Lu Ella has lived next to us for six months, and I wish I knew how to get shook of her. I don't dislike her. It's just that she can't do anything. If we play street ball, she can't hit the ball, let alone catch it. When she tries to throw it, she gets her arm back of her head, and that ball is liable to go anywhere. I've tried kidding her about her name, told her she spelled it funny, but she said no, that's the way her daddy named her. On top of everything else, she's from the South. I've tried to tell her to say dad instead of daddy and to ease off on words like "you all" and on putting "little old" in front of everything so the kids in class won't laugh too much at her.
Mom tells me not too worry about Lu Ella, that she has a nice soft voice, and when she grows into those big blue eyes, she's going to be a very pretty girl. When I think pretty, I think about Mom. I sure don't think of someone as scrawny as Lu Ella. But that's Mom. She feeds stray cats and feels bad when she reads about people on relief.
One day Dan Jackson and I were working on our racer for the soapbox derby, and we were having a technical talk about whether to make the wheels in front smaller so the racer would run faster. We heard Lu Ella's bike behind us in the driveway. You could always tell it was hers. She didn't know how to use an oilcan.
"Guess that's your li'l, old soapbox racer."
"Yeah, that's it. What do you think, Dan?"
"I don't know, Jim. Maybe the little wheels would hold back the big wheels, make them go slower."
"Kin I help?"
I wanted to tell her to get lost, but Mom was in the backyard hanging up the wash, and she'd be sure to ask me why Lu Ella left so soon, especially if she left with that hang dog look of hers.
"Well, there is something we need from the hardware store."
"Tell me. I'll be glad to go get it."
"We're going to need a quart of striped paint."
"Colors? Uh, brown and green."
"Those are terrible colors, Jimmy. They won't go together at all."
Dan had turned his head, coughing from trying to choke off his laughing.
"You alright, Danny?"
"He's O.K. Look, these are our official colors. Do you want to help or not? And don't call me Jimmy."
"I"ll need some money."
"Just charge it to my old man. He keeps an account there."
She left then, and Dan was able to hold it in until she was out of sight.
"Boy!", he gasped when he finished chortling. "Is she ever dumb."
"Don't talk so loud," I warned him. "Mom will get on me if she knows what we're doing."
"Do you think old man Benson will tell her?"
"Nah. He likes a good joke. He'll tell her he's fresh out and send her to the paint store. She'll be gone the rest of the afternoon."
We finally agreed to keep the wheels the way they were, all the same size, and got to work stretching the canvas over the hood. I sure wasn't expecting Lu Ella's screechy bike back so soon.
"He didn't have any striped paint, but here's a can of brown and a can of green. Mr. Benson said you could paint your own stripes."
That was something else I didn't expect. Cripes, I had to think fast. Those two cans would be on my dad's bill and he went over his bills real close every month.
"You're going to have to take them back, Lu Ella. I should have told you."
"Told me what, Jim?"
"We're going to be racing against the top guys from other races. Those stripes have to be sharp and straight, like you see on a bill board. You think they paint billboards from separate paint cans?"
"Gosh, no. Danny, you must be coming down with something fierce, the way you're coughing."
"My name's Dan," he sputtered.
She chewed on her thumb.
"I could go to the paint store. They might have striped paint."
"No, my dad doesn't have an account there. You just take these back, Lu Ella. I'll work it out. Best hurry before the store closes."
We worked steady the rest of the afternoon, then pushed the racer over to Dan's house so we wouldn't be bothered any more by Lu Ella. The next weekend was the race, and we were busy right up to starting time.
A couple of weeks later, after we'd been in the race and lost, my dad called me into the den he used for an office.
"What do you know about this ticket from Benson's Hardware?"
There was no use pretending. There was her signature, "Jimmy by Lu Ella." I explained to him what had happened and that it was a joke, but he didn't think it was very funny.
"You get it off the bill, or it comes out of your allowance."
Cripes, I thought, that could take a month. The next morning, I talked to Lu Ella at recess.
"Didn't you take those two cans of paint back to Benson?"
"I surely did."
"Who did you give them to?"
"No one. I left them on the counter."
"Lu Ella! Now, I'm going to have to pay for them."
She looked at me, her eyes filled with sadness.
"I'm awfully sorry, Jimmy. You know you're the last person in the whole, wide world that I'd want to do a meanness to. `Specially after you losing the race."
"Yeah, O.K. Look," I lowered my voice, "it's bad enough when you call me Jimmy at home. You'll have everyone in school calling me that."
I collared Dan after school, and we both rode our bikes to the hardware store and told Mr. Benson what had happened. He listened, frowning.
"You think I got time for these kid stunts? Your old man's doing the right thing. It'll teach you a lesson."
"But you told me how, when you were in the Navy, you sent a boot all over the ship looking for striped paint."
"That was then, when Uncle Sam was feeding me." He looked at me steadily. "These are tough times. I can't give anything away. How do I know she brought them back?"
"Well, do you sell much of those colors?"
"Since she wasn't very particular, I did get rid of one shade of green that I must have had on the shelf for three years."
"Do you think one of your clerks might have found it on the counter and put it back? I guess you'd recognize it."
He grunted and walked down his paint shelves.
"Yeah, it's here. They'll probably paint my coffin with it."
He returned to the counter.
"O.K. I'll take her word that the brown is here too. Tell your old man that I'll send him a credit."
"Gee, thanks, Mr. Benson."
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself, sending a nice young girl like her on a fool's errand. Maybe, sorry too. She's going to be a mighty pretty young lady, someday."
