“Jackson. Mis-ter, Jackson, come on. Get up out of there. Jackson! Move it!”
Jackson was bent over under the row of seats in front of him in the Roosevelt Junior High auditorium, trying to pick up his science book, notebook, pencil and the single page mimeograph doodle sheet containing the synopsis of the 16-millimeter science film of the day. He’d dropped them when the girl on his right whacked the shit out of him unexpectedly while his back was turned. He’d figured out why but now it was all downhill, in a bad way. His pencil may have been downhill all the way to the front of the auditorium.
“He dropped everything when she hit him, Mr. Stephens.” It was Janice, the girl on his left. He’d been talking to her when the other side girl exploded on him.
“I don’t care, Miss Hurst. Jackson! Get up!” Mr. Stephens was leaning into the aisle, hands on the backs of the seats on either side. If the damn Hurst girl would get out of the way, he could grab him. “Jackson! Miss Howard, stop hitting him. I’ll take care of this.”
“He better never, never, never, ever, ever, ever do that again.” She hit Jackson on the back again for punctuation. “You butthole!”
“Miss Howard, that’s enough. Jackson!”
He had all of his stuff. He knew when he sat up Stephens was going to drag him off and get out the paddle. Stephens was his homeroom teacher and gym coach. Jackson had taken Stephen’s laundry to the cleaners across the street every Wednesday, picked it up on the following Friday, every week for a year and a half. Stephens handled his own discipline, so at least this wouldn’t go to the office or his mom. Shit, if his mom found out he’d poked a girl in the boob with a pencil, even the eraser end, she’d kill him. She’d never believe it was an accident, either. Shit. He sat up.
“Jackson, what is this all about?”
“He poked me in the, he poked me with his pencil in the…” Connie Howard was trying to get it out, just couldn’t find the girl word she wanted for boob.
“It’s my fault, Mr. Stephens.”
“Janice? How is this your fault?”
“I asked him could I borrow a pencil, and then it happened.”
“Somebody needs to tell me what happened before I yank all of you off this row. Now.”
One row up, one seat over from Connie Howard was the Hot Girl. Deanna Collings. Cheerleader, president of everything, queen of what was left over. Jackson thought they gave her awards for breathing. Every other week she did something award worthy, trophy worthy, announcement worthy.
“Mr. Stephens, he didn’t mean to do it. Really. I saw it.” Even the gym coach who started 16mm films for eighth-grade science class every day listened when the Hot Girl spoke.
“Janice asked Jax if he had a pencil she could borrow. He said, ‘No, but Connie always has some.’ When he said that he pointed at Connie with the eraser end of his pencil, like this,” she turned her hand and demonstrated Jackson’s boob poke, “and poked her here.” She pointed to the side of her left breast. “He wasn’t even looking at her when he did it. It was an accident. Really.”
“That’s true, Mr. Stephens,” Janice said. “He was looking at me when she started hitting him.”
“Mr. Stephens, my mom would kill me for that, poking her in the boob. Connie’s a friend, I’d never do that on purpose.”
Mr. Stephens held the laugh that was building. “Can we all agree that this, uh, ‘episode’ was an accident? Miss Howard, I’ll take him with me or send him to the office if you think he did it on purpose.”
“Connie, you know it was an accident. I’d let him go if it was me.” The Hot Girl flashed him and Connie and Mr. Stephens the Miss Popularity smile that turned just about everybody but Jackson to mush. He’d told his mom all about her, wondering how one girl could be so much girl. She’d watched Deanna after school one day waiting for the car pool to load up, told him the difference between a real smile and the smile a girl like that had for everybody. His mom had been a model for a while in New York when she was sixteen, so he believed her.
“It’s alright.” Connie still had her lower lip stuck out a little. “I’m sorry I hit you, Jax, but you’re still a butt hole. Janice,” she leaned across Jackson and smashed her recently indignant left boob right into his chest and handed Janice a sharp, new pencil.
