The Golden Boy from
By Kerry Madden
When I received the email in late August from my high school best friend’s mother in , the subject line read “Paul Jellicorse.” I didn’t want to open it. I had heard over the years that Paul wasn’t doing well. There was mention of depression, divorces, and my best friend, Pattie Murphy, had learned through a classmate that Paul didn’t feel “successful enough” to come to high school reunions even though he lived in town. After the last reunion, Pattie wrote him a long letter to check in but he never answered. Much of this came back to me as I stared at the subject line. Paul had been Pattie’s first boyfriend, but he stayed in . I left with plans to never look back.
I figured that if I didn’t open the email then whatever “it” was wouldn’t be true just yet. Although I hadn’t spoken to Paul since our ten year reunion in 1990, (the last one we both attended) I had a fixed image of him in my mind from : golden boy, outrageous class clown, leading scorer on the Fighting Irish basketball team, the boy who stuffed bologna sandwiches in his mouth, chewed them up, then opened wide, and announced “Sea Food!” and laughed at the girls’ howls of disgust. He was the boy who made the dead frogs dance on dissection day in biology with his best friend, Buddy Gettlefinger, whom I heard had bought a house next door to Paul in years ago. Or maybe it was the other way around?
Paul drove the teachers crazy, especially Father Mankel, our principal, who ran a tight ship of discipline and strode the halls in black vestments, seeking stragglers and those up to no good. He rarely came up empty-handed.
But Paul was funny and warm to everybody, including Father Mankel, although the majority of us lived in terror of invoking our principal’s wrath. Paul was kind not only to the popular kids, but also to those not the least bit popular, the ones I selfishly avoided for fear of being lumped in with the undesirables. Paul was even friends with the kids in the smoking pit, the ones who gazed at you coldly through a cloud of Marlboro Red. He was a jock who teased and kidded everybody, but his teasing made you feel grateful – like maybe you belonged. And because Paul treated everyone with such ease and kindness, he was loved. He was adored.
In the winter of 1978, I was a sophomore in high school, and the Y-Teen formal was coming up at the Hyatt Regency over looking the Because of moving all the time, I’d never had a best friend or a first date, and now I had both. I felt like the luckiest girl alive.. Pattie suggested that we double-date. She would ask Paul, and I was to ask “Fat Pat” who was not fat, but burly being the center of the Fighting Irish football team. Fat Pat was smart, suffered no fools, and did a brilliant imitation of Father Mankel on a tirade. Pattie convinced me to ask him in the hallway near the gym after lunch one day. Neither of us made eye contact, but when Fat Pat said yes, I was stunned.
The February night was bitter cold with patches of ice everywhere. Fat Pat, a junior, drove a pale blue station wagon, and I wore a powder blue dress with spaghetti straps, and shawl. Fat Pat was in a powder blue suit, too, so we matched each other and his car. I was picked up first, and I have replayed this chain of events. If the boys had picked Pattie up first would the night have been different? I believe without a doubt, yes.
When we pulled up in front of Pattie’s house, Paul raced inside to get her, and Fat Pat turned to me and said, “Hey, want to get some beer?” Even though I was already freezing, I froze again. I had a sudden image of me in my brand new powder blue dress from West Town Mall balancing a six-pack of Budweiser on my knees. I stared at him and said “No!” as if it were the most redneck suggestion he could have offered, and I embarrassed him, I could tell, and mortified myself. It was downhill from there.
At ’s on the Strip, Fat Pat looked pained when I ate my steak with ketchup, and he said in a voice like my father, “You don’t ruin a good steak with ketchup,” but I figured that since he already hated me for not wanting to get beer I might as well eat the steak how I wanted it. Later, I whispered to Pattie about the beer and she said, “Really? Oh, never mind. Who cares?” She and Paul were having a blast, laughing like they’d known each other forever. Their faces wore the same expression – joy and fun, and probably, Fat Pat and I had the same expression too: stricken and panicked.
