Chapter 35

 

Vo-Dee-Oh-Doe

 

 

“Ham ‘n’ Eggs” was the moniker bestowed by Chester Brockhurst, Class of ’26, on Hamilton Exelby, the second Principal of Vanderlund Township High School.  There may have been some parallels between his predecessor Whielding Wheaf and Woodrow Wilson (especially retrograde ones, toward the end) but Hamilton Exelby cultivated a dynamic resemblance to Theodore Roosevelt, including the Bull Moose moustache and Square Deal pince-nez.  He went so far as to purchase a Dutch Colonial manse that he couldn’t afford on Roosevelt Way, to house his suffragette wife and brood of irrepressible daughters.

 

The eldest and least docile of these was Phyllis, called “Flips” from early childhood for turning handstands and cartwheels before learning to walk—a pedestrian activity she would seldom or never resort to.  By sixth grade Flips advanced head-over-heels to flapperhood by being the first girl in her class to bob her hair, while openly scorning the traditional rite of passage from short skirts to long:

 

“Say, listen—you can’t hardly run properly with hems down around your shinbones!”

 

When VTHS opened its mighty doors in 1924, Flips sprinted through them as pacesetter of the sophomore contingent.  A very short time later, she marched into her father’s office with Miss Grissell the physical education teacher, to lodge a joint complaint about the unfinished state of the Girls Gymnasium.

 

“Now see here, Phyllis,” said Mr. Exelby, “it’s high time you learned patience—”

 

“Say listen, Pop!  Everything’s jake with the Boys Gym—they’re already in there doing setting-up exercises—and they’ve got a dandy dressing room with lockers and benches and plumbing—hot and cold running water!  Where are we s’posed to go and what’re we s’posed to use—the pump out in the back alley?  I ask you!”

 

Mr. Exelby dared not inquire in Miss Grissell’s presence whether Flips was reporting hearsay about the boys locker room and shower faucets, or if she’d barged right in and inspected everything firsthand.

 

Backed by her younger sisters, her mother (first president of the Vanderlund League of Women Voters) and Miss Grissell, Flips rallied the girls of VTHS to “show ‘em what we’re made of”—literally, if necessary.  This bodacious threat resulted in bathing facilities being hastily improvised in the basement boiler room, though it flustered Mr. Svensen the janitor and meant chaperones had to go on monitor duty, lest peepminded boys find excuses to venture into the cellar.

 

“Say, listen—if any of ‘em tries to catch me washing up, I’ll turn ‘em into a stag and throw ‘em to the hounds!”

 

English teachers, while applauding Flips’s grasp of mythology, urged her to set a less slangy and more grammatic example as the Principal’s eldest daughter.  She persisted in prefacing sentences with the same two words and so got dubbed the “Say Listen Girl” by Chester Brockhurst, who (in a long-afterward retrospective) admitted “this was not one of my more inspired sobriquets—but then Elinor Glyn beat me to ‘It.’”

 

Which Phyllis Exelby possessed in abundance, though she brought It more to bear on sports fields than in beguiling what she liked to call the “unfair sex.”  Boys had a well-tended football gridiron at VTHS, to which girls were denied access except as spectators; they had to play “swamp hockey” on muddy trampled turf.  The Boys Gym was ready for business on Opening Day; girls were obliged till almost Christmas to make do wherever they could—stringing up nets in the boiler room, whacking handballs against basement bulkheads, braving wet weather to race five times around the school grounds and then head for the Sendt Street Drugstore, to reward themselves with hot fudge sundaes.

 

Unfairest of all, Vanderlund’s boy teams were charter members of the Northeast Suburban Townships League, while girls were banned from interscholastic participation and restricted to home-based tournaments—third-string seniors vs. first-string juniors, etc.  That is, until Flips and her Class of ’27 chose an all-star basketball roster and challenged their counterparts at Startop, Multch and Willowhelm to exhibition games (“not that we’ll exhibit anything, not in black bloomers and middy blouses”) for charitable fundraising.  They even breached The City to fling gauntlets at the girls of Pfiester and Hartnett High Schools, before Mr. Exelby intervened to prohibit “barnstorming” as unsuitable for young ladies.

 

“Say listen, Pop!  Would everything be jake if we got together to play no-holds-barred tiddledywinks?

 

Pince-nez popping off Ham ‘n’ Eggs’s out-of-joint nose: “Go to your room this instant, Miss, and write out I will not sass my father to his face one hundred times!”

 

“How many times can I sass my father to his face?”

 

“PHYLLIS—”

 

“I’m going, I’m going…"

 

Eventually all the way to Wellesley, where she excelled at archery and crew and the newly-added sport of lacrosse.  Phyllis remained in the East as a teacher, coach, longtime athletic director of Elizabeth Cady Stanton College, and indefatigable promoter of women’s sports through the triumphant passage of Title IX.  Forever a contender, she then delayed retirement from Stanton till she exceeded the thirty-year longevity mark her father’d made at VTHS (though not the four-decade record set by Whielding Wheaf—so unfair!) and penned a parting manifesto titled Why Walk When You Can RUN?

 

To Vanderlund Township High School she presented the Flips Exelby Physical Education Trophy, awarded each June to the girl who, through inspiring performance and sportswomanship, exemplified dedication to the spirit of show ‘em what we’re made of.  Anticipating the masculine snortles this spirit would continue to elicit, space was left below the trophy title and above the names of its recipients (among whom was Celeste Schwall, Class of ’68) for two stark unyielding words to be inscribed:

 

SAY LISTEN

 

*

 

“Ladies, be prepared to do a lot of pickin’ ‘n’ grinnin’.”

 

So advised Natalie Fish, captain of the 1977 JV girls volleyball squad, as its dozen members wriggled into what Coach Celeste declared to be the latest thing in sportswear: “compression shorts.”  Supposedly these would provide you more freedom of movement, quicken your reactions, prevent injury and reduce fatigue.  Whether or not any of this proved true, it was immediately undeniable that they rode up your rear end faster than any cavalry coming to save the day.

 

Natalie Fish, planted in front of the locker room’s lone full-length mirror, plucked her upridden seat outward and downward and watched over one shoulder as it snapped back into highrise place.  “Yowzah!  Anybody order a couple of squnched buns?” she asked her eleven charges, most of them were trying to see their own skintight seats in what little of the mirror Nat’s chassis didn’t fill.  (She was built less like a Fish than a momma penguin, which kept her from advancing to the varsity despite her powerful serves and dexterity as a setter.)  “Whaddaya say, gang?  Who’s up for an hour of butt-bumping drills?”

 

“C’mon c’mon c’mon, give the rest of us a chance—OH yeah.  OH yeah.  Watch me shake it till I bake it!” went Sheila Quirk, gyrating her impudent Irish duff at the mirror as if on a disco dance floor.

 

“Be serious,” urged Michelle Blundell, slightly incoherently as she bit the remnants of her fingernails.  “If Coach says these’ll ‘enhance our performance,’ we ought not to make fun of them.”  (To Michelle, every word out of Ms. Schwall’s mouth was as trustworthy as a blown-out birthday candle.)

 

“Won’t be us making fun,” slurped Kirsten Ogilvie, wiping her mouth on her wrist after a lengthy detour by the water fountain.  Thirsty Kirsten could chug an entire quart without pausing for breath, then perspire every drop of it during a match till even her kneepads got soggy.  “It’ll be everyone else making fun of us.  Never mind—just hang loose,” she told her teammates and soon-to-be-dampened keister.

 

“Are everybody’s shorts too small?” Laurie Harrison wondered aloud, trying to adjust her pair to cover more fundament.

 

“Mine aren’t,” sniffed Henrietta Lang, whose skinny (she preferred “wiry”) brown frame lacked a stereotypical black girl’s backside.

 

“Mine’s fine,” chimed in Alex Dmitria, though she too wasn’t overendowed bootywise.  (Maybe Craig Clerkington’s ass-slap had permanently pre-compressed it.)

 

“They feel like regular shorts to me,” said Pebbles Preston, for whom an extra-small size had to be ordered.  Though in tolerably good health, she always gave the impression of having just risen from a sickbed after a wasting fever sapped all vitality, except from her thatch of tangerine hair.

 

Ann Hew stepped up to the mirror, pivoted, glanced once over each shoulder, shrugged both and moved silently away.  She was Ann-without-an-E Hew-without-a-Y, hence “Ann Who?”—and tended to blend nondescriptly into offcourt backgrounds.

 

Samantha Tiggs, as recently as a week ago, would’ve given anything to be that inconspicuous.  If these highrise shorts had been available last Saturday, she might’ve quit the team rather than delineate her hindquarters in what was practically the lower half of a swimsuit (Lycra spandex, after all).  But that was before Tab Tchorz entered the Cherry-Pickin’ ‘n’ Grinnin’ picture; so Sammi sidled her statuesque profile into reflective range with a pleased blush.  “Laurie?  Do they sell skirts that’d make my, y’know, bottom kind of um well shape up like these shorts do?”

 

“SuhMANtha!”

 

“I mean, since we’re going shopping anyway…”

 

(After practice they were scheduled to join Sammi’s delighted mother and sister for a belated back-to-school wardrobe revamp.)

 

Vicki Volester, loitering in the rear guard, heaved a deep sigh and finally took the looking-glass plunge.  “Oh Gahd,” she quietly supplicated.  Tell me it’s an optical illusion.  Let it be Sammi’s caboose superimposed on the mirror that’s as amazed as we all are by her 180 degree rotation (see? I’ve done my Geometry) so she suddenly wants to show off her bod.  I mean, she’s six-foot-two and wears a D-cup; so let HER be the scrump-tilly-umptious one and leave MY cheeks out of it for Jesus’s sake Amen.

 

A prayer that got punctured when Chookie Yentlebaum stuck her assistant managerial head into the locker room to shrill “They want your tuchuses out on the court, now!”

 

“The plural of tuchus is tuchi, Chookie,” rhymed Natalie Fish, leading the parade of sculpted glutes toward the gym’s double doors.  One posterior, though, lingered by the mirror while its owner deliberately yanked her shorts into a flagrant self-inflicted wedgie.

 

“IS!” brayed Chookie.  “Get it in gear!”

 

IS indeed.  Vicki averted eyes, head, and body so as not to be subjected yet again to the breathsnatching heartpiercing shock she got every time she caught a glimpse of Isabel Carstairs.  Don’t look at her.  Don’t think about her.  Just keep moving—

 

Hold back a bit, though, with the other sophomore JVs, to let the four juniors enter the gym first.  Not so much from a sense of precedence or “age before beauty,” as to have Nat, Michelle, Pebbles, and Thirsty K bear the brunt of the varsity’s hoots and jeers:

 

“OOH la la la!—”

 

“Dang, y’all sprang yer thangs—

 

“Di-i-i-i-rect from the Great Pumpkin’s Patootie Patch—”

 

HA!!  HA!!  HA!!—”

 

“Shake shake shake, shake shake shake—”

 

“Move ‘em in, move ‘em out, move ‘em in, roundabout—”

 

“Keep them dogies rollin’, raw-HIDE—”

 

The lofty Biguns, clad in standard baggy practice shorts, peppered the Littluns with derisive commentary till Ms. Ramsey put a whistlestop to it.

 

“You’ll be dancing the ‘Tighten Up’ before the season’s through, if those skivvies work as advertised!” she remarked.  Ms. Ramsey was a Phys Ed teacher of the conventional school, but kept an eye out for new winning edges.  Even so, any Tightening Up by the Biguns would be then and this was still now; so most of them prolonged their smirks.

 

There were four juniors on the varsity squad, all veterans of the groundbreaking ’75 Ladybugs: Susan Baxter, Rhonda Wright, Yvette Metcalf, and Lisa Lohe who’d lobbied to have first crack (so to speak) at testing the compression shorts, before the JVs got designated as guinea pigs.  Vicki and Sammi were now under strict instructions to keep Lisa briefed (again so to speak) each lunchtime about how their shorts were shaping up (ditto ditto ditto).  Lisa too was on the qui vive for winning or at least starting edges:

 

“There may be only six starters per game,” she’d confided on Friday, “but that doesn’t mean they have to be six seniors.

 

Lisa entertained grave doubts about how well the varsity’s senior sextet would cohere on the court.  Two of them had concocted excuses from today’s practice, what with the Labor Day weekend having begun; but Ms. Ramsey’d threatened to discard any no-shows who weren’t certifiably unfit for duty.  Which, to Lisa Lohe’s mind, was already a topic for debate.

 

Take the varsity captain, Ginger Snowbedeck.  This was a girl in perpetual motion, snapping her fingers like an appreciative beatnik, guffawing even louder than Mumbles Metcalf just now, seeking the thick-of-things whatever their environment—and exuding more ego than Kirsten Ogilvie did sweat.  “Who needs modesty?” she’d say, grooving on her own dishabille as she ambled around the locker room after a shower, always the last one to get dressed.  Ginger wouldn’t permit you to dislike her, but “feel free to be jealous”—of her looks, her build, her athletic and romantic prowess, her ability to party all night and skate through the next schoolday, playing better while hungover than any guy in her harem.  If Ginger Snowbedeck had her druthers, they’d spend volleyball season wearing bikini uniforms at beach venues.

