Emma took in a deep breath before opening the door to Stoddard Hall. Her first time attending a cocktail party, she felt nervous. Other than her boyfriend, Andrew, and perhaps a few professors, she would not know anyone present. Andrew’s university, located in the city, was located on a much larger campus than the one she had attended. Though her university had a laudable reputation it had not yet arrived at the world academic status that his had achieved. Inside Stoddard Hall, her eyes gorged on the multiple plaques and portrait paintings lining the walls of its gothic cathedral-styled interior. Monachopsis began to take hold of her; she felt like a fish out of water. She would have backed out of this place had she not promised Andrew that she would attend. Where is he?! She wondered, peering at her watch. I’m on time! Her search momentarily settled on the full-length mirror on the wall beside her and she took a moment to adjust her hair and dress slightly.
She credited herself with being a keen observer and rightly so since her PhD was in human behaviour. On the outside looking in, it took very little effort on her part to discern that concentration (or lack of) within each group darted here and there oblivious to the usual etiquette of social intercourse. In other words, the room was a chattering mixture of anecdoche pods of deaf-eared conversations where everyone was too preoccupied in their own thoughts.
Her digital watch marked the passage of time painfully slow. She retrieved a vodka martini with three olives lined along a plastic sabre-styled stir stick from a nearby table. Surprised by how thirsty and hungry she was she downed it quickly and went for more. By her third glass, time began to skip along nicely as zenosyne had settled in.
Fixed in place and supported by a pillar, she attempted fruitlessly to focus her thoughts. The lub-dub-lub-dub-lub-dub pounding in her right ear made her aware of her increasing rubatosis. Anxiety? She mused. Probably. A hand gently brushed against hers. Startled she turned. “Andrew?” she slurred. “Where have you been?” She felt like slapping him but the opia effect from the intensity of his blue eyes neutralized that thought and kairosclerosis overwhelmed her. Unable to contain herself, she wrapped her arms tightly around him, her martini glass smashing on the floor.
“Wow! You’ve never greeted me quite like that before.”
Silence like a wet blanket had settled over the hall as all eyes stared in their direction.
“Here, come with me,” he said.
“But the broken glass.”
“Someone will take care of it.”
He took her to the library off the main hall and closed the door. For a moment she paused, closed her eyes, and inhaled the odour of leather studded wingchairs and couches. Her gaze took in the walls of mahogany bookshelves filled tight with old-leather bound titles both prolific and profound. Vellichor enhanced it all at a momentous pace. It felt like home, similar to the old used bookstores she frequented, suitable for a PhD and accomplished author as she. This was where she felt most comfortable.
He kissed her and she him. They stayed long enough for her to caressingly run her fingers along the spine of every book.
Exiting the building, umbrella up, walking as one under its protection, laughing, happy and very much in love, and holding adomania at bay, they leisurely splashed playfully through the puddles into their future
This short story came about from a challenge by a former colleague. I think he knew I could not resist. And he was right! After many attempts, here is my humble offering. I expect to follow it up with something more poetic in the near future. It’s the kind of medicine I require to ward off covid fatigue. Take care everyone and stay safe!
Similar to shadows of a dirty shirt, black cumulus clouds, abounding with rain, hangs fat across land and final hours of this train trip. An old match with a long history is playing out.
Don’s thoughts drift to a panorama passing by. “Amazing!”
“Look through our window. Mountains,” Don said, “snow still caps its tops.”
“Hmm…Not bad!” A grin forms. “Downpour too distracting for you? Al slid his rook into position. “Kontrola!”
“Rain sounds similar to buckshot.” Don slips slightly forward to scratch his back. “Do you want to do that with your rook? Think it out.”
Don shrugs. “Okay.” His knight took Al’s rook. “Party going on in adjoining train car, singing, piano, lots of fun by how it sounds. What do you think?”
“I’m a dingbat! That’s what I think. I must watch what I’m doing.” Arms on his lap, his mind thought through what to do. Finally, Al slid his bishop into position.
Don took his comb out to tidy his thick auburn hair and with a sigh, slid his knight into attack. “I win!”
Both shook hands and put Don’s dad’s wood carvings into its carton.
“You shouldn’t box your king in,” Don said. “Anyway, not important. Good playing you. You know, my dad would jump up and down with joy to know I was still using his wood carvings.”
“I miss him. Good man. How long ago?”
Don thought. “Six…”
“Sand runs out fast in… hourglass.” Looking away, Al said nothing.
“Unhappy?” Don said. “Don’t. Think only happy thoughts. That is what my dad would say…Sounds raucous in that adjoining car. Want to go?”
Swish! Door shut tight at Al’s and Don’s back; room’s air was thick with carbon smog. Piano-rag had this party hopping, party animals all.
“Join us!” A salutation from a burly barman who pours two scotch at his bar.
“I’m Virginia. And you?” Passing scotch to Al and Don. “This is Sara, my sis.”
Words that got lost in a soup of booming honky-tonk and hoots from partying all around. But it was not important. Swirling to music, two pairs joyfully laughing ring out, oblivious to all in train’s car as hours fly past smoothly.
With a nod, and an invitation and drinks in hand, Al, Sara, Don and Virginia sought tranquility, privacy in a dissimilar car without a hitch.
Talking is what all four sought away from that cacophonous ‘jam.’ Soon it was known, all four want it to last.
The azure sky and the heat from the blistering sun at his back was a welcome blessing and felt good. He stretched every part of his body that he could while he examined the hull of the Nervana. His schooner was forced out of necessity to dock at this small port of West Bay, Nova Scotia. He feared repairs would be less than the standard he expected, and the time spent longer than he wished. Five days max, he thought, as he searched the dockyard to negotiate with tradesmen skilled enough to do the job.
“Ye’ve got quite a swagger there, young fella. I ain’t seen someone like ye in these parts in a long time.” He scratched the side of his weather-beaten face with the stem of his corncob pipe. “It looks like ye and yer crew ran into some rough weather.” The front legs of his wooden chair slammed down on the asphalt surface.
“Two weeks out. A living hell. Lucky to be alive.”
“The ordeal’s still written all over yer face. What’s your name?”
“You remind me a bit like me, James Stirling, not now, mind you, but when I was your age. Though, I’ll give ye it, you’re a lot better looking than I was. I’m Jake, Jake Weathersley. Let me guess, twenty-four or there ‘bouts?”
“Actually, thirty-five, old-timer,” he replied with a tetchy chuckle. “But I’m looking for craftsmen, skilled, to repair my boat. And if you know of a place with good grub and where to bunk down, me and my crew would appreciate that too.”
“I can see yer in a hurry. Let me talk to the fellas,” Jake replied, thumbing toward the red-brick garage behind him. “In the meantime, you and your crew can unwind at the Grace to Glory. About half mile that way. Good grub and whiskey. I’ll come git ye when I’ve got wha’ ye need. Tell Bess I sent ye. Tell her I said to take good care of ye and yer crew.”
