Chapter 34

 

The Vhite House

 

 

In what has been described at the last gasp of the Second Great Awakening, a group of missionary preachers led by Jan van der Lund left the fledgling City in 1853 to found a College of the Hereafter (later prosaically renamed Lakeside Central University) between the Hereafter Hills and La Cunae Bay.

 

That same year, an infant boy was found alone in a beached skiff on the bayshore, his parents presumably drowned.  Adopted by the clergyfolk and raised as Whielding Wheaf, he graduated with honors from LCU and taught for awhile at its Preparatory Academy (later poetically renamed Front Tree Country Day).  Able to discourse learnedly on many subjects and in several languages, Wheaf was a born teacher, but strongly felt that secondary education should not be restricted to offspring of the wealthy.  He advocated establishment of a public high school in the village that had been laid out south of campus, originally named after the Bay but recently incorporated as the Township of Vanderlund.

 

His enlightened enterprise would be celebrated a century later by Dr. Hilde Krühler in Being Cool with Your Public School, but Wheaf’s proposal was far from popular at the time.  Much of the township’s citizenry objected to what one contemporary editorial called “pampering foolish youth who ought better to be out earning an honest living by the sweat of their brows, than to waste taxpayers’s money trying to con Latin and Greek.”

 

Yet Whielding Wheaf was also a born wheedler; and by 1883 he had silver-tongued his way into becoming principal, faculty, and janitorial staff of the brand-new Vanderlund Township High School.

 

Housed at first in a single room above the post office, VTHS shifted to a lodge hall basement and thence to a sooty three-story structure on Junction Street, hard by the railroad depot.  There it remained for forty years, tacking on annexes wherever another square yard or two could be cadged, as Vanderlund grew into a suburb and high school enrollment soared and more teachers were hired (too many for available space, never enough to meet demand) and the curriculum kept expanding.  Emphasis always remained on the classics, but Wheaf was also a born innovator and added art, music, manual training, domestic science, physical culture, and commercial courses when each was considered an unverified novelty.

 

His pupils (whom Wheaf remembered individually by face and name, no matter how much time might pass between sightings) regarded him with a mixture of awe, esteem, and careful familiarity.  As “Uncle Wheelie” he took part in baseball and football games with schoolboys on makeshift playing fields; and he was worshiped as a Norse god by two generations of schoolgirls, retaining his red-gold hair and beard well into middle age—though Wheaf claimed both turned snow-white the day he escorted the entire student body down to The City, waving a mass of Vanderlund pennants to let the Columbian Exposition know VTHS had arrived.

 

The World’s Fair had a lasting effect on more than Wheaf’s hair, though he kept this under his hat till a lavish banquet was thrown to honor the Class of ’13.  For the first time, VTHS was sending more graduates to the Ivy League and Seven Sisters than Front Tree and Miss Startop’s Select School for Young Ladies combined.  In part this was due to sheer numbers: the unexclusive firetrap on Junction Street now teemed with over 700 students, and even its coal cellar had been converted into extra classrooms.

 

Addressing township as well as banquet, Whielding Wheaf called on Vanderlund to rise to the occasion and recognize its transformative enhancement by the new sanitary canal, the new electric elevated train station, the new Torre del Oro Fountain at Spanish Castle Square.  “Even as I have ever tried to bring out the best in our pupils, so surely can we provide them with a worthy new high school—the finest in The County if not The State, if not indeed The Nation—a veritable citadel of knowledge, built to outlast this century and provide unparalleled education to your children and grandchildren in ways we here tonight can but imagine.  Non scholae sed vitae discimus.

 

A born architect, Wheaf had begun drawing up plans for this ideal high school twenty years earlier, after being immersed in and absorbed by the Columbian Exposition’s Court of Honor.  He designed his new school accordingly as a Neoclassical Palace of the Beaux Arts, equipped with every modern convenience; able to accommodate two thousand students in spacious classrooms, laboratories, library, assembly hall, dining room, gymnasium, even a swimming pool; all of this framed by a vast pillared colonnade that would befit the front of a bank or church or state capitol.

 

Wheaf’s silver tongue and roll of blueprints won over the Class of ’13, the Board of Education, even the Township of Vanderlund.  But while all agreed on the need for a new high school, and many favored building it on a scale of epic grandeur, there was no consensus on when or how or where.  Should it be north or south of the Channel?  Close to or far from the business district (called “uptown” in Vanderlund; “downtown” meant the infernal City)?  Soon battle lines were dug as deep as the trenches in France where Allies were squaring off against Central Powers, and with as little probability of a speedy truce.

 

Wheaf himself had his eye south of the canal and west of uptown, on a twenty-acre onion farm belonging to the comely though aromatic Widow Grooters; and for the next few years, with persistent diligence both onstage and behind the scenes, he wheedled her and the Board and the Township into an approximation of unanimity—

 

—only to see The Nation enter The War, and noncombatant construction suspended for the duration.  By the time the Armistice was declared, everything had to be restarted from scratch; even the Widow Grooters (less comely by now, and more aromatic) had strayed into problematic negotiations with an encroaching onion-hawker.

 

And even as Woodrow Wilson suffered a breakdown while lobbying for the League of Nations, so too did Whielding Wheaf as he strove to turn his vision into reality, dedicated to Vanderlundian casualties Over There and their descendants unborn.  Shedding tears freely and without shame, he exhorted ill-at-ease audiences to do their duty to the dearly departed.  Widow Grooters penitently baked Wheaf a savory Zwiebelkuchen that some blamed for the stroke that relegated him to a rolling chair—“Uncle Wheelie” indeed—yet this crippling of the ex-Norse god generated enough pity votes to finally push the school bond issue over the top to victory.

 

“Iuventutis veho fortunas,” Wheaf intoned with a trace of his former verve at the 1923 groundbreaking ceremony.  “I do not know the precise date of my birth—some would say it was seventy long years ago—”  [Shouts of “No, no!”]  “Well, in point of fact it was.”  [Laughter]  “Pray allow me, however, to consider myself reborn on this most glorious of mornings.  Today, my friends, we all bear the fortunes of youth!”

 

Resounding cheers, and anticipatory thankfulness that he didn’t keel over dead till a week later.

 

Whielding Wheaf lay in state at the old school on Junction Street, with an honor guard to ensure the candles around his bier didn’t set the firetrap ablaze, as four decades of alumni trooped past to pay their respects.  He’d bequeathed his skeleton to the new school for anatomical instruction, but the Board declined this as “unseemly,” while reprimanding waggish freshman Chester Brockhurst for suggesting that Uncle Wheelie be given a Viking funeral out on the Bay—in effect, sending him back where he came from.

 

When this same Chester Brockhurst, by then an audacious junior, beheld the new Vanderlund Township High School at its grand opening in 1924, he announced that the resplendent edifice of pearl-gray brick and granite and terra cotta taught them one thing, for sure: VTHS was obviously an abbreviation of Vhite House.  “Perhaps President Coolidge might consider renting it as a summer home—if Silent Cal ain’t afeard of haints.”

 

God Almighty may have told Whielding Wheaf that I have caused thee to see the Promised Land with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither.  Even so, Wheaf may not have fully heeded the divine dictum; for as his cherished Pantheon arose from what had been onion fields, and its noble Corinthian portico towered above Grooters Lane (now renamed Wheaf Avenue), workmen reported glimpses of a shadowy figure observing them from a distance—looking on, as elderly gentlemen are wont to do at construction sites, except this one seemed to be grading their efforts and advising them to excel.

 

During the next half-century his presence dwindled to a surname on a street sign, a portrait in the school lobby, and a frieze inscription above it urging the youth of Vanderlund to bring out your best.  Farsighted as he had been, Principal Wheaf could not have foreseen that by the mid-Seventies, Monty Python would inspire students to repeatedly alter this motto to bring out your dead

 

*

 

Orientation for 1977’s incoming sophomores was scheduled for Saturday, August 20th, but got canceled on the presumption that most of them had already visited VTHS for sporting, dramatic, or musical events; while those who hadn’t would doubtless find their way around soon enough.

 

This was a specimen of the cost-cutting policies enacted by Mr. Tuerck, new CEO of the Board of Education, who’d campaigned on a platform to “Face Facts”—namely, that the Baby Boom had petered out and local population was shrinking year by year as more people settled in suburbs further inland.  Before long, Vanderlund would not be able to subsidize nine elementary schools and a three-year junior high; so consolidation and closures were on the horizon, just a few short years down the road.  Even the renowned senior high would not be immune from belt-tightening—hence the economical kibosh on Orientation.

 

The new sophs, though stinted overturewise, had already chosen their courses the previous May; and when class schedules were mailed out, Laurie Harrison solicited everybody’s itinerary so Alex Dmitria could assemble a collective timetable.  For the lunch-bunch, the results were dismaying—they’d been divvied up and randomly reallocated.

