Whistle Against the Din
It happened when Fiona Weller was down in the heavily-soundproofed cellar at Villa Neapolitan, watching an old Twilight Zone while doing bong hits with Robin. (Whose father threatened all sorts of punishments if he ever! caught either! girl smoking any! kind of substance. Shaking his kosher-dill-sized forefinger at them both: “Just let me find one pack of Zig-Zag papers—one! single! pack!—well, you better hope I never do, that’s all!”)
(Whereupon Fat Bob mused aloud about how much safer a water pipe was than hand-rolled joints; how much cooler and healthier, “not to mention more ladylike.”)
(Hence: untrammeled bong hits in the basement.)
On the TV a rockabilly asshole strayed into an eerie backwoods time-warp, evoking a shrouded apparition who took form as a sad-eyed chick. She let herself be seduced by the asshole’s slick blandishments, evidently not for the first time: It’s always happened that way / ‘neath an old willow tree. Imploring Rockabilly not to run away this time, but stay with her—hiding someplace so they could always be together. Yet away he ran (the asshole bastard) and Sad Eyes was left in her time-loop or -cycle or -limbo, reenacting the same old story of forsaken betrayal:
You said you’d buy me things—bells and bonnets and bright beads—
Two words that caused Fiona to do a Billy Pilgrim. Unstuck her from the Seventies; removed her from Robin’s basement; returned her to jingle-jangle sunrise on the road—
Bucephalus the Big Blue Bus
takes me and you and them and us
all ev’rywhere: no fuss, no muss.
Her very first song. Written before she could actually write.
She had loved her parents then, loved everything about their musical vagabond life. Lem claimed they really were Gypsies, the family name had originally been something like “Wladimir” and their ancestors had rolled around Europe in a caravan, playing violins and cimbaloms and tamburicas:
Cross my palm with silver
and I’ll tell you all your fortune;
cross my palm with gold
and I’ll make your fortune mine.
The Cloudland Atmosphere made do with two guitars, a bass, keyboards, drum kit, five acid rockers (six if you counted Moth) and one child in a pair of rattletrap Volkswagen vans. Blue and Red they were, Bucephalus and Rocinante: transporting the band up and down Bay Area hills and along the coast to their next gig over the winding horizon. Little Fiona never grew tired of the trips, the views, the nomadic nature of eating and sleeping. When she did consent to nap, Moth would croon plaintive lullabies—“House of the Rising Sun,” “Maid of Constant Sorrow,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”—that seldom failed to send Fiona off to pleasant dreams, whatever their lyrical content.
Her parents had come out of the Berkeley folk scene, “The Back of Beyond” as Lemuel Weller styled it: blending his sanguine tenor with Martha Dunlop’s crystalline melancholy. Joan Baez might wear burlap but Martha garbed herself in chiffon, fluttering even on breezeless stages. Lem penned “The Moth and the Star” as his ode to her when they first became an acoustic duo, Lem ‘n’ Martha making the rounds of local coffeehouses, then graduating to “Lemon Moth” at the hungry i, the Purple Onion, the Cable Creamery:
Black-Bordered Lemon Moth
framed up against the sky—
paean to the break of day
from the sweet by-and-by.
Followed by “Lo! the Fairest Flower Girl” when Fiona was born. Bringing her along to performances when no babysitter was available, Lem’s open guitar case (lined with Moth’s rain slicker) serving as a crib. From which Fiona would yowl if they pluralized her song, applying it to all the young pure-of-hearts who boycotted Hootenanny for blacklisting Pete Seeger.
Then the British Invasion overwhelmed the folkniks and turned the world electric. Lemon Moth, taking a cue from the Byrds down in La-La Land, joined forces with Scudder Columbia and Cheeky Jowell to form the Cloudland Atmosphere: picking up ever-ripped Overcast Max to play keyboards, and the first in a long series of short-staying drummers. Had the Atmosphere ever achieved a consistent beat, they might’ve released more than one lone single on the White Whale label—“Freeze the Breeze” backed with “Body Snatcher’s Blues.” Autumn Records did express interest in signing them, but went bankrupt before a contract could be inked; and that was the Atmosphere’s last brush with vinyl posterity.
We’re not in it for the bread alone / while we can live by soulful tones.
Over the winding horizon to the next gig. Opening for Count Five and Sopwith Camel and the Chocolate Watchband at the Matrix, the Avalon Ballroom, the free concerts in Panhandle Park: melting together in Fiona’s memory, scented with jasmine like the pages of the Oracle, having a tang like the Diggers’s bean soup. It must’ve rained sometimes, been foggy sometimes—certainly been dark a few hours every night; but all she’d recall was the sunshine. Pouring through the van windows, beaming down from above, feeling like poetry and patchouli oil.
Hey, kiddo! Love your beads! a smiling hoarse-voiced woman (obviously Janis Joplin, in retrospect) told her at Monterey Pop. And Fiona looked and found them gleaming like a string of starry gumdrops round her little neck.
“I do love my beads,” she told the Pearl.
(“Oh, poor Janis,” was all Moth would say when asked in later years.)
(Grace Slick? “Such a lovely face.” Jerry Garcia? “Very good at bluegrass.” Country Joe McDonald? “Oh, he could get so angry.” Sum total of Moth’s insights into the San Francisco Sound.)
Moth never got the hang of singing with an electric band. She couldn’t abide what the so-called Summer of Love brought to town—bad dope, bad trips, bad junk and smack and speed. It was a great relief to her when Lem quarreled with Scudder Columbia, causing the Cloudland Atmosphere to break up (in the same month that Country Joe left the Fish, the Grateful Dead got busted for possession, and the Diggers held their funeral for Hippie: Devoted Son of Mass Media).
From this scene the Wellers fled in Bucephalus, with Cheeky Jowell leading them to a fresh start in Oregon. There they had four different apartments in as many years, and Fiona attended four different grade schools; yet Portland was pleasant, home of Beverly Cleary and Ursula K. LeGuin as well as the duo known variously as Lemon Cheek, Weller & Jowell, or Well Well Well—depending on what kind of gig they landed and whether Moth sat in on it.
But Moth wanted to teach music to others rather than make it herself. Being a professional substitute required “Clean for Gene” adherence to the straight and narrow; so she rehearsed being Mrs. Fairly Squarely to a classroom of squeaky-cleans, making Fiona’s sides ache with her staccato rendition of It-is-so-good-to-see-you-all-here-at-dear-old-[fill-in-the-blank]-school-I-hope-everyone-is-just-as-keen-as-I-am-to-raise-our-voices-in-song—
—sounding exactly like a Disney automaton.
After four years of this, Moth figured she’d earned a full-time teaching post, but none was to be found in Portland. An offer did get dangled by Seattle, and Moth talked of renting a houseboat so they could “repose on the bosom of Oceania”—i.e. Lake Union, with a view of the Space Needle—but the Boeing Bust intervened, and the Seattle dangle fell through.
Then Cheeky Jowell ran off with the Jesus Movement, and Lem went into a dispirited funk. He raised no objection when Moth pounced on an offer from California: it meant they could return home (sort of) and closer to the coast than Portland or Seattle, which seemed far more auspicious than knell-of-doomish. No hint that it’d be consignment to a year of sheer hell (YOSH) in aptly-named You Reeka.
A place Fiona would do her damnedest to blot from her psyche.
But its stagnant malodorous murk permeated the very fiber of her being. She began the YOSH as a fairly quiet, fairly watchful, well-enough-adjusted child—and emerged a closed-off, shrunk-down bundle of scar tissue. Rarely speaking above a mutter. Staring spectrally at the outer world. As might any fugitive refugee, at whom “freaky” and “fruitcake” were the kindest epithets flung.
Worst of all was the sense of isolation. Fiona had seldom felt alone before, or minded it much when she did; but in You Reeka even Bucephalus deserted her—throwing a rod, cracking its block, being hauled away to the junkyard. Moth retreated further and further within Disney automatonishness till finally getting trapped inside it, like an Invasion of the Body Snatchers pod-person. And did that make Lem run down the streets of You Reeka, shouting You’re next! You’re next? Hardly: not while he had Humboldt State to hang out at and get high at and return from no earlier than the wee hours, if then.
Thus the YOSH passed.
And when it was over, Moth lunged for a lifeline. Miss Rosamond Ambrose, longtime choirmistress at Vanderlund Township High School, acknowledged Martha Dunlop as her particular protégée, and had promised to help find her a local faculty position once she’d gained some fulltime teaching experience. With that now accomplished (and a veil drawn over the Cloudland Atmosphere entr’acte) Moth presented her credentials to Miss Ambrose and got hired to teach Vocal Music at Vanderlund Junior High.
“It snows out there,” was Lem’s reaction.
To him, anything east of Death Valley was out there; and out of nowhere he announced that he’d be heading down to La-La Land, picking up work as a session guitarist.
“Fine,” said Moth.
“Fine,” said Lem.
Their saying it twice didn’t make it even half-true.
