Emend by Eclipse
Chapter 25

Copyright© 2020 by Lazlo Zalezac

February 14, 1976

Valentine’s Day is the one day of the year in which couples in love are expected to demonstrate their attraction in some romantic manner. For many, the demonstration should be in a public forum where others can see the expression of romantic love, at least as much demonstration of it which can be performed in public. Flowers, chocolates, and dinner out are classics only because so many lovers choose to do it that way. Or course, that inflates the price of it all. Earnest boyfriends spend four times as much for roses as normal, pay an exorbitant amount for cheap chocolates in a heart shaped cardboard box, and pay through the nose for a lousy meal in a crowded restaurant filled with other couples desperately pretending it is romantic.

As unpleasant and unnatural as a commercial Valentine’s Day celebration might be, there are some lovers who would give everything they own to participate in one. In 1976, a couple of young women staring at each other across a restaurant table with love in their eyes could end up seriously hurt. Society was not willing to accept such things lightly.

This year, Valentine’s day fell on a Saturday. The high school was holding a big dance in the gymnasium. Somehow, the social significance of this dance grew way out of proportion. It had become the must do thing at the school. Even Benny and Tim could not escape the social demand that they attend with their dates. And the source of that demand came from the most unlikely person, Mrs. Lancaster.

Benny arrived at the home of Mrs. Gladys Parker dressed in a brand new suit. His suggestion - made partly in jest - that he could wear his orange tuxedo to the dance, didn’t go over that well. In fact, it resulted in a shopping expedition led by his mother that lasted several hours. He was not the only victim of a shopping extravaganza. Sharing the misery with him, Tim had been accompanied by his mother. They came out of it with new suits and new dress shoes. Now he was wearing his new duds to pick up his date.

He knocked on the front door while holding a bouquet of flowers in front of his chest and a heart-shaped box of chocolates under his arm. It was Valentine’s day and the forms had to be observed. He had not gone so far as to purchase roses, though. He went with the much cheaper bouquet of daisies.

The way the wind was blowing it was a miracle that the flowers were still in one piece. Gladys opened the door and smiled at him. It had been years since a young gentleman caller had knocked on her door seeking to escort a young woman under her care to a major social occasion like a school dance. She remembered those days when her daughter would wait anxiously for some young man to make his appearance and how nervous the young man would act in the presence of her husband.

“My don’t you look handsome!”

Benny looked puzzled. His nose was swollen and bandaged. He had an impressive pair of black eyes. There was no definition of the word handsome that fit his appearance. He guessed she had to be talking about his suit. “My mother picked this out.”

Gladys laughed. Young men always were nervous picking up their dates for special occasions like this school dance. That was true even if they had been dating for a while.

“Come in, Benny. She’ll be ready in a minute.”

“I can wait in the car,” Benny said gesturing to the automobile parked at the curb. Rather than the van, he was driving his father’s sedan. His mother and father, although it was more his mother, thought his van was not appropriate for a formal date.

“Don’t be silly, Benny. Get in here and greet your date for the evening.”

Benny entered the house. He didn’t understand what was so important about tonight that had everyone so interested in his date. Cathy had been his fake girlfriend since December of 1974, so they’d been supposedly dating for more than a year. Now all of a sudden his mother is taking him shopping for a suit, Mrs. Lancaster is insisting that he bring Cathy to the dance, and Mrs. Parker was flitting around like she expected him to propose to Cathy.

He held out the flowers and chocolates. “What am I supposed to do with these?”

Across town, Tim parked the bright red 1940 Ford Truck in front of Sandra’s house. Carrying a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates he walked up to the front door. A gust of wind, coming in at leisurely 26 mph, nearly blew the roses out of his hand. Her father opened the door before Tim reached the porch.

“Hello, Tim. Sandra isn’t ready yet. Come on in.”

“Thank you, Mr. Miller.”

Mr. Miller put a hand on Tim’s shoulder and directed him into the living room. Tim was soon sitting on a sofa, still holding the roses and box of chocolates, waiting for Sandra to make an appearance. Mrs. Miller was standing next to her husband with a large smile on her face. They were just standing there looking at him.

“Nasty weather out there, isn’t it.”

“It was really overcast earlier. I was afraid it was going to rain on your big date.”

“I washed the truck this morning and then it drizzled all afternoon. Now the truck has got water spots all over it.”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s too dark to tell.”

