Chapter 24

 

A Beetle at VW

 

 

Creeping upstairs on tiptoe at school was a stupid Nancy Drew-y thing to do.  And completely against the instincts of a runner: you should be leaping up these steps, taking them two at a time, since time was of the essence (as Nancy Drew might say).

 

But no—not on the Z-Wing stairway.  Not heading up it, which nobody would do under normal circumstances; entering VW via a wing door was Just Not Done.  Yet desperate measures were necessary on Friday the 7th of November, last day of the grading period, with Mr. Dunn accepting extra-credit reports if turned in before homeroom.  The clock was ticking down to 8 a.m., and you needed to guarantee getting a C in Science; thus your clenching this scraped-together essay on friction—what it means as you tiptoed surreptitiously up these uncool (but shortest-distance) stairs to the second floor.

 

Freezing on the landing as a peremptory voice said:

 

“What’s this?”

 

“Mmm?” went a second voice.

 

“This word here, what is it?”

 

“‘Putridity.’  Originally ‘putrescence.’”

 

Eww thought Vicki, staring halfway up the next flight of steps.  Where Becca Blair sat side by side with Roger Mustardman.  She frowning at some papers in one hand, while the other hiked the bottom of her turtleneck jersey collarbone-high.  As if to air out her white lace bra cups, and all the rosy cleavage jutting over them.

 

Roger regarded this generous display as a gourmand might contemplate a double helping of Baked Alaska.

 

Vicki didn’t linger to hear how many stars he might award the dish.

 

She sprang through the door into 8-Z, retaining just enough presence of mind to head for the Science Lab and hand in friction.  Then she wandered away down the corridor, trying to take off her windbreaker without first unstrapping her knapsack.  Fortunately Joss and Alex came by before she strangled herself.

 

“Vicki?” said Joss, waving a hand in front of glassy eyes.  “You okay?”

 

“Um... sure...”

 

“I knew you should’ve come up the Home Base stairs with me!” Alex scolded.  “See now why we only use the wing stairs to leave school?”

 

“Unless you’re a smoker,” Joss remarked.  “Or have a boyfriend.  Not one who smokes, I hope; their teeth get so gross—”

 

“Joss, be serious!” said Alex.  “Vicki came into school the wrong way!  Now she might act backwards all day long.”

 

“That’s jinx talk!  Saying it aloud’ll make it happen.”

 

“It already has!  You saw how she was taking off her jacket.  Thank goodness it’s Health day in Phys Ed,” Alex added as they led Vicki to her locker and got her outfitted for morning classes.  “You don’t want to shoot hoops before a whammy wears off.  Think positive thoughts, Vicki!”

 

Alex left them for Mr. Folz’s homeroom as the bell rang.  “Whammy,” Joss snortled, guiding Vicki into Mr. Gillies’s.  “Seriously, though, you do look kinda weird.  Just how late did you stay up working on that extra credit?”

 

“Um,” answered Vicki.  “Joss, would you tell me if, like... I kinda started, y’know—hallucinating?”

 

“I might.  If I didn’t start doing it first,” said Joss, depositing her in Seat 38.  “Just mellow out.  Report cards are like poop: they happen, they get flushed, no big deal.  At least not till semester finals.  Oh look: Feef’s absent again.  Must be a day with an R in it.”

 

She went off to Seat 25, crossing paths with Roger Mustardman as he sauntered by to Seat 26 behind her: he leering at her own behind, not to mention her befores.  (As if he hadn’t feasted his peepers enough today already!)

 

Mr. Gillies distributed something-or-other that had to be filled out, and Vicki realized she didn’t have her ring binder and zipper pouch.  With Fiona AWOL and Joss two rows away, she turned to Carly Thibert and whispered, “(Can I borrow something to write with?)”

 

“Sure!” chirped Carly.  “Anybody got a pen?”

 

A dozen boys lunged forward to offer Bics and Papermates.  Carly accepted them all, leaning way forward to give the donors a gander down her neckline.  Gahd!  What was this, Flopperoo Friday??  Vicki got the pick of the litter, but Carly wouldn’t return the rest till Mr. Gillies intervened; and by that time homeroom was almost over.

 

Roger Mustardman kept his pen between his teeth, like a cigarette holder, even as he binocularly reconnoitered the contents of Carly’s top.  You could almost see more notches being added to his thick square glasses, and to the waggle of his thick black brows.

 

Boob scrutiny: it was the sort of thing every girl could intuit, whether she herself or a fellow female was the ogle-object.  So Vicki and Joss had concluded, anyway, with Robin and Sheila-Q agreeing (for once).  Laurie refused to believe boys were really that rude, even when they practically unbuttoned her bunny-blouse.  Fiona swore she didn’t give a rat’s ass whether guys checked her out or not; but even she agreed this simply wasn’t a topic to discuss around Alex.

 

Who perched protectively beside Vicki on the gym bleachers that Friday during Ms. Swanson’s don’t-abuse-alcohol lecture.  Which didn’t accentuate the positive, describing how evil-minded men would ply an unwary girl with liquor in order to reduce her inhibitions and subject her to unnamed outrages.

 

Such talk should’ve put Vicki on her tabkeeping toes, anxious how Alex might react.  Today, though, she could only think of Becca Blair—sitting further down the bleachers with majestically straight back, her turtleneck jersey in decorous pulled-down place.

 

Becca did not peek back at Vicki.

 

Nor pass her a note saying It’s not what you think.

 

Nor suffuse her creamy aura with a hot blush at the thought of that scene on the stairs.

 

If anyone was turning crimson, it was Vicki herself.  Had it all been a mirage, brought on by staying up too late sweating out 500 words on friction?  Causing her to think she’d seen Becca in a compromising position with Squat Roger Mustardman?

 

Preposterous.

 

It’d be easier to believe that Robin Neapolitan had been up there flashing her bra at him.  (Robin’s friends had a secret betting pool on whether her animosity for Roger would turn into passion, and if so how soon.)

 

Suppose, though, it hadnt been delusion but actual reality... how could you account for that?

 

Evil-minded Roger plying unwary Becca with liquor?  Slipping her a seductive drug of some sort?  Or what about hypnosis—like that what’s-his-name guy, Svengali?  Vicki shivered at the thought (making Alex apprehensive) because that was the sort of thing a Mustardman would sell his squat soul to be able to do.  And who more obvious for his first victim than Becca Blair?  But he’d never be satisfied mesmerizing just one.  Nobody’s befores would be safe, not even the modestly-endowed—and that included Vicki and Alex.

 

“You’re shivering.  I’m taking you to the nurse’s office,” Alex announced the moment first period ended.  “Do you feel dizzy?  Can you walk?”

 

“I’m okay, really I am,” Vicki told her.  “It was all that talk, y’know, about guys putting drugs ‘n’ stuff in your drinks when you’re not looking.  I mean, that could even happen in the cafeteria.”

 

“Ulp!” went Alex, racking Vicki with guilt at having jabbed a sore spot.

 

But then Alex brightened as Becca hurried out of the gym, as if challenging them to a race back to Z-Wing.  “C’mon, let’s catch her!”

 

“No running in the halls!” said the Vice Principal, his bristling goatee stationed as usual where it could oversee all three wing entranceways.

 

“Hi, Mr. O’Brien!  How’s Mrs. O’Brien?” smiled Alex as they sped past.

 

“She says Top o’ the mornin’, Miss Dmitria.”

 

Their pace didn’t slacken, yet Becca beat them to Z202.  Which was just as well since Vicki wouldn’t’ve known what to say to her, or even how to look at her.

 

Today marked the end of both the grading period and their Edgar Allan Poe unit in Language Arts.  Everyone’d had to deliver an oral report on a work by Poe—Joss covering “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Alex reciting “The Bells,” Fiona giving her interpretation of “Hop-Frog,” Robin transforming “Descent into the Maelström” into another anti-mandatory-helmet editorial.  Vicki’s nervous attempt to discuss “The Cask of Amontillado” was one of those occasions when she accused Joss of trying to crack her up by mouthing Mandingo.  Roger Mustardman discarded most of “The Black Cat” to concentrate on the Spirit of Perverseness, till Miss McInerney said he’d gone into sufficient detail and could sit down immediately.

 

Today they were treated to Becca Blair’s recounting of “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”  Which she did in front of the class, statuesquely, frowning at the report in one hand while the other strayed to the bottom of her turtleneck jersey—

 

DON’T DO IT!  DON’T DO IT! Vicki sub-pleaded.

 

Trying telekinetically to grab Becca’s hand and restrain Becca’s jersey from getting re-hoisted.  Her own ears were filled with the pounding of her own heart as she strove against the occult, so Vicki missed out on most of Monsieur Valdemar’s gruesome Facts.  The rest of the class urghed and aaghed over what happened when his suspended-animation trance was broken:

 

 

His whole frame at once—within the space of a single minute, or even less, shrunk—crumbled—absolutely rotted away beneath my hands.  Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putridity.

 

 

“That is,” Becca annotated, “a condition of being decomposed.  Originally Poe wrote the word ‘putrescence.’  That is a condition of becoming decomposed; but Valdemar finished doing that almost instantly.  You see the difference.”

 

Her jersey-gripping hand twitched upward, just far enough to let her belly-button peep forth.

 

“Aagh,” Miss McInerney cleared her throat.  “Thank you, Becca.  That was most vivid.”

 

The jersey-gripping hand relaxed, and rust-colored acrylic again veiled Becca’s navel.

 

Vicki’s heart relaxed too.  Yet her eyes swiveled over toward Roger Mustardman, whose thick square glasses and thick black brows were lying in wait for her.  As though they knew she would look, and planned for her to look, or even made her look his way—meeting her gaze with one as piercing as X-ray vision.

 

Causing Vicki to cross her arms over her chest.

 

*

 

But by bedtime she was back to wondering whether she hadn’t hallucinated it all, after all.

 

Nothing else remotely supernatural happened the rest of that day.  Roger paid her no particular attention in Social Studies or Math.  At lunch he baited Robin in passing and got frothed at in response: both as per usual.  Vicki had no more encounters with Becca Blair, except at a distance in the corridors.  And in Science Mr. Dunn confirmed her C for the grade period, “though you are capable of better than that.”

 

“I hope so,” she told him.

 

Joss came to Burrow Lane for her regular Friday night sleepover, and Vicki confided everything that had or might’ve happened.

 

“So... was I just freaking out about grades ‘n’ stuff?”

 

“Dunno,” Joss said soberly, wrestling an Afro pick through her fresh-from-the-shower curls.  “That’d be some serious freaking.”

 

“Tell me about it...  (You know that’s gonna make your hair go frizzy.)”

 

“(Not if I use a pick.  Not while it’s still wet.)”

 

“(You always say that and it always frizzes and you always go to bed mad.)”

 

“Ow,” went Joss at the pick, “I have a right to sleep detangled...  And maybe I like it frizzy, more like a ‘fro...  Anyway, we’re talking about you and your madness.”

 

Vicki sighed as she stared at the vanity mirror.  Close examination found neither blemishes nor insanity, so go ahead and pat on Noxzema.  “What if it keeps happening?”

 

Joss dropped her pick and gnawed a thumb-tip.  “Are you sure it wasn’t really Robin you saw with Roger?”

 

“Yes I’m sure and of course it wasn’t.  In her dreams is Robin built like that.”

 

“Well hell,” grumped Joss.  (In their secret betting pool, she had the earliest date for Robin-will-admit-falling-in-love-with-him.  Sheila Quirk held the opposite extreme—Robin-will-slash-her-wrists-and-die-an-old-maid-first.)  “Okay, how ‘bout this: he helped Becca with her report, maybe even wrote it for her, and she repaid him by showing her boobs.  That almost makes sense—any guy would ask for that instead of money.”

 

“Yeah, but then in class I was almost positive she was gonna flash the whole room!  It was so weird!  And the way he looked at me after that...”  Vicki drew her knees up to her chin.  “If that could happen to Becca, what’s to stop it happening to us?”

 

“Hey—maybe it was a hallucination, but one that Fiona was supposed to have.  You got it by mistake ‘cause she was out sick.”

 

“Y’think?  Can that even happen?”

 

“Why not?” asked Joss, taking her turn at the blue Noxzema jar.  “Though Feef’s more likely to hallucinate giving an oral report on a putrefying guy.”

 

“Oh yuh-uck!  Way to give me sweet dreams, Jocelyn.”

 

“Feel sorry for Feef—she’ll hate having missed Becca doing that.”

 

“I wish I had,” Vicki told her knees.

 

*

 

That Saturday was the day they took Alex to New Sherwood, gave her the early-birthday ushanka, and sat for their special/best-friend pictures.  The rest of the weekend basked in that radiance, and Vicki began to mellow out.

 

Fiona was back in school on Monday, though weller in name only.  She suffered from menorrhagia, bluntly mutter-describing this as “(I need a whole damn quilt when I’m on the rag.)”  It also made her anemic, which Mrs. Weller and the Rumpelmagens treated by force-feeding her liverwurst.  “(So now I reek like a deli and get followed around by alley cats.)”

 

Who might mistake Fiona for one of their own, so thin and pale was she.  Vicki tried to tempt her with a cherry pan dulce received that morning from Mrs. Dmitria, but Feef would eat nothing at lunch except a snackpack of Alpha-Bits.  (Too bad the cafeteria didn’t serve beefsteak tartare...)

 

Speaking of blood: Lang Arts class began a new unit on Lord of the Flies that same Monday.  This time the students were divided into groups of four and assigned characters to pursue through the twelve chapters they’d be reading over the next twelve days.  And just like at the Reulbach Science Fair, Miss McInerney created these groups artificially with two girls and two boys in each.  Vicki groaned in wonder that teachers were still pulling this stunt.

 

Her friends got scattered to the several winds: Robin was assigned to the Jack group, Alex to Simon, and Joss to Ralph—which almost sent her rolling on the floor, thanks to Judy Blume’s Forever... having associated “Ralph” with what polite girls referred to as “a guy’s Thing.”  (Vicki could hardly wait for Joss to say the word aloud in class, hopefully repeatedly.  Vengeance at last for all those mouthed Mandingos!)

 

Fiona got stuck in the Piggy group with LeAnn Anobile, Dwight Whitehead, and Arlo Sowell.  During the Poe unit, LeAnn had shared her inside-out thoughts on “Annabel Lee” and been perplexed by everyone’s laughter.  Dwight, who’d somehow escaped from Remedial English, would only read Lord of the Flies as far as page seven—on which he’d find and adopt “sucks to your ass-mar!!” into his personal phraseology.  And if there were a VW contest for Most Likely to Become a Sumo Wrestler, Arlo Sowell would win the shiroboshi: his vocabulary might be limited to earthy grunts, but Fiona seemed to find him fascinating on a mountainous scale, to the point of losing some of her pallor.

 

(Joss and Vicki sub-agreed that Feef and Arlo deserved their own secret betting pool.)

 

“Finally we come to The Beast,” said Miss McInerney.  “The Beast group shall be Becca Blair—Roger Mustardman—Vicki Volester—and Byron Wyszynski.”

 

“Oh shsss!... oh shsss!...”

 

Fiona might still call Byron Wyszynski “(Gollum)” but the occupant of Seat 40 in homeroom was now generally known as “Tail-End”—and not just because of his alphabetic placement on a Z team devoid of Zanes and Zimmers.  He was also, invariably, the last one to surrender his test paper in every class, scribbling words or figures even as the teacher pried it out from under his frantic pencil.

 

Miss McInerney told them to read “The Sound of the Shell” for tomorrow and plan for ten-minute group discussions of that chapter.  She then moved on to talk about grammar, but Vicki’s mind kept spinning in place like a gerbil on an exercise wheel.

 

Her being in Becca’s group must mean Becca intended her to be there.  Not even Miss McInerney could thrust anyone unwanted upon Becca Blair.

 

Unless Roger was the hypnotic impetus behind this choice.  Though you’d think, if his lust weren’t slaked by Becca’s bounty, he’d’ve picked a more “upfront” girl like Joss or LeAnn Anobile.  Or if he was out to humiliate as well as be titillated, who’d be a better victim than Robin Neapolitan?

 

Except it was Vicki hed X-rayed, in this very classroom, just last Friday.

 

Which made her clap her knees together.  And rethink whether it might not be safer to wear slacks—even if they did hind-ride—instead of a skirt.

 

*

 

Many eighth-grade girls had steady boyfriends, while those like Carly Thibert played the field; and some like Laurie Harrison spent hours tracking each rumored fluctuation in every possible relationship on all three teams at VW.  If you wanted the latest on who was going with or breaking up with or being dumped by, Laurie was the person to ask.

 

Gigi Pyle and her clique on Y team—they all had boyfriends.  Britt Groningen and her Squeakylike cult on X team—they all had boyfriends.  But Becca Blair was unique in that she had suitors—three, in fact, in court-paying rotation.

 

The first (and least substantial) was 8-Z’s own Brad Faussett.  Since Mike Spurgeon had transferred to Y, Brad was considered the handsomest Z-jock and so automatically gravitated toward the most bodacious cheerybabe.  Yet everyone except Brad knew that Becca only tolerated an eighter suitor for on-hand convenience.

 

The second (and least likely) was Lyle Wilkie of 9-X.  His unlikelihood stemmed from being a Dilton Doiley type, presiding with erudition over the VW Science Club.  But Lyle and Becca had a common interest in the practice of medicine: both intended to be future surgeons, whereas Brad Faussett simply wanted to play doctor.

