“I’ve never snuck into a theater before. Sneaking into a dark theater with Arnold …” Paulie laughed. “Are you sure this isn’t supposed to be a date?” Paulie appeared at once timid and suspicious.
“I’m sure. He’s getting me … us in to see a movie for free. Dick Hames! He’s so dreamy.”
“You know, Paulie, Arnold is a dear friend …”
“Oh, pooh, Claire.” Paulie batted at my skirt.
“Okay, okay, a special friend. We haven’t made any promises to each other or anything. He’s cute, he’s fun … but …”
“Oh, I don’t know.” A hint of guilt over the difference between how I felt about Arnold compared to how he felt about me passed like the breeze drifting over the porch boards. His were childish whims of infatuation, pushy, uninvited. “It’s kind of hard to explain…” I toyed with the folds of my skirt. If most of the girls at North High were stuck on Arnold, a great catch I didn’t appreciate, then I wished my best friend could change places with me. If only …
“Hey, ladies.” The blur of a male figure in jeans had ascended the porch steps, not pausing to pass pleasantries.
He opened the screen door and stepped into the house. Benjamin. My second encounter brought on an unexplained reaction; my heart pattered even though I’d barely caught a glimpse.
“Oh, hey, Ben,” Paulie said. “You look tired, big brother.”
Her words stopped him. “Little bit.” He paused behind the screen door.
“This is Claire.”
He tipped his head to me. “Nice to meet you, Claire.” He continued on into the house.
“Same here,” I muttered as the screen door shut.
“Now, where were we?” Paulie put a finger to her mouth.
I looped an arm through my friend’s. “We were going to see if your momma could use some help. Come on.” I pulled her from the seat. “Let’s help then freshen up before dinner.”
We let the screen door slam behind us and turned into the kitchen in time to see Benjamin lift his mother from the floor and spin around twice.
“You stop that, Benjamin Willis. Man or no, I can take a hand to your hide, if I need to.” Her hands flailed gently at his chest.
He laughed as he set her down, steadying her before letting go. Taut muscles on the back of his arms flexed with the effort; his deep laugh filled the kitchen. I couldn’t help being drawn into this entirely pleasant scene, comical and radiating warmth, inviting me to take part in their joy. His mother snatched a dishtowel from the counter and swiped at his legs.
“Hold off now. I give, I give.” He withdrew what appeared to be a check from his back pocket.
Mrs. Russell accepted the paper without comment and stuffed it into the frayed pocket of her red checked apron. He kissed her on the forehead, took the bottle of beer she offered him, and leaving the kitchen, nodded in my direction.
I sniffed the sweat of hard work and the yeasty smell of beer as he passed by. My head reeled for a moment with the warmth of the kitchen and the people within, combined with the essence of what I labeled man.