, that was a major turn-off to him.
"What are they going to do, kick me out of school? Too little, too late!" Matt said, chest sticking out as he strode away to hobnob with other jocks nearby.
It was Charles and Caroline Montgomery's turn at face time with their son. "We're so proud of you!" the latter said as she fought back obvious tears of joy. She moved closer and hugged Mike in motherly fashion, kissing him on the cheek.
"Aw, mom, you're embarrassing me," he said, protesting mildly.
"Oh, I know a Kodak moment when I see one," his dad said, whipping out an I-phone. Soon, Charles Montgomery's device was pointed straight and true, snapping away.
" 'Kodak moment?'" asked Adam, who overheard the conversation. "What's that?"
Mike chuckled as his seemingly out of date sensibilities kicked in again. How can you not know what a Kodak moment is, was his first thought. It seemed like everybody his age was clueless when it came to how the world used to turn. The quarterback had been immersed into the mindset of his parents' generation from an early age, and so sometimes almost identified more as a baby boomer than millennial. Whether it be media or culture, he typically looked and acted a little different than his peers. That was okay, though. Judging by his popularity and social standing, Mike was still considered one of their own.
"It's over your head," he ended up saying.
Jessica mockingly gasped at Adam. "And you call yourself a graduate!" she said, hands to her cheeks.
"Hey, I never claimed to be a rocket scientist," the receiver said.
"With the way electronics are nowadays, you don't need to be," Mike said. "Computers have everything almost automated enough anyway when the average person doesn't have to lift a finger or think too much. Robots will be taking over before too much longer."
"I sense a hint of contempt in your voice," Jessica said. "Does that mean you're not get that Smart car for our summer road trip like we talked about?"
Jessica was aware of Mike's affinity for the past and its slower pace, so he knew she was just giving him a hard time. Still, the quarterback couldn't help but scoff. "They're bubbles, not real cars," he said. "Real cars have genuine internal combustion engines and run on gasoline. They don't have fancy shmancy bells and whistles like GPS or back-up cameras. Sorry, but I'd rather actually drive a vehicle than just ride in it."
"Well, excuse me. When did my boyfriend die and leave a curmudgeon in his place?" she asked, the corner of her lip curling upward.
"You'll have to excuse Montgomery here," Adam said, patting Mike on the back. "Old school will always be cool when it comes to the man's wheels."
Plus when it comes to TV shows, movies, music, among other things, Mike thought. When it came to 2020 and the modern world in general, he had always felt like a stranger in a strange land. "Speaking of which, Diggs, how about we attend this party that Crockett was talking about and pound one down once more for old time's sake?" he asked.
Right on cue, the receiver batted his eyelashes and did a woeful version of a femme fatale. "You want to go with little old me? Whatever shall I wear?"
"Hands off. He's taken already." Jessica and her smaller frame moved in between the two, grinning for all she was worth.
Mike's parents came back over from where they had been talking to some other adults. "What's this I hear about party hardy and pounding them down? Son, do you mean to tell me that you're going to consume alcoholic beverages tonight? You do know that you're not twenty-one years of age yet," Charles Montgomery said, halfway kidding and halfway serious.
"Come on, dad, we're practically adults. You're always telling me how the legal age when you were younger was eighteen. Have things changed so much since then?" the quarterback asked.
The question gave his elder more pause for thought than Mike thought possible. Finally, he spoke. "Actually, yes, a lot has. Your big day today brings to mind my graduation and how modern times are completely unrecognizable. I don't mean to rain on your parade, son, but back then it seemed like everybody was filled with genuine camaraderie and hope for the future. Maybe I'm just getting senile in my old age, but people nowadays seem bitter, jaded, and divided on so many different levels. Nobody seems to know how to stop and smell the roses anymore."
Mike weighed his father's wisdom with the respect it deserved, while Adam and a few of the other football players rolled their eyes behind Charles Montgomery's back. With age and experience comes wisdom. I sure wish I could go back and see what the good old days were like firsthand, he thought for what seemed like the millionth time.
"Trust me, dad, I haven't forgotten," the quarterback said with sincerity.
Charles Montgomery gazed at his son with an all-knowing look that somehow bridged the generation gap. "What the hell?" he suddenly said. "You only graduate once. Like my father told me: you're only on this earth for a short time, so make it a good time. Just be careful, and make sure you don't drink and drive."
"That's where sobercab comes in." Mike jerked a thumb at Jessica.
"Thanks for volunteering me, honey." His girlfriend pretended to be appalled.
"No problem, shweethaht,"he said, doing his best Humphrey Bogart impression.
