Chapter 20

 

Latter-Day Women

 

 

“That one there’s Barney Barnabas, my—let’s see—great-great-grandfather.  He was a college drug dealer,” Joss boasted.

 

The man in the tintype on the picture gallery wall wore a suitably furtive expression.  Or maybe just dubious about divine providence: Barney having fled the Belfast riots in 1857, only to be shot through the calf at Chickamauga and then burnt out of The City by the Great Fire of 1871.  Finally he limped north to Vanderlund and opened a pharmacy near the Lakeside Central campus, where he peddled Parke-Davis cocaine products—“They make the coward brave and the silent eloquent!”—to town and gown alike.

 

(Barney himself preferred Old Bushmills, requesting that a full bottle be tucked into his coffin “for a wee dram now and again.”)

 

Next to the tintype hung a portrait of Barney’s eldest son, Dr. Hugo Barnabas, who made a mint not so much from being an eminent surgeon as by marrying an affluent grande dame, “Duchess” Hermione McGonigle.  Here she was, glaring at the viewer from an elaborate frame, looking very stiff in the neck and tight in the corset.

 

“But she must’ve unlaced it once in awhile,” Joss conjectured, “‘cause they had like a dozen kids.”

 

Over whose dozen heads the Duchess and Doctor Hugo put the roof of this house: a double-turreted Queen Anne at 1008 Jupiter Street.  In Vicki’s fascinated eyes it was a gingerbread mansion if not palace, with two steep-peaked towers flanking sunburst gables above a wide screened porch that stretched across the whole front and around both sides, featuring all sorts of classy brackets and spindles and scrollwork.

 

Even better bric-a-brac decorated the indoors, at which Vicki gaped with open mouth.  Walnut paneling and stained-glass windows—antique furniture and chenille portieres—a carved mantelpiece over a cherrywood fireplace—a real chandelier reflected by a gleaming grand piano—ceiling-high bookcases that had an upholstered rolling ladder to reach their upper shelvesand three different vases full of peacock feathers.  Every room looked freshly swept, waxed, and polished too; as though each belonged behind a museum’s red velvet rope.

 

Vicki never wanted to leave this house.

 

Joss thought it a tiresome place to live, tinged as it was with sorrow.

 

The picture gallery, for instance, had been her Grandpa Mac’s front-tower den, and his belongings still filled much of it.  Professor Malcolm M. Barnabas had chaired a department at LCU, written a six-volume history of English literature, and upheld the academic tradition of absentmindedness.   Addressing his daughters as “Beh-Sally,” “Sah-Jean,” and “Jea-Betsy”; greeting his grandchildren (even those who lived there in his house) with “Which one are you now?”; needing reminders of how old they currently were and what grade they were presently in.

 

“Eccentricities of genius,” Grandma Sadie would say.  “He has so much going on in his head, you know.”

 

At least until he retired from Lakeside Central.  Then Grandpa Mac began to leave his pipe alight atop a heap of magazines as he wandered out and away, having to be tracked down hours later and miles from Jupiter Street.

 

“Trying to find my pipe,” he’d explain.  “Can’t think where I saw it last.”

 

Hiding his matches only sent him rambling out in search of more.

 

Grandma Sadie was insistent she could take care of Mac singlehandedly, and that might’ve worked had she (who’d always looked and behaved half her calendar age) not become crippled by multiple sclerosis.  Unable to move without pain, despite her state of denial: no need for any assistance, thank you very much!  If she happened to tumble downstairs, that was her own affair and she could pick her own self up.  Enough with the fussing, Elizabeth!  Let me look after your father in peace! 

 

So the stress levels doubled and redoubled, taking their toll not just on Sadie and Mac but also their youngest daughter.

 

Betsy Barnabas Murrisch.  There on the picture gallery wall: a head-and-shoulders-and-violin painting of Betsy, aged twenty-one.  With coiled black braids rather than loose brown curls, yet the same interesting face and V-shaped smile as Joss.

 

“She had rheumatic fever when she was little, and a heart murmur.  Had to spend almost six months in bed.  That’s how she got to be a Little Women fanatic—identifying with Beth, of course.  My aunts say she drove them nuts with her ‘I think I’ll be homesick for you even in heaven’ routine, besides scaring them half to d—

 

“Well anyway.  Then she got better, and started taking music lessons, and fell in love with the violin, and could play it like an angel—if you can imagine angels fiddling around instead of playing harps.  She wanted to be a concert soloist and tour the world.  But after only one year at Julliard, she came home and went to Lakeside Central instead.

