Bittersweet Chocolate Love
I skimmed 16 Magazine for Valentine’s Day gift suggestions while the dentist Novocained my jaw for the drill. My choices, it seemed, were an armload of flowers or a box of candy. I cruised into the Rexall on Main Street.
The druggist walked as if he were under water. “Young man?”
“Ka’dy.” My jaw was still puffed from the anesthetic.
“You have a lisp?”
I drew out the syllables. “A botth of choth-ah . . . ”
I pointed to boxes of chocolate on the shelf.
“Ah.” He indulged me with a smile. “Who’s it for? Girl?”
Oh, eat my diaper gravy. Old bastards think they’re so funny when they tease boys about liking girls.
He reached past the Whitman Samplers and the Russell Stover’s to a top-shelf, heart-shaped box: Bittersweet Chocolate Love, wrapped in crinkled red tissue. “This is the best one.”
Probably left over from last Valentine’s Day, but I borrowed his fountain pen and wrote, “Your Secret Admirer” on the linen cardstock.
Now, where to give it to her? Not school, too public. I threw my evening routes with a scarlet heart peeking from my canvas saddlebag.
The next morning, in the twilight before dawn overtook darkness, I drove to O’Murphy’s house, killed the engine three houses away, and coasted to her front door. I propped the box on the stoop. She’d know who it was from. Whom. Who is for the subject of a sentence; whom is for the object.
On Friday nights, girls steered their boyfriends to The Freeze. They didn’t have to; boys wanted to be seen just as much. The self-chosen in-crowd dragged Main from six P.M. to midnight: A&W was a mile south, Sonic was five blocks north, the Pig Stand was the eastern leg of Main Street. The Freeze was our pivot, the point where every high schooler sojourned if they owned a motor or could snag a ride. It would’ve been unthinkable to walk; I’d been mortified to pedal my bicycle there on work weekends, even if it was a Schwinn Deluxe Typhoon.
The Freeze was full at eight o’clock, so I parked my Honda at the cafe next door, El No Deseado. The sign suggested how contentiously migrant workers were received here in our little town, even though they roofed our houses, milked our cows and cleaned our kitchens. I occupied the back booth and started reading The Catcher in the Rye.
Spit walked in a minute later. Scooter followed: “Hey, Bookworm, where’s O’Murphy?”
Growing up with Biggy had taught me not to respond to taunts.
“Hey goddammit! I’m talking to you!”
“Not in that tone, you’re not.” Mr. Marion stepped out of the kitchen with a steel spatula in his right hand. He’d spelled out three rules when he hired me: no fighting, neither boy nor man was allowed to take the Lord’s name in vain, and he’d personally remove anyone who disrespected his wife, his son, his daughter, or his staff.
“I find her you was with her,” Scoot shook a finger to teach me a lesson, “I cream your ass.”
“OUT!” Mr. Marion shouted without raising his voice. “Don’t come back without two apologies.” After a two-week probation, transgressors were required to say they were sorry, then express regret to prove sincerity.
Scoot’s Yamaha revved, and he squealed a half-donut out of the parking lot. It shrieked as the two-cycle engine wound to the top of first gear, but cut off completely a second later.
MBe and O’Murphy walked in two minutes later. Murph cut mirthful eyes at me and raised her hands over to cheeks in faux innocence. “Did we just miss Tommy?”
Out of the hospital? Already? Must not have been mono. I’d looked it up in the Family Medical Encyclopedia. Mono would’ve laid her up for a month with a fever and swollen tonsils.
They ordered three cherry limeades, giggled something into each other’s ears, and kept glancing at me. Her purple scent remained after O’Murphy sashayed out with two drinks. It had taken three hundred thousand years of evolution for women to walk like that.
Feces. You’ve known O’Murphy for what–five months now–and your relationship has regressed to a few words and glances.
MBe took her cherry limeade, dropped a nickel in the Wurlitzer, matched my blues with Ray Charles, and plopped at my table. “Banker Daddy bought Richie Rich a Shelby GT 500.”
A few of my sophomore class had turned sixteen, and we were finding who among us were the most privileged. “Yeah, I saw it last week at school. Mustang Super Snake. I heard Richie tell Scooter it cost $7,500.” Three times the price of Biggy’s ’66 coupe.
