Chapter 36

 

Una Gran Mano Para La Pequeña Dama

 

 

Twenty-four hours later, Vicki held a different kind of court at home on Burrow Lane, while looking even worse (hugely bruised schnozzola, eyes surrounded by zombie-blotches) than she had yesterday in St. Benedict’s ER.  Where, after sitting in the waiting room (or was it waiting in the sitting room?) for an hour or more, she’d ordered Ozzie to drive antsy-pantsy Joss home to catch The Richard Pryor Show, and take Goofus along for the ride so he’d quit oohing-and-ahhing over the gorier emergency newcomers.

 

In overdue course Vicki was seen by a handsome! young! doctor who might’ve been the kid brother of suave Mr. Erickson at VW (s-i-g-h) and to whose boyish bedside manner Felicia took skeptical exception.  Vicki only objected to Dr. Dreamboat seeing her (though not to his feeling her) when she looked so much less than her best.  But oh! she felt so much better as he lightly manipulated her face and then her buttocks (after asking permission! like a gallant caballero!) to check out her tailbone and corroborate Coach Celeste’s diagnosis, saying “You’ll be lovely as ever”—his very words!—in a week or so.

 

Felicia, who hadn’t wanted Vicki to be treated at a “doctrinaire” hospital despite its proximity to VTHS and being vouched for by Sheila Quirk, was incensed by it all.

 

Vicki, after getting dosed with a new prescription painkiller called “ibuprofen” and freshly icebagged above and below, phoned Jupiter Street to snuffle-update Joss and hear about Richard Pryor; then Sprangletop Road to snuffle-update Alex and hear how the varsity’d avenged Vicki by trouncing Athens Grove.  (In the first game, before losing the next two and thus their third straight match.)

 

“But that first win was what really counted,” said Alex.

 

Vicki’s bid to spend “a week or so” recuperating in seclusion was downgraded to a day-by-day basis by her “we’ll see” parents.  They were firm believers that sickdays should not be spent “loafing in bed” unless you were mortally immobile.  So Vicki (who spent the night trying to find a position where her nose and butt could be at ease simultaneously) did upright things at home on Wednesday the 14th, like the family’s laundry and ironing, refilling her own icebags, and dealing with her period’s choosing now to begin.  (“Might as well call me the scullery maid and be done with it!”)  She also read the novel version of Flowers for Algernon, which cast further gloom over the day; and took time out to watch A Lover’s Question on TV, where Lance had apparently awakened from his coma only to get lost searching for ex-fiancée Marisol in the jungles of Peru.

 

By mid-afternoon Vicki was steeped in self-pity and avoiding eye contact with every reflective surface, though painfully aware they were there and what they must be showing.  Then she heard a put-put-put chug-chug-chug into the cul-de-sac and cough-cough-cough to a stop.

 

“Lousy spazzatura!  Can’t you hold out one more month?” snarled a familiar voice.

 

“(You’ll make her headache worse,)” muttered another as the doorbell repeatedly chimed the first six notes of Peter and the Wolf.

 

Felicia was out erranding, so Vicki donned sunglasses and shuffled over to admit the Sister Dopesters, who presented her with a get-well Slurpee from 7-Eleven and today’s Geometry homework from Mr. Rankin.

 

“Don’t go putting raw steak on those shiners,” Robin advised, peering through Vicki’s shades.  “Too expensive, and doesn’t tenderize the meat worth a damn.  Well, I gotta fly—Wednesday, y’know” (daddy/daughter day at Villa Neapolitan) “and there’s a heap of soft-soaping to do if I’m ever gonna plant my ass in the driver’s seat of my Sweet Babboo.”  (To Fiona:) “Write that down—sounds like lyrics.”  (To Vicki:) “Say the word ‘n’ we’ll hire a hitman to do a snuff job on that skank who bowled your ass over.”  (To Fiona:) “Limey knows who that was, right?”  (To Vicki:) “And don’t sweat doing those transformations.  Geometry’s nothing more’n different ways you can spin your wheels.  Well, catch you two on the flip side—”

 

Punch on the biceps for Loopy; punch on the biceps for Spooky; head on out and broaden the wordlists of all the little kids in the cul-de-sac by cursing an aged scooter back into operability until it put-put-put-ed away.

 

“(Sorry,)” went Fiona.

 

“Ehh, dat’s just Wobbin bein’ Wobbin,” said Vicki, trying not to spill the Slurpee as she sucked its contents through the awkwardly-bent straw while jamming the icy-cold cup against her swollen congested schnoz.

 

“(No… I mean…)”  Vague left-handed wave at Vicki’s puffified features.  Vaguer right-handed swipe at her own suddenly-runny mascara.

 

“Aw, Feef…”  Double-armed embrace, propping the Slurpee on Fiona’s shoulder.  (As they both harked back to Tears and shiners—Tail-End on the park bench.)  “S’not like I got caught by deh Bad Bludgeoner…”

 

“(I know… but…)”

 

“You can stay awhile, wight?  Like baybe for dinner?  I been going cwazy cooped up here, stuck to dese icebags—at least dis one tastes good” (slurp) “and by bob’s been acting like it’s all by fault for playing a ‘violent’ sport.”

 

“(Not your fault.  It was… I mean… I dunno, forget it.)”

 

“Wow,” went Vicki, letting her go and stepping back.  “Sweet o’ you to twy lookin’ worse’n be, but you bight wanna go fix your face.”

 

“(What?  Oh—ugh…)” at black-stained right-fingers.

 

She was heading off to mend her cosmetics when a car pulled into the driveway and Vicki, backing further away from the window, asked Feef to reconnoiter.  “Is it by bob?  Did she bwing Joss?  She said she’d twy.

 

“(Yeah,)” said Feef, peeking circumspectly between the drapes so as not to besmirch them.  “(Joss and the Space Cadet—and that Vernon chick, too.)”

 

“Dodique?  Weally?”  Taking Fiona’s place at the veiled window in time to see a tyke on a trike roll up and confirm it:

 

“Hey, you’re black!

 

“Yeah?” went dispassionate Nonique, while censorious Felicia went “Pippin!

 

Who leaned on his handlebars with a captivated kiddy s-i-g-h to add: “And purrrrty.”

 

(Welcome to Burrow Lane, courtesy of little Pippin Baumeister, whom Vicki’d babysat a scad of times without netting such esteem.)

 

“Um… thanks?” dithered Nonique as Felicia opened the front door, trilling “Look who’s here!”  “Bringing gifties,” Joss warbled as she crushed Vicki (and Vicki’s English homework) to her flopperoos: much softer, warmer, and more heartening than volleyballs.  Next came Spacyjane Groh, stepping forward to give Vicki a flowery fedora-brimmed hug, plus her Spanish homework obtained from Jenna Wiblitz: “She’s handmaking you a card for when you go back to school, and told me to say that everybody ‘felt your absence’ at lunch today—isn’t that neat?  Your face looks very interesting.”

 

Which widened Vicki’s smile, reminding her of Joss’s face that first traumatic day on Petty Road.  You could say the same about Nonique’s face now: biting both lips in dismay at Vicki’s mottled puffification (not to be confused with pluttification) and turning the hue of cherry-covered chocolate when Vicki pulled her into a welcoming clinch.

 

“I’b so glad you cabe.”  (And that Robin left before you arrived.)

 

Nonique declinched herself but tarried nearby.  “You hurting?”

 

“Dot as buch.  I s’pose you bwought by Bio hobework?”

 

“Well, you know Mr. Dimancheff,” said Nonique, presenting it.

 

Vicki converted her smile to a piranha grimace as she perused the assignment.  “Oh yuck—cellular stwucture.”

 

“That’s right—building basements,” quipped Joss.  “Shall we ease on down to the family room?”

 

“I’ll just rustle up you girls some snacks—oh hi, Fiona!  Didn’t know you were here,” said Felicia.  “How’s your mother?”

 

“(H’lo Mrs. Volester, fine Mrs. Volester,)” droned Feef, having repainted her domino mask.  “(Hey,)” to the new arrivals, including Nonique whom she knew slightly from the Orchestra woodwind section.

 

“Oh no really I can’t stay,” began Nonique, edging toward the door before being overridden by Unitarian racial empathy.  (Which had kept Felicia from riding over Louisa Lang yesterday—that and Louisa’s immense height, weight, and depth.)  Nonique was handed the phone, told to call home and ask for clearance to visit her convalescent lab partner, and would she prefer fruit juice or iced tea?  Ambiguous “Um” from Nonique before handing back the phone: “My mother’d like t’speak t’you please.”

 

Half an hour later the mothers were still at it in a corner (animatedly, if Felicia’s expression was anything to go by) while their daughters chatted about music with Feef and Spacyjane, and Joss who came back up to the living room when the others didn’t follow her downstairs.  Nonique, sneaking fretful peeks at her watch and toward the phone, stayed put on the couch; so Vicki beside her did too, as did Fiona on Vicki’s other side, Spacyjane in one of the adjoining armchairs, and Joss taking the one opposite.

 

They were relating the rise and fall of the Rosa Dartles to Nonique when a sudden VA-VA-VA-VOOM up the driveway caused a group spit-take of fruit juice or iced tea.

 

“What on earth…?” from Felicia, signing off with Mrs. Smith.

 

“That’s an awfully orange car,” remarked Spacyjane at the window.

 

Joss opened the front door and in tumbled Alex, Sheila, Laurie, and Sammi Tiggs, all just out of volleyball practice and breathless to various degrees.  They parted like a line of chorus dancers to admit a cabaret emcee in plaid pants and a Zippy the Pinhead “Yow!” T‑shirt.  Vicki let out an answering “Yow!” as she covered her face and twisted away from the emcee’s too-bright pearly whites as they opened wide to sermonize:


“Deeeearly belovèd, we are gathered here to offer CONdolence and CONsolation to this our deflected afflictee (oh yes tell it!) and entreat her to turn not away from the Light but bathe her wounds in its tropical Shine (yea verily!) oh my children, raise your hands in a glory HONNolulu ay-loha ay-men—”

 

(this to Fiona and Vernonique, who were raising theirs to fend him off even as he laid his on Vicki to smoothly untwist her till she faced forward again, though still hidden behind clustered fingers)

 

“—parsley sage rosemary and thyme, the flowers of spice comPEL thee to make me a cambric shirt / without no seam nor fine needle work (ARE you going to Scrabbleboard Square?) as we go sweeping through the plates to be washed in the mint sauce of the Lamb!  Lo and behold and praise be to mercy mild, here’s Vicki’s sister a-standing amongst us!”

 

GASP from Vicki, unfingering her face to take a look-see—but of course it wasn’t Tricia, nor even Isabel Carstairs.  Just flummoxed Felicia goggling as Dennis Desmond bussed the back of her fist; while Laurie ducked past Sammi to be next in line, holding one arm out and up for grabs.

 

“YAYess!” went Dennis, taking Laurie in hand.  “She walks!  She talks!  (You do, right?  Nod twice for Yo hablo Inglés.)  Oh bear witness, my children: she is fluent in tongues!  Gather round and eavesdrop as I fess up to suffering from KLEPtomania” (taking possession of Laurie’s purse) “and PREStidigitation” (extracting a hanky as if it were a magician’s trick scarf) “not to mention rampant FRESHgetting” (as he enclosed Laurie’s waist with an arm that drew her flank-to-flank) “and being a general UNDERpinning” (as Laurie sagged rapturously against him, until the aghast Samantha pulled her free).

 

Alex crept through parishioners’s legs to crouch by Vicki, hand over World History homework, and present a big greeting card signed by everyone connected with the volleyball team.  “(He made us sing all the way here,)” she faintly divulged.

 

“(What, like along wid deh wadio?)”

 

“(No—drinking songs!  ‘Whiskey You’re the Devil,’ ‘Seven Drunken Nights’—and loudly, with our heads out the windows, so people in other cars could see us and hear us!”)

 

“(Has he been dwinking?)”

 

“(All I know is I’m glad I don’t need him to drive me home—look, my hands are still shaking—”)

 

“Hey, whose snazzy Camaro is parked out there?” asked Ozzie, stepping through the left-open front door.

 

“Mister Volester I presume, welcome back sir!  We’ve kept the place just as you left it!” proclaimed Dennis, striding over to pump palms.  Ozzie complied cordially but with bewilderment, since his living room hadn’t been occupied by a crazed Irishman and nine teenage girls (one like Thelma on Good Times) when he’d left for the Lot that morning.

 

“…so, the Camaro’s yours, then?”

 

“Raised it from a pup!  Gave years of my life to breeding it from an Impala—”

 

“Don’t mind him, Mr. V,” said Sheila-Q.  “He gave years of his life to getting dropped on his head!  No offense,” to Vicki-on-the-mend, and “I’m taking your chair!” to uproarious Joss as she rushed off to the nearest bathroom.  (Hastily sub-grumbling that Every time I set foot under this roof, I wind up wetting my pants!)

 

(Good thing Holly Brollis wasn’t there to stage a Laugh Till You Lose Control contest.)

 

“Dad!  Mom!  Howja know I wanted an orange Chevy with blue rally stripes?” crowed the arriving Goofus, whose chest got smacked by car keys flung at him by Dennis.

 

“Warm it up for me, my man—you and I are going to House o’ Chopsticks and getting enough takeout to feed all Shanghai!  Hope everybody likes Szechwan shrimp—”

 

“Now see here…” began Felicia.

 

“Glad to!  Now I’ll see it over here—” firesigned Dennis as he and Goofus headed for the door.  “While we’re gone, the rest of you kindly notify Miss Vicki I’ll be taking her out on the town ohhhh letttt’s saaaay maaaaybe ten—ten?—yes, ten days from now: that’ll be ample time for her to adjust to the idea—”

 

“He’s still got your purse—” went Sammi, so Laurie galloped after them saying “Wait for me!  I’ll go too!”

 

“What, out with me?  All the way to Monte Carlo?  So we can risk everything on one mad throw of the dice?  Wearing camouflage so we won’t be blackmailed for our sins?  Why, this is so sudden—”

 

He’s asking me out too!! glowed Laurie as she gave her friends a backward bye-bye.

 

“Lord, you do not want to go out with that clown—he was vaccinated with a stereo needle!” snapped Sheila-Q.

 

“Oh, did Motormouth leave?  Or just run out of gas?” wondered the returning Joss.

 

“He won’t drive too wild with Goofy in the car, will he?” fretted Alex.

 

“(Maybe not, but Goofus will if he’s still got the keys,)” muttered Fiona.

 

“Wouldn’t it be easier for them to go to Atlantic City?” Spacyjane asked the dropjawed Samantha.

 

“It is always like this around here?” Nonique asked the shellshocked Vicki.

 

“…so, we’re having Chinese tonight?” Ozzie asked the bamboozled Felicia.

 

*

 

“You will never in the world guess who is gonna call here any minute to ask me out!” said Laurie later that evening as she burst into the office/bedroom of Harrison & Zane on Grouseland Street.  “Not if you made a hundred guesses!  What am I gonna wear?  What’ll I do with my hair?

 

“It isn’t that screwball windbag with all the teeth, is it?” asked Susie, not looking up from her Civics textbook.

 

“He is not a screwball or a windbag!  Why would you say that when he’s so perfect for me?”

 

“‘Cause Tina told me what she overheard Kirsten telling Jake about what that guy did to her friend Nancy.”

 

(Quickflip through mental gossip Rolodex.)  “Nancy Hantz, Nancy Sykeman, or Nancy Buschmeyer?”