 

Gwendolyn Cokingham, by way of contrast, favored the forest (for the trees) yet always seemed to receive the splintery end of the stick.  Three years ago she’d led the pack petitioning for a girls cross country program at VW, only to see its launch get put on hold till after her freshman year.  At VTHS she’d mounted the same campaign and won approval last spring for a senior high cross country team—which Mr. Tuerck’s School Board aborted as “unaffordable.”  Gwen then expected to be named the varsity volleyball captain as a kind of consolation prize—which Ginger Snowbedeck snapped up instead.  So Gwen now bore a chip on her shoulder the size of a boulder (with a Sisyphus j-o-l-t) and was seldom at a loss for something to bitch about.

 

(To Vicki, she and Moana Lisa Lohe sounded like kindred soreheads.)

 

Acting as a buffer between Ginger and Gwen was good-natured Joyce Usher, she of the lopsided grin and cockeyed superstitions.  Prior to every serve she had to bounce the ball twice with her right hand, spin it counterclockwise on her left, press it to her brow for three Mississippis, then (if Ginger quipped something like “Before we hit menopause, Ush?”) hold it for an askew-giggly “Now I’ve got to start over again…”  And that was just serves; Joyce subscribed to a whole catalog of arcane rituals.

 

Two other Biguns (who’d’ve earned that distinction even if they hadn’t made varsity) were here to keep in shape for the next few months, having been penciled in respectively as captains of the basketball and track teams.  Not that Amanda Pound didn’t take volleyball as absolutely seriously as she did hoops: at the top of her voice, with next to no patience for human error, and none whatsoever for careless mistakes.  Nor did Demandin’ Amanda see the slightest point in Celeste Schwall’s “yogaerobic ding-a-ling dance-alongs”—which pretty much cemented her enemyhood, so far as most of the JVs were concerned.

 

But they were all in awe of Louisa Lang, not least her kid sister Etta, who subsisted on infrequent words of praise doled out one by hard-earned one.  Though never unfriendly, Louisa could go through an entire match (including the bus rides to and from an away date) uttering no more than the basic syllables of the sport—“Mine,” “Yours,” “Here,” “Out,” “Good” (if it were truly good).  Comparatively speaking, she made Susan Baxter seem as loquacious as Laurie Harrison.

 

And then there was Mauly the Mauler.

 

Millicent Carstairs had been a stellar gem rising in the Startop sky, till she went berserk during a field hockey faceoff and knocked three teeth out of two mouths (neither of them hers).  As this was her worst but not first such transgression, Mauly’s parents were called in for a confab with the headmistress.  Mrs. Carstairs, herself a Startop alumna, sought to smooth everything over; Mauly’s father (an eminent oral surgeon whose offer to repair the dental damage at a discount had been spurned) took offense at the headmistress’s “shabby misapprehensions” and withdrew both his daughters from enrollment.  Now they were here at VTHS, Millicent wreathed in Lydia Languishtude when a blood-red battle-glint didn’t derange her eyes, and Isabel—

 

is situated squarely in front of you as the JVs take their warmup laps, except that nothing about Isabel Carstairs is square least of all her mega-wedgied derriere, and even from behind she looks exactly like

 

(DON’T look.  DON’T think.  JUST keep moving…)

 

“Oh Lord,” went Sheila-Q, focused not on Miss Doppelglüteser but the gymasium bleachers.  “Check out who’s making another grandstand appearance.”

 

Hobbling, wobbling, on the verge of sobbling: there swayed Doreen Jobling.  Who should’ve been the fifth junior on the JV squad, had she not ensnared a foot in her seatbelt while leaping out of the car after acing her driver’s test.  Result: one broken ankle, sidelining Dory for at least six weeks from driver’s seat and volleyball court.  Three of the six weeks had passed, but she was still in a cast and using crutches—plus plenty of handkerchiefs to blot away nonstop tears.  Everyone’d made a big fuss over Dory the first time she bravely creaked in to watch practice, yet it was no fun hearing her weep while you were trying to concentrate on pass-set-hit drills.

 

“At least she doesn’t have to wear these,” murmured Vicki, with a fanny-wag that made Sheila snortle, since Dory (unlike her nautical namesake) was not flat-bottomed.

 

“We’ve got enough fat-asses on the team as it is.  Dunno if they’ll help us play any better,” said S-Q, re-gyrating her duff, “but I betcha we’ll pack more guy-asses in the stands than the varsity does!  Specially with what we’ve got to offer—”

 

 

BAHDEE contact contract

SIGN IT on the dotted line!

BAHDEE contact contract

SIGN IT on the dotted line!

 

(And an audible honk-in-the-hanky by Doreen Jobling.)

 

*

 

Lights.  Camera.  Action.

 

Fast-forward through practice and the rest of Labor Day weekend.

 

The invisible director of the Whale of a Time series must’ve traveled up from Fort Lauderdale to shoot The Second Week of School (Which, Like the First, Starts on a Tuesday).

 

By mixing and matching last week’s outfits, Vicki and Alex were able to dress patriotically yet not repetitively, this time to highlight the opening of volleyball season.  On which, by mutual consent, they didn’t dwell at the bus stop or while riding the BG Limousine or when they met up again in Third Hour World History.  Though Alex kept beaming and nodding and giving thumbs-up on anticipatory behalf of the Lady Gondoliers:

 

We’re going to have so much fun…

 

Neither fun nor games were paramount in Vicki’s mind that Second Tuesday.  Again and again she gauged how deep the water’d gotten in each of her classes over the past week, and how long she might hope to swim forward against the current.  She was maintaining pace so far, thanks to extra study time furnished by the three-day holiday weekend.  But there wouldn’t be another of those for a month or more to come; and too much of the past three days had been devoted to you-guessed-it—fun and games.

 

Not every game had been fun for all.  It would’ve been lots better if Rags Ragnarsson hadn’t crashed the Denvour family barbecue and picked a fight with Crystal’s new boyfriend, Judd “For the Defense” Courtney.  Judd was too nice (as well as tall dark and hunksome, plus a senior and a starting cornerback—way to go, Crystal!) to do more than block Rags’s punches and shove him backwards.  However, this sent Rags tumbling heavily over an Orchestra Hall acoustician (the same one Meg Murrisch had interviewed last February) who boxed Rags’s ears and kicked him debilitatingly on the kneecap.

 

“He was always lame,” Crystal insisted this morning before Biology.  “I just didn’t realize it soon enough.”

 

“Soon enough for what?” inquired Nanette Magnus.

 

“And how soon’ll Rags be ready to see other people again?” Delia Shanafelt wanted to know.

 

“Just as soon as he reattaches his bollocks,” predicted Downtown Petula.

 

“Why, Miss Pierro—you’ve been reading ahead in the textbook!” rasped Mr. Dimancheff, entering the lab and the conversation with one of his pitiless piranha smiles.  Which Petula returned, downbite for downbite: Mr. Dimancheff being her idea of an equitable teacher.

 

“(Do you understand any of this stuff about enzymes?)” Vicki whispered to Nonique, having read only so far ahead as this morning’s topic.

 

“(Just that they come before oh-zymes,)” Nonique whispered back.  With, when Vicki glanced up in startled worriment, a tiny closed-lip teehee: showing forward progress of her own against last week’s tide.

 

More fun.  More games.  In Spanish, Jenna Wiblitz doodled little springs-for-legs critters whose arms stretched impossibly high toward zooming volleyballs.  In World History, Becca Blair asked what sort of recreational pastimes had the ancient Egyptians enjoyed when they weren’t making papyrus or mummifying cats.  (“Competitive slave-driving,” replied Ms. Goldberg.)  Then came Geometry, where Robin Neapolitan was still laughing about Rags’s barbecue debacle—till they heard a voice like a melting marshmallow parfait go “Hiiiieeee…” behind them.

 

With a crash-scrape-clunk as Brad Faussett, Mike Spurgeon, and (to a carefully curtailed degree) Floyd Lewis clustered round the gloppytongued speaker.

 

“I ever mention how much Swiss Miss pisses me off?” Robin growled.

 

Ssshhhh went Vicki, though she had to agree.  Swiss Miss had regrettable connotations dating back to cocoa-mouthburn in toddlerhood, multiplied by that Beastly study session with Roger Mustardman’s “taste the yo-de-lay-hee-ho” and Tail-End’s “it looksss like hot tomato juicccce!”  Compounded now by this Swiss Miss Made Flesh—Lady Wish-She’d-Gone-to-Boarding-School-in-Switzerland—where, if she had, she wouldn’t be here now in Room 221, lurking in wait for you to turn your head and get zapped YET AGAIN by the blowdryer-in-a-bathtub thunderbolt that—

 

(wait for it)

 

(drumroll please, Robin)

 

—Isabel Carstairs was a dead-ringer lookalike for Patricia Elaine Volester.

 

Except that “Is” had aquamarine eyes instead of emeralds.

 

Which, bordered as they were by goldilocks and goldibangs, meant her head was decked with Vanderlund’s school colors (as Alex had happily observed) even before she’d transferred over from Startop.

 

Make that been transferred over.  Very much against her will, resisting every step of the way, even swallowing warm saltwater a week ago to upchuck out of coming the First Day.  Not that Isabel’d been that fond of Startop either; ever since watching the made-for-TV Heidi movie back in first grade, she’d beseeched her parents to bankroll an Alpine education encircled by cheesemongers and cuckoo clocks.  Far away from big sister Millicent, who alternately ignored and tormented her as Mauly’s pendulum swung from lethargy to mania, with pitstops greased by Lynndha Ednalino’s pharmaceuticals.

 

The Carstairs transfer to VTHS was convenient for Millicent, popping ‘ludes and schlepping around with Traversers when she wasn’t prowling over the volleyball court in search of quarry to mangle.  But Isabel could only yodel to whoever’d listen—or pretend to listen, in the case of hornyboys—when she wasn’t drippety-dropping names, ranks, and society numbers:

 

“…my Granddaddy Altdorf went to Southwest Texas State with Lyndon Johnson and gave him the nickname ‘Bull,’ you can guess what that was short for, before he made a mint making bratwurst back in New Braunfels—Granddaddy I mean, not LBJ…”

 

“…then we went backstage after the Rumours concert and Lindsey Buckingham said to me, ‘You sure look fine, girl—lay-me-down-in-the-tall-grass fine!’  Wasn’t that sweet of him?  Right in front of Stevie Nicks, too…”

 

“…oh, this old thing?  I’d almost forgot it was in my summer closet—haven’t put it on since Pyro-theque Night at the Shoreward Club, and even then I got talked out of it to go swimming au naturel in the Lake underneath the skyrockets, such a fluorescent adventure…”

 

(At the Shoreward, mind you—not to be mistaken for the plebeian New Sherwood or picayune Petty Hills or uncouth Maine Street Beach.  And the “old thing” in question?  A bright fuchsia minifrock that Bob Mackie might’ve designed for an upscale cocktail waitress; it barely contained Isabel or covered her equally vivid/pricey/scanty lingerie.  Sheila-Q thought Is wore This Old Thing to school in hopes of promptly being sent home, to change into something less “comfortable.”)

 

Needless to say, her brand of swankpalaver was meat and drink to Laurie Harrison.  She scarfed down whatever braggartries Is dished up, as did Sammi Tiggs and nail-gnawing Michelle Blundell.  Vicki tried to stay out of earshot, too often unsuccessfully, yet thankful that Isabel’s voice sounded nothing like Tricia’s—aside from a satirical pastiche Tricia liked to do of Blanche DuBois advertising Southern Comfort:  “It’s terribly, terribly sweeeeeeet—why, it’s a liqueuuuuuuur, Ah believe!”  (Glug glug glug…)

 

Isabel seemed piqued by Vicki’s static-electrified flinches whenever they happened to be vis-à-vis.  But she asked no questions, and Vicki didn’t volunteer the info that You’re a carbon copy of my older sister and also of our grandmother when she was a girl, so maybe there was a Kosnowski who changed his name to Carstairs way back and we’re like cousins or something, and oh by the way my sister posed stark naked for Playboy’s “Girls of the Big Ten” which those hornyboys clustering round you have probably committed to memory so don’t be surprised if they think you’re related to “Lucia Vantrop,” better you than me, and thank God my parents are waiting for our home opener and won’t be at today’s away match ‘cause I haven’t figured out how to warn them about your superresemblance to Tricia that’s my sister who we don’t talk a whole lot about anymore…

 

In Study Hall there was Samantha’s new dress to praise: sea-green with lemon stripes, as befitted a good Gondolier.  Apparently Laurie and the Tiggses couldn’t agree whether vertical or horizontal stripes best befitted Sammi’s anatomy, and so went with diagonal.

 

“Do you think they make me look crooked?”

 

“Hardly!  That’s a really great dress—”

 

“But is it slimming?

 

“Sammi!  You don’t need to look any slimmer—”

 

“Oh, now I wish I’d got a, y’know, thingamajig” (stressed gestures) “pantygirdle!”

 

“Those’re for old ladies,” interjected Nonique Smith, after another tiny closed-lip teehee.

 

“Just put on your compression shorts,” Vicki told Sammi.  “They’ll do the trick.”

 

Which Lisa Lohe disputed at lunch, saying their trickdoing hadn’t been tested yet under actual match conditions, just intrasquad scrimmages.  But before Lisa’s critique could continue, Mary Kate Hazeldene at the next table said “Let’s ask Vicki!” and Cheryl Trevelyan ordered Stu Nugent to “Move your silly swimmer’s butt” so she and Mary Kate could scoot over nearby.

 

“W-what?” Vicki stuttered, clutching her Tupperware cup of macaroni salad.

 

“Is this going to take long?” asked Lisa.  “We’re working on a game plan here!”

 

“Don’t think long, think tall,” said Jenna Wiblitz, quickdrawing a frowny Lisa-face glaring up at a ponytailed giantess.

