The Less You Spend
“Everybody say success,” Ozzie instructed his wife and children, lined up behind the ribbon marking the change from Diamond Joel’s Auto Sales to Volester Motors. “Success!” went everybody (Goofus drawing out the first syllable) and flash went Charlie Marley’s camera as Felicia snipped the ribbon. That photo, blown up and hung on the Showroom wall, made Felicia shake her head for years, while Tricia always said: “I bet I could still fit into those hot pants.”
Everybody felt successful in the family’s new car, a Cadillac Eldorado that looked sparkly-tan but was in fact Almond Firemist. It had cruise control, climate control, power door locks, and best of all an 8-track tape player. Tricia regarded this dream-mobile as her own thirteenth birthday present (six weeks early) and was jealous when Ozzie took it anywhere without her.
“You ought to start teaching me to drive the Caddy now—then I’ll be an expert when I get my license.”
“I expect it’ll still be waiting for you in a couple more years, Princess.”
“But anything might happen to it by then! Promise you’ll be soooo careful, Daddy—don’t let it get scratched or dinged or pooped on!”
“I promise you can supervise the boys in Service if they have to depoopify it.”
“Now Daddy, this is serious—”
Which Ozzie must have taken to heart, because he looked and sounded serious for the rest of that summer. Even at home he’d act preoccupied, hunched with Felicia over a briefcase full of papers, often with the phone pressed to an ear. Which displeased Tricia (since Brian or Randy or who knew who else might be trying to call) but she was canny enough to keep Vicki and Goofus quiet at such times. Once or twice she even took them down to the corner grocery and treated them to ice cream, singing show tunes there and back:
Could it be? Yes it could! Sumpten’s coming, sumpten good...
And sumpten arrived in the form of a franchise. Volester Motors was going to start selling Hondas—not motorcycles, but new subcompact cars.
“Get changed, kiddies, ‘cause we are heading out to celebrate! You can order anything you please!”
(Well, they could always use another Dove bar.)
Down on Fiddler Key, Diamond Joel sang no songs about this deal. He considered Japanese automobiles to be cheap teakettles powered by Erector Set whirligigs. But his 48% of the Lot was matched by Ozzie and Felicia’s 48%, and outvoted by Fritzi and Doug’s 4%. Fritzi had taken no interest in the Lot for the past two decades, ever since her father swore he’d never hire another handsome young mechanic. But Gross Uncle Doug, won over by Ozzie’s arguments, offered to buy some of the Schmelzes’s share and so “lighten their risk.”
“Nothing doing,” said Dime. “Go on then, peddle your Nip tin cans. Just be sure you unload ‘em by the dozen—and never let yourself be undersold!”
Louder objections came from PopPop and Uncle Ted. If Ozzie wanted to sell new subcompacts, what the hell was wrong with GM’s Vega? Engine durability and fender corrosion, Ozzie retorted. As for other domestics, the Pinto had problems with suspension and brakes, while the Gremlin was nothing more than a chopped-down Hornet. And all of them lacked the Honda’s chief selling point: fuel efficiency.
“Bull!” went Uncle Ted, so loudly everyone in the apartment could hear him over the phone. “It’s un-American is what it is! You’re taking the food out of your nieces’s and nephews’s mouths!”
“Bull yourself, Ted!” went Uncle Jerry on Ozzie’s kitchen extension. Making a rare visit to the mainland, he was the youngest of the brothers and also the tallest and thinnest. “Beanpole Volester” they’d called him growing up; but he took none of their guff then and even less now. For the past year he’d been shipping natural gas from Alaska to Tokyo, and could testify firsthand how hard the Japanese were pushing to reduce pollution—such as by demanding high quality in their economy cars. “And you know what that means, Teddy boy? Honda’s in competition with Datsun and Toyota—not Detroit! Like Iacocca says, they’re gonna eat you alive!”
(Whereupon the three-brother conversation got even louder and full of sailor’s language.)
A couple days later Ozzie bounded upstairs to herd his household down to the alley and there introduce them to his very first Honda 600 Coupe.
“You didn’t trade in my Caddy for that, did you??” Tricia gasped.
