“Did you just laugh out loud?” Vicki asked, in some alarm.
“(Check this out,)” answered Fiona, passing her a magazine: Who Put the BOMP!’s Gala Girl Issue.
“Where do you find these things, Feef?” said Vicki, whose perusals were limited to the racks at Jewels and Osco. “I like her hair,” she ventured, referring to the cover girl’s feathery blonde shag.
“(It’s not about the hair,)” Fiona retorted, flipping the magazine open to an article titled “Are You Young and Rebellious Enough to Love the Runaways?” “(They’re a new band in L.A.—five high school girls. But hard rockers, not a bunch of cutesy-poos.)”
“So, not the new (Josie and the Pussycats?)” quipped Vicki, lowering her voice to Fiona-volume even though Robin was down the hall in a whole other homeroom, presumably out of earshot.
“(Hardly.)” Fiona took back the BOMP with a wistful mutter-sigh. “(Everything’s happening in L.A. or New York. Nothing even close to it Out Here.)”
“Yeah, but you did get Bowie,” Vicki reminded her.
Mr. Gillies rushed in then, disappointing those who’d hoped he’d quit during spring break; and the new grading period, last of the school year, officially began. Fiona gave it a tenth of her mind, devoting the other 90% to a month ago at the International Amphitheater and David Bowie’s concert there, part of his Station to Station tour.
For weeks beforehand Robin had sworn that nothing could make her go see Puddyboy, live or otherwise. Finally at ticketbuying time she groaned, “I suppose I’ll have to go. Just to make sure you don’t get yourself trampled or kidnapped or anything.”
On the night of the concert Robin told Fat Bob she was sleeping over at the Plexiglass Palace, which was true; Fiona informed the Palace she’d be heading over to Robin’s “for awhile,” which was also true. If they neglected to mention that between these two truths, they were taking a train into The City and down to the Stockyards so they could squeeze into an arena full of sweaty stonehead whoopensteins—
—well, that was a minor oversight on their part.
“Why the hell couldn’t this be for Black Sabbath??” Robin grouse-shouted over the pre-concert yelling and chanting. But it was Robin’s breath that got sucked in during the opening eyeball-slice from Un Chien Andalou, and Robin’s awestruck “porca troia!” that got uttered at intervals through the rest of the show.
When Bowie appeared, Fiona’s reaction was profound disappointment. As if the promoters had hired some ordinary guy, a mere mortal from central casting, to go onstage and portray a Thin White Duke in thin white flesh. No, this couldn’t be Fiona’s flashdazzly Starman—just a stiff monochrome zombie-clone who seemed coked to the gills.
Heart failure. Soul collapse. General claustrophobic despair as the crowd hemmed in with malodorous You-Reeka-ish murkitude. Fiona closed her eyes and nose against this, trying to shut down her ears also—
—till they heard a familiar salvo of strings and horns and Hey mannnn! awww, leave me alone y’know / Hey mannnn! oh Henry get off the phone—
—taking her Back On Suffragette City, outta sight! all right! as that swank extraterrestrial hand reached out through the banks of bright white light set against stark black backdrops: reached out to lift her up above the fetid mob till she hung there suspended alongside her previous disbelief, bestriding the cosmos and beholding all creation.
And for the rest of that concert Fiona hovered aloft: one shoulder anchored against Robin’s (“porca troia!”) and the other against Bowie’s (“turn and face the strain!”) as they addressed the audience side by side, manipulating the horde like masterful puppeteers, making the stupefied hunky-dories sway and dance and respond howsoever she and Bowie chose—
“Shsss!...” from Gollum at her elbow, as the first period bell rang.
“C’mon, Feef,” said Vicki, nudging her back into the flusterful here-and-now.
“You okay?” Joss inquired as they left Z205. “You look positively pink-cheeked—”
“(Oh shut up,)” Fiona mutter-blushed.
“You shut up,” Joss smiled.
“Who’s telling who to shut up?” demanded Robin out in the hall. Already in a scowly mood that wasn’t improved during second period when Miss McInerney inflicted them with David Copperfield. To be read, in its entirety, all sixty-four chapters, at the rate of two per schoolday over the next seven weeks.
Poorly-muffled cries of anguish from the class.
Echoing those coming from second-period Language Arts students in 8-X and 8-Y, as they received the same assignment.
Even Becca Blair lost her creamy aura at the idea of sustaining so much literary absorption, while Alex Dmitria had to be detizzified with reassurance that anyone who could ride a real live horse couldn’t be spooked by a long old novel.
Lunching with the bunch later that day, Alex seized the reins. “What do you think about us divvying it up?
“What? The mac’n’cheese?”
“You can have mine, it looks supergross today—”
“No—David Copperfield! We’ll all take turns—I’ll draw up a schedule—each of us reads a couple chapters, then kind of boils them down for the rest of us. Like a Reader’s Digesty condensation, you know? Miss McInerney even said she wanted us to work on our summarizing skills.”
Nobody suggested they run this scheme past any of their English teachers. It was a demonstration (the bunch implicitly agreed) of their initiative as soon-to-be-ninth-graders, led by an honorbound Girl Scout who could, after all, ride a real live horse.
Before long they were also exercising skills at haggle-barter: swapping days on the Copperfield schedule, exchanging them for goods and services. Some preferred to deal with loaned-out clothing and accessories, but Fiona requested cold hard cash—and since she was adept at saying plenty in few words, she piled up a nice bankroll for future expenditures at Cobwebs & Strange.
Oddly enough, the book wasn’t as onerous as Fiona’d expected; at times she even slowed her skimming to leaf-through. Even so, it ate up time that could’ve been spent on Punk or Creem or Crawdaddy, from which you could learn far more useful things—such as the Runaways having gone backstage to pay tribute to Patti Smith, and getting kicked out of her dressing room.
“She was being real rude to us for no reason! I mean, she was so disgusting with those saggy tits!”
Haw! Good for Psmith. Serves the little bitches right for landing a contract with Mercury Records while they were still in high school.
It just wasn’t fair. People on the coasts hogged all the breaks and deals; they had access to so many cool clubs and happening venues. While you, stuck Out Here, were forced to settle for next to nothing. The City’s northern ‘burbs were overlaid with blight. Fourth Fork Landing in Multch Township had gone bust during the recession. B.Ginnings in Schaumburg didn’t always check IDs, but it employed goonish bouncers with mob connections. And Vanderlund’s only boast was a pathetic stripmall discotheque called “The Vinyl Spinnaker.”
(“Spittlecure,” Robin always rephrased it.)
For musical entertainment you had to go farther afield. Such as to the Jazz Showcase Sunday matinee at the Blackstone Hotel, where the bunch treated Joss on her fourteenth birthday.
She’d hoped they’d take her to an NBA playoff game, but the “Bull-onies” suffered through their worst season in team history that year and finished in the conference cellar. Vicki took charge then, planning the Jazz Showcase junket in deepest secrecy, even trying to blindfold Joss until their arrival—after first managing to climb inside Cass Rumpelmagen’s Buick Estate Wagon with Alex and Robin and Fiona and Chloe and Laurie and Susie and Beth and Invisible Amy and Sheila-Q and her sister Mealy-Mouth, who wanted to know how many boys they intended to pick up en route.
“Where’re we gonna fit any boys?”
“Strap ‘em on the roof, like a boat.”
“Strap ‘em on the hood, like a deer.”
“Stash ‘em in the trunk, like a hostage.”
“Settle down back there,” Uncle Cass tried to holler above the tumult.
“Sit still and let me tie this, Joss—”
“How’re you supposed to blindfold me when none of us can move our arms?”
“I can move my toes!”
“I can move my tongue!”
“Awreet, bring on the boys!”
“‘Ninety-nine boys in the back of the Buick—’”
Which lasted till they got to the Blackstone.
That Sunday’s matinee featured the Edgar Stubley Quintet, who toned their funk down to Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids level, yet dug enough of a groove to keep Joss swimming in bliss. Her acclaim for the Quintet’s “Midnight at the Oasis,” accentuated by her height and hair, was so conspicuous that Edgar Stubley himself took note:
“Awwww yeah—she got that one.”
“And it’s her birthday!” yelled irrepressible Sheila-Q.
“Well, many happy returns!” wished the Stubman. “Now then, this next one’s for the curly birthday girl who got the last one”—kicking off a spirited rendition of “Out She Blew.”
And Joss very nearly swooned.
“The best birthday I’ve ever, ever had!” she rejoiced afterward. “Last year all I did was worry why Kim Zimmer was acting so weird! Oh, I love all you guys, and you—” (crushing Vicki in a fullbodied hug) “—Loopy the Loop, you saved my life!”
“You saved mine first,” Vicki reminded her, after Joss relaxed her clinch.
Further lifesaving was necessary that same April, thanks to another form of musical entertainment: VW’s production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Vicki was on its publicity committee, tasked with selling program ads and distributing posters to local businesses. Plus coping with Candy Gates, who’d been cast (entirely to type) as Lucy.
