Monday, October 31, 2011

A Pumpkin Patch Match

     A hunk of a man with chestnut-brown hair, Calvin Johnson shouted, "Climb board, everyone. We're headed for the pumpkin patch!"
I watched as kids and parents cheered and then scrambled onto the three, horse-drawn hay wagons. "Might as well sit up front with me," Mr. Johnson said, and hoisted me up to the front end of his wagon. I flushed as he settled in next to me and grabbed the horse's reins.
Dressed in jeans, boots, brown-flannel shirt, and a billed cap, he smelled delightfully of spice and woods. And such a strong and handsome man he was. Whoa! I told myself. You're on a field trip with your fourth-grade students, now is not the time..."
"You don't remember me, do you, Ms. Lee?" He flicked the reins. "Get along, Betsy." The horse lifted its head and snorted; the wagon rumbled forward in the warm October afternoon sunshine.
As I looked at Mr. Johnson, his brown eyes locked on mine. "Umm...I'm not sure..." I said.
"My son Rob was in your fourth grade class. You and I met at open house. Later in the year, we met again. In the principal's office."
"Yes, yes...I do remember."
"Been awhile." Calvin flicked the reins again; Betsy picked up her pace. "Rob's mom died that year. The boy was acting out pretty bad. But he's doing fine now."
"I'm so glad."
"In college, a sophomore. Always thought you were the prettiest of Rob's lady teaches."
I flushed again. I didn't know how to respond to this outspoken man. "Thank you," I said, wishing I'd had the courage to say, And you're quite handsome, Mr. Johnson.
"How've you been?" he asked.
"Um...fine. Just fine."
No husband, no children, no ties—except to school. Never married. Sometimes lonely.  But I couldn’t tell him that. In fact, I felt no need to tell anyone. Really, I was doing fine. School and all its related activities—like rounding up parent chaperons and drivers and taking my fourth grade class to the Pumpkin Patch on a Saturday afternoon—kept me plenty busy.
Once the wagons halted, Calvin hopped down, grabbed my hand—this touch was electric—and helped me off. My face flushed again. Get a grip, Rosie!
Calvin said, "Got to cut the pumpkins off the vine for the kids." Then he smiled the warmest, brown-eyed smile I'd ever seen. "See you back at the wagon in awhile."
My best friend Kathy Berg, whose son was in my class, sidled up to me, grinning. "He likes you, Rosie. He threw you onto the hay wagon to make sure you didn't get away.  He's smitten. Go for it, girlfriend."
"Don't be silly. I'm not interested."
"You going to bury yourself with school work the rest of your life?"
When we were all loaded on the wagons and headed back to the farmhouse, kids lovingly cradled their pumpkins in their laps and laughed with delight. I sat next to Mr. Johnson—he'd hoisted me onto the wagon again—but this time I think he'd edged closer to me: His warmth seeped through my jeans and hoodie, and my heart rate spiked.
I said, "It's so nice of you, Mr. Johnson, to give away pumpkins."
"Cal," he said. "Call me Cal. Halloween's been my favorite holiday since I was a kid. Just like to do it—give pumpkins away and hear the kids laugh. It's why I plant them. Is it okay to call you Rose?"
There was that point-blank bluntness again and that same warm, brown-eyed smile. I smiled back. "Rosie. My friends call me Rosie."
"How'd you hear about the Pumpkin Patch, Rosie?"
"Saw your poster on the bulletin board at school."
"First time I've done that, made a poster and put it in school. Having a good time?"
"Marvelous. I like to hear kids laugh, too. Most of them have never been on a farm."
"Five hundred acres of the best land in the county. Got a boyfriend?"
I blinked. More bluntness. Before I could decide if I wanted to answer or not, someone from the back of the wagon screamed, "OH NO!" Cal called, "Whoa, Betsy!" and the wagon crunched to a stop. Cal and I leaped to the ground and found that a little girl had dropped her pumpkin. It lay splattered in the dirt. Cal promised to take the tearful girl to fetch another one as soon as he dropped everyone else off at the farmhouse.
Back on the wagon again—another hoist from Cal into my seat—we looked at each other and our eyes locked for a second time. I gulped and decided to offer my own bit of bluntness: "No boyfriend, Cal."
He grinned.  "What I wanted to hear. Neighbor's got a haunted house down the road a piece. Pick you up at eight tonight?"
While my heart hammered and while I decided Halloween was fast becoming my favorite holiday, too, I said, "Eight would be just fine."