“No, Princess, it’s safe at the Lot. I brought this home to show you what we’re gonna be selling, and give you all a test spin.”
“Not all at once you’re not,” said Uncle Jerry. “No way can you squeeze more’n two adults in that dinghy.”
It was the cutest little car, thought Vicki; you could almost tuck it inside the Eldorado’s trunk. To Goofus it looked like a life-size version of his many Matchbox vehicles, and he scrambled up on the hood to peer hungrily through the windshield.
“Christopher, get down from there!” Felicia ordered. “Your father can’t sell it if you go and wreck it!”
“Don’t you worry about that,” said Ozzie, smacking the top with an open palm. “This baby’s durable.”
“Long as you don’t play chicken with a Lincoln Continental,” said Uncle Jerry.
“Nossir, the Honda Coupe handles like a sports car—its front-wheel drive’ll pull you round a corner lickety-darn-split. C’mon, lemme show you what it can do.”
“I wanna sit on the front-wheel drive!” went Goofus.
“I’ll wait till you take it back to pick up the Caddy,” said Tricia. “Right now I’ll get dinner ready while the rest of you have your spin. Uncle Jerry can stay and help me.”
“Sure thing,” said Jerry. “There’s a pizza parlor in this neighborhood, right?”
Ozzie grumbled about spoilsport naysayers, while Felicia found the Coupe’s back seat too cramped for her liking and so commandeered shotgun.
“I could sit on your lap,” Goof counteroffered.
“Why, just last week I tried to put you on my lap and you said ‘Big boys don’t do that!’”
“I was wrong, Mommy! I’m zackly right for that!”
“You can sit in front when Daddy drives Tricia to the Lot,” Vicki suggested. “She’ll sit in back and pretend this is a taxicab.”
“An’ I’ll be her bodyguard!” Goofus enthused, brandishing an imaginary pistol.
Ozzie started the Honda, whisked them up through the alley and lickety-darn-split onto Yew.
“My, this is sporty,” said Felicia.
“Toldja!” Ozzie smiled, and began the spiel he’d be using on prospects. “Good basic car... perfect for commuting in The City... finds parking spots you didn’t know existed... won’t let you down on the Expressway... up to forty miles per gallon on regular gas... meets or exceeds all federal safety standards... available in orange, yellow, blue, and olive green... gotta expect that in a car this size—”
(As they hit a potholey stretch of Bohnsetter Avenue, and the Coupe pitched up and down like a dinghy on the Lake.)
“This is the best toy ever!!” Goofus shouted. “When do I get to drive it??”
Time ticked on. Nowadays it was Vicki the fourth-grader who had to escort Goofus to Morning Kindergarten. Actually it was Vicki and Hayley Tamworth, happily willing to hold Goof’s hand—and tightly, too: they dared not let him loose for a single second en route.
One day Hayley had to stay home with tummyache, so Vicki made Goofus wash his hands under her supervision just before they left. Even then he managed to exude a layer of mucilage that contaminated Vicki’s pure clean fingers all the way to Sharp Boulevard. There Kris Rawberry was waiting at her usual post by the stoplight, but even she who loved barnyards declined more than a brief touch of Goof’s dooky duke.
“From now on we’ll hold his sleeves,” she told Vicki.
Goofus wasn’t the only little kid they had to look after that year. Fourth-graders were the unofficial bosses of the whole second floor, expected to Set a Good Example and so forth; and their classroom’s being at the other end of school from kindergarten seemed to illustrate the long road they’d traveled to reach this plateau.
“Illustrate” was a favorite word of their teacher, Miss Durbin, who also made frequent use of “questionable” and “unsatisfactory.” She received the news of Hayley’s tummyache with all the skepticism shown toward fulsome courtiers by Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth R.
Miss Durbin was quite young and quite tall and quite striking and extremely strict. Her students got loaded up with homework every night; each was called on in class at least once a day; illustrated explanations might be deemed adequate, but excuses were always questionable and vagueness absolutely unsatisfactory.
For pupils used to Miss Steinfeldt’s indulgence and Mrs. Kling’s doddering, this was a plunge into academic boot camp. Some preferred such a regimen: Melissa Chiese and Sarah-Jill Shapiro both throve on rigor, and chose front-row-center desks directly in front of Miss Durbin’s to thrive that much more.
