Chapter 39

 

Soph Wars

 

 

Lucas Stabeldore was a man of few words, with “yep” and “nope” predominant in his vocabulary.  He had been raised on an orchard farm outside Dowagiac (“Dwaaahjack” to Michiganders) where he was acquainted with Holly Brollis’s family, her great-uncle Wallace Brollis being one of his scoutmasters.  Luke rose through the ranks to Eagle Scout by keeping himself physically-strong-mentally-active-morally-straight, and always prepared to do his duty assisting others at all times.  This didn’t prevent his shooting at Japanese aircraft while serving as a Marine fighter pilot; but as Luke laconicized, “T’other feller was shooting back.”  Before, during, and after the war he lived by the twelve principles of The Law:

 

Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, reverent.

 

Riding the GI Bill he attended Michigan State, joining the national service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega (open to any Scouting alumni) and lettering three years straight on the Spartan tennis team that won the Big Ten championship.  This despite a slight hitch in his gait that added to his overall Gary Cooperish impression: sober, solid, steadfast, never raising his voice in anger, intent on sharing his devotion to the American Way of Life and encouraging the common good—even when that entailed self-sacrifice.  Such as by becoming a public schoolteacher, as had his older sister Dorcas, whom Lucas followed to Vanderlund in 1957.  Shirley Ewing’s having transferred to Multch Township after marrying Principal Agate left a vacancy in the Social Studies department that Luke ably filled, standing tall before his classes, holding forth on history, citizenship and current events with an economy of expression that many students applauded, since it meant fewer notes to take.

 

Dorcas Stabeldore taught business courses at VTHS and then, when the junior high opened, typing at VW.  She and Lucas were able to afford a midsized house on Scotchbroom Road and share it in suburban comfort.  Dorcas, though content with spinsterhood, dabbled in occasional matchmaking for her bachelor brother; his being a Strong Silent Type attracted numerous ladies, but he got flustered and uncomfortable when not in an academic setting or on a tennis court.

 

“Honestly, Luke, you’re just an overgrown boy,” Dorcas chided while preparing his peanut butter sandwich for the morrow’s lunch.  “You haven’t changed one whit since the days you’d hide from little berrypicking girls back in Dwaaahjack.”

 

“Yep, guess so,” he taciturned.  “Got any jam for that sammitch?”

 

Ten years he taught at Vanderlund High School, earning his master’s degree on the side, taking over as Social Studies chairman when Mr. Staffel retired and then as Vice Principal in 1967.  That was the year Cool Hand Luke branded him with an indelible sobriquet, little though he resembled the antihero portrayed by Paul Newman.

 

Wish you’d stop bein’ so good to me, Cap’n...

 

Being promoted out of the classroom spared Lucas from a failure to communicate with his Social Studies students.  Their increasing hostility to the war in Vietnam mystified him, as did the experimental programs implemented by Superintendent Amsterdam.  Luke tried to take it all in hitchgaited stride and deal out discipline with coolhanded forbearance.  Not for him were the crackdowns by more hidebound Vice Principals, nor the reactionary rantings of Eberhard Drexler (who had to leave the School Board after an apoplectic stroke).  Luke’s being physically big enough to quietly intimidate the rowdier elements helped keep the boat from rocking into disarray.

 

Yeah, them poor old bosses need all the help they can get...

 

Yet seasickness spread through Vanderlund as the Seventies deepened, as the Baby Boom ebbed and stagflation flowed and VTHS was hit with a triple whammy in 1973: education levy defeated, “Dutch” Amsterdam ousted, and Major Agate departing for the Peace Corps.  Leaving the school to wallow through the tempest, in urgent need of a steady grip on the helm, able to handle whatever might get lobbed at it next.  And who better for such a task than Game-Set-and-Match Stabeldore?

 

So he stepped up to become VTHS Principal (only the fourth in ninety years) and, as he phrased it, applied elbow grease to troubled waters.  A reduced levy was approved; a threatened teachers strike got called off; and the golden anniversary of what oldtimers still called the “New School” was celebrated in 1974-75, very much according to the nostalgic fad for Simpler More Natural Times.

 

Yet the present-day student body’s fading interest in VTHS activities continued to wane.  (Fiona Weller would remark how coincidentally this paralleled the rise in teen consumption of demonweed.)  A similar decrease was affecting the Scouts and bewildering Mr. Stabeldore; why, at a time when attention was focused on the environment as never before, were outdoor skills getting de‑emphasized—and camping actually made optional??

 

Fortunately that didn’t deter the happier campers, particularly Alex Dmitria who’d been the Stabeldores’s exclusive source for Girl Scout cookies since she was first able to ring their doorbell.  Enroll enough Alexes and you’d never be concerned about participation in extracurriculars—although her mother and Mrs. Driscoll, the VW Principal, indicated that Alex had gone overboard activitywise in junior high and come close to burnout.  (Something any Scout ought to know how to douse.)

 

Another ray of sunshine was Hilaria Joy, pride of the House of Brollis.  Hers was the dramatic branch of the clan, Dad working as a stage director and Mom as a wardrobe mistress, while Holly herself had been a professional comedienne from the age of three.  Mr. Stabeldore welcomed the Brollises when they moved to Vanderlund from Dwaaahjack, knowing no theatrical production at VTHS could possibly flop with Holly in its cast; though he did wish she wouldn’t flirt with him so incorrigibly at every opportunity.

 

However, you could count on only so many Hollys and Alexes per student body, and each year there seemed to be fewer of them.  Indifference was the order of the decade, which puzzled the Principal even more than hostility.  Wasn’t youth supposed to be the time of your life when you cared most, before reality wore you down?

 

Not that Cool Hand Luke had given in or given up, or ever would; but more and more he felt like he was on a lonesome crusade to restore lost honor and achieve redemption.  Every night he knelt beside his bed and said heartfelt prayers toward these ends, with the conclusive vow: On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country, and to obey the Scout Law...

 

Even when his endeavors got hobbled by the stringent austerity measures imposed by Mr. Tuerck’s School Board and Superintendent “Save-a-Nickel” Billings.  As these compounded student apathy, many a VTHS tradition was falling by the wayside or in danger of doing so.  Mr. Stabeldore had spoken (tersely) against canceling Orientation, and shelving the annual school directory, and hiking the Channel’s subscription rates to the point of unsustainability; but each time he’d been outvoted or countermanded.

 

Now on the prospective chopping block were what remained of the Vanderlund Literary Societies.  These dated back to the turn of the century, when one for senior boys and another for senior girls had been established to encourage appreciation of finer literarature than dime novels and pulp magazines.  They were also seen as an uplifting alternative to the Greek-letter chapters that Lakeside Central’s fraternities and sororities were trying to implant at VTHS, as they had at Front Tree and Startop.  This movement was stoutly resisted by Whielding Wheaf, who scorned it as “exclusionary ostracism bent on mumbo-jumbo” and extolled the virtues of literary societies in comparison:

 

“Here, scholastic merit is the only standard.  Here, the pupil finds the best that is in him or her called into active realization.  Palmam qui meruit ferat!

 

But after his death and the opening of the New School in 1924, Vanderlund’s lit societies took on all the trappings of Greek-letter-bearers.  They expanded and divided till there were three for boys and nine for girls, with younger students allowed to take part providing they underwent arcane initiation rites and ceremonies of privilege.

 

Ostensibly the only requirement for membership was to earn a B in an English or speech class and have a C grade average, with every applicant guaranteed a place in some society or other.  Yet a rigid pecking order was soon nailed firmly into place, and less desirable applicants got relegated to other societies instead of some.

 

Each spring an Intersociety Literary Contest was held, featuring competitive entries in poetry, short story, essay, oration and declamation, plus as much high-caliber hoopla as could be packed into one convocation.  A silver cup was awarded to the society (nearly always a some, very seldom an other) that scored the highest ratings, followed by a banquet interspersed with additional speechifying.  (This banquet almost got aborted in 1926 when Chester Brockhurst invited Sinclair Lewis to come be its toastmaster.  The Man from Main Street couldn’t make it but sent Chester a droll letter of regret, expressing hope that he might one day reject his own Pulitzer Prize.)

 

The cachet of LitSoc status would become so coveted that by the Sixties fully a quarter of all students belonged to an other if not a some.  Yet even these charmed circles lacked immunity from Seventies phlegm; and involvement declined at a precipitous rate, sped along not just by anti-elitism but an unfortunate incident that, had it happened a few months later, would’ve quadruplified the Whammy of ’73.

 

Bitsy Lurdinger was smart but schlumpish and so got allotted to Christina Rossetti, the otherest girl LitSoc.  Defiantly embracing their otherness, the Rossettis staged a “Goblin Market” induction ordeal that grew fruit-juicier every autumn.  By and large this bound the others closer together—

  

 

For there is no friend like a sister / In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way, / To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down, / To strengthen whilst one stands

 

—yet Bitsy Lurdinger, “gorging on bitterness without a name,” staged a solo post-ordeal suicide attempt.  It was just as unsuccessful as Kim Zimmer’s botched hanging-from-the-rafters would be five years later, but Bitsy’s had farther-ranging consequences.  A thorough investigation of all LitSoc rites and rituals was mounted, resulting in the dissolution of Chrtsina Rossetti; this averted a lawsuit by the outraged Lurdingers but sent several Rossettis into therapy, even as schlumpish Bitsy got transferred to start a more juiceless life at Multch West.

 

Over the next several semesters LitSoc turnout fell off continuously, and one by one the shrinking societies voted to merge or disband till only four were left in 1977—all girls.  After scraping through a lame ediion of the spring lit contest, representatives of the surviving socs met after Memorial Day to discuss strategies for enlisting new members come fall.

 

“Might as well call ourselves literary cults and try to shanghai converts,” grumbled Debra (Don’t Call Me Debbie) Karberski of Howe-Stowe LitSoc, who not surprisingly was a friend and mentor of Moana Lisa Lohe.

 

Then the four representatives and their faculty advisors were summoned to a confab in the Principal’s office, where Cool Hand Luke elicited six gasps and two squeals with his casual suggestion that they recruit boys to fill their depleted ranks.

 

“Mr. Stabeldore!

 

“We can’t do that!”

 

“The very idea—”

 

“These groups are for women—”

 

“Guys wouldn’t bother to do anything, except bother us—

 

“All they ever read is porn and sports sections!”

 

“I’m afraid things could be rather difficult...

 

“And awkward too—‘boys and girls together,’ y’know (giggle)”

 

Whoa now, blinked the Principal.  Hold your durn horses..

 

With reddened face he succinctly disavowed enabling anything that he (like Jeannette of the Apocalyptic Genies) might categorize as “mush.”  Nor did he propose treading on feminist toes, or traditionalist ones either.  No—this was simply what the School Board labeled maximum utilization of existing resources, or what his old Granny Stabeldore had called “living make-do.”

 

The last LitSoc for boys (Longfellow, of which Luke had been a faculty advisor) folded three years ago.  Now time had passed and there was a whole apple orchard out there, ripe and ready for harvest.

 

His audience felt this analogy smacked of Adam-and-Eveishness, not to mention Rossettilike fruit juice; though the Principal was simply reverting to his orchard-farm roots.  Which didn’t lessen the controversy about his recommendation or keep it from being debated up and down all summer, with some arguing for “integrity” and others for “inclusion.”

 

In the end it was decided to see just how many (if any) guys would evince interest in joining a formerly all-girls literary society, given that “mush” was excluded from the agenda-menu.  A publicity task force was put to work, and when Mr. Stabeldore arrived at school at Zero Hour on Monday the 3rd of October, he found publicists taping up posters and hanging a banner to alert VTHS about this novel (“get it?”) literary opportunity—with perhaps a hint or two that a little Adam-and-Eveishness might occur.

 

Tall as the Principal was, these hints sailed over his head.  He merely reflected that he himself would’ve been too bashful to seek admittance to a semi-sorority, except perhaps as guest speaker.   Couldn’t rest easy in such surroundings, unlike those of his own college frat Alpha Phi Omega.  Nope, hadn’t engaged in any folderol there—no hazing, no imbibing, no philandering, no hijinks wilder than sponsoring the Interfraternity Spring Sing.  Which brought to mind the songs and chants performed by Vanderlund’s LitSocs as they marched into the auditorium for their annual contest, each bearing its society pennant like Scout troops at a Jamboree.  There’d been no parade at last spring’s contest, and only a few self-conscious chants; but here was Rhonda Wright singing “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” and demanding that Mr. Stabeldore join in on the dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah.

 

“Right on, Mr. S!  Why’re you wasting your time ‘round here when you could be touring the world as an opera star?”

 

“Oh pshaw,” went Lucas.  He’d known the Road Runner since she was a scampering child, her father being the first black career counselor hired by the Vanderlund school district.  Fine family, even if Rhonda kidded around to an excessive extent.  “Good work,” he told her, repeating this to Mary Kate Hazeldene as she held the ladder steady for banner-hanger Cheryl Trevelyan, who to the Principal’s relief had gone aloft wearing jeans instead of a miniskirt.

 

“You’ll notice it’s us Dickinsons doing all the hard work!” she said as she descended, with a glare at a couple of Brontë-Brownings lounging idly across the corridor.  “Those BBs wouldn’t lift a finger to help, not if it meant they might work up a sweat!

 

“Oh, Cheryl,” murmured Mary Kate.

