Pick Up the Pieces
Tricia made arrangements to backpack through Europe with a troupe of other high school grads, and sent word to Ann Arbor that she would be enrolling there that fall. “If you find a house you like, go ahead and move,” she told her parents. “Box up my stuff and I’ll sort it out later,” she told Vicki. “I better not find you got into my stuff while I’m gone,” she told Goofus.
At Commencement she went through all the appropriate motions, letter-perfect and flawless-pitched:
|We come and go as the years passing by|
|Bring to thee glory, O Pfiester High!|
|Thy purple banners unfurling to view|
|Fairest of emblems, our whole lives through!|
Three days later she left her bedroom, the greystone, and Walrock Avenue without a backward glance; kissed her family goodbye at the airport; and never set foot in Pfiester Park again.
On the last day of school, a going-away party was thrown for Sarah-Jill Shapiro. Her father’s bachelor Uncle Shmulka had died, leaving Moe and Millie his paid-off condominium and half-share of a wholesale jewelry mart in the Bronx. Although the Shapiros (like all true children of The City) had nothing but contempt for New York, they thought this opportunity too tempting to let slide.
So cans of pop were distributed to Sarah-Jill’s classmates, and Mrs. Lundgren told them: “You should each offer a toast to Ms. Shapiro, in hopes she will not regret the changes she is making.”
Yash Pramanik: “Allow me the first to toast. There is an old Hindi proverb that translated says, ‘Help a friend’s boat across and your own will reach the shore.’ A thousand Namastes, dear Sarah-Jill.”
Brenda Pomerantz: “We’ll always punch with a peachy nectarine!”
Kris Rawberry: “Yeah! G-o-o-o-o-o Peaches!!”
Hayley Tamworth: “Gahd bless you, Sarah-Jill, even if you don’t believe in Him. (Oops! Is it okay to say that, Mrs. Lundgren?)”
Vicki Volester: “Wish you and Garrett and your mom ‘n’ dad many happy landings.”
Stephanie Lipperman: “And a boneless voyage.”
Eileen Agnew: “MmmmI’m sure Melissa would tell you goodbye herself, if she was here in person.”
April Tober: “(Snortle.)”
Mrs. Lundgren: “If she were here in person.”
April again: “Well anyway—tell New York to make room for me.”
Ordinary Mark Welk: “What? Oh! Uh, good luck.”
Bill Goldfarb: “Same here.”
Keith Vespa: “Me too.”
Swede Swedebach: “I was gonna say that.”
Lefty Levitch: “Is there any more pop?”
Jonathan Dohr: [silent raising, draining, and crushing of his can]
Jim Maxwell: “‘Scuse me, what was your name again?”
Sarah-Jill Shapiro: “Thank you, everyone. I will try to miss you all.”
(Larry Hersenspoel was truant, as he’d been much of the semester. And if W— had anything to say, Vicki’s ears refused to hear it; though they burned all that day at the relentless sensation of his wet crimson needles boring into her.)
If only, she kept thinking.
If only the Colonial’s owner in Willowhelm had agreed to wait, Vicki would’ve been the one getting that sendoff. If only the Volesters had a dead bachelor uncle to leave them a mansion on the North Shore, everything would’ve turned out fine. If only Vicki hadn’t agreed to enclose notes to Sarah-Jill in Felicia’s letters to Millie Shapiro, she wouldn’t have to spend summer vacation writing any.
For her part, Felicia was more determined than ever to track down the next Most Perfect Place Imaginable. She applied herself to this with such diligence that Ozzie joked she ought to go into the real estate business fulltime.
“Maybe I will, when Vicki and Goof are a little older,” she replied. “Now look at all these listings and tell me what you think—”
They spent that June in limbo. Vicki not only had a room to herself but often the entire apartment; and with Felicia away all day scouting out properties, she was expected to do the housework and prepare the meals and and look after Goofus during the rare intervals he could be dragged indoors. Being a teenager, Vicki felt obliged to roll her eyes and act exasperated by this choreload, but secretly she welcomed it as a diversion from limbo-awareness.