 

“Tina didn’t say.  But whichever it was, she got all hot ‘n’ bothered and then got left high ‘n’ dry by ‘Old One-Shot Thanks-a-Lot Untie-the-Knot’—that’s what he calls himself!  Never calls a girl after a date, though, never goes out with her a second time.”

 

“Well, maybe I can change all that—”

 

“Oh for Gahd’s sake, Lo—”

 

“He was so sweet, Sue!  Asking Vicki to go out with him sometime, just to make her feel better—she really does look awful, even with sunglasses on—but flirting with me and taking me with him to get Chinese food for everybody (here, I saved you a fortune cookie) and saying we’ll go to Monte Carlo, which is like the most glamorous casino in Mexico, right?”

 

distant water does not put out nearby fire read the tiny slip in Susie’s cookie.  “Did you give him our phone number?” she sighed.

 

“Aaagh!  I didn’t!  And I can’t call him up to let him know it, ‘cause I don’t have his!  I tried to look it up the other day, but he keeps it unlisted!  What’ll I do, Sue?  Oh, I know, I’ll call Sheila—I bet she knows his number since they’re both Irish—and I know she’s home ‘cause we took her there first from Vicki’s ‘cause she said she’d couldn’t stand listening to him any longer, which wasn’t very nice since he did pay for all our Chinese food and—”

 

The line was busy at “Castle Quirk.”  Meaning Dennis might’ve given up on Laurie and decided to ask Sheila out instead; and since opposites attract, she might be saying yes to him on the phone right now!  But wait—wouldn’t he have asked her a long time ago (both of them being Irish) and not do it again, if Tina’d told Susie the truth about his never dating any girl twice?  Find out if it is the truth—call Thirsty K, investigate what’d happened with which of the Nancys or maybe Nanette as in Magnus, even though she’d supposedly been engrossed with Boffer Freuen since way last spring—

 

But Kirsten was out with Jacuzzi Jake.  (This late, on a school night?  With the Multch East match tomorrow?  Scandalous!  Make a mental note to delve into it tomorrow.)

 

What to do now, though?

 

Ring up the smartest person you know to ask for clarifying counsel and advice—only to be told that Rachel Gleistein was through with love.

 

“Bennett Fayne has put me off relationships for life.  Let Trina Purcell have him—if she can hold onto him.  I’ll devote myself to medical science.”

 

“Oh, Rachel, no!  You’re too beautiful to give up dating!”

 

“I can’t help that.  I should’ve known better than to trust a guy who s-m-i-l-e-s nonstop at everyone, no matter what.  That’s the calling card of a con artist!”

 

(Gulp.)

 

But wait—Rachel’s judgment was impinged upon by bitterness (don’t forget she’d gotten Sell-O on the rebound after Irina Saranoff’d two-timed him with Mike Spurgeon) so, for once, her aptitude couldn’t be taken on faith.  No, this time you needed to seize the bull by the horns and tackle Dennis Desmond head-on.

 

Not looking like this, though.  Fetch the hot rollers, undo your pooftails and bouncify them—lay out every shade of blush and eyeshadow in your vanity caboodle—

 

And after a tremendous series of what Rachel would call permutations and combinations, garb yourself Thursday morning in a flame-colored blouse and charcoal-tinted skirt: both chosen to engender heat in the observer.

 

Jerome Schei whooped and whistled and unerringly deduced whose horns Laurie was planning to seize.  He then had the nerve to belittle her choice: “From what I hear everybody say, he sounds like a trifle-with-your-affections-er—and haven’t you had your fill of those?”

 

If you’d’ve come to your senses and understood that we were meant to be, I wouldn’t have to worry about being trifled with, Laurie managed not to say aloud.

 

From prior surveillance, she knew Dennis had Fifth Hour Chemistry on the other side of the same second-floor corridor as Laurie’s Fifth Hour Biology.  (How was that for an overlap?)  So after Lunch 4B she left the cafeteria on the run, sped up to the Science wing (not easy to do in platform sandals) and succeeded in collaring Dennis as he reached the top of the stairwell.  He in turn lost no time in putting the squeeze on her softest charcoal-tinted anatomy.

 

Eek!  Don’t!  Not here in school!…  Um, okay—do you know Tab Tchorz?”

 

“Ah: Polish Polecat that was, Cherry Picker that is, Semipro Gigolo that will be?  Yes, he owes me several favors and several dollars, generous as I am to a fault.”

 

“Right, good—so is there any way you could maybe sort of persuade him to ask out my friend Samantha?”  While you ask me out, so we can all double-date this weekend?

 

Wide-eyed wonder-glance from Dennis, receding across the hall.  “Class, after—here, back—me, meet—then, talk—bell, ringing—”

 

Laurie made it over Room 208’s threshold just before the P-E-E-E-E-A-L ceased.  Even so, Mr. Dimancheff bared his scary choppers at her: “So generous of you to join us, Miss Harrison!”

 

“Ooh!  Ooh!” added Lenny Otis, Laurie’s Horshackish lab partner, presumably in heated tribute to her flaming/charcoal ensemble.

 

She could hardly confine herself inside it through Fifth Hour, anticipating the outcome of her crafty subtle hornseizure.  Going out tomorrow and/or Saturday night, she and Sammi with a couple of upperclassmen!  Who (let’s face facts) would want to make out as soon as possible, as much as possible, and as far as possible.  Which may have also been the case with every caddish rotter Laurie’d dated till now; but who were Tyler Canute or Chipper Farlowe or even Mack “The Arm” Pittley in comparison?  Small potatoes, that was who!  Dennis and Tab were great big hot potatoes, so she and Sammi would have to be extra on their guard to not get burnt—while still ensuring they got asked out a second time.

 

When the next bell rang, Dennis was already waiting by the stairwell and behaving more mannerly, with no grab at her rear end.  Though continuing to wear a wonder-glance:

 

“Did I hear you say you wanted to set up the Cherry Picker with a friend of yours?”

 

“Sure—you know Sammi Tiggs—kinda tall, really cute, supergood at sports?  Well, she’s not doing anything this weekend except volleyball practice, and I’m not doing—”

 

“It’s no favors you’re doing your friend if you hitch her to Tab Tchorz’s chamberpot.  And it’s sad I am that it’s a patsy you are for such wicked-Pickèd wiles as the Polecat exudes upon the fair sex in this fine school.  Wurra the day!  Repent and lament lest ye cement your assent—”

 

Giving Laurie’s might-as-well-be-clad-in-spandex bottom an openhanded SWAT that resounded like a pistol shot, up and down the second-floor corridor.

 

*

 

On Saturday the 17th Fiona Weller pinned on a black armband in remembrance of T.Rex’s Marc Bolan.  Wizardy-warlocky rider of white swans, flying o’er the astral plane with curls and feather boas blowing in the elf-wind, he’d met death yesterday when his Mini GT hit a tree: making him now truly a Dandy in the Underworld.

 

PoonElly came by in Le Heap to take Feef and Robin to the Golden Arches on Chubb Avenue, which had a brand-new drive-through window (“Now you can get our famous food without even leaving your car!”).  Robin rode shotgun, stamping on nonexistent brakes and accelerator, while Fiona sat in back penning lyrics for a memorial dirge:

 

And Big Macs were conveyed through Arch and Heap windows, together with a bundle of fries that Robin forced on the appetiteless Feef.  Poon parked in the Golden lot so she and Robin could snarf their grub while it was hot, arguing between gobbles as to whether or not these were the worst burgers ever incinerated.

 

Fiona, trying to think of a two-syllable rhyme for jeepster, gazed aimlessly out at a vintage car as it drove into the slot to the right of Le Heap.  She’d seen this car before, driven by Martin Sheen in Badlands and the Pharaoh hoods in American Graffiti; it was what Robin would call a “chopped lead-sled,” lowered so close to the ground you had to wonder how it could move without scraping asphalt.  Its windows were like slitted portholes, and in the one directly opposite Feef’s a face appeared—part of a face—eyebrows to lower lip.

 

Enough to be recognizable.  Identifiable.  Police-artist-sketchable.

 

Belonging to the girl who’d stood at Poon’s elbow in the VTHS Girls Gym last Tuesday.

 

Then up beside it loomed another half-face: that of the deadpan frostymug whose sideways spike had smashed Vicki senseless.

 

Together the two halves stared at Fiona like apparitions from The Omen or The Sentinel, or The Wind in the Willows—when Mole wanders into the Wild Wood and sees wedge-shaped stoats weaseling at him out of dark hollows.  Giving the evil-eyed malocchio, like Kinks Farghetti or Britt Groningen—except that these two halves seemed even more baleful and baneful.

 

Fiona stood (or sat) her ground, not allowing her domino mask to waver as she raised a greasy French fry to her mouth and took a deliberate downbite.

 

Then called “(Can we get going already?)” to Le Heap’s front seats.

 

“Lookit that bitchen Merc coupe,” remarked Robin as PoonElly dutifully backed out.

 

“Hey, that’s the Trashman!” said Poon, honking her horn at the Mercury and giving its driver a wave.  (Its passengers were no longer visible through the porthole slit.)  “El Hombre de la Basura!  He was the leader of the guys who ravaged Hayzoose the Horrible’s ‘Vette.”


“Who are these people, professional wrestlers?” asked Robin.

 

“Trashman’s real name is Clark Barrantes—we used to call him ‘Zagnut,’” said Poon.  “Emphasis on the nut—he’s got one o them love/hate fetishes going on with cars.  Y’know, either rubbing on layer after layer of Turtle Wax, or demolition-derbying ‘em.  Oops sorry,” to Fiona, remembering the black armband.  “Cops’ve had his ass in a couple times for questioning ‘bout trash jobs he’s done, but he’s kept it out of the wringer—so far.”

 

“Well, let Mr. Zag-emphasis-on-the-nut know that if he ever tries anything with my Sweet Babboo, I will crush that Merc into a jagged cube and introduce it up his ass!”

 

No further questions about Hayzoose, whose horrible role in Poon’s past hadn’t been shared with Robin.  Nor did either of Le Heap’s front-seat riders notice that the chopped lead-sled had also left the Golden Arches and was now trailing them up Chubb Avenue.  But Feef noticed, before sliding down in the backseat till her knees met her nose.

 

*

 

That same Saturday, Vicki Volester returned to volleyball practice for the first time since being taken from the gym to the hospital.  She’d missed Thursday’s matches with the Multch East Screaming Eagles, both of which Vanderlund won; though it was almost a foregone shoo-in (despite all the airs the varsity put on about finally notching a victory) given how dejected the Lady Eagles were.  Multch Township had just announced that East, the oldest of its four high schools, was going to be closed in three years and its student body consolidated into Multch North’s.  Parents and alumni were mounting figurative barricades to protest this abomination, but the East volleyball team simply went through perfunctory motions and lost twice.

 

Laurie Harrison must’ve suffered sympathy pains: by Seventh Hour on Thursday she looked so unwell that Coach Celeste sent her to the nurse’s office, excused from Phys Ed and also volleyball.  With both Laurie and Vicki out, the JVs abandoned platooning and started their best six, who dispatched the Unscreaming Eagles in two quick games.

 

Vicki returned to classes on Friday, her face looking a lot better but still pretty awful, and coated with more makeup than Robin’d worn at her pimpliest.  Jenna Wiblitz had on X-ray specs that saw through Vicki’s concealer to the blueish-greenish (aquamarinish?) bruises, which she sketched in gaudy living color; but Vicki forgave this after receiving the beautiful card Jenna’d handmade for her, its front an intricate net with a realistic hole torn through it.  The card had been signed by everyone at lunch: a sweet honor to be singled out for best wishes by the likes of Cheryl and Mary Kate, Frank Wharton and Stu Nugent—

 

—and Dennis Desmond, who waltzed over before Spanish to add his unasked-for autograph and say “Eight days till I take you out / is not enough to show I care!”—while reaching over to beep Carly Thibert’s cute little nose.

 

Quizzical stares from most of the other girls in Room 312, most disbelievingly by Diana Dabney, while Jenna’s feathery bird-brows flew up above her X-ray specs.

 

Vicki gave them all a feeble inept shrug.

 

“(Was he talking to you or me?)” asked Carly, eyeballing Dennis with fresh interest.

 

The rest of that Friday felt just as off-balance.  In World History Vicki was passed a note from Becca Blair, the first ever from that august personage, transmitting a dry little drollery that recommended she:

Vicki was weighing whether to send a reply under Ms. Goldberg’s meticulous gaze, when the fire alarm went off and the P.A. system directed everyone to evacuate VTHS “calmly and quietly.”

 

This sort of endeavor was tailor-made for Alex the Girl Scout, who would’ve been disappointed (upbeatly) if it were only a drill; but actual smoke could be seen drifting out of an open window, as those exiting school sent excited word back through the queue.  So Alex had her hands full, reining in student anticipation of their alma mater’s being destroyed by a blazing inferno, till (much too soon and to the majority’s regret) the smoke petered out before a fire engine rolled around the corner at a laidback pace, not even using its siren.

 

Vicki, waiting with the crowd on the “safe” south side of Wheaf Avenue, held Becca’s Gucci bag while the August Personage enhanced her regal manicure, shaking her imperial head at each rumor about the smoke’s cause/effect that reached her imperial ears.  Vicki for once was grateful to play maidservant and be lost in Becca’s august shadow, given the exaggerated contrast between golden auras and aquamarinish bruises.

 

“Chin,” said Becca, and Vicki pointed hers ever-upward like Agnes’s finger in David Copperfield, till a mundane report came from Home Ec that Doreen Jobling had let a pan of blueberry muffins burn to blackened crisps.  Luckily (and amazingly) Dory wasn’t hurt—though for the next month or so she wouldn’t have curlable eyelashes.

 

The schoolday ended on a mostly positive note when Phys Ed spent Seventh Hour out on the cinder track.  Vicki could ask for nothing better: it felt so good to run outdoors again, not doing laps inside a stuffy gym but with the wind in her hair and on her face, and nothing to imperil the still-sore latter except a stray cinder or two kicked up by pounding gym shoes.

 

“Isn’t this great?” she exulted, rolling the repronounceable “R” Tony-the-Tiger-style as she pulled alongside Laurie.  Who stuck her cute little nose high in the air and sprinted silently ahead.

 

Vicki was so astonished by this lack of response that she began to doubt it was really Laurie Harrison she’d spoken to.  “What’s with her?” she asked Sheila-Q, running up from behind. 

 

“What’s with who?

 

“Laurie—I asked her something and she didn’t answer anything, not one word.”

 

“Well, she left early yesterday and went home sick—might be laryngitis.  Enjoy the hush while it lasts.”

 

Or until Alex accompanied Vicki and Joss to Burrow Lane, intent on reaccustoming Vicki to ball control (with an admonitory frown at Joss’s reaction to this term).

 

First by rolling a ball from one to another, like preschoolers; then a gentle game of toss ‘n’ catch; then faster passes, from which Vicki sometimes couldn’t help but shrink away.  Then a pause to convince the disapproving Felicia that this was a good idea, a necessary step—of course employing the “when you fall off a horse” maxim, as if Alex had ever taken a fall in her equestrienne life.

 

Well: it was one thing to be thrown off a bucking bronco, and quite another to get trampled beneath its iron-shod hooves.  A rodeo acrobat might gamble this wouldn’t happen a second time, but Vicki wasn’t a cowgirl and already had her fill of blues.  (Faltering as another fastpass whizzed by to bounce off the flagstones.)