 

“All I’m saying is, give credit where credit’s due!” Cheryl persisted.  “Am I right, Mr.Stabeldore?”

 

He swiveled away from her wrathful chest (clad in a snug T‑shirt sporting the Dickinson LitSoc motto: Forever Is Composed of Nows) and ahem’d “Guess so” as he hitchgaited to his office like Gary Cooper in High Noon after facing down furious Grace Kelly.  Whew!  Hadn’t had to deal with that when he’d been advisor to the Longfellows!  Sure, some of them had occasionally kicked over the traces—but they’d done so without heaving their chests to ever-loving distraction.

 

Maybe mixing Longfellow boys with Dickinson girls would trigger another unfortunate incident.  Recall last year’s Prom, where that same Cheryl Trevelyan had challenged Gootch Bulstrode to an actual fistfight—and just before he was accused of cheating on a trigonometry final, too...

 

Nope—forget these misgivings.  Be reminded that the vast majority of student clubs had been co-ed from the get-go, and without plunging headlong into either mush or mayhem.

 

So take a seat in the big padded Principal’s chair (legacy from Mr. Agate) behind the big shiny Principal’s desk (legacy from Mr. Exelby) and begin another workweek at the helm of Vanderlund Township High School (legacy from Mr. Wheaf) while puckering Coopish lips to whistle a wishful tune:

 

Do not forsake me, O my darlin’...

 

*

 

Tap tap tap went an apple-green wedge sling sandal on the veranda (as Virginia Leigh Pyle called the front stoop) at 1314 Clubroot Drive.  The sandal and its mate matched the apple-green blazer-jacket Gigi was wearing over a multigreen checkered (not plaid) dress; as well as the crossbody bag whose apple-green strap was gettng pinched ever more tightly by Gigi’s fingers as her wristwatch ticked closer to 8 a.m.

 

Think patient thoughts...

 

She’d found this bag in a little Carolina boutique during the family’s late-summer trip taking Riley to start college at Duke.  Gigi almost loved her brother nearly as much for attending such a glamorously-named university in such a wonderfully-ideal setting, as for getting the hell out of her day-to-day life and away from Clubroot Drive.

 

Tap tap tap tap.

 

(If this went on much longer she would have to request a ride to school from Lizabeth Ann, and be subjected to maternal conversation en route.)

 

Gigi glanced back at the red brick Colonial Revival house she’d thought of as a veritable Mount Vernon when they’d moved here from reeky Refineryland four years ago.  Now she could see its numerous flaws—built-in pilasters instead of portico columns, no garage wing, no symmetrical second chimney.  Now she couldn’t wait to make her own escape to college, though of course in her case it’d be one in Virginia—James Madison, say, or William and Mary.  And not to major in electrical engineering like stupid Riley.

 

“Need a lift?” asked the gangly boy across the street, standing by a Volkswagen squareback that might not have been beige when new, but certainly was now.  A beige car that belonged on the other side of Clubroot Drive, in regrettable Willowhelm which scarcely deserved classification as a suburb.  All the lawns on the Willowhelm side were flatly level, as opposed to the sloping lawns on the Vanderlund side.

 

“No thank you.”

 

Nod and wave from Gangleboy, who got his beigemobile started (on the second or third try) and sputtered off, leaving Gigi to tap tap tap tap tap her sandal’s genuine plantation crepe rubber sole.  (Emphasis on the “plantation”—a dreamed-of place where she ought to have been born and raised, but hadn’t.)

 

She’d planned to make a grand entrance at senior high.  Not so much this morning as five weeks ago, on the First Day.  She should’ve arrived at VTHS as the Conqueress of VW: Cicada Queen, captain of the freshman cheerleaders, star (and producer-in-all-but-name) of a recordbreakingly successful spring musical, and the chief executive of junior high’s most selective and discriminating clique.  In short, as a Presence to Contend With.

 

But everything had fallen short or fallen through.  Fourth runner-up at the Cicada Dance.  Not even co-captain of the frosh squad.  Stuffed into a trainwreck turkey of a musical.  Deserted by the faithless clique dropouts.  And obliged to dump a boyfriend who’d proved too dull to endure.  (Marshall McConchie’s idea of a fun summer outing was to visit the Museum of Science and Industry—might just as well go major in electrical engineering.)

 

So now was the autumn of our discontent as a run-of-the-mill sophomore.  Dressed, shod, and accessorized in the color of bellyache-causing fruit.  Slipping a Rolaid between your carefully glossed lips as Marshall’s successor finally put in an overdue appearance, halting in the middle of Clubroot rather than turning into your driveway.  Popping open the passenger door from inside rather than getting out and holding that door open for you like a gentleman.  Then saying “C’mon Jeedge!” when you didn’t immediately leap into his yellow Chevrolet Monza—which sounded like a kind of cheese and frankly smelled like one too, there being a not-quite-empty pizza box in the backseat.

 

Think patient thoughts, dammit...

 

Graham Aleshire’s father was a former mayor of Vanderlund.  His mother’s family owned the Scrimpton Inn hotel chain.  He himself was a starting linebacker on the JV football team.  Tote it all up and he still only qualified as “adequate” on the boyfriend scale, even before you factored in this Monday morning’s mannerless tardiness.

 

So plunk that apple-green crossbody bag lengthwise atop your left thigh: no fondling would be allowed during the drive east on Clubroot and north on Sendt.  Nor would you give more than the briefest responses to his stabs at making smalltalk.  You’d planned by now to lasso Jeff Friardale the varsity quarterback, who was a senior and owned a Toronado; but that odious Isabel Carstairs had somehow snagged him last Wednesday—just one day after she’d pitched a hysterical fit in Geometry.  Leaving you stuck here with Graham, who tried to act like a good ol’ boy but had all the earmarks of a carpetbagger.

 

“What’s eatin’ you, Jeedge?  C’mon, spit it out,” he said genially.

 

(Oh, very charming.  This bon mot from a John Denver replica who’d spent far too much of last week’s game being run over by the Emery Ridge offense.  And his JV teammates weren’t much better, especially compared to Jeff Friardale’s varsity Gondoliers; which didn’t bode well for future cheerleading.)

 

“It’s nothing,” Graham was frostily informed.

 

Before he could do more than shiver, you arrived at school and vaulted out of the Monza, flapping a well-manicured hand not in farewell but to dispel the smell of cheese.

 

The student parking lot was tucked way the hell behind VTHS, meaning you had to either circle all the way around to enter school properly (beneath the noble Corinthian portico that belonged on your Colonial Revival house) or else sneak in through the building’s unadorned backside.  And thanks to Graham being a straggling laggard, there wasn’t enough time this morning to circle; so in you snuck like a commonplace backsliding sophomore.

 

Thank heavens Vocal Music was the first class of the day.  An advanced-level class too, taught by temperamental Mr. Frazee who ran the Concert and Chamber Choirs: a thoroughgoing perfectionist and rightly so.  Here your capabilities were recognized, appreciated, honed to a fine edge—often by putting your larynx to the grindstone, but you were up to the rigors of that challenge.

 

Only the most talented soph singers were allowed to audition for this class.  Here with you was Enid Stott, who had Welsh blood and perfect pitch and incidentally some promise as a dependable Gigi-follower, should you choose to assemble a new clique.  Eeny’s most obvious drawback was a constant squint, due to her being too vain to wear glasses and too squeamish to try contacts.  As a result she reminded you of Sandy in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, who wound up betraying the title character—not a desirable trait in a potential disciple.

 

Here too was Britt Groningen, whom you hadn’t looked at twice back at VW, other than to shake your head at Britt’s idiotic waste of 24-karat opportunities.  Squandering her solid-gold position as younger sister of Fleur Groningen—yes, the Fleur Groningen—in all of whose gilt-edged footsteps you intended to tread.  Maybe not to become valedictorian, but head cheerleader and Homecoming Queen and Most Likely to Succeed as Prima Drama Donna.

 

Not one of these goals did Britt aspire to.  Once, with your own ears backstage at a concert, you’d overhead Fleur imploring their mother to DO something about Britt’s unsuitability.  But even though that mother was a famous psychologist or sociologist or possibly both, Britt remained irregular and inappropriate—a slightly sinister chameleon who seemed to take nothing worthwhile seriously.  From time to time you’d catch a glimpse of her looking half-asleep yet attentive, observant, ready to ambush a passerby—like a little she-gator pretending to be a log in the bayou.

 

Watch your step, she seemed to say.

 

At VW Britt had been on X Team and you on Y, but this year the two of you had three classes together, starting with Vocal Music.  You couldn’t deny that Britt was able to sing rings around the average crooner—in fact crooning was what she did with that uncanny voice, like a little swamp-witch casting quagmire spells.

 

And it was here, five weeks ago on the First Day while Mr. Frazee delivered his introductory tirade, that Britt took a seat by your side on the risers and crooned irreverent sotto voce commentary, with flickers of blue gaslight coming from her heavy-lidded eyes—

 

“See you at lunch?” Enid Stott was saying, as the bell brought you back to the present day.  Give her a moderate nod for ending that sentence with an uncertain question mark; it would never do for Eeny to take companionship for granted.

 

Then came three hours of “G” classes: German, Geography, Geometry.  Why on earth had you let Marshall talk you into signing up for an uncouth language like German?  Its only saving grace was the teacher, Frau Agapito, who offered a much-preferable Italian elective to upperclassmen—which gave you something to look forward to next year.  For the moment, though, you had to sit through a hocktooeyfest with Marshall mooning forlornly at you while Sheila Quirk had another one of her vulgar arguments with Robin “Angry Acne” Neopolitan, and a shock of rusty hair turned around to reveal big glasses on a big nose atop a paltry figure—

 

oh Lawdy

 

Sidney Erbsen.

 

Every day you forgot he was in this class till he turned to take a gander at you.  And even without using his complicated camera, he always made you feel positively undressed.  Not like the leers and ogles you’d been pestered with since blossoming at eleven-and-a-half: those you could generally fend off, or bend to your will.  But your will kept getting bent by “Split-Pea”—the last person in school, in town, on earth that you could bear to let touch you, hold you, kiss you in front of a standing-room-only throng watching you do it in the flesh, in the spotlight, in the smoke-and-mirrorsy camera lens coming in for your closeup, Sid’s infernal X-ray camera lens that you’d been picturing with your private mind’s eye since it first popped up after last February’s Sweetheart Hop—that you kept imagining was trained on you during your most intimate ministrations, in the boudoir, in the bathtub, in spite of his never having laid a physical finger on you and his repeated refusals last spring when you’d asked him again and again (even treating him to a bowl of oyster stew at Chez d’Arlequín) to play her bitter puppeteer lover in Carnival—

 

—and the thing of it was, you hadn’t even wanted him.

 

Not then; not now.  And not when Frau Agapito asked you to recite:

 

“Um... er... ‘Ich esse keine Suppe!  Nein!  Ich esse meine Suppe nicht!’”

 

Sputtered beigemobileishly.  Which cracked up rotten Robin and rottener Sheila, while Split-Pea wondered aloud whether Suppen-Kaspar, after starving himself to death, had become a Personal-Space-Invading Ghost and changed his name to Klaspar.

 

Mercifully, Second Hour came to an end before you blushed your face off, allowing you to flee to Geography.  This was a far more tolerable class and even enjoyable for someone adept with maps—like you, who pored over travel guides planning someday-trips to exotic locales.  In Geography there were no probing intrusive lenses, just the usual deflectable leers from second-rate boys like Chipper Farlowe (Delia Shanafelt’s ex) and K.C. Battenburg (Sheila Quirk’s ex) and John “Phonsie” Alphonse (your own unforgiven adulterous ex).

 

Here too was Trina Purcell, who’d been your alphabetic neighbor on VW’s Y Team, and was now a “Stop the Presses!” reporter for the Channel (of which her big sister Tilda was editor-in-chief, which ought to prove useful for press-agent purposes).  Trina could be relied on to get Mr. Hatch, the Geography teacher, gabbling about his silly stamp collection —“You can learn a whole lot about the world by studying its stamps”—toward the end of Third Hour, and so forget to assign homework.

 

“He can airmail us the assignment,” Trina wisecracked as she headed to Lunch 4A with her boyfriend, Conrad “Leadoff” Aabercombrie, while you went to stupid Geometry with your what-had-you-ever-seen-in-him ex, Mike Spurgeon.  Plus Brad Faussett, whom you’d never dated because he was so unabashedly full of himself.  Plus that rotten Robin Neapolitan and that prissy Vicki Volester and that pathetic darktown strutter Floyd or Flap or Fudge—

 

—and that odious Isabel Carstairs, who had the baldfaced gall to appear again today on Jeff Friardale’s besotted arm, giving him a sloppy Swiss kiss that literally sucked.

 

“(Hematoma time,)” crooned Britt, leaning over from the next desk; which almost made you smile but didn’t quell your apple-green nausea.  Who wouldn’t be grossed out by Odious Isabel’s daily display of rank exhibitionism?  With her it was either frantic bedlam in the classroom or indecent exposure at the drive-in or—

 

(an urp of acid reflux)

 

Think patient thoughts. Calming thoughts.  Non-sickening thoughts.

 

And pop a discreet second Rolaid to get you through this awful Fourth Hour.

 

Then as far as the cafeteria for Lunch 5C, though eating anything seemed out of the question.  (Absolutely not the Salisbury-steak-and-whipped-potatoes du jour.)

