My fifth grade teacher bore a striking resemblance both in appearance and personality to a rotten jack-o-lantern, but with a beehive hairdo. Mrs. Brannon was 168 years old, and every one of those years was spent staring down the barrel of a room full of ten-year-olds. Her clothes were tired, her hair was tired. The only thing about Mrs. Brannon that remained animated was her voice, a 120 decibel growl mellowed in an oak cask of bourbon and tobacco smoke.
If you were to track down Mrs. Brannon, who is now 283 and still teaching the fifth grade, and ask her about me, she would have no idea who you were talking about. I was just another annoyance in a long line of filthy-fingernailed urchins to whom she was assigned over the years. But maybe, just maybe, if you loosened Mrs. Brannon up a little bit with a flagon of mead or dragon’s blood or whatever people her age drink you might be able to jar loose a little recognition. “That little fairy-looking Yankee who wouldn’t stop staring at Sandy Johnson’s tits?” she’d say, and then she’d spit tobacco juice on a passing peasant.
Sandy sat two aisles and two seats to my left. Her red-brown hair was thick and wiry, with bangs hacked into the front by some intrepid explorer with a dull machete. Puberty had some kind of personal grudge against her, rendering her child’s face pimply and her body that of a very well developed woman. She never went anywhere without a Nancy Drew or Judy Blume book.
Perhaps the most attractive thing about Sandy was that she liked me. Under the best of circumstances a little attention is a potent aphrodisiac, but I was the new kid in class. Fitting in with a group of kids who’d known each other since infancy wasn’t coming easy. To most kids I was the unwelcome stranger, but Sandy saw me as an exotic world traveler or something. Maybe the girls in the Judy Blume books developed crushes on the new kid, I don’t know.
Regardless, I was flattered by her attention. Standing in the lunch line, she would close her eyes and whisper, “Please let me get lucky, please let me get lucky,” an almost silent prayer that we’d end up seated across from each other while we ate our sloppy joes. On the playground she dispatched her friend Laura with messages, and then she blushed and denied responsibility once they were delivered. Sandy likes you. Sandy thinks you’re cute.
With certainty comes courage, even for a ten year old boy. After a few weeks of please let me get lucky and secret missions from Laura, I made my Fonzie-cool move on the playground.
“Hey,” I said.
“Give me your phone number. I’ll call you sometime.”
Sandy blushed and grinned, her permanent teeth still a little too big for her face. “Okay,” she said.
Every afternoon we hung out on the phone for hours, talking about the things that fifth graders talked about in 1977. Sandy loved Shaun Cassidy and The Hardy Boys; I was all about KISS and Happy Days. Somehow we made it work, though. That’s the power of love, as the twentieth century philosopher Hubert T. Lewis would later say.
“Where do you live?” she asked.
“Down Rainbow Lakes Road.”
“I do, too!” she said.
“Far out. Where?”
“In a white house.”
“There’s lots of white houses,” I said.
“On Timberlake Circle, by lake number two.”
“What’s it look like?”
“It’s big with columns in the front like The White House.”
“Cool. Maybe I’ll come by sometime.”
A few afternoons later Larry pulled up at the bus stop in his Gran Torino. He didn’t live in our little middle class neighborhood, but he was friends with the cool big kids.
“Hey, y’all boys want a ride?” Larry shouted over his Gran Torino’s growling glass packs. Four of us piled in, all elementary and middle schoolers. He jammed Foghat Live into the 8-track deck and peeled out. I grabbed the passenger door’s arm rest and made peace with my god.
“This car’s real fast,” I said. Larry threw me one of those slit-eyed, nodding smiles and sucked on his cigarette until the tip glowed. He downshifted and stabbed it, and the kids in the back seat screamed and their penises retracted into their ribcages. I looked over at the speedometer: 80-90-100. The thirsty 4-barrel under the hood sucked so much fuel that the gas gauge visibly fell while the speedo climbed. Dear Baby Jesus: I promise not to play with my thing again if you get me out of this alive, I prayed.
Larry squealed through the neighborhood, the ass end of his muscle car drifting through the corners. We passed my place and gunned up the hill past the weird German couple’s house. The Torino rolled into the corner, and Larry stomped it again. We tore down Timberlake Circle toward the twin’s house. They were still screaming in the back seat. Once we let them out the rear end of the car would be even lighter. Maybe we’d run out of gas before then.
Over to my left I saw it flash past: the white house with the columns. Sandy’s house. If I survived I could visit my woman now that I knew where she lived.
Life at Holden’s Chapel Middle School was different now. I may have still been an outcast, but now I had Sandy just two seats over to keep me company. “Jim Stafford, stop making goo-goo eyes at Sandy and pay attention,” Mrs. Brannon would yell and the class would laugh. I didn’t care, though. I just wanted to be her everything, to paraphrase the late twentieth century poet Andrew Gibb.
Christmas vacation. Upstate South Carolina’s humid air bites when it’s cold, but in the dark ages of Pong being outside was always better than sticking around the house. I put on my cool kid-approved Army field jacket and walked around the neighborhood in hopes of running into another kid.
I walked over to lake number two and threw rocks into the thin ice where the water met the earthen dam. I wondered if the bluegills would bite in the cold and thought about going home for my fishing pole, but then I remembered Sandy’s house. From where I stood it couldn’t be more than a short walk down the back of the dam and up the little ridge in the distance.
Within minutes I was trapped in a briar patch, thorns digging into my hands and through the sleeves of my field jacket. I spent at least an hour navigating the blackberries and other vines, but finally emerged at the bottom of the hill leading up to the big white house.
I walked past the fancy columns and stared up at the big porch light dangling from a chain like an antique lantern. Matching iron knockers decorated the entryway’s double doors. I didn’t know whether to ring the bell or use them.
“Hey, is Sandy home?”
“Who are you?” I assumed that this was her mother.
“I’m a friend from school. I live in the neighborhood.” The old lady stared at me – my feathered hair and my field jacket, the bloody scratches on my cheeks and hands. “I live down the street,” I added.
“Sandy,” she screamed. “Somebody’s at the door for you.”
I stood there, pretending to examine the white bricks and the exquisite ironwork of the big knockers. Sandy finally emerged, pimply and blushing, her too-big teeth exposed by her awkward grin. “What are you doing here?” she said.
“I told you I’d come by sometime,” I said.
“Mom, can he come in?”
“One hour, Sandy, that’s all. You can play in the basement.”
Sandy rolled her eyes. “Come on,” she said. The closet beneath the stairs was open, a Barbie Dream House and pink camper all spread out. “That’s old stuff. I don’t play with it anymore,” she said. “What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why are you all cut up?”
“I got caught in the thorn bushes behind your house.”
“Why didn’t you just walk up the dam to the road? There’s a trail.”
“This is a short cut,” I said.
“We could listen to records,” she said.
She put on Shaun Cassidy’s Born Late and we sat and listened, not sure what else to do. After we listened to both sides I said, “Well, I better leave.” I took the road back to the dam this time.
That evening Sandy called and broke up with me. I didn’t know what to do, so I went and sat on my fake Stingray bicycle and sang Player’s “Baby Come Back” and tried to feel the way that I was supposed to feel after being dumped. I couldn’t, though. I didn’t feel anything other than cold sitting out there on my bicycle.
Originally published in The Write Room Literary Magazine
Photo collage: Joellen Woodall