A Big Red Balloon!

All through elementary school, each class I was in exchanged Valentine cards, and we all generally gave everyone else in the class a card. If someone didn’t, it wasn’t a slight, but forgetfulness on their part. We were just kids, and even with a list of our classmates it was easy enough to lose your place and skip a name.

Still, we all got cards from almost everyone else, and it was just as hard to detect when someone overlooked you as it was to avoid missing a friend or two. Of course, most of us had friends in other classes who we exchanged cards with, so we all went home with a fistful.

I remember sitting in the front room when my parents came home, and I’d proudly show them each and every card. Dad would grunt his approval and my mother would my-my over them. Then I’d give them the cards I’d made for them, give my mother the flowers that Dad had bought for me to give to her, and give Dad the coconut macaroons that Mom picked up. I’d get a card and chocolates from them, too, and they’d have wine and candles with dinner and send me to bed early.

Of course, by around fifth grade there were girls I’d taken a particular interest in, so they would get special cards with heart-shaped lollipops taped inside them. I suppose it was typical, but they’d open the card and smile at me, and I’d blush when they did that, and they’d blush when I smiled back.

I wish I still had that when I entered seventh grade, but I’d entered puberty during that summer before middle school started, and I had become both self-conscious and quite shy, at least with girls.

I grew two inches that summer, mostly in my legs, and my feet had jumped from a boy’s size six to a men’s size nine in just a year. I felt as agile as a bulldozer with a broken tread. It wasn’t just my size that was changing, either, but almost everything about me, except my sunny disposition, of course.

My face wasn’t bad, but it changed a lot, and by the time school started I had at least a clue as to what I’d look like as a man. I also noticed, with some attendant horror, that I was getting an Adam’s apple, and the kind other people might become aware of.

And hair! God, there was hair showing up everywhere, and it was darker than the hair on my head. I spent most of that summer in jeans and long-sleeved shirts, no matter how warm it got. I felt that I was becoming Harry the Hairy Ape, or King Kong, and I didn’t like it one bit. I even started to get a little moustache, but I think I was the only one who looked close enough to notice it.

I had a couple of friends, and puberty had set upon all of us, but I was advancing the fastest. It was way more than just growing up, because we were becoming different people as we advanced out of childhood into adolescence.

I knew all the kids in the area, and I liked most of them. Best friends seemed to come and go, but that particular summer, the one between sixth and seventh grade, I was hanging around with Rodney Blanchard, who went by Rod of course, and Emil LaChance. The three of us fancied ourselves to be artists, and we spent endless hours working on a cartoonish mural. It was pencil on hand-towels art, and the towels were a roll we swiped from the men’s room attendant’s cart at the train station one day.

It was fun, though, and reasonably artistic, until Rod mentioned that the endless piece of paper made him think of the Last Supper. Of course, we went back the length of it and drew in an ultra-long table, but then we started drawing people and animals eating. The mural lost its character after that, so we started clomping around and camping out in the hills around town, and forgot about art.

Camping was fun, though it took us a long time to figure out how much food was enough. One night we spent at the top of a cliff with just a can of soup, and no opener. We managed somehow, but overnight it rained a real downpour, and in our discomfort we decided we should start a rock band instead of camping so much. It would be easier, and it would provide us with a way to get rich.

Emil already played the drums, and I’d been taking guitar lessons, so Rod bought a tambourine and a harmonica, and decided he’d be our singer. That was fun, and all we needed was some equipment to make it sound right. My guitar was acoustic and Rod had no microphone or amplifier, and thus all we heard were Emil’s drums. He was getting pretty good, too.

We started this campaign for an electric guitar for me, and a microphone for Rod.

Rod’s family wasn’t like mine. His mother was nice, as was his middle brother, but Rod’s father was a prick, and his oldest son followed in those footsteps, so life in their house was tough on my friend, and he avoided being home when he could.

In the end, when my father agreed on an electric guitar for me, and an amplifier, the man at the music store added a cheap but workable microphone for no cost.

We busted the charts through the month of August, mostly in my garage because it was far from civilization. Emil’s parents liked my guitar playing, but only on my old acoustic, and Emil could only use his drum set at his house when they weren’t home. Forget Rod’s house. We could do things there like clean our nails using his father’s stiletto knife, but making music was out of the question.

We play punk and grunge, and we chose those because they’re fun to play, and we can act a little rebellious, even if Rod is the only real rebel.

What we did, mostly, was make each other laugh. Emil was just naturally funny, while Rod harbored the sort of anger that came out as funny. I was the Laugher in Chief. My sense of humor probably bordered on the insane, or maybe just the inane, but when I found something funny I would almost choke to death laughing. I’m not especially funny, so I do the laughing, and when I start others follow.

Well, they start laughing when they see me drooling and convulsing, all helpless in my own mirth.

Anyhow, that was our summer of reckoning in a way. We’d all be teenagers by the time the next school year was over.

We had friends that liked to listen to us play our music, and we actually became pretty decent. Emil’s uncle pinstriped cars for a dealer in his spare time, and he did some fancy work on my guitar and Emil’s bass drum. We eventually came up with the lame name of ‘Woman’s Work’ for the band, because it was stupid and had nothing to do with anything. We added a bass guitar player named Paul Stimpson. His father made a video of us for YouTube that came out pretty good, and we gained some YouTube blog fame that sure didn’t hurt when we started Middle School.

We didn’t have screaming girls chasing us down the halls, but we weren’t the unknowns we would have been otherwise.