Fiona waited to be asked which parent she wanted to go with, live with, stay with; but that decision was reached without consulting her.
“You need your mom, and your mom needs you,” Lem remarked. Making no allusion to any needs involving him.
“(Well... I can come be with you summertimes, right?)”
“Tell you what—I’ll come Out There and visit you.”
Cut and dried.
It would be inaccurate to say this added fresh scar tissue to Fiona’s bundle. Even as she launched her tentative trial balloon, she knew there was more flop than fly to it; and a year later, watching Paper Moon, she could envision what a summer with Lem would be like—relegated to the back seat like Addie while Lem/Moze attended to some Trixie Delight in the front, largely thanks to her front.
So adapt to survive, if not thrive. Quickly learn how to guilt-trip goodies out of Lem, starting with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars as a parting gift when they all left You Reeka. Ensure, with a few well-chosen mutters, that he would come visit a couple weeks every year, bringing more gifts and a wealth of stories about his musical adventures on the road.
(When she’d asked, he hadn’t so much as said We’ll see.)
(And that was an omission she would not forget.)
Moth shed private tears all the way to Vanderlund, doing this behind closed motel doors so Fiona could pretend unawareness. Her own eyes remained dry, the better to remain quietly watchful with. There was other conjugal fallout to observe Out There: her grandfather Jock Dunlop (longtime reporter for the Daily News, acquainted with Turkel and Algren and “that kid” Royko) had recently divorced Grandma Marietta and departed with a Trixie Delight of his own. And Marietta, though tempted to match him remarriage for remarriage, preferred to pump Jock for alimony and scandalize her sewing circle by shacking up with a beau named Herbert.
Ah! Sweet mystery of life, at last I’ve found you...
This escapade opened up a bedroom in Vanderlund. Moth’s sister Polly (an uplifting weaver) had married Cass Rumpelmagen (an optimistic architect) and produced five wholesome children, for whom Cass had just finished building the Plexiglass Palace on Windy Poplar Lane. One room had been designed for Marietta, but now would nicely accommodate Moth; while Fiona could bunk in with cousin Chloe and “look after” the four younger Rumpelmagens—Patches, Smarty and Bootsie (twins) and Baby Chuckles.
(This was another decision Fiona took no part in reaching.)
Chloe, aged eight to her ten, looked and sounded like a Tweety Bird timorously eager to please Sylvester. Professing gratitude that Fiona had taken over half of her brand-new bedroom. Forever offering to brush Fiona’s hair, a shaggy mop compared to Chloe’s sleek canary locks. Vowing “I am so glad you’ve come—now it’ll be two-to-one against Patches! I know he’s only six, but like Mommy says he’s ‘such a handful.’”
Which was to say a thrower of tantrums, intent on usurping Chloe’s primogeniture and dominating the Plexiglass Palace.
“(Don’t let him get away with it,)” said Fiona.
“But what can I do? He gets so crazy and noisy—”
“(Watch and learn.)”
You-Reeka-ites were one thing; this was a brat just out of kindergarten. Stroll over to where he was ringleading Smarty and Bootsie in tumult and turmoil.
“(Quit it,)” she advised Patches.
“Quit what?” he sassed back with outthrust tongue.
“(That, to begin with,)” said Fiona, in a mutter as hard and flat as hammered tin.
Patches retracted the tongue but stood his ground. “You’re not the boss of me! You’re too skinny to be the boss of me! This is MY house, not yours!”
“(Quit it,)” repeated Fiona, her mutter now like a pair of tinsnips chopping through a coffee can.
Visible gulp by Patches. Followed by an outraged yell as Chloe bounded up to give him a shove that tumbled him backwards onto his bratty butt.
“What’s happening in here??” Aunt Polly wanted to know.
“They knocked me down!” roared Patches.
“I did it!” Chloe declared. “I’m the big sister here, and I’m the one in charge when we’re by ourselves, and it’s about time you remember it, too! All of you,” including Smarty and Bootsie. Sideways glance at her impassive cousin. “Right, Fiona?”
“(Like you said,)” Fiona told Chloe. “(You heard her,)” she told Patches and the twins. “(Everything’s under control,)” she told Aunt Polly.
“Fiona’s so good with the kiddies,” Aunt Polly told Moth and Uncle Cass.
Fee Fi Fo Fum, Patches started calling her—behind her back, from a safe distance.
When she wasn’t helping Chloe enforce law ‘n’ order, Fiona spent the rest of that summer cloistered under stereo headphones, listening to LPs no one else was permitted to remove from their sleeves. Ziggy Stardust, Hunky Dory, The Man Who Sold the World; A Beard of Stars, Electric Warrior, The Slider. Of these albums the first and last were new, but the rest had been her faithful companions through the YOSH: glittering glamtastic ramparts against stagnant malodorous murk.
Marc Bolan and David Bowie were the opposite of all things You Reeka.
Fiona’d first heard Bolan back when he and Steve Peregrin Took were an acoustic duo (much enjoyed by Moth) who sang folkie-psychedelia with titles like “Aznageel the Mage” and “She Was Born to Be My Unicorn.” Fiona hadn’t wholly tuned in till Took split and Bolan electrified and the band’s name got abbreviated from Tyrannosaurus Rex to just plain T.Rex. Except that nothing was plain about Marc Bolan: a wizardy-warlocky rider of white swans, flying o’er the astral plane with curls and feather boas blowing in the elf-wind.
Yet he was surpassed and transcended by his friend David Bowie the Pretty Boy-ee, the Altogether Otherworldish—reaching his swank extraterrestrial hand to you through moon age daydreams. Lifting you up and up till you could press your spaceface to the Starman waiting in the flashdazzly sky: a cosmos where only “freaks” need apply.
Making you almost believe your beads were stellar-bright again.
Until summer ended and another school year began.
With no reason to hope that Dopkins Elementary, though two thousand miles east of You Reeka, would be one iota better.
First morning in Mrs. Gutenkauf’s fifth-grade class. Fiona cringing as all newcomers were instructed to stand and tell a little about themselves. Very little, so far as Fiona was concerned; she planned to mutter the tersest-acceptable memoir and sit back down fast.
The girl ahead of her took a different tack. Striding to the front of the room and giving it a cantankerous scowl, singularly at odds with her rosy-cheeked Campbell’s Soup Kid face.
“I’m Robin Neapolitan and no, my dad doesn’t make ice cream, so don’t ask me if he does. He just opened a Harley-Davidson dealership on Triville Road, and don’t ask if he’s a Hell’s Angel, ‘cause I wouldn’t tell you even if he was. We don’t like people talking about that kind of thing, understand? Just say we’re bikers and leave it at that.”
(Which would account for the little leather jacket she hadn’t taken off to hang in the cloakroom, though it was quite a warm day.)
Fiona felt like an emboldening match had been struck and held to her waxlumpy wick.
Mrs. Gutenkauf admonished Robin for saying “hell”—as if Archie Bunker didn’t broadcast that word every week—before calling on Fiona. And repeatedly asking her to speak up, please, which Fiona did for a token syllable or two before reverting to her habitual monotone:
“(My name’s Fiona Weller) and (me ‘n’ my mother just moved out here from California my) father (didn’t come with us ‘cause he’s a guitarist at least that’s what he) does (but since he’s on the road so much he may have joined the) HELL'S (Angels ‘scuse me Mrs. Gutenkauf I can’t say for sure ‘cause we don’t like people talking about that kind of) thing.”
Robin Neapolitan’s rosy face turned the color of strawberries flambé.
She seethed at Fiona through eyes like frothing milkshakes; but Fiona, as she passed Robin’s desk on the way back to her own, calmly muttered: “(Okay, your turn—try to top that.)”
The flambéed froth subsided like a mollified volcano, and Robin gave her a bubblegummy grin. “You’re on, Spooky! Double or nothing!” she snap-crackle-popped.
“Miss Neapolitan! No gumchewing is allowed!”
“Aw hell, can’t we do anything in this class??”
So Robin had to stay after school her very first day at Dopkins.
Fiona, unbidden, waited for her out on the playground; Robin acted unsurprised by her doing this; and together they walked to Robin’s house on Pottage Road. Quite a small house it was, attached to an oversized garage, in which they found Fat Bob Neapolitan fussing over several disassembled motorcycles.
He looked like a less-than-fastidious Oliver Hardy, with a thick black beard but no spitcurls. “There’s my baby doll!” he shouted, wiping meathook-hands on an oily rag before grabbing Robin and swinging her eight feet high, just shy of the garage ceiling.
“Daa-aad! Not in front of Fiona!”
“Oh hey! You brought home a little friend? Well, Fiona, this is how we say hello at Villa Neapolitan!—” and Fiona let fly an uncharacteristic squeal as she too got seized round the waist and swung ceilingward.
“Aw Dad, quit showing off.”
