- P.S. Ehrlich
The first car that Skeeter
was allowed to drive on her own, without an adult accompanist, was her
stepfather’s big old Thunderbird that Skeeter claimed wasn’t a Ford but a
Fudd and so dubbed Elmer. It went “huh-huh-huh-huh-huh” while shifting
gears and backfired a lot when driven in chains, as Skeeter kept
discovering one Leap Day afternoon.
C O R N W A L Las picturesque arches on each
She herself had a tendency
to stomp on the gas at the sight of red lights, taking them as a signal
to go girl go! There being many red lights visible this Leap Day,
Elmer went skid crunch skid and “huh-huh-huh-k’pow” all the way
down South 48th Street to Penzance Boulevard, which was one of several
(but the best of all possible) entries to
Beyond them, the snowfall
acted differently—Camelotly, in fact. Penzance Boulevard was shoveled not
just clear but immaculate, without anything so prosaic as “salt” or “sand”
to account for such clarity. As though a troop of tiny elves had done it
thought Skeeter. Here were suburban niceties. Only the most
presentable snow had been spared, left on display like decorative
cloudbanks, with Penzance Boulevard a horizontal four-lane beanstalk
climbing between them.
(Elmer, not used to jacking around Cloud-Cuckooland, threatened Fuddishly
to snap a chain.)
did CORNWALL put you in mind of? Not game hens, anyway. Or the
surrender-at-Yorktown question on last semester’s history final.
But—pixiedust, maybe. And pirates with hooks. Fee fi fo fum,
yo-ho-ho and a bottle of—St. Ives Street: turn left.
Last house in the
Not a gigantic house, but
you’d have plenty of room inside to swing a cat. A sack of cats. Make that
seven sacks, forty-nine cats, together with however many kits—never mind,
forget it. Pull into the spotless driveway. Park Elmer. Get out. Go on up
to the not-gigantic door and ring the bell. Mustn’t dilly, mustn’t dally,
don’t be silly, just go ahead and do it…
“Oh. Um. Hello…”
Nobody Doesn’t Like Sara Leeas the rumpus room
“Hi! Skeeter? Hi,
Skeeter—I’m Sally Whistletoe!”
(As if there could be any
take your coat—are you frozen?—have some hot chocolate—careful, we make it
hot—marshmallows too—here, have more—and whipped
cream—shpritz! Don’t worry, you won’t gain an ounce in this
house—I’ll have you yelling it off—HA! just kidding—c’mon down here—bring
your cup—watch your step—have a seat, and tell me—rats! there goes the
phone again! Just a sec, I’ll kiss ‘em off—(hi! what? did he? really?
great! you tell Vicki yet? why not? well, call her now and call me back
tonight if I don’t call you first, okay? yeah! right! good! you got it!
thought Skeeter. This was how to Do the Hustle.
Once upon a time Skeeter’d
thought she too knew how to Hustle not to say Bustle; but now she felt
reduced to stumblebummery.
They sat (Skeeter sat, Sally bustled) in a rumpus room with far less room
than rumpus. Those sacks of cats and kits would be safe down here, behind
and beneath the wealth of posters and banners and party impedimenta and
stereo system with shoulder-high speakers and shelves of albums and
shelves of eight-tracks and a pingpong table and pet rock menagerie and
megaphone collection and all sorts of pompons and all sorts of
weightlifting equipment and, along the far wall, a fullscale Olympic-size
sure into a lot of things,” said Skeeter; and it was so. Sally Whistletoe
was immersed in all ventures great and small that the Middle West could
offer wholesome energetic teenage girls in those Derelict Days, the
She was no
taller than Skeeter but looked a titan in her thunderbolted leotard. Sally
had apple cheeks and deep-dish dimples, cinnamon-roll hair in a freshbaked
Dorothy Hamill wedge, and a superimpressive bosom: the sort that appears
to be pulling its owner along like a couple of dachshunds on abbreviated
“You gotta have a
project!” she demonstrated with jutting jaw etc. “Gotta get with it—no
time to waste!” You had to get a move on, get the lead out, get it all
together and get your butt in gear, if you didn’t want to get nowhere
fast. Sally certainly didn’t, and at Cornwall High this semester alone she
was the Pep Club President, Spanish Club Vice President, Concert Choir
Secretary, Tri-Hi-Y Treasurer, Student Council Sergeant-at-Arms, and
Chairperson of the Courtesy Committee; none of which was a sinecure when
Sally Whistletoe embodied it. In her spare time she tutored the youth of
Demortuis in cheerleading, iron-pumping, self-defense, civic-mindedness,
and especially gymnastics. Everyone agreed that Sally could have
outgoldmedal’d the likes of Korbut and Comaneci if she hadn’t had so wide
a range of interests, or perhaps been blessed with a tad less chest.
