“Backfire,” New Era, Mar. 1984, 47
As I came out of school, the sunlight reflected on the knee-deep snow. The air was icy cold, but all four of us guys jammed into the cab of Reed’s truck so the chill and the snow did not much matter to us. All we had to bother with was keeping the steam off the inside of the windows.
As we pulled out of the school parking lot, Wayne started cutting up, as usual, and Sid started cutting Wayne down, as usual, while Reed and I mainly listened. We passed the Chicken Inn, where even the snow couldn’t freeze out that frying smell, and turned up the hill to my house. Up ahead we could see a girl struggling over the ice. I mean really struggling. The hill wasn’t all that steep, but like I said, it was one icy day, and she sure looked funny. Her arms juggled a load of books, and her feet were slipping and sliding as if she were walking on a moving sidewalk. Her coat was pulled up around her ears. She looked like a turtle trying to decide whether to go in or come out of its shell.
“A definite specimen of a 1,” Sid laughed, and so did we.
“Who is she anyway?” Reed asked.
“Rachel Roberts,” I answered. “They moved into the ward a while back.”
“Trust Matt to know about the new girls,” Sid teased, and Wayne slugged me in the arm.
“Yeah. Lady’s man Bingham.” Wayne exaggerated each word and made his voice about two octaves higher.
“Cut it out,” I growled. “She’s my sister’s friend.”
“Sure!” Reed laughed.
“Look, she’s a 1,” I said. “A definite 1!” I grumbled a little to let them know I’d had enough.
“Think she’ll make it to the top of the hill?” Wayne asked.
“Bet you a chocolate shake she won’t,” Reed offered, but no one took up the bet.
As the old Ford pulled up alongside Rachel, Wayne called out, “Give her a scare. Fire it!”
“Yeah!” the others shouted. Without hesitation Reed turned the ignition off then on, and the muffler let out a bang that sounded like a Civil War cannon. Inside the cab, the roar of laughter was almost as loud as a cannon as we watched Rachel go into a balancing act. We jerked around and wiped at the back window while Reed shouted, “Tell me what’s happening, will ya? Did we scare her?”
“I’ll say!” Wayne shouted. “You should see the look on her face. Her eyes are as big as billiard balls!”
“Hey, she’s down,” Sid said. “Feet up, arms everywhere!”
“Books sliding all over the place!” Wayne was laughing so hard he could barely talk.
“What a klutz,” I added. But as I said it a sick sort of heaviness bit into my stomach. I tried to get it out of there by laughing harder, but it didn’t work. About then I realized my conscience was working.
It’s not like I really knew Rachel. She was only a sophomore and kind of a quiet nobody. What I mean is that she was not exactly the kind of girl you would look at twice. Now here I was laughing at her and at the same time feeling awful about laughing. But what was I supposed to do? Reed, Wayne, and Sid were almost hysterical.
The laughter died down, and I sensed an uneasiness in the small cab. Slowly I turned back around, all the while wondering if their stomachs felt like mine. “Maybe we ought to go back and see if she’s all right,” I said.
No one answered. Finally we pulled into my driveway. “Ah, she’ll be fine,” Wayne said. “It just scared her a little. See ya at basketball practice.”
I went into the house, and while I fixed a sandwich and poured a glass of milk, I figured it out. I hadn’t been the one to suggest it and I wasn’t the one who turned the key, so why should I be the one to worry about it? By the time I finished my fourth sandwich I’d forgotten the whole thing. Then with homework and basketball practice, even my conscience didn’t have much time to remember it. But about ten o’clock I was in the kitchen getting some cookies when I realized that my sister Jennifer and my mom were talking about Rachel.
“How’s she doing?” Mom asked.
“They’re not sure yet. She’s got a cast on it now, but they want to wait two weeks and see how it’s healing. Her mom says they may have to put a pin in to help it heal right.”
I swallowed one homemade chocolate chip—cookie—whole and felt it scratch all the way down.
“What happened?” I asked, hoping it wasn’t us, but somehow knowing it was.
“Some guys made a truck backfire next to her when she was coming up the hill after school. She slipped on the ice and broke her ankle.”
Suddenly I wasn’t hungry. It had been a joke. We hadn’t meant to hurt her. My stomach churned. I wished I hadn’t eaten any cookies at all.
You all right?” Jennifer asked.
“Sure,” I said, trying to get hold of myself. “I just swallowed wrong.”
“Those guys are probably still laughing about their joke,” she said, her face growing red and her eyes mad, “while Rachel’s over there hurting.”
I’m not laughing, I thought. But that didn’t help much.