“Wimbledon white with Guardsman-blue rocker stripes,” MBe repeated verbatim what Richie must’ve bragged to her. “Police Interceptor engine; 650 horses, 427 cubes.”
I pointed two fingers inside my mouth. “Gag me with a salad fork. Better than Scooter, but why Richie?”
“You know, O’Murphy’s been my best friend since second grade, but she’s always set her mouth for the wrong kind of boy. However,” she paused, “if you don’t like her boyfriends, you should ask her out.”
“I can’t compete with Richie Rich.”
MBe rolled her eyes.
Sammie Davis Jr. walked in. As Sammie waved hello, MBe lowered her voice to an exasperated tone. “Have you got even one romantic bone in your body? You know she likes you!”
“No, I don’t know. Am I her type?”
MBe searched my eyes for seconds, deciding what to say in front of Sammie. “That was first day of school. You’d be good for her. If I tell all y’all about her, what are you going to do?”
“Are you going to drop a dime on me?” MBe turned to Sammie.
“Lips.” Sammie zipped an imaginary seal across her mouth with a finger.
“Because she would cordially detest me,” MBe emphasized.
“I keep secrets too,” I said. “Besides, who would I ever tell?”
“Richie dropped us off here, but she left with a doggie. A lot older than she is.”
Sammie’s eyes turned to me. We were both stunned.
MBe bit her lip. “He’s married. You both just met her first semester, right? She was a lot different in elementary school. Smart. She actually loved every class, every teacher.”
“I thought she just moved here in the fall semester,” Sammie said.
“Nope, born here. She was in my first-grade class when her dad got sent to Norman.”
“Norman? Norman the mental hospital Norman?” Sammie coaxed.
“It was such a bad scene,” MBe slurped the last of her cherry limeade. “Don’t ever go nuts. It truly sucks. Her daddy didn’t die until last year. Her mom remarried within a few months, and then they moved back last summer. Now O’Murphy’s sick too.”
I caught MBe’s insinuation, that O’Murphy was mentally ill. But because I’ve always been stupid to know when I’m being gross, I joked about it. “Maybe she’s just got the girl flu.”
MBe shot me an exasperated eye.
“You know. The Scarlet Pimpernel. The Period Fairy.”
MBe and Sammie girlcotted me until I shut up. “Sorry. Inappropriately funny?”
“You’re half right,” MBe admonished without humor. Then she continued, “When they came back from Norman last summer, she was wearing makeup and dressing sexy.”
“Was that when Scooter became her boyfriend?”
“They met when we all did, first day of the tenth grade. She got moody early last year, after her mom met her stepdad-to-be in Norman. Chewed her nails. Stayed on the telephone with me. She’d want to talk all night. And baby, did her stepdad go ape. When she moved back, we’d go to a dance, and the next night Murph would reconstruct the entire event. We’d be on the phone for two hours.”
“But you talk at school,” Sammie pointed out.
“Of course. But it’s different on the phone.”
“Like how?” Sammie asked.
“We can talk about ‘it’ on the phone.”
“Why do you need a phone for that?” I asked.
“I guess because we can’t see each other’s faces. We have privacy, even from each other.”
I nodded, but I didn’t understand. “What’s with the scars on her legs?”
MBe opened her mouth, then ignored my question. “Did you ever read The Glass Menagerie? She’s like Laura. She can’t see through people.”
“And you see through everybody.” I offered a huge compliment.
I hate it when someone starts to tell me something and then doesn’t. I desperately wanted to know more about O’Murphy. “And so, the scars?”
“After they moved back here last summer, her grades dropped. She’d be a chatterbox, high as a kite. The next minute, she’d cry into her pillow, hate the world, and everything was stupid. And then O’Murphy started closing the drapes on me.”
“Because of Scooter?”
“Not everything’s about him.” MBe shook her head. “Except tonight. She didn’t tell him where she went, so he’s out looking for her, even though she broke up.”
“But why does she cut?” Sammie pressed for me.
“How do you know she cuts?”
“Her gym locker’s next to mine. And I see her in the showers sometimes,” Sammie said.