 

“Want half of my sandwich?” Enid asked.

 

What was that—Italian sausage?  Fine thing for a Welsh girl to dine on.  But she also had a box of Junior Mints, so help yourself to those—a mix of chocolate and peppermint might make a difference, and taste less chalky than Rolaids.

 

Back in the VW lunchroom you’d presided over a clique-and-jocks table like the one over there, occupied by Nanette Magnus with Mike Spurgeon and Fast Eddie Wainwright.  You and Nanette hadn’t exchanged two words since last spring’s Cicada Dance, when she ignored all your ideas for the “Tropic Island Cruise” theme and then scored second runner-up (to your fourth) in the Queen contest.  And then claimed it was their “Christian duty” to go see Kim Zimmer after her manic-demented failure to hang herself; and then said “Shame on you!” when you reasonably asked “What can yew ‘spect from someone so fly-by-nighty?”

 

(For a fleeting moment you wondered what’d become of Kim, whose idolatry would come in handy nowadays.)

 

Anyway: this year you dined with a thespian circle.  Besides Eeny Stott there was Jerome Schei, who could never wait to spill the latest beans about everyone—burnt beans if they concerned Nanette, whose guts he’d loathed since their mutual-upstage feud during Carnival.  With Jerome was his fellow flit Owen O’Leary, the classic Irish tenor who’d whipped up that same feud like the nasty canasta he was.  And with them were three eleventh-grade veterans (though not prominent honchos) of the VTHS Drama Club.

 

One was Alva Dee Bickling, who dutifully filled any fat-girl roles and could dance pretty nimbly for someone so tubby, but preferred to work on the stage crew.  (You were savvy enough to stay on good terms with techies, who knew all sorts of tech-tricks that could make a diva—naming no names, but Candy Gates—look and sound ridiculous.)

 

Beside Alva Dee sat Kerry Hinterwald, who’d be natural casting for any juvenile parts: he’d not only skipped a grade or two but was short for his age and even more beardless than Babyface Nelson Baedeker.  None of which discouraged Kerry from trying to act like a wanton lothario; his hungry gaze hadn’t wavered from your bustline since Lunch 5C began.

 

And across from him was Fletcher Wyndham, who could give Brad Faussett lessons on how to be a narcissist.  No one more tragic at acting had trod the boards since the Dule of Bilgewater in Huckleberry Finn; yet Fletch believed he possessed Gielgudian finesse and was hampered by nothing more than the jealousy of his peers and the oversight of his elders.

 

“Victimization,” he told the table in richly-toned accents, “is a terrible handicap to have hanging around your neck.”

 

(Another reminder of Kim Zimmer: twice in one day.)

 

From Fletch’s bombast you were gladly diverted by eavesdroppable chitchat behind you.  There Gwen Cokingham was egging on Millicent Carstairs to languidize about...?  The Traversers, a rich-kid cult rumored to “bathe in Quaaludes,” which sounded like something a Carstairs would do.  (Jerome said their entire family was bat-guano insane.)

 

For Gwendolyn, though, getting luded-out would be an unexpected feat.

 

The Cokinghams lived a couple blocks down Clubroot from your house, and Gwen’s mother had been palsy-walsy with Lizabeth Ann since you first moved there.  You’d hoped Gwen would be a glamorous older-girl neighbor (very useful) but were sorely disappointed, she being a raw jockette with Unrefined Refineryland written all over her.

 

Gwen was also spooked foolish by the occult.  People said she’d started running cross country one Halloween night because she thought the trick-or-treaters in white sheets were really ghosts.  A few years later when The Exorcist was on everybody’s mind, Gwen went through an extended freakout about demonic possession and its alleged effect on Parnell Travers, an unremarkable stoner-boy who’d spent eighth grade getting baked.  Then Parnell had gone zonk-tobogganing, passed out in a drift, been caught up by a snowplow, propelled for several blocks and left buried by the roadside.  By the time he was excavated, an “entity from a separate plane of existence” (according to Gwen) had taken control of Parnell’s soul, transforming him into Paranormal Travers the Astral Slacker.

 

Which was hardly worth freaking out about, in your opinion.

 

But Gwen and her superstitious friend Joyce Usher had galloped around town wailing that an emergency exorcism ought to be arranged, especially as other students sought Parnell out as a spiritual (or diabolic) guide.   Gwen’d seldom stopped for breath in those days, sprinting hither and thither to keep one step ahead of hellish enthrallment.

 

Now almost four years had passed and here she was, weirdly eager to hear about Parnell’s motley crew of lude-scarfing orgy-goers.  What could have gotten into her?  Other than embittered feelings and resentful yearnings, which didn’t improve an already-homely girl’s appearance?

 

(Or, for that matter, your own immaculate complexion.)

 

(Sigh...)

 

Millicent Carstairs was filling her in, but not carrying on like someone with a reputation as a Mauler.  She idly toyed with her fork and spoon, scarcely touching her food.  Hard to believe such lassitude could switch in an instant to ferocity; though it was pleasant to imagine Millicent mauling her little sister Isabel.  Maybe if you listened more closely you might hear her describe such torment... but ugh, her voice!  It oscillated like a blah-de-dah gelatin mold, aggravating your apple-green bellyache with echoes of Isabel’s melting-marshmallow-fluffy tone that would make even cries for mercy unbearable to listen to—you’d have to gag Is first, using a sleeve torn off that magenta satin blouse she’d dared to wear the same day last week you wore yours—

 

“Are you okay?”

 

Enid Stott, squinting worriedly.  As Jerome and Owen watched overinterestedly, and Kerry stared pointblank at your fluttering bosom and Fletch paused with over-the-top emphasis till tubby-tactful Alva Dee prompted him to resume telling about the Holdall Dinner Theater’s production of Kisses and Knishes, and how he would interpret the lead role.

 

“M’allraht,” you fibbed to Eeny, returning the unfinished box of mints.

 

Then from the adjacent table came the single word “Coke.”

 

As if Gwen’d asked what Mauly’s favorite soft drink was, or Mauly’d abbreviated Cokingham the same way Ivar Ragnarsson was called Rags.

 

But no.  Of course not.

 

Don’t be pitifully naïve.

 

Millicent Carstairs was a rich kid, a Traverser, and “Coke” was the sort of thing rich-kid Traversers did nowadays when they weren’t bathing in Quaaludes.

 

Nothing to get shocked about.

 

Or to shout about either, within earshot of a gossip-moppet like Jerome Schei or a miscreant like Owen O’Leary, who’d send poison-pen letters to his own grandmother:

 

I know whose cow kicked over that lantern in the shed last summer

 

Just play it cool...

 

Lunch done, move on to Study Hall for twenty-five minutes of unwanted proximity to Margo Temple and Diana Dabney, a gruesome twosome who posed more of a threat to your complexion’s immaculate clarity (ranklewise) than dining on chocolate and peppermint might (breakoutwise).

 

Diana was a former ugly duckling who, since swannifying, glided around with her beak in the air when she wasn’t being hassled by that looney screwball Dennis Desmond, or compelled to bow ‘n’ scrape by the potentate sitting to her left: Miss Fasten-Your-Seatbelts-It’s-Going-to-Be-a-Bumpy-Study-Hall.  Whose real name was Margaret, thank you very kindly—not “Margo.”  And not as in Princess Margaret, thank you extra kindly, but plain old Margaret—as in the nemesis to a different Dennis the Menace.  And not just to him, since she was also Captain Margaret of the JV cheerleading squad and therefore in an official position to rub your nose in things.

 

(Not “Coke,” at least not yet; though you wouldn’t put it past “Margo” if she could badger some poor pusher into giving her the stuff.)

 

Look at her squatting there with her back to you, and it wearing a dusty-sage velour blouse that gave her bottle-blondeness an unclean tinge.  Matching the dingier, deadlier one in her contemptible heart.  If anyone outranked Isabel Carstairs on the Odious scale, it would be Miss Embargo-Your-Cargo-All-the-Way-to-Key-Largo—and cram it with a ramrod where the sun don’t shine.

 

Think non-sickening thoughts...

 

At VW each grade had its own pep group: drill team in seventh, pompons in eighth, and then the freshman cheerleaders.  Upper grades of course had a certain amount of sway over lower ones, particularly when selecting the next year’s leadership; and Margo Temple had used hers to block your becoming captain of last year’s frosh squad—or even maintain co-captaincy with Becca Blair, as you had in eighth grade.

 

Now here you were at VTHS on the same squad, of which Margo was in charge and primed to critique your every step or move or cheer.  Not that there was anything to cheer about: Graham Aleshire and the JV footballers were winless after five games, losing each by at least ten points; and when the bell rang (or tolled) for Sixth Hour, you had to clench your jaw and permit the Gruesome Twosome to precede you downstairs to the Girls Gym.  If you didn’t stay a few steps behind them, Margo would snap her stubby fingers and sardonicize “Where do you think you’re going, soph?” with Diana adding “Yeah, where?”—as if they both didn’t know you were all in what amounted to Honors Phys Ed together.

 

This advanced course was taught by Ms. Cliffhouse, who’d been coaching the varsity cheerleaders at VTHS since Celeste Schwall’s student days.  The best thing about it was getting to witness the Gruesomes kowtow to the current varsity—not just seniors like Penny Stone, Rula Hradek and Angelique Anstruther, but also their own junior classmates like Mary Kate Hazeldene, Meredith Wainwright and Cheryl Trevelyan.  (Mary Kate was too sweet to enforce JV deference and Meredith too upright, but Cheryl detested Margo Temple and rarely let a Sixth Hour pass without dispensing some Margo-rebuff.  Yay Cheryl!)

 

The worst thing about Honors Phys Ed was its being scheduled Sixth instead of Seventh Hour.  Meaning you were obliged to take a quick shower, get dressed, climb up to the fourth floor, and sit through Grammar Composition and Literature before returning to the gym, changing into your uniform, and heading out to Hordt Field (in all weathers) to spend another sixty minutes practicing cheer routines.

 

Lawdy Gawd...

 

Five weeks so far of this routine and another eight months to go, wishing every day that you’d bowed out of Pep Club after VW and concentrated on Drama where you belonged.  But that would’ve killed your mother, who came to every game whether home or away to vicariously cheer through you.  Back when she’d been Lizabeth Ann Orpington, Hoosier high schooler, she’d had the looks and the bod and the dream to push pompons—but no coordination whatsoever.  More than once you’d heard her say she married J.W. Pyle because he was “the best dancer in Hessville,” and she wanted her babies to inherit those genes.  Not to dance onstage in a musical revue, though.  No ma’am—out on a field or a court, cheering for a herd of jockstrap athletes.  (“Dramatics are a distraction,” she’d nag.)

 

Another bell.  Shower, dress, and leave the locker room, making you way out through the unfair incomers who’d pre-empted Seventh Hour Gym.  Enid Stott was among them (et tu, Eeny?) and Harelip Harrison and Rat’s Nest Saranoff and Rottener Sheila Quirk.  Also prissy Vicki Volester, who came in laughing with a colored girl (as if Vanderlund didn’t have enough of those already) and not just any old colored girl, but the one Mary Kate Hazeldene had actually urged to go out for cheerleading!

 

No way—no how.  that would be the coup de grâce, so far as you were concerned.  Not even Ma’s bellyache would keep you from quitting then.

 

Up to the fourth floor your poor feet climbed, getting chafed at every step by these damnfool wedge sling sandals.  And for nothing more rewarding than a run-of-the-mill sophomore English class.  Poetry and composition you were good at; grammar nnd spelling, not so much.  Which lumped you in among such hotshots as Lenny “Ooh! Ooh!” Otis and Dino “He’s a Pimp!” Tattaglia, who spent Seventh Hour lecherizing you and not from very afar, either.  Barely far enough away to be fended off, weary as yiou were.

 

“(They’re just a couple of Smooch Smarks,)” whispered Britt Groningen, leaning over from the next desk again as Lenny leered and Dino ogled and you popped a third Rolaid, tugging your multigreen checks into haughty place.

 

Stare your eyes blind, losers.  Go diddle yourselves miserable.

 

Mrs. Staghorn began to ramble about the drive to revitalize the school’s literary societies.  Several upperclass pepgals belonged to these, though not all of them could be called “bookish”—yourself included, if playscripts didn’t count.  But they must, since the A you’d earned in your last VW speech class qualified you to join a VTHS LitSoc.  Which Mrs. Staghorn was urging everyone eligible to do—“Boys as well as girls this year,” she said puckishly, or as puckishly as Mrs. Staghorn could approximate.

 

“Ooh!  Ooh!” went popeyed Lenny Otis, and gnnnnogg went Dino Tattaglia while biting the heel of his swarthy hand.

 

Still: maybe this was the solution to your problems.  If you joined a literary society you’d get to do orations and declamations, which you’d aced in Mr. “Mispronounced” Martincich’s VW speech class.  LitSoc membership might be just what you’d need to spiff up your applications to William and Mary and James Madison University—or so you’d argue, using this to spring you free from cheerleading.  Ma would simply have to find some other reason to live.

