Chapter 21

 

Locker Combination

 

 

Eugene G. Green’s bridge and road were posthumous tributes for having served as mayor while Vanderlund Channel was dug and Panama Boulevard was laid out on its two banks.  The sanitary canal did its job well, draining sewage from the Lake to the Fourth Fork of the North Branch; Mayor Green did his job less adequately, hindering the canal’s progress with general misguidedness.  To get him out of the way, he was diverted to the state Senate and there dreamt of challenging Woodrow Wilson for the presidency.  Defeated in his run for a second term, Eugene G. dedicated the rest of his life to dabbles in real estate and insistence on being addressed as “Senator.”

 

His son Lyman T. Green took land development far more seriously and lucratively.  Lyme’s thumb was in every verdant pie subdivided after World War II: some as independent communities—Triville, Athens Grove, Emery Ridge—and others annexed to Vanderlund, including Petty Hills and Lesser Park.  Baroque Vista was Lyme’s pet project; he lived there himself on Rembrandt Place in a chartreuse chateau.  Lyme memorialized his late father with public works (at personal profit) and almost got a public high school named in his honor.

 

It was obvious by the mid-1950s that Vanderlund High would soon be crammed to the rafters by the Baby Boom.  A new school, to be called “Vanderlund West,” was proposed for the inland side of town; but protests rose from both directions.  Inlanders objected to being removed from venerable Vanderlund High, renowned for its outstanding curriculum and high-quality teaching.  Shorefolk would not permit this citadel of knowledge to be downgraded to “Vanderlund East,” any more than an FFV would hear of the Old Dominion being renamed East Virginia.

 

Lyme Green’s suggestion that they compromise and call the new school “Eugene G. Green High” was dismissed as lily-gilding.

 

Instead, the Board of Education chose a solution worthy of Eugene G.’s general misguidedness.  A three-year junior high would be built on the inland side; it would relieve overcrowded elementary schools of their seventh- and eighth-graders, and Vanderlund High of its freshman class.  VHS would retain its senior status, for tenth through twelfth grades; and every kid in town, regardless of how far he or she might live from either school, would have to comply with this dichotomy—unless his or her parents could afford Archbishop Houlihan’s parochial fees, or private tuition at Startop Academy (girls) or Front Tree Country Day (boys).

 

Thus did VW open, its “West” left unspoken, just south of the equally new Green Bridge Shopping Center.  And from both projects did Lyme Green extract thumb-plums (a share of the school bus franchise, a share of the Brutalist architect’s contract) plus a share of vicarious stardom.  His granddaughter GinnyEugenie Genevieve Greenwas the very first pupil enrolled at VW, to the sound of flashbulbs popping and ribbons being cut.

 

(Ginny would go on to VHS, Mount Holyoke, and Wharton, where she received her MBA just this past spring.  Several Ginny photos adorned VW’s largest trophy case; the caption below the most recent read How Green Was My Vanderlund.)

 

*

 

Seen from overhead—while looking at a floorplan diagram, or out of a hovering whirlybird—Vanderlund Junior High School was a thickset W with a squared-off base.  Its three parallel wings, the outer two canted at slight angles, had been intended to house a grade each: seventh, eighth, ninth.  That plan being insufficiently misguided, the late-1960s School Board hit upon “teaming” as a surefire monkey wrench.  Each grade was split into three interdisciplinary teams, “to make a large junior high a little smaller for every student.”  This would “reduce anonymity, promote relevance, and foster a sense of belonging.  The teams, like the wings, were labeled A, B, and C; and team membership was determined by complicated formulae.

 

Much sweat then had to be shed, trying to convince angry parents that such labels did not indicate intelligence levelsthat a C team assignment would cast no blight on their children’s future prospects.  When that load of sunshine failed to sell, the Board switched to a tricolor scheme: Red, Blue, and Yellow, with every wing hall and classroom repainted to match.  This bright idea got scuttled by Yellow team parents who suspected their patriotism was being impugnedand by the discovery that the School Board Comptroller (who lacked Lyme Greens finesse) had received a kickback from the bid-winning paint vendor.

 

Ultimately they settled for X, Y, and Z, with team membership determined by geographical location.  Seventh-graders who’d attended Vanderlund’s three easternmost elementary schools were auto-assigned to 7-X; those from the three central schools, to 7-Y; and those from the three westernmost to 7-Z.  Transfers between teams could be requested for eighth grade, and by ninth (according to Meg Murrisch) the school secretary simply tossed everybody’s punchcards in the air and raked them into three piles.