“Is this is why you’re late getting home? I expected you here an hour ago.” Abrupt Robinesque scowl. Kosher-dill forefinger pointed and shaken: “Dammit, I better not find out you got into trouble your very! first! day! of school—”
“Be cool, Dad, we were just fooling around,” Robin blithely jived. “Whaddaya want tonight, ravioli or tortelloni?”
“Watch it with your ‘fooling around,’” Fat Bob huffed. “And tortelloni, with mushrooms. Have we got any mushrooms? I want mushrooms!”
“Me ‘n’ Fiona’ll go pick some then,” Robin answered, dodging the oily rag Fat Bob snapped in her direction. “C’mon, Spooky, you’re staying for dinner. If you don’t like homemade tortelloni, eat it anyway—it’s good for you and I make it right!”
Thus began what turned out not to be friendship, nor even best-friendship, but full-fledged sisterhood. A blood tie soon cemented by pressing together pricked-open thumbtips, while reciting “No Fun” (by Iggy & The Stooges) and beating out its rhythm with free hands:
Hang awwwwn / don’t-uh lemme gohhhh
No fuhhhhn / to be uh-lohhhhne
As sisters, they could snipe and gnarl at each other without leaving a mark. Robin almost always pulled her punches when socking Fiona on the shoulder, and Fiona usually knew just how far she could push Robin before earning a punch. Neither sister probed into the other’s unvolunteered past—such as what’d happened in You Reeka during the YOSH, or why there was no mother at Villa Neapolitan nor any trace of one.
Fiona never felt afraid of anything when Robin was nearby. Which should have been always. Fat Bob played the drums; if he’d crossed paths with the Cloudland Atmosphere back in the beginning, and gotten signed as their first and only drummer, she and Robin could’ve been together since toddlerhood. The band wouldn’t have broken up, and today they’d all be traveling to gigs up and down the coast—Fiona sometimes riding with her parents in Bucephalus, sometimes in the sidecar on Fat Bob’s tricked-out Harley...
Over the winding horizon
racing ahead of the wind
tune out the pursuing sirens
and whistle against the din
She did ride in the sidecar sometimes, though just around Vanderlund, and only after reluctant permission was coaxed out of Moth. The Neapolitans could put the charm pedal to the metal when they chose, and Fat Bob swore profanity-free oaths that he’d protect Fiona from any roadrash harm. Robin rapidly captivated everyone on Windy Poplar Lane: Chloe hero-worshiped her, Patches clamored for a chance to wear her leather jacket, Aunt Polly and Uncle Cass granted her carte blanche whenever she offered to cook in the Plexiglass kitchen.
But when Robin and Fiona formally ganged up as an outlaw duo (the Dopkins Dopesters: “Never met a weed we didn’t like”) their parents were summoned to a conference with Mrs. Gutenkauf, who had Serious Concerns about their daughters’s attitude.
Moth’s response was to swamp her with citations from Free to Be... You and Me, while Fat Bob scared the living tar out of Mrs. Gutenkauf for even hinting that his baby doll and her best friend might be out of line.
“Dammit, you girls!” he harangued them afterward, yanking at his beard like a giant angry dwarf. “You think I’ve got nothing better to do than go! bawl! out! your teacher??”
“Now Bob, now Bob, let’s not be disheartening,” fluttered Moth. “When I see how the girls ‘empower’ each other, I can tell it’s going to be Oh Kay”—her affirmations spacing out between syllables, as per usual.
“Well, it better stay okay!” went Fat Bob. “Or else you don’t even wanna know what else, Robin! You hear what I’m telling you??”
“Dad, my ears are like a foot away from your mouth; what else can I do?”
“Oh Kay, Oh Kay!” Moth interceded. “I know what—let’s all hold hands and visualize our feelings—”
“(Let’s not and say we did,)” Fiona muttered against the din.
The Dopesters decided to tread a bit more softly in class. Or deftly, by testing just how far they could misbehave; and subtly, by inciting others to misbehave without risking official punishment themselves.
Some patsy-pawns hardly needed egging-on. Such as Artie Rist the Anarchist, who pretended to read Hardy Boys books while devouring the Weather Underground tracts he’d hidden inside them. His arm would shoot up at the slightest Dopester provocation to demand “BUT WHY??” Mrs. Gutenkauf’s “Because I say so” cut no ice with Artie, and his grades were so impeccable that she would try to convince him WHY with persuasive rationales. A whole hour a day could be wasted this way.
Craig Clerkington, another favorite patsy-pawn, was already a big lout at age ten. He took pride in bullyragging the entire school: even sixth-graders avoided confronting him, while younger students resignedly agreed their lunch-and-milk money was Craig’s by rights. The Dopesters would dare him to break marksmanship records with straws and spitballs, or rubber bands and paper clips, or (one memorable morning) with his bare hand and a lump of realistic-looking fake dogdoo.
Robin nursed an enormous hidden crush on Craig. He in turn awarded her his idea of the ultimate accolade: “Y’know, sometimes I even forget you’re a girl!” She managed to stomach this by resolving to bide her time: “Soon as I grow boobs,” she told Fiona, “he’ll remember all right!”
But disaster struck a couple years later, the summer before seventh grade. Along with boobs, pubes, and other hallmarks of adolescence, Robin got a whopper case of acne vulgaris that didn’t just invade her rosy face but shoulders, back, even her ass. She demanded a complete skin transplant that Fat Bob refused to countenance, insisting Baby Doll was more beautiful than ever—though she should quit all that picking and squeezing, lest she end up covered with pockmarks.
A heroic Clearasil effort was mounted prior to their first day at Vanderlund Junior High. Only to have Craig Clerkington guffaw “Hey, dummy! You’re supposed to wash up after eating pizza!”—and never really look at Robin again.
She got through the rest of that day on sheer guts, not breaking down till Fiona guided her home. Then, sprawled prone on the old couch in Villa Neapolitan’s soundproof basement, she let go utterly-abandonedly till cushions got soggified.
It made Fiona’s heart bleed to witness this, especially since it was such a stupid thing to get so upset about. She tried to give sisterly comfort with pats on head and strokes of hair, plus a suggestion that Robin dye the latter. And an offer to help her do it. And a brave promise to stand by her during Fat Bob’s reaction. (They selected a truly Dopester shade of vanilla, taking pains to leave Robin’s roots naturally chocolate.)
Puberty proved no kinder to Fiona when her turn came; nor was her heart the only part of her that bled. Worse yet, she first experienced menorrhagia while Robin was in South Dakota at the annual Sturgis Rally. There was only Moth to offer support as Fiona got taken to the gynecologist, and waited to be seen, and underwent initiation into the wonderful world of stirrups and speculum.
But Moth emerged from her automaton to hold Fiona’s hand through the ordeal. Crooning all the old tunes (like “Maid of Constant Sorrow”) to distract her from dying of grossest-possible humiliation, if not blood loss. If not from subsequently being stuffed with giblets and braunschweiger, to offset anemia.
Adolescence plainly sucked. As did junior high school.
So the Dopesters, like many another of their generation, sought sustenance from bong hits and loud music.
Robin was born to be a drummer, not simply as her daddy’s girl but because percussion provided a handy frustration-outlet. She took to carrying drumsticks wherever she went, whaling a beat on every kind of surface and in all manner of circumstances, the less suitable the better.
When Fiona was asked to choose an instrument, she felt drawn to the muttersome bassoon. Moth countered with a flute, which Fiona flat-out refused—cutesy girls played flutes. A clarinet, on the other hand, lent itself to multiple styles and genres. From Uncle Cass’s collection of jazz albums Fiona sampled the work of Noone and Shaw, Bechet and Giuffre—and particularly Russell, whose unpredictable spontaneity she replayed so often Robin started calling her “Pee Wee Jr.”
Robin preferred heavier music. Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath were perpetually stacked on her basement turntable; John Bonham and Ginger Baker replaced Craig Clerkington as her prime crushes. She didn’t share Fiona’s esteem for David Bowie (“Puddyboy,” she called him) but they both embraced the Stooges, the New York Dolls, and Alice Cooper. Raw Power! Too Much Too Soon! Billion Dollar Babies!
From these variations on the glam-rock theme, Fiona developed a personal guise. Though lacking the build or inclination to go the whole Glitter Lolita route, she added tarnished lamé to her wardrobe, scuffy platforms to her feet, and enough Maybelline to starken her eye sockets. The overall effect was unnervingly funereal: a graveside line drawn in the dust of suckdom. A flickery candle set alight as you cursed the dorkness. A transcendent sidestep to evade entering Teenage Wasteland.
As To Kill a Mockingbird put it: “From the mud to the stars.”
Or as Deep Purple put it: Ride the rainbow / crack the sky.
(If we be freaky, we be calling our tune.)
Dopesters still, though the old games were played no more; Artie Rist wasn’t in any of their classes and Craig Clerkington was a lost cause. Dominating the “7-Z team” at VW were busty Becca Blair, whom even Robin hesitated to flout, and Alex Dmitria the Russkie-Chicana, whose wholehearted ultraniceness was almost as intolerable as overt spite. Others on 7-Z were vapid nonentities like LeAnn Anobile, or bogus shams like Spacyjane Groh (spacy by nature, not from substances). And seventh grade proved conclusively that the last thing worthy of a twelve-year-old girl’s attention was 99% of twelve-year-old boys.
