The first note Mary Jo slipped to me was a shocker. She and Janet Haddock wanted to know which one of them I liked best.
Which one I liked best? I didn't like anyone best! It was fifth grade for crying out loud. Girls weren't on the radar screen.
But then there was the thing with Joel, my best friend. One day out of a clear blue sky he ups and announces he's going over to Becky Smythe's house.
"Becky's house? What are you going to Becky's house for?"
"Watch TV," he said coolly.
"Whadda ya mean?"
"We sit on her couch down in the basement and watch TV."
"You sit next to her on the couch?"
"Yeah," said Joel. I looked at him, this guy who I suddenly didn't know from Adam. "It's fun. We just goof around."
I showed him Mary Jo's note.
"Whoa! Lookin' sharp!" he said.
"Whadda I do?"
"Tell 'em who you like."
"I don't like either of them."
"Just play along and see what happens."
I took out a piece of paper and wrote, "Dear Mary Jo and Janet, I like Mary Jo best. Yours truly, Dale."
Without a word, Mary Jo snatched my note from me and ran off giggling with Janet to a far corner of the playground, where I guess Janet got the hatchet right in the back of the neck.
Then comes a new note with a heart drawn on it. I had it out on my desk. I looked up and stupid Lamar Wells was turned around in his seat grinning at me. It slowly dawned on me the whole class had gone silent. The teacher, Mr. LaPointe, was standing right behind me. His arm came past my nose and plucked the note right out of my hand.
I shot a glance over to Mary Jo. Her face was frozen in horror. Her mouth formed a perfect O.
Mr. LaPointe sidled up to the front of the classroom with my note between his two fingers like it was a playing card he was about to flick at a hat. Any of the gray-haired old teachers at my school would have given me a break, but not Mr. LaPointe. He unfolded the note and read it to himself. I looked at Mary Jo again and saw in her face what a loathsome idiot I had just become.
"Shall we get back to our math?" Mr. LaPointe said, glowering at me.
That was it with Mary Jo.
"Who are you taking to Fun Night?" Joel asked.
"What?" I said. "We're going to Fun Night together, aren't we?"
Apparently not. Everybody was pairing up this year. Joel had already asked Becky. That night I tossed and turned. I tried a trick for getting to sleep where I got out from under my covers until I was freezing cold and then crawled back under the blankets and tried to fall asleep while I was warming back up. It wasn't working.
A couple of days later, there was an air raid drill at school. We marched into the hallway and sat down cross-legged on the floor with our backs against the wall. Then we bent forward and folded our hands over our necks. This was supposed to protect us from all the flying debris caused by the atom bomb that Nikita Kruschev had promised to drop on us. After awhile, I got tired of staring at the crack on the floor in front of me and looked up. Right across the hall was Della Parker. Her long thin fingers were clamped over her skinny neck. The other girls were whispering to each other and giggling but she was quiet and perfectly still. Part of her wavy brown hair brushed the floor she was bent over so far.
Della Parker. It struck me that I couldn't remember anybody ever calling her just Della. You said her whole name, Della Parker. She didn't seem to have any friends. She was smart. She could always answer questions when she got picked. She sat on the far side of the room from me. I could picture her over there with her skinny arm raised up, bent at the elbow a little. It was never straight up and down.
When the air raid drill was over, Della raised her head up and saw me looking at her. She wore glasses with frames that were turquoise blue on top and clear on the bottom. The lenses were thick. Her eyes swam behind them, slightly magnified. She looked back at me and smiled.
"Della," I said to Joel on our way home from school.
"What?" he said, picking up a little helicopter seed pod that had dropped off the oak tree that grew at the corner of the playground. "Who?"
"Della Parker," I said.
"Oh, yeah. What about her?"
"Maybe I'll ask her to Fun Night."
Joel didn't say anything right away. He flicked the seed pod into the air and we watched it whirl to the ground. "She's sort of a brainiac, isn't she?"
"Well, yeah," I said.
It took me awhile to work up the gumption to ask her. One day I waited for her after school. I caught up to her on the sidewalk and fell into step. But I didn't know what to say. It was like there was a freight train roaring through my head.
"Hello, Dale," she said puzzled.
"I…uh…thought that…uh…are you going to Fun Night with anyone?"
"No, I have toŚ"
I didn't let her finish. "Will you go to Fun Night with me?" I blurted out.
She stopped. "Gosh, Dale, that's so nice of you to ask but I'm supposed to sell cookies at the Girl Scout booth."
It was like a swift kick in the stomach. "Okay," I said and then I didn't know what to do. Walk off? Talk to her?
But she rescued me. "Wait…you know what…I guess it would be okay if I went around with you for awhile. There are other girls selling cookies. We can take turns."
"That would be great," I said. "Umm…I'll find you at your booth. So…okay…I'll be there." And I ran off.
In the car ride over to Fun Night, my mom asked, "Dale, honey, are you going to be with Joel tonight?"
"No," I said looking out the window. "I'm just going to walk around."
"So you're going alone?"
"No. Well, part of the time. I don't know. A bunch of us are getting together."
"What's Joel doing?"