 

The third, and reportedly most serious suitor, was (roll on the floor!) another Ralph.  His grandfather—Ralph Waldo Emerson Lorgnon, Sr.—owned a considerable number of tenements in The City, from which Ralph Jr. (commonly called “Waldo”) amassed a moderate fortune.  The Lorgnons sent Ralph III (addressed as “Emerson” or “Sonny”) to Vanderlund’s private Front Tree Country Day School, and there he amassed a considerable number of nicknames.

 

In childhood he’d been derided by his peers as “Auntie Em” till demonstrating a claim to the title of “Anteater.”  At the end of sixth grade, when the first Godfather film was released, he’d asserted his birthright to “Sonny.”  That lasted till the end of eighth grade, when The Lords of Flatbush came out and a striking likeness was noted to “Chico,” the one Lord who (despite that moniker) didn’t look Italian.

 

Unfortunately for Ralph Waldo Emerson III, he got tagged as “the Slumlord of Front Tree” by a younger prepmate who was departing for VW: that future Smarks Brother, Roger Mustardman.

 

To whom the Slumlord remained less than grateful.

 

Nevertheless, he was deemed this year’s prime catch by the sophomore girls at Startop Academy, who longed to run their fingers through his wavy Lorgnon hair and their lips along a cleft chin that Kirk Douglas might envy.  These girls resented Becca Blair for luring Sonny away with her public-school wiles; the fact that she was a doctor’s daughter, with brains to match her looks and a bearing that outswanked anything at Startop, didn’t add one jot or tittle to her acceptability as a Slumlord-snatcher.

 

Such was the state of Becca’s suitordom on Monday the 10th of November.

 

By Thanksgiving, Laurie Harrison could gossip that all three suitors had gotten mangled.

 

First to feel the bite was Bradley Faussett, at the football team’s season-closing IHOP brunch.  This wasn’t closed to the pancake-eating public, so Lenny Otis was able to topple in and stir Brad to imitate his ooh! ooh!s with a fake epileptic attack.  Brad happened to be passing Becca Blair a pitcher of mulberry syrup at the time, and only Becca’s gymnastic dexterity saved her from getting doused.  Brad did splatter himself, to the vindictive joy of Craig Clerkington and appalled distaste of Becca, who said:

 

“You are so IMMATURE!!”

 

Next to be bitten was Lyle Wilkie, at the Science Club’s bimonthly kaffeeklatsch.  In mid-November this was held in the 8-X Lab, which Dino Tattaglia had been ordered to clean up after mouthing off in class.  This cleanup was still going on as Lyle began a demonstration of how to measure blood pressure.  No one was surprised that he chose Becca’s lovely arm to demonstrate upon; nor by his donning a labcoat, reaching into its pocket, and proclaiming “This is a sphygmometer.”  Everyone except Dino got stunned, though, when Lyle produced a fetal pig instead and (with a squeal) flung it away.  Only Becca’s deft flexibility prevented the pink embryo from landing in her lovely lap.

 

“This is NOT FUNNY, Lyle!!” she informed him.

 

The third and worst chomp came when Sonny Lorgnon took Becca to the Petty Hills Junior Harvest Ball.  She was the belle of that cotillion, and her arrival on the Slumlord of Front Tree’s dapper arm did her no discredit.  At least not till his sampling too much of the wrong kind of punch made him keel over during a Hustle dip, land face first, and stain the dance floor with his nose-gore.  Only Becca’s lithe surefootedness saved her from being yanked down on top of him.

 

“What the hell is WRONG with you??” she bellowed at Sonny’s fallen carcass.

 

“Look how they massacred her boy,” added Roger Mustardman.

 

Who by sheer coincidence happened to be there, see it all, and bribe a North Squire magazine paparazzo to take snapshots of the carnage.

 

Vicki, when she heard about this, had a flashback to the Reulbach Spring Dance (just six months ago? seemed like six years) and Jim Maxwell’s alleged adulteration of its punchbowl with Old Style Lager.

 

But she was determined to ask no questions about how the Junior Harvest chomp happened (or the bite at IHOP, or the crunch at Science Club) when she was invited to Becca’s home for a Beast group meeting on Sunday the 23rd.

 

The Blairs lived in a penthouse condominium on Panama Boulevard, and Joss was dying to know every detail about their high-on-the-hog inlander lifestyle:

 

“You have gotta sneak a look at Becca’s bedroom!  Oh I bet it’s all futuristic, lots of chrome and fiberglass, and she sleeps in one of those Space Odyssey hibernation pods—”

 

“Eww, that sounds Stepford Wives-y!  Now I bet Becca has a great big old-fashioned canopy bed, with satin sheets and velvet curtains—”

 

“No no no no, that’s the sort of bed Stepford Wives’d sleep in!  Spacyjane Groh would fantasize about sleeping in a bed like that.”

 

(Joss and the Ralph group had met Friday afternoon at Spacyjane’s chalet on Cecidia Drive.  “Jeez!” Joss said afterward, “it’s so ootsie-cutesy-cunning it makes all the other houses in the neighborhood want to dry-heave.”)

 

The Aguadulce Condominiums could not be called cutesy or futuristic.  It was a garden-variety brownstone at the corner of Panama Boulevard and Rhedde Road, with pseudo-hacienda touchesclay tiles here, stucco arches therelike Alex’s Mission Revival.  Except that was exotic if austere, whereas the Aguadulce gave you the impression of a vanilla tortilla.

 

Buzz in, ride the elevator to the top floor, knock on the Blairs’s door, and be greeted by a longdrawn “Yyyyehhhhssss?...

 

From Roger Mustardman, playing butler.

 

“DO step this way IF you please.  Madam’s mouthing off on the phone, but will join us when she’s good and ready.  May I remove your... coat?”

 

“I’ll do it,” said Vicki, unwilling to be disrobed even to that extent.

 

The Blair condo was startlingly like Bob and Emily’s apartment on The Bob Newhart Show, which’d make it easier to describe to Joss.  You took two steps down into a combination living-and-dining room, with a sizable couch flanked by sizable armchairs (and Tail-End Wyszynski teetering on the extreme edge of one).  Then, beyond a sizable table surrounded by armless yet still sizable chairs, were two steps up into a visible kitchen on your right; what was probably a den in the middle; and definitely a deck on your left, overlooking the canal.  On the room’s other side, an arch doubtless led to bedroomsout of one of which came a distraught thrum.

 

“Telling her troubles,” Roger interpreted.  “Such a lot she’s had lately, dontcha know!”

 

Not dignifying this with a reply, Vicki and her doffed overcoat took the extreme edge of another armchair.  Trying not to watch Tail-End squeeze his hands under his knees or into his armpits or against each other, all while emitting little noises like a faulty radiator.

 

“Swiss Miss?” suggested Roger, extending a steamy mug.

 

“Um—shouldn’t we wait?—I mean, is it right to—”

 

“I don’t believe we’d be violating the Sabbath,” he said piously.

 

Guys putting drugs ‘n’ stuff in your drinks when you’re not looking.  Maybe Becca wasn’t on the phone at all—maybe she was bound and gagged after being given knockout drops!  “Why aren’t you having any?”

 

“Drank three cups already—and ‘drained the main vein’ twice, if you’re really interested.  Tell her why you’re not drinking yours, Wyszzo.”

 

“It’sss not brown, it’sss red!” gollumed Tail-End.  “How can it be cocoa if it looksss like hot tomato juicccce??”

 

“That would be what we call ‘soup,’ Wyszzo,” Roger informed him, taking a swig from Tail-End’s untouched mug.  “Ahhhh... you can taste the yo-de-lay-hee-ho!  And here she comes, too.”

 

Becca entered and Vicki boggled at her idea of casual weekend wear: a double-knit pantsuit of mauve polyester with a cranberry beret.  “Why’re you sitting there hugging your coat?” Becca asked peevishly—no Hi Vicki, no Welcome to my home that you’re visiting for the first time, no Thanks for worrying I was in drugged danger just now.  “Go hang it on the portemanteau.”

 

“The what?”

 

“Those pegs over there!  C’mon, let’s get this over with.  Damn I hate English.”

 

“But we need English, don’t we?” said Roger.  “That is, if we want to get into Yale and be an Ivy League cheerleading medical student.”

 

Becca gave him a cold scowl.  “Where’s my hot chocolate?”

 

“In your kitchen.  Powder’s in the packet and water’s in the kettle.”

 

“You can have mine, Becca, I haven’t tasted it or anything,” offered Vicki.  (Never in her life had she been able to drink a hot beverage without burning her tongue.)

 

Becca accepted the mug and took a big unblinking gulp.  “C’mon, let’s do this stupid report.  Byron, quit twitching!  You’re making everybody sick!”

 

“Oh shsss!...” Tail-End gnashed apologetically.

 

Roger cracked his knuckles, then his elbows, then his neck.  And then, while the other three scrawled in their notebooks, he reeled off paragraph after paragraph about the nature of The Beast in Lord of the Flies.  Loss-of-innocence, civilization-vs.-savagery, evil-as-an-internal-force-present-in-every-individual, and Symbolism Symbolism Symbolism.

 

Vicki, while scrawling assiduously, couldn’t keep her mind from wandering.  To Bob and Jerry and Howard and Mr. Carlin, drunkenly ordering moo goo gai pan on last night’s Bob Newhart Show.  To a tearful Alex phoning on Thursday after wading through “A View to a Death,” and realizing saintly Simon had been killed: “This isn’t making me like fiction any better!”  To the glints in Roger’s thick square glasses and the gloats in his derisive voice as he pontificated on Beelzebub, as though they were the best of chums.

 

“Okay then,” went Becca.  “Vicki, you’ve got good handwriting—when you try, that is—” (frown at Vicki’s squiggly notebook) “—so you write up the paper we’ll turn in, and I’ll give the oral report in class.  Byron, you keep your mouth shut and try to act normal.”

 

“(Shsss!...)”

 

“What an awful book!” Becca added, as if this had only just occurred to her.  “Why would anybody write a book like this?”

 

“Wickedness, my angel,” said Roger Mustardman.  “In-es-cap-a-ble wickedness.”

 

*

 

A blizzard plopped seven inches of snow on Vanderlund just before Thanksgiving, which scuttled Tricia’s plan to come home from college for the holiday—assuming Tricia’d entertained any such plan, which Vicki rather doubted.  Ozzie and Felicia had counted on it, though, so the Volesters’s first Turkey Day in Burrow Lane was more downcast than thankful.

 

Monday, the 1st of December, marked the start of Winter Concert rehearsals by the VW Mixed Chorus.  Vicki’d promised Mrs. Weller she’d join this gleeful ensemble next semester, but right now was glad she didn’t have to arrive by 7 a.m. to sing an endless medley from Lost Horizon—“Share the Joy,” “The World Is a Circle,” and “Living Together, Growing Together”—every Zero Hour for the next two weeks.

 

(“That’s a snow job set to music,” Joss snortled, and Fiona had her Piggy group croon “Grunting Together, Squealing Together.”  Alex, unamused, said the original arrangement was “delightful” and ensured she’d be at school on time for every rehearsal.)

 

So Vicki slogged in alone that first Monday of December, setting out early—though not Zero Hour early—in case she ran into any unshoveled snowbanks.  Lesser Drive and Eugene G. Green Road were both plowed clear, so she made it to VW well before the homeroom bell, going in the orthodox entrance and up the conformist backstairs like a good eighter.  Yet with Alex off singing and Joss not yet arrived (Band rehearsals didn’t begin till later that week) there was time to kill after she’d hung up her coat, collected her books, and stashed them at Seat 38.

 

So what harm could there be if she just stuck her cautious head through the exit door to the Z-Wing stairwell?

 

Plenty, if you didn’t anticipate staring straight into Roger Mustardman’s widespread gabardine crotch.

 

“Oh!”

 

“Ho?” responded Roger, not looking up from an open manila folder.

 

The lack of eye contact kept Vicki from retreating.  “Um—so—where’s Becca?”

 

Engrossed in his folder: “Riiiight heeeere.”

 

Vicki crept out onto the landing.  “Wh-what do you mean?”

 

“She is here and they are here and we are all together.  Booboo j’boob.”

 

Altogether?  As in the—?  “Show me!”

 

“Come and look,” waggled the folder.

 

“Just turn it around, I can see it from here—” (advancing to the foot of the stairs).  “I’ve got good eyes.”

 

“And not ashamed to boast about them!  Well, bring ‘em on up... all the way up.  As our friend The Beast put it: ‘close, close, clohhhhse!’”

 

She edged up onto the same step as Roger.  Which was slush-free, thanks to the four-day weekend and access taboo.  Staying as far apart as the staircase would allow, she craned her neck his way—and got a crick in it when he whipped the folder around, displaying paparazzo photos of Becca at Petty Hills Country Club.  All extremely décolleté as she bent over a body on the gory ballroom floor.

 

“Is that...?”

 

“That was our dashing Slumlord.  Bruised his snout and added to that trench he keeps in his chin.  Now it can hold more drool from the fair tongues at Startop!  Yaaaas,” Roger drawled, re-immersing himself in the photos.  “There’s nothing like really deep cleavage to wet your whistle on.”

 

“I—I gotta go,” said Vicki, scrambling to her flustered feet.

 

“Nice blush,” Roger observed over the folder.  “And, as you boasted, good eyes.  Especially good when your face gets so brightly, hotly red—rowr rowr!”

 

“Shut up!” Vicki spluttered, plucking the seats of her jeans, longjohns, and Lollipops out of her own deep cleavage.  Backing away into 8-Z; leaving him to crouch shroudedly on the stairs.

 

Scamper off then to homeroom and big hugs with Joss, unseen since last Wednesday when Lamar Twofields rescued her from the snowy school at Toughie’s request.

 

(“Damn that blizzard!” Joss had groused on the phone with Vicki that night.  “If it’d just started sooner, I might’ve got marooned with Lamar and had a real Thanksgiving!  Meg told me, ‘You were lucky to get home at all’—I told Meg, ‘Yeah but it wasn’t good lucky.’”)

 

Good good g’joob.

 

See how your pants ride up in a trance.

 

You’d have to be a Dainty-Drawers to wear that shade of blush...

 

“What?” asked Joss in the here-and-now homeroom.  “You been having another hallucination?”

 

“No,” said Vicki, “more like a bat in the belfry...”

 

*

 

 

12/1/75 

 

 

Or, in plain English:

 

 

 

 

It seemed safest, for the moment, to relate this to Lana Eisenstein alone.

 

Joss, though Vicki trusted her more than anyone else, couldn’t be wholly depended on to not blurt something to Robin Neapolitan about the stairwell contretemps.  And if Robin heard about it, there’d be strawberry-faced fireworks blown way out of proportion—

 

“You mean you sat next to that buttbrain and looked at his dirty pictures??  Are you out of your freaking GOURD??

 

—and then Alex would get rattled and Becca’d be ticked off and Fiona’d have Arlo Sowell grunt a “Share the Jugs” ditty that the Smarks Brothers would adopt, and then Becca’d be ticked off even worse.

 

No thank you.

 

This would be her and Lana’s little secret.

 

Well, and Roger Mustardman’s.

 

Whom Vicki wasn’t the least little bit scared of or impressed by.

 

So on Tuesday she went straight to homeroom and studiously reviewed last night’s homework.

 

In English they had a dozen new vocab words and were starting a unit on The Diary of Anne Frank.  (Couldn’t they ever read anything that ended happily?)  In Social Studies, it was why the Articles of Confederation hadn’t worked; and there was a Math quiz today on recursive patterns.  Which made you want to do some recursing of Mr. Folz: hack hawk hoff!  “The Ambulatory Ashtray,” Roger called him—

 

(Dammit.)

 

She could sense when he entered Room Z205.  Though he didn’t approach her or throw any remarks her way or indeed say much of anything, which was highly unusual.  Could his feelings have been hurt?...  Oh don’t be stupid—pay him no-never-mind.  Ditto Lenny Otis in third and fourth period.  Double ditto Dino Tattaglia at lunch.

 

Even if such intentional disregard made you bump into people in the corridors.  And alarm not only Alex and Joss but Robin and Laurie and even Fiona, whose Lucky Charms you attempted to drink instead of your own milk.

 

“‘Magically delicious,’” Sheila-Q brogue-snortled.  “Somebody’s acting all lovesick.”

 

“SAYS WHO??” Vicki fulminated, making Fiona choke on her regained green clover marshmallows.

 

“(Just for that, I’m taking this,)” she mutter-declared, confiscating Vicki’s roll and butter-pat.

 

“You eating bread in school?” Robin scoffed.

 

“Good for you, Fiona!” Alex said supportively.  “But you need meat and vegetables too—”

 

“I’m sorry, Feef,” sighed Vicki.  “It’s just that I know I blew that Math quiz is all.”

 

“Uh hunhhhh,” Laurie skepticized.  Blenching when Vicki gave her a squint, but standing her ground nonetheless; no one could outromantic Laurie Harrison.  “Think of it this way,” she said.  “Being in love and having a boyfriend would get your mind off quizzes.”

 

“How is Chipper?” Joss asked before Robin could say, “You’re sure proof of that!”

 

Chipper Farlowe was perhaps the least objectionable of Laurie’s caddish wooers; yet the whole lunch-bunch sighed to hear her gurgle distractedly about his putative virtues, knowing Chipper had little interest in anything above Laurie’s shoulders.  Vicki threw in an extra half-sigh of relief—but withheld the other half, since Joss was now owed a disclosure.