“How will I know who she is,” he replied, as he watched Jake disappear into the darkness of the garage. He heard him laugh. “Ye’ll know. Trust me,” Jake shouted back.
Not an empty table was in sight. The chatter in the room stopped as the collective gaze of the patrons of the Grace and Glory fell on them. James stared back; a kink began to form in the back of his neck. The server layin’ whiskey down at one of the tables, placed her tray aside and approached him.
“You look like a deer in headlights, sailor,” she chortled. “No one will bite ye here.” She turned round to the men at the tables and with a scolding expression said, “All you leathernecks, get on about yer business and leave these gents to settle in.”
The chatter quickly turned to homes owned and sold and catches when fish once ran plentiful. While at other tables the call came for her to fetch another round.
When she turned her attention to him, James was drawn in by the shining beauty of her face and eyes capable of capturing the very soul of a sailor and plucking him from the sea.
“The lot of ye will be needin’ a table,” she said softly.
“Ye-yes,” James stammered. What he felt in that moment he sensed she felt too, a surreal exchange where the world stood still, and nothing existed except the two of them. Time stretched long and meaty and evaporated with the blink of an eye. “Jake… sent us. He said…you’d take good care of us.”
“Oh, he did, did he?” she said, hands mounted at her waist.
Her smile would brighten the dullest of rooms. No exceptions, James thought. And he felt relief by her reaction.
She cleared a table, and the men who once sat there were vociferous in their reluctance to leave as they staggered passed him with a sneer. But before they went out the door, they took time to wish Bess a fond farewell.
Time was spent easily while he ate, drank, and watched her move from table to table. When he told her his story of the past two weeks, all ears listened in. There was a crescendo of “ayes” from the knowledgeable lot when he described the rise and fall of the ocean in all its raging glory. His gaze never left her as he played out each harrowing plot.
By the time the evening came to an end, and the glad-handing had stopped, many stories had been shared, some humorous, some not. As James and his crew listened, they learned about the kindness, generosity, and compassion that lied within this isolated community.
James watched the comical efforts as each member of his crew was helped to their feet and draped across a shoulder or two. He knew their path home would be wobbly and long, but at least each would have lodging for the duration of their stay. He peered at Bess who was cleaning up at the bar. “Seein’ the time, I don’t think Jake is coming,” he said, scratching the side of his head.
“There’s no need,” she replied, counting the receipts. “I won’t be long, and you can walk me home.”
Except for the click and scuff of their shoes, the town was silent. His hand deliberately brushed against hers.
“If yer thinkin’ you want to hold my hand, I’m okay with that,” she said. A stiff breeze wound up and filled out her red hair.
Hand in hand they walked without saying a word, each comfortable in their state of quietude.
At the end of town, they came to a 2-storey home fronted by a white picket fence.
“This is where I live and where you will stay until your boat is seaworthy again,” she said.
“Is that wise?” James replied, feeling awkward. “I mean, the town’s people…”
“Shush! This is what me father had planned for ye.”
“Jake. I’m his daughter.”
Five days turned into ten, then twenty. The trope ‘love at first sight’ held as much truth for James as it did for Bess. But he had become restless and knew he could not stay.
One evening, after a long embrace, they sat on the porch swing, like many nights before.
“Ye appear troubled?” she said, grasping his hand tightly.
He sighed. And reaching into his jacket pocket he handed her a blue box with gold scroll on it.
“What is this?” she asked unable to hide her excitement.
“Open and see.”
Inside was a locket at the end of a braided chain made of the finest silver.”
“I bought that in Spain,” he said. “On the back I had it engraved right here in town.”
She turned the locket over and read what it said, From James with Love. “Oh, I must put it on. Help me.” When it hung off her neck, she hugged and kissed him. “I must show da.”
“Wait!” Her alarmed expression froze his next words.
“What’s wrong, James!”
“We must talk but I don’t know how to start,” he replied. She sat patiently facing him squeezing his hands. “No harbor was ever my home until…I can’t stay Bess. It would not be fair to you. The sea runs through my veins…its been my life, my lover, my lady too long. Its who I am.” He could see tears forming at the corner of her eyes.
“I think I understand,” she replied. She snuggled into him. “I lost two brothers to the sea. And they spoke much the same as ye. Must you go now?”
“Soon. A couple of days at most.” He stroked her long red hair. “Oh Bess, what a good wife you would be. But not to the likes of me.”
Bess never married. She bore a child nine months after James left. She called her daughter Jamie. Bess tended bar at the Grace and Glory until she was too old to complete the walk from the home she had shared with her father. Jamie studied medicine and returned to the community to set up her practice. Bess died in Jamie’s arms while holding the locket. The last name Bess said was “James.”
I remember thinking those very words, hours, maybe minutes, maybe even seconds after I first met her. I was engaged at the time and comfortably secure in the direction my world was heading. But, unbeknown to me, I was about to learn an important life lesson.
This story begins two years before I met her because, as it turned out, I had to meet someone else first.
After I graduated from high school I had no idea what I wanted to do. My dad had died two years earlier after a lengthy illness and, quite honestly, there wasn’t a lot of money. My mom worked for Murray Printing and I worked part-time packing groceries for customers at Loblaw’s.
By the end of that first summer after graduating from high school, I had managed to land a full-time job working for Canadian Kodak. How that came about surprises me to this day because the Company was known to rarely hire outside the family members of their employees. During my first year there, I was trained on five different jobs. The one job I enjoyed most was working in the Film Processing Department in the testing lab alongside an ex-vet, Gord Kee, who trained me. Fondly, I can still smell his steaks cooking on the hot-plate every Friday evening during cleanup.
I had better not digress too much here except to say that Gord was an endearing individual whose wife worked on the same floor as us except in Film Finishing. I mention this in passing because the person I was to eventually meet also worked there during the summer while a student. Her father, I learned later, was the superintendent of Film Emulsion located in a different building.
One day, I met a student who was on his work term from the University of Waterloo. His program rotated through four months of study and four months of job experience until graduation, roughly five years. During our conversations, I learned that University of Waterloo was the pioneer for this Co-Op program in Ontario. Based on his description, I liked ‘the sound’ of the University. So that got me thinking. Until then I had only considered University of Toronto. Since I had had extensive training at Kodak I thought I would have a secure money source between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next. And, if I majored in chemistry, all indicators pointed to Kodak hiring me full-time after graduation. I thought my future was securely fixed. So, I applied to their Science Program and forewent the Co-Op program.
Life doesn’t always work out the way you planned. Helen Keller had it right when she said: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature…Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
My choice, and circumstances outside my control, sent me along a different path.
