I asked Mitch, the narrator of A DEAD GUY AT THE SUMMERHOUSE, about his first kiss, and I got this story. Asking your character questions and then taking dictation is the best way to get to know them, as long as you remember that you’re channeling them in the sense of “keeping them within bounds” rather than in the sense of “letting anything come up out of your subconscious that can make the climb.” Writing is the weirdest combination of creativity and analysis, if you get into the zone where you can do both at once. I find it a lot more exhilarating and interesting and satisfying than NaNo, where I just sort of vomit up words and then have to take a pail of sawdust and a pushbroom to it later.
Anyway, today’s Story A Day in May is Mitch’s answer to my question.
A Hard Day’s Night
by Marian Allen
In 1964, when I was fourteen, I volunteered at the library.
Mrs. Brandt, the director and house mother of the Faelin Municiple Children’s Refuge, where I’d lived all my life, kind of made me do it, to be honest. Like every other kid in America, us orphans, castoffs, and temporarily shelved kids thought summer meant goofing off until we were so bored we almost secretly welcomed the start of the school year.
That year, though, Mrs. Brandt called me into her office (which usually meant you were in trouble) and said, “Mitchy, you’re a young man, now. Last summer, all you wanted to do was stay in your room and read comics or hang out with those boys from the other side of town.”
That kind of ticked me off. I couldn’t even choose my own friends?
I said, “I know nobody likes them. That’s what makes them mad.” Everybody called them JDs – short for Juvenile Delinquents – and ran us out of their stores and off their lawns. Okay, yeah, sometimes one of us lifted a candy bar or something picayune like that, but how big a deal was that?
I couldn’t help feeling like it was a real big deal, and that made me feel like a baby when I was with them, and that made me mad, too, so then I felt like I fit in. How weird is that? The less I felt like I belonged, the more I felt like I belonged.
So Mrs. Brandt said, “Maybe if they tried to be better citizens, people would like them more.” She got up from her desk and came around it, kind of perching her behind on the corner of it and looking up at me where I stood. “Mitchy, I’ve had two – no, three – calls from former Refuge children over the years, who have been in trouble with the law. I never want you to be another one.”
“I won’t be.” But, ticked as I was, I could see what she was getting at. The guys didn’t show any respect to anybody unless they thought they could get something by it. Then they laughed about it later. It wasn’t just what Mrs. Brandt would call impolite, it was kind of nasty. And either they were treating me different this year, or I was wising up to how they’d been treating me all along. They acted all buddy-buddy, but I was catching some of that nastiness flashing between them after they’d said something nice to me.
I’m kind of dark, and nobody knows who my parents were, and the guys had joked just last night that, now that Cassius Clay had changed his name to Muhammad Ali, his old name was up for grabs and did I like Cassius or Clay? I didn’t like either one.
I had told them I liked “Mitch” just fine, and now I told Mrs. Brandt, “Please don’t call me Mitchy,” which had nothing to do with the subject Mrs. Brandt and I were discussing.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I do try to remember how big you are, but sometimes I fall back into bad habits.”
She smiled up at me and I couldn’t help smiling back.
She grabbed my hand and squeezed it and said, “The Board met last night and Mr. Walton suggested you volunteer at the library this summer.”
The library! I could volunteer at the library? I got the weirdest feeling, like Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass or wherever, the one where she eats something and gets so big she doesn’t fit in the room. My whole life, I’d been going to the library and seeing grown-ups and almost-grown-ups working there, and me just a little kid, and BAM! here I was, one of the almost-grown-ups!
“Yeah,” I said. “What would I do?”
She stood up and hugged me.
“I’ll call Mr. Walton and tell him you’re interested, then we’ll go from there.”
It got even better. There was a program for us Refugees that paid us a little bit for volunteer work because it trained us to join the work force if we aged out of the system before we got adopted which, I had already realized even before the guys had tried on my new nickname, was what was going to happen to me. In small-town southern Indiana, in the 50s and 60s, it wasn’t too likely that anybody wanted a kid with no known background and dark skin.