 

Caution, though: you’d have to find a society that the Gruesomes didn’t belong to, or that Odious Isabel wouldn’t try to join, or any of the other girls (and boys) you couldn’t abide.  Which left—who?  Enid; Trina; maybe Alva Dee Bickling...  and Britt.  Who was bound to be a shoo-in at whichever society her sister Fleur must’ve been a member of—

 

—except that Britt, when glanced at, was flickering blue gaslight at you again from under heavy eyelids.  As her small pale freckled head framed by long bright burgundy hair slowly shook from side to side; and her small pale freckled hand slid a wide-open spiral notebook over for you to read:

 

 

*

 

“There is only one Literary Society to consider,” declaimed Lisa Lohe, “and that is Howe-Stowe!”

 

Here we go, Vicki exhaled into her chicken salad.  And, sure enough:

 

“You are so full of spit, Lisa!” Cheryl expectorated from the neighboring table.

 

“Oh, Cheryl,” went Mary Kate.

 

“Oh nothing—we know she is, and she knows she is!” Cheryl insisted.  “And we all know Dickinson’s the only LitSoc worth considering!  You there, Vicki—I don’t want to see you join anything else!”

 

“Um...” from Vicki.

 

“You’ll notice she didn’t mention you, Vernonique,” Lisa said somberly.

 

“Um...” from Nonique as Cheryl rose from her stool, jostling Stu Nugent as he tried to slurp soup.

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?  Obviously she’s free to do whatever she wants!”

 

“How nice,” Lisa smiled thinly.  “Did you hear that?  Dickinson thinks you’re obviously free.”

 

(Nonique, chewing a mouthful with lips sealed, gave Vicki the tiniest eyeroll.)

 

“Will you siddown and lemme finish eating?” Stu asked Cheryl.

 

“Don’t try to boss me!” she blurted, her hands balling into fists.

 

“How ‘bout vice versa?” Jenna Wiblitz wanted to know.  “Is she making you join Dickinson, Stuart?”

 

“Um...” from the Nude Gent, busy with his minestrone.

 

“He’s choosing to do it,” said Cheryl, flouncing back down.  “And so is Frank!”

 

“Um...” from Frank Wharton.

 

“Well, Link is joining Howe-Stowe!” Lisa retorted.  “Aren’t you, Link?”

 

“Guess I’d better,” mused Link Linfold.  “How ‘bout you, Sammi?”

 

“Um...” from Samantha, holding her usual lunchtime vigil for Tab Tchorz.

 

“I doubt she made a B in English last semester,” Lisa said disapprovingly.  “You don’t get B’s by reading Harlequin paperbacks—”

 

“I do!” broke in Holly Brollis.  “And you’re all wrong—Austen-Alcott’s the LitSoc to join!  You won’t have any fun with those other gaggles,” she advised Vicki and Nonique.

 

“Oh for Gahd’s sake!” from Cheryl, and “We’re not here to ‘have fun’!” from Lisa.

 

“Nelson is—Nelson belongs in Austen-Alcott,” suggested Jenna, rapidly sketching him wearing a lowcut Regency gown.  Which provoked [Laughter] from both cafeteria tables and a delighted shriek from Holly, who flipped a quarter to the artist.  “I’m buying that, Jen!  Frame it for me so I can hang it on my wall!”

 

“Aw, c’mon...” blushed Babyface Nelson.

 

“Well, now I know what we’re gonna make you do for initiation!” Cheryl archly told Stu.

 

“Have him wear your silk sequin disco dress,” said Jenna.  “Isn’t that the one that’s scoopnecked down to your navel?”

 

She was sketching Stu in this (while being ordered to “Shut up, Niblets!”) when the bell rang and everyone began to gather trays and trash except Mary Kate, who hastened over to tell Nonique “Seriously, we’d love to have you join Dickinson.”

 

“Um, thanks...” from Nonique.

 

“Hey!” from Cheryl.  “Don’t think I’m cleaning up after you, Mary Kate!”

 

“Oops!  ‘Scuse me,” said Mary Kate, hastening back to dispose of her milk carton and sandwich wrapper.

 

“Those two are a trip,” Nonique told Vicki as they left the cafeteria.  “The one looks like apple pie à la mode, but is full of fishhooks—the other looks like some slinky femme fatale, but I bet she never even takes off her shoes in front of a guy.”

 

“They mean well, though, even Cheryl,” said Vicki.  “Even Lisa means well.  Don’t let them put you off joining a LitSoc, okay?”

 

“Said I’d think about it.”

 

“So think ‘yes.’  If they do make us dress up like Dolley Madison for initiation, you and Joss’ll show off so much better in those dresses than me and Alex—”

 

“Oh hush now.”

 

“You hush now,” Vicki cheerio’d as they parted for Sixth Hour, Nonique going to Mr. Prout’s World History and Vicki to Mrs. Mallouf’s Advanced English, where an extemporaneous debate took place about—what else?—literary societies.

 

This being an honors class, Room 403 was chockfull of ambitious go-getters (e.g. Sell-O Fayne) for whom LitSoc membership might still be a rung up the ladder to the Best Colleges, Finest Grad Schools, Most Lucrative Entry-Level Jobs, and Greatest Chance to Make Their First Million Before Turning Thirty.  There was also a sprinkling of genuine literature-lovers like Joss; plus one or two like Fiona who hadn’t asked to be assigned to an advanced level and were here more or less against their will.  As Feef muttered:

 

“(Just ‘cause I can read and write doesn’t make me literate.)”

 

She doodled random musical notes and Mrs. Mallouf got her hourly java fix while the rest of the chronic honorees hashed out the benefits and shortcomings of VTHS LitSocs.

 

“There is no point of any kind why girl-only groups should allow guys to join them,” raged Rachel Gleistein, sounding rather like Toughie Twofields with her cadenced syllable-nailing, and as though the word join had been steeped in vinegar.  “Let them revive their societies if they want to, just as long as they leave ours alone—”

 

—flinging eye-daggers at Sell-O, who g-r-i-n-n-e-d back.

 

“There’s a point to it, all right!” he assured her.

 

“Maybe Rachel’s never gotten the point,” insinuated Owen O’Leary.

 

“You guys are disgusting,” Hope Eckhardt told them.  “This is exactly why you shouldn’t belong in girl societies.”

 

“Well, you might need us to manipulate the pencil sharpeners,” said Sidney Erbsen, “and bring all your Number Twos to a fine point.

 

“Let’s try to keep it clean here,” said Mrs. Mallouf over the rim of her styrofoam cup.

 

“That’s right,” Split-Pea agreed.  “You’ve got to sharpen pencils cleanly if you want them to write right.  Otherwise whatever you write might be downright dirty.”

 

“Which is just what you’d do if we let you in!” Hope concluded.  “‘Sucio’ lo dice todo—‘dirty’ says it all.”

 

“Just for the record,” said Marshall McConchie, sounding like Gregory Peck in Cape Fear, “not all of us feel that way.”

 

“Yeah, some of us feel this way,” chimed in Buddy Marcellus, fondling his own chubby face; and Sell-O, stretching his from ear to ear, said “Sorry if that hurts your feelings.”  (“Whoa whoa whoa,” sang Jerome Schei.)

 

“Let’s get back to the point,” Trina Purcell said briskly.  “I think societies that’ve been girls-only till now can admit the right sort of guys” (coy side-glance at Conrad Aabercrombie) “and it’ll be a win-win situation for everyone involved.”

 

“Um...” from Leadoff, when nudged by Trina’s elbow.

 

“And don’t forget,” Joss spoke up, “we’re getting co-ed gym next year—which I think’ll be ‘win-win.’”  [Laughter]  “So how bad can having mixed LitSocs be?”

 

“Plenty,” grumped Rachel.

 

“Mucho,” concurred Hope.

 

“Interesting points,” said Mrs. Mallouf, finishing her coffee.  “Vicki, anything you’d care to contribute?”

 

“Oh!  Um... I guess I agree with Joss, of course.”  (Except about co-ed gym.)  “Other than that, I haven’t really made up my mind yet.”

 

“Claudia?”

 

“I better warn you,” Cloudy Thurman sighed, “that Mark Brown wants to join.  And you know what a disaster he can be.”

 

(Trying to help in the main office last week, Marked-Down Mark had managed to damage the mimeograph machine in a way the repairman said was physically impossible.)

 

“Madeline?”

 

 “It’s a moot point,” sniffed Madeline Wrippley, tucking mousy hair behind mousy ears and settling a prim white collar around her mousy neck.  “People may call them ‘literary societies,’ but they’re only party clubs that do a little reading and a little writing—”

 

“And have a little bit of a rhythmic tic,” broke in Split-Pea.  “Wouldn’t you say?”

 

Maddie twisted around and regarded him with the same rodent-eyed animosity that Vicki recalled (much too well) from last April’s Student Court trial.

 

But Split-Pea’s big glasses reflected this back at her, eye for eye, nose for nose, till Madeline flushed an abrupt tomato-red and looked, for a split second, less like a mouse than a plucked-bare chicken.

 

“(Whoa whoa whoa,)” went Jerome.

 

Crossing spindly arms above her desk and spindly legs below it, Maddie quavered “You will have your little joke.”

 

“That’s why I’m here,” nodded Split-Pea.  “Glad to be of service.”

 

Brief silence in Room 403 after that, till Mrs. Mallouf tossed her empty cup into a wastebasket full of its predecessors and said “Fiona?”

 

“(Can we go back to talking about The Crucible?)” Feef mutter-asked.

 

*

 

More weight!  More weight!” Vicki and Joss chanted as they marched upstairs for their regular Friday night sleepover at Burrow Lane.  Giles Corey’s demand to be crushed to death rather than respond to charges of witchcraft had been adopted as their super/sub-catchphrase for the heavy burden of senior high’s curriculum; though it was difficult not to crack up at the memory of Buddy Marcellus grunting this line in class “like a pressed ham.”

 

Who else would they cast to play which parts in a comical Crucible?  Madeline Wrippley might be the conspicuous choice for Abigail the Antagonist, but could you really pit her against Split-Pea as John Proctor?

 

“Him, a guiltridden hypocrite?  Unh-unh.  I can see Marshall as guiltridden and Sell-O as a hypocrite, but we need them to be the Judge and Deputy Governor.”

 

“And Hope Eckhardt to be Tituba—remember, this is a comedy we’re talking about.  If we were playing it straight, Spacyjane would have to be Abigail—she’s the one he seduced ‘n’ abandoned.”

 

“But to cheat on her with Madeline?

 

Both: “Eww!”

 

“Isabel I could understand.  But can you picture Maddie posing for Split-Pea wearing nothing but a necktie and a bowler hat?”

 

Both: “Eww!

 

“Still, that little ‘interlude’ between them in class the other day...”

 

“Except it was more like she was telling him ‘I will cut off my hand before I reach for you again.’”

 

“Well, can you blame her?  Split-Pea can give even Gigi Pyle the mortified meemies.”

 

“Mortified meemies?  That sounds like a breakfast cereal.  Hey, did I ever tell you I did a whole science project about breakfast cereals, back in grade school?”

 

“Over and over again...”

 

“Shut up, I bet I never mentioned it before.”

 

“You shut up.  Of all things to keep a deep dark secret from your very best friend...”

 

“Y’know, we really ought to form our own literary society and get our old lunch-bunch to join it.  That’d show Lisa and Cheryl and all of them.”

 

“We could name it after Judy Blume, and adopt ‘Ralph’ from Forever... as our mascot!”

 

(Gales of mirth.)

 

The problem was that most of their old bunchkins showed no great willingness to take part in any LitSoc.  Fiona was deadset against it, even if that put her on the same side as “(that snippy little Wrippley chick.)”  Robin was far too busy counting the hours till she could take possession of her Sweet Babboo as a fully licensed rock-around-the-clock motorist.  And Sheila-Q wouldn’t participate if the Dopesters were steering clear—“though that’s not guaranteed, once Robbo gets behind the wheel and starts burning rubber!”

 

“Aw c’mon,” Vicki’d wheedled wistfully.  “’Member all the fun we had divvying up David Copperfield?

 

“Yeah, and playing with the Dartles,” said S-Q, pulling a sad face but shrugging it off.  “Guess those were the good old days, hunh?  We never shoulda let Britt get away.”

 

Vicki had doubts about that—get away with what?—and also about Laurie who’d been acting weird for three weeks now and not just toward Vicki.  Her weirdness could be traced further back, to the spastic sobbing jag on Joss’s half-mown lawn a couple months ago—but it’d accelerated when she caught that sudden chill, and (as Sammi Tiggs said) she hadn’t been acting like herself since.

 

This LitSoc business was tailor-made for Normal Laurie; she’d be blabberpolling everyone by phone and note and in person as to who and where and why, then spreading her findings far and wide.  But these days Weird Laurie stayed veiled behind sheepdog bangs, saying next to nothing to nobody.  One afternoon she did return a tentative “Hi” from Vicki when they chanced to enter the locker room at the same time, but Gigi Pyle brushed between them with an irritated “Will yew get outta mah way??”—and Laurie clammed back up.

 

As Sammi’d asked: “Y’think we should be, like, um... concerned?”

 

Hard to say.

 

Worry more about it later.

 

Vicki’s milderpolling of other sophs found no consensus.  Sammi hadn’t made a B in English last semester, so she wasn’t eligible.  Crystal expressed some interest, but seemed preoccupied with Judd “For the Defense” Courtney.  Spacyjane thought LitSocs might be “neat,” but wanted to see who else applied before she’d commit to do so.  Isabel, on the other hand, was raring to go wherever the cuter boys went, and ready to play Pied Piperess if that’d ensure cute boys made the scene (if not a scene).  Nonique, as she’d said, was “thinking about it”; and Alex, still a fictionphobe, would be enthusiastic only if she didn’t have to read a lot of novels.