But who else in Cornwall
could be spearheading plans for the local Bicentennial celebration? Or
leading efforts to help victims of the Guatemalan earthquake? Or
emergency-supervising the Winter Sports Dance Morning-After Clean-Up, when
the girl supposed to be in charge didn’t show (having broken up with her
boyfriend at the dance itself)?
“I know a lot of it’s kid stuff,” said Sally, “but some of it’s
not—most of it’s fun—you gotta be a Hype if you don’t wanna be a Ciphe—so
I say seize the moment! carpe the diem! and YOU—”
(zeroing in on Skeeter with
shot-forward fist and shot-forward forefinger)
“—your project is to
learn how to project—right? right! yeah! good! why?”
“Oh. Um. Well…”
Skeeter was unaccustomed to
going oh-um-well. Not so long ago she’d been a Whistletoe-in-training,
hyperactive if not yet an active Hype; but today she paled and shrank in
Sally’s comparative presence. A-squirm at the unspectacle she must be
unmaking—she, Skeeter Kitefly, who used to think nothing of jumping on a
cool guy’s back, with or without the benefit of prior introduction.
Skeeter a stumblebum? A
Just last year she’d been a
Buzzette. That had begun it; but what else to do? where else to go? given
the state of Demortuis in the state of Nilnisi in the midst of the
Derelict Days? Your choice: doodle or squat.
LA!that you could’ve heard clear
across the Ipsissima River.
The Buzzettes had chosen
both. Not as if they’d ever been an honest-to-God skag-gang, either.
Just a gaggle, in whose company Skeeter had cultivated the blank stare and
sullen indifference of a classic urban girl—only to remain a thoroughgoing
else had the Buzzettes done/gone? They’d cruised around town when cars
were available. Chugged Buds when Buds could be had. Smoked a lot. Hung
out. And out. Till Skeeter began to feel like Mowgli among the Bandar-log,
whose tails might be curved in the shape of a cupid’s bow but hung down
behind them even so. And never did what they set out to do.
So Skeeter’d bailed out
and out of Buzzettehood, without much in the way of a parachute or
safety net; and after an aimless summer had begun her junior year at
looser ends than ever. Droopier drawers, too: no great pickings among her
school’s upperclassmen, whom Skeeter had already gone through grade after
grade with. Their kisses, to her blaséfied lips, still tasted premature.
short, lacked spice; and Skeeter, also short, lacked luster, till Mrs.
Browning put her English class through the time-honored method of acting
out assignments as little skits. Which hadn’t jumpstarted Skeeter’s
academic interest; but she was a natural ham and took to the skits as if
they were pineapple slices.
Before she knew it, Mrs.
Browning had shanghaied her into school theatrics and Mr. Minie the music
teacher had cast her in that year’s operetta, The Big Noise, as
Bitsy the third-lead-and-comedy-relief.
Skeeter was exactly the
right type for this part, according to Mr. Minie; the librettists might’ve
had her in mind when they wrought the play. For was not Bitsy bitesized,
jocose and twinkle-eyed, with toothsome grin and roguish giggle and verve
as big as all outdoors? All of which Skeeter was, had, or could readily
Big Noise troupe included her longtime overarch rival Pamela
Pillsbury, equally bitesized and a veteran theatricker to boot (though she
never booted, not even after dress rehearsals). Disdaining the role of
Bitsy, Pam aspired to stardom as Darlin’ Da-a-arlene but had to settle for
Mamselle, the second-lead-and-(implied)-town-pump. Da-a-arlene’s part went
instead to LaFayette Smith, a dead ringer for Donna Summer, who was no
sooner cast than Mr. Minie announced his intention to “bring out the
essential Fiftiesishness” of a 1944 musical for reasons he went on about
at tiresome length.
“How Fiftiesy are we going to look with LaFayette as Da-a-arlene?” Pamela
snippy-dripped, not quite under her breath.
Which made Skeeter (a)
admire LaFayette all the more, (b) remark that some people looked
fif-teasy ALL the damn time, and (c) surname Pam’s character “Hepzibah”
after Pogo’s svelte French skunk.
Alas! As it happened, not
even LaFayette’s elegant voice could salvage Essential Fiftiesishness from
Bonum High School’s Big Noise. Half the cast came across as
imitation Fonzies, their lines littered with aays and yo!s.
Pamela Pillsbury totalbitched her way through every run-through. And
Skeeter, though a treat to see onstage, could not be heard beyond the
might not be the titular Big Noise but she was supposed to have a
loud mouth, as exemplified in the madcap ditty “I’ve Got a Clue” and the
production number “Bombshell Conga.” Skeeter brought Bitsy grin, giggle,
verve, happily on-key warble, and that stuPENdous mouth she could still
almost fit her fist inside. Plus the same regrettable tendency to
stomp on the gas and go too fast, swallowing her words or letting them
drown in the ensemble.
