The Bridge of Green
(That ought to be a significant date. Fateful, even.)
Dear Diary she nearly proceeded, catching herself just before ballpoint touched notebook. Whoops! Write the word “diary” and Goofus-the-Pest would sense its presence like a bloodhound picking up a scent.
You’ll have to put this notebook in code, imitating Tricia—who hadn’t even bothered to hide her histrionic journals, knowing you wouldn’t be able to decipher them. Meaning you’ll need a key that’s cryptic enough to baffle Goofus, yet not so obscure as to hamper your own ability to translate it later on.
Or, in plain English:
Or, in the Reader’s Digest condensed-for-mothers version:
“Going out for a jog—back in a couple hours.”
“Hold it,” Felicia told her.
“Mom, I’ll help you with the kitchen after I—”
“Do you know where you’re going, and how to get there, and how to get home?”
“Yes, Mom! I’ve been memorizing the map, a little every night. I know all the street names by heart. Foxtail—Nutsedge—Velvetleaf—”
“You know Daddy took Goof downtown just now, to see about the new rugs. He won’t be able to come find you for hours if you get lost—”
“MUTH-er! I will not ‘get lost.’ That only happened once in my life, back in kindergarten!”
“You got lost in kindergarten? I don’t remember anything about that.”
(Mental kicking of self for divulging this escapade after so many hushed-up years.) “It was like y’know the first time me ‘n’ Hayley ever walked home by ourselves and we took like this wrong turn no big deal we found the right way right uh-way and I woulda forgot all about it ‘cept it was the only time I ever got lost y’know and it’s never happened again since then. ‘Kay?”
Felicia, with pained eyes: “Brownie—you are a very bright girl. Why on earth do you talk that way?”
“Like what way?” asked Vicki. “Mom—I am just going over to Lesser Park. Maybe on down to Green Bridge. I haven’t gone running for a whole week. D’you want me to turn all flabby and feeble and gross?”
Felicia, opening a can of sand-colored paint (jonquil, Sherwin-Williams called it), denied wanting a flabby/feeble daughter. “But I don’t want to lose another one, either.” (Sigh heaved. Jonquil dabbed on brow with heel of hand.)
Vicki, hesitating in the foyer doorway: “Well... I’m sure Tricia knows where she is.”
(Wry adult snortle.) “And where she’s going. She always did. You always stuck close by me wherever we went, but Trish’d take off and expect us to play catch-up. Setting a fine example for your little brother—I half-expect Daddy to call and say Goofy’s found a flying carpet, and is joyriding it to Istanbul.” (Rueful, jonquil-spattered headshake.)
“Um,” went Vicki. “Do you, like, need anything from Jewels or Osco? I can get it on my way back, if it’s not too heavy.”
“No, darling, you run along. Have a good jog. I ought to start exercising myself, once we get this house in order. Maybe we could go jogging together sometime.”
“Um sure that might be fun,” said Vicki, beating a rapid retreat out the front door and not pausing to shudder till she reached Foxtail Road.
Perk up: no remarks had been made about the amount of cosmetics you were wearing, or the T-shirt and shorts that some would call becomingly snug. Out on your own, after all, for the first time [or day] in Vanderlund. En route to a junior high that probably had its own football team. Whose players could be there on a Saturday even in early summer, practicing drills or whatnot. And if, during their whatnot, they chanced to see a New Girl go jogging past—well, she really ought to look her very best.
(No question about it.)
Oh but it felt good to be out again, running freely in the sunshine before the day got too hot. Lesser Drive was ideal jog-turf: wide smooth parkway between sidewalk and curb, ground nice and level, grass well-mowed. Other runners sprinting to and fro; nod at the pleasant ones, dodge the unfriendly.
Nutsedge. Velvetleaf. Cedarapple. Turn right at Eugene G. Green Road—quite a lot to squeeze on a single streetsign. Who was Mr. Green? What did he do to warrant having a road of his own? Why had he allowed so many trees and telephone poles to be planted in its parkway (and in Vicki’s way)?
Heading south now. Yarrow Drive. Jimson Drive. Pearlwort Drive. And Panama Boulevard cutting through at an angle, with the Eugene G. Green Memorial Bridge crossing it to span the canal. (Which, thank Gahd, didn’t smell any worse than an average river on an average morning in July.)