Particularly when that twelve-year-old girl had taken a spookified glam-stance against malodorous murkitude.
Which really seemed to rile the jockstrap element.
Craig basically ignored Fiona (“Aaah, she was always like that”) but Brad Faussett didn’t, calling her “Weirdona” every chance he got; Mike Spurgeon shared a superior snigger with whichever peppette was clinging to him when they passed Feef in the halls; and the very worst was an oversized salamander named Gary Sedgemoor, who occupied the homeroom seat directly in front of her. Each morning without fail this turdball would twist around and go “Hubba-baboo!” or "Chinny-chin-chin!" in Fiona’s face, followed by some far-from-complimentary commentary. Which somehow wouldn’t have been half so bothersome if not prefaced by these aromatic war whoops.
“Next time he does it, give the stronzo an ‘accidental’ punch in the nose!” advised Robin. This might’ve been effective if her mighty drummer’s fist delivered it; but Robin and her fist were unfortunately assigned to a different homeroom, so Fiona (lacking knuckles of brass) could only try to maintain a menacing silence, and hope to quell Turdball with vengeful voodoo hexes.
(Which finally struck home when Sedgemoor, who’d razzed Mike Spurgeon all year for having shoulder-length ringlets, made some sort of dig about Alex Dmitria that resulted in Mike’s kicking a sizable amount of crap out of him. Good riddance to the residue of Gary Turdball as he vanished from Vanderlund, winding up—with any luck—in hell or You Reeka where he belonged.)
(“Some stronzos float, some stronzos sink, but they all get flushed in the end,” Robin philosophized.)
Band class, at least, was broader-minded than the so-called norm. There the three academic teams mingled, somewhat improving student tolerability; Fiona even met a girl from 7-Y who could correctly identify Pee Wee Russell. This girl played cornet, not clarinet, but had heard him on Miles & Monk at Newport.
“Miles Davis is my man!” said Jo Murrisch. “Well, one of my men. They aren’t all trumpeters, but most of them blow.”
Jo was actually pretty cool. Without asking anybody’s permission, she changed her first name to “Jocelyn” because she got tired of its being only two letters long.
“So why not make it Johannesburgsouthafrica?” Robin asked, having sweated through a geography quiz before Band.
“Nahhhh—too heavy on the apartheid. I’d rather go jostlin’.”
She was full of jostly witticisms. Mr. Redo scolded her one day for hunching over her cornet; Jocelyn confided to the Dopesters that bad posture, like too-big T-shirts, was a defense mechanism to deflect male squints from her progressively expanding bustline.
“I mean, Jeez! It’s like I’ve got this double goiter that’s slipped down low!”
(Which caused Robin to snortle through a whole rehearsal of “Tijuana Taxi,” and earn a scolding of her own from Mr. Redo.)
The only thing wrong with Jocelyn Murrisch was her best friend, Kim Zimmer, a cutesy-poo peppette-in-training who tooted the flute as though she were riding it sidesaddle. Kim had no interest in buddy-banter with the likes of Robin and Fiona; she’d physically dragoon Jocelyn away from their vicinity, haughtymouthing “Come ON, Jo, we’re gonna be LATE! Why are you talking to them?”
“(She really isn’t like that,)” Jocelyn would whisper-apologize, to begin with. Then it became a despondent “(She didn’t used to be like this.)”
And then, one lunchtime in May, Joss stalked stiff-leggedly over to the Dopesters’s remote cafeteria table with crimson face and swimming eyes. “You guys mind if I sit here and not talk?”
“Ow!” went Robin. “Why the hellja kick me??” to Fiona. “Sure, knock yourself out,” to Joss. “See? I can be polite!” to Fiona. “You don’t have to tell us why you’re pissed off,” to Joss. “I’ll get you for that kick,” to Fiona.
Who silently shoved a clean napkin across the table, so Joss could blow her nose.
There were infinitely many reasons why a girl who’d just turned thirteen should feel like crying. But the Dopesters needed no stool pigeon to pin this rap on Kimmy-the-Poo Zimmer; nor did they disbelieve it later when they heard Kim had butt-smooched her way into the snottybabe set by dumping (and dumping on) her ex-best friend in front of a Y-Wing audience.
This was a breach so You-Reeka-y that Fiona nearly threw up at the thought of it, and Robin had to be restrained from side-saddling Kim’s flute into orifices other than her big fat boccaccia. Maybe Jocelyn wasn’t a member of their two-girl gang, but she was definitely a Band buddy, and more than welcome to take refuge at their uncrowded table for what remained of the school year.
“(So what’s the book about?)” Fiona ventured to ask one day, when Joss finished flipping through Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Rainbows & Fireworks and closed it with a sigh.
“Look at the title, idiot,” Robin advised.
“Well no,” Joss said wryly. “It’s really about these twin sisters who write each other poison pen letters.”
“(Hey, they stole our story,)” Fiona told Robin; which made Joss laugh for the first lunchtime since her breach.
Good deed done for the day. A casual quip, quickly dismissable.
Yet the notion behind it kept bobbing up in Fiona’s subconscious, as May yielded to June and July parboiled to August.
Our story could be stolen. From us; from me; and just like (snap) that.
Because even if Kim Zimmer’d been a treacherous bitch from birth, there was little reason to doubt that she and Joss were best friends for most of their lives—from kindergarten through sixth grade at McGrum Elementary.
Was the VW environment responsible for Kim’s going rotten? (Junior high sucked, after all.) But if that were true, what would prevent the same thing from happening to Robin and Fiona?
It wouldn’t even have to result from bitch-rot. Suppose Robin’s skin cleared up and she landed a guy—or a bunch of guys she could play off against each other? Suppose she and Fat Bob took a high-speed tumble off their Harley (a thought to shudder away from) or Fat Bob lost his dealership and they had to move to Detroit or Indianapolis—what then?
How would Fiona survive?
Joss Murrisch, though a cool buddy-type, was on a different VW team and lived way the hell out east. Chloe, though a dependably loyal cousin, wouldn’t start junior high for a whole ‘nother year and then would be a mere sevvie to Fiona’s niner. Lem, even if his exact whereabouts could be tracked down and Fiona ran away to join him there, would only pack her back to Vanderlund.
And the isolation chamber, all over again.
Another YOSH, this time prolonged into an abysmal indefinite future.
Don’t run! Don’t run!
—begged the sad-eyed chick on the TV in The Twilight Zone.
Reverting to a shrouded apparition as she knelt before the rockabilly asshole. So off he fled, to be obliterated by shadows; abandoning the unhappy chick-phantom to her eerie time-warp or -loop or -limbo. Without even the “bells and bonnets and bright beads” he’d pretended to promise her.
“Will you take the damn bong already?” Robin growled, having held out the weighty pipe for a full minute. Adding “What’s eating you?” when Fiona slowly shook her head, fingering the glittery trinkets strung around her thin neck.
First farting day of gassy eighth grade.
She and Robin were assigned to separate homerooms, recalling efforts by Mrs. Gutenkauf (and two teachers in sixth grade) to divide-and-conquer the Dopesters. Futile, of course; but that was Dopkins and this was what Moth would soon be calling Dear Old VW: I-hope-everyone-is-just-as-keen-as-I-am-to-raise-our-voices-in-song—
Robin planned to raise her voice in Miss McInerney’s homeroom, and test how immediately she could be sent to the Principal’s office.
“Betcha fifty cents I can beatcha there,” she challenged Fiona.
“(Fifty cents? You forgot to bring a lunch,)” Fiona guessed. “(Or enough money to buy the hot meal—)”
“Look, do you wanna bet or not?”
“(Bet they wouldn’t hear me if I did yell.)”
“You’re on, Pee Wee! See you in Band,” went Robin, pressing knuckles to Fiona’s upper arm; which from Robin Neapolitan was the equivalent of a warm hug.
Alphabetic seating in Mr. Gillies’s homeroom, which exiled “Weller, Fiona T.” to Seat 39 in the rear row. With Slobbery Gollum Whatshisname at one elbow, and Carly-in-Heat Thibert a couple desks away from the other. Robin despised Carly for having the sort of sex appeal she’d give a kidney to possess—not to mention the cluster of hornyboys panting to plant themselves in Carly’s pants.
Same reaction on the face of a girl squeezing through these he-groupies to reach Seat 38. A short dark girl with long dark hair, all dolled up for First Farting Day. Body of a dancer or a gymnast: legs and ass distracting the sleazoids (for a moment) from Carly Thibert’s.
She looked like a very young, slightly Mediterranean Mary Tyler Moore—narrow eyes above a wide mouth that hung open to display many bright white teeth. And her post-blecch expression recalled Mary’s opening sequence—not Who can turn the world on with her smile? (a version beloved by Moth) but the first season’s ominous How will you make it on your own? / This world is awfully big / and girl, this time you’re all alone...
