When I was ten and Mumble lost his job, we hurt for a while then we started to put it back together, or so we thought. Then the corn.
The deal was three dollars for a brown paper grocery bag full of as many ears of corn as you could get in the bag without ripping it. Rose knew we were in for hard times and she had a plan. She sent Mumble and I out for corn and, after a hard afternoon of forcing corn in bags, we stuffed the car full and paid our sixty dollars.
The next few days were about shucking corn. Pull the blades of the leaf back. Rip out the fine and sticky silk, snap the bottom of the cob, drop it gently into a laundry basket and do it again. Hours of shucking and baskets of corn, maybe a dozen baskets of corn piled to the top and heaping.
Boil the corn. Rose had about four big pots, sauce pots, stock pots and one enormous, heavy, steel, monstrosity that weighed over ten pounds empty. She filled them with water and boiled corn.
Shear the corn. We took plates and steak knives and began to saw the kernels off the corn. To this day this is the only way I eat corn on the cob. You have to have a steak knife and you have to saw. If you try to slice, it just mashes the corn and it is a mess. Saw the corn off and, when you have stacks and stacks of corn, into the jars it went.
The big ones, the mason jars, we filled them with water, popped the cap on and spun the rim. We had a quart of canned corn. Do that another ninety times and you have our weekend. We had nowhere to put it all. We had to restack pots, move shelves from the garage to the pantry. We had to stick them in every nook, and hide them in every cranny until we had stowed every jar. We would have corn at the very least, no matter how desperate times got with Mumble out of a job and winter coming.
Then the smell. The horrid stench of ninety jars of rotting corn filled the house one day. The caps had not stayed sealed. Something went wrong. Something was out of order. The catastrophe is legend in our family. When last I talked to Rose, it still haunted her. She had forgotten a pinch of salt to her canning and as a result we had ninety quarts of corn to throw away.
We had to flush it, then rinse the jars, then my mother wept and sobbed as she washed them all. She was done canning for a long time. And that event set the tone for the family. All the work was being put in. All the words put away and the events tucked back in our memories, but just a little something was missing and, over time, all of it rotted.
It was the same sort of story with seventh grade. I was putting the work in. I was walking right, talking right, dressing the best I could. I was being nice. I was keeping watch. I was doing all the things that had gotten me Ruffle and Jazz. I was loyal to my friends like Billy Badass had told me to be. I was doing it all right but there was a rot in the air.
The perfect snippet of this is captured in this one story. I was walking through the hall with this other unpopular friend of mine and we passed a group of popular kids ruling the halls. My friend tripped me right in front of them to get a laugh. He stood over me laughing with them until they said something shitty to him and me, and then he walked off. When I caught up with him in class a few minutes later, he was angry and embarrassed. Said he thought they would like him if he was funny. Said sorry, it would not happen again. Then I waited for it to happen again. There was no loyalty in the unpopular kids. If it could get a laugh, or you could get a leg up by shoving your friend down, you did it.
I heard Billy’s voice in my head every time I thought of it and I just stayed loyal to a pack of animals that would rip my heart out for a laugh. My life was filled with violence, mockery, sadness and desperation but it was none of these things that brought me Strawberry. It was Servant. It was Guardian. It was the need to care for and protect a girl that bought the heart of one of the sweetest people on this earth.
I was late for a class, the hallways were almost clear. I was walking straight toward a pair of preppy girls dressed like porcelain dolls and one of them tripped. She went down hard and I rushed to her side. I grabbed her and sat her up.
“Don’t move, just sit there and catch your breath.” I tracked every book and paper that had been dropped, and I grabbed all her pens and her purse. I looked at her and frowned. “Can you put weight on it?” I asked.
I helped her to her feet but she had come down hard on her knee and it was hurt pretty bad. She shook her head and sobbed.
“That’s okay, your friend is going to get your stuff, and I am going to get you to the nurse,” I said. I handed her stuff to her friend, swept her up in my arms and carried her down the hallway.
Normally a seventh grader could not do such a thing. Seventh grade girls are often bigger than the boys, but Servant was scary strong when he needed to be and he carried her up the hall, up a ramp, and down another hall straight to the office. She hugged my neck the entire time. We walked past other students but I barely noticed. This girl was all that mattered at the moment. Servant took her in the office, set her down, got the attention of the office worker, and he walked away.
