Was that her name? Or Margaret Ann? Or Mary Margaret? No, I think it was Mary Ann. Perhaps you will excuse my uncertain memory when I tell you that it was sixty years ago and that I was six.
She and I are standing on the front porch of her house, a white frame structure with a peeling wooden railing around the porch, where we have been talking. I have just walked her home from our school a few blocks away. It is the first time I have done this. It is also the first time that I will have kissed a girl, as I am about to do now, as she pauses at the door, seemingly waiting for me to take that extra step toward her and kiss her on the cheek that is turned toward me ever so slightly, a cheek whose color is midway between cream and rose, and alongside which is spiraling a shimmering cascade of thick golden curls.
Did I hesitate then as I am doing now? Probably not, for I was a little fellow made bold by feeling that I had nothing to be afraid of except the rare reprimands of my father. I must have taken that step toward her easily, for kissing her seemed not only the right thing to do, but also a thing I had the right to do. Did I say anything to her at this moment? “You are beautiful” or “May I kiss you?” I doubt it. Perhaps “I like you,” for in those days that was the phrase that children used to express their attraction to the opposite sex. I leaned toward her and kissed her on the cheek, a little kiss she received with aplomb and the hint of a smile. Then, as she opened the screen door and stepped inside the house, she said good-bye and I skipped down the steps and started down the sidewalk, suddenly a much older boy. I now owned the block. I was the master of my destiny. I lived outside of time.
But I also knew that I was supposed to have been home by then. “You come straight home from school” was the instruction that now came back to me. To compensate for malingering, I headed toward Larry Englert’s drug store. I knew that it had a public phone and that Larry would give me a nickel for it. My father had grown up in this neighborhood and in fact had worked for Larry as a soda jerk and delivery boy. We went there all the time. Indeed, Larry not only gave me a nickel, he placed a wooden box on the floor so I could reach the dial. He looked amused.
“Where are you?” said my mother, clearly distraught.
I told her I was at Larry Englert’s and she said she would come get me. “Do not leave Larry’s,” she repeated firmly. Staying there was no problem: the magazine rack had a wide assortment of comic books.
In the car a few minutes later, I explained to my mother that I had walked home with Mary Ann, an excuse that partially mollified her. She said, with enough emphasis to make me understand that she really meant it, “Don’t you ever go off like that again. I was worried sick.”
Given the fact that I had a crush on Mary Ann, it seems odd that I never walked her home again. Perhaps it was because, in the middle of the school year, my family moved to a different neighborhood while allowing me to complete first grade at the same school. But I did continue to dote on her, partly because she was the prettiest girl in the class, I thought, and being her boyfriend conferred on me a higher status, in my own eyes, at least. Beyond this, she was a normal girl, neither too shy nor too bold, with those golden curls that bounced and swayed adorably when she skipped rope or ran across the playground.
Although my crush had length, it did not have depth. Could any six-year-old be deeply in love? I don’t see how. In any case, when the year ended and the summer went by and I started second grade in my new school, I had forgotten about her by the time the young, dark-haired, brown-eyed music teacher had me come up and sit in her lap as a reward for being good. I couldn’t imagine anyone more wonderful.
Coe Ann Swift
My relationship with Coe Ann Swift seems to exist on a cloud that floats somewhere above my childhood, but at what age? Eight? Nine? And like a cloud, it was gone before I knew it.
The teachers called her Coe Ann, as if to compensate for what sounded like a truncation of her first name. Even her middle name, lacking a final e, was trimmed to a minimum. Since she was in our class, she must have been of at least average intelligence, though one saw little evidence of it because she hardly ever spoke, and then only in brief phrases and in a voice one could hardly hear. She sat at the back of the room and to one side, glancing up occasionally like a field mouse with an apologetic look on her small, freckled face. Everything about her tended to blend into the woodwork: her strawcolored hair, bangs in front and the rest cropped short and brushed down against the back and sides of her head, as if molded there; her few dresses, plain cotton in faded tan, dull yellow, or washed-out orange; her diminutive size; and her personality that seemed featureless. Each day she left the schoolyard alone, a mystery that intrigued no one.