 

“‘Cold feet,’ she called it; as if they never got cold here.  Her hands too, all the time—we’d ask her to give us rubdowns every day in summer.  It felt so thrilling!  She’d sing ‘That Old Black Magic’ while she did our backs, and we’d sing along...”

 

At one of Betsy’s LCU recitals she captivated a lonely law student named Raymond Murrisch, who had plenty of judicial promise but no family left in his native Peoria.  He was welcomed to the Barnabas house, an almost-empty nest by then, since Mac and Sadie’s other children had all left; so there was ample space for a newlywed couple, and plenty to spare for their eventual offspring—Meg and Jo (not yet Jocelyn) and Beth.  For whom life would be a comfy-cozy peasy-posy, till Grandpa Mac lost his wits and Grandma Sadie tossed her splits.

 

And Betsy’s beleaguered heart took its own tumble downstairs.  With no picking up at the bottom.

 

“The hospital didn’t want to let us kids in to see her,” Joss said matter-of-factly, “but she threatened to haunt the joint and spook away all their patients unless they did.  That’s what my dad said she whispered in his ear, anyway, and it sounds just like her.  So they did let us in, and her hands and face were cold as ice, but she smiled real big, and I know she was reciting that line from Little Women, even if she couldn’t do it aloud...  It’s okay, Vicki.” 

 

(Who’d slipped a warm hand into the crook of Joss’s elbow, while struggling for the second time in as many days to not burst out crying.)

 

(Joss remained dry-eyed, and a year would pass before Vicki ever saw her dissolved in tears.  Then it’d be over Constance C. Greene’s oddly-titled Beat the Turtle Drum, in which the narrator’s little sister—a character actually named Joss—fell out of a tree, broke her neck and died instantly.)

 

(“I knew it was gonna be a tragedy,” Joss would sob on Vicki’s shoulder—or the top of Vicki’s ear, given their comparative heights.  “But she was crazy about horses!  I thought she’d get a pony of her own and it’d break its leg or something and then they’d hafta shoot it—I didn’t think she’d die!!”)

 

Here in the present Joss was still caught up in the past.  Four years had gone by since Mac and Sadie’d been put in a nursing home—same one, separate wings.  On good days Sadie would have herself wheeled over to Mac’s wing; on better days he’d seem to recognize her.  But Sadie was being steadily consumed by grief as well as pain, and worst of all by guilt—about Betsy, about Mac, about her own absence from Jupiter Street where she was needed by her motherless granddaughters.  Who, in her presence, maintained their father’s compassionate fiction that this was a temporary arrangement; assuring Grandma her bedroom was just as she’d left it, ready to welcome her home any day now.

 

“Grandpa too,” Sadie’d always respond.  “He’s not going to be trapped in this place forever.”

 

“So that means we’re trapped in this house,” Joss growled.  “If we even tried to sell it, she’d ‘know it in her bones’ and that’d be the end of her.  Or if we did sell it and move west like I want to—what if she miraculously recovered?  We’d have to turn right around and move back here!”

 

“I guess there’s no way you could, like, jack the house up and maybe have it towed over to Burrow Lane?” Vicki asked.

 

“Don’t I wish!  But even if we could do that, we still couldn’t because—”

 

Turning to climb the broad oak staircase, Joss collided with a lanky man who looked like he’d stepped off a $5 bill: thoughtful, sage, and melancholy, though without whiskers.  Also without the five Sunday newspapers he’d been carrying, parts of which were fluttering away to the ground floor.

 

“Sorry Dad!—sorry sorry sorry—”

 

Vicki scampered down to retrieve the lower sections as Joss scooped up the uppermost, while her father crossed long knotted arms and tapped a long slippered foot.  But when Joss offered to sort the papers out and put them in order, Mr. Murrisch gave her a humorous moue and gentle chin-chuck.

 

“I can take my news goulash-style if needs be, JoJo.  Who have we here?”

 

Joss introduced Vicki, laden with bits of Trib and Sun-Times; and both Murrisches had a mild laugh at her semicoherent rhapsodies over their home.