All night long I tossed and turned and tossed some more. It was a joke. That’s all. We’re really not bad guys. Wayne was always pulling something, and we always joined in. But we’d never hurt anyone.
The next morning when Reed picked me up I guess I looked bad.
“Hey, what’s with you?” Wayne asked. “Terrie turn you down for the dance?”
“No!” I snapped.
I was the last one in and as we shoved together, everything got kind of quiet, a heavy kind of quiet. We got almost to school without breaking the silence. Then Sid spoke up, “Come on, Bingham. What’s wrong?”
I hesitated a minute and then told them the whole story. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but as I looked around I could see they felt about like I did.
“I didn’t mean to hurt her,” Reed said. “Just a little scare.”
“It wasn’t just you,” Wayne added, and Sid nodded.
We pulled into the school parking lot, and for the first time ever I was glad to be at school. Maybe concentrating on classes would keep my mind off Rachel and her ankle. But it didn’t work. All day long I kept seeing her face, crying, hurting, sitting alone at the bottom of that hill. Why hadn’t I made them go back?
Back at the truck after school I saw the others for the first time since that morning. I could tell just by looking that instead of leaving, the feeling had settled harder, colder. We climbed into the cab and started for home. We got all the way to my driveway before anyone spoke.
“Look, I don’t know about you guys, but I think we ought to do something,” I said.
“Like what?” Reed asked.
“I don’t know. Take her some flowers and candy or something. Apologize.”
“Flowers and candy? Those are for the girls you’re trying to impress. The 10s! Rachel is more of the ‘sweet spirit’ kind.” I knew Wayne was trying to make a joke, trying to lighten the heavy mood, but no one laughed.
“You think we ought to do that?” Reed asked. “I mean go to her house and everything?”
I wanted to say, “Nah, I’m just joking!” But I knew that wouldn’t work. I could see now that much as I didn’t want to face Rachel, let alone risk seeing her mom and dad, my conscience wasn’t going to take a time out unless I went.
“Well, I’m going tonight. If you guys want to come with me, be here at seven.” Then I got out and went into the house.
The next part was the hardest. I found Jennifer and before I had time to chicken out I told her the whole story.
“Matt Bingham!” she started to yell.
“Look, Jen,” I interrupted, holding her hands so she couldn’t hit me. “We didn’t mean to hurt her. We’re sorry, and now I need your help.”
She looked at me a minute as if trying to decide what to do, then wiggled her hands loose.
“Please, Jen?” I asked real nice.
“What is it you want me to do?”
“Just help me get the flowers and candy. I don’t know what kind she likes or anything, and I don’t want to go in there apologizing and find out she hates flowers and is allergic to chocolate.”
Jennifer laughed, and that made me mad. Then I realized I must be sounding a little weird. I smiled back. “Will you do it?”
“You know,” she said, “as far as brothers go, you’re not so bad.”
“Will you help?”
“I’d better,” she said. “In the first place Rachel doesn’t like candy.”
“See what I mean? What am I …”
“Hold on,” Jen interrupted. “If you’ll drive me, I’ll pick it all out for you. I know exactly what her favorite things are.”
Now that that was all set I felt a whole lot better. But I still worried that none of the other guys would show. I really didn’t want to go all alone, but I shouldn’t have worried. At seven o’clock all three showed up at the front door looking as nervous as I felt.
“Well, you ready?” Sid stammered.
“Yeah, just a minute.” I was afraid that if I waited even one second more I wouldn’t have the nerve to go through with it.
“Do we really need to do this?” Wayne asked.
“Yes!” I tried to sound real positive and found that just by saying it I somehow felt better. I grabbed the flowers and pepperoni pizza that Jennifer had picked out, and we left.
It was the third silent ride that day. Slowly we pulled up in front of the brown brick home and stopped the engine. No one moved.
“Well?” I finally asked.
“I think Matt ought to be the spokesman,” Sid said, “seeing as this is his idea and all.”
The others agreed, and I knew I was stuck.
“Come on then,” I said. “Let’s get it over with.”
From the truck to the front door was the longest walk I’d ever taken. Snow crunched under my feet. My breath formed heavy puffs of steam that hung in front of me. And my heart beat—I mean BEAT. Once on the porch I hesitated, then punched the icy doorbell, hoping that no one would answer it. Before I could turn and run, a woman opened the door, a startled look crossing her face as she saw the four of us standing there with a pizza box and flowers.
“Yes?” she finally said.
“Hello. I’m Matt Bingham, and we came to see Rachel.” The words spilled out like water over a dam.
I’m sure she recognized us from church, but she seemed puzzled.
“She’s probably never had a boy come over before,” Wayne whispered from behind me, and I could feel Sid and Reed giggling. I hoped Mrs. Roberts hadn’t heard.