Which was another name for bummerdom.
Now and then she ran off with Stephanie for a little hectic hanging out. Steph must’ve sensed something terminal in the air—she never brought up any topic involving a future beyond the next weekend—so by unspoken mutual consent they hung out in the present, for the present, seeing time tick by on clocks but not feeling it pass.
And Vicki thought: If only...
Yet when the news came it caught her flatfooted. Or flopflooted, in plastic thong sandals with a busted strap, tutting her parents for not calling to say they’d be late for dinner. Or what was left of dinner, Goofus having gobbled up the pasta salad.
“CanIgonow?” he went, trying to escape before his microrequest could be denied.
Ozzie hauled him back by the shirttail. “Hold on there, pardner, we got sumpten to tell y’all.”
“Please don’t talk like that, Daddy,” Vicki moaned.
Felicia (the future realtor) cut to the bottom line. “We think we’ve found a house.”
“A what?” asked Goof.
“You think you have?” asked Vicki.
“All right, we have found one—up in Vanderlund. And we’ve made an offer on it, and the bank’s ready to approve our mortgage loan, and a certified inspector did an assessment of the house just today—it’s only a few years old, the man who built it’s been transferred to California and wants a quick sale. About all that’s left is for us to sign the mortgage, make the down payment, and collect the keys. And then we’ll be homeowners!”
(With a festive little squeal you wouldn’t expect from a mother of three.)
“Wait a minute,” said Goofus. “What’re we gonna do with a house?”
Drive up to see it the next morning. North on the Expressway, past the exit they used to take when going to Gran and Dime’s lox-colored cottage. Get off at Panama Boulevard, which ran parallel to what looked like a stream but was in fact a sanitary canal called Vanderlund Channel.
“Eww!” went Vicki, glad the a/c was on and her window was closed. This might be more tree-lined than the canal that ran through The City, but she bet it smelled just as fragrant during summer droughts. “The house isn’t here, is it?”
“Not quite, Kitten.”
They followed Panama Boulevard as it looped southwest, then turned onto a street called Lesser Drive. Which implied there was a Greater Drive in some other direction. But for the next several blocks it bordered a verdant park, much lusher and more inviting than old Pfiester back home, and Vicki wondered if it had a pond she could run around.
“Almost. It’s on Burrow Lane.”
“Burrow? Like bunnies?”
“I hope not,” said Felicia. “I want to plant a big rabbit-free garden.”
“Don’t worry, Mom,” Goofus told her. “Gimme an air rifle and I’ll—”
“Christopher Blaine, don’t you start talking about guns!”
“Or shooting rabbits!” added Vicki as they turned right on Foxtail Drive. “We should catch them and keep them as pets, in like a hutch—”
“And before you know it we’d need a dozen hutches,” said Felicia as they turned left on—ta da!—Burrow Lane. Or rather into Burrow Lane: an honest-to-goodness cul-de-sac. A suburban one, too: eat your heart out, Melissa Chiese.
“Looky there,” said Ozzie, “thirteen miles exactly on the odometer. And looky there, kids, that’s it! Split-level ranch, four bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths, two-and-a-half-car garage, quarter-acre of land. All of it practically ours.”
“So what’re we waiting for?” Goofus demanded, struggling with his still-locked door. “Aren’t we going inside?”
“Can’t yet, pardner—the Eisensteins are busy packing, and we don’t want to give ‘em any reason to slow down. I made good ‘n’ sure they understood what I mean when I shake hands, this time.”
Vicki rolled down her window and peered out at the sort of house you’d see inhabited by families in TV sitcoms. You could almost hear Jan whining Marcia Marcia Marcia inside it. And the set designers certainly did a good job on the surrounding neighborhood—every yard had a couple of tall trees, all of them in full leaf, arching upward to mingle overhead so the Lane really seemed like a shady Burrow.