Unsurprisingly, none of Mike's classmates got the joke.
Ever more safe than sorry, Mike heeded his father's advice and employed the use of Jessica and her late model Dodge Ram truck for the ride home. Crockett's bash to end all bashes had been a wild affair for sure, as friends that might not see each other again except at reunions let it all hang out. JFK High's quarterback drank more than his fair share of whatever rotgut was in the keg and partied like it was 1999 (another reference none of his classmates were likely to understand) with the best of them, but it was safe to say his heart wasn't fully into the celebration. His father's grim words from earlier coupled with Mike's own apprehension of the unknown cast more than a shadow of a doubt about the future. Try as he might, the younger Montgomery just couldn't shake his doom and gloom feeling all night.
Jessica killed her truck's engine as it settled into his driveway. Ensuing silence that filled the air made darkness around them that much more palpable. "Everything okay, honey? Considering the circumstances, you didn't look like you were enjoying yourself quite as much as you should've been," his girlfriend said from behind the steering wheel.
"It's the end of the road, Jess," Mike said, still lucid of thought despite the amount of alcohol pickling his liver.
Her brow furrowed in the dashboard light. "Funny, I thought today just marked a fork in the road," she said, moving an affectionate hand through hair at the nape of his neck.
"Yes, but to what?" he asked, throwing up his hands. "We just got done busting our asses for the last dozen years for it to come to this?"
Jessica undid her seatbelt and opened her door. The dome light popped on. Sudden illumination made them both blink. "I'm not following you. What is there to be so down about? We both got accepted to the U of M, and are even going to be rooming together on campus. I'm going to study and become a doctor of veterinary science, and you're going to be passing the Golden Gophers and Vikings to many championships. We're going to get married somewhere in there, have six kids, and grow old with our extended family beside us. I mean, that still is the plan, isn't it?"
Mike sighed. He briefly looked into his girlfriend's sky-blue eyes. That had been the plan, or at least, part of the plan. Jessica Wilder, ever since they began dating, seemed to think their destiny was written in the stars. She was already walking them down the aisle and naming their children before they were even legal drinking age. Mike endured this like he tolerated the uncertainty of college and beyond. Both ideas were born from thoughts of settling, and Mike didn't want to settle for anything. University, at the very least, was supposed to be a chance to discover one's self, meet new people, and experiment with the grand scheme of life. How was he supposed to do that with Jessica breathing down his neck?
"I wouldn't have it any other way," he said at last, deliberately kicking the can down the road on their relationship.
Luckily, his girlfriend couldn't see behind the façade. Instead, she concentrated on walking beside Mike and making sure he didn't fall off the steps. However, his grim state of mind had sobered the quarterback up enough to walk the straight and narrow to his front door.
"I guess this is good night," Jessica said. She held onto one of his hands, maybe to gauge if Mike had been telling the truth or not.
Crickets chirped. A mild May breeze rustled about, taking away just enough of what must've been one of the most humid days on record. "What's all this BS about good night? The night's just getting started." Mike grinned lewdly, grabbing her slender butt to get the point across.
Jessica returned the expression, eyes narrowing as she did so. "Why, Mr. Montgomery, are you trying to get fresh with me?"
"I don't know. Why, is it working?" He kissed the hollow of her throat, just above the ridge of her collarbone.
"It might be." She shivered at his touch. "What about your parents?"
"What about them?" Mike shrugged his shoulders. When that didn't satisfy Jessica, he continued. "They're out of town for the weekend. Dad mentioned something about a casino run into northern Minnesota. Who knows? Maybe they'll win enough moolah to keep the tuition wolves at bay. That way I could just concentrate on my studies and football."
"Dare to dream," she said. Then: "It's still kind of early yet. Do you want to make some popcorn and watch a movie down in the basement, then maybe see where the night takes us?" Jessica's fondling at the zipper to his dress slacks not so subtly suggested where that might be.
"That'd be a bingo, babe!" he said, putting key to lock.
Jessica chuckled. "Honey, you always come up with some interesting turns of phrase. I don't think I've ever heard anybody say that before." They stepped across the threshold into more black void until Mike flipped on the entry light.
That's because you're not into classic movies, Mike thought to himself. They used to say the coolest things way back when. "Haven't you heard? I'm just full of surprises," he said.
"Indeed you are," she said, agreeing with a quick kiss. "I'll tell you what. Why don't you go relax and pick out a movie, and I'll do the heavy lifting and make the popcorn?"
He did a double take. "Well well, look who else is full of surprises. I think I'll take you up on that offer."
