A Star Is Borrowed
When the Peaches became Miss Sandy’s third-grade students at Reulbach, it was agreed (without anyone saying anything aloud) that they wouldn’t make a big deal out of having been in her dance class for the past year or so. Nevertheless, a lot of just-between-us glances got bandied between Miss Sandy—that is, Miss Steinfeldt—and the quintet.
Sarah-Jill had joined Vicki and Hayley in Ballet, while Kris now preferred Tap (which Vicki found too deafening), but all five girls enjoyed Jazz—even Brenda, though she maintained this was due to its being good exercise.
They always wore peach leotards to the dance studio. Their mothers remarked darkly that back in their day, black was the only leotard allowed; but they didn’t understand that this was the Age of Aquarius, when Jupiter had a lion on Mars (or something) and Miss Steinfeldt—that is, Miss Sandy—encouraged Free Expression. Which enabled the Peaches to squint wryly at any girl in a lesser-colored leotard.
Still: it wasn’t those other girls’s fault they weren’t blessed with Peachiness. They, like the quintet, could count themselves lucky to be taught dance by Miss Sandy—and double-lucky if they were assigned to Miss Steinfeldt’s room as well.
Just as Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle lent magic to chores like dishwashing or bedmaking, so too did Miss Steinfeldt turn third grade into some kind of wonderful. Even onerous tasks—such as standing at the blackboard doing multi-digit math problems with everybody watching—could be an Enjoyable Challenge that you almost looked forward to.
Genuinely anticipated was the Chapter of the Day. Miss Steinfeldt read this aloud after lunch, taking each Chapter from a Slightly Advanced book that fourth or even fifth graders might not have gotten to yet. Each book—The Borrowers, The Cricket in Times Square, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler—seemed to tell about characters who’d run away or been carried away or had to stay in hiding, and Miss Steinfeldt kept you eager to hear what happened to them next. The Book of the Week was always checked out of the school library, so you couldn’t peek ahead and find out on your own, but only speculate whether the museum guards would catch Claudia and Jamie hiding atop the toilets.
Free Expression, Enjoyable Challenges, and Literary Conjecture didn’t appeal to some people at all. Her Blueness, for instance: Melissa Chiese sorely missed her position as teacher’s hatchet girl. She couldn’t outdo Sarah-Jill at perfect cursive penmanship or memorizing multiplication tables, and even her claim to be the fairest (looking) in the class was eclipsed since disgruntlement suited April Tober so much better.
These days Melissa devoted most of her attention to the new boy in class, thus proving she’d lost her grip. Boys their own age were icky-britches—everybody knew that. A suitable crush had to be on an older guy like Jumpin’ Jack Pomerantz or Brian Minsky (he of the Ultra Brite smile) or a practically grownup TV star like David Cassidy.
Not on Dunk Gunderson.
Who wasn’t big and handsome like Keith Vespa, or big and funny like Jimmy Maxwell, or skinny yet clever like Billy Goldfarb. Or even just an average kid like Ordinary Mark Welk.
Dunk Gunderson had the face of a toad. Not a comical Wind in the Willowsy Toad either, but hard and unchanging as stone. His thick toad-tongue would emerge to slide along stony toad-lips, generally just before Dunk spoke. Which he did in a startlingly deep voice, as though it were lodged down around his stomach rather than inside his throat.
“Urrrrrrrrrrppp,” he’d belch every recess as he set foot on the playground. Jimmy and Billy would clutch the school walls, pretending a bomb had exploded or an earthquake had struck, or “Godzilla really cut one that time!”
Dunk Gunderson never smiled at their wisecracks; he took all playground activities dead seriously. His idea of an Enjoyable Challenge was to turn kickball or dodgeball into mortal combat, while Free Expression meant chewing out the other combatants. Briefly, but carnivorously.
Lefty Levitch was a frequent Dunk-target. Skinnier than Billy and less impressive than Ordinary Mark, Lefty ladled out more playground pep talk than anybody else; also more excuses whenever he muffed a kick or bobbled a throw (both more often than not). Jimmy said Lefty must have superhero vision, since he was the only kid at Reulbach who could get the sun in his eyes on an overcast day.
