I started getting messages on Facebook and texts I didn't recognize: The florist on Winnie Street wanted to donate bouquets for the tables, and the lady who owned the fabric shop on Sealy Avenue wanted to of fer some bolts of tulle to drape around the room, and a local seventies cover band wanted to play for free. I got offers for free food, free cookies, free booze, and free balloons. I got texts from a busker who wanted to do a fire-eating show, an ice sculptor who wanted to carve a bust of Max for the buffet table, and a fancy wedding photographer who offered to capture the whole night—no charge.
I said yes to them all.
And then I got the best message of all. A phone call from a guy offering me the Garten Verein.
I'm not saying Max and Babette wouldn't have been happy with the school cafeteria—Max and Babette were pretty good at being happy anywhere—but the Garten Verein was one of the loveliest buildings in town. An octagonal, Victorian dancing pavilion built in 1880, now painted a pale green with white gingerbread. Nowadays it was mostly a venue for weddings and fancy events—a not-cheap venue. But several of Max's former students owned the building, and they offered it for free.
"Kempner class of '94 for the win!" the guy on the phone said. Then he added, "Never miss a chance to celebrate."
"Spoken like a true fan of Max," I said.
"Give him my love, will ya?" the Garten Verein guy said.
Max and Babette were too jet lagged by the time they came home to even stop by school, so the change of venue took them completely by surprise. That evening, I met them on their front porch—Babette in her little round specs and salt and pepper pixie cut, forgoing her signature paint splattered overalls for a sweet little Mexican embroidered cotton dress, and Max looking impossibly dapper in a seersucker suit and a pink bow tie.
They held hands as we walked, and I found myself thinking, Relationship goals.
Instead of walking two blocks west, toward school, I led them north. "You know we're going the wrong way, right?" Max stage whispered to me.
"Don't you just know everything?" I teased, stalling.
"I know where my damn school is," Max said, but his eyes were smiling.
"I think," I said then, "if you stick with me, you'll be glad you did." And that's when the Garten Verein came into view.
An arc of balloons swayed over the iron entrance gate. Alice—amateur French horn player and faculty sponsor of the fifth grade jazz band—was already there, just inside the garden, and as soon as she saw us, she gave them the go sign to start honking out a rendition of "Happy Birthday." Kids filled the park, and parents stood holding glass champagne flutes, and as soon as Max arrived, they all cheered.
As Max and Babette took in the sight, she turned to me. "What did you do?"
"We did not go over budget," I said. "Much."
We stepped into the garden, and their daughter Tina arrived just behind us—looking svelte and put together, as always, with her third grader, Clay, holding her hand. Babette and Max pulled them both into a hug, and then Max said, "Where's Kent Buckley?"
Tina's husband was the kind of guy everybody always called by his first and last name. He wasn't ever just "Kent." He was always "Kent Buckley." Like it was all one word.
Tina turned and craned her neck to look for her husband, and I took a second to admire how elegant her dark hair looked in that low bun. Elegant, but mean. That was Tina.
"There," she said, pointing. "Conference call."
There he was, a hundred feet back, conducting some kind of meeting on the Bluetooth speaker attached to his ear—pacing the sidewalk, gesticulating with his arms, and clearly not too pleased.
We all watched him for a second, and it occurred to me that he probably thought he looked like a big shot. He looked kind of proud of how he was behaving, like we'd be impressed that he had the authority to yell at people. Even though, in truth, especially with that little speaker on his ear, he mostly just looked like he was yelling at himself.
A quick note about Kent and Tina Buckley. You know how there are always those couples where nobody can figure out what the wife is doing with the husband?
They were that couple.