Ritz of Passage
“It’s all choreography,” said Aunt Fritzi, lounging on Ozzie and Felicia’s bed.
“Shoes,” ordered Felicia, sitting in her slip before a semi-antique dressing glass, with Vicki helping to put her hair up into a superchignon.
Fritzi indolently kicked off a pair of high-heeled slingbacks. “‘Hangin’ up my dancin’ shoes’... But like I was saying: a party planner does practically the same thing as a choreographer. So much goes on behind the scenes; so much depends on split-second timing; and when it’s over, you’re more exhausted than the performers. But Mr. Sauerteig singled me out for congratulations on a ‘job well done.’”
Mr. Sauerteig was Gross Uncle Doug’s district manager at Maidwright Insurance, down in the state capital. Fritzi’d organized their annual awards luncheon, “allegedly with a committee to help, but the others just sat on their hands. I had to buckle down and do it all—plan the program, plan the menu, send out the invites, order the plaques and trophies—oh, everything.”
“If Mother could see you now! She always said she had to chain you to the sink to make you wash dishes.”
“Tzzain me, you mean. To wasss dissses.”
Felicia and Vicki smiled sadly at each other in Gran’s legacy dressing glass; but Fritzi (ever Diamond Joel’s girl) shook her head.
“So anyway: Doug and I were thinking, why shouldn’t I do this full time? Arrange banquets, wedding receptions, political conferences—who knows, maybe even a governor’s inaugural ball! I’ve already got the ideal name for my business. Are you ready? ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz.’”
“On the Fritz, did you say?” went Felicia, and Vicki tried not to giggle around a mouthful of bobby pins.
“You heard what I said,” groused Fritzi. “I wish you’d be just a trifle supportive, for a change.”
“I have always—”
“Hold still!” Vicki intervened, pushing in the last pin and spraying the result with White Rain.
“Well!” said Fritzi. “You have a dab hand, Miss Vicki.”
“Is that good?”
“Very good,” Felicia agreed, rising to take two dresses out of the closet. “Okay, Party Planner, which goes best with the new ‘do? I know I can’t compete with your Joan Collins look, but—”
“Who’s Joan Collins?” asked Vicki.
“Who’s—!” exclaimed Fritzi. “Why, she was Great Britain’s answer to Liz Taylor, that’s all.”
“And the idol of your auntie’s heart, back in the day. So which dr—”
“Land of the Pharaohs, darling! I remember every line. ‘This slave girl is insolent and slow to obey!’ ‘Only gold feels like something to be caressed!’ When I saw that movie, Vicki, I wasn’t much older than you are now—”
“Awp!” went Felicia. “You were nineteen!”
“—hush—and I knew then that I too was destined to be Queen of Egypt!”
“So she ran out and found a job as a chorus girl,” Fel concluded, rustling the dresses. “C’mon now, which?”
“That was just my first step down the royal path,” Fritzi replied. “Wear the tent—not the pleats. I won’t charge you for this consult, seeing that we’re both Schmelzettes and all.”
The ruffly tent dress was carefully lowered over Fel’s superchignon, and the Schmelzettes made a grand entrance to rowrowr catcalls from Ozzie and Gross Uncle Doug. Vicki tried to loiter in the kitchen, keeping her cheeks out of G.U. Doug’s reach, but got called forth to receive a long list of cautionary instructions. Tonight would be her very first professional babysitting gig, even if it was only Goofus. The grownups were heading downtown to dine at Flaming Sally’s and see its “Girls à la Carte” review.
“Start with the clams casino,” Doug advised (grossly) as they started downstairs.
“Clams casino?” said Ozzie. “‘Too much—for one James Bond!’”
“Remember,” Felicia called from the landing, “Mrs. Hull’s just across the hall.”
“I know that, Mom. Have a good time and keep looking great.”
“I always do both,” Fritzi remarked as the adults exited.
“Psst!” went Junior Hull, his huge ballcapped head poking out of 3E. (He’d never liked Doug Carlisle and hid whenever that G.U. visited Walrock Avenue.) “Is the coast all cleared up, Vicki?”
“Yeah, they’re gone,” she told him, standing aside so Junior could join Goofus in front of the Magnavox. “Howdy, Joo-nee-or!” said Goofus; “Howdy, Goo-fee-er!” said Junior; and they settled down to watch the Boys in Blue dig themselves deeper into the baseball cellar.
Vicki provided them with a large bowl of popcorn, two towels for carpet placemats, and bottles of Filbert’s with stern injunctions against any spillage, shakage, or high-volume belchage. Goofus might’ve defied her, but docile Junior would help keep him in line—so long as they didn’t start pitching kernels into each other’s mouths.
Vicki heaped cushions on the bay window seat and laid herself atop them, holding a transistor radio permanently tuned to The Big 89. Every night in bed she covertly listened through an earphone to Boogie Check, Boogie Check, OOH-AHH. Most nights she could’ve listened openly, since Tricia was usually off testing the limits of her summer curfew; but Vicki liked the sense of contraband intimacy that an earphone brought.
Tonight Tricia’d pounced on Cute Cousin Miles and spirited him away to “show him around.” (Bobby Sherman might no longer be au courant, but lookalike blue eyes, white teeth, and cleft chin never lost their appeal.) Since the newly-licensed Tricia had taken the Volester Civic, and done so clad in short-shorts and haltertop, Vicki figured a lot of the showing-around would take place while parked on Bluff Drive.