“That truck tends to attract a lot of attention. People can’t resist coming up to it and checking it out.”

“It is a nice antique. You did a great job restoring it.”

Sandra came out of her room looking very pretty. She was wearing a formal gown and her hair had been styled. Tim looked at her hair, thought about the wind, and knew it wouldn’t last to the truck.

“Wow, you look beautiful,” Tim said.

“Thank you. You look in good in the suit.”

“I brought you some flowers and chocolates.”

“The flowers are lovely. I’m going to enjoy the box of chocolate.”

Her mother came over and said, “I’ll put them in some water for you.”

Her father said, “Come on you two. I want to take your picture over here. Stand together.”

Tim and Sandra stood in front of the television while her father picked up his new Polaroid Land camera. They adopted several poses while her father snapped off a couple of pictures. He set the film emerging from the front of the camera off to the side to develop while taking the next picture. Her mother stood off to the side making cheerful comments about the lovely couple.

It seemed like forever passed before they were able to make their escape to the truck. Tim held the truck door open for her and then closed it once she was inside. He turned and waved to her parents who were standing at the door of the house. He got in the truck and started it.

“I’m sorry.”

“Let’s get out of here,” Sandra said. “They’re watching us.”

Tim drove off. After driving for a couple of blocks, he pulled the truck over to the side of the street and parked it.

“I’m really sorry. I know you would rather be with Cathy.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“Maybe we can sneak off after putting in an appearance. We’ll go by the office so that you and Cathy can have a Valentine’s Day date of sorts.”

“We can’t sneak off.”

“Why not?”

“They’re announcing the recipient of the Haley Scholarship.”

“What’s the big deal? They hand the scholarship to some lucky person and that’s that.”

“They’re making it a big deal. They want you to hand the scholarship over to the person. Your mother and father are going to be there. You’ve got to be there.”

“Benny, too?”

“Benny, too.”

“Benny’s not going to like that. He doesn’t like people things and crowds.”

“People are going to expect to see him doing date things with Cathy. He’s going to have to really play the role of attentive boyfriend. It is Valentine’s day.”

“Benny doesn’t dance,” Tim said.

“Cathy will dance with you for one or two songs.”

“She’ll cry the whole time, because she’s not dancing with you.”

Sandra sighed softly. “I feel sorry for both of them. They’re going to be miserable tonight.”

“What about you?”

“I’m sad, but okay. We’re more of a couple than they are. We actually have feelings for each other.”

While Tim and Sandra were sitting by the side of the road talking, Benny was still waiting for the appearance of Cathy. She came out of her room with her long hair tied back and wearing makeup. She wore a long red gown that hugged her figure showing it off to its best advantage. It made her look very sexy.

“You look nice, Cathy.”

“Thank you, Benny. You look good tonight, too.”

“Why does everyone say I look good tonight? I’ve got bandages covering a broken nose and bruises that look like the mask of a raccoon.”

“They’re being polite. They’re remarking on your clothes rather than your face,” Mrs. Parker said gently.

“Why? I don’t care.”

Mrs. Parker said, “Oh, Benny. You just can’t help being yourself.”

“I’m me. Who else should I be?”

“You’re exactly who you are supposed to be,” Cathy said gently.

Gladys held up a Brownie Fiesta camera. “Get over there together. I want to take a picture.”

Cathy and Benny stood posed like young couples have posed for the camera before significant dates for decades. After a half dozen poses, Gladys was satisfied and released them to leave for the dance. Cathy and Benny were quick to make their escape. Benny didn’t quite spin his tires leaving, but he didn’t waste any time. He pulled over to the side of the road after driving for a couple of blocks.

“Cathy, I’m sorry that you’re not able to spend Valentine’s Day with your lover.”

“It’s not your fault, Benny. It’s the world we live in.”

“If Tim and I are successful in what we are trying to do, one day a young couple like you and Sandra will be able to go to a dance in public as dates. Until then, I guess you’re stuck with me and Tim.”

“I wouldn’t say we’re stuck. I’d say we’re partners in this.”

“I guess we should get to the school.”

“Benny, there’s something you don’t know.”

“What?”

“They’re giving out the Haley scholarship tonight at the dance. They want you and Tim to be there as part of the ceremony.”

Benny moaned. He hated being the center of attention in public like that. He knew that he’d have to talk nice for an hour or more. He was wondering if there was any way to get out of attending the dance at this late date.