 

“This is awfully Phys-Eddish,” grumped Joss.  “Can’t she get ‘back in the saddle’ by riding a bike?”—the only form of exercise that Joss condoned, other than blowing into a musical instrument while not marching around with it.

 

“Just a few more,” promised Alex.

 

Vicki did her molar-gritting best to cope with them, though it felt like spoonfuls of strained carrots (blecch!) were being slung against her clenched teeth.  None of which had been loosened or chipped or knocked out by last Tuesday’s ultraspike—yet who could say that wouldn’t occur when the next one struck?…

 

Come Saturday morning, Alex and Mumbles had to almost drag the passive-resistant Vicki out of Mumbles’s Maserati Merak and into the school gym.

 

“Um, sorry, I just got kind of cramped in that little backseat is all…”

 

“Look, I knowww how you feeeel,” drawled Mumbles, who’d only recently regained fighting trim after taking that Houlihan cannonball to the gut.  “When it happens, you just wanna crawl off and play a heavenly harp!  HA!!  HA!!  HA!!  But you caaaan’t, you gotta” [singing, as Alex chimed in] “‘pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.’  So—start!”

 

All over again.

 

Them, on you.

 

Weird how people react to someone else’s head injury.

 

Fiona Weller’s noggin had gone clonk when she’d fainted on the VW Band Room floor; but the only visible result had been a bump hidden by her hair, and everybody was more concerned about the eating disorder that’d caused her collapse.  If Feef got stared at afterward, it was to make sure she put proper food in her mouth.

 

Fat Bob Neapolitan had bloodied the hell out of his nose when he’d tripped and fallen during the Battle of the Bands blackout; yet once it got packed with cotton, people hadn’t gawked at him as if he were a maimed casualty or freakshow resident.  (Not more than usual, anyway.)

 

But let a girl get smacked in the face by a supersonic volleyball, and watch her become the centerpiece of a whole new spectator sport—embraced by tearful sympathizers, scrutinized by critical analysts, ridiculed by mock-well-wishers.  Vicki’d run the gamut yesterday; her friends (and a few mockwells) hastened to say she looked “so much better,” but they all knew how far that was from good.

 

Now fellow Gondoliers crowded round to shell out encouragement, tips for getting back into the swing of things, and a Canadian nickel that Joyce Usher swore would protect her from further bad luck.  “Kiss it each time you rotate position,” urged Joyce, not saying which side of the nickel to kiss: Queen Elizabeth on the head or a beaver on the tail.

 

Coach Celeste had Vicki do some easy pass-set-hit drills with ethereal Pebbles and unobtrusive Ann Hew.  Vicki tried not to think every ball might be a neutron bomb with her name on it; but it was a massive hassle, bearing down on the basics in front of the entire gym and not excelling at them, either.  More and more eyes turned her way—some buoyantly, like Natalie and Thirsty K and Rhonda the Roadrunner; some appraisingly, like Lisa and Etta and Ms. Ramsey; some inscrutably, like Big Sue and Louisa and Gretel Hitchens; some uneasily, like Michelle and Samantha and Chookie Yentlebaum.

 

Isabel paid her no-never-mind (fine by Vicki) and some sort of squabble was going on between Ginger and Sheila-Q (over the bragging rights to Avalanche Dobbs?) so they too were inattentive.  But that left more scope for antagonistic glances from Gwen Cokingham, always on a stakeout for a bitchabout; and Demandin’ Amanda, intolerant of lapses and slipups; and Mauly the Mauler, whose blood-red battle-glints shone clear across the room.  And if all those weren’t enough to knock your nerves for a loop, Laurie Harrison again kept her mouth shut and her nose in the air whenever you ventured into her vicinity; while up in the bleachers sat newly-lashless Doreen Jobling, poring over every flub you made (and you made more, the more she pored) with almost ghoulish intensity.

 

*

 

On Monday the 19th, Aunt Polly Rumpelmagen brought Fiona home from an afterschool dental appointment that left her full of Novocain and Weltschmerz.  (So much for “healthy eating”—might as well have stuck to cereal snackpacks.)

 

“You had a phone call,” said Chloe, sounding irked that it’d pre‑empted one for her.

 

“(From…?)” Feef mutter-cued through numb gums.

 

“I don’t know—they didn’t say—just asked if you lived here.  I said ‘Yes’ and they hung up.  You’re not gonna call them back now, are you?  I’m expecting a—sorry!” Chloe backpedaled, as thunderclouds developed over Fiona’s head.

 

The household attributed this to the dentist or Marc Bolan, or that poor Jane Doe who’d expired without regaining consciousness: the latest addenda to the Mad Bludgeoner’s death toll.  (Spacyjane Groh had honored Jane Doe by sticking a white plastic carnation in her fedora’s hatband.)  Moth and the Rumpelmagens gave Fiona room to brood, which she took and did.

 

They know who I am.  They know where I live.

 

Even after Le Heap had lost the stalking Merc in last Saturday’s traffic.  Or so Feef’d thought and hoped at the time, peeping through Le Heap’s rear window to find it gone.

 

Where had they picked up her trail?  Maybe at the damned dentist’s, chancing to spot her in the “jolly green” Gremlin shared by Moth and Aunt Polly, which was parked now beside Uncle Cass’s Estate Wagon in the Plexiglass Palace garage.  Behind closed locked doors; theoretically secure.

 

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones—but how do they keep from being targeted?

 

External threats: you never feared them when Robin was close by, but when she wasn’t, things could get hairy.  And this external threat wasn’t Gary Sedgemoor mouthing off like a noisome salamander, or Britt Groningen bringing her abysmal gaslight to bear, or some bizarre Scenesters who might hijack and enslave you on the Sunset Strip.  This was (or may as well be) a Mad Bludgeoner—aware of who you were and where you lived, and very possibly what cars you got driven around town in.

 

Which meant there was no way Robin could safeguard you against this hairy threat.  Even if you felt up to explaining why Gina Conti was out to get you; even if you admitted the further reaches of your more-than-Just-Good-Friendship with PoonElly; and even if Robin took it all in stride (yeah right)—she couldn’t protect you from predators like Frostymug or the Trashman.  Robin herself was in danger, as bad or worse than yours: suppose they got hold of her “Sweet Babboo” and laid it waste?  That’d kill Robin, even if she weren’t behind the wheel when it happened.

 

(Shudder away from the thought.)

 

Nor could you simply ask Poon to tell Gina to lay off.  A Conti was no more likely than a Neapolitan to chuck a blood feud just like that.  Plus, you and Poon hadn’t really discussed Tuesday’s “incident”—certainly not then in the gym, nor elsewhere afterward.  If Poon didn’t suspect Vicki Volester’s true significance in your life, thinking she was just the Wrong Little Dark ‘Un, better leave well enough alone—no telling what might fall out if Poon took it into her head to get jealous.

 

So who was there you could turn to for help?

 

Memory of praying to a flounder in the sea.  O Gollum, Gollum, in your cave / or Tail-End, halfway to the grave.  Chanted thirteen times in quick succession, leaving a stupid aftertaste in your psyche.

 

One step at least was takeable by yourself.  Several steps, in fact: let the household retire to its various beds, let Chloe start making her nocturnal noises, then ease up and out and down and over to check the locks and catches on all the garage doors and windows.  While you inhale the mingled scents of motor oil and tire rubber—comforting odors, since they waft your fragile nostrils seven blocks north to Villa Neapolitan.  As the rest of you stands here in near darkness for uncounted minutes, listening for intimations of trouble that do not come.  Before easing back over and up and in and down; to wrap your arms around your bedded Fender and seek its calmative resonance.

 

*

 

On Tuesday afternoon the Lady Gondoliers crossed the canal to vie with the Blue Angels of Hereafter Park.  All the other NESTLÉ teams agreed that “Angels” was a misnomer; Hereafter Park got away with murder so often its players ought to be called the Scot-Frees, the Slaps-on-the-Wrist, or the Forty-Lashes-with-a-Wet-Noodle.  H.P.’s referees called more fouls and penalties than any in the league, but hardly ever on the home squad.  (Ginger Snowbedeck said even if a Blue Angel went on a chainsaw-massacre spree, the H.P. ref would blow the whistle on a visiting opponent for “unnecessary gore on the court.”)

 

You can’t squeeze blood out of a stone, though.

 

Over the Channel and up the Hills came Gondolier #26, Laurel Stacy Harrison, or “Levelheaded Laurie” as she now thought of herself.  Not “So Dumb,” not ever again; not after being smacked into sense and sensibility—thrust, as it were, through a crack in the eggshell that had contained her until last Thursday.  Into, at the outset, a state of post-smack stupefaction that’d intensified during Sixth Hour French, till Floyd Lewis who sat behind her raised a wannabe streetwise hand to say:

 

“Yo Mister Masseur sir?  Think we got us a case o’ heeBEEus-jeeBEEus here!”

 

“C’est vrai?” went Monsieur Dunlap.  He hailed from St. Louis, which entitled him (so he said) to spell his name d’Unlap “à la mode de Mark Twain” and disport like a wine steward on a snooty steamboat.  “Shall we appease you with a recitation of belle poésie, Mademoiselle Harrison?  Will un peu de Verlaine suffice?”

 

He reeled off a few stanzas with très sarcastique intonation, then ordered Laurie to translate the poem’s first two lines aloud as he dashed them onto a chalkboard:

 

 

Il pleure dans mon coeur

Comme il pleut sur la ville

 

Thanks to Rachel’s tutoring, Laurie was fairly conversant in elementary French; but now she remained silent (so dumb, as it were) till “Hiawatha” Lewis hid behind his notebook while piping out a falsetto:

 

 

By the shores of Gitche Gumee

By the shining Big-Sea-Water

 

[Laughter] as the bell re-P-E-E-E-E-A-L’d.

 

Laurie trudged downstairs with Enid Stott, who again wore neither glasses nor contacts and so noticed nothing extraordinary about Laurie’s demeanor.  But Samantha did, the minute she entered the locker room; and Ms. Schwall did too, when the perturbed Sammi called her over to see stupefaction crumble into shivering:

 

 

Quelle est cette langueur

qui pénètre mon cœur?

 

Coach Celeste wrapped her in a couple of towels and had Sammi take her to the nurse’s office, where the song of the rain (and it was raining outside) pitter-pattered a still small voice between her eardrums.

 

And to think that I thought I should get all dolled up today…

 

Nurse Rathbone, wise in the ways of teenage wasteland, made mild inquiries about possible substance usage, venereal situations, etc.; while the still small voice recalled that When it happened to Alex, she rammed a plate of spaghetti and meat sauce into the guy’s gut…

 

Reflexively, the macaroni salad Laurie’d had for lunch congealed into a pasta popsicle in her digestive tract.

 

“I’m cold,” she realized.

 

“There, there,” said Nurse Rathbone.

 

No comment as to whether the scantitude of Laurie’s wardrobe might be causing these chills.  Nor did Pa Zane remark on this when he came to get her, though he draped his suit jacket over her tremulous bare shoulders and held his umbrella over her wobbly head.

 

Not till she was in her own room, her own bed, beneath a quilt dug out of her own trunk, did she tardily wish that Jason Zane had been the one to pick her up and bring her home.  But Jason was off at college, partying down in Carbondale, and a stepbrother—make that a scuzzbrother—would be of no good to her now.

 

And to think that I thought he was soooo suave went the s.s. voice, in between sips of warm milk.

 

Susie returned from VW cross country practice, very damp and unkempt—we run in rain! we run through mud!—yet seemingly in the know as to how and why Laurie was laid up in bed (so to speak) at that time of day.  She held her tongue, though, in deference to infirmities, and stepped aside when Mom came home from the open-late-on-Thursday clinic to provide a second opinion.

 

“No fever,” said Mrs. Harrison-Zane RN.  “Any headache?  Dizziness?  Coughs or sneezes?”

 

Slow shake of denial by Laurie, whose shivers had settled into a steady unwavering c-h-i-l-l that wasn’t hurtful or stressful, but peculiarly delicious—goosing her flesh within unseasonable flannel PJs and thick wool socks.

 

Ooooooh, kewwwwl… was this what they called “sangfroid”?

 

“Ms. Rathbone was right, then,” said Mom, relieved to be off duty.  “Lots of rest and lots of liquids—and no, the one won’t make the other impossible.  Above all, no wasting your breath on the horn.”

 

Meaning not a brass instrument like Joss’s, but the pink touchtone Princess that was stashed on its shelf in Susie’s closet, along with the Phone-Mate that could record over two dozen thirty-second messages.

 

The girls had been given their own phone line a couple Christmases ago, partly so that Mom and Pa and Jason might regain a chance of getting and making calls themselves, and partly in hopes of Laurie learning some telephonic self-control.  Many rules had been laid down, with Susie given full rein to enforce them; including a new lock on her closet door, behind which the Princess resided when not in permissible use.

 

Later that evening Susie retrieved the closet key from its current hiding place and listened to the Phone-Mate’s messages.  “Three from Jerome, two from Sammi, one each from Rachel and Buddy and Chookie Yentlebaum (they beat Multch East in both matches) and one from Michelle Blundell, sounding worried.  Well they all are, of course, about you.”

 

“…I’ll talk to them later…”

 

Susie, concealing uneasiness at this lassitude, called everyone back with brief indefinite reassurances.  Then: “Y’ready to talk to me about it?”

 

“…just caught a chill is all…”

 

Hugging her sangfroid close and tight like a second skin, like body armor; as though she were an Athens Grove Olympian or Boomer Wrang, or even Joan of Freaking Arc.

 

Next morning she cloaked this with a more decorous outfit than the day before’s, but left her hair unplaited to hang down to her shoulders and into her eyes.  Brushing it forward into bangs as thick as Travis Lingerspiel’s: all the better to peer through at you, my dears…

 

Susie and their parents sized her up sidelong but said nothing, other than that she looked (as she felt) better.

 

Full listening mode on Friday: drawing friends out, studying them like textbooks.  What was it Sheila’d said at Houlihan?  “Probing them for weaknesses”—not just hypocrisy, as on that unhappy day six or so weeks ago, but every kind of character flaw.

 

Buddy Marcellus, for example.  All the things that’d ever bugged Laurie about him bubbled forth till she wished he’d go sweat them away with Thirsty K in Jake Korva’s jacuzzi, or do a Right Guard commercial with Jeff Friardale.  Had things gone differently yesterday, Laurie’d planned to get out of their Saturday date (miniature golf at the Kool Kourse amusement arcade) by giving Buddy the classic Something Suddenly Came Up brush-off.

 

Well, guess what: Something had.

 

There were so many cooler courses she could take.  Such as into the second-floor washroom between Third and Fourth Hours, so she could encounter Gigi Pyle and Britt Groningen and let out a still small (yet very distinct) snortle:

 

To think that I thought you two were soooo frightening…

 

Contemptuous perusal by Gigi’s Evergladesy irises.

 

Stiller smaller (yet even more distinct) response from behind bangs:

 

Fancy thinking the Beast was just a bunny you could hunt for sport…

 

Wordless huff by Gigi, who dried her lily-white hands and took her Dixie-cupped leave; probably to go curry further favor with the junior class snottyclique, having lost all her own disciples from VW.  Britt, though, lingered for a moment, regarding Laurie with sleepy-smily new interest; then said “Later” before strolling off.

 

That was unexpected; but not half as big a surprise as Laurie’s virulent revulsion at seeing Vicki Volester in Friday Phys Ed, and again at Saturday volleyball practice.

