From King of the Holly Hop (a Milan Jacovich Mystery) by Les Roberts
Three surprises make a high school reunion strongly resemble a visit to hell. First, you’re surprised some of the people you were sure would be there are missing. They’ve either moved far away, or they have no desire to join the reunion. Second, you’re surprised some of those you never dreamed would attend actually show up.
Third: you find yourself there too.
The weekend of my fortieth high school reunion—dear old St. Clair High School in the St. Clair–Superior corridor on the near East Side of Cleveland—was to begin on a Friday evening in February. February is a singularly lousy time to have a reunion, but I found later that the hotel had been booked way in advance during the more pleasant spring and summer months. I carefully chose my wardrobe for the evening, and had left it hanging in my office closet all day—the one just across the Cuyahoga River from downtown Cleveland in an old building I’d purchased several years earlier with a bequest from an elderly aunt. Checking myself out in my bathroom mirror, I thought my black wool blazer looked nifty, even on somebody as big as I am, and I donned it for the cocktail party with gray slacks, a darker gray shirt, and a muted red-and-gray necktie. Then finally I girded my loins and drove across the river to the Crowne Plaza Centre Hotel downtown.
I stepped off the elevator into an alternate universe in which everyone wore plastic-covered name badges. The men were consciously pulling in their tummies as the women strove equally hard to flaunt what remained of their girlish figures. Some faces rang distant bells for me, and in my mind I attempted to de-age them, imagining how they looked when they were seventeen.
A few people nodded at me as they strove mightily to remember my name. A few waved or smiled insincerely, and I’d bet they didn’t recognize me, either. One man I didn’t remember, now a heavyset bald guy wearing a checked sports jacket, looked at me and whispered something to his wife, covering his mouth with his hand like a wicked plotter in the court of the Venetian doge. I hadn’t the vaguest idea what he was saying about me. Until I registered, I wasn’t “official,” and no one would speak to me.
The woman sitting sentry under a welcome banner with our class year emblazoned on it wore a short, perky haircut and what looked like a strapless 1954 prom frock made of gingham, with a huge matching bow over one of her generous breasts. I recalled neither the name nor the cleavage.
“Hi-i-i-i,” she said with an upward inflection, and rose to shake my hand. “I’m Gerry Gabrosek. Remember?”
The name tag identified her as Geraldine Gabrosek Bokar. I recalled her then—an indefatigable girl who always served on the dance committee, the senior picnic committee, the prom committee—and she’d been president of the French club, and in the hostess club too. She’d always organized her own social life, and most of her girlfriends’ lives, too.
“I’m Milan Jacovich,” I told her.
“Everybody knows who you are—the private detective. You’re famous.” She leaned over the table to press her cheek to mine, and strong perfume wafted up from the valley between her bosoms like swamp gas. I didn’t bother telling her that “detective” is a police rank, and that I’m actually a private investigator.
She fluttered on for a while and then gave me my name badge, a schedule for the weekend, info sheets I never got around to reading, a biography sheet with paragraphs about everyone attending, my Saturday night dinner ticket with table number affixed, and a complimentary drink coupon.
One complimentary drink. Subsequent drinks I’d have to pay for. It was boding to be a long damn night.
I pinned my badge to my jacket and made my way into the main room. There must have been two hundred classmates and spouses in there. Some, who’d stayed in the lower echelons of the labor force like their immigrant parents, looked stiff and awkward in their dress-up clothes. Others seemed at ease, smiling and aggressively sociable. Lots of hugs and handshakes and manly backslaps going on, and air kisses galore. The gathering was an emotional clusterfuck.
The attire of some seemed a part of their anatomy and the confident way they held themselves, as if they went to parties like this every week. They knew exactly what to do, how loud to talk, and just how to hold their drinks in one hand while trying to consume hors d’oeuvres. They’d come to the reunion to strut and preen; they claimed bragging rights.
Then there was Gary Mishlove, a microscope geek who had publicly vomited in junior year chemistry lab while performing an experiment with spoiled milk that had stunk up the whole second floor for a week. He’d always been a short, chunky guy and I recognized his face almost immediately, but his body had acquired an extra two hundred pounds and he was now dangerously obese.