During my first year at the University of Waterloo, and I must admit largely due to my instructor, Peter Brillinger, I discovered that I preferred to study mathematics. To all you ‘ughers’ reading this, mathematics is quite a creative field. Really! Anyway, what can I say? I’m a nerd and damn proud of it. The other drawing card for my decision was the newly constructed Faculty of Mathematics, fondly known as the Fortress or The Stanton Building (after one of its founders). It was the very first in Canada. Graduates would receive the unique degree of Bachelor of Mathematics. That uniqueness clinched my decision to transfer from the Faculty of Science to Mathematics.
My choice was not well received in the Testing Department at Kodak. Also, unexpectedly, Union negotiations with Kodak changed everything for students. How you may ask? It meant that all students would not be considered for employment until sometime in July (much too late for students like me) and there would be a dearth of overtime. Needless-to-say with that new information I had to change gears quickly.
I don’t remember how it all came about but I landed a position working for Loblaw’s between school terms at their egg packing warehouse at the bottom of Bathurst Street, near the waterfront. Part of my job was to ensure there were no broken eggs in the carton before packing them; if the egg carton had been compromised I removed it and placed the unbroken eggs into a new carton. Egg cartons which passed inspection were then packed in a box ready for shipping. In a nutshell (or should I say, “an egg shell?”) the job was super boring. I was the only guy, youngster, and a pampered one at that, on the line. To break the tedium, I would from time to time let the cartons jam on the conveyor belt so that I could dive in for the rescue. Most times my ‘egg carton rescues’ were successful. But when they weren’t…well…to everyone’s chagrin, the machine had to be stopped to clean up the mess.
The Floor Manager, Bob, was a tall, lean, discerning Eastern European. His eyes had a tendency to send well-deserved butterflies into a frantic frenzy in my tummy. Though I could not have used the descriptive then I would describe his eyes now as ‘Putin eyes.’ There was no hiding anything from him. He knew exactly what I had been up to. Unobtrusively, he pulled me aside to have a chat. I neither remember him ever raising his voice in anger nor mincing his words. Stern, his message was clear and succinct. Though the women on the line reminded more of my mother, he always referred to them as ‘his girls.’
“The girls’ livelihood depends on that line running,” I remember him saying. “Most are the only breadwinners for their family. There’s a quota set every day that must be met. Too many missed quotas mean someone on the line loses their job.”
His pinching words had severely bruised my conscience. Simply put, I felt terrible. And, he knew it.
Shortly after cleaning up the mess which I created, the egg department closed for an hour’s lunch.
Guilt ridden, I felt a great need for privacy to wallow in my embarrassment. But, here is where logic somehow got misplaced. I trudged off, lunch bag in hand, to the least likely place to get it, the lunchroom four floors above my work area.
I must add that before the summer was finished Bob and I often played chess during lunchtime breaks. During those special moments, he chatted about his homeland, Poland, and his studies to become a medical doctor. When he immigrated to Canada his medical degree was not recognized; with no money and a family to support, his life took him to this place. What amazed me was he held no discernible bitterness. His focus was on his son and daughter and helping them to achieve goals that he was prevented from reaching.
Why I decided to go the lunchroom on that day of all days, I did not have a clue. Perhaps I thought I could hide in one of its dark corner pockets that did not exist. Whatever the reason, it all came down to feeling sorry for myself.
Behind the lunch counter was a very attractive young girl taking orders. I had never seen her before. She had full lips and, according to regulation, her auburn hair was contained in a netted hat. As I remember it, her welcoming demeanor and smile added sunshine to the day.
My decision to dissolve into a corner quickly dissipated. I glanced around for the nearest receptacle and, finding one, I surreptitiously dropped my lunch bag into it before joining the line to place my order.
Mired in what felt like thick molasses, me, time, and the others trudged forward. Friendly chatter made it bearable. Most of it, though, was directed at her. “How are you doin’, Sheila?” “Hey, Sheila, have you heard this joke?” And on it would go. At least now I knew her name.
When I arrived to place my order, I was speechless. Words on a dove, so to speak, that had flown the coop. I’m sure I must have had that ‘deer in the headlights’ look.
I glanced quickly at the menu on the wall behind her and ordered a lettuce-cheese-tomato sandwich, exactly what I had just thrown out.
By the time she had made my sandwich and I had paid her, I had learned through my awkward attempt at casual conversation that she was a student at the University of Toronto, studying History.
Unfortunately, time does fly and this was no exception. My hour had come and gone. After a quick goodbye and glancing back to ensure she didn’t see me, the sandwich she had made joined my lunch bag as I rushed pass the receptacle.
Breathless, I arrived at my position on the assembly line before the bell rang to herald start-up in the Egg Department.
Careful not to become overly consumed with my thoughts, I schemed how I was going to meet Sheila again.
Ouch! It was totally unexpected. Her home form lockers should not have been anywhere near mine. Yet, there she was, five lockers down from me. I couldn’t help but think that it was going to be an ugly school year.
She smiled. I smiled back. She spoke to me but I neither remember what she said nor what I said to her. The exchange was cordial enough but awkward, similar to strangers forced together in a social setting out of their control. But, we were far from being strangers. Or was I wrong?
When Chris was present, he became the center of Joan’s attention. As for me, I became nothing more than cellophane. I did not exist. Passing each other in the hall, as we frequently did each school day, I wondered: Do you know I’m there?
Growing up is darn right painful.
My feet dragged academically. Hurt had turned into anger. I had become consumed with thoughts of revenge. I found no solace in my brother Ron’s carelessly doted out wisdom: “Suck it up buttercup…plenty more yet to come.” Did he not know I felt diminished? That my heart was broken? That my life was in tatters?
Did Joan even care about the depths of my despair?
I’ve been told too often that time reveals all to those who are patient. But, I’m a kid. Isn’t that in part why I’m called a kid and not an adult? Being patient takes the fun out of things. Doesn’t it? Hmm…I felt as if I had followed the rabbit down the hole into a scary horror show of Alice in Wonderland. The idea of being late for a very important date escapes me because my life was at a standstill.
Life is full of surprises.
The school year trudged on and so did I. Then one day Joan approached me out of the blue. I was dumbstruck. Blood coursed through my veins so quickly that words were washed cleanout of my brain. I could only listen. During those precious moments together space and time stood still. There were no recriminations, no rancor, only clarity. By the time she had said what she wanted to say, I knew there was nothing I needed to add. A quick reminisce drew laughter and we parted as friends.
Though she was with Chris, a quick glance and a knowing smile as we passed in the hall, assured me that she knew I was there. I still loved her; I guess that was the saddest part: loving someone who used to love you.
Two weeks later, everything changed.