Dunk’s comments were pithier and pungenter. Especially after he found out Lefty’s real first name:
“Quit trying to catch it with yer butt, Fayyyy-bian!”
Even that was downright cordial compared to some of the things he called Wernie Ball.
Vicki’s own opinion of “Teeny-Weenie” hadn’t changed a whole lot in the four years since Melissa made him cry by swiping his chair. Queasy pity then; queasy pity now. Same little cobweb-headed paste-eater. It was not a fun surprise to discover he’d taken the desk directly behind hers in Miss Steinfeldt’s room. Nor was it a happy adventure to sense him huddled back there, exhaling whatever ailed him at any moment.
Wernie-bugs... Wernie-germs... Wernie-cooties...
The fact that Vicki hadn’t had to stay home sick from school for a single day this year meant nothing.
She suspected Miss Steinfeldt felt sorry for Wernie, since he was always being included in activities and encouraged to take a prominent part. Such as when the class chose a scene from The Borrowers as their routine for the “Reulbach Revels.” This variety assembly, scheduled for the week before Thanksgiving, was going to be put on at night with tickets and programs and everything. The director was eighth-grade teacher Mrs. Polonious, who’d once been an understudy in a Waa-Mu Show and to whom the glamour of greasepaint continued to cling. As well as the awesome burden of picking nine or ten “Revels” out of all the acts submitted by the student body.
Melissa had suggested an acrobatic display, with Dunk Gunderson flinging her up in the air and catching her coming down. Dunk expressed greater interest in stomping on Wernie Ball’s lunchbox and tossing its crumpled contents into a tree. Mrs. Polonious nixed both schticks, so Melissa was an early dropout from any “Revels” participation. (And Wernie had to go lunchless that day.)
The other third-graders decided to do The Borrowers chapter where Arrietty’s parents let her venture out from beneath the kitchen floor, into the gladdening sunlight where she encounters the giant Boy. (Represented by a big flat Styrofoam eye that Billy Goldfarb hoped to make blinkable.)
Most of Miss Steinfeldt’s pupils would help Billy create and manipulate the oversized props and scenery. Only five acting parts were available, and Jimmy Maxwell’s “round currant-bunny sort of face” made him a shoo-in for the role of Pod. Everyone expected April Tober to be cast as Arrietty, but Miss Steinfeldt said there had to be some competition; so Kris dared Vicki to try out and Vicki dared Kris ditto. Not that it mattered—toothy-cutie April went first and seemed to ace it right off:
“Surely you don’t think there are many people in the world your size?”
Kris, going next, got the giggles and quit midway. Vicki, carrying on for Peachy pride, threw in a few “light and dancey” steps such as Arrietty took in the book, running through the petals in her soft red shoes. That’s how you’d behave if you saw a flowering cherry tree for the very first time: bourrée toward it and glissade around.
Pirouette twice and find yourself anointed as Arrietty.
“That was so stew-pid!” April groused to Stephanie Lipperman.
“I’ll say! The casting was fixed!”
Stephanie had begun planning what to wear as Homily, and was already being called “Hot Lips” by stage husband Jimmy (who swore he’d gone to see M*A*S*H all by himself). But at the audition Stephanie lost out to Hayley Tamworth—Hayley, of all people! Who didn’t even have Homily’s bony nose! Just all that extra poundage from hanging out at bakeries! And so what if she was “deft on her feet” and could dance like Vicki Volester?? Their true identities were and always would be Hippie Hippo and Klumsy Klutzer!!
Hayley, too nice to nyaah, did a changement here and battement there while making funny scolding gestures and attempts to tidy her hair. Et voilà—Hayley was cast as Homily. The Peaches went on to score a hat trick when Sarah-Jill steamrollered Eileen Agnew for the Narrator’s assignment.
That left only the Voice of the Boy, which Miss Steinfeldt allotted to Wernie Ball. Maybe because she felt sorry for him, but it made sense too: in the book the Boy had rheumatic fever, and Wernie always sounded sick. The Boy was said to have a “cold shadow”; Vicki often shivered when Wernie was nearby. Which happened more frequently as rehearsals began for The Borrowers Ballet.