 

Life had been simple at VW: three lunch periods, one for each grade.  VTHS operated on a drawn-and-quartered format, assigning two motley grab-bags to Fourth Hour and two others to Fifth:

 

4A:  11:20 – 11:45

4B:  11:50 – 12:15

5C:  12:20 – 12:45

5D:  12:50 – 1:15

Joss Murrisch

Laurie Harrison

Alex Dmitria

Vicki Volester

Sheila Quirk

Fiona Weller

Robin Neapolitan

Samantha Tiggs

Crystal Denvour

Spacyjane Groh

Rachel Gleistein

Carly Thibert

Petula Pierro

Hope Eckhardt

Nanette Magnus

Delia Shanafelt

Irina Saranoff

Becca Blair

Gigi Pyle

Britt Groningen

Buddy Marcellus

K.C. Battenburg

Jerome Schei

Arlo Sowell

Phonsie Alphonse

Matt LaVintner

Skully Erle

Rags Ragnarsson

Sell-O Fayne

Split-Pea Erbsen

Mike Spurgeon

Marshall McConchie

 

You couldn’t get much more haphazardous than that.  And this was just a sampling: almost 700 other tenth-graders plus maybe 1,500 upperclassmen would be scarfing down with these four grab-bags in the VTHS refectory, all jumbled up like leftover stew.

 

Small comfort to Vicki and her bunch, who’d taken for granted that they’d be able to stick together at midday.  But their diaspora had already begun: summer vacation or no summer vacation, they were all too busy to arrange what Joss called a “preunion” until Friday the 26th.  Even then, Alex couldn’t make it (out of town with her Scout troop) and Crystal was away breaking up with Rags (“this time for good!”) though she invited everyone else to her family’s annual Labor Day weekend barbecue.  Even the antisocial Robin looked forward to this; Crystal’s father Jasper Denvour, an oversized tympanist with The City’s Symphony Orchestra, manipulated his grill like he did his kettledrums, and Robin was always susceptible to large men who made lots of noise pounding things.

 

This included pizza dough, so on Friday the 26th she and Fiona and Sheila and Laurie and Vicki and Joss preunited at Deeple’s on Steeple Street, a venerable senior-high hangout around the corner and down a couple blocks from VTHS.  Sitdown traffic was light that afternoon, which it assuredly wouldn’t be for the next dozen Fridays; so they were able to grab one of the big semicircular booths—probably for the only time, as sophomores—and lay bets on how long this breakup-with-Rags would last, while waiting for their Deeple’s Special Supreme Pan Pie.  Robin, by craning her neck, could monitor the pounding of the dough by a hefty teen pizzaiolo.

 

“Lookit that guy—he could be Nature Boy Rutherford’s big brother, if he had one.”

 

“Big sister, you mean.  That’s Ermyntrude Rutherford—check out the boobs.”

 

“Ermynt-yerass, Quirk!  Those aren’t boobs, they’re pecs, and I call dibs on ‘em!”

 

“Look again, Robbo—pecs bulge, boobs bounce.  With all that jiggle she could be Charlie’s Ugly Angel.”

 

“Uffa!  You Irishers can’t appreciate what it takes to impastare la pasta.  I bet you’d use a rolling pin—when you aren’t bopping each other upside the head with it!”

 

“Better a rolling pin than a bowling pin!  How many gutter balls did you and your pasta-squishing hands rack up this week?”

 

“Oh you two, you two—how’ll the rest of us be able to enjoy lunch at school without your daily dose of badinage?”

 

“(Badinage?  Like trussed up in black leather?)”

 

“No, purple—you have got to wear those purple combat boots the First Day.”

 

“Yeah, y’know, get off on the right foot—”

 

“(Nobody’s gonna get off on my feet, thank you—)”

 

“Do they really make purple patent leather combat boots?”

 

(Deep Purple.)”

 

“Smoke-on-the-Water Purple.”

 

“(Noooo—House-of-the-Rising-Sun!  We’re not going through this again—)”

 

“Oh hey!”  [Singing along with the jukebox:] “‘Up in the mornin’ and out of school / The teacher is teachin’ the Golden Rule—’”

 

“Yeah Laurie—yeah Laurie—yeah Laurie—”

 

“Oh quit it, I like this song.  ‘Ring, ring goes the bell—’”

 

“Oooh, ‘cause it’s your ‘n’ Buddy’s sonnnng?”

 

“We do not have a ‘sonnnng,’ I just like it is all.  ‘Hail, hail rock ‘n’ roll’—and it’s whatchamacallit too, don’t you think?  ‘Pertinent’—is that the right word?”

 

“(No—purpletint.)”

 

“That one line sure is—‘deliver me from the days of old.’  I mean, are they ever gonna get tired of the freaking Fifties?”

 

“Hey, did you catch that Laverne & Shirley rerun in the haunted house?  ‘Beware the Legend of the Ramsdale Hairy Thing!’"

 

“I’m being serious here!  Next week we start going to an old, old school, and you know how I feel about antiquated buildings—”

 

“(You must hate this place, then.  Looks like it could’ve been his pizzeria, back in the Fifties)”—with a nod at an impromptu wall shrine to the late Elvis Presley, dead these ten days.  you’re right, we’re left, he’s gone.

 

“I make an exception for eateries, so long as the food is fresh.”

 

“Speaking of which, are they ever gonna give us our PIE??  It’s been half an hour and I’m like starving here, I didn’t eat anything since breakfast.”

 

“Trying to skinny down to a size three before the First Day?”

 

“Don’t joke about stuff like that, you guys.  Nanette Magnus used to starve herself and stuff, it’s unhealthy.”

 

“What, and her biffing around with Boffer Freuen isn’t?

 

“Is that the clown who looks like a smeared Xerox of Rocky?  Eww.”

 

“Yeah, but seen Nanette lately, like at Petty Hills?  She’s in great shape now.”

 

“(Finally let herself grow an ass?)”

 

“Feef!... but yeah, sort of.  Boffer’s always got his hand on it, when they aren’t playing tennis.”

 

“Eww!” went the bunch, followed by “Ahh!” as their Special Supreme was delivered.  Even Fiona waded into this, though with a mutter-remark that they’d each grown a pound of ass already by inhaling Deeple’s ambiance for thirty minutes.

 

Then for the next fifteen, conversation was reduced to commentary on the pie, comparison to past pizzas at rival parlors, estimation of how much more ass-poundage was being added with every bite, and innuendo (by Robin and Sheila-Q) about the piemaker’s potential as an ass-pounder.

 

Vicki turned a mouthful of cheesy sauce into earnest entreaty: “You guys—no matter what happens to us at senior high, even if they don’t ever give us the same lunch period, we need to keep doing things like this together.  I know we’ve all got other friends and’ll be making lots more, probably, but... I’d’ve been lost at VW, if not for you guys.”

 

“Me too,” smiled Joss.

 

“Same here,” added Laurie.

 

“Way to make us blush, Loopy.”

 

“You face is always red, Robbo, even when you aren’t gulping down pizza.”

 

“That’s with rage, Quirk!  Soon as I get my Sweet Babboo, I’ll be making you ride in the trunk!

 

“(Don’t worry, nobody’s moving away or anything,)” Fiona pointed out.  “(Since I couldn’t stay in L.A., that is—)”

 

“‘Say goodbye to Hollywood / say goodbye my baby—’”

 

“Yeah Sheila—yeah Sheila—”

 

“Um... senior high won’t be that bad, will it?” Laurie asked.  “I mean, they don’t still have hazing and Hell Nights and stuff like that, do they?”

 

“Meg claimed they put her through a Hell Semester,” said Joss.  “Course, this is the same Meg who swore that ‘Pucker Up’ Endell secretly tape-recorded everything she said.”

 

“‘Pucker Up’??

 

“(And was he?  If he was a he?)”

 

“He was a he and a perv, so very possibly.  Though he must’ve been truly warped to want Meg’s braying on tape.”

 

“Well, nobody’s gonna bug me in any way shape or form, and live to tell about it!”

 

“(Riiiight.  Bugging you is our job, mine ‘n’ Q’s)”

 

“And we do it so well, Feef!”

 

“Watch it, you two!  There’ll be room in that Fury’s trunk for both of you!”

 

“So... you don’t think the upperclassmen’ll pick on us?”

 

“Not if we pick back!”

 

“Not if we pick first!

 

“Yeah, remember Rosa Dartle—she wouldn’t let anybody push her around, not even Steerforth!”

 

“Remember Rosa Dartle!” chorused the bunch, before resuming their assault on Deeple’s Special Supreme.

 

*

 

One of the creepier aspects of Elvis’s death (creepier even than his kicking the bucket while straddling a toilet) was that it happened on Tricia’s nineteenth birthday, or what would’ve been if the Volesters had taken overt notice of that occasion.  It was almost as if Tricia’d caused him to die, to make room for a new star in the entertainment sky—not that Elvis had done much sparkle-shining lately.

 

So Vicki’d thought at the time; so she thought again, distractedly, while waiting with Alex at 7:40 a.m. on Tuesday the 30th for the Big Green Limousine to appear at the Foxtail bus stop on Lesser Drive.

 

VTHS, apart from sports teams and the handicapped, offered no transport service; the bulk of its student body was either driver’s-educable or had their licenses, and those without cars or bikes were expected to stock up on rolls of quarters and dimes for the 35¢ youth fare.  (Such rolls, held in a clenched fist, also made a handy deterrent to an aggressor’s groin.)

 

Alex of course had wanted to run the three miles to VTHS, but Vicki’d prevailed upon her to make a proper First Day entrance.  They were clad in patriotic variations on aquamarine and gold, the senior high colors: Vicki wore a jade romper jumpsuit with yellow accents, and Alex a turquoise knit top with buttercup cuffed shorts.  Plus an expression of radiance that outsparkleshone even the Dmitria norm, since Alex harbored no qualms about their reception by the occupants of the Vhite House.