Their classroom was long and narrow, with desks four across. When told the first day to “Take a seat noiselessly, please,” the Peaches ranged themselves side by side behind Sarah‑Jill, and the Blue Meanies did likewise behind Melissa. Two boys occupied the front row corners: Wernie Ball on the left, nearest the door and escape; and Swede Swedebach on the right by the flag, which meant he had to lead the Pledge of Allegiance more often than not. (Called “Harold” by Miss Durbin, Swede Swedebach was an importee from Minnesota, who didn’t seem to enjoy City life or being asked “How’s your Badasssss Song?” every day.)
Vicki, in a reversal of last year’s situation, found herself seated right behind Wernie Ball. Kris and Hayley had noiselessly offered to swap desks, but Vicki decided it was marginally better to sit in the one place Wernie couldn’t peek at without breaking his neck. (Whenever new worksheets were handed out, though, Vicki would take hers from the middle of the stack to minimize contact with Wernie’s creepy-crawly thumbprints.)
Jimmy Maxwell surprised everyone by grabbing a third-row seat between Brenda and Stephanie. It was highly unusual for him to sit that far forward, but Jimmy claimed he’d fallen in love with Miss Durbin and couldn’t admire her properly from any further back. While she paced up and down beside the blackboard, tapping one hand with a javelin-length pointer (that awoke knuckle-whacking fears in Vicki’s memory), Jimmy would heave an admiring series of Sir Walter Raleigh sighs.
“That will do, James,” Miss Durbin would say, gaveling her desktop with the javelin if anybody snortled.
That autumn passed in a welter of punctuation, sentence structure, fractions and decimals, voyages of the explorers, ecology and recycling and photosomethingsis: all of which had to be learned at once.
Then came a January morning when Hayley stayed home with the sniffles. Vicki and Kris lugged Goofus to school (by his sleeves, though everyone wore mittens), deposited him in kindergarten and went down the corridor to their own room, where an upheaval of more than sighs was going on. Principal Overland stood there, hands gripping lapels as if he were about to address an Assembly. With him was Mr. Coakley the custodian, holding a spare desk and chair—both dilapidated even by Reulbach standards. And by their side lolled a person at whom the entire class stared openmouthed.
She was simply the most beautiful girl-their-own-age any of them had ever beheld, outside of TV or a movie screen. A blonde gypsy infanta in paisley peasant blouse and triple-tiered skirt, who gazed into the distance through half-open eyes.
“A new student for you,” Mr. Overland intoned. “This is Nina Gersh.”
“I see,” said Miss Durbin, giving Old Overalls a queenly off-with-your-head smile. “Welcome, Nina. I’m not certain where we can put you—”
“Don’t forget Hayley’s only sick for today,” went Brenda Pomerantz, waving one hand for clearance while laying the other protectively on Hayl’s vacant desk.
“Thank you, Brenda, I am aware of that,” said Miss Durbin. “Well, Mr. Coakley, perhaps you could fit an extra desk into that far corner—”
Jimmy Maxwell surged to his feet. “She can have my desk, Miss Durbin! I’ll take the ‘new’ one—it’s not near good enough for a girl to sit at.”
“Not nearly good enough—here now, James! What do you think you’re doing??”
Seizing the not-near-good-enough desk and thrusting it into a nonexistent space between his old one and Billy Goldfarb’s. “Spread out, ya morons!” Jimmy advised those seated behind him, forcing Billy and Lefty and Keith and Ordinary Mark to all shift backward with many scrapes and skreeks.
“You boys, lift up them desks when you move ‘em,” admonished Mr. Coakley.
Miss Durbin raised the javelin, but Mr. Overland stayed her hand. “Quite understandable,” he remarked leniently. “They’re getting to be that age, you know.”
He smiled at Nina Gersh; Mr. Coakley smiled at Nina Gersh; Billy and Lefty and Keith and Ordinary Mark smiled at Nina Gersh. Jimmy was wreathed in Nina-directed smiles as he scooped everything out of his ex-desk into the dilapidated one (whose lid came right off its hinges) and gallantly held his ex-chair for Nina as she sat. For which he was rewarded by a languid gypsy infanta smile that made all the male smiles redouble.