 

So, at the Media Center during free period:

 

   

 

They covered these tidings with their Science homework and waved at Alex the Media Center aide, radiantly reshelving books; while Vicki let go of that other half-sigh.

 

*

 

Next morning, Vicki sheltered herself inside a bulky shawl-collar cardigan and knee-high zippered platform boots.  At school by 7:30, she marched straight from her locker past the 8-Z classrooms to the door marked exit, and opened it, and marched on through.

 

“Nice goosestep,” said the figure halfway up the stairs.  “Nicely goosable step, I should say.”

 

“That’s none of your beeswax!” Vicki blustered.  “I want you to leave me alone!”

 

“Why, I never laid both hands on you.  Not at the same time, anyway.  You may well ask Why.”

 

“Why nothing!  And you better not try, either!  Pick on Becca if you gotta pick on anybody.”

 

“Ah, but she picked me, you see,” said Roger, flourishing a glossy magazine: the new issue of North Squire.

 

“OhmyGahd—those pictures aren’t in there, are they?”

 

“Come see for yourself.”

 

“No!  I wont!  Just—show me from there.”

 

“Now, you know the rules.  ‘Close, close, clohhhhse!’”

 

Vicki gritted her teeth, inching forward till she was again ensconced on the step beside him.  Only then would Roger reveal a photo spread taken at the Petty Hills Junior Harvest Ball, taken before Sonny Lorgnon’s nosebloodying.  He grinned slumlordishly in one picture with stately-smiling Becca and a glamorous lady Vicki recognized from many local TV commercials.

 

“That’s Mimi McLaine, isn’t it?”

 

“Alias Mrs. Dr. J. Calvin Blair, Principal Anesthesiologist.”

 

“What, is she like Becca’s stepmother?”

 

“More like brood mother.”

 

“What!  She can’t be more’n thirty.”

 

“Just turned ripe old thirty-seven.  Same age as Dawn Wells, who represented Nevada at the Miss America pageant where Mimi strutted her stuff for Nebraska.  Doc Blair took one look at that stuff and unloaded his missus who’d put him through gasser school.  So First Missus taught him how to spell ‘alimony’—which explains his making do in a dump like the Aguadulce, and why Our Becca doesn’t attend Startop.  Mimis the one I feel sorry for—she completely missed the boat to Gilligan’s Island.

 

Vicki tried to cinch up her sagging jaw.  “How do you know all this?”

 

“It’s my prerogative (one of this week's vocab words) “as Becca’s ghostwriter.  A ghost has the right to do a bit of hauntwork along with homework.”

 

“What’re you talking about?”

 

Roger reflourished the magazine with a leer so sidelong it was cockeyed.  “How blessèd she art, to be sure—all those assets ‘n’ foresets from Mama Mimi—but a nose for prose ‘n’ poetry ain’t among ‘em.”

 

“Oh.  She does say she hates English,” Vicki murmured.

 

“Yes, we all have our bald spots—some in the most intriguing places,” Roger waggled.  “So she engaged my services as literary gigolo, at what I consider reasonable rates.”

 

Like flashing her bra on demand?  Vicki shrank a little more within her bulky cardigan, grateful for its matching scarf.  “Why you?  I mean, you talk a lot in class, but your grades’re nothing special.”

 

“I came to VW to mitigate my education” (another of this week’s vocab words).  “If I wanted to live up to my impotential, I wouldn’t’ve parted company with Front Tree.”

 

“Yeah well, Sheila Quirk says they kicked you outta there.”

 

Roger’s off-center leer widened.  “Hotcha Sheila?  Dino-the-Pimp’s been trying to lay a hand or two on her since their first communion, if-you-get-my-meaning-if-you-catch-my-drift.”

 

“I don’t believe it!” gasped Vicki.  “Not those two!”

 

“It happened back at Archbishop Houlihan: she had on a white dress and veil, and he splashed her with wine.  Can’t get more Symbolic than that.”

 

“Oh, you mean... like a church thing.”

 

“What were you thinking I meant?”

 

Glint went his glasses.  And though Vicki couldn’t see the eyes behind them, she got the squirmy impression they were penetrating her scarf and cardigan, boots and skirt and thermal tights—

 

—as the homeroom bell clanged and she leaped down to the landing, whirling to hunch behind her arms and hands and purse.  “You go out first!”

 

He took his time about it, putting inordinate amble into his perambulation—so much so that Vicki, who’d intended to wait a couple minutes so they wouldn’t be seen together, found herself not only following close-close-clohhhhse but with her eyes glued to the back pockets of Roger’s plaid flares.

 

(Dammit!!)

 

(With damnation to spare, since he apparently had eyes in those squat back pockets.  Eyes that could see through purse/hands/arms and take palpable note that, instead of plain white cotton Maidenform and Lollipops, Vicki’d worn her most frivolous set of party undies to school today.)

 

(Why on earth had she done such a thing?)

 

(Trust me—just knowing you have them on will make you feel prettier, and be prettier.  Works every time.)

 

(Shut up, Tricia!  Princess Smartysnoot!  Big College Hotdog!—)

 

(—hotdog??—)

 

(Oh GAHD—now you’re thinking about his RALPH—stop it stop it stop it!!!...)

 

*

 

It was surely no coincidence that Dino Tattaglia chased Sheila-Q from the X-Wing to the cafeteria that lunchtime.

 

She shrugged it off as an annoyance unavoidable by hotcha girls, and in fact Sheila looked exceptionally Mary Ellenish in a new pair of embroidered corduroy overalls.  Vicki—knowing they’d look even cuter on her—resolved to buy a pair as soon as she received $20 in Christmas gift checks.  $10 for the overalls, and $10 for another set or two of fine lacywear to go beneath them.

 

(There was, after all, no earthly reason not to want to feel pretty.)

 

(Tricia’d sung a whole showtune on that very subject.)

 

“For a varsity Ladybug, you sure weren’t trying too hard to outrun Tattaglia!” Robin jeered at Sheila, launching today’s argument: just how fast should a girl run from a guy, in assorted situations?

 

Vicki listened carefully but came away uncertain.

 

The Band was now involved in Winter Concert’s Zero Hour rehearsals, so Joss and Robin and Fiona were as absent as Alex from 8-Z before 8 a.m.  Minimizing the threat of being detected going into and out of the stairwell; so Vicki spent seven of the next twelve Zero Hours there, with Colonel Mustard and his candlestick.

 

She always found him waiting on the same step, halfway up the next flight to the third floor.  Always by himself, though the rest of the day you’d see him in the company of Lenny or Dino or both.

 

“Bodyguards,” Roger bragged.  “Button men to shield my butt from Drippy Brad Faussett and Wee Willie Wilkie.”  He broke into song:

 

 

Rumblin’ tumblin’ roon about, crawin’ like a COCK

Skirlin’ like a kenna-what, waukenin’ sleepin’ FOCK—

 

 

“—that’s Wee Willie for you.  Future podiatrist, dontcha know: most attracted to Our Becca’s bare feet.

 

Vicki, with scarlet cheeks, could only murmur, “You oughta be rehearsing with Mixed Chorus.”

 

“No, that’d be Living Up To My Impotential—can’t be done.  Besides, then I wouldn’t have the pleasure of watching your subcutaneous capillaries widen.”

 

“Hunh??

 

“Blush,” said Roger.

 

Which she did till she thought the earrings would burst out of her lobes.

 

It made no sense at all.  He wasn’t a handsome guy, unless you found beetle-browed squatness handsome.  No worse groomed than the average eighth-grade boy, yet there was something inherently unclean about him—not like snake-oily Roy Hodeau, but impossible to ignore.  Unlike Babyface Nelson Baedeker, he’d obviously started shaving on a regular basis—and slapping on a redolent cologne, Hai Karate or Aqua Velva.  And he kept brandishing that pen in his teeth, never using it to write with—“Sorry, I’m trying to quit.”

 

Being in his presence made Vicki feel like Becky Thatcher: lost in a cave full of bats.

 

“Chapter 20 of Tom Sawyer is an excellent example of sadomasochistic literature,” Roger remarked.  “Very much like Venus in Furs.

 

“What’s that?”

 

“A dirty, dirty book.  Not fit for little-girl-eyes to see.”

 

“Well then, it can’t be anything like Tom Sawyer.

 

“Oh no?  Becky finds a picture of a stark naked man and tears it down the middle.  ‘Oh what shall I do?’ she cries, ‘I’ll be whipped, and I never was whipped in school!’  That comes after Tom imagines how he’d ‘trounce’ Becky if she were a boy, and her being impatient to see Tom ‘flogged.’  And when he is, it’s a ‘merciless flaying’ that she watches with adoration.”

 

“But he took her punishment!” Vicki protested.  “She tore the teacher’s book, and Tom said he did it!”

 

“His exact words were, ‘I done it’—emphasis on the selfish ego.  Which she interpreted as ‘being noble.’  Don’t tell me that’s not sadomasochism.”

 

Vicki wondered if he talked like this to Becca Blair: rubbing in that she had a similar name as Becky Thatcher, if not similar pantalettes.

 

“I’ve got to meet with my English tutor first thing tomorrow,” Becca told her that same morning in the girls locker room.  Casually, yet with an imperious undertone.

 

“Oh?” said Vicki.  “Oh!  Um, all right.”

 

She stayed away from the stairwell next Zero Hour, trying not to conjecture how much underwear was being exposed.  Or dwell on Becca’s knowing about her and Roger—not that there was a her-and-Roger—not that it mattered, since Becca was the only one who guessed there even might be.

 

Or so Vicki thought till after lunch, when Carly Thibert leaned over from her neighboring locker to smirk: “You ‘n’ Roger Mustardman, hunh?”

 

Vicki nearly unswallowed just-eaten fish sticks.  “W-where’d you get that idea?”

 

Chipmunk-cackle.  “The way you two were, y’know, looking at each other in the cafeteria, when you didn’t think the other one was looking.  I’m right, aren’t I?”

 

“I... dunno,” Vicki confessed.  “I hope not...”

 

“Go out with him,” Carly advised, using her locker mirror to reapply lipgloss.  “That’s the best way to tell for sure.”

 

“Would you go out with him, Carly?”

 

“Depends.  Where?—to do what?—‘n’ how much’ll he spend?  A guy with money doesn’t have to look that good.”

 

Slam of locker doors.  “Just don’t... spread it around, ‘kay?  I mean, about me ‘n’... anybody.”

 

“Hey, I’m cool,” said Carly.  “I won’t if you won’t say anything about my new fake ID.  Lemme know if you want one—my cousin Lola does good work.  Makes everybody believe you’re sixteen.”

 

Head for Vocal Music as Carly heads for Art, till you come back together for Spanish and a bunch of reflexive verbs that were simply obscene: desvertirse (“to undress”), bañarse (“to take a bath”), acostarse (“to go to bed”), divertirse (“to have fun”).  Carly cackled and Craig Clerkington guffawed as each verb was presented by Señorita DiStefano.  Brad Faussett chimed in too, but Vicki sensed his guffaws weren’t authentic.

 

After Spanish, following Brad and Craig down the hall to Z203, she thought she overheard them bandy the names Becca and Mustardman—but then Joss strode up bitching as usual about sixth period Phys Ed, drowning out the jockthread Vicki was trying to unravel.

 

“Are you even listening to me?” Joss peeved.

 

“Course!”

 

“So what’d I say last?”

 

“‘Damn I hate Gym.’”

 

“Well... okay, that does kind of sum it up.”

 

Joss hated Phys Ed; Becca hated English.  Vicki wasn’t terribly fond of Science, or of Mr. Dunn as he blathered on and on about “geochemical cycles.”  Which sounded like laundry, and duller-than-normal laundry at that: “The Earth contains a fixed amount—that is to say, essentially a fixed amount, of each atom or element—that is to say, each stable atom or element, that can exist in several different reservoirs—that is to say, natural resources such as land, water, atmosphere, organisms—”

 

“SHSSS!” went a gnash directly behind Vicki—from Tail-End Wyszynski, living up to his nickname too literally, and reminding her of third grade when Wernie Ball occupied the same place vis-à-vis her undefended backside.  Which wasn’t a fun surprise to discover, then or now.

 

Tail-End-bugs... Tail-End-germs... Tail-End-cooties...

 

(Eww.)

 

*

 

The next Zero Hour, on Friday the 12th, Vicki marched into the stairwell and planted herself next to Roger, taking care not to sit on the loose folds of his trench coat or opera cloak or whatever it was he was wearing: dark and flappy, like batwings.

 

“Why do you sit out here, anyway?”

 

“Seclusion,” he said, not glancing up from a heavy book with kafka on its spine.

 

Vicki wasn’t about to ask who kafka was or what “seclusion” meant.  “How’d your ‘tutoring’ Becca go yesterday?”

 

“Tut,” went Roger, turning a page.  “A gentleman doesn’t tute ‘n’ tell.”  He went on reading and Vicki, in a snug purple pullover atop an equally snug pink blouse, increased her disgruntlement.

 

“I heard Brad Faussett say something yesterday about her ‘n’ you—I couldn’t hear exactly what, but it didn’t sound good.”

 

“He thinks I’ve got a diabolical ‘hold’ over Our Becca.  So does Wee Willie—so does the Slumlord—and they all want to save her, like three knights or stooges of old.”  (Another page turned.)  “She won’t disabuse them of that bullshit—beg your pardon, that ‘adult male bovine’ shit—because she’d rather they abuse themselves, instead of hassling her to do it for them.”

 

Vicki felt her blatant cheeks again go hot.  “That’s... sick is what it is.”

 

“Think so?  Commonplace adolescent hormones.  Nothing new under the sun, which makes an apt acronym: NNUTS.  Becca gets the brunt of our NNUTS because she blossomed so very, very fully so very, very early.  Too very-very—that much blossom’s not likely to last.  Fortunately for her, she’s got plenty of brains and bearing and money behind her, so she’ll do well enough.  Better than Mama Mimi, who’d still be twirling batons at county fairs if she hadn’t landed Doc Gasser.”

 

“That’s mean!  You’re so mean!”

 

He tucked a bookmark in kafka, laid it aside, and regarded her straightforwardly.  “Now, now.  Tut, tut.  This happens all the time to the yellow-haired.  They rise and they shine till the sun sets.  Then comes the night, black and silken—”

 

His hand snaked out and took a pinchful of Vicki’s tresses, where they draped down the front of her snug purple pullover.

 

Under which her heart stopped for an eon before pounding like a bass line at the realization that Roger’s knuckles were resting on her left breast—his index upon her nipple.

 

With the intervening three layers of fabric providing no buffer whatsoever.

 

OhmyGahd I’m being felt up.  OhmyGahd it’s happening at school.

 

OhmyGahd am I being SEDUCED??

 

Most of Vicki wanted to go burn her pullover, boil her blouse, and reinforce her bra with lead shielding.

 

But some of her struggled not to turn his hand around and press herself into it, and grab his other hand for righty and lean into that one too.

 

“Darkness never fades away,” he said: that glint in his specs again.  “It keeps spreading, vaster and vaster...”

 

*

 

“I’ve got something to tell you,” Vicki said in Joss’s aerie that weekend.

 

They were sitting crosslegged on Joss’s brass bed with a big bowl of sleepover popcorn, watching Richard Pryor host a new show called NBC’s Saturday Night.  It was supposedly broadcast live from New York, but the nervous network put it on a five-second delay in case Richard said anything bleepable.

 

Live or delayed, Joss was in heaven: screaming with laughter (into a pillow) at Richard and singing along with bluesologist Gil Scott-Heron on “Johannesburg.”  Vicki, however, had been uptight since a skit where a samurai (working as a hotel clerk) was played by a squat white beetle-browed guy; and pressure grew till she could keep her yap shut no longer.

 

So, during a commercial where Mimi McLaine pitched Canfield’s Diet Chocolate Fudge pop, Vicki divulged:

 

“I think Roger Mustardman’s kinda got a thing for me.”

 

“‘Cause he showed you naughty pictures of Becca?”

 

“There’s more to it than that.”

 

“Like what?” Joss asked through a mouthful of popcorn.

 

“Like he... kinda felt me up, I think.”

 

Popcorn spit-take.  “You think he felt you up??  When did this happen??”

 

“Um—yesterday morning.”

 

Joss gaped at her with saucer-sized eyes and mouth, till Richard Pryor came back on the aerie TV.

 

“HOLD that thought!” Joss stipulated.

 

Vicki meekly held it while Richard engaged in a word-association skit with a white guy whose cleft chin made him look like Sonny Lorgnon’s older brother.  They soon had Joss screaming into the pillow again, as Richard escalated from honky! to honky honky! to DEAD honky! to yo' MOMMA!! to yo' GRAN'MOMMA!!!

 

As his fury rose, it seemed to defuse Joss’s.  But at the next commercial break all she’d say was, “Help me clean up the popcorn.  You know Toughie’ll know if we leave any on the floor.”

 

Vicki used a flashlight to check under the bed and there flushed out Fingers, one of the two Mittens-kittens the Murrisches had chosen to keep.  Fingers, even pre-weaning, appeared to enjoy cornet music and so became Joss’s personal cat.  The other keeper-kittena born weirdo, attached to Beth and Invisible Amywas called Thumb.

 

“Tom Thumb?  Or Thumbelina?”

 

“Neither,” Beth said decidedly.  “Just Thumb.  All Thumb.”

 

(Their mother Mittens was keeping watch downstairs like Toughie’s sentinel, to see if Meg would again break her Saturday dating curfew, and if so by how many minutes.)