 

“We’re going to have so much fun!  This is going to be the time of our lives!”

 

And other axioms to similar effect.  Leave it to Alex to associate so much fun with going to school—especially the First Day at a new (Joss would say old, old) school.

 

The Big Green Limousine, mercifully on time, trundled into view; as did a figure racing up the sidewalk alongside it.  This enlarged to a sapphire skimmer containing a young black female who clearly wasn’t cut out for cross country.  “Running like a girl,” as an epithet, might be hotly resentable; but seemed apt for the ladylike flaps and flails propelling this latecomer and threatening to lose one or both of her shoes, if not the satchel jangling dangerously from its shoulderstrap.

 

devil with a blue dress blue dress blue dress
devil with a blue dress on

 

echoed in Vicki’s brain for no good reason, as she raised a hand in what she hoped would be taken as reassuring encouragement.

 

The bus, outpacing Blue Dress, pulled up and opened its door to the still-chattering, unusually-oblivious Alex.  Vicki followed more slowly, pretending to fumble for her quarter and dime, eliciting an annoyed grunt from the driver but giving Blue Dress enough time to catch up without losing shoes or satchel—though she risked bursting her bustline with puffy heaving wheezes.  Facially as well as bosomly, she looked a lot like Thelma on Good Times, complete with a beauty dot over one eyebrow.

 

Then she sank into an open seat by Artie Rist (oh grohhsss!) and was lost from sight as Vicki trailed Alex halfway down the aisle.  The back of the bus was already crowded with Carly Thibert and her male devotees on one side, and LeAnn Anobile and her less numerous, less particular adherents on the other.

 

“Here okay?” asked Alex the wilderness guide, and Vicki shrugged off a knapsack full of minty-fresh school supplies so there’d be room to fit beside her.  How on earth would this be do-able while wearing a winter overcoat?  You’d have to balance the backpack on top of your head—

 

“Like my new hat?”

 

This from the straw fedora in the seat in front, which twisted around to reveal Spacyjane Groh’s delicate face and unfocused eyes.

 

Vicki let Alex dish out greetings and millinery appreciation for them both, while she assessed the significance (if any) of Spacyjane’s ditching the Annie Hall bowler and sharing a bus seat with—who was that, slumped against the window?—Matt LaVintner, who’d hitherto been dissatisfied by Jane’s being Spacy by nature, not from substances.  And where was Split-Pea Erbsen?  Of course, he’d been on the eastern X team at VW and thus unlikely to take this Z-country bus, so maybe this seat-sharing was purely coincidental—

 

—except Jerome Schei didn’t seem to think so as he boarded at the Eugene G. Green stop, waving a transfer and halting in his aisle-tracks at he spied Matt and Spacy, till he got shoved onward by Buddy Marcellus and Howard Ullmann.  You could almost sense Jerome trying to open telepathic hailing frequencies with Laurie and the rest of the Gossip Brigade.

 

Matt came to with a sudden snort, croaking “Root beer!” at Spacyjane, who reached into her big embroidered haversack and drew out not a bottle of Filbert’s but a bag of brown Jelly Bellys.  Which Matt started wolfing down (heedless of Alex’s gentle remonstration that they weren’t the most nutritious breakfast food) as the bus crossed Mullein Road, spanned Petty Bridge, and turned northeast onto Panama Boulevard with a screech and a honk.

 

Alex, ever on sentinel duty, elbowed Vicki and gestured at the window, through which they could see Robin and Fiona swooping past on Margutta scooterback.

 

“So reckless,” Alex tut-tutted.

 

So long as they stay wreckless, thought Vicki, worrying how Robin would behave once she got behind the wheel of her ’61 Plymouth Fury.

 

On through the open-air Tunnel of Sighs; on through the ornamental pine grove; on to the corner of Wheaf and Steeple, where other Big Green Limousines were converging from every point of the compass.  And out of these mobile fishbowls poured the carless bikeless scooterless nonpedestrian student body of VTHS, to stream toward the massive-pillar’d façade of their grand aquarium.

 

Alex glided through the engulfing multitude, exchanging cheerybabe salutations with everyone she met.  Vicki too swapped a heap of hellos as she approached the looming portico: “Hey there!” “Nice tan!” “Good summer?” “Cute outfit!” “No, I haven’t seen her yet,” “Yeah, I’ll tell her,” “Which is your lunch period?” “Who’ve you got for World History?” “Save me a seat in Geometry!” “See you at practice—”

 

At least it’s morning and the electricity’s on.  (Though there was the same sensation of swimming upstream as during last year’s Back-to-School power outage.)

 

And at least I’m not lost and alone in Baroque Vista.  (Though there were the same Rod Serling-y contrasts of intense light and dark shadow—)

 

—as she almost fetched up against Thelma Blue Dress, who’d eluded Artie Rist’s attempts to anarcho-syndicalize her, and was now in an isolated standstill staring up at the pediment atop the colonnade.  Which proclaimed:

 

V A N D E R L U N D   T O W N S H I P   H I G H   S C H O O L

 

Instead of ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.

 

Even so, Thelma B.D. whispered “Oh sweet mother”—not as the opening line of a rousing alma-mater song, but a mournful verse from a funereal dirge.

 

*

 

Vicki’d planned to rendezvous with Joss at the lobby’s western trophy case (more “inland” than the eastern one) but couldn’t find her in the throng.  Enrollment wasn’t shrinking in this corridor, at any rate; navigating it was like threading through the Field Museum on field trip day, or the Cathedral of All the Stores during a bargain bonanza.

 

Then P-E-E-E-E-A-L went the bell, sounding like the fire alarm at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church that time those altar boys blazed up too literally in the washroom.  Except that here people started hustling to class rather than outdoors, so Vicki hustled with them up to the third floor, located her locker, stashed a few items, then hoofed it to Room 312 for First Hour Spanish.

 

“Sentarse en orden alfabético, por favor,” requested Señor Banonis.  His classroom was older-fashioned but more imposing than any at VW, with wall maps of Spain, Mexico, Central and South America that had sure-to-be-on-some-future-exam points of interest illuminated by Christmas-type lightbulbs.  (How long would Mr. Tuerck continue to authorize electrifying those?)

 

Then too, Vicki’d expected this to be largely a sophomore class; but far more desks were tenanted by sophisticated upperclassfolk who looked on the verge of collegegoing.  She excused herself through their urbane ranks to the rearmost alphabetical row, and was actually grateful to be seated once again by Carly Thibert—though that Caribbean Cutie’d been baked almost browner than Thelma B.D., so you couldn’t help recalling Joss’s prediction that one day Carly would blend in with a box of Raisin Bran.

 

“¡Hola!  ¡Linda ropa!  ¿Buen verano?

 

Vicki’s other neighbor was a birdlike girl hunched over a big open newsprint pad, which she was artfully garnishing with colored pens whose residue stippled her fingers and arms and Wimmen’s Comix T-shirt.  Even the tip of her nose, on which perched a pair of gaudy glasses that might’ve been swiped from Elton John.

 

“Hi,” Vicki ventured, lapsing into Inglés.  “Remember me?”

 

Quick beady glance by the nearer bird’s-eye.

 

“Well enough not to call you ‘Velma.’”

 

This was Jenna Wiblitz, who’d been in charge of VW’s Stage Crew during You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown the year before last, and had earned Vicki’s envious admiration for her complete indifference to Candy Gates’s guff.

 

“She’s not here, is she?”—scanning where alfabético G’s might sit.

 

“I think she’s taking Italian, if they still offer it”—bird’s-eyes now darting back and forth between Vicki and the newsprint, on which a purple-and-orange Volester-vignette took rapid shape.

 

Jenna’d first been spotted (not to say smudged) at cross country meets, making charcoal sketches of Lisa Lohe and the Ladybugs in action.  She was one of the few people who could tolerate and even moderate Moana Lisa’s ascetic excesses; and Lisa probably considered Jenna her closest friend, though disputing the way Jenna caricatured her.

 

“Cálmate, comencemos,” ordered Señor Banonis.

 

Jenna began to doodle him in blotty ballpoint, sporting a matador’s montera.  Vicki smothered a risita irrespetuosa as Jenna captioned this a kibitz from a wiblitz in the back row.

 

She came from a famous family, being the youngest grandchild of Rabbi Philip K. Wiblitz, who’d been influential in establishing a Jewish foothold (“let’s say pinky-toehold”) in Vanderlund after its restrictive housing covenants eased.  When this took place, Lyman T. Green had remarked: “Jews may be Jews, but Rabbi Pip is a pip.”  The rabbi’d responded that Lyme Green and the Real Estate Board must’ve allotted East Bay to the Jews because everyone would think it was east of the Bay—i.e., off in the middle of the Lake.

 

East Bay was in fact a respectable if outmoded district on either side of a street named for Balthazar Bay, who’d organized the local Merchants Exchange (“appropriate, nu?”) that had evolved into the Chamber of Commerce.  Rabbi Pip led his flock to Balthazar’s paved memorial, building Temple Beth Elohim on one corner of Zadock Avenue and a Community Center (“for the lost-and-found tribe of Israel”) catty-opposite.  A quarter-century later, the majority of Vanderlund’s Jewish households still lived on East Bay or in its vicinity—including Jenna’s optician parents, who indulged her with a dozen outlandish sets of spectacles that she rang daily changes on.

