Thursday when Kirk arrived for lunch, Irene saw him arrive on his bicycle and was at the door to invite him in. On the oval maple dining table surrounded by six chairs was a simple but neat setting of Melmac plates in pastel yellow, green and blue, with dark flecks of color in them. Tupperware cups of similar colors, yellow by the yellow plates, green by the green plates, and blue by the blue plates. A red pitcher of orange Koolaid was on the table. Beige paper napkins were neatly folded, placed under the spoon to the left of the plate. The table was set for five. Kirk, Irene, Mrs. Manders, Clark, and Violet, Irene’s twelve year-old sister who, on Kirk’s previous visit, was at her cousin’s house. The four Manders were obviously awaiting Kirk’s arrival, for as soon as he was ushered into the house, they entered the dining area from two locations: Mrs. Manders and Clark from the living room, and Violet from a hallway. On the wall in the dining room was a plaque with a representation of an old man sitting at a table with hands folded in prayer, a loaf of bread on the table in front of him, and on the plaque the words “Give us this day our daily bread.” Kirk liked that phrase. To him, it was saying “enough is enough.”
They all took their assigned seats, the location they had always sat during the daily family meals. Mr. Manders’ seat was unoccupied. Kirk was directed to Roy’s spot. Roy was Irene’s eighteen year old brother, who was working at a neighbor’s farm for the summer to save up some money for when he would be at State in Lansing in the fall. While all the children were getting seated, Mrs. Manders pulled a plate stacked with sandwiches out of the Frigidaire and placed them on the table near Kirk.
”I hope you like ham salad, Kirk,” said Mrs. Manders, “that is one of our favorites for summer lunch.”
Kirk did not like ham salad. In fact, if his mom tried to force him to eat a ham salad sandwich, he’d likely take a bite, then have to run to the bathroom to vomit into the toilet. He thought there should be a Levitical prohibition against ham salad sandwiches, and not because of the pork. Rather it was for the same reason he thought there should be Levitical prohibitions against casseroles, based upon the same reasoning, fathomable only to God, for prohibiting clothing made of mixed fibers, like the prohibition against clothes made from wool and flax. Ham should not be ground together with pickles and mayonnaise. Things should be discrete.
“I love them, Mrs. Manders, and especially on white bread with extra mayo. How did you know?”
To Kirk, ham salad already looked the color and consistency of vomit, like that time Billy Wilkins in fourth grade had a baloney and mayo sandwich on white bread at lunch, then about 2 in the afternoon just after recess he had an upset stomach and threw-up in the back of the classroom. The janitor was called to come mop it up and sprinkle some of that powder on it to try to take away the odor. Most of us grew up close enough to dairy or other animal farms to know that after a short while, you just stop noticing the smell. What else could Kirk say? He was having lunch with Irene, and most of her family. This would be a growing up experience. Eat what you are served, eat it as if you like it, and try to make compliments about it is the advice his mom often gave him when he’d go to a cousin’s or friend’s home. Kirk survived the ham salad sandwich on white bread, washed down, or having the flavor drowned, by orange Koolaid. Other than the sandwiches, there were carrot and celery sticks on a tray on the table. Desert was a peanut butter cookie, genuinely Kirk’s favorite cookie. He never figured out what the spoon to the left of the plate was for, unless it was to keep the beige paper napkin from blowing away.
Over the next several weeks of driver’s education, Kirk made numerous visits to Irene. They began to actually get to know each other, to understand each other, and become friends. When you talk about music you like or don’t like, about the recent episode of Bonanza or The Beverly Hillbillies, about annoying siblings, about the neighboring farmer who just spread manure from his “honey bucket” (as manure spreaders were euphemistically known) on his field upwind from your house, about visiting cousins in Bay City, about the family reunion at Gun Lake, you begin to know a person. It feels very strange for a fifteen year old. He had friends that he played with on the playground at school, ride bikes with, went sledding with, attended parties with. But he didn’t think that he get to know them. Certainly he didn’t think of it as getting to know another person. That is adult language. At age fifteen, Kirk’s and Irene’s minds were beginning to take a decided turn toward adulthood, not knowing all the complications that would bring. A good thing too. If fifteen year old kids knew anything about the complications adulthood would bring, the teen suicide rate would be much worse than it already is. Being fifteen is like late March or early April. Winter isn’t exactly over, Spring hasn’t exactly begun. It is the between season. Slush, ice, mud, sunny 55 degree days, wet snow, breezy warm days, more mud. Winter won’t quite let go, and Spring won’t just take command. Yet the earth has tilted back to where it was in mid-September when we still had plenty of 70 degree days.