 

Vicki got Fingers to chase the flashlight beam around the aerie, further alleviating Joss’s exasperation.  All the same, Vicki kept HOLDing that thought till Richard Pryor said good night and the TV set was switched off.

 

Then Joss took Fingers onto her crosslegged lap, fixed Vicki with a hard-blue-marble glare, and said: “Spill.”

 

Vicki duly spilled every bean of the past two weeks.  Using her own awkwardly curved hand to re-enact the move Roger’d made on her, she disclosed her contradictory reactions: repulsion on/of the one hand, versus—what exactly?  Curiosity?  Compliance?

 

Or craving, as if for an ice cream soda on a hot summer day?

 

I wanted to tell you everything right away, I was just about to tell you last night at my house, but then I was like: “If I do tell, maybe that’ll mean it really did happen.

 

What—do you think maybe it really didn’t?

 

I don’t know...  Maybe I’m still hallucinating.

 

(Fingers kitten-clambered off Joss’s thigh and nestled next to Vicki’s.)

 

So... will you keep going to see him, in the mornings before homeroom?

 

I don’t know.  Part of me never wants to see him again, anywhere, ever.  But then—

 

“THAT’S why you wore your sexy top yesterday!!”

 

(“Myeep!” went Fingers, jumping off the bed and running behind the beanbag chair.)

 

“It’s not a ‘sexy’ top, it’s my purple top.”

 

“Your sexy purple top.  Don’t you see?  You kinda have a thing for him, too.”

 

“I do not!...  Do I, really?”

 

“No wonder he couldn’t control himself!  You’re lucky he didn’t try anything except copping a feel.  Does doing that backhanded still count as ‘second base’?”

 

“You’re asking me?  Why would he even want to, with me?  It’s not like I’ve got Becca’s flopperoos.”

 

“That doesn’t matter to a hornyboy.  Look at Laurie—she’s hardly top-heavy, but guys are always grabbing at her.  Even Jason, and he’s her own stepbrother!”

 

“Oh, he just snaps her bra straps, and she’s so dumb she thinks that’s flirting.  No—I didn’t mean thatLaurie’s, yknow, like innocent.  If Roger ever got hold of her, she’d just think he was being romantic’—and he’d keep her believing it, too.  How can I have a thing for a guy like that?”

 

“Laurie is dumb.  I’ve liked her since first grade, but she’s always been gullible and naïve and picked on—at least until Susie came along to protect her.  You’re not like that at all.”

 

“Well... that’s ’cause you came along to protect me.

 

“Aw... shut up, you nut.”

 

You shut up.  And wear a sexy top on Monday, so Roger’ll forget about me and I can forget about him.

 

“Hey!  How hard do you wanna get clobbered, Loopy?”

 

CLUMP from downstairs; a righteous yowl from Mittens; and Mr. Murrisch saying, “Meg?  Do you have any idea what time it is?” in a stern-yet-weary Lincolnian voice.

 

“(Busted!)” Joss whisper-exulted: scooping up Fingers, snapping off the light, hopping back into bed.  “(Meg-gy’s so bust-ed!)”

 

“(She’s a DEAD honky!”) Vicki agreed.

 

“(Yo’ MOMMA!!)”

 

“(Yo’ GRAN’MOMMA!!!)”

 

Vicki wasn’t sure they should be whisper-yelling such things, given the condition of Joss’s mother and Grandma Sadie; but Joss had started it, relishing the streetwise aspersions.  And—far more importantly—she’d forgiven Vicki for keeping mum.  (So to speak.)

 

*

 

Discipline at VW was lighter than normal the week before Christmas vacation.  Even so, on Monday afternoon the Smarks Brothers succeeded in being sent to the Principal’s office from three separate classes.  While there, they posed for a group photo with Mrs. Driscoll—or rather around her, she being constructed along what Roger called “operatic battleship” lines.  As she stood with a look of Wagnerian bafflement on her dreadnought face, Roger held a sprig of mistletoe above his head; Lenny peered out from behind the Principal, making grisly goo-goo eyes; and Dino, wearing his forbidden “pimp cap,” brazenly concealed Mrs. Driscoll’s Rolodex inside his parka.

 

“Who took this picture?” Vicki wanted to know when Roger showed it to her.

 

“I blame Society.  Pretty high society, too—the higher the better.  ‘Higher than kites they fly by nights till you can see the whites of their potato blights...’”

 

He did not pick up where he’d left off, move-making-wise; and Vicki found that almost as offensive as a flagrant fondle.  She dreaded that hed bring out the mistletoe-sprig and compel her to forfeit a kiss—then fretted over what he must think was wrong with her, that kept him from trying.

 

On Wednesday evening VW’s Winter Concert took place in the Home Base auditorium.  Vicki, in the audience, envied Alex and Laurie and Little Sue onstage with the Mixed Chorus—but was relieved she didn’t have to be up there too, singing the endless Lost Horizon medley.

 

She sat with Beth Murrisch (who gravely critiqued the Band’s performance) and Invisible Amy (who seemed to concur).  “That drummer’s frowning at us,” Beth stated.

 

“Robin Neapolitan?  You know her, don’t you?  She’s kind of a constant frowner,” said Vicki, glancing at the percussion section.  Robin did have on her strawberry glower, and mouthed a word at Vicki that wasn’t “Mandingo.”

 

What? Vicki mouthed back.

 

Robin had to participate in the Band’s spirited (if not completely on-key) rendition of “Sleigh Ride”—then looked at Vicki again, and mouthed Turd!

 

What?? Vicki nearly reacted, before remembering that one of Robin’s favorite maxims was You can’t say “Mustardman” without calling him a turd.

 

“(Beth?)” Vicki breathed through ventriloquist-lips.  “(Is there a guy sitting behind me?)”

 

“Plenty,” answered Beth, her owlish little eyes on the Band.

 

“(I mean one with thick glasses and thick eyebrows, and maybe looks like he needs a shave.)”

 

“Oh, that one.  He was there for awhile.  He scared off the other guy.”

 

“(What other guy?  How do you mean, scared off?)”

 

“Amy saw the other guy sitting behind you.  He was a fidgeter and did squeezy things with his hands.  Then when your guy came in, the other guy got up and ran away and your guy took his seat.  Amy didn’t see when he left, but he’s gone now.”

 

Vicki wished she could communicate directly with Invisible Amy.  “(Why do you keep calling him ‘my’ guy?)”

 

“You knew what he looked like, didn’t you?” said Beth.

 

The Band struck up “Winter Wonderland,” transporting Vicki back to the Norroway Theater a couple years in the past; and again the strings of her heart went twang.

 

*

 

Alex left the concert with a sore throat that turned into a runny nose overnight.  No argument this time about staying home sick: she was determined to recuperate before her birthday on Friday and its big celebration on Saturday.  So on Thursday Vicki went to school alone once more—and extra early too, so as to brush her hair and check her makeup before beating Roger to the stairwell.  She arranged herself on their step (no, not their step—just the one he and she both tended to occupy) and sat waiting to see how he’d react when he got there and found her expecting him.

 

Why no, she’d say (with her eyes)—she didn’t have on anything special.  Just felt like wearing a dress today: a little black wool dress, such as belonged in every teen girl’s doorless alcove closet.  When it wasn’t being worn to school for the first time.  Because it matched her just-brushed hair and always-good eyes.  Not to impress anyone in particular.

 

When anyone finally showed up.

 

If anyone ever did.

 

Maybe he had a sore throat too?

 

Vicki’s was beginning to feel a bit scratchy, so she popped a Sucrets lozenge from the tin in her purse.  This sucks...

 

“Patty Hearst, I presume.”

 

PWAH! went the lozenge out of her mouth, to ricochet off the bannister and adhere to the exact spot over Vicki’s left nipple.

 

“Bravo,” Roger applauded from the landing above.  “These stairs don’t just go up, you know.  I could’ve snuck down and kidnapped you forty times before you cottoned onto that.  Or, excuse me, before you woollied—”

 

His hand parted her just-brushed hair to infiltrate the back of her neckline, give the dress a tweak—and, purposely or not, undo the hook at its zipper-top.

 

Causing the Sucret to pop off Vicki’s front and bounce giddily away.

 

“You shouldn’t be g-g-going up there,” she stuttered.  “To the freshman floor, I mean.”

 

“When I ‘g-g-go’ to a school, I go to it.  All over it.  Every inch of it.  Nothing’s off limits.”  (Did he still have hold of her zipper-slider?  Was it starting to zssssk downward?)

 

“Were—were you at the concert last night?”

 

“Why?  I don’t sing their songs or play their instruments.  ‘Only my lonely own...’”

 

“Well, someone said she—thought she—saw you there.  Chasing away Tail-End.”

 

“Whose tail-end am I supposed to be chasing?”

 

“Not whose.  Tail-End, y’know—Byron Wyszynski.”

 

(Zssssk.  Down to just above her bra’s backstrap.)

 

“Don’t mind Wyszzo.  He’s a clown with a yen for a ballerina.”

 

Vicki twisted herself away and around to where he squatted Moorishly: a figure off the Jambe de Bois music box Gran had given her.  “That—that’s Petrushka.”

 

“No, that’s real life imitating Art.  Speaking of which”  He removed a manila envelope from his trench coat and thrust it at her.  “In token of the holiday season, my little schmetterling.  See you in the trenches.”

 

He dodged past her, his coat batflapping her face, and was through the wing door before she could react.

 

Reach dazedly back to rezip and rehook; then pick up his envelope with gingerly fingertips.  Upon it, in teensy-tiny print, was the answer to a question she hadn’t been able to ask:

 


Schmetterling
 (noun, German)

   1.   butterfly  (insect)
   2.   butterfly  (swim stroke)
   3.   butterfly  (anti-aircraft missile)

 

 

*

 

“(Who died?)” Fiona mutter-asked in homeroom, seeing Vicki’s black dress.

 

“Hshsss!” gollumed Tail-End from Seat 40.  Vicki doubted he was trying to make eye contact with her, but didn’t check to be sure.  Roger, she knew for certain, wasn’t.

 

Which did nothing to quell the schmetterlings in her tummy.

 

She’d looked up the equivalent word in her Spanish dictionary: mariposa, much prettier and more appropriate.  Yo soy una mariposa: yo floto, yo planeo.  A long-distance runner could float and glide like a butterfly—and better than a ballerina, since you could outpace any clown who might be after you.

 

But what about a Moor?

 

Joss once claimed the name Murrisch meant “Moorish” and explained her partiality for black guys.  Well, maybe there were two kinds of Moors: Afro-American ones, and then the squat white beetle-browed type.

 

What had he given her in that envelope?

 

More photos, probably.  Maybe snapshots of Becca’s bedroom, which Vicki hadn’t been invited to tour.  Or could the pictures be of Vicki herself?  Delivered in a “plain brown wrapper,” as if they were something shameful?  Photos taken in a school where she had to remove her dress and replace it with a hideous gymsuit, then take that off and everything else AND take a bare-naked shower, elbow-to-elbow with VW’s most Terrific Torso!!

 

Not that Roger Mustardman’d be peeping at their elbows.

 

“(He gave me something!!)” Vicki seethed in Joss’s ear between second and third periods.

 

“(Like… what?)”

 

“(Like in an envelope!  Sealed, even!)”

 

“(Don’t worry.  We can steam it open.)”

 

Leave it to Joss to make a joke out of what was probably blackmail.  “If you don’t want everyone at school to see these bare-naked pictures, you’ll have to pose for more—this time right in front of me!”  Oh Gahd!  That’d be what the cover note would demand!  And what mercy could she expect from a guy who’d actually started undressing her in the stairwell that very morning??

 

“(I can try to sneak it back into his locker,)” Joss offered between third and fourth periods.  Which was a feasible possibility, Roger’s locker being right next to Joss’s.  She’d seen a little placard he kept inside its door that said:

 


Be careful with the sexual stuff

There are knockers on the warpath

                            —H. L. Mencken

 

  

“(Well… not till we see what’s in the envelope,”) said Vicki.

 

“(I bet it’s a luhvvvve letter!)”

 

“(Oh shut up!)”

 

“(You shut up.  Loudmouth guys are secretly shy around girls they’ve got a thing for.  They write in letters the stuff they can’t say aloud.)”

 

“(Yeah right.)”

 

“(What’s with all the muttering?) asked Fiona, on her way to Pre-Algebra.

 

As soon as that bothersome class was over, Vicki and Joss took the envelope to the remotest carrel in the Media Center and there, warily, as if they were defusing a bomb, used a nail file to pry it open.  Allowing them to extract:

 

A BITE TO DRINK

 

ACT ONE

 

A bell tolls twelve times as the curtain rises on a vaulted crypt.  Center stage is a large coffin (closed) with tall iron tapers standing at each corner.  Behind the coffin is a six-foot-high headstone reading:

 

HERE LIES

ZACHARY T. CROCKAPUT

 

Below the name on this headstone is a peg on which hangs a sign saying do not disturbAfter the bell’s twelfth toll, there is a long pause.  We hear the sound of snoring.  Then a loud alarm clock goes off and keeps clanging.  The coffin opens and zachary t. crockaput climbs out.  He wears an oversized nightshirt and nightcap.  Yawns and scratches himself, then takes the alarm clock from inside the coffin and whacks it silent.

 

crockaput

 

Five hundred years old, and this clock is still slow.

 

He pulls off the nightcap and nightshirt, revealing a standard Dracula costume (creased and wrinkly) underneath.  Tosses nightwear and clock into the coffin and closes it.  Takes a cigar and match out of a pocket, strikes the match on a tall iron taper, lights the cigar and takes a drag.

 

crockaput

 

I thought everything around here was undead till I sampled this cheroot.

 

He picks up a handbell from behind the headstone and rings it vigorously.

 

crockaput

 

Oh Gigoletto!  Come hyah, boy!  And bring my evening spittoon!

 

Enter Gigoletto in bellhop costume, carrying a big brass spittoon.

 

gigoletto

 

You’re too late, boss—checkout time was midnight!  [laughs at his own joke]

 

He holds the spittoon for crockaput to throw the cigar into.  They start tossing the spittoon back and forth like a medicine ball.  The one not holding it makes exaggerated quote marks with fingers during the following:

 

crockaput

 

Has Roachez the coachman picked up our “guest” from the “inn” yet?

 

gigoletto

 

Well, our “guest” was out of the “inn,” so Roachez picked him up from the “outhouse” instead.  Here he comes now—hey, Roachy!

 

Enter roachez in coachman costume, using a long bullwhip as a jump rope.  He takes another sign from behind the headstone and hangs it on the peg in front of the do not disturb sign.  The new sign reads, watch the midnight special / with wolfman jack.

 

roachez and gigoletto

 

[howling at each other]   AROOOO!

 

crockaput

 

[putting down the spittoon]   These two aren’t children of the night—they’re fallout from the wee hours.  And I do mean “whee.”

 

roachez and gigoletto

 

[howling at crockaput]   WHEEEE!

 

crockaput

 

Say, what’d you do with my “guest” that was “out” of the “inn”?

 

roachez cracks his whip toward the wings.  Enter young fellow-me-lad, puffing and wheezing as he carries in as much luggage as one actor can hold.

 

crockaput

 

Is that all his?

 

gigoletto

 

No, I had Roachy claim all the abandoned bags.  You know, the ones sitting around unwanted in people’s rooms.

 

young fellow-me-lad steps in the spittoon and drops all the luggage.  roachez and gigoletto start to open and go through it, laughing at some items, trying on others.  young fellow-me-lad pats his foppish brow with a folded handkerchief while trying to discreetly remove the spittoon from his foot.

 

young fellow-me-lad

 

Count Crockaput?

 

crockaput

 

You’re thinking of my cousin, Chocula.  I’m just a Know-a-Count.  But I am [in a Dracula accent] Crahhhk-uh-put-t-t-t.

 

young fellow-me-lad

 

Ooh, it’s really good to see you.

 

crockaput

 

Well, it’s nice to be seen, if you want to “make the scene.”  Just don’t ask to see my spleen.

 

young fellow-me-lad

 

Allow me to introduce myself.  I am your new lawyer, Young Fellow-Me-Lad.

 

crockaput

 

Yes, I remember your great-grandfather, Old Fellow-Me-Coot.  His sister married a lawyer—that made him an attorney-in-law.  [In Dracula accent]  I trossst you hoff kept your commmingk here a seeecret?

 

young fellow-me-lad

 

I followed your instructions IM-plicitly.

 

crockaput

 

EX-cellent, Mr. Fellow-Me-Lad!  EX-cellent way to say IM-plicitly!

 

roachez and gigoletto take a large rolled-up poster out of young fellow-me-lad’s briefcase.  They unroll it and hang it on the headstone over the Midnight Special sign.  It is a demure pin-up of a small dark beauty showing off her legs in a swallowtail ballerina costume.  roachez, gigoletto and crockaput crowd in to admire her up close.  Excited whistling and “ooh! ooh!s” from gigoletto and roachez.

 

young fellow-me-lad

 

[still struggling with the spittoon]  Please be careful with that!  It’s a portrait of my sweetheart back home, Mabel Maydone.

 

crockaput

 

A Maydone, you say?  Called Mabel?  Reminds me of a fine old ballad: 

[singing bass]       What’s yer name, little girl? 

[singing falsetto]   Name is Mayyy-bel. 

[singing bass]       Gimme a kiss, little girl! 

[singing falsetto]   Mayyy-bel layyy-ter.

 


 

At which point the Lunch B bell rang, jolting Vicki and Joss back to the “real life world of the remotest carrel in the VW Media Center.

