Green Hills Literary Lantern

 


The City Kid



I was a city kid, trying to make friends in a country school, when Sandra Reinhart walked in, sat in the desk in front of mine, smelling like you know what. Why couldn’t Barbara Martin sit there? Even at ten, I knew what attractive was. She grinned at me in that way attractive fifth grade girls have of smiling at boys—like she wanted me to go hang.


Rejection by Barbara was a setback, but I was determined not to be a loner. I must have friends at all costs, I thought to my ten-year-old self, and found Charley Zumbaugh. He was sharp as a tack, a born skeptic. When Mr. Myers gave a lesson about temperature and steam, kids accepted it without proof—but Charley came into school the next day, his right hand in bandages, and Mr. Myers just looked at him and sighed, like this had happened before.


My other friend was Claus Bentzel, so brittle-thin you could see his Adam’s apple bob up and down when he laughed, which he did once too often around Mr. Myers, who yelled “You think this is funny, Claus?”—as he swung the paddle with all his might and main, and Claus rose in the air with each hit, looking surprised, and breakable, and young.


A born ringleader, I invited Charley and Claus to join the Let’s Hate Sandra Reinhart Club. We had a not-so-secret language—“SANDRA SMELLS!” Charley would sneeze into the gauze of his bandaged hand while Claus was coughing “REINHART STINKS!” into the crook of his trembling arm. When Sandra sat down to a chorus of sneezes and coughs, I held my nose—too much the mastermind to directly participate.


But once she turned toward me, and without wanting to, I entered the sadness of her eyes. They were too worn for her to be ten. Maybe she’d flunked like Ronny Harbaugh. Too tongue-tied to talk, Ronny could work like any man on his father’s farm. Or maybe her eyes were just worn out from sneezes and coughs.
 

Her smell—and the sadness I’d just discovered but couldn’t name—were things to ask my father about. Without a second’s thought, he answered—“Her family’s too poor to buy soap or clothes.” And that fast it hit me—I’d been torturing a girl because she had no money.


The club folded. I’ve forgotten what happened to Charley and Claus. And today, when I close my eyes, I can’t recall the faces of any ex-girlfriends. Names but not faces. Time wears away the images stored in our memories, reducing those who were once clear and brilliant, even Barbara Martin, to shadows, mere wisps of thought, disappearing as the pledge to keep them alive in the mind’s eye weakens and dies.
 

But I remember the eyes I studied in fifth grade, Sandra’s eyes. I see her walking into the classroom. There is a loneliness in her, a fear fed by years of rejection. She stands before the whole class, uncertain of where to sit.


“Come here, Sandra, sit by me,” I call out.


I create a club that includes Sandra as well as three other lonely children, Charley, Claus, and myself. Maybe even Ronny Harbaugh, the tongue-tied boy. What priceless things he could tell, if children had the patience to listen.

 

 

 


David Salner’s second book, Working Here, was published by Minnesota State University’s Rooster Hill Press in September 2010. His work appears in recent issues of The Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, and Threepenny Review. He worked for twenty-five years as an iron ore miner, steelworker, machinist, and general laborer.