Chapter 41

 

Nevermore to Roam

 

 

 

Tottering above

  In her highest noon

  The enamoured moon

Blushes with love

  While, to listen, the red levin

  (With the rapid Pleiads, even

  Which were seven)

  Pauses in Heaven…

 

Spacyjane Groh paused on the upstairs deck of her family’s chalet on Cecidia Drive, watching the moon rise over Galloway Road and recalling an oral report she’d made a couple years ago in Miss McInerney’s class.  “Israfel” was a lyric poem, quite unlike Edgar Allan Poe’s usual dark output; and its mention of the Pleiad[e]s anticipated Maia who came down from the sky with a quicksilver step to do her Christmas shopping a century later, amazing even Mary Poppins.

 

(Miss McInerney’s class had laughed when Spacyjane’d mentioned this in her oral report, but Maia would’ve been pleased by such a gleeful reaction.)

 

The Sunday night moonrise stirred memories of “Israfel,” yet its author was already on Spacyjane’s mind after a just-ended episode of Masterpiece Theater, where Charles Dickens met a lunatic Poe and got ensnared in the grisly “Case of M. Valdemar.”  (Becca Blair had done her oral report on that story, about a man put into suspended hypnosis at the very moment of death; but Becca’d mitigated its gruesome conclusion by flashing her golden belly-button at the class.)

 

 

The ecstasies above

   With thy burning measures suit  

Thy grief, thy joy, thy hate, thy love

   With the fervour of thy lute

   Well may the stars be mute!…

 

Though Maia certainly hadn’t been.  “Could we have imagined it?” Jane (one of the Legion of Janes whom Spacyjane collected) asked her mother after the Christmas adventure.  “Perhaps,” Mrs. Banks answered.  “We imagine strange and lovely things, my darling.”

 

(Loathsome ones too, when you factored in M. Valdemar.)

 

 

If I could dwell

Where Israfel

   Hath dwelt, and he where I

He might not sing so wildly well

   A mortal melody…

 

Tonight the moon was waxing gibbous, three nights away from full; too soon for Hallowe’en a week from tomorrow.  Surfaces are deceptive, warned tomorrow’s horoscope for Aquarius: some by nature, others by design.  Evaluate each independently.

 

Spacyjane, stepping back from the deck into her chalet bedroom, evaluated whether she should sing a tune by one of the Aquarian composers who shared her January 27th birthday—Mozart, Lewis Carroll, Jerome Kern, Harry Ruby, Bobby “Blue” Bland, or Ross Bagdasarian who created Alvin and the Chipmunks.  She decided instead on “Dancing in the Moonlight”—King Harvest’s version, not the currently popular song by Thin Lizzy:

 

 

When that old moon gets so big and bright

It’s a supernatural sight

Ev’rybody’s dancin’ in the moonlight…

 

Suit actions to lyrics, here in a pool of moonshine on the bedroom’s braided rug; while her Legion of Dolls, grouped on windowsill and bureautop, looked on like wallflowers till she caught Tip/Ozma by his/her convertible arm and waltzed her/him (garbed as a Princess tonight) around the velveteen-curtained canopy bed.  “I knew you slept in a Stepford Wives-y bed like this!” Joss Murrisch had exclaimed the first time she’d seen it; which was clairvoyant of Joss, though she hadn’t explained what The Stepford Wives had to do with it.

 

 

Ev’rybody here is outta sight

They don't bark and they don't bite

They keep things loose, they keep things light…

 

As did Floramour, sitting on the velveteen counterpane with her golden head resting against satinette pillows, giving every evidence of being a good girl as she had all weekend.  Spacyjane, returning Ozma/Tip to her/his place on the bureautop, took Floramour in hand with a reassuring “I know none of it’s your fault.”

 

 

We like our fun and we never fight

You can't dance and stay uptight…

 

Not when it’s time to play lady’s maid to a Swiss bisque doll.  Help her out of her Sunday ensemble; replace it with a flannel nightgown, to ward off the late-October chill; give her golden coif a hundred brushstrokes.