Gary was talking to Maurice Paich, the school’s favorite actor. How he ever survived in a tough neighborhood with an interest in acting and hauling around a moniker like Maurice, I’ll never know—but he wound up as a radio announcer for a local station. At his side his wife, a pretty, brilliant blonde whose name, I learned from a quick peek at the bios, was Meredith, was casing the room and inspecting everyone except her husband, and seemed to have an early start on an evening’s heavy drinking.
I was surprised Stupan Godic had bothered attending. From an immigrant family like mine, he’d returned from the draft after serving in Southeast Asia, damaged and embittered, and spent the next thirty-five years sunk in heavy drug use. He was medium height and still very skinny. In a wrinkled sports jacket over a blue denim shirt with collar and cuffs hopelessly frayed, he wore a half-angry and half-dreamy expression. He was lost in the traumatic events of the seventies and unready to step forward into the twenty-first century. We talked for a minute and then he shuffled away, carrying his war memories with him around his shoulders.
I made my way to the bar. The bartender, young enough to be the offspring of anyone in the room, poured me a Jack Daniels on the rocks and took away my complimentary drink ticket.
A big-eyed woman approached me, dragging her reluctant husband behind her like a kid accompanying his mom on a shopping spree. Her hair was pulled back into a severe bun, framing a Modigliani face. I recalled the smile but nothing more. Arlene, Eileen, Elaine—I couldn’t quite pick out the right name.
“Milan Jacovich,” she said, “how fantastic to see you again.” She at least remembered how to pronounce my name; it’s My-lan, accent on the first syllable—not Mee-lahn or Mi-lahn—and the surname is pronounced with a Y, not a J, as in Yock-o-vitch. She embraced me warmly, putting her soft cheek against mine, kicking in at least one memory. Somewhere, forty years ago, for some reason I didn’t recall, I’d kissed her. “Ilene Silver. Remember?”
I confirmed the spelling on her name badge. Ilene. I’d been close, anyway.
“It’s Ilene Seltzer now. This is my husband, Toby.”
Ilene Silver to Ilene Seltzer—she didn’t have to change monograms on the towels. Ilene told me they had two children, and that Toby was CEO of an engineering firm in Broadview Heights, in the western suburbs. Losing interest quickly, I flatlined after the third sentence, smiling and nodding and not listening to a thing.
Then something over her shoulder caught her attention. “Ooooh!” she squealed. “There’s Tommy Wiggins.” And without so much as a “See ya,” she powered toward our school’s real celebrity alumnus.
Tommy Wiggins had grown taller since I’d known him. He was now just under six feet, slimmed down a lot, his full head of hair generously sprinkled with silver. Fame had taught him to wear his charisma well—it hovered around his head like a nimbus. Classmates roared toward him like linebackers determined to sack the quarterback, clamoring to bask in a small sliver of his angel shine.
Clevelanders aren’t impressed with celebrities, except for the ones who wear their jockstraps to work, like LeBron James. Local TV personalities get nodded to, but are rarely bothered. However, all my former classmates seemed to feel a certain proprietary interest in Tommy Wiggins because he’d gone on to famous things. In high school, he’d been shy and slightly pudgy and very dreamy, interested in what were perceived to be arcane and not very manly subjects like art and theater. He’d gone to college in central Ohio, majoring in creative writing. When he moved to New York, seven of his plays were produced on Broadway—six of them smash-hit comedies. He’d won two Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, and when they made his work into movies, he’d earned two Oscar nominations for the screenplays. He was a big shot in both New York, where he lived, and in Los Angeles, where he kept a condo, and he frequently made the tabloid press as he married and divorced twice. His second wife was a sexpot movie actress nearly thirty years his junior, and he had been linked to other women even more famous. He’d attained a success most Clevelanders only dream about, and that’s why all his former school chums were fawning all over him.
