by Wes Blake
In July, of the only summer I lived on Mary-Anne Drive in Morganfield, Kentucky, a friend of mine, Zach, asked me to go to vacation bible school. His family went to the big Baptist church on Morgan Street—the one with the swinging fire escape stairs, which my buddy Todd and I always swung up and down until it soared high, carrying us up with it, fingers clinging tight to rust-scented iron, catching that flying feeling, ready to let go and run down the alley and grab up our bikes as soon as we heard the minister’s voice yelling out. I said yes, hoping that I might get a chance to meet some girls during that summer of 1992. I hadn’t seen Whitney since school let out, and had started to feel hopeless about the whole situation— without something to look forward to, or hope for.
Since it wasn’t my church, I felt less pressure to be good. Also, on some level that I may have not have been aware of, I felt a distrust towards churches that were brand new and too big. This Baptist church was huge. Its building was brand new, too. Everybody went there. Maybe because my parents hadn’t chosen to go there, I felt that there was something not quite right or completely honorable about the church.
During the first Bible Study class, the first morning of vacation bible school, I couldn’t help but tell a joke to my buddy, Zach. He laughed. And I laughed harder. The youth minister gave me a mean look. So, I tried harder not to laugh. Which only made me laugh more. I covered my face with my hands, looked down at my shoes and the floor, wrung my hands together, tried not to laugh. Laughed anyway. This went on, in different variations for twenty minutes. I was asked to step outside.
The youth minister stepped out to talk to me. We stood in the Baptist church basement beside the countertop, which divided us from the small dark kitchen. He explained that, if I wanted to stay, I would have to be serious and stop causing trouble. It bothered me that his first recourse was to kick me out. Right away, I didn’t like this youth minister or this church.
Before lunch, we went up to the huge sanctuary to sing. We sang hymns. I sat in the third row. Crystal French, a girl I had a crush on in the fifth grade, before meeting Whitney, was sitting in the row beside me. I tried to make an impression. I decided that since I didn’t like the youth minister or the church that I’d just have fun anyway. So, I decided to crawl under all the pews to the back of the room—all the way to the big door at the front of the church, and walk out. I belly crawled under the pews like a soldier, ’til I got to the back door, stood up, and walked out. Without looking back. I didn’t even crouch. That was the trick. You had to act confident like you weren’t doing anything wrong. You had to believe it in some way, or no one else would. I walked through the church parking lot on Morgan Street, back around, into the side door entrance, and made my way back to the sanctuary. I walked in like I was confused about where I was.
The youth minister stopped everybody from singing, and raised his voice at me. “Where have you been?” he said.
“I was trying to find the bathroom. Is it back there?” I pointed behind the pulpit.
Everyone laughed. His face turned red. “Come with me,” he almost yelled. I could hear everyone laughing in the sanctuary behind me as I followed him. I smiled, but looked away, so he couldn’t see. Once we were out of the sanctuary, he explained that I would have to leave and that I was not welcome here. I should not come back tomorrow.
I said, “OK,” flatly. I could tell this surprised him and made him angrier. I’m sure he expected me to be upset or scared, and beg to be able to stay. Or at least to come back tomorrow.
“Should we call your mother to pick you up?”
“I can walk.”
“I assure you I will call and explain this to your parents.”
“Thank you,” I said flatly and turned to walk out.
I walked up Morgan Street on the broken sidewalks that rose and fell at absurd steep angles like there’d just been an earthquake. I had to watch the ground closely, so that I wouldn’t trip when a new square of sidewalk jutted at a forty-five degree angle. I walked under big trees, and I liked their shade. They made it cooler.
I wondered if I had gone too far earlier. I didn’t really care. I could tell right away that the youth minister was a jerk. I didn’t like him at all. I had known people just like him in other places that I’d lived. I never wanted to go back to that stupid church anyway. I smiled as I thought of everyone laughing behind me as I walked out, and the youth minister’s face turning red. I walked by Todd’s house, on the opposite side of the street. It didn’t look like anyone was home. I was ready for school to start back again. I was ready for fall.