“We should have done it naked,” Emil said one afternoon in October. “Then we’d have real fans, and girls all over us.”

“Right,” Rod growled. “We could have made our own child pornography with us as the stars.” He scowled, then smirked. “You know what? It might have been funny if we did part of it naked. Like tape most of it from the front like it is, then we could take our clothes off and they could do a little of the back like that.”

“The back?” I asked helplessly. All I could envision was subtitles: “Woman’s Work from the front,” then our bare rear ends captioned, “Woman’s Work behind the scenes.” I lost it like I usually do, and had a very merry, solitary laugh.

The other guys were trying not to laugh; their cheeks were puffed out and their faces were red, and when I noticed that I started on another bout, and they finally gave up and let it go.

That was typical for us, and we joked the afternoon away.

“I gotta go,” Emil said eventually. “Dad says if I flunk algebra there’s no more band. He’ll help me if there’s time before dinner.”

Rod sighed, “I got a report due on Friday, and I didn’t really start yet. I should go, too”

Paul and I watched them go, then started putting our guitars away. Paul kind of intimidated me. He rounded out the band pretty well, but we never talked very much. He was thin and blond, with a kind of pimply face. He wasn’t big, so it wasn’t his size that frightened me, but rather that he was so very quiet, and he often had this look on his face that I can only describe as dangerous. It was like he’d just as soon disembowel me as look at me, and he might actually enjoy the disembowelment.

That’s why I was surprised when he said, “You guys are pretty good.”

I looked at him, expecting something further, but he was back to wiping his guitar off.

“Good what?” I asked. “Don’t say musicians, because we’re not.”

He didn’t look at me. “I meant good guys.” He turned to me and smiled. “I like this.”

“The band?” I asked.

He was still looking at me, and I noticed that he had grayish-blue eyes. “Yeah, the band,” he said, “But I like you guys, too. You’re kind of magnetic.”

“Magnetic?” I asked in surprise.

Paul closed his guitar case and latched it, then stood and looked at me. “Yeah, that’s the word. You guys have everyone all polarized around you.” His eyes found mine, and his eyebrows went up. “What? You didn’t know that?”

I shook my head dumbly. I was magnetic? I polarized people? This was news to me, and I didn’t automatically believe it. “You are so full of it,” I said, latching my own case. Then I stood, and I asked, “You gotta go? You can come in if you want.”

He said, “Really? I can stay a little while.”

“Come on, then,” I said as I turned to go. The garage we practiced in was just an old building on the property. Our house was old, and had actually been a factory once, but you’d never guess. There was this old building in a back corner of the lot. It was maybe forty feet long and fifteen wide, and we called it a garage because it had a garage door on the front ... the two-part kind that swings out. It also had ancient looking product logos painted on it, and all faded. The only one I ever heard of was Coca-Cola, and even that took time before I discovered it meant Coke.

My father thought he’d put a workshop out there one day, and had the place wired, but the workshop idea went nowhere, and it was far enough away from the world that me and my friends could make as much noise as we were capable of without ruffling a single neighborhood feather.

Paul and I walked to the back door. Our house was old, built in the early 1800’s, and it was kind of beat up, but still pretty neat. The back door went into the kitchen, and there was a big fireplace there; one you could cook in, and it had a Dutch oven. The house had a total of five fireplaces, plus one more in the basement that my father told me, when I was little, had been used by witches to boil up little boys who’d been bad. It looked the part, with a big, cast iron pot in there on a grate.

I didn’t challenge him about that, because the entire basement was a gloomy, scary place. There were rooms separated by brick walls and by wooden walls, and there was no fathoming their original uses. And there was that fireplace with the pot in it. I didn’t like it down there.

The kitchen had been upgraded since those days, but we weren’t a particularly tidy family. Paul looked around the big room, and his eyes widened here and there, but there was no disgust on his face about our piles of junk on the counters, the newspapers and magazines, the books. He didn’t say anything, either, and kept his mouth shut until we walked through a bathroom and another kitchen to get to my room, which had its own door to the outside. It was an odd path for sure, but in that house you were always walking through a bathroom because the bathrooms were interior ones, and nobody had satisfactorily explained the little kitchen outside my bedroom. Nobody used it, either.

I thought my room was cool, and fought my parents tooth and nail when they wanted to renovate it. When the house had been a factory, my bedroom had obviously been some kind of showroom. It had wide planked floors, some of the boards easily sixteen inches wide, and there were built-in display cases made of wood and glass. I used those for my dressers, and I had my train set under the glass. I had three big windows to the outside; the kind that have two panes of glass on top and two on the bottom, and there were crabapple trees out there that shaded my corner. I didn’t even need air conditioning.

I looked at Paul after he followed me in.

“Wow!” he said, looking around; then he looked at me. “This is your room? Holy …”

I was surprised. “You really like it?” Most of my friends forgave me my room, but they found it kind of spooky. I looked at Paul as if he was nuts, and just found a wide-eyed look. He wasn’t looking at me, but at everything around him. He put his nose to a glass display case and pronounced, “This is leaded glass! Oh my God!” Then he looked at the lamps in the room, and the overhead light, and they were all made by Tiffany, and not even the best examples in the house. ”Are those real Tiffany lamps?”

“You like that?” I asked, because I certainly liked it.

“Oh, man,” he said breathlessly. “Yeah, I like it. I love things like this.”

I smiled at him. “I do, too. Wanna see the good lamps?”

His eyes widened, “There’s more?”