 

Had she been asked beforehand, Laurie would’ve unhesitatingly replied that Vicki was one of her closest friends, a heroine, a role model.  Hadn’t she wept when Vicki got injured just a few days ago?  Then gone to Vicki’s house, dined with her on Szechwan shrimp, and given her a big hug at parting?

 

C’était avant, c’est maintenant.  (How was that, Monsieur So-called d’Unlap?)

 

Turn your back and tilt your nose and pretend to ignore the Pfiester Park Pherrette—who, let’s not forget, was the one who set us up with Bubble-Forth Buddy last spring.  Now we know why!  (And pay no attention to the flickerish image of Vicki soothing a girl covered with wet grass clippings on Joss’s newly-mown lawn.)

 

As we go ker-bumpity down the far side of the Hereafter Hills and back to the present day: Tuesday the 20th of September.  With Isabel Carstairs oozy-cooing to half the team bus and Millicent Carstairs languidizing to the other half; each about the Blue Angel JV captain, a cousin of theirs who evidently embodied the worst traits of both.

 

Marilyn “Jive” Mansfield was a reputed expert on cheating at anything cheatable: athletics, card games, elections, final exams, commercial transactions, l’amour.  Her folks had withdrawn her from Startop Academy along with the Carstairs sisters, but Jive was on the brink of being asked to decamp.  She never visited the Shoreward Club without racking up some ill-gotten gain—pecuniary, pharmaceutical, or somebody else’s bien-aimé.  One time Jive had enthralled a Front Tree foreign exchange student named Farshad, leading him on and leaving him destitute with nothing to remember her by but a pair of her pantyhose, which Farshad used to strangle himself.

 

“To death?” gasped Sammi and Michelle.

 

“They had to dig the L’eggs out of his neck before shipping him back to Iran,” Isabel oozed.

 

“Is she telling that Fathead story again?” lolled Mauly from the varsity end of the bus.  “Was he the Shah’s cabaña boy in today’s version?”  (To the Biguns:) “Now, this is what Jive really did to him…”

 

Our cue to tune out both Carstairses.  Particularly Is, retelling her previous tales about how psychotic Mauly could get (when not luded to the gills) which we’ve heard so often we could set them to music:

 

 

To think that I thought you were soooo sophisticated

Now I’d just like your whoppers to beeee abbreviated

 

Weird.  Never able to think up lyrics before.  Always been in awe of those who could, Britt and Fiona and so on.  Must be a side effect of smacked-into sensibility.

 

In the Hereafter Park boys locker room (same stale urinal jokes as at Houlihan and Multch West) Coach Celeste named the first game’s starters.  Presuming H.P. won the coin toss (a fait accompli on their home court) it would be the six who’d played their best against Multch East: Sammi, Alex, and Natalie on the front line, Pebbles, Isabel, and Kirsten on the back.  If Vanderlund somehow won the toss, same lineup rotated one position clockwise, so Nat could serve.

 

Smoldering acquiescence by Etta and Sheila-Q, whose hot tempers were better suited for Fries-and-Broils platooning.  We, on the other hand, felt ice cream cool-coursing through our veins.  Enabling us to be patient and put Sammi’s mind at rest about our new match day ‘do: two unpoofy drooptails, plus the bangs down below our brows.

 

“Like Dyna Girl?” asked Samantha, still a Krofft Supershow devotee.

 

“Making you Electra Woman.”

 

Which Sammi accepted, even though she wasn’t blonde.  But still: “Feel okay?”

 

“Yeah, yeah.  Go, go.  Play, play.”

 

G-O / N-D-O / L-I-E-R-S, and so forth.

 

Ann Hew blended into the bench, but Michelle required convincing that her chances of court time today and making varsity next season hadn’t been scuttled.  Which was easier to say and do as Isabel got blitzkrieg’d by Cousin Jive (who looked like Is in a Vampirella wig) and the villainous H.P. ref.

 

The Blue Angels did win the toss—with a loaded coin, Natalie swore—after which Jive fired serve after serve at Vanderlund’s middle back row.  Is tried her utmost to bump these within Nat’s reach or to another setter; but her hits went wide or fell short or got tweeted as illegal—intentional delay of game, or violation of sportsmanship, or derogatory remarks to the referee in regard to these decisions.

 

With the Gondoliers down 8-0, Ms. Schwall pulled Isabel (cranberry-red by then with exasperation) and sent in not Etta, not S-Q, not Laurie or Michelle or Ann Hew, but Vicki Volester.  Who had the nerve and gall to not only be fully recuperated from last Tuesday’s bruises and blemishes—but to look even more attractive than she did before!

 

As if pain became her.

 

The other benchwarmers cheered Vicki back onto the court; the other starters welcomed her there.  We chose to take an au contraire course by crossing our fingers, our arms, our toes inside our gym shoes, and beginning a silent chant of JINX—JINX—JINX—

 

*

 

“Laurie’s got boars in her drawers.  Again,” Sheila’d stated fifteen minutes earlier from the other end of the bench, as Natalie went to shake hands with Marilyn Mansfield (who had hair like Cher but a face like Suzanne Somers: not a match made in heaven) and pretend there was a fifty-fifty chance of winning the coin toss.

 

Vicki peeked past Sheila-Q, Ann Hew, Henrietta and Michelle to contemplate Our Favorite Blabberyap.  A new thicket of bangs screened any responding peek, but Vicki could sense a malignant discord lurking there—as though Kinks Farghetti were on the prowl again.

 

“What is with Laurie?” Vicki’d asked Samantha in Study Hall.

 

“Not sure,” Sammi’d hedged.  “She came down with chills real sudden last week, y’know, and went home early?  Back at school next morning, told me she felt all well again, but hasn’t been acting like herself since.  Y’think we should be, like, um… concerned?”

 

Hard to say.  According to Joss who’d known her the longest, Laurie had always been gullible and naive and taken advantage of.  Her standard reaction was disbelief (up to and including denial hives) followed by turning on the waterworks (as she’d redundantly done on Joss’s just-doused lawn that day in August).  Rarely if ever was she speechless or taciturn, even while garbled by sobs.

 

The only conjecture Vicki could make was that Laurie’s nose-in-the-air had been put-out-of-joint by Dennis Desmond—who seemed to believe Vicki was destined to go out on a date with him that weekend, willy-or-nilly!  That morning in Spanish he’d serenaded her (in English) with a mishmash medley of Ruby and the Romantics and the Chambers Brothers:

 

 

Our day will come (tick tock tick tock)

The day after the day after the day after

Toooo-morrow (no tears for us)

Let’s do our laundry in the tumbling Tide

So our clothes can be psycheDELicized

Yes, our day will come (hey hey)

Then our time is gone (whoa whoa)

There’ll be things to reee-alize

If we floss our gums and wear a smile

And put off spittin’ till SAA-TUR-DAY—

(shoobie-doobie-wah)

 

From Señor Banonis: No mas canto, por favor.

 

Jenna Wiblitz kept her birdy-beak shut till Lunch 5D, when she’d chirped out of the side nearest Vicki’s ear: “(You’d better double with me and Rags.)”

 

“Hunh?”

 

“(Ssshhhh.  You’d best have me along—I know his tricks and manners.  Even if he better not call me ‘Jenny Wren’ again.)”

 

Vicki hadn’t been entirely certain what Jenna meant (though it was obvious who “he” was) or whether she herself had the durability to double-date with Rags Ragnarsson.  He didn’t lunch at Vicki’s table; Lisa’d banished him after a single unfortunate tryout, and Rags was now only allowed to come over and stand in the aisle for a few minutes after bringing Jenna her daily sugar cookie.  Holly and Link had petitioned to give him a second chance, but Lisa was adamant (“no dogs at the table!”) and there really wasn’t room enough for a big chowdown guy like Rags.  Not unless Sammi could summon the courage to go crash Tab Tchorz’s table, and she’d probably die of embarrassment before that could happen.

 

Vicki, watching the JV Gondoliers and Blue Angels do their pregame warmups, thought what a shame it was that Rags hadn’t fallen for Samantha.  Look at her, built like a college woman, leaping and striking and following through like a virtuoso dancer.  They were all dancers: Alex the gazelle and gymnastic Isabel and not-yet-soppy Kirsten and stronger-than-you’d-think Pebbles and even Momma Penguin Natalie.  Once more Vicki sat back and gave herself over to sheer enjoyment of the choreography, the sight of everyone working in synch like a ballet troupe before a recital.

 

Then the game began and this vista disintegrated.

 

Marilyn Mansfield lobbed one jive serve after another over Alex and Sammi’s outstretched hands to swoop into Isabel’s zone—nobody else’s—thwarting the moves Is made to keep it in play.  And those that the ball didn’t thwart, the referee did, till you thought he was going to wear out his whistle.

 

Isabel might not top any popularity poll of her teammates, but they rooted for her now from court and bench as she underwent this onslaught.  Pebbles and Thirsty K tried again and again to cover for her, but were no more successful than the front line at blocking Jive’s serves.  Finally, just as Isabel’s face was about to burst like a scalded tomato (which the ref would probably call a flagrant foul), Coach Celeste called a time out.

 

“Vicki—go in for Is.”

 

“Me?

 

“(Dig-and-roll all you can,)” Celeste quietly instructed.

 

“(Kill her.  Kill her dead,”) Isabel added, her face on the rupture-brink as she and Vicki touched palms in passing.

 

More emphatic gimme-fives came from the remaining starters as Vicki took her place in the midle back row, suddenly sweatier than any of them, including Kirsten who hadn’t had many opportunities yet to work up a thirst.  Sweatier and scaredier: I’m not ready yet—I’ve had only two practices in the past week—I didn’t even quit flinching at the ball till yesterday—

 

Oh for a hockey mask.

 

That morning when she’d approached the mirror, there’d been no recoil for the first time in seven days.  All the bruising and swelling was gone; she was “lovely as ever” after a washup and application of cosmetics (with a pre-torpedo amount of concealer).  Lovelier, if anything; as if in reward for being a Brave Soul and Good Sport.  Others too perceived an enrichment of appearance: her family, her friends, guys she knew, guys she didn’t; Dennis Desmond sang his appreciation.  Now if there was a way to drop by St. Benedict’s ER and show off the enriched face to Doctor Younghunk—

 

without its getting smashed by a second torpedo.

 

Oh for a hockey mask, or a fencing mask, or a Masai warrior mask…

 

And speaking of masks: had Hereafter Park decorated this gym for Halloween a month early?  Were all the Blue Angels really costumed as girl-goblins, except for their server who was done up as Dracula’s daughter?

 

Vicki shook these mirages out of her unmasked head, saying “Mine!” in a loud clear voice as the white leather orb rose high over the net and came plummeting earthward—or, more accurately, gymshoelacesward.  React automatically—accroupis down low—get your forearms under the ball—bump it into the air—tuck hands and chin to chest—dip one shoulder—roll over onto your back with knees bent—

 

—and sprawl there with feet pedaling haphazardly, almost kicking Alex and tripping Pebbles while causing Nat’s set to go out of bounds untouched.  Score: 9-0 Hereafter Park.

 

Hoarse whisper from Joyce Usher, whose turn it was to call lines: “Didja kiss the nickel while suiting up?  Didja?

 

No she hadn’t; but not kissing a Canadian nickel wouldn’t account for muffing the end of a dig-and-roll.  That was due to rustiness and maybe absentmindedness.  Next time remember to keep rolling till feet contact the floor, then spring up to standing.

 

Except that Vicki’s next attempt resulted in a bellyflop dive with no roll at all; and on the try after that, play was whistled dead when she caught the ball and held it between her elbows.  Which would’ve been a fine save by a soccer goalie, but lost Vanderlund another point in volleyball, making the score 11-0.

 

Feeble inept shrug at Alex, at Natalie, at Coach Celeste.

 

Holy smoke I really pulled a Charlie Gordon that time…

 

Yes, forget monster movies.  This was the scene in Flowers for Algernon where Charlie thought something had gone wrong with his eyesight, before realizing he could no longer read German or any of the languages he’d learned as a supergenius.  All gone…

 

*

 

Very early the next morning, in Wednesday’s wee-est hour, the Plexiglass Palace was rocked by what felt and sounded like an artillery fusillade.

 

Fiona, awake in an instant, flopped out onto the carpet and slid her Fender to safety under the bed; then quickcrawled to the bedroom door, flipped its lock and jammed a chair under its knob.

 

“Whuss happnin’?  Whuss goan on?” went groggy Chloe.

 

Ssshhhh!!”

 

Outside the door: the sounds of drubbing footfalls, throbbing voices, a car horn blaring an incessant F#.  Fiona groped for and grabbed hold of a three-foot drill rod she’d “borrowed” from stock metal in the basement, taking a self-defensive stance with it as the doorknob rattled and Chloe yawped fearfully behind her.

 

“Girls?  It’s okay, you can come out.”

 

Said the wildcat to the mice.  “What happened?” Feef exerted, as if to the Baroness back st the Mayerling.

 

“…there’s been kind of an accident, in the garage.”

 

And when Fiona (bringing her drill rod) and Chloe (clutching Bambooboo the panda) followed Moth out and down and over there, they found the Buick Estate Wagon wedged midway through a shattery chasm in one of the garage doors.  The other door had been opened more conventionally, and Uncle Cass strode back in below it after stifling the Buick horn.  Patches, Smarty, Bootsie, and Chuckles were lined up with their backs against the wall, gorging their ids on the spectacle of so much homespun destruction.  Uncle Cass planted himself between them and the entrapped Buick, fists on bathrobed hips, and focused grimly on his oldest son.

 

“Peter Behrens Rumpelmagen, I want you to look me in the eye—”

 

”I didn’t do it, Dad!” protested Patches, who was only eleven—although if he had succeeded in hot-wiring the car or at least dislodging its brakes, this would’ve been among the likelier consequences.  But not in the wee-est hour, in a house full of adults and with the garage’s side door also ajar, its bolt apparently jimmied.

 

“Now, Cass…”

 

“No more babying him, Polly!”

 

Outraged exclamation by Patches; jubilant snortling by Smarty, Bootsie, and Chuckles; doleful sighs by Aunt Polly and Moth; sheepish bleat by Chloe.

 

By this time neighbors in nightwear were arriving from all over Windy Poplar Lane, together with a copcar flashing its red domelight.  Fiona discreetly stowed her rod in a corner for later retrieval, and tugged the collar of her Ziggy Stardust T-shirt/nightie up over the cord around her throat.  This was not the chain of her FTW necklace, but the suspender of her life savings.

 

Back in L.A., while helping Lem pack his stuff for storage before he joined the Nora Corazon tour, she’d discovered his old grouch bag—a chamois drawstring purse that’d originally belonged to his vaudevillian grandmother.  Fiona remembered it as the Weller family bank in Cloudland Atmosphere days.

 

“(You don’t use this anymore?)”

 

“Nope—sold out and opened a checking account.”

 

“(Can I have it?)”

 

Lem had ceremoniously hung the grouch bag round her neck, and she’d begun stashing her currency inside it.  What with PoonElly’s picking up so many tabs, Feef had stockpiled a tidy sum over the summer—earmarking it for bass maintenance or acquiring more import albums; not forgetting that Robin’s sixteenth birthday was in less than a month.

 

Now there were more immediate needs.  Uncle Cass and Aunt Polly might be relatively well off, yet they had five children to raise (and start bailing out of juvie before long, even if Patches was innocent tonight) as well as providing room and board to Moth and Fiona.  Now there’d be major repairs to the garage and Estate Wagon to pay for, as well as the Palace alarm system Uncle Cass was talking to cops and neighbors about installing.