Both Dan and I were coughing and choking when we got outside.
"Boy! Old man Benson better get his glasses checked."
"Yeah! Can you imagine dumb, scrawny Lu Ella ever getting pretty ?"
It's been six years since I wrote that, and I can't believe how much Lu Ella has changed. Maybe, it's because her father is a schoolteacher, but she's real smart when it comes to math, English, history, you name it. I'm not sure if I'd have got out of Junior High without her help on homework. Of course, she's still not much at baseball, but what girl is ? Also, she's dropped most of the southern talk that makes people laugh. She's kept "you all", though. She says that if she talks to me, you is fine, but if she's talking to a group, why shouldn't she say "you all" if she's talking to all of them? I guess that makes sense.
Of course, the biggest change is the way she looks. I still don't see how Mom and old man Benson knew how pretty she'd be. It's not that she uses a lot of makeup, like some of the girls, and she's prettier than any of them. The guys think she's standoffish, but that's because she spends most of her free time in the library or study hall. She doesn't hang around me like she used to, either, although she does ride to high school with me in my model A. I worked summer vacation, and Dad matched what I earned, so that gave me the hundred dollars I needed to buy it.
Now that I think about it, a big part of the thrill of owning it came from showing it to Lu Ella, and I still get a boot from driving into the school parking lot and seeing all the guys stare when I open the door for her. I have to be careful how I talk to her, though. One morning, I mentioned to her that, if it wasn't for me, she'd have to ride her bike to school. That afternoon, she wasn't waiting in the parking lot and, when I got home, I saw her getting out of a new Plymouth and watched the head of the Honor Society open the door for her. I asked her later if she didn't want to ride with me any more.
"I do, if you do. I thought I was a bother for you."
"You're no bother, Lu Ella."
Another thing about her is that she gets real worried about what's happening in far-off places. Last summer, it was the fall of France. This last summer and fall, it's been the invasion of Russia. Now she's worked up about the Japs in China and our cutting them off from our scrap iron.
"Don't you ever read the paper?" she asked.
"Sure, I do."
"Yes. The sports and the funnies."
"Why should I get worked up about a bunch of foreigners? My dad says that they've been fighting wars in Europe for centuries, and we built this country to get away from all that."
"Did you know that the Nazis almost took Moscow? Daddy says they would have, `cept for the winter."
I let her talk. We were in the running for the city championship, in workouts every day. Between football and keeping up my grades so that I could play, I didn't have time for all this reading and worrying she was doing about the war.
I guess that's why last Sunday was such a bolt out of the blue. All the neighbors were out on their front lawns talking about the Japs' attack on Pearl Harbor. Dan came running over, saying he had found out that he could enlist in the Navy at 17. Mom looked alarmed. I looked around for Lu Ella, but she was running into her house. None of the women were exactly thrilled.
The next morning, when she got in the car, she hunched forward as I drove and stared at the street ahead.
"What's the matter?"
"I knew we had to get in it, but now that we are, I'm scared."
"Come on. You don't really think the Japs would dare invade the U.S.? You're in no danger."
She turned and looked at me, her eyes almost feverish.
"No, but you and Dan are. All the boys in our class, all the boys your age and even younger."
"Maybe Dan, but not me. I'm going to graduate before I go in. By then, the war will be over. I give the Japs six months."
"Oh, Jim, can't you see? We're in the middle of the biggest war in history! Daddy says that, when we declare war on Japan, Germany will declare war on us. We'll have to fight them both and, so far, our side is losing."
I had never seen her so strained and tense. I put my hand on her shoulder.
"Well, settle back and relax. There's nothing we can do but go to school, at least until graduation."
Instead of settling back, she leaned against me, resting her head on my shoulder. My arm moved naturally around her, and I felt her softness, caught the scent of her, saw the smoothness of her throat and the beginning mounds of her breasts in the open vee of her blouse. I jerked hard on the wheel to keep from hitting a parked car.
"Uncle Bill told Daddy that they're trying to keep it quiet, but we lost most of the fleet."
Her voice was so sad and filled with grief that I tried to think of something light to say.
"Well, let's say you're right and I have to go off to war for a year like your dad did. Maybe, I get shot in the leg and come back with a stiff knee. I get a medal and limp in the Armistice Day parade once a year."
I felt her stiffen.
"You could lose a leg like Dan's father."
"Well, then you could push me in a wheelchair and get in the parade yourself."
It was the wrong thing to say. She sat bolt upright and reached for the door handle.
"Pull over to the curb."
"I'm going to walk to school."
I stopped the car and put my hand over hers.
"I'm sorry Lu Ella. I was just making fun."
Her eyes were sparkling with tears.
"Yes. But war is killing and getting killed. It's not football games and sending me for striped paint!"
"You knew all along!"
"Me? What would a dumb, scrawny girl know about painting a soapbox racer?"
"I never called you that."
"Oh, no?" She was really angry. There was a dangerous glint in her eye. I guess right then was when I fell in love with her. I realized how much she meant to me, how bleak my life would be without her in it.
"If I did, I've had plenty of proof since of how smart you are. And I sure don't think of you as scrawny."
"How do you think of me?"
"Well--I guess--kind of like my dad felt when he met my mom." That was a dumb thing to say after knowing Lu Ella six years. I stumbled on. "I guess I want you to be my girl."
Her eyes, still sparkling, softened.
"Oh, Jimmy, I've been your girl since the first day I laid eyes on you."
"Oh, Jimmy, I've been your girl since the first day I laid eyes on you."