Tiger Lily vetoed The Great Gatsby as Stephanie’s Bat Mitzvah party theme, saying “Never wear white after Yom Kippur.” Silver was much more suitable, so why not shoot for the moon? Deck the JCC social hall with paper moons, harvest moons, moons over the mountain and Miami and a river wider than a mile! Steph could wear a silver lamé gown with a beaded overlay, and make her entrance while the band (hardest to book on the North Side) played “Moonlight Becomes You.”
“Gag!” kvetched Stephanie. “More like ‘Moonshine Be-glugs Me.”
But since Mrs. Lipperman’s why not meant an emphatic will be, Steph had no choice but to grin and bear it. Except that her mother did the bearing, quite spectacularly, as she pre-empted the bandleader’s “You’re all dressed up to go dreaming” with a Boogie Checkworthy OOH-AHH. After having suppressed pains all day, Tiger Lily went into labor right there in front of the crowd.
(“Talk about making a splash!” Stephanie remarked to the scared-stiff Vicki.)
There was no time to get her to the hospital, since she was rapidly becoming them. Several doctors were present but none was an OB/GYN, so they began a group consultation while the Temple Sisterhood ran around clucking and squawking and Lily bellowed: “I hate you, Herman! As soon as this one’s out, my tubes are getting tied!!”
Wellwishers tried to comfort Steph throughout the party-pooping delivery, but she was over the moon. “I never thought I could be this happy!” she told everyone, long before the earsplitting arrival of Benjie Lipperman—named after the final child of Jacob and Rachel, not (as Didi claimed) in honor of the Hollywood dog.
Attendees noted that while Stephanie might not be the prettiest girl in Pfiester Park, who knew what a wonderful smile she had? Indeed, her pointy punim was split by a shmaykhel that wouldn’t fade for weeks.
“It’s like I blew out all the candles,” she beamed at Vicki, “and every damn wish I ever made in my life came true!”
A week later, Brenda’s Bat Mitzvah was celebrated in the same (thoroughly scoured) social hall. Though they couldn’t outshine a live birth, Brenda did get carried in on a litter borne by four muscular male dancers, each handpicked by Fritzi Carlisle. They were costumed as Egyptian slaves and Brenda as Pharaoh’s Daughter in a Nefertiti headdress.
“This better not make me look dorky,” she warned Vicki beforehand.
“I’m sure it won’t,” Vicki quickly replied.
And in fact the gaudy regalia gave a decisive polish to all that was commanding in Brenda’s personality. Watching her preside over the festivities with stately grandeur, Vicki recalled Brenda’s longtime ambition to “make lots ‘n’ lots of money—and not by marrying any old millionaire, either.” Seeing her here as Empress of the Nile, you could tell she was going to generate her own millions one day—and use them to have muscular slaveboys bring her food and drink with bows and scrapes.
“Will there be anything more, your Highness?”
“That’ll do for the moment,” Brenda drawled. “You can fetch me another glass of this in, say, ten minutes.”
“Very good, your Highness,” replied the hunk.
“Hey!” called Kris. “If you’re done with that one, can he come dance with us?”
“Do It (‘Til You’re Satisfied),” Brenda decreed, taking a noble swig of Manischewitz, and the band struck up a B.T. Express cover with funk to spare.
Brenda’s masterful attitude lasted a lot longer than Stephanie’s wonderful smile, though Steph tried hard not to let the former dim her latter. This despite Brenda’s new habit of laying a weighty hand on your shoulder and saying, “Yeah—I’m gonna need you to” take this or that action, for reasons she didn’t always present in detail, yet with a clear signal it would be in your best interest to play ball.
She even used this approach with Mrs. Lundgren and Mrs. Frank the lunchlady. Brenda’d resolved that all the girls in seventh grade, regardless of religious affiliation, should receive a public acknowledgment of their turning thirteen. And since traditional birthday get-togethers had gotten too juvenile (not to say awkward, as old alliances disbanded) why not make use of the school cafeteria?
Mrs. Lundgren and Mrs. Frank, with their shoulders imperially occupied, expressed willingness to let ball be played.
The first birthday to be observed in this fashion was Hayley Tamworth’s. “Yeah—” Brenda informed her classmates, “I’m gonna need you to collect money from everybody, and you to go buy a card for everybody to sign, and you to get a gift certificate with whatever’s left over, after I pay for the torte I’ll bring from the bakery. The rest of you I’m gonna need to set everything up, then throw it all away afterward. That’s what Mrs. Frank’s most worried about, and we don’t want her to worry now do we?”
Stephanie kept her smile glued on (most of the time) and contributed to these proceedings by dubbing them “Not Mitzvahs.”
Vicki’s assignment was to circulate Hayley’s card and solicit inscriptions, even from the seventh-grade boys. Sarah-Jill had the even harder job of raising money, though she called it “a practical lesson in economics.” By implying that more Hungarian pastry would be available than Brenda was likely to provide, Sarah-Jill got a pile of pocket change out of the boys—plus several offers to help transport the pastry to school.
When the torte reached the Cafeteria, Jim Maxwell grabbed the stool next to Hayley’s so as to serve as her (and the torte’s) guardian angel.
“You’re welcome,” said Jim. “You never know when some crazy homeless wino might barge in here with a crazy homeless sweet tooth, and go on a spree.”