 

She’d come to Spacyjane from Grohsi, who was neither gross nor a Groh but her Grandmother Emmenthal, whose favorite doll Floramour (originally called “Flurina”) had been during Grohi’s childhood.  That connection had skipped a generation over Spacyjane’s mother Emma, who’d always felt uncomfortable in Floramour’s presence.

 

“It’s like she’s all the time staring at us, even when her eyes are closed!” Emma would say.

 

“Well of course she is!” Grohsi and Spacyjane would reply.

 

Emma, not a doll person, was far more at ease out in the chalet garden, growing everything that could be eked from its suburban soil.  Four years ago when Elton John’d released Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Spacyjane’d been smitten yet puzzled by its oddly-titled opening number, Emma explained that “love-lies-bleeding” was another name for the plant called amaranth or tassel flower or floramour.  She showed Spacyjane its picture in a colorful gardening book which got shared with Spacyjane’s friend and neighbor Kathleen Prindle, who was desperately shy but the nimblest kid with needle and thread in Vanderlund.  And after some coaxing encouragement, Kathleen had produced the love-lies-bleeding-patterned dress that gave rise to Flurina’s being redubbed Floramour.

 

 

The roses in the window box have tilted to one side

Ev’rything about this house was born to Groh and die…

 

Time was getting on.  Tucking Floramour beneath the satinette sheet, Spacyjane dealt with her own hair and teeth and sleepwear and bedtime rituals.  She wound the eight-day cuckoo clock inherited from Opa, her Grandfather Emmenthal, who’d repaired timepieces for a living but preferred to think of himself as a freelance psychotherapist.  Opa’s spirit not only lingered in the cuckoo (which had his unmistakable voice) but visited Spacyjane in her dreams, interpreting these for her while they were underway.

 

 

My guitar couldn’t hold you, so I split the band

Lovvvve lies bleeding in my hands…

 

(Sing it now; dream it later.)

 

Last of all came the kissing of her Swee’Pea’s framed photo, taken by himself.  “You are always with me,” she reminded him, “and I know none of it’s your fault either.”

 

Switching off the bedside lamp, Spacyjane laid her brunette head beside Floramour’s golden coif and was swiftly transported back in time and space (not so very long ago or far away) to Whierry Elementary School.

 

Its surrounding neighborhood had been (and was still) dominated by Candy Gates, a year-older taskmistress, who stage-managed all make-believe done by children Janie Groh’s age, plus year-younger ones like Karen Lee Bobko and Caroline Appercy (tagged from birth as the Bobbsey Twins, despite their mutual detestation) and Annamaria Farghetti (not yet Kinks by name, though perceptibly by nature).  Candy Gates called them her stock company, roping in some of her own swayable peers like Kerry Hinterwald (already a pushover for a pretty face, long before any breasts got sprouted) and Tim McDermid (who years later would meekly submit to playing Schroeder to her Lucy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown).

 

It was Candy Gates who first called Janie “spacy,” for her habit of straying from clearly-enunciated stage direction (every syllable distinctly audible) and tendency to not hit her marks when and where they’d been assigned.  Janie might have a vivid imagination and lots of free-spirited ideas, but even Aquarians were expected to toe the lines laid out and cued for them by Candy Gates.

 

Attention please, Miss Spacy!  We’re trying to perform here!

 

Janie hadn’t minded this, and still didn’t; rebukes and reproofs never bothered her.  Besides, Candy Gates was a star-in-the-making and well-versed in spaciness:

 

 

They’re blasting off now

Josie’s on a rocket ride

Pussycats all by her side

Bleep-Bleep is the kooky guide

Come along and dig the chase

With the Pussycats in Outer Spay-hace!

 

Away from the playground and the animated Milky Way, Miss Spacy threw some epic tea-party musicales for her ever-growing Legion of Dolls, assisted by two kindred-spirited cronettes.  Kathleen Prindle, though bashfully speechless around other people and scared stiff of Candy Gates, was thoroughly at home in Toyland and able to outfit its occupants for any occasion.  LeAnn Anobile, though mystified by the real world and apt to get lost walking around the block, could identify with every kind of plaything and whatever role each needed to portray.  These cronettes followed Janie’s visionary lead, taking shelter in her unfazed shadow when confronted by obnoxious reality—most often in the earthbound form of their grade’s indisputable (and proud of it) Mean Girl, ornery Dawn Amory:

 

“Well well well, lookit who’s crawled outta their playpen to see us!  It’s Spacyjane, Scaredy-Kat, and Inside-Outie—the Three Ree-tards!”