I had just exited Sam’s, the neighborhood variety store, when I noticed Joan walking toward me. Her head was slung low. I called out to her and waited. She barely glanced up as she scurried by me. “Joan,” I called out. “Are you okay? What’s the…?” She had already disappeared down the walkway at the side of the strip mall.
Why did I not follow her? It’s something I’ve always regretted.
Toward the end of the week I went around to her house. There was a For Sale sign on the front lawn. And the house was empty.
I never saw her again.
Time passed like tumbling tumbleweed in a strong northwest wind.
I had become an adult. I now could vote.
As a sophomore at a prestigious university, I had become, according to my parents, the proverbial know-it-all. I’m sure they would have frowned on my regular late night debates over pizza and beer. My defense: it was a yummy experience for fertile minds that provided fresh perspectives and clarity to the world’s problems. The debates were coed. Now that would have raised an eyebrow or two in my family. Mum’s the word was decided by me right from the start especially since I was interested in one of the participants. As of late, my active participation in the learning experience had waned. It leaned toward more lascivious endeavors. My daily state of being groggy and bleary eyed did not add to my hopes of remaining on the Dean’s List.
The lecture I was trying to follow was exceedingly boring. The professor contributed greatly to lulling my brain to sleep. The attention span of a gnat had suddenly become my norm. Not good, when the content of the class—thermodynamics—was a must go to in order to achieve my degree in chemical engineering. Glancing around the hall it was easy to deduce that I wasn’t alone in my struggle. But that was scant solace.
I took in a deep breath and attempted to refocus when a ball of paper ricocheted off my head, landing on the floor at my feet. A quick scan of the lecture hall turned up empty-handed. Bending down, I picked up the paper-shot and unfolded it. A drawing of a female stick-figure and the words “Do you remember me?” was scrawled on it. I must admit, it did not ring a bell. I took a cursory glance around the hall. There was no obvious source of the projectile. Unable to stifle a yawn or two, my attention refocused on the chalkboard several rows down.
Another balled-up paper careened off my head and onto the floor. But it disappeared from view under the feet of the exiting mass of people at the end of the lecture.
Gathering my textbook and binder, I began the steep climb to the exit. In the very back row, in the middle, a very attractive girl smiled at me. She beckoned me to join her.
I sat on the seat beside her. Though there was a familiarity about her, facial recognition eluded me. “Do I know you? I have a sense that we have met before.” The corner of her lip curled up slightly but she did not reply. There was playfulness in her eyes that could not go unnoticed. I held up the crumpled paper. “Was that you?”
She nodded. “Not a bad shot…eh? The second one would have solved the mystery I can see swimming around in your head. Though the student stampede may have put you in danger,” she chortled. “Put that down to bad timing on my part…like… in Mister Roberts’s class.”
That hint hit my memory banks like a lead balloon. “Alison!? Gee…It’s great to see you…but…but…”
“If your jaw drops any lower you’re going to hurt yourself.” She glanced at her watch. “When’s your next class?”
“Who cares…the rest of the day’s yours. Lunch? It’s on me.”
“Well, when you put that way…You got a place in mind?”
“The Mucky Duck.”
I’m not big on nostalgia but our walk across campus to the pub was most pleasant. When she mentioned Joan’s name my ears perked up. Unable to get a word in edgewise, Joan somehow got lost in the many twists and turns of Alison’s catch up tales.
As we sat across from each other waiting for lunch and nursing our drafts, I brought up Joan’s name again. I learned that she and her dad had moved to Montreal, Canada. Unexpectedly she and Alison had corresponded by letter for a short time.
“Do you still write each other?” I asked, hopefully.
She stared at me long and hard, took a swig of her draft and cleared her throat. “She stopped writing after… the baby was born.”
I could feel my whole body deflate like a punctured inner tube. The pain on my face must have been obvious because Allison hesitantly continued.
“Chris Brannon…as you knew at the time …Well…She was head over heels in love with him…and…She trusted him implicitly. Misplaced trust…” She took in a deep breath. “It’s the only kind way I can describe it.”
“Then… Chris… was the father?” I reluctantly asked.
“One day while she and Chris were at Ted Lacey’s…No…She… never knew who the father was from that day. Her father, wanting to protect her, pulled up stakes and took her with him. He had a sister who lived outside of Montreal.”
We sat in silence for what for me felt like an eternity.
Finally, I asked: “Does she still live there?” When my meal was placed in front of me, I had lost my appetite.
Alison’s gaze skirted away from me. I could see that a teardrop had formed at the corner of her eye. She pushed her plate aside and reached across the table to hold my hands. Her grasp tightened. Her words did not come easily; they carried much pain. “About a year after the baby was born, I received a letter from her father. In it, I was informed that …she…had committed suicide.”
When Alison and I parted, it was dusk. We promised to see each other again.
Beside the entrance to my residence was a small copse of trees. Standing in front of them was a young girl smiling and waving at me. She was radiant and beautiful. She appeared to shimmer from the overhead light above the door. My pace picked up from a lumbering gait. But, by the time I got there, she was gone. I could have sworn it was Joan.
Some people are alive only because it’s illegal to kill them. In my book, Chris Brannon fell into that category. So, when I turned to face him and saw the way he looked at Joan and her at him, I couldn’t help myself. My fist slammed squarely into his mocking face. It was with great satisfaction that I watched him hit the floor like a ton of bricks. Up until then, I prided myself in having a handle on life; now, that handle was broken. And I feared my hand was as well. From Joan’s expression, I saying “I’m sorry” just wouldn’t cut it. Anyway, it would have been one whopper of a lie. She’d have every right to scream “liar liar pants on fire, nose is long as a telephone wire.”
“As soon as his eyes are uncrossed he’ll be just fine,” I blurted out.
Now that was a dumb statement, I thought. The wiser choice would have been to have said nothing and hung my head in shame. If earth is the insane asylum for the universe, I had just become its most favored inmate.
Joan elbowed me aside and knelt beside Chris. Needless to say, I didn’t protest. Damn it! How could I? I had ruined her birthday party before it had even got started.
She peered up at me. It was apparent to me that any love I thought she had for me had been washed away. Her face had turned a cherry red. It was as though she were being boiled. Her eyes shot arrows that her lips silently enunciated.
I needed no translator.
“Get my dad!” she screamed, venomously.
“You don’t understand,” I shouted, “Chris’s …” I stopped mid-sentence. I felt as if I’d been hit by a Mac truck. This was how she had spent her evenings. WITH HIM. Like a hurricane across an unprotected flat plain, my new reality swept in cruelly.
She glared at me. And I recoiled.
Love had lured me here. I was hooked in hopeless battle. How was I not aware?
Escape. Now! Gather your thoughts.
My mind churned with panicked possibilities.
A wall of pursed lips of saucer eyed guests gasped.
When had they arrived? How long had they been there? Had they witnessed my strife and persecution?
She continued to scream for her dad.