“Attention, please!” heralded her every entrance, each syllable distinctly audible. Followed by thoughts on how the program should be laid out (down to the specific font and point size) or what color combinations for the poster design would most quickly snag the eye.
Candy Gates was a high potentate in both the Mixed Chorus and Drama Club, renowned for her stage presence, vocal projection, and fearsome hissyfits. If reminded she was making so much fuss over a junior high school play or concert, Candy Gates (in distinct syllables) would say:
“That is exactly the point I am trying to make! If you can’t get it right in junior high, how can you possibly do so later on??”
She was also considered one of the babes of 9-Z, and Vicki felt flattered (at first) when Alex and Mumbles and other people asked, “Are you like Candy Gates’s cousin or something?” As with her actual Volester cousins Barbara and Monica, there was a noticeable resemblance: all being eyesnaggable cuties with trim little figures, shining black eyes and silky black hair—though Candy Gates wore hers à la Prince Valiant, not Dorothy Hamill.
Her expressive shiners were unimpressed by their first glimpse of Vicki, sizing her up as a wannabe-groupie-fan in pitiful denim overalls and rainbow T-shirt. Candy Gates (in gauze-weave blouse and patch-print flares) opted to treat the poor thing with gracious condescension. Then Poor Thing exhibited talents for attentiveness and obedience, so Candy Gates commandeered “Velma” (as she generally got called) to be her personal press agent and gopher factotum.
“Velma! You’re the only one I can depend on!”
While they rode herd on publicity, costumes, makeup, scenery, props, lights, sound, the rest of the cast, Chorus, Band, ushers, director, and Parent Teacher Association.
Vicki lacked the fortitude to resist Candy Gates’s relentless fusion of overweening ego and high-voltage charm. (“Velma! You’re the only one I can trust!”) All those years in Tricia’s emerald glare left her predisposed to be deferential, no matter how often Joss might remonstrate.
“Quit letting her push you around!”
“I’m not and she isn’t! We’re just trying to put on the best possible musical is all.”
“‘Put on’ is right! She’s trying to con everyone into thinking she’s their boss! Just like she did last year with Bye Bye Birdie, except then she was an eighter and couldn’t get away with it. Now she’s running roughshoddy over everything and got you doing it too! Bail out now, while you can!”
“Bail out how? I can’t just quit.”
“Do like I do with Meg—make her think she’s going bonkers.”
“Crazy, cuckoo, gaga, psycho—”
“I know what bonkers means, Joss!”
As did the You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown company, whose rehearsals were beset by a series of mishaps that did nothing to pacify Candy Gates’s temperament. Peculiar problems with lights, sound, and scenery were attributed to the “Phantom of the Sock-Hop”—putting Vicki even more on edge as she half-dreaded, half-hoped that Roger Mustardman might re-manifest himself. Which didn’t happen, unless he took the form of a thirty-pound sandbag that fell from the flies during dress rehearsal, crushing Lucy’s Psychiatric Help (5¢) booth.
Candy Gates was nowhere near when this happened, but took center stage anyway to make an impassioned speech that Vicki was later told to transcribe and release to local media outlets:
“Do you think this will stop me?? Or any of us, as we struggle to give the public something better and finer?? And remind them that ‘YESSSS!! IT’S AMAZINGLY TRUUUUE!! / FOR WHATEVER IT’S WORTH, CHARLIE BROWN / YOU’RRRRE YOOOOOOOU!!!’”
“Whoa!” Joss told Robin down in the band pit. “Somebody’s been sniffing two thousand tubes of airplane glue.”
Who would ever want to do
a thing like sniffing airplane glue?
A group called the Ramones, that’s who—
Whose first album, released later that week, was soon in nonstop play on Villa Neapolitan’s basement turntable.
Radical things were happening on the music scene. Psmith & Co. had appeared on NBC’s Saturday Night (“Patti Smith, a new pop idol, wailed incomprehensibly,” said the New York Times) and now her CBGB buddies had crossed the LP threshold. If you could call The Ramones “long-playing”: thirteen songs in under thirty minutes, all played faster! louder! brasher!—stripped down to their hardcore ass-kicking essence, then blasted out like a blitzkrieg chainsaw.
Small wonder that a windstorm tore through the ‘burbs that weekend, causing power outages that temporarily halted replay of the new album, and gave Fiona a reprieve from its simpleminded lyrics.
“(Why couldn’t they have bothered to say something?)”
“They say plenty! They just don’t waste time blathering about it.”
“(Y’think? ‘Let’s all go run with scissors / Yes, all go run with scissors / We’re gonna run with scissors / All day long.’ That’s what they sing like, over and over again! Gets old fast.)”
“It’s supposed to be fast! You write something fancier, and we’ll sing it fast. As long as you don’t make it too farting Gilbert & Sullivany.”
So: a challenge. Take Psmith’s visionary free verse and pump it full of slam-bang speed. Experiment with a passage from David Copperfield—God knows there were plenty to choose from.
Some were packed with surprises. Laurie’d traded Chapters 27 and 28 to Sheila-Q along with a loaned pair of teardrop bead earrings. Next day at lunch, after checking to make sure Alex was off with the Math Club, S-Q opened her book to a marked page. “Get a load of this!”
As the step approached, I knew it, and felt my heart beat high, and the blood rush to my face, for it was Steerforth’s... When he entered, and stood before me with his hand out, the darkness that had fallen on him changed to light, and I felt confounded and ashamed for having doubted one I loved so heartily... “Why, Daisy, old boy, dumb-foundered!” laughed Steerforth, shaking my hand heartily, and throwing it gaily away. “Have I detected you in another feast, you Sybarite! These Doctors’ Commons fellows are the gayest men in town, I believe, and beat us sober Oxford people all to nothing!”
“MAN!” went Robin. “I’m surprised they let us read books like that in school, much less make us do it!”
“Oh, now I wish I’d read it,” sighed Laurie, giving Sheila’s earlobes a resentful glance.
“Hey, no takesie-backsies! I’m keeping these earrings till Monday, that was the deal.”
“Yeah, but what’re you wearing tomorrow?”
“Haven’t decided yet,” said Sheila-Q, tossing her head. “Doesn’t matter—teardrop bead earrings go with everything.”
“Do NOT!” Laurie protested, sounding ready to pinch-hit for Robin in the Argument of the Day. Which made Robin laugh so hard milk shot through her nose again.
“Another lucky afternoon!” cheered Joss.
“Is it my turn to read next?” asked Vicki. “I’ve completely lost track, and Alex’s got the schedule—oh Sheila, be careful how you digest that last bit for her.”
“Better say ‘the cheerfullest men in town,’” Joss agreed.
Fiona volunteered to do Chapters 29 and 30, in exchange for fifty cents and Vicki’s untouched tater tots.
“Way to go, Feef!” Sheila-Q applauded. “Way to scarf those carbohydrates.”
“Oh please don’t talk about nutrition!” Vicki moaned as the bell rang for free period. “I’ve barely studied for that quiz, and I’m way behind in Spanish, and—”
“Vel-mah?? Velma, where are you??”
“I thought Charlie Brown was all over and done with,” said Laurie.
“Some acts never leave the stage,” Robin informed her.
“There you are!” announced Candy Gates, striding down the cafeteria aisle. “I need to talk to you right away!”
“Uh, Vicki, don’t forget that uh stuff we gotta do,” Joss garbled.
“I won’t keep her forever,” Candy Gates airily assured them, grasping Vicki by an shoulder-strap of her overalls. “Come over to my table.”
“But I already just ate lunch—”
“Well, now you can have mine too. I couldn’t possibly eat a bite.”
Vicki watched helplessly as her friends had to leave while freshmen surged in for Lunch C. She saw Susan Baxter and Rhonda Wright and signaled wildly to them with her eyebrows, but they only smiled and waved and left her unrescued in Candy Gates’s clutches.
“Now then: the campaign for Cicada Queen. I wouldn’t dream of doing it without you by my side, Velma, you’re my strong right arm. Here are a few ideas I’ve had so far—” (opening a thick pocket folder and extracting a sheaf of pantyhose ads: Gentlemen Prefer Hanes). “That will be our Cicada Queen theme—changed to ‘Gentlemen Prefer Gates,’ of course.”
Vicki retreated into bewilderment. “Cicada Queen” sounded like some disaster movie where a girl mutated into a gigantic bug that attacked The City. Then she realized Candy Gates was talking about VW’s Spring Dance, which was sponsored by the Cicada yearbook.
“I—I didn’t know you had to, like, campaign for Queen,” she stammered.
“Oh Velma, Velma, Velma,” tinklelaughed Candy Gates. “What a lot you’ve still got to learn! Lucky for you, I’m here to do the teaching. There’s so much more than just showing up with the best dress, shoes, hair, makeup, jewelry, and date that can actually dance. (By the way, sweetie, those overalls are kind of cute but you might try wearing a skirt to school once in a darn while...)”