Hayley was flustered by his and everyone’s attention, most of it welcome but some of it un-, particularly from the odious Mitzi “I’m-Just-As-Good-As-Anyone-In-Your-Lousy-Class” Freund. Who conveyed formal regrets from Melissa Chiese (sitting two tables away, well within earshot) that she couldn’t be there to wish Happy 13th to whoever’s birthday it was, anyway.
They presented Hayley with a gift certificate for the Cathedral of All the Stores, and the seventh-grade girls (plus Mitzi Buttinski) exclaimed over this, though everyone but Hayley knew about it already. Jim Maxwell, around a somewhat guarded mouthful of torte, urged Hayl to spend it on a sweater: “One of those snugglish-wugglish ones, y’know? I like to see my women looking zaftig.”
Beet-red blush from Hayley, who nevertheless did invest in cashmere, which she thought a far more romantic choice than the magnifying loupe Kris put her Not Mitzvah certificate toward a month later at the Central Camera Company. A month after that, Vicki converted hers into a pair of Adidas running shoes: her very first, top of the line, though not exactly snugglish-wugglish. (Actually the certificate paid for only half of one shoe, so she—like the other girls—had to use grandparental gift cash to cover the rest.)
Vicki’s becoming a teenager was also marked by a family chowdown at Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria. Stephanie was invited too, but had to be kept in the dark as to why Ozzie stewed and fumed through dinner.
“(What is eating your dad?)”
“(Oh, this nasty customer at the Lot said street salt made his bumper rust off.)”
The true reason had to remain a secret, at least for the time being.
Felicia’s number-one New Year’s resolution had been to study up on real estate and then, at last, find the Volesters a house of their own. She and Ozzie had stumbled across The Most Perfect Place Imaginable, a four-bedroom Colonial (which sounded like a very old log cabin) in suburban Willowhelm. But its owner backed out on what Ozzie considered a handshake deal, since the Volesters wouldn’t be moving till June at the earliest—unlike a ready-this-minute claimjumper whom the fickle owner did close with.
Thunderation from Ozzie: “Where I come from, a man would sooner chop off his hand than welch on an understanding!”
“Yes, darling, I know. But he said that handshake was a polite goodbye, not a binding agreement—”
“Polite my hairy white backside! Why, if I shook hands with a dog after showing it Gravy Train, then by God that dog would get a bowlful of Gravy Train! Where I come from—”
“Daddy, please don’t go on about this at Malnati’s! I haven’t told Steph yet we’re thinking about moving.”
Ozzie vowed not to spoil Kitten’s Special Day, and shook Vicki’s hand to prove his point. Yet here he was growling round the Pizzeria: stewing, fuming, grumbling into his mug.
“(Did it?)” whispered Stephanie.
“(Did what do what?)”
“(Did the nasty guy’s bumper rust off?)”
“(Oh of course not—just a little, y’know, corrosion.)”
There’d be time enough to break any news to Steph when—and if—it became actual reality. Fortunately Goofus was an inattentive little twerp who didn’t know about the family plans either; otherwise he’d be extorting a hefty percentage of Vicki’s allowance to keep the beans from being spilled.
Right now he watched with morbid fascination as Tricia kept nodding off over her City-style deep-dish pizza slice. Fel would give her a gentle nudge; Tricia would wake up blurting “Oh but it’s terrible, Reverend Mother” or “Well, God bless what’s-his-name”; Goof and Steph and Vicki would laugh and be subjected to the emerald glare; an angry nibble would be taken from Tricia’s pizza; and then, eyelids drooping, the nod-off would resume.
Pfiester High’s Spring Operetta was imminent and its rehearsals consumed every moment, waking and sleeping, not devoted to meeting deadlines for the senior class (of which Tricia was Treasurer) or the Magic Harp yearbook (of which she was Clubs & Activities Editor).
Not just slumber was being sacrificed for all this, but Tricia’s social life as well. Two unprecedented weeks had passed since her last date, and that one was just to the Winter Sports Dance where she and Brian Minsky could practice their ländler for The Sound of Music. Brian and his teeth were playing Captain von Trapp, while no one but Tricia could possibly have been cast as Maria (and lived to tell about it).
The Sound of Music belonged to Patricia Elaine Volester.
Ever since she first saw the film version at the age of six, it had been her exclusive star-turn dream. She’d spent a decade preparing for the role of Maria, and the past few months bulldozing the Jacks & Jills (of which she was this year’s President) into making that dream greasepaint-and-crowd-roar reality.
But obstacles kept cropping up. Mr. Merton had picked Rupa Pramanik to play Liesl, which was just plain silly. Liat in South Pacific, okay; Tuptim in The King and I, that’d be understandable; Mei Li (or Linda the stripper) in Flower Drum Song, no argument. But Liesl von Trapp?? With a skintone that set her waaaay far apart from her little siblings?? Instead of I am sixteen going on seventeen, would Rupa have to sing I am suntanned going on sizzled brown??
(Be calm. Breathe deep. We can deal with the matter cosmetically.)
Then there was the bigger problem posed by Tricia’s dearest friend. Cynthia Dollfuss was supposed to have co-starred as the Baroness, portraying that rivale d’amour with all the slinky jealousy and poignant jeopardy she was capable of. And NOT waste those talents on a Crushin’ Crudification like Fred Minerich, with whom Cynthia had wisely broken up at the end of last summer. Dramatics had followed, as Fred announced he would pulverize any guy foolhardy enough to ask Cynthia out, or even look too steadily in her direction. Seeing what an eyeful she was, most guys couldn’t help but do just that; and when they did—
“What the hell YOU staring at, pencilneck??”
