The Toolman

I guess I should have known from the beginning that it would be disastrous; Junior high romances always are. But who could resist someone like Allen Crawford? Sure, his collection of plaid, short-sleeved shirts was questionably extensive. He was in a band — probably playing an instrument that required a releasable spit valve — and when he smiled, his slightly puffy cheeks reduced his eyes to unattractive slits. However, he was one of the few individuals who didn’t have braces, overpowering body odor, and/or a preoccupation with immature sexual innuendos. That was enough for me.

Coffee House Readings

I was sitting in theater class with one of my best friends at the time: Sugar Ray Powell. Now, it doesn’t get more trailer park Texas than when your father actually thinks it’s a good idea to name his baby daughter after a legendary boxer. It also sadly reduced her to being correctly referred to as “sugar,” which would be perfect if she worked in a truck stop diner (“Hey sugar, can I get another cup of coffee over here?”), but seemed a little out of place in an all-white, upper/middle-class junior high.

We were discussing the approaching Homecoming dance. In Texas culture, where there is a widespread, unhealthy obsession with football, the Homecoming game is almost deified. This renders Homecoming the most important dance of the year. Sugar and I didn’t have dates. As we were debating what to do about our situation, Allen slid into a chair next to us in the auditorium.

“Whatta y’all doin?” he said in his squeaky, Texas drawl.

“Discussing the dance,” I said. “Neither of us have dates.” Judging by the blank stare I received in response, Allen apparently didn’t recognize the gravity of the situation.

“It’s like the most important dance of the year,” I said, getting visibly annoyed. Boys just didn’t get it, and I was at a point in my life where I didn’t think they ever would.

Sugar turned to talk to another girl in the class, which left Allen and me grasping for conversation. He cleared his throat, “Well, aah don really hava date either,” he said. “If yew want somewun to go with, aah’d like to take yew.”

I didn’t really know Allen all that well—his lack of proper pronunciation made me suspect I didn’t want to. But a date was a date, and I accepted.

Over the next week, I began to notice that Allen had some unusual and disturbing talents. He seemed to enjoy randomly making power tool noises. There were, of course, occasional variations. His repertoire included a range of tools—everything from a power saw to an electric drill. They acted mainly as fillers for silence when he was bored—in class, for example, or at lunch—but they crept into conversation every now and then.

“Hey Steph,” he’d say. Then, all of a sudden, “Zzzzzzz zzzzzzz.” I thought at first that perhaps it was a weird way of clearing his throat, but ten minutes later, I heard him across the hall. “Vvvvrrrooooommm kakakaka.” It was almost like a disturbing form of Tourette’s. I asked Sugar about it.

“I dunno,” she said with a shrug. “He just likes doing it. Could be a lot worse.”

And it’s true. It could have been a lot worse. He could have been a mass murderer… or a Fraiser fan. But that didn’t mean I was going to thank a higher being that my date had uncontrollable sound-effect-making tendencies. Frankly, I was embarrassed by him, and at that time, image was everything. It bordered on the ridiculous. I would get up at 4:30 every morning to do my hair and makeup before 6:30 basketball practice only to, afterwards, change into perfectly coordinating skirts, knee-highs, and sweater sets.

I grappled with how to get out of it. I couldn’t just not go. I really, really wanted to be at the dance. I just didn’t want to be anywhere near the Tool Man when I got there. But since I had already accepted, I certainly felt obligated to go with Allen. To ease the expected blow to my reputation, I started quietly making fun of him around my friends. A little jab here, a derogatory comment there, and I was safe in my bubble of “coolness.”

Finally, the dance night arrived. I was dropped off by my parents and was scheduled to meet Allen at the dance. I waited in front of the school, bouncing up and down to release nervous energy and keep warm in the slight chill of the night air. Allen’s parents pulled up, and he climbed out of the car. His plaid shirt was neatly pressed, and his hair stiff with an excess of hair gel. I saw the cheeks rise up and eclipse his eyes as he saw me.

“Yew look niice,” he said.

“Thanks.”

“I brawt these for yew.” And with that, he turned around and pulled an oversized bouquet of carnations from the vehicle as he slammed the door shut and strolled over to me. I was horrified. What did he think I was supposed to do with a bouquet at a dance? Go put them in water? I managed to weakly smile and grab the flowers.

“Let’s get inside,” I said.

The dance was sweaty, and crowded into the school gym, my classmates were struggling to keep their flailing in sync with the beats of Gangsta’s Paradise—embarrasingly surrendering to their lack of rhythm. I turned to see Allen beginning to bob his head and let out a power tool noise of agreement.

“I’ll be back,” I said with a smile. Not waiting for a response, I hurried off to find my friends. They were with their dates in a corner of the gym.

“Here. Take these,” I said, shoving the flowers into one of my friend’s hands.

“Where did you get these?” Sugar asked.

“Where do you think?” I said. I could see Allen across the gym, waiting and looking around. The beats of early-90s gangsta rap suddenly shifted to the soft piano chords of an oncoming love ballad. At that moment, Allen saw me. He waved, smiled, and began to walk over.

“I can’t do this,” I said. Abandoning my flowers, I rushed out into the hall and into the bathroom—the one boy-safe haven. I listened for the music to end and went back inside.

“Yew missed the slow dance,” he said upon my return.

“Dang,” I said, trying not to betray my relief. My plan had worked—for now.

As the night went on, Allen began to get a little suspicious the third and fourth times I would suddenly run off before a slow dance would start. It seemed my bowels were incompatible with love songs. Go figure.

I had managed to avoid him the whole night. There were fifteen minutes left. I let out a sigh. I was in the clear.

As I was dancing, however, I suddenly noticed Allen wasn’t around. In fact, I hadn’t heard the soft sounds of an edge trimmer or a leaf blower for the last five minutes or so. I left the group and walked around to the side of the gym. Bathed in strobe lights, Allen sat on the bleachers. He looked miserable. He was hunched over his knees. I could see the sadness in his slitty eyes.

“All right,” the DJ said. “Last dance of the night, y’all.” Lady in Red began to blare from the speakers. I felt awful. Sure, his affections were misguided. Sure, he was probably the epitome un-cool. But at that moment, I knew I had been a complete jerk.

“How about a dance, Allen. What do you say?”

He slowly looked up. His eyes became a little brighter. A shy smile escaped his lips.

“That’d be great,” he said.

He had forgiven me. I hadn’t done anything to deserve it. I never even said sorry. But with that last slow dance, I forgot about all the people around me for five minutes. I looked at Allen, and I knew that it didn’t matter what everyone around me thought. In fact, they probably didn’t even notice. I’d like to say that this revelation stayed with me — that I suddenly became enlightened and unconcerned with the opinions of others — but t didn’t. But for those five minutes, I had seen how I was, and I knew that someday I wouldn’t be like that anymore.

Later that night, carrying my bouquet, I walked out into the parking lot with Allen to say goodnight.

“Thanks, Allen — for everything,” I said.