Late as usual, with her bouncing jet-black hair hurdling the nap of her navy-blue woolen sweater, her skirt feathering my arm, Shirley came streaming into our senior homeroom class at James Monroe H.S. in the Bronx. Her smile lit up a toasty complexion. It reminded me of the sexy Spanish women that only appeared in bullfighter movies. During the 1940s, there weren’t many sexy Spanish women in the East Bronx.
She passed by and said, “Hello,” “Hi,” I replied, and then turned to Lenny Glass, not because Lenny was more appealing, I turned to Lenny because I was lost after I coerced a “Hi” from my vocal cords.
I was in my senior year. Why couldn’t I connect with a girl I found attractive? Maybe I spent too much time playing ball? Maybe I should have developed social skills instead of athletic skills? Maybe the time I spent in the candy store listening to and exchanging abrasive humor could have been spent with the girls in the neighborhood, but the candy store was fun, and the few neighborhood girls were unappealing.
The bell rang, period 1. Mr. Kaplan’s geometry class was a torture chamber. It was a relatively small class, so he saved the unoccupied last row for what he called, Dumbell’s Alley. A seat in that row was reserved for anyone giving a wrong answer. Sensing the embarrassment kept the Alley unoccupied most of the time. When I sat in that row, I felt like an outsider, an intruder while Mr. Kaplan’s mustache glared at me during his explanation of the Pythagoreum theorum. I hated a mustache, and I hate them to this day. It’s a haven for all sorts of wildlife. At last, period 2.
While hurrying towards Senor Goodman’s Spanish class, a glittering poster scotch tapped to a wall in the hallway announced that the Senior Prom will be held on January 12. I sunk into my shoes. I had no girlfriend. Who would I invite? I knew Shirley was always glancing in my direction, but what did that mean? Anyway, when the band played, I would have butchered her ankles. Why was that? On my racing blades I was poetry in motion at the ice-skating rink. And how about that penguin tuxedo I had to rent for fifteen dollars? I could see twenty-five Yankee games in the bleachers and buy a Coke for that kind of money. Shirley would be an attractive ornament to bring to the prom, but Pa would have to finish twenty-five or thirty coats for that fifteen dollars. Forget it.
Senior prom? What do I know from a prom? I don’t even have a suit. A tie and shiny black shoes? Feh! If had a suit, it would not be at the prom. It would be draped on a hanger in our hall closet. Rent a tuxedo? Who knows who perspired in it? If the band played Strangers in the Night my feet would be bouncing to a polka. None of the boys are going. Who would I ask? Her? What would we talk about? Why should I go and waste at least fifteen dollars and a tuxedo I had to return? Marv graduated last year. He had a girlfriend, he didn’t go to the prom, he was in college.
That annoying poster showing a couple dancing hounded me for the rest of the day. I kept examining myself.
What if I ask her and she says, ”Sorry, I already have a date”, or just a flat, “No.” I’ll be seeing her for the rest of the term coated with a film of “Sorry” or “No.”
Senor Goodman was a pleasant man, but his Spanish with a Yiddish accent carried me back to the Inquisition. Torquemada be damned, why are so many misfits going to the Senior Prom and I was not?
During my reverie, I revisited the skirt that brushed against my arm this morning, but I was awakened by Senor Goodman’s accent of the “j” in viaje. I started in his trachea, slithered past his uvula, and then gathered saliva to explode in a shower of “viachay”. Two boys up front were at the receiving end of that mist, but they were going to the prom, the finks.
Last seat, last row was the usual seat with a name like Wolfe. Well, at least I wasn’t on the receiving end of the Senor’s spray
Epstein’s class was more fun than The Fred Allen Show. It wasn’t a challenge. Many of my teammates from the football team reveled in it. While he tried to impress us with his clichés. He had very little control over our class of boys.
He would begin the class with,
“I know the score, set-up and what have you.”
For the discipline problems he would add,
“I wasn’t born yesterday, I’ll rake you over the coals. I’ll hit you, but hit you hard.”
Uh-oh. Three fire drill gongs. The cinder track adjacent to the ballfields was our designated area for a fire drill. As we marched over the cinders, I called out,
“Hey guys, Epstein is taking us over the coals.” The boys roared.
I scored my points with the boys, but there was no six-pointer with Epstein.
Why couldn’t Shirley be here now? It was witty and clever. That would have made an impression!
Mr. Epstein trotted over to me.
“Wolfe, I want to see you at the end of the period.”
Upon our walk back to class, the boys verbally patted me on the back. But what was Epstein going to do? Towards the end of the period, a drowsing class heard Mr. Epstein read from an earth science textbook about the different types of volcanoes. Finally, the bell rang and the class left. I walked up to Mr. Epstein.
“So, I’m taking you over the coals, eh? Wolfe, you’re a senior and you’ll be a senior next term if you don’t change you behavior. I’ll hit you, and hit you hard, and then. drag you over the coals if you continue to disrespect me. Get me?”
I told him I was sorry and it would not happen again.
The period seven bell rang. I got my jacket and ran to the field house to change for football practice.
Motivating signs were pasted near the shower walls. “Tackle to hurt!” “A team that won’t be beaten, can’t be beaten!” “Get the quarterback’s arm!”
On the rock-studded field built by the WPA, Doc Wiedman’s warm-up exercises were as grueling as practice.
Shirley was sitting in the far stands. No one ever comes to watch practice. She certainly wasn’t looking for me, or was she?
I’m not going to ask her if she was in the stands at practice. I knew she was, but would I ask her if she came to see me? At 127 pounds I had the guts to tackle a 225 pounder, but I didn’t have the guts to ask if she came to see me.
For the rest of the term there were no major changes in my homeroom class. We had our attendance taken, said “Hello”, and then waited for the first bell to ring.
Near the end of the term we collected our yearbooks. I built up enough courage to ask her for a note alongside her photo. Under her street address she wrote, Jamaica, Long Island. Was this where she lived? A hint?
We graduated. Where did she go? I went to the Garment District – Dead End
In 2911 the WhitePages on my computer told me that Shirley was icing in Boynton Beach, FL. It was sixty-three years since I last saw her, but at 81 years of ageI had a mountain of memories, but some remain at the summit. I phoned, but there was no answer. I pursued this further and found her cousin who was also living in Florida.She told me that a few years ago Shirley was diagnosed with caner and soon passed away.
What did she do after graduating James monroe? Did she have a happy marriage? Did she have children? Did she remember me? Questions but no answers.