 

“He wrote you a play!” said Joss.

 

“He wrote me a play…” said Vicki.

 

*

 

And the last place she wanted to be right then was in the same cafeteria as its author.  At least not till she found out what happened to the “small dark beauty” with admirable legs.

 

But Joss was famished, and wanted to trade some of her savory Toughie lunch for the school’s ooey-gooey mac’n’cheese; so to the cafeteria they did go, Vicki hiding A Bite to Drink inside her music notebook.  Needlessly: Roger was absorbed in playing pinochle—not for money, the Smarkses assured the faculty monitor, but to unsettle which one would have to eat the other two’s mac’n’cheese.

 

It being the Thursday before Christmas vacation, the monitor let the game continue.  Snap! went the cards as the Smarkses trumped each other—and as Brad Faussett got up from his stool, ran a comb through superblowdried hair, put on a grimly resolute countenance, and started over to the Smarks table.  With some of the air escaping from his balloon when he turned to nod at his followers, and found he didn’t have any.

 

Come on, he head-jerked at the nearest jock table.  Come on, he head-jerked again when nobody got up.

 

“Bradley and the Spasmodics, ladies and gentlemen!” Roger resounded.

 

“Bradley has the spasmodics!” went Craig Clerkington, looking proud of himself for cracking that wise.

 

HEY! from Bradley, rejerking his head a couple more times.  Come ON, will ya?

 

But Craig wasn’t budging: he thought Brad’s theory that Roger possessed some hypnotic “hold” over Becca Blair was a dumpee’s excuse.  If Brad wanted to compound this by making a dip of himself, let him do it solo; and if Craig wasn’t going to back Brad up, none of the other jocks (who all had designs on Becca) would either.

 

Aw C’MON, you guys! from the Lone Faussett, nearly dislocating his neck with a final Let’s DO this! head-jerk.

 

“Brad,” put in Becca herself from the nearest cheerybabe table.  “Be sweet, okay?”

 

(Titters from Gigi Pyle, Kim Zimmer, and other cheerybabes.)

 

“Yeah—you can always try out for the ‘A’ Suite next season,” Roger added, loudly.

 

(Guffaws from Craig and the jocks at this witty reminder of Brad’s benchwarming role on the varsity football squad.)

 

Steam oozed out of Brad’s ears and around his superblowdried coif.  He stomped past the Smarks table to throw something nonexistent into the garbage bin; then made a circuitous retreat to his stool through more titters and guffaws.

 

“What a wimp!” grumbled Robin Neapolitan.  “The least he could’ve done was knock Mustardman’s block off first.”

 

Snap! went Roger’s trump card.

 

*

 

After lunch, Vicki and Joss rushed to the empty auditorium balcony and there ran through the rest of A Bite to Drink.  Or at least the rest of Act One, which was all Vicki’d been given; its last page had the handwritten postscript

 



 

 

The girls were quickly glad they hadn’t read the next scene before lunch:

 

young fellow-me-lad

 

[taking papers out of his briefcase]   Here is the lease to Dearey Abbey, sir, all ready for your hand and seal.

 

crockaput

 

I’m fresh out of seals, we’ll have to use an otter.  We otter use an otter.  Since we can’t seal our deal, I porpoise we dolphin and have a meal together.  [rings handbell]

 

gigoletto, in chef’s hat and apron, wheels in a tray of covered bowls.  Sets one bowl on the coffin lid in front of young fellow-me-lad, and uncovers it with a grand gesture.

 

young fellow-me-lad

 

Uggh!  What’s in this bowl?  Is it roaches?

 

roachez cracks his whip, jumps on top of the coffin and starts to dance.  gigoletto and crockaput clap rhythmically, shouting “Hey!  Hey!”

 

crockaput

 

Okay, that’s enough of the table show—save the rest for the floor show.

 

roachez jumps off the coffin, dances away with his whip, and resumes going through the luggage.

 

gigoletto

 

Don’t worry, boss, this is our national dish—Spiders Paprikash.

 

young fellow-me-lad

 

Spiders?  But they’re alive!  They’re alive!!!

 

crockaput

 

Certainly they’re alive, do you think we’re inhumane?  But they need something to swim in.  Gigoletto, you forgot the wine sauce!

 

gigoletto

 

The wine sauce!  The wine sauce!  [uncovers a bottle, pulls the cork, and pours it over the Spiders Paprikash.  The “wine” comes out like ketchup, and gigoletto has to pound the bottle to make it flow]

 

young fellow-me-lad

 

[to crockaput]   Uggh—er—aren’t you having any, sir?

 

crockaput

 

I never drink—wine.   I sometimes wink blind, though.  Depending on what I do drink, and how often.

 

young fellow-me-lad

 

I—I—thank you, but I’m not really hungry right now.

 

crockaput

 

You wouldn’t insult us by refusing to taste our national dish, would you?  Gigoletto!  My dueling gauntlet!

 

young fellow-me-lad hastily takes a spoonful of spiders and puts it in his gagging mouth.

 

crockaput

 

See?  I knew you’d relish it.  Just wait till they start spinning webs for all the unwary flies in your stomach.

 


Joss and Vicki, full of ooey-gooey mac ’n’ cheese, had nearly quit reading by then.  But Roachez found another poster in Young Fellow-Me-Lad’s bag: this one “a centerfold, as EX-plicit as theater management will permit, of a bigsome blonde
—Clara Klean, the bosom chum of Mabel Maydone.  Clara’s father, Dr. Klean, operated a sanitarium next door to Dearey Abbey:

 

crockaput

 

Are you saying I’ll be neighbors with an insane asylum?

 

young fellow-me-lad

 

In a manner of speaking.

 

crockaput

 

Well, that’s a relief.

 

The scene switched to Dr. Klean’s asylum, where Clara (“dressed Brunhilde-style in winged helmet and ample breastplates”) entered in a chariot drawn by a Mounted Chorus:

 

three choral suitors

 

[harmonizing]

Oh, we’re three boys on a horse,

We hope we might get fed!

Through veins our blood does course

Until it all gets shed!

 

The three suitors—Drippy, Snippy, and Flippy—each proposed marriage to Clara, as did their horse; but she rejected them all, lest wedlock interfere with her ambition to be the world’s best-endowed singer:

 

clara

 

Though my curves are quite emphatic

And my sex appeal’s invincible,

I’m not very operatic
So I can
t be a school principal!

 

The Mounted Chorus slunk dolefully off stage left, and Mabel Maydone danced on stage right (Vicki’s heart starting to thump) as Swan Lake played “in swelling stereo.”  Without a word and while still dancing, she gave her bosom chum a letter; and Clara related its good news—the greatest voice teacher in Europe was coming to volunteer his services!  Zachary T. Crockaput, who’d be staying right next door at Dearey Abbey, said he was not acquainted with anyone by the name of Young Fellow-Me-Lad, whom he definitely hadn’t driven insane by feeding him Spiders Paprikash, and whose sweetheart back home was of course perfectly safe from any nefarious designs by the aforementioned Know-a-Count.

 

clara

 

Well, isn’t that splendid, Mabel?  I shall get the musical tutoring I need, while you await Young Fellow-Me-Lad’s return from his mysterious secret mission abroad!  And then when you two plight your troth, I shall sing at your nuptials!

 

Spotlight on mabel, and we go into a Dream Ballet to “Ochi Chyornye.  Enter  young fellow-me-lad, still holding his bowl and munching spiders like popcorn.  He is plainly insane as he dances after mabel.  She avoids his twitchy embraces and keeps dancing out of reach, even when he starts to stalk her with a butterfly net.  crockaput enters on a raised platform, riding on roachez and gigoletto’s shoulders.  They look out over the ballet, laughing uproariously as the song ends.
 

 

Curtain


*

 

 

Alex was back in smooth-throated trim on Friday, her fourteenth birthday, effulgently anticipating its (and the start of Christmas vacation’s) big celebration tomorrow.  She accompanied Vicki to school that morning, leaving no time for a visit to the stairwell—and no certainty what Vicki might’ve done while there, had there been time.

 

The thought kept recurring that she “otter give Roger a little something in token of the holiday season, to thank him for his play.

 

An in-es-cap-a-bly wicked thought kept recurring, that this otter be a mistletoe-sprig.  (Redden tingle blush.)

 

But with no time to go to the stairwell, she waited for Roger to make the next move in homeroomor English, or Social Studies, or Math, or at lunch—

 

—which he didn’t, because he was absent that day.  As, apparently, were Lenny and Dino.  What’ve you done to him (them)? Vicki wanted to yell at Brad Faussett; but he looked like a hound who’d trailed a fox for many hours over many miles, to an empty lair.

 

*

 

Alex’s birthday bash was held at the newly-opened Triville Indoor Ice Center.  Joss, suspecting this wouldn’t be the best venue to attract black guys, had pushed instead for group attendance of an NBA game; but Mr. Dmitria got a discount offer from Triville, so onto the ice they (mostly Caucasian) went.

 

The skating party put Vicki in uncomfortable mind—and body, when she slipped and landed tush-first—of her own twelfth birthday at the Pivotal Roller Rink; and all the people shed known then who were gone from her life now.

 

The Volesters had exchanged Christmas cards with the Tamworths and Rawberrys and Hulls and the two Mrs. Partridges, and Hanukkah cards with the Pomerantzes and Franks; but these cards were full of bland good wishes and no news updates.  The one exception came from the Shapiros in New York, who reported how Sarah-Jill was excelling in school there; and that was hardly a bombshell bulletin.

 

Vicki’d debated whether to send a card to Stephanie Lipperman.  She chose not to, felt guilty about it, then angry at her guilt.  How hard would it’ve been for Steph to respond to her previous olive branch, extended way last July?  How difficult would it’ve been to maintain at least a pen-pal bond?

 

No—Vicki’s Vanderlund bunch were her true friends.  Alex had them out caroling every night before Christmas: a joint venture by Chorus and Band to raise money for the needy while making music and having fun.  All of which were done in abundance, till you could truly taste the peace and goodwill and joyful triumph of suburban skies.

 

So thrust the past behind you, where it belonged.

 

Tricia rocketed through town for 48 Yuletide hours.  The gifts she brought smacked of last-minute shopping at the university bookstore, yet were still highly appreciated.  Vicki got a maize-and-blue Wolverines track suit that made her feel like a collegiate runner, and Goofus declared his U-of-M ashtray to be the best present he’d ever received.  (Felicia declared it’d be his last present if she caught him putting it to any use other than decorative.)

 

Tricia borrowed the ashtray for the rest of her stay at Burrow Lane—largely spent in “her” bedroom, hogging the upstairs phone.  (Ozzie would explode when he got the December long-distance bill.)  Vicki’d hoped to gain some sisterly advice, not so much about Roger Mustardman per se as guys-who-have-a-thing-for-you in general.  Tricia could write a whole textbook on that subject.

 

Yet Vicki scarcely had a moment alone with her.

 

“You still wearing your hair like that?” Tricia asked in casual passing, en route to the bathroom.

 

“Like what?” Vicki demanded; but Tricia turned on the shower and made no reply.

 

Vicki was now entitled, on behalf of little sisters everywhere, to go tattle about Tricia’s smoking.  She scrapped this impulse, though, before getting halfway downstairs.  The person in the shower stall might be the same emerald-eyed blonde beauty Vicki’d always loved and feared and envied and resented—but she was now practically a stranger, a temporary guest in the house, about to check out and go elsewhere.

 

So return upstairs.  Wait the usual half-hour.  Then confront Tricia as she left the steamy bathroom, toweling her own blonditude.

 

“Okay, what should I be doing with my hair?”

 

“Hell, I don’t know—cut it or something.  It’s so long you could trip on it.  And don’t use the phone for the next couple hours, ‘kay?”

 

Back into “her” bedroom went Princess Smartysnoot, behind a firmly closed door.

 

“D’you think I should cut my hair?” Vicki asked Joss that night, when she finally had a chance to get a call out edgewise.

 

“Are you crazy?  In wintertime?”

 

“Well, Tricia said I otter...”

 

“You’re listening to your big sister?  You are crazy.  Where’d you think my hair’d be if I paid any attention to Meg?  She’d probably put me in pigtails.”

 

Oh, you’d look so cute in pigtails!  You gotta let me braid you—”

 

“Shut up,” said Joss.

 

“You shut up,” said Vicki.

 

“‘And I shall sing at your nuptials!’” they chanted together.

 

*

 

New year, new month, new week, new day—but same old semester till finals ended on January 23rd.  These were the big-deal, go-on-your-permanent-record sort of tests you had to cram for, and Vicki anticipated them with keenest trepidation.

 

Her previous grade card may have landed her an honor pass, but it’d started off better than it ended: the opposite of good long-distance form.  A’s in her first three classes (Phys Ed, Lang Arts, Soc Studs) followed by B’s in the next three (Math, Voc Music, Español) and then that C in Science.  Joss had gotten the same average, though with A’s in Band, Lang Arts, and French; B’s in Soc Studs, Math, and Science; and C in fill-that-Gym-with-tapioca-pudding.

 

Alex, like Becca, had aced everything except English.  Vicki’d volunteered to help Alex overcome her fictionphobia, partly in return for Alex’s coaching in Spanish and Math; but scientific enlightenment remained elusive.

 

“It’s like my brain turns into, yknow, a desert or pothole or something.”

 

“Pot hole, hunh?” insinuated Joss.

 

“Don’t be silly,” Alex bridled.  “She’s a Ladybug, and wouldn’t do stuff like that.”

 

“Maybe it’d help,” Joss reasoned.  “Call it herbal extra credit.”

 

“You’re lucky I know you’re just kidding—”

 

“Oh don’t be such a little Girl Scout—”

 

“I hate it when you guys fight,” Vicki intervened.

 

“We’re not fighting!” they rapidly reassured her.

 

“You’ll do better in Science,” Alex promised.  “We’ll find a way to make it clear and easy for you.”

 

“That’s right,” Joss agreed.  “Like memorizing rock types: say ‘Isn’t Meg Stupid?’  I-M-S—igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary.”

 

Alex tried to say, “That’s terrible!” but was giggling too much to speak.

 

One of the Media Center’s Zero Hour aides had moved away during vacation, so Alex switched shifts to free up her half-periods before and after lunch.  This would give her more time for mutual cram-coaching with Vicki—

 

—and also, incidentally, leave Vicki’s Zero Hours “unsupervised.”

 

So: back to the stairwell on the first Monday in January.  Having struck a happy medium, outfitwise, by wearing her shawl-collar cardigan (open) over her snug purple pullover.  Which began to heave, bosomwise, when she found Roger sprawled supinely on the stairs.  Glasses off; eyes shut; looking like he might’ve lain there for the past two weeks.

 

OhmyGahd!

 

Wait—wouldn’t the custodial staff have found him by now?  But maybe they didn’t sweep stairwells over the holidays!  Did she dare touch him to find out if he might still be breathing?  What if he wasnt?  Suppose this was a stone-cold corpse??  OHMYGAHDshe’d never, ever, get over seeing it and touching it and then having to tell someone about ittestify before Mrs. Driscoll, the school superintendent, the police and probably a coroner, and then what if they decided he’d killed himself because he had a thing for Vicki???

 

“I can seeee you,” went the body on the stairs.

 

Clap both hands over your yap to stifle the shriek.

 

“Thats some nice heaving you’re doing,” he added, putting on his glasses and nibbling a ballpoint-end.

 

“Gahdammit, Roger!!” she detonated, yanking her sweater closed and wrapping shaky arms over its front.  “You freaking scared me half to—how long have you been lying there?”

 

“All your life, liebchen.

 

“Oh, I otter kick your... your behind!”  (No way was she going to let him hear her say ass or butt aloud.)

 

“You otter, hey?”

 

“Oh—yeah—um—right.  Thanks, y’know, for the play.  We really enjoyed it, me ’n’ Joss.”

 

“More where that came from.”

 

“Well.  That’s good.  Um.  Did you have, like, a nice... Christmas, or whatever?”  (Maybe he was Jewish, or an atheist, or something.)

 

“Got called on by my old prep school hero, the Slumlord of Front Tree, who wanted to talk ‘maaan to maaan.’  Said I was ‘making a nooosance’ of myself with Our Becca, and why didn’t I wise up that she’d never fall for an oaaaf like me.  I asked him if what Becca said was truethat he cries when he shall-we-say ‘blasts off.’”

 

Vicki’s vestal-virgin mind took a moment to catch up.  Then her jaw dropped and hit her crossed wrists.

 

“She’d never say that!  She’d never tell YOU that!”

 

“No, that’s a direct swipe from Lords of Flatbush.  I doubt Becca would give Sonny Boy anything more intimate than un beso francés.

 

Vicki translated this and rolled her eyes.  “A French kiss?  Why’d you say it in Spanish?”

 

“Well, you don’t know Hungarian, do you?  (Nyelves csók if you do.)  Anyway, my trusty button oafs were there too, and pelted Sonny Boy with iceballs.  That’ll teach him to try talking ‘maaan to maaan.’”

 

“So you’re gonna keep tutoring Becca?”

 

“Long as she keeps reimbursing me,” said Roger: another recent vocab word.

 

“Would you... um... y’know... do like the same for me, in Science?”

 

Roger cracked his knuckles, elbows, neck.  “In return foooor...?”

 

Vicki uncrossed her wrists.  Reached into her cardigan pocket.  Took a deep trembly breath.  Produced a carefully-preserved sprig of mistletoe.  And held it over her head.