Chapter 29 of David Copperfield brought a welcome reappearance by Rosa Dartle, Fiona’s favorite character. Rosa’s face had been maimed when Steerforth, in childhood, threw a hammer at it (what a prince!) and now she was “all edge” from constant self-sharpening and perverse insinuation. In Chapter 29, though, Steerforth set out to soften her up and win her over (the seductive bastard!)—even persuading her to play a harp and sing an Irish song:
|I don’t know what it was, in her touch or voice, that made that song the most unearthly I have ever heard in my life, or can imagine. There was something fearful in the reality of it. It was as if it had never been written, or set to music, but sprung out of passion with her; which found imperfect utterance in the low sounds of her voice, and crouched when all was still.|
At which point Rosa struck Steerforth, threw him off with the fury of a wildcat, and burst out of the room. (Good for her.)
Fiona copied this passage inside the cover of her current staff-paper spiral. She would write that unearthly song, set it to music, and belt it out of the International Amphitheater faster! louder! brasher! than any Ramone—doing it for all the Rosa Dartles of the world, and none of the Agneses or Little Em’lys or poor dumb Doras.
Saturday was May Day, and Robin declared the sun would not set before they talked the Erle brothers into learning the guitar, once and for all, and forming a rock group with the Dopesters. “I’ll take Diesel and you take Skully, and we’ll turn ‘em into our very own punk toys!”
Fiona, though dubious, got on the scooter behind Robin and whizzed over to Pfenniger Street, since there she could dip into her bankroll and buy a fresh nickel bag of Skully’s primo weed.
“(You’d never learn to play a guitar, would you?)”
Skully stared at her out of starveling sockets. “I play the sax.”
“(Thought so,)” said Fiona just as Robin charged headlong out of Diesel’s room, her face absolutely purple with rage.
“OUTTA! HERE! NOW!”
“(See ya,)” Fiona told Skully, pocketing the bag and following Robin to the Margutta. “(So what—)”
“GET ON THE FUCKING BIKE!”
Yanking her aboard with one arm, revving up with the other, screeching off down Pfenniger Street with reckless heedless haste. Roaring around corners at acute angles—running past stop signs and through red lights—causing cars to test their antilock brake systems with screechy honks—till Fiona’s punyfisted shoulder-pummeling roused Robin from apoplexy long enough to turn onto Lesser Drive, into Lesser Park, and over to a gravel-scattering halt.
“I AM SO FUCKING! PISSED! OFF!”
With trembly fingers Fiona got the nickel bag open, rolled a couple of bombers, and thrust one between Robin’s bared teeth. Not till it was half consumed, and they were sprawling against a stout black walnut tree, did Robin attempt to say more.
“(Okay. So... what?)”
“He said... and I quote... ‘Chicks—can’t—rock.’”
“And then he said... this is another quote... that I remind him of motherfucking Melody and the motherfucking Pussycats.”
“I’ll pussycat him. I’da done it, too, if I hadn’t left when I did. He’d be dead meat and I’d be getting hauled off to juvie.”
“(Better that than turning me ‘n’ you into roadkill.)”
“I mean, I know how you wanted to start a band and all...”
“(Doesn’t have to be with them. We could, y’know, form an all-girl band. Like the Runaways. Or Isis. Or Fanny. Or the Ace of Cups, back in San Francisco—)”
“Ace of Whats?”
“(Cups. Like the Tarot card. They opened once for Jimi Hendrix, he said they were great.)”
“He told you that?”
“(...who told who what?...)”
“...ummmm... well anyway: what fun would an all-girl band be?”
“(Think about it. A couple guy guitarists’d take over, pay no attention to us. Probably bring in other guys on bass ‘n’ drums ‘n’ kick us right out.)”
“The sonsabitches... I bet you’re right. But where d’you expect to find a couple girl guitarists?”
“(Plenty of girls play guitar.)”
“Acoustic, you mean. I ain’t drummin’ for no folkie-damn-schmolkies.”
“(Hey, lookit who’s coming—)”
They stretched reddened eyes to see Vicki Volester run up the Lesser Park jogging path, clad in a snug little track suit.
“Hello?” went Vicki, stopping to peer under the walnut tree. “Hey, guys!... oh, what’re you two doing?? No thanks!” she added hastily as Fiona offered her a toke.
“(Oops—Alex isn’t with you, is she?)”
“No, you lucked out, she’s working at the animal shelter. Please tell me you guys aren’t gonna ride your scooter while... doing that.”
“I drive safer when I’m mellow,” Robin carefully asserted.
“Uh huh,” said Vicki, looking warily around for copcars or plainclothes narcs.
“What, Robin? Gahd!”
“Volester—you gotta learn to play the guitar, right this minute. We’re forming an all-girl rock band and you’re gonna be in it.” To Fiona: “There—see? I can make a rhyme too.”
“You know I can’t play anything,” said Vicki, stretching her arms and legs. “If you want a backup singer, fine, I’ll try my best. Have you asked Joss? She hasn’t said anything about it.”
“We don’t need a trumpet.”
“(It’s a cornet,)” Fiona clarified.
“She plays keyboards too! You are not forming an all-girl rock group without at least asking Joss.”
“Hey! Who died and made you our manager?” Robin wanted to know. “What we need’s a couple guitarists. That’re girls.”
“Okay then, did you ask Sheila-Q?”
Robin and Fiona stared redly at each other.
“Quirk does play guitar! She’s got that Silvertone axe! Awreet, now we’re getting somewhere.”
“(You ‘n’ Sheila’d just fight all the time.)”
“We do that already—and we do not ‘fight.’ We argue. Like in a debate.”
“Well anyway, be sure to ask Joss too,” Vicki told them. “Call her tonight—I’ll be over at her house, and that way I’ll know you got home safe and won’t have to worry about you all weekend.”
“Awwww,” from the Dopesters.
“Shut up! I’ve got enough worries with Candy-Ass Gates on my back.”
Hoots at this coming from a nice-girl mouth. “(What you said!)” went Fiona.
“I mean it, too! I’m gonna tell her so the next time she makes me listen to another lamebrained pantyhose idea.”
More hoots, and “Yes, Mommy,” when Vicki reminded them not to scoot under the influence.
“Wish I had an ass like that,” sighed Robin as they watched it jog off along the path. “Betcha it’d make me drum better.”
“(For the bucks?)”
And another round of high-flying hootery.
“Would you ever smoke pot?” Vicki asked that evening in Joss’s aerie.
“Why, you got some?”
“You’re kidding, right? While I’m living here under Toughie’s roof? Even if I tried it down at Youth Music Camp, she’d find out somehow. No, all that’ll have to wait till my first day of college.”
“So—whaddaya think about this all-girl band business?”
“Sounds good to me. We oughta get a black chick, though, who’s got a lot of ‘bruthas.’ Does Rhonda Wright play guitar?”
“Not with nails as long as hers, she doesn’t. Big Sue wanted her to go out for basketball, and Rhonda said ‘You can take away my freedom, but spare me my manicure!’ ...Y’think Sheila’ll join the band?”
“You know she will. Any opportunity to gnarl at Robin. And outshine Mealy. And raise a ruckus in front of a crowd.”
They thought back to the Quirk clan’s Pre-St. Patrick’s Day party at their Grand Parade Bar & Grill. (The clan had been saloonkeepers since coming to The City from County Cork.) Private shindigs were hosted at the GPB&G on Mondays, when the many Quirk kids would provide faster! louder! brasher! musical entertainment. Whether on flute or guitar, Sheila could rip through “Whiskey You’re the Devil” in sixty seconds flat, while her sister Amelia danced a jig with frisking petticoats and flashes of thigh.
Not to be outdone hotchawise, Sheila came to the Pre-St. Paddy’s party in a startlingly lowcut green gown.
“Sheila the Show-Off!” jeered Robin.
“Flaunt ‘em if you got ‘em, Robbo,” said Sheila-Q, shimmying her shamrocks.
Amelia popped up (and out) by her side in a sheer white turtleneck. She, like Rosa Dartle, had a talent for irritation-by-perpetual-hinting, most often directed at Sheila; for which Robin had adopted Mealy (now surnamed Potatoes) as an apprentice Dopester.
“D’you think K.C. thinks mine are big-ger?” she inquired, popping precocious shamrocks toward Sheila’s boyfriend K.C. Battenburg, an affable towhead with hair like a Komondor. (Roy Hodeau having long since been deep-sixed.)
“No I do not ‘cause no he does not ‘cause no they are not! And if that’s my best bra you’ve got on under that, I’m gonna strangle you with it!”
“Well, it’s not like you’re using it,” snortled Robin.
“We wear the same size,” Mealy confided. “But since I’m only twelve, doesn’t that mean mine are really big-ger? That guys think I’m the buck-some one? Which is why, when we go to the beach, they check out me ‘n’ mine first? I’m only asking...”
“You Mealy-Mouthed little—!”
Amelia took refuge behind Robin’s dramatically spread arm. “Hassle one Dopester, Quirk, and you hassle all Dopesters!”
