Back in the old days, back when it was OK to not wear seat belts and it was OK to stand up in the back of your parents’ old Chevy, Louis met Janice. He met her in Piggly Wiggly, when he was with his daddy and she was with her mama, and they were standing in the aisle where Mr. Barum was cutting some kind of meat. While the parents talked, Louis eyed the girl, who held onto a doll wrapped up in a faded pink blanket. Louis himself was carrying a sling-shot in his back pocket, something he prized, and he hoped Janice saw it. She seemed a little shy, but all of Louis walked up to Janice, even though he tried really hard to leave his shyness behind, and Louis was probably no more than seven years old at the time. Maybe eight. He eyed his daddy, who wasn’t paying much attention to him, and he took in a deep breath.
Janice had big, wide eyes. They looked at him like blue saucers, the kind his grandma served muffins on when it was snowing, hard, outside.
“Hey there,” Louis said. He took out his sling-shot. “How old are you?”
The blue eyes got even bigger. Janice just stared at him, and then she frowned.
“I’m six,” she said, pushing her doll behind her. She gave him more of a frown.
“I’m seven,” Louis said, a little proud. “Just turned seven last month.”
“I like to make mud pies.” Janice was missing a front tooth. “What’s that you got?”
Louis proudly held up his sling-shot.
“I can hit stuff pretty good,” he said. His heart did a little leap, because she giggled.
“Can you hit those cans over there?” She pointed across the aisle to some yams.
Louis knew he wasn’t supposed to use a sling-shot inside, and as luck had it, he didn’t have any rocks with him.
“Sure I can,” he bragged. “But I left my rocks outside. Come outside, and I can show you how good I can hit stuff.”
Both of them eyed their parents. Neither paid much attention to them.
The children turned and went outside Piggly Wiggly. Louis was nervous, because he knew Janice wanted him to hit something with the sling-shot.
It was crazy, really… wanting to show Janice (and at that time, he didn’t know her name) how far he could shoot his weapon. It was what boys did back then.
The two of them walked to one side of the little grocery store. It was nestled in a grove of trees right off Main Street, and Louis could still smell bacon wafting out from the store. His stomach growled. He remembered he hadn’t had lunch.
There was a log, and the two of them sat down.
Janice put her doll on the log next to her, and watched as Louis got out his sling-shot, and picked up a nice rock that fit perfectly into the harness. As if on cue, a cat walked by them.
It was an ugly looking cat, thought Louis. It was skinny and had matted fur, and it made a strange sound when it meowed. To top it off, it was gray and had a very short tail.
Louis didn’t like cats.
But Louis wanted to impress his new friend, so he put the rock into his sling-shot, took a deep breath, and stretched the rubber-part taut, aiming at the cat’s stomach.
He thought he heard his friend gasp.
Louis closed one eye, and kept watching the cat. He could easily hit this cat, he knew he could. But part of him knew it was wrong, and Louis, honestly, had never hurt anything in his life. Well, he liked crunching roly-polys but that was the extent of what he did, as far as killing anything.
Well, he didn’t like flies, if that counted.
The cat decided to stop about six feet in front of Louis.
And it stared at Louis, with big, green cat-eyes. Big, green cat-eyes that looked kind of sad, really.
Louis put the sling-shot down, and let the rock drop.
He heard the girl let out her breath.
Just then, Louis’s dad came outside and told Louis to come on, it was time to go home. With his head down, Louis got up from the log. He felt like crying, and he was embarrassed. He wasn’t sure what he should do. Then the girl’s mama came outside, and that was going to be the end of the day for Louis.
She’d never talk to him again. Ever.
Louis was sure of it.
When Louis was walking one way, and the girl was walking the other way, Louis heard something and there was Janice, running up to him, a big smile on her face.
“Let’s play some time?” Janice mostly stated this to Louis like it was going to happen, not so much as a question of Maybe.
Louis felt his ears get red. They always got red when he was embarrassed.
“Sure,” he said. “Yeah.” He looked up at his dad.