Laaaay-daaaay! When you're with me I'm smyyyy-leeeeng began Vicki’s favorite song, by a local group called Styx. Silently she harmonized with them, imagining C.C. Miles telling Tricia You’re my laaaay-daaaay of the morrrr-NEEEENG—except that in this reverie it wasn’t Tricia being serenaded, but Vicki herself.
Miles had come to The City with his folks to check out universities he might apply to. Tricia’s college sights were set on the performing arts program at Ann Arbor. Kate Rawberry and Jennifer Dollfuss had graduated last spring from Pfiester High; Kate was off to Iowa State and Jen to Wheaton. Cousin Barbara would be attending Aquinas in Grand Rapids, where (theoretically) Aunt Bonnie could keep an eye on her.
Everything was changing. Richard Nixon, who’d been President almost since forever, had recently resigned. Mikhail Baryshnikov had defected from the Bolshoi Ballet and sought asylum in Toronto (which made him sound crazy). The Grusza girls no longer lived in 1W; rumor had it that Corliss had stolen Candice’s fiancé without his even noticing, and now both twins were gone. The two Mrs. Partridges feared they’d never speak to each other again.
Vicki could not fathom such estrangement.
Maddening as Tricia might occasionally be, her total absence from Vicki’s life was unthinkable. It’d be bad enough when she left for Michigan a year from now, even if that meant Vicki’d have the entire bedroom to herself. (Though possibly not here: Mom had begun “thinking aloud” about a house of their own, maybe in some Nice Northern Suburb such as Pidge Tober yearned for.)
Pink Floyd’s “Time” began its opening cacophony of ticks and chimes and alarm-clock clanging. Usually Vicki enjoyed this song, but tonight it made her shiver: all those lyrics about fritter and waste, shortening breath, sinking suns. Things you shouldn’t have to think about when you weren’t even thirteen yet.
If you ever did get a boyfriend to sing “Lady” in your ear, Tricia probably would be able to steal him—but why would she want to? No: twenty years from now, you and Tricia would be like Mom and Aunt Fritzi were today. (Hopefully with no younger version of Gross Uncle Doug in either of your lives.)
Hear the softly spoken magic spell through the transistor earphone.
“Quit it, you guys!” Vicki commanded as the song ended, the spell was broken, and popcorn kernels began to fly.
Back in the olden days (say six months ago) she and Hayley might’ve inveigled Brenda over without telling her Miles Carlisle was there, to find out if she’d still get all stammery in his presence.
But that was then and this was the Age of Everything’s Changing. Vicki didn’t see that much of her friends nowadays—neither over the summer, nor when seventh grade started. She and Hayl still walked to school together in the morning, and they’d chat about homework or what had been on TV last night, but they no longer hung out in each other’s apartments. Hayley was busy every afternoon and weekend with the youth group at her Baptist church, blissfully looking after littler kids, and Vicki was pleased for her but not overly interested in hearing about it.
They seldom encountered Kris at the Sharp stoplight anymore. She and April Tober were now best friends, to the point of getting braces from the same orthodontist on the same day. Kris remained her usual impish self and April was more amiable than ever, but they turned every conversation around to photography. April had launched a genuine modeling career with Kris in tow, and while their descriptions of catalog shoots were fascinating at first, they soon verged on monotonous.
Which was unusual in an Age of Everything’s Changing.
The Gundersons had left Pfiester Park, to universal good riddance; the Gershes were gone too, their gypsy caravan rolling away to universal anguish among Vicki’s male classmates. Jimmy Maxwell and Billy Goldfarb (who told everybody to start calling them “Jim” and “Bill” this year) crooned a Nina-elegy set to John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” that featured eight different synonyms for breasts.
A water pipe behind Reulbach’s gym wall had burst during summer vacation, flooding the gym and ruining its floor, with no funds in the budget for quick repair. Which was a gold-plated opportunity for Roxanne Dowell and Melissa Chiese, this year’s Student Council President and Vice President, who started a fundraising crusade with maximum personal publicity. Until a new gym floor could be installed, there would be no school dances; the kitchen staff had threatened to strike if the cafeteria was used, refusing to believe any student clean-up committee would live up to its title. Which was fine with Melissa (who couldn’t have generated half as much hype advertising sockhops) and her mother, Carmel Sanborn Chiese (who was campaigning for a seat on the Northside School Board and “happy to ride my little girl’s coattails”).
(Which sounded like a really weird thing to do.)
A side benefit of all this was Melissa’s frequent departures from the classroom, given official leave to go do another interview or appear before some potential benefactor. Eileen Agnew kept faithful track of her regular assignments—ghostwriting most of them, everyone suspected—and spent her meager free time with Mitzi Freund, Melissa’s detestable sixth-grade protégée. They acted like the last upholders of the Holy Blue Meanie standard.
Which should’ve been laughably pathetic.
Except that the Peaches were pretty much over and done with, too.
Brenda seemed the most upset by this. Despite being the oldest, she went around with a palpable air of “Doesn’t anybody wanna play?” till Kris (reproached once too often for getting palsy-walsy with April) told her to grow up already. Then Brenda withdrew into the truculent glower she’d exhibited as a solitary New Girl.
