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  • Jenny Runkel

The Cutest Boy in the Neighborhood

Updated: Mar 18, 2020

My dad worked his way up the ranks of a petroleum company in the oil boom of the 1970s and 80s by selling “mud”, the fluid used in drilling rigs. He wasn’t some boring paper pusher. He traveled by helicopter to working oilrigs. He had a company car and his very own hardhat. He threw parties for guys named Chick and Bud. He was always working on some monumental deal and he was always – always – on the phone saying “Dammit!”. For the first few years of my life, I genuinely didn’t know that “Dammit” was a curse word. I thought it was some unfortunate soul's last name who was always in trouble.

The stressors of the job were pretty intense. He was usually gone before we awoke each morning and didn’t return until 7 or 8 each night, utterly exhausted. He often would fall asleep with a stack of paperwork on the TV tray beside him, awaking only if we dared change the channel, and scaring us with a loud, “Dammit!” before falling back to sleep. As he ascended the ranks, his company moved him to progressively larger territories. By the time I turned ten years old, our family had already moved seven times. By the summer of 1982, when we moved to Houston, I was an old pro at being the new kid.

Houston was by far the biggest town we’d lived in. And somehow, the hottest. Even with the air conditioner on, we could only unpack a few boxes before becoming drenched in sweat. Not that you really had to be doing anything in Houston to be drenched in sweat. The humidity during the summers is so tangible that it sneaks right up into your house and curls itself around you as soon as you get out of the shower in the morning. Then it won’t let go until about mid-October. It’s basically a 6 month-long punch in the face.

One particular morning after this particular move, I was sweating in my bedroom trying to figure out what one wears for the day when the temperature is already 98 degrees before 9am. I decided on my favorite pair of Jams shorts and my “Mighty Pit Grill Hornets” soccer shirt. What made the look really come together was my Sean Cassidy style bowlcut. The way that it swayed back and forth in the wind as I rode my banana seat bike made me feel like a real Rockstar and was truly a sight to behold - a fact supported by the growing gossip unbeknownst to me snaking its way up and down the culdesacs of Lakewood Forest.

I had scoured the neighborhood on a daily basis ever since our arrival looking for anyone remotely close to my age. No such luck. Just a handful of 3rd graders on Big Wheels. Mere babies. I was entering 5th grade and clearly needed to find people my own age who did cool things like make obstacle courses in empty lots for their bikes. I had just about given up on the search for a friend when Dena Hensley found me.

That morning, right after emptying my last box, the doorbell rang. As the deep chimes of our new house reverberated through the two-story foyer, I didn’t think much of it. People from my dad’s new office had been stopping by quite often to check on us. I stood on the top step to see who it was this time. Was it Chick? Bud? Dammit? Nope. No bland white company car sedan parked outside. Hold the phone! Could it be? Could it possibly be? Yes. Just above the sidewalk was the most beautiful sight to behold: a kid’s bike tossed on the yard.

I eagerly looked out of the window to catch a glimpse of this rare sighting and saw a skinny shape chewing a wad of bubble gum with the ferocity and nervous energy of a chain smoker. My mother opened the door to reveal girl about my age with thick glasses and gangly limbs. Her mouth was so full of braces that she had a hard time talking and her brown hair laid limply across her forehead, stuck firmly in place by the heat. She fruitlessly pushed up her glasses as they slid down her freckled nose and said with total confidence, “Hi. I’m Dean Hensley. I’m here to meet the new boy.”

My mother cocked her head to one side with curiosity and then called up to the game room for Stephen, my 7-year-old brother, to come downstairs. He raced down the curved stairwell clad in his trusty Speed Racer underoos and slid into Dena with a thud. She stopped chewing her gum for a long second and furrowed her brow. I then heard her ask him if he had an older brother who had been riding a banana seat bike around the neighborhood. He cackled with laughter, said yes, and pointed up at me before turning on his heels to running away.

She looked up, gave me a shiny, toothy grin, and extended a box of orange tic tacks. “Hi! You must be him. I’m Dena. All the girls in the circle think you’re cute and they asked me to see if you’d come out to play.”

I don’t exactly remember how I told Dena that I wasn’t a boy and I don’t exactly remember how she took it, but I do remember that for a short time in Lakewood Forest, I was the cutest new boy in the neighborhood. And for the next school year, I had a new best friend.

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