 

(“She’s the only Wiblitz who can see what she’s doing,” quipped her grandfather.)

 

Vicki, trying to pay conscientious attention to Señor Banonis, watched Jenna draw him a neon-pink cape and flutter it at an apathetic bull.

 

Then P-E-E-E-E-A-L went the bell and it was time for Second Hour Biology with Mr. Dimancheff, who honest to God looked like the Devil.  A cruel smile greeted the all-soph newbies as they trooped into Room 208, saw his teeth and scrambled for sanctuary.  Vicki was glad to be seated between nonchalant virtuoso Crystal Denvour and experienced practitioner Nanette Magnus, until Mr. Dimancheff parted his choppers and said:

 

“Do not get comfy-cozy.  We are not here to be comfy-cozy.”

 

Which he demonstrated by distributing a textbook whose graphic internal-organ illustrations Vicki flipped through with mounting horror; then by what he called an “exercise in arbitrary genetic classification,” designating lab partners alphabetically by first name.  This resulted in Crystal being matched with Delia Shanafelt (who asked “Are we going to do skits?  I love doing skits”) and Nanette with Petula Pierro (who sneered “They beheaded tennis players during the French Revolution, y’know”).

 

There were audible gasps when Fast Eddie Wainwright got reconnected to Tess Disseldorf, partly because many were surprised to learn that Tess’s real name was “Esther” like the aunt on Sanford and Son, but mostly due to her and Eddie’s romantic liaison having ruptured so vehemently at a recent baseball game that they were asked to leave the Friendly Confines.

 

“Aw come ahn!” Fast Eddie protested at the time and again now.

 

“Curb your impatience,” Mr. Dimancheff riposted.  “We are not here to be impatient.  Nor to do a square dance, so there will be NOchange-your-partners.’  You may all use the last ten minutes of this hour to take each other’s measure—and bear in mind that your joint efforts will account for twenty percent of your grade!”

 

(Nobody snortled at his stressing the word joint, then or afterward.)

 

Vicki wound up paired with Vernonique Smith, aka Thelma With The Blue Dress On, who also wore a reticent pokerface that admitted little or nothing from within or without.

 

Guess it’s up to me to make the first measure-taking move.

 

“Um, hi.”

 

Noncommittal nod from Vernonique.

 

“So... will you be catching the bus with us every day, at Foxtail?”  OhmyGahd I just asked a black person about busing.

 

Warily softspoken: “No.  Missed it at the stop before.”

 

“Sprangletop?”

 

“I guess.  If that’s the street after Kessell.  Just moved here.”

 

“Oh well then, welcome to Vanderlund!  I’ve only been here a couple years myself though it seems like forever, I live on Burrow Lane which is off Foxtail, but my friend Alex who was with me at the Foxtail stop?  She lives on Sprangletop, like four blocks down and a couple over from the bus stop but she ran up to join me, she loves to run, she even wanted us to run all the way here this morning but I talked her out of it at least for today, so if you like you could wait with us or at least with me at Foxtail whenever you want if you don’t have to y’know like run to get there in time from Kessell which is the street before Sprangletop.”

 

Two dark brows rose over two dark eyes, boosting one dark beauty dot a bit closer to the dark hairline.

 

I must sound like a crazy patronizer, no wonder she hasn’t thanked me for holding the bus for her but maybe she doesn’t realize it was me who did it, should I say something to find out?—no, ‘cause I’m still talking about busing and need to change the subject fast

 

“I oughta confess right now that science has always been my worst subject, dunno why that is, I mean I didn’t mind Earth Science last year ‘cause it was all winds ‘n’ stars ‘n’ stuff, but this—” (holding up the Biology book of internal horrors) “—is just gross.  I don’t even like cooking that much when it involves raw bones ‘n’ giblets ‘n’ things, so I sure hope you’re better’n me at dealing with it.  Y’know, for both our grades’s sakes.”

 

After a pause, sapphire shoulders bobbed up and down.  “’Spect we’ll find out—”

 

—as her shrug bumped her satchel which tipped over and disgorged a musical instrument case that Vernonique had to lunge after and grab before it crashed to the floor.  Cradling it to her chest, she blushed as brightly as any peaches-and-creamy blonde.  (Not that Tricia’d ever deemed it necessary to blush.)

 

“Good save!  What is that, a clarinet?  Have you got Orchestra next hour, with Mr. Conzelman?”

 

“Um.  No—an oboe.  But yeah—next hour.  You?”

 

“I don’t, but a lot of my friends do.  My best friend, Joss Murrisch?  She plays cornet and keyboards and is bound to ask if you have any brothers.”

 

“...because?...”

 

“Oh well y’see she kinda thinks she has... African ancestors.”

 

“...does she?...”

 

“Well... maybe if they were really, really, really north African.”

 

Twitch went the corners of Vernonique’s mouth as she slid the oboe case back into her satchel, and nearly spilled it out again when the bell P-E-E-E-E-A-L’d.

 

“I know, right?” said Vicki.  “See you later.”

 

“Looks like it,” said her lab partner.

 

*

 

All the way up to Room 416 and all the way through Advanced World History with Ms. Goldberg, Vicki rehashed this ten-minute measure-taking.

 

Not exactly cordial, was she?  Though I suppose I didn’t make it any easier by chatterboxing like an idiot.  And maybe she was scared enough as it is and trying to hide it—I know I’D be, if I was one of only a dozen or so white kids at an otherwise all-black school.  Not that I’d be scared of them for being black, of course, but still you couldn’t help but feel sort of inevitably excluded and outnumbered and so forth...

 

There were simply not a lot of blacks in Vanderlund.  Like the Jews, they’d been explicitly barred for almost a hundred years (what Rabbi Pip called the NASJON Era—“Not a Single Jew or Negro”) and even when allowed entry, they were nearly all sequestered down in Happel Land (as in There is a Happel Land far far away) between the Expressway and El tracks, just north of the Willowhelm border.  Happel Land was by no means a slum; its residents were mostly professional people, albeit not in high-dollar positions.  Rhonda-the-Roadrunner Wright’s father, for instance, was a career counselor here at VTHS, and Cecilia Thurman’s mother was a buyer at the Lakeside Central University Bookstore.

 

Cecilia herself was here in Room 416, filling page after page with notes as Ms. Goldberg discussed the rise of civilizations.  Vicki’d served with Cece on VW’s Student Council and they’d shared eyerolls at Sell-O Fayne’s capers there, but that hardly enabled Vicki to stroll up and say Please befriend my uptight Biology lab partner, you both being black chicks and so having more in common than I possible could.  No telling how Cece’d react to such a request, even euphemized; she’d freaked out last year and had to be sent to the nurse’s office when computer wires got crossed and issued her Carly Thibert’s abysmal report card by mistake.

 

Who else might Vernonique cotton to?  (Oops—make that “get chummy with.”)  Maybe Willamene Fowler, who sang with the Mixed Chorus and Girls Glee Club at VW?  They’d have music to talk about—except that Willamene was a Baptist pastor’s daughter and tended to work pieties about The Lord into every conversation, which could get monotonous especially for the uptight.

 

And if this morning’s run-for-the-bus was any indication, Vernonique didn’t stand much chance of being a top-drawer athlete; which meant no palling around with Henrietta Lang, who’d hobnob only with the best though her own drawer was more toward the middle of the bureau.  Etta dwelled in the shadow of her older sister Louisa, a future Olympic medal winner who made Big Sue Baxter look petite; so Etta strove like Sisyphus to prove she was a Lang in her own right and not just Louisa’s way-the-hell-distant runner-up—

 

j-o-l-t by the Sisyphus boulder, waking Vicki to a guilty realization that World History had Advanced without her.  This was an honors class too, so better hasten after those nomadic societies as they develop agriculture and permanent settlements.  Ms. Goldberg’s academic standards were every bit as high as old Mr. Koehler’s, though he and she were at loggerheads on most current events and plenty of bygone ones as well.  Instead of Z305’s portraits of Washington, Madison, Lincoln, and Eisenhower, Room 416 had posters of Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Joan of Arc, and Frederick Douglass.

 

Ms. Goldberg would certainly approve of your concern for Vernonique Smith, if not of letting it divert yourr awareness from the subject at hand.  Others here would feel just as concerned—Alex for sure, Cece Thurman and Rachel Gleistein, probably Hope “Esperanza” Eckhardt and the almost-all-powerful Becca Blair (who hadn’t been on the bus this morning because she had upperclass car-owning suitors, such as senior Curtis Weatherly and his new Porsche).  So there was really no need to worry, for Vernonique or yourself; not while you’re surrounded by all these doers of good deeds and spreaders of good karma.

 

Wait till you trundle down to Room 208 for Fourth Hour Geometry with Mr. Rankin.  Entirely different atmosphere in here: no twinkling maps or progressive posters or cross-sections of frog physique—just stark blank chalkboards.  Mr. Rankin was starkly blankfaced too, except for a sort of furtive vigilance that denoted a member of the faculty liable to be consolidated out of a job.  Vicki, not yet conversant with this woeful countenance, suspected Mr. Rankin of covert lechery and took a desk at an obtuse angle from his sightline.