He got a bit down the hall before a voice called him back. He turned, the wounded girl’s friend running up behind him.
“Hey,” she said. “Wait.”
She was pretty and perfect. Had a shy way about her that was being disregarded at the moment. Her cheeks were flush and she seemed to be trembling. Servant looked at her and it seemed he saw her for the first time. Her hair was strawberry blonde. He had never really seen that before. Reddish blonde. She had pinkish hair tied in a high ponytail that bobbed and swayed as she ran after me. She caught me and looked at her shoes as she hugged her books tight to her chest.
“I’m Strawberry,” she said. “I have seen you around but never caught your name.” She looked as if she would die of embarrassment and some other deep and intense emotion Servant could not name.
“My name is Jesse Teller. It is nice to meet you,” Servant said. “What class are you supposed to be at?”
“Art is on my way. Walk with me.”
I don’t know who wrote the letter, who asked the question, but within a few hours I was dating Strawberry.
She was shy. So was I. Shy people are often drawn to each other and it never ends well. Unless they find a way to connect with each other and only each other, it will be a quiet death that will span out for months. Strawberry and I were like that. We were too shy to look at each other. And too shy to touch in public. We never held hands. Until it was too late.
Artist was not inspired by her. Shadow wanted nothing to do with her. She was a preppy girl. Pretty clothes, perfect makeup, hair just so. She was everything that our flopping hair, our ripped-up jeans and our obsession with Metallica was not.
She was, I think, Servant’s first love. He has only loved three women. Strawberry, Destiny and Bekah. This was his first great love. In order to understand Servant you have to look at this relationship and the Valentine’s Day gift.
Strawberry had called our house a few times by Valentine’s Day. Had spoken to my mother all of those times and my mother thought she was “lovely”. A well-behaved, polite girl, soft spoken, and when I showed her the tiny school picture I was given, Rose thought she was adorable. Valentine’s Day was coming and we had never had a girlfriend on Valentine’s Day. Servant worked as many odd jobs as he could. He saved and saved and when the holiday finally came he had 50 dollars in his hand and was on his way to Walmart to make his move.
I’m not telling this right. First, we have to talk about the dance.
The seventh graders had a dance a few days before Valentine’s Day. It was during the last hour of school. They had one spotlight in the center of the dark gym and around the corners stood all the boys and girls too scared to dance. But Servant had been told by his mother that a man needs to dance with his girl, so while every other boy stood with every other boy, and every other girl stood with every other girl, Servant stepped out of the cloud of snickering boys and walked over to her.
The girls giggled and she blushed when he came for her. He did not say a word. He was too terrified to speak. He simply held out his hand. She took it and he led her out into the spotlight. He had prepared for this moment with his mother for weeks. He knew this part well. Servant was a good dancer.
The slow song started and he put his hands on her hips, holding her arm’s length away. She put her hands on his shoulders and they swayed. He had been taught how to lead but it was not working very well. She stepped on his feet and he laughed. She apologized and he felt awkward for laughing. He could not meet her eye and it was just about exactly the disaster you would expect. Then they came out.
It was D, this was before we were friends, back when he was a dick. He came out with his girlfriend and they stepped up beside me and Strawberry.
“You’re doing it wrong, man,” D said.
“Please go away,” I said. My voice cracked and I looked up at her. She looked at me and looked scared.
D and his girlfriend mimicked us with our hands resting and our arms stretched out and they laughed. “That is not how you dance with a girl,” D said. He wrapped his arms around his girl and pulled her in tight. Pressed her body against his and buried his face in her neck. She laughed and ran her fingers through his hair.
I looked up at Strawberry who could only stare back. I shook my head at her and she nodded. She tried to smile but that smile just ended up scaring the devil out of Servant as he saw the sheer panic resting there.
D and his girlfriend laughed and stepped up behind us. They grabbed us and shoved us together.
Strawberry made a sound. It was a scoff, a cry, a chirp of embarrassment.
I grunted and pushed her away.
She rushed off into the darkness, I rushed off in a different direction and D and his girlfriend laughed.
They did not stay on the floor to finish the dance. They went back to their knot of boys and their gaggle of girls. They had only come long enough to destroy Servant’s dance with Strawberry.
