My first ever crush was Roxie Gunderson. I fell in love with her on the first day of school, 1959. Roxie, wherever you are, your beautiful six-year-old face is imprinted forever on my brain. Of course it is. With all those first-grade hours I gave over to gazing across the room at you, how could it not be?
She was our only Roxie, surrounded by all those bland Mary Susans and Nancys and Kathies. Roxie was exotic and fashionable. Her dad owned the swank department store on Main Street and one of those departments was Women and Girls. Roxie always came to school dressed in the smartest outfits.
My Roxie infatuation was bruised, although not fatally, on the day I was staring at her, and Miss Cleveland, in front of the entire class, admonished me to stop staring at Roxie and focus on my think-and-do. The girls gasped and laughed, the boys took it as an invitation to bully me in the hallways and in the bathroom but it was Roxie's reaction that was the most cutting. She turned very slowly toward me, and there was a smile in her eyes and on her lips, barely, and a message - of course you're staring at me, you foolish boy. But my daddy owns the biggest store in town and yours owns a corner bar and you live upstairs over the bar, so confine your gazing from afar.
For days afterward, the kids joked about my embarrassment, and even my sister Tracy, a third grader and someone I always looked up to, upbraided me. We were walking home from school and Tracy said how Roxie was having the girls tell it around how I had cooties. I thought only girls could get cooties, but what had my sister angry was if I had cooties, everyone would assume she did too.
"Thank you," Tracy said, "for ruining my life."
Well, I got over it and Tracy did too, and everyone else, and then, mid-autumn, I had another brush with Roxie.
It was Indian summer and we were on the playground and I made the most fantastic, amazing discovery - a dollar bill. It was just lying there in the grass, and I put it in my pocket and it was exhilarating. Sure, I'd have to turn it in to Miss Cleveland, it was some kid's lunch money, but for the rest of recess, it was mine to savor and to feel in my pocket, and I could fantasize - a six-year-old with a buck in 1959 was rich. I could get a burger and Coke at FW Woolworth except I couldn't go to Woolworth's by myself, but comic books were a dime, so a buck could mean a major upgrade to my collection — Spunky the Smiling Spook, Turok, Son of Stone, Alarming Tales, that last was too scary for a six-year-old. I'd get it for my brother, he was ten, or a Girl's Love for my sister. It didn't hurt to ingratiate with the older siblings.
Or what I could do with my buck, every night for a week I could stop at the corner store on my way home from school and walk out with a little brown bag of penny candy.
Roxie must have seen me pick up the dollar, or saw me pick up something, because I'd no sooner stuffed it into my pocket and she was standing there, smiling behind those adorable, light blue cat's-eye glasses with splashes of pink beads, like paint drops, on the outer wings. Roxie was all sweet and smarmy and not asking what I had in my pocket but just waiting, knowing I'd show her.
I did, of course, and she snatched it out of my hand and ran away and into the school and Roxie, you know, she couldn't just go to Miss Cleveland with my buck, she had to go straight to the third floor, tramping up those steep (for us first graders,) stairs to Mr. Macintyre's office. They found the kid who'd lost the money, a distraught little boy, and that afternoon, Mr. Mac came into our classroom and told us how proud he was of Roxie and couldn't we all try to be just a little bit more like her.
Time passed, time healed, and one day in the springtime, I came home from school and my mom announced I had mail. I never got mail, not since Gramps died, but there it was, a pink envelope. I opened it with Mom and Tracy watching, and it was an invitation to Roxie's birthday party. I didn't dare ask myself why Roxie would invite me. I didn't need to ask, with the invitation in my hand. Mom was so proud, to think her little man could get an invitation in the mail from a girl who lived up on the hill.
On the Saturday afternoon of the party, Mom got me ready, slicked-down hair and a scrubbed face, a bow tie and a loud jacket like a checkerboard. She walked me to Roxie's house and after Mom had taken me inside and spoken briefly, haltingly, with Roxie's mom, Mom straightened my bow tie, patted down my hair, kissed me on the forehead and told me I was the handsomest boy at the party.
It must have been true, what Mom said, because I was a hit with Roxie. I was no pauper and instead was an exalted prince. Roxie laughed at all of my jokes and insisted I have the second piece of cake, and when I knocked over something expensive during pin the tail on the donkey, and with Mrs. Gunderson and the kids looking at the thing to see did I break it, Roxie hovered over me, her Galahad, fallen.
I grinned and beamed through it all and it was four o'clock way too soon, and Mom was back and got all bumbly-tongued, gushing her thanks to Roxie's mom for having invited me. We walked down the hill, Mom and me, and I couldn't wait to get home, to tell Tracy how wrong she'd been. Roxie had only invited me so she could make her own crush jealous? Hah! Sometimes those know-it-all big sisters didn't know anything at all.
Stars in My Eyes
Short Fiction by Ward Centerville
Her dad's upscale department store is an empty shell today, same as my dad's bar and grill, and maybe she used me, but how could I think badly of her? She put the stars in my eyes.