Riots and arson may have devastated The City’s West Side, but their impact on Da Nordt (as the Franks called it) was mostly psychological. Old Mrs. LoCascio claimed her birds had been put off their feed by all the commotion. Junior Hull was disappointed at not finding any Bad Guys to clout. Mrs. Partridge in 2E swore she could “smell the smoke” for weeks afterward, and nearly fainted when the Tamworths held their belated kickoff cookout in the back alley.
Officer Sam survived the riots unscathed, though Kris said he now often had “insominex. That means he talks in his sleep.”
“What’s he say?”
“Mostly ‘YOU’—like that, real loud. It wakes up my mom and she has to shake him a little to make him stop.”
“Who’s the YOU? Your mom?”
“We don’t know. When he wakes up, he says he can’t remember.”
“Maybe he means Yew, like the Avenue.”
“Maybe. Anyway, last night he woke up Ness, and she started barking, and we had to soothe her back to sleep, and—well, you know how she snores...”
All the Rawberrys looked kind of tired. Even unflappable Kate was caught yawning a lot. They were glad to get away to their Iowa farm after July 4th, the womenfolk (Ness included) for eight whole weeks, and Officer Sam joining them when he could.
Vicki and Hayley missed Kris so much they were almost sorry they’d become best friends with her. She’d tantalized them with talk of all the heaven-on-earth fun they could have on a visit—riding real live ponies, playing with lambs and calves, seeing new-laid eggs turn into fluffy little chicks. But Kris’s grandparents said they didn’t have accommodations for extra visitors, even a couple of six-year-olds who’d offered to sleep in the barn and earn their keep by nipping stampedes in the bud.
So Hayley and Vicki stayed home that summer. Except for the third week of August, which Vicki had to spend at a family reunion back in Michigan; which meant traveling 300-plus miles in the same Oldsmobile as two-year-old Goofus.
The trip should’ve taken six hours at most. Everybody enjoyed the first hour, thanks to Tricia’s one-girl tour de force presentation of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But lacking psychedelic special effects, she had to improvise a battle-royal finale between HAL the computer and an army of aliens—and Goofus spent the trip’s second hour replaying this fracas at high volume. Then at the Howard Johnson’s in Kalamazoo, he got so stoked on chocolate ice cream that he thwarted every effort to put him back in the Olds. His parents and sisters, all sweatily dyspeptic by then, had to let him boil off HoJo brio by VROOMING around the parking lot with arms outstretched.
“Will someone shoot him down, please?” Tricia finally demanded.
“—Christopher Blaine—” went Felicia.
“Ready!” Goofus announced, sounding proud of himself.
Ozzie wanted to swat his backside, but “No Daddy! remember he ate ice cream!” warned Vicki. So Goof’s backside got prudently hauled to the HoJo toilet, after Ozzie convinced the staff that yes they did just dine there, why else do you think my boy has to go to the restroom now??
Once that was dealt with and they were back on the highway, Goof consented to take a nap. Unbelievable peace for the next thirty minutes. Disturbed only by his kicking You’re Something Else, Charlie Brown out of Vicki’s hands (twice: first with a lethargic right foot, then with a languid left).
“Shhh, let him sleep,” cautioned Felicia.
“But he keeps kicking my book—”
“Look, we’re going past Battle Creek. Too bad we didn’t pack our boxtops, hunh?”
Whereupon Goofus boxtopped himself by unpacking the vilest kind of residual flatulence. It was so foul Ozzie had to pull the car off to the shoulder and let Vicki out to gag, her back to the traffic but still in full view of an Interstate.
“Daddy, everyone saw me almost throw up!”
“Now Kitten, nobody’s watching you. They’ve all got their eyes on the road.”
If so, they all would’ve seen Goofus attempt to gallop across it, and Felicia grab him on the very brink.
“Oz, I’m telling you, I don’t care how much it costs—next time we’re going by plane.”
“Plane! Plane!” Goofus agreed, trying to resume his VROOMING. Tricia took that as her cue to break into dramatic tears, and Ozzie hurt his foot by kicking what he took to be an empty can but turned out to be a heavy pipe.