Disappointment, though, that the “Green Bridge” you’d memorized on Vanderlund’s map was not in fact green. Just the usual dull industrial hue you could see on any bridge in The City. How much trouble would it be to give a Green Bridge a matching rail? Or to hang greenish banners at either end? That was the sort of effort you’d expect a suburb to make, without having to be asked. But here even the stoplights stayed red for too long, making you mark time on both sides of Panama Boulevard.
Finally you were allowed to jog ahead into the Green Bridge Shopping Center, and this was more like it: several blocks of outdoor shops, artfully arranged in a color scheme of mint and pistachio. Enough to make you start craving an ice cream soda. And hey! Right over there’s a Zephyr Heaven Dairy Bar, practically demanding that you step inside and order one.
But no—be strong—don’t want to get flabby/feeble. Detour through Jewel Foods instead; have a free water-fountain slurp. Maybe indulge in a Filbert’s float on the way home. And take a tour of the other shops: there was a restaurant, and a bank, and a florist, and a beauty salon, and a sporting goods place, and a drive-in launderette, and the Conga Line Cocktail Lounge, and an outpost of the Cathedral of All the Stores, and plenty of others that Vicki could only glance at momentarily as she resumed her run.
Down Oakapple Road now, one block east of Green. Cecidia Drive. Chirosia Drive. (Who named these streets?) Knopper Drive—and suddenly there it was, behind a padlocked chain-link fence:
Vanderlund Junior High School
Home of the Beetles
Though Vicki didn’t know it then, “VW” was a prime example of Early American Brutalism: big heavy stack of irregular concrete slabs, three stories high, with three parallel wings jutting out like fingers on a giant robotic gauntlet. Skinny little windows wedged between the slabs, with stark stone walkways wrapped around the upper floors.
Vicki circled this eerie mausoleum’s outer fence at a measured pace, but no football players were there to whatnot her. In fact nothing much of any sort was stirring—except a swarm of homebody beetles! gross! What an awful mascot!
Yuh-uck. Were creepy-crawlies destined to lie in wait for her, no matter where she went to school? Would they even go so far as to include another W-w-w—
—another Wernie Ball?
(Whew. At least she could think his name again, without breaking into a sick sweat.)
(But eww nonetheless.)
Well, no point getting all anticipatory about it. Almost two months till you have to enter “VW”—plenty of time to find the right footing. Right now, let your feet take you back to the Green Bridge Shopping Center, and Zephyr Heaven, and that frosty ice cream soda.
What street are we on? Is this Knopper or Oakapple? The sign says “Aleppo.” Must be some junior-high vandal’s monkeywork; more sophisticated than mere grade-school graffiti.
Imagine, as you run along, what a Vanderlund vandal might be like. Picture a Kyoop Minsky without so many flaws and shortfalls. Imagine catching him red-handed in the monkey-act, chiseling his name (or yours, or both) into a stark exterior walkway slab. Imagine, instead of ratting him out, that the two of you start this really torrid outlaw affair, and—
—whoa! why has this street begun to curve?—
Knopper hadn’t done that before. Nor had Oakapple or Eugene G. Green.
Optical illusion? No—the street really did make a continual bend, ahead and behind, and VW was already out of sight.
Okay. Must’ve taken a wrong turn. Maybe there really was an Aleppo Drive. Trace your steps back to the school, and regain your bearings.
Which would be a lot easier to do if you could see the school. If all these trees weren’t so tall, and thick, and suburban. So Sleeping Beauty-ish: a forest surrounding a castle, hiding it from view.
Never mind. You came from that way, so by turning yourself around you are therefore returning that way. And the school’s massive bulk will suddenly show itself... now!
...why is this street going downhill?
Wait just a damn second. We are not in a forest. There are rows of ordinary homes on either side of you. Well, maybe not so ordinary—somehow they’ve gotten bigger and fancier, set farther back beyond wider lawns, closed in by pointy-topped iron. Reminding you of...? Manderley Avenue: grand and gloomy. These trees even have the same sort of twisty, gnarly, face-flicky branches. And just like in kindergarten, you stare between them at what are probably haunted houses.
