Junior year was my best year in high school. By then, I knew what was up but didn’t have to worry about graduation or applying to college like the seniors did.
It was the year the orchestra got to go to Prague for a competition. I had never been anywhere. The other oboe player, Guinevere Sobolanski, had travel stickers all over her oboe case.
“Prague?” she said. “I like Prague.”
Guinevere knew a lot of things I didn’t. She read a lot. She’d pull out a book in orchestra when we were sitting out a movement. She had skied, downhill and cross-country. She saw an avalanche once. I’d never been to the snow.
Of course she made her own reeds. She bought her own cane online and split it herself. She had all the equipment: a guillotine, a pre-gouger and gouger, a gauge, and a shaper. It took her four hours to make a reed that lasted seven hours on her oboe.
She wanted to teach me to make my reeds and I used to go over and keep her company while she was working, but the school bought mine for me. At least I didn’t use the plastic variety.
Junior year was also when Maria Callan joined the orchestra as principal cello. She sat at the head of the orchestra’s left wing, facing Mr. Frost. The oboes were front-row middle, so Maria was in profile to us.
Maria was beautiful. Or whatever comes after beautiful on the good-looks scale. She had a face and figure that didn’t belong in high school. She’d pull up her skirt and spread her legs and draw her instrument in between her thighs and my eyes would drift over to her from Mr. Frost and his baton, and stay there.
“Close your mouth,” Gwen would say. “You look like a panting spaniel.”
Gwen and I, unlike Maria, were normal. We both had a few zits. We both had a lot of eyebrow. Out in the hallway between classes, we were both more or less invisible.
“You’ve got to quit staring at her,” Gwen would say.
“You’re embarrassing yourself.”
“I don’t feel embarrassed. I can’t help it.”
“What’s the point?” Gwen would say. “You’re never going to talk to her, are you?”
“I saw you talking to her. What’s she like?”
“She’s nice but she doesn’t seem too bright.”
Compared to Gwen, she probably wasn’t bright at all, but somehow that seemed like a good thing to me. I wasn’t daydreaming about talking to her.
At this time, the elders in my church were taking each teenage boy aside to discuss the facts of life. Brother Germers and I sat down on folding chairs facing each other on the gym basketball court. The gym was deserted.
“I’ve never kissed a girl,” I said. “I haven’t even held a girl’s hand except when we’re dancing at the socials.”
“I’m not tasked with discussing carnal relations with you,” Brother Germers said. “I do understand that your body is pure. That is a very good thing. I believe that all our boys are pure in body.”
“I want to talk to you about your thoughts,” Brother Germers said. “Your thoughts are just as important — they’re more important — than your corporeal body. Your body is going to die and return to the dust. Your mind and soul are going to live forever. You have the choice now of spending eternity with your Heavenly Father or being thrown into Hell, to be tormented by Satan and all his minions for eternity.”
I could see where this was going. I began to sweat. Brother Germers was not going to accept any waffling.
“Boys your age are confronted every day with young women who are blossoming. Satan and your hormones want to turn your thoughts in impure directions. I’m talking about lust.”
“Lust is a sin. It’s a worse sin than the actual lustful act, because it pollutes your mind, not just your fleshly shell.”
“Yes,” I said. “Sure.”
“Do you lust?”
“Are your eyes, and your thoughts, drawn to certain girls? Do their bodies cloud your mind? Are their firm young bodies like blazing beacons that cause impure thoughts to burn within you?”
“Alright. There is one girl.”
“Thank you. What are you going to do about this problem? You can’t participate in services here with a corrupted mind.”
“I won’t look at her.”
“I think that’s wise. Let’s meet again in two days to check on your progress.”
I was glad to get out of there. Fortunately, Brother Germers did not make me go into detail about those corrupted thoughts or what they led to, exactly. The thoughts mostly centered on Maria’s bosom.
“That guy is a knucklehead,” Gwen said. “Utter nonsense. Wait. You’re not going to look at her? Really?”
“My folks love that church. They’re old-school.”
“Learn to lie, buddy.”
I couldn’t help looking at Maria so I did lie. Brother Germers seemed to believe me and he left me alone after that. He’d smile and nod whenever our eyes met at church.