GEEEEEEEK would go the unhappy Cynthiawatcher, through a neck constricted to pencil-width by a tremendous Crusha forearm.
Taking Tricia’s advice, Cynthia’d mounted a tag-team counterattack with Spaz Schwauble, the brilliant but “challenged” youth who’d always yearned for her while assisting with homework. Together they staged a makeout session right outside the boys’s locker room door; and when Fred came charging through it like a maddened rhino, Spaz dropped to the ground and simulated a fit. “Stop it, Fred! You’re killing him!” Cynthia screamed, with Tricia and other enlisted girls adding to the clamor. And by the time it subsided, Da Crusha had not only been put on suspension but warned that one more lapse of any sort (except academic) would mean ejection from the varsity wrestling squad.
Fred, alarmed and bewildered by having no memory of giving Spaz the forearm choke, seemed to undergo a complete character bodyslam. He offered Spaz a public apology; voiced no further objection to Cynthia’s dating other guys; began volunteering his immense strength for benevolent purposes—and gradually wooed Cynthia back.
Tricia told her to forget him, you can’t rehabilitate a turd. Yet Cynthia paid less and less attention to the Jacks & Jills and more to the Pep Club Grapplettes, who kept score at wrestling tourneys and boosted team spirit while mopping sweat, drool, and occasionally blood off used mats.
“Why are you doing this??” Tricia kept wailing at her.
“Aw, they’re such cuties when they grunt ‘n’ groan,” Cynthia kept replying.
Then Fred had nominated her for Winter Sports Queen and invited her to the dance with quaint Croatian courtesy. He even pinned an orchid to her ample décolletage without trying for a feel. And their evening went splendidly till Cynthia finished first runner-up to Jumpin’ Jack Pomerantz’s girlfriend, Annie Haeckel (the Human Freckle). Cynthia whooped and gave Annie a big hug; Da Crusha approached Jumpin’ Jack and picked a big fight. Which was taken outside and conducted in the parking lot, till Cynthia administered a piledriver to the fightpicker:
“That is it! We are through!! Forever and THEN SOME!!!”
If only she’d saved such passion for playing the Baroness. If only she hadn’t settled for being Sister Berthe, Mistress of Novices.
Even that minor role gave her a couple of effective scenes, though, and that was what truly mattered at the moment. Not some passing heartbreak over an unworthy fartbucket.
“Bring us back to Do oh oh oh,” Tricia blurted at the Pizzeria, as Felicia gave her another gentle nudge.
Now it was Operetta night in Pfiester High’s auditorium. The elder Volesters had come down from Beansville for the great event, and PopPop no sooner got seated than he started fumbling for his bandanna. Tricia’s performances always brought tears to his eyes, and The Sound of Music was bound to make them spill; being a sentimental Austrian, “Edelweiss” alone could cause a deluge. Vicki, seated beside PopPop, checked her purse for Kleenex in case the bandanna needed backup.
Stephanie should have been on Vicki’s other side, but she’d spotted a vacant place next to Bill Goldfarb and dashed three rows forward to snag it, turning to shoot Vicki a stealthy yet jubilant leer.
Vicki wished her silent luck. And the same for herself, since she’d been left with a flank exposed: what if someone creepy took that empty seat? What if he pressed his creepy leg against hers during the entire Operetta? Suppose it was Wernie Ball! She craned her head around, hoping for a buffer she could beckon to. Her glance was caught and held by a guy in a thick black mackinaw who came sauntering down the aisle. He turned into Vicki’s row, slouched onto the seat to her left, and awarded her a startlingly white smirk:
“Savin’ it for me, were ya?”
OhmyGahd! This was Murray Minsky, Brian’s cousin (witness the choppers) and a hotshot eighth-grader, one of the hot-shottiest!
Vicki’d only seen him from a distance before now. Up close he had tight curly hair like a Brady Bunch man-perm, and tight swarthy skin that cried out for conjunction with a motorcycle, and mile-wide lips that managed to be full and tight. All of which earned him a scowl from PopPop, suspicious of any white-smirk advances toward a granddaughter, especially from somebody who looked Italian.
The Minskys actually came from Mazovia by way of Memphis, Tennessee—hence “Minsky Brothers Burly-Q Barbecue,” their rib joint down on Pockhardt Avenue. However, Murray’s aspirations lay south of the border (as he liked to insinuate): “¿Que pasa?” had been his all-purpose exclamation since the age of nine. Friends hailed him by that phrase, substitute teachers were told it was his real name, and “Q. P. Minsky” appeared on football and swimming rosters.
Last fall he’d begun going out with younger girls of the hardcore sort. Notorious Nancy Knopf had dubbed him “Kewpiedoll,” which led directly to his dumping her and taking up with Gretchen Digresso; also to Murray’s truncating the epithet to a single bold syllable. “Call me Kyoop,” he now told the flirtworthy, after asking them “¿Que pasa?”
But before he could say either (or both) to Vicki, the auditorium lights went down and the Pfiester High orchestra took a whack at The Sound of Music overture.
All through Act One, acutely aware of Kyoop’s proximity, Vicki’s attention was torn between Tricia proclaiming that hills were filling her heart—and the grin buzzing away like a neon question mark, one seat over.
“¿Cómo resolver un problema como María?”