In the end, they didn’t reach Uncle Ted’s till well after sunset.
It was worth it, though—a brand-new split-level on Tempest Lake near Pontiac, where Uncle Ted worked as assistant paymaster of a big auto plant. (PopPop joshed that he couldn’t be prouder of his oldest son for rising so high with The General, yet it was hard for an old UAW rank-and-filer like him to be palsy-walsy with management.)
Ted had inherited PopPop’s girth, disposition, and what both called a “hearty appetite.” After Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners they used to sprawl on the carpet like supine whales, while Ozzie and Uncle Jerry—younger and leaner but nearly as hearty—would squeeze themselves onto what little rug remained vacant; leaving MomMom and Aunt Bonnie to do all the washing up.
“As if we hadn’t done all the cooking, too!” MomMom snorted.
“That’s ‘cause you’d throw us out of the kitchen,” Uncle Ted placidly observed. “Wouldn’t allow us through the door, not even to carry the eats to the table.”
“Too true!” chided MomMom. “Hand you a roast turkey and next thing I’d know, there’d be nothing on the platter but a few bare bones. Edith Ann! You’re a saint for putting up with this bad boy!”
Merriment at the notion of Uncle Ted ever having been a bad boy; but gentle demurral from Aunt Edie. “He means well,” she said, scarcely above a whisper.
Everyone always called Aunt Edie a saint. Vicki never did learn much about her background, other than she was a Callaghan from Kankakee and dependent on Roman Catholicism to sustain her through a cheerless childhood. “Edie, you would’ve made a crackerjack nun,” Aunt Bonnie once remarked. “Oh no,” Edie almost-whispered, “I wanted to have babies.”
A prayer fulfilled repeatedly: five kids so far and Number Six well on its way.
“What, again?” Tricia asked Cousin Barbara.
“And we just got Monnie out of diapers,” Barbara sighed. “I thought ‘There, we’ve finished with that,’ and we donated away the crib and stroller and everything, and then what happens but I find Mother upchucking. ‘For goodness sake, Mother,’ I said, ‘please tell me you’ve got food poisoning.’ But here we are again.” (Another sigh.) “Oh well—maybe it’s all for the best. We’d’ve never moved to Tempest Lake otherwise.”
“It’s an awfully nice house,” Tricia softsoaped. “You’re so lucky, living in a brand-new one.”
“And in a couple weeks I start at a brand-new school, just opened last spring—oh, it’s so mod.” (Lofty smile.) “Junior High, you know.”
Cousin Barbara was two years and ten days older than Tricia, and never let that fact of life be altogether forgotten. Yet with Tricia looking/thinking/acting so far ahead of the curve, they had a degree of parity; and Barb, when she took Tricia shopping in Pontiac, got better fashion advice than she gave. If not always the most practical:
“They’ll never let her wear those white vinyl boots with a Catholic school uniform,” Tricia predicted. (Loftier smile.) “Not even at a Junior High, oh-so-mod.”
Vicki didn’t care. She thought the boots looked fantastic and longed for a pair of her own. Being around Barbara gave her hope that she herself might someday be beautiful. Not like Tricia, of course, but there was a striking likeness between Vicki and Uncle Ted’s two girls; everyone kept exclaiming over it and lining them up for more photos. Same olive complexion, same reserved expression, same dark silky hair and almond-shaped eyes—“Polish eyes,” MomMom called them. And being a Kosnowski she ought to know, although her own (like Tricia’s) were round and emerald.
Cousin Barbara had taken to piling her dark silky hair atop her head, Suzanne Pleshette-style, and was cultivating a deep smoky voice to match. Four-year-old Monica wore her hair in cute pouf-pigtails that quivered indignantly at Barb’s just-got-out-of-diapers quip.
“I been outta didies for this many!” she declared, waggling ten tiny fingers. “Hey Vicki, ya know where babies come from?”
“Um... where do you think?”
“Ya get ‘em outta the Caddy Log.”
“Um... out of—?”
“C’mon, I’ll show ya!” Monnie marched over and pointed to the latest Big Book from Sears Roebuck.