 

“That better not be me, Niblets!” objected Cheryl, who was the same height as Lisa if you deducted her bouffancy.

 

“We just wanted to ask,” Mary Kate called over their heads to Vicki, “how well you know That Guy.”

 

Cue the Marlo Thomas theme song as attention shifted to Rags Ragnarsson limping toward his table, using a cane to support the Ace-bandaged knee exposed below garish bermudas—and to bat away a barrage of wadded-up napkins from his hooting jeering jockpals.  “Aw-REET!” they cheered as Rags socked one wad across the cafeteria and into a trash barrel.  He started dancing on his good leg, cane shaken aloft like a devil’s pitchfork, so the faculty monitor took him into custody.

 

Cheryl and Mary Kate exchanged glances while Holly Brollis sang “Yer blind, ump! Yer blind, ump! / Ya must be outta yet mind, ump!

 

“Ump…” echoed Vicki.

 

“Forget it,” said Cheryl, starting to scoot away; but “I still think he’d be right for her,” Mary Kate sweetly asserted.

 

“For who?”

 

For Doreen Jobling, who badly needed distraction from her heart-and-bodily aches.  She’d been going with Larry Garrigan, though he was “Throb” no more—having dropped from toast-of-the-town in ninth grade to marmalade-side-down in tenth, to dumping Dory just before eleventh because he found her ankle-cast a “turnoff.”  Rags Ragnarsson might be a year younger than Dory, with a learner’s permit instead of a license—both major impediments—yet he was big and manly in a doggish way (Dory loved dogs) and hey, they now had damaged limbs in common.

 

“We better go warn the poor kid he’s up for sale in the meat market,” Stu Nugent told Frank Wharton.

 

“Don’t you dare!” they were chided, as Mary Kate and Cheryl cross-examined Vicki goodcop/badcop-style: one probing into Rags’s virtues, the other categorizing his faults.  Holly laughed her head off, Nonique undertook her third tiny teehee of the day, Jenna filled a sketchbook page with artistic commentary, Link Linfold soothed the fuming Lisa, and Sammi gathered everyone’s garbage so as to sashay her diagonal stripes past Tab Tchorz twice (forefront toward the trash barrels, flipside on the return).

 

Vicki, gobbling down pasta between Q’s & A’s, could only hope that a few carbohydrates would take hold in time for this afternoon’s volleyball match.  She’d need all the energy she could get; senior high kept finding new ways to be exhausting.

 

*

 

Archbishop Houlihan Catholic School (Disce aut Discede) was less than a mile south of VTHS, sharing Deeple’s on Steeple as a midpoint hangout; so the Vanderlund volleyball team could’ve economized by donning uniforms in their own locker room, bagging their street clothes, and jogging down the street to the House of Cardinals.  But no, they were required by statute to travel there and back by smelly Yellow Submarine—on which Joyce Usher had to sit next to the window in the second row behind the driver, lest a whammy fall upon them all.

 

They were herded aboard by Chookie Yentlebaum and the varsity manager, Gretel Hitchens, whom Mr. Tuerck would commend as a model of frugality if not stinginess.  Heaven forbid you should act like Oliver Twist and ask for an extra orange slice between games.  (The JVs gave bits of theirs to Thirsty K so she wouldn’t perish of dehydration.)

 

Besides the two managers, two coaches—one doubling as trainer—and twenty-two players, there were also two representatives of the male gender riding the team bus.  These were second-stringers for the Channel school newspaper, sent to cover the Lady Gondoliers’s season opener.  Aggravated feminist Gwendolyn Cokingham requested an explanation why editor Tilda Purcell hadn’t assigned a couple of girls (such as kid sister Trina “Stop the Presses”: all the Purcells were addicted to printer’s ink) to do this.

 

“A very good, very apt, very spit-spat-spot-on question,” said the second-string reporter.  “The fact of the matter, the truth of the issue, the gist of the pickle is that your story is a blue-ribbon gold-star feather-in-the-cap frosting-on-the-cake jackpot of a plum, and I’m here to tell you that I stuck in my thumb and pled for it!”

 

Bled for it??”

 

“On my knees, on my elbows, from the tips of my toes and the end of my nose, using all the corpuscles I’ve been brewing up since I was a wee broth of a boy!”

 

“You are so weird,” said Gwen.

 

Across the aisle, Ginger Snowbedeck had corralled the second-string photographer: “Which do you think is my best side?  Not that I don’t already know, y’understand, but I also know you have to take into consideration things like the time of day. angle of the light—”

 

“Phase of the moon?” suggested the photographer, whom Ginger didn’t recognize but nonetheless was Split-Pea Erbsen.

 

“Direction of the wind?” contributed his colleague, with an even wider and more relentless smile than Mr. Dimancheff’s, Jimmy Carter’s or Sell-O Fayne’s.

 

“What’re you saying?” flared Ginger, who may or may not have recently applied an extra layer of FDS spray.

 

Her Q went un-A’d as the Yellow Submarine completed its short-haul cruise and docked at Houlihan.  The Channel staffers held back to let the Gondoliers file out first, a mannerly courtesy undercut by the Smiler’s rah-rah-ing them along with a fight song cobbled from Gilbert & Sullivan and sifted through Little Richard:

 

 

You have hearts for us a-plenty

  We have hearts but all too few

You are lasses four-and-twenty

  We alas are only two!

Hail, hail our gal-Gondolieri

  Benvenuti!  Tutti-frutti!

Accept out love, our homage and our duty

  Benvenuti!  Oho-rootie!

A-wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom—

 

To which several passerby Gondolieri replied “Give it a rest, Dennis,” or “Put a sock in it, Dennis,” or “You are so weird!”

 

Dennis Desmond was in Vicki’s First Hour Spanish class, and she’d heard him hold forth in rapidfire Español till Señor Banonis told him to ¡Cállate!  He would’ve been a first-rate top-notch five-star Professor Harold Hill in last spring’s production of The Music Man (so Jenna Wiblitz said and Holly Brollis agreed) if he had the slightest inclination to stick to somebody else’s script and not veer off on a dozen different tangents of his own devising.

 

“He keeps cutting the brake lines on his vocal cords,” explained Jenna, illustrating this with a really gross sketch.

 

In other words he’d be the perfect guy for Laurie Harrison, who was lagging back to the end of the Gondolier line so Dennis might gravitate toward her.  Less tentatively, Isabel Carstairs commandeered Split-Pea’s focus with a sudden “Oops—I’m losing my skirt!” that sounded embarrassed, as she fumbled butterfingeredly with its hook and zipper long before reaching the sanctuary of the visitors locker room.  Which, to Sheila Quirk’s glee, was in fact the boys locker room.

 

“And to think Brother Huntley (we called him ‘Hot Lips’) used to chase me away from these very doors, when I tried to take an innocent peek inside!”

 

“It’s not worth it,” said Pebbles Preston, a fellow ex-Houlihanian, who’d used this locker room as a visitor last season and (per usual for Pebbles) appeared to be drained pallid by the memory.

 

“Are you kidding?” said S-Q.  “Were you here when Josie Nygren reverse-streaked the place while it was full of guys?  She was the only one there with any clothes on!  That’s liberation, sister!”

 

Maybe so, but Vicki found it a creepy locale for changing into away jerseys: white longsleeved tops stenciled with “VTHS” and simple greenish numbers for the JVs (while the varsity sported gold-outlined-by-aquamarine numbers and unabridged “VANDERLUND”).  Not to mention replacing skirts and jeans with compression shorts—baggies for the Biguns—in a room where hairy bare-assed males had exuded testosterone-cooties within the past hour.  (And she’d thought sharing a bathroom with one Goofus was shuddersome…)

 

Pulling on her kneepads, Vicki pondered what she was doing here.

 

After the VTHS cross country program got terminated, she’d planned to sign up for intramural soccer to bolster her legs and lungs till track season began; but Alex and Sheila and Laurie had talked her into trying out for volleyball in early August, and the four of them plus unpushy Samantha worked so well together, so intuitively and coordinatedly, that Vicki rode their jerseytails onto the JV squad.

 

To be sure, she herself had a remarkable knack for digging and rolling: the defensive ability to prevent an opponent’s spiked ball from hitting the floor, even at the last fraction of a second, and without injuring herself in the process.  Taller girls joked that this was due to Vicki’s being the shortest and thus the closest to the ground, but she credited it to all those years of ballet lessons.  Accroupis down low—get your forearms or fists under the ball—bump it into the air—tuck hands and chin to your chest—dip one shoulder—roll over onto your back with knees bent—keep rolling till your feet make contact with the floor—give a push and spring up to standing.  (Resist the impulse to make a reverénce.)

 

“Good work,” Ms. Ramsey’d said, her highest accolade; but Celeste Schwall topped it when she arrived from Malibu and agreed to coach the JV lay-deez.  “Watch Vicki,” she told the others, and Vicki would demonstrate how to dig-and-roll.  Only Alex could do it as well—at least until Doreen Jobling got replaced by doesn’t-even-want-to-be-here Isabel, who (everyone soon heard from the Swiss Miss mouth) was a born gymnast, proficient on balance beam and parallel bars.  Then it was “Watch Isabel.”

 

“Yes, watch me!”

 

Not if I can help it.  What am I doing here?

 

In the Houlihan gymnasium, which Vicki’d imagined might be like the vaulted nave of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, though showing open devotion to the Pope and maybe piping Gregorian chants over the P.A. system.  In fact it was just an athletic-scented barn like any other, where players outnumbered attendance in the sparsely occupied stands.

 

The Lady Cardinals wore unflattering red jerseys and black droopy-drawers, so they had no business laughing at the sight of Vanderlund’s JV hind-riders.  Pebbles Preston greeted old friends from a distance, but Sheila-Q waded right into their midst and swapped hospitable wallops with Josie Nygren of reverse-streak fame, who’d had to endure even more Pussycat remarks than Robin “Don’t Call Me Melody!!” Neapolitan.

 

“Hey you guys!” Sheila hollered at the Gondoliers, wrapping an arm around the neck of another Cardinal.  “’Member Ralph Monroe on Green Acres?  Well, here she is—be sure to get her autograph—”

 

“That’s Raphaelle, you Squeegee!” Miss Monroe reminded her, giving Sheila’s wrap-arm a Robinlike punch.

 

Ordered to rejoin the visitors, S-Q claimed she’d been “scouting the opposition—y’know, probing them for weaknesses,” which drew a volley of Lady Card disparagement, while the Gondoliers filed away “Squeegee” for future abuse.

 

Coach Celeste summoned the JVs for a few encouraging words (play smart, do your best, work together as an ensemble, above all enjoy yourselves) before Natalie Fish strolled over to meet the referee, shake hands with the Cardinal captain, and win the coin toss for a “Perfect season so far!” as she told her fellow starters taking the court.

 

“Fries—Fries—Fries,” chanted Vicki and the rest of the bench.  “Sizzle to the skies!

 

This was not to acclaim potatoes served in the French fashion, but to give a cheer to their starting teammates.  Two lineups of approximately equal skills had emerged during mix-and-match training: one was the four juniors and two kid sisters, Henrietta and Isabel; the other was Vicki’s bunch plus Sammi and Ann Hew.  Natalie, laboring under an enforced diet in the hot August gym, had dubbed her group the Fries (“If I can’t eat ‘em, I’ll be ‘em”) and the other the Broils (“Take care not to get charred”).

 

Celeste’s plan was to have the Fries play the first game and the Broils the second, making no substitutions to either lineup if possible so both could get a full workout.  Those who played smartest ensemblewise stood the best chance of returning for the third game.  Which might not be necessary: the Fries scored four straight unanswered points, and Natalie was still serving.

 

She’d mastered the difficult jump serve and delivered it with a Momma Penguin hop that made opponents giggle, even as the ball went thunk between or beyond them for an ace.  Nat was even better at setting, so long as the ball got passed within her somewhat limited reach.  “If I can touch it, I can set it up—anything from a volleyball to a tray of hot lasagna!  (Oooh, lasagna…)”

 

Michelle Blundell played intently, earnestly, with Coach Celeste’s words written across her apprehensive face (above all I’m enjoying myself—above all I’m enjoying myself).  You could depend on Michelle to be there and be square, with plain reliable blocks and bumps.   She followed every order to the letter and every leader to the limit, tending to the most tedious scutwork (like helping Chookie account for the team towels) with dutiful nail-chewing thoroughness: no frills, no flash, no pizzazz.

 

The Houlihanians remembered Pebbles Preston too well to target her as a weak link, even when she glided up and down the court like the ghost of an unadopted orphan.  Watch Pebbles soar up to intercept an incoming missile, her tangerine hair escaping from its tied-back bun, then take a rare stumble as she alighted—

 

Elizabeth??” cried a nun in full habit, perched worriedly on the bottom row of the bleachers.

 

“I’m fine, Sister Loretto,” said Pebbles with her usual wan smile.

 

“Are you fine?” asked Michelle, fingertips halfway to mouth.

 

“We’re all fine,” Natalie informed her, as the Gondoliers made it 7-2 on a clammy-handed roll shot by Kirsten Ogilvie.

 

“Whuff,” went Thirsty K, trying to wipe her palms dry on an already moist jersey.

 

“Yeah Babe!” responded Kirsten’s number-one fan in the stands.