School started back again. Seventh grade was better than sixth. We weren’t the smallest kids in school. We knew what to expect. As October began, people started talking about the Corn Festival. Todd and I had plans to hang out at his dad’s furniture store, helping them a bit, and being free to wander around some. We’d probably have lunch at the cafe next door with his grandmother. Every fall, this was the big event in downtown Morganfield. A couple years ago, I had helped build a float with the Boy Scout troop that my dad led. Troop 27. Me, my dad, Billy, and Zach designed and built the float the two weekends leading up to corn festival. Then, we had rode it down Morgan Street, standing up, moving slow, wearing our stiff beige button up shirts, merit badges, and wool green pants, waving, throwing candy corn to people standing along the tree-root-cracked sidewalks. I was glad I didn’t have to do that again this year. I had quit the Boy Scouts after the parade, after passing the requirements for Tender Foot. I had wanted to stay and work my way to Eagle Scout, like my dad. I liked the Boy Scout Handbook—the survival techniques, rope tying, helpful images to identify trees, poison ivy, birds, fire-starting methods, and the emphasis on friendship. But, we had a vote for scout troop leader. And I had lost. And I didn’t like the boy who won. So, I quit.
I looked forward to the Corn Festival this year. I had talked to Whitney Drury a couple times this year already. She had come over to Todd’s house one Saturday afternoon, with her mom, and played pool with me and Todd, in the basement. I had even made a joke that she laughed at. I knew she would be at a booth down the road from the furniture store. The booth was for some club she was in at school.
As the weekend of the Corn Festival approached I had something new to think about when I couldn’t sleep. I thought of all the ways that I could finally win Whitney over. I’d have to be brave. I thought of all the things I could say. I thought of what she’d be wearing. How she’d smile at me. I thought of how I could invite her to lunch with us. Just about every night that week I had a worse time than normal—not sleeping. Except, this time, all my thoughts were about what would happen at the Corn Festival with Whitney.
I stayed over at Todd’s place the Friday night before the Corn Festival. We woke up early. Todd’s dad took us with him to B&H. I liked the smell of Todd’s dad’s cigarette smoke as it mixed with the cold fall morning air and faint exhaust from the white diesel delivery truck.
We sat on stools at the long counter, arms resting on the cool metal counter top, watching the thin burgers frying on the long black iron griddle, steam rising off, and listening to the sound of crackling grease. Every square inch of the small trailer by the train tracks—that was B&H—was filled with the delicious smell of frying Angus ground-chuck. The cook slid our white plates in front of us. The burgers steaming and the buns becoming damp with grease. We made short work of our burgers—burning our mouths and going back for another bite right away.
And we hopped back in the truck, headed for the store. I felt nervous as we pulled up to park at the loading dock in the back of the building. I wondered if Todd’s cousin, Whitney, might be helping out with the store today. I imagined inventing some reason to talk to her as she stood at the counter, running her hand through her fine dark brown hair. There was no reason to believe this was even a possibility. She’d never helped at the store, as far as I knew. It was just a distant, absurd, far-reaching hope.
Me and Todd helped his dad move a kitchen set out onto the wide, cracked sidewalk out front. Todd’s grandmother followed us, instructing us where exactly to place the chairs, table, and coffee table. She had the voice of a long time smoker. Just like my grandmother. The only difference being that my grandmother grew up in a small town in eastern Kentucky, and she’d grown up in a small town in the western part of the state. She had lived alone since her husband – Todd’s dad’s dad – died years ago. Todd and I used to stay overnight with her sometimes. She let us stay up late. We sat in the living room playing cards with her. She was really nice to me. She treated me like I was her grandson, too. She took us to lunch at the cafe all the time. After we moved the tables to her liking, she stood at the edge of the sidewalk, door to the store open, smoking a long cigarette and pondering the placement.