Vicki was sorry about that; sorry for the end of quintet camaraderie. She invited Brenda to go jogging on the Esplanade, but Brenda got too competitive about it—wanting only to race, gloating when Vicki couldn’t beat her.
“Life isn’t always about who’s fastest!” Vicki declared.
“Aw, you’re no fun anymore,” said Brenda.
Did that mean Sarah-Jill would end up as Vicki’s best friend? You couldn’t ask for a better study-buddy; but if Kris and Hayley were a bit boring these days, Sarah-Jill was downright tedious. She still needed jokes explained to her, too often, and preferred to go visit Yash and Rupa at the Pramanik grocery.
“There’s more to life than zither music!” Vicki informed her.
“Do you mean sitar?” Sarah-Jill inquired. “They’re both stringed instruments, but Indians play the sitar—a type of long-necked lute. Zithers are central European, though when they’re chorded they’re called autoharps and played by American folk musicians—also bluegrass.”
“Um, yeah, okay,” mumbled Vicki.
Who, six months ago at the Pivotal, had been the toast of the class.
Now she felt like toast gone cold, fallen butter-side down, tossed to the birds.
An Age of Everything’s Changing ought to be for the better, right? Not bummerdom at the same old school with the same old people you’d known almost since forever. Boys might act more aware of you than before, but they expressed interest in the same old immature ways—Wernie Ball most persistently. With Dunk Gunderson gone, he strutted around like a liberated hostage and was all the time acting like Snoopy as Joe Cool.
Oh my Gahd.
Had she started doing that, last March? And been punished by drifting apart from the Peaches into you’re-no-fun-anymore isolation?
Forget toast. All she wanted was someone she could hang out with, without feeling time tick dully away. A girl her own age to go shopping with, see movies with, trade gossip with—have fun again with. A new friend, if not a best friend—though a new best friend would be nice. Then maybe she’d stop hearing Pink Floyd remind her about hanging on in quiet desperation, every night and every day.
That was what Vicki would wish for, if she still believed wishes could come true.
“This is absurd,” said lugubrious Mrs. Lundgren. “Yes—it is absurd to try educating seventh-graders this way, in this day and age. You should be in a proper junior high setting, with a teacher and classroom suited for each particular subject. Instead, you continue to be treated as though you were seven years old—sent out twice a day to a playground, when you could be spending that time applying yourselves in a proper study hall. Absurd! We are defeated before we begin.”
Her pupils applied their rear ends to shifting uneasily, in one-size-fits-all seats behind juvenile schooldesks in the single classroom they occupied from eight till three—a room scarcely different from their first-to-sixth-grade rooms, other than its posters being less cuddlesome.
“Nevertheless,” Mrs. Lundgren continued (before Jim Maxwell could propose they call it a day for the rest of the year), “we must carry on as best we can, despite everything. I shall endeavor to conduct class in a manner befitting a proper junior high setting—difficult as that will prove.”
For instance: Reading and Spelling were now called “Language Arts,” and promoted to multimedia status by the class being divvied up into teams of two and sent in pairs of four to the “Resource Center” (i.e. school library) for an hour per day. There the teams were expected to collaborate on 500-word book reports containing at least three illustrations, one of which had to be in color.
Mrs. Lundgren would not permit them to choose their own partners—she’d already had to separate Kris and April, following nonstop braces-flashing chatter—and girls were not allowed to link up with boys, lest Language Arts be reduced to a hankypank hootenanny.
So Vicki found herself teamed with (of all people!) Stephanie Lipperman. She turned to swap grimaces of dislike with this old adversary, who didn’t even glance her way.
It occurred to Vicki that she’d barely noticed Stephanie this September. Normally there’d’ve been all manner of snipes and snortles and malicious observations, but lately Stephanie only spoke when called upon—and then in a cloggy congested way, as though afflicted by hay fever.
They were one of the first teams sent that afternoon to the Resource Center. Vicki took her time collecting ring binder and purse, so Lefty Levitch and Ordinary Mark Welk would leave the room ahead of her. (By now she knew too well that guys would yield precedence not to be gallant, but for a chance to watch her tush wiggle as she walked.)
Stephanie just stood there in the aisle, not so much waiting as spacing out. She wore nondescript jeans and T-shirt, hardly any makeup, and a shag cut gone split-endy. Only her greenish facial tinge was the same as ever—and that might be due to today’s lunch of chop suey and wax beans.
They trailed Lefty and Ordinary Mark down the corridor, Stephanie still acting distant and closemouthed. Vicki, with a multimedia book report in jeopardy, decided to break the ice.
“Hear anything from Nina these days?”
Well! How rude, thought Vicki. Excuse me for pretending to take interest—
Stephanie choked back a big fat phlegmy sob.
They were passing the third-floor girls’s room, so Vicki darted in and dragged Stephanie after her. It being safely vacant, Stephanie clutched a sink and gave way to all-out blubber.
Oh Gahd! Should I run for the nurse? Vicki wondered. If Brenda or Melissa were here, they’d be hurrying to spread the news that “Lipperman’s cracking up! Come bring your Instamatics!”
“Um,” said Vicki, “please don’t cry.”
“—you didn’t know her—” (sob) “—none of you knew her—” (sob)
“Um, Nina’s okay, right? I mean, she really did move away, didn’t she?”