 

The thing about Thirsty K was she never descended into gross-out saturation, even at the end of a match when her jersey would be plastered to her torso.  (Coach Celeste had discreetly suggested she wear a seamless bra and apply bandaids to its contents.)  After a shower, towel-off and blowdry, Kirsten was not only presentable but one of the cutest Gondoliers, with a beaming smile to match Alex’s.  Her habit of chugging beverages indiscriminately might’ve left her prey to drunk-inducing scoundrels if she weren’t as good as engaged to Jake Korva—Tina’s older brother, the one whose Stratocaster Tina’d swiped for auditioning with the Rosa Dartles.

 

“Slather ‘em, you Thirsty girl!” Jacuzzi Jake bellowed, paying no heed to Sister Loretto’s scandalized reaction.

 

The Korva family had peddled hydrotherapeutic products since emigrating from Finland, and was really cleaning up now that hot tubs were all the rage.  Jake, accustomed to casual nudity in saunas, was blasé about damp bare women till he met Kirsten Ogilvie and fell in love at first sweat.  She in turn was mortified at being a natural-born steambath, till Jake convinced her it was a precious gift from the schvitz-gods.

 

“You sure you don’t mind?” she’d gasped through the fog of their First Time.

 

“Don’t… ever… change…” he eventually replied; later composing her a power ballad, “Ev’rytime I Kiss You (I Wanna Taste Some Salt)”—though he had to be careful about plugging in his electric guitar when she was nearby.

 

So Thirsty K basked in Jake’s adulation while trying to concentrate on volleyball placement, unaware that Isabel beside her was firing up the showboat for Jake’s benefit (and Split-Pea’s, and Dennis Desmond’s, and Brother “Hot Lips” Huntley’s, and every other male present’s).

 

Henrietta Lang took note, though, hissing “(Eyes on the ball!)” at Is.

 

“(S’what I’m dooooing,)” Is yodel-burbled back.

 

The two Kid Sisters were a contrast in more than black and white (or skinny brown and shapely peach).  Etta could be pricklish, irritable, averse to non-sports talk; yet in Louisa’s presence (and Louisa was watching the lines during the JV match) she sometimes transcended her limitations, and did so today.  Etta spent much of the Fries game airborne, not soaring like Pebbles but clawing her way up to smack spikes down onto the Cardinal court.  She racked up almost half of the Gondolier points—the score was now 12-5—and had to struggle not to look smug while patrolling her zone of the net.  Who’s aiming for top drawer of the bureau now, hunh?  Somebody answer me that!

 

Henrietta prowled like a jungle cat, a Lang among Langs.  Isabel pranced like a high-struttin’ filly, a tease among Fries.  She kept her uniform on but performed as though it were coming off, tweaking jersey and shorts after every play with that same “Oops—I’m losing my skirt!” attitude.  Her bra, unlike Kirsten’s, had detectable seams and straps and more underwiring than a nuclear submarine; and while most of the Fries were compression-wedgied by now, Is’s was the deepest and most vibrant.  Tricia herself could not have done a better job of attracting notice from the sparse-though-it-was audience.

 

Which included Joss, waving a long stick with an absurdly small “V” pennant on it; and Spacyjane Groh, whose star-sapphire gaze was fixed unblinkingly on Isabel.  Not like a hornyboy’s, but because Joss’d said “(Aaagh!  It’s Florabelle, come to life!)” when Is first joined them in Advanced French class.  “(Wouldn’t that be neat?)” Spacyjane had replied, taking a sheaf of Florabelle photos out of her haversack.  And from some angles the china doll did look uncannily like Isabel Carstairs.

 

“Spacyjane didn’t, like, show the pictures to Isabel and say anything about them, did she?” Vicki’d asked.

 

“No, Space thinks that’d ‘break the spell’—she’d rather believe some Blue Fairy turns Florabelle into a Real Girl who follows us to school every morning, then goes home and turns back into a doll before Space gets there.  So mum’s the word—at least as long as Florabelle’s lips stay zipped.”

 

“Well… that’s a relief,  I guess…”

 

They watched Isabel contort gymnastically and scoop the ball ceilingwards for Henrietta to claw up and slam down, winning the game for Vanderlund 15-7.  Off came the Fries to receive plaudits and orange slices (Chookie risking Gretel’s wrath to slip Kirsten an extra one) and on went the Broils, along with Lisa Lohe to call lines.  She gave Vicki a narrow-visaged glare that clearly said Take plenty of mental shorts-notes.

 

(Gahd!  Talk about putting my ass on the line…)

 

“Broils—Broils—Broils,” chanted the Fries around citrussy mouthfuls.  “Mighty fightin’ goils!

 

“Did they just call us ‘mighty flighty?’” Sheila asked as the Broils took their court positions: Vicki, Laurie, and S-Q in the back row, continuing clockwise to Ann Hew, Sammi, and Alex in front.  Houlihan had the serve to start the second game, and sent the ball straight into the net.  Side out and serve changed: Vanderlund rotated, bringing S-Q forward to leer at the crestfallen Cardinal frontliners, and Alex backward to exemplify how service shots should be made, placed, timed.

 

The other Broils put on a display of close-order choreography, marred only by a few hits that went out of bounds.  It really did feel like taking part in a dance troupe’s recital, using the volleyball as prop and impetus for all the steps and moves: everyone working in synch, even Ann Hew whom you hardly knew but was where she was supposed to be when you wanted to bump her a pass or set up a shot.  Samantha played superconfidently, in her element, all shyness shed; Laurie made bolt-upright leaps like a true bunny-girl; Sheila capered, cavorted, and coruscated without cutting entirely loose; Alex was quintessentially Alex; and Vicki kept the impetus-prop in play with seven consecutive digs-and-rolls.

 

The Gondoliers scored fifteen points in less than fifteen minutes, winning the second game and with it the JV match.  Final count was a wider-margined 15-5, meaning the Fries owed the Broils a pop, which Natalie would probably say meant one pop to be shared by the six of them.  For now, the victorious Broils took their orange slices up into the stands behind the Vanderlund bench, while the rested Fries went to shag balls during the varsity warmup and then call lines for their match.  Which might last another hour or more.

 

Vicki’s gametime euphoria leaked away like the innards of a punctured balloon.  She now had to sit through the varsity match; then try to clean up in that cootiefied locker room; then take the Yellow Submarine back to school—again required by statute, this time through rush hour traffic unless the match ran extra long—and then get home from there.  Despite some sentiment for going out to celebrate the season opener as a squad if not a team, it was still a School Night: homework awaited, as did housework (if you expected to receive any allowance this week) and besides, if you started partying with Ginger Snowbedeck, you might not reach home till the dawn’s early light.

 

And then you had to do it all over again in just two days, at Multch West for the first league match; today’s win didn’t even count in the NESTLÉ standings!

 

What have you got yourself into??

 

“Jeez!” went Joss over your shoulder.  “Who’s that?”

 

“Oh Lord,” Sheila snortled.  “It’s Boomer, making a grand entrance after pregame prayers!  The Biguns’re gonna get their clocks polished!”

 

“Ssshhhh,” cautioned Alex.  “I know she’s very good, but she’s only one person.”

 

“Betcha the pop we won from the Fries that Boomer beats the Biguns in two.”

 

“Sheila!”

 

“I’ll make the bet,” offered Spacyjane.  “That girl has a brittle aura.”

 

“Boomer” Wrang (christened Petronilla and voted Most Likely to Vanquish an Army) sublimated every carnal yen into able-bodied righteousness.  Imagine a Joan of Arc twice as tall, twice as lean, and extremely longer-armed than usually pictured, replacing her suit of armor with an unflattering red jersey and black droopy-drawers, and you’d have the varsity Cardinal captain.

 

Try to set the night on FIE-urr! sub-sang Joss.

 

Oh shut up.

 

You shut up.

 

“Sorry we’re late,” apologized a gargoyle, looking as if he’d rushed over after ringing 5 p.m. in St. Benedict’s bell tower.

 

“Melvin!  I haven’t seen you in forever,” said Spacyjane.

 

Melvin? thought everyone who hadn’t known Link Linfold’s real name, while he and Spacyjane snugglehugged.

 

“Do you pray?” chirped a little bird with spearmint breath over Vicki’s other shoulder.  Vicki turned and found Jenna Wiblitz wearing a pair of specs with frames like miniature scoreboards.

 

“Pray?  Um, kinda—not like they do here, y’know…”

 

“Well, pray or wish or knock on wood that She gets some playing time.  Otherwise we’re in for H-E-Double-Hockeysticks.”

 

They eyed the back of Lisa Lohe’s head as She took a stoic seat on the Gondolier bench, while Ms. Ramsey sent in the six seniors to start the game.

 

Planning for this match, Ginger hadn’t discounted Boomer Wrang’s prominence; it’d been grappled with often enough in school tournaments and at beach competitions.  “But this year we’ve got the Mauler,” who’d bruised Houlihan on Startop’s behalf in past matches.  Today’s began with a protracted rally, each side evaluating the other as the ball sailed back and forth, bump-set-hit bump-set-hit again and again and again till Vicki was ready to groan aloud—

 

—when whammo!  Mauly drew first blood with a megaspike that almost cracked the Houlihan gym floor.  Cheers from the Gondoliers and calls for a shutout; but Boomer Wrang gave them an unruffled nod, a “Begone or I will make you go” indication such as Joan the Maid gave the English at Orléans, and then began to return FIE-urr.

 

Vanderlund stayed in contention, yet couldn’t catch up as Houlihan steadily mounted their lead to win the first game 15-10.  With Lisa Lohe having spent precisely zero time on the court.

 

“Not good,” twttered Jenna, flipping to a fresh page in her sketchbook and taking out a new charcoal pencil, having smudged much of the previous one over her hands and face.  “Knock on wood harder.”

 

“Maybe we should slip them our shorts,” Isabel could be heard oozy-cooing at Split-Pea and Dennis, as she pretended (Vicki hoped she pretended) to wriggle hers down past her hips—a Carly Thibertish antic greeted by squeals from Laurie, lower-key equivalents from Sammi and Michelle, a FLASH by Split-Pea’s camera and uncompressed observations by Dennis Desmond.

 

At least this put some smiles on Vanderlund faces: the last ones for awhile.

 

The most charitable thing sayable about the second varsity game was that it went by quickly; the secondmost, that Spacyjane didn’t mind owing Sheila-Q a pop.

 

Mauly Carstairs started shooting wild, nearly braining the referee with one errant projectile.  Gwen and Amanda started calling for and charging toward balls in each other’s territories, colliding with Joyce whose jinx-evasions left her unguarded.  Ms. Ramsey started shuttling in subs, who fared no better if not worse—Mumbles took a Boomer-bomb smack in the breadbasket, her OOF! resounding through the gym as she bowled over Pebbles the linesperson, both of them hitting the deck (with Sister Loretto’s shrill cry lending the OOF a reverb aftereffect).  Lisa finally got sent in, the last Bigun to play, virtually warbling

 

gimme the ball

gimme the ball

gimme the ball

YEAH!

 

from A Chorus Line (Holly Brollis would be gratified).  But the other Gondoliers couldn’t even manage a simple pass by that stage of the rout, and the Cardinals didn’t send the ball Lisa’s way till Boomer nailed one last undiggable spike right at her toes: winning the game 15-zip and the match two-to-none.

 

Bloodcurdling scream from Lisa Lohe as she stared down at the great white goose egg, tearing her hair with both hands like a scene out of the Bible.

 

“¡Ayyyyy, Vicki!” breathed Jenna in spearminty Spanish.

 

“Aye-aye,” Vicki glumly agreed.

 

“This is going to take more than orange slices to put right,” predicted Melvin the Missing Link.

 

*

 

Next morning, for the first time since Vicki’d known her, Jenna Wiblitz came to school wearing plain-framed glasses—which made her look quite pretty, especially since she hadn’t yet daubed herself with charcoal or Magic Marker.

 

“It was touch and go for awhile, but She survived the night,” Jenna was telling Vicki before Spanish, when Dennis Desmond brought his wide bright teeth over to cut in:

 

“¡Hola, Jenny Wren!  ‘La persona de la casa, modista de muñecas y fabricante de acericos y limpiaplumas ornamentales, estaba sentada en su curiosa butaca baja, cantando en la oscuridad, cuando llegó Lizzie.  La persona de la casa había alcanzado esa dignidad, a pesar de sus pocos años, por ser la única persona digna de fiar de la casa’—

 

“Don’t call me ‘Jenny Wren.’  I am not a crippled blonde,” Jenna said flatly.

 

“‘Su verdadero nombre esa Fanny Cleaver; pero hacía tiempo había elegido aplicarse el nombre de señorita Jenny Wren’—

 

“What do you want, Dennis?”

 

“Why, just to have a wee word,” he gleamed incisorly, first at her, then at Vicki who couldn’t make head nor tail of the preceding dialog.  Not only was she unacquainted with Our Mutual Friend in any language (what did Jenny Wren have to do with a crippled blonde?) and distracted by memories of Joe Silvertooth in Fort Lauderdale, but Dennis spoke Spanish as speedily as Mrs. Dmitria’s conversaciones with Alex.

 

“Um… yes?”

 

“Spread the wee word—broadcast the little news—disseminate the teensy tidings—that the photos of yesterday’s match should be ready for your kudos by tomorrow’s match.  I’ll admit to being dubious of young Erbsen’s aptitude for photography and taking him to be a mere apprentice paparazzo, but—”

 

“Cálmate, comencemos,” requested Señor Banonis.

 

Dennis broke off and moved away toward the front of Room 312, causing Diana Dabney to yelp and shimmy as she tried to sit behind the desk beside his.

