The squirrel stood on the side of the tree with head down, seeming to defy gravity, holding an acorn in its front paws and chewing furiously on its discovery as the sun’s shadows turned toward dusk.
I had often watched this from outside my window, sometimes throwing nuts to the squirrels to watch their antics.
Today, however, my eyes focused on a name that stared at me from the newspaper’s obituaries, a name that stabbed into the most intimate and wonderful memories of my life. Lisa Conners, died after a long illness.
Winter, 1966. I stood in front of my house in the biting chill of a December morning, waiting for the school bus. First day, first ride on the bus to high school. New home, new life, new fears.
I heard the squeal of the brakes before I saw the bus, as it stopped to pick up students at the house next to mine. I heard th slight hiss of air as the “Stop” sign disappeared at the bus’s side, and steeled myself for my first encounter with new faces.
The bus pulled up beside me, the doors banged open, and a female bus driver stared absently at the road ahead as I swung up and into the bus. I stood there for a second, looking for an empty seat, hopefully close to the front. No luck.
I had started forward when the bus lurched insultingly forward, and I lost my balance, finding myself staring at two long, attractive, and very feminine legs that disappeared into a plaid skirt.
I traced the legs appreciatively from the tiny feet wearing penny loafers, and up to the face, which smiled. Rather than annoyance, there was empathy, kindness. And the face, a face that was such a combination of features I found myself staring in shocked innocence.
Black hair, so long and full, catching the sun’s light with a brilliance, dark skin a face with wide, high cheeks that faded into a small and delicate chin, with large blue eyes the color of a winter sunrise, under eyebrows that were large but not too large. It was a face of such delicate beauty that one slight imbalance would mar it, and yet it was, in every meaningful sense to me, beautiful.
I could not help staring in a hypnotized, stupid way, and yet she continued to smile. “Are you all right?” she asked.
I looked away in embarrassment as I stood up. “I’m okay” I said quietly.
She patted the seat beside her. “Want a seat?”
I sat down before she changed her mind, and then I stared stupidly straight ahead, afraid to look into those eyes.
“I’m Lisa Connors”. She offered her hand.
I gulped to make sure my voice wasn’t going to shift too high. “Jimmy Barrett-Walker”.
“Yeah. My mom was one of the first liberated women, so she decided to keep her own last name and add it to my father’s name. I’m a Barrett-Walker”.
“That’s nice” she said. “Your father had no problem with that?”
“No, he’s a pretty nice guy. But I always have to explain my name to people. It sounds like I exercise parrots or something”.
She laughed. I was in love with her laugh. I imagine she had that effect on every boy she met. I needed to get such thoughts out of my mind. I was just a boy from the country, used to hoeing weeds, milking cows, cutting firewood. I had managed to get my parents to buy regular pants so I wouldn’t have to wear the coveralls that had been standard at my old country school.
We just sat there the rest of the way to school. I stared straight ahead like an idiot, and she offered no more conversation.
This school wasn’t so bad. Nobody knew me, and I didn’t know anybody else. I got my books, enrolled in my classes, and rushed for the bus to see if she was going to be riding it this afternoon.
I sat at the back and I looked at the door. Every person was a disappointment because it wasn’t her. Finally, there she stood. I tried to look cool, hoping she would find her way to my seat, but someone touched her shoulder toward the front of the bus, and she smiled and sat down.
I pretended to sleep on the way home, but every now and then, I would squint to see what she was doing.
“You got a girlfriend?” asked my mother across the breakfast table.
I looked at her in shock. “Why do you say that?”
“I don’t know, maybe because you took an extra thirty minutes to comb your hair this morning. And that sure smells like your father’s after shave”.
I stared at my eggs and tried to sound nonchalant. “It’s a new school. I just want to make a good impression”.
My father chuckled, but said nothing.
“Good impression?” said my mother, “Wasn’t there a boy that looked an awful lot like you saying something about, ‘Who cares what those idiots think’?”