“I like cats,” smiled the girl. “Especially the gray ones.”
It was many years later, but Louis and Janice sat on her front porch, in an old swing. The wind blew, and made the gate squeak. There was a big, old willow tree in her front yard, and next to it, a concrete bird-bath. It wasn’t dusty, just windy. Louis watched the garden plants bob up and down in the wind, and he wondered if the tomato blooms might blow off. Louis wondered these things because he liked to grow vegetables, and he’d hate it if the blooms were ruined because of one crazy storm.
Janice scooted a little closer to him.
Louis watched the yellow peace-roses knock each other around, and some of the blooms came off.
“I hate this wind,” Louis said, more to himself than to Janice. “Let’s go inside so we don’t have to put up with it.”
“Just a little longer.” Janice put her hand on Louis’s knee. “I just want to sit here a little longer.”
Just then, a chicken-hawk appeared out of nowhere. It landed on the fence in front of them. Louis watched it as it peered back and forth, as if looking for something. The hawk seemed intent. Louis was sure it was staring at him.
It was a nice looking bird, really. It made Louis think of hunting, although he never hunted. His dad and brother would hunt, but Louis hated killing things. His dad used to get mad at Louis, especially after the three of them went deer hunting and just as his dad was about to pull the trigger, Louis yelled, “No!”
That changed the course of hunting as Louis knew it. And as his dad knew it, and his brother, as well.
Louis never went hunting again.
He shifted in the porch swing.
He had known Janice a very long time. They were both still pretty young, and they said they were just friends. But Louis wondered if just friends would sit this close together on a swing, with one of the friends’ hands on the other friends’ knee.
Even though Louis was sixteen, he figured he knew what love was. Well, he thought he knew. For instance, why did his hands get sweaty when he saw Janice, and why did a lump form in his throat when he saw her talking to another guy at school? Louis never deciphered it much, but as the days wore on, he found himself thinking about her more and more. He loved her hair, he loved her eyes that still were big, blue saucers, and she smelled nice. He wanted to kiss her. He wanted to kiss her very, very much. Just friends didn’t think like that, did they?
So the two of them sat there, and Louis watched the roses fight each other in the wind. They were strong, the roses. He figured they’d have to be, to withstand the thorns.
“I need to tell you something.” Janice turned to face Louis.
Louis sucked in his breath, and he looked at Janice. She was beautiful. She looked at Louis, and her face was inches from his mouth. He could kiss her. Right now. Right here. With the wind blowing crazy all around them. Maybe she was going to tell him that she wasn’t just friends any more with him. That they were more than friends.
His hands sweated and his heart pounded out of his chest and made his ears hurt. He was going crazy. He was crazy. Life was crazy.
Janice looked at Louis, and gave him a slight smile.
“Remember when we met and you had that sling-shot? Remember how you started to hit the cat?”
Louis nodded. He remembered, and he remembered how ashamed he was for not following through, because he wanted to show her what a good aim he was, and what he was made of.
“Well…,” Janice’s eyes grew larger, then they softened. “If you would have hit the cat, we wouldn’t be friends. It would have been really mean. And I knew you weren’t mean.”
Louis sat a little taller.
“So,” he said, “if I would have hit the cat, we wouldn’t be friends?”
“Nope.” Janice shook her head. “You’re a good friend, Louis. You have a kind heart. Those are the best kinds of friends to have, friends with good hearts.”
Louis sat back in the swing, and his pounding heart slowly subsided. He glanced at Janice, who had stood up and was ready to go inside. The wind whipped her hair all around, making it into a tangly, pretty mess.
Louis was crushed.
But as the two of them went inside, Janice going ahead of Louis, he thought that maybe it wasn’t so bad, this friend-thing.
He looked back at the hawk, still sitting on the fence.
Louis gave the bird a slight nod, because he understood this hunting-thing, after all.
And the roses beat themselves up in the gusty wind, so that some petals were caught up and flying in the air.
And a storm brewed.