 

Even Joss confessed to one hesitation: her sister Meg had belonged to a LitSoc (Austen-Alcott, Holly’s “fun” society) when she went to VTHS, and Joss was leery about doing anything that might be construed as imitating Meg.

 

Before leaving for college, Meg had hidden her three Baratarian yearbooks; but since cunning subtlety was not a Meg characteristic, they were discovered in the first place Joss looked.  She and Vicki had perused them last summer in Joss’s aerie, but tonight they were smuggled to Burrow Lane for the Friday night sleepover.

 

“Toughie’ll know I ‘borrowed’ these, even though Meg’ll never have a clue.  But we’ve got serious research to do here!”

 

Which didn’t stop Joss from laughing herself into stitches (again) over the maudlin inscriptions by Meg’s well-wishers, while Vicki checked out all her own upperclass friends and acquaintances in their younger guises.  The old Ladybugs from two years ago hadn’t altered out of recognition: Mumbles was just as deceptively Buddhafaced, showing no hint that her HA! HA! HA!s could cause a sonic boom; Rhonda Wright still kept her beep-beep tongue in her Roadrunner cheek; and Lisa Lohe, if anything, had gotten even narrower-visaged and more intently ascetic.  This attitude, though, got knocked slightly askew whenever Jenna Wiblitz stood next to her in a group photo.  Cunning subtlety was a Wiblitz characteristic, and Jenna had a knack for conveying caricature with posture as well as on paper.  In last year’s Howe-Stowe photo she’d contrived to have her spec-lenses turned into blank discs by the camera flash, giving her Little Orphan Annie eyes and thereby casting Lisa as Miss Hannigan the dour orphanage matron: It’s a hard-knock life ...

 

Turn the page to Dickinson LitSoc and snortle at their double caricature: Cheryl beaming with bouffant affability instead of baring furious-lioness teeth, while Mary Kate set the page ablaze like a sultry man-eater instead of making it shine with superwholesome maidenhood.

 

Flip over to smile at Holly as Zaneeta (“Yeee gads!”) in The Music Man, dancing the Shipoopi with Wes Gormley.  She always glowed in publicity shots, even bundled up in a Snoopy costume for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and sparkled while clustering with the other girls of Austen-Alcott: Pappy’s little puppy loves ev’ryone!...

 

That left Brontë-Browning, whose picture was one of many in last year’s Baratarian to feature Fleur Groningen.  The list of her appearances ate up two full inches of index column; Joss would’ve pitched a fit at having to count that many for the Cicada index.

 

“They might as well have titled this the Groningenian,” Vicki groused editorially at the full-page glossy of Fleur tiara’d and bouquet-laden as last year’s Homecoming Queen.

 

“Betcha can’t say that three times fast,” Joss challenged.

 

“Say what?  Groningenian Groningenian Groningenian?

 

Now you’ve done it—you’ve conjured up an evil spirit, and it’ll manifest itself right here in your bedroom.  Probably never get the stink out of your drapes—”

 

“Manifest?  You mean like destiny?”

 

“More like ditz-tiny—get a load of this—”

 

Joss read out what “Pucker Up” Endell had written in (and Meg had futilely tried to erase from) the tenth-grade yearbook.

 

“Gahd, he really was a perv!” Vicki giggled as she thumbed back through the twelfth-grade yearbook to Brontë-Browning.  Fleur had only been its first-semester treasurer, yet her celebrity won her the photo’s front-and-center focal point; all the other BBs seemed to peek out of their eyecorners at Fleur, as if in wonder at how they’d gotten lost in her shadow.

 

Why join a society just to have that happen?  It’d be too much like trailing after Tricia.  (Echo from the distant past: I’ll always be older than you, and smarter, and richer, and happier, and lovelier.)  Lisa and Cheryl might try to dominate and overshadow, but they were usually kept in check by Jenna and Mary Kate.  Someone like Ginger Snowbedeck could inflate an entire gymnasium with her ego, but she joked about that herself—“Who needs to be modest when you can be a goddess?”—and always wanted everybody to have as phenomenally big a ball as she was having.

 

“Would you want to be part of a party-club LitSoc?” Vicki asked Joss.

 

“Like Madeline was crabbing about?  Why can’t it be both—serious literary matters to begin with, followed by a bit of whoopie-doopie?  Specially if that does bring in guys.”

 

“Well, whatever happens tomorrow at the Pop Party, let’s not let them split us off from Alex and Nonique.  Or Crystal, if she shows up—Laurie too, I guess.  I’m not sure about Spacyjane and Isabel.”

 

“Well, I’m pretty sure what Space thinks of Isabel—and Floramour, and the Blue Fairy, and besmirching whortleberries.  Are we sure we want to be in the same LitSoc as Izzy-Whizzy?”

 

“Well... I’m pretty sure she’d make sure we’d have plenty of whoopie-doopie.”

 

*

 

On that same Friday Rachel Gleistein tried to stage an intervention with Laurie Harrison, whose recent behavior had become increasingly worrisome.

 

The Gleisteins weren’t strict Sabbath-obvervants (except on the now-past High Holy Days) so Rachel’s timetable wasn’t encumbered by sun-setting, candle-lighting, challah-blessing or the like.  But she did have to struggle with other-interventionist-finding, even among Laurie’s nearest and dearest.  Susie Zane was either in denial about her stepsister’s bothersome conduct, or hoping it was simply a temporary funk-phase.  Jerome Schei could not be depended on to intervene in a tattle-free manner.  Buddy Marcellus was nursing battered heartstrings after Laurie blew off their miniature golf date at the Kool Kourse arcade.  And Samantha Tiggs hung up the phone with a deafening click when Rachel called her after Thursday’s volleyball match.

 

Rachel and Sammi had never really gotten along, yet Laurie’s welfare ought to be their shared goal and common objective; so Sammi had no reason for bawling “Too late for that!!” when Rachel’d scarcely begun to outline her intervention plan.  Rachel, who took great pride in being empathetic, wasn’t deaf (until that thunderous click) to the desolate unhappiness in Sammi’s voice; and she tried phoning back, only to be told by Mrs. Tiggs that Sammi was no longer “available.”

 

So be it.  Rachel would just have to handle all the intervening on her own.

 

Be strong.  Be brave.  Be fearless.  You are never alone.

 

Nor was Sammi as she received solace that night, curled up on her six-foot-long (but-still-too-short) bed with the elderly (but-still-quite-handsome) Mr. Splotches.

 

He was a chestnut belton English setter with whm she’d spent countless hours working out by day and snuggling close after dark, as Sammi offered many a prayer for a magic spell that would turn him into a human boy.  (Still doggish, but like Rags Ragnarsson or K.C. Battenburg; taller than herself, with broader shoulders and hips; and perhaps a less particolored face than he had now.)

 

No, forget that.  Pray instead that Mr. Splotches would stay hale and hearty, and not be too disturbed by Sammi’s having plunged into bummerdepths.

 

That morning she’d put on a turquoise knit pullover like Alex Dmitria’s “school color” top, except Alex’s was a pullover and Sammi’s was more of a squeezinto.  In the past she, like Joss Murrisch, would’ve opted for a baggy flopperoo-hiding sweater; but ever since Tab Tchorz gamboled over the sensuous horizon, Sammi was unafraid (okay, not as afraid) to draw attention (his, at least) to her endowments.

 

Unfortunately Tab didn’t present any attention to be drawn.  Sammi hunted for him everywhere, lingering as long as she could outside Room 325 before and after Study Hall, then doing a ten-minute 360-degree survey of the cafeteria; but she only attracted notice by insignificant sweater-inspectors, and a scolding by Lisa Lohe:

 

“Will you sit down and eat something, Samantha?  You’ve got a match to play in three hours!”

 

“Why isn’t he here?  Who ditches lunch?

 

Link Linfold gently alluded to enterprises (authorized or un-) that people got up to during lunch periods; but Sammi had a Polish Polecat on her sizzling mind, and soon tuned Link out.

 

In that sidetracked state she sat through General Business with nasty Mr. Clapper, who thought women had no place in an office other than to be a receptionist and take dictation.  Definitely not to disrupt menfolk’s concentration, as Samantha’s sweaterfront was doing to boobminded Kerry Hinterwald, who gawped at her even while answering a question about balancing checkbooks.

 

“Miss Tiggs—a word, if you please,” Mr. Clapper requested as the bell rang and the classroom emptied.  “Perhaps you would be so good as to dress more conservatively in future—as would be appropriate for an office setting.”

 

A month or so ago such a remark from a male teacher would’ve made Sammi sink through the floor in horrified embarrassment, but today she only gave him a vague “Yessir” and hurried out to Not-Quite-Remedial English.

 

Whether or not Miss DuJardin appreciated “fine trash” (as Jenna Wiblitz said) she did accept book reports on Harlequin paperbacks (as Jenna’d predicted) so long as they documentated the books had indeed been read.  Bride of Zarco garnered Sammi a C+ that might’ve been a B- if written in less of a godawful rush.  This week’s report was on Devil’s Gateway, about a marriage of convenience to a South African sheep farmer who said things like “You don't possess the type of beauty that would ever have the power to drive a man to the brink of passion.”

 

(Even squeezed into a turquoise knit pullover...)

 

The only passion-brinkmanship Sammi’d ever drive would be to short guys like Kerry Hinterwald, who came up no further than her collarbone.  Never an amazing colossal Dream Man, whose lips she’d have to stand on tiptoe to kiss.

 

But then—but then—

 

Out in the crowded corridor, two long strapping arms reached down from above to embrace her boldly from behind, and pull her back against rock-solid masculinity.

 

Well hey there gorgeous.

 

His very word!  For real!  Not in a fantasy!  “Gorgeous,” as if she were her dropdead sister Sabrina who was called that by boys all the time!  OhmyGahd ohmyGahd ohmyGahd as he gave the top of her head what felt like a smooch—

 

—she was going to swoon, she was going to melt, she was going to burst—

 

—as the palms of his hands stroked upward from her waist to the base of her bosom, cradling it through turquoise knit top and Free Swing Tennis Bra, and making her D-cups go

 

bounce

bounce

bounce

 

as if he were testing melons for ripeness or sporting goods for resilience, or how her heart would react to tachycardia followed by a coronary.

 

“N-i-i-i-i-ce,” commented Tab before letting go, stepping away, and strolling off.

 

“Haw!  You got Cherry-Picked!” grinned Razor Reid, brushing past on her way out for an afterschool smoke.

 

“Hope ya felt up to it!” leered oily Roy Hodeau, heading in the other direction but for the same purpose.

 

“C’mon, we’re gonna be late!” said Pebbles Preston, skimming wispily down the hall toward the stairs and the gym, towing Sammi along like a pallid tugboat salvaging a derelict ocean liner.

 

Today was the rematch with Hereafter Park’s Blue Angels, this time on Vanderlund’s home court where referees weren’t blatantly biased.  A win would give the JV Gondoliers a 6-3 record and potential tie for first in the Shoreside Division with Multch North, whose Hurricanes the G-Girls had beaten last week.

 

None of which was on Sammi’s numb mind as she dazedly replaced her stricken pullover with a jersey that, unlike the pullover or the compression shorts, hung loose and easy.

 

Two words that Tab Tchorz must think described Samantha Tiggs to a T.  Otherwise he wouldn’t have practically squeezed her breasts in public, in a crowded corridor, in front of everybody.

 

It could’ve been so romantic.  If he’d done it in private, when they were alone, out under the moon and stars.  If he’d asked her out first, or even midway; entreated her to join him in an exclusive relationship.

 

If he hadn’t taken liberties fatally similar to those seized in darkness by the Phantom of the Sock-Hop at last year’s Back-to-School Dance—disembodied grabbing and groping that still gave her occasional nightmares—

 

.“(I have gotta talk to you!”) she tried to tell Laurie in the locker room, and during pregame warmups, and between oncourt rallies.  Sammi wasn’t playing anywhere near her best; each smack of hand on ball reran the invasive sensation of Polecat paws bounce-bounce-bouncing her boobs for a bigger audience than was in the stands to watch the match.

 

It threw Sammi so far off her game that Coach Celeste benched her and sent in Laurie, meaning they still couldn’t talk until Marilyn Mansfield and her Evil Angels jived out a bitter victory.  Even after that, up in the bleachers waiting out the varsity’s defeat, there was no give-and-take to speak of.

 

The old Laurie—the Real Laurie—would’ve been all agog to hear what Sammi had to say, eager to offer comfort and advice, her pooftails dancing with anticipation.

 

But on this blighted Thursday she sat there immovably with bangs drooping down past her eyelashes, and no indication she was even listening to Sammi’s agitated whispers.  Till she stirred, and shifted from one compressed rumpcheek to the other, and said:

 

“You didn’t do yourself any favors, trying to get hitched to that chamberpot.”

 

Spoken as if by a stranger—a remotely distant stranger.

 

With a faint yet acerbic overlay of This is all your fault.

 

Which, when Samantha finished rehashing it for the hundredth time in her not-long-enough bed, made her start to cry on Mr. Splotches, who sympathetically whimpered in his sleep.

