There were sisters and then there were sisters. Ozzie had one named Bonita who, when dumped by her callous college sweetheart John Johnson (from Wausau, Wisconsin) had sobbingly declared she was taking the veil. MomMom’d pleaded that she not “go overboard with the Faith”; but nowadays Aunt Bonnie was Sr. Agnes Volester OP, parochial schoolteacher.
Her pupils marked the semester’s end by presenting her with a handmade certificate of blessed appreciation. “Which is a rich laugh,” Aunt Bonnie observed in her latest letter, “considering how many rulers I’ve worn out on those scamps.”
“How does she wear out rulers?” Vicki wanted to know.
“By whacking knuckles,” said her father, gently showing how on Vicki’s little hand. “Lots harder, of course, and with wood.”
“Wouldn’t that hurt?”
“You bet it would, Kitten.”
Vicki’s mother intervened to explain that some teachers used corporal punishment to make children obedient, but Aunt Bonnie was a Dominican Sister who opposed violence and merely joked about whacking.
“Bet she could do it, though,” said Ozzie. “It was always Bonn who kept us boys in line—even Ted, and he was lots bigger’n her. She had this way of grabbing you by the ear and twisting it—”
Vicki’d once overheard MomMom sighing about Aunt Bonnie, telling Gran Schmelz how lucky she was to have had one girl who could produce grandchildren. But Gran had responded with tales from the opposite extreme: about her younger daughter Francesca, whom everyone but Gran had always called Fritzi Ritz.
At sixteen she’d eloped with her boyfriend Bucky Fettermeyer, spending three months as his blissful bride before annulment in September and a nonchalant return to high school. “I married my first husband ‘cause he had a name like ‘Buck Fetter,’” Fritzi would drawl. “Unfortunately, it turned out he—didn’t.”
Then after a colorful decade as pin-up model, showgirl and chorine, Fritzi’d endured a few years with Andrew Massena (That Glassblowing Basket Case). Vicki was too young to remember Uncle Frenchy, but she associated him with a jardiniere in the Volester front room that he had sculpted and Vicki thought of as “the runny-colored flowerpot.”
“He was a crock,” Aunt Fritzi always said, “and I got nothing out of him except other crocks.” Plus his surname, retained post-divorce when Fritzi opened her dance studio. “‘Madame Massena’ looks so much chic-er than Schmelz. I don’t want people thinking I’ll teach them to polka.”
“Well, make sure they don’t think you’ll teach them the double shuffle, either.”
Vicki, even at the age of four, understood her mother regarded Fritzi with the same jumbled hodgepodge of love, envy and resentment that she herself felt toward Tricia; though in Felicia’s case, she was the older sister. And would sometimes snipe “That’s all the Fritzi in you coming out”—most recently when Tricia, arriving in The City for good, remarked “It’s just like West Side Story!” as Puerto Ricans spent three days rioting on Division Street.
“I like to be in Amair-eek-ah,” Tricia sang. “Ho-kay by me in Amair-eek—I need to learn the mambo!”
She got enrolled in the Massena Dance Studio’s Summer Beginners course, whose minimum attendance age was seven. “Any younger than that and there’s too much crying,” said Aunt Fritzi.
These words were so many ruler-whacks on Vicki’s emotional knuckles. Crying! That was something babies did. (As demonstrated by Goofus for hours at a stretch.) No worse barb could be lodged in a four-year-old’s heart than the awful slur of “baby.”
There and then Vicki (wiping hot eyes) vowed that she too would learn how to dance, as good as Tricia and the sooner the better. Princess Smartysnoot traipsed home from her first lesson to sling a leg up on the windowsill, pronounce it an acceptable “barre,” and evict Vicki from their bedroom.
“‘Cause I’ve got to practice.”
“Can’t I just sit here?”
“No. You’d ask all sorts of questions, and I need to concentrate. Go play with your friend or something.”
Vicki stormed over to
Hayley’s and introduced a furious innovation to the Adventures of the Astro
Co-eds. They now took place on the planet Hullabaloo, where everybody could
really shake ‘em down and work it all, BABY—but none so well as the Astro
Co-eds. Every adventure opened with their new theme song, adapted from “Sugar
and Spice” by the Cryan’ Shames:
“I can dance too,” offered Junior Hull one memorable day. “Look, I can do the Twist!”—and on a vast scale, still holding onto his bucket and mop. (Vicki would recall this as her first exposure to dirty dancing.)