Except that Fiona’s new neighbor evidently wasn’t. “(Joss!—)” she stage-hissed from Seat 38—
—and who should swivel round a couple rows ahead but Jocelyn Murrisch, mouthing the word Relax at Newbie Tyler Moore. Then Hi!! at Fiona, giving her a big smile and wave. That’s Fiona Weller, she mouth-informed Newbie.
What? Newbie mouth-replied.
Joss must’ve transferred from Y to Z team, which would be a very good thing. She must also have told Newbie about Fiona, which was... kind of unsettling. Newbie seemed to think so too, as roll was called and (after Mr. Gillies got a big unintentional laugh by saying “Carly THIGHbert”) they heard each other’s names:
“Um. Here. Can it be Vicki?”
“Vicki Volester. Fiona Weller?”
“Speak up, please. Byron Wiss—Whiz—Wyszynski?”
“SHSSS!” from Gollum.
Fiona, making a show of wiping off her elbow, pretended to take no notice of Can-It-Be-Vicki’s narrow sidelong glances. Answering her tentative “Hi” with a noncommittal “(Y’think?)” when Joss introduced them en route to Home Base. There Vicki left them to go downstairs for Gym, while Robin caught up (“Okay, hand over my fifty cents!”) at the Band room door.
Then, whenever possible during first period, Joss sang Vicki Volester’s praises: how wonderful a friend she was, what a great mom she had, such a dy-no-mite house she lived in. How Joss had found her wandering lost around Baroque Vista “like Jane Eyre on the moors,” but really it was Vicki who rescued her from all that mess [hard-eyed head-twitch toward Kim Zimmer] and oh! they’d run into [head-twitch] at the New Sherwood where Vicki completely pulverized [head-twitch] like Wonder Woman against Morgana the Witch! hard as it was to believe someone so petite could be so bad-ass but wow! you guys should’ve seen her in action—
“Who the hell are you talking about?” asked Robin.
Rap rap rap rap rap went Mr. Redo’s reproving linemaker on the chalkboard.
They all had Language Arts second period, but Vicki-the-Paragon played truant. Fretful Joss wanted to rustle up a posse (“She got lost again, I knew she would!”) till the late bell rang and in barreled Vicki on the heels of Becca Blair and Alex Dmitria, no less. Then the whole class started chanting the Speed Racer theme (!) as Becca lectured Miss McInerney and Alex beamingly welcomed everybody back to school while Vicki, peeking out from behind them, rolled her eyes at Joss like the littlest clown in a circus act.
Not the sort of First Farting Day you’d anticipated.
Least of all in Pre-Algebra, where a hunky-dory mirage manifested itself like Our Prettyboy of Lourdes. “I saw him first!” Robin said hoggishly, but the visionary guy retreated into his time-warp or -loop or -limbo, leaving a dozen girls grasping at otherworldish nothingness.
Fiona spent the next hour composing a free-verse song about him. Dimly aware that Joss and Vicki were leading her from study hall to cafeteria; that Robin brought her a milk for her snackpack of Super Sugar Crisp; that Robin then went into one of her standard rants, but Vicki stood up to her and Robin backed down and everyone made too damn much noise while Fiona was trying to thrash out cadences. Ultravirgin full of gypsum / sifting like bellybutton lint...
She had mixed feelings about attraction/repulsion.
She herself did not like to be touched.
Those close to her were aware of this: Chloe being extra careful when brushing Fiona’s hair, Robin knowing not to overdo the shoulder-punches. Visits to the gynecologist were agony, even though it was a lady doctor; and the thought of being “interactive” with a guy ranked right alongside watching the Neapolitans have a motorcycle accident.
Limbless dwarf with knife in his teeth
waddles to you through freakish mud
But say you found a nice clean hunky-dory in a drugged stupor, and could do whatever you liked without his knowing or responding in any way you didn’t control...
Fill young navels up with diamonds
in skin soft as honeymelon
Toying with such thoughts, she used the rest of the day to refine and polish “Ultravirgin.” There were no further sightings of Hunky Dory; nor, for that matter, of Vicki Volester, till the last bell sounded and they briefly stood at adjacent lockers. Vicki gave her a whew and half-smile and “See you tomorrow” before departing with Joss.
And Fiona belatedly realized: that girl stood up to a Robin-rant and made Robin back down. Like a bad-ass Wonder Woman in a petite package, or Mary Tyler Moore throwing an ecstatic hat in the air.
She might just make it after all.
“I um don’t suppose you um run a lot?” Vicki asked her a week later.
“(Only in my nightmares.)”
“Ooh, I have those too—where you try to hide, y’know, from Something or Other? But no, I mean... like... see, we need more girls to go out for cross country—”
“(Good luck with that.)”
“Oh. Yeah. Thanks. Um, you don’t suppose Robin...?”
“(Only if you plan to run on gasoline.)”
The new cross country team survived Fiona and Robin’s nonparticipation. It also survived being nicknamed “Ladybugs”—who began filling up the Dopesters’s cafeteria table like ants at a picnic, till they became a veritable lunch-bunch.
The first L-Bug to drop by was Laurie Harrison, an odd compound of Watership Down doe and apprentice Playboy Bunny—the sort who’d spill drinks on keyholders. “Okay if I sit here?” she humbly asked Vicki and Joss, who promptly made room for her as though they owned this table.
Laurie did furnish some entertainment as a gossip, unerring about everyone’s romantic affairs except her patsy-pawn own. She often trembled on the brink of soap-opera heartbreak, from which she’d be saved by her vigilant stepsister Susie Zane. But Little Sue was a sevvie and couldn’t stand guard during school hours; so the lunch-bunch (according to Joss and Vicki) had to help out.
Fiona contributed by staring fixedly at Laurie through an entire lunchtime, till bunny-nostrils quivered and nervous hands grew damp.
“Would you quit it, Feef?” laughed Joss. “You’re scaring her to pieces.”
“Ohnoshe’snotdoinganything!” went Laurie, dropping fork and spoon.
“(Just looking out for her,)” Fiona observed.
The next Ladybug to barge in (rather than fly away home) was Sheila Quirk, who played the flute and was vehemently cute, but no-way cutesy much less -poo. She had plenty of pals over on X team and an oleaginous boyfriend named Roy; yet Sheila-Q kept returning to the Dopester table because she and Robin discovered they loved to argue like a pair of junkyard dogs.
One Sunday evening at the Plexiglass Palace, Robin grabbed the phone. “Gimme a sec, gotta call Quirk... Yeah, lemme talk to Sheila, ‘please’... S’me—so what’ll it be tomorrow?... Use what?... Oh you are so fulla shit, Quirk!... Well, say your prayers tonight, baby, ‘cause tomorrow I will make you rue! the! day!... yeah I said ‘rue’!” Slamdown of phone.
Stare of startlement (leaning toward jealousy) from Fiona.
“Okay, think fast,” Robin told her. “What’s the absolute worst thing that can happen if you use Bonne Bell Lip Smackers?”
“That’s tomorrow’s argument—weren’t you listening? You were standing right there! Are you gonna help me or not? C’mon, Pee Wee!”
They decided that applying fruit-flavored lip gloss was bound to cause eventual heroin addiction.
No jealousy necessary: still Sister Dopesters. Core of the lunch-bunch and hardcore at that.
Even Alex Dmitria, Queen of the Ladybugs, paid visits to their cafeteria table; and Miss Ultranice got a lot more interesting when she freaked out from a public ass-slap by crass Craig Clerkington. Fiona could relate to such a freakout—though not to Robin’s envying the slap or brooding over why her butt went untouched, or asking Vicki Volester for cosmetic advice.
(“Hey, I’da come to you if I wanted raccoon eyes,” Robin told Fiona.)
Joss didn’t wear much makeup, saying it made her skin itch; Laurie favored a good-li’l-girl look that’d be grotesque on Robin; Sheila-Q would use a consult as a skewer in their daily debates; and Robin wasn’t about to seek assistance from Fat Bob’s new old lady, Charlotte Pauk. (Fat Bob was permitted to have old ladies so long as they knew who was Boss Girl at Villa Neapolitan.)
That left Vicki, who had the right chops for the job and came through like a powder ‘n’ paint trouper. Vicki did trade eyerolls with Fiona afterward, when Robin strutted around like a cover model; but self-satisfaction undeniably enhanced the effect. Robin was happy, so they were happy, though Fat Bob blew his stack at her laying it on so thick and threatened to cancel Robin’s birthday-party jam session. But Old Lady Charlotte told him to back off:
“All she’s doing is being like a woman, see—trying to put her best face forward. If you don’t let her do that in front of you, she sure as hell will behind your back. See? And bug you for plastic surgery besides!”
So the jam session was on, and Fiona composed a new song for it. Here too Vicki Volester made significant input, after hearing how the little Rumpelmagens had derived “Feef” from Fee Fi Fo Fum.
