I glanced at Jackie’s kitchen clock shaped like a frying pan. Twenty minutes till I had to exit the warmth—literal and figurative—for my unheated house. I wanted to soak up every second.
Jackie’s Uncle Louie Kistner, only a few years older than we were, shuffled the cards for another hand of Spoons.
Her mom, Dee, eyed Jackie. “You know my rule. You can’t date anyone I don’t know. That means Homecoming, too.”
Jackie clunked down her iced tea glass. “Mom, it’s ridiculous for me to only go out with guys you know from waiting tables at Sambo’s or Dar’s [Jackie’s older sister] friends.”
That explained Jackie’s quirky boyfriends—the one who came up to Jackie’s eyebrows, the one who never smiled, the one who never spoke—this one lasted the longest because Jackie didn’t mind doing all the talking—the one who walked like a Christmas soldier.
Her mother’s penciled brows arched almost into the large pink rollers in her hair. “And what kind of name is Harm Bosma?”
Jackie edged the spoons into a perfect line. “He’s not a nut case. I met him in junior government class—not some bar.”
I snickered because, at sixteen, the only bar Jackie had ever been in was The Breakers where her mom used to work.
Jackie kept stacking her arguments in a mini Jenga tower. “He wants be a cop, for Pete’s sake. He already said he’d be happy to meet you. We’ll come straight home after the dance. Besides, Ann and Joey Hutchison are double-dating with us.”
Jackie’s ten-year-old sister, Cindy, slapped the table. “What? Why did I not know this?”
I looked up from running my finger through the condensation on my glass to Cindy. “Don’t get excited. We’re going as friends.”
The police scanner on top of the fridge blurted static and something about a speed trap on A1A.
I glanced at Dee. “I won’t let Jackie out of my sight.” I didn’t think it would help our case to mention that last weekend’s approved date knocked Jackie over in the front seat at the drive-in and stuck his tongue in her ear. I’d banged on the window and Jackie scrambled out of the car—a little shaken, but with her virtue intact.
The CB crackled with bits of trucker conversation on I-95 while we concentrated on the game.
Dee pounced on the first spoon and her frosted pink lips arced into a grin.
Bedlam broke out as hands grabbed for the rest of the spoons.
I lunged for the last one as it clinked on the colorless linoleum Jackie swept, mopped, and waxed every Saturday.
Cindy’s twin, Sandy, ended up spoon-less. She huffed that it wasn’t fair.
Dee peered at Jackie. “Okay, you can go to Homecoming. I just hope I don’t regret this later. You make him come by on Thursday night.”
Jackie jumped up and hugged her mother. “Thanks, Mom.”
We didn’t have these kinds of conversations at my house. Sometimes I could have used a little over-protection.
I downed the last sip of my sweet tea and stood. “I have to be home by seven.” I already felt sad and I hadn’t left the room.
Jackie smirked at me. “I bet you’re going to eat a second dinner with your family.”
We’d eaten tuna casserole with potato chips crumbled on top two hours earlier. It tasted like heaven.
I inhaled the lingering scent of cream of mushroom soup and noodles, then wrinkled my nose. “Yeah, it’ll probably be something good like liver and onions.”
“Gross,” one of the twins said.
Louie stretched and deposited his glass in the sink. “I gotta shove off.”
I said my good-byes and followed Louie through the living room, past the huge paint-by-number nudes Jackie’s stepfather favored.
Jackie and her sisters hated the art. But I loved it all. The parade of people playing spoons. Her mom’s claustrophobia that made her take baths by candlelight with the bathroom door flung open. My own CB handle, Featherhead, even though I was too shy to talk on the radio.
Without looking over my shoulder my mind could see Dee, Jackie, Cindy, and Sandy sitting in the glow of the kitchen light fixture. Tuna casseroles and tea and time added up to my feeling tucked into their family.
Louie’s tail lights motored down Milford and I threw one last look at the red brick house that captured the elusive ingredient I’d never tasted: home.
I pedaled toward Faulkner Street, thinking about how Jackie spent her Saturdays cleaning all five rooms—trying to make up for the fact that her family lived in the projects.
My family loved each other, but our love wore sharp edges, taut wires, and crescendos. We lived in an ill-kept “mansion—” my classmate, Ellen Russell surprised me by calling it—populated by a noisy stepdad, piles of clutter, and a profusion of pets. I would have cleaned like Jackie if I’d shared her hope that the visible could change the invisible.
Jackie’s mom waitressed. My mom worked at the hospital as an R.N.
Her stepdad drove a semi cross-country. My dad held a degree in business. My stepfather owned Behrens’ Book Store on Canal Street where A Gift for No Reason is today.
Jackie’s family sported one more stepparent than mine and a mix of full and half-sisters.
Her family attended Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. My family went to mass fifty-two weeks a year.
But Jackie’s family knew how to make home feel like someplace you wanted to go.
Jackie rubbed off on me in other ways, too.
One goal ran down her back, firm as a girder beneath the Flagler Street Bridge—to work her way out of the projects. She wouldn’t drink or do drugs because her real dad drank. She wore dresses to school. She cared about grades. She clung to virginity like most girls would fist a handful of diamonds.
After my failures in Stuart, I’d learned to listen to my friends who had the gumption to make good choices.
Tomorrow Jackie and I would rehash all things Harm Bosma, tonight’s victory, and what we’d wear to the dance. Our words would race and climb over each other to dive into every molecule of quiet airspace. Even our letters during brief separations sprinted past ten pages.
From the vantage point of adulthood I see how God super-glued us together. He knew I needed Jackie’s focus in my untethered life.
Jackie says I was a cool girl and she was thrilled I chose her for a friend. But all I can see is how she filled my life with laughter. Her resolve kept me from sampling the keg at parties and making inebriated decisions I would have regretted the rest of my life. She gave me home for the first time in my life.
In New Smyrna Beach, God slipped me into His pocket—one that might have raised the eyebrows of some churchy folks—the Hendricks-Stegall-Herold house on Milford Place. The family where He kept me safe. Where I belonged.
[Note: Jackie has spent her career in Volusia County Schools as a principal’s secretary. She also served as research assistant and proofreader for all my New Smyrna Beach Novels.]