This Platonic relationship went on into the entire first month of autumn classes. Kirk and Irene moved up from freshman Biology to sophomore Chemistry. They had Mr. Johns for third period sophomore Chemistry. Mr. Johns was a skilled teacher. He should be skilled since he had been teaching for forty years. He also had a high but sometimes unwarranted trust of students. He looked like an advertisement for an anti-smoking campaign: gaunt, yellowish skin, especially his fingers and around his nose, as well as the yellowish-gray cropped hair. He smelled like one would imagine an ash tray smelling. He’d start class, get the students working on a chemistry experiment, then go to the teachers’ lounge for a cigarette. He’d return hoping that the only smoke was what was exhaling out of his lungs, not some iniquitous boys devising their own chemistry experiment in the trash can. Mr. Johns had lobbied the school board for years to get the teachers’ lounge moved from near the principal’s office to closer to his classroom. The school board refused always alleging two grounds: the budget was tight, and there was no suitable space nearer his classroom to renovate as a teachers’ lounge. Mr. Johns thought that the actual reason was so that the principal could keep a closer eye on any rumored shenanigans in the teachers’ lounge, like the gossip that Mr. DeMaagd, the band teacher, daily mixed whiskey in his coffee. Mr. Johns didn’t believe the gossip. The tattled smell of alcohol on Mr. DeMaagd’s breath was, from Mr. Johns’ chemistry perspectives, just the remains from heavy drinking the night before.
The school provided fan buses to take students, for fifty cents, to away football games by signing up in advance with a parental permission slip. For the second Friday of October game at Lakeview, Kirk managed the resolve to ask Irene if she’d like to go to the football game. Sort of as a date, you know, just to go to the game together. Irene agreed, eagerly it seemed to Kirk. That was a huge relief. One of the worst experiences for fifteen year olds, boys or girls, is to approach someone you like, express your like for them, and have it rejected. No rejection of Kirk by Irene. So they went. Did Remus High Rams win, or was it the Lakeview Lakers? They didn’t remember, they didn’t care. The only memorable part of the evening was the bus ride. Twenty-five miles in the daylight to Lakeview, and twenty-five miles back to Remus in the dark. In the dark, jammed close together near the back of the yellow Ford bus on green vinyl seats, trying to get closer to each other than would be required if you were not so interested in each other. It was Irene’s first time of having a boy that interested in her, putting his arm around her shoulder. She snuggled in close, not vastly different from when she’d snuggle close to dad on Sunday nights watching Bonanza or the Wonderful World of Disney together. When she snuggled in close to Kirk, there was this feeling in her belly that she never felt when snuggling close to dad. Too, Kirk smelled so differently from dad with his coffee and sweet roll smell. Kirk was, compared to dad, nearly odorless. It was a sweet smell, like candy, maybe a hint of mint. It must have been the soap. Irene smelled clean, fresh, like a lightly scented flower. It wasn’t strong. It was barely noticeable. Fresh. Kirk was thinking the lyrics from “If,” a song by David Gates for a group called Bread:
“If a picture paints a thousand words,
Then why can’t I paint you?
The words will never show the you I’ve come to know.”
Dates were rare, since neither was old enough to have a driver’s license yet. They did go to a Michigan State University football game with Irene’s church youth group. It was cold in Spartan stadium in late October. The grass looked blue. Spartan turf. It was a bit more blue than green, not very natural looking but then again it wasn’t natural. The seats were so high up in the stands that watching the game didn’t seem much different than seeing it on the television at home, except live it was in color and the family television was still black and white. The players were ant-sized. The football was not visible from that distance. Kirk tried to determine where the ball was, if they were running or passing, by the way the ants scurried on the blue turf. At halftime, from those seats you could appreciate the marching band formations and sequences. But it required a little imagination. The marching band did its formations for the direction of the stands where the highest paying customers sat. From Irene’s and Kirk’s side of the stadium, the formations were upside down. Did the Spartans play Indiana? Or was it Iowa? Illinois? They wouldn’t remember. All they remember was the ninety minute ride each direction, plus the thirty minutes getting into and out of parking in the thirteen passenger church vans with the adult youth group leaders as chaperones. Again Kirk was thinking lyrics from “If”:
“If a man could be two places at one time,
I’d be with you.
Tomorrow and today, beside you all the way.”