 

*

 

She didn’t have a whole lot to compare this to (as was later confided to Joss).  A single unremarkable post-dance cheek-peck from Ordinary Mark Welk, last spring: hardly what you’d call un beso francés.  Much less a nyelves csók.

 

Roger Mustardman, after removing the Bic from his kisser, nonchalantly pressed his lips to hers.  Introducing his tongue between them, and her slackjawed teeth, to give her tongue a single nudge.  Then backing away just far enough, as the homeroom bell rang, to tell her:

 

“Deal sealed.”

 

Vicki had several immediate concerns.

 

One of the foremost was preventing Robin Neapolitan from getting the slightest inkling of this deal.  She didn’t want to lose Robin as a friend—definitely didn’t want to gain her as an enemy—and, either way, wanted to avoid the onslaught Robin would subject her to as friend or enemy if the deal was revealed.

 

This meant also keeping the rest of the lunch-bunch in the dark.  Fiona, who’d stir up trouble for troubles sake; Sheila-Q, who’d use the news to jab Robin during one of their daily arguments; and Laurie, who’d hyperromanticize the deal-sealing smooch.  Vicki was fairly sure Roger could be trusted to stay circumspect about this.  She only hoped the same could be said for Joss.

 

“I won’t blab!”

 

“You swear?”

 

“Hell yes.”

 

“I mean it, Joss!”

 

“Okay—I swear I’ll do my best not to blab.”

 

“Hey!  You didn’t say anything about ‘best’ before!”

 

“I wasn’t under an oath before.”

 

Another immediate concern was how Becca Blair would react when Vicki ahemd that “I’m gonna um see my um like Science tutor first thing y’know tomorrow morning.”

 

Over the locker room clamor of girls getting changed into hideous gymsuits, Vicki could hear distinct cyborg noises as Becca’s golden head emerged from her rust-colored turtleneck (worn again today) and concentrated those red LED optics upon her.

 

“Um... is... that okay?” Vicki quavered.

 

More beep-boops as Becca reviewed her track record, her having carried out the assignment to declammify Alex.  It was like something out of The Six Million Dollar Man, on which Lindsay Wagner had twice portrayed a Bionic Woman who was about to get her own spinoff series.

 

Here at VW, a mental punchcard went tic-tic-tic-tic-tack.

 

“We’ll work out a schedule,” said Bionic Becca.

 

Bringing us to our third immediate concern: just how much advantage of this sealed deal would Roger take?  Did he assume she’d be a pushover, an easy-sleazy?  Well, if so he didnt know Victoria Lorraine Volester.  She might let him kiss her—might even kiss him back, if she had to—but either way her hands would be on his chest the whole time, ready to fend him off.  NO—on his shoulders, not his chest; hands-on-chests were not permissible.  This would going to be an academic relationship.  Except that kissing was involved.  But no different than to thank a guy for asking you out, buying you a burger, taking you to a movie.  Or, in this case, boosting your chances of a better Science grade.

 

Only that and nothing more.

 

Vicki wondered if Roger would ever ask her out for burgers or a movie.

 

And howd she ever keep that quiet, if he did and she said yes?

 

And what in the world would she wear?

 

Tuesday she struck a conservative pose in a long quilted skirt over two half-slips, and a ruffly recital blouse borrowed from Joss that was far too big for her and so could hide any relapse into “heaving.”  This ensemble made her look primmer than Sarah-Jill Shapiro

 

yet did nothing to turn Roger off: he took one gander at her in it, and requested “Payment in advance.”

 

Meaning Vicki had to kiss him, forward instead of back.

 

With hands firmly braced against his shoulders.  And him not touching her, apart from his mouth.

 

Until they were seated on “their” stair and he claimed he couldn’t see the notebook she’d opened, remedying this with a sudden arm around her shoulders that hauled her bodily over till they were hip-to-hip and thigh-to-thigh, with his hand sliding smoothly down her silky hair from the top of her head to the back of her neck and down the length of her spine—

 

“Don’t!  Please?  Mr. Dunn’s not grading me on that.

 

He hooked his thumb into her waistband, as if to mark its place (minimally-distantly above her heinie)—then reeled off paragraph after paragraph about geochemical cycles, making them perfectly clear and easy to understand.  Even by someone preoccupied with the whereabouts of his extremities.

 

“Wow,” Vicki murmured with such breath as she had left, “you otter be a teacher.  A teacher and a playwriter.”

 

“Playwright.  And neither one,” Roger insisted.  “That’d mean living up to my impotential.”

 

“Quit saying that!”

 

“Saying what?”

 

“That word!”

 

“Which word?”

 

“(The one you know isn’t true,)” Vicki whispered uneasily.

 

“Liffingk?” he asked in a Dracula accent, making her laugh—and then gasp, as his cold thumb caressed the bare flesh within her two half-slip waistbands: precisely between her tender susceptible back dimples.

 

“Wuh-h-h-h...” she went, squirmingly; but did not bat his hand away.

 

*

 

By that weekend’s sleepover in Joss’s aerie, Vicki was skimming through The Cheerleader’s hotter passages in search of makeout guidance.

 

Joss had indexed these passages inside the book’s back cover, tracing the progression of Snowy’s triumvirate from boys Getting Fresh (in capital letters) to using prophylactics (in lowercase).  And these were nice girls, mind you, living back in the Fifties!  See here, how shocked Snowy was at French-kissing on a first date.  Of course, that came after the boy of her dreams had put his arm around her and stroked her ponytail: “the most romantic moment of her life.”

 

Okay, that was a little soppy.  A reaction for the Laurie Harrisons of the world, then and now.

 

Yet that didn’t make it untrue.

 

Or make your own body more resistant to having liberties taken with it.

 

Or stop your brain from concocting treacherous fantasies, by day and by night, of liberty-taking she might try herself—with his self.

 

“What am I gonna do??” Vicki wailed.  “I don’t wanna have a thing for him!  I can’t help it if he’s got one for me.”

 

“Yep, all guys have Things,” Joss agreed, dragging Fingers around at the end of a captured yarn-strand.

 

“Well it’s not fair!”

 

“What, that they’ve got Things?”

 

“No!  That I’ve gotta be—y’know—thinking about them.  And look at all the gross stuff we’re expected to do with them!  Here on page 184I couldn’t ever—not with Roger—oh, YUCK...  I otter just fess up to Robin and let her slaughter me.”

 

Hee-haw from Joss, now dangling Fingers on kitty-tiptoe.  “Y’think Robin’s done anything with Skully Erle’s Thing?”

 

“Eww!  That’s disGUSTing!”

 

“Not as much as Sheila with Roy Hodeau’s—or Feef with Arlo Sowell’s!”

 

Prolonged giggle-gagging from Vicki.  Then a sigh: “Alex’d have a fit if she knew what we’re talking about.”

 

“Yeah, well, Alex.  She’s got her own hangups.”

 

On cue, Fingers relinquished the yarn-end and dropped to the carpet, bouncing over to the beanbag and curling up for a nap on Vicki’s lap.

 

“There’s one solution,” said Joss.  “Neuter ‘em at birth and keep ‘em for pets.”

 

“Well... let’s not fall too overboard.”

 

“You’re right—there’s better ways to handle guys.  Remember Mandingo!

 

“‘Expect the Savage!’”

 

“‘The Sensual!  The Shocking!  The Shameful Truth!’”

 

(Extravagant yawn from Fingers.)

 

*

 

What Vicki didnt expect was an exhibition of Roger’s spleen.

 

“Here,” he coughed Monday morning, as he thrust another envelope at her advancing lips.

 

“Oh!” she recoiled.  “Oh—is this Act Two of your play?

 

“Far as I got.  Typewriter broke last night.  F-key stuck.  Main spring went haywire.  Piss-poor piece of junk.  Shoulda got a Coronamatic.”

 

Vicki’d never seen or heard him act like this before.  Downcast, almost literally: as if hed dropped off his own yarn-strand but without catlike reflexes or resilience.  None of the sardonic amusement or mocking diversion she’d become accustomed to.  You’d think a Mustardman’d be wealthy enough to cope with a typewriter setback, unless...

 

“Is that gonna mess you up for finals?”

 

“Finals my ass.  It messes me up, period!”

 

Tentatively she sat beside him; hesitantly she tried to soothe.  “Well... it’ll be okay.  I mean I’m sure I’ll like what you got done.  I, um, havefaith in you.”

 

A great SNORT from Roger, dwindling to a snortle as he turned and smiled and leaned over and kissed her quite nicely.  “Gute Stunde Null, hübschen Schmetterling.

 

“Um... is that something butterfly?”

 

“‘Good Zero Hour, pretty butterfly.’  Or, if you prefer: Buena hora cero, bonita mariposa.  Or Bonne heure zéro, joli papillon.  Or Jó nulla óra, szép pillangó—

 

“How many languages do you know??”

 

“As many as you like.  Pretty butterfly in all of them.  Except maybe Icelandic; they prefer longfaced Nordic types.”

 

He does think I’m pretty.  He said so in five different languages.

 

Redden and tingle and push a warm upper arm against his.  “Why can’t you be like this always?”

 

“You wouldn’t enjoy it.”

 

“I might!”

 

“Well, I wouldn’t.  Too much like living up to my impo—”

 

Gahd!  If you say that word again, I’m gonna...”

 

“Do whaaaat, exactly?”

 

Prove you’re a liar by giving Ralph a big old squeeze.

 

YIKES.

 

Her hands began a Tail-End impersonation: under her knees and into her armpits and against each other.  “Umshouldn’t we be talking about Science?  Becca’s got you tomorrow and, y’know, I still can’t really figure out compound elements.”

 

He detached one of her clammy hands from the other and held it in his, again quite nicely.  “Think of elements as singleand compounds as couples who’ve become so close, so in-ti-mate, that you stop thinking of them as ‘him’ and ‘her’— cause they can no longer... come... apart...”

 

*

 

Act Two (As Far As He Got) of A Bite to Drink was rougher-draftier than Act One.  Curtain rose on Clara Klean taking a bubble bath while the Mounted Chorus sang a rousing ode to “How Clean Is Our Clara.”  She spent the rest of Act Two wearing nothing but a towel, despite repeated efforts by her comic maid Pistachia to put some clothes on her.

 

There was a role for Vice Principal O’Brien as the goateed vampirologist Dr. Van Helfast, who tried to unmask Crockaput by using a large framed mirror.  But Gigoletto stole the mirror right out of the wall, and Roachy—disguised as Crockaput on the other side—did a wild Charleston as the Know-a-Counts “reflection.”

 

crockaput

 

[Dracula accent]  Your vill iss stronggk, Van Half-assed.

dr. van helfast

 

That is Van HELL-fast!

crockaput

 

Well, helf a fast is better than none.  Your will may be strong but this wall is all wrong.  [climbs through hole where mirror had been]

 

Mrs. Driscoll or Mrs. Weller could play Madame Duckingham, Clara’s singing teacher.  Madame, “opening an operatic vein,” lamented her doubts that Crockaput was the musical maestro he claimed to be—while Clara (in her towel) and Pistachia (trying to dress her) were chased all over the set by Roachy and Gigoletto.  They took tag-team turns foiling the Mounted Chorus, who rode to Clara’s rescue like three Dudley Do-Rights; the horse soon tired of this farce and exited, leaving Drippy, Snippy, and Flippy to their perilous pratfalls.

 

Then Mabel Maydone danced onstage, ignoring her straitjacketed fiancé as he hopped after her:

 

young fellow-me-lad

 

[laughing maniacally]  I tell you what we’re going to do, darling!  We’ll get married today and leave this place!  We’ll forget about these silly dreams, and think of something cheerful!  [snaps teeth as if at passing flies]

 

mabel, paying no attention, continues dancing.  crockaput enters stage left.

 

young fellow-me-lad

 

No, no, Master!  I told her nothing!  I’m loyal to you, Master!

 

crockaput

 

Come, come, Fellow-Me-Lad!  Here, here, Fellow-Me-Lad!  There’s a dumptruck at the asylum loading dock full of assorted rodents—all these will I give you, if you hop on down and unload them like a good looney.

 

young fellow-me-lad

 

[ecstatic]  Oh rats!  Thank you, Master!  [exits stage left, hopping]

 

crockaput

 

[to the audience]  If youre deadset on catching flies, roadkill attracts more than honey or vinegar.  And now, like a good Know-a-Count, I’m going to count me some hickeys.

 

He advances on mabel, who remains unaware of him until he f

 

 

 

At which point Roger’s F-key evidently stuck, before his main spring went haywire.

 

*

 

A heavy winter storm bore down on Vanderlund, raising hopes of early dismissal on Tuesday if not closure for the rest of the week; yet this useless tempest “spared” the northern suburbs and hit The City instead.  So Vicki had to go to school on Wednesday and take the pre-final, grade-your-neighbor Science quiz she’d been shrinking from—

 

—but which she aced.

 

Not a C.  Not a B.  A great big eleven-answers-right, only-one-wrong A.

 

(Oh, did she know a tutor who was going to get a great big gratuity!)

 

Congrats from Joss, who scored her habitual B and had to leave right after class for a Brass Ensemble rehearsal.  Vicki took her own sweet time out in the hall, sharing the triumph with Alex, who added kudos before hurrying off to a Math Club summit.  If Roger’d been spotted, he mightve gotten that mmm-wah gratutity right there (not to mention a nice “bonus,” redden tingle blush)—but he was nowhere to be seen.

 

So twirl your locker combination, unlatch the door, swing it open and utter a squeak as something thin and white fluttered out, floated down, and landed between Fiona’s boots.

 

“(Wha’...?)” went Fiona, who looked pretty thin and white herself and was already half-stooping.

 

“Sorry, thats mine,” chirped Carly Thibert, snatching up the note.  Not that Fiona showed more than listless interest in it, or Carly’s sneaking it to Vicki with a cackle-smirk.  Vicki gave Carly a stealthy thanks-nod and Fiona a worried lookover.

 

“Feef, you better get some sleep or something.”

 

“Get or something!” Carly recommended.

 

“(Yeah sure,)” Fiona mutter-answered, drifting away more wraithily than even her usual norm.

 

“She really needs ‘or something,’” Carly observed.  “C’mon, gimme a peek, you owe me a peek, I just love reading ‘mash’ notes!”

 

“It may not b-b-be that at all,” stammered Vicki, unfolding the paper to expose:

 

 

 


“Hunh!” Carly pouted, before a gaggle of hornyboys swooped off with her.  “I’da thought even Roger Mustardman could write a better love letter than that.

 

*

 

Joss, consulted by phone that evening, deciphered this Lana Eisensteinish cryptogram as follows: instead of going to Z-Wing for Zero Hour on Thursday the 15th (“Ø hr 1/15 no zee”) Vicki was to head down the backstairs to Home Base’s basement (“HB back minus 1”).

 

Which made more sense than anything Vicki could deduce; but still creeped her out.

 

“You want me to come with you?” asked Joss.

 

“Um... how early can you get to school tomorrow?”

 

“Probably not very, if it snows tonight.  Too bad you cant take Alex—shes bound to be there by seven, no matter what.”

 

“Gahd, can you imagine even asking her?

 

“Sure‘Alex, I’ve been secretly meeting this guy, wanna be our basement chaperone?’  She’d love it.

 

“Hardy har har.  Oh waitI can pretend you’re with me, and talk loud like you’re there, and yell if I have to.”

 

“And give him a knee in the ding-dongs.”

 

Right.  She otter ask Susie Zane to be her bodyguard—except Laurie’d hear about it, and then the whole school would know.

 

So: scuttle through the Home Base lobby at quarter past seven, face hidden by a knit toque worn low in case Alex should happen to step out of the Media Center.  Scuttle to the backstairs and down them, into a basement you’ve never set foot in till now since it had no classrooms or gym facilities.  Just tiles on the wallspipes along the ceilingdimmer fluorescent lights than the upper storiesand no human inhabitants to speak of.  Or speak to.

 

“‘I dunno, Joss,’” Vicki twittered.  “‘I don’t see anybody down here just like you don’t!’”

 

(Silence.)

 

“Um... h-hello?”

 

“We’ve got to start meeting like this,” said Roger’s voice, as Roger’s hand extended from behind a door to beckon her in.

 

Vicki halted at the threshold.  “A janitor’s closet?  I am not making out with you in a janitor’s closet!”

 

“How you talk.  That might be the furthest thing from my mind.”

 

“I’ll bet!” said Vicki; but he seemed positively glad to see her, glad she’d been able to decode his message.  So in she grudgingly stepped, leaving the door slightly ajar behind her, yet still confining them to a close, close, clohhhhse cubicle.  Filled with shelves of coarse-grade toilet paper and industrial-sized jugs of Drano: every girl’s reverie of an amorous hideaway.

 

She took off her toque and shook out her hair, but kept her coat securely on (albeit unbuttoned).  “Okay then—what are we doing here?”

 

Roger leaned comfortably on the handle of a yard-wide pushbroom.  “Wee Willie Wilkie cottoned onto where Our Becca’s been spending her Zero Hours.  He probably planted miniature tracking devices in her toenail polish—I told you he’s a foot fetishist.  ANYhoo, he’s staging an ambuscade to save her soles, right about” (checking his watch) “now.  But what he’ll find up on 8-Z is Dino pretending to be me, with Lenny wearing his old ladys blonde wig and stuffed bra.  I’d be there too, with a camera, if you and I hadn’t sealed a deal for clandestine tutoring.”  (Another recent vocab word.)  “Can’t get more clandestine than a janitor’s closet in the basement.”

