Chapter 28

 

Born to Spittlecure

 

 

“Why did you name me after THIS??” Vicki demanded, shoving an open textbook under her mother’s nose.

 

Felicia glanced down at a Bassano photo of Queen Victoria, who appeared distinctly unamused.  “Actually, we named you after your Daddy.”

 

“???”

 

“He’s never really liked the name Oswald.  He wanted to be called ‘Vic’—‘Vic Volester’—and if our first baby’d been a boy, we were going to name him Victor.  But I wanted to name a girl after Elaine Staehle, my best friend in college.  (Which reminds me, I owe her a letter.)  She’s Elaine Patricia, so we switched that around for Patricia Elaine.  Then when you were coming along, we agreed you’d be ‘Vic’ whether boy or girl.”

 

Vicki tried to envisage herself as a boy named ‘Vic’ and dismissed it as too gross for contemplation.  “Where’d you get Lorraine from?”

 

“A pretty song by Nat King Cole—‘When it’s raining I don’t miss the sun / ‘cause it’s in my baby’s smile / something-something-something, My Sweet Lorraine.’”

 

“‘Something-something?’”

 

“Well, I’m not a lyrics encyclopedia like your sister.  Who insisted we name Baby Number Three after a Sound of Music star, Julie Andrews or Christopher Plummer.  We said okay to Christopher but followed it with Blaine, to rhyme with Elaine and Lorraine.”

 

Flinch from the old wound, never fully healed, of Julie-the-Raindrop’s having been nipped in the bud by Goofus-the-Poopheap.  Return to your original point: “I think I’d rather be just Lorraine than go around knowing I’ve got the same name as THIS.”

 

“She didn’t always look like THAT, you know,” smiled her mother, pulling Elizabeth Longford’s Queen Victoria: Born to Succeed off a shelf.  “She was only eighteen when she took the throne, just a few years older than you are now.  And after her coronation she ran home and gave her dog a bath!  Here, read this—it might make you feel prouder to be a Victoria.”  And stop moping around every minute of the day, Felicia didn’t add aloud.

 

“Fine,” Vicki sniffed, taking the paperback upstairs along with her Lang Arts textbook.  She’d read this stupid biography instead of Mr. Erickson’s Victorian poetry assignment, or doing any of her other homework, and flunk all her classes and have to repeat ninth grade.  Oh yes, she’d read a whole damn chapter every time she “took the throne”— 

 

Don’t be foolisss, Miss.

 

Went a voice in her head, with an accent.

 

But not an English accent, so probably not from the jowly monarch on the cover.

 

Of a book with, let’s see... 635 pages!  Thicker almost than David Copperfield!  And reading it won’t give us any crown to wear when we’re eighteen!  As we’ll prove by flipping the thing open to a passage picked at random, and find:

 

  I NEVER NEVER spent such an evening!!!  My DEAREST DEAREST DEAR Albert sat on a footstool by my side, & his excessive love & affection gave me feelings of heavenly love & happiness, I never could have hoped to have felt before!  

 

(Whoa...)

 

(Queen Victoria did It?  On a footstool?  And wrote about It afterward?)

 

(Maybe we’d better start at the beginning.)

 

And soon be immersed in Born to Succeed.  Tagging along with the little princess known in childhood not as Vicki but “Drina” (short for Alexandrina, making her an Alex too).  And what a lone lorn childhood it was—her father promptly dying, his casket jammed in the vault entry; then the beneficial influence of Lehzen the Baroness Governess being overshadowed by Sir John Conroy’s dastardly sway; then the race to reach her eighteenth birthday and come-of-age before William IV pegged out; then her triumphant succession, instant dismissal of Conroy (“Yes!” went the Vicki in Vanderlund) and adoption of Lord Melbourne as mentoring father-figure; then the Lady Flora Hastings scandal, the Bedchamber Crisis, the head-over-heels tumbling for Prince Albert—

 

  So excessively handsome, such beautiful blue eyes, an exquisite nose, and such a pretty mouth with delicate mustachios & slight but very slight whiskers: a beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders & fine waist  

 

—it was as good as a TV soap opera.

 

More accessible, too; Vicki seldom got to watch The Young and the Restless or Ryan’s Hope, or A Lover’s Question on which Delia Shanafelt’s big brother Schuyler was a semi-regular.  But she could dip into Born to Succeed any time she chose, so long as she didn’t get caught by meddling teachers.

 

This fixation provoked a bit of fun-poking by the bunch, who addressed Vicki as “Highness” and “Majesty” and asked if the cover photo was like looking in a mirror.  Yet they were all glad she’d begun to recover from her deep dark funk, to revivify their lunches and lives during a truly brutal January.

 

Even for seasoned Cityland dwellers, the winter that year was harsh.  Temperatures stayed below freezing for forty-three days after Christmas, a record stretch; and twelve of those days were subzero.  Almost five feet of snow fell, and the Lake As Big As An Ocean nearly froze over.

 

Against this arctic backdrop pranced impish Carly Thibert, who spent the holidays in Barbados and came home a coffee-colored angel (no tan lines, natch) in the company of a dusky devil called Gumbo.  This infernal creature was listed on the Cicada yearbook masthead as “Morey Krauss ... Design Editor,” ranking above “Vicki Volester ... Business Manager”—which wasn’t half so bothersome as Gumbo’s similarities to Kyoop Minsky.  Same tight swarthy skin, same tight curly hair, same lips full and tight and spouting ¿Que pasa, Señorita? lines that might’ve been charming from an authentic Latino, but were simply obnoxious coming from a Krauss.

 

Post-Barbados, he compounded his Gumbohood with Gross Uncle Doug’s complexion—same hue and texture as a buttered cigar—while presenting the Cicada staff with souvenir coconuts, and pitching a piña colada yearbook theme to Ms. Yehle.  He and Carly were clearly meant for each other, as shown by their unplanned Caribbean rendezvous and returning to VW joined at the hip—an anatomic marvel, given that Carly was on 9-Z and Gumbo on 9-Y.  And together they maintained their beachy skintones that bitter January: Carly using a sunlamp, Gumbo by lavishly-applied bronzer lotion.

 

(So no, we’re not talking Young Prince Albert here.)

 

Vicki felt aversion but no alarm till the lunchtime Joss craned her head Gumbowards, sighed at length, and said: “Jeez... he’s so different,” in an ominously interested way.

 

Luckily Laurie Harrison wasn’t dining with them that day; she would’ve taken Joss’s molehill observation and mountain-sized it jiffy-quick.

 

“What do you mean?” Vicki probed.

 

“Dunno,” mused Joss.  “Back when I was on Y team he seemed so—colorless, I guess, compared to now.  For somebody called ‘Gumbo,’ that is.”

 

Mutter-snort from Fiona.  “(Scrape off all that Man-Tan and he’ll be a honky again.)”

 

“Oh shut up, this isn’t about honkiness—ooh! nice cupcakes!”

 

“Joss!” exclaimed Vicki.

 

“You bet she has!” slavered Rags Ragnarsson, as Crystal head-bobbed “Why thank you!” and finished unwrapping the dessert prepared by her freelance pâtissier mother: petits gâteaux frosted to look like peeled tangerines.

 

“Those better be free samples you’re offering, Denvour,” Robin graciously remarked from the end of the table, where she and Sheila-Q were arguing whether Gary Gilmore should be executed by firing squad or prolonged exposure to the song “Disco Duck.”

 

“No worries,” Crystal assured them, divvying the treats into dainty segments.  “Here’s a little taste of sunshine for everyone.  Just remember to book my mom if you have a party or whatever, and want to get happy-fat really fast.”

 

“I bet she can use the dough,” commented Sheila, and K.C. Battenburg (always her best audience) let fly a crumby guffaw.

 

“Hey, man!  Chew it, don’t spew it!” Rags advised.

 

“Quirk, we oughta have you crack jokes at Gary Gilmore all night—that’d kill him quicker’n anything,” said Robin.

 

Vicki smiled at these sallies, at the cupcake slice’s tangy savor and hint of winter-free (though frosting-topped) existence; but her teeth turned cold at the sight of Joss re-craning toward Gumbo’s table, and again sighing “So different...

 

Fortunately, semester finals squelched all reveries for a blusterous week.  The bunch held most of their cram sessions at school during free period, since the weather discouraged offsite get-togethers.  (Some of their houses, like Villa Neapolitan, weren’t hard-winter domiciles; even the Plexiglass Palace was showing signs of strain.)

 

Vicki had to limit her Born to Succeed-dipping to a few pages at bedtime, after her nightly phone-in with Joss; but she still carried the book everywhere, saying If that Victoria could be a Queen and Empress, I should be able to get a B in Algebra.

 

Which she did, coached by Alex and also Robin, for whom equations were a tributary branch of auto mechanics.  Vicki scored a second B in Earth Science, despite momentary flashbacks (a stairwell wrangle here, a lakefront sunrise there) during the exam.  And she aced all her other classes, including Typing where extra credit was earned by unwedging Laurie’s pooftail from behind an Olivetti roller.

 

“I was trying to get my paper in straight, and leaned too low!”

 

Vicki’s bunch racked up satisfactory-to-excellent report cards, but Carly Thibert took the opposite route and tanked across the board.  Not from being a dummy—she could be sharp as well as cute—but by treating junior high as a nonstop partypalooza.

 

“Carly-in-Heat,” the Sister Dopesters tartly called her, yet Vicki felt more neighborly after three semesters of bumping locker elbows.  She and Carly’d always had a sort of proximate friendship, if you overlooked that Is she flirting with Roger?? afternoon a year ago; and it was painful to hear Carly, in shniffles, describe how her father’d blown his stack:

 

“So now I’m grounded like forever as if I’m a prisoner in some dungeon or locked up in a convent ‘cause I can’t see Gumbo or any other guy till I’m I dunno like fifty ‘n’ even when they call on the phone I can’t answer just let it ring like I’m a deaf person or in solitary confinement except I have to keep coming to this rotten old sucky school and do nothing but study and never have any fun again so I might as well be dead—

 

“(Sounds like you’re taking it in stride,)” interjected Fiona.

 

“Oh don’t you start picking on me!”

 

“(Hey, be glad you don’t have Da Mare haunting your dreams.)”

