No one is precisely sure when and where the corn curl experiment came from. It was related somehow, to their continuing conversation on the long shelf life of processed food. Someone had read on article on the miracle of Wonder Bread, which stayed fresh for ten years, and soon the four friends had extended that to potato chips. Corn curls, omnipresent at their high school parties, felt at once disgusting and strangely compelling to the group, with their powdery, salty, bright orange coating that left stains on your fingers and made your tongue raw from sucking on them. Surely, something with the texture of a Styrofoam packing peanut would last at least thirty years. So they bottled a neon fragment of their high school selves and put it to the test.
Their quartet formed up in the early years of high school in small-town Fayetteville, Arkansas. Ric and Cris met in French class. He sat in front of her and they passed “Me Today” drawings to one another, self-portraits chronicling their tired eyes, ripped jeans, and badly-parted hair. Cris had known Ron—a softspoken band nerd with a goofy smile and a sarcastic wit – since high school. Gret was nine months younger and a grade below Cris, but fit in with the group.
They developed their own lingo, dubbing things “super-peachy-keen” and appending “babe” to each other’s names. Ric-babe and Ron-babe took turns driving the foursome. They zipped up to the drive-in for root beer, went boating on Beaver Lake and listened to evangelicals shouting on the radio for kicks.
Their best memories involve the parties they attended with a larger group of kids who often gathered at Ron’s house. Over corn curls, fat as a pinky finger, and plastic bottles of Coke and Dr. Pepper, they’d have long silly conversations, like the one on food preservation, and listen to the favorite records they’d brought—Cat Stevens, Herman’s Hermits, the Beatles. Ron would play his favorite song, “This Guy’s in Love with You” by Herb Alpert and would lip synch to it. Sometimes, they danced. Ron, Cris, and Gret loved to dance, and so did Ric, even though he was bad at it.
It’s likely that they bottled the corn curl in 1968, the year that Cris, Ron, and Ric became seniors. Occasionally they lost track of it, but inevitably, when it came up in conversation again, one of them would pop up with it. Ric can still see the glass pill bottle in the top drawer of his dresser, where he kept important things. He ended up with it when he and Ron and Cris graduated. All four of them attended the University of Arkansas in their hometown of Fayetteville and saw each other regularly, if not as frequently.
After college, the team drifted apart. Gret taught high school English, then moved to Nashville where she managed hospital paperwork and met her future husband, then a law student. Ric perfected his love of both drawing and dancing; he moved to New York, married a modern dancer, and worked as an animator.
The post-college years weren’t as kind to Ron, who struggled. He dropped out of Caribbean med school and moonlighted as a menswear salesman at a mall in Fayetteville. He also partied a lot. During one trip to Fayetteville in the late seventies, Ric visited Ron in his apartment. Whether consciously or not, Ron had left The Advocate, a magazine for the homosexual community, lying out in the open, tantamount to a confession. For Ron, coming out of the closet in conservative small-town Arkansas was a huge deal. He and Ric had a conversation about his orientation, but didn’t go into depth about what it meant for him. Although the admission surprised Ric, as it would surprise—but not shock—Gret and Cris, the three of them accepted it in stride. They had always loved Ron and this changed nothing.
Ric passed the corn curl to Cris next, probably during a trip to Wisconsin, where Cris was earning a master’s in library studies. She pinned the curl to her bulletin board like an exotic insect, although by this time much of its powder had been brushed off and the orange color was fading. Years passed, and Cris became a librarian for an art college in Ohio and married a historian of science. Gret had a daughter, and had moved from Nashville to Dallas to Washington DC with her family. Ric moved to California and produced special effects for movies, while Ron taught high school science in Dallas.
In the late 1980s, Cris swathed the corn curl in cotton and sent it to Gret in a cardboard jewelry box. Gret kept the box in her jewelry drawer among her most valuable possessions. In high school, the corn curl had drifted in and out of their conversation, and with it, Gret’s mind drifted back to Ric and Ron, with whom she exchanged Christmas cards. In the early 1990s, she and Ron began corresponding in letters every few months. He’d moved in with his parents in Arkansas, in part to be close to some of his gay friends, in part because he was dying of AIDS. Ron’s long-time partner left him after his diagnosis, and Gret wrote him because she didn’t want him to feel lonely.
She sent him the corn curl around 1995. In an undated letter to Gret, Ron wrote, “You really didn’t have to send me the ‘corn curl.’ It was a nice present, but it was rightfully yours.” In his letters to Gret he wrote about ordinary things: spring cleaning, walking his dog, being on diets to lose and then at the end to gain weight, his drug cocktails, his congestive heart failure and his hospitalizations for non-contagious TB.
Gret and Cris visited Ron at his parents’ house in 1996, a few months before his death. The trip felt eerie because he was so ill, and also because Ron’s parent’s hadn’t moved in all that time; the 1960s furniture of the den looked the same as it had when they had danced as teenagers. Gret felt glad Cris was around to keep things light. Ron had the same big smile as always, but looked thinner. They reminisced and made small talk. It felt good to see him.
Ric had heard of Ron’s illness from a mutual acquaintance but couldn’t bring himself to visit. Now he kicks himself for not going, but back then, he felt he couldn’t go; he couldn’t believe that one of his friends was dying because they were still so young: in their early 40s.
No one knows what happened to the corn curl after Ron died. Perhaps it isn’t important, perhaps it’s fitting that Ron had it last because he carried it with him into death, and in doing so, broke up the group after some thirty years. What remains are the powerful feelings of nostalgia that wash over Ric, Gret, and Cris when they happen by the chip aisle in the grocery store and once again, tongues raw, and hips loose, they dance together with Ron.
—Cheese puffs closeup photo courtesy of Shutterstock