The Next Generation
Outside, it was a beautiful spring day, one of those days when the world seems particularly fine, especially after surviving a long and dismal winter. Outside the cafeteria window, Lori Mattson could just see a small cluster of kids sneaking drags on what probably were cigarettes, but could have been something else. She knew that outside there would be any number of kids -- not just the smokers -- that would rather skip lunch and be inside the school building on such a day, and she knew she'd like to be with them.
But, there was a chore she'd promised to do -- one that she'd done every school day for years.
Lori couldn't remember when she'd begun to carry Judith Niven's lunch try for her, but it probably had happened one day when she had taken pity on the girl who didn't have hands enough to struggle with a lunch tray and her crutches at the same time.
Long ago, Judith had been a class ahead of Lori. Then, one night, there'd been a car accident. Judith's mother was badly hurt, and her brother, Phil, who had been in Lori's class, had been killed. When Judith finally came back to school a year later, she'd been paralyzed from the waist down, and in a wheelchair. Since then, she'd gotten enough better that she could get around with crutches.
Lori couldn't claim that Judith was her best friend, but she suspected that she was Judith's. In a school as small as Willow Lake's, everybody knew everybody else, and Lori couldn't think of anyone else Judith was friendlier with.
Lori set the two trays down at the table where Alison Blevens and Candy Howard were eating. As she and Judith sat down, it was clear that Alison had the big news of the day.
"Did you hear?" Candy asked excitedly.
"Hear what?" Lori responded.
"Phil Wines asked me to the prom," Alison said, just as excited. "I can't believe it."
Lori sighed to herself. The Willow Lake Junior-Senior Prom was the big social event of the rural school. With many of the more or less permanent couples already committed, there weren't a lot of really desirable guys left over. Phil had been one guy who Lori had dared hope would ask her to the prom.
She knew that she was just an average girl -- not exceptionally pretty or popular -- but she had her pride. If she had to go to the prom with someone like Bob Watson, she knew she'd just as soon stay home.
"I'm happy for you," Judith said.
The subject turned to prom gowns. The event was traditionally very formal, and had been even in years when formality was out. After all, in a town like Willow Lake, the only other formal event a girl could hope for in her life would be her wedding. The merits of lime, maroon and peach were all discussed, as well as those of organdy and taffeta. Strapless versus strapped versus off-the-shoulder all had their good points and bad picked apart; Candy dreamed about wearing a strapless peach taffeta gown she'd seen in Saxmayer's in Camden.
Lost in her envy of Alison, Lori didn't notice that Judith was even quieter than her usual quiet self. Alison and Candy finished their lunches and left, still debating prom gowns.
"Something bothering you?" Lori asked.
Judith just shook her head and looked away.
"Aw, come on," Lori persisted.
Twice, Judith started to say something, but stopped. Finally, she whispered so low that Lori could only make out part of what she said: "I shouldn't be jealous of her."
"I shouldn't be jealous," Judith repeated, more clearly than before. "I mean, I know I'm not going to the prom."
"Don't you want to?"
Lori could have kicked herself for pressing the issue, as Judith said, "I can't think of anything that would be nicer than for someone to ask me to go. He doesn't have to be the neatest guy in school. Just a nice guy, like maybe Ken over there." She nodded her head in the direction of a couple tables over, where Ken Sorensen and some friends were having a noisy lunch, then continued. "But who'd as a cripple like me?"
It was still a beautiful day a few hours later, after school was out. Like most farm boys, Ken Sorensen never had to worry much about having something to do after school. Even as he drove his Chevy into the yard, he could see the old Farmall "H" tractor hooked to a fertilizer cart.
He went inside, where his mother was working on dinner. "How was school," she asked.
"Same old thing."
"Your father wants you to spread potash on that 20 acre patch on the east side of the duck farm," she said. "The feed mill just dropped off the cart, and they'd like it back in the morning."
"Fine with me."
There were times when Ken resented the nearly continual work around the farm -- work that he didn't receive much for. But that evening, as the old Farmall waddled up the road with six tons of potash in tow, he found that this time he didn't mind all that much. The earth was coming to life after a winter that had seemed like it would never end, and it gave him a joy that only someone raised on a farm could know.
As he turned into the field and pulled the rope that started the fertilizer spreading in a swath sixty feet wide, he glanced at his watch, knowing that he'd have to set the old tractor hustling to get done in time for dinner.
Spreading fertilizer wasn't much more work than driving the tractor, and Ken was glad to have the time to think about things.
The upcoming prom was one of the things he had to think about. He didn't have a steady girl friend, so it wasn't as if he had to go. The prom wasn't as big a thing in his mind as it was among most of the girls in the school -- though it was still weeks off, it seemed to be their major topic of discussion.
Was it going to be worth the trouble to go to the prom?
