Hard Consonants and Red Gladiolas
By Donald MacDougall, Army
Writing Type: Prose
Pallas Athene Best Story Award
By Donald MacDougall
-San Jose, CA
-San Jose, CA
"...and some hard consonants can become soft when combined with another letter. Consider T, as in Tennessee. Add an H, and the sound becomes softer, as in then, or three..."
Mrs. Williams the middle-aged English teacher droned on, but Milo Simmons was barely paying attention. It had hit him that his own name had no hard consonants. He wished his name had more impact. There wasn't much he could do with his middle name, either. James could become Jim or Jimmy, but that was no improvement. Buck Braddock, now that guy has the hard impact sounds coming out of his ears, thought Milo. Why didn't his parents give him just one? All he had was a bunch of soft consonants and vowels.
Milo had a hard time trying to focus on Mrs. Williams' voice. She talked about phrases, and clauses, and proper use of the comma. It all became a jumble in his mind. Milo was in love. How could he care about consonants and clauses and commas when Bonnie Collins invaded his thoughts? Bonnie, the girl he had loved since his sophomore year, and he was now a senior, ready to graduate in two more months.
It was a warm spring in the medium-sized town in the West, and Milo gave little thought to what he would do after graduation. Some of the seniors said they wanted to attend the local state college in the fall. Not a large percentage of high school graduates went to college in the early 1960s. Boys from well-to-do families could go to college, and their sisters could study to be a teacher or a nurse.
Eighteen-year-old boys were required to register for the draft, so a lot of guys were talking to the Army recruiter. It would be better to enlist now than to get drafted when there was a war. The Korean War had been over for less than a decade, and there were new hot spots around the globe.
Milo looked forward to his afternoon math class. He sat one row over from where Bonnie Collins sat, and two seats behind her. He struggled with factoring and equations, but he got to watch Bonnie for 50 minutes every day. Bonnie also struggled in math class. She was mooning over Buck Braddock. Buck was tall, and he had broad shoulders and a strong chin. He was the quarterback of the school's football team, and he ran sprints for the track team. He had all those hard consonants in his name, and he was going steady with Bonnie. Milo sat and contemplated the unfairness of it all.
Mrs. Simmons was widowed when Milo was 11 years old. She and her son lived in a small house about a half mile from the high school. She worked part time as a seamstress, but she didn't drive. Milo worked three days a week at a small grocery store a couple of blocks from his house. He gave most of his wages to his mother, who had a hard time paying the mortgage. Mr. Simmons died of liver cancer, and he had too little life insurance. Still, Milo managed to save up a few dollars.
Milo was dreaming about what he could do with his money if only Buck Braddock were not in the picture. He could buy Bonnie a present or take her to a movie. The math teacher called on Milo, and he answered a question about quadratic equations, even though he was a bit tongue-tied.
He had Bonnie on his brain. Then the teacher called on Bonnie. She couldn't figure how to solve the problem. "Bonnie,” the teacher said, “take your book and go sit in the back of the room. Milo, you go show her how to figure it out." The math teacher went on to lecture the rest of the class on factoring.
Bonnie sat at a desk in the rear corner. Milo moved another desk close to Bonnie. He sat down. Then he froze. I'm actually sitting next to Bonnie Collins, thought Milo. His throat was so tight he could hardly breathe. After a long silence, Bonnie finally said, "l just don't get this problem. Please help me, Milo."
He allowed his eyes to focus on the math problem. His throat loosened up a bit, and he replied, "You have to do this step first. Then all the numbers fall in to place."
Bonnie played with the numbers a bit, then a light bulb went off in her head. "Oh, now I get it," she said. Then she flashed Milo a smile. He almost melted into a puddle right there on the floor. "I'm sorry, Milo. I'm a bit distracted today. I just broke up with Buck Braddock.”
Milo summoned all the courage he could and said, "Would you like to go to the prom with me?” Bonnie replied, "l might as well. That Buck is such a jerk.”
Milo floated on a cloud the rest of the day. He had to work that afternoon. He bagged groceries and stocked shelves with his mind only half functioning. The boss told him to take a break. He went outside, and he ran into his old classmate Jack. Jack had quit school back around Thanksgiving. The school counselors had told him his grades weren't quite good enough to graduate, so he dropped out and ran off to join the Army.
"Hey Jack,” Milo said, “I heard you went to Fort Ord. Are you all through training now?"
“Yeah, and I'm on leave now. Next week I have to report to artillery school in Fort Bliss, Texas. Hey, Milo. Come back behind the building and have a smoke."
"Oh, Jack, you never smoked before."
"Hey, everybody smokes in the army. You almost can't afford not to. Cigs are so cheap at the PX."
Jack and Milo puffed on cigarettes and swapped jokes for a while. Milo wasn't a smoker, so he coughed when he tried to inhale. He finally gave up and stepped on his cigarette butt. Jack told him some of the funny things he observed at Fort Ord. He taught Milo a couple of verses of the “Sammy Small” marching song.