Vicki smothered a laugh. “What kinda baby do you wanna order?”
“A girl baby. There’s too many boys here already.”
“I wanted a little sister too,” said wistful Vicki, “but look what I got.” They peered out at Goofus wreaking havoc in the yard with his equally destructive cousin Barry.
“See?” said Monica. “Who needs more of them?”
“I’ll say... I wish you were my little sister.”
“Maybe we can swap! Goofy could come live here ‘n’ be all boys (‘cept Barbara) ‘n’ I could go be all girls with Tricia ‘n’ you.”
“Sounds like a good trade,” said Beaver Volester, barging into the kitchen to gulp Hi‑C straight from the can. “I’ll even throw in Stanley—he’s practically a girl.”
Ted Jr. had been branded as “Beaver” from the day of his birth, which coincided with the premiere of the Cleaver sitcom. Nowadays he was trying to relabel himself as “T.J.,” particularly on the Little League team that dominated every summer minute not spent witnessing the exploits of Denny McLain. Middle brother Stanley disliked baseball, drank Hi-C from a glass, and spent as much time as possible off by himself with a sketchpad for company. T.J. said Stan might as well don lace panties and be done with it. Stan’s response was to call him Beeee-ver whenever others could hear, even at the risk of getting pummeled.
All told, there was a total of fourteen Volesters—fifteen counting Baby Number Six—assembled together under the split-level roof on Tempest Lake. The entire family, in fact, except for Aunt Bonnie (visiting Dominican missions in Peru) and Uncle Jerry (transporting jet fuel to Vietnam). This meant close quarters every night: Ted and Edie in the master bedroom, MomMom and PopPop in Ted’s den, Ozzie and Felicia down in the rec room, Barbara and Monica in the Girls’s Room, their three brothers in the Boys’s Room (two on bunk beds), Tricia and Vicki on a screened service porch that smelled of laundry starch, and Goofus on a cot that he dragged wherever he liked.
They had an official reunion picnic at the actual Tempest Lake, which Vicki thought a pretty puddle compared to the fog-trailing mist-creeping black-cat-stacking Lake As Big As An Ocean back home. Several hampers were unpacked and their “eats” distributed; but before the first bite could be taken, Aunt Edie asked everyone to bow their heads. And she almost-whispered:
Bless us O Lord T.J. take off that baseball cap this instant where was I oh yes Bless us O Lord for these Thy gifts
which we are about to receive from Thy bounty through Christ our Lord Amen Barbara would you please—
Barb went over and twisted Beaver’s ear for starting a prayer with a cap on his head. Which caused her father, grandfather, and Uncle Ozzie to beam and say, “Just like Bonn!”
Toasts were drunk to Barbara and Tricia, who’d turned twelve and ten that month; then Dixie cups were raised in a general na zdrowie! to the continued good health of every Volester and General Motors. Then Beaver pitched a biscuit at Barb’s Pleshette bouffant; Barry and Goofus doused each other with lemonade; PopPop sneezed on the potato salad but agreed to eat it all himself; Monica announced she was a “sea slurpent” and had to be restrained from jumping in the lake; Stanley and his sketchpad wandered off and couldn’t be located for an hour; and Tricia, betrayed once more by Coppertone, acquired her latest tanless sunburn.
Aunt Edie, meanwhile, had lowkey “words” with Felicia over somebody called Hubert Humphrey. With a name like that, Vicki figured he must be a circus clown or TV comic like Soupy Sales; and Edie (who’d named her youngest son after Senator Goldwater) sounded like she figured the same thing.
Felicia (who’d dutifully bowed her head with everyone else, despite her opinion of praying) was “in no mood to coddle Saint Edith Ann,” as she told Ozzie afterward. “I just pity that poor baby, having to make room for the steel rod Edie keeps up her aaa—Vicki! how long have you been standing there??”
Ozzie told the other Volesters they had to be getting back to Pfiester Park. A big convention was about to begin in The City and they needed to beat the rush, so thanks for everything, it was a swell reunion, we’ll have to do it again real soon.