Bloodshed was postponed by the Quirk sisters being called to join the rest of the clan in performing “The Night the Goat Broke Loose in Grand Parade.”
Seven Mondays later, Sheila-Q was agreeable to joining a Dopester rock group. But couldn’t say how much time she’d have free to play rhythm guitar, since she’d soon be starting work as a candy striper at St. Benedict’s Hospital.
Most of the bunch, having turned fourteen, had lined up summer jobs. Robin would be stocking shelves at the Triville Acme hardware store. (From which she’d nearly be fired her very first day, for reacting to a customer who asked if there were any male staff to answer his questions.) Alex had gotten Vicki a spot with her at Petty Hills Country Club, teaching children about physical fitness; and Vicki had referred her Burrow Lane babysitting clientele to Laurie and Susie, who planned to run a semi-official daycare center. Joss would be at Youth Music Camp through June, but then (mostly to annoy Meg) hoped to land a bag girl position at the Jewel Foods where Meg cashiered.
Fiona muttered about people who’d rather earn money than starve like artists in a new rock band. Yet that band remained conjectural till it found a lead guitar; and there were no prospects for one within the bunch.
Alex and Laurie were singers, and not the sort you’d associate with hard rock. Susie Zane would’ve been ideal: she had the right voice, a no-bullshit-allowed attitude, and had even taken guitar lessons. Or rather a lesson-and-a-half, having quit midway through the second one in sorefingered frustration. Mealy Quirk’s dancing talents weren’t required (especially not by Sheila) and Chloe Rumpelmagen, though she’d’ve loved to join, was certifiably tone-deaf. Beth Murrisch had a reputation as a violin prodigy, but aside from Papa John Creach and Sugarcane Harris, there wasn’t a wide scope for rock violinists. Joss proposed Invisible Amy—“It’ll get her out of the house”—but gave no guarantee that I.A.’d show up for rehearsals.
This left no recourse except to hold open auditions, and Fiona found that as unappetizing as the healthy salad she was picking at. Particularly since she, the jobless one, would have to set up the auditions and conduct them.
Glance hopefully at Vicki—wasn’t she supposed to be the group’s manager?—only to see her beckoned away by Becca Blair. Well, hell.
Robin and Sheila-Q began a heated argument over the humanitarian benefits of hospitals vs. hardware stores:
“The only reason to go to a hospital is if you’re sick or hurt or having a baby!”
“That’s three reasons! Plus going crazy, that makes four—”
“—you should know! But people need hardware all the damn time—”
“—Lord, you are so full of it! You’re gonna O.D. from being so full of it—”
Fiona wondered if this was how the Ace of Cups got started.
“You need to lower a boom,” Becca told Vicki out on the second-story walkway.
A broom? What broom? Vicki didn’t ask aloud.
“Candy Gates isn’t going to be Cicada Queen. Meredith Wainwright is.” Said not as a prediction, but a simple matter of fact.
Vicki couldn’t feel entirely convinced. Meredith Wainwright might be captain of the cheerleading squad and dynamite at gymnastics, but her face fell considerably short of Candy Gates’s prettiness; in fact it reminded Vicki of the “if-you-choose-to-accept-it” chief guy on Mission: Impossible.
“If Candy’ll step out of the way, she can be First Attendant. Otherwise, maybe not on the court at all.”
Freshly-eaten grilled cheese burbled unhappily in Vicki’s stomach. “The Queen contest isn’t... fixed, is it?”
“Wrong word,” Becca replied judiciously. “What’s the right one? ‘Arranged,’ let’s say. Yes: like an old-fashioned wedding.”
Heavy sigh from Vicki, who sensed this arrangement was part of Becca’s own campaign to secure next year’s cheerleader captaincy over stuck-up Gigi Pyle. “Well, she won’t listen if I try to tell her.”
Red-LED-optic survey by Becca. “You’re the only one she will listen to. If you tell her right. Then it’ll work out best for everybody.”
Probably not for me, Vicki shuddered, thinking she’d rather fight some gigantic mutant buggette bent on devouring The City. “Okay. I’ll try.”
“Trust me,” said Becca, laying a regal hand on her arm. “Now then. Guys have been asking you to the dance?”
“What? Oh—well, yes. A few. Nobody special.”
“And you haven’t told any you’d go with them.”
How do you know these things? “Me ‘n’ Joss are gonna go with Alex. That’s the only way her Papa’d let her.”
“She does love to dance,” Becca nodded approvingly. “Except slow dances, of course. Well: one step at a time... Did Byron ask you out yet?”
“Byr—you mean Tail-End? Gahd! I hope he doesn’t!”
(Sudden memory of Wernie Ball a year ago, shoving his inept head almost up her skirt: Wouldja go... wouldja go with... She clapped her thighs tightly together.)
“Guys like that, you have to watch out for,” Becca ruminated. “Not so much the hornyboys. But Byron—”
She did some shuddering of her own, visibly; unimaginable for Becca Blair. Unless she’d heard Fiona report that Tail-End, like Tommy Traddles, spent homeroom filling his ring binder with sketches of skeletons.
“Becca? D’you ever... I mean, lately, d’you ever see...”
Roger Mustardman, she badly wanted to ask. He having resumed his haunting of Vicki’s dreams—not to mention certain shameful waking moments, alone in bed or the shower. (Redden tingle blush.)
No reply from Becca; no sign that she knew who or what Vicki was squirmily thinking about. Except, perhaps, for her stately honeyskinned face turning the same bright vermillion hue as her double-knit, double-nubbled blouse.
Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance: each went swifter than Vicki’d feared. Candy Gates, for all her histrionics, was a wheeler-dealing pragmatist. Becca Blair and Meredith Wainwright were conceded to as “big blondes with big boobs, what can you expect?”—and satisfaction was derived from Candy Gates having wooed “Throb” Garrigan, VW’s handsomest freshman jock, away from them both.
(Though Vicki’d heard from other sources that Becca had dated “Throb” only twice, before dismissing him as a suitable suitor.)
The Spring Dance, thanks to overdone Bicentennial décor for its “Star-Spangled Rhythm” theme, failed to raise enough money to cover the Cicada yearbook’s budget deficit. Meredith was duly elected Queen and Candy Gates her First Attendant. Vicki and her friends, garbed in red-white-and-blue, did a lot of boogieing down with a lot of different guys. Sheila went with K.C. Battenburg and Laurie with the re-forgiven Chipper Farlowe. Robin and Fiona stayed away but wanted to hear about the band, a clump of niner boys who called themselves “Bombshelter” and delivered the first syllable, at least.
“Best thing you could say about them is they were loud.”
“(See, that could’ve been our gig,)” Fiona groused.
But not without a lead guitar. The open auditions had been a bust: Spacyjane Groh played an ootsie-cutesy-cunning “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” till Robin hurled wrathful drumsticks at her head, causing Spacyjane to slip out the back (Jack) and pixilate away.
“‘Make a new plan, Stan!’” Robin fumed, tossing the broken sticks into a barrel half full of such fragments.
Then came Tina Korva, a 7-Y friend of Susie Zane, who “borrowed” her brother’s Stratocaster (righteous move!) and wielded it with Finnish chutzpah as she launched into Kiss’s “Rock and Roll All Nite”—only to demonstrate that she had two tin ears. Which, unlike Chloe Rumpelmagen, Tina refused to admit: blaming her brother’s guitar, the basement acoustics, and the Dopesters’s auditory range instead.
“I tried to warn you,” said Susie.
“(Start taking guitar lessons again!)” snarled Fiona.
“Susie could play tambourine,” offered Laurie.
“We don’t need a freaking tambourine!” commented Robin.
“So we’ll be a power trio. That also has a keyboard,” suggested Sheila.
“(Not enough chops—we’d come off like a novelty act,)” mutter-sighed Fiona.
Thus things stood till later that May when everyone, for once, was free to drop by Villa Neapolitan and hear the premiere spinning of The Runaways.
Fiona took a dislike to this disc the moment she picked up her special-order advance-release from Cobwebs & Strange. Only one face adorned the album cover, the same face Who Put the BOMP! had plastered over its Gala Girl Issue: Miss Feathershag’s. Fiona refused to unwrap the album till Sheila and Joss and Vicki arrived, Vicki coming partly to catch up on David Copperfield’s final chapter-digests. Not till then would Fiona split the plastic and open the gatefold, revealing all five Runaways—with Miss Feathershag in the center, her shirt widely unbuttoned.
Not a bunch of cutesy-poos, at least. You could believe these were bad-ass hard-rocking high school chicks. “They look like a Roller Derby team,” observed Vicki, giving the gatefold a quick peek. “Did anyone besides me use to watch the Gangbusters Game of the Week?”
“Yeah, I did,” Robin said reminiscently. “Those were fun! Except they shoulda used motorbikes as well as skates, like in Rollerball... Hey, this one looks like me!” (A big ominous blonde with back-off-Jack belligerence; but in her dreams was Robin built like that.)
