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At the Gates of Hell by Bruce Harris Bentzman
published in Volume 3, Issue 1 on February 8th, 1996

Once every two or three years I return to the old neighborhood, where I grew up, to visit with my parents. Most of my friends from that time have moved away, having not returned to their suburban homesteads after graduating college. My parents are good folks who allowed me to take a Wanderjahr after graduating high school, but as one year stretched into ten, they developed an attitude of disappointment in their wayward son. They were worried that I did not possess the ethical fiber to hold a steady job, and they could not appreciate my constant happiness in various trials at hard labor in European industry and agriculture.

They feel better about me now that I have reasonably steady employment as a journalist, my contributions usually being to American and British car rags, and sometimes travel magazines. It isn't a whole lot of money and it doesn't arrive with any kind of regularity, but my parents don't know that. They are especially proud that I am married and have a daughter, but do not realize that, as a fairly renowned stage actress in France, my wife, Jeanette, actually supports the family. They say, "if you have a good job, why does your wife have to work?" She does it because it brings her happiness. Of course if she appeared on Broadway, or in the Hollywood movies, then they might grasp the value of her accomplishment. It doesn't count to them that she has had several small roles in European films.

This was a special visit, because it is rare that my wife can accompany me to America. We left Giselle, our daughter, with Jeanette's parents because she still had to attend school.

The dinner was my mother's specialty, tuna noodle casserole, made with cans of tuna and cream of mushroom soup, sprinkled with chopped cashews when we had company. This meal was probably the greatest challenge in Jeanette's professional career, but she pulled it off convincingly. After dinner, my wife and I decided to stroll, while Mom 'wanted' to wash the dishes, and Dad 'had to watch' one of his favorite television shows. I was grateful to be alone with Jeanette. Dinner was rather humbling and I wanted to apologize. Jeanette interrupted me, putting her finger to my lips. "You have no need to be sorry," she spoke in French. "They are quite adorable and I love them because they gave me their son." She smiled, she kissed me, and then she asked in English, "this tuna noodle casserole, it is a popular American dish?" She grinned. Recognizing sarcasm, I was formulating a witty response, when our paths crossed with that of Doctor Samuel's.

Doctor Samuel was Suzie Little when she was living in her parents' house across the street from my parents' house. She came galloping from the other direction wearing fleece pants and sweatshirt. I did not recognize her as quickly as she recognized me, bringing her exercise to a sudden halt and gaily calling out "Flower". It was an old nickname I hadn't heard in a generation. Still, I was as delighted to see her again as she was to see me, and I introduced her to Jeanette. Later, I had to give Jeanette the details to this particular nickname. For you, dear reader, let it suffice that it was short for flower child, as I was a self-styled hippie in my youth.

Suzie took the opportunity of this chance meeting to inform me that I had just happened to have arrived on the night preceding our high school graduating class's twenty-fifth year reunion. We had both graduated from Eisenhower a quarter century earlier, and it was the reason for Suzie being back in the neigbourhood and visiting her parents.

Jeanette insisted on dragging me to the Ramada Inn, where the twenty-fifth reunion was being held. I really didn't want to go. High school had nothing to do with my life. It was more of an interruption to my life and education, the longest postponement to self-improvement and creativity I have ever had to endure. It was not a tragedy. Tragedies are eventful. High school, for me, was drudgery, a long and tedious Hell.

Furthermore, my ego didn't feel sufficiently accomplished to make an appearance. Had I been carrying the Nobel Prize, or at least the Pulitzer, under my arm, I would have enjoyed this opportunity to gloat, to show that everyone had been wrong about me. If only my novels would get published, if only I would finish writing one. Still, Jeanette insisted that we try to crash the party, and it was easier to relinquish than to resist her indomitable spirit. So I permitted her to play Virgil to my Dante.

We had difficulty finding the Ramada Inn. In the quarter century I have been away, occasionally returning for the briefest of visits, an enormous number of malls, stores, townhouse developments, hotels and office buildings had popped up where once were woodlands, farms, or just a grassy knoll. Everything was new. In contrast, it is the long history, the continuity with ages past, that keeps me in Europe. The Ramada Inn was built just outside the city limits, one among several gigantic dolmens rising from a field of black asphalt. It was difficult to determine the front of the building with certainty, and we drove once around this faceless slab to be sure of the proper entrance. This building was never intended to stand for centuries as a model of the aesthetics of this or any era. It was just doing its job being indifferent; a pragmatic and temporary compromise trying to avoid offending any taste.

No sooner had we arrived than some people on their way to the rest rooms began recognizing me from afar. How it is that everybody can identify me I cannot explain. Since leaving Eisenhower High, I have sported a beard and have grown bald. Who the hell were these people? I had little memory of most of them and couldn't identify them without first reading their name tags. Sometimes not even then.