“I saw scars on her knees when she wore a short skirt,” I added.
“At first she hid them,” MBe said. “Now I think she wants people to know.”
“About self mutilation?” I asked.
“It’s all about how her dad went out. Do you know about that?”
We shook our heads.
“Lifer Marine: Korea, Viet Nam. He had brought this hari-kari sword home from World War II. One day, he ditched the mental hospital and disemboweled himself. O’Murphy came home and she . . . ”
“She found him?” Sammie asked incredulously.
“At first she dropped ten pounds, and she was already a Skinny Minnie. Then she started eating. It was so weird. You’re a boy, so you don’t know this,” MBe glanced at her own chest, “but some girls gain weight here. O’Murphy’s step called her a milk cow, so she stopped eating. Then all she did was sleep. She’d scream at her mother and Mr. Larsson to leave her alone. When she was thirteen, Murph told me she hated the way she looked. When her stepdad–or anyone, for that matter–told her she was pretty, she’d glare at them. She told me that her step ‘Looks at me in a way I don’t want to be looked at.’ Then she changed everything about herself. When her mom made roast beef for dinner, Mr. Larsson loved it, but O’Murphy was suddenly a vegetarian. She was always Miss Homebody–she didn’t even like staying overnight at my house, she’d get homesick and call her mother–but after Mr. Scott died and Mr. Larsson moved in, she was Miss Independence. Nobody knew what she’d be next.
“But here’s the clincher,” MBe looked at me. “Fall semester–just days after all y’all met her–she got to know this married guy. She started dressing sexy: she’d put on a scoop neck over her bra, and then a pep squad shirt. And as soon as school was over, she’d hike up her skirt, take off her shirt, and unhook her bra so her boobs would swing while she walked.”
“Why? What was the point?”
“When I look back, I think she wanted to get pregnant,” MBe confided.
All three of us were stunned into silence. “And this has nothing to do with Scooter?”
“No!” MBe sounded frustrated with me. “But you–you’ve gotta be careful. Every time she two-times him, Tommy gets the idea she’s with you. He ain’t the shiny toy in the box.”
“So why are you telling us all of this?”
Another bombshell. “Because she thinks Richie left a box of candy on her porch.”
My mouth opened in dismay. “I probably need to move while the spirit’s on me. Four A.M. comes early these days.”
I walked across the parking lot, sat on my Honda, and thought about what MBe had said. Just before I kicked the starter, I heard voices a couple of cars away. And I knew who they were.
“ . . . how to calm her assss down,” Spit’s tone was a lecture. “Get her PG.”
I made out Spit’s profile–more like a monkey than a man–in the driver’s seat through the window of the dark hot rod. That dwarf planet beside him must be Pickle.
“Now why in hell would I do that?” asked a third shape in the back seat.
“So she’ll drop out of school.”
“But then . . . ” Scoot said. A car whooshed by. “ . . . have to marry her.”
“That’s the point, smarty. She’s home. She can’t flirt with every turd who’s got a motor.”
The back door opened and seconds later, Scooter’s distinctive two-cycle engine vroomed to life. He revved the handle throttle two, three, four times and popped a wheelie.
“ . . . still haven’t gotten any, have you?” Spit asked.
Pickle’s head toggled from side to side.
“You want a piece of O’Murphy Scott?”
Your brother’s girlfriend? Spit, you’re one nasty piece of work.
A green light released five cars. Now their voices were audible in waves.
“ . . . nose stuck up in the air like she’s somebody. She ain’t no better than us,” Spit said.
“ . . . if she calls the cops?” Pick’s face turned away.
“She won’t say shit.”
“You’ve got a girl. Sort of. Why would you force someone?” Pickle asked Spit.
“I don’t ask,” Spit said. “I take what I . . . whoosh . . . like a man likes to feel. It’s a rush, believe you me . . . whoosh . . . no one ever called the cops . . . whoosh . . . Same with MBe.”
You did this to MBe? You bastard. I’m going to make it my job to pay you back if I ever get the chance.
“Why didn’t MBe call the cops?”
“I told ‘er, soon as I bail out of jail, I’ll do ‘er again. But I’m gonna do O’Murphy next time. It’ll be her best birthday present ever.”