Chapter 14

 

Not Bad

 

 

Basically it was the worst Christmas ever.

 

A blizzard struck beforehand, causing a power outage that gave Mr. Hull munchkin-sized chest pains as he struggled with the generator in the greystone basement.  Since the electricity kept faltering, Felicia wouldn’t let Goofus go out to play in the snow, so he rampaged through the candle-lit apartment and almost set three separate fires.  Then when the power came back and stayed on, they found a ceiling leak had sprung just above the decorated Christmas tree, meaning it had to be moved out of its corner—the only spot in 3W where it wasn’t in everybody’s way.  (They tried replacing the topmost star with a saucepan to catch the drip, but even alligator clips couldn’t keep the pan from tipping as it filled.)

 

Vicki wished she were in Rosehill, buried beside Gran.

 

Or at least that’s what she would’ve wished, if she still believed in wishes.

 

In the meantime, try to comply with Tricia’s request that you not be such a pain.  Pretend to react appropriately while opening gifts, even if you don’t really notice what you receive.  Pick at the holiday food, leaving even MomMom’s rogaliki unfinished.  And slump in front of the TV staring at programs you never glanced at before, like the Roller Derby Game of the Week:

 

“C’mon down and see all the jams ‘n’ slams at the INTernational AMPHitheatre!  You won’t find a more sensational, action-packed sport in the world today!”

 

What made it mildly interesting was both teams (heroic Gangbusters and dastardly Renegades) having a girl-squad that skated half the game.  Vicki watched them zip around and around the track, jostling and walloping each other up against or even over the rail.  During postgame interviews, a tall pretty Gangbuster called Kashka and a short cutie Renegade called Tonette kept shoving and insulting each other, with a mutual challenge to skate one-on-one in a grudge match race.

 

“You heard it here first, fans!” went the announcer.  “These two lovely combatants will be battling next week at the INTernational AMPHitheatre!  Get your tickets in advance by calling this number—”

 

Vicki almost thought about reaching for the phone.

 

But she had next to no money, and even less inclination to get up and go out.

 

*

 

Regrettably, getting and going had to be done when school started again.  In pitch darkness too, thanks to an untimely resumption of Daylight Savings—in January.  How this was supposed to ease the energy crisis would probably be a brainstorming topic; but to Vicki it was just another sign that the world as she knew it had come to an end.

 

Some of her classmates jumped to the same conclusion when they found they’d been joined by a boy whose pigmentation resulted from heredity rather than exposure to sunshine, sunlamp, or Man-Tan.

 

“A colored kid?” Keith Vespa boggled at Swede Swedebach.  “Don’t tell me they’re letting coloreds in here now!”

 

“Not if we got anything to say about it,” vowed Swede.

 

Mr. Brown, however, did not ask for their opinion.  The little newcomer was invited to stand up and introduce himself, which he did with a bound and a bow and palms pressed together in front of his chest.

 

“Namaste my friends, that is ‘Greetings’ from where I used to live, oh how glad I am to be here in this wonderful City with you in this beautiful school, so clean and good-shape and uncrowded everything is than my old home, please excuse any mistakes I am making in speech as I will be trying so hard to soon talk the best American way, and among you here with Mr. Brown to instruct I am certain you will not tell any difference!”

 

Eagerly burbling lilt, like an oboe crossed with a Mixmaster.

 

This was Yash Pramanik, whose parents were reopening the grocery on the corner of Cypress and Walrock.  Those who’d heard about it had assumed from the name that the Pramaniks would be Russian—“A very great amusement but untrue,” said Yash, embarking on a detailed comparison (historic, geographic, and religious) of West Bengal with East Pakistan/Bangladesh.

 

Melissa Chiese rose unasked to formally welcome Yash to Reulbach Elementary on behalf of the Student Council, and incidentally shut his yap.

 

Through the next two hours Keith and Swede exchanged clandestine nods and showed each other surreptitious fists.  At morning recess they were going to teach the New Colored Kid that anyone thinking this school, neighborhood, and City were clean, uncrowded, and in good shape needed a few more holes in his skull.

 

But their trepanning plans kept getting put on hold by Jonathan Dohr.  Who’d grown significantly taller in recent months, with shaggier hair than ever, while wearing a billowy black trenchcoat whose only spot of color was a lapel button that said sabbath bloody sabbath.