I said, “All over. The best one’s in the dining room.” I caught his eye, “It’s a chandelier: an original by Louis Tiffany.”

Paul’s jaw dropped, and he followed me numbly. I couldn’t believe that I’d met another kid my age who liked things like Tiffany glass! He even recognized the bubbly glass in the display cases, which was clear, as being leaded. I thought I was the only person on Earth who knew that.

I showed him the chandelier, then the other pieces in the house, and he especially loved my own favorite, which was the little overhead light in the front hall. It was a kind of upside-down, four-sided pyramid. The glass was mostly eggshell-white, but with art-deco inserts of red and amber, and it was one of the prettiest things I ever knew of.

Paul was ecstatic. “Oh, man, I love it, Barrett. It’s just the neatest piece!”

I said softly, “You can call me Barry, you know. Everybody does.”

He looked at me and said, “I will if you want. I think Barrett is a pretty cool name.”

I just looked at him; then we walked into the living room, which is big and unimpressive. Paul said, “I gotta get goin’, man.”

Right then my mother came in, and after I reminded her who Paul was, he said to her, “I love your house.”

Mom smiled and said, “We do, too. It’s an old firetrap, but unique in today’s world. Will you stay for dinner?”

Paul hesitated; then said, “I would, but it’s already time to eat. My mother, you know?”

“Next time, then,” my mom said, and she looked at me. “You can invite him, just let me know.”

I saw Paul out to the street, and I watched as he walked away. I’m a moron when it comes to people, and I’d missed Paul by a long mile. Even my best friends teased about my house, and I liked it just the same. Old can be good, and the new houses they were building for rich people were copycats of our place. Now Paul came in and liked exactly the parts that I liked best, and I felt a new closeness to him.

To think: just a few hours earlier he intimidated me. Well, hello!

After that afternoon, Paul and I became fast friends, and by Christmas I considered him my best friend.

* * * * * * *

Our little band got a job playing at the school for the first dance. We were free, which helped, and we didn’t have enough material for the whole dance, so we only did one set, and the rest was a disc jockey.

It didn’t matter; people liked us, and after we finished, Rod said, “First one with his hands on Mary Ann Mitchell’s ass is the man to follow downtown.”

We all laughed, and when I danced with Mary Ann, I let my hand slide down to her rump, and she did the same to me, and I swear! That caused an electrical charge to go off inside of me that I was not ready for.

I was in love! If it took getting married, I was ready for that, too, but the girl we called MAM, for Mary Ann Mitchell, had me totally horned up. Sex in the first degree! Damn!

There was a problem, of course. At twelve, Mary Ann wasn’t allowed to date, and when I brought the subject up at home, my own father suggested that I might be too young, too.

We still saw each other, Mary Ann and me, and we kissed and touched, but it seemed like eyes were always on us, so we kept our PG rating.

I think nature would have shown us what to do, but we didn’t take the chance. I also think it’s a good thing, because what we shared was really a bodily attraction. We never talked about anything important. Not once. Our thing was sexual, not cerebral, and I, for one, learned a lot in the process of seeing her.

I could be interested physically and not otherwise, and it amazingly came back to Dad’s ‘facts of life’ talk a few years earlier. He laid reality out for me then, as if I didn’t know it already, but then he shared his own reality, which was that sex with no caring was an empty act, and that if I did things that way, I’d regret it every time. Sex with love, though, even if the love didn’t last forever, was the way to go. He said that almost wistfully, too. “Barrett, whatever you do, do it with love.” He smiled at me, put his arm around me, and said, “I’m not talking just about women. You choose a job you love, and do that after you choose the town you’ll love to live in.” He looked up and said, “Then you’ll see, son. Then you’ll see, and you can be as happy as me.”

I looked my question at him, and his eyes watered as if he might cry. “Barrett, listen. You’re a happy boy because I’m a happy man, and your mother works to keep both of us happy.” His look intensified, “This isn’t a random thing. We didn’t fall into happiness by accident. We looked for it … made it be this way.” He pulled me to him and nuzzled my shoulder and neck the way he did.

“Boy, you have it in you, and I see you doing it already. You treat people well, and you make your friends happy. You play your guitar and you make your school happy.” He squeezed me tighter, “The way you are, Barrett, just the way you are. You can laugh like a hyena with his ass on fire, but it’s the best laugh in the world, and everybody loves it. Don’t lose that, don’t lose it. You’ll get the girls, just give it time.”

I cuddled into him and said, “Okay.” Then I added, “Daddy.”

My father sighed, smacked my shoulder gently, and said, “Get to bed, son. It’s late, and you still need to grow.”

I didn’t feel normal, really, because I didn’t know what normal was. I felt loved, though, and never questioned it. I’d just felt it fresh again from my father, and my mother was no less loving. More, even, but I knew always that I was a loved child, and I sensed that the love was what my friends were missing.

Not much I could do, though.

The school year marched on, and we got our December report cards right on time.

I got As in English, Gym and Algebra, Bs in everything else except Modern Societies, which I thought might include some nudity. It didn’t, and my disinterest earned me a C.

Christmas came and went, and I finally joined our own modern society with my own cell phone, which my father showed me the basics on. By New Year’s Eve I was showing him how to work the camera, how to send a picture, how to text and IM.

He and my mother were going to a house party that night, and for the first time ever, I didn’t have to have a babysitter. They said I could have some friends over if I wanted to, and Rod was eager to accept. Emil said he’d stop over for a couple of hours, but his family was having their own party and he wanted the good food that went with it. I asked Paul, too, and he couldn’t give me an answer. It sounded like his parents were arguing over something, and he was stuck in the middle of their moods.

