“I hear you’ve got a big date for the prom,” my younger brother Max commented at dinner.
“Who said I had a date for prom?” I asked casually, continuing to eat my potatoes and gravy. I could feel Mom’s and Dad’s eyes on me, but I didn’t look up.
“Oh, I heard some of the guys talking,” Max answered. I noticed a mischievous glint in his eyes. Max is only 11 months younger than me, but he towers over me four and a half inches. Therefore, he likes to think of himself as Mean Max. Already as a sophomore he has quarterbacked our varsity football team to a division championship and is now playing first base for the varsity baseball team. “How’d you get Dale Beecher to ask you?” he snickered. “I know Dad can’t afford to bribe him.”
“Max,” I cut in, glowering over at him.
“I heard Dale tell Cory Crandell,” Max insisted.
“But I haven’t told him yes.”
“What?” Max asked, setting his fork on his plate.
“I’m just not going with him,” I shrugged.
Max finished chewing. “Any reason? Or do you have so many dates nowadays that you can afford to turn down lowly guys like Dale Beecher?”
Even for a younger brother, Max really is good looking. More than once my best friend Sandra Bentley has joked about taking Max out.
“Line me up with your brother Beau, and I’ll line you up with Max,” I would bargain jokingly.
“You’ve got a deal. When do you—”
“Don’t you dare say anything to Beau,” I’d threaten. For about ten years I’d had this terrible crush on Beau Bentley. He was a freshman in college, and every girl in town was in love with him. He had been a football and basketball hero, seminary president, and last year’s senior boy voted most likely to succeed.
“Max,” Dad cut in, “let Denise worry about her own dates. Maybe this Beecher fellow isn’t good enough for Denise.”
“Dad, about the time she gets that picky, she won’t ever have a date. Why, I can think of a hundred girls that Dale could—”
“Max,” Dad cautioned from the end of the table.
“So you’re going to turn him down?” Max asked. He looked down the table at Dad, held up his hands in surrender and added, “I’m just asking, not hassling her. Why can’t you go?”
“It’s not like money is our most abundant commodity, Max.”
“Money? Why do you need money to go to a stupid dance?”
I didn’t want to explain what Max already knew. Since Dad had been laid off things had been tight around our place and would be until he returned to work at the end of May, the week after prom.
“A prom isn’t like a regular dance,” I explained impatiently. “You don’t just wear a dress to the prom,” I pointed out. “It has to be a formal, something nice. You have to buy a flower for the guy. I would definitely need new shoes.”
“I think we could help you out,” Mom volunteered.
“Mom, we can’t even buy a jug of milk. We have to drink that putrid powdered stuff from our food storage, and you think we can waste money on a prom formal?”
“It’s your prom, Denise,” Mom went on. “We’ve all planned on your going. You’ve put so much time and work into it, being on the prom committee and all. It wouldn’t be fair if you stayed home.”
“Yeah, we’ll help you, Denise,” Melanie called out.
“Thanks,” I smiled, amazed that the family would really volunteer so willingly, “but I couldn’t feel good about letting you do that.” I could feel a warm blush on my cheek. “This isn’t the last dance of my life. It’s just prom. We really can’t justify throwing money away on the prom.”
“Sometimes there are things a family needs to sacrifice for,” Dad said.
“You don’t go around sacrificing to go to a stupid prom,” I smiled. “Don’t worry. I haven’t planned on going. Really. It’s just no big deal.”
I was proud of the way I handled things at the dinner table. I had been indifferent about the whole thing. I almost thought I’d convinced myself—until I got to my room, closed the door, and was alone. Then I bawled for the next 45 minutes nonstop.
It was a little after 8:30 P.M. when a knock sounded on my door. “Come in,” I said, quickly wiping away my tears.
The door pushed open and in walked Max. “So, how’s the family martyr?” he greeted, plopping down on my bed.
“What?” I gasped.