The washroom door swung open and a mouselike fifth-grader entered, hall pass in hand. She goggled at them—clearly wanted to retreat—just as clearly needed to go—so plunged into a stall and slammed its hatch closed.
“Oh sh-h-h-it,” wept Stephanie, “Janine Agnew! Sh-h-h-e’ll tell Eileen, and it’ll get all over sch-o-o-ool.”
Vicki rapped on the stall.
“S’taken!” went a scared little voice.
“Janine? I’m in seventh grade with your sister. Forget everything you saw just now. If you tell Eileen or anyone and I find out, you’re gonna be in a whole lotta trouble. Understand?
Scared little “MmmmYes.”
“Okay then. Finish your business, wash up, and keep your yap shut.”
Flush. Janine emerged with eyes averted, thrust her hands (including the hall pass) under a faucet, and scuttled away.
“Think that’ll work?” Vicki asked.
“Scared the hell outta me,” said Stephanie.
She dried her tears, rinsed her face, declined Vicki’s offer of mascara, and led the way down to the first floor—where she stupefied Vicki by striding through the east doors. Out to the parking lot, leaving school before the final bell had rung, heedless of whether any adults might see.
OhmyGahd she has cracked up!
Stephanie paused while still visible. Looked back and jerked her head to the left.
Was Vicki expected to come too? What would happen if she didn’t? Might a life be at stake, not to mention traffic if Stephanie threw herself into it?
On the other hand, ditching meant detention if caught by The Heinie—aka Mr. Heinzerling, Assistant Principal & Security Guard, who packed (it was said) an actual gun under his suit jacket.
Stephanie’s head jerked again, more insistently.
Vicki, feigning abstraction, sidled out and around to the cafeteria dumpsters. Anticipating confrontation by The Heinie, or Old Overalls, or the Northside School Board, or Mrs. Frank personally disposing that day’s garbage. (Though the dumpsters smelled like that’d been done already, and not so long ago.)
Stephanie leaned against the wall, digging a Bic lighter and half-empty pack of Virginia Slims out of her shoulderbag. You’ve come a long way, baby...
“Um, no thanks. I’m in training—that is, y’know, I wanna go out for track in high school, so...”
Sardonic eyebrow hoist but no commentary. Stephanie lit up, took a deep coughless drag, exhaled at smoky length, and began to talk.
Yes. The Gershes had moved away. Last June, to one of the western suburbs. Nina’d promised to call with her new phone number. Three months had passed since then.
“Did—did you guys talk a lot on the phone, before?” Vicki asked.
“We really were best friends. I didn’t make that up.”
“I know, but—I mean, she was always so quiet.”
“Nina was bashful. She was! She loved being looked at, but never knew what to say to people. When guys, y’know, like flirted with her, she’d grab my hand and make me do all the talking. I was good at that. Sometimes they’d flirt with me, too... But when it was just us, me ‘n’ Nina, she’d talk a lot. She was my best friend. She said so...”
Deep sniffly inhalation.
“We better go in,” said Vicki.
Idle kicks of heel against bricks. “I hate school this year. Nothing’s like it used to be. Nobody gives a damn.”
“I know,” Vicki sighed.
“...she coulda called, at least...”
“Yeah, well. C’mon. We still have to choose a book to report on.”
“Oh, I got the perfect one already,” said Stephanie, taking a hardcover out of her shoulderbag. Mirror of Danger, by Pamela Sykes.
“Why’s it perfect?”
“Tell you why after school.” (Casually tentative:) “Wanna go to Biff’s?”
For an appetite-spoiling hot dog and fries? This was one of Goof’s PeeWee football practice afternoons, which Felicia would spend splitting a pot of decaf at Millie Shapiro’s. Vicki’d been given her own set of keys to the greystone and 3W, so she could go home anytime before five o’clock. And she’d only picked at today’s chop suey and wax beans, whose remnants were perfuming the atmosphere.
“Okay,” she said.
Stephanie got them back indoors without encountering The Heinie or any other grownup. Heading upstairs, they ran into Ordinary Mark and Lefty Levitch.
“Hey, where’d you two go?” asked Lefty.
“For some girl talk,” Vicki retorted. And from Stephanie came a concurring snortle.
Mirror of Danger turned out to be spine-tingling. Lucy, an orphan who’d been raised by an old-fashioned aunt, was sent to live with distant cousins after her aunt’s death. The cousins were well-meaning but boisterous and ultramodern, so Lucy hid from them in their old-fashioned attic. There a dusty mirror showed not only her own reflection but that of a girl named Alice, who urged Lucy to come join her in the same house—a hundred years earlier. Then Alice’s invitations became demands...
Vicki thought this a good straightforward ghost story. Steph suggested it might all be happening in Lucy’s head, with Alice a disordered figment of her lonely imagination. Vicki argued against this interpretation, noting that one of the noisy cousins actually bumped into Alice.
“That was a mistake,” said Stephanie. “The writer should’ve left it up in the air, y’know, so we wouldn’t be sure.”
Like happened in this other book, a famous one by a man with two first names, where a governess suspected two ghosts were possessing the children she looked after—except maybe she had turned screwy (hence the title) and begun hallucinating. Either way, one of the kids wound up dead.
“Where’d you find a book like that? It sounds awful.”
“Does not! It’s lots better than The Exorcist. And I found it in the library—not the ‘Resource Center’ but the real library—where I go when I wanna read.”