 

Which The City’s late Man-On-Five had been doing to Fionas each night since his pre-Christmas demise.  Clad in a shroud, Hizzoner vowed to not lift the killer ice wave till Feef composed him a suitable requiem:

 

We shall reach greater and greater / platitudes of achievement...

 

“And now my dad says he’s gonna make me see a TOOTer!” blubbered Carly.

 

Provide me a place among the sheep / and separate me from the goats...

 

Professor Thibert, who chaired the Foreign Languages Department at Lakeside Central and was one of the foremost authorities on Bohemian literature outside Prague, could usually be twisted round Carly’s pinky finger.  But he found across-the-board tanking unacceptable, especially from her acting like a wenchette; so immediate steps had to be taken on academic and behavioral levels.

 

Thus, the TOOTer.

 

Keiko Nakayama, a middle-school honor student back in Yokohama, had easily qualified for Startop Academy when her family moved to Vanderlund; but they couldn’t afford Startop’s tuition and felt insulted by its condescending scholarship offer.  So Keiko’d gotten enrolled at VW, assigned to 9-Z, and bombarded with curiosity—hey, a real live Japanese girl!—that faded when she didn’t eat raw fish with chopsticks or wear exotic geisha outfits.  Every day she dressed like a recruit in some old-fashioned women’s navy: sailor-collared middy blouse, knee-length pleated skirt, sensible kneesocks and serviceable loafers.  Not the most flattering ensemble, particularly when topped off with antiquated hornrims.

 

Keiko spoke what seemed to be flawless English, though you couldn’t be sure since she pitched her volume even lower than Fiona and outbashful’d even Sammi Tiggs.  When questioned about boys and dating in Yokohama, her reply (if heard right) was an apologetic “I am not allowed to know.”

 

The girls of 9-Z felt sorry for her and rapidly lost interest.  Alex, of course, did all she could to welcome and befriend Keiko, prevailing on her to visit VW’s International Club (product of last year’s French and Spanish merge) and give a presentation on Life in the Land of the Rising Sun.  Keiko brought a carousel of slides and ran the projector with downcast hornrims, but Alex had to narrate the travelogue off Keiko’s fastidious index cards.

 

Since her father was serving as a Japanese instructor at LCU while working on his doctorate, Professor Thibert was acquainted with the Nakayamas and considered Keiko the perfect academic/behavioral role model for wayward Carly.  Who sullenly planned to mock and flout all TOOTery efforts, till she faced Miss Shining Example at their first confab—

 

—and (being sharp as well as cute) detected a latent streak of envy pining beneath Keiko’s muted dowdiness.

 

“I bet your folks don’t ever let you put on makeup or show yourself off, hunh?”

 

Dejectedly: “No.  It would not be permissible.”

 

“But you’d like to try it, right?  Get all dolled up, fix your hair, do your nails, then go out and have a ball?  That means, y’know, like go to a party—”

 

“I understand what you are saying,” Keiko frowned.  “Why say it, though, when my parents would never give permission?”

 

Chipmunk-cackle: “S’pose we make sure they don’t ever find out?

 

All at once Carly overcame a tendency to tardiness on school mornings.  For this Keiko was praised—and rightly so, since the girls were going in early for clandestine restylings of Keiko into a Wild Western babe.  Not in one fell swoop (Carly being crafty as well as cute) but little by little, making Keiko look less and less repressed and more like Carly’s cousin Lola of fake ID fame.  Only during school hours, though, retreating back into her frump-shell after the final bell; but for those seven-and-a-quarter hours each weekday, Keiko got to emerge in ways she’d scarcely dared dream of before.  And Cinderella-san started having an Occidental ball, with Carly Godmother providing the bippity-boppity-boo.  Girls resumed taking notice of her; boys went from careless glances to loitering nearby, enlarging their Carly-cluster to encompass Keiko too.

 

(A notable exception was Artie Rist the Anarcho-Syndicalist, who’d been spellbound by the original uptight Keiko.  This accounted for his inattentive nonresponse on the first day of Civics, when Mr. Koehler’d requested that moment of silence for Senator Dirksen.  Artie, instead of staging a filibuster against the Wizard of Ooze, had been busy staring holes through Keiko’s chaste white sailor suit.  But when she started borrowing Cousin Lola’s clothes, revealing sexy bits of breast and thigh, Artie turned up his anarcho-nose and flung up his syndicalist-hand with a fresh series of truculent “BUT WHY??”s.)

 

Efforts were mounted by increasingly jealous girls to matchmake Keiko with Slim Jim Khim, to whom she did not cotton.  (Korean grandparents?  Please!)  All her flirt-courage was reserved for dallying with towheads—tall, brawny, muscular towheads.

 

“Maybe she’ll steal Mike Spurgeon away from Gigi, and he’ll change his band’s name to ‘Japanese Fire Drill,’” Vicki forecast.

 

“Don’t joke about guys getting stolen!” Joss scolded.  “Thats too much like slavery!”

 

She’d just completed a week riveted to the TV watching Roots, which convinced her she must have African blood in her veins.  Not on the Barnabas side, which wasn’t even Black Irish; but maybe Murrisch really did mean “Moorish,” or was derived somehow from Mauritania or Madagascar or Mozambique—

 

—or, better still, from Mandingo.

 

The fact that Joss and her sisters all had blue eyes, fair skin, and hair ranging from blonde to light brown didn’t count for squat as an imagination-obstacle.

 

Nor were there any inconvenient known facts to hamper fantasy.  Raymond Murrisch had been orphaned early and raised in Peoria by a great-aunt not unlike Betsey Trotwood.  All he knew for certain was that his forebears had German connections, though who and how and when were long forgotten.

 

Joss, delving into the encyclopedia, invented a great-grandmother and gave her a backstory of suitable adventures.  These soon filled three speckle-covered composition books, each paragraph being shared with Vicki as it was penned:

 

In Westphalia, in the suburb of Übercologne, a girl was born (precisely a century before Joss) named Johanna Desdemann, who joined the Rhenish Missionary Society and embarked for Southwest Africa in 1884.  There she met, fell for, and repeatedly gave herself to local potentate Kaggen Khoikhoi, who blew a torrid kudu horn (immensely seductive on summer nights) but was scorned as a “Hottentot” by German colonists.  Johanna made feverish plans to go native in the bush with Kaggen, till she was betrayed by fellow missionary Cunegonde Zimmer and forced to break tryst with her true love!  Expelled from the Rhenish Society, sobbing into corset covers as she packed her steamer trunk, Johanna could hear Kaggen playing a kudu threnody (not unlike “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”) that forgave her no-show even as it bade farewell.

 

En route to exile in America, Johanna was befriended by kindly Romulus Murrisch.  They got married on shipboard, settled in Peoria with Rom’s Trotwoody sister, and had a son named Remus whose blue eyes would be passed down to future generations.  But when Johanna passed away at three score and ten, she had Kaggen Khoikhoi’s name on her lips and the echo of his kudu horn in her ears.

 

Joss seriously wanted to call this epic Toots.

 

“TOOTS?  Are you dedicating it to Carly and Keiko?” asked Vicki.

 

They agreed on a more romantic retitling—The Horns of Africa: One Toot Is Not Enough.

 

“Now we have to figure out how to get Lamar to pose for the illustrations.”

 

“As if Toughie’d let him take his shirt off in front of you—”

 

“Hey!  Lamar is a grown man.  He can strut around barechested anywhere I like.”

 

Joss took pardonable pride in writing a full-length novelette while still in ninth grade; and though it wasn’t sophisticated enough for professional submission, she wanted it to be typed up, mimeographed and circulated.  If a receptive market was out there.  Some of their bunch (Robin, for instance) weren’t well-known for racial sensitivity.  And the burn inflicted on Joss by the real-life “Cunegonde” was nowhere near assuaged, even after upward of two years.

 

Still: if they could find a readership for Horns, Vicki would handle its promotion and distribution as she was already doing for Cicada ’77.  Being the yearbook’s Business Manager meant a lot of hard work as they moved into high gear this new semester.   Even though she could dole out sales and advertising tasks to assistants, supervision was necessary to ensure the assistants didn’t shirk or lallygag.

 

On Summer Council, Sell-O Fayne’d done the delegation and the lallygagging.

 

Cicada’s Editor-in-Chief took a far more hands-on approach: “The Big Picture’s propped on my easel,” she liked to say, and I intend to fingerpaint the hell out of it.”

 

Petula Pierro (“Call me ‘Downtown!’”) was kin to diligent dutiful Tony Pierro, but in a half-step-once-removed way.  Rather than take a slew of part-time jobs to help support her side of la famiglia, Downtown invested every cent of her pocket money in art supplies, fishnet stockings, studded accessories, and thin French cigarettes.  Her freehand abstract still lifes (some indeed fingerpainted) had won regional contests; she smoked more than anyone at VW except Mr. Folz; and she hack hawk hobnobbed with Fiona Weller about the revolutionary new bands cropping up in England—groups actually calling themselves Buzzcocks and Sex Pistols:

 

“—goes by ‘Sid Vicious,’ he’s got a grudge against the Damned and threw a glass at ‘em onstage, but missed and put this girl’s eye out—”

 

“(—yeah, hes the one who drummed for Siouxsie and the Banshees on their jam of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ and ‘Deutschland Über Alles’—)”

 

“What kind of name is Petula for a paisan?” Robin Neapolitan wanted to know.

 

“It’s ‘Downtown,’” she was reminded.  “And most of all in the suburbs!”

 

Paisan Downtown pledged to book the Dartles for that spring’s Cicada Dance, if springtime ever came and a majority of the staff could be won over, which would be no easier than with Summer Council.  Crystal Denvour could again be counted on, here as one of the yearbook copyreaders; but again they’d be opposed by two of the Duckweight Clique—Nanette Magnus (Activities Editor) and Delia Shanafelt (Underclass Editor).

 

Vicki’d had minimal interaction till now with the Duckweights, who were all on Y team; even in Summer Council they’d been on separate task forces.  But thrown together with two Duckweights on Cicada and two others on Frosh Board, Vicki began to do some wary surveillance (without benefit of duck blind) of Those Who Must Be Made Of Wood, And Were Therefore Combustible Witches.

 

“I suppose you must be Jo Murrisch’s friend,” Nanette scoffed at their first vis-à-vis run-in.