She pictured herself living here. Riding a bike to and from other suburban places. Jogging down to Lesser Drive for a run across the park, or over to Panama Boulevard and along the (sweet-scented) canal like a Venetian teen.
Was Tricia in Venice now? How would she react to this new house, to barely being able to set foot in 3132 Burrow Lane before college started—
As in school.
One of the suburban places Vicki would be to-ing and from-ing. Though she didn’t know how to get there and back, or even what is was called, or anybody who attended it. Not a single solitary soul in all Vanderlund.
She scanned the houses nearby, wishing each in turn might contain a rich bachelor Lipperman uncle (better make that a wealthy maiden aunt) who’d welcome Stephanie as a live-in companion, and abiding best friend.
The mortgage papers were signed. The down payment was made. The Eisensteins finished packing up and scheduled their move to California. And Vicki knew her disclosure could be postponed no longer.
It shouldn’t be too hard; things wouldn’t be that bad; thirteen miles were a blip to a teen on a train. And besides, there were always telephones—Vicki might have an extension in her new room, one of those Princess (or better yet, Kitten) models. It would hardly be a separation at all. More like a “broadening of personal boundaries.”
Now was the time: Stephanie calling her from the pay phone at the public library, which she preferred to yelling over the perpetual bedlam at Tendone Avenue. Stephanie sounding brittle (does she suspect?) as she jabbered about how great Jaws was supposed to be (but won’t let herself believe it?) and hey, since it was rated PG, why not take Didi and Goof next weekend just like the old days ha ha ha.
Um, Steph, the thing of it is...
Post-disclosure silence on the line.
Now came the moment when wishes should be granted. You’re moving to Burrow Lane in Vanderlund? What a coincidence! My Great-Aunt Dvosha (who has an independent income and always wanted to raise me as her own) just happens to live there—
“Is this supposed to be a joke? ‘Cause it is not funny.”
“Well... it’s not a joke, either...”
And then came a stream of what was probably obscene vituperation.
Except Stephanie was sobbing so hard, Vicki couldn’t make out the words.
She tried to break in, to stem the flow, but a appalled librarian’s voice cut through the savage sobs. Thump went the dropped phone; click went the connection.
Vicki hung up her own (soon-to-be ex-) phone, wondering whether the same thing had happened to Nina Gersh a year ago—and, if so, whether that was why Nina never gave Steph her new number.
That same day Goofus came blithely home with a black eye, bloody nose, and split-open lip. He and Bink had decided they might as well have the fistfight each always boasted he would win if they weren’t best friends. The fight had ended in a gratifying draw, as neither boy barfed after trading blows to the stomach.
“Do we got enough time for a rematch?” Goof asked through the icebag on his lip.
“You little hooligan!” Felicia seethed, “I ought to clobber you myself! If you’d chipped any of your beautiful teeth, so help me I would!”
“Are ya sure none’s chipped?” asked Goof. He wanted to preserve his battle scars till school started, so the guys in Vanderlund would know who they’d be dealing with.
“Oz, just look at what your son has done!”
“Y’oughta see what I done to Bink, Dad! He’s got both black eyes!”
“Well, boys’ll be boyish,” smiled Ozzie. “Ain’t that so, boy o’ mine?”
“Sure is, Dad! And hey—wanna know what else I been thinking? What a kick it’s gonna be when Trish comes back here, and finds alla us gone! She’ll hafta sleep on the stairs or even out on the street!”
Ozzie nearly chipped his own teeth on the phone trying to contact Tricia, who (according to her troupe’s revised itinerary) was either in Rome, Naples, or somewhere between the two. Felicia had to wrestle the receiver out of his hand, saying the cost of such a call or calls would exceed that of moving the household.
“And another thing: I want to be out of here before July 1st. There is no need for us to wait for Tricia, and no reason on earth why we should pay another month’s rent on this place. I can’t wait to get away from it.”
This ding’d a vague bell in Vicki’s earliest memories. Mom determined to leave their lemon-yellow bungalow and come here; Daddy wanting to stay put till Tricia talked him around.