 

Seventh-grade classrooms were on the ground floor of each wing.  Eighth-graders occupied the second floors, and freshmen luxuriated up on the third.  It was considered uncool to use the wing stairways for anything except smoking, making out, or exiting the school; so to access your team’s floor, you had to conform to protocol.  The front staircase in the main building (“Home Base”) was reserved for niners, by niners; the back staircase was claimed by eighters; and sevvies, of course, had no business setting foot on any stairs at any time.

 

While academic courses were team-restricted, students could mingle at Home Base for other subjects, plus grade-wide lunch periods and all-school assemblies.  Aside from that, though, X and Y and Z pupils could just as easily have been attending three different schools.  Many remained in a single wing their entire time at VW, bitterly resenting the other two wings for all the advantages and preferential treatment they undoubtedly got.

 

This then was the chasm on whose brink Vicki trembled that August.

 

Yet she had a significant safety net: a new best friend whose old family connection just happened to be the chasm’s principal, able to remove banana peels from the footpath ahead.

 

“What’d I tell you about my great idea?” Joss gloated, waving a scribbly sheet of notebook paper.

 

“You haven’t told me anything, except not to jinx it!”

 

“Well guess what—you didn’t!  Mrs. Driscoll’s okayed my transfer from Y to Z!”

 

“Where I’ll be??  For sure??” cried Vicki, hugging her and crumpling the scribble-sheet.

 

“It won’t be absolutely for sure till we get our schedules in the mail, probably next week.  But I got a sneak preview—” (uncrumpling) “and we’re in all the same ‘academic’ classes—English, Science, that sorta stuff.”

 

“What about lunch?”

 

“That is for sure—all the eighth-graders have Lunch B.”

 

“Oh thank Gahd!” Vicki gasped, collapsing into Joss’s beanbag chair.  “Just last night I had this horrible dream that nobody’d let me sit at their table, and the tray of food I was carrying weighed like a ton ‘cause it had all these full plates on it that kept nearly falling off.”

 

“Sounds like a sex dream to me.  Did you have your clothes on?”

 

“I guess.  At least I don’t remember worrying I didn’t.”

 

“Hey, if you show up in the VW cafeteria even half-naked, your only worry’ll be how to fight off the guys.”

 

“Aw,” said Vicki, flattered by this accolade.  “Or wait—me half-naked, or any girl?”

 

“Well you, of course!  But yeah, pretty much any girl.  Who’s not a total dog.  And even some of them.  Anyway—” (back to the scribble-sheet) “—you’re not the only one thanking Gahd here.  I get to escape from Kimmy and her duckweight gang in the Y-Wing.  At least most of the time—there’s still Band and Gym, what they call ‘non-academic’ classes.  Jeez, I wish you could play some sorta instrument.”

 

“What can I say?” shrugged Vicki.  “Our neighbor back on Walrock Avenue, Mrs. Partridge?  She tried to give me piano lessons, but it felt like I had no hands and was playing with my wrists.  Didnt matterI was always more into dance.”

 

Joss pointed to a scribble.  “Hope you’re not ‘too bashful’ to sing—you’ve got Vocal Music with Mrs. Weller.  She has this really weird daughter our age named Fiona—”

 

“Fiona?  Sounds like she oughta be a Schmelzette cousin of mine.  How really weird is she?”

 

“Actually pretty cool.  I know her from Band; she plays clarinet.  If I remember right she was on 7-Z last year, so maybe we’ll have her in some of our classes.”

 

“Maybe she’ll make them weirdly cool.”

 

“Maybe.  She wore these freaky outfits, like glitter rock gone to its own funeral.”

 

And she plays the clarinet? Vicki thought but didn’t say, being suddenly and guiltily reminded of Stephanie Lipperman’s having to give up her clarinet lessons.  “No-longer-affordable since not hand-me-downable.

 

But no—she wouldn’t feel sorry for Steph, who’d never responded to her Please call me postcard.  Big surprise, that.  Over-and-done-with.  And anyway, the mention of “freaky outfits” reminded Vicki that she and Joss had to re-discuss how they should dress and arrange their hair on the first day of school.  Re-discuss?  Make that re-debate: Joss needed re-convincing that [a] one of her hang-loose T-shirts, [b] plain old jeans, [c] ditto gym shoes, and [d] a few random bobby pins was [e] wholly unacceptable.

 

“Joss!  I owe you too much to let you do a thing like that to yourself.”

 

“A thing like what to whoself?”

 

“Dressing all casual on the first day!  Remember it’s your first day on the Z team, same as me, so we both gotta make the exact right impression.  And I know you can be gorgeous without even half trying.”

 

“Aw,” said Joss.  “Or wait—doesnt ‘gorgeous’ mean I’ll have guys staring at my front all day?”