On a Saturday morning when there’s no traffic. Or other pedestrians. Or evidence of any people inside the Manderleylike houses.
Not even a dog or cat or squirrel to be seen; no birdies chirping in the tall thick trees. Just a constant b-z-z-z-z, as if from unseen insects. (Beetles? Could you follow them back to VW, like a trail of creepy-crawly breadcrumbs?)
Pull yourself together. You definitely don’t want to go downhill. So rotate your little ass once more and head back up... into increasing weirdness. Darker shadows. Intense shafts of light. Twilight Zone-y contrasts. And still no indication that anyone else is around.
Look: a signpost ahead. On what would be a corner, if these stew-pid streets would quit curving and go straight. But now, at least, you can pinpoint where you are. Which is—
Caravaggio Place. At its junction with Vermeer.
Neither of which had been on any part of the map you’d memorized.
Pound pound pound goes your heart, drowning out the insistent beetle b-z-z-z-z.
Stop it. Just a little blunder. A disorienting misunderstanding. Another practical joke by that Vanderlund vandal. Wrench off the Caravaggio sign, and find the real Aleppo displayed underneath.
Can’t. Too short to reach it. And dwindling further as you try to fend off panic, as the twisty gnarly trees lean toward you without a wind to make them sway, oh Gahd oh Gahd oh Gahd—
Blink your eyes and be all grown up. You’ll fearlessly knock on doors to ask for guidance. Or maybe find it waiting at your feet: Eat me. Drink me. Smoke me. Magically transform me out of this alien dimension I somehow wandered into, away from the rocking-horse-flies and snap-dragon-flies of Looking-Glass Land—
Where the hell IS everybody? somebody? anybody?
Gran can see what I see, and hear what I hear.
Follow the yellow brick road.
Well. It wasn’t yellow, or made of bricks, but Vermeer did start with a lucky-V. So, yes: let’s follow it as far as it will go, ignoring the cross streets—Rembrandt, Rubens, Brueghel. (The boogie-woogie Brueghel boy of Company B.) Hum to yourself and keep marching onward, curlicuing downward at a steepening slant—as the light through the clustering leaves above turns pearly-bright to show you the way. Opalescent: another shade of paint, selected for the kitchen trim. Mom would be wondering where you’d got to, worrying why you weren’t home to help like you promised. She must never find out what kept you so long or you’ll be grounded forever, assuming you ever do find your way home or at least off this endless hill, or bluff, or mountain—
Shunted out of the pearly-bright tree-tunnel. Onto a long and winding country road that trailed away in either direction, utterly empty for miles upon miles under the wide-open sky.
...I wonder if we’re in Vanderlund anymore?...
Forget the “we’re”—it was high noon, the sun directly overhead, her own shadow had deserted her side. No way to gauge east or west or anything else.
This is like a thousand times worse, Gran!
Who to ask now? What to do next? Even if a car miraculously appeared, would she dare try flagging it down? Suppose its driver offered her a lift, only to abduct and subject her to hideous sex crimes? Oh Gahd! Should she hide in the bushes? Conceal the rank desperation streaming out of every pore, reducing her to depths of misery unplumbed since that day Goofus had toddled out of the greystone and off down the alley?
Oh, wouldn’t HE be ecstatic to see her like this, a quivering blithering puddle of crud—“Hey, lookit what the Kitten dragged herself in!” Just the sort of humiliation Goof was prone to spot and shout about.
But Vicki would grant him a full pardon if he did so now.
It could happen. He and Daddy might choose this anonymous country road for hauling home the new Persian carpets. Daddy might not recognize her, looking like a crud-puddle, but Goofus certainly would. And she’d forgive him for everything—even his usurping Julie the Raindrop’s entire lifetime—if only he’d appear out of nowhere to find her here now.
But he didn’t.
No one ever would, except predators and degenerates.
That dimly-recalled sensation of Something or Other watching her from the secret darkness. Scrutinizing her till nothing was left but a violated skeleton, moldering in an unnoticed ditch...
SHRIEK from Vicki, whirling around to confront a woman on a bicycle. Who flinched at her reaction, rolled back a few inches, and shoved a pair of Ray-Bans up onto a mass of light brown curls. Revealing not a woman but a girl about Vicki’s age, with what Felicia would call an interesting face.
