One thing was certain—somebody had to take the blame for the weather in Florida that June. Vicki was inclined to hold TWA responsible, for flying the Volesters there through an unnecessary thunderstorm. (Goofus, counting the hours till he could get in line to see Star Wars again, found the turbulence a big blast; Ozzie declared it was “a cakewalk” compared to the buffeting he’d undergone in the Navy; Vicki and Felicia clutched each other with one hand while holding their air sickness bags open and ready for business.)
Maybe Neptune or Poseidon or some other God of Moisture was at fault for what awaited them in Fort Lauderdale. Vicki was no stranger to high humidity—everyone in The Cityland bore its soggy scars—but down here in Florida it felt like you were enveloped by a sweltering waterfall that never let up or ran dry, regardless of whether it was raining outside or just overcast. You could virtually feel mildew sprouting. (And she’d thought the “Tropic Island Cruise” in the VW gym had been a squelchfest.)
One small mercy: Goofus was staying with their grandfather at Diamond Joel’s new condominium, so Vicki got a room all to herself at Los Vistazo. This hotel was relatively swanky (aside from inadequate air conditioning) and had a semi-enclosed swimming pool, which might’ve seemed redundant since the Atlantic Ocean was literally across the street, were it not for the endless rain that threatened to drench her entire vacation.
Nevertheless, Vicki hadn’t flown 1,200 miles and through a thunderstorm to not set foot on the beach where Where the Boys Are had been filmed. (She’d seen this Late Movie during an April sleepover, and while joining in the general mockery of George Hamilton, Vicki couldn’t help but cast herself as the star of a remake, surrounded by modern-day hunks.)
So on her first morning in Fort Lauderdale she donned a brand-new mulberry-colored scoopback maillot that Joss had called “scrump-tilly-umptious”—emphasis on the first syllable, reflecting the usual effect that Lycra spandex had on Vicki’s scrump. She refused to buy a two-piece swimsuit, having suffered nightmares of losing her top in the surf; but this mulberry maillot was reassuringly secure, despite being fairly lowcut in front as well as back. Low enough cut for her father to raise a fuss:
“Unh-unh! No way!”
“Daddy, you haven’t even seen it on me yet—”
“Don’t need to! Case closed, Kitten! No daughter of mine—”
“Oh Daddy, Tricia wore bikinis everywhere we ever went, and they showed lots more than this nice one-piece that’s exactly my favorite color and—”
“Okay okay okay! Keep it! Wear it! Just... wrap a towel around your waist, or over your shoulders, or something.”
Vicki dutifully brought one along as she exited Los Vistazo that first morning and crossed the street to reach the beach, though it made her feel idiotic to take a towel out in the rain. But the moment her flipflops left concrete and touched sand, the clouds above abruptly parted and let the sun shine through as if from some gigantic arc lamp. Lights! camera! action!—and a great shout rose to greet it, from a milling crowd that hadn’t been evident before then.
Vicki waded through the sweaty-lotioned multitude till she found a spot sufficiently unclaimed to drop her towel, beach bag and flipflops upon. No sooner did they hit the ground than she got surrounded by three hunks slightly older than herself—high school juniors? seniors? maybe even college freshmen? One a dark Cuban-looking hombre like Joe on ¿Qué Pasa USA?, but with a gleaming silver incisor that sparkled when he smiled; one a barrel-chested bandy-legged Georgia bulldog, who said honest-to-God things like “y’all cain’t”; and one a sunburnt preppy with an upmarket accent and attitude, who sported Brooks Brothers board shorts and a tinted golf visor.
As the center of this studly trio’s attention, Vicki had what Joss would define as “a whale of a time”— drawing out the initial consonant, much like the “mmmm” of Mandingo. Vicki seldom failed to be convulsed when Joss started whale-of-a-timing, and did so now on the beach Where the Boys Were till her mulberry sides ached. Each of the boys thought she was laughing with him at the other two, which further whalefied their time together.
They played Frisbee and volleyball and chase-me-down-the-surfline, their feet dipping into sand like wet powdered sugar; there were piggyback battles and Polaroid snapshots and coolers full of pop and beer (that Vicki took tiny cautious sips of) and funnel cakes on the boardwalk while pelicans winged past; there were waves and foam and sultry breezes scented with coconut and hibiscus, unless that was just the assorted ointments on overheated bodies.
At 5 p.m. Vicki was obliged to leave this sizzling paradise, in order to prepare for mundane dinner with her humdrum family; and the very moment she slipped back into flipflops and picked up bag and towel, the cloudbanks closed ranks and started shedding rain again. That’s a wrap, people!—as the beach mob melted away, Studly Trio and all.