“Seems like a decent school” I said, “I just want people to think well of me”.
Mom stared at me, not really hearing anything I said. “Betsy Jenkins, isn’t it?”
“Betsy Jenkins? Who’s Betsy Jenkins?”
“She lives a few houses down. I was talking to her mother yesterday. She said Betsy thinks you’re cute”.
I quickly finished my eggs and wiped my mouth with the napkin, and stood quickly to get outside. Mom was cross-examining, and she had this irritating way of finding out what she wanted to know.
“Susan Wheeler?” she said to my back.
I turned and stared at her in mock exasperation. “No, Mom, it’s not Susan Wheeler, whoever she is”.
I had just reached for the front door knob and was almost out when Mom’s voice said “Lisa Conners…”
I shut the door before I heard the rest of the sentence.
School for the next few days had the usual boredom which all schools held for me. I always enjoyed reading, so I would read the texts, become familiar with them, and sleep as much as possible through classes. The problem was, I wasn’t thinking about what I was reading. I just kept seeing Lisa’s face, when I closed my eyes, when I was reading, when I was eating, I just kept seeing those bright sky blue eyes dancing at me from below that dark raven’s hair.
I sat at the back of the bus, alone as much as possible, and pretended to sleep. But I’d squint an eye open every now and then to look at her. It seemed she was always laughing, always happy, and there was never any shortage of boys around her. She had only been nice to me that first day. I realized that. She was just too pretty for a poor farm boy like me, but still, just looking at her…
“Lisa’s mother says she like you”.
I almost choked on my breakfast. “What are you talking about?”
Mom smiled that cat-that-ate-the-canary smile that I so hated.
“I said Lisa’s mother says Lisa likes you”.
“You know Lisa who. That girl you sat with the first day of school”.
She had me. She knew she had me.
“What are you going to do about it?” she asked.
I was still too astounded at the idea Lisa liked me. Funny how as you grow older, you learn to be less trusting of your mom.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I see her on the bus every day, and that’s it.”
“That’s what Lisa was complaining about. She said you never speak”.
Mom was interrogating me like an expert. She watched my body language, every move, every roll of my eyes.
“Well, I gotta get out to meet the bus”. Fortunately I wasn’t handcuffed, so I took the opportunity to run like hell.
Things were quiet for several days. I got on the bus, pretended to sleep and looked at Lisa, and I rode home, pretending to sleep while I looked at Lisa.
On one of those really unusual February days, when winter suddenly feels like Spring, I was pretending to sleep, when I felt someone looking at me. I opened my eyes suddenly to see Lisa looking directly at me, and she never looked away when I looked toward her. Instead, she held her gaze, meeting my eyes and never wavering, and I knew, I knew the most wonderful thing I could ever imagine was happening, right here, right now.
Lisa’s eyes told me everything I ever need to know, everything I had dreamed to know and never expect. In her tortuous way, Mom had been telling me the truth.
But what should I do? Should I go to her? Should I rise out of my seat and simply sit beside her? What should I say? If I got within two feet of her, those eyes would make me melt and flow back to the back seat.
I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep. Mom was playing in my court now.
The next morning I did work up the courage to sit beside her. Thank God she knew how to talk, because all I could do was stare at her. For the next few weeks, we grew closer together. It was Lisa and Jimmy, Jimmy and Lisa. I liked that it sounded just right.
It sounded so right that I carved it into the wood of the basement, in a quiet and dark place behind the furnace. Inside a secret heart, in a secret place. Two names, together, forever.
I was happy. And then, on a warm March morning, my father broke the news. “We have to move”.
I didn’t ask why. I knew he had to follow construction wherever it carried him. He was the provider. His strength held us together. We lost the farm, and we had to move. I never wanted to leave that old farmhouse where my grandfather had lived and told us about a world so different from my own. I knew that my father loved that farm, and he didn’t want to go, but we were a family. That’s what Mom said, and Mom stuck by my dad.