Paul did show up, and he was there early. My parents were still home, so we hung around the fireplace in the living room and talked with them. Mom had stocked the house with a decent supply of junk food and, just in case we lost our minds, she’d cut up some vegetables and made a dip. There was also a tray of sliced salami, pepperoni and cheese.

We just talked about school and about music, because I didn’t want to embarrass Paul by asking what was going on at his house. Of course, after my folks left it was my first question.

“It’s no big deal,” Paul said, staring at the fire. “Dad wanted to go to a big party at his brother’s house. Mom got all nervous that he’d get drunk, so they were feuding all week. They were too busy to give me an answer.”

“Did they go?” I asked.

Paul smiled, “No. They decided to stay home with a bottle of champagne and go visiting tomorrow.”

“Your parents fight a lot?” I asked, thinking about poor Rod, whose parents were at it as often as not, and they were pretty public about it.

Paul shook his head no. “Just sometimes. Yours?”

“They must,” I said. “I can tell when they’re mad, but they never once argued in front of me.”

Paul mumbled that I was lucky, and just then the doorbell rang. Rod and Emil had walked over together. That wasn’t a surprise, because Emil would walk right past Rod’s house on his way. They both had evil grins, so I knew something was up.

They came into the living room, and I offered goodies, which led us all out to the kitchen. I pointed out all the things on the counter and knelt to get sodas from the refrigerator. While I was down there, Rod said, “I brought some goodies of my own.”

I looked up quickly, and he had that evil grin back on his face. I don’t know why, but the first thing that came to mind is that he had snatched some of his oldest brother’s pot, even though we’d all sworn we’d never get into that stuff.

That wasn’t it, though. He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a small box that looked like a deck of cards. He turned the front of it to me, and it was a deck of cards, only the picture on the box was of a beautiful, nude woman.

“Let me see that!” I said, reaching desperately for the little package, but Rod pulled it away.

“Wait! Save your dirty mind some grief, because there are fifty-two of these little suckers in here.”

“Where’d you get those?” Paul demanded.

Rod smiled, “Never you mind. Let’s just say that they fell off Santa’s sled.”

I was standing by then, trying to snag the box of cards from Rod, who was a little too quick for me. “I don’t care where they came from! I want to see them!”

Emil maneuvered himself behind Rod and snatched the cards, then ran out of the kitchen, Rod hot on his heels. “You little shit! Give ’em back!”

Emil laughed, but he’d run into the laundry room, and there was no escape except for the door he went in through. Apparently Rod didn’t know that either, because after some screaming, Emil ran back through the kitchen, the cards held out in front of him, with Rod cussing as he chased after him.

There was a crash from the living room, and I yelled, “Hey! Cut it out!” but when I got there, Rod was standing the coat rack in the front hall back up on its base, and Emil was against the wall looking sheepish.

He held the cards out to Rod, who waved them away. “Sorry,” Emil mumbled.

There was no damage that I could see, and it was hardly the first time that the old, top-heavy, rack had fallen. It made a lot of noise no matter who knocked it down, because the floor in the hall was all slate.

I think the loud noise took the edge off all of us, and we went back to the fire in the living room, where I tossed a couple of wood chunks in to keep it going. Then we had a collective remembrance of food and soda in the kitchen, and headed out there, where we could discuss Rod’s cards in good light.

We discussed them, alright. He’d been playing around, and had actually brought a deck for each of us, making us swear that we’d never tell where we got them. He was afraid of his father, who had bought a crate of the cards as gifts for certain customers of his recycling yard. We were drooling over stolen, two-dimensional women.

Anyhow, we invented a new game that night, called boner. We didn’t actually play it, because the strategy was for each of us to examine our own deck, card by card, and very carefully. It took a surprisingly long time to do that, and it was Emil saying, “Oh man, I gotta go!” at ten o’clock to end the game. Well, it ended it for Emil, and we switched to a three-handed version.

That lasted about ten seconds, because Emil was back at the front door, trying to knock it down with his pounding, and ringing the doorbell. It wasn’t locked, but he didn’t know.

When I opened the door, he was there looking mortified, and he could barely get words out. He pointed at the street and gasped, “There! There’s a lady there! She needs help!”

I pushed Emil to the side and ran down the walk, and there was indeed a lady there, on her back, and writhing. “Baby,” she said. “Oh, God, please help me!”

It didn’t take a genius to see that she was hugely pregnant, and I had my phone out of my pocket to dial 911 in an instant.

I was frantic, and when the lady answered my call she asked, “What’s your emergency?”

I don’t know how I got it out, but I did, and she said, “I’ve dispatched an ambulance. Is there somewhere you can get her indoors?”

“I hope so,” I said. “We’re right in front of my house.”

“I’ll stay on the line,” she said. “If you can’t move her easily, don’t move her at all.”

I looked at the lady on the ground, who now looked more like a girl, and asked, “If we help, can you get up? The house is right here, and it’s warm inside.”

She seemed to have difficulty finding my eyes, but she smiled when she did. “I think so.”

Slowly and very gently, the four of us helped her to her feet. Rod surprised me by being the one to keep her talking. He told her our names, and we learned that hers was Patricia, but we could call her Pat. She had an accent, and that was because she was from Texas.