I stopped to talk for a while with high school sweethearts who had made it permanent the year they both graduated from high school. August Turkman—we called him Augie—had gone to work in his father’s dry-cleaning store in Maple Heights and married Amalia Zelka six months later. Now Augie owns that dry-cleaning store and two others, and after forty years of marriage they both still looked happy. That was nice, I thought, even when Amalia told me they’d moved to a much bigger house in Maple Heights and now raise Welsh corgis.
“Bitsy” Steinberg—now Elizabeth Steinberg Miller—came over to greet me. She had the grace to admit we had never spoken in school, but she said she’d always enjoyed watching me play football, and introduced her husband, who owned a local chain of pool-and-patio stores and who frequently popped up on his company’s commercials, talking too loudly.
I wandered the room, free drink in hand, encountering familiar faces. Men whose hands I’d never shaken hugged me like long-lost war buddies, and women were hell bent to kiss my cheek. Most were virtual strangers to me, but we shared a history of sorts. A snapped towel in the locker room, a copped feel under the bleachers, sweating out tests together, quietly hoping for the future—memories conveniently forgotten, but not diluted by time as it tumbles by.
Then Lila Coso Jacovich entered on the arm of her longtime consort, Joe Bradac, looking spectacular in a black cocktail dress that hugged the swell of her breasts. Her hemline ended two inches above her still-shapely knees. Joe, who owned a machine shop and virtually lived in service overalls, had actually shown up in a suit. It’s the only suit I’d ever seen him wear that didn’t make him look like a wholesale chicken salesman.
I found my way back to the bar and ordered another Black Jack. This time I had to pay for it.
I carry no torch for my ex-wife. Our split-up—all her idea, by the way—hit me hard at the time. By now, though, we’d been divorced longer than we’d been married, and had moved on. Whatever residual issues remained between Joe Bradac and me existed only in his head, not mine. I belted down half my drink and shouldered my way through the crowd to where they stood. Lila surveyed the room like a reigning queen, but Joe blinked uncertainly as he watched my approach the way a deer in shock regards an oncoming semi on the highway.
“Lila, you look beautiful,” I said, bending to kiss her cheek. We never kissed anymore, not even cheeks, but everyone else at the reunion was doing so and it would have shouted tension had we not.
I didn’t shake Joe’s hand; I never did. He was always frightened that I’d crush it into jelly. It had eaten a hole in my liver that Lila secretly cheated with and then finally discarded me for someone like him, but Joe is exactly the kind of man Lila needs—one she can dominate and push around at will. Say what you will about me, then and now, nobody has ever pushed me around.
If they do, I push back.
So I was happy to be long gone from a home where major arguments occurred twice a week, at least one of them invariably on a Sunday. I still have feelings for Lila because she’s the mother of my two sons, but each time I see her it reminds me why we aren’t together anymore.
I disengaged myself from the happy couple and stood off to one side, wishing I’d skipped the reunion altogether, when my attention was caught by a guy whose name I don’t think I ever heard, even though I remembered him from St. Clair. In his youth his face was like a tomahawk, all sharp, brutal angles, and years hadn’t softened it. Now he wore his black hair combed straight back and slicked down, sporting a mustache that drooped at the ends.
He’d tried out for high school football, I remembered, and during the scrimmage—he’d hoped to become a running back—he kicked one of the tacklers right in the stones at the moment of contact. About five minutes later, when he was taken down hard by one of the linebackers, he gouged the kid’s eye with his thumb, causing some pretty scary bleeding. I never got his name and hardly ever saw him around after the coach told him to get lost. He was too far away for me to read his name badge so I could look up his bio. He might be a Baptist minister now, or a vacuum cleaner repairman, but he looked like a hired assassin.
The crowd had finally drifted away from Tommy Wiggins, and he headed straight to the bar for fortification. I came up beside him and reintroduced myself.
“I remember you, Milan,” he said. “You played football, didn’t you? As I recall, you were always very nice to me. I remember things like that.” His smile seemed more genuine than the one pasted on when everyone swarmed around him, hoping to touch him. His hair was longer than that of most men his age who still had theirs, but he didn’t need a haircut at all—the length had been cultivated for a more artistic look, and his golden skin proclaimed the gentle all-over tan of a New York tanning salon. He’d grown a lot more handsome in the forty years since senior class, but he didn’t carry himself as though he knew it. He seemed more relaxed with me than with the reunioners who’d slobbered all over him, and I gathered he was always immensely comfortable in his own milieu.