 

“¿Qué pasa, Señorita Dabney?” asked the teacher.

 

“I got pinched,” reported Diana, with an angry moue at her neighbor.

 

“En Español, por favor.

 

“Uhhh… me… me pelican… no, ¿pelicannon?

 

“Pellizcaron,” Señor Banonis corrected her, before ordering Dennis to cease and desist.

 

Diana belonged to the junior class snottyclique, so Vicki disliked her as a classic Duckweight (and therefore—a witch!), but a pinch in the classroom was still an infringement to be resented by all females.  Particularly when the perp reminded you less of a Cuban hombre in Florida than Og the leprechaun in Finian’s Rainbow, which Joss had made you watch all the way through on the Late Movie because she liked the score:

 

 

When I can’t fonnnndle the “hand” I’m fonnnnd of

I fonnnndle the “hand” at hand—

 

Typical mannish-boy piggery.  Speaking of which—

 

“Your kid brother’s my kid brother’s new hero,” Vicki told Nonique before Biology.

 

“Oh no,” went Nonique.  “What’s he been doing now?”

 

Leaving his lunch apple uneaten, so Randle Smith could take it out on the Dopkins playground at recess (accompanied by Goofus, Patches Rumpelmagen, and their sixth-grade gang) and hurl it up onto the school roof: a feat the other boys tried and failed to duplicate, splattering their uneaten fruit against the walls (on in one case, through an open window).  So far no one had been caught at it.

 

Nonique burst out laughing—ruefully, but indubitably—and buried her face in her hands as if to deny this merriment.  “My mother will kill him,” she said through her fingers.  “And what she doesn’t kill, my grandmother will.”

 

No mention of the Rebounder; but at least she sounded elated at the prospect of parental dander being shed onto a kid brother.

 

“So good to see so many of you looking so mirthful,” remarked Mr. Dimancheff.  “What say we clear our desktops off, off, off, and start our hour together with a pop quiz?…”

 

In World History Ms. Goldberg announced that another girl had been found bound and bludgeoned in the woods: this one still alive though unconscious and unidentified, and admitted to a City hospital as Jane Doe.  After repeating the by-now-timeworn cautionary advisories, Ms. Goldberg went on to cite older correlations to barbaric depredations in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome—till even the guys who doted on such talk began to squirm, and Becca Blair raised a stately hand to testify that “We get the picture.”

 

Alex, stepping up and down the aisles with an open envelope, collected donations for the poor unknown victim in the hospital and drafted Vicki to do likewise on the other side of Room 416.  “I bet Caesar and Pharaoh couldn’t be any quicker about it than we are!”

 

“‘Those that with haste will make a mighty fire / Begin it with weak straws,’” warned Ms. Goldberg.

 

“(That sounds like an English quote!)” Vicki heard Becca cavil.

 

“(Oh, not in World History,)” Alex consoled her.

 

They were taking Honors Geometry and so missed Mike Spurgeon carrying Isabel Carstairs over his shoulder (breech first, skirt skittish) into Room 221 for Ordinary Geometry.  But Gigi Pyle witnessed this, and snidely derided it to Britt Groningen (who asked “Want us to put her down?” when Mike was slow to obey Mr. Rankin) since this was not acceptable public behavior by an ex.  If Mike must carry on with other girls, let him do it clandestinely like he had last spring with Irina “Rat’s Nest” Saranoff.

 

“Who’da thought Geometry’d be this soap-opera-ish?” Robin asked Vicki.

 

In Study Hall there was another new dress to admire on Samantha, this one a deep blue skimmer not unlike Nonique’s First Day frock.

 

“You don’t mind, do you?” Sammi asked her anxiously.  “You don’t think people’ll  say I’m being a copycat, do you?”

 

“’Spect they’ll be able to tell us apart,” said Nonique.

 

“I only got it ‘cause they told me it ‘brings out my eyes’—whatever that means.”

 

“I got mine ‘cause it brings out my blues.

 

While they reviewed shades of difference, Vicki dealt with unfinished homework for Sixth Hour English, having run out of time to complete it last night.  Natalie Fish said some of the JVs hit the books while up in the bleachers during varsity matches.  Ms. Ramsey disapproved of this—“Keep your mind on the game, even when you’re not playing”—but it could be done surreptitiously, like passing notes in class.  More easily during a home match, when you didn’t have to lug books to another school on the bus.

 

Useful advice, which of course didn’t come in handy now as you hurriedly prepped for Active Participation in a seminar discussion of the short story version of “Flowers for Algernon.”  (Read? yes; summarized in notebook? yes; essay-to-be-turned-in-on-Friday begun? working on it.)  Then its plot structure would have to be compared in detail to the expanded novel version’s later this month.  (Looming on the horizon? yes—)

 

“Amo, amas, amat, amamus,” mutter-conjugated Grandma Ivy to an unseen legion of past Latin pupils.  “Quod erat demonstrandum…

 

Vicki dreaded going to lunch, but Jenna’d told her not to ditch it or sit at a different table—“I need all the help She can get.”  True, Lisa Lohe was hardly Vicki’s favorite person in the world; yet she (Vicki) had always respected her (Lisa) and knew how painful that varsity Houlihan game had been (to them both).  Also, Lisa allowed Vicki & Co. to sit at her upperclass cafeteria table, even if it was Jenna who’d issued the initial invite.

 

So: once more into the maw of dining en masse.  Hoping it wouldn’t be a maze like Charlie and Algernon had crisscrossed, with the cheese at the end poised in a mousetrap, and flowers needing to be planted on a grave in the back yard.

 

It felt like entering a house (or approaching a cafeteria table) of bereavement, where Mourna Lisa sat all in black, as did Jenna (except her T-shirt displayed the Batman emblem), and Holly needed every ounce of acting chops to keep a straight face.

 

Vicki, Tupperware in hand, felt she ought to be bringing a covered casserole with a Hallmark My Sympathies card.  Yet no sooner was she seated beside Jenna than the somber mood got a big fat j-o-l-t when Rags Ragnarsson half-limped, half-bounded up to bark: “Hey there!  How’s it hangin’?”

 

(Cheryl Trevelyan had told Stu Nugent to go get Rags, so she and Mary Kate could check him out two-on-one and decide whether he was worthy of healing Doreen’s broken heart.  Stu, hungrier at that moment for lunch than for Cheryl, suggested she find a rope and lasso Rags herself.  “Maybe I will, for myself!” she snarled, at which point peacemaker Frank Wharton went to bring Rags over—quietly warning him en route to watch his step: “The girls are trying to set you up with a friend of theirs.”  “COOL!” responded Rags, taking for granted that any friend of Cheryl and Mary Kate had to be a high-caliber babycakes.  And who did his Norwegian elkhound eye get snagged by but that little Stage Crew chick who usually hid behind freaky glasses, though today she had on a normal pair that wow! made her look even prettier than Vicki Volester beside her!  This must be the friend Frank said the girls wanted to hook him up with!  Probably too shy to approach him herself, too aware of being an “older woman”—probably sixteen to his practically sixteen.  Well, one thing Rags Ragnarsson prided himself on [even with a bum knee] was putting ladies at their ease and doing it subtly, too.  So he gave Cheryl and Mary Kate a humongous I-get-your-drift wink, halted at the end of his new lover-gal’s table, and caused Vicki to drop a lunchbowl when he cleverly asked her how was it hangin’.)

 

Brief panic by Vicki, who liked Rags a lot but had never like-liked him, nor envied Crystal during their age-old courtship other than for having a steady(ish) boyfriend.  Whose doggy-regard was riveted now not on Vicki, but…

 

“Um hi, Rags!  You know everyone?  This is Jenna Wib—”

 

“HEY THERE!  Nonna nonna nonna nonna!” went Rags, mimicking the Batman theme as he gaped at Jenna’s T-shirt.  She in turn made her friends gape by arching her back, shaking a lock of hair (now flecked with paint) over one lens, adding some Mae West to her birdy-chirp, and engaging in banal hackneyed repartee with this youthful swain—while scribbling on her sketchpad for Lisa and Vicki to read:

 


 

“Mmph,” went Vicki, cramming a paper napkin into her mouth.

 

“Sweets to the sweet!” pledged Rags as, at Jenna’s request, he limp-bounded off to buy her a big ol’ sugar cookie.

 

Whereupon most everyone at the neighboring tables gave way to hysterics.  Nonique reverted to a closed-lip teehee, but Holly Brollis literally fell off her stool, while Lisa (who was seldom moved to more than amused exhalations) laid her head down between the trays and howled.

 

Niblets!!” exploded Cheryl in an energetic cheerleader’s steam-engine whisper.  “Why’d you choose now of all times and him of all guys to start acting like a succubus??”

 

“Oh, Cheryl,” scolded Mary Kate.

 

“Wish I could say we planned all this to cheer you up,” Link Linfold told Lisa, as she began to regain composure and brush away crumbs.

 

“Who says we didn’t?” maewested Jenna.  “Ooh, here comes my Sugar Cookie—”

 

*

 

After that, the seminar discussion of “Flowers for Algernon” seemed fairly sedate; though Vicki was annoyed that Madeline Wrippley didn’t have to be an Active Participant, since she was tracking everybody else’s input for Mrs. Mallouf.  (You’d think someone as rodentlike as Madeline would take personal interest in a story about a mouse.)

 

Split-Pea Erbsen incidentally mentioned that Dennis Desmond had jumped the gun: “Yesterday’s photos will not be ready by tomorrow.  For that matter, yesterday’s laundry won’t be ready by tomorrow, and yesterday’s future is going to let tomorrow’s bygones be bygones.”

 

He was right about the laundry, at least.  Phys Ed was spent in the usual hideous gymsuits (be sure to bring yours home on Friday and toss it in the washer), then volleyball practice took place in scrimmage togs that sounded as clean as they felt.

 

The JVs and varsity drilled at opposite ends of the gym, but Bigun backbiting filled every cubic inch to chomp at the ambiance like Michelle Blundell was doing to her nails.

 

PHWEET went Ms. Ramsey, before lecturing the entire team (especially the Biguns) on good sportsmanship “or, if you prefer, sportspersonship” (everyone glanced at Gwen Cokingham) and support for the program.  Which is expected every day from each of you, banded together, not flopping apart!  If you want individual notice, earn it with teamwork!  Refrain from arrogance and arguments—no criticizing and no bellyaching!  Those who feel the need to indulge will spend the rest of the season out the door!  DO I make myself clear?

 

Ma’am yes ma’am.

 

This clarity stayed smear-free through Thursday’s matches at Multch West.  That school was far enough away for the Gondoliers to do some team mantras—“Here we come, Multch West, here we come” (clap clap) etc.—on the bus ride there.  Then Dennis Desmond who was again stringing along struck up “Great Balls of Fire,” and they all pitched in:

 

 

Ah chew mah nails ‘n’ Ah twiddle mah thumbs

Ah’m really nervous but it shore is fun—

 

Multch West was the newest of that township’s four high schools and had the most modern amenities; even the boys locker room looked antiseptic, though Ginger taped a “You don’t have to tell us twice” note to the flush after use sign above the urinals.

 

Coach Celeste continued to platoon the JVs, this time starting the Broils in game one.  Multch West’s Lady Tomahawks might lack a star like Boomer Wrang, but they lived up to their name by being sharper and harder-pressing than the Houlihan Cardinals.  Challenge made; challenge met.

 

And for the better part of the next hour, it all seemed worth it—the hours spent drilling, drilling, drilling, serves and bumps and sets and spikes, passes left and right and forward and backward, knowing every step of your place in the rotation, your and everybody else’s zone on the court so you can keep the ball in play and over the net, in play and over the net, in play and over the net—

 

—so that you and your teammates can be part of a flowing expressive movement larger than yourselves, a forceful disciplined mobilization with an overlay of grace and finesse: like ballet used to be, before you became a Klumsy Klutzer at it.

 

The Broils eked out a 17-15 win in game one; the Fries lost game two by the same squeaky margin.  Everyone got a chance in game three, and their concerted efforts (aided by compression shorts?) outlasted the tiring Tomahawks to prevail 15-11.  Group hug by the JV Gondoliers, even Isabel and Henrietta; all of them certain Ms. Ramsey was telling the Biguns “That’s the way to play volleyball!”

 

But then, when Vicki wanted nothing more than to hit the shower and go home, she was obliged to chase more balls for the varsity during their warmup.  While showing hustle on the double; even Coach Celeste would give you extra laps if you slacked at shagging, and Ms. Ramsey might throw in a dozen situps or pushups.

 

Gone was the sense of Seems Worth It.  Now you had to muster endurance, search for the stamina to withstand another hour of this grind, followed by another bus ride all way back to VTHS even though Multch West was just off Laubdecke Street and if you took that due north it turned into Eugene G. Green Road—

 

FLASSSHHHH

 

(Gahdammit, Sidney Erbsen!  Go stick that camera up your own face!)

 

“You’re providing human interest,” he told you.

 

Like hell you are.  Not by fetchin’ the ball, fetchin’ the ball, fetchin’ the ball, yeaha job that any dog could do.  There was Rags up in the stands with Jenna—did he have his arm around her?—anyway, even with a sore knee he’d be better at this than you, in the state you’re in.  Needing to wrap up that “Algernon” essay for English and brush up on basic transformations for Geometry and touch up that map of Ancient Egypt for History and mop up the latest vocab list for Spanish—

 

—and try not to throw up at the realization that all of these had to be tackled before bedtime, unless Algernon could remain amazed (again) till tomorrow’s Study Hall.

