Mrs. Herrera promised to institute the punishment they had discussed, and to keep him home until after the weekend. But she was crying again when Neil left, and he knew she did not have the strength to follow through.
# # #
Jesse’s blowup and informal suspension came on Wednesday. That night Neil and Carmen went out to dinner. They no longer went on formal dates. Their relationship had progressed beyond that, and now they spent all their spare time together. That night, she asked him if he had given any thought to Valentine’s Day. He had not. She said that the sixth graders were still young enough that they would miss having a holiday celebration, and since he was their main teacher, it would be up to him to provide one.
Neil shook his head. “Carmen, if there is anything high school did not teach me, its how to give a Valentine’s Day party for little kids.”
“So don’t give one,” Carmen laughed. “Get Stephanie Hagstrom and Lisa Cobb and their mothers to head a committees for your two classes, then stand back. You won’t have to do a thing.”
For the next two days, Neil’s afternoon class moved as smoothly as a well oiled bearing. It was amazing what the absence of one child could do. When Saturday rolled around, Carmen took Neil for a ride without giving him a hint of their destination. She had packed a picnic basket, and she set a course that circled northward across the river, then eastward toward Riverbank.
It was February eleventh. In the midwest, there was a foot of new snow on the ground, but spring had come to California. Almost overnight, the almond orchards had come to full blossom. Everywhere Carmen took him, the trees were covered with pure white flowers, and already the wind was shaking the first of them free to cover the ground like a fragrant snowfall.
They stopped half a mile up a dirt orchard road. Carmen spread a blanket under the trees, in a patch of sunlight. It was just too chilly to be quite comfortable, so after they ate they put the food away and wrapped the blanket around them as they waited out the day, encircled by ten thousand acres of flowers.
# # #
On Valentine’s Day, things started out as smoothly as Carmen had predicted. Janice Hagstrom had things completely under control. She gave him the first two periods for regular work and took over the last period completely. She even had games to keep the children busy after the cards had been exchanged, the cookies and ice cream had been demolished, and they were flying around the ceiling with their veins a-clog with sugar.
At noon, Jesse Herrera came back, quiet again. Neil hoped that his mother had kept her end of the bargain, and that her efforts would be rewarded. He had his doubts about both, but the two work periods went well enough.
Judith Cobb came in as the children were streaming out for their last break of the day, and snagged Ramon, Mickey, and Jason to carry in refreshments. Lisa slipped into her mother’s arms briefly, then led her up to Neil. She introduced her politely, with a formality that has to be taught, and Neil shook hands. Then Mrs. Cobb set about arranging the party and Lisa stayed by Neil’s side for a moment. “She’s pretty, isn’t she,” Lisa said.
“She wears too much make-up though.” more tomorrow