Ron Powers: “Work Jeans”

A Ford is a good car once you get it running, but it will always break down on you. My grandfather Jasper, the baker, and I, two men of the world, nodded over this wisdom in the lightning-bug summer evenings when I was twelve. My grandparents—I called them Grandy and Gramaw — lived in a white-frame bungalow at the top of the highest hill in hilly Hannibal, Missouri: Union Street Hill, on the South Side. In those evenings Grandy and I would sip iced tea (plenty of sugar) on the green front-porch swing facing the short steep block called Booker Street. If we shifted our eyes to the left and looked downhill beyond the hollyhocks and orchard treetops, we could take in the distant church spires and roofs of downtown Hannibal, and the Mark Twain Bridge, spanning the Mississippi river at the town’s eastern edge.

But we were watching for Fords. You never knew when a Ford was going to come along and break down.

Grandy would still have on the manly work jeans he wore during his pre-dawn shift at Zimmerman’s bakery, where part of his job entailed lifting bags of flour so heavy that they left him stooped over, with a lump in the back of his neck. I was sorry about the lump, but I worshipped those work jeans. I wanted a pair for myself. Grandy’s work jeans had straps that came over his shoulders, technically making them over-alls. But he called them work jeans, and that was good enough for me. Anything my grandfather said was good enough for me—unlike anything my father said. We’ll get to my father another time.

Except to say that, possibly in reaction to my father, my kidhood idols were Manly Men who were also Good Guys: Roy Rogers. Gun-spinning Wild Bill Elliott. Stan Musial. President Eisenhower. God. And, crowning them all, Grandy.

Grandy’s flour-dusted work jeans were magnificently wrinkled, especially in the backs of the knees, and they smelled of a lot of grownup male things. Workshop sawdust, and motor oil, and sweat.

I was imprisoned in short pants. Short pants were all that Mom and Dad would buy me for summer wear. Short pants showed my skinny blue-white legs, including the two skinny vertical tendons behind my knees. I hated them—the short pants, but the tendons too—but there was nothing I could do about it.

Grandy and I would watch the traffic come around the corner and proceed up Booker. Once in a great while a Ford—a Model A, say—would actually break down, blowing a gasket after its steep climb up Sierra Street, which ran parallel to Union.

We maintained our poker faces as we watched the driver get out, slam the door, lift the hood, and begin to curse. Yet on the inside, we were gratified for this confirmation of our wisdom.

Grandy, for his part, had a Packard-black, four-door, with a running board and a white-knobbed floor shift and upholstery that smelled of warm straw. That car never once broke down that I knew of and was the only car I had ever ridden in that could make it three-fourths of the way up Union Street without shifting gears. At that, when Grandy did have to shift, he did it casually, almost thoughtlessly, as if he were making a polite social gesture to all his neighbors who had to shift much earlier in the game. “Gonna take this hill like a squirrel up a tree,” he would always tell me, and I always believed it. And we always did.

Grandy’s eyes were blue and his nose was a good grandfather nose; arching and thin, and the corners of his thin mouth were always working; especially when he was about to make a joke. “The moon is the Earth’s nearest neighbor,” I would inform him, quoting from a library book. “Is it?” Grandy would wink and his mouth would work. “Then let’s jump in the Packard and go visit it.” And the Mark Twain Bridge lights would flicker on for the night.

“Who is Marsha Stanley?” my mother asked me one February Tuesday, as I stood in the kitchen thoughtfully watching the pressure-cooker knob turn after school. I shrugged. “Oh, she’s a girl in my class . . . ” Then it dawned on me how awful it was that my mother should ask me who was Marsha Stanley. I had just come home after playing catch in the middle of Pleasant Street with Bobby Schwartzwalder. Bobby, after cranking up and lofting a long, high one, on which I was supposed to “make it look easy,” reported that he had received an invitation to a dance party Sunday in the mail from Marsha Stanley. I’d turned thirteen a few weeks earlier. A genuine teen-ager.

We both contemplated the baseball hanging in the early-evening sky. I felt good and clean and ready for action. The ball began its descent. I backed up three steps and stood with my arms at my sides, the essential stance for “making it look easy”.