 

“Heads up!” called Lisa Lohe, sounding positively cheered up, as one final warmup ball went zooming past your nose.

 

*

 

The first issue of the VTHS Channel came out on Friday the 9th and was largely devoted to football, as was the bulk of that day.  The G-Men wore suits and ties to classes; cheerleaders were uniformed and saddle-shod; a pep rally assembly took place in the auditorium, with sequential yells of V-I-C-T-O-R-Y that’s the sophomore/junior/senior/Vanderlund battle cry; and for one hour, at least, the joint jumped like an old-fashioned high school.

 

What with all the rah-rah, Friday’s Channel included just two mentions of the volleyball team’s impending home opener.  Besides a line in the Coming Up calendar, there was a back-page photograph of three JVs in unposed rear profile, their compression shorts shown to full effect.  Nearest to the camera and twisting half toward it (like a flower to the sun) was Isabel Carstairs, giving the lens an are-you-pointing-that-thing-at-li’l-ol’-me? twinkle.  To her left was Sheila Quirk, divvying a peevish glance between Isabel and Sidney Erbsen; and beyond S-Q, with face obscured but bottom scrumptiousized, stood Lady Gondolier #22.  Which happened to be the number worn by Vicki Volester.

 

Photo caption: netters ready to play.

 

It was said that Ms. Ramsey raised hell’s roofbeam about this kind of coverage with Mrs. Blackburn the Journalism teacher, who countered that the “coverage” in question was the volleyball program’s own selection.

 

Vicki (thankful her face couldn’t be seen in this homage to Dubble Bubble) gave a goodly portion of roofbeam-hell to Split-Pea, who shrugged it off saying “It won’t happen again if you face forward next time.”

 

They were out on the open-air bleachers flanking Hordt Field, so-called in honor of Mortimer “Thundering” Hordt who’d coached Vanderlund through the Ham ‘n’ Eggs era.  The lobby’s eastern trophy case featured Mort Hordt’s legendary Board, worn thin as a yardstick after clouting a generation of champions into shape.

 

Vicki glowered at Split-Pea’s scrawny buttbones as they roamed through the stands, taking an occasional FLASH of spectators or gridiron.  He’d captured one of her looking hostile, one of Joss who hadn’t stopped laughing since the Channel came out, and three or four of Crystal Denvour seated pacifyingly between them.  A small gold pigskin dangled onto (almost into) her capacious bosom, to signify Crystal’s official going-togetherness with Judd “For the Defense” Courtney.

 

“Who does she think she is?” a seething upperclass girl nearby wanted to know.

 

“The new Big Momma on Campus?” laughed Joss.

 

“Miss About-to-Get-a-Chest-Cold?” suggested Vicki, as payback for Crystal’s earlier “Was that your tush on the back page of the paper?”

 

“How you talk,” Crystal preened.  “The weather’s still balmy—no worries about gooseflesh—”

 

“No, not while we’re sitting on it,” said Vicki, glowering again at Split-Pea.

 

Blaa-aa-att!  Blaa-aa-att! trompetta’d the Marching Band as it snakedanced across the field and got a vigorous raspberry from Joss.

 

“I can’t believe you wanted me to join that train wreck!” she mock-reproached Vicki.

 

“All I did was ask if you might.”

 

“You do play a brass instrument,” Crystal pointed out, moving her cleavage so Judd’s gold football would catch the last rays of the setting sun.

 

“You know me too well to think I might march with it—”

 

GO!!  GO!!  GO!!” Alex erupted on Joss’s other side, at a volume worthy of Mumbles Metcalf on her other side, whose stomach hadn’t fully recovered from Tuesday’s torpedoing by Boomer Wrang.  And even if it had, Mumbles was too busy flirting with Curtis Weatherly on her other side to match Alex GO for GO.

 

Now Alex leaped up and began to pulverize her tonsils as Cheryl, Mary Kate, and the other varsity cheerleaders exhorted the crowd through a series of G-O / N-D-O / L-I-E-R-S while quarterback Jeff Friardale took offensive center stage.

 

“Lord, the day keeps getting more ‘n’ more buttcheeky,” Sheila groaned on Vicki’s other side.

 

Jeff Friardale was the swaggersome masculine version of Ginger Snowbedeck, all set to star in his own Right Guard commercial.  (“Wanna sniff my armpit?  Yeah, it is a treat!”)  Letters to Penthouse could be written, he alleged, about his and Ginger’s on-again/off-again interludes, each of which supposedly left her in an erotic swoon.

 

“Oh please!” Ginger would crack back.  “I always dazzle and leave him frazzled.  Gotta admit it, I’m just too much for the poor guy—well, for any guy, truth be told.”

 

Tonight the G-O / N-D-O / L-I-E-R-S were too much for the Front Tree Timbermen, who played like the preppies they were.  Gaining control of the ball just long enough for Vanderlund fans to sing a few bars of the Monty Python “Lumberjack” song, before Judd’s defense forced another punt or fumble so the Aquamarine & Gold could score again.

 

By halftime it was 28-3 and Curtis Weatherly was ready to bail.  He being their ride, Mumbles, Vicki and Joss pried Alex away, leaving Crystal to further flaunt her pigskin and gooseflesh.  She’d be going with Judd to the postgame carousal at Jeff Friardale’s house, as would Sheila-Q and Avalanche Dobbs (older brother of Haystack), plus Curt and Mumbles after they took the other girls (denied permission to party hearty) home in Curt’s Lincoln Versailles.

 

Papa Dmitria had given consent for Alex to be chauffeured, but only after receiving Weatherly testimonials from trusted chums like Mumbles and Becca Blair.  Even then, Papa stood outside the Mission Revival house—big, bald, and protruding his toothpick—till Alex got dropped off with no trace of any funny business.  Unless you counted her saying “I’ll never forgive myself if the guys go and blow it without me there!”—which deepened the wrinkles in Papa’s Telly Savalas scalp.

 

“That,” Curtis declared as they drove on up Eugene G. Green Road, “is one scary character.”

 

“Tell me about it!’ chorused his passengers.

 

This being Friday night, Joss was bunking at Burrow Lane and got out there with Vicki, thanking Curt and requesting that Mumbles do nothing they wouldn’t do.  Mumbles responded with a low-pitched “Better watch your ass at practice tomorrow, ha! ha! ha!”

 

“She had to remind me,” Vicki sighed, digging the Channel out of her backpack.  “C’mon, we might as well get this over and done with.”

 

They found Ozzie and Felicia down in the family room watching Documentary Showcase.  (Way to live it up, folks.  Way to prepare for a shock…)

 

“My picture’s sort of in the school paper,” Vicki began, extending the Channel with her thumb over Isabel’s face.

 

Necks were craned; then a burst of parental laughter, which naturally set off Joss again.  “Bet you could pick hers out of a hundred, right?  Or should I say out of two hundred—”

 

Enough,” Vicki told her, before shifting her thumb.  “Um, that’s Sheila beside me, of course, and this one… is Isabel Carstairs.”

 

“Cute,” said Ozzie.

 

“Well yeah, but… don’t you think she kind of… y’know, looks a bit like…?”

 

“Oh,” went Felicia.  “Well.  No.  Not really.”

 

Blankish second glance by Ozzie, before returning his attention to the TV screen.

 

And that was that.  Vicki (followed by the still-snortling Joss) went upstairs, unable to believe their lack of reaction.  Had she hallucinated a likeness between Is and Tricia that simply didn’t exist?

 

They ran into Goofus raiding the kitchen fridge for an afterdinner snack.  “You think this looks like Tricia, don’t you?” Vicki asked, shoving the Channel under his nose.

 

Goofus went “Bweeheehee! and spilled mustard over a package of pastrami.  “How can I tell when your butt’s taking up so much of the picture?”

 

“Watch it, runt!”

 

“You’re not giving me any choice—”

 

“I swear, this is the last time I try to break bad news gently to anyone in this family—oh, shut up!” to doubled-over Joss.

 

From down near her knees: “HA!!  HA!!  HA!!  You shut up.”

 

*

 

Robin Neapolitan had proposed “Alias Doris & Travis” as the new punk group’s name, but its other members identified more with the title of their first song—“Downbite”—as characterizing both sound and mood.

 

Those who’d crammed into PoonElly’s Le Heap for descent upon the AnaRCHonda Pit were now augmented by Cramps Aplenty (alias Marcia Renee Loftus) who, like Jane Eyre, could play “a little” on the piano.  More importantly, she had a ’71 Gremlin and the dependable-driver habit of ingesting nothing more mind-blowing than Midol, though that in much greater quantity than its bottle advised.

 

On this Sunday afternoon, after a Downbite meeting/rehearsal/wildgoosechase where zilch had been composed/performed/accomplished, Cramps was transporting Epic Khack and Petula Pierro away from Villa Neapolitan.  (Epic had failed his driver’s test several times and Downtown, who’d begun to restyle herself as “the Tayser,” was glued to a flask of Irish Mist.)  Fiona’d tried to steer them toward playing “Bring Out Your Stupid,” her new work-in-progress (or regress: inspired by the conclusion of “Flowers for Algernon”); but Downtown—excuse me, Tayser—acted more interested in how soon Bootleg McGillah might be able to chisel into the local pharmaceutical supply market, without risking open warfare with the Traversers.

 

“Not that those pluto-pups’d stand a chance against Bunty O’Toole’s crew—”

 

“Hey!  Put that bottle away!” went Robin.  “No swigging slop in this cellar!”

 

“Since when?

 

“Since I say so!  Even if you are ‘returning to your boggy Irish roots.’  Get soused in your own basement.”

 

“Well excuuuuse ME, narkaholic!” whinged Tayser.  “Talk about going legit—”

 

“Hey!  You are not pulling any drunk-stunts that might screw up my getting my Sweet Babboo!  Not with my old man upstairs!  Not you or Pony Boy or the Mad Bludgeoner either!  Capisce?

 

“Schmapisce,” replied Signorina Pierro.  “And what’s the Mad Bludgeoner got to do with it?”

 

“Long as he’s out there bludgeoning, we’re all of us damsels in distress,” drawled PoonElly.

 

“Schmistress,” sneered Tayser.  “So what are we ‘permitted’ to do?”

 

Robin started loading the bong with good old stuff.

 

“Seriously?

 

“(Fat Bob says it’s ‘cooler and healthier’ than hand-rolled,)” Fiona mutter-cited.

 

“So we’re supposed to smoke weed, like a clump of grungy hippies?”

 

“Go ahead and ‘abstain’ then, Taysie.  Here’s a deck of cards: you can play Old Maid with Pony and Plenty instead.”

 

ptooey by Epic (into the gob-can he’d been provided) and a pained “Oh don’t mind me” from Cramps.

 

Tayser took a grudging pull on the peace pipe, followed by a second longer deeper one-for-the-road before departing in temporary amity and Cramps’s Gremlin, along with Epic and his cuspidor and a swirl of uncapped Irish mist.

 

The bong having been emptied by then, Robin negotiated the stairs up to the kitchen to wrestle with preparing Sunday dinner.  This gave Poon and Fiona a seizable opportunity for some wigged-out fooling-around (the best kind) though Poon kept pausing to chat:

 

“…give anything to be back on the Strip right this minute, dontcha think? us two there with real bands, true punks, real true punk bands…”

 

“(…mmm…)” from Feef.

 

“…’cause Gina’s been on my back since I got back, dontcha know? which she’s got no business being on, even if she’s the one got me in business back there…”

 

“(…mmm…)”

 

“…’n’ school stinks out louder’n ever this year, Ms. Thrace that’s the gym teacher’s got it in for me, whudda big bully—dontcha let her inside no china shops …”

 

“(…mmm…)”

 

“…I mean, she gimme this choice between fuckin’ detention and fuckin’ substitute towel girl, dontcha tell me she’s got no sense o’ fuckin’ humor…”

 

“(…mmm…)”

 

—when the door suddenly opened at the top of the cellar stairs.

 

“AAY SPOO-KAY!  LIME-AAY!”

 

Freeze tag.

 

“(…hunh?…)”

 

Look, y’wanna eat, y’gotta do it up here, ‘cause I’m not gonna like ladle it down your throats, y’know?  What’re y’up to down there, anyhoo?”

 

“Workin’ on a song,” offered PoonElly.

 

How come I don’t hear the amp?

 

Ain’t got that far yet.

 

Well, knock it off ‘n’ get your asses up THIS far!

 

Red-faced as well as red-eyed, they untwined and ascended and found their hostess filling every bowl in the Villa with pretzels, popcorn, peanuts, pork rinds, potato chips, corn chips, cheese puffs, and Cocoa Krispies.

 

“(This is dinner?)”

 

“Hell no!  Too hot to cook in here, so I sent Dad out to Paulsie’s for a coupla pies.  This here is snacks.

 

Paulsie’s pizza might be nowhere near as appetizing as Deeple’s, but it was cheaper and closer and so not to be sneezed at.  Meanwhile the girls set to work on the munchables.

 

“Betcha you two don’t know whatcha doing this Tuesday afternoon,” said PoonElly, emitting an orange cloud of Cheeto dust.

 

“Do so!  Gonna be two days closer to driving my Sweet Babboo!”

 

“’Sides that.  Like I toldja—wait—no, told ja—”

 

“(Who, me?  What’d you tell?)”

 

“That I gotta be this substifuckingtute towel girl for Thrace’s volleyfuckingballers.  And guess what—we’re coming to your school on Tuesday!  You gotta be there to watch me do my Dance of the Seven Towels.”