The Munchkin Mayor, witness to the resulting splatter, dealt Junior a tremendous whack on the seat of his dungarees.
“Aw, Paw...” went Junior, and could speak no more.
Vicki and Hayley choked up with vicarious reproach; while Mr. Hull, quietly clearing his own throat, told Junior to “be a man” and re-mop what he’d sloshed.
No use crying over spilled slosh. The next time Vicki was ordered to go away so her sister could concentrate, she lingered humbly (though dry-eyed) on the threshold.
“I wanna watch you packtiss. I won’t say a word or ask a word. You can kick me out if I do.”
“It’s PRACtice. And not one peep,” warned Tricia. Yielding to her customary yen for an audience, she exhibited moves-in-the-groove that had beautiful names. The main move was called the plee-ay, which must be fancytalk for “please”—or possibly “thank you,” since it resembled a curtsy.
Vicki had to bite her lips to keep all the questions from bursting forth. She couldn’t cover her mouth with a hand, lest Tricia think she was stifling laughter; and that would be very wrong, for Tricia’s endeavors at the makeshift barre (or “sille”) were anything but silly.
Stand up tall—keep the back straight—tummy in—shoulders level—relax the elbows—turn out your toes—lift and stretch—lengthen and loosen—
—and, eventually, you can make your body do anything you want it to.
Even leave the ground and fly off like a bird.
So Tricia spent that summer PRACticing plee-ays and reh-luh-vays and day-gah-zhays, plus another move called the Batman Tawndoo (though it had no apparent link to TV’s Caped Crusader). And every step that Tricia took was replicated by Vicki and Hayley—or rather by Skipper and Skooter, who could be put through caper-cutting paces thanks to their “lifelike bendable legs.”
Finally, after eight weeks of Saturday lessons and continual exercise, Tricia and her fellow Beginners took part in a recital. Everybody was coming to watch this day-byew: Mommy and Daddy, Gran and Dime, MomMom and PopPop down from the Thumb, the Tamworths bringing Mrs. Partridge (to critique the accompanist’s piano) and the whole Hull clan. Goofus would be left at home with Candice and Corliss—you could never engage one Grusza as babysitter, the twins were a package deal—but Vicki, to her thrilled alarm, was assigned an actual role in the recital itself.
Tricia’d decided a bouquet should be presented to her, and that this would have the most dramatic effect if done by Vicki. Who got vigorously rehearsed beforehand in their bedroom, using a feather duster that had to be carried just-so and delivered just-so to Tricia, standing on her bed as if at center stage.
And then, at last, she was. “No more rehearsing or nursing a part, on with the show this is it!”—at the Joe E. Lewis Dinner Playhouse. Which wasn’t like any playhouse Vicki’d ever seen before; it was more like a HoJo with a raised platform where the ice cream counter should be.
The Massena Dance Studio occupied its second story, and Vicki jumped at the chance to go up and peek inside: marveling at the genuine barres and springy floor and wall that was one huge mirror. After that glimpse, though, the rest of the Joe E. Lewis Dinner Playhouse looked even less impressive, despite its footlights and slightly-plush seats.
But then the recital began. And Vicki was conscious of only the dancers.
Big girls aged seven or eight, wearing pastel leotards and frilly tutus and cunning little slippers as they performed their moves-in-the-groove. Tricia (of course) did each one perfectly: leaps and bounds and twirls of delicate grace. Some of the other Beginners, though, seemed less lifelike-bendable than the Astro Co‑eds. Tricia’s partner Noreen, for instance, kept spinning too slowly and drifting too closely to Her Highness—who more than once had to thrust her aside.
Vicki could not help thinking that she herself could hop and skip as well as Noreen. How surprised they’d all be if she were to soar up onstage and shake ‘em down like a true Hullabalooer. How foolish Aunt Fritzi would feel at not having perceived Vicki’s talent, insisting she be specially admitted for studio instruction.
“Madame Massena” was wearing a lowcut leotard and long chiffon skirt, both of deepest black. Her dark flip was scrunched back into a proper ballerina’s hairbun, and she conducted the recital with an ebony wand that normally had one end plugged by a cigarette. Now Fritzi’s wand cued the dancers to make their closing reh-ver-ahnce; which was Vicki’s signal to take her carefully-clutched bouquet up to Tricia.