So I was going to get to be an almost-grown-up, I was going to be around books all day, I was going to spend the sweltering heat of the Ohio River Valley in the cool, dim, yellow brick library building, and I was going to get paid a little for it. Not enough to buy a Lamborghini, that was for sure, but I could save up for the new Beatles album, maybe see their movie that was due out later in the year. A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Crazy!
Then it got even better. Daisy Chapman was volunteering at the library, too!
I had had a crush on Daisy Chapman my whole life. She lived closer to the outskirts of town, not far enough out to be in farm country, but far enough out that her family had land around the house. I think they were pretty well off. When I got old enough to know about cars, I knew her dad always drove a new one, and her mom always brought her to school in a new station wagon. When I got old enough to know about clothes, I knew she always wore the latest thing. It was kind of embarrassing, but when we got clothing donations at the Refuge, I always knew if any of the girl clothes were Daisy’s and only a year out of date.
Daisy Chapman had given me my first kiss. We were in second grade, and I don’t even remember how it happened that we were both in the same place at the same time and nobody else was around. I just remember she came up to me and kissed me on the lips, her lips so warm and soft, and said, “I like you, Mitchy. Don’t tell.”
I never told, and she never kissed me again, or even talked to me without other people around. I thought maybe I dreamed it until the sixth grade had a sock hop to raise money for Red Cross Disaster Relief and she asked me to dance when they had Ladies’ Choice.
She got ribbed pretty good about it, though, and so did I for mooning around over her, so we avoided each other after that.
That was the best summer ever! We had a summer reading program for the little kids that had started after I was too big for it, but now I got to listen to the munchkins yammer about the books they’d read and I got to stamp their reading list booklets and give them their prizes. I got to see them look up at their moms and grandmas like they couldn’t believe they were allowed to get such wonderful things like bookmarks and balloons. Crazy little kids. How could you not love that?
I thought our best prize was coupons for free ice cream at the Dairy Hop, although the moms didn’t seem to like them much. They pointed out that, if they took their kid to the Dairy Hop to redeem the coupon, that meant at least one adult had to go and usually there were non-couponed kids who also wanted ice cream, and that would cost money. So maybe it wasn’t such a good prize for the family, but it was still a good prize.
The guys Mrs. Brandt didn’t want me to run with started hanging around the library. They acted like they were really interested in reading, but they snickered behind the librarian’s back.
One afternoon, when I left to walk home, they were waiting for me.
I said, “What’s the big deal with the library? We never hung around here before.”
Ben, who was the ringleader of the group, said, “It’s cool.”
The other guys laughed, and one of them said, “Yeah, real cool. We dig it the most.” They all laughed again.
They wanted me to go to the vacant lot with them and smoke some cigarettes before I went home, but cigarettes made me sick so I said no. They acted like that was fine, but I heard them laughing behind my back as I went on. I told myself they probably weren’t laughing at me, they were laughing about something else, but you know how you are at fourteen; I knew they were laughing at me.
As for Daisy, she flirted with me like nobody’s business! She shared smiles with me when one of the little kids was especially cute. She did this little twitchy wiggle when she asked me to do something. She brushed my hand when she gave me a stack of books to shelve. She made sure to hunt me up to say goodbye when she left for the day, and she always had a kind of singing, “Good morning,” for me when I came in for my shift.
I started daydreaming that maybe she’d catch me alone and kiss me again, but that didn’t happen. It didn’t stop me from thinking about it, though, and even wondering if she might be okay with it if I was the one who did the kissing.
Then it all fell apart. Well, not all of it, but a lot of it.
Ben and the boys kept coming to the library every couple of days, sometimes waiting for me after and inviting me to hang around with them. Sometimes I did, more to show myself that Mrs. Brandt couldn’t pick my friends for me than anything else. It seemed like the more time I spent away from the guys, the less I enjoyed the time I was with them.
One afternoon, Ben said, “Why don’t we go to the Dairy Hop for some free ice cream? Cassius probably has a pocket full of those coupons, don’t you, Cassius?”
“My name is Mitch,” I said. “And why would I have a pocket full of coupons?”