“Well, I didn’t think you went there to play the clarinet.”
“Well anyway,” said Steph, “mentioning that book’ll score us mucho points with Old Lady Lundgren.”
Vicki hesitated, afraid of being called babyish, then proposed an additional parallel: the “Bad Wednesday” chapter in Mary Poppins Comes Back. Stephanie clapped her hands, saying she’d racked her brain for weeks trying to remember that story and where it came from. They reread “Bad Wednesday” and found it amazingly sinister—Jane getting trapped in the Past, unable to go home because it hadn’t been built yet, her parents hadn’t even been born; she was stuck with that horrible Great-Grandfather and his cackly Heh! Heh! Heh!s.
(Maybe it wasn’t so bad if everything did change, once in awhile, and you could go with the flow.)
The bell rang. “I gotta take my little sister to the movies on Saturday,” griped Stephanie. “She wants to see The Castaway Cowboy, but no way am I sitting through a Disney film. So we’re going to The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.”
“The what of who?”
“That cute guy from American Graffiti—not Ronny Howard, y’know, the other one.” (Diffidently offhand:) “Wanna come too?”
They agreed to meet on the platform at Pfiester Park Station. There Vicki was briefly shocked by Stephanie’s having shrunk down to third-grade size, looking ready to re-audition for “Hot Lips” Homily in The Borrowers Ballet. But then present-day Steph materialized next to her former self.
“This is Danielle.”
“Didi!!” went her little sister. “I wanna carry my own el tokens!”
Stephanie cuffed the back of her head.
“Owwwwwww, you murdered me! I’m telling.”
“She’s a regular vampire,” Steph told Vicki. “I keep killing her but she won’t crumble into dust.”
“You crumble,” said Didi, making a couple of index-finger fangs, then scowling over them at Vicki. “Is your brother Christopher Volester? Eww, he’s gross! You have a gross brother!”
“You’re right. Imagine having to live with him.”
“Eat meals with him—share a bathroom with him—”
Didi begged to hear worse things about Goofus, squeezing herself between the big girls when they boarded the train and rattle-clattered away to the Silbergeld Theatre. Whose cut-short marquee boasted it contained “More Stars Than in the Milky W”—meaning the walls and ceiling were spangled with bits of glitter like chintzy constellations.
“What a dump!” went Didi.
“It is not!” Steph retorted. “Me ‘n’ Nina saw The Great Gatsby here, and Daisy Miller. She loved the outfits they wore back then.”
Oh enough with the Nina nostalgia, thought Vicki. I’M here now, aren’t I?
Yes she was. And quickly dumbfounded that no usher came to haul her and the Lippermans out by their neck-scruffs. They were way too young for this PG-rated film, especially Didi who commented on every PG-itude:
“That horse is pooping!... That man stepped in it!... That one said ‘hell’!... He said ‘balls’!... He said ‘pecker’!... He’s got a hairy chest!” (This in disgust at a shirtless Richard Dreyfuss.)
“Not so loud,” whispered Vicki. Filling in as big sister since Steph’s attention was riveted to the screen, particularly during the bizarre “Happy Bar Mitzvah, Bernie!” film-within-a-film: “Even more intricate than a snowflake—the bar mitzvah!” Followed by shots of marching soldiers, dancing Africans, bloody razor blades.
And jagged cackles from Stephanie: “Heh! Heh! Heh!”
Vicki began to wish she hadn’t come to this so-called comedy. Steph lapsed into silence that lasted through the trip back to Pfiester Park Station, where Vicki couldn’t wait to say bye-bye and vamoose.
But Didi seized her arm and started tugging her down off the platform. “C’mon!” she said, “you hafta come home with us!”
“No she doesn’t,” Steph blurted.
“Yes she does!”
“There isn’t enough time for her to visit—”
“There’s plenty of time! You wanna come, dontcha Vicki?”
“Um. Is it far?”
“Not far enough,” rasped Stephanie.
The Lippermans lived on Tendone Avenue, a long narrow street between Hagenbush and Bohnsetter. Their house (like its inhabitants) was a greenish shade of white and had sharp pointy edges. Vicki could hear the inhabitants from halfway up the block. By the time they reached the house and squeezed inside, she could guess why Steph thought Mirror of Danger was the perfect book; also why Steph went to a library when she wanted to read.
Acid flashback to XY Nursery School—small rowdy frantic children everywhere. Pushing and shoving through the rooms, racing up and chasing down the stairs, tumbling out of an open (ground floor) window, grabbing and throwing and dropping and spilling. Some could only toddle or crawl, but they too contributed shouts at their lungtops. A harassed-looking dog crept around the melee; two disdainful cats sprang from one upper level to another; and an extremely pregnant lady (with hair in more curlers than one head should safely accommodate) ignored it all while engaging in a filibuster over the phone:
“Kindly remind her that I am this year’s recording secretary, and as such am prepared to stay on this line till Chelm freezes over!...”
Didi got carried off by tiny disputants seeking arbitration. Vicki lingered just inside the front door, sensing Steph at her elbow but not daring to catch her eye. She focused instead on a pair of huge crossed swords hanging above what was probably a couch, under layers of jumbled hodgepodge.
What could Vicki say?
What wouldn’t cause Stephanie to grab one of those swords and start using it?