Every female eye in the room observed this disbelievingly.
“Thank you Mr. Overland, Mr. Coakley,” went Miss Durbin. “James Maxwell, since you’re being so helpful today, you may remain indoors during recess and put all our furniture in proper order. Nina, I would like you to stay in also—”
(Noiseless “OoooOOOOoooh” from the class.)
“—so that,” their teacher frowned, “I can bring you up to date on where we are in every subject. And now, IF we may, let us proceed with our regular timetable. Harold, please lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance.”
(Disgruntled loss-of-smile by Swede Swedebach.)
When the recess bell rang, the girls took their time putting on coats and caps and scarves, giving Nina long loitering backward glances—before dashing on down to the wintry playground, heedless of Setting a Good Example for littler kids. Outside they all huddled together for once, like penguins adrift on an ice floe:
That hair is bleached—and lookit the way she’s dressed!—yeah, flaunting herself like that—aw what’re you talking about?—you saw her! she’s acting like a slut!—like a what?—don’t tell me you don’t know what a “slut” is—well go ahead and explain it to us, Melissa—oh look it up in the dictionary if you’re so innocent—I bet you can’t even be a slut at our age—you can sure act like one, though—that’s right! nobody talk to Nina, not ever!—aw c’mon, give her a chance!—yeah, she might turn out to be really nice—let’s see who she sits with at lunch, and what she eats—and how she eats it: my mom says you can tell all about a girl by her table manners—oh that is so stew-pid—you’re the one who’s stupid, April—hey, you shut up!—no, you shut up!—
Breaths smoking as the bell went C-L-A-N-G.
Back to class for science hour. Open your book to page 140; learn more about the solar system. Between Mars and Jupiter is a belt of asteroids...
And between Brenda and Stephanie now sat Nina Gersh. At whom Brenda and Stephanie’s eyes were being strained sideways, while her own stayed half-shut. Which absolutely guaranteed Miss Durbin would keep calling on her, first day or not:
“What do we find between the planets Jupiter and Mars, Nina?”
“A belt of what, please?”
“And what are those rocks called?”
Shrug from Nina. Hands flung up and flailed around by Sarah-Jill and Melissa—and also Stephanie Lipperman, who triggered a storm of mirth and javelin-raps with her enthusiastic “ASSteroids!”
“Not quite so illustrative, please,” said Miss Durbin.
Come lunchtime Nina was late getting to the cafeteria, having to take some forms to the office first; so she was still at Mrs. Frank’s steam counter while her new classmates assumed battle stations. At stake was which table Nina picked to sit at, and whether its occupants would snub her approach.
For the Blue Meanies that should’ve been automatic, but they’d never spurned anyone with Nina Gersh’s allure, and suppose a rebuff were to backfire? As for the Peaches, they knew Hayley would want them to befriend a put-upon newcomer; but Hayl was absent and suppose this newcomer did turn out to be a ten-year-old slut?
Four Peaches and four Blue Meanies watched Nina head their way with a tray of meatloaf, green beans and Jell-O. All eight saw Jimmy’s elbow jab Billy Goldfarb’s ribs—then Jimmy’s hand slide inside Jimmy’s shirtfront and make it palpitate like a beating heart—then Jimmy stand and bow and say, “We saved ya a stool, Nina!”
(Snortles from every guy at that table.)
“’Kay,” said Nina.
Taking the proffered stool without the slightest hesitation, and sending shockwaves across the cafeteria.
“She’s sitting with them!” Vicki hissed. “She’s sitting with boys and eating lunch with them!”
The boys seemed equally flabbergasted. None more so than Jimmy himself, who flopped down and tried to put a sandwich into his shirt instead of his mouth.
“Oh. That. Does it,” pronounced Melissa Chiese. “She’s a slut for sure!”
“I always miss all the good stuff,” Hayley sniffled that afternoon when Vicki delivered a blow-by-blow recap of the day’s events, along with the day’s homework assignments.