 

Much appreciated,” went Raymond, patting Vicki’s head with a long placid hand.  “If you’ve a liking for Late Victorian architecture, I daresay this is the place for you.”

 

“I think so too!” Vicki gushed.  “I mean I really, really hope so!  I only met Joss—Jocelyn—JoJojust yesterday, but already it seems like forever!”

 

“High praise,” Raymond nodded, “and well said.  Unsere Königin Anna ist Ihre Königin Anna.  Now, if you young ladies will excuse me, I have all this goulash to stir.”  He tapped each girl’s nose with a folded Sunday supplement, and moseyed off.

 

“(I really like your dad,)” Vicki whispered, “(but what’s he mean by ‘cone again Anna’?)”

 

“(He really likes you too—that was ‘Our house is your house’ in German or something.)  And that’s another reason why we can’t move west!” Joss flared, switching from filial devotion to grumpy resentment.  “He went and got elected alderman for this ward—and as a Republican!  A ‘Rockefeller’ Republican he calls it, but I think he’s taking the Honest Abe business too damn serious.  Even if he is friends with Senator Percy.”

 

(Mutual snortle at that name as the girls trooped upstairs.)

 

“Well, I’m glad you live here,” Vicki said stoutly, “even if it is so far from my house.  You can come over there anytime you wanna feel like a new inlander.”

 

“Okay, and you come over here whenever you wanna feel like an old shoreperson!  (But please don’t call me ‘JoJo’—I might have to clobber you.)  Here’s my room.  I was asked to move to the third floor when I started playing cornet.”

 

Her teenage-tone suggested she’d been forced up here against her will; yet Vicki knew at a glance that this was the best room on Jupiter Street.  Back in the good old days it’d been part of the guest suite, with its own miniature bath.  Nowadays visitors were accommodated in Mac and Sadie’s master quarters, but those lacked the spacious view from Joss’s gable windows.

 

Into Vicki’s mind popped the word aerie, previously associated with John Denver and a brainstorm-on-birds in Mr. Brown’s class.  Now it meant this room: Joss’s rear-tower apartment, Queen Anne’s crown.  Where you could gaze out at the wide world beyond the sheltering elm trees, and almost expect to see an eagle fly past.

 

The inner walls were covered with a tapestry of posters, calendars, and glossy photos.  Miles Davis—Freddie Hubbard—Herbie HancockCurtis Mayfield—Barry WhiteIsaac Hayes—Richard Roundtree—Fred Williamson—Melvin Van Peebles—Billy Dee Williams—

 

“I like black guys,” Joss remarked.  Looking rather pink about it; a final fleeting vestige of can-I-trust-you?

 

“Yeah?” said Vicki.  (Suppressing a wild urge to giggle.)

 

“I mean, y'know, really like ‘em.  If y’know what I mean.”

 

“Well sure, I’m a City girl,” Vicki urbanely reminded her.  “Except there was like hardly any black guys to like in Pfiester Park.  We did have this one Indian guy named Yash—Indian Indian, not the American kind—and all the girls, y’know, really liked him.

 

“Did you?  Like him like him?”

 

“Well,” Vicki began; but was spared having to fib a great passion for Yash Pramanik, by an irate voice from below:

 

“Jo!  Did you take my new Cosmo?

 

“Oh, Jeez,” groaned Joss, collapsing across a big brass bed that Vicki immediately wanted an exact duplicate of.  “Prepare yourself for Meg.”

 

“Jo??  Don’t make me come up there!...  Jo??  I won’t ask you again!”

 

Good!

 

Wrathful stamping up the broad oak stairs, and into the aerie charged an I am blonde and have my driver’s license type of girl.  Who’d probably be considered very pretty if she weren’t burdened with an innate, inescapable foolishness.

 

“When I ask you a question, I expect—oh!” went Meg, catching sight of Vicki.  “Hello.”

 

“This is Guadalupe Velez,” said Joss, shooting Vicki the merest squint of a wink.

 

¡Si, mi nombre es Guadalupe!” Vicki improvised, thankful Mrs. Lundgren had taught some elementary phraseology.  “¡Hola!”

 

“Um,” said Meg.  “So, how’d you two—?”

 

“(Mrs. Driscoll asked me to have a talk with her,)” Joss confided.