 

“Aay Loopster!” went Robin, dropping into the seat to her right with a clatter of books, pens, and drumsticks on the desktop.  Vicki’s initial gladness to have Robin there as a bodyguard (in case Mr. Rankin was calculating her jailbait proportions) gave way to a new worry: Kessell Road, to which a black family had just moved, was one block east of Pottage Road, on which Robin Neapolitan lived.

 

Now, Robin could not be tarred (as it were) with accusations of outright racism.  If she had any awareness of Joss’s partiality to The Horns of Africa (so to speak), she made no taunt about it to Joss or Vicki or Laurie (who would’ve blabbed) or Sheila (who would’ve argued).  Her ethnic slurs were limited to growly observations regarding “grape-soda-colored Cadillacs” and the like.  Even so, Vicki still hoped the Smiths’s new home was considerably south of Villa Neapolitan.  If, say, it were a block away from Alex’s Mission Revival house, Alex would be delighted and the three of them could wait for the bus at the Sprangletop stop.

 

Okay then: equilibrium restored.

 

Only to be re-upset a moment later by the sight of Gigi Pyle and Britt Groningen coming into Room 208 together and taking seats side by side while they conversed with each other; none of which had ever happened before (so far as you were aware) or was likely to portend anything good.

 

“Aay Smooch Smarks!” Robin razzed Britt.  “Got your solid gold protractor?”

 

Dart—flick—gash went a sleepy little hatchet-honing smile, before Britt resumed whatever she and Gigi were shooting (or slicing) the breeze about.  Possibly Floyd Lewis, who sauntered in after Mike Spurgeon and Brad Faussett as the tardy bell tolled, the three of them moseying studfully to the last remaining desks.

 

“We are here to geeOMMetize!” announced Floyd, alias Hiawatha, a title acquired from a jive-ass recitation in seventh grade.  He was engaged in a perpetual audition for the role of streetwise swinger-pimp; yet Joss had tried on three different occasions to work up a crush on him, and failed each time.

 

(“Don’t mix castor oil with molasses when you’re trying to bake a cake,” she advised Vicki.)

 

That’d be another vicarious worry on Vernonique’s behalf: the rest of the sophomore class’s few black guys made Hiawatha seem like a longfellow.

 

There was Gabriel Bailey, a slovenly football lineman known as “Gutbucket,” who brawled with teammate Craig Clerkington as regularly as the drill team did halftime routines.  “I’d hate that fat bastard’s guts no matter what color bucket he hauls ‘em around in!” Craig once snarled, which was thought to be admirably openminded.

 

There was Marked-Down Mark Brown, bright and personable and eager to please, but also stunted and puny and prone to disaster.  Some said VW never had a Phantom of the Sock-Hop, it was simply jinxed by Marked-Down’s well-intentioned gaffes and blunderssuch as when he unintentionally combined bleach with ammonia, causing the evacuation of a post-dance cleanup committee.

 

(“Don’t brew chlorine gas unless you’re trying to re-enact World War I,” Joss advised Vicki.)

 

And there was Harry Belafonte Jones, who styled himself “Sniper X” despite being a contender for The Cityland’s Most Tedious Would-Be Militant.  His dogmatic debates with Howard Ullmann and Artie Rist were more effective than Sominex at lulling an audience to sleep; even the most hardbitten bigots yawned at Jonesy’s struggles to antagonize them.

 

(“Don’t try to set off a hurricane with baloney breath,” Joss advised Vicki.)

 

This scarcity of great pickings (was that too close to “cotton to”?) might not pose a problem if Vernonique, like Willamene Fowler, wasn’t permitted to go out on dates until she got married.  Or if, like Rhonda Wright, she carried on several synchronized relationships with denizens of the “Spaghetto” (ex-Italian neighborhood) in Willowhelm.

 

“Guess this must be ‘Geometry for Jiveturkeys,’” Robin reflected, loudly enough for Gigi and Britt to snigger at before Mr. Rankin called them to furtive order.

 

Chew broodingly on the tip of your Papermate through ho-hum folderol about shapes and spaces, till the next P-E-E-E-E-A-L sent you up to Room 325 for homeroom/study hall.  Whoever heard of having homeroom in the middle of the day?  Especially since they’d already taken attendance and aired P.A. announcements at the beginning of First Hour?

 

Theoretically you were supposed to rely on your homeroom teacher for day-to-day guidance and advice, but one glance at “Grandma” Ivy stuck a pin in that hot-air balloon.  She was the oldest instructor at VTHS, now that Miss Rosamond Ambrose had retired as concertmistress.  Mumbles Metcalf, who’d had Grandma for Latin last year, said she lived in Room 325 because she couldn’t squeeze out through its doorway, and was given a special burn-down-with-the-school dispensation during fire drills.  (HA!! HA!! HA!!)

 

Unkind, yet not unmerited: Grandma Ivy was Vicki’s first close-up view of morbid obesity.  Which might not have been so bad if she hadn’t resembled a supersized, superannuated, supermuttersome Fiona Weller.  It was almost as if they’d imported a corpulent crazy-crone from a downtown El station and put her in charge of study hall:

 

“(Take a seat, boys and girls... nice and neat, boys and girls... watch your feet, boys and girls...”)

 

Vicki scanned the room for a friendly or at least recognizable face.  Upperclassmen lined the back row, some apparently zonked to the gills.  Slouching among them was the infamous Bunty O’Toole, paring her talons with a stiletto-ish nailfile!  But maybe she was just making a token First Day appearance à la Burris Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird, and would ditch homeroom for the rest of the semester.

 

Then in bounded Samantha Tiggs, hurdling behind the desk in front of Vicki’s and spinning around to gush: “OhmyGahd ohmyGahd I just bumped into the most perfect guy!  Like literally!  Out in the hall!  It was Tab Tchorz!  ‘Member the ‘Polish Polecat’ when he played basketball at VW?  Now he must be six-foot-six!  OhmyGahd he picked me up in his arms ‘n’ said ‘Well hey there li’l lady’ ‘n’ put me down ‘n’ went into the room next door, d’ythink he’ll have the same lunchtime as us?  What’ll I do if he does?  What’ll I say if he talks to me again?  OhmyGahd have you got a lipstick or something I can borrow?  And tell me how to use it?  I don’t know beans about makeup, Laurie always has to help me, ohmyGahd I can’t wait to tell her about this—”

 

Marvel at Sammi’s saying more in one minute than she had over the whole course of last fall’s cross country season.  Double marvel at her doing it with such a smitten glow, and at its being ignored in the hubbub of people yakking and stoners snoring and Grandma Ivy’s mutter-mutter-muttering.

 

Rummage in your purse for the emergency tube of Joss-gloss you keep for when you know she truly needs it.  The tint ought to be right, Sammi sharing Joss’s blue-eyed fair-complected brunettehood, so hand it over with your compact mirror and brief how-to-apply guidelines—as you sense amusement to your left, and turn to find Vernonique Smith there.  Looking a bit mellower than she had in Biology: maybe she felt more at home in a noisy undisciplined classroom.  (If that wasn’t too prejudiced a conjecture.)

 

“Oh!  Hi!  How’s it going?”

 

Another shoulder-bob, this one less ill-at-ease.  “‘Kay, I guess.  Met your friend.”

 

“Oh, Joss?  In Orchestra class?  Did she...?”

 

“Yup.  Told her I do have a brother—who just turned eleven.”

 

“Oh no!  I’ve got a brother that age!  Is yours going to Dopkins, the grade school?”

 

“I guess.  If that’s the one closest to Kessell.  Yours a pest?”

 

“That’s putting it mildly.”

 

Another mouth-corner twitch upward—then sideways as Samantha swung back to exhibit a sumptuous clown-kisser and ask “How’s this?”

 

“Um,” went Vicki.  “Better blot it with a Kleenex.  No, not like that—more like you’re biting with your lips.”

 

“Oh right.  I knew that.  Mmmm...

 

Mmmmandingo!  Vicki dared not risk a lefthand peep as she made introductions: “This is Sammi Tiggs.  This is Velma Smith—I mean Veronique—sorry, Vernonique—”

 

“‘Nonique’ is fine.”  Said with a smile in her voice, even if one wasn’t on her unpeeped-at face.

 

“Hi,” said the blotted Sammi.  “How do you think it looks, now?”

 

“Um,” went Nonique.  “Better?”

 

On which note the half-hour bell signaled 5C’s end and 5D’s imminence and Grandma Ivy’s mutters receding as her homeroomers trooped out and down to the ground floor, Sammi on the alert for her laggard Polecat every which way every step of the way.  Nonique tagged along after Vicki, who’d packed a light lunch rather than trust steam counter fare this late in the day—the First Day, at any rate.  Things ought to go smoother once you’ve been (belatedly) orientated.

 

The VTHS cafeteria was actually a bit smaller than VW’s but far more seasoned, “grownup,” booming with deeper-pitched tones from verge-of-collegegoers.  Its upper reaches were decorated with murals (protected by clear acrylic sheeting: gift of the Class of ’74) that depicted scenes from the history of Vanderlundthough not Joss’s great-great-grandfather Barney Barnabas peddling cocaine products to town and gown.