Pat sighed contentedly when she was prone on a sofa by the fire, and I tossed a few more chunks into the fireplace. Paul brought her some water, and it was only two minutes more when we saw the flashing lights outside. It was impressive. There was a police car, a fire engine, and an ambulance, and I went to the front door and waved them in.

They came running, too, and a female paramedic with a large case in her hand was the first one to the door. She barely looked at me when she asked, “Where?” and I showed her, leaving the door open for the others.

I’d only seen things like this on television and in the movies, but it was impressive with real people right there in my house, and they knew what they were doing. The woman paramedic had a phone clipped over her head, and was on with someone at the other end, and they decided that the baby was coming out already, so there was no time to get to the hospital.

Without asking if it was okay to deliver a baby in our living room on New Year’s Eve, the other paramedic started spreading a plastic sheet right there on the carpet, and he put a foam pad over it, and some nylon-looking cloth over that. Then they helped Pat off the sofa and into a prone position. The female paramedic was with Pat every second, while the other guy was busy setting things up, and in no time at all we had a makeshift hospital right in front of the fire.

When they started getting Pat out of her jeans, the fireman who had come inside spread his arms and crowded us, saying, “Boys …”

A neighbor, Mr. Dossin, came in asking if everything was all right, and the fireman beckoned him over to us. The neighbor was worried that me or one of my parents had a problem, but stayed anyhow when he learned what was going on.

We took the hint from the fireman and went into the kitchen, where we huddled and whispered for what seemed the longest time.

Then there was this loud bawling sound from the other room, and I heard the paramedic exclaim, “It’s a girl!” Then her voice went very soft and our ears strained to hear, “You have a little girl, Patricia. She’s beautiful.”

Damn me! I had tears in my eyes, and was all prepared to be teased to death, but when I looked around, we all did. That was cause for some wet, embarrassed giggling, and we all took napkins to wipe our eyes and blow our noses. Then we hurried into the living room, where a smiling Pat was nursing a pretty little blonde-haired girl. She was born an hour too early to be the first baby of the year, but probably only I thought of that.

Mother and daughter were soon in the ambulance, and the fire truck left. The police officer stayed to ask us questions, but we could only say what we knew, which started when Emil found Pat in front of our house.

I called my parents at their party and had some fun with them, and I know they thought it was a prank when I said a baby had just been born in our living room. They actually thought I was pretty funny until the next morning, when a lot of neighbors stopped over or called to ask if everything was alright, because they saw the emergency vehicles out front the night before.

It took us a few days to learn that Pat’s boyfriend, the baby’s father, had been injured in a fall at work that day, and ended up in a clinic in a different suburb. He hadn’t abandoned her like she thought, but the people at the clinic somehow either neglected to phone Pat, or they dialed the wrong number.

A man stopped at the house a few days later, and introduced himself to me as Pat’s father. He left us a picture of the new baby, and expressed his thanks, and that was it. The baby had been named Isabel, and after the man left I turned the picture over, and there was a note.

Thank you all so much. Patricia.

Things were back to normal after that. It was winter, and it was cold and snowed sometimes, but it was a pretty mild one. Usually, if we’re going to get really cold weather, it comes right around the first few weeks of January. January was cold enough, but the temps never dropped into single digits. It snowed enough that skiers were happy, but not so much that they would call off a single day of school.

February came in with a big snowstorm, though. It hit on a Sunday, too, so praise be! By bedtime on Sunday there was already a foot on the ground, and it was still snowing. I wasn’t rash enough to actually turn off my alarm, but I was confident that I’d be able to sleep in the next morning.

I didn’t have to touch the alarm, because my father slipped in early and shut it off. School was canceled, and he wasn’t going to try his commute until later, if at all.

I woke up with my phone ringing, and I didn’t know where it was. I didn’t know where I was, really, because I didn’t know my father did that, and it was light in the room when it should have been dark.

By the time I found my phone on the dresser, it had long stopped ringing, but it was Emil who called. I called back and he answered, “Happy day off!”

“Yeah, finally,” I mumbled. “How much …” then I looked out the window and gasped. The snow was up to the window sills, and still coming down in buckets. “Holy cow!” I said to Emil.

“Yeah,” he said. “We probably get two days with this one. They won’t put the buses out tomorrow.”

“Let me call you back,” I said. “I’m hungry.”

“Yeh, man. Holler at me later, I’m not leaving.”

I went to the kitchen and started some water for oatmeal, wondering where my parents were. Then I realized that they were human too, and had probably gone back to bed like anyone with common sense would.

That left me out, but it was my stomach complaining. I could easily sleep forever, I think, if things like eating and school didn’t intrude.

Oatmeal sucks, but I’m not a cook, and it was good that day. We have a nice window by the kitchen table, and the snow out there made the oatmeal especially palatable. There was a lot of snow already, and it was still coming down, and I was all comfy and warm inside, eating gruel. Twist that, Oliver!

When I finished, I shoved the pot and my bowl in the sink and pointlessly opened the front door to see if the paper had somehow been delivered. I closed the door. I suppose the paper may have been there, but I’d have to shovel snow to learn the truth, so I went back to my room instead.

In fairness, I should have called Emil back, but I called Paul instead. His sister answered, and it took some time before he picked up. “Barrett?”

“Hey. You have snow at your house, too?”

He snickered, “I’ll say. It must be three feet deep out there.”

“Good,” I said. “That means no school tomorrow, either. Do you ever go out shoveling?”


I laughed. “I expected a more complex answer, but no is good, I guess. How do you get money?”

He sounded suspicious, “I ask my parents. Why?”