 

“(Talk about what?)”

 

“(Meg!  Don’t ask me right in front of her!)”

 

Meg clapped a hand over her mouth.  Mumbling “(Sorry)” through it, and giving Vicki a flustered yet contrite smile around it.  “Yeah, well, bienvenida,” she mumble-added, backing out of the aerie.

 

Joss raised a finger to silence Vicki’s reaction, then counted off two—three—four—five—

 

Wait a minute!” Meg exclaimed, charging back in.  “You don’t even know Spanish!  You took French last year!”

 

“Gosh, Meggy, I guess you’re right,” said Joss, ostentatiously producing a Cosmopolitan from under her pillow.  “Hey, here’s an article for you: ‘Love Addicts—Those Girls Who Must Be Totally, Hideously In Love.’”

 

“Gimme that!  Keep outta my things from now on!  And you—who are you, really?”

 

(Mid-gigglefit:) “V-V-Vicki...”

 

“Vicki Velez?”

 

“N-n-no, V-V-Volester—”

 

“Oh I’ll bet!” snapped Meg, stalking out again and back downstairs.

 

Gales of mirth.  “N-n-no offense,” Vicki observed as she caught her breath, “but my big sister could completely wipe the floor with yours!”

 

“Hey, I’d only be offended if I couldn’t watch her do it!  Except all she’d have to do is feed Meg enough bull-oney, and Meg’d wipe the floor with herself.  She makes it so damn easy.  And inviting.  And satisfying.”

 

Vicki was about to tell Joss about Tricia and Patty “Small Fry” Kuchenesser, when a little girl materialized in the doorway.  She held one arm out sideways, as though suspended from marionette strings, and had an inscrutable look on her solemn little face.

 

What?” Joss demanded.

 

“What what?”

 

“Don’t start with me, I am not in the mood.  Go freak out Meg, I already got her all warmed up for you.”

 

Owlish little eyes swiveled Vickiwards.  Then back to Joss, who heaved a martyred sigh.

 

“Vicki, this is Beth.”

 

“And...” Beth prompted.

 

(Deeper, more dolorous sigh.)  “And our other sister.  Invisible Amy.”

 

“Um, hi,” Vicki told Beth and her outstretched arm.  “I’m, er—”

 

“Vicki-Guadalupe-Velez-Volester,” Joss rattled off.  “Okay?  Now go take Amy and do invisible stuff somewhere else.”

 

“Aren’t you going to practice?”

 

“Later!  I’ve got company right now, Beth!”

 

“Don’t let me stop you,” Vicki said hastily.  “Not if you mean practice like music.  I’d love to hear you play!  I was just about to ask you to, honest.”

 

“Duet?” Beth suggested.

 

“Oh all right.  But hurry up, I won’t wait all day for you.”

 

Beth lowered her arm and nodded at the space beside her before running off.  Vicki could almost see a rump-sized indentation appear on Joss’s bedspread.

 

“W—”

 

“It’s all right,” Joss griped.  “She was always a weirdo, even as a baby.  Drove my mother nuts.  Especially when Sadie and my aunts’d tell her, ‘Now you know how you made us feel.’”

 

“Um, what does she play?—Beth, I mean,” said Vicki, peeking at Invisible Amy’s bedspread-imprint.

 

“Violin, same as Mom.  And I gotta admit, she’s doing really great with her lessons—a lot better than me at her age.  Maybe Beth’ll be the concert soloist and tour the world.  Then, of course, she can get away with all the weirdnesses she wants.”

 

Beth rematerialized, carrying a violin, bow, and sheet music.  Joss rose and tenderly unpacked a shiny-bright cornet, while Vicki arranged herself as their practice-audience.

 

“The Prokofiev?” asked Beth, briskly professional.

 

“No,” said Joss, shooting Vicki the merest squint of an inscrutable wink.  “The Harold Arlen.”

 

And counting off two—three—four—five, the Murrisch sisters struck up a soulful adagio rendition of “That Old Black Magic.”

 

*

 

When she got home that evening, Vicki alarmed Felicia by giving her a prolonged hug.

 

“My goodness, what’s happened??”

 

Vicki, not loosening her grip, told her about Joss’s mother.  “You feel all right, don’t you?  You and Daddy?  Except if you don’t, I don’t think I wanna know—but you do, don’t you?”