A month later, we left for the competition. When we landed at Prague’s Vaclav Havel Airport, a big bus was waiting for us and all of our instruments. We stopped at our hotel and then had a quick look at Dvorak Hall in the Rudolfinium. After that, the bus took us on a tour of the city. We stopped at St. Vitus Cathedral and Prague Castle and that evening had dinner on a cruise boat on the Vlatava River.
The whole thing was like my first visit to Disneyland as a kid. Magical. On the boat, Gwen and I sat at a little table for two by the railing. The sparkling lights along the shore and the violet evening sky were quite beautiful. I was dividing my attention between the sights, and Josh and Maria, sitting together at another little table holding hands. Josh was a big, handsome first violin.
“Really?” Gwen said.
“I can’t help myself.”
“What are you thinking?”
“Haven’t you ever been in love? Or whatever this is?”
“It ain’t love, brother. It’s not even puppy love. You don’t know her. You wouldn’t like her if you did know her.”
When we got back to the hotel, I watched the happy couple enter the elevator, heading for her room or his, no doubt, with the roommate staying out of the way. The chaperones were clueless.
“Do you want a book to read?” Gwen said. “I know you didn’t bring any.”
“Not really. I’ll just sit here in the lobby and watch the world go by. What are you going to do?”
“I was going to finish a reed, but I brought some games. Scrabble? Boggle?”
“I guess so,” I said.
We went up.
“How come you have a room to yourself?” I said.
“Odd number of girls.”
There was one light on, a lamp on the end table by the bed.
Gwen got out the Boggle box. We sat on the bed. She handed me a pad and pencil. Set up the hourglass. Shook the box.
“It seems sort of mysterious, them down there doing what they’re doing while we sit here and play Boggle,” I said.
“I’m not sure ‘mysterious’ is the word,” Gwen said, “but it’s definitely something.”
She put down the tray and flipped the hourglass.
My brain seemed to be working faster than usual. The Boggle words jumped out at me. I beat Gwen easily in the first round.
“Hey,” Gwen said. “How did that happen?”
Josh and Maria didn’t seem so mysterious to me now. I looked at Gwen. Her eyes in the dim light were very large and dark. Her skin glowed gold. The mystery wasn’t somewhere else. It was in the room with us.
There was something I should know, should do, that was essential, but I had no idea what it was. I couldn’t speak. The moment lasted. I didn’t want it to end because when it did, I was afraid I would have lost something forever.
She raised an eyebrow.
“Ready for the next game?” she said, when I didn’t go on.
This time I couldn’t find anything. Gwen clobbered me.
“Have you ever been fascinated with somebody but you don’t even know them?” I said.
“I haven’t had much luck with boys,” Gwen said. “I expect I’ll meet somebody in college or grad school or even later than that.”
“We aren’t ready yet, you and I.”
“Yeah,” I said.
I was alone in a room with a woman who knew a lot more about life than I did. I could see her chest rise and fall as she breathed.
“Take that energy and learn how to make your own reeds,” she said. “I’ll help you.”
“Yeah. Listen, Gwen…”
“Focus,” she said.
She rattled the box.
“Give me a good game this time,” she said.
I live in Plano, Texas, with a French bulldog named Winkie. Winkie weighs about twenty pounds and requires a lot of attention. He’s patient and kind, but he suffers when left alone. That’s all right. I’m retired and home all day. When I go to the store or anywhere else, I take Winkie with me.
When Janet was alive, she’d spend time with Winkie too, especially before I retired. While I was off at work, Janie and Winkie would keep each other company. I lost Janet eight months ago. Pancreatic cancer. We were married for fifty-one years.
I go for a walk twice a day with Winkie. He’s something of a couch potato, but he’ll put in the effort, at least for fifteen minutes or so. I carry him part of the way. Because he’s a little bulldog, he doesn’t handle temperature extremes very well, so I always take that into consideration. We don’t go out if it’s too hot.
I also swallow one or two of my wife’s left-over pain pills before we go out. I need two new hips. Without the pills, I’d never make it. After the pills kick in, though, I’m good to go. Our house backs up on Bob Woodruff Park. I’ve cut a hole in the fence and Winkie and I have worn a path through the woods to the the South Pavilion. When we get to the Pavilion, the first thing we do is check out the Quincentennial bur oak. This is the largest, oldest tree in Plano – the oldest tree in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, as far as I know – and a perfect spot for Winkie to do his business.
We arrived at the tree one day to find a young fellow standing there, staring up at it.
