The Ninety-Ninth Reunion is a sometimes nostalgic, sometimes macabre, venture into the world of class reunions. Two sisters, one a dyslexic psychic from Wisconsin and the other a purveyor of New South corporate etiquette, tackle a class reunion in the small Iowa town of their youth. In doing so they inadvertently open a hidden wellspring of better-forgotten events. The sweet reunion of two people with long-ago yearnings taps into a vein of hidden evil that had been, until now, dying a natural death.
If I should have to place something or or someone at the center of what happened, I would be tempted to jab a finger straight at one of Max’s aggressive little fog lights.
Max is the white Chrysler convertible I bought third-hand from a woman who had gone up in the world and now would only drive new. Max wasn’t shabby. His black interior was flawless. He had been kept garaged and polished to a sheen that glinted off his former mistress’s highlighted red hair like sunlight on a hotel swimming pool. He wasn’t even all that old—maybe six years.
Being deeded over to me was surely a comedown for Max. Going to stay in a small Wisconsin town and then getting housed in a detached out-building that was more tool shed than garage was bad enough. Having a magnetic sign clapped on each door that announced “Intuitive Counseling: Maggie’s Serene Sanctuary” was certainly not equal in status to being eased into a reserved parking place at a Madison hospital to await the emergence of a white-coated Catch-of-the-Day. I knew it and Max must have felt it clear down to his exquisite suspension parts.
No auto owner could have been more delighted with a new acquisition than I was. After 10 years of hard work developing a reputation as a genuinely talented and caring psychic, I was ready to promote myself from the rust-bucket all-terrain vehicles I use to haul around the dogs to the self-appointed reward of a flashy car.
Did I mention that the convertible’s name, Max, is short for “Maximum Freedom?” I had visions of driving happily into the wind with my ash blonde hair streaming behind, headed for some glorious adventure that had nothing to do with veterinarians or grocery shopping.
I couldn’t wait to tell my big sister, Janilee, about my new toy, remembering, of course, to call Janilee by the shorter name—“Lee.” She adopted that moniker as soon as she could pull it off, which would have been thirty plus years ago, after she got out of the house and out from under the censoring thumbs of our mother and step-father.
“Maggie, be careful,” she said, when I bragged about Max. “Otherwise, good for you! If I could ever find time for anything besides going to work and keeping up the garden, I’d love to have some exciting wheels under me!”
That’s my sister for you. “If only……If only…….” Lee, nine years older than me, is almost a different generation. When she graduated from high school back in Ratchford, Iowa, dress codes and drugs and protest statements had hardly made a visible dent on that motionless little burg.
Our mother had sent her to grade school in pinafores and pixie cuts, to be updated later to the most fetching junior-size frocks that Younkers Department Store in Des Moines could yield. She always looked too fancy, as her classmates often let her know. Most of the girls wore blue jeans to school by then, which was appropriate garb for a farm community. Of course, everybody still dressed up for church, but no more than necessary. Mother was blissfully unaware of all that and little Janilee didn’t much care. She was on the cusp of a life-long love affair with clothes and wouldn’t have traded her little Empire-style dresses for a made-in-Home Economics-class skirt for all the tea in China.
By the time I graduated, our father had died, our mother had remarried, and we had long since moved to Madison where funky clothes, designer drugs and a well-deserved reputation for being Protest City had been in full swing for quite a while.
It didn’t take long for Mother to give me up as a hopeless case, reluctantly getting the message that I didn’t even appreciate so-called “designer” jeans. She’d come home from the shopping mall with denims that had somebody’s fancy name on the back pocket and I’d ignore them in favor of a ratty pair I’d found in St. Vincent’s or Goodwill.
“Don’t you care about your appearance?” she would wail at me, and I’d maybe give her a little hug before walking away to do my own thing. She meant well but I couldn’t share her belief that clothes were the pivot of life itself.
In a way, Lee and I were polar opposites. If, these days, she felt obligated to caution me to be careful, I felt the same obligation toward her. Which one of us carried the greatest stigmata of worldly experience was a basis for mutual exchanges. I suppose both of us had to learn a lot of things the hard way.
Lee had gone from high school to college. I hated school and after graduating had immediately consorted with counter-culture friends, the more dropped-out, the better.
Lee was married by 21 and produced two sons in nearly indecent haste. I bummed around the country, working in factories and flipping Tarot cards in barrooms. I lived with one guy or another for about ten years, thank heaven having the sense not to get married. Actually, I wasn’t as attached to any of them as I was to the fact that they represented a certain amount of freedom to come and go as I pleased.