 

Jon took no heroic stands, made no defiant speeches.  He merely played his effective game of Guts: be where you’re needed and intercept incoming.  Whether on the playground (as Yash chattered about how he’d never seen so much snow before) and in the cafeteria (as Yash chirruped about how curry powder would work wonders on Mrs. Frank’s coleslaw) or walking home to the Cypress corner grocery, Jon loomed perpetually by Yash’s side—trailing Wernie Ball behind them like a washed-out lookout.

 

Now, Keith Vespa considered himself “an open-headed sorta guy.”  His mother was Irish, his father Italian, one aunt had married a Greek Orthodox while another had turned Quaker.  Keith even included actual Jews among his personal schoolchums.  He wasn’t sure whether Jonathan Dohr was an actual Jew (befriending coloreds seemed like a Jewish thing to do) yet Keith had great respect for Jon’s Guts, and wanted to impress upon him why this guardian-stunt was a serious mistake.

 

Except that it was hard to talk to Jonathan sometimes.

 

Mainly because Jon wasn’t much for replying.  At least not aloud—he’d stare at you with these kind of spooky eyes, deeper-set than in the average sixth-grade head: eyes that made you think he could tell what you were thinking.  (Girls seemed to like this about Jon.  Which was extra weird, given how much they squawked about keeping secrets and not letting guys look up their skirts.)  So Keith hesitated to take the next step and strike the first blow.  As did Swede Swedebach, a born follower who never led anything but the Pledge of Allegiance.

 

“I never seen such a coupla pussies as you two,” Dunk Gunderson informed them.

 

He was a toad, and toads have no compunctions about devouring bugs.  Just instinct, craftiness, and anticipation of a good after-dinner urrrrrrrrrrppp; all of which Dunk possessed in abundance.  Particularly instinct.  Of the killer variety.

 

(Toad-tongue sliding over toad-lips.)

 

“Hey Hadji—that sister of yours: she the same color all over?  Hunh?  Hey Punjab—that sister of yours: didn’t she get bare-ass naked in Oh! Calcutta?  Hunh?  Hey Injun Boy—that sister of yours: how much she charge to go in the back room of your store?”

 

Hunh?

 

Rupa Pramanik (that sister of Yash’s) was the same age as Tricia Volester, and had much the same clean-good-shape.  But she took bodily measurements into a whole other dimension, by way of the gypsy infanta groove Nina Gersh had been working for the past two years.  Except that Rupa’s groove made Nina’s seem like a minor juvenile crease.

 

Nina and Stephanie Lipperman paid a special afterschool visit to Cypress Avenue to behold this for themselves.  And Rupa, having changed out of ordinary City clothes into a chiffon salwar kameez, obliged by entering the store as if to dance a catchy item number in a Bombay musical: batting languorous eyes at the sudden gathering of boys and men.

 

“Am I able to help you, sirs?  Would you not care to try these very nice mangoes?  They are soooo mouth-wa-ter-ing.”

 

“Hunh,” went Nina Gersh.

 

“Yeah, but she’s out there in her jammies,” snortled Stephanie.  “And didja see that big red pimple in the middle of her forehead?”

 

All the susceptible males saw was chai-tinted jailbait.  Yet Rupa kept her clean-good-shape carefully uncrowded, with a Pramanik parent always onsite to prevent Calcutta (as it were) from getting Oh!d.

 

Nevertheless, Rupa’s chai had enough masala for Dunk to mold it into mudpies.  Which sent Yash from bewilderment to incredulity, and finally into a contretemps.

 

“You have smirched the honor of my sister, Dunk Gunderson!” he announced one recess on the playground.

 

“So whaddaya gonna do about it, wogbreath?” asked Dunk, giving him a dastardly-Renegade shove.  Jonathan Dohr was on hand to catch and steady Yash like a hard-flung Frisbee; but Yash rebounded on his own, tugging up a coatsleeve to brandish a threaded bracelet in Dunk & Co.’s hooting faces.  (Bracelets on a guy!  What’d be next, earrings?)

 

“This is a rakhi,” Yash told them, “given me by my sister as a symbol that I am protecting her from evil harm all my life.  If you do not apologize, Dunk Gunderson, but prefer to fight, say the place and the time and I shall be there!”

 

“You gotta hand it to the little shrimp,” said Brenda as she recounted this scene to the Peaches.  “He acted just like what’s his name—y’know, that Gunga Din character.  Shoot him dead and he’ll still bring you a drink.”

 

Hayley and Sarah-Jill wanted to run tell Mr. Brown right away to save Yash’s blood from being shed.  Kris, though, said it was a romantic risk that a true brother had to take, while Brenda intended to witness the combat front-and-center—near enough to step in, if Jonathan didn’t, before Yash got too slaughtered.  What did Vicki think?

