by JWM Morgan
On his first day of senior year English, Edmund knew to be quick and take the seat he wanted—second row, left of center. Behind him the seat supports creaked as two girls slid in from either side and collided hips. The two girls struggled briefly, then one girl gave up and left. Brown-eyed, full-figured Milly Derosiers announced her triumph with a husky “Hi” and passed Edmund a handful of hot, moist Cracker Jack.
“Hi,” he said. He pressed the Cracker Jack to his lips. He was pleased to have Milly sit behind him. She had sat behind him in English last year too, warmed his shoulders and neck with her breath—whispered to him, passed notes, spread her odors and her mad ideas. During tests she’d sometimes written answers on his back with her fingertip.
“So, how was your summer?” she asked. Her family was French-Canadian but she spoke English with no accent or hesitation. She moved her shoulder-length brown hair back with her thumb in an elbow-high gesture that presented her figure. He tried not to stare.
“Fine,” he said. Her perfume reminded him of the peonies his mother used to grow in the yard.
“I heard you got your driver’s license,” she said.
“Yeah.” His father had trained him to drive. The unpleasant lessons had not lasted long.
She pushed a rubber eraser around on the desktop with her fingertip. “Maybe you and me could go for a ride,” she said.
“Maybe,” he said.
That afternoon Edmund drove his father’s big, brown Chrysler by Milly’s small ranch house. His father, a petroleum engineer, away again for work in Saudi Arabia, had left him the car and the house and instructions to stay out of trouble. Edmund’s mother had passed away of a heart ailment six years earlier, when Edmund was twelve. His father had remained single, a disappointment Edmund preferred not to think about. Edmund was proud his father did vital work bringing in the oil everyone depended on, but he was sorry to see him so rarely. A perfectionist, his father expected good grades and no trouble from Edmund. Their contact was limited, even when his father was in town.
Edmund felt mildly daring as he turned into the development, an enclosed neighborhood with only a few entrances, an area favored by those who had migrated down from Quebec to New Hampshire—due to economic necessity in many cases, family reasons in others. The houses in Milly’s neighborhood were small, the cars old. Edmund knew from his Yankee father that many of the French-speaking families were large—a result of the Pope’s chronic meddling in people’s private business. But beautiful Milly, like Edmund, was an only child.
Brown-leafed, blossomless rose bushes lined the Derosiers’ driveway. The hood was up on a small, older car, and Milly’s father was working on the engine. Edmund made a K-turn and passed by the house more slowly. The house, painted leaf green, was tidy and well kept up. Milly’s father’s was short and lopsided, his left shoulder pitched lower than his right. His pointed chin was dark with whiskers. According to Milly, he operated a machine at Blakely Screw, where he endured second class-citizen treatment. Edmund understood from his own father that Mr. Derosiers was lucky to be working at all. Limited education and French-Canadian background were double handicaps in Anglo-capitalist New Hampshire.
Saturday evening Edmund arrived on Milly’s front porch promptly at 6:30 p.m. They were going to a movie at seven-fifteen. Edmund didn’t have time to knock. Milly appeared and held the door open.
“Hi,” Milly said. She swept her hair back with her thumb. Her topaz dress was inset with white lace and had two lines of false buttons at the bodice. She smelled of perfumed talc. Edmund tamped down his emotion. He’d hate to do something goofy and embarrassing. Then he realized he wouldn’t care. While he was close to Milly, his existence was charmed. His mistakes would not matter.
“Milly?” a gravelly voiced man asked. “Is that your young gentleman?”
“Yes, Dad,” she said. She whispered to Edmund, “My father has to meet you before I can go in your car.” Her forehead brushed his chin. The heel of her hand pressed his chest. Static electricity lifted a few of her fine hairs. “If you just leave, I’d understand,” she said. But she was pinching the edge of his jacket.
Edmund stepped over the threshold into the narrow, overheated hallway. He felt crowded by the flowered wallpaper, a quilt, and many family photos that hung among the brass sconces on the wall. If he had known he would meet Milly’s parents tonight, he would have worn better pants and made sure his hair was combed.