My fellow graduates urged us on, inviting us to join them in the ballroom where the class had gathered. They couldn't see the harm in it, so long as we didn't eat the dinner. Several said they had empty places at their tables where people did not show. I was hardly dressed for the affair; a leather jacket, no tie, and blue jeans. Still, Jeanette was keen on trying. Her slim, graceful body always bore an elegance regardless of whatever frock she chose to wear, but that night she was also wearing blue jeans, a man's white shirt, and she sported a suede matador's jacket, dyed red, green, and blue, by a French designer whose name escapes me.

A pair of plain double doors, one pair gaping wide, presented themselves. Above the door a plaque read "Ballroom", but for my reaction should have announced "lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate" -- abandon all hope, ye who enter here. It was sufficient to speed my breathing and upset my stomach. I remembered sleepless nights agonizing over the homework and studying I could not bring myself to do. I could remember the frequent illness I would endure on bus rides to school, when I had not prepared for tests on subjects that held no interest for me.

When we tried to enter the ballroom, the others went ahead to their tables. The ballroom at the Ramada Inn looked more like a gymnasium than a ballroom, which seems befitting the memory of our high school's proms. Just inside the doors of the ballroom the hotel had considerately set up a stand to serve refreshments. I stopped to order a drink from this cash bar with the hope of reinforcing my courage, while allowing the time to collect myself. There were bottles of vodka, gin, scotch, but not the famous brands, two large jugs of New York State wines, one calling itself Burgundy, the other Chardonnay, two plastic three liter bottles, one of Coke, the other of ginger-ale, and some Buds and Millers on ice. Nothing excited me and I could not make up my mind.

During my delay a very tall and angry fellow, not anyone I recognized, was quick to intercept Jeanette and me. He rudely interposed his tall frame between me and the bar causing me to instinctively step back.

"Excuse me, but who are you?" he asked with a belligerent voice. He had already nailed me as a crasher, probably because of my clothes, and didn't feel it necessary to first introduce himself, or ask if I was invited, or if I carried a ticket granting me entry. I gave him my name, the last syllable having cleared my lips when he shot his next question at me. "This is a private affair, do you have a ticket?" I told him no. He sharply turned to the elderly woman who was managing the bar and who was evidently part of the hotel staff, and he severely reprimanded her for trying to serve us. "You are not to serve these people anything." I could think of two hundred ways he might have politely informed the woman. She had no way of knowing the difference between paying guests and crashers. I looked at the slip of paper stuck to the chest pocket of his jacket. Hello, my name is Ted Bradley. Underneath was his photo-copied image from the yearbook. I had a vague memory of him being the popular quarterback and I had the notion that he was one of the bullies that used to threaten me. As the old woman had gained her composure and was reacting to Teddy with indignation, I searched the room for familiar faces.

These were people older than those I remembered. The men wore suits and the women wore evening gowns, and their clothing suited them. We appeared incongruous when we wore such adult costumes in our youth. Still, it seemed inappropriate that such richly dressed adults should now have to sit on folding chairs of steel. Then Teddy stepped around me and placed himself into the center of my view, again stepping too deeply into my personal space, again inducing me to retreat a step. "If you want a drink, or if you want to eat, the hotel has a bar and a fine restaurant. Why don't you use them? You have no business here," he asserted. He stretched his long arm towards the doorway, fingers extended.

"This is my class, the class I graduated with."

"You went to Eisenhower?" So he had as little recognition of me as I had of him. His arm came down, but I don't think he was believing me. He took another half step towards me and I another half step back.

"Yes and this is my class." He had me repeating myself and it was uncomfortable bending my neck to look up into his face. I tried to look at other things, not wanting him to think that he was important enough for me to regard, yet every time I tried to glance around his trim frame, he reinserted it into my view. He was determined to keep me from seeing old acquaintances if I was not paying for the privilege.

"Can I see your tickets?"

"I don't have tickets." His face darkened with restrained anger.

"If you want to stay it will cost you fifty dollars apiece." He extended his palm for immediate payment. He became Charon, the ferryman, demanding his fee. I tried to get a peek past him to see if there was any reason worth staying and once more he shifted to block my view. "You can't stay if you don't pay." The veins were popping out of his forehead and neck. Briefly, I felt a rush of fear and wondered if he took traveler checks.

In that moment, with Teddy's face glowing red and green from the effort of stifling his intent to damage me, I recognized that old, familiar fear that had once plagued me in the halls of Eisenhower High. I had entirely forgotten the sensation. And that fear passed as quickly as it had arrived, because I am no longer that hapless adolescent I was in school. My brain calculated the consequences of Teddy attacking me. Bigger he was, yes, stronger, yes, but I would hurt him, too, and from the start, I could endure any pain he was likely to administer. Hell, afterwards I could have him arrested and sue him; furthermore, before it could become serious, others would surely come over and intervene. The situation with Teddy was less dangerous than some of my close calls on the amateur racetrack.

