Tom Riley

In 1978, in every high school in every town in every state, there was one mysterious boy who, in tenth grade, was capable of growing a full mustache — only he wasn’t allowed to let it grow to the point where it started looking like actual hair and not just some leftover smudge from his metal shop class. The mustache, you see, was threatening, because it meant that he was a man, and that that big lump in his pants wasn’t just his shirttails all bunched up down there when the teacher told him to tuck his shirt in properly so he wouldn’t look like a ruffian.
The mysterious boy was left back two, maybe three or four or more times, but no one knew why. It wasn’t that he was the stupidest kid in the class, but it may have had something to do with lack of attendance. Rumor had it that this kid, whose name would be something strong and proud — Tom Riley, just like his dad before him and his granddad before them… only no one ever saw his family — well, rumor had it that they’d all died … at his hand. But who could really say.
Patty or Joan or Donna, the girl he’d sometimes be seen giving rides home to in his big old steamboat of a car (of course he drove! he was, like, 20, we heard!), said that the reason he’d been held back so many times was because he secretly had a baby somewhere, which made him late to school on account of he had to take care of the baby sometimes when it got sick and its mom has to go to work at the Shop ‘N Bag. That only proved he was a good person, a good man, and not the thug everyone thought he was.
But that was all rumor, too.
So this boy, this guy, this man thing, this Tom Riley (never Tommy and never Thomas) … he sat in class with his legs wide apart — because those not-shirttails needed room to breathe, baby — with his mustache threatening to burst out of his pores by 3:30 when the bell rang. And he let it take over his face when he swaggered out into the parking lot and went off in his beat-up old car to wherever it was that he went. And wherever that was, also laid the reason why he’d been left back two, maybe three or four or more times.
At the 25th high school reunion, when he’ll be just about 45, rumor will have it that Tom Riley fell off a roof somewhere while drinking way too much at a party about three years ago. It will have been an accident. But Patty or Joan or Donna will say it’s not so, that she saw him under a car down at the shop, except she didn’t know if it was the same guy, because he just looked like everybody else now.
Only when the lights dim and it’s time to recreate a dance just like the one they played for last dance at the prom in 1981, a guy with a full mustache will appear backlit in the doorway to the veterans’ lodge, and he won’t say a word, but just stand there smoking a cigarette. And then he’ll leave, thinking no one saw him, and go wherever it is he goes to do whatever it is he does.