Kindergarten (1962)

by Dan Nielsen

It was the first day of school. As the final bell neared, Mrs. Sawyer divided the class into those with rides and those walking home. On the chalkboard, she’d drawn a map of the neighborhood with street names and familiar landmarks.

Each walking child used a pointer to show their route home, and at each intersection recited the rules for safely crossing a street. Those living closest to each other were put into buddy groups. Billy and Dave and Sharon made up one such group.

When the day finally ended, Mrs. Sawyer stood by the outside door to see that everyone was headed in the correct direction.

“This is my house,” Sharon said. “Would you boys like to come in?”

Billy and Dave looked at each other. Dave shrugged his shoulders. They went inside.

“Do you think I’m pretty?” Sharon said.

Billy sat on the couch. Dave stood by the window. Billy and Dave had been best friends since before they could talk. They nodded in agreement. Sharon was pretty.

Sharon handed Billy a J. C. Penney’s Catalog.

“Pick out your presents,” Sharon said, and left the room.

They heard her climb stairs and walk across the ceiling. They heard a toilet flush. They heard voices. One was a lady.

Dave snatched the catalog from Billy, balanced it on his head, and pranced around the room with his hands on his hips. Billy grabbed it back and placed it on a coffee table that already held an overflowing ashtray, a vase of rotting flowers, and a nearly empty whiskey bottle.

Billy wanted to turn on the TV. It felt odd with it off. TV was never off in his house. He wondered if it was broken.

Through the window, Dave saw Billy’s mom pushing Cynthia in her stroller. Dave was going to say something, but Sharon was coming back down the stairs. Instead of her school uniform, Sharon wore pink pedal pushers and a blue and green striped t-shirt. Her hair was tied back in a big red bow.

“You men must be starving,” Sharon said, and disappeared into the kitchen.

Dave sat beside Billy on the couch.

“Is she making us dinner?” Dave said.

“I don’t know,” Billy said. “Maybe hotdogs.”

Sharon returned with a family-sized bottle of root beer and three Flintstones jelly glasses. “My mother has a headache so no shouting or running,” Sharon said. She put the glasses on the coffee table along with the catalog, cigarette butts, rotting flowers, and whiskey bottle. “I need someone with muscles to open this,” Sharon said.

Billy was afraid to move. He’d never seen so many things on a coffee table. Dave bent his arms as far as they would go. Sharon handed him the root beer and the bottle opener she’d stashed in her pocket.

“I’ll be right back with potato chips,” Sharon said, and then she was gone.

Dave turned his back and pretended to remove the bottle cap with his teeth while actually using the opener. It was a trick Billy witnessed many times. Dave took a drink directly from the bottle, burped, and wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt.

He remembered something.

“Billy,” Dave said. “I just saw …”

But Sharon was back with the chips. She poured root beer into the glasses. “This is just for pretend,” Sharon said, and pretended to add whiskey. Billy and Dave looked at each other, but said nothing.

Sharon turned on American Bandstand and danced until the song was over. She sat on the couch between Billy and Dave. They ate chips and drank root beer.

Mary Nelson was near tears when she finally arrived at the school. She lifted Cynthia from the stroller and carried her up cement stairs to the kindergarten door. Mrs. Sawyer had a worried look on her face when she opened it.

“You boys may kiss me is you want,” Sharon said, and leaned her cheek, first toward Billy, and then toward Dave. They both dutifully complied.

The doorbell rang.

“I wonder who that can be,” Sharon said.

When she opened the door, Sharon saw Mrs. Sawyer and a mom with a baby standing on her porch.

The mom said, “Is Billy Nelson here?”

“Yes, he is.” Sharon said. “Come right in.”

Dan Nielsen is a sexagenarian living alone in a three-bedroom house a short stroll from Lake Michigan. All of his time is spare time and everything he does is done in it.

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