 

I suppose you must have a fat Scandinavian skank trapped inside that skinny body, Vicki sub-replied—loudly enough for Nanette to bridle.

 

Given free rein, she’d probably be a very pretty plump girl, vying with Crystal or even Becca for top zaftig honors.  Yet Nanette allegedly starved and puked herself into thinness, barfing not from occasonal nerves but the deliberate insertion of birdflipper down throat.  (Blecch.)  Hard-ass tennis in warm weather and racquetball in cold reinforced her bone structure, lending bounce if not shine to her ash-blonde coif.  A nail-it-to-the-door Lutheranism glimmered in Nanette’s eyes, which were shaped like downward crescents of icicle-gray—but, try as they might, couldn’t chillify Vicki Volester.  Not after she’d endured a freeze-dried decade with Melissa Chiese, compared to whom (odd twinge of Reulbach pride) Nanette Magnus was a mere Swedish marshmallow.

 

“I’m one of Jocelyn Murrisch’s friends, yes.  I bet YOU know Kimmy Zimmer.”

 

“We do!” Delia Shanafelt beamed.

 

Catch Delia on her clique-free own and she could be sociable company, if you had a high tolerance for simpering.  She was the youngest of a brood distinguished (like the House of Hanover) by milky-blue, slightly-bulbous blinkers, and a predisposition (like the House of Grass Roots) to sha-la-la-la-la-la live for today.

 

Take firstborn Schuyler Shanafelt, aka “Skye Shane”: dropped out of UCLA Law School after just a month, because he’d been cast as Enrico on the hot new soap A Lover’s Question.  Take eldest daughter Kaylene Shanafelt: entered Sweet Briar as an economics major and exited, two years early, as a catalog swimsuit model.  Take their father, Colfax Shanafelt: resolute that one child follow in his corporate-attorney footsteps, and pinning big-ticket hopes on Delia as a mover and shaker—

 

so far mostly of body and pompons at VW sporting events.

 

Not that cheerleading disqualified her from lucrative prospects; no one at VW could be More Likely To Succeed than squad captain Becca Blair.  Delia, however, was burdened with thoughtlessness, and in every sense of the word.  Seldom did a day pass without her blurting “SorryIforgot” or “OopsguessIdidn’t.”  Sometimes she was the only one discomfited by this (e.g. neglecting to close curtains in her well-lit bedroom before undressing) but often others were inconvenienced too, if not given the old heave-ho.

 

Take trustful Laurie Harrison: for a few weeks of seventh grade she’d thought she’d found a kindred spirit in Delia.  They’d made a lot of best-friendly plans that all slipped Delia’s mind when more popular offers came her way, and Susie Zane never forgave her for Laurie’s ensuing heartache.  Nor for the “denial hives” Delia caused a year later by openly canoodling with fickle Chipper Farlowe:

 

“They weren’t!  He wouldn’t!  She’s not like that, not really!” Laurie protested.  “And I keep telling you, this rash is just a reaction to my new wool dress—”

 

“It’s not, they were, he does, and she is like that!” Susie persisted.  “They’re all like that in that clique of snobbysnots, that won’t even admit they know you!”

 

“We do know Kimmy Zimmer!” Delia would beamingly remember to tell Vicki.

 

Maybe so, but not as well (or ill) as Joss did.  Nor as aware as Vicki’s own guts became, of being angst-wrackedly teeth-gnashingly quack-toxically hated by the Cunegonde in question.

 

Kim had given her a wide berth since their first altercation at the New Sherwood, the summer before last.  But now Vicki was elected second-semester Secretary of 9-Z, making her chief recordkeeper for the entire Z-Wing, and placing her on the Freshman Executive Board with eleven other ninersamong them Kim Zimmer, new Secretary of 9-Y, who sat gimleting stilettoes into Vicki through Frosh Board’s inaugural conclave.

 

“Did she say anything??” Joss flared.

 

“Naah, just blew steam out of her nostrils.  I gave her my ‘Loopy the Enforcer’ squint and hummed the Pfiester Park Pherrettes Phight Song—”

 

“How does that go?”

 

“Um... dum de dum dum / you can’t scare me / Pherrettes whup ducks / all the damn time?

 

Joss applauded, while expressing doubt that Feef and Britt could now retire from the lyricwriting business.

 

You can’t scare me Yet a menacing sensation pursued them out of school that Friday and into the weekend, “phight” as they might to disregard it.  Joss finally faced it head-on after they watched Saturday Night Live and shiver-jumped under the bedcovers.  Toughie wouldn’t permit camping out by a roaring fireplace (“Sends all the heat up the chimney”) so the girls buried themselves and Fingers beneath a heap of quilts on the aerie brass bed, huddling and shuddering.  Normally they would’ve rehashed Fran Tarkenton’s performance as comic host and Jane Curtin’s ripping open her blouse on live TV, but tonight menace seeped into the aerie like frosty fetid fog.

 

“(I know why she hates you,)” Joss murmured, not naming the she.  “(It’s ‘cause I didn’t shrivel up and disappear when she stabbed me in the back.  If I had, she coulda forgot she did it—pretended I moved away or ceased to exist.  But I didn’t.  I found you, and you saved my life—)”

 

“(—shut up.  You saved mine first—)”

 

“(—you shut up.  And we got us a really good bunch of friends, all sorts of good people, while she’s stuck in that little clique of)” [lowered-even-from-a-murmur] “(bitches.  That she chose to hook up with.  And stabbed me in the back to do it.  But in her brain, y’know, it’s all your fault—‘cause she can see how much better off I am now...)”

 

“(...not as better off as I am...)”

 

Myeep went Fingers: as in close-your-yaps-and-go-to-sleep-already.

 

Which they did.

 

To share Joss’s incoming dream, via Vicki’s sub-sense.

 

Watch little JoJo and Kimmy hit it off in kindergarten.  Watch them go through the years as a double act, Lefty and Righty playing in harmony, never knowing what it was to not have a best friend you could entrust with every private thought and secret.  Kim’s parents might fight over all things great and small, staying hitched only for her sake (meaning, of course, that she was to blame) and Jo’s whole world might come crumbling down—grandparents crippled, mother dying, then a year of pre-Toughie housedumpers.  Yet no matter how grim life got, Kim ‘n’ Jo knew they could rely on each other without question or qualm.

 

Even in sixth grade, when Jo was the first to need Kotex and Playtex.  Kim was still the cuter one, the graceful one, the adept one at gym where Jo was awkward—and, thankfully, not too overdue in receiving her own ticket to the puberty train.

 

But sixth grade also saw the arrival at McGrum Elementary of Virginia Leigh Pyle—or, as she pronounced it, Pahhhhl.  Who hailed, if “Gigi” was to be believed, from some locale between the Mason-Dixon Line and the Rio Grande—or from Refineryland southeast of The City, as Meg Murrisch ascertained from Gigi’s older brother Riley.  Depending on who you listened to, their father had either moved the Pyles north after selling a cottonpickable plantation, or because he’d made good as a chemical engineer with CB&I and traded in his blue collar for white.

 

Jo started referring to Gigi as “Dixie Cups,” saying her drawl was as bona fide as the tissues stuffed in her bra.

 

Kim agreed, but cautioned that they should keep such affronts to themselves: “We’re better than that.”  Anything Gigi Pyle could do, K’n’J could do better, and without her haughty airs-and-graces hassling of those further down the pecking order.  (Such as poor Laurie Harrison, who got dubbed “Harelip” just because she looked like a bunny.)

 

It was also during sixth grade that K’n’J first read Ruth Doan MacDougall’s The Cheerleader—Jo for its evocative nostalgia, sardonic humor and uncensored sexuality; Kim because she could picture herself as the rah-rah center of all eyes, idolized by girls and fantasized-about by boys.

 

This image blurred, though, when you factored in Gigi Pyle, who unlike her Scarlett o’heroine was beautiful—raven hair, magnolia skin, Evergladesy irises, and all that preteen cleavage (natural or augmented).  How could you stand out in comparison?  Who’d gaze transfixed at you if she was around?

 

When they began junior high, Kim wanted Jo to try out for the sevvie drill team with her (and that damn Gigi).  Jo declined, saying it was too much like gym, but came along to root for Kim—and provide a shoulder to sob on, after an ill-timed sneeze spoiled Kim’s trial march.

 

“Don’t cry, you still made alternate, you’re part of the team—”

 

“That... isn’t... helping!

 

And so far as Kim was concerned, Jo kept not-helping all through seventh grade.  Pulling pointless stunts like elongating her name to “Jocelyn.”  Hanging around with people who didn’t count, like Robin “Angry Acne” Neapolitan and Fiona “Complete Whackjob” Weller.  Assembling a ludicrous black guy tapestry of posters and photos in her bedroom, that Kim dreaded would extend to Jo’s locker at school—

 

—it was like she was trying to doom your chances with her weirdness!  Like some delayed reaction to her mother’s death, which of course had been tragic and you missed her badly too, Mrs. Murrisch had always been way nicer than either of your parents—but even so, it could only excuse so much for so long.  Here you were, sweating bullets every minute to do all the right things around all the right sorts, currying favor with the drill team leaders who happened to include Gigi Pyle, who with just a nod could promote you to the eighter pompon squad and make you a practical shoo-in for freshman cheerleader, so why the hell was your best (or at any rate oldest) friend snortling about these ambitions behind your back as you were almost positive she sometimes did?  Her and those “Dopesters” who threatened to tar you with their weirdo-brush just by having a mutual acquaintance—

 

“Do you, lahk, know those gals?” Gigi would drawl with delicately raised brows; “We’re just in the same Band is all,” you’d reply; “Oh, Ah see,” Gigi would conclude with a delicately raised shrug—and, BANG! down to the bottom rung of the cheerleading ladder you’d be chucked.

 

Utterly, totally, hook-line-and-sinkeredly unfair.

 

Yet not irredeemably so.  Not yet.

 

Which was why you gave Jo an acoustic megaphone for her thirteenth birthday.  The perfect gift for a cornet player, and one enabling a subtle segue to your discreet request that she please try out for the pompon squad with you next month.

 

“Yeah right.”

 

“I mean it!”

 

“For the hundredth time, that’s your thing, not mine.”