She stood, moved forward, and stumbled.
In front of everybody.
For one horrifying moment Vicki thought the flowers were going to slip through her fingers and disintegrate on the carpet, like last winter’s miniature snowman.
Somehow she made it to the stage. Somehow she managed to give her curtsying sister the bouquet intact. People in the audience might go “Aww” at the sight of her doing this; yet all Vicki could see was Tricia’s emerald glare.
Returning to her slightly-plush seat, she peered down at her deceitful feet in their tiny penny loafers. Suddenly they seemed massive, monstrous, the size of Junior Hull’s hulking clodhoppers—utterly incapable of delicacy or grace.
She trembled to think what Tricia would say. But it turned out Her Highness hadn’t even noticed the stumble, being preoccupied with annoyance at her laggard partner.
“That Noreen! She must’ve thought she was cast as a snail.”
Vicki breathed a bit easier then. At least until stubbing a toe on the way out of the Playhouse; followed by tripping twice on the greystone stairs.
“Mommy, I think my feet are wrong!” she tried to say, over loud protests by Goofus at being retrieved from the Gruszas.
“What, Brownie? (For goodness sake hush, Christopher!)”
“I SAID I THINK MY FEET ARE TOO BIG.”
“Oh no—don’t tell me you need new shoes already, we just got those.”
“Not my shoes, my feet—they’ve trying to make me fall down!”
“Put on your sandals, darling, I’m sure they’ll fit—” and off Felicia rushed to deposit Goofus in his crib.
Changing into flipflops did make Vicki’s tootsies feel cooler, if not smaller. And when she got a confidential opportunity to ask Tricia, “Do you think my feet are too big?” her sister just snapped “No, I think your mouth is too big.”
Which was almost reassuring.
But not entirely.
Shortly after the recital, Tricia turned eight and her family celebrated with a birthday dinner at the Red Star Inn. There Vicki tasted Hoppel-Poppel for the first time, and took note that all the Red Star waiters looked as though their feet had gone wrong too.
Then Noreen sought forgiveness by throwing Tricia a second party attended by their dance class cronies. They went to see Paradise, Hawaiian Style and left it asking each other, “When did Elvis Presley get so fat?”
Apparently it was possible to grow up too far or too much.
As if to test this, all three Volester children were taken to the pediatrician—Tricia for her annual checkup, Goofus for his three-month visit, and Vicki as a tagalong who wanted it made clear she didn’t need any shots.
Dr. Dale Tober had been recommended by Hayley’s mother, who sang praises not simply to his skill with children and support of the community, but also for “grinning and bearing it with that wife of his.” Mrs. Tamworth could do a surprisingly tart imitation of “Pidge” Tober, who (it was said) detested Pfiester Park and was forever urging her husband to move their home and his practice to some Nice Northern Suburb. But Dr. Tober had grown up in the neighborhood, and enjoyed strolling the few blocks to and from his office in the Dewinter Avenue Medical Building. Which, as Mary Tamworth pointed out, was “a mere stone’s throw” from Hardesty’s Supermarket on Brunt Street; and Vicki figured if stones were being thrown, it must be handy having a building full of doctors nearby.
Dr. Tober was a handsome man and Tricia thought him suitable as her personal examiner. Goofus too kicked up minimal fuss, in spite of cutting his first tooth. Vicki was tempted to consult Dr. Tober about the state of her feet, but feared this might lead to him reaching for a hypodermic needle.
“So this is Vicki? How are you today?”
“FINE,” she politely emphasized.
“I have a little girl just about your age. Her name is April—here’s her picture—and she’s starting at the XY Nursery School next month.” To Felicia: “If you’d care to see their brochure...”
Felicia expressed quick and ominous interest.
“Uh,” went Vicki.
It wasn’t that she resisted the idea of getting an education. Vicki knew she’d be going to school someday, and that it was a necessary step from babyhood to big-girldom. Part of her was eager to become an Actual Co-ed—so long as this could be achieved by gradual degrees.
“Is there dancing at nursery school?” she whispered to Tricia.
“Well—there’s music, anyway. In fact it’s mostly music.”
That sounded promising, as did the chance to escape from Goofus’s teething. Hayley had also been signed up as an “XY Zeekid,” so it wasn’t like she’d know nobody there. And April Tober (who looked exactly like a chipmunk in her father’s photo: so cute) might turn out to be a new friend—one more consistently interesting than others Vicki could mention.