Tricia, needless to say, was letter-perfect and flawless-pitched onstage. Cynthia, though still depressed, couldn’t help but revert to normal gusto when she said Maria wore curlers underneath her wimple and ought to have a cowbell round her neck. Rupa Pramanik, wigged with golden pigtails, made a delightful Liesl; Randy Knopf was a Hitler-Youthful Rolf; Brian Minsky whistleblew, orderbarked, and ländler-hopped with smile-smile-smiling impunity.
While Kyoop snortled at them all.
Tricia/Maria fled back to the Abbey; Reverend Mother told her to go climb ev’ry mountain; the Pfiester High curtain came down and the audience rose. Some, like PopPop, headed directly for the washrooms; others, like Ozzie and Felicia, bought coffee first from nonperforming Jacks & Jills in the school lobby.
Vicki followed Kyoop along the row to the aisle, where he put his saunter on pause to let her precede him exitward. OhmyGahd he’s checking out my tush I just know it she told herself, half-cursing (but only half) that she’d left her coat behind (as it were) to mark her seat (so to speak).
In the lobby she turned to look for Stephanie but found Kyoop instead, standing thickly blackly mackinaw’d at her vulnerable elbow. “Smoke?” he proposed, drawing her off to a deserted side entrance.
“Um,” went Vicki, shaking her head at his extended Marlboros.
“You’re Trish’s sister, right?”
“Um,” Vicki nodded. “Are you, like, enjoying the show?”
Tight lustrous eyes traveled down off her face and back up again. “Not bad. Pretty foxy for a nun, though. Dontcha think?”
“Oh. Um. I guess so, Murray.”
“Call me Kyoop.” With a plume of come-to-where-the-flavor-is Marlboro Country.
“Okay... Brian’s awfully good, too.”
Fresh snortle. “You could say that. Kills his old man, though.”
“What does? Why?”
“Whyja think? Havin’ a fruit for his only son!”
Having a—? “You mean Brian?”
“Hey, I’m not knockin’ the guy, he’s my cousin after all. But why else would he be up there prancin’ around with powder on his face? It’s like a rule for those actor-types: they gotta swish, or the other fruits won’t let ‘em play. Trust me—if you ever see one of ‘em with a foxy lady, like Briny and your sister, you can be sure that’s just another act. It’s what they call ‘bein’ a beard.’”
Kyoop ran his smokeless hand over a tight dark jawbone, on which sprouted a few bristles.
“I can hardly believe it,” Vicki murmured, rerunning memories back to when Tricia’d purloined Brian from Patty Kuchenesser.
“Well, don’t think it’s true about all us Minskys,” said Kyoop with a wink, flicking his cigarette butt out the side door. “Some of us know how to barbecue ribs the right way.”
“Aay, QuePasa!” boomed Dusty Jarlsberg. He was another Reulbach eighth-grader, but so tall and broad and resonant he could easily be mistaken for a Pfiester High student. Melissa Chiese had recently ensnared him as her steady boyfriend, and people whispered they were Doing It—or, if not It, then at least Stuff.
“Aay, Dustman! Ready to haul ass?”
“You know it,” said Dusty, tipping Vicki a suave nod. “Let’s blow this joint and go see The Towering Inferno again.”
“Wait!” said Vicki. “You’re not staying for the rest of the show?”
“Aw, we know how it turns out. ‘Bomb ev’ry mountain—strafe ev’ry stream—’”
“‘Merrily merrily merrily—life is but ice cream,’” added Kyoop. "See ya around, babe.”
They departed into the chilly night, leaving Vicki in a confused but humid daze.
She and Stephanie spent the rest of that weekend parsing every sentence of their respective conversations with Kyoop and Bill Goldfarb. (Steph thought Kyoop might be telling the truth about Brian Minsky, but surely not all actor-types. What about Robert Redford? Or Burt Reynolds? Or Tony DeFranco, for Gahd’s sake?)
(Vicki, waiting till the Operetta was over and done with, cautiously brought up the subject with Tricia. “Do you still, y’know, like Brian as much as you used to?”)
(“I’d like him a lot more if he could dance as well as he thinks he can,” snapped Tricia.)
On Monday, Mrs. Lundgren’s Language Arts teams began a new poetry project. By artful maneuvering Stephanie got Vicki and herself paired with Bill and Jonathan Dohr, mostly for coquettish pursuit but also because Bill and Jon were poetic experts. They’d formed a band with two eighth-grade rockers, Iggy Blew (born Louis Brandeis Klosterdorf) and Whumper Sunn (who figured with a surname like Starr and Moon, he was meant to play the drums). “Blew Dohr” they called themselves, agreeing from the outset that every song they’d compose and ultimately record would be an equal four-way collaboration.
“So Jon does most of the music and I do most of the lyrics,” quipped Bill.
“Funny you should say that,” Steph interjected. “I brought these in that I wrote last night, y’know for poetry? But they rhyme instead of being like free verse or whatever, so maybe they could be a song! Whaddaya think?”
|I smile all the while|
|You dangle me from your strings|
|I smile all the while|
|Whatever your heartache brings|
|I can’t help but smile|
|A marionette that sings|
“Um,” went Bill.
Vicki’s strings gave a sudden twang when she felt a foot press against hers. It wasn’t a creepy-feeling foot, and (given the angle) couldn’t be Stephanie’s or Bill’s. So it must belong to...
Another glance caught and held.
Dusty Jarlsberg was tall for an eighth-grader, yet Jonathan Dohr was even taller for a seventh. Which might account for the footplay (long legstretch, inadvertent contact) but not this embrace of eyes and minds.