 

“But it could be yours!  You’ve got the lungs for it, you’ve got the height—they can use more height—and heaven knows you’ve got the boobs—”

 

“Hey!  Leave my flopperoos out of this!  It’s bad enough being stared at and leered at, without taking them out in a tight sweater to jiggle them in front of everybody.”

 

“Are you saying you think that’s what I wanna do?”

 

“No, I’m not saying that or thinking that—”

 

“Oh, because some of us aren’t as endowed as others of us, is THAT what you’re saying you’re thinking?”

 

“Jeez, Kim, it’s my birthday!  Why are you acting so weird?”

 

“ME??  Why am I acting so weird??”

 

Which might explain why, when Gigi casually inquired if you’d talked “that friend of yours” into trying out, you might possibly have given some indication that Jo wasn’t behaving like a real friend should.  And Gigi might then have stated that a true cheerleader needed to combine femininity with iron and steel, as demonstrated by undergoing a sort of pre-initiation ritual like, oh, Gigi didn’t know—maybe disclosing some deep dark secret about that onetime friend, who really deserved being taken down a peg or two for those wisenheimer cracks about tissue-stuffed Dixie Cups.

 

Which you’d warned her about at the time, hadn’t you?  Hadn’t you told her so?

 

So it was practically Jo’s own fault.  She was the one with a unusually “dark” secret, if you know what you mean.  And she’d never made you pinky-swear to keep it a secret, like any sensible regular normal person would.

 

Iron and steel.  That’s what you were made of, that day in May when you did the disclosure.  And if it came out in To Kill a Mockingbird-type language... well, that was due to Gigi’s being a born Southerner.

 

And it was justifiable means to desirable ends.  You did make the pompon squad.  You were admitted into Gigi’s exclusive clique, axis of the school’s in-crowd.  You have advanced to freshman cheerleader, with high school and college and the pros beckoning ahead.  You will be the rah-rah center of all idolized fantasies.

 

As you grow up, you have to put away childish things.  That’s in the Bible.

 

Everything would be perfect if she’d gone and done just that—boxed herself away out of sight, up in an attic with the dolls and toys they used to play with all those ages ago.

 

Instead of swaggering around school and town, flaunting her pathetic excuse of a friendship with a sawed-off squint-eyed big-mouthed outsider/gangmember from some slum in The City who thinks she’s soooo popular even though she doesn’t have a boyfriend and you know what that means so haw haw! the sun doesn’t shine out of her huMONGous fat ass that people ought to be kicking instead of kissing ‘cause it belongs to a nasty little BITCH OF A NOBODY!!!—

 

—blasting Vicki and Joss out of the aerie brass bed with a shakening awakening J-O-L-T that reduced Fingers the cat from nine lives to eight.

 

*

 

One casualty of this nightmare was The Horns of Africa, which Joss hastily shelved on a remote ledge at the back of her closet.  Someday, she promised, it would be retrieved and revised and released to a world better suited to embrace it.

 

But on that same Sunday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Joss was inspired (“by a Voice like Mr. Erickson’s!”) to Write what you know, my child.  And what did she know better at that moment than what she’d been unwillingly reminded of by last night’s menace-dream?

 

So put it to use.  Channel it into cathartic novelistic form, and a fresh set of speckle-covered composition books.  Give Johanna Desdemann a latter-day incarnation as “Dez,” and Cunegonde Zimmer a more ingenious one as “Constance”—called Connie as a child but Conn in drifting-apart adolescence.  Then, after the backstabbing betrayal (here for “daring to be unconventional,” with the racial aspect downplayed) enlist Guadalupe Velez and Svetlana Eisenstein to stand by Dez and redeem her from deceitful treachery.

 

Title: Connstung.

 

This manuscript—minus its obligatory sex scenes—could be shared with Alex, who was touched to tears and full of wonder that one of her most special friends could create such a story right out of her head, and at such length.  (Alex’s own Lang Arts efforts were brief moralistic fables about someone doing a good deed and oughtn’t we all?)

 

Fiona, reading Connstung, thought two or three songs might be extracted from its more poetic passages; and the rest of the bunch clamored to be put in the book, so they too could have literary escapades à clef.

 

The Duckweights had no choice: their thinly-disguised blemishes were stripped bare for anyone to read.  Vicki almost felt a dollop of pity for Kim Zimmer, even while huffily turning her back on Miss Flat-as-a-Board-Butt every time their paths regrettably crossed.  (I’ll show you who’s freaking huMONGous!)

 

She wished, though, and not for the first time, that an inch or so could be painlessly relocated from down below to up in front.  If not deleted entirely, the better to deter Gumbo Krauss from following her down from the yearbook office below to the cafeteria.  In line behind her at the steam counter he kept blathering about ad-space layouts, but Vicki knew his mind was really on spit-licking checkouts—of belows, upfronts, and everything-in-betweens.

 

What is it with hornyboys? she asked herself, and not for the first time.

 

“Well.  See you later,” she told Gumbo at the cash register, paying for a tossed salad rather than the hot chili she couldn’t risk eating.  (Stupid fifth period gym!)  But he plopped a bowl on his tray and blathered right after her to the bunch’s table, purloining a stool from across the aisle (almost out from under Artie Rist’s rump) and seating himself at the corner.

 

“Ragnarsson, my man!  Battenburg, my other man!”

 

Leaning over to slap palms with Rags, trade soul-shakes with K.C., and interfere with Fiona’s pouring ribollita from thermos to cup.  (Robin had cooked gallons of this hearty soup for the bunch, and Vicki would’ve brought her own thermosful to school today if Ozzie and Goofus hadn’t scarfed the last drop last night.)

 

“What’s happenin’, Krauss?” K.C. garbled around a chili-laden spoon.

 

“A universe gone coconuts, man—let’s turn this dump into a tiki bar!”  Grinning at them like a swarthier, beardlesser, but equally Jewfro’d Eric Bloom of Blue Öyster Cult.  Don’t fear the Reaper Vicki was thinking as Gumbo’s shaded eyes shifted to Joss: “Well heyyyy there!  Remember me?”

 

Vicki, digging into her salad, waited for a Murrisch comeback like “Sorry, I just this minute managed to forget about you!”—only to hear Joss fluster girlishly that sure she did, although Gumbo was so different.

 

Choke on iceberg lettuce.

 

Realize how much prettier Joss was looking since shed dispatched past anguish into Connstung: how much brighter the twinkle in her eyes, the lagniappe in her smile, the upfrontness of her flopperoos—

 

Oh Gahd.  “How’s Carly?” spluttered Vicki, who’d seen Carly Thibert in homeroom and Earth Science, and at their lockers an hour ago.  “Um—are you two still going together?”

 

“Not since her old man told me to quit darkening their doorstep,” Gumbo told Joss, as though she’d posed the question.  “Did I say ‘told’?  Make that ‘yelled’—in Czechoslovak or whatever the hell he yells in.  ANYhoo, I’m free this weekend.  Howzabout you?

 

A hush fell on the bunch’s table, even its far end where Robin and Sheila-Q were arguing over the most obscure sign of bad luck.  (Robin’s: turning a loaf of bread upside down after slicing it.  Sheila’s: letting the word “pig” pass your lips while deep-sea fishing.)  At the girls basketball team’s table, Laurie Harrison half-rose to point quivery nostrils toward Gumbo and Joss; even if nothing happened now, there’d still be gossip about it.

 

“Am I free this weekend?” Joss meditated.  “Well, that depends.  Free to go where?  And do what?  And how much’d you be planning to spend?

 

Which was so imitative of Carly Thibert’s flirt-style that Vicki had to chomp on a celery stick to keep from gasping aloud.

 

Oh Gahd oh Gahd oh Gahd—

 

“But you gotta come too!” Joss implored her that Friday afternoon on the way to Burrow Lane.  “I’ve never been on a real date, but you’ve gone out with guys—”

 

“Oh yeah right!  One dance in seventh grade!  One dinner that ended up a disaster!  Running around town on Sunday mornings, and that wound up another disaster!  I oughta write a book—a how-not-to date guide!”

 

“Aw c’monnnn—any guy in school would go out with you, if you dropped him a little hint—”

 

“Whoa!  I’m all in favor of women’s lib, y’know, but I am not asking any guy out on a date!  This isn’t a turnabout and my name’s not Sadie Hawkins!  And besides—who would I ask?”

 

“What about Buddy?  What about Phonsie?  I know you’ve had your eye on Tony Pierro for like months now.  Or maybe Gumbo’s got a friend who’d go—”

 

“On a blind date?  With a guy Gumbo Krauss picked out for me?  Are you insane?”

 

“Oh pleeeease, Vicki!  I can’t do this without you!  And I really, really want to—Gumbo’s as close to a ‘brutha’ as I’m likely to find before college, probably.  If you won’t go I’ll have to ask Meg and you know I couldn’t survive a double-date with her!”

 

“Look,” sighed Vicki.  “What if Alex came with me, and we went the same place as you two but just like as a coincidence?  We’d be there if you needed help—like I needed that time I asked you to double with me ‘n’ Roger, and you said ‘Noooo, you’ll wanna be alone with him ooh-la-la’—and you remember how well that turned out.  I really coulda used you then!”

 

“And I really could use you ‘n’ Alex now,” Joss said meekly, but with a sub-P.S.: I put up with your going out with a guy I didn’t approve of, for like months.

 

Which, of course, was all too true.

 

And, for the time being, a moot point.  Shortly after the girls made it to Vicki’s house, news came of a horrible rush-hour accident in The City—one crowded El train rear-ending another to send four cars off the rails, two crashing onto the street.  Meg Murrisch almost eyewitnessed this (she’d gone down to interview an Orchestra Hall acoustician for the Vanderlund Senior High newspaper) and returned so quasi-traumatized that Joss had to go home and play nurse.

 

“As if Beth and Invisible Amy couldn’t’ve handled it!”

 

In any event, Joss’s date with Gumbo got postponed till the next weekend, by which time an unexpected new couple was available for doubling: Arlo Sowell rocked VW to its foundation by asking Robin Neapolitan to the Valentine Sweetheart Hop.

 

“Who put you up to this?” was her initial enraged reaction.

 

Arlo, blinking ponderously, rumbled that he’d been wanting to ask her out “forever” (aww) and had finally worked up enough pluck to do so.