"Oh, by the way," injected Milo, "I'm taking Bonnie Collins to the prom."
"Wow, she's the prettiest girl in the school, but hasn't she been Buck Braddock's girlfriend about forever?"
"Yeah, but they broke up. As soon as I heard about it, I asked Bonnie to the dance. She said yes."
"Well good luck with that, Milo. Have you ever been to a school dance?"
"No, but I asked a couple of guys. I'll have to rent a formal suit and get a corsage from a florist. I already arranged to borrow Bill Wilson's car. I have a driver's license, you know, I took driver's ed in school. I don't have a car, and my mom never did learn how to drive. I was thinking about buying an old heap with the money I saved from working at the grocery, but I don't know how much this prom is going to cost me. And actually, I had to offer Bill 20 bucks to use his car."
"O.K., well listen. I hope it all works out well for you. Your boss is going to come looking for you in a minute. You better get back to work."
"Hey, let's keep in touch. You know my address. Send me a letter from Fort Bliss."
Milo went back to work, and Jack went about his business. Milo counted down the days until the prom. With three days to go, he took a bus downtown to the formal wear rental place and got fitted for a white jacket and trousers. The day of the prom Milo walked over to Bill's place and got the car. He went home to put on his formal clothes and had only to stop at the florist shop before arriving at Bonnie's house.
"Sorry, son, we're all out of corsages," said the florist. “You got to order them ahead of time. We had a few extra, but they sold out just 10 minutes ago."
Milo looked so downhearted that the florist decided not to let him leave empty handed. "Listen,” he said, “I can give you a deal on glads. We ordered in quite a few for an event that got cancelled." The florist led Milo near the back of the store. There were several containers of dark, blood-red gladiolas. "l can give you a bouquet of these flowers for half price. Your girlfriend will love them." He quoted a price, and Milo agreed.
Milo parked Bill's car around the corner from the front of Bonnie's house. He wanted to surprise her with a ride; she thought they'd be walking to the prom. And that's how Milo Simmons showed up at Bonnie Collins' door carrying in his arm a dozen spears of dark red glads.
“Hello, I'm here for Bonnie," said Milo when Mrs. Collins answered the door.
"Oh, she went to the prom with Buck Braddock."
“Well, uh, (Think fast, Milo.) some of the other kids and me, uh, we just wanted to make sure she has, uh, a ride and everything.”
"Yes, Buck picked her up in a big red Buick."
"Oh, well, I guess I'll see her over at the school. Uh, good night Mrs. Collins."
"What a strange young man," said Mrs. Collins to herself.
Milo got around the corner near where he had parked the car before he realized he was still carrying the gladiolas. He threw the bouquet down on the sidewalk and stepped on it. Then he stepped on it again. Then he was jumping up and down on it. He stomped the once-beautiful flowers until they were just a pile of red and green mush.
Milo got in the car and started to drive. He drove around the outskirts of town in a daze for quite a while. When it started to get dark, he pulled into a drive-in movie theater. He parked near the back fence, as far away from the screen as possible. Then he turned up the speaker to maximum loud, so nobody could hear his sobs.
It was after 2 a.m. before Milo got home. He went to bed quietly and slept late. In the morning, his mother asked if he had had a good time at the dance. He only replied that it could have been better. "l have to return my formal wear, Ma. I'll go do that now and then leave Bill's car off. I can walk home from there."
The guy at the formal wear store charged Milo an extra $3 for additional cleaning. Somehow a red stain had gotten on the lower pants legs. When he got home, his mother told him a letter had arrived. "It looks like it came from El Paso."
Milo avoided Bonnie all through the end of the school year. After finals, he went to the graduation exercise, but he didn't enjoy it. He didn't want to continue working at the grocery for minimum wage, so he job hunted for the next couple of weeks. The only offer he had was as a plumber's assistant. It would be dirty work for almost no more money.
Buck Braddock got a football scholarship to a college in the Mid-American Conference. He tried for the Big Ten but didn't quite make the grade. A broken ankle in a practice game ended his athletic career. He finished the fall semester of his freshman year, then he dropped out of college. He joined his father's new car dealership.
Bonnie Collins didn't graduate with her class. She had to finish her last remaining credit in summer school. She passed the red stain on the sidewalk every day on the way to school. She didn't know why the sidewalk was red. It might have been some kids playing with a paint set. Maybe someone spilled a bottle of juice. Perhaps it was blood wrenched from the heart of a young man who dared to reach for something he was ill-prepared to experience. In any case, Bonnie passed the stain several times, until the summer rains washed it away. She never gave it another thought.
After she got her diploma, she went to work in a local department store. She sold cosmetics and perfume. She married the son of a hardware store owner and had four kids.
Milo Simmons left his hometown that summer, but he never saw it again. You can read more about him in Washington, D.C. That's where his name, with all its vowels and soft consonants, is engraved on the polished surface of a long black granite wall.