 

(Vicki had nothing to add.)

 

The fight took place Sunday afternoon behind the service station at Sharp and Brunt, which like most stations was closed on Sundays during the gas crisis.  Dunk kicked things off with a fresh round of taunts; Yash responded with positive proof that Hindus, when it came to martial arts, did not behave like the Amish.  Thin and slight as he was, Yash had been taking Sarit Sarak lessons and proceeded to chop-socky Dunk’s block off.

 

The spectators stood back and watched him do this till a man in the Aaron’s Lanes parking lot realized what was happening.  Cops were called, bystanders scattered, and the only one who got in immediate trouble was Wernie Ball—for lingering to pelt Dunk’s prone body with ice clumps.

 

Vicki barely took note of this.   Or of subsequent events: how no one but Dunk’s parents believed his claim that he’d been mugged by a gang of black men; how Yash proudly admitted everything to the authorities, and got off with a slap on his rakhi’d wrist; how Gunderson outrage wasn’t quelled by Dunk-had-it-coming-to-him-so-get-the-hell-over-it; how a midnight brick smashed the Pramanik grocery’s front window, but the neighborhood rallied round and pledged to make “our Bengalis” their exclusive source for mangoes and coconuts and Darjeeling tea.

 

Some of the neighborhood, anyway.  Plenty in Pfiester Park harbored deep misgivings about the Indian presence and its impact on the future.  It was all very well for Harry Tamworth to quip that at least they wouldn’t peddle cow meat, but suppose others of That Sort did move here? take over local businesses? send their children to our schools??

 

The Northside Chamber of Commerce thought this would be splendid, given the current state of the local economy.  Already there was talk of a Pramanik cousin opening a fabric emporium in a vacant store on Sharp Boulevard.  And wouldn’t a nice little tandoori restaurant bring a boon to Brunt Street?

 

The Pomerantzes weren’t convinced of that.  Who needed samosas when kifli was readily available at the Kalács Bakery?  Yet even they could feel a juggernaut being set, ever so gradually, in unstoppable motion.

 

It was trampling out Dunk Gunderson’s wrathful vintage when he hobbled back to Reulbach and found himself isolated.  Most of the sixth-grade girls had adopted Yash as a sister-defending mascot; Keith and Swede were enrolled in Yash’s martial arts class; Jimmy Maxwell and Billy Goldfarb now gravitated toward Jonathan Dohr’s company.

 

Mr. Brown asked Yash and Dunk to shake hands in front of the class.

 

Dunk went to kamikaze toad-pieces instead.

 

Billy would later compose an epic ballad about the ensuing bedlam, which he enhanced in the telling till “a hundred lives were lost /that Exorcist-y hour.”  In reality, Mr. Brown apprehended Dunk near the start of his outburst and physically ejected him from the room, with Dunk contributing several new vocabulary words en route.

 

“Read the next Social Studies chapter till I get back!” Mr. Brown shouted over the uproar.

 

Bang went the door.  Stunned went the silence.

 

“Hey,” went Jimmy after awhile, “remember Tall Mark?  You suppose he’s still up there in the Tower?”

 

“Nobody ever saw him come down,” said Keith.

 

“Nobody ever comes down from the Tower,” observed Kris.

 

“Wasn’t Mr. Brown wonderful, how he handled that?” Melissa sighed dreamily.  As if “that” hadn’t been the boy she’d been fooling around with, to a greater or lesser extent, since the age of eight.

 

Eileen Agnew, though freaked by the chaos, turned her quiet crying into an obedient “MmmmYes.”

 

“What is undergone in this Tower you speak of?” asked Yash.

 

“Just desserts,” said Brenda, smacking satisfied lips.

 

“But that is not fair!” Yash exclaimed, picturing Dunk being served a big dish of halwa.

 

Then a noise came from the far side of the room, a kind of nuff nuff nuff that made everybody’s flesh go creepy-crawlThey turned and looked, and saw Wernie Ball expressing audible enjoyment.

 

At the desk in front of him, Jonathan Dohr slowly shrugged and spookily smiled.

 

Mr. Brown strode back in, dusting off his hands.  All but two pairs of student eyes were quickly riveted to the next chapter in the Social Studies book.

 

One exception was Melissa’s blue-gray ice cubes, rapidly thawing as she trained them on her teacher.