 

“You know they’ll do that even if we go to VW wearing, like, overcoats.  Your front and my behind.”

 

They shook their heads at male piggishness, and shared a sigh at the trials of being so attractive.

 

August meant Back-to-School season; but for the first time in a decade, not downtown at the Cathedral of All the Stores.  This year Felicia was staying suburban, taking her girls to the Green Bridge’s miniCathedral, and to larger stores at the New Sherwood Shopping Center (which was enclosed and had uninterrupted air conditioning).

 

Also, this year Felicia’s girls included Joss and Beth Murrisch—though not Invisible Amy, who as Beth remarked had no need for new clothing.  Mr. Murrisch provided a generous bankroll and Mrs. Twofields detailed advice.  Meg politely declined any shopping assistance, other than her father’s funding; but Joss and Vicki plotted to buy some item that Meg would feel compelled to purloin, hopefully like a blatant slyboots.

 

“Hey!  How bout a pair of boots?”

 

“Yeah—knee-high zippered platforms!  She won’t be able to resist those!”

 

Then it’d be wipe-the-floor easy to convince Meg she’d been given her next-year’s birthday present.  (“I already got you those knee-high zippered platform boots, remember?”)

 

“Big sisters,” Joss snortled.  “Go figure.”

 

“Yeah,” said Vicki.

 

*

 

Tricia had breezed through Vanderlund just as Vicki’d anticipated, sporting an unprecedented unburnt suntan.  She’d regaled her parents and siblings with dramatic tales of her European adventures—some of them, at least.  But she’d scarcely glanced at Burrow Lane, the new house or her new room or the mirrored closet doors that Vicki still yearned for.

 

“Yeah, looks great,” was Tricia’s stock reaction.  “What is that, a Firebird?  Looks great, Mom.  Can I borrow it tonight?”

 

Vanishing then till the wee hours, when she jostled Vicki awake by flailing around in the dark like a blind-man’s-buff contestant.  One who took the game so literally as to play it in the buff.

 

“(Tricia??  Are you okay?  Where’s your clothes?)”

 

“Where t’hellza bagno?

 

Vicki sprang up and bundled her into a terrycloth robe.  “(You mean the bathroom?)”

 

“Hurry.

 

Lead her to the aquamarine bagno; guide her onto its aquamarine throne; take her back to the room of enviable mirrors.  Shocked yet somehow not surprised by Tricia’s faltering gaitDrunk, or stoned, or both—can you be both?  “(Where’s Mom’s car?)”

 

Vague out-there gesture.

 

Vicki opened the curtains, looked out apprehensively, found the Firebird parked in the precise middle of the driveway.  Neat as neat could be.  Unlike Tricia’s clothes, which lay scattered over the carpetalong with the terrycloth robe, as Vicki realized when Tricia joined her nudely at the window.  Vicki pulled the curtains closed, but Tricia yanked them apart and stretched her unburnt self for insomniacs to eyeball.

 

“(Dammit!  Put on some jammies!)”

 

“Unh-unh.  No jammies fme.  Keepin’ it real.

 

“(Well, don’t keep it where everyone can see it!)”  Root through the moonlit bureau, grab a set that were scanty yet opaque, bully them on above and below.  “(You’re lucky Goof didn’t catch you like that.)”

 

“‘Like that,’ haw—word’s nayyyyked, Vic.  Say it wimme—”

 

“(Ssshhhh!  Tricia!  There’s no way Daddy’ll let you run off to college if he thinks you’re, you’re...)”

 

“(I’m, I’m—wha?  Stayin’ here?  Not for damn sure.  I am gonna Go Places ‘n’ Be Somebody.  ‘S a big-ass world to do it in, too.)”

 

Vicki shifted inside her own jammie bottoms, wondering if that last line was an under-the-influence dig.  But Tricia slid an arm around her waist and leaned against her, peering out the window with unfamiliar emerald blear.

 

“(Hunh.  Kinda miss the ol’ view.  Lamp inna alley.  ‘Member?)”

 

“(Course.  I like this one better, though.)”

 

“(We’ll get there, me ‘n’ you.  ‘N’ then we’ll have such fun...)”

 

“(Um.  Okay.)”

 

“(‘S my brave li’l sis?...)”

 

“(Here...  I am...)”

 

“(‘Member that,)” whispered Tricia.  Consenting then to be put to bed, her old familiar bed, brought here from Pfiester Park; reflected now in luminescent closet doors.

 

Two mornings later the Volesters found a brief note announcing that Tricia’d taken off for Ann Arbor, having caught a midnight ride with eastbound friends.  She would try to detour by Beansville to visit MomMom and PopPop; otherwise, love to everybody there and here.  Arrivederci, au revoir, auf wiedersehen.