 

Vicki breathed a bit easier.  “I got an A on yesterday’s quiz.  Eleven out of twelve!”

 

“Well done.  (Medium rare for me.)  And you’re welcome.”

 

“Yeah.  I mean, thanks.  I mean, I owe you one.”

 

“Oddly, I’d say we’re even,” said Roger.  “Or almost evenreaching inside her unbuttoned coat to clasp Vicki and draw her to him.  Not grabbing her rear end but doing it properly, around her ribcage; so she slipped her muffled arms around his neck.  And found that, for a squat guy, he could give lessons on how to hug.

 

Kissing she was already pretty good at.

 

“Okay, now we’re even,” he went after awhile, before breaking into song:

 

 

Know much now about Chemistry?
Know much ‘bout Biology?
Know much now ‘bout your grade-creator?
Wanna go to a dinner theeAYter?

 

 

“A what?”

 

“The Holdall Dinner Theater, on Sendt Street.  They feed you and put on a play.  I thought we might go there a week from Saturday, after finals are over.”

 

“Are—are you asking me out?  Like on a date?”

 

“No, like on an electric-typewriter-repair cruisewe sail from Olivetti to Underwood on the good ship Lexmark.”

 

Oh wow, thought Vicki as they sealed their new deal.  I guess I AM being seduced.

 

*

 

She might have burst trying to keep this a secret, were there not a traumatic distraction later that morning when Fiona passed out in Band class, breaking her clarinet as she collapsed off her chair.

 

Joss and Sheila-Q saw it happen and got badly shaken up“We though she was dead, till she started crying!”—while Robin simply ditched the rest of the schoolday, regardless of adult mandates or decrees as she followed Feef to the nurse’s office and then home.  They had been best friends since fifth grade, when both were new at Dopkins Elementary and formed their own two-girl gang, the “Dopkins Dopesters”; so Robin was sticking by her side in spite of anything Mr. Redo, Mr. OBrien, or Mrs. Weller might say.

 

All through Thursday rumors flew of overdoses on various drugs, possibly in connection with pregnancy.  A lot of glancing was done at Arlo Sowell, and a lot of prattle that if those two had gone all the way, no wonder Fiona’d looked so thoroughly crushed.

 

None of the remaining bunch had any appetite for lunch, and nobody told them anything verifiable about Feef till that night when Robin kicked off a round-robin by phoning Sheila, who phoned Laurie, who phoned Joss, who phoned Vicki, who phoned Alex to report it was nothing worse than foolhardy eating habits.  All the girls pledged to keep tabs on Fiona from now on and ensure nutrition guidelines were adhered to.  (Alex volunteered to draw up a chart customized for Feef’s height, weight, and gynecological problems.)

 

Robin was back in school on Friday, truculently serving detention for having ditched.  Fiona was back on Monday, chafing under the new guidelines plus everybody’s embraces; yet actually giggling to hear how she’d been suspected of carrying Arlo’s sumo love child.  And both Dopesters were proud to learn, courtesy of Goofus Volester, that teachers at Dopkins still cited them as bad examples of worse behavior.

 

(Makes you feel you’ve accomplished something,)” Feef told Vicki.  (Just wish I didn’t have to get a new clarinet.)”

 

She lingered on the bunch’s front burner during finals week, alongside the semester tests themselves; allowing Vicki’s date with Roger to stay under the radar.  No one had a clue about it, other than Joss and Carly Thibert.  Vicki wished she could tell Alex, but couldn’t guess how Alex might react to news of that nature; so best to say nothing for now.

 

Which left the minor matter of gaining parental approval.

 

Mention had been made that Vicki’d been doing extra Science drillwork, though she’d restricted her trainer’s identity to “this guy on 8-Z who helps tutor people.”  The A-level results were magnet-attached to the Volester refrigerator, giving Vicki a solid underpinning to build on; and she wisely built toward Felicia, in hopes of forestalling a kneejerk veto by Ozzie.

 

(Vicki bore up fairly well during her mother’s own damp-eyed Your first date! exclamations, but bet that Gran had kept her cool when Teen Felicia’d been asked out for the first time.)

 

Ozzie did not explode outright, or pull a Beast-of-Yucca-Flats as Mr. Dmitria would’ve done.  Yet he had to be talked out of several counterproposals, the most frightful being “We can give you and This Boy a lift to the dinner theater, and stay to enjoy it ourselves!  The whole family’ll go, me and Mom and Goof.”

 

“Oh Daddy, no!!

 

Then why not double-date with Joss?  The more the merrier, safety in numbers, etc.?

 

Kneejerk veto by Joss—who, despite readiness to do almost anything for Vicki, drew an indelible line at going out with Lenny or Dino.  “Besides, I know you two wanna be alone ooh-la-la.”

 

“Hey!  Don’t think just cause youre tall I won’t slug you if I have to.”

 

Finally Vicki’s father agreed to let her go, contingent upon Roger coming to Burrow Lane beforehand and passing inspection.  Ozzie capped this by telling Vicki the same Fact Or Two About Real Life And What Boys Are Capable Of, nearly word for word and euphemism for euphemism, as on the day of her first makeover.

 

She laughed less at it this time, though she loved her father almost as much as before—and prayed he wouldn’t rerun this old vaudeville routine every time she had a date.

 

Assuming Roger ever asked her out again, after having to meet her parents when he picked her up on Saturday.

 

Assuming he was planning to pick her up, and could do so despite being a couple years away from having a driver’s license.

 

Maybe they could borrow a motor scooter.  “Hey Robin, would you lend me your Margutta this weekend?  I need it for my date with Roger Mustardman.  Yes, he’s my boyfriend now—didn’t I mention that?  Must’ve slipped my mind, what with all the necking we’ve been doing down in the basement janitor’s closet.”

 

(Well, thatd be one way to spring the scoop on Robin Neapolitan.)

 

*

 

On Friday the 23rd, Vicki’s lunch-bunch celebrated the semester's conclusion by divvying a Toughie-baked sponge cake brought in by Joss.  Even Fiona had a slice of this, recounting how Tail-End (still “Gollum” to her) had jackknifed over his desk in French yesterday, while Monsieur Blumer wrenched the test paper out of his twitching hands:

 

“(Shsspas encore!... shsspas encore!...)” she mutter-mimicked.

 

Everyone laughed at having Feef back in mordant form.  But Vicki’s hilarity lodged in her esophagus as the crowd parted momentarily, to unveil Roger giving something to Carly Thibert—who, from her stance, was in full coquette mode as she took the something with one hand, while using the other to toy with a button on Roger’s shirt

 

Then the crowd shifted back to re-veil this monstrosity.

 

How could he??  Knowing you’d be there in the same cafeteria, during the same Lunch B?  Had he been two—no, three-timing you and Becca, by tutoring Carly too?  And how could SHE?  Your homeroom-neighbor and locker-neighbor for the entire past semester!  The only one besides Joss who knew there was—or might be—or might have been a Vicki ’n’ Roger!  Oh, you could see it all now: “a guy with money doesn’t have to look that good,” and Carly spending Christmas in Bermuda just to turn all caramel-colored with no tan lines (as she’d confided to every male, even Mr. Gillies!)—eclipsing your own olive complexion till the sponge cake in your tummy started soaking up bile...

 

(Urgh...)

 

Pretend to take no notice.  Don’t let the others think anything’s wrong.  Plot revenge through free period, but keep it bottled up till you can get a clean shot at Carly when she comes smirking into Spanish—

 

—and slips you the new note Roger asked her to deliver.

 

With a mischievous “Y’know, he is kinda cute.”

 

Which in Thibertese meant flirtworthy.  As was exemplified by his missive:

 

 

 

 

*

 

Even if it weren’t Friday, Joss would’ve slept over at Vicki’s so as not to miss anything, and to keep Vicki from overagonizing.

 

They both knew she’d ultimately “doll up” in her little black wool dress over frivolous party lingerie, with knee-high zippered platform boots and hair worn down loose in case Roger wanted to stroke it.  Knowing this, however, did nothing to dejangle Vicki’s nerves.  She and Joss devoted much of the night to thrashing out every conceivable events-chain that could hinge upon Roger’s arrival at 5 p.m. on Saturday.

 

If that happened.

 

After the bathing, the blowdrying, the outfit-donning, the makeup-applying, the Wind Song-spritzing, and the clock on Vicki’s bedroom bureau flipping a digit to read 5:01.

 

She knew it: she’d been jilted.

 

Then a rich hoot from the cul-de-sac, and a “Hey! check out that car!” from Goofus (supposedly banished to the family room).  Vicki and Joss leaped at the front window and goggled at the long glistening apparition pulling into the driveway.

 

Forget making a vivid debutante descent; gallop down the stairs as the first six notes of Peter and the Wolf rang out and Ozzie opened the door to ask: “Is that a Rolls I see out there? a Silver Cloud??”

 

None other—‘the Cloud That Flies,’” said Vickis gentleman caller.  Who needed only to swap his glasses for a monocle and don a tall silk hat to complete his costume as the Penguin in Batman.  He was clad in an honest-to-goodness tuxedo, carried a tightly-furled umbrella over one arm, and brandished a cigarette-holderlike ballpoint pen.

 

Josss hand gripped Vickis elbow.  Shut up Vicki sub-ordered, knowing Joss was succumbing to a silent but deadly bust-a-gut gigglefit.

 

“Oz, the door!” Felicia remonstrated, as Ozzie leaned out for frosty rubbernecking at the automative marvel.  Goofus ran up to join in: “Is it yours?” he demanded.

 

“Belongs to the household.  Go ask Driver and he’ll pop the hood for you—or ‘bonnet,’ as the Rolls folk call it.  V8 engine, overhead valves, four-speed Hydramatic transmission.”

 

Goof and Ozzie hustled outside, saying “Lemme at it!” and “Oh, man!

 

Mustardman, actually—Roger Mustardman,” announced Vicki’s date with Bondlike intonation.

 

“Put on your coats—” Fel entreated in vain, before closing the door and trying to inject a degree of traditional hospitality.  “How do you do, Roger?  I’m Vicki’s mother, Felicia Volester, very glad to meet you.  Those were Vicki’s father and brother, and Im sure you know Jocelyn—”

 

“To—be—sure,” Roger bowed.  “Jocelyn keeps us in stitches on 8-Z.”

 

—he's gonna make me wet my pants, Ill kill him if he does—
 

—hey! watch what you sub-say! and wait till after the date—

 

“What a nice tuxedo, Felicia was continuing.  “But isn’t it a bit, well, dressy for a dinner theater?”

 

“Not really, Mrs. VolesterI got this at an everything-you-can-stuff-in-a-sack-for-five-dollars sale at the Junior League Thrift Store.”  (Which would account for its unusual appearance: the lapels, instead of stretching from shoulder to shoulder as per contemporary fashion, were thin as ribbons.)  “Found the bow tie in a pocket—its owner must’ve been ashamed to donate it.”

 

“Why, I think it’s a very fine bow tie,” said Fel; but before Vicki die of embarrassment, Roger took her hand—tucked it over his non-umbrella-bearing arm—and led her to the living room fireplace.

 

“I presume you want us to do some posing.”

 

Fel sprang into action with a camera she’d stowed behind a lamp.

 

“Mom...” went Vicki, ready to sink through the floor.

 

“Oh, just a couple for your grandparents.”

 

“One sec,” Roger interjected, magically producing a small tissue-wrapped object.  “Rather than a corsage, may I present you with

 

A mustard-yellow Pet Rock.

 

Smothered whoop from Joss.

 

Vicki, holding this petrified lemon as the camera flashed, did not dare catch Joss’s eye.  It would be like a million mouthed Mandingosone tiny tweak, and they’d both be rolling on the carpet.

 

The girls had talked about Joss hitching a tag-along ride to Jupiter Street (just off Sendt) to balk any instant shenanigan-moves by Roger, while clueing in whoever drove him as to where Vicki should be taken post-date.  But with Joss hanging onto the couch in mute hysterics, that scheme was scotched; Felicia would take her home in a few minutes, and Vicki could join her there No later than 10:00.

 

“Mother—

 

“Im afraid the show won’t be over till 10:15,” said Roger.  “It’s Mimi McLaine in The Kissing Bug, you knowshe enjoys curtain calls.”

 

“Well...” Fel was hesitating, when Ozzie and Goofus charged back inside.  Dancing with the cold, yet jubilant from their brush with auto splendor.

 

“That is one sweet machine, I’m telling you!”

 

“If we ever trade it in, Volester Motors will get first crack,” Roger promised.  “Driver and Ill bring Vicki to Joss’s by eleven.”

 

“Fine, that’s fine—you kids have a great time,” said Ozzie, clapping him on the back.

 

“Wait a minute!” went Goofus.  “If ya got a car like that, what’re ya taking her out in it for?”

 

“Christopher Blaine!

 

“Why, because she’s the loveliest young lady I know,” Roger told him.  “No offense,” to Joss, who gasped the equivalent of None taken.  “And for now, we bid you sayonara.”

 

Holding Vicki’s coat for her; the house door for her; the Rolls door for her.

 

She melted into sumptuous upholstery.  “Am I?  Really?”

 

“Am-you-what, really?” asked Roger, re-inserting the ballpoint end between his teeth.

 

“What you said,” she blushed, peeping at the back of Drivers head in the front seat.  One trifling letdown—he looked more like a City cabby than an affluent chauffeur, even as he maintained discreet reticence.

 

“What I said?  Oh, I get it—we’re on a fishing trip.  Well then: aren’t you?”

 

“Me?  More’n Becca?  Or Alex, or Sheila, or Carly?”

 

“Carly’s a tease, pure and simple.  (Make that just simple.)  You, liebchen, only offer what you’re ready to give.”

 

Was that a compliment?  She glanced sidelong at his pen.  “I thought your note said I’d need fresh lipstick before we get there.”

 

“Plenty of time for that," he said as the Silver Cloud swung from Lesser onto Panama.  “There’s been a slight schedule change.”

 

“Hunh?”

 

“Hold on,” Roger told her, and “Here!” to Driver—as the Rolls made a sudden screechless swerve to the right, while inferior cars honked and blared.  “‘Nice work, Lou,’” went Roger.  “Always wanted a chance to say that line—that and ‘Paulie?  You won’t see him no more.’”

 

“W-where’re we going?  Why’re we on the Expressway?

 

He put an arm around her and stroked her hair as she started to tremble.  “Now, give me some credit.  Would I try to kidnap you right after meeting your parents?”  He took the pen out of his mouth, and Vicki flinched.

 

“I—I—I—”

 

“—am the loveliest young lady I know; yes, we covered that.  And you’re being taken to a little restaurant in Willowhelm called Il Sacchetto, that’s run by Dino’s Uncle Virgil.  He’s another pimp, but bakes a mean lasagna.”

 

She considered relaxing.  “Where in Willowhelm?  There’s nowhere there you have to take the Expressway to get to.”

 

“You do if you’re trying to cover your tracks, in a car like this.”

 

Edge of panic again.  “What’re you talking about?  What happened to the dinner theater?”

 

Stroking her hair again.  “Believe me, you don’t want to watch Mama Mimi attempt to act while you digest the Holdall’s buffet.  Every time Mimi speaks, The Kissing Bug loses some of its pucker.”

 

The limo left the Expressway and meandered through the streets of Willowhelm.  “So why all this huggery-muggery?” Vicki asked.  Oh quit it, you know what I mean,” as Roger hugged her more snugly.  “Why didn’t we just tell my folks we’re going to this restaurant?”

 

“Lenny’s at the Holdall—he can field any questions if they call there, ‘checking up on you.’  Dino’ll be at Il Sacchetto and can relay them to us.”

 

Which didn’t remotely answer her question, as Driver darted into a parking garage.

 

“Here’s where we bail out,” said Roger.  “We’ll hoof it the rest of the way—three blocks—well-lightedplenty of foot trafficwitnesses as you need them.”

 

Exactly the sort of trust-me line he’d use if he did intend to rape, murder, and/or sell her into underage sex slavery.

 

“Is there such a thing as overage sex slavery?” she blurted aloud.

 

Discreetly reticent cough from Driver.

 

Roger’s thick black brows rose.  “Now, theres a hot topic for class discussion!”


She reddened and tingled and melted and let him tug her gently out of the Rolls, out of the garage and away from Driver, into the weekend foot traffic which was plentiful.  At whom she smiled and said occasional smoky-breath
d Hi’s, in case her presence might need to be remembered for police testimony.  But Roger held her hand as if this were in fact a real true dateand gave her, under a streetlamp, one decisive lipstick-absorbent kiss as if he were in fact her real true boyfriend.

 

Il Sacchetto on a looming window; and on the awning-border above it; and on a sign hanging above the entrance.  Inside, a balding man surveyed their approach through deepset eyes over a broken nose over a pencil moustache.

 

“Dino here?” Roger asked him.

 

“He better be.”

 

“Table ready?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Need my Diner’s Card?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Roger surrendered this and the man (Uncle Virgil?) did things with it.  Then a cursory nod at a waiter, who conveyed them to a table for two in a far corner.  A relatively posh far corner: this restaurant was fancier than a pizza joint or spaghetti house.  Linen tablecloth and serviettes rather than checkerboard tarp and paper napkins; candle in an elegant Chianti bottle.  Other patrons, mostly older couples, wearing suits and ties and nice dresses, turned to watch them being seated.  Vicki was glad to have on her best outfit, and that her date was in formal garb—too formal, perhaps, maybe even absurdly so—but not inappropriate.  People might take him for a maître d’-in-training.