“Next time,” she tried to murmur, then had to yell confidentially, “next time you take Didi to the movies, I’ll bring my brother Goofus—but let’s not tell ‘em the other one’ll be there, till they get there and find out! Okay, Steph?”
“Yeah,” went Stephanie, after awhile.
She called her parents Herman and Lily, like the Munsters. Herman was a traveling salesman, covering a wide territory for Derente Cutlery: knives, scissors, pinking shears. “First thing he does every time he comes home is knock up Lily again.” Not all the children Vicki’d seen were Lippermans; some were neighborhood acquaintances, others showed up out of nowhere. Homes had to be found for them afterward, as if they were a litter of kittens that couldn’t be drowned.
Stephanie was the firstborn bonafide Lipperman. Like Jane in “Bad Wednesday,” being The Eldest meant having to get out of bed earliest and eat lumpy porridge. She’d worked hard in recent years to foist most of The Eldest’s housekeeping/childminding duties onto the next two in line, her brothers Phil and Kip, with Didi champing at the bit to gain a share of accredited bossiness. Meanwhile, “Tiger Lily”—when not occupied inside a delivery room—was bent on gaining and maintaining big-shot status at the JCC and in the Temple Sisterhood.
“And it’s not like we’re superJewish! I mean, do we run home before sunset on Fridays? No! Do we have different dishes for meat and milk? You’re lucky to find enough dishes that aren’t broken to feed everybody at one meal! And maybe we don’t eat porkchops or lobster, but who the hell could afford lobster with all those brats in the house??”
“Take it easy,” urged Vicki.
They were on the train coming back from Airport 1975. Didi (who’d thought she was going to see Benji) had proclaimed her life ruined by Goofus’s appearance, and he (wild to watch anything with potential crashes) had staggered around clutching his throat: “Arrgghh, I’m breathing her smell!” Now they were sharing a train seat and vying to do the cruelest imitation of Karen Black:
“There’s no one left to fly the plane! Help us! Oh my God, help us!”
“Don’t yell ‘Gahd’ on the train,” Stephanie ordered. Her mood was still sour-apple-y after having to help lead the Young People’s Congregation that morning. “OhmyGahd, I am gonna quit Hebrew school right after my Bat Mitzvah! That minute. That second. Tiger Lily can hoot ‘n’ holler all she likes. It’s bad enough she’s been on my ass for a whole freaking year about having a Bat Mitzvah, and not just any Bat Mitzvah but one that’ll ‘make a splash.’ Like I’m supposed to have it at the beach.”
“That’d be kind of cool,” said Vicki, who’d heard about these ceremonies but never been to one.
“It would,” Steph admitted. “Like they’d really let me, though. Even after Lornette Koch made such a gahdam cannonball with her ‘splash.’”
Lornette—a sprinkling from the Veruca Salt shaker—had compelled her parents to shell out for a Koch: She’s the Real Thing reception. Its theme came complete with chamber orchestra and multiracial chorus to render “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony)” on an artificial hillside at the Scrimpton Inn Ballroom.
“Now Lily wants to outdo the Kochs. As if we had their kind of bread in the bank! We’ve gotta have the fanciest caterer, hardest-to-book band, most expensive of everything. But if I needed braces on my teeth? Forget it—nothing that can’t later be a hand-me-down. Even the boys wear my old clothes!”
“You don’t need braces, do you?” asked Vicki, peering at Steph’s mouth.
“No, thank Gahd. Otherwise April Tober’d call me a copycat. And Melissa’d hold a gahdam news conference to say I had broccoli caught in ‘em—‘So that’s why we need your donations—’”
“‘—for our new gym floor, now!’” Vicki chimed in. Suddenly recalling an age-old taunt (Stuffy’s mommy won’t buy her any boo-oots) that brought retroactive shame.
Speaking of Bat Mitzvahs, Brenda Pomerantz’s was scheduled for the week after Stephanie’s, despite Brenda being a few days older. For a long time it’d been uncertain whether Brenda would even have one, partly because of the expense (fewer pastries sold during the recession meant less bread in the bank) and partly Brenda’s difficulties in mastering Hebrew. Which not only had to be read backwards, but was “crammed with all these drippy little dots ‘n’ squiggles”—i.e. vowel points, germination marks, and cantillations.
“None of them will appear on the actual Torah,” Mrs. Pomerantz said reassuringly.
“That doesn’t make it any easier, Ma!”
It was Brenda’s fault that Vicki experienced reverse déjà vu while running on the JCC’s indoor track. Stephanie had objected to her jogging through City streets (“You’ll get yourself mugged or raped on every block!”) and brought her here on a family guest pass. Vicki found the Jewish Community Center almost identical to the Unitarian church—same bunch of talkative gesticulatory people, quaffing the same pungent coffee out of white styrofoam cups—except the JCC had more mezuzahs.
And a familiar head, popping up behind things and peeking around them at her. Secret Agent Stuffy rides again! Only this time, Brenda was the one playing spy.
Before she could hide more effectively, Vicki ran over. “Hey Bren! Fancy meeting you here!”
“Hunh,” went Brenda, gripping a basketball. “Running, hunh?”
“Yeah! Wanna join us for a few laps?”
“Don’t think so.” To Stephanie: “Finish your Chesed project, Simmm-cha?”
“Ages ago,” said Stephanie. “Written your speech yet, Tzzzzil-la? Don’t forget it’s gotta be memorized.”