 

*

 

And say hello to Seat 38 in Homeroom Z205, outside which you’ve been assigned Locker Z2230.  Combination (check the instructions again: get it by heart) spin right three times, stop at 14—spin left one time, stop at 9—turn right, go directly to 26.

 

14-9-26.  Okay.  Fourteen: the age you’ll be next birthday.  Nine: the number of years you lived on Walrock Avenue.  Twenty-six: um... your homeroom number, if you leave out the zero and add a one?

 

“(Oh ssshit! oh ssshit!)” hissed the popeyed kid in Seat 40, pawing frantically through a jumble of forms on his desk.  “(Where isss it, where isss it??)”

 

“(You tell ‘em, Gollum,)” muttered the girl in Seat 39.

 

“(Where’sss my name?)” gnashed Gollum.

 

 

Hi-ho the derry-o
the cheese stands alone!

 

 

Here sat Vicki, a Zeekid again: ready to start her Happy March through Vanderlund Junior High School.  Clad in a nifty little mock-jacket dress with a big white collar and blouse-like insert.  “The layered look” they were calling it; without too many actual layers, on what was still a summer day.

 

Joss turned around from two remote rows forward, two faraway desks to the right, and gave Vicki the latest in a series of reassuring looks.  Joss herself looked nifty in crinkle-weave pants with 26-inch flares (hey! a perfect memory aid!) whose fashionably high waist, according to Joss, practically overlapped her bra.  To compensate, she’d disregarded Vicki’s pleas and put on another extra-large T-shirt.  At least this one was pretty, screen-printed with the pink-on-teal words

 

 

c’est moi

it’s me

it’s me

it’s me

 

 

For which Vicki again said Thank Gahd, thank Gahd, thank Gahd.  Even if the Almighty hadn’t seen fit to let them sit together in Mr. Gillies’s Homeroom Z205.  Which, being an alphabetical racket, deposited Vicki in the middle of the very back row.

 

To reach Seat 38 she’d had to wriggle past (and partly through: eww) a bunch of guys huddled in front of Seat 37, on whose desktop perched a girl in a Halston skimp that had apparently shrunk in the wash.  The girl was chipmunk-cute like April Tober, and even had a similar name—Carly Thibert.  But April never would’ve crossed her elevated legs like Carly was doing, except perhaps in a junior lingerie catalog spread.

 

Vicki’s own legs and rear garnered some attention as she wriggled past/through Carly’s fan club, wishing she’d dressed more like Joss or even worn the aforementioned overcoat.  It took Mr. Gillies several minutes to disperse the fan club to their assigned seats, and several more to persuade Carly to shift her supercuteness down off the desk and into its chair.

 

“Do I hafta?” chirped Carly.

 

“Yes and now, please,” said Mr. Gillies.

 

“(Jump!... jump!... jump!...)” mutter-urged the girl in Seat 39.

 

“But I can see better this way.”

 

“Yeah, so can we,” observed a squat guy sitting behind Joss, raising thick black brows above thick square glasses.

 

“That’ll do, uh Roger is it?” said Mr. Gillies.  Who was reminded he hadn’t yet called roll; and whose tongue slipped when he did so, saying “Carly THIGHbert.”  Which made the class hoot and their teacher blush behind an improbable moustache he must’ve grown in an effort to look older than his students.  He reminded Vicki of skinny young Miles J. Benedict Jr. in Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret—except no girls were apt to find Mr. Gillies crushworthy.  (Unlike Cousin Miles Carlisle, whom “Miles J. Benedict Jr.” usually put Vicki in mind of.)

 

The muttersome girl in Seat 39 was skinny to the point of being gaunt.  Roll call revealed her to be Fiona Weller the Weirdly Cool, which Joss had probably been trying to signify via mouthed words that weren’t “Mandingo.”  Fiona seemed more weird than cool; certainly not glitter-rockish, unless you counted her faded New York Dolls T-shirt.  Taking sidelong ganders at Fiona was like being transported back to last September and seeing Stephanie Lipperman space out in the aisle, all distant and clammed-up and split-endy.

 

Was Fiona Weller prone to washroom blubberfests?  Would she heedlessly ditch a class to go have a smoke by the school dumpsters?

 

The bell rang for first period.  As the three girls strode over to Home Base, Joss had just enough time to make a formal introduction—“Hi,” said Vicki; “(Y’think?)” muttered Fiona.  She and Joss stayed on the second floor, for Band class with Mr. Redo; Vicki was obliged to go downstairs with sinking heart and stomach, for Phys Ed with Ms. Swanson.