 

(LeAnn’s epithet had been coined the day she came to school wearing an inside-out blouse, baffled by why it was so hard to button.)

 

Dawn, a creature of limited wit, kept twanging the same old saws meant to cut their targets to the quick, but which could be customized as musical instruments.  “Spacyjane,” for instance, had a neat ring to it and so got adopted by Janie Groh as her chosen moniker, much to Dawn Amory’s annoyance.  Getting picked on was supposed to result in hurt feelings; that was the Law of the Jungle Gym (according to Dawn) and Spacyjane was a sneakycheat for ignoring it.  Unlike those other two Ree-tards: Scaredy-Kat could be reduced to stricken sniffles with a single Mean Girl leer, and Inside-Outie had no comeback to any wisecrack comparing her to the aromatic pork sausage her father imported from Italy.

 

(“Where else is he s’posed to get it?” LeAnn would whimper to Spacyjane.)

 

Bullying was even less subtle when done by boys, particularly the class lout Louie Como to the class goat Ryan Purvis.  Spacyjane and her cronettes admired Ryan for being gloomily sadfaced and poetic, like Edgar Allan or Joe in the Danny Dunn books; but Louie Como branded him as “Perv” and other variations on the unmasculine theme.  This despite Ryan’s having a flagrant crush on Dawn Amory and writing thinly-veiled verse about her, which Louie claimed was proof of his pansyhood. 

 

“Ewwww!  Sicccck!” went Dawn when Louie critiqued one of Ryan’s swiped poems (If you and me could only touch, / our closeness then would be so much) as a deviant petition to borrow her underpants and training bra.

 

“But… but… but…” Ryan dissented.

 

That’s for being a Perv ‘n’ grossing her out!” Louie informed him, with a punitive wallop.

 

On the contrary hand, neither Louie nor Dawn found Matt LaVintner objectionable when he transferred to Whierry, looking like a preadolescent cross between David Cassidy and Carlton Fisk: as proficient at athletics as he was at dramatics.  Dawn did take offense at Matt’s spending more time with Spacyjane than any other girl in their class, though this wasn’t just due to her star sapphire eyes and delicate elfin face.

 

“I bet you drink wine all the time at your house, right?” he asked after hearing that the Grohs owned and operated a fondue café.

 

“I don’t,” Spacyjane told him.

 

“But you do got lots of it at your house, right?”

 

Farsighted spacygaze into Matt’s restless countenance.  “Would you like to come over sometime?”

 

He would and did one day while her parents were at the café and Grohsi was off playing Schieber Jass.  At the chalet Matt sampled mouthfuls of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and Spacyjane herself when they exchanged First Kisses that were well advanced for fifth-graders, thanks to the effect of fermented grapes on Matt’s ten-year-old bloodstream.

 

The LaVintner family, despite its name, was in the tomato processing business and had been for several generations, turning pommes de terre into paste and sauce and juice.  But when sales were impacted by the rising popularity of City-style hot dogs (absolutely no ketchup!) paterfamilias Morris Lavender concocted “Maurice LaVintner’s World-Famous International Relish,” which proved to be extremely popular during Prohibition.  (Though local purists still refused to spread it on hot dogs.)

 

Matt found his great-grandfather’s signature condiment inadequate as an intoxicant.  He was equally disappointed by his father’s locking the liquor cabinet at their Aguadulce condo on Panama Boulevard, and by Jane’s being Spacy by nature instead of from available libations.  She in turn loved Matt far more like a baby brother than a potential boyfriend, and entrusted him to LeAnn whose parents didn’t seem to notice how their full Chianti bottles kept transforming into empty candleholders.  (Dawn Amory tried to tempt Matt with Holland House Margarita Mix, which fell short of her hyping it as “hard stuff.”)