“Baloney! You don’t hafta memorize the speech!”
“Oh no? Sure about that?”
Brenda gave her a snap-crackle aynhoreh and the basketball a vicious bounce. “I’ll call you tonight,” she warned Vicki, and stalked off dribbling.
“What a bitch!” seethed Steph.
“Now don’t start,” Vicki said soothingly. “Don’t let her get to you... What’s a Simmmcha project?”
“Chesed—not Simcha. I’m Simcha—that’s my Hebrew name. A chesed’s an ‘act of loving kindness’—not that Poochie’d know anything about that!” She pressed her hands to her face and mumbled through them. “Lily signed me up to do I forget how many. Nursing home. Soup kitchen. Collecting soap for the homeless.” Hands dropped; wan smile attempted. “Got any Irish Spring you don’t need?”
“How the hell can you hang out with that skag?” Brenda demanded over the phone.
“Oh c’mon,” sighed Vicki. “We’re practically teenagers now—you two especially! And Stephanie’s not so bad anymore. I mean, it’s not like I’m hanging out with Melissa.”
“Hunh! Well, me ‘n’ you go way back, right? ‘We are the Peaches—far out is our reaches,’ remember?”
“Okay then. I need you to find out everything you can about Lipperman’s Bat Mitzvah. We’re gonna show her that nobody can outparty the Pomerantzes!”
“Oh Brenda, don’t even try. Steph’s mother’s sworn like this oath to outspend Lornette Koch’s parents, even though they live in one of those Greenfield condominiums and drive a Mark IV. Didja hear about the bash they threw for Lornette?”
“Yeah,” Brenda said grudgingly. “But dammit, Vicki! I can’t let my folks try their best and still look cheap! That’d just about kill Ma.”
“Well, here’s an idea. ’Member my Aunt Fritzi? She’s started this party-planning business. I bet she could think up ways to make your Bat Mitzvah special—unique even—that wouldn’t cost all that much. Let me give her a call.”
“I’d’ve loved to have a Bat Mitzvah,” Fritzi exclaimed from the state capital. “The reception, that is—I was never into the religious part. Hmmm... Do you know, ever since your mother jogged my memory about Land of the Pharaohs, I haven’t been able to get Egypt out of my mind? What could be a better theme for a Bat Mitzvah banquet? Pyramids, camels, mummies, the Sphinx! Israelites too, of course—Moses and the bulrushes, that sort of thing—oh, I know! We can do the parting of the Red Sea when Brenda makes her entrance! Carrying an ankh staff in one hand like Cleopatra, and the Ten Commandments in the other!”
“Um, Aunt Fritzi? Brenda’s folks can’t really afford all that.”
“Darling, have you forgotten our dance recitals? It’s all about illusion. Costumes, lighting, props—choreography! No matter how big (or small) the budget, Puttin’ on the Ritz will produce a show!”
“I cannot believe you, Vicki Volester!” Stephanie exploded a few days later. “I thought we were friends now, real friends—best friends, even! But do you tell me about your aunt the party planner? No! I hafta hear about her from Brenda Gahdam Pomerantz! Who you do tell so she can have the coolest Bat Mitzvah of the year! Thanks a whole lot!!”
Vicki backed away from Steph’s jutting chin. Powerfully reminded of Alice the ghost (or figment) in Mirror of Danger: so shrill and fierce and inclined to pinch. So hungry for companionship, yet twisted with mistrust.
Ever since that first afternoon by the dumpsters, Vicki’d been on guard with Stephanie. It was hard to forget the years of snipes and snortles, all the way back to kindergarten when little Steph would fake friendliness while wheedling secrets and telling lies. But these days she volunteered confidences, such as the hidden crush she’d had on Bill Goldfarb since she was Didi’s age. And if Steph still tended to concoct whoppers, it was now for creative entertainment and to make Vicki laugh.
Last week at the drugstore: Stephanie lugging a giant economy-size package of Kotex off a bottom shelf. “I bet I could walk outta here with this under my arm, and nobody’d say boo! Do you dare me to do it?”
“I’ll take that as a yes. C’mon—”
“Steph! Don’t! Put it back!”
“Don’t put it back? Yes ma’am!”
Loitering by the handsome teen cashier (Keith Vespa’s big brother Glenn) till he blushed and asked, “You girls gonna, uh, pay for that or what?”
“Certainly not!” Steph giggled haughtily. “We wouldn’t stoop to use this brand!”
Life with Stephanie Lipperman might be capricious, unpredictable, even occasionally hazardous—but never, never dull.
“We are best friends,” Vicki told her.
“Coulda fooled me!” (Sniff.)
“Seriously—would your mom have even thought about hiring my aunt? She’s just getting started with her party business, and before that she ran dance studios. I was doing her a favor, and Brenda’s parents a favor. Your Bat Mitzvah’ll be the one everybody talks about! I mean, you said there’s even gonna be champagne snowballs!”
“Jeez, Vicki, those aren’t like snowcones made with wine! A champagne snowball’s this really dumb slowdance where you keep changing partners after getting slobbered on by nerds. Every Bat Mitzvah has one and they’re always disgusting.”
“Well,” said Vicki, “maybe we can get you slobbered on by Bill Goldfarb.”
Steph brightened at the thought. “Did you really mean it, about being best friends?”