 

“(Wait, we know about this…)” said Fiona with furrowed brow.

 

“Quit bogarting the Krispies,” Robin told her.  “We know about her towel dance?”

 

Flashback to a bawdy boudoir.  “(No, about the volleyfuckingballers.  Vicki and Q’ll be playing, and Alex and Laurie and them all.  ‘Member that picture with their butts jutting out?)”

 

“Haw!  Yeah!  Guess we gotta go getta loada that thenhey!  Whicha you snarfs hogged all the Fritos??”

 

“Who you callin’ a snarf?” retorted Poon.

 

They tussled over the empty dish as Fiona, idly licking pretzel salt, thought Here’s another how-de-do.

 

A weird school year so far and no mistake.  Getting wasted at school the First Day was a mistake, one that Robin’d bawled you out for while you were still green around the gills.  As if she weren’t going to be thoroughly ripped soon enough; but, as she’d rightly added, that should be an afterschool activity.

 

Then there was Downbite—if there was a Downbite, in the same sense that there’d been a Rosa Dartles, and not simply as some sort of highpunkthesis.  Fat Bob kept asking why “those nice girls” weren’t coming to the Villa cellar anymore, in place of the Tayser (whom he disliked), Cramps Aplenty (who made him uncomfortable) and Epic Khack (damn! nuff! said!).  PoonElly he did approve of, limeade spikes and all; she flirted with him and “had meat on her bones,” a requisite component of coquetry for Fat Bob.  Yet even he wasn’t beguiled by Poon’s attempts at musical vocalization: she was loud, but less and less on-key the longer she tried to sing.

 

(“ExACTly what we want!” claimed Tayser.)

 

As for Those Nice Girls, they were too busy this year or too unpunklike or too put off by Alias Doris & Travis.  Vicki Volester was all three; and when Feef, as gently as she could, broke the bad news that Downbite wouldn’t be needing her managerial services, Vicki’d looked horrified at the possibility that they might have been.

 

“Um…” she’d said, “you do know Downtown’s not the most dependable person, right?  Like when she bailed out of Cicada and left us in the lurch?”

 

(Tayser would deride the word and slur it into “dependency,” saying that The Lurch was where everybody ought to be left.)

 

Honk from Fat Bob’s truck and whoops from Limey and Nilla as they ran out to help tote in the pile of Paulsie’s pizzas.  Leaving Fiona to dump the snack-scraps into a single big bowl (instant trail mix) while feeling a creeping presentiment that these might not be all the pieces she’d be picking up—and not within the remotely distant future, either.

 

*

 

Gina Conti wasn’t what you’d call a complex character.

 

Her leitmotif was a need for speed—not methamphetamines, but rapid velocity.  Gina lived to sprint as fast and as far and and as long as she could, wanting to run forever.  Like the Nike ad said: there is no finish line.

 

Her best friends were the other three Genies of the Apocalypse, Jeanne and Jeanine and especially Jeannette.  Together they’d put Athens Grove on the cross country map, first as junior high Arcadians and now reunited at the “Big Mountain” senior high, ready to do the same as Olympians.

 

Run run run till Daddy takes your Nikes away (which ain’t gonna happen).  Other means of achieving speed were less satisfactory.  Bicycles required mechanical maintenance; drivers ed led to lectures about limits; horseback riding resulted in too much poop; and there were never enough roller coasters or tilt-a-whirls available.  The Four Genies talked about skydiving and hang gliding, but Jeannette Crittenden surged to the forefront (as per usual) by signing up for helicopter lessons.  She was the oldest and most fearless Genie, seldom refusing any dare except ones involving what she called “mush,” which were numerous since Jeannette looked like Chrissie Evert and always had guys flocking after her.  “None of your mush!” she’d tell them, “I am a champion who breakfasts on Wheaties!”

 

“(Did she say tweeties?)” people whispered, adding to the rumors that’d swirled around the Genies since junior high.  Yet because they were all attractive girls (though none of them had light brown hair) guys were more intrigued than disdainful.

 

Gina quickly learned how to “do what comes natural discreetly” (one of Jeannette’s catchphrases) and never more so than with Elly May Pilchard, on whom Gina’d conceived a ginormous crush in seventh grade, when Elly’d been a Blonde Babe Teenyboppin’ pompon-pushin’ ice-cream-scoopin’ eighth-grader.  Nothing might have arisen from this crush if Hayzoose the Horrible hadn’t brutalized and demoralized Elly, consigning her to a rerun through the eighth grade and a wallow in the mire of desolation.  Out of which Gina, now a classmate, had hauled her up like a double-armful of living clay and molded her into a New Woman, like that whatchamacallit statue who came to life—not Pinocchio, the other one—for that whatshisname sculptor.

 

(Gina was an indifferent student and often employed the bright-though-unscrupulous Jeanne Janssen to “help” her with homework.)

 

Once Elly began to embrace her Rerunniness (not to mention Gina’s Genieficence), they shared a blissful springtime that stretched into one long bitchen sitchoo-itchen (another of Jeannette’s catchphrases).  Then school ended, vacation began, and Elly amscrayed to California for what turned out to be two whole months.  Even at the get-go this time apart was disturbingly open-ended so far as Gina was concerned, but Elly didn’t seem to mind that much and increasingly less so the more Gina remonstrated, till departing without a goodbye worth its weight in salt from the tears Gina shed that summer.

 

One small mercy from having to keep all this hush-hush was minimal gossip about it.  Only the other three Genies got clued in, and they were unfailing pillars of strength (not salt).  Jeanine Greeley aimed to relieve Gina’s heartbreak with a bit of matchmaking, and since Jeanine’s tastes were broader than the Genie norm, this extended to dangling a few guys under Gina’s nose.  (Gina did team up with one of these guys to train for a youth marathon, but that was as close as she came to playing footsie with him.)

 

When Elly finally reappeared, she’d gone beyond limeade spikes to fully punk out as “PoonElly Scales”—giving Gina little more than a souvenir T-shirt of Pippi Longstocking skewered with safety pins and shouting Fuck Pluttification!!  (Which was not the sort of garment you could hang on the Conti family clothesline.)

 

“She gave you what?” gasped the equally incredulous Jeanne, Jeanine, and especially Jeannette.  (The Four Genies of the Apocalypse might have a cool collective name and not be button-down Barbie dolls, but the punkiest they got was leaving their legs unshaved longer than the average teen girl.)

 

Then Elly kept tootling off to hang around with like-minded punk-types.  Gina would feign interest when she could get hold of “Poon” (by phone if not by hand) and draw her out.  Like a perforated waterbed, once Elly started spouting it wasn’t easy to plug her up; and Gina learned a lot more than she wanted to know about carryings-on here and there and back on Sunset Strip.

 

One name—or rather, one set of initials—kept bobbing up to the surface of these emissions: F.T.  Gina couldn’t think of anybody so initialed in Athens Grove who’d be prone to go punking.  Maybe Freddy Turkenkopf (who had gross tattoos) but Elly’d referred to F.T. as “she” and “her,” repeatedly.  With warmth.  And affection.  And hankering—

 

—which accelerated the cankering in Gina’s heart.

 

Whoever F.T. might be, she had better watch her step.

 

‘Cause like Gina’s Uncle Rico always said, “Nessuno un Conti sfida impunemente”—nobody messes with a Conti and gets away with it.  (Or words to that effect.)

 

Not that Gina’d lay a finger on F.T.  Oh no: Gina knew a few guys capable of doing that.  Just like when Elly’d wished there was a way to wreak revenge on Hayzoose the Horrible, in spite of his being such a too-big too-believable too-invulnerable football jock.  Well, before that week was through, his beloved Corvette was fit only for use as a hazmat depository.  (Or so Gina heard, with ears as clean as her hands and conscience.)

 

She might not know how to say it in Italian, but nobody was going to steal Elly Pilchard from her.  And very soon an opportunity to put things right was seizable: Elly cheesed off Ms. Thrace, who gave her the choice of detention or helping the volleyball manager at an away match on Tuesday.  You’d’ve thought Elly was being subjected to that “cruel and unusual punishment” she kept yakking about; yet she chose to do the volleyball stint since it’d get her out of Athens Grove and over to Vanderlund—


—where she kept tootling off to anyway.

 

“Want me to tag along?” Gina trialballooned.  “Thrace’ll let me ride the bus.”

 

“Sure, f’y’wanna,” brusqued Elly.  “I’ll get some of the Downbiters to come too.”

 

(Aha.)  “They go to Vanderlund?”

 

“Some of ‘em, yeah.  Maybe all, I dunno—we don’t really talk about school much.”

 

(Oho.)  “Maybe they can be like a punky marching band, and play between games.”

 

“Hee!  Wouldn’t that be bitchen?  Sex Pistol songs outta sousaphones!” she laughed, looking more like Springtime Elly than September Scales; and Gina’s fraught heart leaped.

 

Say your prayers, F.T.

 

*

 

The Vanderlund volleyball varsity did their own roofbeam-raising at Saturday’s practice, which was no fun at all.  The Biguns had played much better at Multch West but still lost the match two games to one, leaving them winless in the standings as well as anonymous in the Channel; whereas the JVs were undefeated and had their asses on the dotted line.  Ideal for taking potshots at in the intrasquad scrimmage, which the Biguns did till you’d’ve thought they’d switched sports to bombardment dodgeball.

 

Then Coach Celeste was out ill on Monday and unable to protest final plans regarding Tuesday’s home opener.  Gretel Hitchens announced that only the varsity players would be introduced by name, and only the varsity roster would appear in the program.  The Littluns would be lumped into a single-spaced squib, minus team numbers or any other marks of identification.  In light of Saturday’s bombardment, Chookie and Natalie thought it best to lodge no formal complaint.  Anyway, Tuesday the 13th was Rosh Hashanah and they’d be excused from school and the match.

 

“We’ll pray for you,” Natalie intoned.

 

“While eating apples dipped in honey, to make it a ‘sweet’ New Year,” added Chookie.

 

Lisa Lohe would also be absent, as would Jenna Wiblitz the rabbi’s granddaughter and Split-Pea Erbsen the gotcha-paparazzo and the rest of the East Bay crowd.  (Joyce Usher’s family was Congregationalist but she tried to beg off too, rather than play on a 13th.)

 

On the plus side, hosting the Athens Grove Lady Olympians meant no bus ride there or back.  Publicity posters had been made and hung (by the JVs, naturally, and not depicting hindquarters) to fill the newspaper’s promotional gap; and non-Jewish turnout was better than predicted—particularly by males, drawn in (as S-Q said again) by what the not-so-Littluns had to offer.

 

Ozzie came with Felicia and a cranky Goofus, who perked up at the sight of his heart’s idol Alex.  Ozzie was less content, having finally realized that the seats shown in last Friday’s Channel belonged to shorts worn by his daughter on volleyball courts.  He’d had a word with Ms. Schwall (over the weekend! over the phone!) and she’d overpowered his objections with gabble about kinesthetic-control-of-the-body-through-an-overall-range-of-mobility; but Ozzie still would’ve preferred that the girls wore overalls.

 

(Coach Celeste was back today and Vicki saw her privately to express hope that “talking to my dad wasn’t what made you sick”; but Celeste said she’d simply overdone a salamba sarvangasana shoulderstand.)

 

Ozzie was not made any cheerfuller by the presence of photographers for the Channel and the Baratarian yearbook (though neither was Split-Pea) along with Dennis Desmond, who resumed the attention he’d paid Vicki in First Hour Spanish.  Señor Banonis had been among the missing (whether due to Rosh Hashanah, overdone yoga or some other cause) and the unwary substitute teacher didn’t stop Dennis from taking Jenna’s vacant desk to dally with Vicki.  Ostensibly this was an interview about the afternoon match; but as Vicki tried to tune him out and listen to the artless sub, Dennis segued into a sotto voce monologue:

 

“(…when you play ball you work willingly with other people so you’ll do what they want, unless you play hardball by getting aggressive so they’ll do what you want and you can have a ball, become the belle of the ball and maybe somebody’s ball-and-chain in a whole new ball game, unless you drop the ball and find out that’s the way the ball bounces…)”

 

”(Ssshhhh!)” Vicki hissed out of the side of her mouth.

 

Dennis piped down for a moment, then went into lullaby mode:

 

 

After the bawwwl was over, my Bonnie popped out her glass eye

  Rinsed off her dentures with water, hung up her falsies to dry

Took off her hairpiece till morning, laid her peg-leg on the shelf

  After the bawwwl was over, only half of my Bonnie was left—

 

Vicki attempted a fake sneeze into her cupped hands, but even the sub knew she was giggling.  If not why: “¿Por qué te ríes?

 

The bell saved Vicki from explaining but not from being followed out of the room by Dennis the Menace, who imparted a “Vo-dee-oh-doe” on the back pockets of her high-waisted flares before pursuing Diana Dabney’s down the hall and around the corner.

 

This preyed on Vicki’s mind for the rest of the morning, since vo-dee-oh-doe was Laverne & Shirleyese for going all the way.  “I do not vo-dee-oh-doe!” Shirley would insist.  “You vo-dee-oh’d,” Laverne would remark.  “Once, after I’d gone steady for a whole year,” Shirley would concede.  And Vicki could empathize: this might not be the Fifties, but a girl still didn’t like having her back pockets insinuated about by second-stringers.