“Have you ever read this?” Vicki asked, offering Fiona a book before homeroom. “My best friend in Pfiester Park gave it to me. You kind of remind—I mean, you both have the same—well anyway, I think you might like it.”
Mirror of Danger, by Pamela Sykes. Written on the flyleaf: U & me / from S to V!
Strange to think of Vicki having an “S” that Fiona could remind her of. Or that Vicki’d act hurt next morning when Fiona returned the book. “What, aren’t you even gonna look at it?”
“(Finished it last night.)” Under the blanket, using a flashlight.
“Oh yeah? Okay then, who was Flo?”
Bad question for anyone with menorrhagia. “(Alice’s maid. Had a bedroom in the attic.)”
“Wow, I guess you did read it. All the way through?”
“(It was good.)” And understandable why Vicki thought she’d enjoy it—living as Orphan Lucy did, with a crowd of boisterous cousins. Though the Plexiglass Palace lacked an abusive girl-ghost like Alice, trying to shanghai you into joining her in the distant past.
Abrupt question: “(You sing, right?)”
“Well—I’m in your mom’s Vocal Music class. I don’t know that I sing right.”
“(I started writing a song, kind of about the book. If it’s done in time for Robin’s jam session, would you sing it with me? As backup?)”
Um and well and sure from Vicki, flustered by this lengthy favor-asking mutter. As if she knew it was a big deal: not just a new song, to be performed in front of all Fiona’s for-want-of-a-better-word friends—
—but the public debut of her bass: the used Fender she’d guilt-tripped out of Lem and was teaching herself to play. “We got us a rhythm section, baby!” Robin had exulted after their first bass-and-drums duet at Villa Neapolitan. “All we need’s a pair of hunky-dory gee-tars, and we can go! on! tour!!”
Her birthday jam was a great success, despite Charlotte Pauk’s riding herd on the basement throng and Fat Bob’s patrolling its perimeter. Robin and Fiona did a hardcore set, opening with “Ultravirgin” (choral support from Vicki, a tittering Laurie, and tougher-minded Little Sue) followed by “Dust On Your Mirror,” the new tune inspired by Vicki’s book. This song inherited a phrase from that old unfinished biker-sidecar anthem:
Quit being a face in your crowd
and stop whistling against your din:
hark how the Snake of Nirvana
sheds whole centuries like a skin—
—as the Fender’s steel strings shed the skin off Fiona’s fingertips. Yet pain never felt so right, so indispensable to laying down a heartbeat or building up a backbone or digging out a groove. Her throat ached likewise as it went full-tilt boogie-diva, keeping just enough in reserve for the grand encore finale—“Someday, Little Girl” from Fat Bob’s favorite movie True Grit—as it might be played by dynamo steamroller Suzi Quatro: Fiona belting out thunderbolts to Robin’s hailstorm of bashes and crashes till they crescendoed with
YOU’LL! FIND! THE! SUN! WUNNNNNNN-DAY! (YEAH!!!)
And though Fiona would be hoarsely incoherent for the whole next week, in that moment she bestrode the world and beheld all creation.
For a moment, before the world and all creation imploded upon her.
It happened by gradual increments.
She’d often seen the undemonstrative name “Patti Smith” in magazines—Creem, Rolling Stone, New Musical Express—even last September’s Mademoiselle (borrowed from Joss Murrisch). First as a byline on verse and reviews, then in critiques of her own shows as she advanced from poetry readings to fronting a band to releasing a way-out cover of “Hey Joe,” backed with the wayer-out “Piss Factory.” Rolling Stone claimed she exuded an aura of street punk and mystic waif; Mademoiselle called her Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Lady Raunch.
Now Patti Smith was due to release an album, combining graphic fantasy with surreal violence via stream-of-consciousness redemption. Which was precisely what Fiona required, to cope with having been put on The Pill.
“(But—I—don’t—need—It,)” she tried to inform the gynecologist, only to be told It could help balance her hormones and regulate her periods. Which had gotten heavier than ever, disturbing Fiona’s sleep—forcing her to get up at 3 a.m. and change her “didies,” like an incontinent hemophiliac.
So: this was It. At ultravirginal age thirteen. Dead certain every boy in school could tell what she was popping, and so getting Ideas about her—guys like elephantine Arlo Sowell in English class, who’d seldom shown the least awareness of Fiona before. But now she was on It, and they were in the same group studying Piggy in Lord of the Flies, and Arlo’d begun grunting earthily at her—without satirical overtones. More like a guy who’d gotten Ideas.
She dared not divulge her It-hood to Robin. Who’d be sure to say “What?? You’re on THE PILL?? Way to go, Pee Wee! Hey, lemme bum one—they say It works wonders clearing up acne. Aw c’mon! Since when do we hold out on each other?” et cetera.
Robin might even try to take advantage of Its chief purpose. She kept whizzing over to Pfenniger Street on her new secondhand scooter (dragging Fiona along) to hang out with the Erle brothers. Or at least so Robin could hang out with big Diesel Erle, leaving Fiona in the company of meager Skully. Whom she had no wish to “accompany”—except maybe on bass to his tenor sax—even if Skully did supply the Dopesters with primo weed.
Which did nothing to help regulate flow.
Hence: Fiona’s need for stream-of-consciousness redemption.
To fill it, she went not to Carry-a-Tune at the Green Bridge, but Cobwebs & Strange down in The City. There every form of recorded music could be found in mass quantities—reel-to-reel, 45s, LPs, eight-tracks, tape cassettes; also posters and blacklights and incense and concert tickets. Cobwebs & Strange had unearthed some obscure Cloudland Atmosphere memorabilia for Fiona in the past, and they were able to obtain an advance copy of the new album now in her hands.
On its cover: an unshrouded apparition in black and white. Three words above it:
Patti Smith Horses
“Aw c’mon,” Robin scoffed over Fiona’s shoulder. “That’s just Keith Richards clowning around—y’know, with a drag name like ‘Alice Cooper.’”
“(No it is not. And you don’t have to listen to her if you don’t want to.)”
“Now don’t get all snippy-assed on me. C’mon—”
Back they whizzed to Pottage Road. To the basement, and the turntable, and the hiss of the needle, and the opening declaration that Jesus died for somebody’s sins—
—but not Patti Smith’s.
And off they were taken to the graphic/surreal/fantasy/violence races: G-L-O-R-I-A. Suicider alternating with suicidee, distorting each other radically askew; transported through a pointblank Mirror of Danger to eerie passion, and alien menace, and intense ambiguity, and sore thumbs in stuck-out flux. As fickly extemporaneous as anything by Pee Wee Russell; more profanely transcendent than anything by Edgar Allan Poe.
Horses, meet Hop-Frogs.
“(This shit is seriously weird,)” whispered Robin.
And seriously disabling.
Fiona spent the rest of November under the headphones, parsing every nuance of Psmith’s craft. This was a whole new species of singing-songwriting, at an extreme remove from the sort Moth wanted Fiona to emulate. Putting Joni Mitchell’s Blue or Judy Collins’s Living or Laura Nyro’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession on the Plexiglass stereo, Moth would send Fiona hopeful free-to-be-you-and-them vibes. And Fiona would listen, picking up useful bits here and there; but rarely getting struck by a Seriously Weird chord.
She wanted to feel rasp. To hear the banshee and taste its anarchy.
So: start cramming staff-paper spirals with inspiration. Which was how “Ultravirgin” had been captured, its lyrics and melody pouring out of Fiona’s unplugged brain down through her fingertips and onto the page.
This time, however, no mirages manifested themselves. Only indigestion from Thanksgiving dinner. Because nothing she composed could hold a candle to Psmith.
Not that anyone should expect it to. No eighth-grader could achieve banshee anarchy on the first farting try. Turn to a fresh page and give it another shot.
And another, and another, through a seriously disabling December.
Every morning the Band killed off a few more braincells, rehearsing inane banalities for VW’s Winter Concert. (Don’t blame me for this, Fiona disclaimed each time they had to plow through Moth’s Lost Horizon medley.)
Disablement spread beyond Band. One lunchtime Vicki picked up Fiona’s snackpack of Lucky Charms and tried to drink it—then flew into a tizzy when Sheila-Q razzed her for acting lovesick. That got Laurie Harrison all agog and gossipmongerish, till she had a tizzy when Chipper Farlowe started openly canoodling with Delia Shanafelt, and Laurie (refusing to believe her own braincells) broke out in what Joss called “denial hives.”
“They are not!” Laurie whimpered. “It’s just a reaction to my new wool dress!”
“On your forehead?” said Robin, expert in all things blemishful.
Then, as if Winter Concert weren’t bad enough, Alex Dmitria marshaled the lunch-bunch to go out Christmas caroling in the cold dark snow. Moth and Aunt Polly made Fiona take part and take Chloe, who was thrilled to be involved. She now hero-worshiped the Ladybugs and pledged to go out for cross country next fall.
(Dismal sigh heaved by Fiona.)