Jessica went right into the kitchen while Mike swung left and down the shag carpeted stairs which lead into a fully furnished family room. Comfortable sofas, card tables, and bar his dad had built into one wall gave the area a relaxed, lounge-like feel, but what really reigned supreme was the seventy inch flatscreen TV hanging on the wall over the fireplace hearth. With an OLED display and internet streaming capability, it was supposed to be the very latest in consumer electronics. Mike activated the universal remote control and watched vivid colors pop and burst with better than lifelike clarity. It was impressive, Mike admitted, as a myriad of online channel apps loaded onto the expensive screen. Netflix...Hulu...HBO Now...even one for YouTube TV...none of them moved the needle in Mike's mind. Instead, the beauty in simplicity notion kicked in as the quarterback reached for a sturdy bookcase turned DVD holder. Even the organizers, his parents, had everything broken down by genre, and alphabetized on top of that. He breezed past horror, comedy, and action rows until he found the one special spot reserved for his discs of choice.
Four boxes marked American Dreams were the first things to meet his eyes. Mike's smile became impossibly large every time he thought about the early-to-mid sixties teenage television drama, a pioneer concept for its era. The main star of the cast was, of course, Katherine Kennedy, an actress who most considered the most popular entertainer of her generation. Mike got goosebumps every time he thought about her. It felt funny to have a crush on someone long since gone—she had died while in a drug-fueled coma sometime in the late sixties—but nonetheless, his obsession persisted. There was just something about Katherine, though, that got his motor running. Maybe it was the way the woman once known as America's Sweetheart seemed to carry herself with a dignity and grace that belied her years. Maybe it was the way she combined her All-American good looks (long wavy platinum blonde hair, big blue moon eyes, and an hourglass figure that could stop traffic) with a larger than life personality that filled a room every time she entered it. Whatever the case, Mike had been a faithful disciple for awhile now.
Yeah, about fifty-five years too late, he thought with more than a little regret. The quarterback began perusing some of the other titles in Katherine Kennedy's filmography...Always the Bridesmaid, The Bell Always Rings Twice, Pride Of the People...Mike practically owned them all. Every one had been a blockbuster. Even the actress' television show was number one in the ratings, if he remembered correctly. It was only in season four of American Dreams that the wheels seemed to fall off. The crown began to weigh heavily upon the head of Queen Midas (another of Katherine's many nicknames, supposedly because everything she touched turned to gold), and she turned to drugs as a pressure relief valve. Soon, with the obvious downturn of performance on screen, it lead to cancellation after that season and one mighty fall from grace. It was such a shame, really, because the ugly duckling she became stood in stark contrast from the beautiful swan of old. Mike could still see the archived pictures he found online from what passed as a tabloid magazine back then (the Constellation?) and just how steep the decline had been. The actress became almost unrecognizable, chopping her luxurious blonde locks for a short pixie style and wearing clothes that could've been plucked from any street walker of the era. Then, like many celebrities before and after, her star faded out and the name Katherine Kennedy became just another footnote in Hollywood's annals.
Mike picked Black Friday off the shelf after some thought. It was often considered the best of the actress' movies, made at the absolute zenith of her career. It co-starred legendary western actor Alexander Bridges, who had been cast against his normal cowboy type to play an action movie villain. The quarterback must've seen it about a million times, but a Katherine Kennedy flick went down like comfort food. Besides, you can't beat a classic, Mike reasoned.
Jessica brought down comfort food of a different sort shortly after, holding a large bowl of popcorn with both hands so it wouldn't spill. The scent of hot butter flooded his mouth with saliva as Mike hooked two Mountain Dews from the mini-fridge off to the side. They sat and snuggled on a sofa with the sustenance between them.
"Is that another of those old black and white movies?" Jessica asked, grimacing. "You watch so many of those. Can't we see something from say, the twenty-first century?"
"This is in color, and no, why would I want to watch something from the 2000s when they're nothing but cartoons and superhero movies?" He hit the play button on the remote. Menacing music that forbade of danger to come began rolling over the opening credits.
"What's wrong with those?" Jessica tossed a few kernels in her mouth.
Mike copied the action. "Watching brainless banter like that will turn your mind to mush. It's a scientifically proven fact," he said, mouth full.
"Well, what's so great about stuff so old my parents won't even watch it anymore?"
"Movies back then had a certain pace, a certain purpose, a certain presence that stuff nowadays lacks. What ever happened to A-list stars, for instance? The people that qualify for the title in 2020 are ones I couldn't pick out of a two person lineup if their name was lit up in neon right above them."