“Ask and ye shall receive?”

“Yeah, something like that. You shovel snow?”

“Yes,” I admitted. “I shovel snow, and I cut grass, and I rake leaves. How else would I keep up this lifestyle?”

Paul laughed. “Whatever you say. Your parents don’t help?”

I tried to keep from laughing. “No, they don’t. Not one little bit! I just had to make my own breakfast.”

“I hope it was good,” Paul said. “I think I’m going back to bed. It’s cold in here.”

He had to say that. I was suddenly chilly myself, so we hung up and I went to chunk up the fire in the living room. It was pretty much out, but I poked at the coals and tossed some new wood on the grate, and it came to life soon enough, and started throwing some warmth into the room.

I got a book I’d been reading and sat on a stool right in front of the fire to read, and it was comfy-cozy, and a very pleasant way to spend a school day.

The next time I looked outside, the snow had begun to taper off, but the amount on the ground was truly amazing. My folks were up by then, and I told them I’d go and clear the steps and walks off. My father has a big snow blower, but with an old place like ours it was only useful for the driveway and the main sidewalk, because we lived on a hill and most of the other walks were really just paths.

The snow wasn’t very heavy, but it was so deep that it presented other challenges, and it took me the rest of the day to practically tunnel through it all. Then it was funny, because in certain places the walls I’d created were as tall as me, and it felt really weird going down the path out back, because I was really going through it. Everything was white, and it was really off-putting to just see the path, and not where it led.

I suppose I was lucky to have lived there all my life, so I knew the way. I think if someone new had bought the house, they could have shoveled snow in all the wrong directions and maybe died from frustration. Or exhaustion.

I had taken some breaks, but when I went inside for the last time I was totally pooped. I sat by the fire and dozed right off, feeling tired and sore from the work, but also contented with myself because I’d shoveled until it was done.

I had come in at around three, and it seemed only an instant before my mother gently shook me awake. “Supper’s almost ready, Barrett. Do you want to eat in here, or will you join us?”

“Already?” I asked. “Um, I’ll be right there. Let me wash up.”

Wash up is my euphemism for piss, and did I ever have to go. I washed up too, of course, and noticed that my face was all pink still from being out in the cold for so long.

My mother is a good cook, and we had pork chops cooked under peppers and onions, and they were garlicky wonderful. She had also roasted potatoes, and added peas for a side dish, so it was a great meal.

While we were eating, the subject of Valentine’s Day came up, and my mother asked me if I wanted a card-making kit similar to the ones I’d always had, and I was stumped for an answer.

“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “Do they still do that in middle school?”

My parents looked at me; then looked at each other, then back at me, and they didn’t know either.

After dinner, I sat by the fire and called my friends one at a time, starting with Rod.

I told him how much shoveling I’d done, and he groaned. “Oh, man! I’m sore all over, and I can’t believe you shovel all those paths.”

We talked about other things, then I asked about Valentine’s Day. “Rod, you doing anything for Valentine’s Day? I mean, I don’t know if I should or not.”

Rod was silent for a solid minute, then he said, “I don’t know. Nobody said anything. It’s coming up, right?”

“Next Tuesday,” I said.

Rod said, “I don’t know. You don’t have to get me any card or anything.”

“So it’s a little kid thing?” I asked.

“Mostly, I think,” Rod replied. “People do it, but it’s like a boyfriend and girlfriend thing when you get older. God, even my father gives my mother something.”

That was startling news to me. I’d seen many times the snarling, sarcastic ways Rod’s father treated his wife and kids, and it was very hard to believe that he still found romance. Then again, he had a wife, three kids, a nice enough house, and a thriving business. I just couldn’t join two thoughts together that made sense about that man. I had felt bad for Rod since I met him, for the way his father treated him, yet he was taken care of in the ways that showed. Maybe his father just didn’t like kids, I don’t know. Rod was obviously well fed, lived in a nice place, had good clothes, etc, etc, etc.

Rod was angry, but not really scary. He kept it in, and he knew how to laugh, and when to. I just knew there was a problem there, and it was beyond my understanding, so I just stayed friends with Rod because I liked him.

Emil was a different case. He was probably the nicest kid I ever met, and without a doubt the funniest. Emil loved life, and whether things were going his way or going sour, he could find a joke in it. His parents were French Canadians from New Brunswick, and way old to have a kid Emil’s age. He had a thirty year old brother, yet he had a younger brother too, and a little sister.

Their house was full of fun, though, and I think that’s where Emil caught it. His extended family seemed endless, and they all seemed to have this joy for living. It had charmed me from the first day I went over there.

I called Emil, and he said, “Man-o, the last time we talked was nine AM. You said you’d call back.”

“That’s what I’m doing.”

Emil laughed, “I guess. I thought it would still be light out when you called, though.”

“Sorry,” I mumbled. “Emil! Are you giving Valentine’s Day cards to everyone like we used to?”

“Hell yeah, I am,” he said. “I been cuttin’ out hearts and gluing on pictures since we ate.”

I let that sink in. “Really?” I asked. “Why?”

“I don’t know. I always did,” was his quick reply. “You don’t think we should?”

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out. You giving to everyone in seventh grade, or just your homeroom class, or what?”

Emil was silent for a moment. “I thought just my class, and my friends.”

“That’s why I’m confused,” I said. “Does that mean anyone you don’t give a card to isn’t your friend?”

Middle school was different from elementary school. Up to grade six, you had one class, with one room and one teacher, except art and music teachers would come into your classroom a couple of times a week and give your teacher a break.