 

The other was Vicki’s black almonds, focused—as usual—on nothing in particular.  Tumult or no tumult, creepy nuffs or no creepy nuffs, she remained apathetic about what seemed like a leftover episode of the recently-cancelled Room 222.

 

She couldn’t imagine any scenario in which Goofus would fight for her honor.  Nor one where anybody even bothered to “smirch” it.  Just the opposite, in fact: yesterday they were studying about Ancient Rome, and a reference to Vestal Virgins sent the boys into muffled convulsions.  “Oh, so that’s what the initials ‘V.V.’ stand for,” Stephanie’d wickedly whispered—bestowing a new epithet on Vicki, to tuck beneath her pillow alongside “Klumsy Klutzer.”

 

For a moment she’d considered challenging Stephanie to a grudge match race.

 

But that much thought took too much effort.

 

No, better to just keep slumping.  And slouching.  And scraping along...

 

*

 

“Go wash up,” said Tricia.

 

“...it’s Saturday...”

 

“I—am—aware—of—that.  Just do it, please.  Scrub gently but thoroughly, including your eyelids.  Then rub in plenty of moisturizer.”

 

I know how to wash my face, Vicki retorted.  To herself, as she went off to comply like a dumb old guinea pig.  Serve Tricia right if she took all day...

 

“Do I have to come in there and do it for you?”

 

Dumb old Princess Smartysnoot.  Acting all snappish because Mr. Merton had cast Mindy (That Bitch) Dowell as the lead in the Pfiester High School Spring Operetta.  Solely due (everybody knew) to Mindy being a deep-bosomed senior.  Not to mention obstinate, like her sister Roxanne and all the other Dowells; deaf to every sensible proposal about the Jacks & Jills Drama Club made by Tricia, a mere singing nurse—one of the mere singing nurses—in South Pacific.

 

(Rub her out of the roll call and drum her out of your dreams.)

 

Mr. Merton had compounded this folly by persuading Rupa Pramanik to play Liat.  Yes, she looked ideal for the part; but Rupa (unlike Tricia) was a non-grade-skipping sophomore who ought to be kept in the chorus till she’d paid a few more dues.  If Rupa wanted applause, let her keep bagging pistachios for horny lechers at the corner grocery.

 

Then, as if Tricia’s snit needed further aggravation, Cynthia Dollfuss went and lost her mind.  Cynthia would’ve made a wonderful Nellie Forbush—every bit as buxom as Mindy Dowell and infinitely more lovable, plus a natural-born knucklehead.  As she proved by falling for varsity wrestling phenom Fred Minerich, The Crushin’ Croatian.

 

(For crying out loud.)

 

Now, Tricia Volester had done her fair share of jock-dating, but there were limits to how far you should consort with that sort of guy.  Parking on Bluff Drive was acceptable; mooning your sweet ass out a car window at hated rival Hartnett High School—well, that was too gruesome to contemplate.  Let alone actually do, cheek-to-cheek with Fred Minerich’s grosseus maximus, and then boast about it.

 

But would Cynthia listen to reason?

 

Not when it pertained to Da Crusha.

 

Regardless: here was Patricia Elaine, star of “The Civic Hatchback: It’ll Get You Where You’re Going” and other Daddy & Princess commercials for Volester Motors.  Here was Tricia the Patiently Encouraging, about to hone her skills applying makeup to other people, while giving her guinea pig of a little sister a special treat.

 

“Okay.  Sit there.  Face the mirror and pay close attention.  I’ll do your left side, then you’re doing your right.  And when we’re finished you’ll know how to put on your own makeup every day, and do it right every time!”

 

Vicki’s face had been painted (by others) for Fischel Academy performances, and slathered with glitter as the dancing robot in Winter Wonderland.  But not once had she ever embellished herself with cosmetics, unless you counted chapstick.  Or the occasional furtive experiment when Tricia was safely absent, leaving her vanity stockpile undefended.

 

“(Sigh.)  Mom’d never let me wear makeup every day...”

 

“Oh yes she would,” said Felicia, entering with a tray of additional Revlon and Max Factor.  “It was my idea.  Call it an early-birthday makeover—oh honestly, you girls!  There’s no law against making your beds on Saturday!”  She handed Tricia the tray and started stripping their mattresses.