That same month, Felicia started going to the Lot with Ozzie every morning. At midday she would pick up Goofus from school, feed him and drop him off at daycare. Too much havoc got wreaked when he spent afternoons at the Lot; and things there were in enough disarray as it was.
The Honda franchise had brought Volester Motors not only Coupes and Sedans but also a ton of paperwork. Felicia helped with the bills of ladings and customs triplicates and import tax documents, while Ozzie stood at the Showroom window staring out at the Longest Street in The City if not the world.
Yes, the new Hondas were moving.
No, not at the rate they’d hoped for by now.
Still, every person who came by to check them out was a potential future buyer.
Even when, for the moment, they laughed and left or asked about used Buicks.
If only they’d give the Hondas a chance—take that test drive—see how the little cars performed—Ozzie knew sales would improve. They had to: this was the wave of the future, and the Volesters were going to ride it like a surfin’ safari.
But, for the moment, answer the phone please and take another message if it’s from Dime or PopPop or Uncle Ted.
Vicki was also instructed to help out more with 3W’s housework. Hayley and Mrs. Tamworth chipped in, and Tricia provided supervision; but the best assistance came from Tricia’s new best friend at Pfiester High School, Cynthia Dollfuss.
She had an elastic clown-face like Jimmy Maxwell’s, though hers (being a teenage girl’s) was much more winsome. Cynthia could make its expression look so lost or hurt you wanted to rush over and comfort her—but then, in an instant, she’d switch to gotcha! glee. And start to giggle, giving way to a joyous horselaugh followed by “Yeah!... yeah!” and, usually, clapping. (Go see any comedy movie in Pfiester Park, and you’d know if Cynthia Dollfuss was in the audience.)
She won Vicki and Hayley’s hearts by saying “Aw, let ‘em stay” whenever Tricia tried to evict them from 3W’s bedroom or living room or kitchen. Hayley idolized Cynthia for admitting to a similar struggle with weight and appetite, confiding: “You know the good thing about being kinda plump, Hayl? You’re gonna have boobies before any of your friends! Hee hee hee hee haw haw haw!! Yeah!... y-e-a-h!” (Clap clap clap.)
She and Kris Rawberry were already friends-in-law, since Cynthia’s big sister Jennifer was best-buddy teammates with Kris’s sister Kate. Whenever Cynthia attended their games at Pfiester High, she’d replace her yeahs! with yays! that could be heard all over the gym or fieldhouse.
Despite wearing precocious C-cups at age fourteen, Cynthia was still devoutly wedded to the world of make-believe. “I’m bored with these Freshman Speech topics,” she told Tricia one day. “Let’s pretend me ‘n’ you are filming a commercial for your dad’s car lot! I’ll be you ‘n’ you be your dad!”
Tricia firmly reversed those roles, but took Cynthia’s idea and ran with it. In a twinkling they had a script and props and four folding chairs arranged to mock-up a Honda, plus a semi-reluctant audience of Ozzie and Felicia (“We don’t really have time for this right now”) plus Goofus and Vicki and Hayley and her parents.
Daddy, is it true that the less you spend on a car, the more you can spend on other things?
cynthia as ozzie
[with all his inflections and mannerisms down pat]
It sure is, Princess! Here at Volester Motors, we have the new Honda Coupe—it gets up to 40 miles a gallon and 75 miles an hour, while costing you under $1700!
That saves a lot of money and makes a lot of sense! What about the Honda Sedan, Daddy?
cynthia as ozzie
It’s the best car bargain today, Princess—with fuel efficiency that sends gas station attendants running for cover! You’ll love the Honda Sedan, and your wallet will, too!
[climbing into the mock-up and smiling at the “camera”]
I can’t wait to get my license! Everyone who’s got one, come see what we have waiting for you at Volester Motors!
Cynthia sang the Lot’s address with a jaunty butter-and-egg grin on her winsome kisser, and the actresses bob-curtsied to somewhat stunned applause.
“Careful, honey,” said Harry Tamworth. “You don’t want your face to freeze like that!”
“Aw, Cinderelly’d just laugh my face off!” said Ozzie, hugging his mimic with one arm and Tricia with the other. He himself looked much more like himself than he had for weeks. “Girls, that was pretty near good enough to be a real commercial.”