On one occasion the actors were told to “take five” while Billy and his crew struggled with the Boy’s Styrofoam eyelid. Jimmy went over to assist by offering flippant remarks. Sarah-Jill wandered off with her script, learning the whole thing by heart so she could prompt others if necessary. Hayley discreetly disappeared to the washroom, since even rehearsals made her “so nervous.” Wernie opened a paperback and started to read; Vicki, idly peeking at the cover, saw it was My Side of the Mountain—their latest Book of the Week, missing as usual from the school library.
“Where’d you get that?”
“It’s mine,” said Wernie, not glancing up.
“You shouldn’t read it ahead of the rest of us.”
“Well... ‘cause then you’ll find out what happens next too soon.”
“I know what happens next.” Lick of thumb. Turn of page.
“Oh. So, um... does Sam ever get his flint and steel to start a fire?”
Vicki bit her lips. Vexed in spite of herself that Wernie wasn’t seizing this rare chance to look at her while they talked—
Then he did. And she went back to wishing he wouldn’t.
Same rheumy-red eyeballs as in XY Zeedays. Same prickly-pinpoint focus, like the tight little claws on Mrs. Lo’s birds.
“This is what I want to do,” said Wernie, juggling his book. “Go away from here. Far away, where I can’t be found. You don’t understand. He moved in across the street from my house. Sometimes He waits for me. Just stands there, waiting. Here too. Follows me. Says things. Does things—or says He’s going to. Don’t know why. Just what’ll happen next. If I don’t run away.”
Focus abruptly detached, like a bird hopping off your finger into its cage.
“You don’t understand.”
And back went the pallid face into the paperback.
Profound discomfort welled up in Vicki’s throat. As if eggplant parmigiana was on her dinner plate and she couldn’t sneak it into her napkin.
She understood who “He” must be; also the sensation of being a target. But with girls it was different—even one so cruelminded as Melissa or spiteful as Stephanie would never stoop to wrecking a lunchbox. (Not when they could tease you to pieces for having one.) Boys, on the other hand, stooped all the darn time. They were so ridiculous with their “Code of Having a Thingee,” as Brenda memorably phrased it. She and Sarah-Jill, wise to the foibles of older brothers Jack and Garrett, had clued in the rest of the Peaches with plenty of useful (if awful) information.
Hence Vicki knew it would be futile for Wernie to appeal to Miss Steinfeldt or Mr. Overland for protection, and least of all his parents: even a girl wouldn’t resort to that. You might as well regress to wearing diapers.
Wernie didn’t have a full-of-foibles older brother to intimidate Dunk Gunderson into backing off—and Dunk would probably be tougher than this older brother anyway, or trump him with one of his own. No, the Thingee Code gave Wernie no other recourse than standing up to Dunk. Which meant getting beaten black and blue; which no doubt would happen twice daily, both coming to school and going home; and in ways that a parent or teacher or principal or policeman or ambulance driver couldn’t readily detect.
So Wernie was right: he’d have to run off somewhere. Unless...
“You oughta do what we did—get together as a group. It’s a whole lot easier when you’ve got a group of friends—”
Oog again. Wirth profound relief that Hayley wasn’t there to say, “We’ll be your friends!” Vivid recollection of a winter afternoon in first grade, when Hayley’d made Vicki and Kris help chase Wernie for two whole blocks through the slush, just to restore a mitten he’d let fall on the playground. As if he hadn’t noticed one hand was bare in that weather. “Maybe he dropped it on purpose, so you’d notice him,” Kris had wisecracked. “Notice this,” Vicki’d replied, hurling a slushpuppy at her.
Enough. She went back to rehearsal, thanking goodness none of the Blue Meanies were around to witness this conversation. But they found out about it even so, and teased Vicki to pieces the next morning with a grotesque burlesque of a Peachy chant:
|Wedding at The City Hall!|
|Where the bridesmaids stand and call,|
|“This is Mrs. Wernie Ball!”|
|All in all in all in all—|
No, not a fun surprise. Nor a happy adventure.
A thousand times Vicki’d heard her sister declare, “I’ve got to change!” Over the past year, though, Tricia’d gotten serious about this; and by her twelfth birthday she’d blossomed every which way, winning all the privileges pertaining thereto.