 

Vicki shrank from the mirror like a good Vestal Virgin, but Tricia’s juggernaut began to roll:

 

“Take a look at yourself.  Go on, now.  Do you know how lucky you are to have that olive complexion?  Cherish and treasure it!  You’ll hardly ever need concealer, if you don’t get zits.  Just a light dusting of powder—we put it on with this big soft brush—start at the top, continue down the face, blend it from the center out... like so.  You do the other side, the same way.  All along your jaw and down your neck—don’t leave a border—that’s right.  Now check for anyplace that isn’t blended enough.  Remember, you want to end up with a natural look.  Attagirl!  Okay now, the eyebrows.  You don’t want to get drastic with tweezers—just pluck out the stray hairs that grow where they shouldn’t.  Like this one, and these two here—”

 

“—ow.  Ow.  Ow—”

 

“You do your real shaping with the eyebrow pencil.  Black’s too harsh, so we’re using taupe.  Take the brush end, smooth out your brows, turn the pencil around, start from the middle, work your way up to the arch with small gentle strokes, following the natural shape and filling it in—not like that!”

 

“...sorry...”

 

“S’allright, my fault,” said Tricia before Felicia could intervene.  “We were going too fast.  Remember, it’s always easier to add a little more than get rid of too much.  Clean it off and we’ll try again.  It’s something you have to practice.”

 

Packtiss rang a faint bell in the back of Vicki’s head, as she was coached further on how to adorn its front.  With eyeshadow (green/gold blend) and eyeliner (dark purple) and mascara (jet black) and blush (plum/bronze blend) and lipgloss (vibrant raspberry) carefully blotted, and—

 

Tricia smiling at her in the mirror.

 

“Not bad,” she said.  “Not bad for almost twelve.”

 

Vicki quit focusing on individual features and took in the whole.  Along with her breath.  Which she let out with the clichéd yet heartfelt question, “Is that really me?”

 

“I should hope so,” said Tricia.

 

“Oh,” went Felicia, dropping a pillowcase to get all weepy about My Two Beautiful Daughters, who in turn had to give hugs to Our Beautiful Mother, while Vicki stared over their beautiful shoulders at her unaccustomed reflection.  An image belonging to someone else, a half-familiar almost-grownup, as though Cousin Barbara had dropped by out of the blue.  And into the raspberry/bronze/plum/jetblack/darkpurple/gold/green.

 

With pounding heart in powdered throat she went to present this new image to her father, hoping he’d neither laugh at it nor look as though he wanted to.  But Ozzie, after a very dry swallow, said:

 

“Well... you sure are lovely today, Kitten.  More and more like your Mom every time I see you...  Uh, Fel, I need to ask you about that thing we were talking about earlier.”

 

“What thing earlier?” went Felicia as Ozzie led her into their room, shut the door, and declared in an energetic undertone that I do not want her going out looking like that, boys’ll think she’s a teenager!

 

Well, she will be next year, Oz, and—

 

I’m talking about now!  She’s not ready yet, doesn’t know what boys are capable of—in fact I think I better TELL her a fact or two about real life, right this very minute!  Send her in here—

 

Felicia came out (looking very much as though she wanted to laugh) and gave the eavesdropping Vicki an encouraging kiss.  “If you have to, pretend you’ve got cramps,” she whispered: a crypticism quickly understood as Ozzie delivered a sermon so ambiguously euphemistic that no censor could have connected it to adolescent hormones or the perils of young lust.

 

“Hope I haven’t upset you too much, sweetheart,” he concluded.

 

Vicki (clutching her stomach) managed to convey how much she loved him and would always be his little girl, before escaping into the bathroom (“these darn cramps”) to shriek quietly in a towel that got coated with most of her makeover.  Which Vicki was able to restore fairly well on her own, despite recurrent laugh-spasms that made her applicators tremble.

 

She ran downstairs then to show Hayley, who burst into tears.

 

“It’s not fair!  Now you’re gonna be gorgeous, and I’ll just be your fat friend!”

 

Vicki chose to accentuate the positive.  “C’mon up and we’ll have Tricia do you too!  With your complexion I bet she can make you glow.

 

“Really?” Hayley sniffled, and began to get excited just before her mother ripped that notion out by its roots.  It was Mrs. Tamworth who came on up and got a glow on by having a few “words” with Felicia, who responded with a few of her own.

 

From that moment a certain coolness arose between the Volester and Tamworth households.  Felicia had planned to restrict Vicki’s makeup usage to lipgloss and a little mascara; but on Sunday, overriding Oz, she gave Vicki express permission to go to Kris’s birthday party fully cosmeticized.

 

Reaction there was mixed.

 

“Aw, whaddaya wanna get dolled up like that for?” said Brenda.