“Do you know how old this tree is?” the boy said to me, as Winkie approached its trunk with his nose to the ground. The boy looked to be sixteen or seventeen, slender and neatly dressed. His bike lay on the ground beside him.
“They used to call it the Bicentenial bur oak,” I said. “Two hundred years old. But they changed that to Quincentennial.”
“There was a storm a while back and a big limb broke off.”
“That’s right,” I said. “Winkie and I were over here the next morning. Good thing nobody was standing under it, because that limb was a monster. It fell from forty or fifty feet up.”
“They thought the tree was two hundred years old,” the boy said, “but when they measured that limb, it was two hundred years old all by itself. That’s when they knew the tree was more than five hundred years old.”
“Nobody around here when it sprouted but the Indians,” I said.
“Indians on foot,” the boy said. “They didn’t have horses yet. The Spanish hadn’t got here yet with the horses.”
I thought his historical chronology was a little off there, but I kept my own counsel about it.
“My name is Morris,” I said. “That’s Winkie.”
“I’m Jesus,” the boy said.
“Isn’t today a school day?” I said.
“I was feeling kind of down. I decided to come over to the park and think about things. I like to hang out by this tree. It probably sounds crazy, but I think it knows things.”
“You go to Plano East?”
“Yes. I’m living in a foster home in Ranch Estates, so East is close by.”
“Those are nice homes over there,” I said.
“Raul and Rosa Martinez. They’re old. They have no children of their own. They keep four of us there at all times. I think it’s like their own personal charity that they do. We don’t see them much. They travel a lot. They’re rich, of course.”
Winkie had come over and sniffed the boy. Jesus squatted down to pet the animal. He grinned.
“Great dog,” he said.
“You’re on your own? Your parents… If you don’t mind me asking.”
“My parents died in an automobile accident. Yes, I’m on my own most of the time.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. About your parents,” I said.
“That tree may be five hundred years old, “Jesus said, “but it never had to put up with anything like my folks getting killed.”
“I’ve got a bur oak in my back yard,” I said. “We had a gardener years ago who planted it for us. It’s a youngster compared to this one, of course.”
Winkie and I moved off down the park path and left Jesus standing there, staring at the tree.
Plano is a town that started small a long time ago, got bigger, but is now surrounded on all sides by other communities. It’s part of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. I’ve heard it called the wealthiest city in America, with the highest per-capita income, and the safest city in America, with the lowest crime rate. It’s on lists as the best place to live.
If you happen to be a fan of the Houston Astros, Texans, and Rockets, maybe Plano is not quite so perfect at that.
The town is also flat. It helps to like flat if you live in Plano.
When Winkie and I returned the next day, Jesus was there again.
“Are you all right?” I asked him.
“What’s that metal up in the tree?”
“It’s a lightning deflector or controller or regulator or something. They don’t want a stray bolt knocking the tree down in a storm… You’ve got to respect this tree. It was old when Shakespeare was born.”
“That’s what I was saying yesterday. I was wondering if I could connect with the spirit of this tree somehow.”
“Like if I were buried at its roots.”
“By the time you’re old and buried, you won’t be worrying about a tree. You’ll have children and grandchildren and you’ll be worrying about them.”
“I mean, if I were buried there now.”
I took a good look at this kid.
“How are you getting along in that foster home?” I said.
“I get pretty low. They’ve got me seeing a shrink. I take a pill.”
“Are you a danger to yourself?”
“I don’t think so, but sometimes I get these ideas. Like with the tree.”
“You want to go get a taco?” I said. “Talk a little?”
“Sure,” he said. “Why not?”
“You know Crazy Tacos?”
Not the best name for a taco place, at that moment, but it’s nearby in a little strip mall just south of the park.
“Ride your bike over there. Winkie and I will go get our car and meet you. We’ll have a little lunch.”
Which we did. Jesus talked about school at Plano East and about his foster home. I talked about Frito-Lay, where I spent most of my adult working life. The Frito-Lay world headquarters is located on the other side of Plano. Winkie waited outside with his leash tied to a post. I could see him through the window. He was patient but I could tell that he did not approve of being left alone. I could understand that.
I just wanted to be sure the boy wasn’t thinking about doing something stupid.
After that, we’d meet at the tree in the park sometimes and talk for a while. He didn’t show up every day, but he’d come several times a week. We had pizza at Napoli’s, which is in the same place as Crazy Taco. We talked about the death of his parents and my wife.