Jon, as an adolescent, had even less to say than before—at least aloud with his voice. When mute, his broodish-spookish fluency was unmatched. The pressure on Vicki’s toes, though, felt mope-free; as did the glint in Jon’s deep-set regard. There was amusement to share and awareness to perceive, and reassurance that Vicki Volester could never be considered a Poochie.
(Put thoughts into a girl’s head, why don’t you?)
You’ll see me in your dreams.
Shouldn’t that be the other way around?
It already is.
The bell rang and they left the Resource Center, with Stephanie humming the sort of tune she thought her poem could be set to, and Bill giving it his variation on “Oh... kay.” Vicki (for what seemed the thousandth time) stumbled on the top step to the second floor, but Jonathan caught her like an errant Frisbee and kept her from sprawling. Though not from feeling tingly and feather-light and utterly transcendent of Klumsy Klutzerhood. As if nothing could ever muddle her again.
That is, until she reached the third floor and found Kyoop Minsky slurping at the water fountain.
He straightened up and stood tall (though not as tall as Jonathan) and wiped tight full lips on a sturdy wrist with a virile flourish. Ignoring Jon and Steph and Bill, but giving Vicki a smack-in-the-face toothflash.
“Hey,” he said.
And passed on by, leaving that flash to linger before her eyes.
Doubling her confusion and tripling her humidity.
During spring break the Dollfusses took Cynthia and Tricia downstate to Carbondale. Its university had sent letters of acceptance to both girls and also Miles Carlisle, or “Cuzzy” as Tricia’d started calling him last August. At that time they’d come to what Tricia said was an understanding—one that allowed her to date anyone she pleased, while keeping Miles’s senior picture in a frame atop her bedroom bureau.
(It seemed to blush every time Tricia undressed in front of it.)
Carbondale was not her first choice (that was Ann Arbor) nor her safety school (that was Lakeside Central). But she alone had been accepted to Michigan: Miles hadn’t applied there, and Cynthia’s GPA wasn’t high enough even with Spaz Schwauble’s dedicated assistance. In Tricia’s opinion, Carbondale was just a party college in the sticks; yet she went along for the ride and even began to consider tolerating the sticks for a year or so. She and Cynthia would be roommates, Cuzzy Miles would be handy, and Tricia could always transfer to Ann Arbor afterward.
Left unspoken was everyone’s aim to put three hundred miles between Cynthia and Fred Minerich.
Her folks had scarcely been able to conceal their feelings about Da Crusha, which of course had only enhanced his desirability till Fred himself flushed that away. “You know I’m not overdevout,” Albert Dollfuss had confided to the Volesters, “but thank-God-Almighty-with-a-glory-glory-hallelujah-in-excelsis-Deo-plus-a-hey-nonny-nonny-and-a-hot-cha-cha!”
Mr. Dollfuss worked as a foreclosure auctioneer, which kept him plenty busy during the recession and generated almost as much dough as Ozzie made selling compact cars. Cynthia could do an affectionate takeoff on his rapidfire auction chant, sounding like the gander in Charlotte’s Web. And Bert had done some ganderlike wingbeating to keep Fred away from his gosling. A rat, he said, was a rat, and rotten eggs always came to a bad end.
Cynthia’s talent for agile mimicry—like her sister Jennifer’s for mock-ferocity—had been inherited from their mother Eloise. She could do stunts her daughters only dreamed of: walking on her hands, touching her tongue to her nose, and private accomplishments with tasseled pasties. “If you don’t bring home the bread, be sure you can churn the butter,” Eloise liked to say (and Cynthia liked to quote). But for all her love of fun and games, Mrs. Dollfuss was second to none when it came to loathing Fred Minerich. She claimed the Crusha voodoo doll she’d special-ordered from Port-au-Prince had been worth every penny.
The Dollfusses lived in a brownstone on Manderley Avenue—not one of the grand gloomy piles Tricia used to admire, but a cheerful one north of the Park. They got home from Carbondale just in time for Cynthia’s eighteenth birthday, and the rest of the Volesters were invited over for the family jamboree.
You couldn’t believe Cynthia was almost a year-and-a-half older than Tricia, given her childlike sugarbuzz excitement as she ran from room to room, eager to unearth presents:
“Where are they? I’ve tried all the usual hiding places—oh I know! I know what you’re giving me!! It’s a CAR, isn’t it?? Oh Mommy, Daddy, I love you both to pieces!! Oh Mr. V, I just know you sold it to ‘em at dealer cost!! Oh you shouldn’t have—but I’m so glad you did!! Thank you all so very very much!!”
Ozzie appreciated the double-barreled kiss Cynthia planted on him, but had to deny the car’s existence.
“Nope, we’re doing better than that,” said Eloise. “As soon as you and Trish get your diplomas, we’re kicking you both clean off the continent! That’s assuming you two won’t mind spending a few weeks backpacking through Europe—”
No winners of Let’s Make a Deal ever screamed so loud or bounced so much, their arms wrapped alternately around parents and each other, after cries of “Are you kidding??” brought out brochures, itineraries, and lists of needed supplies to prove the gift was for real.
“You know, Princess,” Ozzie said during one hug, “this means you won’t be getting a car on your birthday either.”
“There’ll always be cars! This is Europe we’re talking about!” said Tricia, seizing hold of Cynthia, and they danced a joyous ländler up and down the Dollfuss brownstone.