Not that it was homely or anything; quite the opposite, though its only enhancement was suntan lotion. By “interesting” Felicia meant just that: someone you knew you could talk with, instead of simply to. Besides the face and curls, the girl on the bicycle had Brenda Pomerantz’s sturdy height, and small blue twinkly eyes like Hayley Tamworth, and some of Kris Rawberry’s insouciant freckle-wealth (despite the lotion) upon her nose and cheeks.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“No!” wailed Vicki, “I’m new and lost!”
The girl gave her a smile, a closed-lipped lagniappe shaped exactly like a V, and Vicki’s heartbeat slowed to its normal thumpage. The girl offered her a paisley bandanna; Vicki scrubbed away tears and molten makeup, and some of her embarrassment.
“Okay then—where do you want to be?”
“Home. Burrow Lane. We just moved there. I went for a jog. I wanted to see the school. I’m gonna be in eighth grade—”
“Me too. Where’s Burrow Lane?”
“Up there,” said Vicki, gesturing vaguely at the haunted hill/bluff/mountain behind her. “Y’know, like west of Lesser Park?”
“Oh you lucky! I’d love to be an inlander. Is it a new house?”
“Pretty new. What's an ‘inlander’? Do you live east of the Park?”
“Way the hell east,” said the girl, tossing her curly mane at the far side of the road. “In an old house that was built by my great-grandparents. ‘Inlanders’ live west of the Expressway—‘shorefolk’ live east of it. I’m Joss, by the way.”
“Hi! My name’s Vicki.”
“Actually, mine’s really Jo—my mother was a Little Women freak. Just Jo too, not short for Josephine or Joanna or whatever. I got tired of that, so I lengthened it to Jocelyn. But you can call me Joss. Want a ride home?
“Oh Gahd yes, thank you!” She hesitated, though, at climbing on the bike behind her benefactress. “Um, are you sure? I’m all... icky.”
“Hey, I’ve got a kid sister—named Beth, of course. She’s frequently icky.”
“I’ve got a little brother—he’s nothing but.”
Vicki took her seat and a politely light grasp on Joss’s baggy T-shirt, which featured Stevie Wonder wearing 3-D glasses. Joss glanced back to make sure she was firmly situated, then over at the hill/bluff/mountain.
“Don’t feel bad if you got lost up there—that’s Baroque Vista. I’ve heard tell of old ladies who went there to sell cookies when they were little Girl Scouts, and never found their way out again. Hold tight now—don’t want you slipping off.”
She eased her ten-speed onto the country tarmac and slowly pedaled north, while Vicki obediently tightened her hold and worried about being a bike-burden.
“What street is this?”
Vicki lifted enough curls to uncover Joss’s right ear, and repeated her question.
“Petty Road—South Petty. That’s the Petty Hills Golf Course over there, behind that wall—” (head-gesture to the east). “This used to be Petty Creek, before they dammed it up when they dug the canal.”
“The canal? You mean Vanderlund Channel?”
“Sure! Petty Road’ll take us up to Panama Boulevard.”
“Oh good, I know where that is,” Vicki sighed with relief. “I didn’t know where I’d got to after I left VW. Why do they call it that? Do you really go there?”
“Oh hell yes. Everybody goes west to VW (that’s what the ‘W’ stands for) unless they’re in prep or parochial or whatever. Then we all flip over east for high school. It’s a dumb arrangement, but great for me; I love being inland. Everything’s so new.”
“Is VW nicer inside? The outside’s so spooky-looking.”
“That’s just ‘cause it’s modern—don’t let that bug you. Now, I just got back from a month of Youth Music Camp, down at the State U. Ugh! Old, old buildings there, inside and out. I mean, Jeez! Give me a toilet that wasn’t first christened by Mary Todd Lincoln!”
That gave Vicki a gigglefit, followed by another when Joss explained why she’d taken up the cornet: “When you play a piano or violin, there’s nothing to blow—and what fun is that? Do you play anything?”
“No, I’m too bashful,” Vicki twittered, earning an elbow-bump for her impertinence.
“You’re a nut, you know that? And here I was thinking you were some tragic-romantic runaway.”