Even so, Vicki practically danced back to Los Vistazo, singing in the shower as she rinsed off salt and extracted sand from places it had no business infiltrating. She had a hum in her heart as the folks drove to El Mirón Condominiums, where Diamond Joel (his scanty hair dyed bright orange) was introducing Goofus to some old ladies as “Boychik, my youngest—lives with his mother up north.”
“Dad!” went Felicia, when the old ladies were beyond earshot.
“What? What did I say that wasn’t nothing but the truth?”
He guided them to Wolfie’s Restaurant, from which who should emerge as the Volesters entered but Joe Silvertooth, chomping gleamily into a slice of cheesecake to go. “Heyyyy,” he went at Vicki as he passed by, trailing a “Mañana” over his macho shoulder.
“Who was that?” Ozzie wanted to know.
“Just some guy,” Vicki explained.
“You are not going back to the beach tonight, young lady!”
“I wasn’t planning to, Daddy! It’s raining again.”
(Still, if the rain should tail off...)
Which it didn’t till next morning, at the same time and in the same way as before: after Vicki’d pulled on the mulberry maillot, grabbed a towel, strolled past the Los Vistazo pool deck and down the drive to cross the street... setting Gidget Goes to Florida back in motion. Again her flipflops touched the sand; again this caused the rain to stop and clouds to part and sun to shine through; again an invisible director cried lights! camera! action! and the throng of beach party extras sprang up with a gladsome shout. Again Vicki was encircled by her Studly Trio, for a second day of fun and frolic and funnel cakes, chase-and-catch between pelican fly-bys and warily sipped beer—till five o’clock struck and the rain resumed its descent, washing away A Whale of a Time Part II.
That evening Diamond Joel conducted them to Lester’s Diner, out of whose doors who should appear but the Peeling Preppy with a handful of fried clam strips. “Greetings,” he saluted Vicki as he passed by, saying “À demain” over his exfoliating shoulder.
“Who was THAT?” Ozzie inquired.
“A burn victim, Dad!” Goofus enthused. “I think he was that Wawak guy whose car caught fire at Daytona! What’s he doing talking to you, Sis?”
Assuring her father (again) she wouldn’t return to the beach that night, reminding him (again) that it was raining (again) anyway, Vicki filled her tummy with shrimp scampi and bread custard pudding. Then back to the hotel, where she wrote a long letter to Stupid Old Youth Music Camp recounting all that’d happened, speculating on its likelihood of repetition (again), and wwwwishing wholeheartedly that Joss were there to share in it.
Vicki would’ve welcomed any of her friends to witness the whale’s spouting for the third time. Next day was a carbon copy of the previous two in nearly every detail, though no one but Vicki seemed to take heed or notice. The same horde of beach extras re-cheered the same cloudbreaking sunburst; the same Studly Trio re-manifested themselves to re-assume that Vicki was laughing with each one at the other two as they all re-frolicked.
Had Joss and Alex been present, they could’ve played three-on-three with a variety of combinations. Would Silvertooth, for instance, be a better match for fellow Spanish-speaker Alex, or browner-pigment-preferrer Joss? Might Alex the equestrienne take a horsey shine to Peeling Polo Player, while Joss hung out with Georgia Bulldog—if only so she could say “Oh BELvedere—come hyah, boy!” at him?
Vicki would never know. Her tentative solo attempts to introduce new elements, or at least a few variations on established themes, all fell short and fizzled out.
Five o’clock rolled around, re-shutting off the sunshine and re-switching on the rain. That evening Diamond Joel escorted them to Ernie’s BBQ, which disgorged Oh Belvedere chomping down a drippy pork on Bimini bread as the Volesters approached. “Yrrrgghh,” he hailed Vicki through an unswallowed mouthful, before adding an honest-to-God “Be seein’ y’all bah’n’bah, honey-chile!” over his meaty shoulder.
“Who the hell was THAT??”
“Just another guy.”
“My goodness, Brownie! You’re certainly a popular girl,” Felicia observed.
“Hope we’re not putting a cramp in your love life, Dillydoll!” cackled Diamond Joel. “Oh hey, that reminds me!—I got a ‘billay-doo’ here, that was mailed to you care of me.”
“OoooOOOOoooh,” commented Goofus, making a grab for it.
“Let go! Keep your mitts on your own mail, runt!”
“That better not be an invitation, young lady, to anything you shouldn’t think we’d let you go out to—”
“Oh for heaven’s sake, Daddy! It’s just a letter from Joss—see?”
“I knew who it was from already,” bragged Goofus. “Any guy who’d send you luhhhhve letters’d hafta write ‘em in Braille!”
“Christopher Blaine, don’t poke fun at the blind—”
“Look, let’s just settle down and have a nice meal, okay?” grumped Ozzie.