“Is this Tuesday? Are we in Belgium yet?” laughed Cynthia. “Wheeeee hee hee haw haw haw!! Yeah!... y-e-a-h!” (Clap clap clap.)
Vicki would always remember her as she was in that moment. And always tried, difficult as it would be, to remember Tricia likewise.
Morning announcements in Mrs. Lundgren’s class. Melissa Chiese rising to declare the gym’s new floor was finally finished, and a semiformal dance for seventh- and eighth-graders would soon take place upon it. “Stairway to Heaven” had been picked as the theme, and their own Blew Dohr booked as the band.
(Round of applause for Bill and Jonathan, giving each other solemn five.)
Tickets would go on sale at lunchtime for $3.00, or $5.00 for accredited couples. Meaning you both had to sign up together and show up at the dance together.
Hand raised by Jim Maxwell. Did two girls count as a couple? Even if they were both really hot? What if a guy brought two girls—would he get the couple’s price, or a special discount à trois? How about a guy bringing two kangaroos?
Note slipped to Vicki by Steph: U & me & J & B!
Note slipped to Steph by Vicki: & Kanga & Roo 2!
Amused/aware/reassuring eyeglint to Vicki by Jonathan.
And a perfectly peachy-keen a.m. it was, right up to the clang of the recess bell.
Then Wernie Ball came surging across the classroom to trip and crash at Vicki’s feet, his cobwebby head practically inside her too-short skirt. Causing Vicki to do a spontaneous backward broadjump and clamp both hands over her crotch.
“Vicki!” gargled Wernie on the floor. “Wouldja go... wouldja go with...”
Said not loudly, but widely openly mouthedly.
She ran like hell to the washroom and spent recess in a stall, fighting off waves of crampy nausea. How could she ever return to class? stay in this school? remain in the same neighborhood as... as W—? Oh, she couldn’t even bear to think his full name! If only her folks had bought that suburban Colonial! If only they were moving there this very morning, with a van pulling up outside Reulbach this very minute to whisk her away!
But no such luck.
Back to class, then.
And behold: nobody’d noticed more than W— falling down and Vicki leaping out of the room. Stephanie was ticked that she’d run off when they could’ve been planning dance strategy, but accepted cramps as an excuse. As for W—
Dismiss him from your thoughts. Ignore him from now on. Take Firesign Theater’s advice: when an alien attacks, avoid eye contact unless the alien has no eyes, in which case avoid all contact.
Later that day in Language Arts, Steph was at her sprightliest. “Guess you guys won’t be needing tickets to the spring dance, hunh?”
“Naw, we’re the band,” said Bill. “All we’ll be taking there is our instruments.”
Corroborative grunt from Jonathan.
Deflated crumple by Stephanie.
And no pressure against Vicki’s espadrille. Enigmatic detachment instead. Cancellation of promised appearance in future dreams.
Which turned very bad that very night.
W— might be expelled from Vicki’s waking thoughts, but as she slept he could found hanging by a noose round his pencilneck; or plummeting off a skyscraper ledge; or vomiting gallons of pea-green Exorcist paste. Each time collapsing at Vicki’s feet like a broken puppet, before jerking fitfully up between her ankles and shins and knees and thighs—
—to jolt Vicki awake with a DOHHHH oh oh oh that she tried to keep strictly to herself. (Happy as Tricia’d been of late, disturbing her sleep could still be dangerous.)
Scramble to grab your ancient stuffed cat. Just a few traces remained of its fluorescent teeth, but they gave off enough gleam to put you in mind of Kyoop Minsky. Who might pose a few dangers of his own, but surely could be depended upon to protect you from the nightmarish. Yes, with that smirk like a moonlighting river, wider than a mile...
Dance talk got bumped from the front page by rumors that April Tober’d done a junior lingerie spread for a major summer catalog. She refused to confirm or deny this to interested boys, but the other girls were told it was true and “no big deal.”
“She looked great—sixteen at least!” added Kris, who’d been at the shoot. “The photographer even offered to make her a fake ID!”
“(In exchange for what?)” Stephanie mumblewondered to Vicki.
A throng of fantasy-minded guys asked April to the dance. She chose Keith Vespa, so Swede Swedebach (ever the follower) asked Kris, who lost no time in buying a swanky turquoise dress for the occasion. Vicki, while praising snapshots of this dress, couldn’t help but remember a time when little Kris came home crying from the Y because the mean girls including April had jeered at her turquoise leotard. Now here she was being all semiformal and April-chummy, giving Annie Haeckel a run for her Human Freckle money.
On second thought it shamed Vicki to be thinking such a thing about one of her best friends.
A once-upon-a-time best friend, anyway.
Next thing you know, you’ll be giving Melissa Chiese a run for her Chief Blue Meanie money...
Melissa’s meanness had not relented one iota over the years. A fresh layer got added by April’s throng, since Melissa felt boys should fantasize first and foremost about her. So counterrumors flew that she and Dusty Jarlsberg, while Doing Stuff if not It, had created an album of Polaroid self-portraits à la John and Yoko. Let April parade her scrawny figure in summer-sale bras and panties! Melissa had gone au naturel with a better bod and an older guy, thank you very much!
Brenda derided both girls, all their suitors, and “Stairway to Heaven,” suggesting that Mr. Overland do an audit on just how much the Student Council made raising funds for the new gym floor. On the night of the dance, Brenda intended to work up an honest sweat at the JCC’s kosher (in every sense of the word) gymnasium.
