"My only question is: when did I turn into Chet?"
"It was probably when you started wearing that ponytail, Max."
"I'm serious, Grover," Max says, but he smiles as he says it, in part because he is not quite serious and in part because he does not have a ponytail and in part because the bartender is handing him a Pinot Grigio. The bartender smiles back with some confusion, because it is too early in the evening for people to be grinning at him with that kind of untrammeled happiness.
"I don't know, Max. When did you turn into Chet?"
"It was when I started coming to this graduation party just to gawk and peer at all the freaked-out graduates." Max happily surveys the tables, the lanterns, the stars overhead.
Grover sighs. "So what you're saying is that this is the year you turned into Chet."
"Yes," Max says, looking for an empty table. "That is what I'm saying. Very good, Grover. Nothing gets past you."
"There," Grover says, "open table by that white arch thing. Whatever happened to Chet, anyway?"
"Oh, they've got him adjuncting down in the German department. It's a funny story, actually."
"Is it? Is it a funny story? Really?" Grover asks, reflexively, but even as he asks, he has the uneasy feeling that he is mimicking something that Max would have said, and should have said, and might have actually said five years ago.
"Not funny ha-ha. More funny in a convoluted and ironic kind of way." Max is still smiling as he sits down. He digs his cell phone out of his pocket and puts it on the table. "She said she'd call when she gets here. What was I saying? Oh right. Chet. So it turns out that there's some obscure little bylaws that dictate the maximum length that one can matriculate as an undergraduate here."
"Really? I thought our hallowed alma mater was too radical and unconventional for such petty rules. Bad news for Chet, though."
"Well. It turns out that there's some even more obscure bylaws -- dating back to the school's original charter, back in the dark ages -- that permit perpetual student-hood, as long as certain conditions are met."
Grover takes a long drink from his beer bottle. "Yeah? What conditions?"
"Oh, you know. The usual stuff from a place that plagiarized its constitution from a bunch of older and more medieval universities. He had to wear a sword to class and graze his cow in the common green and things like that."
"His cow? Does Chet have a cow?"
"Apparently," Max says. "He's friends with those farmers out by the interstate, you know. You know the ones, right? They sell gourmet baby vegetables. It's an interesting business model."
"I don't know them, no."
"Anyway, Chet got very into this whole dog-and-pony show, as you might imagine. Got really good at fencing, got the cow, et cetera. Got permission to remain a student here. Became a minor celebrity around here. Anyway, they were short-handed over in the German department this year, so they called him up."
"I think I can imagine the kind of professor that he is."
"Oh, he's not bad. Some of my kids from St. Agnes are undergraduates here now, and they take his class. They're pretty sure that he's smoking up before each class, but they like him."
"Oh right. St. Agnes. Your prep school."
"Indeed," Max says with a shrug.
"Is it strange to think that your old students are in college now?"
Max rolls his eyes. "Strange? No, because the kinds of kids who go to a prep school are the kinds of kids who are going to college."
"Ah, yes. Do you ever regret working at a prep school? Instead of working with inner-city youth and teaching them all about great literature and making a difference, Max?" Grover gestures at Max in fake outrage.
"Right," Max says dryly. "My main regret in life is not bringing Lord of the Flies to the ghetto. No, I don't regret it. I know my limits. St. Agnes was difficult enough, and those were kids who were so desperate to impress and please me that I think I could have gotten them all to help me bury a body."
"What power an English teacher wields."
"Yeah, it went to my head. For about eight months, it went to my head. I was a monstrous tyrant."
"So you weren't like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society? All kindly and Walt Whitman-y?"
"Hardly. I was more like Kurtz on the Congo." Max sets down his wine glass and starts clawing at the air. "The horror, the horror," he rasps with his head cocked idiotically to one side.
Grover lifts one eyebrow. "That must slay them in third period."
"It was something of a hit," Max says modestly. "But alas, those salad days are behind me. Where I'm going, there is far less respect and reverence for my imitations of creepy literary figures."
"Hardly," Grover says. "Who doesn't like a college professor who can do a little mime?"
"Me, for one. I had professors who tried to be 'wacky' when I took classes with them, and I despised them," Max says. "They were jackasses. I will be a serious professor."
"You already have the jackets with the little leather patches."
"Not to mention the myriad pipes and brandy snifters," Max says. "But that's a ways away yet, anyway. I've still got three years on my graduate program."
"Oh yeah. How's that going?"