“My counselor says I’ll get over it,” Jesus said. “Time heals all wounds.”
“You won’t forget it, but as time goes on, it won’t hurt so much,” I said.
“Did time heal your wounds?”
“I wasn’t wounded,” I said, “so there was nothing to heal.”
“I don’t get it.”
“When Janet died, part of me died. No wounds involved.”
Jesus looked skeptical.
“You saying your hurt was worse than mine?”
“Look, Jesus. My wife and I had more than fifty years together,” I said. “I’ve got no complaints. I wish it had been me instead of her that died, but it didn’t happen that way. It was the natural flow of life. For our kids, their mother’s death saddened them, but like you say, their wounds healed. In your case it was worse. Much, much worse. A terrible tragedy. Your parents aren’t supposed to go when you’re still a kid. You’ll need lots of help to get on with your life – to deal with your sorrow and your pain. The difference between you and me is, you have a future to go on to. You still have your life waiting for you to live. You aren’t supposed to leave early.”
We ate in silence after that.
When we went out, Jesus knelt to pet Winkie.
“You’re a great dog,” he said.
As he climbed on his bike to go home, I asked him if he had any use for a car.
“I can hardly drive anymore with my bad hips,” I said. “I usually call a cab. Do you have a license?”
“Sure. I’m sixteen.”
“Drive the Taurus when you need to get somewhere that the bike can’t take you.”
“Thank you, Morris,” he said.
The following week I asked him if he’d like to work part-time at Frito-Lay. I’ve still got a lot of friends there. He told me that he would.
I arranged it. He could hop in the car after school and drive about fifteen miles due west on Spring Creek Parkway to get to Frito-Lay. A half-hour trip when the traffic’s not bad. After he’d been there a week, I called Ernie, the friend who got Jesus the job in his department. Ernie told me that Jesus was fitting in well.
A month later on a Saturday, Jesus was visiting my place for lunch. After lunch we were going to take Winkie to the vet for a checkup. We finished eating and Jesus played with Winkie on the living-room floor while I cleaned up.
“I think you saved my life,” he said when I came out of the kitchen. “I want to repay you but I guess I can’t right now.”
“I didn’t save your life. You’re a strong young man. When we met, I could see that you were just pausing for a minute in your life to take stock – that you were deciding what next step to take. It was easy to help you… but there is one thing you could promise me.”
“If anything ever happens to me, that you’ll take care of Winkie.”
“I love Winkie,” he said. “Nothing is going to happen to you, but I promise anyway. Right now, rest your hips. I’ll take Winkie for his checkup today and then we’ll swing by that dog park at Jack Carter Park. I drive by it every day on the way to work. When we get back, I’ll make you some dinner.”
“Thanks, Jesus. At Jack Carter, please stick to the fenced small-dog area, OK?”
Before finding Jesus, my one big concern had always been Winkie, but I wasn’t worried now. Winkie had a new friend and protector.
As soon as they left, I went into the bedroom and assembled Janet’s remaining pill bottles. I picked out the sedatives, the tranquilizers, and the pain-killers, and I took as many of them as I could without throwing up. I didn’t want two new hips. I wanted Janet. I didn’t like the idea of Jesus and Winkie finding me dead when they got back, but now that my affairs were in order, I was off to join my wife.
Elvis is seventy-seven now, closing in on seventy-eight, but in the right light he can look a lot younger. He lost his extra weight a long time ago. He runs on the beach. He’s deeply tanned by the Florida sun. Sometimes when I look at him, I can see the handsome young man in his old movies. I’m only fourteen but I have all his movies, so I’m familiar with the sweet bird of his youth.
Elvis lives in a small bungalow on Coconut Bayou, Siesta Key, in Florida. It’s perfect. A wall and a lot of trees hide his home from the street. It’s well kept up. The grounds around it are thickly planted, practically jungle, always full of color and tropical birdsong. And cats. Elvis has come to love cats.
He rarely goes to the mall anymore, but he will catch a ride over to Westfield Southgate on the Tamiami Trail in Sarasota during the Christmas season. It’s a smaller mall than Westfield Sarasota Square, farther down the Trail, but it’s got the shops he likes best.
He’ll spend a couple of hours, picking up a few gifts. Last year he sang the blues in the Saks back showroom with Loose Johnny Booker, who was working as mall Santa at the time. That was the day my grandmother Myrtle connected with The King. She moved out of Sunshine Harbor Assisted Living and into his place shortly thereafter.