Hayley too would be a no-show. She’d been hoping Jim Maxwell would ask her, following up on his zaftig observations; but he said he’d be going stag with a six-pack of Old Style Lager, which he planned to decant into the Kool-Aid punchbowl. So Hayley, putting on a brave face, planned another evening with her Baptist youth group.
“Are you two going to the dance?” Vicki asked Yash and Sarah-Jill, finding them by the big “Stairway to Heaven” poster in the school vestibule.
“Us? No, we’ll be downtown that night at a lecture by Swami Srednivashta,” said Sarah-Jill, showing her the flier they were actually perusing.
“You should accompany us there, Vicki” said Yash. “It will be most enlightening as well as an opportunity so rare. Swami Srednivashta is a guru of great renown, and not nearly as fierce as his reputation would have you believe.”
“Um, I’ll think about it.”
Psssst from the other end of the vestibule. Pssssssst!
“I think that person’s trying to attract your attention,” Sarah-Jill remarked.
Kyoop Minsky, showing his teeth, though not in a smile.
“Hi!” said Vicki, crossing over. “Did you psssst at me?””
“You’re not goin’ to the dance with him, are you?”
“I heard you say you’re thinkin’ about it!”
“Oh, that. He and Sarah-Jill want to go hear some guru guy—”
“’Cause you’re not, you get me? I’M takin’ you to that dance.”
Pleasurable indignation. “Oh yeah? Is this how you ask girls out? And what about Gretchen Digresso?”
Return of the Minsky smirk. “Aw, she wears this really weird-smellin' perfume. I like yours a lot better.”
“Yeah?” said Vicki, with a smirk of her own. “It’s called Wind Song. Y’know—‘I can’t seem to forget her, / Her Wind Song stays in my mind.’”
“On your mind, hunh?”
“No—yours. You’re the one asking me out, ‘member?”
“And you’re the one sayin’ yes! Okay then, it’s all set—we’ll go with Dusty and his girl.”
(Eruption of giggles at the thought of a double-date alongside Melissa Chiese.)
(Interrupted by a breath-catch as Kyoop’s fingertip—tight, of course—traced the line of her cheekbone. Then over to beep her nose: once, twice, and again.)
“Lis—ten—here. No more of this hangin’ around with schwarzers. You get me?”
“What’re you talking about?”
“Look, I’m not puttin’ him down or nothin’. Just that schwarzers oughta stick to girls their own color, understand? Tell your friend in the glasses that, too.”
“Are you talking about Yash Pramanik? He’s not even black! And anyway, so what—”
“Cullehd is as cullehd does, honeychile,” Kyoop hogjowled. Giving her nose a grossuncledougish tweak that wasn’t the least bit pleasurable.
Twitch yourself loose. “Y’know something? You better buy Gretchen a bottle of Wind Song, ‘cause you are taking her to the dance!”
“I’m gonna be busy that night, washing my hair—and you out of it! And y’know what else, Murray? Your cousin Brian makes you look like a doodle-yanking wimp! So there!!”
Pirouette on an espadrille heel and stalk off.
The only reason not to feel superproud of yourself was that now you didn’t have a date for “Stairway to Heaven.”
Stephanie didn’t help matters by accepting an offer from Elliott Freund. He was another eighth-grader, several leagues below Kyoop and Dusty (or even Iggy Blew and Whumper Sunn), but with the recommendation of having hated his kid sister Mitzi Buttinski her entire life.
“How was I supposed to know you were turning Kyoop down?” Steph reasoned. “But lookit—if you say you don’t want me to go with Elliott, I won’t.”
“Vicki! I already told him I would! C’mon, just say yes to whoever asks you next!”
And who would that be, exactly? The ranks were thinning fast. Even Eileen Agnew got an invite, though everyone knew Lefty Levitch was hoping to use her somehow as a means of peeking at Melissa’s nudie-album (assuming it did exist).
What, then? Go alone? That needed more guts than Vicki possessed. Stay home and wash her hair? Too literal a retribution. Attend Swami Srednivashta’s lecture? That might be a stairway to Nirvana, but probably not all that heavenly.
In the end, after sitting beside or behind Vicki these past three alphabetical years, it was Ordinary Mark Welk who came through for her. “Hey,” he said one day after lunch. “You going to the dance?”
“I dunno. You?”
“I will if you will.”
“Mark Welk, hunh?” was Steph’s reaction. “Well, he’s... nice.”
“He’s okay,” Vicki corrected her. No point acting all head-in-the-clouds about it.
Unlike Tricia, still very much in a hills-are-alive! mood thanks to her European horizon. She took Vicki shopping for a nice violet maxidress with matching pumps, and even staked her to a set of frivolous party undies.
“I’m not gonna be, y’know, doing anything with the guy!”
“That’s not why you wear them,” Tricia explained. “Trust me—just knowing you have them on will make you feel prettier, and be prettier. Works every time.”
So: thus clad, do you look sixteen at least? Ready to model for a fake ID?
Or just to dance again, gyrating your body to pulsating rhythm as Blew Dohr pounded out approximations of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Uriah Heap and The Who:
“Is it me for a moment (for a moment, for a moment)?”
It was Ordinary Mark for intermittent moments. Vicki’d nurtured a slight hope he might reveal a Debonair Mark alter ego who would swoop her round the gym. But though Mark took all the right steps and made all the right moves, every one of them was rooted in the mundane. No spills taken; no thrills given.