Pierced ears. Shaved legs. Full makeup. Amnesty for monthly moodiness. And, most important, a drawerful of tricot brassieres “gently contoured” (according to the ad) “with ⅛-inch lining of Wonder-Fil spun polyester.” Which sounded terribly sophisticated to Vicki, stricken with awe whenever Tricia thrust her cups at their bedroom mirror or flanked it in profile.
Ozzie Volester feared his Princess had jumped puberty’s tracks and been transformed too soon, too quickly, and much too far. Why else would she—the youngest girl in her class—be able to outstrip most of the others?
Felicia, though far from thrilled at recent developments, said not to worry. “It was just the same with my sister. Fritzi got out of bed one morning and honestly, it was like she’d grown up overnight.”
“And I shouldn’t worry about that??”
“Oh Daddy relax, I’ll always be your little girl,” Tricia reassured him. To prove it she elicited a $15 allowance-advance to buy a pair of suede pumps, the crowning acquisition of her back-to-school purchases. Felicia, exhausted by this binge, said Tricia could lug all the shopping bags upstairs herself. Starting with the greystone’s front stoop, which was being swept by Junior Hull.
“Junior, would you be a sweetie and carry these up for me?”
“Sure thing, Tricia! I will carry them right now, Tricia!”
“Patricia Elaine! You are perfectly capable—”
(Yes she was; yes she was.)
“All right, this is where I draw the line!” Ozzie ranted a few weeks later. “Eighth grade or no eighth grade, you just turned twelve last month and that’s not old enough to go out dating! End of story! Case closed!”
“Now Daddy, don’t be silly, this isn’t a date at all. Just a simple sockhop in the school gym, we don’t dress fancy or anything (I’m going to wear my new monogram dress that you said I look so nice in), we dance and chat for a couple hours, then you can pick me up and bring me home safe and sound. Oh and Patty’ll probably need a ride too.”
The only word Ozzie heard clearly was “couple.”
He spent the sockhop’s first ninety minutes pacing as he pictured his daughter at the mercy of pubescent wolves; and the last half hour devouring Lucky Strikes in the Reulbach parking lot.
Tricia seemed to confirm the worst by exiting the gym in a monogrammed snit.
“So. Good time?” coughed her father.
“Patty won’t be needing a ride home,” Tricia informed him. Without the further explanation that Patty Kuchenesser, her very best friend, had monopolized Brian Minsky’s Ultra Brite smile for practically the entire sockhop. While Tricia’d shuffled around with Jumpin’ Jack Pomerantz and Randy Knopf (Nancy’s equally noisy brother), neither of whom belonged on her bedroom wall among the posters of Peter Fonda and Elliott Gould.
Then came “Revels.” Mrs. Polonious’s class would close the show with its biggest and longest act, a medley of tunes from The Boy Friend. For which Patty (a mere A-cup at thirteen) was cast as Polly, the star, who got to sing a duet while being embraced by Brian. Tricia was relegated to the soubrette chorus. With a song of her own, but sure to be drowned out by her partner, Randy the Mighty Mouth Knopf.
Patty, of course, was invited to come with the Volesters to Gran Schmelz’s for costuming. Gran was as expert with needle and thread as she was concerning manners and deportment. Her husband’s expertise lay in postponing retirement, solely so he could unmake deals-in-the-making—or so it seemed to Ozzie, who’d expected to take over running the Lot by now. But last weekend as he pitched a good used Chevy to the Grusza twins, what did Diamond Joel do but barge in and push them toward an Alfa Romeo “just like that Graduate kid drove.” Which caused Candice and Corliss (who found Dustin Hoffman repugnant) to clam up and leave.
“They’ll be back,” Dime said blithely. “They know we won’t be undersold—twenty-four years at the same location!” And anyway, why should those two tsatskes buy a risky Chevrolet while the UAW was striking against GM?
(Tactless reference to a sore point in the Volester family, one that put PopPop and Uncle Ted at unaccustomed loggerheads.)
So Ozzie stayed home to watch Monday Night Football with Goofus, while Fel took Tricia and Patty and Vicki and Hayley up to the northern suburb whose name still reminded them of The Poky Little Puppy. There the Schmelzes lived in a stucco cottage painted salmon (“lox-colored,” Diamond Joel called it) with rose bushes out front and rhododendrons beside the garage.