It was too much like that chapter in Mirror of Danger where Alice the ghost inveigled Lucy the orphan to go sing carols in the previous century—and then wouldn’t let Lucy return to her own time, chasing her down a gaslit Victorian road through echoes of “Silent Night” and Alice’s demands that she Come back! Come back!...
Something ought to be creatable out of such a scene. Maybe not Psmithworthy; falling short of the bar set by “Redondo Beach.” Yet it smacked of abduction by a succubus, and that had to be a promising lyrical start.
Take me to your time-warp, let me lose my shroud
Christmastime seductions come but once a year
reenact the same old fatal betrayals
that always happen ‘neath an old willow tree—
(Blecch. Muddling your material.)
There’s spiders on Mars and snakes in Nirvana
hellhounds in mangers and slaves in Utopia
running and hiding from Something or Other
through a nightmare neither Silent nor Holy—
(Double blecch. Pap on tap.)
Doors barred and windows latched
she slithers down the chimney
bringing gifts of shed your blood
scratch my back and I’ll slash yours
shedding gutterfuls of red slush
from overregulated Flo—
(Make that a triple. Beyond nausea now.)
Helen Keller’s locked in an attic
‘cause the cellar’s too democratic
sterilization of the unfit
by neutering their stillborn wits—
(Tear out the pages and scrawl inside the spiral’s back cover.)
Psmith took me up to her mountaintop
gave me a taste of her consciousness stream
struck me undumb with the rasp of her tongue
but too late to say anything she got to first
so heartburn from the ashes in my mouth
indigestion from no wannabes being wanted
cramps from the unspoken already broken in
and pits from the future being pre-empted
(You said it.)
Before now, Fiona’d never truly contemplated a future for herself. Present prospects were grim enough: go to school, come back “home,” bleed indiscriminately every month unless pills were popped to dry things up. Mental as well as menstrual.
And hereafter this? Would she wind up teaching, like Moth (horrors) or seek jobs as a session musician, like Lem (as if female bass players would ever be given a chance)? Would she mutter streetcorner poetry out of self-published chapbooks—All My Own Work, written before I went blank at age thirteen?
Or might she take Robin’s birthday jam and spread it onstage for audiences able to appreciate full-tilt banshee-divadom? Her bass line backed by Neapolitan percussion, with a couple of prettyboy guitarists playing by her remote control? And the anarchic songs they would spout—
—remained hidden in the constipated whale that had devoured her imagination.
(Ain’t nothing deeper than whaleshit. Even unshat.)
For what could she say or sing, now or hereafter, without sounding like a copycat? Psmith had called dibs on all the good din, leaving Fiona to go whistle. What could she write that’d shout Fweller—or better still FTW, telling the world exactly what it should do to itself: thus spake Fiona Theodora!
Except there was nothing left for her to spake.
Laura Nyro’d retired from performing, so maybe Fiona could swipe her spake—stoned soul music performed with unplucked sullenness. She had the shaggy brows for it, though not Nyro’s plumpness—soul singers tended to pack plenty of flesh. Fiona didn’t (poor soul) so instead of Motown, she belonged in Notown. Yes, she’d be a real Nowhere Girl, draining down a nowhere swirl: no wear, no tear, no air...
If you didn’t count empty flatulence from that anal-retentive white whale.
First Farting Days of the New Nowhere Year. Sneak food into napkins, flush it away untasted; don’t eat and you won’t toot like a cutesy-poo. Dine on darkness instead as you lie awake, listening to Chloe make nightly noises. (All the Rumpelmagens produced these.) Hold your breath and count ten sheep... then ten more... then a hundred, backwards...
And when you do drift off it’s to awake in Bucephalus, bumping over summery hills under patchouli sunshine. Beaming upon Lem and Moth and the Cloudland Atmosphere: me and you and them and us / all ev’rywhere: no fuss, no muss—
Just a vast unutterable howl as your poor soul gets sucked back into this shriveling teen carcass, trapped within a Windy Poplar winter that stretches every which way till there’s nowhere left to run, nowhere right to hide, you’re already Nowhere and swirling down its barren wasted drain...
Black stars. Two of them, shining through the gloom; resolving into Vicki Volester’s narrow eyes.
“You okay? I mean, you look like a—like you’ve seen a—y’know, ghost.”
(Meaning: was she an Alice or a Lucy? And on which side of the looking-glass?)
Any answer Fiona might have given was staved off by a squeak from Vicki as she unlatched her locker and a white-whaleish winged thing fluttered out, floating down to land between Fiona’s boots.
“(Wha’...?)” Crazy impression that Moth had taken origami form and been caught inside the wrong locker.
“Sorry, that’s mine,” chirped Carly Thibert, snatching whatever-it-was off the linoleum. Vicki gave Carly a tiny head-bob and Fiona a searching gaze of renewed worry.
“Feef, you better get some sleep or something.” Sounding so full of uncertain concern that Fiona felt tempted to reply, try to explain, ask for support—Vicki was strong, a miniature Wonder Woman, able to run fast and leap far and stand up to ranting strangers, and she’d said Fiona reminded her of a lost best “S”—
But Carly’s despicably cute face intruded to giggle “Get or something!” and add “She really needs ‘or something’” when Fiona muttered “(Yeah sure)” and turned away, trudging off to what passed for home. Alone in imploding isolation.
Robin was having one of her daddy/daughter Wednesdays with Fat Bob. Chloe’d gone somewhere to play with sixth-grade cronies. The littleuns went Fee Fi Fo but kept Fiona at Fum’s length as she sat by herself in what passed for her room. Stereo off, radio off; listening to internal music that took the place of food and drink and sleep. Afternoon passed, dinnertime too (plate to napkin to toilet), evening night and dawn. Feet no longer connecting to carpets or sidewalks or stairs, but gliding like a pair of origami moths that might fly her aloft to a paper hereafter:
How many more days
must I cross off the page
till my body catches up
to the rest of starvation?
(such a diet you should try it)
(such a diet you should try it)
(such a diet you should
collapse off your chair onto the Band room floor with a crack of your clarinet and a thud of your skull reverberating till you come to with a sense of Robin crouching close by as a shield from the clamor of laughter rent by an Oh Jeez! is it her heart? oh Jeez! is she dead?? that sounded like Joss and doused the laughs to a murmur plus somebody’s tears apparently yours thick as blood gushing from beneath sullen unplucked brows
(oh sweet blindness)
And a sour blur of hazy movement, in which Robin’s disembodied voice could be heard yelling Where she goes, I go! You’ll have to lock me up to stop me!
Then some sort of exam room, being gently questioned by a woman in white as to habits and intentions. Mildly chided for these, but more for not having told anyone anything about being so troubled. “Anxiety and depression can be side effects of some birth control meds.”
“(I’m not... taking them... for that...)”
“For whatever reason, it doesn’t matter. We can try a different prescription.”
(What, both of us?)
Back into the blur. From which she muttered a (sorry) to frazzled Moth, and an (I just wanna go home) that didn’t mean Windy Poplar Lane. Yet that was where the blur took her for a lengthening-shadowy interval, till she woke up not in Bucephalus but her own bed. With her own sister pacing agitatedly between it and Chloe’s.
“What the HELL is the matter with you???”
Forget mild ‘n’ gentle: Robin laid it on thick as the makeup on the face flushing red and white behind evaporating cosmetics. Ranting fatbobbishly that If you ever pull a stupid stunt like this again, you! better! hope! you drop dead, ‘cause I swear to Christ I’ll KILL you if you don’t!!!—
Brandishing a fist that compressed Fiona’s spindly upper arm in a tight Dopester embrace.
“Vaffanculo, Spooky!” Not translatable as a loving endearment, unless it came from Robin Neapolitan. And followed by a growlish “I got detention tomorrow, thanks to you!”
It took Robin’s mighty drummer-hand to propel Fiona and a borrowed unbroken clarinet through the school doors on Monday morning. Up the backstairs, over to the Z-Wing, into a concerted cry of “Here she comes!”—
—feeble attempt to dig in bootheels; but “Go on!” Robin pushed inexorably—
—and there was Joss Murrisch wrapping long arms around her (“Dammit, Feef, you scared me half to pieces!”) and Sheila Quirk and Laurie Harrison and Susie Zane come over from X and Y to greet and hug her, and Alex Dmitria bearing a chart of nutrition guidelines drawn up specifically for Fiona’s needs. Last of all there was Vicki Volester, who’d been concealing Fiona’s locker on which they’d taped tacky plastic flowers around the goopiest get-well card available at Osco, signed by the whole bunch.
And much as Fiona disliked being touched, there was euphoria and elation and a (See this? See this?) aimed two thousand miles west at the YOSHers of You Reeka.
Her bunch kept close throughout that morning, and at lunch they scrutinized her every mouthful like a passel of Jewish or Italian mothers. A healthy sandwich (turkey and provolone on whole wheat) got chewed and swallowed, though the bunch undermined this by suggesting how she should respond to rumors that Arlo Sowell had “broken her heart.” (A euphemism for Alex’s benefit; more people suspected him of impregnating Fiona.)