 

“Superficiality’s not a good way to handle depression,” advised Sarah-Jill.

 

“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” shouted Kris, framing Vicki’s new image with her prime birthday present, a Minolta reflex camera.  Officer Sam had begun teaching her photography, how to take the best pictures and develop them herself in the Rawberry basement darkroom.  And Kris (to her father’s pride and mother’s relief) had decided to pursue this as her life’s work, rather than become a slinky-dressing lady detective.

 

The Peaches had chipped in to buy Kris a fancy leather-bound photo album, like the ones Melissa Chiese was forever bringing to class—the latest one full of Lauren Huttonish poses in half-unbuttoned blouses, which “accidentally” got left behind on Mr. Brown’s desk.

 

“Like is she trying to kid herself, or what?”

 

“It’s just her usual Brown-nosing.”  (Giggles.)  “‘Cept now she’s trying to do it with her chest.

 

“Mr. Brown doesn’t really think about things like... chests.  Does he?”

 

“Not a sixth-grader’s, anyway.  Well, maybe Nina’s...”

 

“But you know something?  We’ve never heard about Melissa having a father—”

 

“Hunh!  I bet she ‘n’ her mother chiese’d him a long time ago.”

 

“No, listen: girls who don’t have a father are exactly the sort who fixate on older men as they grow up.”

 

“Fixate?

 

“‘Ooh, Mr. Brown, fixate me there again...’”

 

(Giggles and a chiding “You guys” from Hayley.)

 

“Hey,” Kate Rawberry said to Vicki, seated slightly apart from the others.  “How’re you doing?  Ankle okay?”

 

“Oh yes, it’s fine thanks.”

 

For Kris’s party, Kate wore her usual Pfiester High sweatsuit and not a trace of makeup; but she sported the unflappable aplomb that lent her lankiness its own kind of beauty.  “You might wanna take up jogging,” she suggested.  “Keeps you trim and toned from top to toe—that’s how my track coach puts it.  You can jog with people, or just as easily on your own.”

 

Vicki blinked beaded lashes.  “Well, you know, it’s wintertime...”

 

Kate smiled.  Less spookily than Jonathan Dohr, but with the same incisive glint.  “All I’m saying is, no matter how many friends you have or how good a team you make, sometimes the best you can be is by yourself.  Doing your own thing.  Unless, of course, you start to limp.

 

“Hey Vicki!” Kris went just then, “think fast!”

 

As her Minolta gave another FLASH.

 

*

 

“We—are—going—to—school,” Hayley said through gritted teeth on Monday morning.  “Not a party!”

 

“Look,” replied Vicki (wearing lipgloss, mascara, and a touch of blush), “I’m sorry your mom won’t let you.  I’m sure she will soon—”

 

“Maybe I think she’s right!  I mean, I’m only twelve!  You’re only—”

 

Tongue bitten then, to leave unmentioned that Vicki would still be eleven years old for another eighteen days.  Which only a Blue Meanie would twit you about, aloud.  (Along with the fact that all the BMs had been wearing makeup to school for at least six months.)

 

The girls said no more as they passed the Pramanik grocery and hiked up Cypress.  They no longer escorted Goofus to and from Reulbach; these days he went with his friend Bink, glorying in second-grade independence.

 

Kris was waiting for them at the stoplight on Sharp, hopping around to keep warm and also with anticipation.  “Wait’ll you see what I’ve got here!” she proclaimed, waving a fat tan envelope.  “After you went home I spent hours in the darkroom!  They hadda force me to go to bed, and even then I couldn’t sleep!”

 

She refused any peeks till they reached school, climbed to the third floor, and hung their outerwear in the cloakroom.  Only then did Kris spread the envelope’s contents over their desktops.

 

“Oh wow,” breathed Hayley.

 

“I know!!” exulted Kris.

 

“Hey, who took these pictures?” demanded April Tober, before doing an unfeigned double-take at Vicki’s face.  “Check you out!  And these pictures too—they’re something else!”

 

Black-and-white 8x10s.  Some were of the Rawberrys, Claire and Officer Sam and glint-grinning Kate and Ness the noble (if slobbery) bulldog.  Some of Hayley and Brenda and Sarah-Jill, self-conscious about being captured on film by a peer.  A few of Kris herself, carefully taken to keep the FLASH from getting mirrored.

 

But the most striking ones, the standout memorable ones, were of Vicki Volester as half-familiar almost-grownup.  With last autumn’s traumas etched into her stance and expression: how she held herself as she was caught by the lens.