 

Restitution was not really an option.

 

But retribution could be.

 

Had the house been randomly broken into by a car thief so dumb he forgot to raise the garage door before trying to make his getaway?  So Patches and the boys were theorizing; and since there were no hooligans among Uncle Cass’s architectural competitors (so far as he knew) the cops seemed inclined to find this credible.

 

Fiona jumped to a variant conclusion.  She said nothing about it to Moth or the Rumpelmagens; nor to Robin or Fat Bob a few restless hours later when they drove by to take her to school, after inspecting the damage done and temporary fixes made so far.

 

“Pretty goodsized hole,” said Robin.  “Get any pictures of the Buick while it was stuck in it?”

 

“(Yeah, for insurance.)”

 

“Be sure and make me copies.”

 

Fat Bob offered to lend a meaty hand when permanent repairs began later that week.  Not today, though: this was one of his and Robin’s daddy/daughter Wednesdays, so Feef told them she’d get a different ride home that afternoon.

 

“From who?” asked Robin.

 

“(Depends.)”

 

“Deep ends?  Be just like you to go off ‘em!”

 

Or hire someone else to do it for you.  Fiona set this in motion during Second Hour Advanced French, which she took with Joss and Spacyjane and Isabel Carstairs—and Cramps Aplenty, who forwarded Feef’s motion-setting question to the next level.  Further intercessions were hampered by Feef’s refusal to dicker with the deputized; but after the final bell she made her way to the low-profile corner of Steeple and McKinley, on the other side of the school fence from Hordt Field.  (Actually from the marshy turf where Flips Exelby & Co. had played “swamp hockey” half a century earlier.)

 

(Ghostly clacks and plops.)

 

After an indeterminate while, a Galaxie Sports Hardtop revved up McKinley and paused just long enough for Feef to scramble into its empty backseat.  Bootleg McGillah was at the wheel, playing one of his own tapes at top volume: Aerosmith at Comiskey, summer before last.  He drove on across the bridge to Panama Boulevard, in and out of the Tunnel of Sighs under the Expressway overpass, south and west through inland Vanderlund and northern Multch, before coasting to a stop by the All Creatures Great & Small pet cemetery.

 

Then, from the shotgun seat, came a flat-as-roadkill “So?”

 

“(Favor to ask,)” said Fiona.

 

A taloned hand was raised beside the shotgun window.  In it Feef placed an envelope filled with her grouch bag’s ex-contents.  A taloned thumb opened the envelope and riffled the content-edges.  Then: “Well?”

 

Fiona leaned into the gap between the shotgun seat and window, and muttered her request into the multi-studded ear of Bunty O’Toole.

 

*

 

Meanwhile, at much the same moment in the VTHS Girls Gymnasium, Wednesday’s child was full of woe.

 

Vicki Volester may have been born on a Thursday (meaning she had far to go) yet woeful Wednesday clung to her like a pair of leg irons.

 

Ms. Schwall was off taking a return call from NESTLÉ concerning the complaint she’d informally lodged about Hereafter Park’s officiating.  Which left Ms. Ramsey wholly in charge of volleyball practice, looking no mellower than she had on the bus coming back from H.P. yesterday, when she’d berated the entire team for folding like a stack of cheap lawnchairs.

 

Sure, some of the ref’s calls might’ve been questionable, but that was no excuse for giving up or laying down on the job!  Even when the cards are stacked against you, a team that tries its best and does its best earns respect!  You may get outplayed, you may get outscored, but you fight for every point and stay in every game till the end—bitter or sweet!  There are nine more matches on the schedule, ladies, plus the Startop Invitational IF we stay invited, and anybody here who isn’t willing to commit herself to the program for every one of those matches can turn in her uniform and head out the door!  DO I make myself clear?

 

Ma’am yes ma’am.

 

It’d been no fun to be harangued like that, especially after the frightfest in Hereafter Park’s haunted house.  Both ordeals invaded Vicki’s dreams overnight, filling them with bungled bumps and sets, muddled spikes and dinks, and a furious castigating coach.

 

Mr. Heathcote had sometimes spoken severely to the cross country Ladybugs, but he’d never yanked their wings off when they lost a meet.  Nor, when Vicki was a Ladybug, would she have quailed at the prospect of nine more competitions—ten, including the Startop tournament—interspersed with a dozen afterschool and Saturday practices through the next dense month.

 

Wednesday’s child is full of woe…

 

Ms. Ramsey was not a barbarian.  She showed no pleasure at chewing up and spitting out her players (as Mr. Dimancheff might have, with relish) or subjecting them to potential humiliation.  But her idea of strengthening and toughening you was to stage intrasquad scrimmages: teammate versus teammate, varsity opposed to JV.  And today the Biguns were extrapissed since Ms. Ramsey’d told them they had less than no excuse for giving away their match to Hereafter Park; they’d known how the Blue Angels could gouge and chisel, so they should’ve persevered like veterans and set a better example for the Littluns.

 

Thus it was now bombardment time (again) and the JV scrimmagers had their asses on the dotted line (again) and prominent among these was Vicki’s (of freaking course) and, with each volley, she seemed less and less able to keep it from being kicked.

 

It wouldn’t have felt so bad if her old L-Bug buddies—Mumbles, Rhonda, Big Sue—had been on the other side of the net.  Or even Lisa Lohe, though she was such a perfectionist that she’d make you do a drill twenty times to get it right on the twenty-first.  But for this and anything else she might’ve said or done that Vicki found necessary to forgive, Lisa had formally (if a bit abstractedly) begged her pardon at lunch.

 

True, that was part of today being Yom Kippur Eve (or Erev or Chava or however you said “Eve” in Hebrew).  Lisa and Natalie Fish and Chookie Yentlebaum were all excused from practice to go visit Temple Beth Elohim and then have their pre-fast banquets before sundown.  After that, no food or drink for the next twenty-four hours, not even a sip of water; “I feel like I should’ve sinned more first,” Natalie’d groaned.   Jenna Wiblitz had left early too, as Rabbi Pip’s youngest grandchild; but Vicki’d forgiven her last Friday.

 

“For what?” Lisa’d wanted to know.

 

“For drawing my face when it was all bruised and swollen.  In color, too.”

 

“Oh, that.  She’s done a whole sketchbook of me looking injured.”

 

“With a few pages of her other expression,” Jenna’d said, quickly adding the ritual “G’mar chatima tova”—which sounded more like a Robin Neapolitan curse than anything meant for anyone’s benefit.

 

Just as this scrimmage felt more like a scourge than a strengthening.  Whichever way you turned, there was a Mauler or a Pounder or a Snowbedecker or a Bitchingham ready to stuff another ball down your throat.  And almost as exclusively as Marilyn Mansfield had targeted Isabel.  You weren’t alone on this side of the net, there were five other just-as-stuffable Littluns; but the stuffing kept being knocked out of you while their meant-to-be-supportive cries dwindled to a few impatient words before dying away till only your grunts of frustration could be heard.  No trash talk by the varsity was permitted, but their scorn hung in the air like a grotesque burlesque teasing-to-pieces out of the distant past:

 

 

Wedding at The City Hall!

Where the bridesmaids stand and call,

“This is Mrs. Wernie Ball!”

All in all in all in all—

 

Yes: the Blue Meanies had risen from the dead-and-gone to haunt you again, to taunt you with zingers and brickbats as you careen around the court, losing all coordination, all sense of direction, striving just to hold your arms correctly and not use them to ward off blows or hide the tears you expect to start shedding any second now as you lunge for one last pass and don’t lay so much as a finger on it before falling on your disgraced face and hearing from long ago and far away the snidely-whiplash voice of Melissa Chiese say:

 

That isn’t Vicki Volester—her real name’s Klumsy Klutzer—

 

Through which miserable memory pierced the here-and-now hacksaw of Demandin’ Amanda Pound: “Oh come on, you’re not even trying—

 

And before you or she or Ms. Ramsey or anyone else knew it, you were up off the court and under the net and charging for Amanda’s throat—and hanging over Louisa Lang’s steel rail of a right arm as it shot out to hold you back.  Hanging over it but poised like an unsheathed bayonet, your eyes blasting forth black laserbeams to lacerate the Amazonian Amanda Pound, who gawped down at you like a gigged frog as you broke the gym’s dead silence to say:

 

Don’t ever—I mean EVER—tell me I’m ‘not even trying

 

Aiming your lasers at the rest of the Varsity except Louisa, all of whom—Joyce, Ginger, Gwen, even Mauly the Mauler—raised unironic hands and took a step back.

 

Pivoting to ensure the other JVs knew you meant business.  They too retreated from your black beams, with Laurie Harrison emitting a little shriek (such as the Dormouse gave when pinched by the Mad Hatter) as they swept over her.

 

Belated phweet by Ms. Ramsey.  “Team: take your laps.  Vicki: my office.”

 

Vicki didn’t budge, other than to swivel slowly round and stay pinpointed on the Lady Gondoliers as they took their laps, none glancing back but all manifestly aware of her scrutiny.

 

A hand on her arm.  Louisa again?  No, Coach Celeste, whose conversation with the Assistant Commissioner had finished in time for her to witness the foregoing.  Ms. Ramsey seemed glad to leave its aftermath to her as Celeste led Vicki from the gym to the adjoining coach’s cubbyhole.

 

“Well…” she began.

 

“I’m done,” said Vicki.  “I’m not a quitter.  But I’m no good at this game anymore.  I’m getting worse every day.  Dory Jobling’s ankle ought to be healed by now—maybe the league’ll let her replace me.  She wants to play and it’s her sport.  It isn’t mine.  I should’ve signed up for intramural soccer.  Now I’ll wait for track season and try again then.”

 

“Well… you’re sure?  Another few days of rest, and…?”

 

“No.  It stopped being fun.  Now it’s a drag.  And I am too, on the team.”

 

Ms. Schwall studied her awhile, dimming down her own incandescence as Vicki’s starry black rays shone unabated.  “You know we’ll be shorthanded tomorrow, with Yom Kippur and all.  We’d appreciate it if you’d stay for the Willowhelm match—you can sub for Chookie as the JV manager.  I won’t play you if I don’t have to.  And that’ll give us time to check with the league about Dory.”  They owe us a favor, she indicated.  (Everyone knew NESTLÉ’s Assistant Commissioner was a Hereafter Park alumnus who sided with H.P. whenever possible.)

 

Vicki consented to these terms and returned to the gym, intending to linger there alone till the locker room was empty.  But waiting for her beneath the commemorative banners were Alex and Sheila and Samantha, and (somewhat to both their surprise) Laurie.

 

I don’t want to talk about it yet, Vicki sub-told them; and though none of them was Joss, they were her bunchkins and able to comprehend.

 

Three of them could, at least, escorting Vicki to the locker room like a brace of bodyguards.  The fourth one lagged a little, blinking continually behind her bangs as she nibbled the tip of a drooptail.

 

You see what she’s capable of, said a still small voice from the middle distance of her inner ear.  We must bide our time…

 

*

 

Next morning in Spanish, Señor Banonis repeated his Rosh Hashanah no-show; and this time they got a stoner-or-equivalent sub who played with the Christmas-type lightbulbs on all the wall maps after telling the class to divide into pairs and quiz each another on irregular syntax.

 

“My specialty!” said Dennis Desmond, having again usurped Jenna’s desk.

 

Vicki twirled toward Carly Thibert, who gave her a bawdy wink before turning away and coupling up with Woody Tays, a much squarer shooter than his cousin Petula Pierro (who’d tried and failed more than once to “incesticize” him since they’d hit puberty).

 

“Which position do you play again?” Carly giggled.

 

“Tight end,” Woody replied.

 

“Ooh, tell me about it!”

 

Tell her off while youre at it! seethed Vicki, still hot under the collar from yesterday.  No, forget hot—make that fit to be tied.  No—make that bent out of shape.  No—make that NOT in the mood!  As Vicki cuttingly informed Dennis; yet he, for once, was comparatively low-key.

 

“‘Atone your fears with my more noble meaning,’” he remarked.

 

“Hunh?”

 

“‘If we do now make our atonement well, our peace will, like a broken limb united, grow stronger for the breaking.’”

 

“Can’t you ever talk like a normal person?”

 

“Not on the Day of Atonement.”

 

“But you’re not Jewish… are you?”

 

“Who can say for sure, with circumcision the norm?  (That one’s not Shakespeare.)”

 

It was no secret that Dennis had been chosen for adoption because he was considered the most menacing baby at the orphanage.  So thought Morrigan Foley-Desmond, The City’s answer to Diane Arbus, who operated an outré photographic studio out of her rambling abode on Gloaming Avenue; and had featured Dennis in her portfolio of aberrancies for the past sixteen years.

 

“No better way to learn the Carny Code without actually living on the open road,” he boasted.

 

Kodachrome did not flow through his adopted veins; Dennis left camerawork to “mere apprentice paparazzi” like Split-Pea Erbsen.  Today, though, he served as a traveling picture salon with a film noir poster silkscreened on his T-shirt:

 

Tyrone Power in NIGHTMARE ALLEY.”

 

“What is that, a horror movie?” Vicki asked.

 

“More like career guidance—how to become a professional geek without half trying.”

 

Tyrone Power didn’t look particularly geekish.  Vicki remembered him from Witness for the Prosecution, when she and Joss and Alex and Fiona had agreed that Tony Pierro would probably resemble him in thirty years.  Dennis Desmond wouldn’t, though; he had none of Tony/Tyrone’s sleek dark puddyboyishness.  Truth be told, Dennis all of a sudden looked more like that Hunk With No Name who’d dissolved into dustmotes back at VW—fair-haired, bright-eyed, even some hints of rippling musculature.  But no diffident smile; just one distending every which way to display all those teeth.

 

For a second, Vicki wondered what it might be like to smooch a really bigmouthed guy.  Whose eyes were an odd shade of topaz, and seemed to revolve around their pupils like minuscule carousels; recalling when Dennis led the Chinese-takeout diners at Burrow Lane in an oompahpah chorus of

 

 

Oh you can’t bounce an eggroll

  Though try with all your might

Turn on with Geritol!

  Fly higher than a kite!

 

Now, stretching the bounds of irregular syntax, he inquired:

 

“Are you doing anything this Saturday?”

 

“Are you asking me instead of telling me?”

 

“Wouldn’t’ve ended with a question mark if I weren’t.”

 

“Exactly what would you have in mind, for doing on Saturday?”

 

“No more than what you’d be willing to accept doing, on Saturday.”

 

“Well, hear this—I don’t ‘vo-dee-oh-doe.’”

 

“So, no field trip to Hasenpfeffer Incorporated?”

 

“And anything we’d do would have to be with Jenna Wiblitz and Rags Ragnarsson.”

 

“So, book a double pic-a-nic basket?”

 

“Pic-a-nic?  Last week you were talking about Monte Carlo!”

 

“Depends how much gas money I can cadge from the Old ‘Un.”

 

“What old one?”

 

“The Widow Foley-Desmond, Starmaker of Abnormalities.  With a heart as big as an outdoor artichoke, and largesse to match.”

 

“Then where’d you get the money to pay for all that Szechwan shrimp?”

 

“Lemme give ya the bird’s-eye lowdown on that caper.  Me ‘n’ yer brudder, see, we knocked over the House o’ Chopsticks like we wuz pickin’ up jackstraws.”

 

“I don’t believe you.”  (If Goofus had participated in armed robbery of a Chinese restaurant, he’d surely have bragged about it by now.)