“Okay then—find out everything you can about what your aunt’s really planning for Brenda’s reception. You’ll do that for me, won’t you Vicki?”
She came alone to Temple Beth Mordecai and stood irresolutely outside it. The only time she’d ever been in a synagogue was for Gran’s funeral, which didn’t make her crave an encore visit. Plus this was the corner of Danvers and Graveling, two streets that always made Vicki feel inept and unwelcome.
But she needed some spiritual guidance.
From Felicia? “Organized religion is used as a club when it isn’t being used as a crutch.” Ozzie? A sweet but unhelpful axiom like “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Tricia? “Don’t let people walk all over you, for Chrissake.” Mrs. Lundgren? Vicki didn’t think she was allowed to ask her religious questions (unless in a strictly historical context) and doubted whether Mrs. Lundgren would spread more enlightenment than melancholy.
Thus: Temple Beth Mordecai.
Frowning down upon her, like every other edifice on Danvers Avenue. Your hair is not brushed, that skirt is too short, you do not belong here, go away.
But where else?
Gran can see what I see, and hear what I hear...
“Can I help you, Miss?”
Vicki nearly leaped out of her skin, which sent the man beside her staggering against a mailbox. As they recovered and apologized, Vicki wondered where she’d seen him before—a middle-aged man, husky-voiced, with a big leather flatcap pulled low over a bulbous nose and moustache of many colors. One of Diamond Joel’s younger pinochle cronies? No—he looked like the actor who played Duddy Kravitz’s father; that was it.
“Shall we try again?” he asked. “Can I help you?”
“Um—I’d like to talk to a priest.”
“Would a rabbi do? I’m Rabbi Dreifinger.”
“Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t—I mean you don’t have a beard, or one of those yermarbles.”
“Perhaps you are meaning a yarmulke? I wear this cap outdoors because it’s getting colder and I’ve gotten balder. Shall we go in? You’ve picked the best time to see me—before anyone realizes I’m back from my errand-running. As for the beard, my wife objected to its turning gray while such hair as is left on my head is still brown. We compromised on the moustache, which as you see has a little of everything. After you, my dear.”
He escorted her through an imposing door and an impressive vestibule, down a more ordinary hallway and into a not-very-large, altogether-cluttered office. The rabbi removed books from a chair so Vicki could sit, hung up his coat and flatcap, wedged himself behind a desk, and tucked a yarmulke onto sparse brown curls.
“Better? Now then, how may I help you, Miss—? I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
“I’m Vicki Volester.”
“As in Volester Motors?”
“That’s right! That’s my dad and sister Tricia in the TV commercials. But no, um, we don’t go here. I mean my mom’s a Unitarian.”
“Her parents were Jewish, but I guess they didn’t, y’know, light candles or spin dreidels or anything. At least not around me.”
“Well, Vicki Volester, if your grandmother was Jewish that makes your mother Jewish (as well as Unitarian) and you and your sister Jewish also. It’s something you inherit, like talent on a violin, even if you don’t practice it. So, speaking as one Jew to another, what can I do for you?”
“I’ve got these two friends, see—I mean really I do! neither one of ‘em’s me—and they’re both having their Bat Mitzvahs here—”
“You don’t have a Bat Mitzvah,” Rabbi Dreifinger gently interposed. “You become one; you are one.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. They say ‘have.’”
“I’m not surprised. You may be, though, when I mention that you too became a Bat Mitzvah on your twelfth birthday. Another of our automatic benefits.”
“Really? I though you had to be thirteen.”
“Boys do. Girls mature faster.”
“Well maybe,” said Vicki, and explained the ongoing feud. She was careful to name no names, but the rabbi said: “By any chance are we discussing Simcha Lipperman and Tzila Pomerantz?”
“Um, yes. Except I call them Stephanie and Brenda.”
“I see. There has been shall-we-say ‘friction’ between those two, for quite a long time now. They are not precisely kindred spirits.”
“That’s for sure.”
“However, it has also been noticed that both are now enthusiastic about their upcoming ceremonies. I would say much of that is thanks to you, Vicki.”
“Me? Oh, um, well...”
“Becoming friends with someone you mutually disliked for so long—that is a very fine thing. Staying loyal to an old friend after you’re no longer so close—that also is very fine. Best of all is being concerned about both girls at once. These are steps toward adulthood, as well as signs of a kind and loving heart.”
“Acts of loving kindness?” Vicki ventured.
“Well, an act might be more like sponsoring a senior-citizen mah jongg tournament. (That takes a lot of loving kindness.) I would call them mitzvoth, the plural of mitzvah: good deeds you do for others, without expecting any gain for yourself. Other than the knowledge that you can look at yourself in a mirror and say: ‘Today I am a grownup, because I behaved as a grownup.’ And that, my dear, will be a daily rite of passage for the rest of your very long life.”
He rose, so Vicki rose too, and they clasped hands.
“But how do I get them to quit fighting—and dragging me into it?”
“Ah. We’ve been seeking an answer to that one for several millennia. If you find a solution, I’d appreciate your sharing it with me. But never give up trying, Vicki. As Bette Midler tells us, ‘You’ve got to have friends.’”
“Oh I like her! She’s Jewish too, isn’t she?”
“So I believe,” said Rabbi Dreifinger. “We do our best to be likable. Call it another mitzvah.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Copyright © 2011 by P. S. Ehrlich
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