“I guess I’ve changed some,” he said, “but you haven’t at all—except you had more hair when we were seventeen.”
“You wear success well, Tom. Congratulations.”
“Don’t kid yourself.” He accepted a martini on the rocks from the bartender, took a sip, and jiggled the glass a little so the ice cubes clinked. “Every writer I know—Oscars and Tonys and Pulitzers notwithstanding—is terrified that he’s taken his last good shot, done his last good work, and his next effort is going to fall loudly on its ass in front of God and everybody else.”
“Yours won’t,” I said. “You’ll always have something interesting to write about because you lead such a fascinating life.”
“Writers don’t have adventures. We just observe them. Then we go sit all alone in a little room, type badly, and put it all down on paper.”
I laughed. “Wasn’t it Gore Vidal who said that writing comes from living a life intensely?”
“It’s been intense—I’ll give you that.” He shook his head. “Some times were great, and some times were shitty. But thank God, it’s never for a single moment been boring.”
I leaned against the bar. “What brought you to the reunion, Tommy? You weren’t really that close to any of us, at least not that I remember. And judging from your writing, you’re hardly the sentimental type.”
“I’m not sentimental at all; I’m cynical. But at least I’m funny cynical and not mean-as-a-snake cynical. This hoo-hah was just an excuse to come back to see my mother. She’s in her eighties now.” His face grew serious, and his smooth forehead wrinkled in a frown. “Besides, there’s somebody here that I’ve wanted to tell off for forty years. I never bothered with it before, but this silly damn reunion is just begging for it.” His grin was lupine. “Machiavelli said you must never wound a prince. Make sure you kill him.” Then he smiled again. “Our classmate made that mistake.”
It made me a little uncomfortable. “Who’s your target?”
“Keep your eyes and ears open, Milan,” Tommy said. “You’ll find out.”
He clapped me on the shoulder and wandered away. Like any good playwright, he knew how to end the second act in suspense.
I looked around again. Phil Kohn—Doctor Phil Kohn—was standing by the entrance, and his too-good-for-the-rest-of-you attitude reminded me that he’d always been the class snotnose. He’d bragged during senior year that he’d been accepted to Stanford, and he returned to Cleveland to become a cardiologist. His look confirmed he was one of those doctors who regarded himself as a deity, the same way he had been when he was seventeen. He saved most of his sarcasm and vitriol for jocks like me, and there had been several times I’d wanted to deck him, but then as now, he was only about five foot seven, and he was lucky that even back then I was six foot three. Now he was “portly,” but he carried it well. No one set records rushing to greet him, because few classmates had liked him any better than I had.
Matt Baznik had come in with his pretty wife Rita Marie. I wondered if he’d speak to me, if we could rekindle the close friendship that had fallen apart so long ago when I’d saved his son from using and selling drugs. No good deed goes unpunished, I suppose, because he saw me for a second, his expression darkened, and he tore his eyes away quickly. Rita Marie saw me, too, and sent me a sad, quiet smile. I guessed there would be no resuscitation of that friendship this evening.
That’s when I ran into Bernie Rothman, wandering all over the room with concern on his wide, homely face, looking as if he’d just been dropped on an alien planet. An odd duck, he was super-intellectual in school but sociable and well liked by everyone. Short, intense, and wildly philosophical, he’d been a double letter man in gymnastics and swimming, walking the tightrope between geek and jock. Now he was divorced, and taught English at a private Hebrew academy in Florida.
“Milan!” he said, his eyes lighting up. He threw his arms around me, at least as far as they could go—he was a small guy, the top of his head reaching just above my chin. I could smell the goop with which he’d slicked back his white hair.
“It’s good to see you, Bernie,” I said, disengaging. “I thought you lived in Florida.”