“Come on in,” Mrs. Roberts said and opened the storm door. “Rachel is in the family room. Right this way.”
She started down the hall, and we followed.
“Rachel,” she said, as she turned into the room. “You have company.”
Rachel was lying on the couch reading a book, her left foot in a cast and propped up on two pillows. It hurt just to look at it.
“Hi,” she said shyly, not as surprised as I thought she’d be.
We stood awkwardly for a moment, no one saying anything. Finally Reed spoke up, “How’s it feeling?”
“It hurts, but it’s getting better,” she answered.
Her mother slipped out of the room and that made it easier.
“I guess you know we’re the ones who were in the truck,” I said, hoping to get it over with so we could leave.
“Yeah,” she said with no trace of anger or anything.
“Well, we want you to know we didn’t mean to hurt you. We feel bad, and we really hope you don’t have to have surgery or anything like that.”
“It was supposed to just be a joke,” Wayne added.
“Anyway, we feel bad about how it turned out, and we wanted to tell you we’re sorry. But I guess that doesn’t help your ankle much. But we are real sorry about it.” I knew I was repeating myself, but I couldn’t figure anything else to say and I felt stupid standing there not saying anything.
“It’s nice of you to admit it,” she said. “Most guys wouldn’t have bothered.”
There was another awkward pause. Then Sid gave me an elbow in the ribs and whispered, “The flowers!”
“Oh, yeah,” I said, embarrassed. “We brought you these.” I handed her the flowers and pizza.
“Daisies,” she smiled. “I love daisies. These are beautiful.”
She opened the box. “You’re kidding! Pepperoni pizza. That’s almost worth a broken ankle. Thanks!”
“It’s the kind you buy at a restaurant, then take home and cook,” I explained.
She breathed in a big whiff. “Smells fantastic.”
I’d never really seen her up close. As she smiled and laughed she didn’t really look as plain as I’d always thought she was. It’s not that she’d ever win a beauty contest or anything. But there was something about her that I’d never noticed before, a kind of extra something that I couldn’t explain.
“Pull those chairs over and sit down,” she invited.
“We’d really better be going,” Wayne said uneasily.
“But you haven’t even had a piece of pizza yet,” she said.
“Well, maybe we could stay for a minute,” Reed said and pulled over a chair.
Rachel called her mom back in and asked her to cook the pizza for us. We all got a chair and sat down around the couch. Before we knew it, we were laughing and talking as if we’d been friends for years. She talked easily, not like she was trying to impress us or anything, and she never once talked about movie stars or clothes. I’d never known it was so easy to talk to a girl before. She was reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain, and she told us about the eclipse and all. Even Wayne thought it was one of the best jokes he’d ever heard of. Then Mrs. Roberts brought in the pizza and some hot chocolate and donuts, and we talked some more. Before I realized it, we had been there for two hours.
“Oh wow!” Sid suddenly noticed. “I told my dad I’d be home by nine-thirty. I’ve got to go.”
“Me too,” we all agreed as we pushed back the chairs and apologized one last time.
“Don’t worry. I know you didn’t mean for it to turn out like this,” Rachel said, then laughed. “Just don’t let it happen again!”
“We’ll check back and see how you’re doing,” I said.
“Thanks for the flowers and the pizza,” she called as her mother showed us to the door.
The ride home wasn’t silent. Wayne was his old self again, and we all laughed and joked.
“She’s not so bad after all,” Reed said.
“Not a 10 though,” Wayne said. “It’s got to be a 10 for me.”
I knew what Wayne meant. But maybe he was wrong. Rachel wasn’t a Miss America, but all the same there was something about her I couldn’t describe, a warmth or something, that made it so that when I was around her I didn’t seem to notice if she was a 1 or a 10. I’d never been around a girl like that before, unless maybe it was Jennifer. But I doubt sisters count.
I thought about it as I listened to the others joke around.
“What you really want, Wayne, is a 12. But they don’t make 12s anymore,” Reed said, and we laughed again.
Maybe what we need, I thought, though I didn’t say it aloud, is a new measuring system.
“Here we are,” Reed said, as he pulled into my driveway. “See you tomorrow.”
“Thanks for going with me,” I said. The others only nodded, but then they really didn’t need to say anything. I could feel it.
I hurried into the warm house and found Jennifer waiting.
“How did it go?” she asked.
“Fine,” I answered.
“She’s nice, isn’t she?” Jennifer asked.
“I guess so,” I said, and for the first time I didn’t think of nice as an adjective you used for a girl because you couldn’t think of any other word. “She’s okay,” I added, then hurried to my room before Jennifer could ask any more questions.