 

“Believe this—we sent em down the Big Seesaw, and that’s on the level.”

 

“Well, I don’t ride teeter-totters anymore.”  OhmyGahd don’t put you “riding” anything in his head—

 

“Riding?  Aw baby, I was made for it.  ‘Hey lookie lookie and don’t be bashful, the big show is about to begin!  Step right up to the divine fulcrum, climb aboard and cue the organist!  You’ll never be so tickled in your life!’”

 

Which sounded very smutty and objectionable, even if Vicki wasn’t sure what “fulcrum” meant.  She aimed a vehement laservision FLASH forward at Dennis—and saw it shock-absorbed by his dental shield-wall, making it glisten all the more.

 

“Som whaddaya say?  Shall we go escape from the crowd under the dwarf maples?

 

“Okay, wise guy, you got it!  Saturday, that is!  But I’m gonna be on the lookout for any move you try to make!”

 

“Ten-four, good buddy!” Dennis replied in the same hardboiled-yeggish tone, as if Spade or Marlowe (or Nick Danger) had got hold of a CB radio.

 

“Hey yeah, go see Smokey and the Bandit—that’s what we’re gonna do on Saturday!” Carly Thibert told them and also Woody Tays, who’d been unaware of this till now.

 

“Uh…” Woody square-shot, “shouldn’t we be hablando en español?

 

¿Un beso caliente en el extremo de un puño mojado?” suggested Dennis.

 

“This is so cool,” said the stoner-sub, lighting up the map of Central America.

 

*

 

Nettled at having given in so readily, Vicki stopped by the washroom before Second Hour and there ran into Laurie Harrison, looking like Mean Mary Jean from the old Plymouth ads in a Midway Monsters tunic and star-spangled shorts such as Coach Celeste might wear.

 

Laurie, casually: “Hi.”

 

Vicki, guardedly: “Hi.”

 

Forthrightly: “So—are you gonna go out with Dennis Desmond?”

 

Obliquely: “How do you feel about him?”

 

A tad shrilly: “He’s the one who did the feeling!…  I mean—be careful, if you do go out with him.  He really IS so weird.”

 

Vicki got buttonholed all day long all over school about the pitfalls of going on a date with One-Shot Thanks-a-Lot Untie-the-Knot.  She began to wonder if hed taped a sign publicizing the event to her back, one that vanished when she’d reach behind to feel for it.

 

At lunch Cheryl and Mary Kate plunked down on Jenna and Lisa’s empty stools, Cheryl to deliver a believe-me-you-don’t-want-to-get-involved-with-that-turd caveat, and Mary Kate to throw in an “Oh, Cheryl!” or two plus a few good words on Dennis’s behalf.

 

“What do you think of him?” Vicki asked Holly Brollis.

 

“Well, you sure won’t have to worry about any long awkward first-date silences from him, at least!” laughed Holly.  Sammi and Nonique agreed with this; Nelson Baedeker objected to Holly’s shoving a sly elbow in his quiet ribs; and Link Linfold sagely kungfu’d “There are awkwarder things than silences.”

 

One was Jerome Schei dashing over before Sixth Hour English to contribute his two cents while Vicki was trying to have a private tête-à-tête-à-tête with Joss and Fiona.

 

“Don’t mind me but like I told Laurie last week, Dennis Desmond could write a book on how to trifle with affections.  Not that you shouldn’t give him a fling if you really want to, but you’re so particular about who you go out with—I mean it has been awhile, right?”

 

Thank you, Jerome.  Bye now.”

 

“(Should he even be here?  Since when is he not Jewish?)” asked Fiona as Jerome returned to his side of a classroom bereft of Rachel and Split-Pea, Hope Eckhardt and Sell-O Fayne.

 

“Since he joined the Cat People—and I’m not talking about Mittens, Fingers and Thumb,” gibed Joss.

 

In Phys Ed, Dennis warranted thumbs-down from Sheila-Q (“He didn’t get the name ‘Unlucky Charms’ by walking under a ladder, y’know”) but was remembered with some fondness by Irina Saranoff (“He said he wanted to run barefoot through The Hair—not that I would’ve stood for that, of course”).

 

“Get your mind off him and on the match,” skimped Gretel Hitchens when Vicki reported to her after Seventh Hour.  (Gretel reviled all things masculine, starting with her twin brother Hansel who was as profligate as she was stingy.)

 

So prepare for volleyball, keeping your black lightsaber strapped on your metaphoric hip, with no slippage from yesterday’s resolution: Atonement means never having to say you’re sorry when you’re NOT.

 

Help Gretel set up the nets and referee stand; fetch the game balls and confirm they’re pumped; check the first aid kits and load the coolers; arrange the towels (six at the end of each bench, two at the nets, three on the scorer’s table).  Vanderlund was hosting, so no need to organize bus rides; but the boys locker room had to be trespassed into—yuck—for temporary refurbishment as a visiting girls vestry.  (Fresh towels here too, obviously.)

 

Then verify that every Littlun except Natalie was present, properly equipped and fit to play, even as they restored Dennis Desmond to conversational-topic status:

 

Thirsty K, again filling in as captain: “He cracks us up nonstop in Chemistry—and yknow, that’s not a superfunny subject.”  Michelle, back in the starting rotation: “I’ve heard some nice things about him and some not-so-nice—mostly half-and-half.”  Pebbles: “He’s not a bad guy, just likes to hear himself talk... and talk... and talk...”  Alex: “Please don’t let him drive you anywhere, not even around the block.”  Isabel: “Is it really true he wheedled two girls into posing for a porno photo shoot?”  Henrietta: “If he ain’t on any team, why should I know aboiut him?”

 

Laurie, Sammi, and Sheila had already been heard from; Ann Hew as usual had nothing to add.  But Doreen Jobling (scurrying up and down the bleachers to prove her robustness) paused for sufficient breath to attest that “Dennis took me out last January or was it February anyway we had a wonderful time even if he didn’t ask me for a second date” (resuming her jog) “which is true of everybody he goes out with so that doesn’t count—”

 

“Careful, Dory, your shoe’s untied!”

 

“—ULP—”

 

Then accompany Gretel out to meet the Willowhelm bus, greet the Windjammers, exchange handshakes with their managers and Hi how are you’s with Lillie Guldbaer, who though only a freshman was already star of the Jammer JV squad.  Sculpted from the same early-bloomer flesh-fount as Becca and Crystal and Gigi Pyle, Lillie could’ve passed for a senior and probably did, with or without a fake ID.  Rumor had it that she enjoyed a party-till-you’re-popeyed nightlife to rival Ginger Snowbedeck’s, while showing even less wear and tear as a result.

 

Isabel (another precocious flourisher) took one look at Lillie and girded herself for mano-a-mano combat.  Lillie responded entirely in kind, and they engaged in a tweaktease tug-of-war that got closely observed and loudly applauded by the males in attendance, Dennis among them.

 

“Told ya we’d pack more guy-asses in the stands than the varsity,” said Sheila-Q.

 

Apart from Lillie and Isabel (and Henrietta, who openly despised the three black Windjammers as “Spaghetto hoes”) both teams played magnanimous unexhibitionistic ball.  This was the sort of milieu in which Alex throve best, and she collaboratively led the Gondoliers to win the JV match two games to one, the deciding score a hardfought 16-14.

 

Between managerial assistance and doling out orange slices (generously: Kirsten was awarded an entire half) Vicki found time to simply be a spectator, with no impulse to go out and take part.  It wouldn’t be a hardship for her to turn up for the last four home matchesas a spectator, cheering on the players, showing support for the team.

 

Prudent policy too, as Louisa Lang had hinted in the locker room.  Other Biguns had avoided eye contact with Vicki (and her lightsaber) till Louisa, as track captain-designate, came over to ask laconic questions about her personal best time running in cross country meets.  Then, laying a large (yet unheavy hand) atop the much shorter Vicki’s head, Louisa had touched on Ms. Ramsey’s points about loyalty and commitment—not so much to a mismatched enterprise, as to those better-suited who carry on with it.

 

“Nome saing?” Louisa’d concluded.

 

“Course,” Vicki’d replied.

 

Pat pat pat by the large unheavy hand.

 

After which most (though not all) of the other Biguns had quit averting their eyes, and offered comradely salutations as if Vicki’d just arrived.

 

Even so, she watched without heartbreak as the varsity tried their best and did their best yet got outplayed and outscored by Willowhelm, dropping to a record of 1‑4 (1‑5, counting Houlihan) and a tie with Multch East for last place in the Shoreside Division.

 

What a darn shame.

 

Though not the only one, that Late Afternoon of Atonement.  No sooner had the JV match ended than Isabel’d leaped into the bleachers to plop her spandex’d bottom beside Dennis and start quizzing him about that alleged porno photo shoot he’d purportedly wheedled girls into posing for.

 

Vicki, relinquishing the reins to Gretel (along with fewer oranges than Gretel would’ve preferred), took a seat by Joss and Alex and Spacyjane and didn’t listen to a conversation she’d planned to have with Dennis, though for all she knew (or cared) he might be asking Isabel out for tonight or Friday night and after all why shouldn’t he?  Miss Is was way more likely to vo-dee-oh-doe on a first date even without the likelihood of a second; so let Mr. Dennis Desmond go out-and-out with her tonight if not tomorrow night if not both and leave Vicki the hell alone on Saturday—

 

“That one.  Over there.  Isn’t that the one my Swee’Pea won the summer photo contest with?” asked Spacyjane, her gaze trained unblinkingly on Lillie Guldbaer in the visitors bleachers across the gym.

 

Affirmations from Vicki, Joss and Alex, all slightly startled to hear her still make mention of My Swee’Pea after spending so much of the past month with Matt LaVintner.

 

Then the star sapphires swung over toward Isabel, sitting now with no discernible gap between herself and Dennis as she frisked a hand along the thigh pressed against hers.

 

“Florabelle would ever do a thing like that,” said Spacyjane, in a downright unnerving voice.

 

Mayday! sub-trumpeted Joss.  Isabel broke the spell and Space’s on the warpath!

 

I’m not exactly cool as a cucumber about it myself, y’know, Vicki sub-retorted.

 

Who can keep cool when the Blue Fairy sets the night on FIE-urr?

 

No way am I going out with him Saturday if he’s going out with her first.

 

Hey, she’s just warming up his leg for you—

 

Oh shut UP.

 

YOU shut up (hee hee hee)…

 

*

 

Certain hurdles would have to be overcome within the next forty-eight hours if Vicki were to go out on her first non-volleyball-related date of the no-longer-new school year.  Her first date, to be precise, in nearly six months—excluding Tony Pierro (who as good as stood her up, thanks to Kinks Farghetti) and the Studly Trio in Fort Lauderdale (with whom she’d played beach volleyball).

 

Six months.

 

That was just wrong.

 

Vicki got to school early Friday morning and found Jenna already in Room 312’s back row, creating “airgoyles”—paper airplanes on which she drew rococo gargoyle faces.

 

“Hi!  How’d your fast go?”

 

“Slowly.  You’re in a lot of trouble.”

 

“What?  Me?  Why?  ‘Cause I said yes to Dennis?  I may have changed my mind about that—”

 

“Dennis made you quit the team?”

 

“What?  I didn’t ‘quit,’ I like stepped aside—oh Gahd.  Lisa’s heard about it, hasn’t she?”

 

Weighty stare through rhinestone hornrims as Jenna dangled an airgoyle with notably Lohelike features.

 

Fatalistic sigh.  “Well, it was nice having lunch at your table—”

 

“¡Hola chicas abrazables!

 

A figure arose behind them, emerging up from the linoleum or through the rear wall of illuminated maps, to wind one long arm wound around Vicki and the other around Jenna.  Not companionably over their shoulders, but below their pits and past their ribs, so each wrist came close to taking part in cross-your-heart lift-and-separation.

 

Oh my heart is beating wildly / and it’s all because you’re here—

 

Og the Leprechaun strikes again.

 

Sending your sports reflexes to the fore: bat that hand/wrist/arm away, as if setting up a dink at the net.  Jenna took the extreme edge of the other cuff and removed its appendage from her person, gnarling “¡No intervenga!

 

while a flush suffused the cheeks beneath the hornrims—

 

—and a green-tipped arrow shish-kebab’d Vicki’s heart.  How dare Jenna Wiblitz be (or act) agitated by your date’s touchy-feeliness!  Wasn’t Rags enough for her, without having to entice Dennis with possibly phony aversion?

 

“Speaking today as tomorrow’s pickup artist,” Dennis was saying, “I need to nail down and bolt tight tomorrow’s pickup sequence.”  First, Rags on Kennelly Avenue; then, Jenna on Millbank Street; then, Vicki on Burrow Lane; then, maybe a movie and maybe a meal and maybe a morsel of mayhem.  S’awright?  S’awright.  ¡Hasta mañana! to them and ¡Bienvenido de nuevo! to Señor Banonis, who looked like his fast had gone even more slowly than Jenna’s.

 

“Siéntate, por favor,” he told Dennis.

 

“‘Perdonad; os tomaba por un escabel.’  ¿Así habló el Bufón en El Rey Lear, no?

 

Fatalistic sigh by Señor Banonis.  High-pitched yipe by Diana Dabney, as she pirouetted her heinie out of harm’s way when Dennis cracked his knuckles at it.

 

Effectively de-shishing Vicki’s kebab.  My heart’s in a pickle / it’s constantly fickle / and not too partickle, I fear... for which she gave Jenna a repentant Day After Yom Kippur eyeroll.

 

To which Jenna reiterated: “Don’t even think about ditching lunch or sitting at a different table.  When you’re in trouble with Her, soonest over is soonest clover.”

 

Which sounded rather morticiany.  But not inappropriate, as Vicki headed to Biology for one of Mr. Dimancheff’s “just because it’s Friday” exams.  She and Nonique had minicrammed for this on the morning bus, with Alex coaching them through cellular structure; but in the lab Nonique leaned over to whisper a worried “(You ready?)”

 

“(As I’ll ever be.)”

 

“(You look beat.  Got to practice again tonight?  Thought you quit that team.)”

 

“(I like stepped aside,”) Vicki told her; repeating this more loudly and in greater detail to Natalie Fish and Chookie Yentlebaum when she happened to meet them in the hallway before Third Hour.

 

“Well, if we cant change your mind, don’t be a stranger,” said Chookie.

 

“Don’t act any stranger, either,” added Nat.  “We’ve got enough people acting stranger every day!”

 

Among whom was Isabel Carstairs, who spent Fourth Hour shooting aquamarine gleams of triumph at Vicki.  Unless they were intended for Robin Neapolitan at the next desk, or over their heads at Britt Groningen and Gigi Pyle; but most likely at Vicki.

 

Isabel’s curves were encased in what appeared to be a coating of red spraypaint, yet was in fact a Palan Pétard designer original: the sort of dress that a girl might wear to the electric chair if she wanted to go out with a bang.  Every male eye in Room 221 (including furtive Mr. Rankin’s) was fastened on Is, and hardly a female stomach was left unturned.  Vicki’s certainly wasn’t; eliminating any last shred of appetite for lunch.  If triumphant gleams were anything to go by, Is had a date with Dennis Desmond that very night—unless she’d already had one with him, last night—unless she’d busted through his second-date barrier, and would soon be going-out-with-a-bang twice.

 

Which sent a whole quiver of aquamarine-tipped arrows into Vicki’s bosom.

 

“(What is this, another episode of All My Pythagorean Theorems?)” carped Robin.

