“Smivey Stepward in Love and Other Misery” – Chapter Three
“Smivey Stepward, would you go to the board, please, and do problem number seven for the class?” The only thing Smivey hates worse than going to the board to figure out a math problem in front of everybody is singing in choir class. Smivey thinks Mrs. Inkley loves causing students to squirm. Making each student go to the board to work out a problem from the assignment is her favorite way of inflicting pain. “No wonder so many kids are absent first hour,” Smivey mumbled to himself as he walked to the front.
Math is not a difficult subject for Smivey. He’s one of the top students in the class, but no one will ever know it. Mrs. Inkley believes it is wrong for students to be made aware of the grades given to the rest of the class.
He returned to his seat after working the problem flawlessly. “Nice work, Smivey. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, your most royal highness, goddess of pain” he thought without saying a word.
The only good part about Math class is Elizabeth Musker, his only love since first grade. He was in the same class as Elizabeth in first, third and fourth grades. Now he only sees her in Math class and Home Studies, which is where you learn how to cook stuff for when you get older and have to live by yourself. Smivey heard from other kids they will eventually learn how to sew and iron clothes. It seems like such a waste. His mother cooks everything so why does he have to know how to do it?
Even though Smivey has been in the same class as Elizabeth Musker several times, he has never spoken to her. He has never been brave enough to speak her name loud enough that she could hear it. The only time he ever says her name out loud is when he’s alone. Alone with the thoughts of her beautiful long brown hair, her sparkling eyes, her perfect nose, her lips…he can’t even think about her lips, and her cheeks with just a few freckles sprinkled here and there, not too many, just enough. Nothing like the smear of freckles on his own face that to him looks like he was too close to an exploding can of red paint.
Elizabeth spoke to Smivey one time. It was in the fourth grade. He was so embarrassed by what she said he nearly died on the spot. “Smivey, your zipper is down.” The words still ring in his ears three years later. He had just returned to class after using the bathroom and she was the first one to see he forgot to zip his pants.
Smivey writes poems and letters to Elizabeth, thoughts of his abiding love for her that she will never read. He would be horrified if anyone ever read them, let alone Elizabeth Musker.
Elizabeth, my flower, my one and only love
On you my love would shower, like raindrops from above
How can I ever tell you of the warmth I hold inside
For you, my lovely flower, don’t know the love I hide.
Smivey would die if anyone ever found the notes and poems he has written to Elizabeth. He has been writing things and hiding them ever since the first grade. He still has every single one, hidden in the tin box inside his secret hiding place. He’s embarrassed by some of the things he wrote when he was seven years old, but to throw them away would be like throwing away part of Elizabeth. He couldn’t bear to do that.
One time when he was by himself, Smivey read one of the first poems he wrote to her.
Oh Elizabeth, Elizabeth,
I really like your name
I think it’s good,
I hope you feel the same.
Another one he wrote when Elizabeth was sick.
Elizabeth, today I heard you have the flu
I hope you feel better, I really do
It’s not fun to throw up
I hope it doesn’t happen to you.
Larry doesn’t even know how Smivey feels about Elizabeth. He won’t tell anyone because he is afraid she will find out. For now, it is enough for him to share two classes with her.
Smivey is sad when the bell rings. He won’t see Elizabeth again until Home Studies class last hour. Every day he watches her leave the classroom and continues to keep her in sight until she turns down the hall to her next class. Being near Elizabeth in first hour gives Smivey strength enough to make it through second hour.
“Why do I have to learn how to sing? Why does the school need a choir? Whose idea was this, anyway?” Smivey thought as he walked to choir class. As he shuffles along, getting closer to the choir room he hears the voice of Luciano Pavorotti wafting through the hall. Every day it’s the same thing. Mr. Shermer plays the same music as students enter the room.
“Choir, just listen to this tremendous voice!” he always says, like it was the first time he ever said it, and the first time the students ever heard it. “Listen! Try to drink in the power of his voice, the depth of his emotion, the incredible strength of his spirit!” As the song concludes, Mr. Shermer continues, “Choir members, listen to me. Music carries the emotion of the soul like nothing else! Music communicates when every other voice is silent! Music can lift the spirit, give strength to the weak, courage to the fearful!” Smivey thinks maybe Mr. Shermer used to be a preacher. He doesn’t know where else he could have learned to give speeches like this.
“Choir, take out Springtime In My Love’s Caress, by Truman Calver” Mr. Shermer said, stepping to the podium.
“We shouldn’t be singing songs like this” Smivey thought as he found the music in his folder. “It’s so embarrassing.”
“Altos, I would like to begin with you today. Please start at measure fourteen. Miss Kirtz, their note please.”
Gretchin Kirtz has been taking piano lessons since she was four years old. Smivey can’t stand to watch her. She acts like she’s playing in front of thousands of people. She always sits straight up and nods when Mr. Shermer tells her what to do. She lifts her hand slowly, and gently brings her finger down on the key like she’s afraid it will splinter into a million pieces if she touches it too hard. “Okay altos, one and two and…”
“Softly, softly, walking through the meadow
Feeling such a warmth within my breast…”
It’s the word “breast” that is just too much. “We shouldn’t be singing this. Why can’t we sing something by the Beatles? No one has ever heard of Truman Calver or his stupid song about something warm in my breast” Smivey thought as he heard muffled laughter coming from the back row.