We did not speak for the rest of the week. We did not speak that weekend. But Monday was Valentine’s Day and Servant had saved his money. He went into Walmart with 50 dollars and bought her a Pound Puppy. It was brown and saggy and covered in wrinkles. The toy was popular back then. With floppy ears and sad eyes, a Pound Puppy laid the ground almost flat and in every way looked exhausted and depressed. I bought it and headed for the check out, but I had another 45 dollars. So, I veered left and went to jewelry. I ricocheted off that counter and into hair products. I went on a tour of the entire store and, with careful calculations, I was able to assemble the greatest Valentine’s Day present any seventh grader has ever given to another seventh grader.
I took the barrettes and clipped them on the ears, real close to the head. I took the three pairs of earrings I bought and clipped them on the ears. The necklace I wrapped around the little dog’s neck four times and latched. The bracelet I clipped closed around the body of the beast. When I was done, and I pulled back, Servant looked up at his mother who was in tears as she looked at what her son had done.
“It’s almost perfect.” She went into the bedroom where Mumble kept his cologne. This was the same cologne she had spritzed me with the day of the dance, the same cologne Strawberry knew as my smell, and she doused the stuffed dog in it. Servant stuffed it in his bag and waited.
He did not sleep that night. And when he met her at her locker, she looked miserable. Looking back at it now, she must have thought he was going to break her heart that day. She stopped at the locker, hugged her books to her chest, and he smiled at her.
“I have something for you,” he said. He could barely look at her but he forced himself to and saw her deep sadness bubble just a bit, to a slight ripple of hope. “I named him Chester, but you can change the name if you want to.” Servant pulled it out with his heart hammering in his chest and handed it to her.
Her eyes popped. Her mouth dropped and she froze.
“I had a little extra after I got the dog so I kinda went a little nuts.” He looked at her and she just stared. She opened her locker and stuffed her books in. She took the gift gingerly from his hands and hugged it.
“It smells like you,” she chimed.
“Yeah, a little bit,” Servant said. “Do you like it?”
“I love it! It is perfect! It is so much more than perfect!” She grabbed him in a hug so tight and whispered thank you so soft and pure that it seemed the very first thank you that had ever been spoken by any human. She kissed his cheek. And he ran away.
All day she held that Pound Puppy to her chest. All day she smelled it and played with it. Every girl stared, every girl asked to see it. So many boyfriends snarled at me that day. So many boys who did not do half as good with their gifts wanted to slaughter me when they heard it from their girlfriends.
Shadow broke up with her a few weeks later. There was another girl at church he thought was prettier and he thought he might be able to kiss her after night church on the side of the building while his parents were saying goodbye to the rest of the congregation.
Shadow wrote the note. He was abrupt. He was rude. He was sudden. He handed it to her without looking at her and walked away.
When Servant figured out what happened he hurried to first hour and dropped miserable and horrified in his chair. He held back his tears and wished for death. Before class started the girls came in. They were led by Fit and she was pissed.
Now don’t think Fit was friends with Strawberry. They were not friends at all. But everyone loved Strawberry. They all thought she was sweet and precious. All the girls loved her and they were furious. A mob of at least ten girls came before me and Servant lowered his head.
He had been assigned the front row, center seat on the first day of class and the girls all stood in a line around him with Strawberry standing before him. She still held the note and she was fighting back tears.
“You broke up with her?” Fit snapped. “You are a piece of shit. She is so much better than you anyway and you break up with her.”
Strawberry wanted to say something but Fit snatched the letter out of her hand, held it before Servant’s face and waved it at him. “This is what you sent her?” Fit said. “This cold, heartless letter you send to her folded up all weird like this and dripping with cruelty.”
Strawberry stepped forward to take the note and Fit pulled it open and read it out loud. Then Strawberry did cry.
This was the first Servant was hearing of the words Shadow had written. He hated the words. Had so much he wanted to say, but Fit unmanned him.
“You’re a piece of shit and no girl in this school will ever go out with you ever again. I hope you like those Laquey skanks a lot because you are never getting a Waynesville girl again. I’ll see to that!” Fit said. Then she slapped Servant across the face.
The room gasped.
Strawberry ran away crying.
“See, you made her cry,” Fit snapped. “You are a waste of life. I hope you die.”
Servant wanted to.