“Bobby,” she said. “Don’t you think we should move the table closer to the building?”
“Whatever you want, Mom,” Bobby said. “Just tell me where you want them.” He looked back at his mother, waiting. You could tell Bobby didn’t mind moving the tables around more. He really didn’t.
It got closer to nine, and the people started showing up. Cars and trucks lining up in the parking lot behind the furniture store. I kept inventing reasons to leave the counter, where everyone stood around talking, to go out front and check if Whitney was around. She wasn’t. I asked Todd if he knew where her booth would be. He said he had no idea. I didn’t ask him about her often because he’d get mad if I talked about her too much.
The crowd grew. People filled the streets and sidewalks. Todd and I hung out in the back storage room for a while to dodge out on doing work. Then we wandered down the road a bit. People were still setting up booths. It got close to noon. Todd and I went and got lunch with his grandmother at the cafe down the road from the store. This was our tradition. We sat at the table with her and her friend. Todd and I ordered cheeseburgers, again. Todd’s grandmother’s friend’s hand shook all the time, and every time she picked up her glass of milk I thought she would spill it. Me and Todd drank cherry cokes out of straws poked through lidded styrofoam cups, and tried not to make each other laugh too much.
It was almost time for the parade. I started to feel anxious. Nervous. I started pacing back and forth down the sidewalk in front of the furniture store. I hadn’t seen Whitney all day. And it was so crowded now, I worried I wouldn’t see her at all. I didn’t even know exactly where her booth would be. Now, Todd and I sat at an iron white table out front of the furniture store. We drank at our refilled, styrofoam-cupped cherry Cokes, straws creaking as we moved them to our mouths. We sat and watched the parade go by.
“Are you done with your Coke, you stupid gas ass?” Todd yelled at me, over the sound of the crowd and music from the floats. I had been distracted, wondering where Whitney was.
I nodded. He took it and carried it inside the store to the trash can. As the parade wound down to its end, the floats further apart, I felt more nervous. Alone for a moment, I had more time to think directly. I had to find Whitney before everything ended. I saw the last float headed towards me. I had an empty feeling. I heard the door swing shut as it closed behind Todd.
“That’s the last float. Want to walk around?” I said.
“In a minute.”
We walked down Morgan Street. I led the way. “Let’s go down this way,” I said, when we reached the next intersection. We hadn’t gone down that direction yet. We walked down the road. I looked carefully at the booths ahead of us, looking for her. I barely gave enough attention to what was in front of me.
Then, I saw her. Her head was turned to the side, but I could tell it was her. Her short brown hair falling down in a slight curl, just over her shoulder. She stood behind the FFA table. She wore a light-tan Pocahontas-style dress, with ruffles and a turquoise necklace. The light tan dress made her eyes look pretty. It drew their darker brown color out. I tried to think of something to say to her. There were people crowded around the booth.
“Why don’t you take a picture,” Todd said.
“Very funny.” I walked up the road a bit, past Whitney’s booth. “Want to get a Coke?” I said, stopping in the road.
“We just had one.”
“That’s right.” I tried to think of something to say to Whitney. Maybe I should wait until the booth gets less crowded. I looked around, trying to find any reason to stay here for a while. Until the right moment to talk to Whitney. When the crowd cleared a little. When I thought of the right thing to say. A few minutes went by like this. We couldn’t stand here anymore. There were still a few people around Whitney’s table. She brushed her hair back behind her ear with her fingers. I sighed. She looked too pretty. I didn’t have the courage to talk to her. I was making excuses before. I knew. I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t ready.
“Want to head back?” I looked back to Todd, having accepted my defeat.
“Sure,” Todd said.
I almost turned back to talk to her, as we walked past her booth. But I didn’t. I would come back this road a half hour later, but she’d be gone. I had missed my chance, if there had been a chance at all. At least missed my chance of trying to create a chance.
I walked back to the store the final time that day, quiet. I didn’t want to talk. Todd sensed it. He was quiet, too.