 

“(No—A Lover’s Protractor,)” said Vicki.

 

Her own love life seemed perpetually protracted: drawn out, dragged out, strung out.  She had a vague distasteful notion of what “sloppy seconds” entailed; enough to be adamant against wasting time waiting in line for Dennis to “do his business,” like a hound on a hydrant.  (Eww.)  And particularly not if a “Lucia Vantrop” lookalike was part of the hydrantic equation.

 

One thing for certain: aquamarine gleams could not outshine black laser beams.  Vicki used hers when the bell rang, to burn twin holes in the red spraypainted posterior preceding her out of Room 221.  Which Isabel must’ve felt, since she jerked and squeaked and gave Brad Faussett a naughty-naughty headshake.

 

Vicki stayed galvanized through Study Hall, and by lunchtime was able to march up to her regular stool at her regular table where Lisa Lohe sat in foreordained judgment and, before Lisa could open with What’s all this nonsense?, recount what had happened on Wednesday and why she’d made the decision not to quit but step aside from the JV volleyball squad: sounding as crisply concise as when she’d testified at the Fondlegate hearing a year ago.

 

Furthermore—let it be known far and wide that if Mr. Dennis Desmond entertained any plans to take anybody else out this evening, his date tomorrow with Vicki Volester was terminado.

 

“A line in the sand,” said Jenna, drawing one on her sketchpad.  “Three more and you can play tic-tac-toe on the beach.”

 

Lisa, who’d hadn’t gotten a word in edgewise, dourly swallowed a forkful of leftover kugel.  “Well,” she concluded, “at least you haven’t completely lost your mind—over that weirdopath Dennis, anyway.”

 

Other Jewish friends and classmates belatedly weighed in on the weirdopath question before Sixth Hour English.  Rachel advocated renunciation of romance, singling out Sell-O Fayne as particularly disownable.  Sell-O himself s-m-i-l-e-ingly belittled Dennis for failing to put his fast-talking megablarney to more profitable use.  “Esperanza” Eckhardt recited a lengthy Spanish proverb that Vicki couldn’t decipher; and Jerome Schei offered the Gossip Brigade’s services (if not those of the Cat People) to track Dennis’s dalliances that night, should any occur.

 

What about any that might’ve occurred last night? Joss sub-queried.

 

I don’t want to burn all my bridges, Vicki sub-replied.

 

Even if leaving a bridge unburned did increase the odds of a rustyheaded troll climbing up from under it to follow you down from the fourth floor to the first, losing Joss on the third and Fiona (unusually silent, even for her) on the second.  Leaving you alone with Split-Pea Erbsen, on his way to Seventh Hour Journalism—in which Dennis Desmond also happened to be enrolled.

 

“If you haven’t already delivered your dating ultimatum to him,” Split-Pea remarked, “I’ll be glad to hand it over for a small tip of spare change.  Or a large tip of lavish cash.”

 

“Here’s your tip,” said Vicki at the foot of the stairs: “I think Spacyjane is mad at you.  And I don’t know what she might do if she is mad, or hurt, since I’ve never seen her be either—and I don’t want to, either.”

 

“Tip o’ the iceberg,” said Split-Pea, tipping the brim of an imaginary hat (bowler? fedora?) as he peeled off toward Mrs. Blackburn’s classroom.

 

During Phys Ed, Coach Celeste let Vicki know the league had agreed to Dory Jobling’s taking her place on the JV squad for the remainder of volleyball season; and Vicki promised to be on hand (in the stands, as a fan) for the rest of their home matches.  So those loose ends got tied up; but another lay in wait to be tripped over as Vicki left the locker room with Nonique and Sheila and still-lagging Laurie

 

and they all ran into Dennis Desmond as he loitered just outside the door.

 

“Caught you red-eyeballed, you peeper!” accused Sheila-Q.

 

“My eyeballs are ever-lovin’ yellow,” avowed Dennis.

 

“Jaundice, hunh?  Serves you right for hanging around girls locker rooms!”

 

“Hoke contraire—I’m here purely at your surface, to provide you with a surplus.”  Hitchcockian articulation: “Does anyone heah requah motorized trahhnnsporrrrt?”

 

“I should say not!” sniffed laggard Laurie, re-tilting her nose ceilingward as she stalked away.

 

“Me neither,” said S-Q.  “I know how ‘transported’ you get when you’re motorized.”

 

“Um well see you Monday,” went Nonique, dodging Vicki’s efforts to snag her by the satchelstrap and prevent her escape.

 

“Aint gonna let nobody turn her round,” sang Dennis, pulling a loose tube sock out of his pocket and flapping it in farewell.  “Walkin into freedom land!...  Anybody here prefer to get there by 'Super Hugger' sports car?”

 

“She does, Huggy Bear!  She wants you to drive her to Tijuana for the weekend!” said Sheila-Q, ducking a Vicki-slap upside her brass-bold head.

 

“’Hey, when the spirit is willing, the flesh can do all kinds of groovy stuff!’” quoted Dennis.  “So, señorita: all aboard the owtoboose for MEH-heeko!  We will tour its Russian colony and see the quaint native craftsmen carving wooden nutmegs!”

 

You’re a nutmeg! thought Vicki, who might have maintained resistance if Joss hadn’t shown up just then.

 

“There you are—I was afraid you’d got knocked out again on that stupid gym floor.  Ready to go?… oho,” went Joss, catching sight of Dennis.

 

Oho—” echoed Sheila, striking up a harmony as Dennis supplied bass-baritone counterpoint: “OHHH-HOHHH…

 

OHHH-KAY!!” Vicki shouted.  To Dennis: “Let’s leave already!”  To Joss: “He’s driving us!”  To Sheila: “And you’re coming too!”

 

“You can check out my backseat for the second time in nine days,” Dennis offered.

 

“You wish!” said S-Q.  “Sorry, gang, it’s Football Friday—I’m going with the Pep Club to the game at Multch South.”

 

“Not Multch South!” wailed Dennis.  “Whenever Gondoliers take on Buccaneers, Vienna gets pillaged!  Who will save the baby sausages?  Or the snails of Old Vienna?...”

 

Blathering on and on as they parted from Sheila and left the school, Vicki and Joss toting bags of books for their weekend homework, Dennis bringing nothing except that loose tube sock, tucked into his collar like an aberrant ascot.

 

While exiting VTHS and entering the “Super Hugger, Vicki was on guard for any sign of skintight red elastic stretched over a left-behind derriere bearing laser-blasted punctuation marks.  Not even an apostrophe could be seen, but that didn’t quell Vicki’s disquiet.  Nor Joss’s curiosity: after admiring the Camaro’s backseat, she poked her curly head between the front seats and propped her chin on the driver’s right shoulder to ask “So what is going on between you and Isabel Carstairs?”

 

Joss!!

 

Oh c’mon, you know you wanna know.

 

“Trying to inveigle her and her sister into posing for the Old ‘Un,” said Dennis, with no evasive tremor in the shoulder under Joss’s chin.  “Mauly just wants to know how much she’d be paid and how soon she could turn that pay into snootcandy.  It’s Is who wants to be inveigled—upveigled, downveigled, throughveigled—and acting so coy about it she could fill a Japanese fishpond.  As if she’d never EXposed herself to a camera lens before—”

 

Vicki and Joss exchanged D’you think he thinks she was ‘Lucia Vantrop’—that she lied to Hef about her jailbait situation?s as Dennis pulled the Camaro into the parking lot at Panama Hattie’s, after a moderately placid drive by Desmond standards.

 

Panama Hattie’s ranked with Deeple’s Pizzeria, the Sammitch Shoppe, and the uptown Zephyr Heaven as Vanderlund’s senior high hangouts (for law-abiding purposes).  Hattie’s north windows afforded a fine view of Startop Academy across the canal, and VTHS girls traditionally gave it an audible boo! as they took seats in Hattie booths or at the snack counter.  (Vicki did so self-effacingly and Joss with fullbodied cornetist gusto.)

 

The place was packed as per usual on a Friday afternoon, but Dennis had sway with a beehived waitress who accommodated them after a brief delay.  Vicki’d called Burrow Lane on one of the VTHS pay phones to report her and Joss’s whereabouts, lest a parent fear they’d been targeted by the Mad Bludgeoner; so no need for haste—or, for that matter, to fret any more about breaking training.  So Vicki ordered a pickleburger, as did Joss; while Dennis selected a jumbo chili cheese dog with every available topping (except ketchup: as taboo here in the ‘burbs as at Biff’s down in The City).

 

“Hope you don’t expect to ‘get lucky’ after eating that,” Joss told him.

 

Joss!!  Shut up!!

 

You shut up, I know you were thinking the exact same thing.

 

“LUCK,” struck Dennis, commencing a declamation on how he came to be known as Inauspicious Amulets (“Unlucky Charms to the vulgar”) that didn’t impede his consuming the jumbo chili cheese dog, or cause any gross crudities like chewing with his mouth open or spraying blobs of sauce, or obfuscate the celebrity voices he used to express parts of his soliloquy—Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Rodney Dangerfieldeven a duet sung by Joe Cocker and Karen Carpenter.  None of whom said Dennis and his bellyful of spicy pungent garnishes wouldn’t be “inveigling” Isabel later that night, so good thing Jerome Schei was sitting nearby with Wes Gormley (another card-carrying member of the Gossip Brigade) both of them giving you a we’re-on-the-case thumbs-up that ought to be reassuringbut what made you even want to go out with this “weirdopath” and his steamroller personality that was mutating before your eyes into a Luke Skywalker caricature (“I mean, who here didn’t used to bullseye womp rats that aren’t much bigger than two meter maids, amIrightfolks?”) yet away from whom you wanted to order every other girl to back the hell off, including your dearest friend Joss who in the past had referred to Dennis as a “loco towhead” though that didn’t stop her from having a gigglefit or rather a jigglefit to demonstrate she had a lot more to bestow in the flopperoo department—but it was you Dennis was addressing, you his ever-lovin’ yellow eyes kept honing in on, you his wide bright teeth had asked out for tomorrow night which you couldn’t help but anticipate with growing excitement (redden tingle blush) and you who might just end up busting through Dennis Desmond’s second-date barrier

 

“A short stormtrooper, a rebel groper and a kleptodroid go into Touchy Station to shoplift some power converters…”

 

*

 

That night at Burrow Lane, Vicki and Joss debated makeout logistics.

 

Vicki’s only pertinent auto-interior experience had been in the back of Roger Mustardman’s Rolls-Royce: melting into sumptuous upholstery while he stroked her then-long hair.  But he hadn’t kissed her till they were out of the car and standing under a streetlamp, with everything going downhill from there—no return to the Rolls for a afterdinner makeout.

 

Now for the first time she’d be going out with a licensed driver, of a modern Chevrolet that had no bench seat up front.  Even when the gearshift was placed in park, there’d be no easy (don’t say “easy”—make it facile, one of this week’s vocab words) no facile sliding over beside

the driver for front-seat canoodling.  Backseats of course were backseats; but on a double date the driver could hardly get his date back there without ordering the other couple to trade places.

 

Vicki wished she could consult Jenna about how close to “vo-dee-oh-doe” you might be expected to go in a car (backseat or front) after maybe-a-movie and/or maybe-a-meal.  Maybe really truly a morsel of mayhem?

 

“Call her up and ask,” said Joss.

 

“I can’t!  It’s Friday night and she’s a rabbi’s granddaughter!”

 

If not Jenna, some trustworthy older girl—Mumbles, Holly, Cheryl.  (Mary Kate wouldn’t know; she never went beyond non-French kisses.)  Yet even if any or all of them were here with Joss in Vicki’s bedroom, how could she pose the question without sounding like a stupid kid—an Ultravirgin, like the one in Fiona’s song?

 

This was one of those times when you really truly needed your big sister.

 

But Vicki’s was God knows where and Joss’s, even if she weren’t away at college, would (in Joss’s opinion) be useless to ask.  “I’m sure Nutmeg got plenty of action but I’m even surer she had no clue what was going on half the time.  (I can’t believe I never thought of calling her ’Nutmeg’ before.  Thank Dennis for putting it in my head—that alone makes your going out with him worth it, no matter what else happens.)”

 

Vicki wasn’t sure whether she wanted anything to “happen,” beyond a nice chaste non-French kiss or two.  Playing hard to get would be no defense at all; you’d have to make it difficult for any “getting” to transpire, even with the gearshift in park.

 

“Wish I hadn’t turned in my compression shorts along with the rest of my uniform.”

 

“We could go down to the Green Bridge tomorrow morning and find you a new pair.  Or how ‘bout a pantygirdle, like Sammi wanted?  I hear those can be hell to take off.”

 

“Maybe if I was built like a battleship.

 

Which would hinder fitting into her new blue denim jumpsuit, prefaded “for the ‘lived-in’ look,” with two deep sidepockets for stashing caches of mad money in case she had to abandon ship and find her way home from some makeout spot like DeRussey’s Point (aka DeLuster’s Leap) atop the highest Hereafter Hill.

 

Vicki might lack Alex’s Girl Scout credentials; yet she too could Be Prepared.

 

*

 

Nevertheless, she wasn’t prepared for the Saturday evening j-o-l-t of Dennis Desmond’s truckin’ into the cul-de-sac behind the wheel of an International Harvester Wagonmaster four-door crew cab pickup.

 

“What happened to the Camaro?”

 

“That’s my weekday vehicle.”

 

The frontseat (singular) of this vehicle was indistinguishable from its backseat.  Both were cushiony sofas, with room for three people to sit (or lie?) shoulder to shoulder, and thereby form competitive ménages-à-trois.

 

Tonight the Wagonmaster contained only Jenna in her Keane-Child-with-pinkeye T-shirt and matching conjunctivitis-colored glasses; Rags, who gave Vicki a boisterous greeting before barking others out his window at passers-by; and Dennis, crooning “Besame Mucho” over the CB to a lady trucker who used the snow-white handle Blancanieves.

 

Well! went indignant Vicki as the pickup barreled down Faxtail Road.  Singing to a Latina stranger while “Guadalupe Velezsits right here beside him—

 

hey, wait a minute—why’ve we turned west on Lesser?

 

“Aren’t we going to the New Sherwood?  For Smokey and the Bandit?

 

“Nope—the double feature at the drive-in,” Dennis informed her.  Then back into the CB, Dylanesquely: “‘Spanish is the loving tonnnngue…’”

 

Headin’ for the drive-in!” concurred Rags out the window, to honks from other motorists.

 

Vicki shrank within her jumpsuit.  The drive-in!  They might as well be making a beeline for DeLuster’s Leap!  Was it too soon to panic?…

 

Be cool sub-said a calm clear voice.  I always pack an X-Acto knife.

 

And when Vicki twisted around, Jenna produced the end of its metallic handle for her to see.  With an absurdly enormous sense of beholden relief.

 

Thank you for bringing that.  Thank you for being here.  Would you please be my new big sister?

 

Long as you don’t ask to borrow my specs.

 

“So, what’s playing at the drive-in?” Vicki asked, trying not to sound shaky.

 

“Diez-siete, mi amor,” said Dennis, signing off with the Latina trucker.  To Vicki he intoned “Action!  Adventure!  Passion!  Intrigue!  And lastly but not leastly—whore ore!

 

(Guffaw from Rags out the back window.)

 

“Horror,” Jenna interpreted.  “The remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau.  That’s the second feature, after Pancho and Lefty.