 

Susie and the bunch almost had to bind and gag Laurie to prevent her spreading word that Robin’d “stolen” Arlo from Fiona.  Who’d never displayed the faintest amorous interest in him, other than a passing fascination with his mountainous scaleno matter what feelings he might have nurtured toward her before “forevering” Robin.

 

As it happened the Dartles were boycotting the Sweetheart Hop, since its Pep Club sponsors had booked Chinese Fire Drill to play without entertaining any rival bids.  So Joss & Gumbo & Robin & Arlo arranged to see the same showing of Silver Streak at the New Sherwood, on the same day as the dance: Saturday, February 12th.  Alex couldn’t make it—crisis at the animal shelter—so Fiona was deputized to go with Vicki as the other duenna.

 

“(I knew this was gonna happen eventually,)” Feef gloomed.

 

Robin gave brusquely profane reassurance that however many guys might be in their futures (or at least Robin’s) they would remain Sister Dopesters beyond “forever.”  That said, she climbed onto Arlo’s shoulders and rode him up and down Z-Wing like a conquering mahout.

 

Inevitable, of course, that such a devoted daddy’s girl would latch onto somebody constructed like Fat Bob.  Whose own initial enraged inclination had been to lock Robin in the cellar while he applied a pool cue to Arlo’s predatory nethers.  But Arlo pluckily went to see him at the Triville Harley lot, full of respect for Fat Bob and his daughter, exhibiting knowledge of and appreciation for American-made motorcycles; and by Saturday Fat Bob was asking, “Is that my future son-in-law?” whenever he saw Robin on the phone.

 

“Daa-aad!

 

Vicki did not enjoy Silver Streak.  In light of last week’s El derailment, a movie about murder on a train that smashes spectacularly into a terminal didn’t seem to be in the best taste.  Yet Joss adored Richard Pryor, Robin reveled in the highspeed havoc, and Vicki and Fiona needed some good cheer while slumping unescortedly in the row behind them.

 

“Anyway, the weather’s not so awful,” Vicki said before the coming attractions.  “Did you finish your requiem for Da Mare?”

 

“(O look at Our Lord’s disciples: / one denied Him, one doubted Him, one betrayed Him; / if Our Lord could not have perfection / then how are ye going to have it in City government?)” Feel mutter-chanted.

 

“You got that right.  Frosh Board sure as hell doesn’t have perfection.”

 

“(He’s on that, isn’t he?)” Fiona nodded toward Gumbo Krauss, who was sampling Joss’s popcorn directly with his spit-lickerish mouth.

 

“(Bleahhhh,)” Vicki whisper-gagged.  “(He’s the Y Treasurer.  That Y team must be something else—besides him they elected Kim Zimmer, Mike Spurgeon, and Gigi Pyle.)”

 

“(Sounds like they have putrefaction.)”

 

“(Eww, Feef!)”

 

“(Exactly.)”

 

They watched Arlo offer Robin half of his Almond Joy, and Robin loftily accept it.

 

“(Eww,)” Vicki re-wriggled.  “(Oh, never mind.  We coulda had dates too, if we’da wanted.  I mean, we’re a couple of foxy ladies.)”

 

Fiona, minishrugging, offered Vicki half of her Mounds.

 

*

 

Speaking of good cheer—

 

At quite a wee hour the next morning, Virginia Leigh Pahhhhl stood before a three-way mirror in her antebellum bedroom on Clubroot Drive, watching herself undress with far more scrutiny than vanity.  As each valentine garment was removed, it got placed in or on a proper receptacle: Gigi abhorred sloppiness.  More than one clique candidate had been rejected at trial sleepovers for leaving their clothes unfolded.  (Delia Shanafelt had nearly been debarred after her open-curtain stripshow, but was pardoned for at least having done it efficiently.)

 

Inspect throat and bosom in the three-way mirror for any discoloration caused by Mike’s greedy lips.  He, like a carton of milk kept too long in the fridge, was getting spoiled and in need of replacement.

 

Take views of both nude profiles, over each shoulder, and then full-frontal.  Yes: at fifteen she was surely better built than Scarlett O’Hara’d been at sixteen.  And with a proportional bustline, unlike some pumpkin-patchers we could mention.  Score one for Gigi.

 

Score another for the Sweetheart Hop?  Had it not been carried out unerringly as she’d directed?  Thanks to Bionic Becca’s dental emergency—“short-circuited molars,” Gigi’d told the clique—and absence from the Pep Club planning session, Gigi’s forces were left a clear field to sow and reap.  Choosing the theme (“So Red the Rose”) and the band (Chinese Fire Drill, with no unseemly “battle” nonsense) and the décor (plenty of papery flowers and lace) and their dates: Nanette with Hank Hickey, from her Lutheran youth group; Kim with Norman Lesser, of the Lesser Park Lessers; Delia with Brad Faussett, who might be one of Becca’s exes but had first-rate hair.  And since Mike spent so much of the dance up on the bandstand, Gigi’d had ample scope to preside over all as Grand Sweetheart.

 

The only fly in the ointment was a nagging notion that Becca’d let her triumph by default, because she no longer went out with junior high boys.  As opposed to juniors in high school like Curtis Weatherly, who’d lounged just outside the gym jingling his car keys while Becca made a token stopover at the Hop.  To scan “So Red the Rose” with those insensitive electronic optics she kept under her eyelids; find it all tacky and callow and trivial; and file her reaction away under classified top secret—clearance authorization level 6.

 

Well, fiddle-dee-dee.

 

Ointment always comes with flies.

 

Or is it flaws?  (Yawn.)

 

Crank up the radiator.  Slip on a nightgown in case brother Riley’s prowling around.  Pad into the bathroom, brush hair and teeth, wash face and put on night cream.  (Clarins, imported from France; not Noxzema.)  Back to the bedroom, lock the door, discard the nightie neatly, reposition yourself before the mirror, and begin to massage.

 

You don’t have to start out as the best.

 

The imperative thing is to end up that way.

 

Transcend the low life of Refineryland, where children were brutish and the very air reeked, to join the haute monde of Vanderlund.  Blossom as a result, every inch of you, like a repotted camellia, and become belle-of-the-ball at McGrum Elementary.  (No competition there worthy of the name.  “Harelip” Harrison?  Hardly!)

 

But VW had been a different ball of wax.  On the drill team there was Becca Blair to contend with; in Girls Glee Club, it was Crystal Denvour; in Drama Club, the one to take heed of was eighth-grader Candy Gates.  None of them, though, were with you on the 7-Y team.  So from that citadel you spent seventh grade carefully, guardedly, assembling your clique of handpicked partisans.

 

Tomorrow may be another day—but the best-laid plans are outlined much further in advance.  And can be adapted to adversity.

 

Even with three of your clique on the eighter Pompon Squad, you couldn’t overpower Bionic Becca to win the captaincy, or even retain co-captaincy, of the freshman cheerleaders.  That had been a bad day and worse night.

 

But so be it: more time free to wrest control of Drama Club away from Candy Gates’s designated successor.  And to scotch idle chatter about staging some comic opera (The Marriage of Figaro? hardly!) as this years spring musical, to “capitalize” on Chubby Crystal’s stout pipes.  She’d had featured solos in every Mixed Chorus concert for the past four semesters, so let’s save the spring musical’s lead role for someone who can actually act.

 

Such as Gigi.  As Gigi, in Gigi.

 

A few years back there’d been a Broadway version of the Leslie Caron film.  It hadn’t had a very long run, but won the Tony for Best Score and was tailor-made for present purposes—or would be, if the faculty didn’t claim it was impossible to sugarcoat courtesan-training for junior high parents to digest.

 

So change two consonants and play Lili in Lili: likewise based on a Leslie Caron movie, even if they’d foolishly retitled it Carnival.  Which would mislead people into thinking it was a school carnival, with cotton candy and fried pickles for sale at intermission.

 

Production was set to kick off at Drama Club’s meeting a week from Tuesday, after the Presidents Day holiday.  (Make that Washingtons Birthdayyou dont observe Mr. Lincolns.)  And here’s an idea: why not throw Drama Club a supper party on Washington’s Birthday, here at Clubroot Drive?  Attendance not mandatory but “de rigueur (rub rub rub) as an unmistakable intimation that derrieres better be there (rub rub rub) if they’re not to be left out like Massa in the cold, cold ground?

 

A supper party on your own home turf—showtunes on the stereo instead of callow boys caterwauling—none of the hindrances or disadvantages of a junior high Hop—so that this time you win outright, not by forfeit or default—

 

(rub rub rubbbb)

 

Ah.  Yes.

 

Now, the casting of the other leads.  Nanette would have to be The Incomparable Rosalie; Delia couldn’t be trusted to memorize a part that large, and Kim had been going to gradual pieces since Harelip Harrison grew a backbone and bit her head off—

 

(—Kim, in fact, was verging on a sloppy precipice: all that foofaraw about your reasonable request that she step away from Band and concentrate on cheerleading—)

 

(—nonetheless, there was use to be made of someone so desperate to be in the clique that she’d sell out her own best friend, that snidely wisenheiming colored-cuddler—)

 

(—no: make that “darky-devotee”—good one! score three for Gigi—)

 

(rub-a-dub-dub)

 

Then, to play Marco the Magnificent magician, Jerome Schei who had a good build and fine voice even if he was a flit; and as Paul the bitter puppeteer?  Less certain there—pickings were leaner when you needed someone meaner.  Like who?  Owen O’Leary?  Got a nasty streak, all right, but hes a classic Irish tenor: unsuitable.  Matt LaVintner?  Still hung-up on Bionic Becca (blub-blub) three years after she dumped him: a basket case straight out of Daphne du Maurier..

 

Under no circumstances would it be Odious Morey Krauss.  After Christmasing on the Barbary Coast or wherever, hed started carrying on like some hopped-up Negro—first with that shameless Carly flooze, then (big surprise!) with Jo Murrisch the coonie-groupie, while grabbing every opportunity to hit on you yourself!  Literally grabbing, sometimes, with those sunburnt Heebie-Jeebie hands of his, so you had to scrub scrub scrub...

 

(Oh phooey.  Now you’re out of sorts and’ll have to start all over again.)

 

(So: Love makes the world go round, love makes the world go round...)