Mr. Stephens walked back down to his projector shaking his head, crepe soled wingtips squishing all the way. The other side of the auditorium had erupted in paper airplanes while he’d dealt with Jackson’s distraction. Poor kid. Completely surrounded by thirteen-year-old estrogen and nowhere to hide.
Jackson reached long, careful to stay way out in front of his neighbor’s boobs, and tapped the Hot Girl on the shoulder. She jumped, looked back at him. “Thanks, you know. Really.”
“You’re welcome.” She smiled a different smile that did turn him a little towards mush. He’d never seen her look anything like confused or something before, either. Girls were complicated. The complicated girl just thought he was kinda cute. Only just kinda.
After science class she waited in the hall outside of the auditorium and grabbed his shirt sleeve when he walked by, an action that threw a big wrench into the usual hang with the Hot Girl crowd. “I know you didn’t do it on purpose and it’s just not fair how you get in trouble all the time for nothing.” He thought he might pee his pants if he talked to the Hot Girl. “I’m in your home room this year, sorta,” she said. Stephens had kept him in gym homeroom in spite of the yearly homeroom shuffle, probably for his laundry duty.
“Yeah, um, girls on one side, us on the other. Kinda the same but not really.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow.” She was starting to vanish into the crowd around her. “No I won’t, it’s Wednesday!” By now she was walking backwards, almost shouting. “Where do you go with that big blue bag on Wednesdays?”
He didn’t have time to tell her. “Later. Thanks. For real.” She was gone, swept away in a sea of popularity. This was the worst day of his life so far. Poking a friend in the boob by accident. Everybody, including the Hot Girl, watching then rescuing him. And then talking to him. What did he say to her? Something stupid probably, him and girls. She sure was cute. More than cute. His mom had said, “Peaches and cream and big bright eyes. You should be so lucky, Jax.”
He didn’t stand in line to talk to her before school, or be part of the crowd when the two gym teachers decided to give them ten minutes of co-ed every day. Why bother? She was pretty much sold on Matt, the guy with a few years too late Beach Boy haircut, flip in the front and all. He’d told some of the guys his sister helped him put Summer Blonde streaks in it. All the girls thought he was cute, Jackson thought he was a wuss, but he seemed to be by himself with that opinion. Him and Mr. Stephens, anyway.
Roosevelt Junior High, February Eleventh, 1972
Everyone at Roosevelt had been encouraged to bring their Valentine’s Day cards on the Friday before Valentine’s Day because the Pep Club Valentine’s dance was set for that evening. Jackson wished he was a cheerleader like the Hot Girl. He wanted to jump in the air and shout something stupid because his Friday laundry duty got him out of all the standing in line card swapping and waiting for the extra line of “special for you” Valentine card bearers to clear on the Hot Girl. Word was she’d dropped on Matt for the dance already so she was just letting those guys and their dollar-fifty Hallmark’s look stupid for no reason. Some things were so predictable. Just like what happened to him at the dance.
Jackson had gone with a girl named Mary. Who, like every girl he’d gone to a party with since sixth grade, dumped him to go make out with somebody else. He always ended up sitting with the girl or more than one girl who got dumped like him for the make out festival. Sometimes they cried, sometimes they complained, sometimes they sat there dejected, all of them asking him what it was guys wanted. He said, “A lot of guys just want to make out.”
“What about you?”
“Making out is cool,” he’d say, wishing he was or could or even had the option. “But sitting by a pretty girl, talking to her, that’s okay too. You can’t make out forever.” Deep bullshit for a guy who hardly made out at all and didn’t know what to say to a girl. He did love to look at girls, though. How they wore their hair, how their dresses fit, girls with freckles and suntans, girls without either one. Girls with sideburns kind of creeped him out, but mostly all girls were fine with him. He’d follow a girl with the right perfume down the hall past where he was supposed to go sometimes.
He was tired of being the dumped girl babysitter at the Valentine’s dance, tired of being the dumped guy as well, decided screw the rules and opened the door at the driveway end of the school. There she was, the Hot Girl, sitting on the old, cold concrete steps to Roosevelt Junior High. He had the urge to pee again but sat down anyway and found some nerve somewhere.