“Which is why I called Charlie Marley,” Tricia informed him. “He says you and I can tape it next Saturday.”
“Now whoa whoa whoa, let’s hold our horses here—”
“Aw please, Mr. V,” coaxed Cynthia, laying a lost/hurt head on Ozzie’s shoulder. “We’ll get school credit and Trish’ll get screen credit, and I can coach you how to act like me acting like you till nobody’ll know the difference!”
“Yeah, Daddy,” Tricia cajoled, appropriating the other shoulder. “We want to move the merchandise, don’t we? And not get any more postcards from Uncle Ted?”
(One had arrived from Tempest Lake that day, with a photo of a Volkswagen on one side and Wanna try these next? on the other.)
“Help! They’re double-teaming me, Fel!” said Ozzie.
“Well,” Felicia mused, “we’d have to go over that script with a blue pencil. And I’d have the final say on what you’d wear, Blondie. I’m telling you right now it won’t be hot pants.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake, Mother! Nobody wears those anymore.”
Instead, Tricia donned a “sizzle dress” (essentially a short tunic buttoned down over hot pants) and her first pair of platform shoes, bought for the occasion though scarcely visible onscreen.
Ozzie, now playing himself, urged Cynthia to still make an appearance. “Go stand next to Tricia, honey, and give us that big smile.”
“Nahhhh, nahhhh,” she blushed.
“You know she’ll crack up the minute we start,” said Tricia. Which caused Cynthia to jump the gun, guffawing at the mere thought of doing so. She finally ran and hid in the Showroom till taping was finished.
“We’re not putting this on the air without Cynthia,” Ozzie insisted.
“She can sing our address at the end,” Tricia proposed, and Cynthia (on the seventh take) came through like a voiceover trouper. “Y-e-a-h!”
In March the first Daddy & Princess commercial made its TV debut; and by the end of April, Volester Motors could boast sales of six new Coupes and seven Sedans, both monthly records. Tricia was convinced she had “rescued the Lot,” and began wearing celebrity sunglasses at all times—propped up on her forehead, lest she not be recognized.
Meanwhile Nina Gersh maintained her fourth-grade celebrity status. With no particular effort she fascinated boys who, till then, had found girls only worthy of grossing out. To Miss Durbin’s questions she gave monosyllabic replies, making Eileen Agnew’s mmmmIdunnos sound loquacious; yet enough were correct to keep Nina gliding along.
But in Melissa Chiese’s glacial eyes she was an unending irritant. Any other girl would respond to Blue Meanie treatment with tears or rage or tummyaches or something understandable; yet Nina Gersh just blinked already-half-shut lids and regarded you with an eloquent “?”
“She’s an airhead,” Melissa decided. “All that bleach must’ve seeped through to her brain! She doesn’t belong with us.”
Each of Miss Durbin’s girls was told to sign a sheet of paper that Melissa called a petition, requesting that Nina be transferred to Mrs. Sheckard’s dim-and-disruptive class. “She’ll feel more at home over there, with Nancy and Gretchen and Larry Hersenspoel—her sort of people.”
“Turn that thing in and you might end up over there yourself,” warned Brenda.
“I know this is too complicated for you to understand, Poochie, but we’re trying to do Nina a favor.”
“What, by calling her ‘Nina the Ninny’ behind her back? Don’t think Miss Durbin won’t hear about that! She’s likely to say you’re acting ‘unsatisfactory.’”
“I tell you what,” Kris interjected. “Let’s cross out Nina’s name and write in Dunk Gunderson’s!”
“Yeah!” said Brenda. “We’d be happy to transfer him to Mrs. Sheckard—he’s belonged with that gang since he first came here! C’mon, gimme a pen—”
Huff went Melissa as she flounced away; but nothing more was heard concerning petitions.
Brenda was rewarded for this good deed a week later when she discovered Nina gliding alongside her in the Jewish Community Center pool.
“Hey, Nina! (Glub.) It’s me, Brenda from school!”
“Hi,” went Nina.
“So you like to swim, hunh?”
“So do I, it’s real good exercise. How’s your diving?”
“Um, y’know—like jumping in, off the board?”