 

For the first but by no means last time in her life, Vicki realized something fundamental.

 

Pain became her.

 

“You look nice,” offered Nina Gersh, who’d scarcely ever spoken to Vicki before.

 

Melissa said nothing.  Nor did Stephanie Lipperman.  Jimmy Maxwell, however, went “Allow me, señorita,” as he flung down a sweater (belonging to Lefty Levitch) so Vicki need not sully her feet on the slightly-slushy floor.

 

*

 

That Thursday was Valentine’s Day, for which the Student Council had been marketing heart-shaped cinnamon suckers (despite many remarks from boys as to their function).  You placed your order, including an endearment to be squeezed onto a tiny attached card, and on Thursday the suckers were delivered more-or-less anonymously to your designated recipients.

 

Nina, April, and Melissa (of course) reaped the largest sucker-hauls among the sixth-grade girls, while Yash Pramanik scored highest among the boys.  (“These sweets are highly gratifying,” he thanked his donors.)

 

Vicki might have made the top threesome had she not been too astonished to count the number of suckers heaped before her.  She herself had made only four last-minute orders for the other Peaches, plus a contribution to the supersized group sucker for Mr. Brown.  (Presented to him by Melissa Chiese in a half-unbuttoned blouse.  Mr. Brown privately asked Eileen to alert Melissa about her overexposure, which meant he’d noticed it and so tickled Melissa pink.)

 

Vicki swept her uncounted cinnamon valentines under her desk-lid, not daring to read their tiny cards.  But then in the Cafeteria she was cornered by Kris and April, who’d spent the past week yakking together about fashion photography and April’s plans to become a chipmunk-cute runway model.

 

“We were thinking since your birthday’s next,” said Kris, “and you’ve gotten so ahTRAHCtive and everything, that you should be the first one to have a boy/girl party.”

 

“ME??” Vicki gaped.  “How?

 

“Easy!  Just invite everybody in the whole class.”

 

“But—they wouldn’t come.  Boys wouldn’t.”

 

“Sure they will!” said April.  “Even if they act all stew-pid about it, invite them right and their mothers’ll make ‘em.”

 

“But... I don’t have room for everybody.  Not in just an apartment.”

 

“That’s the other part of our idea,” said Kris.  “We saw this ad and clipped it out of the paper—show her, April.”

 

Your feet haven’t lived until they’ve grooved on skates at the Pivotal.

 

“See?  A private roller rink party!  Get your parents to reserve the rink on a Monday night.  Everyone you invite buys a ticket instead of giving you presents.  With the ticket they get rental skates, a slice of pizza, and a small pop.”

 

“Small?”

 

“Well, they can pay extra for refills if they’re thirsty.  You do have to bring in your own cake and ice cream, and the ice cream has to be in Dixie cups.  But they’ll play you ‘Happy Birthday’ on the Pivotal’s pipe organ.”

 

“And that’s it?  No presents?”

 

“Vicki, you get all the glamour.  None of us has had a boy/girl party since back in kindergarten.”

 

“And that didn’t count,” said April.  “So it’s practically organized already.  The only thing you have to worry about is Malinga’s Stew-pid Council trying to take over—which is why your birthday party makes it perfect!  She’d never even consider going to that.”

 

“Malinga?”

 

“That’s what they call Melissa!” said Kris with frecklehappy glee, meaning the Blue Meanies.  “I only wish we’d thought of it first.”

 

“Why Malinga?” asked Vicki.

 

“Haven’t you ever noticed when Eileen’s sick at home, Melissa doesn’t come to school either?” said April.  “Not because she’s playing nurse for Eileen—hardly!  More like staying in bed on her maid’s day off.  So Stephanie started calling them ‘Aileen and Malinga.’”

 

Chipmunk-squint over toward Rox Dowell’s seventh-grade lunch table, at which Melissa’d wangled a seat.  From which she directed a brief suspicious icicle-dart their way.

 

“So,” went Vicki, “when you say ‘everybody’ll come,’ you mean—”

 

“Every guy.  If you invite them right.”

 

As Vicki evidently did: on the first Monday in March, the Pivotal Roller Rink was populated by the entire male half of Mr. Brown’s class.  Well, not Dunk Gunderson (of course) but Jimmy and Billy and Keith and Swede were there, plus Yash and Lefty and Brainwashed Larry and Ordinary Mark.  Even Wernie Ball, though he couldn’t skate and wouldn’t try.  But Jonathan Dohr could and did, swooping around the rink with his sabbath bloody sabbath shag distorting around his head.