“Aw, really? You got access to all that free ice cream, and you don’t peel some off to treat the boys and girls at the Refuge? What kind of a guy are you? Those poor little overheated kids, and no ice cream?”
Okay, I’ll admit the thought had crossed my mind. But Mrs. Brandt wouldn’t have liked it, and she always made sure there were plenty of library books checked out to the Refuge so the kids could earn their coupons fair and square. Besides, I got a kick out of sitting behind the desk at the library and handing our Refuge kids their coupons like I was some kind of a big shot. Back at the Refuge, they treated me like Mrs. Brandt treated the Board of Directors. It was pretty great. Better than making the coupons some kind of cheap criminal loot or something.
I didn’t say anything to Ben.
One of the other guys said, “What about us, then? We’re too old for the program, is that our fault? We don’t get free ice cream because of when we were born? That isn’t fair, is it?”
The others said,”Yeah!” and “What about us?” and “No fair, man!” in a way that told me they had talked about doing this to me.
When we got to the vacant lot, Ben said, “How about it, buddy-boy? Tomorrow afternoon, how about bringing us some coupons, and we’ll go to the Dairy Hop and have some free ice cream and laughs? Huh? How about it?” He punched me in the arm like we were the friends I used to think we were.
He didn’t make me answer, but I didn’t hang around to give him the chance.
I thought about it all evening. Ben and the guys weren’t much, but they were all I had. They were my social life outside of the Refuge, my link to the world outside being an orphan. All it would take was a few slips of paper, and I’d really be a part of them. It wasn’t even really stealing from the library, since the ice cream was a donation from the Dairy Hop. And it wasn’t really stealing from the Dairy Hop, since they were donating the ice cream anyway, and the ice cream didn’t know who was eating it, did it?
Yeah, that doesn’t make sense, but that was how I was thinking.
Days went by, and I couldn’t make my mind up to take some coupons. They were such a big deal to the kids who earned them, it seemed mean to just lift some and pass them on to guys who didn’t do anything to deserve them. But how big a deal was a crummy little ice cream? I kept going back and forth like that, just shrugging the question off whenever Ben asked me about it.
Then came that afternoon when Ben and the guys met me, and Ben said, “We’re going to the Dairy Hop. Wanna tag along?”
Before I could tell him again that I didn’t have any damn coupons, he pulled a sheaf of them out of his pants pocket and waved them around. The other guys whooped and hooted.
“Where’d you get those?” I couldn’t believe he’d actually shoplifted from the library.
“Your girlfriend gave them to me. I asked her real nice.” The sly, insinuating noises the guys made turned my stomach.
I couldn’t help it. Even though I had never admitted how I felt, I said, “Daisy?”
“Yeah, Daisy. Daisy Mae. She thinks I’m cute. Too bad she can’t come with us, but ‘Mother won’t allow it.'”
There was more laughter, there were more jokes. When I didn’t laugh, the jokes turned on me.
“Sorry, Cassius,” Ben said. “Guess you just aren’t Daisy Mae’s type.”
“Guess not,” I said. “Guess I’m not you guys’ type, either, right?”
“Well,” Ben said, tucking the coupons away and squaring off for a fight, “guess not.”
I’ve wondered, over the years since then, what would have happened if we’d fought and I’d won. I think the gang probably would have jumped me and beaten me bloody, but that didn’t occur to me then. I was sure I would win that fight, and that everything would go back to the way it had been at the start of the summer. But I was just smart enough to know I was kidding myself, that nothing would ever be the same.
So I just said, “Guess this is goodbye, then.” And I walked away from it.
Behind me, Ben called, “Don’t take any wooden nickles, buddy-boy,” and the rest of the gang laughed.
The next day, Daisy sang me a good morning as usual, but she didn’t look me in the eye. She never looked me in the eye on purpose again.
I acted like nothing was different, but I hurt so much inside I hated to get up and go into the library. The librarian told Mrs. Brandt she thought I was taking the job too seriously and was wearing myself out, and Mrs. Brandt told me I could spend my last two weeks before school started goofing off – except for helping her out around the Refuge.
And that’s what I did on my summer vacation.
MY PROMPTS TODAY: diversity, library, bring your own