 

No tears were shed on Friday by Rachel Gleistein, in full foreign-lady-scientist mode and a long white labcoat-like cardigan; though she had to stage her intervention unassisted and almost inaudibly.  The VTHS multipurpose media resource center (here called a Library) turned into a ghost suite after 3:30 at the end of the week; but quietude was still imposed upon it by the MPMRCperson (i.e. Librarian).

 

So it was at a hushed carrel, fenced in by solitude and shelves of books, that Rachel notified Laurie she was going to go to Saturday’s LitSoc Pop Party—no excuse of any sort would be brooked.  Thanks to Rachel’s tutoring, she’d gotten B’s both semesters in Lang Arts last year; Rachel intended to join a literary society, wanted Laurie to join with her, and together they’d strive to keep it all-girls.

 

“(This is exactly what you need to snap you out of the mood you’ve been in.  You’ll enjoy everything about it, and you’ll be good at it too—like when you coordinated the canned food drive for Red Cross.  Nobody’s got better powers of communication than you—when you aren’t stifling them up like you’ve been doing.  It’s unhealthy.  It can even be dangerous.)”

 

No need for Rachel to raise her voice to get this across.  Merely administer the Queen-of-Sheba authority she’d often used during tutorials to ward off woolgathering and redirect digressive small talk.  The old Laurie—the Normal Laurie—could seldom hold her tongue for long, and Rachel once had to threaten to zip her lips with masking tape till she learned her lesson.

 

But on this callous Friday in the multipurpose media resource center (aka Library) her only reaction to Rachel’s straitlaced whisper was a slow blink behind bangs.

 

Could Laurie be “on” something?  Had she begun to abuse a controlled substance, trying to cope with the pressures of starting senior high?  No, that was unthinkably absurd.  She had Rachel’s support on the academic side and Samantha’s on the athletic.  Of course there was also a romantic side to grapple with, and none of them had mastered that.  (Rachel least of all—thanks again, Bennett Fayne and Hillel Schiller!)

 

Drugs, angst, heartbreak, derangement... something insidious was afflicting Laurie.  And she was Rachel’s closest friend, the one most deserving of care and lovingkindness.

 

Another behind-bangs blink.

 

“(You need help,)” breathed Rachel.  “(Whatever the problem is, I’m here for you.)”

 

Little by little, Laurie’s unzipped lips widened in something akin to a smile.

 

Not hers, though.  Not Laurie Harrison’s affectionate guileless smile.

 

This was more of a memento—a reminder of Bubbe Gleistein’s morbid fairy tales about dybbuks hijacking innocent host bodies for their own infernal purposes.

 

Rachel shuddered inside the labcoat-like cardigan as Laurie (or her occupant) replied at a penetrating volume, unmindful of the MPMRCperson’s scandalized Ssshhhh!

 

“Don’t be silly.  You want to be a surgeon—not a shrink.  Wise up and stick to your scalpel.”

 

Withdrawing from the carrel and departing from the Library without another word.

 

Leaving Rachel to gradually get to her feet—and suddenly spin around, to check if a Phantom-hand might again be reaching out to wedgify her undefended backside.

 

*

 

“This ought to work out great for all of us,” Vicki postulated in the backseat of the Murrisch Lincoln Continental.

 

“You trying to convince all of us?  Or just yourself?” speculated Nonique, sitting to her left.

 

“It might ne a neat experience—depending on who else experiences it,” ruminated Spacyjane, sitting to Vicki’s right.

 

“You didn’t bring Floramour, did you?” Joss interrogated, turning sideways to peer over the front seat at Spacyjane’s haversack.

 

“No, I left her looking out your bedroom window.”

 

Nice view from there, Vicki and Joss sub-communicated: a power lacked by Laurie Harrison, even at the height of her normality.

 

“That doll is really pretty... and reminded me of someone.  But who?” meditated Alex, riding shotgun—not that she would ever carry a firearm, even to earn a merit badge.

 

Don’t mention Isabel! subbed Joss.

 

Alex would FREAK! subbed Vicki.

 

“Uh, well, maybe you had a doll like that of your own when you were little?”

 

“No, just my horsies.”  (Which Alex continued to collect in multiple media, ranging from stuffed toys to plastic figurines to glass statuettes.)  “Floramour’d be a nice name for a pony, if your doll wouldn’t mind sharing it.”

 

“You’ll have to ask her.  She’s called that because her best dress has a love-lies-bleeding pattern,” Spacyjane explicated.

 

Silence in the Continental, till Joss started humming a truncated Elton John melody and Spacyjane began to sing along:

 

 

My guitar couldn’t hold you, so I split the band
Lovvvve lies bleeding in my hands

 

“Ohhhh-kaaaay...” went Nonique, the first to jump out of the car when Mr. Murrisch deposited them at VTHS.

 

Vicki could tell Nonique was having second (third, fourth) thoughts about this entire undertaking—not just the LitSoc Pop Party, but then to be transported down to Jergen’s Café for a fondue dinner prepared by Spacyjane’s parents, and then to spend the night with four white girls (and one odd doll) at a sleepover in Joss’s aerie.

 

She didn’t come to an isolated standstill this time, though.  No, she strode into the school building side by side with Vicki and Joss, a step ahead of Spacyjane (still singing) and several yards behind Alex, who as usual was dashing ahead like a zesty gazelle.

 

“C’mon!  Let’s get cracking, you guys!” she advocated.

 

“Hope she doesn’t mean our knuckles,” said Joss.

 

THIS WAY TO THE POP PARTY read a coyly-highlighted placard, on which Litfolk had tacked a panoramic view of the cafeteria from six or seven Pop Parties ago.  Back then a dozen societies at abundantly-decorated booths vied for consideration by a swarm of sophomore candidates, who sampled their recruitment inducements while taking polite sips of carbonated beverages.

 

Today, however, the cafeteria looked less like the Big Blues Street Market than the Auldforest Woods—a wilderness of tabletops sprouting upside-down stools and overhung with shadows.  (Most of the ceiling’s fluorescent lights were switched off, doubtless as a cost-cutting measure.)

 

In one corner by the side windows, four tables had been cleared of stools and festooned (by no means abundantly) with LitSoc regalia.  More students appeared to be staffing these tables than were milling around swigging Cokes and Sprites and Filberts.

 

Vicki couldn’t help but remember the first day of cross country at VW, when only twelve Ladybugs had shown up.  Not that she’d anticipated a mob would be here today, but turnout was no better than the fans in the stands for a JV volleyball match.

 

Alex had made a beeline for the Dickinson table and was waving vigorously (again as usual) for the others to follow her there.  Forever Is Composed of Nows remarked the Belle of Amherst (in banner form) as Vicki & Co. were greeted by Cheryl (fuming at the scanty congregation) and Mary Kate (pourng cups of pop).

 

“You know Penny Stone, of course”—away from whom Vicki instinctively edged, since Vanderlund’s head cheerleader could outintimidate even Demandin’ Amanda Pound.  But Stone-Cold Penny was in a good mood for once: the varsity G-Men had defeated mighty Athens Grove at Timonoff Park last night for their third straight victory.  “We were more terrorstruck by Penny Stone than the Olympians,” Jeff Friardale said postgame (and only half-facetiously) to the Channel reporter.

 

“And this is our President, Pamela Redfern”—a reborn Jacqueline Bouvier, complete with tasteful poise and breathless voice and Vassar aspirations.  Plus a JFK-ish boyfriend in Jeremy Tolhurst, the senior class charisma king, who was slouching by the outer doors with Frank and Stu and other conscripted guys.

 

“So glad you’ve decided to be part of Dickinson,” Pam jackie-ohh’d at Alex and Vicki.

 

“Well, we’re thinking about it,” Vicki replied.

 

“I thought we already deci—” Alex was saying when Vicki (who’d outintimidated Amanda Pound too, if just the once) muted her with a minifrown.

 

“See, we’re hoping to join together, as a group—us five,” she told Pam.  Whose bound-for-the-diplomatic-corps gaze moved from Vicki to Joss (staving off a gigglefit) to Spacyjane (still singing softly to herself) and then to Nonique (at her most Thelma-on-Good-Times-y).

 

“Of course,” Pamela sidestepped, “you should check out all the societies before making your choice.”

 

“Which will be Dickinson,” forecast Becca Blair, arriving (as always) fashionably late and dressed to the nines.  Doling out quasideferential nods to the upperclassgirls, she registered presences and absences.  “Mumbles and Doreen not here?”

 

“Mumbles hasn’t made up her mind about doing LitSoc this year,” said Alex.

 

“Hmmph!” went Cheryl.  “‘Cause Curtis Weatherly isn’t interested, I’ll bet!”

 

“And Dory hurt herself trying to bake cookies for the Pop Party,” sighed Mary Kate.  “She really has the worst luck using ovens.”

 

“What about the Purcells?”

 

“They were supposed to bring a couple guys and cover the party for the Channel,” said Penny, reverting to stone-coldness as she glared at a wall clock.

 

“Probably stopped off at DeLuster’s Leap and lost track of time!”

 

“Oh, Cheryl,” murmured Mary Kate.

 

“Don’t ‘Cheryl’ me—this party is just plain pointless.”

 

Hey!  You two, get your boy-butts over here!” Penny shouted, flagging down Buddy Marcellus and Marshall McConchie as they wandered past.

 

Vicki & Co. slipped away toward the next table, not venturing too near since the ladies of Brontë-Browning were being helter-skeltered by Dennis Desmond and fuddy-duddied by Fletcher Wyndham simultaneously.

 

Dennis: “It’s a lesser-known little-flown fact that Elizabeth Barrett Browning invented the root beer float but hid the recipe in her classic poem ‘How Now Brown Cow?’ to keep from being persecuted for fizzy witchcraft after she cholesterolized hubby Bobby—”

 

Fletcher: “As you’re probably aware, my portrayal of Heathcliff in the summer-before-last’s production by the Hickory Haven Creative Dramatics Workshop won plaudits!  Don’t take my word for it—here’s a supporting actress who will tell you the same—”

 

Awp!” went Nanette Magnus, who’d been cast as Nelly Dean in Hickory Haven’s Wuthering Heights and now got tackled by Fletch to testify on his behalf.  Which inspired Dennis to put Delia Shanafelt in a leprechaun headlock, to illustrate the hazards of brown-cow cholesterolization.

 

“That’ll do,” said Principal Stabeldore, hitchgaiting over to restore order (if not lost honor).  “Let ‘em go, boys, and leave ‘em be.”

 

“A thousand apologies!” intoned Fletcher, bowing deeply.

 

“A thousand and one,” added Dennis.  “Conviviality overwhelmed us!”

 

“That’s okay,” simpered Delia, with a flirtatious roll of slightly-bulbous milky-blues.  “It only tickled a little.”

 

“I tickled her fancy / just to be chancy,” Dennis serenaded her.

 

“See what I mean, Mr. Stabeldore?” flared Angelique Anstruther, President of Brontë-Browning, who’d objected to opening up the LitSocs genderwise from the very start and now felt vindicated; not least because Kerry Hinterwald was staring openly at her clingy cowlneck top.

 

“Yeah!  You are all so weird!” Gwen Cokingham told him and Fletch and especially Dennis.

 

“Weird and underweight,” drawled Millicent Carstairs, sauntering up to give Kerry’s earlobe a tweak that looked playful but drained the blood from his face and sent him skittering elsewhere.  “So long, Shortstack.”

 

“A pinch to grow a flinch!” praised Dennis.

 

“Make him scram too!” pleaded Diana Dabney.

 

“Naah, he can stay,” Mauly yawned, planting a languid haunch on the BB tabletop and causing all its pop bottles to rattle.

 

“Ex-cuuuuse meeee??” went indignant Margo Temple.

 

“Long as his mom shells out big bucks for picturetaking,” said Mauly, while Dennis called for other Steve Martin impressions and the Principal asked everyone to simmer down and the motto-banner Let Your Performance Do the Thinking wobbled on its pole and Vicki dragged her Co. out of the Brontë-Browning periphery.

 

Next station on their grand tour was Howe-Stowe (Serenity of Manners Requires Serenity of Mind) where Lisa and Rhonda and Michelle Blundell and Don’t-Call-Me-Debbie Karberski were trying to hobnob with Link and Hope Eckhardt and Claudia Thurman and Marked-Down Mark Brown (mopping up a spilled Mr. Pibb) while they all kept peeking at the invisible barricade Rachel had mounted to thwart Sell-O Fayne’s s‑m‑i‑l‑i‑n‑g approach.

 

“Now let’s be reasonable about this, Rach—”

 

Nothere is no ‘us,’ there is no ‘we,’ there is no ‘our,’ there is no first-person-plural in any shape or form here—do YOU understand ME??”

 

Vicki was more curious about the cold-shoulder standoff of Adlai Stevenson Skinner by New Big Sister Jenna, who’d turned her birdy-back on him and folded her birdy-arms and set her birdy-jaw, and was beckoning Vicki over with a twitch of her bespectacled birdy-head.  (Today’s frames were adorned with tiny quill pens.)

 

“Vicki: will you please wake this ASS up to the fact that I will quit Howe-Stowe the instant he joins?  That is not how we are going to collaborate!”

 

“Uh, Jenna said to tell you...”

 

“I heard,” said mournful Skinner, his ashen pigeon-pate sinking into his drab gray turtleneck.  “Just trying to help... don’t mean any harm...”