Mr. Minie tried to help,
but like a parent giving driving lessons he gnashed his teeth and tore his
hair and ultimately announced, “I don’t need you to quack like a
duck!” Which delighted Pamela Pillsbury no end, and caused Skeeter to
feel outright embarrassment for perhaps the first time in all her sixteen
years, not excluding that otherwise-dull party last summer when her
spaghetti straps had come unstrung.
So she didn’t sound right.
So what. Tough noogies.
never before had Skeeter Kitefly been unable to dish up the consommé when
push came to shove came to kick down the stairs. It was simply a matter of
getting a grip on the saucepan-handle. All she needed was a crash course
on how to get it.
Ethel Merman wasn’t available. Mr. Minie was a waste of breath. LaFayette
Smith lent some friendly advice but tagged each pointer with an
umm-y’know?—and Skeeter didn’t. But after the quack-crack Mamselle
Hepzibah took to calling her “Daffy,” which of course you knew meant
She’d have to go
straight to the top.
Demortuis that wasn’t some guru’s mountain peak or Kung Fu academy, but
the Land’s End house in the Cornish cul-de-sac off the Street of St. Ives.
Where Sally Whistletoe,
burrowing through umpteen albums and eight-tracks, came up with the
original Broadway cast recording of The Big Noise. And soon her
shoulder-high speakers dittied forth with:
Y’ever seen a concertina
played like he can play one?
Like an accorDEEon,
wishin’ it was you?
For a squeeze or two?
How’re you s’posed to get the most
squeezes when he’s weary?
It’s a myster-eery—
but I’ve got a clue!
“Know it! know it! love it!” Sally enthused. “Okay! On your feet now, here
we go! First of all—very important—physical conditioning—gotta warm up
properly! Breathe IN through the nose, deep! deeper! deeper!! Fill ‘em up
and hold it—find it—feel it—blow it OUT through the
Skeeter blew it
PERIOD end of sentence.
“Quit laughing!” Sally
smiled. “Start over! INhale—deeper—hold it—EXhale, like this:
foooo! Like there’s a bunch of birthday candles you’ve made a wish
on! OverexAGgerate! Yeah! right! good! now do it all again—”
And again, and
bootcamp neophyte had to amplify her lung capacity for quite some little
while, extinguishing imaginary candles with a fee fi fo fum,
yo-ho-ho and a bottle of—
“Okay, take a breather—HA!
just kidding,” said Sally. “No really, relax a minute, you’re doing great!
That’s the basics—do ‘em every day—your lungs’ll love you for it—boys will
too, when you can hold a kiss till they’re blue in the face!”
“Wherever,” Skeeter gasped.
“Now stand back and gimme
room—here’s where the fun begins—I’ll show you what else you can do, when
you know your projection!”
Eyes closed, fists clenched, legs straddled, Sally sought her innermost
bosomdepths and from them extracted a reverberating
Upstairs too, where somebody stomped three times.
“They oughta be used to
that by now,” said Sally, not even breathing hard. “Anyway, that’s how you
project—directly from the diaphragm!”
Oh sure thought
Skeeter. In her case it’d be from the diaphrag-ments.
But no time to quail, as
one after the other the girls went:
till you’d have
thought a hogcalling duel was going on.
Not once did Sally glance
at clock or watch. She acted like all the time in Land’s End was at
Skeeter’s disposal—except the occasional phone-ringing interval, when
Sally would kiss ‘em off while expanding plans for the Pep Club’s Spring
Spirit Picnic, or Tri-Hi-Y’s character-building retreat, or the Spanish
Club’s authentic ethnic dinner at a Mexican restaurant.
Finally Sally took the
phone off the hook and told her trainee to let herself go.
And Skeeter quailed.
There followed a
moment of silence, as though some infinite Being had sucked all the rumpus
room’s acoustics IN through its infinite Nose.
And Skeeter suddenly noticed
that Sally Whistletoe’s eyes, for all their freshbaked cinnamon warmth,
could be as penetrating as her voice.
OOOOH-WHEEEE-OOOOHthat must have achieved genuine
resonance, since it turned her mood ring ruby-red, and touched off a fresh
stomp from upstairs.