What was it that caused me to notice her mouth? Its horizontal length was shorter than normal, which caused her cheeks to look slightly puffed out. To me the effect was not disagreeable; in fact I found her little mouth . . . not pretty, but oddly fascinating. It was as if in that mouth she were holding something to say, but never said it, and when I talked to her for the first time face to face, I found that I liked her scratchy little voice. I walked home that day hearing in my head, “Coe Ann Swift, Coe Ann Swift, Coe Ann Swift,” syllables that took on an incantatory power.
After a week of feeling this way, I asked her if I could come visit her at home. For a moment she looked puzzled—or apprehensive—then wrote her address on a piece of paper and nodded when I said, “After school tomorrow?”
Her house was only a few blocks from where my maternal grandparents lived, in a modest neighborhood near school. How fitting it was that her house was as diminutive as she. Somehow I knew that I was to knock at the back door. When she opened it, we just stood there for a moment, until some wheels turned in her head and she asked me uncertainly if I would like to come in. I stepped into the kitchen, where her mother, a small bundle of a woman at the sink, turned her head and muttered hello. Neither she nor her daughter seemed to know what to do; it was as if no one had ever visited them. The kitchen and the anonymous room beyond were pale tan blurs that had been waiting for decades, waiting for someone to raise the window shades, waiting for a new coat of paint, waiting for a burst of laughter. The air was stale.
I asked Coe Ann to come outside to see my new bicycle, but things wer hardly better out there. Standing stock still, she followed my improvised commentary on the bike’s features but said nothing. Suddenly I sensed a profound embarrassment in her, the shame of being so plain, so small, so poorly dressed, of living in such a dismal house, of being socially inept. Was she also ashamed of living without a father? What was it about her that made me think that she had no father?
Finally I ran out of things to say, other than “I’ll see you later,” and I hopped on my bike and pedaled down the dirt driveway and into the street.
On my way home I rode past my grandparents’ house. There it was, larger than Coe Ann’s and with a screened front porch and a lawn that was small but cared for. Rose bushes ran along one side of the house. Sometimes my grandparents sat on the porch, nodding and exchanging an occasional word with neighbors out for a stroll in the cool of the evening. During one period my great-grandfather had sat in a cushioned metal lawn chair on that porch, leaning over to his right from time to time to lift up a coffee can from the floor and spit his tobacco juice into it. “Sonny,” he told me, “when I come to Oklahoma back in ought-three the young bucks was wiry and strong. Nothin’ like they have ’em in the movin’ pictures.” The pupils of his eyes were very dark and hard, and the stains from the tobacco juice trickled down from the corners of his mouth. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a small pouch of Bull Durham. “’Bout out,” he said, giving me a wicked, conspiratorial smile. From inside the living room my grandmother, his daughter-in-law, called out, “Oscar, if you get that tobacco juice on my porch, I’m gonna coldcock you.”
I made no further overtures to Coe Ann, and she showed no sign of my brief attentions. Relieved that no one but she and I had any inkling of it all, I wondered what had come over me.
The heavy log-jam of consonants in her surname resonated with the fullness of her face, her dark eyes, thick brown hair, full lips, and an aplomb that allowed her to move slowly and calmly. I don’t recall when she caught my attention, but it must have been when we were classmates in the fifth grade, shortly after she enrolled as a new student. I found myself looking at her and yearning for the slowness and fullness she embodied, as if she were the daughter o Dorothy Lamour and I were a combination of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in a film called The Road to Tulsa.
I had abandoned my hope of winning the affection of Melanie Puryear, another classmate with movie star associations. She had the golden hair of Marilyn Monroe, which her mother carefully arranged each morning. It flowed up and back over her head and down to her collar, where it curled under, like an ocean wave rolling over and back under itself. Melanie’s lips, in my memory, at least, were a luscious red. She sported new, pristine, colorful outfits, of which she seemed to have a great many. Her mother knew that Melanie was special, Melanie knew it, I knew it, and so did everyone else. She was a golden girl who glided down the halls, the cutest girl in the school, a “dreamboat.” Therefore I liked her, a lot. But she already had a boyfriend, so my interest was futile, and I knew it.
This made it easier to turn my attentions to Barbara, who seemed perfectly happy to be around me, though not showing it in any particular way. Thus when I suggested that she and I do something on the weekend, she said, “Sure, come to my house.”