“Check this out!” laughed Joss, taking the cover and reading:
This album is for the young of age and the young at heart. It’s for those who know it’s great to be young and who enjoy their youth in the best way they know how. Enjoy listening to this album as much as all of us loved writing, playing, singing, and creating it for you. When you listen to these songs, you’ll be reminded of all the fun you’re having being and staying young. After all, people say these are the best years of our lives. Well, we know they are and we make every minute count. Take this album, live it and love it. From The Runaways to you.
Appalled silence in the cellar. Then “Gyack!” went Sheila-Q, sticking a finger down her throat. “That makes me wanna run away, all right.”
“(Simmer down,)” said Fiona, despite a dismayed impulse to rewrap the album and take it home to Moth. “(Let’s give it a listen.)”
Hiss of the needle.
Nyaah-nyaah greetings to Daddy and Mom from their ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-Cherry Bomb.
Titters from the Dopesters as the singer promised to Have yuh, grab yuh till you’re sore!
“They play pretty good,” said Robin, picking out the beat on her practice pad.
“(If that’s really them playing,)” Fiona muttered darkly. “(Could be session musicians)”—maybe even her own father Lem! Which would be extra embarrassing since half the record revolved around what, given the Runaways’s ages, would be jailbait sex. “You Drive Me Wild” (you know I need you); “Thunder” (now our flaming love is gonna start); “Lovers” (make me scream, make it fast); longdrawn orgasmic moans—
—by a session moaner?
Then, over on the B-side, came “American Nights.” Where everything clicked together for the first time and kept building, kept accelerating, with shouts and whoops and yeahs! instead of fake moans as the band went faster! louder! brasher! ‘cause you kids are so strange and never gonna change, the Runaways are queens of noi-i-i-i-SSSSE and the answer to your dreams:
EV-RY-BUD-DEE WUH-NUH PAR-TEE?
EV-RY-BUD-DEE WUH-NUH PAR-TEE?
—with a true-climactic jangle-crash of strings and drums and keyboard.
“Now that is a SONG!” yelled Robin, twirling her sticks.
“Play it again!” went Sheila, who’d whaled along on air guitar with shaken hips and butt.
“And tape me a copy, I wanna learn it!” said Joss.
They replayed it several times, while Vicki scribblecopied Fiona’s boildown of Chapter 62, “A Light Shines on My Way”—curling her lip at pointing-ever-upward Agnes. “Don’t forget the rest of the album,” she clucked absently.
It finished pointing completely downward, with what sounded like a bad Saturday Night Live breaking-out-of-juvie skit: I’m down! My ankle! I can’t go on! I can’t leave you! Oh my God! et cetera and so forth.
No matter. The Dopesters fell to their instruments and did some enthusiastic noodling, Joss on the rebuilt upright piano Fat Bob had hauled home from a biker bar, through whose window the piano had been thrown.
A tentative set list emerged, of favorite covers and Fiona compositions. Everyone except Vicki took this and a cassette copy of “American Nights” home to practice on their own, pledging to reconvene Memorial Day weekend for an honest-to-God jam session—winging their way around the lack of a lead guitar, if they had to.
But “Gotcha!” Sheila crowed on the phone the night before the jam. “I got us a lead guitarist, and just wait till you see her, and I ain’t tellin’ you squat about who it is, so you can just lie awake all night wondering, Robbo! Oh and be sure to wear your leather mini tomorrow, ‘cause Burke’ll be bringing me ‘n’ My Surprise over!”
Burke Quirk was Sheila and Mealy’s youngest older brother, nicknamed “Baa-Baa” for being the family black sheep, which Joss called false advertising since he was obviously Celtic-colored. Even as Joss tried to snag Lamar Twofields’s eye, so too did Robin try to snag Baa-Baa’s—slapping on a second layer of war paint, the aforementioned leather miniskirt, and a pushup bra that Fat Bob didn’t know she owned.
“Ooh, the Hoagmobile! Wonder what he hadda do to borrow it?” Robin marveled as a Mercury Cyclone whirled into the Villa’s driveway. This belonged to older older brother Hoagie Quirk, and was seldom allowed out of his sight. From inside it arose Burke, Sheila, and a hooptedoodling girl with a slightish build, sleepy eyes, and dark red hair.
S-Q bounded ahead to whisper: “(Robbo, I didn’t know he was gonna ask her out, it happened in the car just now, she hasn’t said yes yet, please don’t be mad—)”
Which was like asking Robin not to breathe. “(It’s the Queen Bitch!)” she exhaled, watching Burke trail after this sovereign, toting her guitar case and practice amp with one arm and Sheila’s with the other.
“Aw c’mon,” he cajoled, “pick you up around seven. We’ll grab some burgers and go see Grizzly or The Missouri Breaks.”
“I’m busy,” said his intended.
“Um Robin,” Sheila-Q interposed, “arentcha gonna offer Burke a nice cold uh beer for being such a good roadie?”
“Yeahsurehowboutit?” Robin grunted, knowing full well that Fat Bob kept a close inventory.
“Burke? Beer?” went Sheila.
“Hunh? Oh, no thanks, gotta split—where you want these?”
“Down here,” he was directed, just as Joss and Vicki pedaled up on their bikes: perspiring from their humid ride to Pottage Road, and perturbed at doing so in front of hunky Baa-Baa.
As well as the cucumber-cool Britt Groningen.
“Well hey, Britt!” Vicki twittered. “You look great! Love your hair.” While Vicki’d cropped hers short, Britt’s had grown long and loose to cascade over her shoulders like a burgundy waterfall.
“Thanks. You playing?”
“She’s our manager,” Joss explained.
“I’m the audience,” Vicki replied. “Britt, have you told Alex yet if you’re doing cross country next year? She wants us to train during the summer, and—”
“Maybe,” said Britt as they entered the Villa basement.
“She’s bizzzzy,” went bitter Burke, setting down the girls’s gear. “Well, so’m I! Call Hoag or Dad when you wanna be picked up.” And off he stalked, to a chorus of “Bye-bye Baa-Baa”s.
“So anyway, this is My Surprise—Britt Groningen!” Sheila-Q announced. “I just found out last Friday she can play a helluva guitar! Britt, y’know Vicki of course—”
“—and this is Robin Neapolitan the Superdrummer, Joss Murrisch on keyboards and cornet if we need one, and Fiona Weller who plays bass and writes our songs. Welcome to the Dopesters!”
“Not so fast,” growled Robin. “Gotta hear her play this ‘helluva’ guitar first.”
“Fair enough,” said Britt, coolly opening her case and producing a chrome-plated Gibson SG with her name spelled out in mother-of-pearl letters. Plugging this into her amp, she strummed a power chord with a customized britt pick and asked: “What do you want to hear?”
The Dopesters, abruptly tonguetied, glanced at each other. Then at Fiona, who’d been unusually silent even for her, but stirred now to mutter: “(Uriah Heep.)”
“Sorry? Say what?”
“She said Uriah Heep!” snapped Robin. “Y’know their ‘Spider Woman’? Play that!”
Wham bam went its opening riff. Britt quickly proved her helluva chops, and that she’d mastered more than the three chords Sheila swore were all you needed to play any song. Also that she had a subtle yet penetrative little-girl voice, eerily articulating I told her ‘bout my vision / but she laughed in my face...
Fiona felt a diabolic chill, though the Villa basement wasn’t overly air-conditioned.
Britt Groningen: unremarkable to look at, other than the long burgundy hair and gaslight-blue eyes and freckle-constellations on her face and arms and legs. She, like the Dopesters, wore a standard summer combo of T-shirt and shorts, though hers seemed designed by Diane von Fürstenberg.
And silkscreened on the T-shirt was a scraggly unkempt head with vacant yawning peepers.
Not even St. Stephen had ever been so stoned.
This head, Fiona knew, belonged (or used to belong) to the infamous Parnell Travers. A couple winters ago he’d gone “zonk-tobagganing,” passed out in a drift, gotten caught up by a snowplow, been propelled for several blocks and left buried by the side of the road. Prior to excavation, Parnell was supposedly possessed by an entity from a separate plane of existence. This gave him paranormal powers that, most of the time, he was too lethargic to make use of. (Roger Mustardman had dubbed Parnell “the Astral Slacker.”)
A cult of susceptible students sought him out as their spiritual guide. Parnell’s desultory crypticisms were interpreted and turned into psalms by his high priestess Linda Ednalino, who restyled herself as Lynndha-with-a-Y-two-N’s-and-a-final-ha. She came from a generous pharmaceutical family, and (if rumor was true) stoked Traverser orgies with bucketfuls of Quaaludes.
Britt Groningen’s association with this cult did not disturb Fiona Weller.
At least not half as much as Britt’s reminding her of the original Uriah Heep.
Regardless of her too-long hair, wrong-color eyes, and being a girl.
Nor was there any writhing “umbleness.” On the contrary: Britt gave you the impression she was slumming by auditioning in a Pottage Road cellar. Not through any snobbish stance or disdainful comportment, yet every move she made had a trifling, dallying patina to it. Added to Uriah Heep harkbacks “like the blowing of old breezes or the ringing of old bellses,” this meant you could definitely picture Britt Groningen breathing malevolence into a horse’s nostrils (or your own) and covering them with her lank hand.