“Oh, don’t sacrifice for me,” he began to mimic me, daintily clasping his hands in front of his chest, batting his eyes furiously and using a high-pitched voice. “Sacrifice for everyone else, but oh mercy don’t sacrifice for me.” He snickered, shook his head and then asked in his regular tone of voice, “What are you trying to do, play Cinderella?”
I glared at him. “Max, I’m really not in the mood for your jokes; I have a ton of homework.”
“So you don’t really want to go to the prom?” he asked. “You just want the rest of us to go into mourning.”
I hesitated and bit down on my lower lip. “I’m not going.”
“You don’t want to go?” he persisted, studying me.
For a moment I thought I detected a hint of compassion in Mean Max’s teasing eyes. “If things were different here at home.”
“Denise,” Max cut in. He placed his forearms on his knees. He knit his fingers together and stared at the floor. “How much would it cost to go? I don’t mean if you went out and bought a fancy formal,” he added quickly. “Mom could make you something if she had some material. What would everything cost?”
I shrugged. “Maybe $25 or $30 for material. I really don’t know, though. About the same for the shoes. But I’m just making wild guesses because—”
“You could get by with $80 then?”
I stared at Max, completely baffled. I nodded once. Max stood up, reached into his pocket and pulled out four twenties and tossed them to me. I stared dumbly down at the twenties, unable to think. I knew Max had a little money put away. “I can’t take your money, Max,” I stammered. “You’re saving for a set of weights.”
“Hey, it’s not a gift, Denise,” he said, starting for the door. “I just don’t want you to go around broadcasting our poverty. It’s a loan.” He coughed nervously. “Until you get some bucks to pay me back.”
I could feel tears in my eyes, and a lump as big as my fist in my throat. “And what if I can’t ever pay you back?” I asked, totally bewildered and struggling to keep the sob out of my voice.
He turned and jabbed a finger in my direction and in his best Mean Max tone said, “You’ll pay me back, Denise. I don’t handle charity cases.”
Laughing and crying at the same time, I ran over to Max and threw my arms around his neck and said, “Thanks, Max.”
“Now don’t slobber and bawl all over me,” he growled, pushing me away. “You don’t have to get so emotional over a lousy loan.”
The whole family pitched in after that. Mom started on the dress. Sanford, Valerie, and Melanie pooled baby-sitting money and insisted on buying the boutonniere. Mom fixed my hair. And Dad surprised me by getting me a pair of earrings and a necklace. I knew they must have broken him, but he acted as if it were nothing. And all the while, Mean Max groaned and grumbled about all the fuss over a stupid junior prom.
Friday morning, the day of the prom, during breakfast the phone rang. It was Dale Beecher. “Eh, Denise,” he stammered nervously, “something’s come up.” I held my breath, sensing that my magic was about to crumble. “My Grandmother Hansen died late Wednesday night. Her funeral’s tomorrow in Arizona. Because I was out of town yesterday to the baseball game, I didn’t find out about it until late last night.” He paused. I closed my eyes and fought back the tears. “We’re leaving this morning. I know that’s crummy, especially for prom.”
“I’m sorry,” I heard myself say, “about your grandmother.”
“Whose funeral?” Max asked, looking up from his bowl of cracked wheat cereal as I returned to the table in a dismal, disappointed daze.
“I guess I’m not going to the prom after all,” I answered.
“Huh?” Max grunted in surprise.
“Dale’s grandmother passed away,” I said, reaching for a slice of toast. “The funeral is tomorrow in Arizona.”
The rest of the day I agonized behind a facade of fake smiles and fast chatter, never mentioning to any of my friends that my prom night would never be. After school I went straight home, shut myself in my room and made a weak pretense of study, but mainly I just stared at the wall and told myself I wouldn’t cry.
A little after six there was a knock at the door. “Come in,” I called. Max walked in carrying a corsage in a white box. He tossed it on the bed in front of me. “There’s a flower for you,” he said gruffly.
“What’s this for?” I asked.
He cleared his throat and stuffed his fists into his pockets. “I really don’t care about the money, Denise.” He cleared his throat. “I know you want to go, and—well—you would have probably done the same for me.”