"He's going with someone."
"Oh," my mother said.
By the time we got to the school, it had gotten dark and a sharp wind was blowing. I hurried inside. It was already crowded. The air was warm and smelled of popcorn. The younger kids were dragging their parents from room to room where all the games were set up. The older kids were standing around talking. A banner hung on the wall, "Welcome to Fun Night!"
The Girl Scout booth was at the far end of the corridor. I could see the girls in their uniforms. I decided to look around before I joined up with Della. I went upstairs and went into the first room I came to. It was the Ring Toss. Kids were throwing rings made of rope at soda pop bottles that had been glued down to a big piece of plywood. I watched for awhile and then started out the door. I ran into Joel and Becky.
"Where's Della?" Joel asked.
"I…uh…I'm looking for her," I said.
Becky focused her attention on me. "Della?" she said. "Della Parker?"
"Yeah. Della Parker," I said.
"Ooo-kay," she said grinning.
They went in to do the ring toss. I made my way past a cakewalk that was going on in the hallway and came to the far staircase. Halfway down the steps I stopped and spotted Della at the Girl Scout booth. She was helping a kid wrap his cookie in a napkin. She had on her uniform. Her sash in the front was covered with badges.
I came down the stairs.
"Oh, Dale. It's you. Hi. Can I get you a cookie?"
I was thrown by the question. "N-no," I stammered. "I came to pick you up."
"I know," she said laughing. "I was just kidding. I have to tell Mrs. Weingarten I'm leaving."
She disappeared into the room behind the booth.
"Okay, Dale. Where are we going?" she said when she reappeared.
"Let's go to the fishing hole."
We entered a room labeled "Ye Olde Fishing Hole" where sheets had been hung over a line that cut the room in half. We were given bamboo poles with a string attached to the end and a clothes pin on the end of the string. We threw the lines over the sheets and waited. Before long a tug signaled to pull back the line. I had a pack of chewing gum on my line. Della had a whistle. We opened up my gum and each had a stick.
From there we hit the Ring Toss and the Wishing Well. Then we got in the line for the Ghost House. A teacher was there to make sure only a few people went in at a time.
"I guess we have to wait," I said. "Unless you want to do something else."
"No. This is fine," Della said. She brushed her hands down her Girl Scout skirt and straightened her sash.
When we finally got inside, a ghost jumped out at us from behind a screen. Della reached for my arm and held it tight as we felt our way back to the cloak room where a black light lit up the fluorescent signs in front of a row of bowls: "Brains!" "Eyeballs!" "Guts!" We gamely pushed our hands down into each bowl. At the end someone handed us paper towels to wipe our hands off.
After that Della asked if we could go by the Girl Scout booth to see how things were going. I left her there for a minute to use the bathroom.
Lamar Wells was there when I went in. He stood washing his hands.
"Saw you with Della Parker," he said to my back. "She's just the ugliest girl in the whole school."
I kept my head down and ignored him. When he opened the door to leave, the noise from the hall was suddenly sharp and loud. Then it cut off as the door closed.
I rinsed my hands in the sink, ripped off a length of paper towel, and slowly dried my hands. The ugliest girl in the school? I hadn't even thought about what Della looked like. I hadn't thought of that at all.
I took a long drink from the water fountain. Della was standing in front of the booth waiting. She brightened when I came over to her.
"The girls here can handle the booth," she said. "I can still be with you."
"Okay. Let's…" I looked up and down the hall to see what we hadn't done yet. "Let's go watch the cartoons."
Mr. LaPointe was running the projector in the cartoon room. Only a few kids were there. The cartoons weren't too popular. We sat through the end of a Tom and Jerry film. Mr. LaPointe flipped the lights on and rewound the film. Then he threaded the next film through the projector. It seemed to take forever. Della and I sat and waited. Finally the lights went back off. It was another Tom and Jerry cartoon.
When that ended, Della said, "Dale, do you want to do something else now?"
"Ya know," I said. "I'm getting sort of tired. Maybe I should take you back to the booth."
Della looked surprised. Her mouth opened just a bit, then shut. "Let's go back then," she said.
When we got to the booth, she reached out and gave my hand a little shake. "Thank you, Dale," she said and quickly turned and walked through the door behind the booth. I stood there for a minute with a bad feeling welling up in me.
After that, I didn't want to hang around. I found my mom in the teacher's lounge sipping coffee and talking.
"I'm ready to go," I said.
She looked at her watch. "Well, that's a record."
Outside it was freezing. It was like winter had arrived that night. I zipped my jacket up as high as it would go. I could see my breath. Orion was glittering brightly above me. I jumped into the car and scrunched my hands deep in my pockets. I felt like curling up on the car floor in front of the heater like I used to do when I was a little kid.
"Dale," my mother said, "who was that girl I saw you with?"
A voice in my head said, It was Della Parker. Della Parker and she was so nice.
But out loud to my mother, I said, "Nobody."
"Originally from Wichita, Kansas. Spent four years in Poland on a Fulbright exchange and married there. We now live in Monterey, California, have two teenage kids and almost no time to write." E-mail: gdudney[at]ctb.com.