 

Well anyway—there behind the Gondolier bench sat Dennis and his teeth, flaunted more widely and lengthily than the Joker himself’s.  Also in the bleachers was Jacuzzi Jake Korva to holler for Thirsty Kirsten (filling in for Natalie as captain, to psych out the Olympian captain with her clammy handshake); and Joss, who said she’d be keeping one eye on her watch so as not to be late getting home for the premiere episode of The Richard Pryor Show; and Spacyjane, more fascinated than ever with Isabel after seeing her saucy Channel photo (“I’ve caught Florabelle making the exact same face”); and miracle of miracles, there were Robin and Fiona convulsed with hilarity at the sight of their bunchkins in bunhugger shorts.  (Once upon a time it’d been startling to see Feef crack so much as a smile.)

 

Vicki allowed a ball—dammit, Dennis!—to roll over where they held their aching sides, and chased it there herself.  “Well, I’m happy you two are having such a good time.”

 

“Wouldn’ta missed it for the world!”

 

“(Or the moooon either!)”

 

Fresh burst of Dopester mirth, in which Vicki couldn’t help but join; unaware that this would be her last laugh for quite a long while.

 

*

 

As fate would have it, the Athens Grove volleyball manager came down with food poisoning—not in the school cafeteria, but at a greasy spoon patronized by her now-ex-boyfriend—and had to miss the Vanderlund match.  Gina Conti volunteered to fill in, earning a brownie point from Ms. Thrace and (more to the point) getting to work hand-in-glove with “towel girl” Elly.  Thought that meant Gina did all the competent lion’s share of the work, and Elly had to be nudged into doing the petulant lamb’s.

 

(But if the lion got to lay down with the lamb…)

 

Well anyway—Gina was frankly offended by the Gondolier compression shorts, more suitable for a beach bout than an official NESTLÉ event.  Forget “kinesthetics”: these shorts were about cheap sex appeal, and before you knew it girls might be expected to run cross country in string bikinis!

 

Not that kinesthetics would make any difference: Athens Groves was the league’s defending volleyball champ, having won both varsity and JV titles the past two years.  So Vanderlund’s binding their buttcheeks would be of no avail, and Gina could focus more on Putting Things Right with Elly than on equipping the Olympians for battle.

 

Elly, though, was acting too distracted for any immediate Right-Put.  Scanning the stands till she spotted some new arrivals (two? three?) toward whom she started moving before Ms. Thrace’s peremptory Stay-Put drew her up short.  Even then, Elly took a towel and began to twitch it at the bleachers, hopping from foot to foot like a spastic matador.

 

Pilchard,” went Ms. Thrace, articulating every consonant.

 

“Calm down,” Gina told Elly.  Adding “(Them your friends?)” in her ear.

 

“(Yeppity yep)”—with a final twitchy hop.

 

Oh-so-offhand: “(Which one’s F.T.?)”

 

“(The little dark ‘un)”—with an unmistakable tug of smug.

 

Which little dark ‘un? as the two/three girls in the stands were joined by Gondolier #22, who had a ball under her arm and a bloat inside her shorts that didn’t disqualify her from being described as “little.”  Unnervingly familiar, this ‘un was—Gina the indifferent student might have a mediocre memory, yet filed away in it was every body she’d run against on cross country courses.

 

And this ‘un’s body was definitely among them.

 

Meaning it had to belong to F.T.

 

A hunch hardening to certainty as the little dark ‘un turned away from the stands, with a laugh brightening a face so pretty it drove a cold iron spear into Gina’s aorta.

 

While Elly kept her eyes fixed on the bleachers, obviously to mislead and deceive.

 

No matter.  Leave “Poon” to her hoodwinkery.  Sidle over to the net, where Nadine Rugova was springing up to slam imaginary volleyballs through the Vanderlund parquet.

 

There were several reasons why Nadine Rugova wasn’t on the Olympian varsity squad.  She was a sophomore, and the competition was upperclass; some of her serves and spikes went so wild as to be lethally feral; and Ms. Thrace suspected their ricocheting off bystanders (turning them into bysprawlers) was not always accidental.  Nadine took after her mother, who as Gladys “Punchy” Heinze had been a star for the Roller Derby Gangbusters till getting discharged for injuring too many skaters too badly too often.  Now divorced from Nadine’s father, Punchy ran a bar catering to The City’s leather trade, and Nadine saw her on weekends.

 

“(Psssst…)” went Gina, from a respectfully safe distance.  “(See number 22?)”

 

“(Them or us?)” went Nadine.

 

“(Them.  Find a way to whack her.  ‘Kay?)”

 

No acknowledgment from Punchy Jr., other than her next imaginary spike making a percussive silent SPLAT.

 

*

 

Coach Celeste decided to stick with platooning for one more match, using the indomitable Alex to cover Natalie’s zone for the Fries as well as her own for the Broils.

 

But even on their home court, in their almost-aquamarine home jerseys, there wasn’t a lot of sizzle-to-the-skies for the starting Fries that afternoon.  Athens Grove blew in like a blast of January air off the Lake As Big As An Ocean; and Thirsty K’s clammy palm turned bone-dry when clasped by Olympian captain Melina Homer, who reminded Vicki of Winter Wonderland’s Snow Queen bent on glaciating the adrift Wayfarer.  Melina didn’t need tight shorts to garner her share of wolf whistles, which came more thickly from the higher-percentage-of-male-attendance-than-at-Houlihan-or-Multch-West.  Isabel was flipping her goldilocks and presenting her curvatures panoramically, but Michelle had her befuddled thumb in her mouth (unless it was bitten off and swallowed) and Pebbles finally seemed in need of Sister Loretto’s safekeeping.

 

They gave their all during game one (Isabel deep-seatedly) but Alex for once played a smidgen out-of-synch, even though she often practiced with the Fries and they’d had a copacetic scrimmage on Saturday.  Maybe the Snow Queen and her Blizzard were throwing Alex off her game, though she generally went superRusskie in such weather and raced around like her Borzoi Yermak.  Now she’d gone Latina-in-a-cold-climate and was shivering like her Chihuahua Tonio.  Bumps and sets fluttered erratically to receivers who fumbled them, particularly Etta, whose irritation grew with each botched volley.  “Aw come ahn!” she railed at Alex, sounding like one of the Wainwrights, as a pass veered out of reach.  Alex slapped her own forehead in contrite bafflement and went “Horse-knacker!”—the most profane word in her vocabulary.  Coach Celeste took her out after awhile and tried Sheila-Q, but Melina Homer served a series of quick aces to bury the Fries by the dismal score of 15-4.

 

“(Jeepers, we were playing like the varsity,)” Kirsten murmured during orange-slice break.

 

In went the Broils to save the undefeated season, or at least postpone its end till a third game.  Again the arctic Athens Grove gale whooshed, but this time Vanderlund hunkered down in a rearranged rotation and retaliated choreographically.  Alex snapped out of her momentary unevenness, playing daisy-fresh as if she’d found her inner Cossack; and the Broils racked up a multipoint lead which they hung onto for several rallies.

 

Then Athens Grove started chipping away at it, tying game two at 11-11 before moving ahead.  There was a frosty-mugged Olympian, #30, whose deadpan mien never changed even when her spikes went in odd directions.  Whichever angle they took, Vicki’s hands and fists and forearms got stung blocking them, as she did on one dig-and-roll after another.  Keep the ball in play—never mind the bruises—keep the ball in play—never mind the bruises—and hope Coach Celeste would pull you out soon and put in Isabel, who’d appreciate the additional exposure if not the likely contusions.

 

Sammi stepped up and got in some potent spikes for the Gondoliers, pulling them within one, but Athens Grove regained serve and soon it was match point.  Melina Homer sent a snowball to the Vanderlund backcourt; Laurie and Ann Hew both called for it, colliding and falling in a tangle of limbs; the ball caromed off them and back over the net to Frostymug.  A simple shot beyond the entanglement would win the match, and Sammi and Sheila and Alex were all turning in an effort to obstruct it, when Frostymug dealt the ball a colossal sideways biff that cleared the net by an inch at most and hurtled toward the furthest-away Broil, Vicki Volester, who had a split second to go Wha’?—

 

—before it SMASHED into her face, propelling her into the air like Piggy off Castle Rock in Lord of the Flies, to land with a rumpfirst whump and skid spread-eagled out of bounds.

 

Initial gust of laughter at this elaborate pratfall.

 

Shredded by twin screams (from Joss and Felicia) as Vicki lay there supine and inert, blood streaming out of her pulped nose and around her agape mouth and off her sagging chin.  Enshrouded in a cone of deathly silence, while the rest of the gym had its roofbeam raised surprisingly high by a nowhere-near-full house.

 

Trainer/Coach Celeste was first on the scene, wincing at the sight and also from her overyoga’d shoulders.  Alex the Girl Scout and Sheila the Future Nurse ran up to assist, outwardly unflappable though both were pale as haints.  The other JVs hovered just outside the cone, arms linked for communal support (Laurie was blubbering) and to partly screen the victim from view.  Isabel took one look and retreated to tuck her head between her kneepads and retch up a half-digested orange-slice.

 

Most of the varsity Gondoliers fanned out to handle crowd control, preventing those not wearing gym shoes from setting foot on the court.  Louisa Lang singlehandedly (though with two arms) held back Joss, Felicia, Ozzie, and the agog Goofus while Ms. Ramsey tried to reassure them that Ms. Schwall was a professional caregiver doing a preliminary examination.  Other Biguns helped Gretel Hitchens with the ice chest and first aid kit: a routine they’d learned by heart during their injury-plagued previous season.

 

Ms. Thrace hustled her Olympians over to the visitors bench, giving #30 a What kind of spike was that last shot? glance, and getting a deadpan Won us the match, didn’t it? reply.  This while the home fans leveled accusations of murder, demands for justice, and calls for a vendetta against Frostymug.  The loudest of these came (no surprise) from Robin Neapolitan, and the least audible from Fiona Weller, who was in almost as much shock as Vicki.  Not wanting to see more than she’d already witnessed, yet compelled against her will to try, Feef heaved herself up off the bleacher—

 

—and got eyesnagged instead by a limeytopped head at the other end of the gym, swaying in an insistent side-to-side no-no-no motion.  As the hands below it secretively gesticulated down-down-down.

 

Stealthy PoonElly, still thought of as Rerun, bearer of the Fruit Brute: and had she planned…?  Was this her scheme…?  But no-no-no, down-down-down, don’t let her see you, don’t let her know who you are…

 

And then the figure at Poon’s elbow.  Looking not at the crowd around the silent cone, but sideways at Poon: puzzlement in the posture, uncertainty in the stance.  Turning to trace the invisible line that connected PoonElly to the bleachers, to this bleacher, to Fiona.

 

As two pairs of eyes met and stared at each other, across the expanse of that raucous basilica.

 

*

 

—wha’?

 

(we now rejoin this program already in progress)

 

Hands up to block the incoming torpedo… no longer in flight.  Hands taken and squeezed by teammates on either side… of a really weird perspective.

 

Are you lying (or is it laying?) on the floor?  With Coach Celeste pressing a chilly something to your nose?  If it’s smelling salts, it’s (or is it they’re?) not doing its/their job: your nose feels completely stifled.  And the wrong size.  And the wrong shape.  And so hot it authenticates you as a Broil.  And in pain

 

Marcia-Marcia-Marcia “Oh my nose!!” PAIN

 

—that’s in no way lessened by Celeste saying “Tell me your name.”

 

OhmyGahd don’t you know me?  Did I trip and stumble into the Twilight Zone?

 

“—your name—”

 

“…Viggi Voadstah…”

 

(And an incorrigible snortle from Sheila-Q.)

 

Give her a miffed squint as you struggle to sit up, as you get gently pushed back down while other stupid who-where-when questions are asked and impatiently answered.  Braincheck done, followed by the rest of the head, the neck, the spine, while the unseen Felicia can be heard nattering on about stretchers and ambulances—

 

Budder!” you go (at Felicia; not as a request for churned cream).  “I’b ohgay!… hebb be ubb, you guys,” to your bunchkins.  Nod from Coach Celeste and they take a firm grip, carefully raising you to unstable feet and a smattering of applause, leavened with hardy-har-hars as Celeste keeps the icebag on your nose through the uprising.  Whoa!  Headrush!  Buttache!  “Owwww…”

 

“What??  Where??” from Alex.

 

Stupid answer to more stupid questions: “By bottubb…”

 

“Lucky you’ve got all that extra padding,” says S-Q.

 

“Suddubb, Squeedzee,” you growl—as Coach Celeste removes the icebag for a fresh assessment.  S-Q draws in a breath and Alex slips a comforting arm around your waist.

 

Rocky recollection: Yer nose is broke. / Howzit look? / It’s an improvement.

 

“Id… id by doze boke?”

 

“I don’t think so,” said Celeste, reapplying the bag and placing one of your hands upon it.  “Not bent or twisted—just swollen.  More important, you don’t seem to’ve had a concussion, but the doctor’ll be able to say for sure.  Your folks’re waiting to take you now.”

 

“Want a cold compress in your compress-shun shorts?” Sheila asks as they swivel you slowly around, to find your family still restrained by the mighty Louisa.

 

Shrug off Sheila’s support and detach Alex’s arm, asking her to please get your stuff out of your locker.  Then, with cautious steps, make your own way on your own power off the court; while someone who sounds like Dennis Desmond incites the not-much-of-a-crowd to actually (unless your hearing’s been affected too)

 

Give a big hand for the little lady!!


 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Return to Chapter 34                          Proceed to Chapter 36

 

 

A Split Infinitive Production
Copyright © 2018 by P. S. Ehrlich

 

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