 

Joss!  Yearn as you might right now for her and the old lunch-bunch, there was no time to lose.  A mural-man with a red-gold beard flourished a beribboned scroll at you, as if to say Seize a vacant seat ASAP and regain your bearings later.  Good adviceit’d be much less pathetic to take a look-see promenade after eating, than to wander around with an unopened brownbag like a forsaken unfed pariah: one of your earliest suburban nightmares.

 

But hell—the tables were filling up faster than lifeboats on the Titanic!  At one Carly and Delia were surrounded by guys of all sizes, with no room for even a petite stowaway.  At another Rags and Arlo and fellow humongo-hulks left barely enough space for you to squeeze past.  So unfair!  “First come first served” might be reasonable in theory, but not when the boat deck was stacked against you beforehand.  Which (not to brag or boast) wasn’t supposed to happen to somebody who’d achieved a certain degree of popularity at VW—

 

Aha!  Through the mob of lifeboat-hoggers could be spotted a kitschy pair of Elton John eyeglasses, adorning a little birdwoman hunched over a jumble of art supplies, that spread out like spilled Tinker Toys over one whole uninhabited end of a table

 

“Hi!  Um—are all these seats being saved?”

 

“Help yourself,” invited Jenna Wiblitz, gathering the jumble into an untidy pile, her birdie-head nodding at her wingless elbow as if Vicki’d booked a dinner reservation there and had arrived on time.  Vicki slid onto the stool with a thankful sigh; Nonique, vacillating momentarily, took the seat opposite; Samantha (head still revolving like a lighthouse beam) clumped down beside Nonique and across from Jenna.  Who, doodling with a forkful of something vegetablish, said “You remember Snoopy.”

 

“Hunh?” went Vicki, unwrapping a chicken hero.

 

“Here’s the world-famous gourmet galloping though a dish of succotash!” said the girl on Samantha’s other side, addressing her vegetables as “suffering” in a Sylvestery accent before she hurrahed “Hey ray Michigander!” at Vicki.

 

This was jolly Holly Brollis, christened Hilaria, who’d begun laughing when the obstetrician spanked her newborn butt.  She’d been treading the comedy boards since the age of three, when she portrayed a small-scale Dewey Lake Monster for Bigfoot-seeking tourists in Dowagiac (“just up the road from Elkhart, Indiana!”).  Holly’d stolen the show as Snoopy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, much to Candy Gates’s displeasure, and compounded tht infamy here at VTHS last spring, when she was cast as Zaneeta in The Music Man (“Yeee gads!”) while Candy Gates had to make do with fewer lines and less stage time as her kid sister Gracie, not at all graciously.

 

In her own Charlie Brown roles as publicist and Gates-gopher, Vicki’d admired Holly Brollis for her abundant talent and festive vivacity; while Holly, discovering they had a mutual birth state, invented what she called a “Michigander high sign” that she and Vicki could give-and-take.  She extended it now, stretching out an exuberant arm that disturbed her succotash dish and also the person dining opposite.

 

“What are you doing?” demanded Lisa Lohe, seated on Jenna’s other side.

 

“What AM I doing??” Holly in mock horror asked the guy on her other side.

 

“Saying howdy?” said Nelson Baedeker, Mumbles Metcalf’s ex, who still had a fuzzfree babyface and wore either the same Tequila Sunrise T-shirt he’d had on when Vicki first met him, or one distinctly like it.

 

“Oh, it’s you,” Lisa informed Vicki.  “Sorry you didn’t make varsity.”  (She didn’t sound particularly sorry, but then no sophomores had made the varsity volleyball squad, not even Alex.)  “Have you signed up for any clubs yet?”

 

“I just got here, Lisa!” Vicki demurred.  “This is my First Day!”

 

“No point wasting time,” said Lisa, who could never be culpable of that sin.  Her austere focus shifted to Nonique, quietly munching a sandwich in the corner seat.  “I don’t remember seeing you at tryouts,” she admonished.

 

Nonique, bristling slightly, swallowed her mouthful and said “‘Scuse me?”

 

“She’s new,” Vicki interceded, with a placating word of explanation (“Volleyball”) to Nonique.

 

“Oh.  I don’t play,” said Nonique.

 

“What, anything?” critiqued Lisa, tightening already-narrow eyes.

 

“The oboe,” Nonique answered shortly.

 

Holly laughed, Nelson snickered, Lisa lost interest, and “Cool—wish I could,” said the guy on Lisa’s other side, whose face was so gruesome it passed through the spectrum into cuteness, like a mongrel dog’s.  “Ever see Ray Still play Bach or Mozart live?”

 

“Heard him,” Nonique replied, with a reluctant yet unmistakable smile.

 

Link Linfold could cajole one of those out of almost any female, from nursery to nursing home.  Benevolent-minded teens, taking pity on his ugliness, tried to be extra nice (exaggeratedly, as if to a deaf foreigner) and more often than not ended up cuddling with him.

 

“He may be the Missing Link, but he sure as hell don’t miss much!” hooted the school’s Phoebus-types, each secure that his Esmeralda wouldn’t get her bell rung by chivalrous Quasimodo—unless she took the initiative and did the P-E-E-E-E-A-L-ing.

 

Lisa Lohe never left an initiative untaken.  Everyone at the table was aware of Sammi Tiggs’s wriggly fidgety surveillance of the cafeteria, but only Lisa snapped “Will you settle down, Samantha, or else go out and run it off—”

 

“THERE HE IS!!” went Sammi in a tornadolike stage whisper, midway between springing to her feet and hiding under the tabletop.

 

“There who is?” inquired the person sitting back-to-back with Jenna.

 

Vicki, looking over her shoulder, found herself abutting even more luminaries of the junior class; confirming her fear that she’d intruded into a precinct earmarked for her elders.  Not to mention betters, for here were Cheryl Trevelyan and Mary Kate Hazeldene, the Betty and Veronica (not to be confused with Bunty and Vernonique) of VTHS—if you factored in a personality reversal.

 

Cheryl Trevelyan gave every impression of being a goldenhaired Girl Next Door: she dressed au courant yet resisted Farrahfication, retaining her bouffant blonde ponytail that jounced through every cheerleader leap and cartwheel.  New acquaintances chose words with care when speaking to Cheryl, steering clear of profanity and vulgarity that might offend her tender sensibilities—until they realized she was in fact a hot-tempered oath-swearing virago with an extensive list of unforgiven resentments.  Cheryl once challenged Gootch Bulstrode to a fistfight at a formal dance, and Gootch had to back off not just because you can’t hit girls (not in front of the whole country club) but also since he suspected that Cheryl, with her hackles up, might be able to knock his block off.

 

Vicki’d run afoul of her during the ’76 Cicada Queen campaign.  Cheryl Trevelyan and Candy Gates were the archest of enemies, which meant Vicki as Gates-gopher was automatically excommunicated till she shamelessly betrayed the Gentlemen Prefer Gates slogan and other pantyhose-based electoral secrets.  This won Vicki a reprieve that endured even after Cheryl finished third, while Candy Gates came in second to Meredith Wainwright.

 

“Meredith!  Just because that butchfaced boondagger can do the splits!” Cheryl notified Vicki afterward.

 

Contrariwise, at first glance Mary Kate Hazeldene seemed categorizable as a sloe-eyed vamp, a killer-figured voluptuary, a carnivorous homewrecker who’d make women draw their menfolk defensively closer to prevent their getting lured into her fatal web.

 

In fact Mary Kate was Not That Kind Of Girl at all (other than the eyes and figure) but the best-belovèd virgin in Vanderlund, committed to sustaining her chastity till her honeymoon.  Had she been present at the ’76 Cicada Dance, Mary Kate would’ve been crowned Queen by acclamation; but that evening her twin nieces Iola and Iona were making their debut in a grade-school production of The Prince and the Pauper.  They and the entire Hazeldene family urged Mary Kate to go to VW, accept her tiara, and catch P&P on its second night; she selflessly went to the premiere, led the ovation and presented the twins with matching bouquets.  All the girls adored her, Cheryl Trevelyan treasured their friendship, and even Candy Gates had to love Mary Kate—not least for her willing absence from the limelight.

 

Today in the cafeteria she sat next to Frank Wharton, that all-around all-American leader-of-men who neither smoked nor cussed nor drank alcoholic beverages, but gallantly look care of his pals when they did the latter to excess.  Cheryl was paired with Stuart Nugent (the Nude Gent) who gave Vicki a thrilling wink when she discovered him seated spine-to-spine with her.  True, he was fully clothed and hadn’t scored as many swimming, diving, or water polo triumphs as Laurie Harrison’s faithless ex Tyler Canute; yet any girl at Maine Street Beach could testify that Stu Nugent did far more justice to a pair of trunks.

 

“Oh hell,” he was saying here and now about Sammi’s polestar, “it’s the Cherry Picker!”

 

“Cheryl Picker,” amended Jenna Wiblitz, sketching Sammi’s infatuated gaze.

 

“I heard that, Niblets!  You better take it back,” warned Cheryl.

 

“Blame it on the succotash,” noshed Jenna.

 

“Oh I’m sure!  Look, what’s-your-name—”

 

“Samantha,” supplied Lisa Lohe.

 

“Gahd really, like the witch?  Anyway—believe me, you don’t want to get involved with that turd.”

 

“Oh, Cheryl,” murmured Mary Kate.