But, her dad had gone AWOL.
I glanced back at Joan and thought: we had been in a time and space separate from the rest.
I cleaved my way through the startled onlookers. I did not care who I knocked aside. My mind did not need to dwell on their faces. I knew them all.
“Where is my guitar?” I demanded. “Where is my FUCKIN’ guitar?”
“Here asshole,” Ted Lacey bellowed, holding it up threateningly like a wood splitter.
Chris and Ted belonged to a gang known as the Lacey Gang. They had bullied me and others since kindergarten.
Ron? Were my eyes deceiving me? No!
I never felt so happy to see my brother’s face.
Like a bear trap, Ron clamped down on Ted’s arm with his grip
“Put it down or I’ll break your wrist. Now! And carefully,” Ron threatened.
Ted did what he commanded without hesitation.
Ron waved me over. He stared at me long and hard before speaking. “Take the guitar and get the hell home. Dad’s waiting for you. Oh, and one more thing nerd-head. Your language… I think I’d better wash your mouth out with soap later.”
I was about to ask why he was there when out of the corner of my eye I saw Chris making his way toward us. Ron had seen him too. Grabbing me by my shirt sleeve, he positioned me behind him. “Scram! I’ve got some business to take care of here.” I cringed when I saw him pull out a set of brass knuckles. An attitude of tangle with me at your own risk, my brother always had this scary aura of invincibility. Now I knew why.
To say I ran home was an understatement. I flew. Faster I bet than Jesse Owens. That journey was filled with no small degree of trepidation. Every moment I expected members of the Lacey Gang to pop out to exact revenge.
Dad met me at the door. Relieving me of the guitar, he allowed time for me to catch my breath. Then the harangue began. Boy, did he chew my ear off. I was grounded for two weeks. Based on how I felt at that moment, two weeks for taking his old guitar was no big deal. Stupidly, I told him so. Anyway, Joan had hurt me more deeply than he ever could. Silence hung over us like a heavily soaked blanket. I dared not breathe. He had a strange habit of curling over his tongue when angry. Vexed, his stare cut straight through me. I waited.
“Bill, leave the boy alone. Talk later when all’s cooled down,” my mother encouraged from the kitchen.
Like turning off a switch, my dad mellowed.
“What happened to your hand? You’ll need ice on it.” Gently he examined it.
After he had put together an ice pack and wrapped it around my hand, he gave me stern instructions not to remove it and sent me to my room.
Two hours later I was called down to supper. I had just reached the bottom step when there was a heavy knock at the front door. A chair scraped along the floor in the kitchen and dad appeared. With a quick nod of his head, he directed me to take my seat at the table, while he answered the door.
Curious, I decided to linger.
Two policemen met my dad at the open door. Between them was my brother.
“Jesus…” I murmured under my breath.
A bulging piece of liver for a nose and slits for eyes, Ron quietly listened to the conversation, nodding occasionally. Whatever they were agreeing to seemed to be going well. The three of them shook hands as my brother brushed passed me on his way upstairs.
“They won’t bother you anymore,” he whispered through swollen lips. His painful smile revealed a bloody hole where teeth once securely sat.
Supper was tensely quiet. After a very brief exchange of words between my parents, mom won out and took a supper tray up to Ron’s room. By the time she had started down empty handed, dad had already banned me to my bedroom.
My parents had never raised voices at each other until that night. Nor did they ever do it again. Lying in my bed, above the kitchen, I heard the angry muffled tones of my dad, punctuated by my mom’s crying.
Clasping my hands behind my head I reflected on events leading up to today. I felt cast away on a stormy sea where not even the shore wanted part of me. There were too many questions still to be asked and answered.
Damn my brother! Until our little talk, breaking up with Joan had never crossed my mind. Unfortunately for me, that possibility has managed to weasel itself into my daily thoughts. Now it’s stuck in place with Crazy glue. I thought the summer was filled with promise. In a way, I guess, I still do. Except now it’s tainted. Damn him anyway! Caught in a conundrum to tell her or not, I finally decided on the latter. I had convinced myself that all this nasty stuff needed to play itself out.
Joan and I continued to spend our afternoons together. In my mind forever was still part of our equation. Often I brought my F.W. Woolworth guitar. My parents bought it for me three years ago. Though I wasn’t very good, Joan insisted on me playing and singing Honey Comb and Dream, her two favorites. She howled when I sang Hound Dog. I welcomed her laughter; it was contagious. We continued to share our dreams. I pretended to capture hers and to lock them in my heart. Gleefully, she giggled every time I did it. The lilt of her voice and the sweet scent of her perfume continued to affect me in ways I have never felt before. Oh, how we kissed.
Our time together melted away too quickly. And, with it, so did my concerns about breaking up.
Joan’s home was different from the others in the neighborhood. It was the only one with a green door and a small green window beside it. Beyond the door I was told there was an anteroom. I guess it made sense since her dad ran his clinic from the home. Sadly, I had heard that the community didn’t think much of him as a doctor. They said he had lost his marbles, had become queer in the head, since his wife’s untimely death. Except for the Duffy family, a family of twelve, his practice was non-existent. But, I liked him. He and Joan had come out a couple of evenings to watch me play ball. Though my team got trounced on both occasions, her dad always had a kind, supportive word or two to share. For me, that made him a double thumbs up sort of guy.
Except for those two occasions and, I must say, I found this strange, she was never allowed out in the evening. She made it plain that it wasn’t a topic she cared to discuss. Wisely, I guess, I did not pursue it. Sometimes, it’s best not to know the answer. Still, it continued to tweak my curiosity.
Standing at her door, I took in a deep breath and knocked. Until today, sitting on the swing chair with her on the back patio is the closest I had come to being inside her home. I felt nervous and self-conscious. Why I felt this way, I do not know. The guitar slung over my shoulder suddenly felt awkward and heavy. Precariously, I shifted the position of both gift and guitar and waited.
The pleasantness of her father’s smile welcomed me at the door. Normally his eyes were awash with playfulness and wisdom but today I discerned a hint of sadness. A steely proud man whatever the problem, he elicited the bearing of a military officer and the demeanor of an English country gentleman. Proud, strong and fair, his words were soft, reassuring and precise. He took my gift and pointed me along the grey hued hallway toward a room at the end. The living room and what I took to be his office because of the amply filled floor to ceiling bookcases were both heavily curtained. Layered in shadows and pockets of darkness, they offered no welcoming threshold. Though I could not account for it, the pores of this old house oozed with sadness. I felt like I was an interloper in a history that I could not possibly understand; yet its tentacles reached out for me.
Sunlight and dancing dust particles flooded out from the room at the end of the hall. My pace quickened. That’s where Joan waited.
She kissed me full on the lips. I felt my face flush with embarrassment when I realized that her father had entered with me.