He'd have to go out and rent a tuxedo. He'd have to get his sister-in-law to teach him something about formal dancing. It would cost an expensive dinner and all the trimmings. In general, it would be a pain in the neck, with little reward.
Now, if he could get a real fox of a girl like Jennifer Savage to go to the prom with him, it might be worth it. But there was no point in asking her; she could pick and choose who was going to take her out of a dozen applicants.
Getting a date -- just any date -- wouldn't be a problem, but he wondered if he wanted to go to the trouble over just any date.
On the other hand, he thought, if he were to ask some girl who would really appreciate the attention, it might pay off. Now, take someone like Lori Mattson. She might be so happy to have a prom date that something steady -- at least for the summer -- might be arranged. With summer coming on, that offered all sorts of possibilities for fun, and she was going away to college in the fall, so he wouldn't have to be committed to anything.
He smiled to himself. He'd have to think about it some more.
The tractor soon ran down to the end of the last row. He stopped and clambered up onto the cart, to see that there wasn't much more than a good shovelful of potash left. "Can't cut it any closer than that," he thought, making a mental note to spread it on the garden to empty out the cart. Then, glancing at his watch again, he figured he;d have just enough time to get home for supper.
The kitchen was filled with the sharp smell of fried chicken as Ken came in from parking the tractor. "You just missed a phone call," his mother said.
"Some girl," his mother replied. "I didn't catch the name. I wrote the number down on the pad."
Ken glanced at the number. It wasn't familiar -- not that he dated so much that he knew a lot of girl's phone numbers from memory. "I'll call back after supper," he said. "That chicken smells good."
Ken was a little surprised to discover that the girl was Lori Mattson. After going to school with her for a dozen years, he certainly knew her, but they weren't what could be called close friends. "I was just thinking about you," he told her.
"Well, thank you," she said. "Look, I don't want to sound pushy, but do you have a date for the prom yet?"
"No," he admitted. "I haven't made up my mind if I want to go or not. How about you. Are you going?"
"No one's asked me yet," she replied.
By now, Ken was beginning to suspect the reason for the phone call. "The prom's not that far off," he said. "I guess if I'm going to do something, I'd better be figuring it out pretty soon. I was thinking about asking you if you wanted to go."
"Thanks, Ken," she said, a little distantly. "But I didn't call to ask you to take me to the prom. I'd like you to do me and someone else a big favor."
"There's someone who would like very much to go to the prom with you, but she wouldn't be pushy like me and ask you. But, it would mean a lot to her if you would ask her."
Lori screwed up her courage. "Judith Niven," she gushed finally.
"Well, uhhh..." Ken said as he turned it over in his mind. He'd known Judith for years, but not even as well as he knew Lori. If you overlooked her crutches, then she was well on her way to being a pretty girl. She was a quiet girl, and didn't smile often -- but when she did, her smile sparkled. She wasn't what could be called a popular girl, and didn't have many friends.
For a minute or more, no words passed on the phone before Lori said with a touch of anger in her voice. "Well, I guess it was worth a try. I suppose you don't want to be seen with her, either. No one else does."
"That's not it," Ken said, realizing that he had been wondering what his friends would think if he took Judith to the prom. Just as suddenly, he realized that he was a senior, and it didn't matter much what his friends thought. If he wanted to be nice to someone, then what did what they thought matter? "In fact," he went on, "That's probably the best reason for doing it."
"Do you mean it?" she asked brightly.
"Of course I mean it," he told her. "It's a good idea. I guess I just never thought of it."
"Thanks, Ken," she said. "I really appreciate it. It'll mean an awful lot to her. Now, do me one other big favor."
"Don't tell her I asked you to ask her. She really hates people pitying her because she's crippled."
"That's two favors you owe me," he said. "Now, I've got a friend that would be real happy if he thought you'd go to the prom with him. A lot of people don't know him, but he's a pretty nice guy once you do get to know him."
"Who?" Lori asked, afraid that she already knew, and knowing that Ken had her where she couldn't say no.
"I thought that's who you were going to say. Under the circumstances, I can't say no, I guess. Do I have to ask him, too?"
"I don't think so," Ken said. "Just give him a hint that you might say yes. I'll push him a little."
Ken set the phone down and stared at it for a long time. There was a game show on the television in the living room, but here in the kitchen, it was quiet.
Ken thought back to grade school, to remember Judith before the accident. He didn't remember her that well -- after all, Judith had been a grade ahead of him, then -- and realized that she'd have been a different person if it hadn't been for the accident.
He remembered her brother Phil much better. Phil had been in his grade, and had been killed; Ken remembered the funeral, and how real death had become to him. He'd been -- what? Eight, maybe.
It was a long time before he could overcome the fear of making a fool of himself and pick the phone up again.