“I do. I was here last year, of course, when my mother died.” His eyes grew damp and red. “This is a woman who never smoked or drank, and ate healthy her whole life long, and then, BANG! The heart got her. A leaking valve, it was, that nobody found until it was too late.” He looked away, gritting his teeth. Then: “Anyway, I wanted to see some of you people I haven’t connected with in forty years. I wanted to touch base with you all again. Isn’t it strange how you completely lose track of your classmates? I’ve been out of the loop.”
His face was hangdog, looking as if he were in genuine pain. He moved closer to me. “I heard about Marko Meglich. I’m really sorry—I guess you don’t want to talk about it.”
I didn’t. Marko Meglich was the only classmate I’d want to see again, and I knew I never would. We’d met over a schoolyard fistfight in the third grade, and remained close pals since then, through high school and college. For a time we were both uniformed police officers, although never partnered, and he used to refer to us as “Butch and Sundance.” He thought of me as a clown like Paul Newman’s Butch, while he was Robert Redford’s Sundance Kid, coldly efficient and fast on the draw. I left the force after a few years to go private, but he learned copdom’s political ins and outs, decided on rapid advancement, and wound up running the homicide division as a lieutenant. His captain’s bars were never offered because several years ago he died, shot down in the street while off duty—and at risk trying to help me.
I’ve never gotten over Marko. Some grief never goes away.
Bernie Rothman’s attitude changed—he seemed to have forgotten about Marko much more quickly than I ever have. All at once his eyes glittered, and his breathing became deep and rapid. “Anyone interesting here tonight? Um—you haven’t run into Alenka by any chance.”
Whenever anyone thought of Bernie during his St. Clair High days, they’d automatically think of Alenka Tavcar, too. She was amazingly pretty—and though we’d been good friends, living about eight houses apart on the same Slovenian street, there was no romantic spark between us. She and Bernie dated a few times, but he was a lot more serious about her than she was about him. When Bernie’s Jewish parents discovered he was dating a Slovenian Catholic girl, they put their feet down hard and forbade him to see her again, and for the rest of our senior year he whined and moaned about it every chance he got until his friends grew sick of hearing him. Then Bernie went off to the University of Michigan and Alenka enrolled at Miami of Ohio, and as far as I knew nothing more ever came of it. Alenka’s reunion bio said she’d married a man named Tom Clayburgh, lived in Olmsted Falls, and was currently selling expensive residential real estate.
“Alenka,” Bernie whispered like a prayer. “Oh God, Milan, if she comes here I have to talk to her. There’s been a big hole in my heart since the last time I saw her.” Without another word he was off circling the ballroom, searching for the love of his youth. Alenka was married, and I didn’t see the point.
The guy with the hatchet face and the Viva Zapata mustache stepped in front of me. Up close I could see his eyes were as hard as the rest of him, two black stones in the bottom of a creek bed. “You’re Milan Jacovich,” he observed.
I gawked at his name badge: Ted Lesnevich, it said. “Hello, Ted.”
We shook hands. His were soft, almost feminine compared to his face. Whatever he did for a living, he used his head and not his hands. Nobody in Cleveland has a February tan, but his pallor was ghastly.
“You don’t have to pretend you remember me,” he said, “unless you remember I tried out for the football team three years running. I never made it.” He didn’t blink. “I always envied you.”
“You envied me?”
“I see your name in the news sometimes—you’re a fucking saint, aren’t you? A Superman, fighting for truth, justice, and the American way.” His tone was derisive, and I had the sudden urge to leap tall buildings at a single bound and land right on top of him.
“When I was twenty-two,” he went on, “I applied to the Cleveland P.D. myself—just like you. But I flunked the exam. You got another chance to ignore me that time.”
Being on the defensive was never comfortable for me, except in my old days of playing football. “I didn’t ignore you. I didn’t even know who you were, Ted.”
He said softly, “But you know now, huh?”
I forced a smile to take away any sting of condescension. “What’s your line of work?”
His face became a blank sheet of paper, and almost as white. “I’m in sales,” he said, and didn’t elaborate. He did a military about-face and marched off, leaving me with the impression I’d just been insulted. Lesnevich apparently hadn’t changed much from when he gouged the eye of a tackler.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw that Alenka Tavcar had just walked through the door—and she was alone.