 

“Neither does that guy!” Jenna huffed, twitching her quills at Mark Brown who was now retrieving a pile of LitSoc circulars he’d strewn across the floor.  “A fine mess the two of you’d make if we let you in!  No—do as I tell you and pump the SciFi Club dry of anything manga-related.  If you want to be useful, that is, and not simply a nuisance.  So trot yourself outta here!”

 

“Um... yeah... so...” went Skinner, bestowing another long last look of rawly-doting astonishment at her as he eggheaded away.

 

“Don’t,” Jenna told Vicki.

 

“What?  Call Debra Karberski ‘Debbie’?”

 

“Don’t feel sorry for him,”

 

“Sorta have to, with guys like that.”  (The habitual queasy pity: Ew, don’t cry...)

 

“It’s wasted on that ASS.  He only responds to harshness—sad but true.  Forget it.  Let’s go regain serenity of mind over manners.”

 

They found Lisa Lohe expounding on the services Howe-Stowe provided to boost literacy down in The CIty, such as buying books for grade school libraries and reading them aloud to children there.

 

“We also sponsor events,” said Rhonda Wright, “like the Muddy Waters ‘Blues Had a Baby’ Spelling Bee and Inner Urban Triathlon.”

 

“Rhonda, be serious!” chided D-C-M-D Karberski.

 

“So sorry,” said the repentant Roadrunner.  “We actually co-sponsor that event with the synchronized swim team—they can’t get enough of Muddy Waters.”

 

“She’s just kidding,” Michelle Blundell explained between nailbites.

 

“Well, the things you do sound great,” said Alex.  “But I kind of already told the Dickinsons—”

 

“—that we’re checking out all the societies before we decide,” Vicki interposed.  “Right, Joss?”

 

“You betcha,” went Joss as she helped Link rescue Mark Brown from the cafeteria stool whose legs he’d somehow entangled his own with.

 

“Didn’t I warn you?” Cloudy groaned. 

 

“Si, nos avisaste,” answered Esperanza Eckhardt.

 

Enough!” steamed D-C-M-D.

 

Vicki & Co. took this kvetch as their cue to go complete the circuit, wrapping up the Pop Party at Austen-Alcott’s table under a What Is Right to Be Done Cannot Be Done Too Soon banner.  Before they reached it, Spacyjane froze in her tracks and the others slowed to a crawl at the sight of Isabel Carstairs’s shapely thigh bared to her pantyline as she hoisted the hem of an Yves Saint Laurent skirt for Sidney Erbsen to FLASSSHHHH flassshhhh flassshhhh at.

 

“(Take it that’s Is?)” deduced Nonique.

 

“(T’Is,)” Joss onfirmed.  “(As in tizzy.)”

 

But Spacyjane unfroze and resumed her sotto singing:

 

 

The roses in the window box have tilted to one side
Ev’rything about this house was born to grow and die...

 

“Hiiiieeee!” Isabel blithely hailed them, letting her designer hem fall into decorous place.  “I wasn’t sure I was going to be here ‘cause, y’know” (expressive aquamarine squint in Mauly’s direction) “though now I’m glad I came” (coquettish aquamarine eyeroll at Split‑Pea, whose camera had refocused on the nonplused Nonique) “and this bunch seems the most fun.”

 

With a sweeping trade-show-model gesture at Austen-Alcott Literary Society.

 

Its Presiding Genius was Lesley Ogilvie, Thirsty K’s drily articulate older sister, who could prolong a “shaggy rug” story ad infinitum (she’d been telling one about a taxidermist’s toupée since the first pop bottle got uncapped).  Assisting Lesley was Nancy Sykeman, a standup/improv artist destined for The Second City, who’d recount the atrocities committed by her boyfriend Bub:

 

“As in BLZ Bub!  When I said ‘Please let’s go to a movie instead of housebreaking your dog’ he picked The Hills Have Eyes, saying it’d be a travelogue, and made me pay for the tickets and fright insurance (naming him as beneficiary) so I said ‘Bub, the least you can do is cough up for popcorn’—and he took me literally...”

 

Less voluble yet more inimitable was Rula “Erotic” Hradek, who not only kept detailed records and ratings of her trysts and conquests, but was roman à clef-ing them into a chiller-thriller like Lois Duncan’s A Gift of Magic, Down a Dark Hall and Summer of Fear—though far more explicit, depicting the infiltration of a suburban high school by an extroverted incubus/succubus.

 

(“In other words, a modern version of Northanger Abbey,” Joss would quip.)

 

Among the junior Most Fun AAs was of course Holly Brollis, busily flirting with “Uncle Luke” Stabeldore; Alva Dee Bickling, who’d brought homemade maple walnut fudge (such as she hadn’t consumed en route) to the Pop Party; and Nancy Buschmeyer of the bizarre hair perms, who was as compulsive a signer-up-to-do-things as Alex herself.

 

Not present were Thirsty K (“Lesley got all the book-smarts in our family”) and—to Vicki’s relief—Candy Gates, who’d decided literary societies were a barren blind alley and so dropped out of Austen-Alcott.  Her parting blast (as mimicked by Holly) had been “I put up with this for a year, I’ll put it on my college apps, but now I’m putting in for something that’ll put me in a position to give the public something better and finer!!”

 

(‘Nuff said.)

 

A few compliant boyfriends (though not BLZ Bub) were on dutiful hand: Nelson Baedeker, despite the Regency gown threat; Scott Grampion, a cracker-barrel philosopher-type who was Lesley’s longtime swain; and Pete “Chewy” Hewitt, a hand-me-down to Nancy Buschmeyer from the nonliterary Nancy Hantz.

 

Also loitering at the AA table was Split-Pea Erbsen, who finally turned his lens on Spacyjane as she skipped to the finale of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and whisper-sang:

 

 

Harmony and me, we’re pretty good company
Looking for an island in our boat upon the sea...

 

(“In other words, the opposite of Lord of the Flies,” Joss would quip.)

 

Jerome Schei, scanning their corner of the dim cafeteria, heaved a woebegone sigh.  “No Laurie.  I begged her on my knees over the phone to come!  That girl’s had a burr in her bloomers for too long.”

 

“Sheila-Q calls it ‘boars in her drawers,’” Vicki told him.  “And for like a whole month now, or longer.  I keep meaning to worry more about it.”

 

“(Is she a smoker?)” Nonique whisper-asked.

 

“Maybe!” went Jerome, his nostrils quivering like Laurie’s used to.  “Why?  Have you seen her smoking?”

 

“(Hush!)” Nonique ordered, taking a wary step away from Alex and Isabel.  “(No, but yesterday after Gym she asked me for a cigarette.)”

 

“(OhmyGahd!  What’d you tell her?)”

 

“(That I didn’t have one—I don’t smoke,)”  To Vicki: “(That’d get her kicked off the volleyball team, right?)”

 

“(If she got caught,)” said Vicki.  Sternly, to Jerome: “(Or talked about—)”

 

“(The word is mum,)” he whisper-vowed, just before Alex told everyone to quiet down so the Principal could address the Pop Party.

 

As per usual, Mr. Stabeldore was a man of few words.  He thanked all who’d dropped by, briefly singling out seniors like Jeremy Tolhurst and Scott Grampion (a yep/nope favorite of his) for setting a good example for younger boys.  He noted that a decade ago, high schools throughout America’d had active literary societies; today Vanderlund was one of the very few still upholding that fine tradition, and he hoped the ladies and gentlemen here would not let it lapse.  Please dispose of all bottles and cups in their proper receptacles.

 

“Did you notice who else was a no-show?” Jerome effervesced as he handed his cup to Vicki for proper disposal.  “Gigi Pyle!  I thought she’d be here.for sure!  D’you suppose” (dramatically lowered voice) “she and Laurie are off together having an oke-smay?

 

*

 

“No way!” scoffed Joss several hours later when she heard about this bubbly conjecture.  “Not after all those ‘Harelip’ cracks.”

 

“All those what now?” asked Alex, hearing only the last four words as she emerged from the aerie’s half-bath in trefoil-emblazoned PJs.

 

Joss gave her (and Nonique and Spacyjane) the lowdown about Gigi’s sixth-grade reign of mistreatment at McGrum Elementary, which Joss had laughed off at the time but poor Laurie hadn’t.

 

“How unkind!” Alex lamented.  “I never want to think less than the best of anybody, but... well, I guess I kind of knew that Gigi’s sort of...”

 

“‘Snottyviciouscruelconceited’ is the word you’re looking for,” said Joss.

 

“Sums her up, all right,” said Vicki, coming out of the half-bath in a violet nightie.  “’Member the fuss she made about our disco concert party?”  She gave Nonique and Spacyjane (and also Alex, who hadn’t heard the entire backstory before) a capsule recap of Gigi’s reaction to the Vinyl Spinnaker Quinceañera’s scuttling her own Drama Club supper party.  Vicki’s imitation of Gigi’s All raht then, looky here: yew owe me one bigtime raised a general laugh; though Nonique shook her head ruefully while retying the belt of her peignoir.

 

“There’s girls like that all over,” she told them, adding a hesitant Thornford anecdote about the stuck-up Briggs sisters, Rochelle and Elouise, who thought they were something else with an egotistic vengeance.

 

“Briggs?” said Spacyjane, nestling in the beanbag chair with Fingers the cat on her negligée’d lap.  “I wonder if they’re related to the Mr. Briggs who comes into our Café a lot but my dad says always undertips?”

 

“Doubt it,” smiled Nonique.  “Don’t think many folks in Riversgate are that into fondue.”

 

She, at any rate, was currently as stuffed with fabulous Fribourgeois as the other four sleeping over at the Queen Anne manse.  Nonique might’ve preferred to stick her first toe in the potentially muddy waters of Caucasian slumber-partying with Vicki alone; but Alex was so nice and Joss so hospitable, while Spacyjane seemed genuinely unaware of any significance in their different skintones, other than Nonique’s being a pretty shade of brown.

 

“Okay, since we’ve brought up the snots” (”Joss!” ewwed Vicki and Alex as their hostess, now clad in her oversized Edgar Stubley T-shirt, rejoined them) “let’s finish picking a LitSoc.  I may not see eye to eye with Isabel Carstairs”—rolling a small blue twinkler at Spacyjane, who didn’t look up—“but she’s right about Austen-Alcott being the most fun.  And they must be the broadest-minded, since they accepted Meg as a member and didn’t kick her out for acting Meggish.  Even so, my vote’s for AA.”

 

“I already promised Dickinson,” Alex demurred.

 

“You promised for you, not for us.

 

“But we said we’d all join together!  And I know Becca’s expecting Vicki to be a Dickinson.”

 

Nobody says can’t or won’t to Becca Blair and makes it stick hung in the aerie air, till Vicki waved it away.

 

“Let’s look at this like, y’know, objectively.  Dickinson’s mostly mover-and-shaker girls—and I don’t mean cheerleaders, all the LitSocs have those.  But you could tell what Pam Redfern was thinking—Joss is the most literary of us five, but she hasn’t been a class officer or belonged to anything except Band and Orchestra.  So to Pam she ‘isn’t Dickinson material.’”

 

“I don’t think that’s fair,” said Alex.

 

“No, it isn’t,” Vicki went on.  “And Brontë-Browning’s even less fair—they’d be the ones Gigi would join if she was going to join.  Probably Britt too if she was, even though her sister Fleur belonged to BB and Britt can’t bear Fleur even worse than Joss can’t bear Meg.”

 

“’Cept I’m broader-minded,” bragged Joss, hopping up to flip over the Miles Davis LP on her turntable.  “I’d even donate Meg a kidney, if she needed one to bake a steak-and-kidney pie.”

 

On which cue Beth materialized in the doorway, accompanied by Thumb if not Invisible Amy, though Spacyjane made room for both on the beanbag chair.  “Are you discussing Ulysses?” Beth inquired.

 

“As in S. Grant?” Joss growled.

 

“As in James Joyce.  ‘Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented u—'”

 

Enough!” Joss dontcallmedebbied.  “Go downstairs and pop us a big bowl of Orville Redenbacher.”

 

“Oh please, I’m so stuffed with cheese,” moaned Nonique.  “Couldn’t eat another bite.”

 

“You don’t bite popcorn,” said Beth, observing her with owlish interest.  “‘Mr. Bloom watched curiously, kindly the lithe black form.  Clean to see, the gloss of her sleek hide,’” she cited before vanishing.

 

“‘Mrkgnao!’” threw in Thumb from Spacyjane’s lap.

 

“Ohhhh-kaaaay...” went Nonique.

 

“Sorry sorry sorry,” Joss apologized.  “Beth was always a weirdo, even as a baby.”

 

“What in the world was she was talking about?” asked the befuddled Alex.

 

“It’s from a famous novel she has no business reading yet, much less memorizing.”

 

Alex blew out her lips.  “This is exactly why I need you guys to be in the same LitSoc as me!  I don’t understand anything about famous novels!”

 

“So let’s settle this before Weirdetta comes back with the popcorn.  Which one’s next—Howe-Stowe?”

 

“I’d like to be in the same Soc as Jenna,” said Vicki, “and I wouldn’t mind reading library books to little kids.  But I doubt that Lisa and Debra and probably Rachel and Hope would let us enjoy doing it.  What do you guys think?”

