The middle of the school year was when Miss Kelley, my fourth grade teacher, told me to carry a letter home. “Michael,” she said, handing me an official school envelope, “it’s for your parents.”
“But I didn’t do anything wrong,” I squeaked, noting that no one else was prized with a message to be brought home.
Michael, the letter read, squints his eyes a lot to see the blackboard, and I have to place him in front of the room for him to read the spelling assignment. I wonder if he needs glasses. Sincerely, Miss Kelley.
The optometrist agreed, and I reluctantly obtained glasses. Few children wore glasses then. It was only my classmate Angela and I. And they were cumbersome things, heavy and rigid, the temples coiled around the ears tight like hand-me down jeans.
Angela and I traveled in different strata. In spite of having attended school together since kindergarten, we had never spoken to one another and not because of the ethnic soup of my school. Ancient and not so ancient enmities were nudged aside for beauty and fleetness. Angela had both. And surrounded by handsome friends, Angela spread an appealing aura. My eyes always settled on her during our games of boys against the girls, Ring-a-levio, and Red Rover, Red Rover. She was a winner on St. Valentine’s Day, receiving more cards than just about anyone else, her tally asterisked on the blackboard.
My family had a formal dinner every night, and right after a fifteen-minute respite for Father’s chilled martini, we sat down: big white napkins folded in half on the left, utensils in their mannerly order, and heavy blue and white dishes like the ones from England. We shared news, politics, music, and entertainment. It was a democracy consisting of my sister Beatrice, my parents and me. Beatrice (Bee-a-tris; blessed in Italian), five years my senior, was perhaps the only burr in the pastoral setting, often pointing out minor shortcomings in her only sibling: the spilled food, the napkin on the floor, the mispronunciations, the mud on the shoes; everybody knows the first-born has license to be picky.
“Well, Michael, how was school today wearing your new glasses? Tell us how it went. And consider using your napkin to wipe your face instead of the back of your hand.” My father gently spoke. It was formal, our conversation, extracted from a Dick and Jane book, my first-generation parent’s idea of an Anglo-Protestant household. If we had a dog, we’d have named it Spot.
“Miss Kelley had me stand up in class this morning right after the Pledge of Allegiance,” I told Father. “’Attention, everyone, please notice Michael’s new specs,’” she said, proudly showing me off as if it were my first time in long pants. “My glasses only fell off my face once during dodge-ball, but they didn’t break,” I continued. “I scooped them up before Stanley Tulski could step on them, although he tried. And there’s another kid with glasses and she looks kinda cute.” An admission I would regret.
“And who was that?” Beatrice asked.
“Angela. You know, the pretty girl who lives on Van Buren Street. She’s worn glasses since first grade.”
Next evening during dinner, right after the salad, served chilled just as Father liked it, but before the main course of brisket and mashed potatoes and a discussion about universal conscription, the telephone rang. Nobody received phone calls during dinner hour. Grandma Fanny, from my maternal side, our closest relative in Chicago, didn’t know how to use the thing, as she referred to it, and would ask the operator for help. She wouldn’t phone at dinner time.
Mother often used the instrument to contact the police station and their bad boy department in order to report misbehavior on my part. They had a thick file. “Is this Officer Bill?” she would ask. He was her contact person, and he always seemed available to her, day and night and even on weekends.
Beatrice ran to pick-up the phone, which was placed in the hallway between the dining room and the parlor. Perched on its own wooden table topped with a white-fringed doily, its ring was ear-shattering. It came with no mute or adjust button. The indoor pansies’ demise and other inexplicable happenings were often blamed on the generous decibels.
“It’s for you,” Beatrice said pointing to me. “Somebody named Angela. A girl!”
You know how children get when something unexpected like that occurs: eyes flit side to side, shoulders shrug, nonsense words mumbled—I only exited this fugue when my sister yelled,
“Get the darn phone.”
It was my Angela. I was speechless. Angela was Margaret O’Brien and Shirley Temple wrapped into one: untouchable, unapproachable, desirable, and she was talking to me, Michael, at home, during dinnertime.
“You’re moving to California, and you wanted to say goodbye to me.” I repeated her words.
“You’ve had a crush on me since kindergarten. And you want to give me a goodbye kiss during recess tomorrow. ”
“Goodness sakes,” my parents said in unison, pride carried in their voices, after I waited a long minute before quietly hanging up. “It seems that our Michael has a girlfriend. You see honey,” they said to me, “those new glasses look very nice on you, very grown-up, very mature, just as we told you.”
That night, I pictured the California shore with blue waters, shady palm trees, silky sand dunes, Angela and me, our hands interleaved inside the picnic basket selecting Golden Delicious apples to be munched on and savored during a spirited discussion about the pros and cons of child labor laws.
The morning class lasted an eternity, the Pledge of Allegiance itself took forever, but finally we were released at 10:15 for our fifteen minutes of chaos called recess. Sure enough, there was Angela standing alone. Dressed in brown, a thin cotton jumper and blouse covered with a cardigan, sleeves down to her fingertips—during their huddles and in-between giggles, the girls must plan identical wardrobes. With an economy of purpose, I rushed to Angela and expressed sorrow about her impending translocation to California, my face uplifted a few angles, lips puckered, just like at the Saturday afternoon movies when the cowboys kissed the girls before riding off in the sunset.
“Weenie!” Angela yelled. “What are you talking about? Go away!” And she scrambled off to join her girlfriends, who as a group, pointed toward me, laughing loud, as if watching a Bugs Bunny Cartoon with Elmer Fudd talking his kind of funny, while searching for the misbehaving rabbit. Girls can be so mean.
“So how was school today, handsome boy?” Mother queried me during the dessert of bread pudding topped with fresh whipped cream, her hands straightening my cowlick. “Did you perhaps get a chance to meet that nice girl, Angela? Would you like to invite her over for homemade cookies and milk before she leaves?”
“Mother,” I said, “it wasn’t Angela who phoned. I tried talking to her, but she didn’t say a word to me other than calling me a weenie, and she’s not moving to California, or anywhere else for that matter.”
“It wasn’t a classroom friend who called you last night?” Father asked. “I wonder who it could have been on the phone? “Hmmm,” he said nodding his head in comprehension, his gaze now shifting toward his other child sitting at the dinner table.
“Michael, I think your sister might want to say something to you right this minute, especially if she knows what’s good for her.”
Full disclosure went down easy at our house. The worst that happened was being sent to your room without dessert. There was never “wait until your father comes home” tension. In my case, however, there was always the concern the knock on the bedroom door belonged to Officer Bill.
Beatrice, the blessed, apologized. She didn’t mean it–the apology that is. Her best friend Ruth, the impersonator who made the phone call at her behest, in what in future years would be labeled a prank, steadfastly denied telephoning me until much later in life.
As for Angela, it was several years hence, after I joined the tough guys in the alley behind the school’s field house, passing the Lucky Strike and Chesterfield cigarettes around, two puffs apiece, and tossing lit Ohio Blue Tip matches at each others’ feet, that I talked to her again.
Michael Ellman is a retired physician and writer. His stories have been published in Front Porch Review and the Hektoen International Journal. His great Great American Novel about a murder in a hospital just needs an editor, agent and publisher before fame arrives. He is a grandfather, supporter of first grade art (please see photograph) and an expert in 6th grade math and current events. He thinks Black Heart Magazine is tops and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Editor’s Note: We think you’re tops, too, M.E.!)