 

Felicia kissed her anxious brow.  “Yes, darling, I expect you’ll be stuck with us for a long time to come.”

 

“Don’t joke about this, Mom!  I bet that’s bad luck!”  Orphanhood would probably mean ending up with Aunt Fritzi and Gross Uncle Doug (eww!) down in the state capital, maybe even having to share a room with Goofus (ewwww!)—

 

“Well,” said Felicia, “it’s nice to be wanted.”

 

Vicki remained on edgy tenterhooks for a week or more.  Watching both parents for signs of imminent mortality: every cough was lung cancer, every puzzled glance was terminal dementia.  She nearly phoned for an ambulance the day Ozzie came home early from The Lot, “feeling kinda rundown.”  But as time passed and nobody keeled over, Vicki reverted to normal teen-to-parent alternation between mellow love, stoic tolerance, and grumpy resentment.

 

She mostly loved all the Murrisches—even Beth, even Meg; sometimes even Invisible Amy.  And on her second visit to Jupiter Street she met the Murrisch housekeeper, Mrs. Twofields (aka “Toughie”), who played Calpurnia to Raymond’s Atticus and his three Scouts.

 

They’d had a dreadful time trying to cope, that grim first year after Betsy’s death and Grandma Sadie’s departure.  Aunts Sally and Jean came to help for awhile, but they had families of their own in Minnesota and Cincinnati and couldn’t stay forever.  A series of live-in domestics got hired, to quit or be fired in rapid succession.  And Mary Poppins, though ardently wished for, didn’t volunteer her services.

 

Then Augustine Twofields arrived on a windy day with an inside-out umbrella.  “None o that now,” she informed it, and the umbrella humbly submitted to rehabilitation—nary a spoke bent out of shape.

 

She arrived without luggage, other than a mock-alligator handbag; intending to live offsite and commute to Jupiter Street from nine till six, Mondays through Fridays.  During these hours the Murrisch roost would be hers to rule; at night and on weekends, her influence would remain very much on duty.

 

Toughie hammered a nail into every third word spoken.  “Well, girls, I’ll tell you: so long as you clean your rooms properly and on time, they’ll stay your rooms and I’ll not interfere.  But let ‘em slide a single day, and you’ll find they become my rooms—to do with whatever I choose.  So you decide which it’ll be.”

 

She prepared most of the meals in advance; Meg and Joss and Beth were expected to handle the thawing, the heating, the dishing, the serving, and to eat every bite after a prescribed amount of chewing.  Report cards were handed to Toughie for preliminary inspection before being forwarded to Raymond.  Pop quizzes were given on Mondays concerning Sunday School lessons and sermon-topics at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.  Manners, conduct, homework progress, behavior with boys—all got monitored from afar by Toughie’s clairvoyance.  Do anything you shouldn’t, and she was bound to find out about it; the girls initially suspected each other of spying and snitching, but tests proved neither was necessary.  Toughie saw everything, heard everything, knew everything—apparently without use of hidden cameras or electronic bugs.

 

And before long, the girls found themselves trying to live up to the highest (i.e. the Twofieldsiest) standards.

 

Vicki’s open admiration for those standards, for the Queen Anne house and its inhabitants, helped her gain Toughie’s approval.  But that could only be fully earned during what Mr. Murrisch would call indirect examination: “Come over here, child, and lend me a hand.  I could sure use some assistance grating these carrots.

 

“I’ll help too!” Joss offered; but she was in hot water for flunking her St. Paul’s pop quiz, having ditched church Sunday morning to bike over to Burrow Lane.  Toughie’s sentence for this infraction was a hamperful of laundry in the basement, to be dealt with now and no delay; leaving Vicki to take the indirect witness stand and demonstrate how well she could grate.  Not to mention quake: terrified shed be deemed unworthy as a guest or friend.  She was after all a lifelong church-ditcher, an historically-oppressive-race-member, a girl who’d never liked carrots no matter how many children might be starving in China—

 

Abrupt flashback (or was it déjà vu?): being a tiny carrot trapped on a plate, pushed around by a fork, sensing the merciless scrutiny of two black stars glittering overhead—

 

“Now then, you’re doing that just right.  The girls here, they can’t grate no matter how often I try showing ‘em.  This one chops off whole chunks—that one can’t hardly scrape the peel.  If you’ll excuse my saying so, child, you don’t have enough flesh on your bones.