The following Saturday I rode my bicycle six blocks to her house, a respectable working-class home not far from school. When I knocked at the back door, her mother opened and welcomed me into the kitchen. Barbara was in the living room with her little sister, perched over a board game on the carpet. Several Barbie dolls lay to the side. Everything seemed pink, very girlish. There was no sign of a masculine presence in the house.
That afternoon the three of us, then the two of us, played board games. After several hours, I noticed that the room had grown quite warm, and when I suggested that it would be nice outside, Barbara’s mother’s head appeared in the doorway and kindly asked us if we would like a strawberry milkshake. Soon the sound of the blender came from the kitchen, followed by Mrs. Logsden bearing two large glasses. The first sip tasted cold and frothy, but subsequent sips proved less satisfying: it was too sweet and too thin. That is, it did not replicate those I had in ice cream parlors or at home. It troubled me when Mrs. Logsden asked, “Did you like your milkshake?”
“Yes. Thank you,” I said diplomatically, and when she offered me a second, “No, thank you, I’m full.” My stomach felt “off.”
Then the room temperature and the pinkness swept over me again and I said that my mother expected me at home, so I had to go. With her usua evenness, Barbara said okay and we put the board game—I think it was Parcheesi—back in its box.
Mounting my bike in the fresh air, I felt proud that I had taken a step further with Barbara but troubled by the fact that, despite everything, I had eventually felt like fleeing. By Monday morning, though, my attraction to her had overcome this ambiguity and reasserted itself in full force.
The next Saturday, I found myself at her house again. This time I not only managed to reduce the time spent in the living room, I was able to maneuver her outside, next to the detached garage. My goal was to create a situation in which I could kiss her, and if being outdoors did not offer the ideal circumstance, it was far preferable to being subtly monitored indoors.
Barbara seemed to like me, but she was too passive to say so. She wasn’t shy at all. It was just that she didn’t make the effort to do things she didn’t have to, which gave her face a languorous softness that made her ample cheeks, dark eyebrows, and moist brown eyes even more delicious. She was like a ripe peach hanging from a branch, a peach whose delicate, backlit fuzz is glowing. But it will not drop. A hand must reach up and pluck it.
This was a resolve I lacked. I knew that I wanted to kiss her and I sensed that she wanted to be kissed, but the gulf between the present moment and the kiss—to be bridged by a single step—seemed unbridgeable. I lingered, dredging up, in no particular order, things to talk about, as a tension mounted in me—five minutes, then ten, twenty, thirty . . . It was as if I were trapped eternally at this impasse, and I yearned for her to make an effort to help me out of it.
The shadows of the garage had lengthened enough to remind me that I had promised to be home by six o’clock, dinnertime. It was now five minutes before six. That is, now or never. After all this effort, I could not bear to leave without something to show for it.
I asked Barbara to follow me a few steps into the shadow in the narrow space between the house and the garage, where we could not be seen from the kitchen window, and there I lurched forward and kissed her not on the lips, of course, and not on the cheek as planned, but on the forehead. How I hated myself in that moment! What I had secretly feared was true: I was a chicken. Or perhaps a rooster, for at least I had done something.
But something had been done to me as well, for soon afterward I no longer felt the magnetic power that had been pulling me toward her. Without doin anything at all, she had made me look inside myself and see something I did not like. How could I love someone who did that?
At the end of the school year, her family moved away.
About fifteen years later, I was visiting Tulsa. Now living in New York City and accustomed to walking everywhere, I went out for a stroll down the street near my grandmother’s house. It was a thoroughfare with heavy traffic and a narrow sidewalk whose cracked concrete indicated that it was rarely used. Walking with gaze downcast at the uncertain footing, I sensed an approaching pedestrian and turned my shoulders to allow for easier passage, glancing, as I did, at the face. Twenty paces later it hit me: that was Barbara Logsden, fifteen years older, but certainly she. I stopped and turned to look at her, but Barbara, perhaps still the passive one, kept going. Maybe she hadn’t recognized me. I watched her for a moment, then dismissed the idea of chasing after her, just as I had, finally, when we were ten years old.
RON PADGETT grew up in Tulsa and has lived mostly in New York City since 1960. Among his many honors are a Guggenheim Fellowship, the American Academy of Arts and Letters poetry award, the Shelley Memorial Award, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist. His new poetry collection is Alone and Not Alone (Coffee House Press, 2015), and forthcoming is his translation of Zone: Selected Poems of Guillaume Apollinaire (NYRB).