The End
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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Soccer Mom, Soccer Dad

When Sara's ten-year-old son, at the last second, kicked the soccer ball past the diving goalie into the net, she screamed, "Tom! We won! I can't believe it! Mike scored!"
I threw my fists above my head in triumph, my face glowing.
The Tornadoes had won 1-0 in the semi-finals of the city's summer tournament. Sara's ten-year-old son, Mike, scored on a perfect pass from my ten-year-old son, Rob.
That was excitement enough, but what happened next nearly sidelined me. Instead of a the usual exchange of a high-five, Sara hugged me and...well, I hugged her back. Nothing inappropriate. Just a brief but firm hug, arms wrapped around each other, squeezing, a hug that left me with the definite impression of feminine curves and a sweet floral scent in my nostrils that I had forgotten existed.
"What a beautiful pass from Rob," Sara declared, as we released each other, her face flushed from the excitement of victory.
I felt flushed, too. From the game. And the hug.
Our team ran off the field toward us, a herd of sweaty boys giggly over their victory and at the prospect of playing for the championship on this sunny October afternoon.
Parents, siblings, team members—we slapped high-fives all around.  Then Rob said, "Dad, weren't we supposed to bring pop for this game."
Man, in all the excitement, I'd forgotten. "It's iced in a cooler in the Suburban. I'll get it."
"I'll help," Sara said.
We tramped along to my SUV in the parking lot.
I'd met Sara this spring when I took Rob to his first soccer practice. I'd played football in high school. Sara had played soccer all through school, including college. Last spring, as we sat on the sidelines, watching weekly practices and games, she explained the sport's finer points to me. "You should be a coach," I told her.
"No ten-year-old boy wants his mom for a coach."
With that I agreed.
Sara sold real estate, and I was a self-employed electrician. Eventually I learned she was a widow. Her husband had died at age thirty-five of a heart attack, two years ago. I told Sara that was somewhat of a coincidence because my wife two years ago, at age thirty-five, decided she could no longer keep the commitment it took to be a wife and mother. She deserted Rob and me. I nearly died of a heart attack myself.
In the parking lot now, I opened the cargo doors to my Suburban, reached in and grabbed a handle on the sixty-quart Coleman cooler.
"Let me get the other handle," Sara said.
"You sure? It's heavy."
She smiled. "Tom, that's why I'm helping."
I really liked Sara. Dark-haired, blue-eyed, she possessed an engaging liveliness and spontaneity that intrigued me. I'd always been a deliberate kind of guy, trying to look at a situation from all angles, before acting.
I realized I should have asked Sara for a date last fall, but the fear of rejection and the memory of my ex-wife, Gloria, walking out on Rob and me, still nagged me. I suppose you could say I was a bit fearful of women. So the fall soccer season ended without my making a move. I didn't see Sara again until this spring when we resumed our friendship. A soccer mom. A soccer dad.
"I can't believe how fast these kids have progressed," Sara said now, as we lugged the cooler across the soccer complex to where our team sat in a big circle in the grass, their coach standing in the center—waving his arms frantically, congratulating them.
"I know," I said. "Cellar-dwellers in the spring. Third place in the league this fall, and now they have a shot at the city-tournament title. Unbelievable. They're so pumped, I know they'll win."
"I hope."
Sara and I plunked the cooler down in the grass. I flipped the lid open. Coach gave a nod and the kids rushed toward their reward. Ice-cold pop. Later, the coach wanted the team to rest under shade trees until the title game.
Sara and I drifted off toward the concession stand.
Near the stand, I said, "Hot dog, fries, and a drink before the next game?"
"Sounds good. My treat."
"Mine," I said.
She draped an arm around shoulder and pointed me toward the picnic tables in the shade under the pavilion. "Mine. Please? You can buy next time."
I shrugged. "All right." So I sat at a table and watched her as she waited in line. She was dressed in a Dad's Club yellow soccer T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, just like me. Except she was shapely, and her long black hair fell far down her back. I couldn't take my eyes off her.
When she arrived with our food and sat across from me at the picnic table, I asked, "How long have we known each other?"
"Twelve weeks exactly. Six weeks this spring. Six weeks last fall. Two soccer seasons. I'm glad you returned this spring—I know soccer's not your game."
"Never understood a game where you chase a ball around but you can't pick it up and run with it—you only kick it or bounce it off your head." Then my heart started to hammer because my next thought slipped out off my mouth without my thinking about it first—not my usual style: "How's your life going?"
Sara took a bite of hot dog. Chewed slowly. Looked at me curiously. "Fine," she said. "Mike's adjusted to life without a dad. The real estate market is picking up a bit. How's your life?"
"So-so. Rob's adjusted to life without a mom. I have lots of work..."
"Just so-so?"
I nodded.
"Are you asking me for a date?"
I blinked. I knew my face was turning red. I rocked back a little. Then smiled. That was Sara—straight to the point. I cleared my throat. "I am."
"I wondered if you'd let another season go by."
I felt sheepish. "I've been chasing away a few demons."
"I understand."
Exhaling, I said, "Um...look...the team's going to Chucky Cheese's after the game for pizza—how's that for a first date? I promise I'll do better next time."
Sara's smile was warm. Soft. She reached across the picnic table and gripped my hands. "Perfect."
While eating we laughed and joked. We dumped our trash. As we ambled toward the soccer field, our shoulders bumping, I decided soccer wasn't such a bad game after all. I knew that whether the boys won or lost their championship game, the next hug was mine to give Sara. A very, very big hug, indeed.
The End
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