 

“C’mon, the Pick’s not so bad,” said Frank Wharton.

 

“The Prick, you mean!  He was bad enough as just a Polecat!”

 

“How big a patch / could a Polecat scratch / if a Polecat’s a flatch- / -ulent catch?” wondered Holly Brollis.

 

“Boooo!” went Nelson Baedeker.

 

“Natch-u-rally,” added Link Linfold.

 

Vicki aimed a giggly eyeroll at Nonique, who almost rolled hers back.

 

“Look,” Cheryl fumed, “I’m just trying to let the poor kid know she can do better than Tab Tchorz is all!”

 

“But I don’t wanna do better,” wailed Sammi.

 

“It’s hard to kick against the pricks,” philosophized Jenna.

 

*

 

Sixth Hour then: all the way up to Room 403 and Advanced Grammar Composition and Literature.  No teacher visible, but a large sign was propped on the chalkboard tray:

 

SIT WHERE YOU CHOOSE

JUST BE QUIET ABOUT IT

 

And there at last was Joss, in the Summer Youth Music Camp shirt you couldn’t talk her out of wearing, who said “(Watch out for Feef!)” in your ear as you exchanged a big hug.

 

“(What?  Why?)”

 

Hey, gimme a chance, I haven’t seen her all day either!” blared someone who looked like Fiona and had on a Krewel & Unusual Punishment T-shirt like Fiona’s, but smelled strongly of Listerine, Clorets, and Freshen Up gum—which Fiona didn’t usually gargle/suck/chew simultaneously.  Of course, she never used to wrap you in a zestful embrace either, on the First or any other Day of school.

 

“(Feef!  What’ve you been doing?)”

 

Dining out,” Fiona replied più forte.

 

Out meaning in Bootleg McGillah’s vintage Henry J., sharing a papersacked bottle with him and Downtown (ditching homeroom to elongate her lunch hour) and Epic Khack and Razor Reid (Laurie’s delinquent former friend) and a junior who’d been born Marcie Loftus but now billed herself as Cramps Aplenty.

 

Vicki wouldn’t hear about this escapade till much later, since Madeline Wrippley entered Room 403 just then bearing a white styrofoam cup of acrid black coffee.

 

That for me?” asked Fiona.

 

“Well hardly,” huffed Madeline, setting it on the teacher’s desk.

 

“Not if I get to it first,” concurred Mrs. Mallouf, striding in after disposing of several previous cups’s contents.  “Obey!” she added, slapping the sign on the tray with one hand as she swigged this latest refill with the other, examining the class over its styrofoam rim.  So you think you’re honor students, her bifocals seemed to sardonicize.

 

Snap of freehand fingers at Madeline, who picked up a padholder and called the roll, checking off each name with what-did-you-want-to-bet-was a Scripto mechanical pencil.

 

Talk about “no point wasting time”—she sure didn’t dilly-dally getting adopted as a teacher’s narc. 

 

Vicki tried to keep one eye on Fiona (now playing air bass, with a fortunately muted bum bum bum bum bum BAH bum) while the other roved around the room during Maddie’s headcount.  All the chronic English honorees were here: Conrad “Leadoff” Aambercrombie, Hope Eckhardt, Bennett Fayne, Rachel Gleistein, Buddy Marcellus, Marshall McConchie, Jocelyn Murrisch (yay!), Owen O’Leary, Trina “Stop the Presses” Purcell, Jerome Schei, and so on.  Absent, of course, were Anglophobic overachievers like Becca Blair and Alex Dmitria.

 

“Cecilia Thurman?”

 

“Here,” said Cece, with a touch of T’s-to-Z’s always bring up the back of the bus.

 

“Victoria Volester?”

 

Split-second pause to contemplate whether to just say “Here,” or throw in a “Vicki” to show Miss Ominous Mouse you ain’t afeard of her

 

—when the door popped open like Spacyjane’s puppet-bodice, and in sped Sidney Erbsen with both hands nebbishly loaded.

 

“I had to pull many thorns out of many paws to get you this bearclaw,” he told Mrs. Mallouf, plopping it on its napkin on its paper plate onto her desk blotter.  “Let’s just give thanks that BooBoo had a booboo.”

 

“You are not in this class,” Madeline stated, brandishing the roster.

 

“I try to be in a class by myself, but they sent me here,” said Split-Pea, sailing his reassignment form (folded into a needle-nose airplane) straight toward her mousy face; which made Maddie drop Scripto, padholder, and a bundle of handouts that burst their rubber band as they hit the floor.

 

“Hey!” squeaked Madeline.  “Pick those up!”

 

“Hang on a mo,” said Split-Pea, crouching by Rachel Gleistein’s front-row desk to confide that “Your slip is showing.”

 

“(Awp!)” went Rachel, still hypersensitive about lingerie exposure, as she tried to subtly tug at her skirt.

 

“Not that one—this one,” explained Split-Pea, extracting a slip of paper from one of Rachel’s textbooks.  “Just as I thought—horseracing bets!  Wrong, wrong, wrong: never put more than $2 on a quinella.”

 

Rachel snatched back the blank bookmark he waggled reprovingly at her Queen-of-Sheba-ticked-off-by-Solomon scowl, which she redirected from Split-Pea to Sell-O Fayne.  He was supposed to be her boyfriend and ready to deal with such annoyances; but Sell-O had his s-m-i-l-e trained across the aisle at Trina Purcell’s thighs, which might be less enticing than Rachel’s yet were far more on display.  Beside her Jerome Schei was keeping happy tabs on all these shenanigans, including Split-Pea’s appropriating a few loose-leaf pages from Hope Eckhardt’s three-ring binder.

 

“You little schnorrer!” Hope chubbily squawked.

 

“Loose leafs cause griefs, Esperanza.”

 

“Mrs. Mallouf—

 

“COMMUNICATION,” went their teacher, finishing her bearclaw and proceeding to outline how they’d spend the semester exploring this topic—other than through déjà vu:

 

Go, Speed Racers!  Go, Speed Racers, go!

 

I told you this was an old, old school, sub-griped Joss.  Full of ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggèd Beasties...

 

“(Bum bum bum bum bum BAH bum,)” mutter-strummed the sobering-up Feef.

 

And Sixth Hour wound down with “Victoria Volester,” “Fiona Weller,” and for that matter “Madeline Wrippley” present in body and presumably spirit, yet unaccounted-for checkmarkwise.

 

*

 

Down to the depths then, to the ground-floor Girls Gymnasium for Seventh Hour Physical Education.  This would be the last year before Phys Ed went co-ed as mandated by Title IX, and the Girls Gym became the West Gym.  Even though locker rooms would remain segregated by gender, Vicki didn’t think she could cope with taking the same Gym class as guaranteed-to-be-sexist-nuisance guys; so she was completing her Phys Ed graduation requirement this year, unlike Joss who thought going co-ed was the best thing that could happen to Gym, and the only thing to make her positively anticipate taking it.

 

(“They’ll just behave like chauvinist pigs around you!” Vicki forecast.)

 

(“What’s the point of my being a Curlylocks if I can’t feed swine once in awhile?”)

 

(“That’s not how that nursery rhyme goes at all!”)

 

So Joss wasn’t in this Last of All Girls-Only Gyms.  But here were Laurie Harrison, lamenting Mr. Dimancheff’s having partnered her with Lenny “Ooh! Ooh!” Otis in Biology, and Sheila Quirk, psyched that she and Robin were able to have an argument in German—well, not in German yet, which they’d decided to take for the guttural harshness it would lend their Auseinandersetzungen.

 

Here too was Nonique Smith, briefly revealing a plain white conservatively-cut bra and panties while changing from sapphire skimmer to hideous gymsuit.  Her face showed no trace of embarrassment or any other emotion; but her eyes, to Vicki’s startled distress, were rife with dampened pain.

 

“(You okay?)” Vicki murmured while they laced up gym shoes.

 

“(Doesn’t matter,)” exhaled Nonique.

 

Unsure how to respond, Vicki gave her a fleeting “Dopester salute” (light tap of knuckles to upper arm) which Nonique at least didn’t recoil from.

 

Something must’ve happened after lunch.  Somebody’d said or done some tactless hurtful thing—Gigi Pyle maybe, or Britt making one of her dartflicks tailored for skintone, or Irina Saranoff sweeping through the locker room with a toss of The Hair and a smirk at Nonique’s modest Afro, or any number of other malicious students/faculty/staff (hopefully excluding Robin Neapolitan).  Then again, Nonique might’ve gotten crudely hit on by some brutish guy; or it could be her “lady’s time,” as Imogene phrased it in Paper Moon, sending her into a tailspin (so to speak) as used to happen every month to Feef.

 

Whatever was amiss, they had no time to chat about it now even if Nonique were so inclined.  Vicki quickly introduced her to Sheila and Laurie as they headed through the swinging doors into the gym.

 

“What’s happenin’?” went S-Q, not waiting for an answer (that didn’t come) before hollering “Watch out, Irina!  Your wig’s slipping!”

 

“Wish you were my lab partner,” Laurie moaned.  “I got stuck with an ultracreep!”

 

No reaction to that either; nor to this basilica of a gymnasium and its hanging banners commemorating victories of Vanderlund jockettes.  Oh, surely Title IX had enough wiggle room (as it were) for girls to keep a gym of their own to themselves—

 

TWEEEET!!  TWEEEET!!