 

Who, then?  Who can do it right, with you, onstage?

 

Rub that magic lamp and wish upon a star...

 

What about Sidney Erbsen?

 

HIM?  Don’t be absurd...

 

What—about—Sidney—Erbsen?

 

Well, Lawdy knows he must be a Jew.  And a nothing-much-to-look-at Jew at that: big glasses on a big nose peeping around a complicated camera you never see him without.  Sid the Yid, whose “prime directive” (as he geekily puts it) is to take photos for the yearbook; yet “I also dabble in dramatics” (as he also puts it) mostly on the tech side, but he’s trod the boards with Woody Allenesque characteristics and delivery.  Memorably portraying the Jolly Green Giant as a nervous nebbish:

 

“I do it all with smoke and mirrors—the height, the width, the HO HO HO shtick.  ‘Good things from the gar-den / garden in the val-ley’—that’s where I get the best smoke.  My family took the name Erbsen because of all the crank calls made by Giant-killers.  My grandmother says Erbsen means ‘pea soup,’ which may explain why my brain gets foggy and I feel nauseated around exorcists.  But I’m not sure whether that’s why, even when I was a Sprout in green diapers, she’s always called me her little Split-Pea—”

 

(as he puts it)

 

Can Sid fill the role?  Can he sing “I’ve Got to Find a Reason” and Everybody Likes You?  What about “Her Face”?  Lawdy knows he’s taken plenty of pictures of yours at Drama Club, face and body both and who can blame him?  Those that he’s shown, those that you’ve seen, are works of art ‘cause Jews are clever that way, they can Hollywoodize you to perfection but but but can you bear to let a guy like that touch you? hold you? kiss you in front of a standing-room-only throng watching you do it in the flesh, in the spotlight, in the smoke-and-mirrorsy camera lens coming in for your closeup (as he puts it puts it puts it)

 

AHHHHHHHhhhhhhhhhhhhhh...

 

Thump on the wall by brother Riley.  Who’s probably had his perverted ear pressed against it for the last half-hour.

 

(Yawwwwn.)

 

Tidy up.  Re-don nightgown.  Lie down in your antebellum bed.  And waft off to hoopskirted slumberland, where you’re swiftly encircled by a dozen beaux at a genteel barbecue that will not be cut short by some silly old outbreak of war or zits.

 

*

 

Vicki had a wearisome Saturday night at Jupiter Street, listening to Joss go on and on about everything Gumbo’d said and everything Gumbo’d done and what it all might really mean.  No way for Vicki to bail out of the conversation, though, or demand a topic change, knowing how many times she’d put Joss through the same wringer last autumn.

 

Nor could she bring herself to broach the subject of Gumbo’s sliding an unsolicited arm around her shoulders, just before the Cicada staff’s official yearbook photo got taken on Thursdayscarcely forty-eight hours before his date with Joss!  And of course Vicki was wearing her toothiest smile when it happened, as if she loved being hugged for posterity by spit-licking Morey Krauss.  And when she’d tried to tackle the photographer to make him take a do-over, he evaporated from view.  (No wonder people called him “Split-Pea.”)

 

But Vicki had no intention of allowing that picture to go into the yearbook, even if this entailed bribing Downtown Pierro or Ms. Yehleor, better still, putting Gumbo through a wringer.

 

Some Sundays she accompanied the Murrisches to St. Paul’s, if the choir was doing something special or to earn Brownie points with Toughie.  This Sunday morning she opted out, went home, fixed lunch, and was setting the breakfast nook table when her mother returned from Unitarianizing.

 

“Guess what I heard!” said Felicia.  “You know that discotheque at Panama Plaza?”

 

“What, the Vinyl Spinnaker?  I’ve only seen it from the outside.  Looks kinda cheesy.”

 

“Cheesy what?” went Goofus, charging up from the family room where he and Ozzie were watching the NBA All-Star Pregame Show.  “Cheesy pizza?  Hand it over!  It’s pizza, Dad!  I’ll bring it down—

 

“It’s not pizza, it’s corned beef gyros, there’s yours and Daddy’s, mop up any mess you make and I mean it.”

 

“Thanks, Sis!  It’s gyros, Dad!  I’m bringing ‘em down—

 

“So what about the cheesy disco?” Vicki asked Felicia in the breakfast nook.

 

“Yes!  Well—(mmm, this is good: tastes like Greece blended with Ireland)—their business slacked off terribly this winter, what with the freeze and the snow and then a roof leak.  So now instead of being closed on Mondays, they’re available for private parties like the Grand Parade.  And I was thinking, maybe your band could put on a show there.”

 

“In a real disco?  We could never afford it, Mom, even one with a leaky roof—”

 

“Oh, that’s been repaired, and Daddy and I can pay for the rental.  If we did it on the 28th, that’d be the night before your birthday and you could make it a party concert, like Robin had.”

 

Vicki mulled this over, chewing corned beef and pita bread.  “The 28th?  Two weeks from now?  Won’t that day already be booked?”

 

“Well, I can call and ask.  Remember the roller rink party you had when you turned twelve?  That was easy enough to arrange quickly.”

 

Vicki began to feel swept up by her mother’s impresario enthusiasm.  “Let me check with Joss and the others, see what they think—”

 

“Oh my goodness!  I completely forgot to ask how Jocelyn’s date went!  Did she have a good time with Gummo?”

 

“Gumbo—rhymes with Dumbo—and don’t get me started,” Vicki groaned, dishing up an edited-for-maternal-ears version of recent events.

 

On Monday Felicia contacted Mr. Poliakoff, who ran the chain (if three constitutes a “chain”) of stripmall discos including the Vinyl Spinnaker.  As luck would have it, he’d just been hung up on by the Tri-Delts of Lakeside Central, calling to cancel their Spinnaker reservation for a Presidents Day bash.  Mr. Poliakoff was eager to fill this sudden vacancy, though not so much with a ninth-grade combo catering to an underage clientele.  So a heftier-than-usual cleaning-and-damages deposit was added to the rental fee, and the Volesters would have to be responsible and accountable for security.  With these bases covered, the place was theirs for 180 minutes on February 21st—one week away.

 

Vicki revved into full-dress manager mode.  An appeal for help was made to Aunt Fritzi, but her schedule was packed with planning a benefit for the state capital’s Municipal Opera (“Our theme is ‘When the Muni Comes Over the Mountain’—not that there’s anything but prairies down here, darling”) so the Dartles were left to their own devices.

 

Mrs. Driscoll’s permission was sought and granted to publicize the disco concert party at school.  Here Gumbo proved to be legitimately useful, since the Krausses operated a print shop and could get things for you wholesale.  “I expect a nice commission, he disgustingly told Joss, and she revoltingly tootled a few saucy bars of “Afternoon Delight” on her cornet.

 

You should be playing him “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” Vicki wanted to scream.

 

But she bit her tongue and lips and the insides of her cheeks, kept silent, and was rewarded on Wednesday at Zero Hour when Gumbo brought in a rush-job stack of fliers and posters, designed by himself after Britt chose not to collaborate.  (“I’ve got something else in the works,” she informed Vicki.)  And obnoxious as Gumbo was, insufferable as your best friend’s boyfriend, you had to admit his layouts snagged the eye.

 

LIVE AT THE VINYL SPINNAKER—one night only—three hours only—soft drinks only—THE ROSA DARTLES (VW’s premier all-girl rock group) would be saluting Vicki Volester’s QUINCEAÑERA (a term borrowed from Alex’s birthday in December) on Presidents Day—Shrove Monday—J'ouvert—The Night Before Mardi Gras: MON FEB 21st 5:30pm-8:30pm (no cover charge—donations appreciated—free parking at Panama Plaza).

 

“Who’s ‘Shrove’ and what does J’ouvert mean?” Vicki had to ask.

 

Sheila-Q, with kibitzing from Robin, explained the pre-Lenten calendar; while Joss (who’d asked Gumbo the same question) provided info about Carnival in the Caribbean, and Britt lobbed in a few facts about what she called “Nickanan Night” (the same evening before Fat Tuesday) which sounded a lot like a Ding Dong Ditch marathon.

 

“I hope nobody’s gonna do that to us,” Vicki sighed as they put up their promos all over the school.

 

“What the heck is this about?” Nanette Magnus ding-dong’d at noon, waving a flier as she blocked the Cicada office doorway.

 

“Just what it says,” Vicki retorted, trying to get past and collar “Split-Pea” before he and his camera vamoosed, as they’d done every time she’d drawn near them since last Thursday.

 

“Well, you can’t do this!” Nanette declared unbudgingly.

 

“Can’t do what?  Turn fifteen?”

 

“Gigi’s already having a party for Drama Club that night.”

 

“I’m not in Drama Club and the Dartles aren’t either, so no problem.  May I go in now, please?

 

“Y’see, Gigi wants everybody at her thing,” Delia Shanafelt tried to explain.  “Ooh, I like your skirt!”

 

“(Don’t tell her that!)” Nanette hissed.

 

“But I do!  What is that, tweed?  Is it new?  Where’d you get it?”

 

“Thanks—yes—Bonnachoven’s.  And about Presidents Day: you guys do your thing and we’ll do ours.”

 

“We spent all day yesterday handing out invites!”

 

“And we spent all Zero Hour taping up posters.  Now, if you wanna hang out here in the hall for the rest of free period, be my guest.  I’m—

 

“We’re heading on in,” announced Gumbo, propelling Vicki between Delia and Nanette with a hand that had no business on her new tweed skirt’s back-waistband.

 

Fleetingly she recalled Roger Mustardman hooking a cold thumb into a similar place.  But that had been a frissony turn-on, and this smacked more of Back-to-School grope-in-the-dark.  So Vicki shook off the hand with minimized hip-wiggle as Downtown (smelling strongly of foreign tobacco) called the Cicada staff meeting to order.

 

No sign of Sidney Erbsen, probably off “on assignment” again.  Come to think of it, Vicki couldn’t quite recall what he looked like; most of the time he kept that camera in front of his face.

 

Which fleetingly recalled a different, much-missed hand; one that did belong on her waistbands.

 

“(This isn’t over,)” hissed Nanette Magnus.

 

*

 

After the meeting, Vicki marched Crystal Denvour off to the washroom till the coast was Gumbo-clear.

