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Minerva leaned back her head, lifting her hair and spreading it over the back of the sofa.
"Jeez, it's hot. Did I ever tell you what a pain it is having all this hair?"
"Well, it is. I have to spend half an hour every morning just brushing it. And it's always getting caught on things. As a matter of fact, I think I'm getting too old to wear my hair this way. My father liked ... likes it, but ... What do you think?"
"My hair. Think I should cut it off?"
"Ah, you're just afraid you'll get in trouble."
"Me? For what?"
"For cutting off my hair."
"What? I'm not going to cut off your hair!"
"I'm just not."
She gave me a sidelong glance. "You're not afraid, are you?"
"Of course not, but if your father likes it, wouldn't he be mad?"
She frowned and pulled up her knees, hugging them hard to her chest. "No," she said softly, "he won't care."
"But if he likes it ... "
"He won't care!" she snapped. "So why won't you do it?"
Her sudden anger startled me. What did I say to make her so mad? "I don't know," I said.
She jumped up. "All right then! Let's do it. Where are the scissors?"
I felt a prickly numbness creep over me, as if I were caught in the quicksand of a terrible dream. "Uh, upstairs, I guess."
Minerva flew up the stairs, and I plodded after, trying to think of some way to stop her. By the time I got to the top, she had found a comb, scissors and a mirror, and she was striding down the hall to my room. She pulled out the chair in front of my desk and flopped down.
"I really appreciate this, W. You're really doing me a big favor. You have no idea how long I've wanted to get rid of this stupid hair."
She handed me the comb and the scissors and held up the mirror so she could see me over her shoulder.
I gazed at the golden wash of hair spilling over the back of the chair. I couldn't do this.
"Well?" Her moony eyes stared at me from the mirror. "What are you waiting for?"
Slowly, I reached out and touched her hair. It was silk against my hand. I lifted a small strand and cut off about an inch.
"Short! I want it short!" she said. She pointed at the back of her neck. "Cut it up here."
Suddenly, I was furious. Why was she making me do this? "All right!" I said. "If that's what you want!"
I grabbed a handful of hair and lifted it off her neck. I stuffed it between the blades of the scissors and squeezed. Snip. The golden hair fell at my feet. I grabbed another handful. Snip. And another. Snip. I worked frantically, feeling queasy and sick at heart, chopping off huge hunks until her neck was bare and her hair lay in a heap on the floor. Minerva sat silently, watching me in the mirror, her lips set in a hard, thin line.
I stepped back and looked at my work. What was left of her hair was a jagged edge over her thin, white neck. I looked at Minerva's face. Her eyes were huge.
"What's wrong?" she whispered.
"Nothing," I said. "I've just got to even it out a little." I combed it down and tried to cut the edge more evenly, but I only made it worse. She looked like she'd been attacked by a lawn mower. I stepped back. I'd ruined it. I could do nothing to save it now.
I looked in the mirror and saw Minerva's face. Her lower lip jutted out, and tears streaked her cheeks.
"What's wrong now?" My voice cracked.
"My hair!" she sobbed. "It's gone!"
"You said you wanted it short!" I sputtered, tears welling up in my own eyes now. "I didn't want to do it! You made me do it."
"I knooooow!" she moaned, and she folded herself up into a little sobbing bundle.
I didn't see Minerva again for another week, but this time I knew why. She was grounded. Just like me.
A hysterical Mrs. Wimberly had called my mother to tell her that "your son Walter" had ruined her daughter's hair, and "what kind of a mother are you to let such a thing happen in your house?"
So my parents found out about Minerva. And for some reason, the news that I'd made friends with a girl totally freaked them out.
I heard my mother tell my father it was time he had a "man-to-man" talk with his son. My father said he would "see about it," which meant he didn't want to do it.
So they started to fight.
There was something spooky about the way they did it, too. Instead of yelling at each other, they argued in whispers.
Finally, my father asked me to come into his study. My father is bald, and the top of his head always blushes when he's nervous. It was blushing fiercely now. He sat down at his desk and told me to pull up a chair. Then he started fidgeting with a pencil.
"Walter ... " He rolled the pencil between his pudgy fingers. "Walter ... " he said, and he glanced at the picture of my grandfather on the wall. Grampa Frimhaus seemed to be frowning at me.
"Walter," he said at last. "What do you know about girls?"
I felt my face redden to match the color of his head. "Girls?" I croaked.
My father coughed. "Yes, well, uh, you know that girls, uh, women are … different?"
"Sure." Was that all?
My father looked startled. He twisted the pencil. "And, Walter, you know you have to be, uh, careful?" The top of his head looked so hot it could burn my fingers.
"Careful?" I felt spooked and woozy, like the time I was exploring a cave with Eddy and a daddy longlegs walked across my neck. And somehow, I felt sorry for my father, too. I wanted to say something to make him relax. "Uh, sure, Dad, I know that."
The pencil snapped in half. "You do?"
"Sure." Cripes! WHAT was he talking about?
My father let loose a long, windy sigh. "Good. That's good. So you'll be, uh, careful, won't you?"
"Good." My father hoisted himself up.
That was it?
But he turned and took down a thin, brown book from the top shelf of his bookcase, blew the dust off the top of it, and handed it to me.
"Here," he said. "You'd better read this."
When I looked at the title, all the blood in my body rushed to my face. "How Babies Are Made." Oh my Lord! So THAT's what this was all about. I was so stunned that I actually stuttered, "Th-th-thanks."
"Walter," my father said. "You're going to be 12 years old in October."
"And how old is ... "
"Walter, you're almost a man."
I nodded dumbly.
Then my father shook my hand. His palm felt like a warm fish. He turned away and headed for the door, his head a red beacon lighting the way.
When I walked out of the room, my mother was sitting on the sofa, snuffling into a handkerchief and dabbing at her eyes.
I could not believe this.
"Jeez!" I blurted. "She just kissed me once!"
At that, my mother burst into tears.