The ball, mercifully, was going to miss telephone wires, tree limbs, car tops and Mr. Gorman’s front yard. The catch was going to be a good one. The ball headed for my forehead, and I hoped Carla Mills was looking out her living room window. At the last possible second I flicked up my Spaulding Del Ennis Autograph fielder’s mitt and trapped the ball at the bridge of my nose. Bobby Schwartzwalder pounded his glove, and an approaching car honked us off Pleasant Street.

After the lingering free arc of the baseball, it seemed as if Bobby’s remark had been made hours before. I yelled, “Hot grounder” and underhanded the baseball down the pavement. It took a bad hop on a tar strip, but Bobby blocked it neatly with his teeth. “Did you get an invitation?” he called, holding up two fingers for a curve. I hunched down and gave him a target. “No,” I called back. “Guess I’m lucky. Hummmmmm beeeeeeebe.”

But I wasn’t lucky. I’d hoped to get home in time to snatch the invitation from the mailbox, but the catch with Bobby had delayed me, and Mom got there first. And opened the invitation. And read it.

“She wants you to come to a dance she’s giving.”

“I don’t know about any dance. Anyway, I can’t go. I’ll be at Grandy and Gramaw’s that day.” An unforced error.

“How do you know what day if you don’t know about the dance?”

“Aw, I heard about it from Bobby.” I spat in my glove pocket.

“Good,” Mother said. The prosecution rested.

She added, “You’ve had plenty of time then to make up your mind to go. Grandy can drive you to the hotel Sunday afternoon.” The persecution had begun.

The dance was to be a Queen of Hearts dance. The venue was the classy Mark Twain Hotel about two blocks from the river levee. The reason or reasons why it had to be given at all were, and still are, known only to Marsha Stanley and her mother.

The good part of that awful day, the only good part, and it wasn’t really all that good, was that I got to wear long pants. Grownup pants. Thick woolen charcoal pants. The wool stabbed at my sweating legs in the overheated hotel like millions of tiny needles. I must have worn some sort of white shirt and necktie, a clip-on bow tie I believe, under my heavy overlarge jacket. These garments would later serve as my junior-high commencement attire.

Grandy himself ushered me through the revolving door of the Mark Twain Hotel. I slipped through the clusters of early-arriving kids, not even nodding at Mrs. Stanley. I made for a mahogany booth (the dance was being held in the hotel dining room). I scooted around so that the booth was the last line of defense between me and any chaperoning mother on the hunt for dance-partner meat. My fondest hope was that everyone would forget about me until the dance was over in a few thousand years.

The hope was a fantasy. I was issued–dealt–a jagged half of a red construction-paper heart. A note pinioned through the aorta valve instructed me to find the girl whose half-heart fitted mine. Find her and dance with her. The unstated addendum was: or else.

About thirty wandering children and three mothers or Assistant Mothers milled around the room. Mrs. Stanley, as Head Mother, wore a plastic loop around her neck. It held an annoying plastic whistle, which Mrs. Stanley blew into a lot. The blowing made her rouged cheeks puff out like a cobra’s. The two Assistant Mothers commanded the folding card table that served as headquarters, smoking cigarettes. The room looked dark. The ceiling was festooned with red and white tinfoil, intended to lend a festive note. The entire Rose Bowl Parade could not have camouflaged the fact that it was the same old Mark Twain Hotel dining room. An orange and green jukebox squatted near the window that faced Main Street.

I surveyed the guys there whom I could count on to boycott the dancing along with me. There were none I could be sure of. Bobby Schwartzwalder had on a spiffy checked sportcoat and orange tie and seemed intent on making the plunge. Many of the kids were from Country Club families and had taken Ballroom Dancing. My own instruction had been limited to something my mother vaguely referred to as the “box step,” which she had me practice on the square tiles of the kitchen linoleum.

One of the Assistant Mothers, Mrs. Lollor, stubbed out her cigarette and advanced on the jukebox, a quarter at the ready. I re-checked the room, singling out the girls I would pick to dance with if I had to. There would be little problem in getting them, since all three were girls no other boy in his right mind would ask.

Mrs. Lollor dropped her quarter into the slot. Mrs. Stanley tooted her whistle and announced, “The first dance will be the boys select the girls, people! Then we’ll have some refreshments. I want to see everybody dancing, and that goes for all you boys!” Children began to slide out of their booths like groundhogs being flushed by a forest fire. Soon the booth I shared with a couple of guys was empty except for me. A needle scraped against wax, and the Platters began singing “Only You.” I hunched down in my seat, trying to convey amused disinterest. Bobby Schwartzwalder didn’t waste any time selling out. Like the politician he was later to become, he headed straight for Marsha Stanley herself, to the immense approval of Mrs. Stanley.