 

In the locker room she was assigned a teensy cubbyhole (number 142) for which she supplied the Master Lock (combination an insultingly accurate 29-23-33) along with the hideous gymsuit she now had to change into.  Hoping her new mock-jacket dress wouldn’t get permanently wrinkled in teensy #142.  And wondering if that was Ms. Swanson herself changing at her elbow, since you sure didn’t see too many eighth-graders stacked to such an extent.  Not Joss, a flattie by comparison; not Tricia when she was thirteen; not even bountiful Cynthia Dollfuss.

 

Do you get backache? Vicki wanted to ask.

 

“‘Scuse me,” said Miss Terrific Torso in a loud cheerleaderish voice, nimbly dodging Vicki’s elbow as she zipped the HG (hideous gymsuit) over her TT(s).  She did look more like a cheerleader than a Phys Ed teacher: goldenhaired, honeyskinned, creamy-aura’d.  But her eyes, as they swept over Vicki, were like red LED optics out of an electronic calculator: they scanned you and filed you away for later analysis.

 

“Becca!” cried another cheerybabe, leaping gazelle-like across the bench to exchange hugs and how-was-your-summer?s.  Vicki left them to it and headed out to the cavernous gymnasium, feeling awfully alone in a crowd of HG’d females, at whom the real Ms. Swanson barked orders and blew whistles for the rest of first period.  The real Ms. Swanson, though by no means a bad-looking woman, had a German shepherd’s bark and a military factory’s whistle.  You could anticipate her making the whole class stay late, doing jumping jacks till somebody’d confess to swiping towels from the locker room.

 

But not today.  So much time was spent establishing ground rules that the girls didn’t work up a sweat, and were excused from having to shower.  Even so there was a rush to get re-dressed, and Vicki found herself chasing Becca and the gazelle-like cheerybabe up the back staircase and over to the Z-Wing.  Vice Principal O’Brien was unfairly stationed outside the wing doors, eager to penalize truants and runners-in-the-hall; so the three didn’t reach Z202 till the second period’s second bell finished tolling.

 

A dry stick of a teacher pointed a dry stick of a ruler at them (Vicki instinctively covering her knuckles) and prepared to hand out tardy-marks.  But Becca briskly requested that Miss McInerney have a word with Ms. Swanson before the day was through—that is, if she (Miss McInerney) didn’t want her (Ms. Swanson) to make them (Becca and fellow Gym students) arrive late for Language Arts each and every day for the entire semester.

 

The gazelle, whose name seemed to be Alice, let Becca do the talking while she beamed and waved at her many friends in the classroom.  Vicki hid behind them both, peering around Alice to roll eyes at Joss.  Meanwhile, squat Roger from homeroom had begun a not-so-sotto voce chant of “Heeeere they come, here come Speed Racers, they’re all demons in heels...”

 

“Awreet!” went a pimply girl sitting in front of Joss.  “They’re busy revving up the powerful Mach Five!

 

“Go, Speed Racers!” the class chorused, recalling lyrics learned in kindergarten.  “Go, Speed Racers, go!”

 

“That will be quite enough,” Miss McInerney announced, before diluting her discipline by giving in and allowing the three Speed Racers to be seated without penalty.  Vicki vaulted into the empty chair beside Joss—and behind Fiona Weller, who mutter-asked “(Is adventure waiting just aheeeeeeead?)”

 

Not today it wasnt.  Miss McInerney spent the rest of the period laying down the same ground rules Ms. Swanson’d already established, though with greater emphasis on reading/homework and less on showers/towels.

 

Most of the Language Arts students then moved across the hall to Z205 for third period Social Studies with Mr. Gillies.  He was absent when they arrived, so Vicki and Joss and Fiona chose their own clump of seats, together with the pimply awreet! girl whom Joss introduced as Robin Neapolitan, another buddy from Band.  True to her surname, Robin had chocolate-colored eyes, vanilla-tinted hair, and a strawberry complexion resulting partly from acne but also from a volatile temperament.  Like Fiona, Robin was a Z team veteran, and champed at the bit to brag about Z’s dismal state:

 

“You’re in for it now, Murrisch.  Now you’ll see how bad this school can really be.  You had it made on Y team—”

 

“Like hell!  Z’s on easy street, compared to Y—”

 

“Oh horseshit,” Robin said right out loud.  “You’re thinking about X team; they get the best of everything.  Then you guys on Y—”

 

“—not me guys, not anymore—”

 

“—and Z gets stuck with whatever’s left over!”

 

“(The crumbs.  The dregs,)” Fiona mutter-agreed.