This hope got quashed during the first minutes of school, whose doorway April had to be dragged through at the end of her mother’s arm.
“This place is stupid,” April declared in a disgusted chipmunk’s chirp.
“Now dearest, we must try to make the best of things,” pidged Mrs. Tober.
“Hi,” Vicki ventured. “I like your dress.”
“It’s stupid and so are you!”
Vicki was filled with misgivings that swelled as the day wore on. Or rather the Times, of which there were many: Hello Time, Indoor Happy Time, Story Time, Snack Time, Rest Time, Art Time, Outdoor Happy Time (weather permitting), Song Time, Tidying Time, Goodbye Time. The next day’s Times were precisely the same, as were each subsequent day’s.
Paradise, XYan Style.
Presiding over the Zeekids were Mrs. Eckstein, uncommonly large and always upbeat: “OH, aren’t we having fun?”—and Miss Wyatt, uncommonly lean and a habitual crosspatch: “Let us mind our P’s and Q’s!” These and similar points would be stressed with flourishes of a super-long ruler called a yardstick. Vicki kept a wary eye on this, frequently hiding her knuckles in her pockets or behind her back.
There were Times, though, when she wished she could borrow the yardstick and do a bit of whacking. The school was full of rowdy pushers and frantic shovers and irrepressible shouters-at-lungtops. One girl named Nancy always acted like she’d been stuck in an electric outlet and turned up as high as the ants in her pants would go. There were three rambunctious boys named Mark—one a tall loudmouth who constantly sassed the teachers, one a short glutton who spent every non-Snack minute racing and chasing, and one a dumb maniac who never uttered an intelligible word among his honks and brays and caterwauls.
“Sharing” and “taking turns” were seldom practiced by the pushers ‘n’ shovers. They inevitably grabbed all the good playstuff, indoors and out; hogging the swings, monopolizing the jungle gym, swiping the best crayons and moister clay right from under your nose.
So far as Vicki was concerned, she and Hayley could just as profitably (and a lot more comfortably) have spent these mornings playing by themselves at home. For outdoor fun they could’ve relied on Junior Hull or Beany Boy, both of whom were a lot better (and tamer) company than Noisy Nancy or the Three Marks.
Not that all the Zeekids raised constant cain—some were so quiet you hardly ever noticed them. The least noteworthy was a mislaid-looking little boy called Wernie Ball, who occupied the chair on Vicki’s other side when everyone except Short Mark sat down at the big round sticky-topped table.
Wernie Ball was very pale and slight and nervous, with strange colorless hair like cobwebs or dandelion fluff. Vicki and Hayley were curious what such hair must feel like, but neither intended to find out. They agreed that Wernie had all the earmarks of a paste-eater—too creepy to consort with.
“Do we need to blow our nose?” Mrs. Eckstein asked when Wernie drew attention to himself for once, sniffing loudly through an entire Indoor Happy Time.
“No’m,” he mumbled.
“I blew my nose already!” boasted Tall Mark, snatching a Tonka truck right from under Wernie’s.
“Let us not bother our neighbors,” said Miss Wyatt and her yardstick.
“Yeah, Wernie!” chided Tall Mark, with a parting shove.
One day as the Zeekids assembled at the big round table for Song Time, the chair on Vicki’s other side was taken not by Wernie but a girl, and no less a girl than Mean Melissa. Who normally sat on the opposite side of the table. Which had been just fine with Vicki.
Every child at XY Nursery School knew by now that whatever Mean Melissa desired, nobody else was likely to get. She accomplished this without shouting, without sassing, without ever growing flustered or upset. Mean Melissa accepted instructions and then disregarded them; learned all the rules and was bound by none.
Melissa did her own binding.
Whenever Short Mark started to chase a girl, he would yell “Gonna getcha! gonna getcha!”—and the girl was supposed to squeal and run as fast as she could. Vicki had been obliged to do this on several occasions. Yet the first time Short Mark sought to pursue Melissa, she put her hands on her hips and said:
Short Mark then tried to pretend he’d really been after Noisy Nancy, who dutifully shrieked and galloped away; but neither’s heart was in the hunt.
“I’m not playing with you today,” Melissa might inform this or that Zeekid during Hello Time. No reason would be given; nor could her snubs be casually shrugged off—they left too indelible a sting.