“Order the conch chowder—good for what ails you,” Diamond Joel advised, with an ungrandfatherly leer and wink.
Vicki indignantly tucked the latest bulletin from S.O.Y.M. Camp into her purse, lest it get stained with barbeque sauce or Key lime pie. Too soon for it to be a reply to her own last missive, mailed out only yesterday morning.
Joss had dispatched a series of comical distress alerts about being billeted not just in the same “old, old building” at the State U., but the same dorm room as Spacyjane Groh:
Joss’s little sister (or sisters, if you included Invisible Amy) did have her/their owlish weirdnesses, but Spacyjane Groh could be downright unnerving—inadvertently or otherwise. She had big wide unfocused Judy Collins-type eyes, the whites showing all round and the lids hardly ever blinking. Her delicate face might be described as “elfin,” if that didn’t imply an impish mischief instead of Spacyjane’s abstracted expressionisms. She often sang quietly to herself in a sweet true (yet eerie) voice. That habit, plus the eyes and the reveries, led to unwarranted conclusion-jumping: Robin, Fiona, and Matt LaVintner had all been disappointed to discover she was spacy by nature, not from substances. Well-meaning counselors tended to classify her with Matt and John Alphonse:
“Mrs. Groh, we’re worried about Jane. She always seems so—well, not drowsy, exactly, but—”
“Oh, she’s just farsighted. Don’t let it bother you.”
It never bothered Spacyjane; nothing seemed to, not even Robin Neapolitan’s hurling drumsticks at her head when she’d auditioned for the Rosa Dartles. And Vicki would have died of shame if her bodice had popped open during that “undress” rehearsal of Carnival, but Spacyjane only evinced mild surprise. She might wander at times into ootsie-cutesy-cunning pixilation—which might explain her falling head over heels for Split-Pea Erbsen—who, come to think of it, had popped up simultaneously with Spacyjane’s bodice popping open.
(Coincidence, or cause-and-effect?)
—Joss had lamented in her last letter, received just before Vicki’s departure for Florida.
Now, four days later, there was a whole new tone. Far from ridiculing Florabelle (the china doll) other girls in the dorm had oohed and ahhed over her. Spacyjane had cooked them a fabulous Fondue Fribourgeoise (no wine required) that wasn’t heavy on the stomach. Her parents owned Jergen’s Café in The City, which featured live Flamenco music and flaming desserts (no Joss-gibe about either) and everyone was invited to dine there. Spacyjane had led them in an early-morning yoga session that didn’t feel like calisthenics (boo hiss) at all, and there was talk of renting bikes so they could try some prairie cycling.
Vicki, attempting to digest this along with conch chowder and Key lime pie, was left with a dismal sinking heavy-on-the-stomach sensation. She and Joss had each “drifted away” from best friends before: was history repeating itself? Suppose when they got back to Vanderlund, Joss and Spacyjane were thick as thieves—hoarding all sorts of private in-jokes and secrets? No, that was absurd; Joss would be hurt and insulted that Vicki could even contemplate any estrangement between them.
If only they could talk on the phone! Let them have their nightly pre-bedtime conversations same as always, and everything would be all right. Except what if it wasn’t? “Oh—Vicki—I wish I had time to chat, but Spacyjane and I have these big, big plans that wouldn’t include you even if you were here—”
Stop it. Right this minute. You have nothing to worry about. Joss will always be your very best friend. And you have an authentic bunch of others. (Unless Feef remains in L.A. and Alex gets trampled by a rogue pony and Robin lands in juvenile hall and Crystal gets snapped up by the Metropolitan Opera—)
(—oh go dose your indigestion with travel-size Pepto-Bismol. Serves you right for taking Dime’s advice on what to eat.)
Next morning, slightly less dyspeptic, Vicki decided to loiter on the Los Vistazo pool deck and see what would happen if she didn’t cross the street to set foot on the beach. Sure enough, the clouds hunkered down and poured rain without pause; so she spent much of the day semi-enclosed on a plastic folding chaise longue, leafing through Cosmopolitan. Which called to mind her first visit to Jupiter Street, when “Guadalupe Velez” was born—
“Don’t start with me, I am not in the mood,” Joss had said. “Go freak out—”
STOP. IT. RIGHT. NOW. Read your damn magazine.
“The Sex Drive: How Often Is Normal and Good? How Often Do Others Do It? An Authoritative New Survey Helps You Check Your (and His) Performance.”
Not quite mistakable for Judy Blume’s Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself, which Joss had lent her as ideal Florida vacation literature. Vicki’d begun it at the airport and continued on the plane, but had to leave it unfinished when they hit the thunderstorm. Kind of a damp squib anyway, after Forever...’s softcore content; and she felt a trifle babyish reading about a ten-year-old’s adventures, from the lofty plateau of fifteen.