 

“Order the works—all taken care of,” Roger said after Vicki’d visited the Signorinas to restore her lipgloss, while he parleyed with Dino in the kitchen or wherever Uncle Virgil’d said he better be.  “‘Try the veal, it’s the best in The City.’”

 

“The best?”

 

“No idea—never tried it.  That’s just another line I always wanted to say.  Trust me enough to order for you?”

 

“Sure,” said Vicki, feeling relief.  (Alex, though not a vegetarian, lobbied against the consumption of baby animals: so no veal, no lamb chops, no slow-roasted suckling pig.)

 

Roger, after solemnly requesting two Canfield’s Diet Chocolate Fudges, settled for cranberry juice cocktails.  Then: “Bruschetta al pomodoro per antipasto, poi linguine al pesto con patate e faglioni.

 

“Ver good,” commented the waiter, who brought their cranberry juice in genuine wine goblets.

 

“To the LYLIK,” Roger toasted.  Adding “Acronym for am-you-what-really,” when Vicki looked puzzled.

 

Redden-tingle then, touch goblets, take a loveliest-young-ladylike sip.  “I wish we were old enough for this to be wine.”

 

“Oh, youll be intoxicated and stimulated by the food,” Roger told her.  “They put fresh basil on everything—not easy to do in January—and garlic of course, with parsley to save your breath.  Then the pesto’s full of pine nuts, with a dash of anise seed—all well-known aphrodisiacs.

 

“How you talk,” blushed Vicki.

 

Bruschetta, the appetizer, turned out to be diced tomatoes on garlic toast.  Vicki ate it carefully, using a fork, on guard against the ingredients reducing her inhibitions.  Ms. Swanson hadn’t warned them against eating basil or pine nuts or anise seed, so maybe Roger was just trying to stir her up.  (Further up, if truth be told: tingle tingle tingle...)

 

If so, the linguine al pesto had the reverse effect: a plate of horrible green-gooped noodles, like leftovers from The Exorcist.

 

“Are you kidding?” she said, once the waiter was out of earshot.  “I cant eat this!”

 

But she was too shy to send the plate back and Roger wouldnt do it for her, daring Vicki to taste the stuff first.  She’d’ve refused if he’d quoted the old “Try it you’ll like it” Alka-Seltzer ad—overdone by Fel and Tricia and Goofus during Vicki’s fussier dining days, long before Fiona Weller scared her straight.  So she closed her eyes, accepted the forkful Roger was holding out (awfully intimate, but you’d shared tongue-kisses) and found it surprisingly delicious, if you didn’t have to look at it.

 

Which irresistibly reminded her of page 184 in The Cheerleader.

 

Which hot-doggy thought caused a blood rush to every part of her body: cheeks and ears felt on fire, throat so engorged she had trouble swallowing.

 

“Too hot?” Roger inquired.

 

Oh you bastard.

 

She ate without speaking for awhile, as silverware clinked and Mantovani cascaded and blood rush diminished (somewhat).  With several hours to go till she was due at Joss’s, and no dinner theater to occupy them.

 

Yet maybe still a kissing bug?

 

For several hours?

 

Or he could take her to a movie—a good, safe, regular first-date-activity.  What was playing?  The Black Bird.  Barry Lyndon.  Lucky Lady—that title had a nice ring to it.  And there’d still be time afterward (though not so open-endedly) for them to act like grown-ups, with tongues and so on.  If not all the way to page 184.

 

(Leave that sort of Thing for the later teen years.)

 

For now, fish the yellow Pet Rock out of your purse and set it by the elegant Chianti bottle.  Patting it as you would a live animal pet, so Roger wouldn’t think she was giving it back—just prompting him to confirm they were officially Going Together.  And that he knew some failsafe way this could publicized (that part would be easy: tell Laurie Harrison) without Alex freaking or Robin erupting.  He could also ask her out again for Valentine’s Day, just three weeks off, and be planning something for her birthday two weeks later—

 

He ya-da-da-da’d “When You Wish Upon a Star” as he signaled for dessert.

 

“Why’d you do that??”

 

“So they’d bring the cannoli to our table, and not make us get it ourselves.”

 

“No—I mean, y’know, why the... singing.  That song.”

 

He glinted at her in the candlelight.  “Enjoy your meal?”

 

“Oh yes, it was yummy.”

 

“Genoese cuisine.  Northwest Italy, clear across the country from Trieste.  No reason why your grandfather should object to your eating it.”

 

“Hunh?”  Had she ever mentioned PopPop?  That he wouldn’t allow so much as a can of spaghetti in the Beansville ranch house, not even Franco-American?  “How do y—”

 

“I know everything about you.”

 

Said flatly, matter-of-factly, with no insinuating brow-waggle.

 

“You do not,” smiled Vicki.

 

“Ah, but I do.”

 

Pause while dessert was served.

 

“‘Leave the gun—take the cannoli,’” Roger recited, biting into his.  “It’s easy to know everything, because nothing is real.  ‘And nothing to get hung about,’ since it’s all make-believe.  Or if you prefer the Pointer Sisters, ‘a great big fairytale’—though I prefer the word phantasm.  Much classier than ‘wet dream.’”

 

She sucked in her saved-from-garlic-by-parsley breath while he took another bite.  Studying her over it with perverse tenderness.

 

“When you first saw me with Becca, you wondered if you were hallucinating.  Well, I’m here—as it were—to say your whole existence is an imaginary figment.  So’s mine.  So’s everybody you know’s.”

 

“Why’re you being like this?” she tried not to whine.  “We were having such a good time!  I thought we might even be...”

 

“What—‘falling in love?’  Well, that’s true enough, so far as it goes.  But it’ll go too far and you’ll end up like this so-called cannoli.”  (Chomp.)  “Believe me.  Every time you feel what you think is pain, you get prettier; and that only brings you more pain.  I’m hurting you now, talking this way, and you’re prettifying before my eyes.  It’s something in your eyes (which are good—or would be, if they existed) and your mouth (which isn’t too wide, whatever you might think) and especially your hair.  ‘Like the night, black and silken, darkness never fades away.’  Thats a plummy line, but not without merit.  I’ll stop there, unless you’d like me to go lower.”

 

His glint sharpened on her little black neckline.  And Vicki felt chomped.

 

Ogle-pawed, ogle-groped, ogle-suckled—sensing again that unclean aura that, like his fadeproof darkness, spread vaster and vaster till the air seemed full of gray mist.

 

“(You’re spoiling everything,)” she whispered.

 

“Nature of The Beast, I’m afraid.”  His face twisted: a wry grimace at what remained of his cannoli.  “And that nature’s calling.  Some things are less unreal than others, even here.”  He got to his feet, gave her a discomposed leer: “‘You gotta go, you gotta go’—as Captain McCluskey said just before Michael Corleone shot him through the throat.”

 

Lurching off, he disappeared into the hall leading to the Signores.

 

She found her hand gripping the yellow Pet Rock.

 

This is real.  You could clout him with it.  Smash his glasses, split his head open—and you otter do it, too!  How can he break us up this way, here, now?  Just when you’re ready to—were ready to—never mind what.

 

Dimly she felt like Fingers the kitten, chasing a flashlight beam or dangling from a yarn-strand.

 

It couldn’t end like this; she wouldn’t let it.  When he came back from the washroom, she’d...

 

Do what?  Keep staring at her untouched cannoli?  While the clock ticked and the Mantovani gushed and the idea stirred that “it’s all taken care of” was a lie—or at least a mistake—Diner’s Card gone wrong, perhaps—sending Roger out the washroom window, sticking Vicki with an unpaid check?

 

Now hold on.  Don’t go to pieces.  Remember the ten-dollar bill Mom slipped you, calling it “mad money”—something girls used to take on dates just-in-case, for-emergencies-only.  And when Joss heard about this she threw in an extra five: “You know how worried I get when you’re out of my sight.”  So you’re not doomed to scrub saucepans if Roger added the injury of running out on you, to the insult of saying you don’t exist.

 

The bastard.

 

Which you’d forgive him for being, if he’d hurry up and come back.

 

“That’s what I call ‘living up to his impotential!’” said a voice; followed by a hard rattle of caustic laughter, in triplicate.

 

Vicki swung round to see the horseless Mounted Chorus pass before her in ultraslow-motion, heading toward the exit.  Brad Faussett giving a We DID this! head-jerk to Dilton Doiley from the Archie comics, wiping fastidious hands on a paper towel; and cleft-chinned wavy-haired Chico from Lords of Flatbush, who wore an anteater-grin as he whistled “Life is but a dream.”

 

Ultraslow they might be moving, but away they went before Vicki could do more than let her jaw sag.

 

Wha-a-a-at?

 

Where the hell had they been while she was having dinner?

 

Hanging out in the bar, utilizing fake IDs from Carly Thibert’s cousin Lola?

 

Or hiding in the washroom, planning to stage a united-we-stand ambuscade on—

 

ROGER.

 

What’ve you done to him? she wanted to yell (not for the first time) as the gray mist reappeared and turned pink.  Through veins our blood does course / until it all gets shed!

 

Oh Gahd oh Gahd oh Gahd she faltered by the Signores door, knowing she lacked the courage to peek in or ask some kind-looking gent to do it for her.  And anyway nobody else was dithering outside the washrooms, not a man or woman or childtill Dino Tattaglia hurtled up in a dishwasher’s apron and rubber gloves, still sporting his pimp cap as he barreled smack into Vicki.

 

“Roger—” she tried to say.

 

“Get your fat culo outta here!” he snarled, shoving past and making her stagger on her platform heels as he slammed into the Signores.  Out of which no sound could be heard... except an insistent b-z-z-z-z, as if from unseen insects.

 

Vicki did a twirl worthy of Mabel Maydone, seeking a witness or better assistance but fearing she’d blink and find herself back last July, new and lost in Baroque Vista, blundering alone down a creepy-weird mountainside into utter-emptiness where even her own shadow deserted her.

 

Could Roger have been telling the truth? or anti-truth? that this was all a delusion she was having, or being, or both?  Had she really died that day on Petty Roadbeen violated by degenerate predators, left to molder in an unnoticed ditch and this psychotic limbo?

 

No.  She had called on Gran, and Joss had found her, and everything had turned out all right.

 

So take a deep trembly breath.  Return to the table.  Collect your things, including the Pet Rock.  (Leave the cannoli.)  Walk to the cashier’s counter with chin up and head high, like the Loveliest Young Lady you are.

 

Very good, Miss.

 

Weigh your options with every step.  Stay here and see what happens?  Not after what Dino told you to do.  Go find Driver?  He wasn’t likely to take you anywhere in the Rolls by yourself, even if you found him at the parking garage.  Go call Daddy?  The resulting hullabaloo would last for years, even supposing Mom answered the phone.  Arrange with Joss to have Meg pick you up?  Maybe if it weren’t Saturday night; but Meg was no longer grounded for last month’s curfew-bust, and had surely gone out to try busting it anew.

 

So: dip into your “mad money.”  Assuming you won’t need it to pay for your food.

 

“Can you please call me a cab?” she asked Uncle Virgil in a smooth steady voice.

 

Deepset once-over.  Would he say What happened to the boy what brung you, why’d Dino run into the crapper?  Or Who’s gonna cough up for that cranberry juice, tomatoes on garlic toast, green-gooped noodles and left-behind dessert?

 

“Sure,” said Virgil.  “Where to?”

 

(Thank Gahd for Diner’s Card.)  “1008 Jupiter Street, in Vanderlund.  Um... do you think it’ll cost me a lot to get there?”

 

Uncle Virgil seemed incapable of smiling, but his pencil moustache betrayed entertainment.  “Naah.  Unless you’re a big tipper.”

 

She thanked him with a dollar and waited up front, staring now at the backwards neon Il Sacchetto sign in the window.  Mildly surprised to realize she wasn’t verging on tears or nausea.

 

A taxi pulled up and Lenny Otis tumbled out.  Toppling through the vestibule as if summoned by some arcane Smarks alarm.  Vicki sidestepped past him, hardly astonished by Lenny’s entry—or his cabby’s resemblance to the affluent chauffeur she’d expected Driver to be.  His cabby; now hers.

 

Before climbing into the taxi she turned back for a parting glimpse, in fleeting hope the whole affair would be a ludicrous practical joke—that Roger’d be there riding on Lenny and Dino’s shoulders, laughing uproariously as in A Bite to Drink.

 

But all she caught sight of was a face in the window, watching her leave.  Not Lenny’s, though it was popeyed; not Dino’s, though it had on a clownish cap; not Roger’s, though its gaze pierced Vicki like X-ray vision.

 

For an ephemeral moment, like Petrushka’s ghost thumbing its nose at the terrified Magician.

 

Before twitchily vanishing, like Gollum in his cave at the very roots of the Misty Mountains.

 

*

 

Over the next few days Vicki bent more truth than in her entire life hitherto.

 

At Jupiter Street, with Joss’s help, she crafted responses to parental questions.  Yes, the date with Roger went all right, y’know.  Yes, riding in that limo was fun, pretty much.  Yes, Mimi McLaine was certainly beautiful, but Vicki wasn’t sure she could really act.  Or whether the Holdall could be recommended for dinner or theater.  But yes, maybe she’d say yes if-and-when Roger asked her out again (shrug) who knows?

 

“A very sensible attitude,” said Ozzie and Felicia.

 

Then there was the semi-enlightenment of a most special friend.  Hey Alex, wanna hear a secret?  I got that final B in Science cause I got tutored by Roger Mustardman.  Yes!  Sorry I had to keep it all hush-hush, but y’know Robin’d never’ve let me hear the end of it.  And now Goofus thinks I’m dating Roger!  He’s so silly.  Don’t believe anything he says, ever!  Oh heythis is just between me ‘n’ you ‘n’ Joss, ‘kay?

 

“Girl Scout’s honor!” said Alex.

 

Much harder to craft was what Vicki should say to Roger when next they met.

 

Make that if-and-when.  On Tuesday the new semester began with a thunderbolt: Roger was gone from 8-Z.  Hed been transferred over to Y, an almost unheard-of midyear shift.

 

Laurie Harrison would search avidly, but report to the bunch that he was in none of her classes and never seen in the 8-Y hall.  Nor did Roger lunch in the cafeteria with Lenny and Dino anymore; there were rumors he loitered alone in the school basement, like a Phantom of the Opera (or Sock-Hop).

 

Robin Neapolitan acted as triumphant as if she’d personally booted him off Z.

 

Vicki suspected Becca Blair was the one responsible for the transfer, as a boon if not blessing.  Not that this was a hot topic for locker room discussion: Becca did take her aside that first Tuesday, with Vicki tensing up in anticipation of being grilled, but all Becca wanted to know was if she would run for Z205’s representative on the second-semester Student Council.  Which Vicki dutifully did, winning the election and serving as a trusted cog in Becca’s bionic political machine.

 

(Noticing her boss had a whole new set of suitors that semester—none of them named Brad Faussett, Lyle Wilkie, or Ralph Waldo Emerson Lorgnon III.)

 

(And wondering if Becca ever slunk down to the basement janitor’s closet for further English tutorials.)

 

Carly Thibert was briefly indignant that Vicki’d had to find her own way home from a date; but she shrugged the matter off when Vicki didn’t seem inclined to bitch or mope about it.

 

Not openly, at any rate.

 

Though she nearly fainted that same first Tuesday at 3:15 p.m., when she opened her locker and a new thin white note floated out.

 

Unfolding it was an ordeal.  Not half as bad, though, as trying to decipher a mess of spider-scratches apparently made by a bone-dry ballpoint.

 

Just wait till they start spinning webs for all the unwary flies in your stomach...

 

A ray of cheer was raised that evening by the premiere of Laverne & Shirley, which would prove to be a reliable cheery-upper for years to come.  But that ray got doused by a series of awful nightmares, jolting her awake hour after hour

 

—Roger lying on the stairwell steps, squashed like a beetle; Roger having a tightly-furled umbrella hammered into his heart; Roger lurking in the sewer with a skeletal face behind shattered glasses—

 

Her old Cheshire Cat doll wasn’t enough to calm her down or soothe her back to sleep.  Finally she took the yellow Pet Rock to bed, clutching it like an undercover talisman, chanting This is realI am realthe dreams are fake, are false, are lies.

 

To which a perversely tender voice replied: Call them Art.  Make-believes nothing to get hung about.  A vamp by any other name would bite as deep.

 

Which was as close as Vicki’d ever get to reading the rest of A Bite to Drink.

 

Other spidery scratch-notes would appear in her locker from time to time, none more legible than the first.  Eventually shed throw them away without bothering to unfold them.

 

And after the Winter Olympics, prepping for her fourteenth birthday, Vicki got her waist-long hair cut into a sassy Dorothy Hamill wedge.  Joss wouldn’t accompany her and Alex to the Green Bridge salon (“Oh no you don’t!  I’m keeping my ‘fro!”) but Alex, while her own nifty-pixie coif was being trimmed, re-convinced her how much easier short hair would be to wash and dry and care for.  (And save from being stroked.)

 

“Not to mention run in!” Alex added.  “Or is it run with?  Or run under?

 

“Run along,” quipped Vicki: feeling like a newly-emerged butterfly as she got up and stretched out her young wings.

 

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *
   

 

Return to Chapter 23                          Proceed to Chapter 25

 

 

A Split Infinitive Production
Copyright © 2012-2013 by P. S. Ehrlich

 

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