“Till then, go get ‘em Tigers!!” roared Beaver.
“Yeah, they’re gonna bite ya ‘n’ chew ya with their fangs!” Barry told Goofus.
“’Member our swap,” Monica told Vicki.
Hayley, downcast by both her best friends being away, had been taken to the pony ride at the Zoo. There she not only tumbled out of her saddle and fractured her left arm in two places, but landed in a patch of what turned out to be poison oak.
“Besides that, how was it?” Vicki asked.
“Horrible,” said Hayl, scratching aggravatedly with her right hand. “I hate ponies and I hate the Zoo and I hate this cast that’s still gonna be on my arm when school starts ‘cause I have to wear it for a whole month and it’s not fair!”
“Well... at least with it on, you can’t scratch that arm.”
“Oh go away and leave me alone! Again.”
“Hey, I was just trying to help!”
“I know,” Hayley grumbled, extending the cast in her direction. “You’re supposed to write your name on it. Leave space for Kris to write hers when she finally comes home.”
“I’m sorry you got hurt and itch,” said Vicki, carefully printing V I C K I on the cast with Magic Marker.
“I’m sorry too,” said Hayley. “I’m really glad you’re back—‘cept for right now.”
The entire City seemed to feel the same way. A fresh set of riots broke out, some near the Zoo where Hayley’d had her accident. Again the news was on constantly, again Mr. Hull and Junior patrolled Walrock Avenue with gun and bat. (This time Mrs. Partridge swore she could “taste the tear gas” when the wind came out of the south.)
At the big convention a great many people discovered How Policemen Are Our Pals. “The whole world is watching!” went their chant; and Vicki knew this included the Rawberrys in Clayton County, Iowa, fretting about Officer Sam and his bad-word camera. Maybe it would bring them home early and Vicki’d have someone to play with who wasn’t hurt and itchy and inclined to snap your head off. Though Mrs. Rawberry probably wouldn’t let Kris come over while riots were going on, even if most of them were down near the Zoo.
Mrs. Tamworth, preoccupied with Hayley, deputized Felicia to make her rounds of the Walrock greystone. As usual, this mostly meant tending to Mrs. LoCascio and the birds that lived in or flew through 1W.
It was their fault the following incident happened.
It was Mrs. Lo’s for being unable to take care of herself. It was the birds’s for being so noisy and distracting. It was Mrs. Tamworth’s for being absent upstairs, and Hayley’s for being too graceless to ride a pony. It was Tricia’s for escaping with Patty Kuchenesser in search of a sunburn cure, and Daddy’s for going off to the Lot as though the whole world weren’t watching riotous turmoil, and Mommy’s for bringing Vicki and Goofus down with her to 1W, and—
—no. The whole incident was Goofus’s fault. His and nobody else’s.
Bad Mrs. Lo greeted them, demanding to know why Felicia was there and what was she doing and why had she dragged her nasty brats along and what were they doing and couldn’t she hear them upsetting her poor birdies and why didn’t anyone ever pay attention to a single word she said??
Mommy, bravely wheeling Mrs. Lo into the bathroom, answered each question in her patientest voice. Vicki lingered in the seedy cage-crammed newspaper-strewn living room, listening to Luigi the parrot croak “Addio! Addio!,” when she was reminded (for the thousandth time) to look after her little brother—
—so she looked—
—and didn’t see Goofus in the living room, or the dining room, or the kitchen—
—because 1W’s front door stood wide open, as did the greystone’s back door—
—through which Goofus could just be glimpsed, exiting all on his own.
“Mommy!” went Vicki.
“In a minute, Brownie.”
“In a minute, Victoria! I’ve got my (oog) hands full here!”
Look after your little brother.
Run after him, too. Vicki dashed out to find Goof already halfway up the back alley. This despite its being a long alley, paralleling the blocks on Manderley to the east and Cypress to the west. But its length did no more to discourage Goofus than Vicki’s commands to halt and retreat; so up the alley she had to race. Reaching Goof as he successfully tipped over somebody’s garbage can.
Vicki seized his small sticky hand and scolded, “Don’t wander off by yourself!”