I’m Agnes, by the way. I live in Sarasota with my parents and little sister. I like to hang out with my grandmother and Elvis. Who wouldn’t? They are two of the world’s all-time special people.
They decided this year to return to the mall on the anniversary of their first meeting there. I recognized Elvis in Pottery Barn on that day one year ago, when he was buying little gifts for the waitstaff at the after hours club where he sings occasionally. Grandma had been hugged by Elvis at one of his concerts when she was a teen in Biloxi and she never forgot it. After speaking to The King in Pottery Barn, I ran off to find her and bring her back to meet him herself. We found him in Banana Republic.
Grandma was at the mall with a group of her neighbors at the time. They were having a Sunshine Harbor outing. Word about Elvis got around the group and most of them joined us in the clothes store. The song requests began and Elvis led us over to Saks and performed for us after the store manager, Mr. Gold, got him set up on the showroom stage. It was right there onstage that he and Grandma struck up their special friendship.
I tagged along on their anniversary-day return trip. We started the celebration with a visit to The Pretzel Twister. I chose cinnamon, Grandma garlic, and Elvis Italian. We also got three dips: cheddar cheese, cream cheese, and honey mustard. Yum.
Next we visited Banana Republic and Grandma and Elvis reenacted their meeting over by the changing rooms, this time ending it with a kiss. Old as he is, Elvis still radiates a magnetism and charm that can’t be described. Grandma is no slouch either.
This man. Elvis. What magic does he possess? Fat or thin. Young or old. The gods gave him something that most of us don’t have. He’s surrounded by an electric aura. Whenever I visit his home and he comes into the room, I never need to look up. I always know that Elvis has arrived.
Ditto when Elvis leaves the building.
After their romantic moment in BR, we walked over to Macy’s to check out the Christmas puppet theater. The mall was mobbed with locals and snowbirds doing their last-minute shopping.
Macy’s had cleared some space near the Customer Service area. The puppet theater faced out from the wall and a large audience of children sat on the carpet in front of it. Elvis knew the store manager in charge of the event and the owner of the theater. They prevailed on him to do Santa’s singing part in the show that was about to go on. He obliged them in that cordial way of his.
Grandma went around with him to the back of the little theater, out of sight, and the show manager fitted Elvis with a mike. He unfolded chairs for the two of them. I went out front and sat with the kids. A lot of parents were leaving their children there for the duration of the show, and heading off to shop. The store had a security detail acting as uniformed babysitters, although I don’t think anyone had planned for this to happen. I took charge of the children around me and maintained some kind of order. It was a lively, boisterous crowd, especially when the lights went down and a spotlight lit up the little velvet-plush theater curtain.
The curtain went up and the play commenced. The plot was something about Santa running late on Christmas Eve. His sleigh needed fixing. He sang about it. Elvis sounded good as Santa. His voice has roughened with age but it grabs me just as much as his old recordings. Santa got into a little duet with an elf and I realized that my grandmother was singing too. Very cool.
The children mostly behaved themselves. The guards snatched up a couple of young troublemakers and removed them from the area.
Then came a moment in the play that amazed me. The scene was set in a family’s living room on Christmas Eve. A fire was lit in the fireplace. Not some winking red lights or red ribbons blown by a fan or any other version of theatrical fire. The set designer for this production had included a small working fireplace with an actual fire in it.
“What the…?” said half the security guards at the same time.
The fire was contained and no doubt safe, although how the puppet folks could guarantee that, I have no idea. The problem wasn’t the fire. The problem was the cute little fireplace and its chimney, which stuck up through the roof of the house and from which a pretty little plume of white smoke was rising, rising, rising up to the sensitive smoke detectors in the ceiling.
My eyes followed the little curlicues as they rolled up to caress the detector sensors. After a pregnant pause, during which I held my breath, the fire alarms began to screech, the emergency lights sprang into life, and the ceiling sprinklers gushed out torrents of water, which fell like rain in a monsoon. After a moment of open-mouthed paralyzed amazement, the children jumped up and began capering and prancing and screaming in delight. The security guards and a few parents tried to round them up and herd them out of the store, but none of them wanted to go.
The kids had to be run down, one by one, horse-collared, and carried out to the crowd of frantic parents who had gathered at the store entrance. I ushered Grandma and Elvis toward daylight through the perfume section.