“Oh,” went Nina. “S’fine.” She smiled and paddled off, leaving Brenda to ponder whether Melissa might not be right about bleach-seepage.
The other Peaches had other inquiries:
“What kind of swimsuit d’she have on??”
“‘N’ how’d she look in it??”
“D’she wear a bathing cap??”
“Oh, for the luvva—” went Brenda. “She had on a green suit ‘n’ cap ‘n’ looked like a chick! Sheesh, you guys!”
After some debate the Peaches agreed to cultivate Nina’s acquaintance. As Vicki said, it would be very wrong to dismiss anyone as an airhead for being blonde and gorgeous—just look at Tricia the Brilliant Lot-Rescuer.
“Yes, but your sister doesn’t sleepwalk through school,” said Sarah-Jill, who might’ve signed the transfer petition had anyone but Melissa circulated it.
Hayley, of course, felt otherwise. “C’mon, I bet she’s only shy. It must be awful having boys stare at you all the time when you’re only ten. No wonder Nina hardly ever says anything.”
“Besides,” said pragmatic Kris, “think how we’ll rub those Blue Meanie noses in it by making her one of us! Let her keep her mouth shut, we’ll do all the talking. Nina can just sit there and go—”
Vivid demonstration of the Cynthia Dollfuss Method, as Kris transformed from freckly imp to Sleepy-Looking Beauty.
“Gee!” went Vicki. “Keep doing that and we won’t need Nina Gersh.”
“Aw, that’s sweet,” said Kris.
“We oughta make friends with her ‘cause we want her to be our friend,” Hayley murmured.
“Well that too,” said Kris. “But don’t forget—next fall we move up to the third floor, with teenagers. If Nina’s our friend, it’ll make us look cool when we get up there!”
Privately Vicki thought it’d make the rest of them look like pooches. Still: better to have a girl like that on your team instead of against you. So the Peaches forged ahead with Operation Win-a-Nina, but their cordial overtures garnered only smiles and nods and blinks. Nina still dined every day with the boys, who continued showing off as Tom Sawyer did to Becky Thatcher, till it made you want to lose your own lunch.
Sarah-Jill (impatient now as well as dubious) recommended that Brenda press her individual advantage with Nina at the JCC pool, “away from the rest of us.”
“What can she do there that we can’t do here?” asked Hayley.
“Swim, for one thing,” said Brenda, and over the next couple of weeks reported great progress being made. She’d taught Nina how to do an inward dive tuck. She and Nina’d begun sitting together in Hebrew class at Temple Beth Mordecai. Wait and see: before the other Peaches knew it, they would be just like (crossed fingers) that.
“You two sit together in our class and she doesn’t act like you’re just like that.”
“Don’t worry,” said Brenda. “Everything’s going smooth as a baby’s bottom.”
That simile put the Peaches in stitches, and Brenda kept them there by describing Stephanie Lipperman’s attempts to play spy at both Center and Temple.
“Secret Agent Stuffy! Her head keeps peeking around things or popping up behind things. And if she stretches her ears any harder to overhear us, they’re gonna be Dumbo-sized and flap her away like the Flying Nun.”
“In Hebrew school?”
“Well, let her try,” said Brenda. “We’re gonna sign this draft pick, and there’s nothing she can do to skunk the deal!”
Words that quivered in the springlike air.
Stephanie came to school the very next day with hard-stretched ears hidden by a spiffy new shag cut—courtesy, she casually reported, of Muriel (Mrs. Seymour) Gersh.
“Of course that’s Nina’s mother. She has this practically private salon on Pockhardt Avenue.”
(“She’s a hairdresser in a beauty parlor,” Brenda growled. “I’da gone there myself if I’da wanted to look like the Brady Bunch’s mom.”)
Miss Durbin marched through the morning announcements, javelin jabbing here and there to illustrate this and that. Finally she jabbed it at Stephanie, who came to the front of the room with a sheaf of papers and took on the teacher’s imperious tone.
“Boys and girls” [splutter from Jimmy Maxwell] “our classmate Nina Gersh is gonna be competing next month in the Little Miss North Side pageant! As you may know already, she’s done this sort of thing many times and won a whole shelf full of trophies. Show ‘em one, Nina.”