 

“Should we shimmy down to the cafeteria on a rope?” Crystal queried.

 

“Shinny, not shimmy—I’m sure as hell not doing any shimmying around That Guy!  I mean it’s scandalous the way he acts with other girls, when he’s supposed to be going with Joss—”

 

“One date doesn’t make them going together.”

 

“Tell that to her!  She acts like Victoria did about Prince Albert, all head over heels.

 

“Shouldn’t that be ‘heels over head’?”

 

“Oh gross!  I don’t even wanna think about that happening!”

 

“Sorry if I made you lose your appetite.  C’mon, let’s go downstairs.  You still want that cupcake order from my mom?”

 

“Oh Gahd yes.  Half chocolate with ‘RDs’ in bright yellow frosting, and half vanilla with ‘VV’ in violet.  You’re sure she can she do violet?”

 

“My mother can frost anything in any color.  And each VV’ll be a V V, not a W.”

 

“Doesn’t matter.  Everyone always sees W’s.”

 

“You could do like Downtown and start calling yourself ‘Westside’—then you’d have your own Story.”

 

In the cafeteria Vicki nearly spilled her tray when Becca Blair (decked out in regalia that beat Bonnachoven duds all hollow) murmured “Something’s going to happen” in her ear.

 

“What, after lunch?”

 

“No.  Right here.  In a minute or so.”

 

“Um... something bad?”

 

“Yes.  But not how you think.”

 

With that sphinxy statement, and causing palpitations in those unaccustomed to her adjacency, Becca took a stool back-to-back with Vicki.  Which did little to restore Vickis lost appetite—and it went wholly AWOL when Kim Zimmer approached, carrying no tray or brownbag or anything except a large vein pulsing on her Daisy Duck forehead.

 

“Well?” said Joss, whod arrived with a grinning Gumbo.  Having him by her side, with his new paste-up for a Connstung dust jacket in her ring binder, put some mellow into Joss’s voice as she added, “Did you want something?”

 

Kim ignored her.  Ignored Gumbo, ignored Fiona and Robin and Arlo and Sheila and K.C. and Crystal and Rags and Laurie and Alex and even Becca, plus everyone else in the vicinity, to aim that Daisy vein squarely at Vicki as she quacked:

 

“Gigi wants to see you.  Now.”

 

Glance over at the table where Scarlett O’Duckweight was seated with Delia, Nanette, Mike Spurgeon, and a selection of other jocks.

 

Give Gigi a brief Pfiester Park Pherrette wave.

 

“Well, ‘now’ she has.  I guess you can run along.”

 

The vein popped bigger and pulsier.  “Shehassomethingto SAY to you!”

 

“Well, she’s a cheerleader, isn’t she?  I bet I can hear her from here.”

 

Clear-cut snortle from Becca at her back.

 

Kim (evidently five minutes away from a stroke) wheeled around and stomp-returned to Gigi’s table, while various degrees of laughter broke out at the bunch’s.

 

Vicki (appetite somewhat re-whetted) was nibbling at her salad when she felt a clear-cut nudge from Becca.

 

“Here it comes...”

 

It being Gigi Pyle on her own two feet.  Already getting into character as Lili in Carnival: an innocent country orphan wearing a simple unsullied frock, not unlike the sailor uniforms that Keiko Nakayama took off and replaced with Carlygarb first thing every morning.  Toward the bunch’s table came this simple innocent It Girl with measured tread and upright stanceapropos for ordering a passel of damn Yankees to begone from her property, even if such a scene was missing from the Carnival libretto.

 

But whatever Gigi intended to say to Vicki went unuttered.

 

As up between them sprang a shock of rusty hair atop a paltry figure holding a small dark object that went FLASH in Gigi’s face, at Gigi’s body: FLASSSHHHH flassshhhh flassshhhh...

 

—before the paltry figure split-pea’d down and away out of sight.

 

Anyone, even a stunner, would be startled by this happening.

 

Gigi Pyle—on the other end of the stun gun, for once—stood rooted to the spot.  Eyes and mouth gone okeefenokee; one arm clapped across her chest, the other hand over her underbelly; face blushing cherry-tomato-red despite body being fully (indeed primly) dressed, rather than caught naked in a shower stall or on an auction block.

 

Various degrees of laughter arose from every corner of the cafeteria, along with catcalls and wolf whistles.

 

“What happened?” asked anxious Alex, who’d missed the paparazzing since she still averted her attention from anywhere near Mike Spurgeon.  “Who did what to Gigi?”

 

Before anyone could answer, people started laughing with instead of at this apparent caricature of a burlesque pose, and some even applauded.  Gigi’s sense of stage presence snapped her back to magnolia hauteur, and she made a deep curtsy to renewed whistles.

 

“Thank yew very much!  Ah'm throwing a li'l supper party for Drama Club next Monday at five-thirty p.m. sharp—and y’all’re invited to come see what else we can get up to!”

 

Which gave the Lunch C crowd the winky-dink impression that Gypsy or Hair (if not Oh! Calcutta!) might be this year’s spring musical.

 

“Have to hand it to her feet,” Becca said clear-cuttily.  “She always lands on them.”

 

*

 

After basketball practice that evening, Laurie phoned Vicki to report that all the Dartle fliers and posters had vanished from Y-Wing.

 

“Me ‘n’ Susie found out when I had to go back to my locker for my math book.  I checked the third floor, Susie checked the second, we both checked the first, and all we saw were torn-off taped corners.  I think a lot are gone from Home Base, too.”

 

So battle stations were called for; and here the bunch showed the superiority of their extended numbers over the clique’s ostracizing exclusivity. 

 

Gumbo had another four reams of fliers rush-jobbed and hand-delivered to VW on Thursday.  Once the final bell rang, these got folded and stuffed through the vents of two thousand VW lockers (of which fewer than 1,700 were occupied: down 5% from last year).  This mass mailing required participation from everybody connected with Vicki’s bunch, but they took willing part—paper cuts and all—so long as it was a one-time endeavor.

 

Meanwhile, Gigi Pyle came to comprehend how much more adroit she was at long-term planning than short-range improv.  Having inadvertently welcomed the entire freshman class to sup at Clubroot Drive, she had to recommend that her mother lay in additional gala provisions for Presidents Day.  Mrs. Pyle got all negative and Hoosiery about this, so Gigi tried to end-around her father with a hug and kiss and shoulder-shiatsu when he came home from a hard day of formulating oil tanks.  Goal scored!  Way cleared!—until her “Pa says it’s okay!” was trumped by What did you agree to??” and “I said if you had your Ma’s permission!” and But me no buts, young lady!”—and then the rug being Hoosier’d out from under any supper party whatsoever.

 

(The Gobble-uns’ll git you ef you don’t watch out.)

 

On Thursday it was the clique’s turn to frustrate Gigi by failing, one and all, to find an alternative venue.  The Magnuses thought Presidents Day too solemn an event for frivolity; the Shanafelts were hosting their own “Casino Night” fundraiser; and the Zimmers flat-out said no.

 

Then on Friday morning the students of Vanderlund Junior High opened their lockers to be showered with DayGlo leaflets touting the disco debauch, to which Mike Spurgeon actually wanted to go.  His Chinese Fire Drill was still picking its teeth from last Saturday’s Sweetheart Hop, so “What’s the big deal?” Mike philosophized.  “Probably be a few laughs, watching ‘em try to rock.  I’m gonna go, anyhow—I hear there’ll be free cupcakes.”

 

Well go, then, and don’t bother coming back.  Consider yourself bequeathed to that Nook-Nook Nip who’s been sniffing round your imbecilic Frampton ringlets.  Leave Virginia Leigh Pyle to a three-day weekend of decreased self-satisfaction... and sleep disturbed by split-pea visions FLASHing through her head.

 

*

 

“Man, was I ever wrong to call this place the ‘Spittlecure,’” said Robin.  “I’m sure ready to spit up!”

 

Charitably speaking, the Vinyl Spinnaker was best viewed by strobe lights and ceiling glitterball and not under cold fluorescence, such as illuminated the Rosa Dartles’s setup at 4:30 p.m. on Monday the 21st.  If the disco’s exterior looked cheesy, its interior was more like yogurt, with bacterial fermentation affecting all the naugahyde and formica furnishings.

 

“Quirk, forget anything bad I ever had to say about the Grand Parade.”

 

“Exactly what bad did you ever ‘have’ to say about the Grand Parade?”

 

“You just this minute heard me tell you to forget it, didn’t you?”

 

“You better not have told me anything I need to forget, Robbo—”

 

Joss, gingerly plugging her Electrapiano into a yogurtish outlet, played the opening of “Try to Remember” from The Fantasticks, and Fiona crooned along: “Try to dismember the kind of pretender / who spends his nights at cheesy discos...

 

“Soundcheck,” Joss matter-of-facted into her microphone.  “Soundcheck—”

 

“Taste check!  Feel check!” suggested Gumbo, serving as roadie; and Joss toodled him the chorus from “Afternoon Delight.”

 

“Keep your pants on, Murrisch,” Robin advised.  “There’ll be plenty of oddballs here for you to flirt with.”

 

“Hey,” went a guy who, if not a genuine albino, was at least a Johnny Winter wannabe.  All the color in his face had pooled into two mottled bruises surrounding eggshell eyes.

 

“This is Flake,” said Britt Groningen.  “He’ll be recording us tonight.”

 

Flake Hasleman had reputedly snuck in to see Carrie thirteen times in the past four months.  Small wonder that such a guy would have bonked-out eyeballs; even smaller wonder that he’d be going with Britt, who’d boosted her Sissy Spacek resemblance during the same four months.  (Ravishingly pretty half the time—roughly carved out of soapstone the other half.)  Flake, like Britt, was said to hang out with the Traversers; and, like them, he seemed to listen to esoteric music through invisible headphones.

 

“Here... there...” he told a person lugging in a pair of open-reel tape decks.

 

“What is all this, Britt?” Vicki asked briskly.

 

“Cassettes we can sell,” Britt sleepy-smiled, “if the quality’s good enough.”

 

“Won’t be disappointed,” said Flake Hasleman, head bobbing to that unheard beat.

 

Excited buzz from the other Dartles, but Vicki stayed skeptical.  “So, you’ve done this sort of thing before?”