“Me-ee? I just got here!”
“Well,” said Joss, “welcome to Vanderlund.”
The ominous mountain to their left had gradually diminished to a mundane hill as Petty Road wound upwards. Joss and her ten-speed ascended it effortlessly, scaling an embankment over Petty Dam, crossing the canal over Petty Bridge. And by the time they swung west on Panama, the world was reassuringly commonplace again: there was traffic, there were pedestrians, the sunshine lacked any spectral intensity, and shadows provided welcome shade from the heat.
“Oh coo-wull!” Joss exclaimed when they arrived at 3132. “You may not believe me, but I dreamed about a house like this my last night at Music Camp! Except it was covered with brambles instead of aluminum siding, so I couldn’t get close enough to look in the windows. Don’t laugh! Brambles freak me out.”
“That’s ‘cause you’ve got hair like Rapunzel,” said Vicki, giving it a shy facetious tug as they parked the bike and trooped indoors. “Mom? I’m back! This is Joss, I mean Jocelyn, er—”
“Murrisch,” said Joss. “Very glad to meet you, Mrs.—”
“Volester,” supplied Felicia, giving Vicki a critical once-over, but (in a guest’s presence) making no comment about unkempt unpunctuality. “Glad to meet you, Jocelyn. Please excuse all the mess, we only moved in last Monday.”
“I really envy you, Mrs. V!” said Joss, sounding uncannily like Cynthia Dollfuss. “This is such a dream of a house!”
“(Even without brambles,)” Vicki murmured, and the girls shared a shut-up-no-you-shut-up twitter.
“Well,” said Felicia, “bearing in mind that it’s also a work in extreme progress, Jocelyn, let me show you round the downstairs while Vicki goes up and—”
“Um, yes,” Vicki concurred. “Can you stay awhile, Joss?”
“‘Me-ee? I just got here!’”
“Oh yeah? Now who’s the nut? I’ll be quick as I can.”
Fel launched into her yes-I-might-become-a-real-estate-agent spiel, while Vicki galloped upstairs (still a novel activity) and peeled off her sodden jogging apparel. Rushing through shower, shampoo, token hairdrying, and fresh selection from open-air wardrobe, she struggled with the absurd yet inescapable fear that when she went downstairs Joss would be gone—or never have been there (“What tall curly-haired girl? You came home by yourself!”)—or, worst of all, that she herself would blink and be back on Petty Road, all alone. Or lost again in a blind Baroque Vista panic, this time with no shafts of light to dispel the gathering darkness...
Yet every time Vicki blinked, she blessedly remained on Burrow Lane; and when she clattered down to the kitchen, Joss still existed and was thoroughly at home, helping Felicia paint the trim opalescent.
“Hey, you clean up cute,” she told Vicki.
“Thanks! I’ve been dying all day for an ice cream soda—wanna go to Zephyr Heaven, my treat?” A bizarre impulse prompted her to turn and add, “You too Mom?”
“No, darling, another time. Your father phoned to say they’re finally on their way with the rugs. Jocelyn dear, you’re more than welcome to have dinner with us, if you two don’t completely spoil your appetites—”
“I’d love to,” said Joss, “but Mrs. Driscoll’s coming over and I can’t get out of dinner with her—she’s the VW Principal. And an old friend of my folks. (I don’t tell that to just anybody,)” she murmur-added to Vicki.
“(Can she get us in the same classes this fall?)” Vicki murmured back.
“(You just gave me a great idea—lemme work on it.) Well, I guess I’ll be seeing you later, Mrs. V.”
“I hope we’ll be seeing you often, dear!”
“Oh, don’t worry—I’ll pack my bags and move right in. She won’t mind sleeping on the floor, will you Vicki?”
“Actually we’ve got this practically spare room my sister Tricia’ll hardly ever use,” Vicki was hinting as Felicia shooed them out to the garage. There Vicki unearthed her own Sears Free Spirit bike, and off they rode down to the Shopping Center—which Joss explained was generally called “the Green Bridge,” as opposed to the surrounding neighborhood (just “Green Bridge”) or Eugene G.’s memorial (just “The Bridge”).