I saw Mom looking at me. She knew. But I wasn’t going to be a problem. I smiled at her and left before she would see the moisture in my eyes.
Another month, and we had to go. I had just one more month, and the day after Easter Sunday, I would be gone to another world, another life, another amputation.
Out from our house, there stood an old two story house that I had explored often. It looked similar to the big farm-house where I grew up. When I needed to be alone, I went there. After my father broke the news, I found myself inside the old farm place again, brooding over the possibility of never seeing Lisa again.
I had been so caught up in my own misery that a familiar voice almost scared me to death. “Jimmy?”
I turned to see Lisa. She was smiling. “I saw you walk out here, so I came. I like this place.”
“Yeah, it’s nice”. I didn’t want to tell her, so I just stood there, feeling stupid all over again.
She walked closer to me, and I could feel the electricity that sparked between us whenever we were close. I knew that she felt it too.
“You shouldn’t be here” I said, “Your father doesn’t like you talking to boys so much”.
“He likes you”
“Yes. My mother likes you, and so he likes you.”
“I’m glad of that”.
She took my hand, and all I could think was that I wanted to hold her. I just wanted to hold on and never let go. A boy and a girl, fifteen years old. It was just too much. What did this world expect of me? I wasn’t prepared for this kind of agony.
She sensed my reluctance and smiled up at me teasingly. “What you thinking?”
She took my hand in hers and she kissed my hand. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her. I wanted to spare her any pain now, while she was here and close.”
“Are you going to be this quiet when we’re married?”
I turned to face her in shock. “What?” I stammered.
“When we get married”. She smiled, and all I could do was stand there. Then she reached up and kissed me quickly on the cheek and said “I’m going to marry you, Jimmy Barrett-Walker”, and then she ran quickly out of the room while I stood there in frozen shock.
Next day, I sat at the back of the bus, and pretended to sleep again. I didn’t want to meet her eyes, didn’t want to have to tell her. I had to put it behind me and hope maybe someday…
She never pressured me, never pushed me to tell her what was wrong. Sometimes, while pretending to sleep, I would catch her looking, and i would see pain and hurt. I couldn’t tell her.
“Why aren’t you talking to Lisa?” demanded my mother.
“What’s to say? There’s no point.”
“You think the world will come to an end just because you’re moving away?”
I shrugged. “She’ll forget me. I won’t be around, and she’ll forget”.
Days went by, and Lisa went back to her normal behavior as before. Sometimes I’d catch her eye, and she’d look away. She was ignoring me. She thought I didn’t care. How could I tell her? What could I tell her? Another week, and I would be gone.
The final Friday. Good Friday. Monday morning, I would be gone to another uncertain life. I watched Lisa threw squinted eyes one lasd time, then got off the bus, and I never spoke to her.
That evening after supper, the phone rang, Mom answered it, and seconds later she handed it to me.
“It’s Lisa. She wants to talk to you”.
I took the phone and spoke.
“Jimmy, your mother told me. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t know what to say. What can I say?”
“Well, you didn’t have to ignore me. I spent all this time thinking I had said too much, that day in that old house.”
“What? No, Lisa, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that day, or what you said.”
“Was it that terrible?”
“No. Lisa, you know better than that. It made me feel, well, it made me feel really good.”
“Like you love me?” she teased.
“Like you’ll love me forever?”
“No, not forever.”
“Why not?” there was hurt in her voice.
“Not forever. Just as long as I live. That’s the best I can give you.”
She was quiet for a long time. I was feeling too much pain to say anything. Finally, she spoke.
“We could have more time together before you go”.
“How? I don’t think your dad would want me spending any private time with you”.
“We could meet at church. it’s Easter Sunday. I could go and meet you there”.
I suddenly felt a lot better. One more time with Lisa.
“Yes. I could do that. I could meet you at church, and we could walk home together!”