“’Kay,” said Nina, holding a small loving cup aloft for all to see.
“And that’s for winning which contest?”
“First alternate, Miss La Petite, when I was six.”
New shockwave: never had Nina strung so many syllables together in one sentence.
“Class! Class!” Stephanie scolded. “Now then! I’m managing a sponsorship drive for Nina, and have these forms (pass them down, please, everybody take one) to ask your parents to be her patrons, or buy an ad in the official Little Miss North Side program. Half of all the purse seeds will go to deprave Nina’s expenses—”
“Proceeds,” Miss Durbin emended, “to defray Nina’s expenses—”
“—and there’s gonna be plenty, too. Mrs. Gersh says ‘Never cut corners at a pageant,’ so Nina’s gonna need a new party dress and sportswear and a talent coach—”
“Thank you, Stephanie, I’m sure we all wish Nina the best of luck,” said Miss Durbin. Her Elizabethan frown swept the room to quell any note-passing or comment-whispering, but Vicki saw the back of Melissa’s head fulminate thunderbolts. As well it might, given how wickedly-witchedly Stephanie had just rained on her parade.
Not to mention Brenda Pomerantz’s. Vicki swiveled catty-corner and found Brenda radiating atomic mutancy at Nina, who paid her not a smidge of attention. And barely a smidge-in-passing to Wernie Ball, whose spindly neck was craned to peer over Kris’s head and so catch a glimpse of Little Miss Just-Like-That.
The only Peach who made an effort to drum up pageant patronage was Hayley, and her only serious donor was the equally goodhearted Cynthia Dollfuss. Who told Tricia, “We gotta go see this! There’s a category for girls our age that offers big fat moolah-scholarships we can check out! You could enter next year, Trish, or wait till you’re seventeen and hit it full blast.”
That was sufficient incentive for the Celebrity Princess of Volester Motors. She, her sunglasses, and Cynthia took Vicki, Hayley, and Kris to a bona fide ballroom at the Scrimpton Inn hotel, which would’ve had a splendid view of the Lake if it were twenty stories taller, with more thoroughly washed windows. In fact every surface in the ballroom seemed to have a tacky patina to it, not unlike Goof’s bare hands.
“Remind me not to have our Junior Prom here,” Tricia told Cynthia.
Witnessing the Little Miss North Side finals was quite enough. Muriel (Mrs. Seymour) Gersh had, indeed, cut no corners in prepping Nina’s entry. Her party dress was a crushed velvet evening gown; her blonde coif was styled into a superchignon; and her beautiful face was adorned with every Studio Girl product in the Helene Curtis catalog. If only the pageant judges had been deaf, they would’ve given Nina the tiara without hesitation.
However, they could and did hear as she belted out the song “Being Alive,” at a considerable distance from being on key:
Summmbuddeeee sit in my chair, and ruin my sleep, and make me uh-WHERE??
(Better stop payment on the talent coach’s check.)
In stark contrast was a rival contestant called Prudence, like the kid on Nanny and the Professor. She wore a plain white leotard and plain white tights, and did an interpretive gymnastic dance while “One Less Bell to Answer” played over the P-A system. As Tricia said afterward, that should’ve been godawful. Yet Prudence made you believe there was no more laughter, no more love, since somebody told her goodbye. And how could anyone leave Prudence? So effortless were her moves, so otherworldly her dance, she glimmered like an elf-maid seen by moonlight—on an ordinary rubber mat in the Scrimpton Inn’s slightly tacky ballroom.
Vicki, Hayley and Kris clutched each other during this performance. They yaaaay’d even more loudly than Cynthia, and led the acclamation when Prudence was crowned Little Miss North Side. Nina Gersh came in second runner-up, with half-closed eyes burning laser-holes into Prudence’s scalp as the tiara descended upon it.
“Well,” said Kris, “I don’t know if Nina’s an airhead or even a slut. But I bet you she’ll be a Blue Meanie from now on.”
“That is so sad,” sighed Vicki. “And I used to think she might be really nice.”
“I wish I could always miss all the sad stuff,” mourned Hayley.
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Copyright © 2010-2011 by P. S. Ehrlich
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