“Hey. What’re you doing out here?”
“Waiting for my brother to come get me.”
“Aren’t you cold?”
“A little, I guess.”
“Here.” He draped his jacket over her shoulders. Now he was cold. They failed to mention that when guys did it in movies.
“Thank you.” She had the telltale puffy eyes just like the other dumped girls. Only an idiot would dump the Hot Girl.
“What happened? I thought you and Matt were —”
“Were what? Were what, Jackson? Huh? What were we?”
Wow. She was pissed at Matt and she remembered his name. “Having a good time? Maybe?”
“No! Not a good time at all. At first, but then he got, well, he got…Never mind. I should have stayed home, that’s all. I need to go home.”
He couldn’t think of what to say so they sat in silence for a while. You didn’t say “that sucks” to the Hot Girl or insult her by saying he thought the guy was a serious wuss with his Summer Blonde hair and surfer’s cross he had to keep tucked away or a teacher would yank it. She was drawing invisible somethings with her fingers on the concrete by her feet when she snuffled pretty big. He knew it was a leftover from how crying sometimes got your nose all into it. He almost told her about how his dad had called his little brother a “screaming snot machine,” trying to be sympathetic, pulled it at the last second. He found some more personal conversation nerve.
“Can I tell you something?”
“No. Well, maybe.”
“He draws his hair on, up the side. His sister dyed his hair, you know. Messed it all up.”
“I know. Some came off on my hand when I slapped him.” She laughed a little. “You don’t like him, do you?”
“Tell me why? Please?”
“He’s a fake. I mean I know girls think he’s cute, but you’re a beach boy surfer or you’re not. And he’s not. Not in Oklahoma in winter, anyway. It’s just kinda stupid, I think. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. My mom told me not to. Go with him I mean. Some guys in my homeroom didn’t ask me or even give me a Valentine. I thought you had to in homeroom.”
“I didn’t know that, about Valentine’s cards. Is that still true?”
“Yes. Didn’t Mr. Stephens tell you?”
“Maybe, but I might have been across the street. I’m not there all the time on Wednesday and Friday. I take his laundry to the cleaners.”
“Because it’s dirty, I guess.”
“No, I mean why do you get to leave?”
“He told me he knew I was smart enough to handle it and I wasn’t so stupid I’d forget to come back. So he kept me in gym homeroom for both years. Sort of like I flunked homeroom.”
“That’s silly, Jackson. You can’t flunk homeroom.”
“I could be in a regular homeroom with girls if I hadn’t flunked.”
“There are girls in your homeroom but you have to walk across the gym to talk to them and you’re supposed to give them a Valentine.”
“I owe you one I guess. A Valentine, I mean. I didn’t know.”
“I guess, huh?” She gave him a smile that seemed to confuse her face for a second. “Deanna, with two n’s. Here’s my brother, and here’s your jacket. Thank you for sitting with me. It was, well, I didn’t like it out here by myself.”
“Thanks for, um, letting me. You know, sit. Sorry ‘bout Matt. And everything.” He wanted to say he was glad she didn’t stay home, but he’d run his nerve reserve way down already.
Her brother unwound from the car like a bear from a cave. “Is this him, little sister?”
“No, Jax just waited with me. Really. So I wasn’t outside alone.”
“Yeah?” Jackson’s hand disappeared when her brother shook it. “You know the guy that did whatever, pissed her off? Think you could kick his ass?”
“Give it some thought, man. You did the right thing, hangin’.”
Jackson was half blind from the headlights, her brother a giant shadow in jeans. He saw that much. She slapped Matt, huh? Wonder what he did? Jackson knew he’d never get close enough to get in that kind of trouble with the Hot Girl and let it go. His jacket sure smelled good, though. Wait till he told his parents what a gentleman he’d…Shit! Valentine’s was Monday! Now he had to go get the Hot Girl with the double ‘n’ a card. Where did you get a Hot Girl Valentine card that didn’t come in a package with thirty other ones?