 

Goofus was allowed to bring Bink, and Hayley kept an eye out to ensure they caused minimal chaos.  Cynthia pried herself off Da Crusha long enough to come as Tricia’s guest, spreading her much-missed sunbeams over the party.  Jennifer Dollfuss and Kate Rawberry came too, gearing up like Gangbusters for the Lady Giant Killers’s first track meet.  Kris and Brenda were right behind them, vying on mock-behalf of the Y and JCC.  April Tober, the lone Blue Meanie present, allowed one boy after another to clasp her hand in skating partnership.  Yash Pramanik, however, stuck close beside the blushing Sarah-Jill, who’d sought him out for tutoring on Hinduism and now needed his help to maintain equilibrium as the Wurlitzer shook the building with “Baby Elephant Walk,” “The Mickey Mouse Club Song,” “Yellow Submarine,” and the Pivotal’s own theme tune: “Where You Bump Into the Nicest People.”

 

Vicki required no bump to be swept off her feet and onto her rump (whose curvature didn’t serve too well as crash-cushion).  So she spent most of the party playing hostess, doling out slices of cake and pizza and Dixie-cupped ice cream, while fending off Wernie Ball’s small-pop refill-offers.

 

Her classmates did drag Vicki out of the snack bar and back on the rink to sing “Happy Birthday” to her: boys and girls together in a near-operatic tribute, their voices turned vibrato by the throbbing organ pipes.

 

Not bad for just-turned twelve.

 

*

 

But it wasn’t till a month later that she did any swooping.

 

Having cheered on Kate and Jen and the LGKs at a couple of their meets, Vicki steeled herself to go for a little jog.  She owed it to her top and toes, she figured, to get them trim and toned again after the winter’s discontent.

 

No big deal.

 

Nice springlike day, though.  Pull on ordinary gym shoes (no one in The City ever called them “sneakers”) over ordinary socks.  New pair of shorts (last year’s no longer fit) and a hand-me-down T-shirt that’d shrunk so much Felicia forbade Tricia to wear it in public.  No such worries yet for Vicki; but the shirt was a nice shade of violet that went well with her cherished-and-treasured skintone.  Not to mention the dash of gloss she added to her lips because, after all, you never knew what nice people you might bump into.

 

Here she was on the Esplanade in the actual Pfiester Park, after which the rest of the neighborhood had been named.  Its Esplanade ran alongside a shallow pond, like a teardrop shed by the Lake As Big As An Ocean a mile or so to the east.  Pfiester Park’s pond got nastily stagnant by August, but here in early spring it was refreshing to stand by—or splash in, if you were a bird.

 

What cheer! what cheer! hollered a wet cardinal.  And look: there went a couple of butterflies.  Hovering for a moment in front of Vicki, as if waiting for her to get a move on.

 

Okay then.  Jog already.  Hup two three four.  Lift those knees, move those arms, steady that breathing.  Watch out for pavement cracks that could cause a klumsy-klutzer stumble.

 

Wheet wheet wheet wheet shrilled the cardinal, like an oddly-timed alarm clock—

 

—that woke up every muscle in Vicki’s body, all at once.

 

And made them regain their memory.  Not so much of ballet (my gal is a fancy stepper) as of basic rhythmic forward motion (ginger with salt and pepper) that could make you skim, make you glide, make you soar, make you swoop over the Esplanade.

 

She heard a whistle then and took it at first to be a starling, like the ones Old Mrs. Lo used to feed in 1W.  But no, it came from a guy—an older high-schoolish guy—a not-at-all-bad-looking guy, who didn’t even know her.  Whose whistle wasn’t meant to be satiric, but appreciative—at the sight of Vicki Volester jogging.

 

He must think I’m a teenager.

 

She flashed him a smile but quickened her pace.  Suppose he started to follow her.  Suppose he’d fallen in love with her (it could happen) and wanted to ask her to a prom!  She’d have to break his heart by admitting she was still too young, as yet, to go out on a serious date.

 

Vicki decided there were lots worse things to worry about when you went for a jog.  No, make that a run.  Lengthen your stride till the wind’s in your face and your hair streams behind like a dark silky banner as you run.  Yeah: run.

 

 

     

* * * * * * * * * * * * *
   

 

Return to Chapter 13                          Proceed to Chapter 15

 

 

A Split Infinitive Production
Copyright © 2011 by P. S. Ehrlich

 

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