 

Which was supposed to have been a blockbuster but ended up eating Smokey and the Bandit’s dust.  Based very loosely on a true story, Pancho and Lefty starred Nora Corazon as a pioneer aviatrix who ran a dude ranch in the desert, and ex-child-actor Billy Jude as a southpaw test pilot trying to break the sound barrier.  Part historical drama, part romantic comedy, and part musical (with Nora rendering three torch songs, including her hit single “Porque le Vas”) it was apparently all dust-eater.  The expensive aerial effects were reduced to instant obsolescence by Star Wars, and any chemistry between Nora and Billy Jude got diluted by her being old enough to be his mother (however wonderfully preserved) with a few years to spare.  As for The Island of Dr. Moreau, it couldn’t be too ghastly a horror movie if it was rated PG… could it?

 

Maybe it wouldn’t matter: Maybe theyd be gone from the drive-in before the second feature started.  Saturday’s sunset, which should’ve been head-on through the windshield, was shrouded by darkening clouds; and if baseball games could get rained out, wouldn’t the same hold true for outdoor theaters?  Even if their patrons were all inside cars and trucks?

 

Dennis, having entertained a camionera who was probably older than Nora Corazon and a lot less glamorous, now began giving Vicki sundry little winks and leers and a trill-whistled “Happiness” from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.  “Oh good grief,” went Jenna; but Vicki had to giggle as she remembered the Dartle variation:

 

 

Happiness is

getting all baddy

with a beef patty

on a warm bunnnn…

 

(Redden tingle blush.)  Who knows?  Things might take a canoodly turn, with nobody in the Wagonmaster watching the second feature or even much of the first, whether under rainclouds or starshine.

 

Gliddy glub gloopy, nibby nabby noopy, la la la lo lo...

 

Headin’ into the drive-in.  No turnin’ back now…

 

Emery Ridge styled itself as the “Emerald Suburb”—though its high school teams were called the Scarlet Royals, and there were fewer evergreen trees than black cherries.  West of Triville and north of Athens Grove, it did have the Emerald Suburb Drive-in Theater (Flea Market by day) at which quite a few of tonight’s teens had been conceived during early-Sixties summers.  But the drive-in’s nights were numbered: its acreage was too fertile to lie fallow, and developers were planning a big new shopping mall anchored by a multiscreen cinema.  Tomorrow’s teens would have to get begat elsewhere.

 

Dennis parked the Wagonmaster in a back row and sent Rags to the concession stand for popcorn, pop drinks, and other junkfodder.  As Rags loped off, a subcompact sedan zoomed past him to pull into the stall immediately in front—so immediately that Dennis said “And here I am without a cowcatcher.”

 

Even in the overcast dusk this car was obviously a Pinto, whose firetrap disposition when rear-ended had recently been ballyhooed; and Dennis speculated aloud as to how big a bonfire might be caused if his truck happened to lurch forward.

 

“See that it doesn’t,” said Jenna .  “We don’t need to roast any s’mores.”

 

Then they saw the Pinto passenger door open and a golden head come slanting out, followed by a gymnastic torso that corkscrewed 180 degrees without leaving the sedan.

 

“Dig that wicked dig-and-roll!” went Dennis, flipping on the pickup’s lowbeams.

 

Swiss Miss froze in their lights.

 

Clad not in a dirndl but what appeared to be peach pajamas (probably silk) that clung as snugly to their contents as had the Palan Pétard designer original.

 

Squinting irately at an obtuse angle, before she slowly countercorkscrewed and withdrew into the Pinto’s turtleshell.

 

Way to illustrate geometric transformations!

 

And, seemingly, point for Vicki in their one-on-one volleyball rally.

 

Jerome had phoned (at considerable length) to report the Gossip Brigade had found no evidence that Isabel’d “interlaced” (Jerome’s term) with Dennis last night.  Not in the Camaro, at any rate; but what about this Wagonmaster?  Seriously, though (Vicki imagined Jerome asking), could you picture a Carstairs “getting it on” inside a pickup truck?

 

(Eww…)

 

Still: would that be any worse than having to picture a Carstairs making out in the backseat of a Pinto?

 

“Awww, looookIzzy-Whizzy’s taking pity on ol’ Garrigan!” cackled Dennis.  “Bless her butterflies, isn’t that bount-i-ful of her?”

 

“Until Cheryl goes bounty hunter on her,” said Jenna.

 

(Larry Garrigan’s dumping broken-ankled Dory had enraged Cheryl—not a difficult thing to do—but even Mary Kate had called it inexcusable, and together they’d spearheaded a Garrigan boycott by junior girls that spread to incoming sophs... till now.)

 

More to the point: Bless her butterflies?  Had Dennis just paid sly homage to Isabel’s underpantsthat fancy French-cut pair with the butterfly motif?  And if so, under what “interlacement” circumstances had he made their acquaintance?

 

Before Vicki could figure out a subtle way to find out, Rags returned bearing mass quantities of unhealthy edibles.  He distributed these around the pickup, employing the same “Sweets to the sweet” line he used every time he brought Jenna a cafeteria sugar cookie.

 

“Careful, you’ll spill it!” was her unsentimental reply.

 

“Settle down back there—this is a PG-rated vessel!” commanded Dennis.  “Open up the hailing frequencies, Mr. Sparks!  (That’s you, Ragnarsson.)”

 

“Oh!  Aye-aye, cap’n!” Rags obliged, clicking on a large portable radio stashed between him and Jenna (for the time being) in the backseat.  “You’re as cold as ice!!” boomed Foreigner till Rags twiddled the dial to the drive-in’s low-wattage transmitter that had replaced old-fashioned speakers on poles.  (Portable radios were recommended for those who didn’t want to keep their vehicles running throughout a double feature.)

 

“Take extra-OR-dinary special care with that high-tech radar set, Mr. Sparks!  It’s got police, aircraft, and weather bands, plus forty CB channels—so if we choose to, we can finally talk to ourselves!”

 

“Cool!  Which switch gets the police station?”

 

“—report of a car fire on Arahova Road—

 

“Pop goes another Pinto!” Dennis told Vicki, while Jenna took the radio away from Rags and dialed it back to the Emerald Suburb signal.  It, like the mammoth screen, urged theatergoers to grab as many goodies as they could hold.

 

Larry Garrigan, though no longer a “Throb,” appeared to be taking that advice along with as much advantage of Isabel as she’d yield while keeping one eye on Wagonmaster activity through the Pinto’s rear window.  Not that Vicki was conducting a similar vigil in reverse—but it soon became a moot point as Is and Larry disappeared from view.

 

“And now, our feature presentation.

 

(No coming attractions: this was the last weekend in September, summer was officially over, and who knew how much longer the drive-in would stay open?)

 

“Porque le Vas” gushed out of the portable radio as Nora Corazon, decked out in glitzier pilot togs than Amelia Earhart ever wore, climbed into a biplane and soared over the opening credits into the desert sky.  From which drops of rain began to fall—no, those were coming from the dark clouds above the Emerald Suburb, to splat atmospherically on the pickup windshield.  As they began their pitterpat, a long right arm slithered over to insinuate itself behind Vicki’s back… below her pit… past her ribs… and slide into second with a boob perched upon its thumb.

 

A big hand for the little lady…

 

Okay.  Okay.  Can’t say you haven’t been waiting for something like this to happen.  Take it easy (make that facile) and, with sham nonchalance, wriggle just a bit to your left.  See?  You’re not entirely unwilling or even unready.  You’re in senior high now, out on a double date with a very appealing albeit looney-tuned upperclassman (emphasis on the man: thats a mans hand moving up to encircle your modest perkiness) and a backseat chaperone who at this very moment was mixing twitters with her date’s snortles behind your cushiony sofa seat.  Yes, there they were and here you were and he was too: a couple of cozy twosomes, sharing a Wagonmaster from the good folks at International Harvester under a gentle early-autumn-evening rain…

 

—when all at once a FLASSSHHHH flassshhhh flassshhhh split-pea’d the darkness, as if Sidney Erbsen was trying out a gigantic telephoto lens—

 

—followed by a great CRUMMMPPPP crummmpppp crummmbbbble, as if Robin Neapolitan had hurled her drum kit and bowling ball down a flight of steep steel stairs directly overhead—

 

—sending heaven’s sprinkler system into hyperdrive as the rain poured down like Niagara Falls or an upside-down Old Faithful—

 

HOO-HAH!!” from Dennis, goodie-grabbing Vicki’s pechuga derecha and hauling her bodily adjacent with a painful hip-smack.  “’Tis a wild night!  Let us contend with the fretful element, the to-and-fro conflicting wind and rain!  Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!  Smite flat the thick rotundity of the world!”

 

React instinctively to save yourself, defend your dignity, protect your cheeks from having their rotundity smitten as you execute an upright reverse dig-and-roll, overturning your popcorn tub and Filbert’s root beer, winding up at arm’s length but with that big hand clamped around your left wrist as he uses his other to fling open the driver’s door:

 

“Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume!  Off, off your lendings!  Come unbutton here!  Naked as jaybirds shall we dance the night away, and not go to bed till noon!

 

Springing backwards into the deluge to be promptly engulfed: his fair hair sodden green in the murky neon, his face bone-white in a fresh flash of fulguration, his yellow eyes turned to jack-o-lanterns and his wide bright Joker-teeth all a-slaver—

 

This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet: he begins at curfew, and walks till the first cock!!

 

—that big hand drawing/dragging/stringing you along toward the wet maw of the doorway till your free arm seizes hold of the steering wheel and your left clog braces itself against the doorframe, giving you just enough time and leverage to lash out with your right—

 

“—O do de do de do de!  halloo halloo loo loo!—

 

—breaking free and casting him away as the door slams shut, almost but not quite on his hand and your foot as you crawdaddy backward to approximate safety—

 

—while the castaway weirdopath dances around in the pelting rain like a rabid if not frenzied monkey.

 

“Don’t worry, I’ll get him!” Rags seemed to say, drowned out by the downpour as he dove out into it.  Jenna locked all the doors after him, thrusting the portable radio over onto the empty driver’s seat, followed by her sketchbook and pencilbox (on a date?) and scrambling over after them, Vicki mechanically giving her a hand (not big, but for an even littler lady than herself) while her brain strained to process what had just happened.

 

What was still happening, insofar as could be seen through the rain and gloom—Dennis eluding Rags, Dennis skinning off soppy shirt, Dennis shedding soppy trou, Dennis waggling soppy ass at the WagonmasterDennis yanking open a Pinto door and extracting Isabel like a champagne cork as the Pinto started up, as it nearly collided with other departing cars as they sent sheets of water from every direction over Dennis, over Is and the pursuing Rags who all lost their footing if they weren’t actually struck down and run over—

 

“(Sorry, sorry, I dropped the knife, are you all right?)” Jenna super/sub-said, the torrent on the roof sounding now like a plague of hailstones and all the windows fogging up.  Then Vicki’s got hammered by a frantic fist, the door handle repeatedly shaken, as the girls let fly a mutual screech and Vicki took a frightened swipe at the windowfog.  In goggled a mermaid, a nixie, a Rhinemaiden—

 

—or Isabel Carstairs wearing only pajama bottoms, and them turned from silky peach to saggy sour cream. 

 

Continuing to hammer and shake and disregard motions to try the rear door, till Vicki reluctantly unlocked and opened hers just wide enough for Izzy-Whizzy to squeeze inand throw her drenched sobbing seminudity on Vicki’s neck.

 

New Big Sister, have you met my old one’s lookalike?

 

This was what you got for granting asylum: a powerful reminder of the day you helped the Murrisches give their cats a flea bath.  Plus uncomfortable awareness that your “lived-in” jumpsuit was getting soaked-inby much-too-intimate contact with Isabel, of all people.

 

He’s got my top!” bawled Is.

 

Is that it?” asked Jenna as a saturated garment went WHAP on the pickup’s windshield.  Which, once the inner glass got mopped, was revealed to be a pair of Jockey shorts with a Rags tag sewn onto the waistband by Mrs. Ragnarsson.  Meaning Jenna’s date must have joined the dimly distant striptease raindance, melting away out of sight.

 

“(Well, that was fun while it lasted,)” super/sub-said Jenna as the dancing duo melted

 

And my shoes!  And my purse!” added Isabel.  (Presumably Larry Garrigan had absconded with them in the Pinto, since Dennis was surely down to nothingness by now.)  She pulled away from thankful Vicki, using one trembly bare arm to cover trembly bare breasts, while the other hand knuckled gushing tears from dripping eyes.

 

“(Yeah okay there there,)” Vicki tried to tell her, super/sub-asking Jenna “(Can you drive this thing?)” with a nod at the keys left in the ignition.  “(Not even if it was dry and sunny out,)” Jenna attempted to reply, when Isabel gave an interrupting scream at the just-noticed sight of her conjunctivitis-colored glasses.  “(Oh for crying out loud, be cool!)” went Jenna, pulling them off to reveal her pretty little birdwoman face.

 

Is subsided then, mouthing I’m cold.  They all were by then, so Jenna turned the key in the ignition, found the pickup’s heater control and turned it on.  Vicki ran futile hands down her dank jumpsuit, brushing away stuck-on popcorn and peering out at the desolate pool they seemed to be stranded in.

 

Last year, Dave Solovay had tried to drag her into entombment under Dead Man’s Slope.  This year, Dennis Desmond tried to drag her into re-enactment of Lord of the Flies.

 

Boy, can I pick ‘em.

 

Or: can they pick me…

 

Don’t—stop—thinking about tomorrow!” blared Fleetwood Mac as Jenna tinkered with the radio, trying police/aircraft/weather bands, from which came unsurprising news of thunderstorms and local flooding.  “(Maybe we could use the CB to call for help?)”

 

“(Would it be safe?)” went Vicki, imagining responses to a broadcast that three teen girls were trapped at a drive-in, even if they didn’t mention the buxom one was topless.

 

I don’t want truckers to see me like this!!” yelled Isabel, hunkering down next to the heater, her face again a scalded tomato about to burst.

 

Then other brighter redness blinked through the rain and fog as a copcar came plowing through the pool, easing to a halt as Jenna leaned on the Wagonmaster horn and Vicki flipped the headlights on/off/on/off.  A big tall Batmanly silhouette in cape and hood got out and started toward them, taking slow careful steps.

 

Is he at least cute?” asked Isabel, curled up in a concealing-as-possible ball.

 

A second caped-and-hooded silhouette got out of the copcar’s other side and sloshed off in a different direction.  Vicki guessed that two of the girls’s three escorts might soon be rejoining them, equally in need of dry (or any) attire.

 

All things considered, she couldn’t say she was devastated that Dennis Desmond never dated anyone twice.

 

*

 

[buried in the city’s september 25th sunday tribune]

 

 

*

 

“So Gina won’t be running cross country or Nadine Rugova playing volleyball for awhile,” PoonElly informed Fiona later that Sunday.  “And the Trashman, of course, he’s out of what you might call commission altogether-like.  Gina’s telling me ‘n’ the other three Genies that she ‘n’ Nadine ‘fought off the Mad Bludgeoner,’ but everybody thinks the smokies’re right—it was a hit job on Zagnut, that they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time for.”  (Ruminative pause.)  “You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you Sugar Pop?”

 

“(Mee-ee?)” went Feef.  “(I don’t know anything except how to lay down a bass line.)”

 

(Vo-dee-oh-doe)

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Return to Chapter 35                          Proceed to Chapter 37

 

 

A Split Infinitive Production
Copyright © 2018-2019 by P. S. Ehrlich

 

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