Wayne Michael DeHart (Summer, 2020)
September 3, 1958 – first day of school.
Three hundred youngsters, grades 2 through 8, were sizing up the 27 transfer students in their respective classes, an annual appraisal exercise that was silly and superficial on its surface, but for those being assessed, it was an inevitable rite of passage that went with the territory. For pretty girls and cute boys, approval was a breeze, a piece of cake, a walk in the park. For the less-blessed-rest, for the enigmatic and the divergent, the process was at best uncertain and unsettling, and at worst hurtful and occasionally humiliating. It took no more than three school days for the seven juvenile juries to come in with their first 12 up-or-down, in-or-out, verdicts (the obvious ones, of course), with the remainder to be evaluated, classified and labeled in the following week or two.
The nine nuns and six lay assistants at Mercy Academy pretended to be unaware of this misguided and unsavory ritual, but in truth most were fine with it. “Builds character, ”said one sister to another. “What does?” “You know, that thing they do.” “Which thing?” “The building character thing.” “I’m not aware of that.” Then they both laughed and started whacking each other’s knuckles with wooden rulers, getting their snap back after a sleepy, stagnant summer. No malice intended, just a harmless, heavenly habit. It was great fun to be a nun in 1958.
By the end of the following week, 14 more newbies had been categorized by a makeshift panel of their peers. (Peer was a snicker word back then to pre-adolescent boys. “That Ernie Beck’s quite the peer. He ate a whole Snickers bar while taking a whizz. Saw it myself. Scout’s honor.”)
And that left but one – an undersized, bespectacled fifth-grader whose family migrated north to New Hampshire from down Marblehead way, an area where witchy women were flying high almost three centuries before the Eagles sang about them. Buoyant and spunky, he walked fast and talked faster. Sported Weejun penny loafers while the other guys at Mercy dragged the hallways in clunky Buster Browns and Poll-Parrots. Carried a conductor’s pocket watch while they wore Davy Crockett wristwatches. (Some would eventually discover he wore Keds and a Crockett coonskin cap on the weekends.) Seemed studious, smiled easily, blended in pretty well. One of the pretty girls said she saw him take his glasses off and his eyes were so sparkly blue they “looked like cat’s eye marbles!”
Classmate “None Meana” Regina snidely snorted and sneered, then tossed her catty two cents in, as always. “By George, you just wait, Bad Billy’s gonna marbleize that fancy-faced marble-head from Marblehead till he loses his marbles.” (Mean girls, much like Linda Ronstadt’s love, have been around for a long, long time.) The boy heard about the triple zinger and fluffed it off, graciously calling it cute and clever, thereby balming the burn from the toxic-tongued terror. Flabbergasted and speechless (for once), as well as curious, she subtly gazed into those eyes and found herself mesmerized, just like the pretty girl. Her fire doused and her sting neutralized, she metamorphosized and normalized, sympathized and empathized, socialized and harmonized – emerging as one more Mercy miracle. The road (rather than a bus) rose up to meet her, and a reformed Regina soon was mean-a no more-a.
After Billy and a couple of other sixth-graders tested the tenderfoot’s manhood by repeatedly punching him in both arms, expecting him to snivel or run or both, he won cheers and respect from onlookers by thumping the three of ‘em right back. Hard, quick, relentless. Spunky. The new kid from Massachusetts was deemed to be utterly unflappable and strikingly savvy.
He had also gained an air of mystery for two quirky reasons, the first being his given name was Michel, pronounced just like the female Michelle. (The tale of a boy named Sue was at that time still just a floating lyric in the back of Shel Silverstein’s head, so it’s life lesson was still somewhere over the rainbow.) His last name was the quite proper, very English, James – a surname that was an ocean apart from the miserable Valjean, Gervais and Gavroche factory families living in poverty and darkness up on Gorbeau Hill, in the Portlake section of town.
The boy later explained that before he was born, his mother assumed she’d have a girl named Michelle while his father anticipated a boy named Michael. When he popped out on a very cold November night, to the fleeting delight of the guy who sired him, his quick-witted mother led said sire, aka her husband, into accepting the male spelling of Michelle by extolling upon the virtue of compromise and pointing out that Michel was in fact the French version of his favored Michael. “Michel will set him apart,” she asserted. You got that right, he thought to himself. Still, he begrudgingly acquiesced because he loved the lady and had long since learned that compromise was often a winning play for him, in a myriad of ways that revealed themselves at unexpected but opportune times.