 

That was an ominous-sounding segue; but Toughie bade her sit and taste a slice of freshly-assembled raspberry shortcake.

 

“You started eating cake without me??” gasped Joss, staggering into the kitchen with a vast basket of folded linen.

 

“If you snacked less, you could tote that basket with a straight back.  Here you go—don’t gobble.  Think about maybe jogging like your friend here.”

 

(“Did you tell her I’m a runner?” Vicki asked Joss.)

 

(“Didn’t have to—Toughie’s a know-it-all.”)

 

All, that is, except why the household’s youngest member was expecting to give birth when a trained clinician had been paid good money to ensure she wouldn’t.

 

“I told Dad we should’ve sued that dumb vet instead of asking for a refund,” Joss grimaced.  “‘Spayed’ my ass!”

 

Brief mirth-gale at this juxtaposition; then Joss lugged Mittens (the pregnant calico) out of her room and halfway downstairs.  “For the last time, you are not dropping that litter in my closet or under my bed.  Go do it in Meg’s room!”

 

Before Joss could return to the aerie, Mittens was there ahead of her and nestled in Vicki’s lap.

 

“You’re encouraging a cat-slut!”

 

“Shhhh!” went Vicki, covering Mittens’s furry ears.  “Look, I promise I’ll take all the kittens—or at least one.  My folks won’t mind, now that we’ve got a house and a yard and so on.”

 

And-so-on or not, her folks did mind.  “I’m sorry, Brownie, but your father’s allergic to cats.”

 

“Oh I don’t believe it!  Daddy, stand up—”  Vicki gave him a prolonged hug and kiss, then held him at arm’s length.  “See?  I was petting Mittens all afternoon, and it’s shedding season.  If you were really allergic, you’d be sneezing or turning all green.”

 

“And I would, if you put a cat in my arms,” Ozzie told her. 

 

“Anybody would, if you kissed em,” added Goofus.

 

“Christopher Blaine” went Felicia.

 

“Besides,” Ozzie declared, “you’re the only Kitten I’ll ever need.”

 

“But Daddy!  If we don’t take Mittens’s kittens, the Murrisches’ll hafta drown them or something!”

 

“I’m sure the Murrisches would do no such thing,” Felicia said firmly.  “They value mothers too highly for that.”

 

“Can I have a dog?” Goofus interjected.  “You’re not allergic to them, are you?”

 

“That’s not fair!” Vicki began, but was forestalled when her parents cited the time-honored need to demonstrate responsibility first (and not be such a smartmouth).

 

“Aren’t I demo-ing okay with the Firebird?” Goof countered, referring to Fel’s slightly-used new roadster, which he considered his own and adoringly washed twice a week.

 

When she could pry the car away from him, Felicia would strap Joss’s bike to the roof rack and drive her home from Burrow Lane.  Vicki—nudged by another of those bizarre impulses shed been having lately—would usually stay behind to give them a little “surrogate time.  Fel might come back red-eyed, but feeling less lonesome for Tricia and Cynthia Dollfuss; while Joss, when phoning Vicki later that night (they always talked on the phone before bedtime, no matter how many hours they’d spent together that day) might have to clear her throat before she could say, “Your mom is so great.”

 

If she were really great she’d find some way to let me have a kitten, Vicki didn’t retort out loud.  You don’t argue with your best friend when she’s grappling with emotions.

 

And Jocelyn Murrisch was her best friend, the best one she’d ever had or ever would.  Obviously they’d been best friends in all their previous lives (if those existed) and just needed thirteen years to meet up again in this one.  For the rest of that summer, scarcely a day went by that Joss wasn’t at the Volesterss or Vicki at the Murrischess, with increasingly frequent sleepovers.

 

Vicki particularly enjoyed being at Jupiter Street on weekday afternoons at 6 p.m.  Just before the grandfather clock struck the hour, Joss would replace her trademark baggy T-shirt with a closefitting tanktop and dash down to the side porch, there to witness Toughie being picked up by her son Lamar—a high school football player and Johnny Bristol lookalike, with a tremendous ‘fro.

 

“Night, Mrs. Twofields!” Joss would call.

 

“Good night to you.