It occurred to me, here was the old school bully puffed up with the only moment of power that this life could afford him. It was no wonder that this vacuous affair was so important to him, his only chance to relive the times when he had power and popularity, before he was cast adrift in the real world. He stood before me prepared to defend those few short years of history during which he flourished in a tiny corner of the planet, and from which he had never wandered very far. It must have been he, among others, who tracked classmates, organized reunions, and sent out invitations.

The absurdity of the situation was that he was keeping me from rejoining a time and place that held no attraction for me. I thought of teachers who dictated rules, trying to project themselves as the sole authority of "true knowledge" and "right morality". Teddy, you old high school rah-rah, you who with the other rah-rahs believed you were the sole determinants of "coolness", the only ones privileged to discriminate and exclude others. You elected yourselves to the student governments, to join clubs and such, as if the pretentious roles had any significance.

I was no longer frightened of this pompous guard of the sacred high school memory, he who was defending his last bastion of personal success. I actually found myself trying not to offend him by laughing.

"If you aren't willing to fork out the fifty dollars entry fee --" he began.

"No, wait," I interjected, trying to choke back the laughter bubbling up inside me. "You don't understand." How was I to explain it to him. He was thinking that I was trying to come up with an excuse for entering his precious reunion, and I was tickled from the silliness of being kept out of where I never wanted to go. "I don't even want to be here." I was unable to conceal my laughing, which goaded this stern fellow. I was trying not to burst, and I grabbed Jeanette by both shoulders and bodily shifted her between me and this tall bouncer, thinking she would protect me. She was more deserving of taking the brunt of this ill-humored protector, as she was the one who wanted to crash the party. "Talk to her," I explained to him, "she is the one who wanted to come, not me." And now I was wickedly laughing out loud, my head tucked into Jeanette's back between her shoulder blades.

Poor Jeanette, I didn't recognize it at the time, but she was intimidated by this tall bouncer, whom she found menacing. Nervous and confused, she began rattling off an apology in French. Teddy had no French. She was saying how we'd only stay a minute, that she just wanted to meet some of the people with whom I passed my childhood. Then she turned to me. "Were you so bad in school that they will not now let you come back?" she asked.

"Me, bad? No, no my love. It is nothing like that," I said, then added in a French whisper, "this is Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards Hades, only he's confused and is keeping us out instead of in." I took her hand and led her away. "We Americans are more materialistic than sentimental," I explained when we were out of earshot. "He is probably protecting his interest. For all we know, he might be getting a kickback from the hotel for this."

Being thrown out of my twenty-fifth high school reunion was wonderful. It made the day for me and made me feel jolly good. I thanked Jeanette for making me attend. That stern Teddy, who blocked our entrance, reinforced my deep belief that high school ran counter to my nature. He was high school personified; strict, self-confident, provincial, and completely clueless as to the real world. Fifty dollars a head, what was the money for? We found out.

Jeanette and I plopped into a comfortable couch in the hotel's lobby beneath a seven story atrium. We had the waitress bring us a bottle of the hotel's best Champagne, my reward to Jeanette for making the evening so wonderful. And that was where Doctor Samuel found us.

"I heard you were out here," she said. "Why don't you come in."

"Is it worth it?"

"Well, actually no. The chicken is really dry and disappointing, and to think I spent fifty dollars for it."

"Well, then, why don't you join us and have a glass of Champagne."

She sat and we talked a long time. I was made to explain what happened to me after high school. I hadn't really thought about it for many years, yet at that moment, explaining it to Suzie, I realized high school actually did play an important role in my life. In our senior year I was in an advanced English class, and in that class we were made to read William Somerset Maugham's novel The Razor's Edge. Larry Darrel, the subject of that book, became my model. After high school, I went bumming in Europe instead of partying in college. It was my intention to spend my life abroad reading, studying, and having conversations with great minds. These were things I did not believe were available to me in New Jersey. I was not as accomplished as the fictional Larry. I did not have his ability to acquire other languages, although I learned to manage French, nor did I have Larry's power of concentration to sit and read for hours on end. Also, I did not have Larry's income that permitted him to be independent. So events unfolded differently for me than they had for Maugham's fictional hero. In the end Larry returned to America. I was just visiting.

That was how the evening concluded. Various old chums, upon learning I was out in the lobby, abandoned the ballroom to meet with me and my wife, and to complain about the food and the money they had spent. So many forgotten friends re-entered my life that evening. I had not expected so many. Resting against my wife on that deep couch, she who is my greatest success in life, her arms around me, I suddenly felt that I have succeeded in life. I would not have changed a single iota of my past actions because of the possible risk that fate would not have brought Jeanette and me together. While we held court there in that comfortable lobby of the Ramada Inn, not one hundred feet from that stark ballroom from which I was exiled, my darling was asking of my classmates for the stories that would most embarrass Flower.

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