In the kitchen a miniature street vendor’s cart, filled with wax fruit, took up the center of the table. There was no accounting for the terrible taste of the French Catholics, Edmund’s father had told him. They insisted on cluttering up their houses with all sorts of “cute” junk. Edmund’s family’s house had large expanses of white wall, with only a rare and considered decoration, such as an old-fashioned mercury barometer or an eighteenth-century sea chart. Edmund stared at the miniature street vendor’s cart until Milly tugged his elbow and led him down the stairs to the brightly lit, pine-paneled basement, where there was a console TV, a Ping-Pong table, and a green, velveteen, hide-a-bed sofa. Edmund could hear the word his father would say if he ever saw a sofa like that: “Ugh.”
“We’re supposed to wait here,” Milly said.
“Wait for?” he asked. Milly sucked her lips inside her teeth. She picked up a Ping-Pong ball and one of the worn-out paddles. Edmund beckoned her toward the sofa. He would welcome her warm head against his shoulder and her fingers twining in his. She shook her head. “We have to play Ping-Pong,” she said. “That’s the rule. He has to hear the ball bouncing.”
Edmund looked upward at the exposed boards of the basement ceiling. He reluctantly took up a paddle, and they began a lazy volley. He heard a crowd yelling and raised a brow.
“My mother,” Milly said. “In bed, watching Roller Derby. She won’t see you tonight. It’s too much trouble for her to do her face.”
Black-haired, lopsided Mr. Derosiers lumbered down the basement steps. He shook Edmund’s hand with a nip like the pinch of a lobster claw. He spoke to Milly in French. She hurried up the stairs. “Milly’s fond of you, Edmund,” Mr. Derosiers said. He eyed Edmund intently. “I’m a member of the ‘Future Fathers-in-Law of America,’” he said. “That gives me the right to ask some questions.”
“What church do you belong to?”
“Episcopalian. The Good Shepherd.”
Mr. Derosiers winced. Edmund knew the Derosiers attended St. Paul’s Catholic Church. Episcopalians were more acceptable to the Catholics than some other kinds of Protestants, like, for example, Congregationalists. Several of Edmund’s school buddies were Congregationalists. “I understand you live with your dad,” Mr. Derosiers said. Edmund nodded. “What does your dad do?” Mr. Derosiers asked.
“Pipeline engineer,” Edmund said. “He’s in Saudi Arabia right now.”
Mr. Derosiers frowned, nodded. “Working yourself then?”
“Not right now,” Edmund said. “Last summer I worked at the tannery. I’m thinking of delivering pizzas, now that I got my license.” Edmund had disliked the hard, hot workdays at the tannery and would have preferred not to mention the job. But he had to suggest he could earn money. Would Milly’s father consider his work plan too unambitious? Or was he, as Edmund suspected and feared, seeing into the region of Edmund’s mind where Milly now frolicked joyfully with her pants off? Could he tell Edmund’s real “work” was cataloging his daughter’s smells and sounds and gestures for their erotic and evocative powers, an involuntary sorting and naming process that went on regardless of what else he was doing? Edmund was becoming fluent in Milly’s micro-chemical language and her system of secret messages—those she was sending deliberately and the ones she was trying not to send but could not stop.
“Going to college?” Mr. Derosiers asked.
“Yes. Yes, sir. Definitely. I’m going to major in biology at UNH.”
“Sure,” Edmund said, grinning. Milly’s father finally smiled. He was willing to go in on the doctor fairy tale. Edmund told the story often—adults loved it. He knew doctors worked too hard. Edmund aimed for an easy life.
Milly brought down a tray with three icy glasses of water. Mr. Derosiers drank his water in sharp gulps. He eyed Edmund head to toe, formed a pained smile with the right side of his lip, and said a few words to Milly as he climbed the stairs.
“Good job,” Milly whispered. “We can go.”
* * *
Habit carried Edmund and Milly to the lovers’ lane in Horace Greeley Park. A bronze Revolutionary War Minuteman guarded the park entrance, posed atop a granite pedestal, rifle in hand, his gaze fierce and hawk-like. “EVER VIGILANT!” the inscription read. Edmund and Milly had spent every weekend evening together through October, November, December, and, now, a snowy January. Many evenings, when they were supposedly bowling or roller skating, they’d parked here and explored each other’s lips and mouths. They would taste each other’s back teeth, then, in their heightened state, cling to one another and sigh.