“Um, happy birthday,” I exhaled, words stumbling out awkwardly.
Her father snickered as he placed my gift on the dining room table.
Her face beamed. “Oh, good, you did remember to bring your guitar. See, dad, I told you he wouldn’t forget.”
I don’t know why she asked me to bring it. She knew I wasn’t very good. “Where can I put it so that it will be safe?” I asked, scanning the room for a secure location.
“Let me,” her father volunteered. “When you’re ready I’ll bring it to you.”
Taking the guitar from me, he examined it. Glancing at me in astonishment, he said: “I’m looking forward to hearing you play.” I must have looked dumbfounded because he continued. “Don’t be so humble. It’s okay to be a prodigy. Joan never told me how accomplished you must be.” Positioning his fingers on the struts he played a few chords. And he took in a deep breath. “A Martin D-45…my, my…this is a rock star among guitars. You must feel privileged to own such a guitar?”
Mouth agape, not knowing what to say, I nodded.
“Be assured, it will be placed in a safe location, promise.”
My askance glance at Joan when he left must have said it all because she began to giggle.
“Do you have any idea what that was all about?”
Shaking her head and shrugging she took my hand. “It must be something special.”
“What makes you say that?”
“The way he was handling it—kid gloves and all that like a newborn baby. Well is it?”
“Is it what?”
“Nah, it’s just an old guitar of my dad’s. That’s all.”
My overly casual treatment of the subject belied a growing uneasiness. Grounded two weeks for the broken window was still very fresh in my mind. It sucked. And I did not want a repeat. I would have asked my dad except he was out of town on business. I had no way to reach him. Still… I could have cleared it with mom. “Anyway, who’s coming?” I asked, trying to divert my decision..
Her reluctance to readily answer my query surprised me.
Tugging my hand she led me out into the hallway toward the kitchen.
Was this a diversionary tactic?Anyway, what was the big deal about who was coming?
“Close your eyes. Don’t open until I tell you,” she instructed.
I smacked my head against the door frame. “Gee, Joan”
“I’m sorry,” came her quick reply as she more judiciously maneuvered me into the kitchen. “You can open them now.”
Vigorously rubbing my head, my eyes followed the direction of her extended index finger to the middle of the kitchen table. On it was strawberry shortcake decked out with fourteen unlit birthday candles.
Strawberry shortcake was my numero uno of desserts. But it wasn’t hers. Hers was chocolate cake—double chocolate to be exact.
WasI about to walk the plank?And this was her way to help soften the plunge?
“Ah…I’m a little loss with what’s going on.” My index finger couldn’t resist scraping some cream with a large strawberry on it and inserting it into my mouth.
She slapped my hand. “Shame on you! Others are to eat that. And take that sheepish grin off your face. It won’t help you.”
Obtaining a knife from the drawer, she smoothed out the location of my infraction.
“There, that’s better,” she said, eyeing me out of the corner of her eye. Several seconds passed before she spoke. “We need to talk.There’s something you need to know.”
She bit hard on her lower lip. I’ve got to know her well enough to know that that was not a good sign.
“You first,” I managed to say. I could tell by the question mark on her face that my reply had momentarily readjusted her trend of thought. Not known to her, I had decided that this was as good a time as any to discuss what was troubling me.
If she had had a pet, right then a there I would have sworn she was about to tell me it had died. Huge gobs of tears filled her eyes.
Whatever it was she was about to say, in that moment it was lost forever.
Following her stare into the space behind me, I came face to face with my nemesis, Chris Brannon.
There is nothing like the first love. I remember reading something about it. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the book. I do wish I’d paid closer attention. Never felt feelings like these before. When I’m with her my senses are so charged up I think I will explode. Who knows about stuff like this? I’d ask my closest bud, Tony, but he still thinks girls are yucky. I can’t imagine that my parents would know the slightest thing about it. It’s too personal to share that kind’a stuff with them anyway.
Whom do I go to, my brother, Ron? Until recently, his social interactions with me were an unequal mixture of grunts and beatings, the latter being favored. He told me I wasn’t worth spit. It was something about not standing up to him, and earning my right of passage.
A guy can only take so much before reaching the end of the road. I reached it about a week ago. Boy! Did I get pummeled! At least now I only receive grunts. But, I keep my guard up nevertheless.
Still, our truce is timely. Six years older than me, surely my brother must know something about such matters?
Standing outside his closed bedroom door about to knock, old memories came to the fore. I broke out in a cold sweat.
Here goes nothing, I thought.
“Is that you runt?” he called out.
“How did you know it was me?”
“Are you kidding? Wimpy knock, wimpy brother. So bugger off.” His command was punctuated with a resounding fart.
The pit of my stomach churned in ways I had never felt before.
He must have heard my heart pounding in my chest because he yelled out: “Well, are you coming in or not?”
“I’m thinking about it. Anyway, you told me to bugger off.”
Unexpectedly, his door swung open and we were face to face. Hooking his fingers inside the front of my T-shirt, he pulled me in.
Silence reigned for several minutes. Feeling captured, I sat obediently anchored on his bed.
Drawing up his chair, he turned it around, sat down and rested his arms across its back and stared at me. “What d’ya want?” he asked, continuing to scrutinize me.
My mouth moved but nothing stepped out.
“Hey! Give it here!”
Reluctantly, I followed his direction to make eye contact.
“That’s better. I just want’a see if I’m right.”
“Right? Right about what?” I asked, somewhat confused.
“Pull my finger and I’ll tell you.”
“Must I?” I hated doing this.
The pungency of his fart was worst than any outhouse I’d ever been in. “What the heck, Ron…That’s awful! “ I complained while waving my hands in front of my face. I would have left right then and there but my legs were wedged between his chair and the bed.
Once he stopped laughing, he took on a more serious demeanor. “How’s it goin’ between you and Joan, anyway?”
“I love her. What can I say? She’s perfect.”
“Oh…I see. She’s your first.” He shrugged. “Watch your backside.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s a pretty piece of stuff; other guys are going to want her.” He straightened up in the chair. “Have you…you know?”
“Kissed her? Of course I have…many times.”
His forlorn askance glance told me that I had completely missed the target of his query.
“Move it,” he said, removing the chair and gruffly sweeping me off the bed with his arm. Reaching under the mattress, he pulled out a Playboy magazine and handed it to me. “Mom and dad can’t know. Do you hear me?”
“Okay then, read and enjoy. It will tell you all you’ll need to know. But, I want it back in clean condition. Oh, another thing…” He pulled out his wallet from his back pocket and retrieved a small square package and handed it to me.
It felt squishy and I could feel the outline of something circular contained in it. “Aww…?”
“It’s a condom. It’s for your banana.”
“It’s for your hard-on, nitwit. Once you’ve figured out what to do with it, you’ll need it.”