 

“Backwards and forwards,” went Flake, tinkering with one of the tape decks.

 

“Hshsss!” chimed in his assistant, slinging back a parka hood to reveal Byron Wyszynski, snuffling noisily over the second tape deck.

 

“How’s anybody gonna hear us over that hock-tooey, Groningen?” Robin griped.

 

“If we play loud enough, we drown him out,” said Britt.  To Vicki: “Concessions?”

 

“Hunh?  Oh—we can use that table there to sell your stuff.”  (The T-shirts, buttons, stickers, decals, and now mugs and caps: Rosa Dartle merchandise kept expanding into new lines.)

 

“Cool,” said Britt, taking her chrome-plated Gibson to set up with the rest of the band, leaving Vicki to deal with sample items and order forms.

 

She was supposed to be the business manager, after all.

 

It occurred to her that a real manager would seek a full accounting of income from these souvenir sales.  But since Britt handled her own bankrolling (not that she couldn’t afford it) and contributed a share of the proceeds to group coffers after every significant gig, no one’d ever asked how sizable a share they were getting.  Certainly Britt was entitled to make a profit (not that she needed one) on every item bearing her scored-through smoochmark logo.  Even so...

 

Dismissing this worrit, Vicki turned to more immediate ones as the clock neared 5:30.  She strode around the disco, clipboard in hand like Lisa Lohe, checking off to-do’s.  Susie Zane took charge of Britt’s “concessions”: check.  Crystal, Rags, and Mrs. Denvour arrived with boxes of petits gâteaux: check.  Half, as promised, had a beautiful V V in the perfect shade of violet frosting.  No time, though, to feed one to the butterflies congregating in her stomach.  Oh Gahd—

 

“Feef!” she called, twirling a finger in the air; and Fiona went over to glare at Vinny the Spinnaker DJ, with whom she’d entrusted three just-released LPs: the (semi-forgiven) Runaways’s Queens of Noise, the Ramones’s Leave Home, and Television’s debut album Marquee Moon—for spinning between Dartle sets.

 

“Honestly?” whined Vinny, who preferred Leo Sayer to any of the above.

 

“(Be glad I didn’t bring Patti Smith’s Radio Ethiopia,)” Fiona muttered.

 

Vinny was also on hand to ensure the joint didn’t get trashed by delinquent juveniles; as was a sourfaced Spinnaker bartender, there to dispense soft drinks.  Ozzie and Felicia were present to chaperone their investment, while Fat Bob worked security with My Boy Arlo Sowell.  Other Dartle parents would take supervisory shifts later on, to spare the Volesters from early-onset deafness.  (Fat Bob, of course, had titanium eardrums.)

 

Half past five: oh Gahd oh Gahd oh Gahd—

 

The fluorescents dimmed, the strobes came on, the ceiling ball glittered; Queens of Noise’s titular tune chugged out of the P.A. with a pinch of rock and a dose of roll.

 

Throw the doors wide open.

 

And find no one waiting to come inside.

 

Close the doors, since it’s pretty cold out.

 

Kids were still having dinner.  Some might be doing homework, left till the end of the three-day weekend.  5:30 or not, it was undeniably a School Night: they should’ve done this on a Friday or Saturday—except the disco wouldn’t’ve been free for their use then, not that it was “free” now oh Gahd her folks had spent so much and think of those two thousand fliers and now nobody was coming, the Duckweights had won the day and night after all and this was a personal disaster of the first magnitude—

 

Well... tough.

 

“Let’s get going,” she told the Dartles.  “We’ve gotta be outta here by nine.”  Barking at Flake and Tail-End: “You guys ready to record?”

 

“Standing by.”  (More like bob-bob-bobbing.)

 

Honkshsss into a wad of kleenex.  (Yuh-uck...)

 

“We’ll edit out any cover songs,” Britt noted.

 

Okay then.  Time to be Mistress of Ceremonies.  Swivel round to survey your loyal bunch: pretty much everybody you’d invite to an orthodox birthday party.  Not counting Flake and Tail-End, or scuzzy Jason Zane (who’d brought Susie and Laurie; otherwise Fat Bob would’ve barred him at the door) or Gumbo Krauss, getting a Filbert’s from the sourfaced bartender.  Turning to grin and chkk-chkk his tongue and point a pistol-finger in your direction.

 

(Be very glad you hadn’t eaten a cupcake.)

 

Signal Vinny to fade out Queens of Noise.  Cup satiric hands around your mouth and say: “Thanks, everyone, for being here.  I guess we could go around the room and introduce ourselves” [laughter] “but since we don’t have all night” [more laughter] “let’s do what you do at a disco.  And so—here’s our friends—here’s our band—the Rosa Dartles!”

 

“one! two! three! four!” banged Robin’s drumsticks.

 

And the girls picked up where they’d left off last September: You keep a-knockin’ but you can’t come in  (x3) / Come back tomorrow night and try it again!!!

 

“Trés ironique, non?” Vicki sub-caught Joss commenting under the din.

 

More than they sub-knew.  For no sooner did the Dartles tell the world to go jump in the Lake As Big As An Ocean, than the world took a U-turn and started showing up at Panama Plaza.  And as the world sought entry to the Vinyl Spinnaker, it got a slotted coffee can (“donations appreciated!”) shoved under its nose by Fat Bob or Arlo Sowell.  If the world jokingly deposited a penny, Arlo or Fat Bob would growl “That’s a start,” and keep a-shovin’.

 

Bradley Faussett, one such joker, coughed up a whole buck on behalf of himself and Delia Shanafelt.  She breezed in, simpering happily, and ran to the washroom with Carly Thibert to help Keiko Nakayama change into red-hot partygarb.  No other Duckweight made an appearance, but Mike Spurgeon came stag and could later be glimpsed dancing elbow-to-elbow with Alex Dmitria—whod be glimpsed not veering away from his proximity, for the first time in two very troubled years.

 

By the end of the band’s fourth number (“Dust On Your Mirror”) the recording was in full swing, every table had an inhabitant, and the Spinnaker dance floor was being swarmed.  Not so much with disco couples doing sambas and merengues, but a jiggety-joggety consortium that didn’t dissolve into twosomes till the Dartles took their first break and Vinny re-spun Queens of Noise.

 

Sheila, Joss, and Robin laid aside their instruments to do some dancing with K.C., Gumbo, and Arlo (the latter cutting an extra-wide rug) while Britt consulted with Flake about his tapes of “Count Me In,” and Fiona had an aesthetic argument with Downtown Pierro:

 

“This is pitiful punk!  (Hack hawk hoff.)  You guys are playing like you’re draped with doilies, and this herd belongs on Tony Orlando & Dawns Rainbow Hour!

 

“(What do you expect?  In case you haven’t noticed, the joint is crawling with parents!)”

 

Which wasn’t strictly accurate, though some moms and dads were sticking aged heads through the door to take a fretful gander as they dropped off their lambs at this potential slaughterhouse.  The sight of Downtown wouldn’t allay any apprehensions: her once-sleek hair was up in Johnny Rotten spikes, and a large safety pin dangled from each earlobe.

 

“If this was England, you guys wouldn’t be gobbed at even once!

 

“Gobbed at?” said Vicki. 

 

“(Spit on,)” Fiona translated.  “(English punk fans spit on bands they like.)”

 

“You’re not gonna do that, are you?” Vicki gasped at Downtown.

 

“Not the way this gig’s going!  I won’t spit, chickies, but I’ve got to split—see you in school tomorrow.”  And off she went, lighting up another one of her thin French cigarettes.

 

“(Petula the Purist,)” snorted Feef.

 

“Nobody else’ll ‘gob’ us, will they?” Vicki worrited, and Fiona pressed tentative knuckles to her upper arm.

 

“(Hey—we’re at the Spittlecure, remember?)”

 

Before the second set, Vicki gave the now-full house greetings and salutations; went “Quit it!” over her shoulder at Joss (making her Mandingo “mmmm” face) and introduced each Rosa Dartle by name.  Glad she began with Fiona, since the other girls’s boyfriends—even Flake!—staged an impromptu bellow-whoop contest for their individual sweethearts.  Arlo won by trumpeting like Hathi in The Jungle Books (Joss applauded his resonant tone) and Robin responded by singing lead in a wham-bam cover of “Born to Run,” substituting boy for “girl,” baby for “Wendy,” and champs like us for “tramps like us.”

 

(Take that, Melody Pussycat!)

 

Cupcakes were distributed during the second break; a promo was aired for Dartle souvenirs; and adults circulated with wastebaskets to gather all the empty cupcake wrappers.  Vicki almost relaxed after that, joining in the general jiggety-jog, finally tasting one of her “V V” gâteaux; yet keeping frequent watch on the fast-moving clock, so they could wind things up with “Ditchen” no later than 8:15, allowing time for one encore.

 

Which was duly and loudly called for.  But first Joss wrapped a long arm around Vicki and emotionally presented her to the Vinyl Spinnaker:

 

“All of you oughta know who this is—she’s our manager—she’s your hostess—she’s my very best friend—and she’s about to turn fifteen—”

 

“¡Viva Vicki!” Alex hollered from the dance floor.  “¡Feliz Quinceañera!”

 

“—like Alex says!  So we got together, the rest of us Dartles, and wrote her a song for this occasion, and we’re gonna play it for you now before we say good night, but first you all gotta give Vicki Volester three cheers!”

 

Which they did, led by Becca Blair herself, who’d arrived fashionably late as per usual.

 

And Vicki, incapable of a coherent reply, raised her own arms in a Nixonian double-V-for-victory; wondering if the quintessential Victoriad felt this way on her coronation day, prior to running home and giving her dog a bath.

 

She was too mindblown to follow the new song’s lyrics—something about Mardi Gras and merrymaking and fifteen minutes of fame—or to believe her eyes as they seemed to behold Gumbo Krauss brandish a detached wooden leg (???) as he chased floppy-limbed Tail-End through the multitude on the dance floor.

 

Did you SEE that?

 

Did I see that?

 

Why would that even be happening TO see?

 

What was IN that violet frosting?

 

She looked around for answers, but caught only the glittering FLASH of disco lights.

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Return to Chapter 27                          Proceed to Chapter 29

 

 

A Split Infinitive Production
Copyright © 2014 by P. S. Ehrlich

 

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