Suddenly we were talking and planning, free and easy, Jimmy and Lisa, Lisa and Jimmy, the way it was supposed to be.
We talked for another hour, and then she had to hang up. I turned around to face Mom, who had been listening behind my back.
“What do you plan on wearing to church?” she asked.
I hadn’t thought of that. I had no nice clothes for church, at least not for something like Easter Sunday.
“Wat am I going to do?”
Mom smiled. “We’re going to find you something to wear”.
She dug out my dad’s wing tip black dress shoes. They were about two sizes too large, but they would do. She then found a pair of his green dress pants. Baggy, but they would work.
She then called a friend whose son had a brown blazer. It would do for a Sunday coat. I tried it on, and it was tight. I grabbed one of dad’s ties, and I had my ensemble.
Saturday night I lay awake and re-traced every word of our phone conversation night before last. Every word, over and over again. I lay there wide awake and watched the clock tick.
Six AM. I sprang from bed and took a bath. Even used some shower powder. I threw on my clothes, got my dad to help with my tie, and sat down to wait. 7 AM.
I went back to the bathroom, combed my hair, brushed my shoes of imaginary dirt, combed my hair again, checked my tie, brushed my teeth for good measure. 8AM.
I sat down on the living room couch to wait. My mother woke me up. “You’ll be late for church!”
I ran for the door, checked myself at the front mirror beside the door, and hit the highway at a full run.
Fortunately, the church was only about a quarter mile away, so I made it in good time.
I never saw Lisa, so I opened the church doors and began walking down the aisle, looking for her. Mostly, all I could see were men sitting with their arms around the huge wide brimmed hats with flowers and stuff. As I walked by each aisle, I could see women;s faces beneath the large Easter Bonnets. Still, I saw nothing of Lisa.
What if she hadn’t come? What if her father had forbidden it at the last minute. Bastard! I thought.
And then I cam to the front row where only one person sat. It was a woman, dressed in a tight pink dress. Long shapely legs ended in white high heel shoes. On her hands, she wore white gloves.
She turned to look at me, and under the huge white Easter Bonnet was Lisa’s face. I gulped. This was no teen-ager in plaid skirt and penny loafers. This was physically every bit a woman, and a beautiful woman at that.
She smiled and patted the seat beside her. I sat down, about three feet away. There was something that seemed almost sacred about her. I didn’t want to defile that space.
I heard the preacher, but not a word he said. I only heard sounds. Lisa tricked me. I was expecting a girl, and instead I sat beside this incredibly beautiful woman.
Finally, services were over. I stood to wait for Lisa, but several women gathered around her. I moved to the front, and finally out the door, where I waited.
After several minutes, she appeared, framed by the large church doors, pink dress, white bonnet, white gloves, and long tanned legs.
I gulped and stood there. I found myself gulping a lot around Lisa.
I started toward her, and then there was a young man who spoke to her. She smiled and began talking to him. He was well dressed, looked successful, looked like the man who would probably be her future. She was a beautiful woman. I was just…a boy.
I looked down at my oversized shoes, my baggy green pants and my tight brown blazer, and started walking home.
Before I had walked ten yards, I heard a voice carrying across the churchyard. “Jimmy! Wait for me!”
I turned to see an entire congregation staring at a young girl in a pink dress, carrying her shoes and purse in one hand, and holding her bonnet with the other. I saw, as she ran, the garter that held her hose. Lisa, running toward me.
Things got kind of blurry for a second, and I just held out my arms as she ran to me.
Life happens while you’re making other plans. I would see Georgia, Tennessee, California, and Vietnam. I still hold Lisa in my memories, just as she stood therein that courtyard. I still remember the two names I carved together, inside a secret heart. in a secret place, together forever.
The squirrel ran up the tree outside as dusk turned to darkness. I crumpled the newspaper that lay across the stumps that once were my legs, and in the darkness, I see a young girl not quite a woman, running toward a young boy, not quite a man, shouting “Wait for me!”