So Fiona felt chilled.
The other Dopesters—even Robin!—gave “Spider Woman” an ovation and invited Britt to join the band. Fiona was too afraid to veto this, especially after Britt’s voice harmonized outstandingly with her own in the subsequent jam session. Fiona’s throaty rasp sang lead; Britt’s uncanny soprano danced around it, chiming in, chiming out, ringing changes all about.
She did raise nearly-nonexistent eyebrows at one title on the Dopester set list:
“‘True Grit’? Really?”
“That,” Robin enunciated, “is my father’s favorite song.”
“My father’s favorite is ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.’ Shall we do that one too?”
Tension was promptly defused by Joss’s gigglefit, remembering Hoyt Groningen’s televised antics on Action Weather; and the band went ahead with a kick-ass Bacharach jam.
Unfortunately, finals week intervened just then. Cram sessions replaced jams as every teacher claimed her or his subject was the one to study most for.
Alex Dmitria had a freakout, not of ass-slap magnitude yet still fairly serious: wailing that she’d forgotten all sixty-four chapter-recaps of David Copperfield, and what would she do after flunking Language Arts?? Vicki and Joss made her de-hyperventilate into a paper bag, but the bunch was shaken by this meltdown by an honor student, and started packing paper bags for themselves.
In the end, everybody passed everything. Fiona won praise for her condemnation of Little Em’ly—not because she ran off with Steerforth, but for writing that soppy uncle-fixated Dear Ham letter. (Oh, if you only knew!... Oh, take comfort!... Oh, for mercy’s sake!...) Robin got an A in Social Studies, for nimbly comparing the antislavery movement to opposing a 55 mph speed limit. Joss aced French again (Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir, mon grand homme noir?) and Laurie the bunny-girl received a Home Ec prize for her carrot cake soufflé. Alex’s final Advanced Math grade edged out Becca Blair’s, but only when calculated to the second decimal point (Alex insisted on sharing top honors) and Sheila-Q beat out Kim Zimmer for first chair flute in next year’s Freshman Band.
Vicki was elected to the VW Summer Council, which mostly entailed handling orientation for incoming sevvies like Chloe and Amelia. A far greater tribute was having her Cicada yearbook slathered with loving inscriptions from all the friends she’d made that memorable year.
(Though not Byron Wyszynski, whom she’d avoided since his crackup during the English final: gasping “Goroo! Goroo!” like the crazy pawnbroker in David Copperfield.)
And so eighth grade at long last ended.
Britt Groningen had kept her distance during finals week, but once school was over she extended a bid for her bandmates to come practice at Sunny Squash Court, a gated community north of La Cunae Bay and barely within the Vanderlund township limits.
Britt and her siblings could have all gone preppy at Startop and Front Tree, had their mother not been such a zealous advocate of public education. Dr. Hilde Krühler, professor at Lakeside Central University, was the author of Being Cool with Your Public School and its bestselling sequel, Staying Cool with Your Public School (cited noisily by both sides of the busing-for-desegregation issue). Dr. Krühler retained her maiden name for professional purposes, but most people presumed she’d divorced Hoyt the happy meteorologist, so she often got hit on by academic colleagues and bolder grad students.
Her first two children excelled at being cool in their public school. Vance Groningen had been a star athlete and swathcutter at Vanderlund Senior High, the “Throb” Garrigan of his day, against whom no paternity suit ever went to court. He was now enrolled at the Air Force Academy, learning further means of SERE (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape).
Fleur Groningen’s face, at age seventeen, was well on its way to launching its thousandth ship. She was captain-elect of the VTHS cheerleaders, a stage-gracer in every theatrical genre, and her class’s likeliest Most Likely to Succeed: idolized by Meredith Wainwright and Candy Gates alike. No need to “arrange” a tiara for Fleur’s fair brow; she would seize it with both fair hands, not stooping to use pantyhose ads.
Fleur would also be the first to tell you her kid sister was Different. “Mother, can’t you DO something about her??” she implored repeatedly, and Dr. Krühler brought numerous theories and strategies to bear. Britt took them all in chameleon stride, her heavy-lidded eyes giving away nothing but gaslight. She forever seemed to be enacting some elusive role—mystical acolyte, Subdeb of the Netherlands, or passive-aggressive little red-haired girl (like the one in Badlands who, before the year was out, would take the screen by storm as Carrie).
(No one's gonna laugh at me, Mama...)
It was the hottest day of the year so far when Fat Bob trucked Robin and her drum kit to Sunny Squash Court. They picked up Fiona en route and also Vicki Volester, very damp-eyed from saying goodbye to Joss, who’d just left for Youth Music Camp down at the State U. She and Vicki’d hardly gone a single night since last July without chatting on the phone; now, for almost a whole month, there’d be no communication except by letter or postcard! (Ozzie was still up in arms about that long-distance bill Tricia’d accrued at Christmas.)
Robin and Fiona had reproached Joss about her “desertion,” but she considered herself a peripheral supporting Dopester at most. “It’s not as if this was a mariachi band and I could play cornet,” she’d told Vicki. “You keep me posted on what those Dopeys get up to—after all, you are their manager.”
“I am not their manager! What do I know about managing a rock group?”
“Hey, you wrangled Candy Gates like a pro without knowing how! Besides, you’re on Summer Council and they book the band for the Back-to-School Dance in September. By then, we might actually have a band people can dance to.”
“Aw, the Dopesters won’t want me hanging around. I’d just be in the way.”
“Like hell—they’ll need you there every minute to play referee! You’ll be so busy managing, you’ll hardly even notice I’m gone.”
Like hell. That could never ever happen, not in a thousand years—
Oh dammit! Don’t you dare start crying, or you’ll set me off—
They wept and hugged till passerby Meg remarked, “She isn’t going to prison, y’know. Even if she oughta.”
“Even if she otter,” Joss and Vicki backtalked, sharing an eye-wiping last laugh.
Fat Bob’s truck was denied entrance at the Sunny Squash Court security gate, where Fat Bob made Oliver Hardyish noises trying not to boil over and go ballistic.
“We’re with Britt Groningen’s band,” Vicki said helpfully, adding (after Fiona whacked her shoulder) “Okay, she’s with our band. Could you check with Britt, please?”
“Lemme call,” went the grudging guard.
“You! do! that!” Robin recommended.
“(Sorry,)” Fiona muttered to Vicki.
“(Hey, if I gotta be walloped, better by you than her,)” Vicki whispered back, as Robin started thumping the dashboard with mighty percussionist fingers.
The guard granted them reluctant access (Fat Bob requesting a handstamp to ensure readmittance when he came to retrieve his girls) and sent them down a luxury lane to an opulence spread. There under a posh loggia they were greeted by Britt, who wore oversized sunglasses and a string bikini of extreme abbreviation.
“Santa Madre di Dio,” Fat Bob observed.
“Dad, she’s fourteen, same as the rest of us,” grated Robin.
Though slightish of build and thoroughly speckled, Britt had put on an inch or two everywhere men found appreciable; and she was keeping those inches buoyant, beguiling, and perspiration-free. Offer you an Arrid Extra Dry? her eyelids seemed to snortle, while the Dopesters drippily carried their gear into a vast den that Britt called the “playroom.”
Here Fat Bob again invoked the Blessed Virgin as he spied a pristine Marshall stack. “May I? Just for a moment?” he asked, hesitantly reaching for Britt’s guitar.
“Be my guest,” said Bikini Britt; so Fat Bob plugged in the Gibson and strummed reverent riffs till Robin asked, “Do I hafta unload my whole damn kit my own damn self, Daa-aad??”
“So, Britt, you’ve got a pool?” Vicki wanted to know. (Along with why they hadn’t been told to bring swimsuits so she, at least, could work on her tan while the band rehearsed.)
“Pool’s over there—beach is out thataway,” said Britt through the tanktop she was stretching over her upper torso. A Traverser tanktop, on which Parnell’s stony-broke eyeballs suddenly became nipple-shaped. Feel free to skinny-dip, they seemed to tittify.
“Lord it’s hot out there!” puffed Sheila-Q, loping in to fan herself beside the nearest a/c vent. “I see you’re already half-naked,” she told her hostess. “We all gonna strip down? Bet we’d book a lotta good gigs that way!”
“Sheila-Q’s T&A Revue,” gibed Robin, having dispatched her father home with a flea in his ear. She bent over her drums like a paramedic, tenderly tuning each skin. “Whoever’s standing by my elbow, step away from it please—”
“Drink?” went Britt, pressing an oddly-shaped green bottle against Robin’s elbow.
“Oh—thanks... Hey, what kinda pop is this?—‘Perry-urrr.’”
“Perry-AY. Sparkling water, from France.”
“From France? You import water? What the hellza matter with AMERICAN water??”