 

“’Spect I’m supposed to join them—right?” Nonique said bluntly.

 

“Because...?” went Alex, again befuddled.

 

“Howe was the first Soc to accept Jews, and Stowe the first to accept blacks,” Joss explained.  “Now it’s basically the Sammy Davis Jr. Society for Girls.”

 

“So for me, it’s them or nothing?  Tell the truth now.”

 

“Oh, I’m sure not!” cried Alex,  “Not nowadays!  I mean, I’m half-Latina—”

 

“Be cool,” said Nonique.  “I could live with that.  I just don’t want to be stuck with Claudia Thurman rankin’ on me every minute like I’m some kind of snot!...  ‘Scuse me.  My turn to say sorry.”

 

“Be cool?” suggested Spacyjane, to another general laugh.

 

“Cloudy is kind of high-strung,” Alex conceded.

 

“Which brings us back to Austen-Alcott,” said Vicki.  “I agree with Joss that they’re the most fun, and I bet they’d be happy to take us all—Holly’ll be, for sure.  But Isabel’s gonna join them, and I know she’s not everybody’s favorite person.  How ‘bout it, Space—could you bear being in the same Soc as Is?”

 

Fingers and Thumb sprang off the beanbag; Inviisble Amy seemed to beat a retreat.  Spacyjane, however, showed no sign of discomposure.  Again that star-sapphire gaze was trained on a distant vista (Floramour on the windowsill?), again with that smile of beatific complacence.  And again came that non-sequiturish adage: “My Swee’Pea is always with me.”

 

“Okay then,” said Joss.  “AA it is.”

 

“But I promised Dickinson,” wailed Alex.  “Scout’s honor!  I can’t go back on my word!”

 

“Well then, we can be friendly competitiors—y’know, like the Fries and the Broils,” Vicki reassured her.  “It’s not like we’ll be fighting a gang war against each other.”

 

“Spoken like Guadalupe Velez of the Pfiester Park Pherrettes—”

 

“Will you shut UP about that?” Vicki howled.

 

“You shut UP about that,” Joss responded.

 

“You guys are a trip,” murmured Nonique.

 

“We don’t mean to be,” mumbled Alex.

 

“‘Crannocks of corn and oblong eggs in great hundreds,’” quoted Beth, returning with Ulysses in one hand and Orville Redenbacher in the other.

 

*

 

At that very moment, on that same Saturday night, Gigi Pyle was in the backseat of a Toyota Cressida speeding up the highest Hereafter Hill—though not, as one might presume, to DeRussey’s Point alias DeLuster’s Leap.  Which was just as well, since she was in a mood to do some lusterless leaping.

 

It had been a week where every possible thing went amiss, awry, or out-and-out wrong.  First a slapstick pratfall during Monday afternoon’s cheerleading practice, caused by feet chafed into stumblebummery by those damnfool wedge sling sandals.  Then a public bra-strap malfunction on Tuesday that inspired Craig Clerkington to dub you “Lopsy,” short for lopsided: his idea of amorous wit.  Then an unprepped-for pop quiz in German on Wednesday, for which you’d had to resort to dicey guesswork.  Then being sent to the Geometry chalkboard two hours later to prove a theorem about congruence, and making a dusty bungle of it.  Then mislaying Lizabeth Ann’s onyx ring on Thursday, after borrowing it from her jewelry box without bothering to ask.  Then, as if in retribution, becoming infected with a chin-zit that defied all attempts to remove or conceal it, like some migrant pustule from Angry Acne Neapolitan.  Then having to bear up yesterday under Maleficent Margo Temple’s cutting remarks about your so-called failure to try out for her silly-ass literary society—“I guess you’re too obsessed with skidding on pimply banana peels to even pretend to make an effort.”  (“Yeah, obsessed!” from Diana Dabney.)  Then needing all your Rolaid-dosed self-restraint to not bite off Eeny Stott’s squintilla head for gushingly volunteering to “boycott” LitSocs with you.  Not to mention the several hours you sacrificed going through cheery motions as the JV G-Men got shut out 26-0 at Athens Grove—and Graham Aleshire suffered a poke in the eye on the sideline, from one of his own teammates; which if nothing else gave you an excuse to quit being chauffeured in that smelly yellow Monza.

 

Instead, here you were (on a Saturday night!) alone in the backseat of a speeding Cressida.  Sufficiently acquainted with Shakespeare’s “sluttish spoils” to curl your lip at such a name for a Toyota model.  Trying to Think unflappable thoughts as your eyes were ensnared and held fast by the driver’s in the rearview mirror—a pair of bonked-out bruise-bordered eggshells, bob-bob-bobbing to the dissonant beat from the Cressida tapedeck—

 

“What is that racket?” you snapped.

 

“Penderecki’s Devils,” bobbed the driver.  Who fittingly tagged himself as “Flake,” but might just as easily have chosen “Al Bino” or “Johnny Winter Jr.”

 

His syncopated surveillance made you squirm even worse than Sid Erbsen’s will-bending camera lens.  Which, offensive at it was, at least made you feel positively undressed: like the most expensive bondmaid on the auction block.  But Flake’s reflective scrutiny (like yours of the Colonial Revival on Clubroot Drive) felt like a dispassionate cataloging of every physical flaw, from that ineradicable zit on your chin right on downward and inward to the unsightly birthmark on your privatemost underbelly—

 

“Shouldn’t you watch where you’re going??” you crackled.

 

“Am I not?” Flake bobbed back.  “Echo effect: am-am-am aye-aye-aye not-not-not...

 

“Mauler alert,” reported the little red-haired girl in the shotgun seat, her petite feet (in Diane von Fürstenberg gym shoes) propped upon the Cressida dashboard.  “Make tracks.”

 

“Aye-aye-aye,” repeated Flake, flooring the gas pedal as an Alfa Romeo Spider roared up to tailgate your tuffet and Lawdy Gawd you began to pray, Don’t let me get killed alone in the backseat of this ugly car—

 

Topping the final rise with all four tires off the asphalt, then crashing back to earth and swerving onto Matterhorn Terrace, the loftiest street in Hereafter Park, to beat the Alfa Romeo into a welter of haphazardly parked vehicles.

 

“We’re here because we’re here because we’re here,” crooned Britt.

 

“We’re the first to gain entrée,” countered Mauly Carstairs as she and Gwen Cokingham (of all people) ran up the walkway to what even the late-night darkness couldn’t disguise was a faux neo-rococo chateau.

 

“Behold the Den of Dental Iniquity!” brayed Flake.  “Erected over a gtaveyard of root canals!”

 

“‘Der weisser Engel, der weisser Engel!’” chanted Britt, with Flake chiming in on a cryptic chorus of “‘SZELL!  SZELL!  Is it safe?  Is it safe?’” that must’ve been an inscrutable password, since the chateau’s front door (slammed shut by Mauly and Gwen) swung back open as Britt and Flake—and you, trotting nervously at their heels—approached it.

 

This couldn’t be the Carstairs place, even though Odious Is had a thing for the Alps, and her and Mauly’s father was a wealthy oral surgeon who could afford to build a gaudy house.  No, they lived down near the Lake on Shoreward Circle, and this ersatz castle must belong to their uncle “Painless Joe” Mansfield, brother-in-law and surgical partner of Dr. Carstairs.  Though it bore less of his stamp—or gouge—than that of his wife, Arabella Carstairs Mansfield, who (as Jerome Schei put it) had termites in the windmills of her mind.

 

(“Ever see House on Haunted Hill?  They say Arabella fell in love with that movie set and wanted to live there ‘forever and ever.’  Too bad she spends more of her time away getting detox’d.”)

 

She was definitely present in spirit at tonight’s come-as-you-are (when-you’re-out-of-your-skull) Saturday Masque.  Every dimly-lit room in the faux chateau was packed with noisy bodies gulping and puffing various substances as they lurched to the throb and screech of what sounded like horror-film soundtracks.  A glass of Lawdy-knew-what was thrust into your hand and you did your best not to spill it as you hurried after Britt and Flake, who were threading through the crush at an accelerating pace that threatened to abandon you to the mob—

 

WHUMP!  A fight broke out at your elbow, making you dodge sideways and empty the glassful partly onto the carpet but mostly over your sure-to-be-stained double-knit skirt.  Dammitall!  Then one of the combatants reared up to reveal Gwen Cokingham yelling “The Space Shuttle will save us from the Soviet Union!” (if your ears didn’t deceive you) as she tore the shirt off her adversary, who was bewhiskered like a radical agitator and yaroohed like one too as Gwen dug her nails into his hairy bare chest.

 

Hastily you ducked around them and started searching for a bathroom or kitchen or someplace with towels and a sink where you might salvage your skirt.  Turn a knob at random and stumblebum into what appeared to be a ballroom, dominated by a grand piano at which a Joel Greylike gnome was announcing “Your own—your very very own—Ger-troo-deh SSCHNEEE-be-deckt!!—and up on the piano pranced Ginger Snowbedeck, whom you’d always resented for having a first name too similar to yours, but now boggled at as she commenced to perform a striptease while caterwauling:

 

 

Asham was a tootin' Turk
tootle-ootle-doo tootle-ooh-doo-doo
made his wife put out for jerks

tootle-ootle-doo tootle-ooh-doo-doo

 

Turn and run out of the ballroom, not waiting to see whether Ginger deserves her name anywhere below her scalpline, and carom off gulping puffing lurching bodies till your wrist is grabbed by a darting flicking fist that resists your panicky struggles to yank free until you realize it’s Britt’s pulling you along an increasingly unpopulated hallway till you reach a door on which she tattoos a complicated knock.  Loud sounds of unlocking, unbolting, unchaining—and you’re slipped past it into a chamber lit only by banks of candles.

 

And occupied, you intuitively know, by the hardcore hub of the Traversers.

 

Here is Mauly Carstairs, lazily licking a spoon though no bowl of batter or frosting’s at hand.  Here is her cousin and your hostess, Marilyn “Jive” Mansfield, whose face has a kiln-fired porcelain hardness enclosed by a Morticia Addamsy ‘do.  Here is Renee Shackleton from Startop, a talented figure skater under suspicion of bribing an ice-dance judge.  Here is Roald Bjelke, the disreputable “Great Dane” from Front Tree, who augments his allowance by swiping and reselling high-priced eiderdown jackets (he’s wearing one now).  Here is the string-and-bones high priestess, Lynndha Ednalino of pharmaceutical infamy.  And here supine on an Arctic-blue bedspread is Parnell Travers himself: scraggly, unkempt, with vacant yawning peepers.

 

“(Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,)” Flake hisses in your left ear.

 

“(And there may be Pop Parties, but there are also Coke Parties,)” Britt croons in your right.

 

From the figurehead on the bedspread comes an oracular gurgle: “If’n ya run outta snuff, ground pepper’ll cure what’s ailin’ ya.”

 

Lynndha Ednalino reiterates this maxim with string-and-bones intensity, copying it into a thick logbook of Parnell’s utterances.  “Harkee—so be it,” she amens.

 

“Speaking of pepper,” says Britt, giving Parnell a one-second gaslight-glance, “here’s a Pep Clubber who’s run low on pep.  Have we got anything good for what ails her?

 

“Depends,” Jive replies in a voice like hammered enamel, inspecting you with the same faultfinding X-ray vision Flake deployed in the Cressida.  “‘I’m a Pepper—he’s a Pepper—she’s a Pepper—we’re a Pepper.’  Have you got what it takes to be a Pepper too?”

 

No pop-commercial singing or dancing to these amended lyrics.  Just half a dozen Traverser faces obscured by candlelight, yet clearly giving you the same unimpressed nitpicky once-over.  Which you stand up under with as much hauteur as you can muster, considering that your skirt’s still soaked with Lawdy-knows-what.

 

“Depends,” you riposte.  “How much?”

 

“A line.  How much depends how fine we chop it.”

 

“No, I mean—how much...?

 

“This isn’t a bring-your-own-blow party,” Jive grates.  “On the house for guests.”

 

Nod and smile (haughtily) and think to yourself They're only a passel of damn Yankees!—but not I suppose it is customary to strip your victims?  (I shall die if you do!)

 

“Okay then,” goes Jive.

 

An antique looking-glass such as Alice might’ve gone through is removed from the wall.  No combination safe behind it, but a small white envelope tucked inside the frame.  Jive lays out its contents on the flattened mirror and wields a razor blade while your heartbeat reverberates faster and faster and you take hold of your wet skirt so as not to reach for Britt’s hand like a scared baby but she leans over like she does at school to let you know “(Your troubles’ll melt like lemondrops, ‘cause you’ll be away above the chimneytops)” which helps you breathe easier and after all this is what actors and actresses do nowanights on Broadway and in Hollywood so it’s like a rite of dramatic passage a necessary step up the ladder to the theatrical roof where you’ll see heaven much better and look at the fine white lines lying above and below the mirror’s surface like contrails from skyrockets launching to lift you off that dreary banal roof till the clouds are far behind you and the stars above are where they’ll find you as you take refuge within this tightly-rolled century-note at your nostril and genuflect to the sugary streak on the flickering glass with a sharp inhalation while the Astral Slacker remotely gurgles Make damn sure yer powder’s dry befo’ ya go to war—

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Return to Chapter 38                          Proceed to Chapter 40

 

 

A Split Infinitive Production
Copyright © 2020 by P. S. Ehrlich

 

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