Element

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EIGHT

The weekend before finals, there was a battle of the bands on the green adjacent to the engineering buildings. Nestled between the stone giants, John sat on the grass, beneath the clear evening sky, faint yellow emanations from below the horizon illuminating the city far below. Above, the sky was a cold blue.

He was leaning back slightly, resting on his hands. His two closest friends on campus were seated on either side of him. Amy Clarke was sitting on his left and wearing a navy blue RPI hoody. Her pants were green sweatpants that didn’t fully cover her ankles, exposing wool socks and she had on tan mittens. She was really pretty, in a dorky sort of way.

On his right side was Colm Shepherd the Third. He was being talkative tonight, as always. Telling them about his kickboxing exploits. Amy was an engineer. Some kind of engineer. Colm was a chemist. Oh he loved his chemistry. But he was very politically active too. He attended every College Democrats event, no matter how mundane. Amy was a Republican, which was funny because she was the odd man in the group. At least, it was funny to the other two. The roster for tonight was an eclectic mix of names. Rainmaker, Sea of Cortez, and The Invisible Garboils were three unfamiliar ones. The first two were from RPI while the latter was from somewhere in Massachusetts.

Off to the left, a huge series of white tents had been set up and were flapping in a spurious breeze. The tents sheltered a variety of characters. There was one for a telecommunications vender. Another was for a credit card company. The three undergrads looked around and took notice of the presence of a number of students, predominantly younger ones, who were either wearing or holding tee-shirts that depicted giant golden handles of beer with foamy tops. Another tee shirt, possibly from the same vender, had a list that descended down its back and said at the top, “Top 10 Ways to Know You Have a Drinking Problem.” John read part of the list and laughed. If memory served, this event was sponsored by one of the fraternities.

In addition to the people trying to make a profit, there was also a large food tent, a fabric pyramid on stilts. On either end, two orderly trails of people converged towards the tent’s interior. So much neater than in Connecticut where people pretty much just smudged together. Connecticut, jewel of the Appalachians. They could smell hamburgers. There was really no other smell like it. As they sat and talked, a lone cloud passed over the moon before floating on. It really was a spectacular evening. As the first band waited to play, music from a mix tape thrumbed from black speakers on tripods and reflected off the buildings in the distance.

At the same moment that a particularly dense cloud of smoke washed over them, Funkmaster Flex’s remix of DJ Kool’s Let Me Clear My Throat started playing. All three of them were tapping fingers or toes. It was awesome. Colm produced a bottle of Sobe and took a drink.

Amy stood up. “I’m hungry.”

“Me too,” John said.

“Then let’s go,” Amy replied.

“Woohoo,” Colm said. The music was perfect for the evening’s atmosphere. They sauntered across the grass in step. John couldn’t dance but had fleeting moments of insight. Colm and Amy were better endowed. With a little trouble, they found the end of one of the lines and merged with it, Colm in front, John behind him and Amy behind him. A flock of undergrads they recognized joined them an instant later. The tents had light bulbs at strategic locations that pumped out faded white light on the crowd. The ground was intermittently faint green and black. All manner of shoes were in front of them. Old sneakers, work boots, hiking shoes, high heels. Amy rested her hands on John’s shoulders and elevated herself so she could see ahead.

“What do you see?” John asked.

“Looks like Swedish meatballs.”

“Oh man,” Colm said. “Let’s get this bad boy on.”

“Aww, is Colmy hungry?” Amy asked.

“Yes dammit. All I had is an apple.”

“Was it good?”

“No.”

Colm reached down for a plate. He wasn’t impatient but he was clearly hungry. Next were silverware, napkins, and then finally, at long bloody last, the food. Oh, and the food. It smelled amazing. They all stacked their plates liberally. No regard for the starving Ethiopians in this crowd. Oh God. It smelled so good. Somehow, Colm managed to fill his plate, and still find a way to prop a salad bowl on top. And then a roll. John got a roll and stuffed two margarine packets into his pocket. Amy’s plate was a healthy average between John’s self control and Colm’s indulgence. The last thing they all got was something to drink. John stuffed a can of Mountain Dew into his pocket, which he promptly regretted. No time to think about it now. With a tilt of his head he shuffled across the lawn to where they’d been sitting, arriving with diminished feeling in his left thigh.

He waited for the other two to sit down and then got to work on his food. Someone on stage unleashed a deafening guitar twang through the speakers. John looked towards the stage in anticipation. Nobody started playing though. Just a sound check, he supposed. For a little while they munched in silence, punctuated by the sound of burps. It was nice. It was the first moment that John realized it was really happening. He was about to leave. He looked to his right, and then to his left. Amy was trying to use her fork with mittens on. John didn’t smile. Nor did he frown. He just looked at them. It was a while before Colm finally noticed him. He raised his eyebrow as if to ask a question. John raised his own eyebrow. Colm leaned back a bit and resumed eating. John suddenly remembered his own food. It was emitting vapor in the cool air. He cut a piece broccoli with his knife. As he did, the first band started playing.

After the first song ended, somebody tapped him on the shoulder. John looked to his left. Amy.

“Hey John, since you’re graduating, we wanted you to have something.” Somebody tapped him on his right shoulder. John looked to his right. Colm. Something was jabbed in front of him from the left.

“Ahh!”

Colm laughed. “We’ve confused him.” John looked down at the box. It was black and rectangular, about palm sized, with fancy artwork stitched into its fabric surface. He moved it a little and he thought he heard what sounded… almost like a tiny gong… The box was held closed with small white slivers that might have been bone. He removed them and tilted back the hinged cover. Inside were two blue Chinese stress balls. John smiled. They were quite fine.

He put them in the palm of his hand and rolled them around for a moment. Colm and Amy hugged him at the same time.

“We know you love to stress out,” Colm said.

“They might come in handy one day,” Amy added.

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