Even in second grade, I knew Alfred wasn't my type. I didn't like his name and I didn't like him. His Puppy Love was one-sided. Still, I tried to be nice to him when he followed me around at school during lunch period or recess.
When I got tired of his attention, I'd tell him, "Alfred, my friends are calling me. Why don't you go play with the boys?" He'd leave, but when the bell rang, he'd come to class and sit in the desk beside me.
Alfred was smart. When he'd raise his hand and answer a question correctly in his squeaky voice, I'd look at his skinny body, yellow hair, and ears that stuck out and think, He looks like a sunflower, except his face isn't black. In fact, Alfred was always very pale.
I mostly ignored him, but one day he really disappointed me. I'd ridden my bike to Brantly School and the class bully, Bobby Thorne, decided to block my path when I got on it to ride home. He laid down on the sidewalk beside a camphor tree. "Get out of my way," I told him. He didn't. Just then, Alfred walked up behind me.
"Make him get out of my way," I told Alfred.
Staring down on Bobby, Alfred whispered, "C'mon, Bobby, leave Sue Ellen alone."
Bobby didn't budge.
"If you don't," Alfred said a little louder, "I'm gonna call my mama." He pointed to the school office where his mother worked as a secretary.
Bobby sat up, laughing as he looked at the small crowd that had gathered. "Go get your mama, Al-fred. I'll be gone by then." He began to chant, "Mama's boy, Al-fred's a Mama's boy," and a few students chimed in.
Alfred left in tears. I was really mad by then. When Bobby laid back down with his hands clasped behind his head, I drove my bike right over his stomach. He was so shocked that I don't think it hurt him at all. At any rate, he didn't try to chase me.
The next day, my mother found a bouquet of wildflowers on our front porch. "For you," she said, handing me a card. All it said was, "Sorry," but I didn't need a signature. I recognized Alfred's handwriting.
Alfred was out sick for about a week. When he returned to school looking more pallid than ever, he sat in the back row. He must have started going home for lunch, because he wasn't around then and he stayed inside at recess. I didn't see much of him. But the last day of school, he passed a note up to me.
"Please wait for me after class," it said. "I've got something for you."
I didn't want to start anything but I was curious, so I waited. When everyone left and the teacher stepped out of the room, Alfred hurried over to me. He pulled his hand from behind his back. "Here," he said, "I, I, know you don't really like me, but I want you to have this."
When I looked at the wooden clothespin he placed in my hand, I wrinkled my nose. "What do you want me to do with this?"
Alfred hung his head. "I don't know. I have to go to another school next year and I just wanted to give you something. That's all I have."
"But your mom works here."
"Yeah, but I have to go somewhere else." Tears formed in his eyes and he blinked them back. With a, "See ya," he bolted out of the room, leaving me standing there with my mouth gaping.
Alfred didn't show up for third grade and his mother wasn't a secretary anymore. My mother said she heard they moved away. That's all I ever found out. I felt sorry for Alfred, but I was relieved that a nerdy boy who reminded me of a sunflower wasn't following me around anymore.
As years passed, I forgot about my admirer until I was in my third year of college and got an e-mail asking me to chair the research committee for a reunion of students who attended Brantly. I agreed, but it turned out to be a much harder job than I thought. The group included anyone who had ever gone to Brantly, a huge number of people to try to locate.
Luckily, I still lived in the area and I was able to contact many former students who had not left either. After working with my committee of five for three months trying to find over a hundred people without no current addresses, we decided to divide the remaining missing persons and narrow our search to about twenty-five each.
In a couple of weeks, I'd gotten my list down to six. One was a familiar name--Alfred Strong. I smiled. A while back, I'd come across that clothespin he'd given me years ago. For the first time, I thought about the contradiction in his name. Somehow "Alfred" suited him, but "Strong," he wasn't. I'd been about to admit defeat on locating these last few, but I had to know what happened to Alfred.
I kept digging and sent e-mails and called every Strong in the phone book. That netted zero results. Finally, it struck me to do the obvious. I went to the office at Brantly School. New faces greeted me and I thought, "Not much hope here."
When I recognized my old principal coming out of her office, I was elated. "I'm sure you remember Mrs. Strong," I said. "Do you know how I can get in touch with her? I'm trying to find Alfred for our school reunion."
She looked at me over the top of horn-rimmed glasses. "Sorry, my dear. I guess you didn't know. Alfred left school because he had leukemia. They were going to take him to Atlanta to get treatment, but he passed away before that happened, a couple of weeks after he finished second grade."
I swallowed hard.