When we emerged from the store, we encountered a scene of chaos. Hysteria reigned supreme. However, no one seemed to be hurt. Elvis stepped over to the Santa area. Loose Johnny Booker was Santa again and Elvis joined him up by his throne. Without further ado – without any ado – the two of them launched into an a capella rendition of Blue Christmas.
I’ll have a blue Christmas without you
I’ll be so blue just thinking about you
Decorations of red on a green Christmas tree
Won’t be the same dear, if you’re not here with me
Loose Johnny pulled two guitars out from under his throne – he never went anywhere without them – and he and Elvis filled the instrumental break.
And when those blue snowflakes start falling
That’s when those blue memories start calling
You’ll be doin’ all right, with your Christmas of white
But I’ll have a blue, blue blue blue Christmas
By the time they finished the song, the crowd had quieted and gathered around. Elvis launched into his personal holiday favorite, the bluesy “Santa Claus Is Back In Town.” In that one, Santa rolls into town in a black Cadillac.
They followed with the sad “Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees” and then the inspirational “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” and the classic “Merry Christmas Baby.”
By the time they finished the set, staff from Call Day Spa was handing out towels, Gap Kids had donated clean underwear and shirts, and Starbucks and Toojays were serving hot chocolate.
Elvis and Loose Johnny in his Santa suit got a big hand. I toweled off and was ready to go. This was Florida, after all, not the icy north.
It was my second year in a row of great Christmas shopping with The King. The beginning of a tradition, I hope and pray.
The year I turned twelve, my big brother invited me to go out with him on Halloween. I said yes. I always said yes when he invited me on one of his adventures. This time, though, I didn’t really want to go. I wanted to go to the Halloween party at the Whitaker’s farm. I had fallen hard for Hannah Blumenauer. My first, unspoken, love.
“We’ll go to the party, I promise,” Steve told me. “Scarlett expects me there too. But first we’re going to sneak around and tip over some privies.”
Steve had just broken up with Scarlett. I was surprised to hear him mention her. She was just about as wild as he was, so they made a good match, but their split-up was famous all over the county because of the public fireworks it produced.
“I don’t think Scarlett is going to be waiting for you,” I said.
“Sure she will,” Steve said. “You’ll see. She’ll forgive and forget.”
Since I had never had a girlfriend, I let it go at that. Just the same, everybody said Scarlett was still mad as a hornet at Steve. She was telling anybody who would listen that she was going to get even with him for being a two-timing rat.
“We’ll never tip over a privy,” I said. “You know how careful everybody gets on Halloween.”
“We’ve got to tip one,” Steve said. “I’ve got a bet with Charlie that we do. He’s got to tip one too.”
I just shook my head. Maybe I was only twelve and he was older and wiser, but I knew from the start that we weren’t going to get near an outhouse after the sun went down, never mind turning one over.
When dinner was through and we had cleaned up the kitchen – Steve washed and I dried – we put on our costumes and set out. I was a sailor and Steve was a soldier. Our dad left at the same time, taking our younger brother and sister to a party for the little kids at the church. Mom stayed home with a pie she had baked, in case somebody showed up.
The farms in Greene County are all spread out. If you want to trick-or-treat on Halloween, you can’t get to very many farmhouses on your bike. On the other hand, you’ll be given a nice, fresh-baked treat at every place you go. After you’ve sat and eaten a couple, you’re ready to quit for the night.
We headed over to the Olafsen place first. We left our bikes by the road and made our way through the orchard next to their house. The moon was almost full so we didn’t need our flashlights. We had cut through that orchard a million times before.
“I wish a cloud would come along,” Steve said. “I feel like we’re as easy to see as if it were daytime.”
There weren’t many clouds in the sky. We were in for a bright night, getting brighter as the moon rose higher. We climbed through the fence rails and circled behind the barn. We hadn’t got halfway to the privy when the barking started.
Olafsen had chained his mastiff Chuck out by the privy to keep watch. We were old friends with Chuck. The problem was, he was making a lot of noise. Olafsen would hear Chuck’s barking turn happy and know what was what before he even came outside. We turned tail. Chuck’s disappointed whine followed us.
Next we rode over to the Kelly place. We took the dirt road that ran between our pumpkin field and a fallow alfalfa field. As we came on, we could see a glow up ahead. By the time we pushed through the corn stalks behind the farmhouse, we could see that Mr. Kelly had set out lanterns all around his privy. Never mind the moon. The lanterns lit the structure bright as day.