Back to Cosmo. “Why Do I Do (or Say) Those Crazy Things? For the Answer, Read ‘The Dark Side of Me...’”
Rather than explore her latent craziness, Vicki got dressed and accompanied her family on a pilgrimage to Bahai Mar, where Travis McGee’s Busted Flush was supposedly moored. It and he were both absent and Vicki got bored to distraction, but the jaunt thrilled Ozzie and after all it was Father’s Day.
For a change the clouds retreated at 5 p.m. sharp (Vicki checked her watch) and, though still muggy, the Volesters’s last evening in Fort Lauderdale stayed rain-free. To further celebrate Father’s Day they took a motor launch to Cap’s Place, an island restaurant that had been a notorious speakeasy in the Twenties:
“Yep, Al Capone and Meyer Lansky broke bread there,” Diamond Joel related en route. “Also FDR—Churchill—the Rockefellers—the Vanderbilts—Casey Stengel—Errol Flynn—why, there’s no telling who we might bump into tonight!”
Vicki anticipated the entire Studly Trio would await her at the dock, divvying a yard-long tarpon sandwich—“We saved you the fin!” they’d chorus. If truth be told, she breathed a sigh of relief when the coast turned out to be clear of them: the Trio, taken collectively, smacked a tad too much of the Gumbo Krauss/Kyoop Minsky substandard.
(Lemme tell y’all sump’n, fellers: ¿Qué Pasa USA? means never having to say you’re sorry.)
Despite this, she didn’t regret having dolled up in a sundress with a flower in her hair, because the handsome young waiter at Cap’s Place kept gazing at her even while taking everyone else’s orders:
“And you, sir?... and you, sir?... and you, sir?”
“I’ll have a broiled alligator snout, with swamp gravy!” said Goofus.
“Sorry, sir, we’re fresh out of snouts,” said the waiter, crinkling handsome young eyes at Vicki. “Can I interest you in a nice gator tail?”
“Really? No fooling? Do I get to pick mine out of a tank, like a lobster?”
Vicki pretended to take no notice of the waiter’s admiration, but Ozzie still barely kept his butter-and-egg smile intact till Crinkle Eyes headed to the kitchen.
“He better not be planning to retire on the tip I’m liable to leave him tonight!”
“And you, young lady! I swear, you’re getting to be your big sister all over again!”
“Not forgetting Fritzi Ritz,” added Dime. “Whenever she popped into the malt shop, all the boys in Adrian Square popped right after her!”
“Dad, you’re exaggerating...”
Being weighed on the same superseductive scale as Tricia and Aunt Fritzi made Vicki glow. “Oh don’t be silly” was her official reaction; yet she felt buoyantly lighthearted for the first time in twenty-four apprehensive hours. Optimistic, even: whatever might lie in the future for her best friendships, maybe she could add a masculine one (or two, or three, or more) to the bunch—and none of them substandard.
This Era of Good Feelings (whoa whoa whoa) lasted till she reached home the following night, and realized Alex and Joss had another two weeks to go at their horse and music camps. As for Feef, who knew when (if ever) she’d return? Vicki’s only clue was a nocturnal postcard of the Sunset Strip, shoved through the Burrow Lane mailslot to proclaim:
From the names of the bands (assuming that’s what those were) Vicki guessed “New Wave” was Los Angeles-ese for what London and New York called “punk.”
Wish you were here—Vicki was glad she wasn’t, if that meant being in “gob” range. Much better to carry on teaching kiddysports at Petty Hills Country Club—not that spitting was unheard-of among the littluns, but at any rate it wasn’t encouraged.
Spitting at wasn’t, at least; swapping spit was a different matter.
During her first break on her first day back, Vicki stumbled (almost literally) across a young couple making out behind the tennis clubhouse. Unlocking lips, they disentangled themselves to reveal Nanette Magnus and Boffer Freuen.
“Oh Gahd—don’t mind me—sorry to um y’know interrupt—”
Vicki fled with crimson cheeks, flinching when Nanette sought her out at the fitness center that afternoon. But Nan came wreathed in uncharacteristic smiles; though her eyes were still icicle-gray downward crescents, she looked happier and healthier than Vicki’d ever seen her. She filled out her White Stag tennis dress more curvily than in past seasons (Boffer having requested she put more flesh on her bones) and gently stroked a Silver Gloves pendant that hung from her neck.
“Almost like a fraternity pin,” she said with unNanettelike tenderness.
“So, I guess everything’s going great for you two...?”
“Oh, you have no idea!”
