Arthur Voss was my bodyguard in the eighth grade. Dot Jones was my girlfriend. Pat Flood was my best friend. How did all of this come about? Well, I’ll tell you my version of the story, since most people in the story are dead or distant or disinterested.

This is a true story. It is also actual.

First day of eighth grade on the school grounds of Tuscaloosa Junior High. It must be recess time on the first day of eighth grade. I’m wandering around the red-dirt dusty summer grounds of the school. The sun is bright and stark and unflattering to the uncontrolled acne on passing faces, a bit too revealing of the unprofessional makeup work most of the coeds have done at home before school time.

One scowling guy struts by me and catches my eye. He must think I’m glaring a challenge at him, because he comes over, still staring, and punches me on the shoulder. I continue to stare back because I’m startled, because I don’t dare turn my back on him, because I don’t know any better. He’s a rough-hewn country-looking kid who wants me to know who’s boss. His scowl deepens and he punches me again, harder. I avert my gaze, pretending to suddenly remember an important engagement. “Dear me–must run. I left my baby on the bus!” is what I want to say, but I have no way of knowing whether that would just make him madder.

“Why’d he do that?” a tow-headed, barrel-chested student asks. I am standing to the side of the playground, wondering whether I am going to be punched again.

“I dunno,” I say.

Arthur Voss is this kid’s name. He is shy, too, and seems relieved that I’m willing to talk with him. Arthur is tough and knows a little about schoolyard survival. He never picks fights. But you can tell just from the way he stands that nobody is going to pick on him. He has a clean-cut no-nonsense air.

The bell rings and Arthur doesn’t go right in. Like me, he waits for the crowd to disperse. “Stick with me. Nobody’s gonna punch you again.” Arthur says this. I make a joke out of it because that’s usually how I survive. “You mean you’re my bodyguard?” I ask. “Yeah,” is all Arthur Voss says. We go our separate ways to class.

“Hey, this is Arthur, my bodyguard,” I say to Dot Jones, a very cute and perky petite blonde I meet at recess the next day. Dot is impressed and giggles her approval. Arthur just stands nearby and looks pleasant and alert. He really is my bodyguard! He’s always close by when we’re on school grounds before, during and after class. He makes no demands. We kid around, but he’s not prone to idle conversation. He’s just there. At lunch, we sit together with Dot and my other new friend, Pat Flood. Arthur is quiet, Pat is frenetic and funny, and Dot is giggly and cute. I actually have friends in junior high! Maybe I’ll survive eighth grade.

The two-step is all I can muster. If I want to dance with Dot Jones at the Friday night junior high gymnasium dances, I’ll have to learn how to dance. Dancing is the only way I know how to justify getting my body close to Dot’s body. We hold hands during school breaks, but there’s no body contact and definitely no kissing. Not even any smooching, whatever that is. I don’t know what smooching is, but I know I’m going to like it.

What is the perfume called that Dot uses? We do the two-step. We are exclusively paired and don’t want to dance with anyone else. Will I be in love with Dot forever? Will Arthur Voss remain my bodyguard for life? Is Pat Flood going to remain my best friend? I now know the answers to these questions, but in junior high I don’t. Shall I reveal the ending or leave you guessing? I’ve always felt I don’t want to know my own fortune, but in these pages, I sometimes do know how things turn out, but the story must be told while simultaneously the characters within don’t know outcomes even when their later versions do know the answers. Time travel is always confusing like this, but time travel must be done in order to get the stories told.

Will Pat Flood be my best friend till we’re 80 and barely able to remember the stupid and silly gags we loved, the snickering fun we had? The junior high school gymnasium doesn’t smell like sweaty locker room mildew tonight while the dance is going on. The nostrils only pick up what the sweet hormonal couple wants them to pick up. The smell of Dot’s perfume. The fragrance of the flower in her hair. The smell of Wildroot Cream Oil hair tonic from my fevered scalp, the rustle of one too many petticoats, the riding up of my underwear, the squeezing-toe leather shoes, the slow dance music, the dimmed gym lights, the chaperoning teachers, the coeds all transmogrified by their acne treatment salve, their new lipstick, freshly Pepsodented teeth, lacquered nails, home-permanent natural curls, saddle oxfords and penny loafers shuffling over the polished hardwood flooring, the scuffed shoe polish, the crepe paper decor, watery Kool-Aid punch, cool kids outside catching a smoke, brittle teachers, hawklike, searching for cool kids outside catching a smoke, pre-air-conditioning gym floor humidity-laden, red dirt and weeded grass and cool fungus fragrance outside the school while we wait for her father or my father to pick us up and deliver us to our respective homes.

Dad drops Dot and me off at her house while he gives us a full three minutes alone, during which he drives to the end of the block on the pretense of U-turning the damp green Willys car, and taking his time to do it as if he couldn’t just turn around in front of her house, but that would be dropping the pretense, wouldn’t it? Dad is complicit in the romantic effort to give us lovebirds a chance to cuddle, but all I can get the courage to do is shake Dot’s hand and run to the car, never having been kissed, never having kissed. Kissing would break the spell, don’t you know? The magic spell consists of never realizing your dream, which gives the dream such power, such magnification. The intense pleasure of anticipation is all there is, the knowing that if you break the spell with a kiss or a too-too touch, you just might fall from the grace of unfulfillment. The pressure of Almost is so powerful, so fantasy-making, so just plain carnal, though I’m not yet sure what carnal is, nor can I ever be sure. The overwhelming pleasure of knowing Dot and handholding Dot and dreaming of Dot and talking too long on the phone with Dot in the hallway of my parents’ home just feet away from their bedroom door, trying not to stand over the floor furnace too long, trying not to be heard by anyone but Dot.

You see, at this point, here at this moment, I close the red clay diary and close my eyes and almost nap, then open up, get alert, and start again that which is never ended–the story of me and Dot and Arthur and Pat and who we are and who we were before now and who we were before the before time, and then who we will yet be and who we might be once we stop being we four who walk the dusty earth of 1954 Tuscaloosa Junior High.

The faux doze starts once more, and I am closing the page, topping the pen, ready for the next episode of what’s happening these many decades later, tonight, on Planet Three.

Does Arthur Voss ever have to fight anybody on my behalf? No, but nobody picks on me the rest of eighth grade, thus I am afforded the opportunity and mixed-feeling pleasure of living to enter the ninth grade


Note: Jim Reed’s Red Clay Diary column does not end with a period (.). He has his reasons.

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