“Man on the floor!” said Dime, peering into Gran’s crowded sewing room. “Not for long, though—meeting Charlie Marley at the club. I’ll leave you ladies to your clucking and your squawking—eh, Dillydoll?”
“Go,” Gran told him. “Be so good as to not light that cigar till you are away from here.”
“Listen to her! Cackle cackle in the henhouse—”
“Go, I say!”
“Bye Dad,” went Fel; “Bye Dime,” went Vicki; “Bye Mr. Schmelz,” went Hayley. Tricia was silent as Patty Kuchenesser resumed gabbling about whether she should play Polly all sweet like Julie Andrews or sock-it-to-me like Judy Carne, or just be her usual kooky self like Goldie Hawn.
“Mmm,” went Tricia, studying a photo of Louise Brooks. “Did they wear miniskirts in the Twenties, Gran?”
“I did not. But then I was no flepper. You sssould essk your Grenndmother Volester; I’m certain sssee would know. Hold still please, Miss.”
“Sorry,” said Hayley, nervous even during a fitting.
“At least they didn’t wear midi skirts,” groaned Felicia. “I can’t believe those are popular again. I hated wearing them in the Fifties... Um, Mother, I don’t suppose Dad’s mentioned anything lately, if he’s been thinking when he might...”
“What? Retire? I, his wife, would be the first one to know?... Very good, Hayley: a long tzzeckered dress with puffed sleeves and bibbed apron. Now you, Victoria: how many petticoats will you be wanting?”
“Is seven too many? That’d really make my skirt flare out like a tutu.”
“Oh my,” said Fel. “Remember crinoline, Mother? It always felt so scratchy.”
“Thett was the tulle. For Victoria, starched cotton will do nicely.”
“And look so romantic,” added Hayley.
“Brian’s the one who looks romantic,” said Patty in her maple-syrup-and-lemon-juiciest voice. “I bet you small fry will never meet a guy with teeth so perfectly white.”
Maybe when I’m old and they all wear dentures, thought Vicki.
Even then, you will find they are seldom white.
Glance up and into Gran’s eyes, regarding her steadily. With the same starry black glitter as Vicki’s own.
They waited for Tricia’s reaction to Patty’s glop, and were just realizing she wasn’t in the sewing room when Tricia returned. Breezily.
“You were right, Gran—MomMom knows all about flapper clothes. Don’t worry, I called her collect.”
Felicia stared aghast. “Do you mean to say you made a long-distance call on your grandmother’s phone without asking permission??”
“Don’t gape, Miss,” sighed Gran, and Fel shut her mouth.
“It was Gran’s idea, and you were busy talking about Dime. It only took a minute, I called collect like I said, and MomMom promised she’d bring me some things I need for the show. She says ‘hi’ to everyone, by the way, and thinks Patty should play Polly very prim and proper.”
“Ooh,” went Patty. “That’ll be hard to do, with Brian’s arms around me.”
Gran heaved a deeper sigh. And said: “You are a smart girl, Patrissa.”
“Thanks!” Patty and Tricia replied.
Shortly before dress rehearsal, Wernie Ball came down with tonsillitis and had to miss a week of school, including “Revels.” Which was just fine with his castmates, since Wernie’s breath had gotten really bad.
It was decided the Ballet should end when the giant Styrofoam grassclumps were drawn apart to reveal the Boy’s giant Styrofoam eye. Arrietty would freeze, the eye would blink (Billy promised) and the Narrator would intone: “If you want to know what happens next, you’ll have to read The Borrowers.”
This pleased Sarah-Jill, since she now got to do all the talking. Mrs. Polonious and Miss Steinfeldt were pleased, since the show needed tightening and the third-grade number now had sharper concentration. Dunk Gunderson and Melissa Chiese were presumably pleased by Wernie’s woes, out of malice aforethought.
Vicki knew she ought to feel sorry but she too was pleased, having escaped for a week from creepy-crawliness. (Tonsil-bugs... tonsil-germs... tonsil-cooties...)