“Cousin Stanley’s eight—you’re two. Now get back indoors before Mommy sees this mess you made.”
“No! Leggo!” went Goofus, planting small grubby feet amid the spilled eggshells and apple cores and coffee grounds. Vicki tugged and pulled and yanked before realizing, to her dismay, that Goof had grown too heavy for her to manhandle alone.
“Help?” she called experimentally.
If Junior Hull was within earshot, he’d be here in a hulking flash and her troubles would be over. Any of the Hulls would do, for that matter. Or the Franks or Mrs. Partridge or the Grusza girls—or best of all Tricia, forever reliable to get her own way. Though not to come home via the back alley, just when you needed her most.
“HELP!” Vicki yelled as Goofus wrenched loose, a grin of relish spreading over his speckled face and snouty nose and bristly orange crewcut. Oh good grief, he was a pig! A yucky runty porker edging his tricky piggy way along a wall under a no trespassing sign—
—that the whole world took far too seriously: there was not a single person in the alley but Vicki. And her loathsome little brother. Who took refuge behind a telephone pole, leering around it with a stuck-out tongue.
“You are in so much trouble, Christopher! Come here now!”
“Make me!” he parried, suddenly skinning off his T-shirt. “Hot out. Too hot. No shirt. No pants?...”
Vicki, in desperation, tried shouting all the profanity she knew. Expletives that at any other time would’ve brought a mob of angry adults on the run, but today: NOBODY. Just dead silence, except for Goofus gleefully echoing her no-no’s.
“Stop that! Those are bad words!”
“You said,” Goof accused. He started sidling northward, one eye on his sister and the other angling for a chance to flee.
So let him.
Let him run away. Up to Yew, up to Sharp, even as far as Eskimo Town. Or down to the Zoo and the riots and the poison oak. It would be soooo eeeeasy to let him go, leave him here, quit having to look after him. And when Mommy asks “Where’s your little brother?” you can tell her...
You could say...
YOU (real loud).
Vicki leaned against the wall and let tears well up. Never had she felt more inept, more forlorn, more abandoned—
—but not ignored.
Stirring in the shadows, dimly recalled: an awareness of Something or Other observing her. Scrutinizing her. A merciless Mad Man in the not-so-distant distance...
And next thing you know, there’ll be nothing left but a few bloody bones—
She opened wet black Polish eyes like almond-shaped stars, and saw Goofus toddling homeward. Trailing his T-shirt through grit and debris.
Vicki had just enough time to snatch the shirt, give it a shake, and slip it over her brother’s head before Mommy stepped out of 1W and found them in the front hall.
“There you are! Oh, did you take Goofy for a walk?”
“Nice walk! Big walk!” went Goofus, giving Vicki another swinish leer.
“He—I mean we—in the, uh, alley—”
“Good girl! You should’ve asked first, but that was a smart thing to do—safer than the street. And you, mister” (nose wrinkling) “smell like you need a hot bath. Yes, I said bath, and it better be now since after a morning with old Mrs. Lo, I could use one too.”
That evening Daddy came back from the Lot wearing a very sad expression. He took Mommy aside and murmured something that made her tears well up. “Was it because of the fight we had?” she was asking when Tricia herded Vicki and Goofus to their bedrooms.
“You stay put,” she told Goof, who gave her no guff; and “I’ll find out what happened,” she told Vicki. Many apprehensive minutes later, Tricia returned with the news that “Aunt Edie lost the baby.”
Vicki sat bewildered. It wasn’t her, it was me—except I didn’t—only almost—so what’s it got to do with—
“How?” she asked.
Tricia explained that Number Six had died without ever being born. Vicki thought it the most tragic fate imaginable, as bad or worse than that of the unfallen Raindrop Julie. And now no hope remained for negotiating a swap to make Monica her little sister. So: catastrophe all round.
“Was it—was it a girl baby?”
“No,” said Tricia. “They think it was a boy.”
“Oh,” said Vicki. “Well... maybe it’s all for the best.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Copyright © 2009-2011 by P. S. Ehrlich
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