Lee’s kids were grown when she was in her early forties and by that time she had a pretty good job as a corporate trainer in a financial company down in the Carolinas and lived in one of those snotty gated communities that keep out the natives. I married Jack after a lengthy recess from my not-so-wonderful relationships and settled down in small-town Wisconsin with a house and yard filled with three dogs, four cats, and the aforementioned rusty four-wheelers.
Lee’s husband, Arthur, developed a nasty, no-way-out condition that left him very sick, then dying, then dead, right about the time I got married.
“Be careful,” Lee said to me when she came up to Wisconsin to stand up with me at my wedding. “Make sure Jack feels as much responsibility for you as you do for him.”
“Be careful,” I said to Lee when she obsessed about getting ahead in her job and paying off the debts run up during Arthur’s sickness. “You gave him everything you had when he was alive. You owe yourself something now.”
“Be careful,” Lee said to me when I decided to quit my day job and become a full-time psychic. “Working from home requires more self-discipline than most people can handle.”
“Be careful,” I said to Lee. “Don’t keep turning guys down because you’re afraid of making a mistake.”
Why she was so particular was sort of puzzling to me. Arthur hadn’t been such a great spouse that he was an impossible act to follow. Personally, I had found him lacking in motivation and awareness, not to mention humor. It was sad that he took a long time to die and left Lee with more problems to settle than were balanced by the good stuff. It was her business, however; I tried to stay tactful and concentrate on her future.
But she turned down some pretty cool guys in the following years, guys who would have given her more security and less trauma than she’d ever had. “Oh, Maggie,” she would say whenever I questioned her logic. “He and I don’t have any of the things in common that I need to have with someone I’d want to hold close in my life.”
And, of course, one of the problems was that she was apt to say things like “someone I’d want to hold close in my life.” What she really meant was if the guy did not have a degree in Renaissance architecture or play Chopin nocturnes from memory, he was absolutely no candidate for her bedroom.
Which I consider total baloney. It is my contention that a husband can watch the sports channel when you’d rather see a rerun of an old black and white movie, or work on the loading dock while you report to the vice president in charge of marketing. He can pull the lever in the voting booth that cancels out your most sincerely held beliefs—and it still is not a prediction of whether or not you’re going to be a pretty happy all-around couple. I try to tell that to people who consult me while boo-hooing about spouses who haven’t turned out to be soul mates.
I’m speaking from experience gained as, years back, I finally decided to settle down after more than a decade of bumming around. Before that, I was always finding myself paired up with third-rate musicians or down and out artists or unsuccessful actors—a lot of them looking forward more than anything to their next drink or weed. I evidently had a thing for artistic types and really don’t have anything against them now; people are entitled to their dreams. Still, living off somebody else’s dreams is pretty unsatisfactory.
When I met Jack, I decided he was really, really cool. He had a little construction business and thought being a good carpenter was the best thing anybody could possibly want. He’d messed up in a marriage he’d had years back, didn’t have any kids, and was tired of the single life. Even so, he stayed solvent, minded his own business, and was careful about women.
He and I eyed one another for quite a while before we got friendly and after we were married we settled down in Boxville, where some of his relatives lived. We thought we’d have kids but it didn’t happen and we never tried to figure out whose fault it was. We just naturally started collecting homeless dogs and cats. Both of us worked steady, watched a little TV in the evening after our supper and animal chores were over, and were model citizens. Jack had his sports enthusiasms, which didn’t interest me much, and he was less than interested in my psychic business. We never voted for the same people but only rarely had a loud discussion about our political differences.
Lee wasn’t even talking about differences that extreme. I’d met a few of her would-be suitors over the last few years, even read their palms and dealt the cards. Most of them knew how to hold a knife and fork and had a pretty good idea of what was politically correct.
“This is a good one,” I’d say to her. “Hold on to him.” The trouble was, she was the only person I knew, outside of Jack, who would not take my intuitive talents seriously. She’d laugh and turn away and two weeks later she wouldn’t be returning the guy’s phone calls.
A native of Iowa, Dene has lived in North Carolina for two decades. She is a graduate of The University of Wisconsin Green Bay and has written professionally in numerous genres, including corporate publications, executive speeches, newspaper feature writing, and commercial videos. She has co-authored two books of poetry, An Explosion of Toads and Swirls on a Green Plate. She currently lives and writes in Winston-Salem, NC. She has four daughters and six grandsons.