In middle school, you had pretty much one class, but you went to classes in different rooms, where different teachers each taught their specialty. There were some elective classes, like cooking and wood shop, where you could join kids who weren’t in your class, but most would be anyhow, owing to scheduling.

Emil answered me, “I don’t think it means anything. I always gave cards to everyone, and I didn’t always like everyone. I don’t think it’s good to single somebody out.”

“I guess not,” I said. “I just wonder if you’ll be the only one doing it. Giving cards, I mean.”

He was quiet for a moment; then mumbled, “I didn’t think of that, but so what if I am? That just means I won’t do it next year.”

“I gotta think about it,” I said. ‘I know Rod’s not giving cards, and I don’t wanna feel like some little kid.”

“Well,” Emil said. “I’m not you, but you better give me a card, or at least a Hershey bar.”

I snickered, “I thought flowers for you, you’re such a pansy.”

His voice went high. “Oh … well … that would be nithe.”

I giggled, “You’re a pisser.”

“Ooh, thweetie! You should thee me pith!”

“Flowers it is!” I said, hoping to make him stop.

 He got serious. “Whatever, man. Maybe I won’t bring these.”

“You already made them, Emil. Maybe you could just not sign them or something.”

“That’s a good idea,” he said after a moment. “Maybe I’ll just stay late on Monday and put them on desks.”

I thought about it, and liked the idea. “Maybe I’ll do the same thing. That way, if everyone does it, we can say they’re from us. If nobody does, well, at least people get a couple of cards. We could be like secret Santas or something.”

“Secret Cupids,” Emil corrected. “You really gonna do it?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll do it.”

I told my mother to go ahead and get me a card kit. I spent some time on both Saturday and Sunday making the cards. I put people’s names on the envelopes and signed the cards Eros, because Emil was signing his as Cupid. I thought Eros sounded kind of sexier, because Cupid was some bare-ass little kid with a bow and arrow, where Eros was the root word for erotic, and things erotic had captured my attention during the last year or two.

On Monday, Emil and I went to the school library after classes, then visited our homeroom and placed the cards on every desk. There were other cards for friends in certain classes, so we did the same with them.

We alternated between thinking what we were doing was pretty neat, and maybe it was pretty stupid, but we left the cards where we’d put them and went home.

The next day, Valentine’s Day, I went to school as usual, a store-bought Hallmark card in my algebra book for Mary Ann, and when I gave it to her, she had one for me, too, and we kissed before class.

In our homeroom class, every desk had a card from me and another from Emil, and some desks had other cards, while some people were handing cards to others. Emil and I, at the last minute, had given cards to ourselves so nobody would guess it was us, and as I watched the other kids open ours, I was glad we gave them, even though we got nothing in return.

Everyone smiled, and everyone put their cards either between the pages of a book or right in their book bags, and I was pleased with myself.

I got no cards, except the one from Emil, yet I saw individual kids exchanging cards during the day. Well, I had my special one from Mary Ann, so no real complaints, but after the last bell my forty-one cards seemed more like a donation. Even though I liked doing it, I didn’t think I would the next year.

I wasn’t paying a lot of attention when I went to my locker for my coat, but when I was close I noticed a big, red, heart-shaped balloon floating in the upper atmosphere of the hallway, and it was attached to my locker.

I was surprised and very curious, and when I pulled it down to eye level, the balloon read ‘Be My Valentine’, and there was an envelope dangling from the bottom. I pulled a card out of it, and it was another red heart that said, ‘You Have my Heart!’

When I opened it, there was a paper inside, all done in calligraphy.

Barrett, the best person I know:

You’re not like me, and I understand that, so my love for you will have to be as a friend. I already said love, and you should know I love you. I hope this doesn’t change things between us, because your friendship means everything to me. You are without a doubt the most interesting person I ever met.

Please don’t think badly of me because I’m different than you. It’s just one little way, but now you know, and you’re the only one.

I have faith that you won’t hurt me.

This is stupid, but I’m your secret admirer, and my name is Paul.

I know you won’t be my Valentine, but Happy Valentine’s Day.

My eyes were running after I read that, and both Emil and Rod were grabbing at the note to see what it was, so I shoved it quickly into my shirt.

I thought I knew what Paul meant, but I didn’t know enough. Then I saw him in a corner, watching me, and I said to Emil and Rod, “Go on without me. I got something to do.”

They protested a little, but I turned back toward my locker and they kept going. Then I went over to Paul, kind of at a loss with what to say, so I let him talk.

He looked at my balloon for a moment; then lowered his eyes to meet mine. “How’d you guess?”

I didn’t understand the expression on his face. It seemed like he was afraid of me. “Guess what?” I asked, confused.

His voice quavered, “Where did you get that balloon?”

I stammered, “I … uh … from you.”

“Why do you say that?” he asked warily.

I was feeling a little exasperated, and I fished the note out of my shirt. “This isn’t you?” I asked, and his eyes opened wide enough that they might have fallen out, and he gasped.

“Oh, God. Oh my God!” His eyes welled up with tears and he gave me a completely horrified look; then took off running unsteadily.

“Paul!” I called, then took off after him, calling, “Paul, stop!”

He ran, and I caught him in the space between the inner and outer front doors of the school. There were still kids filing out, but not many. I rushed Paul out into the cold air; then pulled him off to the side where the wall was brick and we wouldn’t be seen easily.