So in her presence Nancy would lower her voice (a trifle) and April Tober, to whom everybody else was stupid, would wear an ingratiating smile. Even the Three Marks tread as softly as they could around Mean Melissa.
You’d have to call her a pretty girl, prettier even than chipmunk-cute April. But Melissa’s was a face you dared not look directly at for long. She had the coldest eyes imaginable: they were a shining blue-gray and two different shapes, one (not always the same one) narrower than the other. Her upper lip was usually curled in a half-smile—now on the left side, now on the right—to reveal teeth like the contents of a refrigerator icetray.
Vicki, for all her experience of Tricia’s green glare and the chilliness of the Grusza twins, had never felt such caustic frigidity before. Certainly not from a child her own age, who shouldn’t be old enough to possess that much impact.
Once when Vicki was climbing out of the sandbox, she accidentally stepped on Melissa’s castle. “I’m sorry!” she hastened to say, but Melissa stared at Vicki’s feet and went “clumsy” in a voice like a subzero branding iron. It gave Vicki bad dreams every night for a whole week (and her mother additional fits when Vicki refused to wear those penny loafers again). The only worse epithet would’ve been “baby,” and Melissa applied that one to Hayley Tamworth—doubling the freezer-burn by adding “Huey.”
“Why’d she hafta say it so mean?” Hayley wondered over and over, after they were safely back on Walrock Avenue.
“‘Cause she is Mean,” was Vicki’s only answer.
Now she could think of no clue why Melissa had chosen to sit beside her for Song Time. Probably to make some stark remark about Vicki’s ability to carry a tune, meaning she also lacked the delicate grace to ever be a ballerina.
She won’t make me cry, Vicki swore to herself. I won’t ever let her make me cry—
“Er’m...” said a hesitant voice. “That’s my chair.”
Wernie Ball, standing by the big round table, shifting from anxious foot to foot.
“So?” went Melissa, not even looking up. “I’m sitting here now.”
It hadn’t occurred to Vicki that a chair could be stolen, like clay or crayons or a Tonka truck. Name cards were hung on the back of every Zeekid’s chair to resolve any confusion by student or teacher. Wernie stared in bewilderment at the card on his chairback, partly obscured by Melissa’s long brown ponytail.
“But... that’s my name.”
Melissa turned half around, upper lip curling, to glance at the card in question. “What’s that say? Weenie?” (Laughter from other Zeekids; honk and bray from Dumb Mark.) “Maybe it oughta say TEENY-Weenie.” (General hilarity as Melissa flounced forward again.)
Two words then, like banderillas planted in a quivering hide:
Wernie wavered for a moment. Then dropped his jaw and started to sob.
“What’s this, what’s this, what’s this?” beseeched Mrs. Eckstein, who till then had been engrossed with sheet music.
“She... she...” was all Wernie could manage.
Nobody else spoke up, except to giggle. Nor was there any explanation as to how a chair had gone missing, though everyone suspected one or more of the Three Marks.
Melissa tapped impatient
fingertips on the tabletop while an adult-sized chair was drawn up and Wernie,
still blubbering, got boosted onto it. Then Miss Wyatt’s yardstick led everyone
else in a rendition of “The Farmer in the Dell” that dissolved into scurrilous
mirth, long before they reached:
|The cheese stands alone|
|the cheese stands alone|
|hi-ho the derry-o|
|the cheese stands alone.|
Most of the children rose to do the daily Happy March (segue from Song Time to Tidying). The pushers ‘n’ shovers provided their standard barrage of rowdy stamping and frantic crashing. Mean Melissa and April Tober paraded more genteelly, sharing a chummyish snortle.
Vicki, kiddycursing her feet as they tangled with the legs of her chair, found the way blocked by the adult-sized chair and its sniveling occupant. Who reminded her of Peter Rabbit, caught in the gooseberry net and dunked in the watering can.
Queasy pity churned Vicki’s stomach.
“Don’t cry,” she muttered at him while squeezing past.
He raised his head. Confronting her with startlingly red eyes in a pasty pallid face.
Vicki hurried after Hayley and the other Happy Marchers. Acutely aware with every awkward step that Wernie Ball was following her—those creepy-crawly eyes were upon her—their focus poised like a pair of wet crimson needles.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Copyright © 2009-2011 by P. S. Ehrlich
Return to Bolster, Not Molest Her Contents