For Melanie Safka who performed at Woodstock
I read the obituary of my friend’s mother on the funeral home website and scrolled through other obituaries. I was surprised to learn my third grade teacher had died, apparently from cancer. It had been over forty years since I’d seen her, and it made me sad that I couldn’t thank her. When she taught us in third grade, all the boys, including me, had fallen in love with her.
Maybe she was our “mother figure”, like Helen Crump was to Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show. Ms. Katherine wore stylish clothes, drove a 1970 blue Camero convertible with a white stripe, and gave us all MIA bracelets to wear in memory of her husband who’d been shot down in Vietnam. We asked her if he’d be alright. Her eyes had teared, she said she didn’t know, but hated war and hoped we never had to go. We didn’t want to go either, even though we were too young, and vowed to each other at recess we’d protest if they tried to make us.
Contrary to high school and college, I don’t recall what we might have learned in Ms. Katherine’s class, but I knew I learned to love the letter “K”, the color blue, convertible Camaros, hair with frosting, dimples, and sandals that matched Ms. Katherine’s clothing. I asked my mom if Ms. Katherine could come to my seventh birthday party, and she did. I watched her smile and interact with my grandmothers, aunts, and even my mother when she wasn’t spooning out ice cream to go with each slice of cake. At some point, I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to marry her. I imagined her fighter pilot husband would approve, and I could take care of her like she took care of me at school.
My mother, who was a great cook, periodically prepared one meal that I despised and just the smell of it frying in a pan on the stove could make me throw up in my mouth or at least have dry heaves. I’d faked an allergic reaction to her fried liver, stomach aches, and diarrhea to try to get out of it and even begged for our outside dog to come inside, so I could feed him underneath the table. After she fried it, the whole house smelled and it seemed to take an entire can of Lysol, with windows open, to get rid of the smell. Finally, I made up my mind that I would protest, go on strike, and runaway, if necessary, to avoid the fried liver.
“You’ll eat it or you’ll go to bed hungry,” my mother said. Had my dad been home at that point, she may have given him her look, raised eyebrows and pursed lips, and he might have threatened a whipping.
“Oh, no, I won’t. I’m protesting, just like the people on TV.”
“You will eat it or your daddy will whip you when he gets home, just like the police do to those hippies on TV.”
“The hippies are right. War is evil. Vietnam killed Ms. Katherine’s husband. I won’t be here to eat liver or go to war.”
“You’re too young to go to war, and just where do you think you’ll be going?”
“I’m running away.”
“You’re not going anywhere, young man.”
I put some clothes in a brown grocery sack, walked out the door, got on my Huffy, sack in the basket, and drove down the hill and onto the two lane artery that ran through our town, pedaling as quick as I could until I got to Ms. Katherine’s house. By the time I glided under her carport, I cried, propped my bike against the brick wall, and knocked on her door.
“Why, Michael, what are you doing here? What’s wrong? Come on in. You want a Coke?”
She took a Coke out of the refrigerator and popped the cap off. The glass was ice cold, I took a swig, and then explained that I loved her, I wanted to live with her, that I hated liver, and that I had runaway. We sat at her Formica dinette in the mint green kitchen and she held my hand. “Your mom and dad love you and would be very sad to know you had runaway.”
“My mother doesn’t care.”
“Oh yes, honey, she does. She may be too busy to tell you, but she loves you very much and is probably crying that you left, frantically calling your aunts and grandmothers. Let me fix you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to go with your Coke because I know you must be hungry, and we’ll put your bike in my car and I’ll drive you home before you mother cries too much and calls the police.”
“Okay,” I said. I didn’t want to be sprayed by a hose or beaten with a baton. Ms. Katherine patted my head, told me I was a dear, and said she had high hopes for me.
Ms. Katherine’s convertible Camaro pulled in our driveway, and my mother came out crying. Mom apologized to Ms. Katherine, told her she’d been on the phone with everyone, told her the story about liver, and hugged her. Ms Katherine told her it was fine, that I was a sensitive boy, she had high hopes for me, she’d fed me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a Coke, and I probably didn’t need supper.
I took my bike, put it under the carport, and unpacked my clothes from the paper sack and put them in my chest of drawers. Mom came into my room where I was playing with matchbox cars on the braided round rug on the wooden floor and told me I didn’t have to eat the liver, that she wouldn’t cook it anymore, that she didn’t really like it either, but it was good for us and she just wanted us to be healthy. That was, of course, before we knew fried foods would kill us. We hugged and I told her I was sorry, I wouldn’t protest anymore, and I wouldn’t run away again.
About the Author:
Niles Reddick is author of the novel Drifting too far from the Shore, two collections Reading the Coffee Grounds and Road Kill Art and Other Oddities, and a novella Lead Me Home. His work has been featured in eleven anthologies and in over two hundred literary magazines including The Saturday Evening Post, PIF, New Reader Magazine, Forth Magazine, Cheap Pop, Flash Fiction Magazine, With Painted Words, among many others.