“Oh, it’s bubbly!” Vicki deduced, taking an investigative sip from her bottle. “Like 7-Up, without the lemon-limes. Or sugar. Or… flavor.”
“Sparkling,” Britt said drily as she held out the last bottle toward Fiona, who declined it with a better-to-perish-of-thirst headshake. Britt shrugged that off and strapped on her Gibson, above which Parnell Travers’s face obtruded like a sky-high Lord of the Flies.
“Do you, um, really sing songs about that guy?” Vicki felt compelled to blurt.
“Heck, she writes songs about him,” said Sheila, dehydrating her ‘pits at the a/c. “Play us one, Britt—you ‘n’ Feef can have a composition contest!”
“Oh, you wouldn’t like my little tunes,” Britt objected, before presenting a number that Lynndha Ednalino had omitted from the canonical Traverser psalmody:
As your love grows icicles
it slowly freezes in my heart:
And we put our seasons in reverse
turning flowers back into seeeeds
exchanging all our givens for neeeeds
Your hammer strikes my sickle
red river freezes in my heart:
Who’ll be the first to flag down a hearse
and sing the children off to sleeeep
underneath a snowfall drifting deeeep?
the children come down ‘n’ out
the children come down ‘n’ out
and letthe CHILLLL-dren come down ‘n’ out—
Followed by a complicated series of balalaika-like riffs, as one weighty eyelid descended in what might have been a wink.
The following Wednesday evening, Vicki left work at Petty Hills Country Club and biked up the road to Panama Boulevard, remembering her first ride on the back of Joss’s ten-speed, and writing tonight’s letter to Joss in her head. Teaching little kids elementary sports was enjoyable yet exasperating, and had been from the very first day: Vicki’d gone home to proclaim, “I’m sure glad I’m not a mother yet!” (A thanksgiving her parents emphatically endorsed.)
So far she’d merely assisted Alex, whom all the kiddies adored and kowtowed to. But Alex—staying mindful not to lapse into overloads—was taking the rest of the week off to organize her Scout troop’s annual awards ceremony, at which she personally would “cross the bridge” to Senior Girl Scout status.
“Seems to me your troop should do the organizing for you,” Vicki’d tutted. “Or get my Aunt Fritzi to help party-plan it.”
“That’d be like asking her to pitch my tent and roast my marshmallows! ‘A Girl Scout Is Self-Reliant’—”
“Well I’m a City girl and need lots of protection, and you’re abandoning me, Alex! Suppose all those kids gang up on me at once?”
“They’re not going to ‘gang up’ on you, for heaven’s sake! Just pretend you’re Ms. Swanson, blow your whistle if you have to, and give them time-outs.”
Easy enough for Alex to say. She was leaving; Joss had already left; Vicki’s parents were going out to dinner—it was the anniversary of their first kiss, or something (eww)—and Goofus would gallivant around town with Patches Rumpelmagen and other nasty chums till the twilight’s last gleaming. So she’d have the house to herself for awhile, at least: eat whatever she liked, monopolize the TV or stereo, and write her daily letter to stupid old Youth Music Camp.
Nothing new to tell regarding the Dopesters, from whom Vicki’d heard no word since Sunday’s debacle at Britt’s place. That session had broken up in clashing disharmony—Robin and Sheila-Q arguing about every song, then every measure, then individual notes. It was like watching Kashka the Gangbuster take on Tonette the Renegade, with Vicki almost expecting one to fling the other over a banked-track rail.
While Britt assessed the fracas with evident amusement. Chugging a bottle of Jamaican ginger beer, and emitting a silent secret belch.
Which might, perhaps, serve as a final boildown-recap of the Dopesters All-Girl Band.
Vicki coasted into the cul-de-sac, braked at her garage door, and was frightened by a lean lynx-eyed creature looming up out of the oak tree’s shade. Don’t gang up on me! she began to scream, when the creature opened its maw and said—
“FEEF! My Gahd! Are you okay? How long’ve you been waiting there?”
“(Not long,)” Fiona mutter-panted. “(I... I just wanted to talk to you...)”
“Well, come on in!—go sit in the living room!—lie down if you have to!—lemme get you some water!—”
Vicki’s fright ran with her to the kitchen, made her clumsy cracking the ice tray and twisting the faucet, grew worse at her guilty recollection of that January afternoon when she’d been too engrossed with Roger’s mash note to realize how bad a shape Fiona was in. But when she rushed back with a sweat-beaded glass, she found Feef sitting on the couch fairly healthily if worriedly. “(I'm okay. You okay?)”
“Yeah,” wheezed Vicki, handing her the glass. “Here. ‘American water.’ ‘Scuse me a sec—” Returning to the kitchen, pouring another glass for herself, again to the living room, bumping up the a/c, slumping onto a chair. “Whew! (Slurp.) So—how’d you get here? Did Robin bring you?”
“(It’s Wednesday—her ‘n’ Fat Bob’s daddy/daughter night. I walked over. Wanted to ask you something kind of private.)” Fiona reached into a wilted plastic sack, drew out The Runaways album and opened it. “(Could you—I mean, d’you think you could—maybe help me look more like this one here?)”
Vicki, bemusedly crunching an ice cube, glanced at the gatefold photo. “That girl on the left? Which one is she?”
“(Her name’s Joan Jett.)”
“Um... hold it up beside your face.”
There was a sort of dark, watchful, brooding similarity. Definitely something to work with. And yet: Fiona Weller’s asking me for a makeover! Vicki giddily added to her mental Joss-letter. “Sure, we could try. I’m not sure about the hair—”
“(I’ll dye it. Jet-black. I’ve helped Robin dye hers before.)”
Vicki gave her a smile, and being a Vicki-smile it was wide and toothy and caused immediate being-laughed-at apprehension that had to be quickly allayed. “We’ll make you look great, Feef! I always thought you could do a lot with a face like yours—”
Even leerier: “(Don’t make me cute! I don’t wanna look cute!)”
“No no no, course not, more like—well—striking, let’s say. Or let’s not?” as Fiona flinched, looking now like haggard Patti Smith.
“(It’s just... I don’t wanna be shoved out of my own band, y’know? I mean... she’s the one who thought up the Runaways)”—pointing to Joan Jett—“(but all the attention gets paid to her)”—flipping over to Miss Feathershag, alone on the cover. “(And... I know I won’t be the one people look at first, I’m okay with that, I don’t want ‘em thinking I’m ‘cute.’ But... I don’t wanna be invisible, either. See? Or shoved aside. This is my band; I’m supposed to sing lead; they’re supposed to do my songs. Y’know?)”
Pause for glass-draining. Then an abrupt addendum:
“(D’you like Britt?)”
Vicki weighed words carefully. “I, um, well, don’t think she’s a snot. But I guess I don’t think I could call her a friend, either. You need to be able to depend on your friends.”
“(She scares me.)”
“Scares you—how? ‘Cause she’s part of that Parnell gang? You think they’re like the Manson Family, or those Symbionese Liberation guys?”
Fiona waved that away as she would a swarm of gnats. “(No! They’re just luded-out rich kids—and Britt’s not one of ‘em, not really. She’s only fooling around. Kind of.)” Another flinch. “(I mean, it’s the way she looks—and the way she acts—she made Robin ‘n’ Sheila fight, not just argue but fight. And it’s how she sings and plays, too, and the way she writes—‘Your hammer strikes my sickle’—yeesh!... But without her, we wouldn’t have a band. But we barely do have one, with her. And she just... scares me.)”
Vicki wanted to give her a hug then, though she knew Fiona wasn’t a touchy-feely person. It was like being with Steph again, Stephanie Lipperman morosely kicking against the bricks by the cafeteria dumpster; so hungry for companionship, yet twisted with mistrust.
And the Dopester Bacharach jam had jogged an older memory—of Julie the Raindrop, Julie who should’ve been born instead of Goofus, Julie whose Raindrop was falling on Fiona’s head. Fiona? Sounds like she oughta be a Schmelzette cousin of mine. So Vicki had thought when she’d first heard the name, cut from the same cloth as “Felicia” and “Francesca.” Now she felt a palpable, huggable kinship with this distressed genius who’d composed such a wonderful (if somewhat weird) song for Vicki’s birthday.
“Feef? Y’wanna come have a sleepover here, Friday night? We could work on your Joan Jett look then, do the hair and everything, without having to rush it.”
Fiona’s wan face lit up a bit—like Alex’s, in fact, which Vicki wouldn’t have thought possible. But then: “(I better ask this—can Robin come too?)”
Initial bummer feeling, followed by a flummoxy giggle at the idea of Robin Neapolitan as a house guest. “Does she snore?”
“(Her head off. But ask her nicely and she’ll cook for you.)”
“Um... you guys won’t... smoke, or anything—right?”
“(Only if Robin burns dinner.)”