But Vicki soon did, since Nanette was dying to divulge her recent accomplishments, and Delia Shanafelt was still away at yacht camp (yacht camp?) with Salty Pilchard, while Nan was currently not on speaking terms with Gigi Pyle. So Vicki got to be her intimate confidante, and hear how she and Boffer had devoted the romantic month of June to doing It multiple times in multiple ways, each of which Nanette described in detail, going so far as to diagram them on Petty Hills CC stationery. Vicki, after overcoming embarrassment and skepticism, felt privileged to receive these insights from an experienced practitioner.
“Course I wouldn’t do It if I wasn’t in love with Boff,” Nanette vouched. “He’s had such a hard life—all that boxing—broken nose, fractured fingers, getting knocked out in the semifinals—and his big brother Derek was killed a few years ago, killed showing off on a roller coaster at the Lake County Fair!”
(Boffer, playing up his nebulous resemblance to Sylvester Stallone, neglected to mention that he’d hated Derek’s guts and had to hide a loutish smirk all through the funeral.)
“Anyway, I’ve got him out of that nasty ring now and onto the court. I’m teaching him tennis and he’s” (tittery nod at the diagrams) “teaching me a few things too!”
“Wow,” said awestruck Vicki, thumbing through this new variety of combinations. “If we’re in the same Biology class this fall, I hope you’ll be my lab partner.”
“Sure, why not?” smiled Nanette, sounding nowhere near as hissy-fitful as she used to. Could this be the beginning of a new best friendship? Vicki never would’ve bet such a thing were possible, but the same had been true with Stephanie Lipperman in Pfiester Park.
Two weeks later, though, the no vacancy light switched back on in Vicki’s heart. Joss came home from Stupid Old Youth Music Camp precisely on schedule, leaping out of her father’s Lincoln Continental to run over and enfold Vicki to her flopperoos, even picking her up and swinging her round in a staggery circle.
“Loopy the Loop!” Jeez, I didn’t think I could miss you more this summer—last year was bad enough!
Their super/sub mode was loud and clear as ever.
“You didn’t leave Spacyjane down at the State U., did you?” I’m so ashamed, I got so stupid-jealous of her ‘n’ you making friends.
“Naah, she and Florabelle set sail for their little chalet on Cecidia Drive.” You really are First Attendant to the Queen of the Nuts, I ought to clobber you.
“Hey, Alex gets back tomorrow—maybe we could all meet up with Spacyjane on Sunday, like at Zeff Heff?” Don’t bother, I’m clobbering myself as we speak.
“Zeff Heff sounds great.” Let’s go there now, I could kill for some ice cream and you know Alex won’t let us scarf any.
Nor did their most special friend when they reassembled at the Zephyr Heaven Dairy Bar on July 3rd. “C’mon, guys, let’s stick to nice cool juice drinks. Think how much sugar and saturated fat there is in ice cream.”
“Ohhhh yummm...” went Joss.
Alex extended her pageant-winning streak by achieving Deepest Tan While Out Of Town, having spent most of June in the saddle. Vicki came in second with olivaceous Florida panache, while the fair-skinned Joss didn’t even qualify.
“I know I said not to get too tan,” she griped, “but just once—just to see what it’s like—I wouldn’t mind getting ‘brown as a berry.’ Not that I’ve ever seen a brown berry, except for black or blue ones that’ve gone gross—”
“Eww, Jocelyn!” Vicki objected. “We’re trying to drink fizzy lemonade here!”
“But are there such things as brownberries?”
“Well,” said Alex the nature expert, “it’s not like strawberries are straw-colored, you know—JANE! DON’T! STOP!”
She sprang up from her bistro chair to vault toward the intersection of Cecidia and Eugene G. Green Road, which Spacyjane Groh was crossing diagonally against honking traffic, very much as if she were in need of a white cane or guide dog.
(Don’t poke fun at the blind!)
“You said ‘don’t stop,’” she told Alex the Girl Scout, after being hauled to safety.
“You shouldn’t ever cross busy streets catty-corner, Jane!”
“Oh, call me Spacy—everybody does. Hello, Joss—Florabelle says ‘hi.’”
“‘Hi’ to Florabelle.”
“Hello, Vicki—it’s neat to see you again.”
Vicki took her word for it, since Spacyjane’s star sapphire eyes seemed to be trained on some distant vista. She wore a peasanty blouse, gypsyish skirt, gaminesque espadrilles, and Annie Hall bowler attached to her hair with an old-fashioned hatpin, even though it was nearly ninety degrees out.
Alex the compassionate nurturer went to fetch her a lemon fizz, plus a refill for the cup she’d spilled springing-and-vaulting. Spacyjane meanwhile plunged an arm down, down, down into the big embroidered haversack she used as a shoulder bag, and drew out a copy of North Squire.
“I wanted to ask—do you know this girl?”