In the years that followed, however, he would often wink and call his son Michael or Mike when his wife wasn’t around. The kid played along and took it in stride, always winking back to assure timely delivery of his weekly allowance. Now and then, however, hubby would defiantly “Michael him” right in front of his wife and she would simply say “Comme ci, comme ça. N’est-ce pas, Henri?” And then gleefully wink at both of them. Whenever the Mrs. threw French phrases at Henry James, he lamented losing his high-school crush, Daisy Miller, to his cousin Jesse. In response to her good-naturedly blinking away his bait, he would shrug, snatch a package of Hostess SnoBalls from the pantry, seize his Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and plop down on the living room couch. “Henri, my ass,” he’d mutter under his breath, before attacking the pair of pink, marshmallow-frosted, cream-filled beauties. Minutes later, sweetened up, Henry James was smiling again, abandoning the couch to chase the Mrs. around the kitchen table to work off the calories. At least that’s what he told Michel, who enjoyed watching that sort of good-natured parental give-and-take, though he never quite grasped the thrill of the chase – much less the opportune rewards that came with it.
He just knew he liked being their son.
The boy’s second unique characteristic was an obsessive affinity for classic, unadorned marshmallows. He ate them at morning recess, at lunch, at afternoon recess, and after school. Run-of-the-mill white, soft, fluffy, squishy, sweetmeat treats. They were in his pockets, his jacket, his school bag, and when not in class, in his hands. Two fistfuls at a time. The James boy was one focused and folksy fifth-grader who knew a good thing when he ate it.
By the end of that first month at Mercy, he became known to the upper half of the student body as “The Marshmallow Kid.” He proved to be real smart, right neighborly, kept up with the boys, was embraced by the girls, and won accolades from his teachers. The nuns admired his attitude and the lay assistants applauded his acumen. Whenever he took his glasses off and flashed them blues, the girls would coo and the boys would boo, all playful and in good fun, while Michel pretended not to notice, remaining casually cool. “TMK” was indeed a dude that quietly wooed.
It should be noted here that his first name proved to be a complete non-issue to the female students and to the teachers and staff there at the school, as it had been no big deal with anyone back in Marblehead. The NH boys were a bit of a different breed, however, but after the early exchange of punches with Bad Billy and his sidekicks, there was no more needling about being a Michel, at least not to his “fancy face.” A few of the guys playfully called him “Mitch,” but then a few became several, several became many, and many became most. He didn’t care. He was just glad his last name wasn’t Miller.
By the time the holidays arrived, dang near half the kids in school had become marshmallow-addicted wackadoodles, while parents and teachers whistled past the graveyard, a most ill-fated colloquialism. Those munchkins were simply mimicking Michel, an inspiring kid valued by all. He was everything they aspired to be. Granted, he never once shared his marshmallows, not even with the pretty girls, but hey, as Aristotle once noted, and Henry James repeatedly demonstrated, you don’t turn your back on chocolate cake just because the frosting is pink.
Michel James should be celebrating his 73rd birthday in a couple of months.
But he won’t.
In the Spring of his seventh-grade year, he was literally running late for the morning bell and took a shortcut across the railroad tracks just behind the schoolyard. He called out triumphantly that he was coming fast and many students turned to urge him onward as he carefully negotiated the embankment that led down to the tracks. Ever judicious, he looked both ways, saw it was clear, but then uncharacteristically raced recklessly forward. Halfway across, he tripped, his head violently striking the last steel rail, killing him instantly in full view of traumatized youngsters that called him their friend.
To divert their attention quickly away from the sight and get them into the school, a stunned Sister Ambrose clutched her rosary in one hand and, with the other, frantically rang what proved to be the mourning bell. In the blink of an eye, under dark gray clouds, they had lost him forever.
His funeral was held in the adjacent church. The students attended en masse, amen.
Every May 10th, for sixty years, two brilliantly-blue cat’s eye marbles appear at his grave, taped to his headstone. As mourning doves coo, his seventh-grade girlfriend toasts Michel James with a “sweetmeat treat”, then turns away – to sigh, to cry, to whisper goodbye – once again.
Alone in remembrance, Regina rests in his peace.
The Marshmallow Kid . . . flashed them blues . . . November 12, 1948 – May 10, 1961.