“What are you doing?” I demanded. “I don’t know what’s going on!”

Paul tried to pull away, but he was crying too hard to see, and didn’t seem to have much strength to resist. I held him and said, more gently, “Tell me! You’re not afraid of me, are you?”

He pulled one shoulder from my grip and turned away from me, but didn’t try to run again. I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “Come on, Paul. What’s the matter?”

He said something garbled that I didn’t understand, and when he repeated himself after I asked, it was, “Please, Barrett. Not here, okay? Can we go to your house?”

I was very confused, but I said, “Sure we can,” then thought of what Emil would say, and asked, “Want me to call an ambulance?”

Well, Paul didn’t laugh, but I stored it for future use, because it was a good line.

We walked the distance to my house in absolute silence; then went up the driveway and around back to my little private entrance. I didn’t say anything when we went inside, but I took Paul’s coat and tossed it on the bed with mine when we were in the room. The afternoon sun was low in the sky, and shining obliquely in through a window, and I loved the light it created.

The room was mostly ancient wood, kind of brown-red in color, and that color took on a real depth and warmth in certain light, like the light right then.

Paul wouldn’t look at me. He stood before one of the ancient display cases and peered inside, silent. I finally sat on my bed and looked at him in profile, wondering what I should say. My father’s admonitions about saying nothing at all when you can’t say something nice were echoing in my head, and my lack of other thoughts gave the echoes plenty of room to resound.

I finally felt I had to say something, and the nicest thing I could think of was, “I like you, Paul. Talk to me.”

He slumped for a moment, then stood straight and turned around, and I hated the sad look on his face. Paul wasn’t expressive too often, and at one point I’d taken that as surliness. After I got to know him, I understood that he was often lost in some space that was of his own making: a dreamer, and the face he put on during those moments could get scary. It didn’t mean anything.

I hadn’t seen Paul sad before, so I got off the bed and pulled him by his elbow to sit beside me.

“What?” I asked when we were seated side-by-side.

“Now you know,” he mumbled, looking away.

“What do I know?” I asked. “I know that you like me, and I know you sent me this big balloon.” I looked at him and patted his shoulder. “I get the feeling I wasn’t supposed to know, but I know.”

Paul’s head drooped more than it was, and he asked, “Now what?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I didn’t get you a balloon, but I have some M&Ms.”

“Do me one favor, Barrett. Don’t joke, okay?”

“Listen, Paul,” I said. “I’m not joking. You’re my friend, and I think I know what you think about me, but we can talk, can’t we?”

Paul sat silent for the longest time; then he surprised me by turning a little smile my way. “We can talk. We could always talk.”

I smiled back. “Who first?”

He looked sad again. “Barrett, you were not supposed to get that note. I … um … I was just fooling around with it.”

I glanced at him and said, “Pretty fancy fooling around.”

He swallowed loudly. “I …”

I waited, then asked, “You what?”

“I wanted to send it. I guess I wanted it too much, and sent it by mistake.”

I waited again; then asked, “It’s true?”

Paul mumbled a sound that I took as an assent.

“Why so nervous, then?” I asked. “It’s a nice card.”

He snickered, “Jesus, Barrett, will you say something? Don’t dick me around. Say what you think!”

I giggled myself. “I think,” I said, “I think my best friend might be a little bit gay. That’s what I think.”

“Best friend?” he asked, sounding surprised.

“Yeah, I’d say.”

“Since when?” he asked.

“Since right now. Don’t get me wrong,” I said. “We’re best friends on a kind of mental level. You and me, we just … well, we just do.” I smiled at him, and caught his own smile. “I like most people,” I said, “But I like you better than most. How’s that?”

Paul smiled; then the smile faded into a serious expression. “You’re not gay, though.”

“Guilty,” I said, then thought how that sounded and changed it to, “Not. I mean, I’m not gay.”

Paul grimaced and faced me head on. “I’m pretty sure I am,” he said, and he grinned suddenly. “There’s no evidence to the contrary.”

“Not even MAM?” I asked.

He shook his head. “No,” he said quietly. Then he looked up and asked in earnest, “You gonna tell everyone?”

I shook my head. “Not if you don’t want. It’s not really my place, anyhow.” I looked at him and asked, “Anyone else know?”

He shook his head.

“I won’t tell,” I said. Then I added, “You should, when you’re ready. You’re a good guy. I don’t think anybody will care.”

I don’t know how to say this properly, but his eyes took on a kind of soft and peaceful look, and Paul said, “You know, I can say why I love you, and it really isn’t a queer attraction, Barrett.” He looked at me with a bit more intensity, “You’re just such a whole and complete guy. I don’t know how to say it. I buy a pencil, and I get what a pencil is. It’s got the wood, the lead, the little metal ring, and the eraser; it’s all there. If my dad buys my mom some jewel for a gift, like a pearl, that pearl is what it is, all round and beautiful and perfect all by itself. The real deal.”

His eyes were still on mine, and I was trying to absorb his words. “That’s what you are, Barrett. You’re the real deal: a real honest-to-goodness guy, and where the honest and good parts mean the most.

I think my own eyes were wide by then, wondering where Paul came up with words like that. “You know,” I said. “I think we’ll be friends forever. You’re the real deal too, Paul, and I didn’t even get you a big, red balloon.”

We looked at each other and smiled. I picked up an open bag of M&Ms from my nightstand and shook some into Paul’s open hand, then took one for myself.

Just before I dropped it in my mouth, I said, “Happy Valentine’s Day, Paul!”