“Searching Alex,” a story by Robert Knox, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 53rd Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author
…..He remembered a happy young person. Let us call him Alex and remember him as the high-on-life college student he once was. Pothead, long-haired hippie but not, as some others were, a bitterly dark opponent to the American way of life. Russell encountered some of these, among the political radicals of the day. Alex was too much at ease with himself to venture down the stern rejectionist paths that called to some of the rest of their gang.
….. Russell Johns lost a roommate — a good friend, the best of friends — to draft resistance. Miles slipped across the border rather than face a confrontation with an American law they all hated and risk a jail term. Others of that stripe dropped out; some changed names, changed cities, joined movement both above and underground. A few, of course, made bombs in cheap apartments.
….. But Russell could not remember seeing Alex at the rallies.
….. Nearly four decades later, he encountered a male identity online he thought added up to Alex, his Alex. It was funny — disturbing, actually — that he could not be sure that the ‘person’ he discovered was Alex — the Alex Gold he knew. Even with the photo, a small, very cropped headshot of a face that had something of Alex, or somebody like Alex, about it.
….. The pic, of course, was missing all that hair.
….. Alex had a full brown beard, regularly trimmed, and the kind of thick straight hair that allowed you to comb straight down the middle and flip it to one side or the other out of your face, as needed. The gesture, Russell thought, of a lead guitar player.
….. There could be something of Alex’s face in that photo, but nothing of his youth. Nothing of his smile.
….. He could neither confirm nor deny.
….. What bothered Russell was the idea that the career, or life path, of this ‘Alex’ was quite close to the career, and perhaps the life, that Alex (his Alex) may have been imagining for himself all along. Alex Gold was the ‘kid,’ two years behind the others in their group of college friends, but there was something wiser, more practical maybe, about him than Russell could find in himself.
….. Had his friend’s life, in fact, simply gone in a direction he had always desired, planned for, all along?
….. If that was so, he asked himself, then what was the point of those wild, head-splitting years they had spent playing at youthful rebellion? Why did they bother?
….. And if Alex had always known what he wanted, and got it, why doesn’t the face in that photo look happy?
….. What happened to Alex?
He tried to remember the last time they saw one another. So many, many years ago. Russell had dropped in on his friend in the Long Island college town where he was shacking up with a separated, older woman and her nursery school daughter. A woman whose husband knew about and resented the hell out of this arrangement. Separated husbands were always suspecting that they were paying the housing expenses for both the women who rejected them and the men they had chosen instead. In this case, it appeared, they were right.
….. Everything in the situation, even the lurking reminders of the banished husband, concerning whom Alex shared the wife’s complaints, seemed to suit his friend. Helping to care for and parse the child’s behavior. The comfortable suburban house, much like the one he grew up in. The relaxed shacking up with a woman of experience and the lifestyle they shared: TV, marijuana, ice cream, a car.
….. The child calling now and again from her upstairs bedroom, reluctant to give up on her day.
….. Even the hospitality he offered to the itinerant Russell and the too-young woman (Mandy) his friend was then hanging with, both sufficiently between lives, between places, as to be unwilling to decline it, no matter how ill-suited a party the four of them made. Neither of them, Russell thought, could justify his choices to the other. It struck him that his college friend, little more than a year after graduation, was romancing his mother. While Russell appeared to have found in loose-ends college dropout Mandy a reminder of his first love, the high school girl friend who later divorced him.
….. So which of them could claim to be the free, self-directed avatar of a new generation, determined to build a better world? Who was the more stuck in the past?
….. In those after-college days their paths crossed on Long Island, or in the city where Alex was pursuing a graduate degree in music something or other, or they did not cross at all. None of the old gang came to see the unreconstructed Russell in his counter-culture hideouts. Hill-town communes, a Boston slum.
….. But Russell still expected to hear great things of his talented young friend. He did not expect him to tarry long with the mother-child combo in her nice house, comfortable though the arrangement appeared to be. Alex’s true commitment was to his music; Russell was sure of that. Just as his radical roommate Miles had been committed to resistance.
….. So why should it disconcert him to discover digital evidence of Alex, all these many years later, among professional associations of degreed musical educators? One of those successful, secondary school educators, already stepping down.
….. And what of Russell’s own path? Less clear from the outset. Less predictable.
….. Back then, when they were young, Alex seemed to know that about him.
….. “Listen, man,” he told Russell on one occasion, maybe that night when his friend was at loose ends, looking for his next gig, “I know a couple of these things you’ve been part of have fallen apart… But don’t start thinking that you’re the reason, man.”
….. Of course, Alex was right. He was also right, Russell acknowledged later, that he sometimes felt like the bringer of bad tidings.