“Don’t worry about your
throat. This time, when you hold it and find it and feel it, bring it
all back up—let it all hang out—shoot the works and let it
So close your eyes,
bitsy Skeeter, clench your fists and reach within, rummage about, pray for
pixiedust and bid those fears goodbye: you can fly, you can fly,
the works and bring forth an
to go!” Sally applauded, exhaling. “Nothing to it when you know how! Just
practice practice practice—treat sore throat with honey and lemon and
menthol-eucalyptus—works wonders! Now,” (consulting a fat
Week-at-a-Glance) “what night does your show go on? and what
time? oh damn, I’ll be rehearsing myself then, and there’s a Pep meeting
after that—well rats! I’d’ve loved to come and hear you knock ‘em dead,
‘cause that’s exactly what you’re gonna do! Trust me! Guarantee it!”
“What do I owe you?”
me! Tell you what—we’ll Indian wrestle, the two of us, and if you can beat
me you can pay me!”
Skeeter declined, Sally being uncommonly strong in the arms. As she proved
with her farewell bearhug, before alley-ooping onto the balance beam to
No time to waste.
Skeeter got with it without
delay: got a move on, got the lead out, got her butt in gear. She
began to practice practice practice on the way home, projecting down the
four-lane beanstalk-length of Penzance Boulevard and stirring up those
sacks of cats.
took her mother less than the rest of Leap Night to banish “all that
yodeling” from the house; so most of Skeeter’s vocal exercises took place
in the garage inside Elmer, with the heater on and the door left open to
Steamy exhale after icicle inhale: each
breath held—found—felt—brought up—hung out—let fly to rattle the
windows as an OOOH-WHEE-OOOH, Elmer chiming in on huh-huh-harmony.
And by dress rehearsal
Skeeter could bounce a quarter-note off the balcony railing. Can/could/did
outbelt Merman, out-ham Jolson, leave no scenery unchewed; leaping into
the arms and onto the backs of various chorus boys, and generally carrying
on like Miss Amphie Tamine of 1976.
The Big Noise troupe
exclaimed over Skeeter’s untying-of-tongue, though Mr. Minie said no more
than “That’s getting there,” and Pamela Pillsbury disappeared from view
during take-fives till Skeeter ran to a remote restroom for an undisturbed
smoke and found Pam there in one of those awful stalls, on her knees,
genuflecting as she upped and chucked and booted away.
reaction was disgusted satisfaction, for which she chided herself; Sally
Whistletoe wouldn’t react like that. No, Sally would march in and hold
Pam’s head and save her from choking on lumps, oh GROHsss! Sorry; Skeeter
wasn’t that hyperadvanced yet.
But when Pamela finished,
and flushed, and got up, and turned around, and saw Skeeter, and burst
into tears, and wailed, “Why does everything always have to happen
to meeee?”—Skeeter would not have gloated openly for cash on any
cry, stop crying, come here and rinse your mouth.”
“Shut up! Get lost! Don’t
“Oh calm down,”
said Skeeter. “This is what happens when you scarf junkfood. C’mon. Let’s
tidy you up.”
submitted to spitting and rinsing, to having the front of her costume
mopped down with coarse brown paper towels, and being told to “Wipe
there—you’ve still got some there.” Skeeter offered her a cigarette (“Oh
go ahead, they aren’t doped”) and both girls smoked while inspecting each
other in the smoggy mirror.
“What’s got you so
cordial?” Pam wanted to know.
bravura’d, and thrilled to hear the ancient johntiles quiver. So stench or
no stench, IN through the nose, reach! rummage! repeat:
And there were echo effects worthy of Wagner or The Who.
“Where’d you learn to do
that?” breathed Pamela.
“Well, there’s this deformed phantom lives in the school basement who’s
been giving me private lessons—HA! just kidding,” said Skeeter. “Actually
it was my fairy godmother taught me how to bibbidi-bobbidi-boo—and now I’m
going to the ball!”
With lip sucked in and eyes
rolled, so that Pam could hardly help but laugh.
“C’mon!” Skeeter told her.
“We’re gonna knock ‘em dead—the band’ll be one big boner!”
“Awp!” went Pam. “I was
going to say, ‘Break a leg.’”
“Oog!” went Skeeter.
“Painful!” And they laughed and headed back to the auditorium, where
despite their newborn camaraderie Pam still tried to upstage Skeeter in
no-way-José avail. The night belonged to brass-bold cutiepiety. And if
that meant Mamselle Hepzibah had to be blown out of the water together
with Darlin’ Da-a-arlene and Mr. Minie and both choruses and the
one-big-boner band—well, c’est la show business.
Skeeter Kitefly stole the
operetta blind, and not just blind but immaculate. When all was said and
sung, she took a solo curtsy with ears full of raves, arms full of her
Uncle Buddy’s roses, and throat only slightly inflamed—utterly convinced
that musical comedy was now to be her forte in life.
It was, and it wasn’t. •
[Sadly, The Sidewalk's End is now gone from the Web. Above is a
replica of their September 2002 publication.]
Copyright © 2002-2008
by P. S. Ehrlich; All Rights Reserved.