Now most couples were dancing. I knew it was only a matter of time until a scout spotted me. I was right. Mrs. Winkle, the other Assistant Mother, bore down on me in that purposeful matron’s way, with one foot coining down directly in front of the other. Her smile was fixed like a bayonet. “Mrs. Stanley said everybody dance!” she sang. “Don’t you have a partner? Aren’t you Paul Powers’ little boy?”

I kept my eyes fixed on the traffic outside the window on Main Street, wishing for a Packard. I remained in that posture, hips bent, knees bent, arms extended and hands folded, when Mrs. Stanley herself and her two assistants seized my armpits and lifted me bodily from the booth—the posture that was to become classic in a decade and a half as that of civil disobedience.

The children had stopped dancing and were tittering. Some of the boys even tried to help. There were hands on my back, hands that should have been covered with ball gloves. My feet dangled, hit the floor, braced. But my shoes were slick and the floor had been sprinkled to make sliding easy, and I slid along until I came face to face with Beverley Greene. “Only You” was heading into the home stretch. My face burned. Beverley solemnly laid a dimpled hand on my shoulder. I placed my right foot on her left one, and we danced.

The kids returned their attention to their dancing, and as I maneuvered Beverley over an area covering about a square foot, the terror began to wear off. I was just getting adjusted to dancing when the record ended.

All three mothers appeared with trays of Dixie cups, red and green and gold, half-filled with putrescent pink punch. “We’ll have our refreshments!” threatened Mrs. Stanley. “And then we’ll go on to the Queen of Hearts Dance!”

I would be spared that one! I had crammed my half-heart into a crease in the booth. But as Mrs. Lollor handed me my ration of punch, she winked and produced the damned wad. “You left this in the booth, Ronnie,” she trilled. “Careful, don’t lose it!”

I had no taste for the punch. I straightened the heart, memorized its edge, and examined the hearts held by girls, to see who my partner would be.

Connie Krause! A year ahead of me, she may as well have been a generation ahead. She was a junior-high cheerleader and ninth-grade class secretary. I would have felt just as much at ease dancing with Gypsy Rose Lee.

I scuttled off to find Bobby Schwartzwalder, who was enjoying his punch in a suave conversation with Marsha Stanley.

I pinched his sport-coat shoulder, pulling him backwards. There wasn’t much time. “C’mere!” I whispered.

What’s the idea, Powers?”

“I got Connie Krause,” I rasped, holding up the heart. “I’ll tradeja. She’s really neat.”

“Nothin’ doing,” snarled Bobby. “I already traded for Marsha.”

My stomach settled at the bottom of my intestines. The juke box selector rotated, and Mrs. Stanley tootled.

Desperation gave me the courage to raid a knot of five boys standing by a booth. I snatched a heart from Mark Moyers’s hand and stuffed mine in his: “Tradeja.”

Mark started to say, “Hey . . . ” but everyone began to match hearts, and he forgot about it. I felt as if I had just thrown away a live hand grenade.

The grenade turned out to be a boomerang with a warhead attached. My new partner was a goddess; a celebrity who triggered diffidence among even the most accomplished seventh-grade Romeos: Sandra Sloan.

Sandra Sloan tap-danced. On stage. Only the week before, she had tapdanced on the local television station’s TV Tryouts. Wearing fishnet stockings.

I touched her arm, half expecting an electric shock. She was wearing a light blue dress and a blue hair band in her white-blonde hair, but mentally I saw her only in the top hat and black stockings she had worn on television.

Sandra looked in person just like she did on TV: bewitching. She had blue eyes that matched her dress. They appraised me as if she knew not only my thoughts but had a map of the cranial structure that produced them.

Her arms were warm and incredibly soft.

“Hi,” she said absently, responding to my silly grin. “Aren’t you in seventh grade at Central?”

“Yeah,” I gasped through a mouth that felt like a blast furnace. “Yeah.” I giggled, then hiccuped. “I saw you on TV,” I blurted, stepping meaningfully on her foot.