I shoved it into my pocket.
Ron left the bedroom, stood in the hall listening, then returned. “Strange. I thought I heard… dad. What I’m going to tell you is super hush, hush. Mum’s the word. Got it?”
I pinched my forefinger and thumb together and drew it across my mouth.
“I’ve got a film. Just knock if you need it. A little word of wisdom: first love’s no big deal. You’ll be over it by summer’s end. Just remember nerd-head, that there’s plenty of fish in the sea. Now get out!”
A few minutes later I was practicing grounders by throwing my Indian rubber ball off the back wall of the house. My first League game was tomorrow and I had managed to secure the position of Short Stop on the team.
I was surprised to see dad’s Ford Fairlane pulling into the drive. He has never been home this early. I called out but he didn’t hear me and entered the house directly.
Until my tête–à–tête with Ron I never thought of the possibility of Joan and me breaking up. Why would I? It’s never happened to me before. What does Ron know anyway? Why did I take that damn Playboy? It’s probably a setup. If mom and dad find out, I’ll be up a creek without a paddle. I can see it now: baby brother caught red-handed in the act of a taboo ritual. “Shit! I’ve got gel all over the inside of my pocket. Why did I squeeze it so hard?”
Anger can sure change the intent of an action because when I released that ball I knew immediately that I shouldn’tve. I was already in flight when it crashed through the dining room window; four yards away, I was well hidden behind a bush.
Boy! Dad was pissed! Scared, I huddled lower and watched as he surveyed the damage. Under the circumstances, the last thing I expected to feel was giddiness. Nevertheless, I did. I think it came about when I foolishly marveled at the break neck speed with which I had hopped over those fences. The reality of my situation soon brought me to my senses. The promise and optimism of my summer had… well…to say the least…definitely gone sideways.
Punishment of some kind was a certainty. Only its severity was in question. So, I settled down to wait. My chances would be better, I thought, once my mother came home.
Dusk was beginning to settle in when the worried calls from my parents and hunger pangs drew me home like a magnet.
The sun’s rays were just peeking above the horizon when Sergeant Snowden parked in front of Inspector Collier’s home. Twenty minutes earlier than usual and without his second cup of tea, he was grumpy. What made matters worse, the local newspaper, The Echo, was not yet out, and that meant no cross-word puzzle to work on while he waited. He took notice of a black limousine, five doors down on the opposite side, containing three men. Glancing at his pocket watch, he mentally recorded the time. The sleepy slumber of the neighborhood encouraged him to do the same. And, with a disheartened sigh, he crossed his arms and settled back to wait.
He wondered why the Inspector would want to go to 29 Edgestone Road. That 2-story, stone clad house to blokes like him peered down with the self proclaimed majesty of a pompous, overbearing lord. In short, as far as he was concerned, the house and occupants fitted well together. That’s why he never understood how Collier and Suzanne Moodie had come to meet and fall in love; he was from the Working Class, and she…well she was from the snooty Privileged Class. He could only put it down to the old adage that love knows no boundaries.
Still… he mused.
As for her brother, Reginald, now that was a different story. He had been Collier’s Divisional Commander. And, based on the tidbits he had heard, Collier had held him in low regard. What little he had had completely dissipated in the mud mired madness of senseless slaughter and butchery during the assault at Passchendaele. Britain lost thousands from their best assault divisions; among them was Collier’s brother, Joe. Salt was rubbed into this grievous wound when he learned that General Douglas Haig, chief architect of the carnage and a close friend to the Moodie family, had awarded Reginald the Victoria Cross for Valor. Knowing it was not deserved, Collier had vociferously voiced his displeasure. Sickened by Reginald’s sense of entitlement, along with that of his family, he broke off all contact with Suzanne. She had continued to profess her love for him but, as the story went, Collier would have none it. He had moved on. It was around that time that he had begun to date Lila.
Before returning to the Front, Collier was unexpectedly promoted to Captain. He suspected the Moodie family had a part to play in it. Whoever was behind it or however it came about, the end result was that Collier spent the remainder of the First World War, out of harm’s way, in Military Intelligence, Section 6.
Snowden clicked his tongue. An uneasy smile formed at the corners of his mouth. Suzanne Moodie had never married. And, since her brother’s death, she was now the sole proprietor of 29 Edgestone Road. Unrequited love carried lots of baggage: bitterness and cynicism: melancholy and despair. And, whatever the reason for Collier’s visit, he did not want to be stuck in the middle.
He glanced at the black limousine ahead. Only two silhouettes now appeared in the vehicle. Were they part of the surveillance Collier had told him about? He decided to investigate.
The door to Collier’s home swung open and Lila stepped out. “Sergeant,” she called out, waving invitingly. “Come in, will you, and have some tea. The Inspector is running a wee bit behind this morning.”
Briefly, Sergeant Snowden continued to eye the limousine while acknowledging her entreaty with a wave of his hand. Fate had smiled on him. And the decision to turn back was an easy one. He would receive his much needed second cup of tea.
Werner melted into the shadow as the officer entered the Collier home and the door closed behind him.
He had been watching the three men in the black limo all night. They worked on two hour shifts. One of the men had entered the back seat to sleep forty minutes ago.
The sun’s rays continued to rise and scatter across the horizon.
Patiently, Werner waited.
Pavel was supposed to be one of these three men. The photograph and description left by Otto had been seared into his mind. Werner licked his lips. Today, he would dole out Nazi justice for the murder of his comrade, Klaus Becker.
He attached the silencer to his weapon. The key elements were stealth and swiftness. He wanted to be gone before the neighborhood was aware of what happened.
When a bright shiny ball formed by the sun reflected off the middle of their windshield, he casually walked to the front of the vehicle and fired.
Dead fish eyes of the two men in the front seat stared back at him.
Pavel was not among them.
The third man did not do as expected and remained hidden. Werner crouched beside the front wheel and waited. He did not have to wait long. A splay of bullets pierced the back door. Werner grunted satisfyingly. The hole-pattern in the door told him the man was lying on the floor. Not wanting to lose his brief advantage, he quickly crawled under the vehicle and let loose a deadly spray of bullets along its floor-board.
Rising to his feet, he guardedly peered through the window.
The man’s bloodied head lay in obscured darkness. He concluded that the man was too thin to be Pavel.
The street had come alive with people.
No time to verify, Werner turned and ran along the alley from whence he had come. His car was parked on the street two alleys away. He glanced over his shoulder. No one followed. Still, his instincts told him he was not alone. He stopped. Blood vessels pulsated in his temple while he watched and listened.
Surprisingly, he discerned no immediate danger. Still, his instincts remained pricked as he began to walk.