“Why, that’s Lillie Guldbaer,” said Alex, returning with a fresh fizz in each hand. “Oh my... that’s kind of a revealing picture, don’t you think?”
(Lillie projecting bosomly over her bikini top as she was caught in midair, diving to dig a volleyball at a beach match.)
“Does she go to our school?” asked Spacyjane.
“No, to Downsborough—or I guess Willowhelm High this fall; they don’t have ninth grade at Downsborough. She’s a year younger than us.”
“Doesn’t look like it, does she?” gnarled Vicki. “I don’t think they oughta put photos like that of girls our age” (or under) “in magazines that creepy guys can, y’know, ogle at.”
“My Swee’Pea took it. For a summer contest. He won $25. See?”
Below the photo of the unidentified subject was a brief acknowledgment that Sidney Erbsen of Vanderlund had taken, submitted, and been compensated for the entry above.
“You didn’t say anything about this at camp,” Joss murmured.
“I didn’t know. Till I got home and saw it.”
“Well,” went Alex the positive-spin-putter, “as a photograph, I’d say it’s very excellent. I didn’t know Lillie plays volleyball too—if she’s as good at that as she is swimming and running, we’ll have our hands full when we play against her this fall.”
Especially if she wears a lowcut uniform, Joss sub-remarked.
Oh shut up.
You shut up.
“Does it... bother you?” Vicki asked Spacyjane.
“That she plays volleyball?”
“No! That Spli—Sidney, I mean—took it... of... her.”
“He only takes beauty shots,” Spacyjane asserted with apparent serenity. “He’s taken a few of you, Vicki, I’ve seen them. They were neat.”
“Um er well,” went Vicki. “But I had all my clothes on at the time!”
Fizzy lemon spit-take from Joss (no gobbing at Zephyr Heaven, please) followed by one of her silent gigglefits.
Oh shut UP.
YOU shut up (hee hee hee).
“Well then, I’m sure he’s taken plenty of you, Jane,” said Alex the spirit-pumper, before turning a bit wistful. “It must be so nice, having a boyfriend who can do things like that. I bet he missed you lots while you were away.”
Spacyjane, her eyes peering out from under the bowler brim at that distant vista, gave them a smile of beatific complacence. “My Swee’Pea is always with me...”
Twelve days later the Volesters piled into their Honda Accord CVCC and drove to Ann Arbor, where they lunched at the Whiffletree with Tricia. She was enrolled that summer in workshops with the Civic Theatre, while earning “petty cash” at Jacobson’s Department Store alongside her dance-major roommate Caprice.
“Not to be a pain, Daddy, but did you bring my check for fall term? I know registration’s not for weeks yet, but I want to get everything squared away ahead of time.”
Squaring things away was an Ozzie axiom, so he produced a cashier’s check for $3,000 with grumbly assent.
“Don’t understand how they can call you a non-resident when you were born in Michigan, spent the first eight years of your life in Michigan—”
“I don’t make the rules, Daddy. Thanks so much—we’ll just nip by the bank before we leave, so we can deposit this.”
Customarily Tricia received her check for fall tuition, housing, books and supplies along with her birthday presents on August 16th, but she’d requested this year’s a month early because “Caprice and I are thinking of moving.”
“Gotta keep in motion, Mom.”
Tricia took the Accord’s wheel and whistled the score from Kurt Weill’s Happy End all the way to the bank; then a hundred miles north to Bay City for what would prove to be the final full-scale Volester/Kosnowski family reunion.
Babcia Brygid, relic of Casimir the sugar-beet refiner, was celebrating her centennial, and descendants unto the third generation were gathering at or near Great-Aunt Eveline’s B&B. (This had been known as the Handy-Dandy Bed and Breakfast till its sign got changed one too many times to “Hanky-Panky,” and so now was simply billed as “Eveline’s.”)
MomMom and PopPop came from Beansville to take one room; Uncle Ted and Aunt Edie came from Tempest Lake to take another; Ozzie and Felicia took a third; and a couple of cot-crammed chambers were designated as dormitories for their offspring—Goofus with cousins Barry, Stanley, and T.J. in “Boys Town,” versus Vicki and Tricia with cousins Monica and Barbara in “Co-ed Central.” Uncle Jerry (on leave from the Merchant Marines) and Aunt Bonnie aka Sister Agnes (on leave from the Grand Rapids Dominicans ) found lodgings at a motel, while Great-Uncle Stash stayed put in the old Kosnowski house he’d occupied for decades.
“Stanislaw!” MomMom would remonstrate, “that crackerbox is fit to be condemned! One day it’s going to collapse around your ears!”
“Hunh? You say something, Sis?” Great-Uncle Stash would reply, having forgotten to replace the batteries in his hearing aid.