“Gentlemen!” Mr. Shermer yelled as the altos stopped singing. “How many times must I tell you that the term “breast” in this song does not mean what you’re thinking! The breast is referred to as the deepest part of the heart. The songwriter is expressing his deep feeling for his one true love. Please choir. You can do this.”
“Okay, altos, one more time. One and two and…”
“Softly, softly, walking through the meadow
Feeling such a warmth within my breast
Gently, gently, she comes ever nearer
Longing for the touch of my caress…”
“Very nice, very nice. Okay, choir, let’s start at the beginning. Miss Kirtz, the introduction please, one and two and…”
Gretchen plays the introduction perfectly, just like she does every time, and the choir began singing. In spite of Smivey’s thoughts about the song, it actually sounded pretty good. When Mr. Shermer first gave them the music Smivey decided to just stop singing when they got to the word “breast.” It reminded him too much of hearing his mother talking about healthy bowels.
“Softly, softly, walking through the meadow
Feeling such a warmth within my breast”
Just at that moment there came a loud snort from the back row. Mr. Shermer stopped the choir. “Thomas Mindler, you go to the office this instant! Mr. Stoker, do you want to join him?”
“No,” Michael Stoker answered.
Mr. Shermer asked, “Mr. Herney, what is wrong with you?”
Steven Herney was laughing so hard his face was radish red but he hadn’t made a sound.
“Answer me!” Mr. Shermer demanded.
When Steven tried to talk he sprayed spit all over Smivey’s back.
“That’s it,” Mr. Shermer hollered, “You go to the office, too!”
Once the commotion ended, Mr. Shermer started again. “Okay, choir, from the beginning of Mr. Calver’s piece. One and two and…”
Just at that moment the bell rang. Smivey was never so glad to hear anything in his life.
“Choir, remember, fall concert is coming up in three weeks. Make sure your parents have it on their calendar!” Mr. Shermer yelled as everyone hurried out of the classroom.
Third hour is almost as bad as choir, but not quite. Smivey’s Science teacher, Mrs. Cloverton, is his only teacher who demands a seating chart. Smivey has to sit right next to Gretchen Kirtz every day. He has a feeling she likes him and it makes him wish he could quit school.
“Good morning, Smivey,” Gretchen said.
“Hey, Gretch,” he answered, knowing she hates it, but he continues calling her Gretch so that maybe she’ll get the message he doesn’t want her to like him, but it doesn’t seem to bother her.
“How do you like the song we’re working on in choir?” Gretchen asked.
The only thing Smivey could dislike more than singing the song is talking about it. “I hate it,” he answered.
“I just love it,” Gretchen said, looking off into the distance. “I can picture the man and woman coming toward each other in the meadow. Can’t you?”
“No,” Smivey said without looking at her. “I picture two trains crashing into each other high on a bridge and falling down into a deep canyon.”
Gretchen Kirtz is actually a very nice girl. There are boys who like her, but she likes Smivey. She is always dressed very nicely, in fact too nicely. Smivey thinks it has something to do with her music. She always looks like she’s on her way to church. She wears a dress every day, and no girls wear dresses to school. She always wears shiny black shoes. She doesn’t look like the kind of girl who has ever ridden a bike or gotten dirty playing in a barn. Some students make fun of Gretchen. Smivey doesn’t do that. He just doesn’t want her to like him. And he sure doesn’t want anyone to think he likes her.
Smivey doesn’t know very much about Gretchen, only that her father is a doctor and delivers all of the babies in town. He is pretty sure it is Gretchen’s mother who runs Pretty Petals, the flower shop in town. Somehow to Smivey it seems only natural that a girl who dresses like Gretchen and likes songs about meadows would have a mother who works in a flower shop. The only time he was ever in the store was with his mother. They had just finished the grocery shopping and she had to stop to pick up flowers for Grandma Stepward who was in the hospital. She had to have her gall bladder taken out. The smell in the flower shop almost made Smivey sick to his stomach.
Other than Math class and Home Studies when he gets to see Elizabeth, Smivey’s favorite time of the day is lunch. He always meets Larry in the hallway before going into the cafeteria.
The lunchroom where they eat is connected to the cafeteria. Only students who buy hot lunch are allowed to eat in the cafeteria. Larry and Smivey think it’s unfair they are not allowed to eat in the cafeteria, but each day they file into the lunchroom with all the other students who bring lunch from home.
All the tables in the lunchroom fold up into the wall when lunch is over. The same room is used for other things during the day. One day when lunch was almost over, there was a table where only a few kids were still sitting. The two girls sitting near the end of the table got up leaving only one boy who was near the wall. Evidently, the table wasn’t locked in place because when the two girls stood up the table folded in the middle and pinched the boy against the wall. The janitor had to come and pull the table back down to let him out.
