When Wendell Douglas come back from the war he looked to be about a foot taller. He’d volunteered as soon as he was of age and shipped out right before the Allies took the beaches in Normandy. He didn’t see combat, but he sailed on a troop boat to France and worked as a guard in a hospital there for nearly a year. I saw him come home. He stepped out of the bus in uniform and carrying his duffle. It was freezing cold and wind blowing snow everywhere, but he just stepped out onto the sidewalk and walked the two blocks to his house down on Allen Street. I knew things would pick up in the neighborhood after that, and they did.
In the year that Wendell was overseas I still walked over to White’s Confectionery every now and then. I’d have a root-beer float and sit there and talk to Mrs. White or her fat daughter, whoever happened to be serving that evening. The juke box was almost never playing and no one was ever on the little rectangle of a dance floor. The Whites made their money on the junior-high crowd. The school was only a block away and the kids would flood into there at lunch hour and pack the place and the music would be blaring and kids eating hot dogs and drinking sodas and dancing for all of the forty-five minutes between the two lunch bells. Same thing for the hour after school let out. I hadn’t been a part of that since I had moved up to the high school. Evenings at Whites were nothing like that. Sometimes I was the only customer in the store. Some winter nights they even hurried me out of the place so they could close down early. They’d have the lights off before I got out the door.
I’d walk around the neighborhood for a while, even in the cold and snow, just looking at the houses and watching the cars on the streets and up on the state road. On Wednesday evenings they’d be having prayer meeting at the Church of God and I’d walk by the lit-up windows and sometimes hear them singing, Wendell’s mom playing the piano. Down the next block I’d usually see Missy Harless on the corner of Second and Allen Streets. She’d be standing there under the street lamp in her coat and hat, waiting on the bus to take her to the hospital for the evening shift. She always spoke. Always called me by name.
By now there were gold stars in the windows of at least one house on every street I walked. I knew some of the boys who had been killed. Didn’t know some of the others
I knew that Danny Turley and Doug Griffith and that bunch were somewhere around. Guys who had already graduated but who the Army wouldn’t take. Danny had somehow managed to get himself a car and he drove it up and down the state road in town and all around the neighborhood, shifting gears and squealing the tires. My grandpa had told me to steer clear of those boys; that they were heading for trouble, sure as the world.
Every now and then I would get up the nerve to go two blocks over and walk by Janet Thompson’s house. I’d been inside it a few times when we were little kids, just playing. But now it was a kind of mysterious place, one I hoped to be inside of again, but not in the same way. Her house looked different than the others: the yellow light in the windows, the neatly-shoveled and swept walkway and porch steps, the red mailbox by the door.
But when Wendell came home there was no more time for walking around.
Wendell was the only one of us who wasn’t afraid to dance and when the girls found out he was back in town the evening traffic at White’s Confectionary picked up right away. He’d head over there right after dinner and order a soda and fill the jukebox with nickels and have the music going strong before the girls started to filter in. For the first few weeks he wore his uniform nearly everywhere.
He’d learned new dances in France and the girls were wild for him to teach them. In a few weeks it became obvious that he had a strong preference for Beverly Thompson. None of us were surprised by that; she was the beauty of the town. But I’d had my eye on her sister Janet for a long time. Since junior high at least. I saw her standing in her yard one day. I was on the way down to the school courts to look for a basketball game and she was just out there by the little maple tree. She saw me and smiled and I admitted something to myself then and there that I had probably been feeling a long time and just didn’t want to own up to. I liked her. Almost enough to make a public confession of it. Almost. But I worried. What if she didn’t want to hear any such thing from me? Or what if I said it and then changed my mind? I’d done that kind of thing before.
And so, it was never anything more than polite hellos between her and me. I had a class with her once, but didn’t sit close to her. Other guys took her to the school dances and I just never asked anybody. But once Wendell came home and people started congregating in White’s Confectionary again, I got up the nerve to talk to her and I swore to myself that when the opportunity came, I’d ask her to dance, two left feet and all. I’d asked Wendell if he could tell me anything that would help me get those moves he’d learned in France but he just said it wasn’t the kind of thing you could learn by talking about it. “You just got to get out there and move. I don’t know what I’m doing half the time. Just go on and get out there. Nothing is going to happen unless you try. She don’t really care if you can dance. She only cares about whether you’ll ask her.”
Well, one evening Janet and Beverly and Wendell and a bunch of other kids were there. We’d been talking a lot that evening and there were other people around talking, but then there were just the two of us and “Wonderland By Night” came on the juke box and she looked at me and smiled and said “This is my favorite song.” And I had been told that slow dances were the easiest to fake and I knew that this was it, this was my chance, and that she knew it too and if I passed this one up there might not be another one and so I said “Let’s dance,” and we stood and she took my hand and before I knew it, we were dancing and it was so easy. I’ll tell you the truth, I’d thought a lot about Janet Thompson. What it might be like to be with her. Have her choose me. But I had never imagined how dancing with her would feel. I moved and she responded. It was as if she was weightless. I started that evening hoping I’d never have to dance and I ended it hoping that dancing with Janet would never end. Everybody in town – well, almost everybody – thought her older sister was better looking, but Janet was the better dancer. No question about that.
After that night, Janet and I kind of got in the habit of sitting at the same table with Wendell and Beverly and listening to his stories about what he’d seen and done in France. Wendell had got on down at the lumberyard and he told me that they were hiring right then and that I should get down there and apply. “You’ll be in the yard for a while,” he said. “But with the war over and everybody coming home, the lumber business is going to boom. They’ve already bought three more acres just to stack more boards. The way business is going you’ll make it into sales in no time and start getting paid on commission.”
Janet was enthusiastic about that, and when I told her I’d got the job, she was straightforward about getting married. “What’s the point of all this flirting around if we aren’t going to do it? You know, the whole thing?” I wasn’t really ready for the question, but the answer was easier than I thought it would be. Things had been going well for me down at the yard. I had a knack for estimating costs and amounts and I felt confident that I’d be able to handle it all, sales and everything. I knew what my grandpa would tell me to do without ever asking him.
“We should get married,” I said. “Why not?”
Word of our decision got back to Wendell real quick and I guess that Beverly must’ve asked him something like what Janet had asked me. Wendell told me that they were going to do it – tie the knot. “Why don’t we do it together?’ he asked. “You think the girls would like that? Their church is just over there on the corner.”
It was easier than I thought it would be. Their folks were both happy about it and the preacher was ready for us. Wendell wore his uniform at the ceremony.
His mom played the piano.