 

—shrilled the tape-recorded overture from last spring’s Music Man Operetta, as onto the parquet floor flashed the irradiating refulgence that was Star-Spangled Sally Schwall.

 

Alex and Becca Blair knew all about her; they’d compiled a Sally Scrapbook in their kindergarten days, when she reigned supreme at VTHS.  Not just head cheerleader and captain of the Girls Athletic Association, but unflagging crusader for pre-Title-IX rights of young women to compete in interscholastic sports.  Not just Homecoming Queen, but The State’s Junior Miss; not just Honor Society frontrunner, but National Merit finalist; and though Most Likely to Succeeds didn’t generally return a decade after graduation to teach Girls Gym, Sally Schwall’d done so to substantiate her doctoral thesis on aerobic dance, the new exercise-to-music program, which she’d learned firsthand at Pepperdine from its creator Jacki Sorensen.

 

She expounded on this in a husky parade voice while executing various moves to snippets of “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Being in Love,” and “Till There Was You.”

 

“Oho you Wells Fargo Wagon keep a-comin’oho you Wells Fargo Wagon don’t you dare to make a stop—so long as you’re working out at your own level, lay-deez!  You can walk with this, jog with this, run with this, go at your own pace—so long as you stay active and upbeat!  It will tone your muscles, train your hearts and lungs, strengthen your cardiovascular systems, and provide mental and emotional release!  Try it with me!—”

 

Coach Sally guided them through a stretchy twisty warmup routine, then marching in place while pumping arms and breathing deep, then some basic maneuvers—step touch, step out, heel back, V step—before heading for a cooldown.  It left Vicki feeling invigorated and exhilarated; and Laurie’s “That was fun!” and Sheila’s “Bitchen!” suggested she wasn’t alone.

 

“Emotion in motion, lay-deez!  Constant movement to a music soundtrack!  That’s the key to rhythmic conditioning!”

 

(Thank GOD this was a girls-only class—imagine the hoots and heckles that last line would’ve reaped from guy-jekylls, whose Mr. Hydes would be bugging out at Coach Sally in her ungymteacherish leotard and tights.)

 

“Now, those of you who like traditional calisthenics and competitive games needn’t worry—we’ll be doing those too!  And just to strike a regular note, let’s take five to take roll!”

 

Giving each called-on student an incandescent Sally-smile flavored with contagious optimism, till she reached the S’s.

 

“Vernonique Smith?”

 

“(Here.)”

 

“Would you happen to be the Rebounder’s daughter?”

 

“(Sigh.)  Mmm-hmm.”

 

“Cool!” beamed Coach Sally.  “Tell him ‘Hi’ from me, please!  Elsa Stott?”

 

“Here,” said Elsie, squinting across at Nonique with new interest, as did the more open-eyed girls who either didn’t need glasses/contacts or (unlike Elsie Stott) weren’t too vain/squeamish to wear them.

 

Vicki joined in the looking-with-new-interest, since she’d learned about the Rebounder while helping Alex with an essay for Miss McInerney’s class in eighth grade.

 

Vernon Smith had been one of the first blacks to letter in basketball at the State U.  He went on to play one year with the Globetrotters, then two in Abe Saperstein’s American Basketball League, then four in the NBA (including one with the original Bull-onies), then eight in the ABA from its inception till just before its demise.  He earned his nickname as “the Rebounder” not from outstanding prowess at tipping in missed shots, but for having repeatedly fought back from season-ending injuries to try again, usually with a different team.  Frank Deford profiled his final comeback attempt a couple years ago in a drolly sympathetic Sports Illustrated article (“On the Rebound”) which Alex found inspiring and wrote a Lang Arts essay on.  More significantly, it landed Vernon Smith a gig as broadcast pitchman—“Listen up, folks!  This is the Rebounder speaking!”—for Universal Nutrition Markets, The City’s rival to GNC.

 

His happening to be Nonique’s father was a great relief to Vicki.  A black celebrity (or even semicelebrity) should be welcomed into all but the snottiest or most bigoted neighborhoods, with no nonsense about property values being lowered.  And Vicki knew for a fact that Robin enjoyed the Rebounder’s commercials, especially that one where he squared off “nutrition” versus “oldtrition.”  So everything was going to turn out fine—whew!—and there ought to be no reason for Nonique to look so chagrined, blushing like cherries jubilee with dark eyes glumly downcast.

 

(Who’s black and bright and blue all over?)

 

“Claudia Yentlemen?”

 

“Cookie!” caroled that unabashed bubbeleh, for the seventh time that day.

 

“Okay, Cookie!” smiled incandescent Coach Sally, before rearranging her bright features along more somber lines.  “Lay-deez!  We need to get serious for a second!”

 

She was very sorry to report that a sixteen-year-old Misch Township girl who’d gone missing last week had just been found dead, her body hidden in weeds by the Expressway near the New Sherwood Shopping Center.  Not to put too fine a point on it, she’d been bound, stripped, sexually assaulted, stabbed multiple times, and shot in the back of the head.  This tragic news came just three days after the discovery of a girl in the woods north of Waukegan, similarly murdered just before her thirteenth birthday.

 

(Whimper from Laurie Harrison.)

 

It went without saying that precautions would have to be taken, whether these crimes were randomly unrelated or, as some thought, the work of a Son of Sam copycat.  So please always remember and never forget: don’t hitchhike, don’t go out alone at night, don’t venture off Auldforest’s beaten track by yourself—

 

—and that only scratched the surface of the DON’T list their parents were likely to lay down once they heard about this.  Vicki’d already received an earful from Felicia over the weekend about how to avoid American Nazis, who kept announcing and postponing parades with burning torches and swastika flags and so forth.  They’d be mealy potatoes compared to a Son of Sam imitator preying on girls in the northern suburbs.

 

Of course you had to grieve for the two victims, their families and friends, but let’s be honest here—there’d be no end of inconveniences till this killer got caught.  No going out running by yourself, that’s for sure; no going to the New Sherwood for the foreseeable future; you might not even be allowed to take the bus to school come wintertime (no waiting in the dark at the Foxtail stop) which’d mean a parent would drive you there and drop you off in public!  Maybe they’d let Robin operate a car pool once she got her Sweet Babboo—but suppose Fat Bob nixed that deal, lest she be hijacked by murderous perverts?  Robin would blow a gasketand probably fly off the haywire-handle when she met Nonique, who’d feel even bluer about moo-hoo-vin’ on up here to the north ‘burbs...

 

So Vicki ruminated as Coach Sally led them through a series of standing yoga poses to put their minds at ease: the Mountain, the Forward Bend, the Side Stretch, and a more challenging stance called the Tree which required balancing on one leg and should’ve been called the Shaky Flamingo.

 

“Everyone wobbles,” Coach Sally crooned soothingly.

 

Then a palms-pressed-together namaste (reminding Vicki of Yash Pramanik back in Pfiester Park) before most of them were dismissed, with the customary First Day shower exemption.

 

“Everyone who’s staying for volleyball practice, please help me set up the nets!”

 

“That’s us, gang,” said Sheila-Q.  “C’mon, Laurie, shake a leg.”

 

“But I can’t stop thinking about those poor girls...”

 

“I know, I know, we’ll say a prayer and light a candle for ‘em, but right now we’ve got nets to hoist.”

 

“Hoist?  Doesn’t that mean like steal?

 

Vicki was turning to join them when she almost fetched up (again) against Nonique, in another of her isolated standstills.

 

“Um... you not leaving?”

 

“No, we’re on the JV volleyball team and’ll be here till 4:30, but—”

 

As if this were the camel’s-backbreaking straw, Nonique swung around on a squeaky gym-shoe-heel and stalked away.

 

Vicki wavered irresolutely—what more can you do?—then said “Back in a minute!” and headed after her into the locker room, where outgoing Seventh Hour students mingled with incoming volleyballers in a clamor of babble and clanging lockers.  She found Nonique all tangled up in her sapphire skimmer, looking ready to cry with vexation/frustration/aggravation.

 

“Hold on—here, let me—” offered Vicki, tugging empty sleeves sidelong so arms could slide through suitable openings, then zipping it up the back and giving that back a diffident pat.

 

Nonique, facing away, in a harshly guttural (though not German) wheeze: “Y’don’t have t’be nice.”

 

“Course I do,” said Vicki.  “I need you to save both our butts in Biology.”

 

Ladylike snort that trembled on the brink, then tipped over into a reluctant yet unmistakable snortle.

 

“Seriously, you’re welcome to stay and watch us from the bleachers, Joss’ll be there too, and after practice we’re going over to Panama Hattie’s for a pop and maybe a snack.  Wanna come?”  While we still can, without having to find a pay phone first and ask permission to risk our necks while that damn Copycat-of-Sam roams The Cityland.

 

“Can’t.  Sorry.  Got to get home.”

 

“Will you... y’know... be okay?”

 

“Oh well...  like they say... ‘Tomorrow’s another day.’”

 

“So,” said Vicki, “see you then?”

 

“Looks like it,” said her lab partner, before hitting the bricks and flying the coop: bedeviled with her blue dress on.
 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Return to Chapter 33                          Proceed to Chapter 35

 

 

A Split Infinitive Production
Copyright © 2017-18 by P. S. Ehrlich

 

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