“Revels Night” in the Reulbach auditorium, and even more people were pleased: Gran because the costumes met her own high standards, and Dime because he’d won a bundle playing liar’s poker with Charlie Marley, and MomMom and PopPop because the UAW strike was finally over, and Ozzie because he’d persuaded the Grusza twins to not only babysit Goofus but come take another look at that good used Chevy.
Up creaked the curtain, and pleasure dimmed with the lights.
An opening ode to Thanksgiving by the morning and afternoon kindergartens was inaudible beyond the front row. This was followed by the first grade’s re-enactment of Squanto saving Pilgrims (whose buckles fluttered off their hats) and the second grade’s Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp routine (in plastic raincoats and ape masks).
Then Miss Steinfeldt’s troupe took the stage, under a blue filter suggesting the Clock family’s hidey-hole. Sarah-Jill explained their situation to the audience; Jimmy and Hayley raised laughter with their antics as Pod and Homily, pantomiming How can you speak so! and Upstairs is a dangerous place and If all’s clear, I’ll give you the sign. Then Arrietty was allowed her first glimpse of the wide-open world outdoors (under an orange filter) and Vicki got to do her solo dance.
Oh, glory! Oh, joy! Oh, freedom!
Pirouettes. Arabesques. Bourrées and glissades. Piqués and brisés and pas de chats in shoes that skimmed across the stage. Seven petticoats a-flaring while the pianist played “Out of My Dreams” and the unseen crew, Kris and Brenda and Keith and Ordinary Mark, made their giant grassclumps sway to and fro, to and fro—
—and then, at the cue, sweep suddenly left and right.
“It was an eye,” proclaimed Sarah-Jill, “the color of the sky.”
Whose lashed lid did its down-and-up duty, more smoothly than Billy’d ever achieved at rehearsals.
Applause for The Borrowers Ballet was the loudest and most sustained of the evening so far. Unmatched by any for the fourth grade (“Gitarzan” skit, using a swiped ape mask) or the fifth (girls doing the Frug to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”) or the sixth (dueling drummers causing Excedrin Headaches) or the seventh (dirgelike rendition of “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”).
But then came The Boy Friend Medley.
Patty and Tricia and three other soubrettes singing “Perfect Young Ladies.” Patty and gleaming-grinner Brian Minsky in each other’s arms for “I Could Be Happy with You.” Two eighth-graders feigning middle age for “The ‘You-Don’t-Want-to-Play-with-Me’ Blues.” A beachside scene for “Sur la Plage,” warbled by the ensemble led by Tricia and Randy Knopf: What a luv-uh-lee day, what a luv-uh-lee day, for a dip! IN the sea!
The other girls and boys didn’t change costume, but Tricia and Randy shed theirs to reveal Twenties-style bathing suits (devised by MomMom and brought by her from Beansville). Randy’s looked amusingly baggy; Tricia’s was a tad snug. Especially in the seat. Which she turned and wiggled at the footlights every time the boys warbled.
“The suit was supposed to be form-fitting,” Tricia explained afterward to a stupefied Ozzie. “It’s hardly my fault if everything I wear rides up, Daddy. That’s just the way I’m built.”
“Fritzi Ritz all over again,” observed Diamond Joel.
At any rate Tricia stole the scene, the show, and incidentally Brian Minsky away from Patty Kuchenesser, when Brian took exception to Patty’s sour-lemon curdled-syrup accusations of blatant upstaging.
All in all (in all in all): an accomplishful night for the Volester sisters.
“Did you see any of my dance before you had to go backstage?” Vicki asked in their bedroom that night.
“Why sure. Didn’t you hear me cheer?” said Tricia, again admiring her profile in the mirror. “You did those jetés better than I could have, back when I was your age.”
Vicki basked in this accolade, worth more than anyone else’s. “Um... will Patty stay mad for keeps?”
“Poor Little Pierrette? Her own fault if that happens.”
“Right. I never liked the way she talked. And why’d she wear her bangs so long?”
“Like a sheepdog! I kept hinting and hinting about that, but she just wouldn’t listen.”
Vicki went over and inserted her reflection next to Tricia’s. “So,” she asked, “when do you think I’ll start to grow my bosoms?”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Copyright © 2010-2011 by P. S. Ehrlich
Return to Bolster, Not Molest Her Contents