“Will the torture never end?”

“I don’t know.”

“I guess we better get there.”

It was a horrible night for a high school dress up dance. The wind was blowing at 16 mph with gusts up to 23 mph. The coiffures which the young women had spent so much time on were easily destroyed by the wind. Dozens of couples made the long trek from the parking lot only to arrive at the front door of the school looking like a mess. Young women ran crying to the bathrooms hoping that they could undo the damage.

Tim and Benny both looked at the weather and figured that they’d drop the girls off at the front door of the school so that they wouldn’t be exposed to the wind for too long. The two young men met up at the school parking lot and walked to the building side by side. Despite the wind, neither was in a hurry to reach the building.

“I have bad news for you. We’re going to be the center of attention tonight,” Tim said.

“I know. Cathy told me on our way over here that they are making a big thing out of awarding the scholarship.”

“Will you be okay?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Not really.”

“I know the scholarship was my idea, but I didn’t think it would turn into something public like this.”

“To be honest, I don’t think a Valentine’s Day dance is the place to announce it. It’s more of a prom kind of thing.”

“I don’t think so. I’d say it is more appropriate for something like a school assembly. Dances are for entertainment, not serious news.”

They entered the building to be met by Cathy and Sandra. They paired off as usual. Mrs. Lancaster approached the four of them. Tim leaned over and whispered, “Even after forty years, she’s still a commanding presence.”

Mrs. Lancaster didn’t greet them with hellos. Instead, she said, “Come with me.”

The two couples followed her to the coach’s office which was near the gymnasium where the dance was being held. They could hear the music through the wall that separated the room from the gymnasium.

“I understand that I have you two to thank for my current position.”

“We thought you’d appreciate the boost to your pension,” Tim said with a grin.

“Thank you, I do. Although to tell the truth, I don’t really need the money.”

“We know.”

“So what can we do for you?”

“You two are a puzzle. Benny you are the most brilliant person I’ve ever met, yet you have all of the personality of a gold fish.”

“I’d agree with that,” Benny said without rancor.

Cathy said, “Benny’s a nice guy.”

“Tim is personality personified. Everyone likes Tim. The only person in the world who should be immune to his charm is Benny. Yet, you became the closest friends.”

Shrugging his shoulders, Benny said, “What can I say? Everyone likes Tim.”

Shocking Cathy and Sandra, Mrs. Lancaster laughed. “Ah, Benny. You are amazing. No wonder I love you like the son I never had.”

“I’m sure you could have done better,” Benny said.

“I don’t know if anyone has warned you, but we’re announcing the recipient of the Haley Scholarship during the band’s break. The school board want to give you both, as owners of Two Guys Working, credit for establishing the scholarship.”

“Whose idea was it?”

“Al Forbes.”

Tim said, “He meant well.”

“He doesn’t know Benny like we do. So I’ve made this room available for you to hide out in when it all gets too much for you, Benny.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Lancaster.”

“You’re welcome, Benny. For now, you four better make an appearance.”

For thirty minutes, Tim and Sandra danced while Benny and Cathy sat at a table drinking the punch. Cathy watched Sandra dance wishing she could be out there on the dance floor with her instead of Tim.

“Benny, Mrs. Lancaster seemed pretty friendly with you. What was that all about?”

“Tim and I tend to spend a lot of time in the library. Mrs. Lancaster used to spend her free period there reading. You know Tim, he could charm the patina off a rock. She came over to where we were seated and started a conversation. She asks us if we are supposed to be in class. I answered that we were. She told us to get back to class. I told her ‘no.’ I don’t think a student had told her ‘no’ for three decades, because she couldn’t believe it.”

Cathy laughed. “I can’t imagine anyone saying ‘no’ to her.”

“I did. Then Tim did. So we started talking to her during her free periods. She’s the most dedicated teacher here. She really cares about the students. She has that stern exterior and obvious aura of self discipline. She hopes to inspire others by serving as an example of what one can accomplish when one is self-disciplined and focused.

“She knows that Tim and I were not, and will never be, her students. Tim, he’s stuck in that ridiculous special ed program. Me, I’m me.”

“You don’t need to say more.”

“So we talk. Shortly after Haley died, she told us that she was considering retiring. She couldn’t stand by and see Atkinson destroy the self esteem of her students. That’s when Tim and I decided he had to go. He’s gone now and the right person is principal.”

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