An odd uneasy, deep rooted discomfort settled over him as he sat behind the wheel of his car. Experiential knowledge of any kind of feeling was never his long suit. He readily accepted his emotional impoverishment. Anyway, it had suited well the life he had chosen. So when he shifted into gear, gun ready at his side, he was fully prepared for whatever life was about to dole out to him.
Slowly, he drove along the street. His eyes skirted side to side. Intermittently, he checked the rear mirror.
The neighborhood was slowly awakening.
Where was Pavel? Otto had told him that he would be there.
He saw no unusual activity.
Ahead, police cars herald their approach.
He waited for them to pass on the main road and, then, drove in the opposite direction.
Spring had arrived early and, along with it, hopes that our home team, the Milwaukee Braves, would take the World Series again. Last year was the first time they had won the pennant since moving from Boston in 1953.
A cornucopia of scent wafted through the open window. Riding its gentle warm breeze like sweetness from heaven were spicy dianthus, the heavy scent of gardenia, nicotiana, lily-of-the-valley and lilac. My mom had taught me well and as she had promised, identifying those blossoms and more had become as easy as printing and writing my name.
This was my senior year and I felt especially grown up. Graduation was two months off. Though next year meant travelling to another school to complete grade eight, it was not without some degree of trepidation. Still, for the most part, I eagerly looked forward to it.
Chin saddled against the heel of my hand, I was locked in a daydream. Baseball tryouts were still a month away and the newly formed Duffield Baseball League portended tougher competition. So, when the snow had melted and the ground barely dry, I eagerly began to practice with my Indian rubber ball. I was always amazed by its speed as it coursed its way through the uncut grass. Agility in catching and accuracy in throwing were paramount as the ball bounced off the narrow section of wall beside the dining-room picture window. A nasty hop the other day left me with a shiner. Boy, did I get a ribbing from my friends when they found out.
Mister Roberts was one heck of a great teacher but somehow today his voice was surreal and did not resonate with me. Dipping the nib of my pen into the ink well, I neatly scratched his notes into my notebook from the chalkboard. I casually glanced around. My peers’ expressions said it all. I was not alone in my mental truancy.
Mister Roberts stopped teaching. Bracing himself against the front edge of his desk, he faced us with his usual toothy smile. “No sense me trying to teach you science when you’re not thinking about it. Huh? So let’s stir things up.” He glanced out the window. “What a beautiful day. Real learning begins out there.”
My attention suddenly piqued. The collective mental slothfulness of the class began to evaporate like falling dominoes.
He picked up a book from his desk and began to read:
“Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.”
Tilting his head slightly, he asked: “Hmmm…Now, what does this poem by Christina Rossetti have to do with science?”
The class shared a dumbfounded collective except Karen who waved her hand wildly in the air.
“Go ahead, Karen,” he said.
“Observation,” she replied.
“You’re right, the first step in the Scientific Method.”
He went to the back of the classroom and returned with a large brown empty cardboard box from the supply cupboard and placed it in the middle of his desk. “Soon we will be going outside.”
The energy level in the class jumped a few notches.
“Quiet down and listen,” he instructed half laughing and beaming a large smile.
Suddenly, a frown etched across his face; his demeanor became unusually stiff as his attention was directed behind us.
I could feel the energy being sucked out of the room.
The class turned.
Time and backbones noticeably became rigid.
The principal stood in the open doorway. His stern and uncompromising appearance sent a chill up and down my spine. An unpleasant twist gathered in my gut.
Conditioned on how to acknowledge his presence, the class in unison said: “Good morning, Mister Monkman.” He barely acknowledged our greeting. And, without so much as either a smile or an apology for interrupting the class, he waved our teacher over to him.
Beside Mr. Monkman stood the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. To say that I was mesmerized did not do that moment justice.
“Finish copying the notes from the board, class,” Mr. Roberts said, joining them in the doorway. “Once done, write down and explain the skills and tools you will need to do an effective job in observation.”
The three of them stepped out and closed the door behind them.
Every guy’s gaze—that’s fifty percent of the class—was fixed on the window in the door. That’s fifteen pairs of eyes including my own vying to be noticed by her. But, I was sure she was looking at me. I smiled and nodded. She returned it. I gave a circumspect wave. She did the same.
A ball of paper ricocheted off the side of my head and rolled onto my desk. This ticked me off. I knew it came from Alison. Lately, her favorite pastime was bonking me on the head. Once, every day for a solid week, she had left a yucky clump of her hair on my desk. I cringed with the thought of what came next. And I didn’t have to wait long.
Straddled between her desk and Diane Dawson’s, Alison performed a bizarre series of acrobatics. My glare was assailed by a screwed up face and a rude thrust of her tongue.
Ignoring her, I drew a bead line between my nemesis, Harry Brewer, who continued to smile, nod and wave, and the door. One conclusion resulted. And, it did not favor me.
Miffed, I had barely about faced to cocoon myself in a huff when a cacophonous sound of cascading desks followed by a resounding thump turned the room into chaos.
The pain was immediate. The desk beside me had wedged itself against my ankle. Everyone around me scampered to the door.
Splayed out on the floor between overturned tables and empty ink wells was Alison in a puddle of ink. Her red hair had turned a weird color of blue. Each time she wiped the tears from her face, she increasingly took on the appearance of a boxer who had been severely pummeled in the ring.
Not without great effort I restrained myself from giggling as I could feel Mr. Monkman’s cold stare squarely on me.
“Don’t move, Alison. Stop touching your face,” urged Mr. Roberts. “Someone, get the nurse.” He retrieved a bundle of paper towels from the back cupboard and fastidiously layered them around her to sponge up the ink. “Now, Alison, please remain still while I clear away these tables.”
Mr. Roberts’ tall muscular frame made easy work of uprighting the topsy-turvy desks on top and around her. I felt a great deal of relief when he removed the desk against me.
“You alright?” asked an unfamiliar voice.
I turned towards its source. Her face was so close to me that I was swimming in the deep blueness of her eyes. I had lost my words.
I felt flush with embarrassment when she used the back of her hand to lift my jaw into the closed position.
“A fight?” she asked pointing to my eye.
“Ah-huh.” I lied without hesitation. There are lies and there are dumb lies. This was the dumbest. But, at that moment, I felt a need to puff myself up. Some might say like a peacock during mating season, and, quite honestly, they would have been correct. “I’ll tell you about it if you’ll let me walk you home today.”
She smiled. “Okay.”
“What’s your name?”
A low hum settled over the class. The nurse had arrived and was examining Alison. A few minutes later she gave the class thumbs up. Alison was A-1 okay. Nevertheless, she and Mr. Monkman escorted her to the school dispensary. A full week would pass before we saw her again.
By the time graduation rolled around, I had fallen head over heels in love with Joan as she with me.
Time seemed to sprout wings as grade seven ended. And, like a spring board, we were launched into summer. Little did I know at the time that heartache and mystery awaited me at its end.