So at last to aptly-named Zephyr Heaven, and two gloriously refreshing Filbert’s floats. While these were devoured, and rounds were made of every other shop at the Green Bridge, Vicki and Joss improved their acquaintance—except that it felt like they’d always known each other, and were simply getting caught up after an extended time apart.
(Joss, however, refused to say another word about the great school-related idea Vicki’d allegedly given her, other than “Quit asking, you’ll jinx it!” She did tell Vicki not to launder the crust off her borrowed bandanna: “Leave it like it is, and maybe we can turn it in as an art project.”)
One topic they caught up on in depth was that of ex-best-friends.
“Kim Zimmer,” said Joss, her twinkly little eyes turning into hard blue marbles. “All through grade school it was her ‘n’ me. Whatever we did, wherever we went, it was always us two together. But then last year we started at VW—same team, classes, Band, everything just like before—right? Like hell! We spent seventh grade ‘drifting apart,’ if you believe my big sister (Meg, of course): ‘You and Kimmy are just driffff-ting apart.’”
“Well,” said Vicki, “that happens...”
“Yeah, but Kimmy was using a damn paddle to hurry her drifting! And why? ‘Cause she got a whiff of the popular crowd, and decided nothing was more important than becoming a cheerleader, and pretended she couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t buy into that bull-oney. I mean, Jeez! We used to make fun of girls like Gigi and Delia and Nanette Magnus—but never to their faces, right? You can make fun without being completely” (lowered voice) “bitchy about it, right?”
“Well,” said Joss, with hard blue marbles gleaming, “Kimmy Zimmer forgot that. She chose to forget it. And friends don’t bitch out their friends in front of snide-ass bitches—especially not their best friend, their best friend since FOREVER. Right?”
Vicki, amazed and infuriated, wanted to track down Kim Zimmer and give her a bitchworthy talking-to. How dare she do something like that to someone like Joss!! Yet Vicki also felt profound gratitude that Kim had been so idiotic, since otherwise Joss might not have gone biking idly solo down Petty Road. And she herself might still be stuck out there, new and lost and wasting away.
She told Joss about Stephanie Lipperman, and how theirs had been the exact reverse sort of best-friendship: unable to abide each other from kindergarten until seventh grade.
“Then when I told Steph we were moving, she bitched me the hell out—over the phone at the Pfiester Park Library! I hate to think what people there must’ve thought I’d done. I was too scared to tell her in person. But she was my best friend, and I was worried about her—she ticks off so many people—so I sent her an extra-nice postcard, asking her to please keep in touch. Don’t suppose she’ll ever answer it.”
Joss looked like she wanted to go have a few well-chewed words with Steph. “If she does, what’ll you do?”
“Well... I guess I wouldn’t mind having her for like a pen pal,” said Vicki. “But y’know, you’re absolutely right: best friends don’t do what she did to best friends. Not in public, with other people listening. Not ever.”
“Not ever,” Joss agreed; and on that note they linked their pinky fingers.
Joss insisted on accompanying Vicki back as far as The Bridge of Green, saying she wouldn’t be able to digest her dinner with Mrs. Driscoll if she thought Vicki’d gone astray again. They exchanged phone numbers (Joss penning hers on Vicki’s forearm, with instructions not to bathe till committing it to memory) and finalized plans for Joss to spend Sunday morning at Burrow Lane, then escort Vicki to the Murrisch house on Jupiter Street that afternoon.
“And I’ll have my eye on you every step of the way there, young lady!”
Try as she might to look annoyed, Vicki couldn’t help but grin. “You’re never gonna let me hear the last about what happened today, are you?”
“Not if I can help it,” said Joss, giving her another closed-lipped V-shaped lagniappe-smile. “I’m really glad you moved here.”
“I’m really glad you found me! See you tomorrow.”
“See you. Call me tonight; then you can wash that arm.”
“I will—but you better tell me what happens with the Principal and your great idea!”
“Shush! You are gonna jinx it!”
Vicki mimed zipping her mouth shut, and waved bye-for-now from the far side of The Bridge.
“I’m so happy you met Jocelyn,” Felicia told her when she got safely home. “What a very sweet girl she is. And such an interesting face!”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Copyright © 2012 by P. S. Ehrlich
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