Never mind. It might not be a cotillion ball; she might not have an engraved dance card to fill; but numerous guys did ask her to get down and shake it with them. Classmates, strangers, same age, older, and more than one wanting another turn. Every so often Ordinary Mark went through this rotation, always stepping aside for the next guy in line.
Vicki kept an eye peeled for Kyoop Minsky. Not to rub (or tweak) his nose in her obvious popularity—just to make certain it was unmistakable.
No sign of him, though, or Gretchen Digresso either. Maybe they’d skipped the dance and hitched a ride to Bluff Drive, or gone to fill their stomachs with Burly-Q beef tips. Or maybe just find somebody else to maltreat and abuse.
Vicki’s other eye kept focusing on the bandstand, trying to make a reconnection. But Jonathan Dohr never once took his gaze off his bass, no matter how hard she concentrated.
You could look up between songs, you could catch and hold my eye again, you could see if you think I’m pretty like my sister said I’d be, like I really want to be, you could please just raise your head and look at me—
“He’s come to a sticky end, don’t think he will ever mend.”
(B-O-R-I-S the Spider. Creepy creepy crawly crawly creepy creepy crawly crawly...)
And out of the shadows W— comes staggering to throw his floplimbed self between your violet heels.
Bury a terrified face in your partner’s shoulder.
And get a run-of-the-mill hug in return.
Check to see who from: Ordinary Mark. No cobwebby hair, no green puke-paste, no busted marionette with blood in its eye.
So step out of the embrace—with a smile, since Ordinary Mark was an okay guy—and send word to Jonathan Dohr:
Go psssst on your sticky-ended spider. I won’t look for you to look for me again.
Face away from the music, and dance.
The gym was at its loudest, the crowd at its hoarsest, and the atmosphere at its densest when a shriek tore through the effluvium. Another fight had broken out at a school dance in Pfiester Park—this one between April Tober and Melissa Chiese.
Its happening by the punchbowl laid powerful suspicion on Jim Maxwell; as did his occupying a ringside seat, cheering on both combatants as they yelled slurs (or slurred yells) at each other.
Vicki’d already heard most of the top Blue Meanie secrets, back when she and Steph became friends. Now the same cats were getting debagged in front of what amounted to an assembly. Eileen, Dusty Jarlsberg, and one chaperone tried to restrain Melissa, while Kris and Keith and a second chaperone attempted the same with April; but Old Style’s influence unleashed their tongues.
Up was dredged all the cheating done on quizzes and boyfriends. All the mandatory group weigh-ins, the compulsory graphing of body measurements. The binocular stakeouts of Mr. Brown’s apartment in sixth grade; the clandestine sneakouts, unsuspected by Pidge and Dr. Tober, in seventh. The mortifying popouts of falsies (they were not falsies!) from a sabotaged halter dress (it was not sabotaged!) just last month at Dusty’s party when his folks were out of town and the liquor cabinet got unlocked. I know damn well too who broke my tieback, you little bitch! Who’re you calling a bitch, you stew-pid slutty skank!—
On which note two cups of adulterated punch got flung, both missing their targets but dousing Roxanne Dowell as she tried to intervene.
(“And you didn’t take pictures of any of this??” Brenda later raged at Kris. “Why the hell didn’t anybody tell me it was gonna happen? Or call me to rush over when it did? I mean Gahdammit, you guys!”)
“Play something,” a third chaperone hollered at the bandstand, and Blew Dohr responded with what Bill Goldfarb claimed was an original number:
|You smile through the trial|
|Of being dangled from an angle|
|You smile through the trial|
|Of your last breath getting strangled|
|You can’t help but smile|
|As your heartbeat comes untangled—|
“He’s singing my poem!” rejoiced Stephanie Lipperman, radiant in her silver Bat Mitzvah gown and wonderful Bat Mitzvah grin.
When Vicki entered her bedroom that night (having received an unremarkable First Kiss on the cheek from Mark Welk) she thought it was empty. Tricia, she knew, had gone with Cynthia to the Miss North Side pageant, where Annie Haeckel was trying to extend her tiara streak with a soulful ukulele rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
Vicki eased off her pumps and reached for the light switch, but a voice went “Don’t.”
“Close the door. Don’t turn on the light.”
She was seated on her bed by the window, staring out at the alley streetlamp, looking like a marble statue.
“What’s the matter?”
“She’s not going. To Europe. To Carbondale. To anywhere.”
Fred Minerich, tipped off who knew how, had shown up at the pageant. Knelt before Cynthia. Given her a ring. Declared he could not live without her. Which Cynthia, driven by who knew what, interpreted as true love.
So now after graduation they were going to find a place of their own, and she would enroll in some community college, and he would quickly get her pregnant and she’d never earn a degree because more children would follow, and he would never amount to anything but a beerbellied fartbucket who’d blame her for all his inadequacies and treat her like a convenient punching bag, and Bert and Eloise and Jennifer would try repeatedly (as Tricia already had) to bring Cynthia to her senses before it was too late, only to be told (as Tricia’d already heard) that they just didn’t understand true love.
“And she’ll send me baby pictures. And Christmas cards saying how happy she is. And all the time she might as well be dead.”
Vicki choked up at the thought of such a fate for anybody, least of all Cynthia Dollfuss. Tricia wasn’t crying, so Vicki knew she couldn’t either; but they sat side by side on the bed by the window, staring together at the wan illumination cast by the alley streetlamp. Till Tricia stirred, and sighed, and spoke.
“She was my very best friend.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Copyright © 2011 by P. S. Ehrlich
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