Robin, needless to say, reacted as she had before the Bowie concert: nothing could induce her to go. Then, almost at the last minute—“Ohhhh-kaaaay, you talked me into it—but you owe me bigtime for doing this!” At Burrow Lane she was on her best behavior, charming all the Volesters as she ordered them around their kitchen, preparing butterfly pasta with shrimp and alfredo sauce—“Mangiare! mangiare!” She called Vicki “Vellll-ma” only once, addressing her as “Loopy” the rest of the time: a major step forward in their friendship. And it was Robin’s idea to bring Vicki a blacklight poster as thanks-for-having-us (though Fiona chose the kaleidoscopic vista over R. Crumb’s STONED AGIN! that Robin favored).
Goofus, like Patches, was starting fifth grade at Dopkins that fall, probably in Mrs. Gutenkauf’s class; and Goofus, like Patches, demanded troublemaking tips ‘n’ tricks so as to carry on the great Dopester tradition. Robin told Goofus (as she’d told Patches) that only girls could be privy to such mysteries. Goofus retorted scornfully, so Robin frogmarched him out of their presence and down the stairs.
“Oh, gross! I saw him grin when you did that!” said Vicki. “Now he’ll be as crazy about you as he is about Alex.”
“What can I say?” Robin philosophized. “My alfredo sauce drives men wild!”
Then the girls got down to serious sleepover business. Robin supervised the hairdyeing, then stood by as surgical assistant while Vicki handled the cosmetics, and Fiona chafed at these intimate ministrations.
“Tweezers,” requested Vicki.
“Tweezers,” responded Robin.
“(Ow. Ow. Ow,)” reacted Fiona, as her bushy brows got weeded.
“Try to sit still, Feef!”
“Do what she says, Pee Wee, or I’ll strap you down.”
Liplocked muttering from Fiona. Who did not know how to deal with the the effect that Vicki’s gentle fingertips unexpectedly had upon her. Not just the usual chafing, but...
I felt my heart beat high, and the blood rush to my face...
“Ooh, Feef! You’re a fox!”
“She always was,” said Robin: proud older Sister Dopester.
“(You lie,)” Fiona demurred, gazing at the results in Vicki’s mirror. Dark; watchful; brooding. Her usual racoonery replaced by a deft domino mask. Beholding an FTW visage framed by blue-blackened fox-locks, with the mouth a refined scarlet slash.
“Not bad? You’re bad-ass!” Robin told her.
And as a full-tilt bad-ass, she settled down—heart beating high, blood rushing up—between Vicki and Robin to watch that night’s installment of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Which they discussed afterward far more animatedly than any chapter of David Copperfield.
(extracts from correspondence between v. l. volester and j. murrisch)
By the time Joss returned home at the end of June, the Dopesters had been reduced to their original membership: Robin and Fiona, with Chloe and Mealy Potatoes as apprentices.
The all-girl rock group, however, lived on in rechristened form.
They had finished a mega-tempo version of “Venture Nothing” (Vicki’s birthday acrostic song) and were taking a substance-enhanced break. Vicki stuck to Mountain Dew, saying: “Somebody’s gotta keep a clear head here—guess it’ll have to be me.”
“Well after all you are our manager,” tra-la’d Sheila-Q.
“If you book us that Back-to-School gig, that is,” Robin put in.
“You knoooow,” drawled Britt, winding a long burgundy tress around a lank finger, “if you seriously want to get gigs in junior high, you can’t call yourselves Dopesters.”
Fiona bristled behind her vixenish getup. “(That’s who we are.)”
Britt, still twining hair with one hand, cupped the other behind an ear.
Sleepy little hatchet-honing smile. “Who you are, and what you’re called, don’t have to be the same thing.”
“Exactly,” said Britt, propping small bare feet atop an amp. “We know who we are. But we keep other people guessing. An all-guy band can get right up in your faces, barking like a pack of dogs. If we did that, they’d tune us out for acting bitchy.”
“That’s the whole point of what we’re doing here!” blared Robin. “Hard rock!—heavy on the metal!—no frills allowed! And we do it as girls, better’n any guys!”
“Better better better!” went Sheila-Q. “Bitter butter batter—hee hee! Better bother Baa-Baa—”
“(Gahd, Sheila, no more for you,)” Vicki cautioned.
“Exactly,” said Britt, wiggling ten wee toes. “Guys bark, and howl, and bay at the moon. Girls do it better by dropping hints. Y’know—hint hint?”
“Hint HINT hint,” hee’d S-Q.
“We know what we’re saying, but keep the guys guessing. You can’t do it hard ‘n’ heavy—you have to dart in and flick. Do that often enough, and they won’t know what’s happened till they’re all... cut... up.”
“That’s kinda gross-sounding, Britt,” said Vicki.
“Flicking?” snortled Robin. “You’re saying we should go out there and flick?”
“We could be the Flickers!” Sheila enthused. “I saw that on a sign once, all in capitals, and the L and I together made it look like—”
“—like we wouldn’t be ‘hinting,’” warned Vicki. “Anybody got another name for an all-girl band?”
“Cowbelle!” cried Sheila. “With, like, an E at the end! It’s female, it’s musical, and only one word—y’know, like ‘Styx.’”
“Jesus Christ, Quirk, you couldn’t hint your way out of a paper bag!” went Robin. “We better get Mealy down here right away to give you lessons. I bet she never said anything straightforward in her goddam life—”
“ROSA DARTLE!” Fiona burst out, making them all leap; even Britt’s feet were jolted off the amp.
“Gesundheit,” said Sheila-Q.
“(We could call ourselves the Rosa Dartles,)” Fiona explained, giving citation-reminders of how
she never said anything she wanted to say, outright; but hinted it, and made a great deal more of it by this practice... Miss Dartle insinuated in the same way: sometimes, I could not conceal from myself, with great power, though in contradiction even of Steerforth.
Everyone rolled this name around in their brains. “‘Meet the Dartles,’” Vicki mused. “I like it! I bet Joss will too.”
“Should we all wear a scar on our lips?” inquired Britt, her own curling.
“I got one on my knee!” Sheila informed them. “See? Right here. Got it rasslin’ with Baa-Baa when we were kids. Be careful, Britt—he fights dirty when he’s in a clinch!” Giggle-gale till she slipped off her chair onto the same scarred knee. “Owww...”
“Take my advice, Quirk, and stick to booze from now on,” said Robin. “Irishers can’t handle smoking grass.”
Thus it was as the Rosa Dartles that the complete band congregated at Sunny Squash Court on Bicentennial weekend. Joss brought her snazzy new (used) RMI Electrapiano, on which she sailed through Johnny Bristol’s “Hang On in There Baby” by way of demo.
“You’re lucky I don’t have a voice like Feef or Britt,” she remarked. “Otherwise I would so go solo on you guys!”
They set themselves up in the “playroom”: Robin behind her meticulously-retuned drum kit, Joss and keyboard off to one side, Sheila and her Silvertone on the other, Britt with Gibson and Fiona with Fender front and center. Vicki, as audience-manager, faced them from the room’s far end.
“one! two! three! four!” went Robin, banging her sticks together overhead; and the Dartles darted forth with
Raindrops keep fallin’ on the dead
just like the guy who’s buried in a flower bed
pushin’ up day-zees...
Moving on to Fiona’s “Grunting Together, Squealing Together” pastiche, and then an undermined interpretation of “Happiness” from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown:
needing a fix ‘cause
I’m going down, Joss
jumping the gun
getting all baddy
with a beef patty
on a warm bunnnn...
“Eat your heart out, Candy Gates!” laughed Sheila-Q. “Let’s find out where Mr. Redo lives and play this under his bedroom window!”
Having warmed up, it was time for the Rosa Dartles to go innuendo. Foxy Feef had accepted Vicki’s challenge to co-write a song with Britt Groningen, each taking shots at the music and lyrics. Britt’s “Ready if you are” was riposted by Fiona’s “I want something with singing on it” (a Bowie quote from The Man Who Fell to Earth) and, after a week’s hither-and-thither of staff paper between Sunny Squash Court and the Plexiglass Palace, their song was judged sufficiently ready for stab-taking.
Robin pre-awarded it five stars since she got to open with a solo cannonade on the tom-toms. Followed by the staccato:
You say we go together
and tickle with your feather
Think too big with your britchen—
won’t stop me from my ditchen
Throw hammers like El Thorro
no worries ‘bout tomorrow
You think that you’re bewitchen—
won’t stop me from my ditchen
Oh! but really, isn’t it really, though?
(I want to know)
Accept it freely, isn’t is always so?
(I want to know)
There’s SOOOO much I wanna know—
Not knowing I’ve come A-part
pounds mistakes into your heart
You say you’ll do some snitchen—
won’t stop me from my ditchen
To drop the other shoe-ing
drop you is what I’m doing
Don’t talk about religion—
won’t stop me from my ditchen
Oh! but really, isn’t it really, though?
(I want to know)
Accept it freely, isn’t is always so?
(I want to know)
There’s SOOOO much I wanna know—
Uproot you like a tulip
last way I’m giving you lip
Let’s watch you while you’re twitchen—
won’t stop me from my ditchen
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Copyright © 2014 by P. S. Ehrlich
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