“But the flower, Max?”
“I figured I could take you—if you wanted to go. I know I’m no Dale Beecher, and you might think it’s dumb to show up to the prom with your baby brother,” the words gushed out, “but at least you’d get to see what it’s like.” He blushed. “After all, it’s your prom. You ought to at least show up.”
“Hey, if it would embarrass you, I could grease my hair back, paste on a bushy mustache and long sideburns, and wear dark glasses so no one would know who you were with.” He grinned sheepishly and dug his hands deeper into his pockets.
The tears I’d held back so well suddenly broke loose. I rushed to Max, threw my arms around him and squeezed, and this time I didn’t let him wriggle away from me.
“Now don’t go get all emotional,” he complained brusquely, trying to pull away.
I grinned through the deluge of tears. “Your asking means more than a hundred proms. But I know how you feel about proms. I won’t put you through all that.”
Max shrugged, relieved. “I figured you’d turn me down, so I have plan two.”
“All you’re doing up here is staring at the wall and trying not to bawl, so I came up to rescue you.” Before I could utter a protest, Max took me by the arm and dragged me to the kitchen where Mom, Dad, Melanie, Valerie, and Sanford were sitting around the table with a big bowl of buttered popcorn and cans of pop. He pushed me into a chair, shoved the popcorn in my direction and announced, “After tonight you’ll never want to go to a prom.”
“Where did all this come from?” I gasped.
“We’re having banana splits at midnight,” Sanford called out.
I looked at Max, who avoided my gaze. “Something tells me somebody’s not going to get a set of weights right away.”
He shrugged. “Sometimes a guy’s got to sacrifice. The others chipped in too.”
For the next two hours we forgot all about the prom and gorged ourselves on pop and popcorn. We played Uno and Rook and laughed until we were sick. I had never realized I could have so much fun with my family, especially on prom night.
At 8:30 P.M. when we were just getting ready to set up Trivial Pursuit, the doorbell rang and Sandra rushed in. “Why didn’t you tell me Dale was out of town?” she demanded. “Tami Roth just called and said he had to go to his grandmother’s funeral. Why didn’t you say something? You’ve got to go,” Sandra burst out. “You put the whole prom together.”
“But, Sandra, I don’t—”
“You don’t have time to sit around and gape,” Sandra cut in. “I’ve got a date lined up for you. Beau’s home for the weekend, and he just overheard me saying you didn’t have a date. He spoke right up and said he’d take you, that he’d love to take you. I didn’t pressure him at all. Honest!”
“You’ve got a date with Beau Baby,” Max called out, thumping the table with his hand and standing up. “You landed the big one without even trying.”
Everything was happening so quickly. A few hours earlier the prom had meant everything to me. But the last two and a half hours altered my feelings. I guess the last two weeks had changed that. I could feel tears well up in my eyes. They weren’t even tears of excitement because I could go to the prom with Beau Bentley. They were tears of joy, and I was suddenly glad about Dad’s layoff and Dale’s absence because those seemingly devastating circumstances had helped me discover my family in a way that I never had before.
“What about it, Max?” I smiled over at him. “You spoke first.”
Max took a deep breath and pondered for a moment with that teasing glint in his eye. “Well,” he drawled, “since Beau Baby’s howling at the door, I’ll back out this time.” He shrugged. “I know that will be a real step down for you, but I guess we’d better give Beau a break this time.” Sighing deeply, he dug his fists into his pockets. “I’ll even let him borrow my corsage. I doubt he thought of that.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, smiling.
He cleared his throat. “I’ll sacrifice this time. After all, I’m getting used to sacrificing now. But,” he added, raising a finger, “we will expect you home for banana splits. You can even bring Beau if you want.”
I laughed, gave him a quick hug and said, “I wouldn’t miss it for anything. Promise.” He swallowed and tried to duck his head. The Mean Max mask was gone. I saw a trace of mist in his eyes, and I knew I would be the luckiest girl at the prom, not because I was going with Beau Bentley but because I had the greatest family in the world.