Oho! What’s this? Has some young feller proposed?
Now Daddy, this is serious—
Listen to her, Oz—
She’s going to make him move us to a city—THE City—
Now Vicki guessed it was her turn to do the talking-around. She found her father staring forlornly at an atlas (“Gol-dang Italy!”) and perched herself on the arm of his ever-favorite chair, brought from the bungalow and twice reupholstered.
“Don’t worry, ‘kay? Tricia told us to go ahead and move, ‘member? We can have the tour’s travel agent send her messages, right? Everyone at the greystone will know our new address, won’t they? And even if worst comes to worst, Tricia can call Beansville (collect) to get the scoop, can’t she? So you see, everything’s cool.”
“Hmmm,” went Ozzie, encircling her waist. “Used to think your sister was the champeen coaxer, Kitten, but I think you’ve got her beat.” (Wistful grin.) “You’re getting to be so grown up, I guess I can’t call you ‘Kitten’ anymore. Seems like just yesterday you were sitting on my lap, hardly bigger than the doll in your arms. Now I expect all the young fellers in Vanderlund’ll be knocking on our door, and I’ll have to make small talk with ‘em while you finish getting ready for your dates. Tricia put me and her fellers through that routine, many a time. Now it’ll be your turn.”
Vicki (concealing her obligatory eyeroll) assured Ozzie she’d be his Kitten-for-Life.
That night she fell asleep in midspeculation about all the young fellers in Vanderlund, and what these forthcoming dates with them would be like. Till a voice crept up on tiptoe to her elbow, her forearm, her wrist, her hand, whisperstuttering I nuhnuhnuhnuh know what comes next—
—lick of thumb—
—turn of page—
—to the next chapter—
—of juggle-uggle-uggling her dream till it turned into a scream with a shakening awakening JOLT helped along by a finger that had no business being where it was or doing what it did.
The shame of it. She’d never be able to set butt in this bed again. She’d have to sleep in Tricia’s from now on.
Let me go away from here, far away where I can’t be found. Where HE won’t be waiting for me, standing or falling or flopping or jerking at me. Get me the hell out of his gross appalling dreams—but not before you get him the hell out of mine. And, um, please keep my finger out of, y’know, trouble. Amen. Et cetera. And so forth...
The keys were obtained. A van was engaged. Stacks of flat cartons appeared in 3W, and the Volesters boxed up their (and Tricia’s) smaller possessions.
Time to start saying goodbye.
Vicki made an attempt to call Tendone Avenue, but a shorter-tempered-than-ever Tiger Lily failed to hear her through Baby Benjie’s caterwauls. Even if she had, Vicki doubted Steph was anywhere near ready yet to have a rational conversation.
For Vicki there were no poptoasting sendoffs. Kris and the other Rawberrys, including elderly Ness, were away at the farm in Clayton County, Iowa. Brenda was away at JCC sports camp on the Upper Peninsula. It’d be better not to tell April goodbye, since her mother Pidge would likely have a conniption at hearing the Volesters were headed where she’d always wanted to move. It might even provoke her to do something drastic like divorce Dr. Tober; so really April owed Vicki thanks for keeping her yap shut.
She mused over whether the boys in her class would miss her. Would Ordinary Mark’s heart give a little twinge? Would Blew Dohr compose an ode to her memory, like the one Bill and Jim did for Nina Gersh? If so, it probably wouldn’t pay eight-synonym tribute to her modest bosom. And if they chose instead to praise the roundness of her rump (probably to the tune from “Seasons in the Sun”) Vicki’d just as soon decline the honor.
She could not decline bidding farewell to everybody at the greystone. Most of whom looked suddenly older and smaller—none more so than Baldwin Hull, shrunken even for a Munchkin Mayor. You had to worry about him and Nellie, and what would become of poor Junior (weeping openly as Vicki gave him a hug). Already the Hulls were having problems keeping the building from falling apart; there hadn’t been a tenant in 1W since its pipes froze last winter.