“(How?)” she’d asked Robin.
“(Hey, don’t ask me—this is your rumor,)” Robin’d replied.
So she tried to chew and swallow while Joss and Sheila recommended she give Arlo reproachful glowers, caressing her midriff in a tender self-sacrificial way; till Fiona had to drop her sandwich and giggle like an imbecile.
“I don’t get it,” complained Laurie. “If you weren’t ever going with Arlo, why do you still want him back?”
Fresh squall of giggles. Vicki explained they were only fooling around—“Them, I mean,” indicating the lunch-bunch. “Not Feef and Arlo.”
“Oh. Okay,” said Laurie, resuming her fixed stare at Fiona’s jaw as it took a bite of hard-boiled egg.
(Just looking out for me.)
Belief-stretcher: that she and Laurie Harrison should do that for each other. That Fiona could give enough of a damn to wish Laurie’d dump Chipper Farlowe’s sorry ass and find a guy who’d treat her right. That Vicki Volester had brought them together, all of them at this table, and adjusted each of them for the better.
(Sudden pause in mid-eggchomp.)
(Sharp inhale by Laurie. Everyone looking apprehensively over at Fiona.)
“(Anybody got paprika?)” she asked, popping the rest of the egg like an oversized Pill.
Laughter from the bunch; renewed chewing and musing by Fiona.
Look at Joss now, compared to last spring. Look at Alex, compared to just a few freaked-out months ago. Look at Robin and Sheila, gleefully arguing whether Andre the Giant was losing his mind. Look at Laurie, no longer a lone lorn creetur when Little Sue wasn’t around. See them all, grouped improbably en masse.
And not just at lunchtime: this was semester finals week, so the bunch was hosting afterschool “cram sessions.” Alex covered Math at her Mission Revival house; Joss handled French and Spanish at her Queen Anne manse; Vicki tackled Science (where her grades had startlingly improved) at her split level on Burrow Lane. Robin volunteered to bring pizzas each night, “so long as you guys fork over the dough for your share. Haw!—‘the dough’—get it?”
And Fiona found herself MC-ing the Social Studies cramathon at the Plexiglass Palace. (Which sent Joss into raptures about “inlander architecture,” and a long side chat with Uncle Cass the inlander architect.) Moth and Aunt Polly made a predictably big fuss, and Chloe was in her lionizing element; they relieved Fiona of every hostess-duty, allowing her to sit back and quietly observe.
Watch the world gradually, yet unmistakably, revolve around Vicki Volester.
But why?? (as Artie Rist might’ve demanded).
What made Vicki their “two thousand tubes of airplane glue,” to quote Joss quoting Lenny Otis quoting Lenny Bruce? What subtle elusive quality made her so special? And what underlying distraction was keeping Vicki from giving Social Studies her full attention, here and now?
Fiona wasn’t sure she wanted to find out.
They reached the Revolutionary War, which made Joss start humming “Midnight Rider” and thus remind Robin (who often forgot but never forgave) of that “Do hobbits ride Harleys?” wisecrack; so 1776 was put on hold while she unleashed a Bicentennial diatribe against Squat Roger Mustardman. Most of the bunch grinned and nudged each other during this frothmouthing: the more froth from Robin, the more proof to them that she was in denial-love with His Squatness.
Fiona’d done some razzing in the past on this topic—“(He’s warm for your form)”—“OH! GROSS!”—but had declined to place a bet in the bunch’s secret pool on whether Robin would admit her wrath was throbbing l’amour. To bet would be to concede its possibility, and that Fiona could not accept. Not for Robin—
—nor for Vicki, hub of the Revolution, whose dark-star eyes went tell-tale-heartish during the Roger-rant. Though fleetingly, and noticed by no one but Fiona.
“C’mon, you guys, we got lots to go through here,” Vicki harrumphed, discreetly rehooding her eyes and heart. Robin settled down, the bunch returned to 1776, there was no further mention of Roger Mustardman.
Yet Fiona knew what she’d seen. With Gypsy Wladimir perception.
Not just an underlying distraction, but a threat of devastating revelations. Because if Vicki had a thing for Roger—and if it was reciprocated—and if they chose to go public with their going together—
—well, any reaction by Robin was bound to be regrettable. Probably resulting in the lunch-bunch’s breakup, and that couldn’t be allowed to happen.
Worse yet: Roger Mustardman might be a born-too-late-for-the-burlesque-circuit comic, but he was also a guy and therefore capable of despoilage. Not simply OH! GROSS! despoilage in the carnal sense, such as made you worry about Robin with the Erle boys or Sheila with Roy Hodeau or Laurie with every caddish male. This was Vicki Volester, and if Roger screwed squatly with the hub of the Revolution... what would become of the orbiting world?
Fiona studied them surreptitiously next morning in homeroom. Detected a strange exchange of glances that Sinatra could’ve sung about. Felt pangs of revulsion and icicle-fear in the pit of her stomach.
And heard a voice at her elbow, speaking into her elbow rather than her ear:
Don’t you worry. It’ll be taken care of.
Not the elbow next to Vicki’s desk, but the one beside Gollum’s.
Spoken without sibilance, or a peep Fiona’s way, or any variation from his typical Tail-End routine. That very afternoon in French class, Monsieur Blumer had to force him to relinquish his exam paper, to which Gollum clung with a spluttery “Shsspas encore!... shsspas encore!...”
Fiona shared that vignette (though not the elbowtalk) on Friday in the cafeteria. Where, again, she was the only one to spot Vicki getting perturbed: this time by a glimpse of Roger being brazenly flirted with by Carly-in-Heat Thibert. Which Fiona, sitting beside Vicki, glimpsed too.
(The caddish bastard.)
So: premature despoilage, causing Vicki to stalk out with masked fury. Fiona hoped this spelled the end of any threat to her or the bunch, not to mention the world; transferring any ruinous destruction to Roger and/or Carly.
But when the 3:15 bell rang, Vicki stood at her locker smiling all over her face, giving covert gloats to a slip of paper not quite hidden in one hand. Plans for revenge? No such luck—squatty instructions to doll up for going someplace, and a taunt that Vicki’d be needing fresh lipstick(s) before they got there.
BLECCH didn’t even begin to convey Fiona’s reaction.
“Oh hey, Feef! Have a good weekend—keep eating right!”
“(Take care of yourself,)” Fiona tried to advise, as Vicki pranced off beyond earshot.
Roger the Hornswoggler must’ve found some way to appease her. Whatever would be, was now clearly going to be; and just as clearly needed thwarting. But how?
Asking Robin for help with anything involving Roger was out of the question. Joss would call her a buttinski, Sheila’d squeal to Robin, Laurie was too innocent and Alex too inhibited.
Only one other contender sprang to mind, and appealing to him felt like praying to a flounder in the sea. Nevertheless—
O Gollum, Gollum, in your cave
or Tail-End, halfway to the grave,
take care of Vicki like you said:
on Roger Mustardman please tread!
Chanted thirteen times in quick succession.
Leaving a stupid aftertaste in your psyche, all that three-day weekend.
And yet, by Tuesday, Roger was well and truly trodden upon.
Gone from 8-Z; gone indeed from everybody’s sight and hearing, unless you counted some Phantom-of-the-Sock-Hop incidents that would crop up over the next year.
Hearsay b-z-z-z-z’d around VW like an upset hornet’s nest. No questions were answered by glumly-dejected Lenny Otis or Dino Tattaglia; the Smarks Brothers ceased to exist, despite a lame effort to enlist Dwight Whitehead as their third leg. Robin took full credit for whatever’d transpired, huffing on her nails and buffing them on her leather jacket.
Byron Wyszynski (alias Gollum, alias Tail-End) never revealed a clue that he knew about anything except his own neuroses. Fiona decided to treat him, if not with more respect, then at least with greater wariness.
Vicki came through the Whatever outwardly unscathed, other than sometimes looking bothered and sometimes bewildered. Plus a great deal shorter-haired, after lopping her long-enough-to-sit-on coif into a tapered bob. It seemed to make her feel better; and Fiona, though tempted to trade eyerolls with Robin, wasn’t about to mock anything that could lessen depression.
Invited with the rest of their bunch to Vicki’s fourteenth birthday party in March, Fiona was inspired to compose a song for the occasion. It didn’t quite pour out of her brain onto the staff paper, yet there weren’t many hesitations and hardly any blecchs.
Someday her work would shout Fweller; someday it might scream FTW. But, for the time being, thus spake Fiona Theodora:
Venture nothing, gain the same
Is a rule we’re made to break
Color outside the crayon lines
Keeping your face unstraight
Indicate nothing precisely
Variety spices the swift
Occupy the navel’s center
Left of what’s right as you live
Enter the doors marked Exit
Satisfaction’s lies are within
Truth we make up along the way
Every time you glue us together
Releasing us to be as one.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Copyright © 2013-2017 by P. S. Ehrlich
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