Cousin Barbara was the last to arrive, and the only one to bring a guest. She’d transferred from Aquinas to St. Peter’s in Jersey City, where she met and fell for Carmine “Ladder Legs” Pegliano, pride of the Peacocks basketball team. Before leaving for Bay City, Barbara’d made what was intended to be a quick trip with Carmine to Manhattan, where they got trapped in an elevator during the Blackout. By the time they got rescued, Barb ‘n’ Carm were engaged to be married.
Reaction to their announcement was mixed.
At her nursing home, Babcia Brygid wholeheartedly approved. Barbara was her eldest great-grandchild and nearly twenty-one; her groom-to-be, even if not of Polish stock, came from a good Catholic background and showed commendable height, as well as discretion by bunking in with Uncle Jerry at the motel. So, na zdrowie!
PopPop, his antipathy to all things Italian having lost none of its bitterness since he’d left Trieste in 1920, withheld congratulations and blessing and any other spoken word, ignoring every overture attempted by “Ladder Legs.”
The same could not be said for cousin Monica, who at thirteen was even more precociously voluptuous than Lillie Guldbaer. “(Monnie, button that up!)” Vicki’d whispered at the nursing home, alarmed by the sight of so much jailbait cleavage. “(What’ll Babcia say?)”
“(That I look just like her when she was my age,)” Monica’d responded, flippantly yet truthfully. Babcia always had the Barbie-Vicki-Monnie threesome open an ancient album and view pictorial evidence that they’d inherited their silky-black almond-bright charms from Brygid Blaszczyk of Bialystok. (Babcia also approved of Tricia, for resembling MomMom-as-a-girl so closely; but she detested Goofus, which was reason enough for Vicki to not mind visiting her.)
Monica, despite her C-cups, was less than five feet tall, and asked her prospective brother-in-law to stoop down so she could greet him with an extensive hug and emphatic kiss. Carmine showed no reluctance to comply, or to repeat this routine several times afterward at Monnie’s request; which did nothing to thaw the ice with PopPop, or prevent a frosting-over with Barbara. Vicki was uneasily reminded of Amelia Quirk’s alluring effect on Sheila-Q’s sweethearts; and that time in Pfiester Park when one of the Grusza twins stole the other’s fiancé without his even noticing. So much for sisterhood.
Her own sister seemed to regard all the goings-on with detached amusement, through emerald eyes that (like Spacyjane’s sapphires) were fixed on the faraway. Smoking wasn’t permitted in Co-ed Central, so Tricia took her Benson & Hedges out to the pergola behind the B&B, and Vicki tagged along one night to escape from mounting tensions between Barbara and Monica.
Great-Aunt Eveline’s back yard was a microcosm of the Middle West after dark in July: hot, humid, murky, b-z-z-z-z-ing with cicadas (a little touch of Vanderlund) and the occasional blast of racket from Boys Town.
“Want one?” said Tricia, shaking a cigarette out of its pack
“Um, no thanks, I’m in training,” said Vicki: an echo of that day with Steph by the Reulbach dumpsters. “I’m going out for volleyball next month—high school, y’know.”
“Yeah,” snortled Tricia, exhaling at smoky length just as Steph had done. “Better you than me.”
“So... how’re those Theatre workshops going?”
“Oh. Um... your job at the department store, what’s that like?”
“Dull, dull, dull. You’re asking Mom-and-Dad questions.”
“Sorry.” She felt the old familiar emerald glare for a moment, before it subsided and Tricia (again like Spacyjane) began singing quietly to herself:
Could it be? Yes it could! Sumpten’s coming, sumpten good...
—which rang a faint bell and woke a vague memory of them skipping down Walrock Avenue to get Dove bars. In the here-and-now Tricia’s cigarette-free hand was fishing something—a pendant, on an extra-long chain?—from inside her tanktop, to stroke-stroke-stroke it just as Nanette Magnus had done. Maybe a genuine fraternity pin?
“So,” Vicki timidly ventured, “are you seeing anybody?”
“‘Seeing’ anybody, haw—the word’s schtupping, Vic. Say it with me—”
“Gahd, Tricia, I only asked...”
“I’ll say this: if I’d been stuck with a guy in an elevator during the New York Blackout, I sure as hell wouldn’t’ve said, ‘Golly gee! Here’s a chance to wangle myself a wedding ring!’”
“(Ssshhhh! They’ll hear you!)”
“Well it makes me sick—Barb might as well dig herself a grave and climb down into it. You’ll never catch me tying myself down like that. Not for damn sure.”
But we might get to be bridesmaids, Vicki wanted to say as they stood side by side, shoulders against the pergola, listening to the b-z-z-z-z of unseen insects. Till Tricia stirred, and sighed, and spoke.