The Franks were both nearing retirement and talked of moving to Arizona. “Dair’s no snow or sleet or hail to make yer rounds troo, over by dair,” said Mr. Frank. “But I’ll be dishin’ up sahsidge sammiches for all da kiddies right uptada endada line,” added Mrs. Frank, giving Vicki keepsake photos of Luigi the parrot and Beany Boy the Mighty Beagle.
The two Mrs. Partridges still offered piano lessons, though their clientele had dwindled even more than Mr. Hull. Vicki asked one or the other Mrs. Partridge how Candice and Corliss were doing, if they’d reconciled and become twins again? But whichever Mrs. Partridge she was talking to (after never seeing both of them at once) only shook her head sorrowfully and kept mum.
Ozzie and Harry Tamworth clapped each other on the back, recalling “Good times!... good times!” till you thought Florida and J.J. (not Juodas Jautis) were about to join in. Felicia and Mary Tamworth swapped a bit of chitchat, wishing each other’s family well, albeit with the same unthawed reserve they’d maintained for more than a year now.
Vicki and Hayley stood awkwardly in the latter’s bedroom, once as familiar to Vicki as her own. Gone were nearly all the trappings of childhood, replaced by early-teen Baptist-youth-group effects; but one shelf was festooned with Skipper and Skooter and all their Astro Co-ed accessories.
|They dance through space|
|having the time of their|
“I won’t ever give those away,” Hayley vowed. “When I have daughters, they’ll only get to look at them. That is, if I ever have any daughters. Or sons. Or anyone.” (Self-conscious munch of apple.)
“Course you will,” said Vicki. “You were born to be a mom. You just have to meet the right guy first, who’s out there somewhere waiting for you.”
“Yeah,” said Hayley, without conviction. “I bet you’ll have a whole bunch of boyfriends, up in Vanderlund.”
“Yeah right. I’ve got to start over again as a New Girl. First day of school, I’m gonna be all alone.”
Shock to see a gleam of unmistakable satisfaction in Precious Puddin’s eyes. Promptly replaced by remorse and sympathy; but still.
“Aw c’mon,” Hayley murmured. “You won’t have any trouble making friends. They’ll be extra interested ‘cause you’re a New Girl. And they’ll know right away that you’re a Peach.”
“Well...” said Vicki, “be sure to say goodbye to everyone for me. Tell them I will miss them—you—all, a whole lot. Whether Sarah-Jill does or not.”
“And Hayl, do me a favor? Try to be good friends with Stephanie. She can be really nice once you get to know her.”
“‘Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them,’” Hayley quoted a Language Arts book. She put down her apple and gave Vicki the secret Peach handclasp: index and little fingers extended, middle and ring fingers folded down; knuckles bumping—one, two, three. “Gahd bless you, Vicki Volester.”
“Um, thanks. I hope so. I mean, I think I’m gonna need it.”
She, unlike Tricia, took a long look at every room in the denuded apartment. She, unlike Tricia, walked backward down the greystone staircase and stoop-steps, the better to remember it by. In the Honda she squirmed around as far as her seatbelt would permit, to watch Walrock Avenue start to recede through the rear window.
“Whatsa matter, Sis?” inquired Goofus. “Cantcha fit both boo-tocks on the seat at the same time?”
“Mom! Goofus is already being horrible and we’ve barely left home!”
“Christopher, don’t annoy your sister,” Felicia ordered. “I want everybody smiling! This is one of the happiest days of our lives.”
“You bet it is!” agreed Ozzie. “Vanderlund, here we come!” He switched on the radio, flooding the Honda with Scottish funk from the Average White Band:
Pick up the pieces—pick up the pieces—pick up the pieces—
And Vicki, twisting to catch the last possible glimpse of Pfiester Park, saw something come out of her dreams. It followed them at a distance, never getting closer, never getting lost—but always looking like a Mad Man, bent on getting away with her personal mortification.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Copyright © 2011 by P. S. Ehrlich
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