Mama told me Henry Wilkins was bad news, that a nine year old boy like me had no business trailing after a twelve year old. And Pop said he led me around like an organ grinder’s monkey, but I didn’t see it.
Til yesterday. I know now that Mama and Pop were both right. Not that I’ll let on to them that I think so, and you better not neither.
Me and Henry were walking home from school, him kicking a rock out ahead, and me belting into the prickle bushes to fetch it every time it trickled off the path. (That always got Mama hopping about Henry, when she’d spend an evening digging prickles out of my hide.)
So Henry started in on how hot it was getting, coming up as it is on July, and how that big yellow fireball we call a sun was liable to cook his Daddy’s chicken eggs while the hens were still roosting on them in the coop. Til pretty soon all that talking -- Henry’s real good at talking -- got my head to feeling feverish and heavy, like the sun was fixing to squash me into the ground.
Henry squinted at me, said, “Shoot, Rowdy, you don’t look so good. Feeling all right?” Fool as I was, I told him no, I wasn’t all right, I was sticky, melty hot and needed something to cool down with, and the closer to right now, the better.
So Henry, real casual, tapped at that rock and shrugged one shoulder, said maybe I needed something icy cold and creamy to drink, something to refresh my spirit. (That should of been my tip-off right there: whenever Henry goes poet on me, there’s trouble.) He made a humming, thinking noise with his lips and said, “I’ll bet Nanny’s Ice Cream Parlor has just the thing. What do you think, Rowdy? Chocolate malt?”
Now here’s what I knew: I knew that Lily Phelps, the prettiest girl in the ninth grade, had started her job at Nanny’s this past Tuesday. I knew if I went there with Henry, I’d be sitting there pretty much by my lonesome self while he made moon eyes at Lily. But I was never one to pass up a chocolate malt. I may be young, but I ain’t crazy. Facts that Henry was counting on.
Henry had me and he knew it. He was so ready to get us to that ice cream shop, he laid off kicking that rock the rest of the way. Not that I noticed much. I was ahead of him, pushing on through that steamy thick air like a drowning man flailing for land.
By the time I got to the counter I barely managed to breathe out, “Chocolate malt, Lily, and quick.” I didn’t see Henry come in behind me, and neither did Lily, she was so intent on getting me my malt. She wasn’t near as intent on it as I was -- I got up to my knees on the red vinyl bar stool, leaned over the counter and watched.
And here’s what I didn’t know: that morning, just before school, Henry’d bellied up the nerve and asked Lily to his seventh grade picnic this Saturday. Talk about nerve, the boy asked her right in front of all the other glee club girls, him barely reaching up to their chins height-wise. I wasn’t there to see it, but my buddy Mose was, and he said it was a spectacle. Especially when Lily turned to her friends and started to snicker, then cackle. Mose said it sounded like a big bunch of geese, and that Henry’s face turned about fourteen shades of red before he swiveled on his heel and stomped away.
So when Henry sauntered into the shop behind me -- me off-kilter on the stool, panting for my malt -- he waited for just that moment when Lily reached up to pass me that frosty glass (she’d filled it extra-full on account of my desperation) and he smacked me hard on the back, launched me clean across the counter into Lily Phelps. I landed flat on top of her, the glass between us and the malt all over us.
Lily ended up a lot hotter than I’d thought I was, and she made sure I’m never allowed back in that place again, with or without Henry Wilkins.
Not that I’d be seen with him again anyway.
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