“Not while there’s still a big-ass world waiting out there. For me. For us. To have a life in, being somebody. Remember that.”
“Mmm,” went Vicki.
Tricia dropped her cigarette butt, ground it out, and tucked her pendant away within her tanktop. Vicki got a glimpse of what appeared to be a silver rabbit’s head, but the only connection her tired mind could manage was to Laurie Harrison’s quivering bunny-nostrils. Which hardly seemed the sort of thing Tricia would choose to hang around her neck.
Flash forward another two weeks, to Monday the 1st of August.
Vicki rode her bike into the Burrow Lane cul-de-sac, parked it in the garage, and was about to trot upstairs to shower off another day of kiddysports when she saw a big manila envelope waiting for her on the foyer table. No return address, but a Los Angeles postmark.
More “New Wave” memorabilia from Fiona? Who’d sent a few souvenirs from concerts at the Whisky and the Starwood, featuring groups with names like the Screamers and the Germs. (Eww.) But Feef was actually due back in town today, having finally admitted her folks weren’t reconciling; so why bother to buy postage stamps for anything deliverable in person?
Detour through the kitchen for a nice cool juice drink (see, Alex? I’m being good) before lugging the mysterious manila whatsit up to her bedroom. Peek inside first, or shower first? Curiosity was strong enough for her to compromise and strip to the skin first, airing out her sweaty-lotioned body before putting on a terrycloth minirobe and unsealing the envelope.
“Oh. My. GAHD.”
There between two sheets of stiff cardboard was a glossy glamour print of Patricia Elaine Volester, aged nearly nineteen, posing in the full-frontal nude. Completely nude, unless she was wearing socks or something unpictured below her truncated knees; otherwise, not a single stitch of any sort.
It dimly occurred to Vicki that her own jaw was sagging lower and lower even as her minirobe sagged opener and opener, till it slid halfway off to leave her upper torso bare. Drop everything with a strangled shriek and lose the robe altogether, clapping arms over chest and underbelly and blushing cherry-tomato-red, just as Gigi Pyle had done that day in the cafeteria when Split-Pea played gotcha-paparazzo.
Gahddam you, Sidney Erbsen! Leave me and my sister alone!
Except this wasn’t one of Split-Pea’s FLASSSHHHH flassshhhh flassshhhhes.
Pull the treacherous minirobe back up and on and firmly knot it; then retrieve the evidence scattered over the floor. Beside the glossy print, cardboard sheets and manila envelope, Vicki found two slips of paper. One was a typed caption:
All the world’s a stage for Lucia Vantrop, a
Michigan drama major who’s
trekked through Europe on her way to Going Places and Doing Things.
The other was a handwritten letter, lacking date or salutation:
Not quite mistakable for Little Em’ly’s Dear Ham letter in David Copperfield (“Oh, if you only knew!... Oh, take comfort!... Oh, for mercy’s sake!...”) which had made the whole bunch howl, and earned Fiona an A for excoriating it in a term paper.
Glance again at the nudie pic. Yes: what you saw was what she had to offer, as you could testify from all those years of sharing close quarters—back to when you took baths together and Tricia behaved as if she were onstage, giving a crowd its money’s worth.
Vicki, wrapping a towel around her waist and another over her shoulders, shuffled cautiously across the hall to what was called Tricia’s Room, though Princess Smartysnoot hadn’t spent more than three weeks total in it over the past two years. Even so, her presence was reflected in the mirrored closet doors, displaying the reverse image of a portrait hanging above the dresser: Tricia as The Sound of Music’s Maria (von Trapp, not Vantrop). Fully costumed instead of stark naked, yet wearing the same glossy-glamour expression as the imminent Playmate of the Big Ten.
Looking and thinking and acting way ahead of the curve.
Perfectly capable: yes she was, yes she was.
Tricia the loved and feared, Tricia the envied and resented, Tricia toward whom great waves of adoration had been ridden.
Retreat from the ghostly flickers of green and pink and yellow on the wall, on the doors, in every polished surface; scuttle back to your own cozy corner sanctuary. But before you could reach it—
“Brownie? You home?” from Felicia in the foyer.
Oh Mother, if it be possible, let this hot potato (make that tomato) pass from me to you.
This was a matter for grown-ups to deal with—but oh, the dread of telling them, of seeing the effect it would have on them. The fallout bound to follow even if they could hush this up, keep it secret, sweep it under the rug.
(Gulp. Swallow. Clear throat.)
“Hey Mom? Couldja come here a moment? Now, please??”
(Brief shake of towel-and-terrycloth-covered shoulders.)
Where’s my brave little sister?
Who’s my brave little sister?
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Copyright © 2017 by P. S. Ehrlich
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