 

“Hunh!” scoffed Joss.  “No Y teacher’d ever let a kid get away with blaming another teacher for making them late for class.”

 

Hey! Vicki wanted to protest, before sensing that Joss and Robin were simply ranking on each other to pass the time entertainingly.  She asked Robin about Miss TT and the gazelle, neither of whom was in third period Social Studies.

 

“That’s Becca Blair and Alex Dmitria.  They pretty much ran 7-Z last year.”

 

“Isn’t Alex a boy’s name?”

 

“Short for ‘Alexandra’—she’s a Russkie.”

 

“(Mexican,)” Fiona mutter-objected.  “(Short for Alejjjjandra.)”

 

“Oh go jjjjan yourself,” Robin groused.  “She can be both, can’t she?”

 

“So are they snots?” asked Joss.  “They didn’t act like snots.”

 

“Maybe not, but nobody ever says ‘can’t’ or ‘won’t’ to Becca Blair and makes it stick,” Robin told them.  “Guys especially.  With that bod I bet she could be a domiwhatchamacallit, y’know—”

 

“(Dominatrix,)” Fiona mutter-suggested.  “(Like Ilse the She-Wolf.)”

 

Vicki turned an awestruck Really? into a nonchalant “Hmm...  What about Alex?”

 

“(Ultranice,)” went Fiona, sounding mutter-disgusted.

 

“Just as I thought,” said Joss.  “All the true snots are on Y team!”

 

Robin, while grinning, would’ve vehemently disputed this if Mr. Gillies hadnt put in a breathless appearance.  Wheezing through a third going-over of the ground rules, he was interrupted every few sentences by the outstretched hand of a popeyed boy—not Gollum from homeroom, but a kid named Lenny Otis, who kept asking for further clarification in deeper detail:

 

“Ooh! ooh! when you say we gotta put covers on our books, do we gotta make the covers ourselves? like outta paper sacks? like in grade school? or can we buy book covers? like at a store that sells book covers? that’re like already made? that all we gotta do is buy and put on our books? and not make ‘em ourselves first?”

 

Squat Roger, sitting beside Lenny at the far side of the room, eventually raised his own hand and was called on by a grateful Mr. Gillies.

 

“Yeah,” said Roger with a thick black brow-waggle, “I think Lenny has another question to ask.”

 

“Ooh! ooh! when you say you want us to bring pens ‘n’ paper every day, does that mean—”

 

For fourth period, most of the class shifted next door to Z204 for Math with Mr. Folz.  Having listened to Mr. Gillies wheeze, they now got to hear Mr. Folz rasp through a larynx corroded by decades of tobacco and chalkdust.  After bestowing more ground rules, he plunged into an prologue to Pre-Albegra: skreeeek went examples onto the blackboard, hack hawk hoff went Mr. Folz, nudge nudge nudge went Joss to Vicki and Robin to Fiona.  Lookit!over there!—near the corner!—by the windows!—in the sunlight!—

 

Check out A Hunk With No Name.  A regular Vincent Van Patten, right off the cover of Tiger Beat.  Who’d somehow snuck into Z204 under the radar of a dozen adolescent girls.  Bringing so much fair hair and bright eyes and manly-modest face and rippling musculature to be all distractive during Pre-Algebra—a hard-enough subject without some nameless hunk charming your pants off with his reddening cheeks and diffident smile.

 

“I saw him first!” Robin claimed, the moment the bell rang.

 

“Oh yeah?” said Joss.  “So where’d he go, then?”

 

Hunky Dory seemed to have dissolved into dustmotes, bewildering the dozen adolescent girls who sought to pounce upon him.

 

“A ghost?” asked Vicki.  “Is VW old enough to have a ghost of its own?”

 

“(Noooo,)” Fiona droned.  “(Just an ultravirgin.  And inspiration.)”

 

“Uh oh,” went Robin.  “She’s done for, you guys.  See you at lunch?”

 

The eighth grade had a free half-period during Lunch A, but couldn’t use it freely till honor passes were awarded in early November.  Till then, they had to return to their homerooms and play Study Hall.  Detour by Locker Z2230 (age you’ll be next birthday—years lived in Pfiester Park—width of Joss’s flares) to stow the morning’s textbooks.  Then back to Z205 for the third time that day, and say hello to an exhausted-looking Mr. Gillies.

 

“(Poor guy,)” Joss whispered.  “(Bet he wishes he went into the plywood business.)”

 

Rather than disturb Mr. Gillies with audible conversation, she and Vicki passed notes while Fiona hunched over a spiral of staff paper, beating out quiet cadences on her desktop.