What else did he know, or thought he knew, about Alex? What did he expect to find when he gave in to an uncharacteristic impulse to search for an old friend’s online presence?
….. He expected to find someone who had done great things. This simple, youthful, unexamined premise. Unusual, original things. If education was Alex Gold’s field, where were the new programs and approaches he had pioneered? The new schools, maybe, he had founded? His original compositions? Publications?
….. What else did he know about Alex?
….. Alex was happy. Always happy.
….. He did not find evidence of that quality, any of the qualities that made up his Alex. He discovered only that single, cramped, inadequate, face-frontal headshot. And you can never infer anything from a single picture: Russell knew that from experience. Everybody knew that. But the one thing wrong with that photo, besides the possibility that it wasn’t his Alex at all, was that it revealed a face that didn’t look happy.
….. Their paths had nearly crossed once later — so much later; a wholly unexpected intersection.
….. A school festival. Russell’s son, a horn player and teacher, was one of festival’s planners. That was the only reason he dropped in; say hi, show his support. Some local celebrities, names at least in the school music world, would be there, offering their uncompensated blessings. The festival was put on by a local musical school, or ‘studio,’ in the business of offering afterschool musical enhancement for kids willing to give up a couple of free hours every week to learn an instrument — violin, say, or guitar — with a teacher-musician such as his son. And whose families had the urge, and the means, to support (and sometimes pressure) that youthful musical interest.
….. The thing was held in a local school, and its attraction was an invitation for students to take public lessons with professionals. The students got some free attention, the teachers got to show off what they do. The parents and their kids, from elementary age to teens, got to shop — ‘exposed’ was the word the fest used — for the kind of creative learning experience they, or their parents, were seeking for them.
….. For some reason a well-known violinist — favor to a friend, he guessed — from the Hub City Academy attended to model a lesson for more advanced students. Though employed as Academy faculty, as many of the best classical musicians were, she made her bones as a recitalist.
….. Russell sat in the back as gifted violinist Bella Peres played a movement from a piece that Russell knew by heart, and loved. It brought him to tears. He confessed this to her during the break — his son off in another room with the tweeners — and she gave him a little hug.
….. So he stayed after the break to watch her give another lesson, though he had not planned to, enjoying one of his fantasy flirtations.
….. He was sitting on the window side of the room, looking out on a spring noontime… May all of a sudden: lime-green leaves on the trees, and a line of purpling azaleas bulging around a border… when he saw the recitalist’s husband step out of a black car. A tall, lean man with a bush of white hair, a celebrity in his conservatory world, probably a couple of decades older than his wife (they marry their students, Russell thought). He watched him turn to speak to someone getting out of the back seat.
….. Russell stared, and then did not know what to do.
….. The back seat passenger was Alex Gold — wasn’t it? Of course his hair was shorter, and the beard was gone. But the tomahawk nose, the profile, was familiar. And unsettling. Russell was another person now. He had been married for decades; he had a son who was all grown up and earning a living. If that was truly Alex — Alex now, and not Alex as he once was — then Russell too was somebody else in his own life.
….. Would these two middle-aged men even know what to say to one another?
….. He assumed that the putative Alex — a guest of the conservatory? a special ‘master teacher’ popping in for an afternoon lesson? — would be headed into the studio any moment alongside the white-haired local legend, the city’s ‘Mister Strings.’
….. But the two stood and talked in the spring sunshine, neither man making a move to head indoors to take part in the event. What would Russell do when they did?
….. He watched his could-be ‘Alex’ talk, gesture. He would not be — he could not be — the animated showman of his undergraduate years. Breaking down the scene as he told his latest story; imitating the other participants in some fable of human foolery, self-regard, insensitivity. Alex was talented, he thought — everybody thought; a natural performer.
….. But this — older — man?
….. Who looked and stood and gestured like Alex. But nothing that he saw felt like the Alex he knew. Nothing called to him, made him desire to rush up to the older man and claim him as his friend.
….. Because, he knew, he was changed as well.
….. The men finished their talk but then, instead of walking to the studio entrance, they shook hands, and ‘Alex’ got back into the car. The other man, the recitalist’s gray-headed husband, straightened his back and walked toward the building.
….. Russell watched from above as the black sedan drove away.
Robert Knox is the author of Suosso’s Lane, a novel based on the notorious Sacco and Vanzetti case, a contributing editor for the poetry journal Verse-Virtual, and a correspondent for the Boston Globe. His stories have been published by Words With Jam, The Tishman Review, Lunch Ticket, Unlikely Stories, and New Readers Magazine, among other journals. His novel Karpa Talesman was recently chosen as the winner of a competition for a novel of speculative fiction and will be published by Hidden River Arts.