“Oh, last week?” she let those lazy blue eyes pass from mine to the grown-up world beyond me. “That crazy record got stuck.”

We both mulled over the crazy, sticking record for the next 77 seconds, while “Moments to Remember” by the Four Freshmen spun on. Other nights and other days would find us gone our separate ways. Her body didn’t seem to touch the floor at all; she felt like a balloon that I was holding down from free flight through the universe. I box-stepped for all I was worth, my senses suspended, daring at length to increase the pressure of my hand on the small of her back. I might have been pressing against meringue. I perspired as my woolen slacks tormented my skinny legs.

The record ended. I stood stiffly, not knowing what to say. Sandy’s eyes returned to me as if she suddenly remembered that I was still there. She said, “Thank you for the dance.” She added, “You must have an awfully good dance teacher, ’cause you’re awfully good.” And she was gone.

The dance ended. I stood inside the revolving door until the sight of Grandy’s black Packard jarred me from my trance.

I scooted into the front seat, savoring the familiar scent of the car’s upholstery straw.

Grandy was wearing his straw hat and work jeans and smelled of sawdust. He had spent the afternoon in his basement workshop. His old, friendly mouth was working. “Did you cut quite a rug?” he asked. “I used to dance the polka.”

I was embarrassed. I didn’t know why. I felt my grown-up black woolen suit constricting me; cramping my freedom.

“I want to go home.” It was the first time in my life that I had expressed a wish not to go to Grandy’s house.

“Your gramaw’s fixing fried chicken,” Grandy said in surprise. “Peach cobbler for dessert.”

“I better go home. I want to change clothes.”

I had to change clothes. Sandy’s touch was still on my shoulder, and there was something on my mind demanding to be thought about that couldn’t be thought about until I had gotten out of that awful judgment of a suit.

“We’ll eat and then I’ll take you home.”

“No,” I said. “I have to go now. I really do. Please take me home now. I really have to go; I really do.”

I was crying; I didn’t even know it until I felt tears on my cheeks. There was something that had to be done, some thinking I had to think, and I had to be dressed in the right things to think these thoughts.

Grandy’s Packard pulled up in front of my parents’ house. I bolted from the car and ran through the kitchen door, past the tentative questioning smile of Mom and past Dad, who was scowling over the newspaper. I ran past Mom’s belated order to “wipe your feet.”

I ran into my bedroom and peeled off my suit jacket and those awful grownup long pants. I undid my shirt collar, realizing only then how tight it had been on my throat. I picked from a heap of clothes in the corner a soft, cold pair of jeans with a western leather belt already in the loops. (I got to wear jeans in the winter.)

I drew on the jeans. How familiar and smooth they felt against my legs! Now I was ready for anything—baseball, guns, running in the meadow, facing my thoughts and my future.

I pulled a sweater over my head. Grandy was standing stooped in the kitchen with my mother as I ran past. Chili bubbled on the stove. Mother said, “Now you stay around home because we’ll be eating in—” I didn’t stop to listen.

I ran through the front yard and up Pleasant Street to the gravel road, and across the gravel road and into the meadow. The evening air was cold; the sun of my kidhood was setting. I ran until I got to the rock fence and leaped over it and ran a few more yards.

I sailed over a ditch and landed on my jean knees. I rolled over and came up firing at Indians. I ran back to the wall and hit the dirt again. There was something in me that begged to be hit hard by something solid like the earth. I emptied my pistol salvo over the wall; I was a cavalryman cut off from the main force.

I reloaded and ran and jumped and rolled and fired until I was panting. The last salvo of the little boy. I got up and went and sat on the wall. I could hear my mother calling me.

The air was cold against my hot skin. I was ready to think. I heard my grandfather start his Packard. There wouldn’t be any more overnights at Grandy and Gramaw’s house. No more sitting on the porch swing waiting for Fords. That world was closed off; ended.

Alone for the first time in my life but far from my last, I sat in my work jeans on the wall and thought how it had been that afternoon with Sandy Sloan.




Ron Powers was born in Hannibal and dragged out of town kicking and screaming by his parents at age 17, bound for another town. He claims that he can still reconstruct Hannibal perfectly in his dreams. He has published 16 books, and is the winner of a Pulitzer Prize and an Emmy for his commentaries and criticism.