 

   

 

At noon they collected Robin from Miss McInerney’s homeroom, went back to their own to retrieve the oblivious Fiona, and hurried off together to the cafeteria.  Vicki wasn’t sure yet how she felt about these two girls, but it was a relief to eat as part of a group rather than turn nightmare into reality, wandering around with nowhere to park her friendless tray.

 

She and Robin risked buying the hot meal—cheeseburger, hash browns, pickle chips, coleslaw and fruit cocktail.  Robin got an extra milk for Fiona, who didn’t look up from her composition as she shoved coins Robin’s way and washed down a snackpack of Super Sugar Crisp.  Joss, whod brownbagged a savory Toughie lunch, swapped some of it for Vicki and Robin’s desserts.

 

“You honestly want this?  Gloppy fruit out of a can?”

 

“But such glop!  Toughie thinks it’s poison—I know it’s maraschino paradise.”

 

There was a brief kerfluffle at a nearby table when Squat Roger stood and bellowed “HE’S A PIMP!!” at a guy (later known to be Dino Tattaglia) who came barreling over to join him and Lenny Otis.  The teachers on Cafeteria duty hesitated, then chose to pretend they hadn’t heard the bellow since it wasn’t repeated during that particular Lunch B.

 

There was another kerfluffle at Vicki’s table when Robin found out Volester Motors sold Japanese cars.  Robin’s father (Fat Bob Neapolitan) had a Harley-Davidson dealership and frequently declared he wouldn’t spend a thin dime on anything not 100% red-white-and-blue made in goddam America!—as Robin told Vicki with considerable strawberry heat.

 

“Would you cool it, Robin?” Joss requested.  “She doesn’t sell Hondas.”

 

“Let her speak for herself!”

 

Vicki reacted as an I’m-a-City-girl-you-can’t-intimidate-me should.  “Oh shut up!  We sell plenty of American carsused ones.  My mom even bought herself a Pontiac.”

 

“Well okay then,” Robin subsided.  “Don’t mind me,” she added with a pickle-chippy grin.  “I’m a drummer, y’know.  We all fly off the handle—lookit Keith Moon.”

 

“Robin’s a great drummer,” Joss told Vicki.  “Last year in Band—”

 

“—dont say it—”

 

“—we called her ‘Melody,’ ‘cause she—”

 

“—don’t say it

 

“—reminded everybody of the airheaddrummerinJosieandthePussycats!—”

 

“I’ll get you for that, Murrisch!”

 

“(Will you guys pipe down?)” Fiona muttered over the cafeteria bedlam.  “(Trying to work here.)”

 

 

Ultravirgin full of gypsum

    sifting like bellybutton lint

raindrops pounding rocks into silt

    cover nipples with dusty cups

fill young navels up with diamonds

    in skin soft as honeymelon
 

Tall stick figure with white socks on

    putting crystal tracks upon mirrors

melt with the night, slide to the floor

    limbless dwarf with knife in his teeth

waddles to you through freakish mud

    full of gypsum, Ultravirgin

 

 

They got another free half-period during Lunch C, but the entire non-ditching eighth grade had to spend it shuffling through the school library (here called a Media Center) in an irksome cropfull snakedance tour.  Once that was over, Vicki’s friends returned to the Z-Wing and left her in Home Base for fifth period Vocal Music with Mrs. Martha Weller.  Who didn’t look remotely like her daughter, being an ever-smiling clarion-voiced Up With People person:

 

“It is so good to see you all here again at dear old VW!  I hope everyone had a restful and refreshing summer vacation, and is just as keen as I am to raise our voices in song!  Let us begin by sitting up straight and tall as can be—good posture plays such an important part in Vocal Music!  Yes!—that’s right!—much better!  And now, let us touch upon a few key ground rules for the semester ahead—”

 

(Vicki wondered whether Fiona was adopted, or just felt adopted.)

 

Not many familiar faces in the choral throng.  There was Alex the Gazelle, whose cheerybabe-itude fit right in with Mrs. Weller’s Swinging-on-a-Starriness.  And that stunner over there, the one languidly fanning her brow, had been pointed out by Joss at lunch: Gigi Pyle, last years Queen of 7-Y, who fancied herself a Dixie belle because she lived on Clubroot Drive (Vanderlund’s southern border with Willowhelm).

 

“I wish Gigi was in the land of cotton,” Joss had grumped.  “Then I never would’ve had to hear her say ‘Mahh laa-und!’ or ‘Fiddle-dee-dee!’

 

And never had to see Kim Zimmer become a double-dealing traitress.  Gone almost overnight from sneering at Gigi Pyle’s clique to currying favor with it, to bitching out Joss in front of the snide-asses on purpose.  As if one of the Peaches had suddenly done all she could to kiss up to Melissa Chiese—a thought that curdled the cheeseburger in Vicki’s stomach.