She’d grown from a pretty girl to a stunning woman. Her hair was lighter in color now, but she was still slim and wraithlike, dressed impeccably in a wine-colored cocktail dress with black roses on it. Everybody in the room looked at her—they couldn’t ignore her if they chose to—but no one’s mouth hung open the way Bernie Rothman’s did. When he saw her he plowed directly toward her through the crowd like a heat-seeking missile. I had to look away.
Alex Cerne and Sonja Kokol came in, almost in tandem. Just as in school, they were friends—close enough that their respective spouses had bowed out of this cocktail party and sent them here together. The two of them, along with Matt Baznik and the late Marko Meglich, had formed my best-friends-forever group who’d never lost track of each other during the subsequent forty years.
Sonja had the original idea for this reunion and had put it together almost single-handedly, and when she called to implore me to come, I couldn’t really say no. She needed all the classmate support she could rally. I hugged her. She’d been so busy I hadn’t seen her for about two months. “You must be a masochist,” I said, “for agreeing to organize this.”
“Next time I look like I’ll say yes,” she said, “kick my ass, hard.”
“It’ll all work out. These people will loosen up after a few drinks until somebody punches somebody else for dancing too close to his wife.”
She started to answer but a hotel employee in a dark suit rushed up and murmured something into her ear.
“Sorry,” Sonja said to Alex and me, “but I’m wanted in the kitchen—some sort of emergency with the hors d’oeuvres.”
We watched her bustle after the employee, and I said, “Maybe they ran out of Ritz crackers.”
Alex shook his head. “Sonja’s screwed herself into the ground putting this weekend together.” There were so many people in the room now that they’d morphed into a single entity that buzzed, moved, and undulated in a comforting rhythm. “What a motley crew we are, huh Milan? Some of us blue-collar kids got educated and climbed the success ladder—and now we make more money than our parents ever dreamed of. But under the Brooks Brothers suits and the Donna Karan dresses, there’s still something so lower middle class about us all.”
“Even you? With your dental cottage industry now and your mansion in Rocky River?”
“It’s not a mansion—it’s a McMansion—a large and ridiculously expensive tract home. I’m the same as I always was. Slovenian blood is still thick and robust and ethnic—not thinned out by too many herbal body wraps and Botox and expensive Evian water.”
“I don’t drink Evian,” I said. “I bet there are four guys in the back room filling Evian bottles with tap water and laughing their asses off.”
The buzz of the collective animal crowd changed, became quieter and more intense, and I became aware of the shifting of mass as everyone moved toward the center of the ballroom, jostling for position to view a ritual execution.
Phil Kohn and Tommy Wiggins were in some sort of angry face-off, with an alarmed Sonja Kokol trying to get between them. Wiggins’s face was almost purple, and veins stood out in bas-relief on his forehead. The martini he held shook so badly that the ice cubes were playing “Carol of the Bells.” His eyes were bright with Jehovian rage. I’ve seen many people mad and out of control, but this was true fury.
In contrast, Phil Kohn was ashen, with a white line around his mouth, eyelids batting behind his glasses. One hand fluttered helplessly at the knot of his necktie, the other was raised in front of him as if to ward off an onrushing bus.
“I’ve been waiting forty years,” Tommy Wiggins was saying, “to tell you, in front of as many people as possible, to go fuck yourself. I flew in from New York just for the pleasure.”
“Tommy, Tommy,” Sonja soothed, but no one paid any attention.
“You were a cruel, insensitive, arrogant little bastard who loved hurting other people,” Tommy continued. “You haven’t changed a goddamn bit.”
Kohn’s face twisted with embarrassment, and he tried not to meet the eyes of any of us surrounding him, as if we were waiting for a bull-baiting mastiff to attack.
“You think you’re such hot shit,” Tommy snarled. “Well, I’m richer than you’ll ever hope to be. I’m famous all over the world—I get stopped in the street for my autograph. And I’ve fucked more beautiful women than you’ve ever jacked off thinking about. I was sick to death of you in high school—and not a damn thing has changed.”
And with a flick of his wrist, he tossed the contents of his nearly full glass into Dr. Phil Kohn’s face.