Things looked up though, literally, once we arrived at the Y-Teen Formal. The theme was “Stairway to Heaven,” and we stood in front of a backdrop of blue construction paper dotted with cotton balls, a huge clump of cotton at the bottom that spiraled into a thin trail to heaven. It was beyond impressive, and despite my beer decision and tacky steak and ketchup choice, I was thrilled to stand in front of the “Stairway to Heaven” backdrop to have my picture taken with Fat Pat as proof of something, but what I wasn’t sure…that I had a date? That he liked me a little? That I wasn’t a freak? Pattie and Paul danced nonstop, fast dances, slow dances, and in-between ones. They had perfect rhythm and absolute ease as they spun each other around the dance floor with radiant smiles under the sparkling mirror ball. Fat Pat and I slow danced just fine, but we talked football during the fast dances. As the daughter of a football coach, I could always talk sports. It was expected.
On the way home, maybe as a way of salvaging what was left of the night, Fat Pat offered to do 360 spinouts on the thick patches of ice on Middlebrook Pike, a skinny road in back in 1978, and this time, I wasn’t about to say no. So he drove us to a deserted spot of icy road and floored it until the car began to spin-spin-spin in gigantic sprawling, whiplash circles – first one way, then another! Pattie and Paul were laughing wildly in the backseat, no seatbelts, getting flung back and forth, and I joined in the laughter to show I could be silly and carefree too, which was pretty much a lie, but so what? Finally Fat Pat, an excellent driver, righted the car back into the correct lane and drove us back to my home, because Pattie was spending the night.
We received our first kisses, standing on my steep, snowy driveway, and we probably discussed those kisses and what they meant until five in the morning. We fell asleep at dawn and slept until three p.m. and woke up to attend five o’clock Mass, hoping to see Fat Pat and Paul, but it didn’t happen.
At our 10th high school reunion in , we were supposed to send in our memories to be printed up in the reunion book. I got carried away and mailed in two typed pages of high school memories instead of the typical two lines. Paul came up and hugged me, and then he immediately began teasing me, “Were you trying to write a book or what?” And little did I know it, but I was…A few years later, I wrote my first novel, OFFSIDES, all about a young girl’s high school days growing up in college football, dressing in team colors, of boys like Pat and Paul and a best friend like Pattie.
I started laughing, and he was laughing too. Then he looked at me and said, “Kerry, don’t you ever wish we were all back there together again in high school? It was the best time of my life. Don’t you sometimes wish we could go back?” His face looked so pained, but all I said was, “Oh Paul, no. I don’t.” And we looked at each other, and I wanted to explain so much in that moment, but he just nodded and we spoke of other things. I have thought so often about that moment, and how I wish I’d said something different, but what, I don’t know. For me life began after high school, but I couldn’t stand the thought of it peaking for Paul who gave so much to everybody.
When I finally opened the email from Mrs. Murphy, she wrote that Paul had died unexpectedly in his sleep, no other details except he was leaving a ten-year-old son, a wife, and a big family of brothers and sisters and his father and stepmother. I found the obituary the next day on the Knox News website, and all his old friends, including “Fat Pat” and Buddy Gettlefinger were pallbearers. Father Mankel was going to officiate over the funeral mass at Holy Ghost. I didn’t fly back to , but I heard that at the crowded funeral home Paul’s father, Mr. Jellicorse, told people, “I was the luckiest man in the world to have had Paul for 45 years.”
I talked to Pattie a few nights later. We laughed about doing those 360 spinouts on the icy road, of Paul’s easy laughter and gentle kindness toward everyone. He was a genuinely happy and loving boy in high school. I only wish I’d paid more attention or kept in touch even a little over the years, but Knoxville was a place I was leaving behind for bigger and better things. I had no idea how fast the years would melt away when I heard about Paul. But maybe a part of us will always be just kids in powder blue finery dancing and spinning under a giant mirror ball to above the , casting light and shadows across time.
Kerry Madden's debut children's novel, Gentle's Holler, (Viking, 2005) has just been published as Penguin Puffin paperback, received starred reviews in both Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly. Louisiana's Song (SCIBA and CYBILS Award Nominee) was published in 2007 and has been selected for the California Readers Collection for Middle Grade Fiction. Jessie's Mountain will be published in 2008 by Viking Penguin, completing her Smoky Mountain Trilogy for young readers.