 

You Scarlett O’Duckweight!  Try messing with me or Joss, and I’ll make you go Fiddle-dee-dee with a Peachy nectarine!

 

(Oog—there goes the coleslaw.  Better make a pitstop before heading to Z201 for sixth period Spanish.)

 

As she left the washroom, who should she encounter entering but Joss: just come from fifth period French (“Cest moi”) and hoping not to begin Phys Ed with a tummyful of fruit cocktail.

 

“At least if I upchuck I’ll get to leave early.”

 

“Don’t you dare leave this school without me,” said Vicki.  “¡No dejar la escuela!”

 

Since she couldn’t be in Joss’s second-year French class, it made sense to stick with Spanish, though the poco she’d learned from Mrs. Lundgren wasn’t a whole lot to build on.  Not that it mattered the first daySeñorita DeStefano recited the same reglas básicas Vicki’d already heard from five other teachers, this time in bilingual form.

 

There were two boys in Spanish class who shouldve been crushworthy, but fell short.  Craig Clerkington, already pushing six feet tall, might be a Crushin’ Croatian contender: he had mean little eyes and a mean little smile and larger-than-thigh-sized arms.  As for the other boy, Vicki felt sorry for his sisters if he had any, since Bradley Faussett was clearly a blowdryer-monopolizer.  A bit of humility would’ve done wonders (think of Hunky Dory) but Brad offered only ego:

 

“The name’s Faussett, baby, ‘cause you are turnin’ me on!

 

Squeeeeal went Carly Thibert.

 

No thank you, thought Vicki.  One Kyoop Minsky a year is more than enough.

 

Señorita DeStefano soon had to move Brad and Craig away from Carly and up to the front row where she could keep an eye on them.  Which was just fine with Brad and Craig, she being enough of a mamacita caliente to warrant keeping their eyes on her.  Vicki got relocated back beside Carly, who gave her a chipmunk-smirk as though to say “What a couple of towheads”—making Vicki wonder whether Carly Thibert was quite as ingenua as her behavior till now would imply.

 

At last came seventh period in Z203, the Science Lab at the end of the wing.  Craig and Brad followed her there (minimize your rump-wiggle!) and Joss stormed up after them, fuming about the indignities of Phys Ed.

 

“I’d like to fill that damn gym with a thousand gallons of tapioca pudding!”

 

“OH yeah!” Craig Clerkington boomed.  “So y’can rassle in it, right?”

 

“Count me in,” dripped Brad Faussett.  “We got us a coupla tag teams right here.”

 

“Back off, bozos!”

 

“Like I said,” leered Brad.

 

“Like he said,” added Craig with a mean little snortle.

 

“Go tapi- your own -ocas,” Joss retorted, giving them her hard-blue-marble stare.

 

“Like she said!” crowed Vicki.

 

After that, the only difficult thing about Science was staying awake in spite of rotund Mr. Dunn, who droned much longer and less intriguingly than Fiona Weller.  Tiny shopworn jokes got cracked at clockwork intervalsdid you hear the one about Sir Isaac Newton’s brother Fig? or the one where an electron tells a neutron, “For you there’s no charge”?  The suckups laughed; the boorish jeered; the puzzled asked “Why’s he so interested in newts?”; and Vicki tried to prove scientifically that you can yawn through your nose.

 

Till the final bell at 3:15 p.m., sounding sweeter than any song by Neil Sedaka.

 

Spin your combination one more time.  Encumber yourself with books required for tonight’s homework.  Slam the locker shut as 1,784 other VW students were trying to do simultaneously.  Accompany Joss down the Z-Wing stairway (acceptable, since you’re exiting the building) and run with the mob to Zephyr Heaven—a place adults knew better than to venture near at this afterschool hour.

 

Then, licking cones-to-go, meander up Eugene G.’s road to Eugene G.’s bridge and lean wearily against its rail.

 

“Y’know what?” Joss asked with a (slurp).

 

“After today?  Not enough.”  (Slurp.)

 

“Ice cream’s like education.”  (Slurp.)

 

“‘Cause it’s good when youget it?”  (Slurp.)

 

“Well that too.  But also ‘cause a lot of it lands on hot sidewalks—”

 

“—and turns to instant sludge,” Vicki agreed.  Melt with the night, slide to the floor, waddle through the freakish mud of eighth grade.

 

(Slurp.)


     

* * * * * * * * * * * * *
   

 

Return to Chapter 20                          Proceed to Chapter 22

 

 

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

 

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