After my maudlin personal piece last week, I’d like to turn back to a short story for this post.
Cotton Head was beef; I was sweetmeat. We shouldn’t have meshed, but we did…. right from the day his family moved in next door when I was eight. I’ll never forget the first time I saw him walk out of his house with a fielder’s glove in his fist while wearing a fuzzy, snow white cap in the middle of summer. He spotted me right off and marched across their yard to invade ours, letting me see he wasn’t wearing a cap at all. He had white hair that looked exactly like a bunch of cotton balls glued to his head. I’m sure I gawked.
“Hi, I’m James,” he said. “But everybody calls me Cotton Head, so you can too. You wanna toss the ball?”
“Uh, Henry, but I’m Hank to most folks. Except my grandmother. I don’t have a ball.”
“I do. Let’s go.”
As bad as I was at tossing a softball, I was worse at catching it. That should have been that, but he was back the next day proclaiming we were going arrowhead hunting. So I climbed on my Red Ryder and pedaled alongside him to a field near where he used to live. Cotton claimed he’d found lots of worked flint there, especially after a rain. Worked flint. That was his name for artifacts. To give the devil his due, he located three. Heck, I even found one. After that, he adopted me as his best friend.
In a way, we complimented one another. He was physical and dragged me to ball games and picnics and dances and places I’d never go on my own. I was cerebral and made sure he got decent grades through the years. He was bright but lazy intellectually. Me? Physically uncoordinated and clumsy. But he never let that get in the way of being his buddy. I had my first date with a girl for one simple reason. He wanted to double, which meant I had to have a date. Pearl Manchester filled that role, and I have to admit I enjoyed myself
In high school, he discovered wrestling while I found the debating club. I always went to his matches. He came to one of my debates and later said “Way to kick ass, Hank.” He never showed up again. He was a popular, outgoing guy, but he always made sure I was involved in whatever he was doing. He made me a part of the “in gang” at school, even if it was by osmosis.
I remember the day—the exact moment—the revelation came. We were sitting on a bench outside the schoolhouse after last class when Marcie Sue walked up, leaned against Cotton’s back, and ran the fingers of one hand through his hair.
I’ll swear, I can’t keep my hands off your weird head.” She cooed the words rather than spoke them.
Something slammed me hard in the chest and my stomach bounced on the ground. That’s the way it seemed, anyway. While I sat semi-stunned on that hard bench, it came to me what had happened. Jealousy snuck up and walloped me cross-eyed. Why couldn’t I do that intimate thing she’d done? He was my BFF, not hers. Great gobs of green gorilla grunt! I was in love with the guy.
After that, I was scared of Cotton Head. That’s not right. More like worried I’d slip up and reveal myself. I thought about—dreamed about—letting him know how I felt. Couldn’t. Guys didn’t think about guys like that in our little town. Maybe in the big cities where nobody knew anyone and didn’t care what neighbors thought about them. But not here where everyone knew everyone else.
I tried hard to make sure my feelings didn’t show, and I must have done a good job because life went on like always. But something happened the summer after graduation before we left for college. I was all torn up because he was going to one university on a wrestling scholarship while my scholastic one aimed me toward another. Our last summer together.
We were horsing around at his house, him showing me wrestling holds and me relishing the body contact. Of course, he pinned me without any trouble at all, and once as he sat on top of me while holding my arms above my head, he must have understood what was going on. He licked his lips sorta nervous like and fixed me with a long, brown-eyed stare. He'd started to say something when we heard the front door open. His mother was back from shopping.
Cotton came up off me—too fast. Like he was feeling guilty. He bounded out of the room to carry in bags of groceries from the car for his mom. I trailed along to help him with a hollow feeling in my gut because I knew things had somehow changed. He wouldn’t meet my eyes as we worked emptying the bags and putting away the groceries. Ten times I opened my mouth to mention what had happened, and ten times I failed. Chickened out.
We finished the summer as we always had. Best friends. Neither temptation nor opportunity reared its head again. We no longer wrestled. I’ve always wondered how my life would have changed had Mrs. Biggerstaff not come home when she did that day.
If you turn nostalgic for a moment and recall your own youth, you will doubtless call up moments like these. I daresay we all hd them.
I’d be pleased to hear from you at dontravis firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next post: 6:00 a.m. on Thursday.