"Well," Max says blandly. "I live on rice and beans, and I hardly cry myself to sleep at night any more."
Grover smiles. "It's a good city, though."
"Yeah, there's that," Max says. "It's the one little carrot I can offer Kate. She hasn't been real impressed with the whole 'Max Goes To Graduate School' experience so far, but she's willing to give the city a chance."
"It's probably all the crying, Max."
"Yeah, I really need to cut it out. From now, I only cry in the shower. And maybe the garage." Max drains the last of his wine.
"You must be proud of her," Grover says absently.
Max says nothing for a moment as he twirls the wineglass in his hand. And then, at last: "Why do you say that?"
"Well, she got her degree today. That's quite an accomplishment, right?" Grover doesn't add the second part of that thought -- quite an accomplishment, given her family and her background and the fact that I used to tutor her and I had a pretty good idea of her academic aptitude -- but it is implicit in the pause at the end of Grover's sentence.
Max regards him without blinking. "I am proud of Kate. I am always proud of Kate."
Which is such a profoundly un-Max thing for Max to say that Grover feels unexpectedly embarrassed for him. Sentimentality does not suit him, he thinks. He looks away and takes a long swig from his beer.
"So how's your life," Max asks at last. "How's the novel going?"
"It's going. I write and write and write, and then I write some more." Grover shrugs. "As expected."
"How's New York?"
"Oh. It's New York. City of a thousand stories, or something like that."
"Has it made you hard yet?"
"Has New York hardened you yet? Isn't that what is supposed to happen? You go away to New York and then you come back a hollow, dead-eyed husk of a man."
"Max, you forget. I was born hard. When people see me coming, they cross to the other side of the street."
Max nods. "We got a postcard from Jane the other day."
"Oh, yeah," Grover says levelly. "How is she doing?"
"Well, I think. She says her book tour is going well."
"That's good. I'm glad. It got an absolutely savage review in the Times last week."
"Yeah, I saw. Well, to be fair to the Times -- I told her that the bits with Prague were a little self-indulgent, but she wouldn't cut them."
"Yeah," Grover says quietly. "Yeah. So it goes."
"And I guess you've heard that Skippy and Miami are still in Africa?"
"Yeah, the Peace Corps really changed them. For the better. I guess. Is Otis still in his engineering program?"
"Last I heard, he had no real plans to ever graduate."
"Ah, another Chet," Grover says. "The great wheel of Chet."
"He is an inspiration to all of us."
"Certainly a motivation to all of us," Grover says. "Max, if I ever start wearing a ponytail and writing a three-volume senior thesis, you have my permission to dump my body in a shallow grave."
"Only if my prep kids are on hand to help me with the body," Max says. "Shovels give me calluses."
The cell phone on the table begins playing the Mission Impossible theme. Max straightens, and all the sardonic irony drains out of his face. "Kate's here." He reaches to answer it, and Grover tilts his head back to look at the stars overhead.
When Kate finds them, she is wearing a long white dress. It is, Grover thinks, like the white dresses that young Catholic girls wear for communion and confirmation ceremonies.
"Sorry I'm late," she says as she slides into the seat next to Max. "There was a jackass who was double-parked. Hey, Grover. How's it going?"
"Great. It's going great. Congratulations on graduating," Grover says. "What's your degree in, again?"
"Pharmaceutical Sciences," Kate says. Four years of college has softened but not eliminated her accent. She looks at Max. "Between the two of us, I'm going to have the useful degree."
"You say that now," Max says. "But when the terrorists demand to have 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' explained to them or they will blow up this orphanage, well, then you'll be singing a different tune. You and those orphans."
He smiles at her, and she smiles back at him, and Grover thinks, This will never work out. And yet, even as he thinks this, there is another thought: a vision of Max and Kate in twenty years, older and fatter, with thinning hair; Max condescendingly explaining Milton and Kate rolling her eyes; Kate repairing the plumbing and the wiring and the car as Max helplessly observes; awkward Christmas dinners with awkward relatives; inside jokes and fights about money and long walks through the park.
"So, Kate," Grover says, "what are you doing to celebrate?"
"We're going to Europe," she says. "I have some money saved up, and I've always wanted to see Europe. Paris. London. Prague."
"Isn't Prague a bit of a cliché?"
"Sometimes," Max says, "things are a cliché for a reason."
Grover can't decide if this is an un-Max sentiment or not. He spends a long time that night thinking about it.