Smivey and Larry play in the band. Larry plays the tuba. He is much shorter than Smivey and is rather heavy. The bottom of the tuba almost drags on the ground when the band goes outside for marching practice. They don’t actually get to march in parades or at football games. They just practice so they will be ready for marching band when they get to high school. Smivey plays the clarinet. Although he likes playing in the band, he wishes he could play something besides clarinet. It doesn’t seem like a boy’s instrument.
When he started band he wanted to play drums but his parents wouldn’t let him. “I played the clarinet when I was in the band and I still have my instrument. You can use my clarinet and we won’t have to buy one” his mother said. “But I want to play drums” he pleaded. That’s when his father spoke up. “You will play the clarinet we already have. Besides, the drums are not an instrument you can play by yourself.” That was the end of the discussion.
The band teacher, Mr. Norvert, can play all the instruments, but he mostly plays the trumpet. The kids love to hear him play because he is so good. Once in a while, if the band is
having a difficult time playing a song, Mr. Norvert will pick up his trumpet and play it for them. It’s always easier to play a song once you hear it a few times.
Mr. Norvert has long, wavy, gray hair and a beard. He reminds some of the students of Santa Claus and he always seems to be in a good mood. As if being able to play all the instruments were not enough, Mr. Norvert is a great singer. Sometimes between classes you can
hear him singing all the way down the hall. He is the one person who makes Smivey wish he could sing. Maybe it is a good thing he’s in the choir.
After Band comes English, and then, finally, Home Studies with Elizabeth. Mrs. Shinkler has been talking about a project for which the students will be divided into small groups. Smivey has been hoping, ever since he first heard about the project, that he could be in a group with Elizabeth. It would be like a dream coming true to finally talk to her.
“Class, I have been talking to you for quite some time about the home projects you are going to be working on. You will be divided into groups of four today. During the project, each group will be responsible for planning a budget for one month, which will include the expenses of a mortgage, food, utilities, car payments, insurance, clothing, and entertainment. You will have to plan four menus, each covering three meals per day for a week. You will be required to describe your job from which you will receive the income that will be assigned to you. At the conclusion of the project your group will be required to actually prepare one of the meals you have chosen.”
Mrs. Shinkler said, “Now class, each of your groups will include a father and mother, and two children.”
Smivey’s heart pounded as he thought about Elizabeth.
“I have chosen the family members randomly. We have an even number of boys and girls in this class, so it works out nicely. I have also chosen which of you will be parents, and which will be children. You all will work together, however, in your groups to complete the project.”
Smivey felt dizzy as Mrs. Shinkler began reading the names.
“David Conler and Sarah Micheals, father and mother…” There were snickers and muffled comments throughout the room. “Class, now this requires some maturity from you, please.” The class quieted down as she continued. “Peter Soldman, Jennifer Deiter, son and daughter.”
As Mrs. Shinkler read through each group, Smivey started having the same feeling he had when he swung on the rope for the first time in Larry’s barn. As the list of names grew longer, Smivey’s breath drew shorter.
Then Mrs. Shinkler read, “Treighton Harford and Elizabeth Musker…”
And Smivey blurted out,
He didn’t mean to say anything, it just came out.
“Excuse me, Mr. Stepward, did you have a question?” Mrs. Shinkler asked.
Smivey’s face felt hot. “No, I was just thinking of something” he muttered.
“Treighton Harford and Elizabeth Musker, father and mother, Davis Simpkins and Bonnie Weldman, son and daughter.” “And finally,” Mrs. Shinkler continued, “we have Smivey Stepward and Gretchen Kirtz, father and mother…”
Smivey didn’t remember anything that happened after that. The room started spinning and he almost threw up. He continued to watch Mrs. Shinkler but he couldn’t hear what she was saying. His heart was beating so hard he was sure everyone in the class would hear it.
“Smivey, are you okay?” He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up to see Gretchen standing next to him.
“Mrs. Shinkler wants us to get into our groups and start working,” she said.
“I don’t feel good,” Smivey said. He looked over where Elizabeth was sitting in time to see her walking beside Treighton Harford to their group.
Mrs. Shinkler handed out the instructions and said,
“Now class, for the remainder of the hour, talk about how your family is going to function. If you have any questions, please raise your hand and I will help you.”
Smivey’s group started talking but it sounded like mumbling as if he had cotton in his ears.. He couldn’t believe he had to be with Gretchen Kirtz.
“Isn’t this great?” Gretchen asked.
“It’s a disease,” Smivey muttered.
It was an eternity before the bell rang. Gretchen did all the talking and was acting all motherly and everything.
“This is the worst day of my life” Smivey thought as he picked up his books.
“See you tomorrow, Smivey,” Gretchen said sweetly as she turned toward the door.
“I don’t ever want to see you, Gretch,” Smivey wanted to say, but didn’t.
He stood by his chair and watched Elizabeth walk out of the room with Treighton Harford.