“We should have brought masks,” Steve said. “We can’t do anything with all this light.”
So much for the Kelly place.
We had to ride a mile down the county road to get to the Rickenbacker farm. We left our bikes on the shoulder and took a path that skirted a lot of blackberry bushes. No dogs. No lights. The only thing we spotted as we crept toward the privy was a solitary figure sitting in a cane back chair smoking a pipe.
“Rickenbacker,” Steve said in a whisper. “Who sits out all night guarding a privy? That’s just stupid.”
With that, we gave up and headed over to the party at the Whitaker farm.
“Are you interested in a girl at this party?” Steve asked as we rode. He knew that I had started noticing the other sex.
“I told Hannah I might dance with her,’ I said.
“Hannah. Good for you. She’s real cute,” Steve said.
“Are you still going to try and get back with Scarlett?” I said.
“Absolutely,” he said.
“She hates you,” I said. “You broke her heart.”
“Brother, you just don’t know girls yet. If I play my cards right, I’ll be back on track with her by the end of the night.”
“You’re nuts,” I said.
The party was well along when we got there. The Whitakers had a large family room in the back of the house and it was decorated with black and orange crepe paper and bats on strings and cornstalks and so forth.
They had already played Murder and Bandage the Mummy and now they were listening to records and dancing. I went over to Hannah, who was talking to her friends Anne and Daphne. They were all dressed as princesses and Hannah looked like one for real.
“Where have you been?” she said.
“Nowhere,” I said.
“Un huh. Did you have any luck nowhere?”
“Nah. We should have come here in the first place.”
“Why is Steve talking to Scarlett over there?” Anne said.
“He thinks he can get back together with her.”
The three girls all shook their heads.
Hannah and I danced. We drank punch and ate cake. The Whitakers had some candy for everybody to take home.
I saw Steve and Scarlett go out back. I knew he had a pack of cigarettes. If Mom or Dad caught the smell on him, there would be the devil to pay, but Steve would just laugh it off. He got me to try cigarettes and cigars and a pipe, but I didn’t care for any of them. Not yet, anyway. I didn’t want to chew or dip either. I didn’t mind drinking beer when the opportunity arose. No sign of any at this party, though.
When it was time to go home, the Whitakers brought out a hay wagon pulled by a tractor. Most of us climbed on. Steve and Scarlett had disappeared somewhere. It was a swell hay ride, passing by each farm and dropping off kids as we went. Hannah and I held hands, which made me a little light-headed. Luke Whitaker on the tractor waited at her house while I walked her up the drive to her door. I didn’t have the nerve to kiss her but we did agree to see each other at school the next morning. Which wouldn’t be hard because the school was so small.
When I went to bed, Steve still hadn’t come home. The next morning at breakfast, he came down with a cast on his arm. Mom wasn’t talking to him but on the way to school on our bikes, Steve told me that Scarlett had talked him into going with her and Mary Beth and Charlotte to tip over the privy at her house. She told him she was mad at her parents and wanted to pull this trick on them.
We were taking it slow because Steve was riding his bike using just one arm.
“Once we got to her place, the four of us sat in Charlotte’s car for a while, drinking beer and smoking. Once we were drunk enough, or at least once I was drunk enough, we snuck around the house and headed out back. Scarlett told me that after we tipped over the outhouse, she’d take me back to the barn and we’d snuggle. My reward for helping. But you know, I don’t think the girls had drunk much at all.
“We got back there and all of a sudden, Scarlett shushed us. Then she told me to hide for just a minute in the privy until the coast was clear. I wasn’t thinking too well and I went in and because of the beer, I decided to do my business while I was waiting. But Scarlett had mounted a latch hook on the door in advance and now she locked me in. Then the three girls tipped the thing over. I landed on my arm and got a fracture.
“The girls ran off. Mr. Hutchins came out and dragged me into the house and called the sheriff. The sheriff took me over to Doc Morris to get my arm set and then brought me home. Mom and Dad were up and worried. The three of them gave me a good talking-to.”
“I told you Scarlett was crazy,” I said.
“I can’t help it,” Steve said. “I’m in love with her. I can’t wait to get to school today and get my one good arm around her.”
This is a good example of how I learned about life from Steve while we were growing up, although in this case I’m not exactly sure what the lesson was.