Edmund parked on crunchy snow beneath the sagging boughs of a huge pine. Outside the temperature was in the thirties, but inside the car was warm. Two other occupied cars were parked nearby, engines off, windows obscured by condensation and a light dusting of freshly fallen snow. He turned off the engine. The silence of the pine forest roared.
Milly and Edmund faced each other, opened their overcoats, paused for a magnificent second, then joined mouths. Milly’s kissing was eager, sometimes rapturous. They kissed and ached and rested and kissed some more.
Edmund paused and fingered his upper lip, which had puffed up slightly. In some deep way he understood Milly’s kisses brought much more than pleasure and beauty for him. Each kiss altered him. “You’re it,” her kisses said, in a life-size game of tag. “You’re it. You’re it. You’re it.”
He pushed back her hair and exposed her beautiful ear. With his fingertip he touched the single ovoid pearl that dangled at her neck on a gold choker—a gift from him. He fingered the top button of her white blouse. She bowed her head and watched his fingers work. He freed the button. He freed a second button and spread open the front of her blouse. He slipped a hand inside her blouse. She gripped his wrist. “Stop,” she said. “I’m not ready for that.”
She shook her head. She pushed his hand away and refastened her blouse. “Are you mad?” she asked.
“No,” he said.
“My dad said if you try to undress me, I should make you take me home.” She laughed, laid her head against his shoulder, and turned her face upward. He snuggled her close. “He means well,” she said.
“Of course he does,” Edmund said. He reached for the door handle. “Let’s get out,” he said.
“What for? It’s freezing.” Snow was building up on the windshield wiper in a graduated arc.
“Just for a minute. Come on.” She shook her head and pulled her jacket closer around herself. He swung his door open, stepped out, and looked upward. The invisible sky seemed about twelve feet high, like a black-painted ceiling. The snowflakes were infrequent and widely spaced, white marvels falling from a black who-knew-where. “There’s a theory you can see your future up there,” he said.
“Can you see our future?” she asked.
He stared into the blackness. “Almost,” he said.
Blue and red lights flashed. A police car had pulled in behind them and turned on his rooftop light. The officer remained in his car and waited until everyone had left the lovers’ lane.
* * *
“Will your father come to the wedding at least?” Mrs. Derosiers asked Edmund at the dinner table. She wore a green knit dress, face and eye makeup, and fake pearls. She gripped Edmund’s wrist and shook. She was a hugger, which he liked.
Edmund lived in the Derosiers’ basement now, on the foldaway bed. Since Edmund’s father had learned of Milly’s pregnancy, he no longer allowed Edmund into the house. The Derosiers had taken the opposite tack, bringing Edmund into their home to ensure he would not run away. “Your dad’ll be more than welcome, of course,” Mrs. Derosiers said. Mr. Derosiers, at the far end of the table, nodded. Milly sat close to Edmund, their feet entwined.
They would marry at the Good Shepherd Church. The Catholic Church wouldn’t have them. The reception would be in the Derosiers’ backyard.
“No,” Edmund said. “I’m sorry. My father won’t even talk to me anymore.”
Edmund and Milly would graduate from high school together two weeks from now, but they would not be going away to college in the fall. Mr. Derosiers had fixed Edmund up as an apprentice machinist where he worked at Blakely Screw. Milly was working after school at a burger place, but only until their child was born. Their new family would live in the Derosiers’ basement at first. Within a few years, they should be able to move into a place of their own.
Milly pulled Edmund’s hand to her belly underneath the table. “What are you frowning about?” she whispered.
“Nothing,” Edmund said. He smiled. “I’m happy.”
BIO: JWM Morgan’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in War, Literature & the Arts, Interim, The Linnet’s Wings, The Montreal Review, Willard & Maple, The Distillery, Pearl, Spire, The South Dakota Review, ken*again, Mars Hill Review, Licking River Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Cadillac Cicatrix, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Permafrost, Talon Magazine, and other magazines. He won the 2006 Spire Press Flash Fiction Contest. He is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine. He was born in a suburb of New York City and grew up on Long Island and in southern New Hampshire. He received a B.A. and an M.A. from the writing program at Brown University where he won some prizes for short fiction. He has traveled extensively in the Americas and Europe and worked in seven countries.