 

Standing in profile: “Hi-ee, Lamar!”

 

He would thrust his varsity chin at her, and Joss would sag euphorically against the porch brackets and spindles.  It was one of the few times she didn’t act embarrassed by what she called her “flopperoos.”

 

“I mean, Jeez!  I don’t think a single guy at school looked me in the face all last spring!”

 

“I dont know what youre complaining about, sighed Vicki.  “At least youre not flat-chested.

 

Oh neither are youyoure perky.  Believe me, you wouldnt wanna jog with jugs a-bouncin.  Though I might try it if Lamar lived around here.”

 

When Mandingo opened, Joss made every conceivable attempt to bluff or sneak their way in to see it.  None worked, not even distracting the ticket seller with a jailbait cleavage-peep; but for months afterward she could crack up Vicki by seething or even mouthing the word “Mandingo.”  (This would prove to be a disadvantage when school started, and Vicki had to deliver oral reports in classes shared with Joss.  No matter how nervous she might feel, she couldn’t look to her best friend for support:)

 

(“You were gonna do it!  You were gonna say ‘Mandingo!’”)

 

(“Was not!”)

 

(“Were too!  Your lips were all like this—mmmm—”)

 

(“I was biting them, you nut!  I was worried about you!”)

 

No worries, though, about the resilience and durability of their friendship.  That was proved in August at the New Sherwood Theater in Willowhelm, where the Volesters would’ve moved if that Colonial homeowner hadn’t welched on his handshake.  Vicki blessed him now for being so fickle.  Willowhelm was just a few blocks south of Jupiter Street, but any encounters Willowhelm-Vicki mightve had with Vanderlund-Joss would have been casually anonymous.

 

Like right here, right now at the New Sherwood: they could be seated far apart and unaware of each other’s existence, instead of watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail side by side (after again failing to sneak into Mandingo).  Vicki could be eating this extra-butter popcorn all by her pathetic self, having no one to share it with.

 

And that unthinkable fate might have befallen her, were it not for the idiocy of a certain ex-best individual.

 

Whom they chanced to bump into right there, right then, at the New Sherwood.

 

Vicki and Joss had come out to the lobby, discussing how unsatisfactory a movie-ending that was—the knights rounded up by modern police, the film simply running off its sprockets—when Joss halted in her tracks.  Face to face with a girl who, to Vicki, looked like a latter-day Daisy Duck minus the hairbow.

 

“Jo,” said this apparition.

 

“Kim,” said Joss.

 

OhmyGahd it’s Kimmy Zimmer.  OhmyGahd I bet she saw the movie alone and Jossll feel sorry for her.  OhmyGahd I bet they’re gonna make up and be friends again.  OhmyGahd please don’t let Joss drift away from me now—

 

“Come on, Kim,” demanded a couple of spritely-pep-squad types.

 

“Just a sec!” went Daisy Duck.  Who had on a cutesy midriff-baring halter top, and was eyeing Joss’s shapeless Leroy Hutson T-shirt.  “Still trying to hide your boobs, hunh?  From white guys, that is.”

 

Joss crushed her empty pop container but made no reply.

 

Daisy, with a quacky sneer, focused on the dropjawed Vicki.  “What’re you looking at?  You s’posed to be somebody?”

 

Joss took a bristling step forward, but Vicki knew exactly how to react:

 

“‘We are the knights who sayyyyyyy—NI!’”

 

“HEE!” went Joss.

 

“No—NI!” Vicki corrected her, before proceeding to logical philosophy.  “If she looks like a duck and talks like a duck, that means...”

 

“She must weigh the same as a duck,” Joss chimed in, “and that means...”

 

“She must be made out of wood, and therefore—”

 

“A witch!  A witch!”

 

Who, before she got further burned, turned tail and speed-waddled away after the spritely pep squadders.  Leaving Vicki and Joss to clasp triumphant hands and sing “Kim Zimmer ran away—bravely ran away, away!” in perfect harmony.

 

“Don’t mess with City girls,” Vicki concluded.

 

“Or their very best friends,” Joss agreed.
 

     

* * * * * * * * * * * * *
   

 

Return to Chapter 19                          Proceed to Chapter 21

 

 

A Split Infinitive Production
Copyright © 2012 by P. S. Ehrlich

 

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