 

The Anobiles did notice that LeAnn was blossoming very early, which attracted attention from plenty of boys and also a polite man who’d been chased away from McGrum Elementary by Big Sue Baxter and was now trying his luck outside Whierry.  He beckoned LeAnn over to his parked car and asked for directions to somewhere or other, but all she could tell him was “I hafta go, whyncha ask her?” with a flustered nod at passerby Dawn.  And when LeAnn returned from the school washroom, the polite man’s car had vanished and so had Dawn Amory.

 

Not till after a search (ultimately futile) had been mounted for the missing girl did any connection between these events penetrate LeAnn’s inside-outie mind; and then she was afraid to come forward and tell anyone except Spacyjane.

 

“What’ll I do, Janie?  Will I get in trouble?  Will everybody blame me?”

 

Farsighted spacygaze into her cronette’s apprehensive visage.  “Oh well… if I were you, I’d try to forget all about it.”

 

Which LeAnn soon did; so that in later years when she and Laurie Harrison became friendly at VW, they never happened to swap accounts of their mutual close call.  Louie Como forgot Dawn too, when his father got laid off during the recession and they moved to a distant hardscrabble suburb.  But Ryan Purvis remembered, with a long-lasting Lost Lenore phase in his poetry; and Spacyjane added an unnamed phantom to her dolly operas, though not so spectral as to frighten Kathleen.  (Whenever the cronettes had sleepovers at LeAnn’s house, Spacyjane would light a Chianti-bottle candle for Dawn Amory’s release from the mundane.)

 

No one picked up the fallen Mean Girl torch during the rest of their time at Whierry; nor did Candy Gates have a rival for the Queen Bee title till the summer before seventh grade, when Becca Blair migrated to the Aguadulce and enthralled Matt LaVintner at first sight.  Spacyjane was pleased to see her baby boy walking on air and circling cloud nine; then just as pleased to pick up his pieces and reassemble them after Becca cut Matt loose from their love paraglider.  And she was no less pleased to keep a maternal eye on her humpty-dumpling at VW, though at a lengthening distance as Matt went from drowning his sorrows to snuffing them out with Skully Erle and the Z Team’s stoners.

 

Meanwhile Becca Blair flourished most intriguingly.  She’d gone to Snead for grade school, so Spacyjane had no firsthand awareness of what Becca was like before junior high; though anyone could tell she’d outearlyblossomed even LeAnn.  (Who lived in awe of Becca and her best friend from Snead, Alex Dmitria; as did Kathleen, who wondered if Snead could be some sort of prep academy for supergirls—just look at and LISTEN TO!!! that year-older bronco-buster, Yvette “Mumbles” Metcalf!)

 

Even among other stellar luminaries Becca Blair stood increasingly out, and not just bustwise (though formidably so in that respect).  Some people tittle-tattled that she’d undergone bionic surgery like The Six Million Dollar Man and was now a she-cyborg, more computerized than human.  Spacyjane found this scenario entertaining and enjoyed plugging Matt into it, with him unaware of his test-subject status even as Becca got programmed (or more likely programmed herself) to become a synthetic Wonder Woman.

 

Naturally Floramour was cast as Bionic Becca in the resulting dolly opera, Westburb Heartbreak.  Same golden hair; same golden aura; and Spacyjane had to admit there was considerable fabrication in Floramour’s constitution.  Which was something to be on guard against, characterwise; but not a flaw when it came to physique, as acknowledged in the stirring bionic aria “Backbone of Steel”:

 

 

Nothing strange is happening

  You can check and doublecheck

Me as I go on challenging

  The practice to be perfect

 

“Do you think that’s why Joss Murrisch mentioned The Stepford Wives when she first saw your velveteen curtains and canopy bed?”

 

So asked Opa, interpretatively: a sure sign that dreamtime was coming to an end, and soon confirmed by six Opa-voiced “cuckoos” heralding Monday’s rise-and-shine.

 

Spacyjane dressed herself in shades of orange and yellow, like the brilliant autumn leaves embellishing Galloway Road.  Unlike Kathleen, who waited on the Prindle porch in one of her plain anonymous outfits; she could never be cajoled into making herself any clothing as vibrant as her doll costumes.  Nor would Kathleen loiter while they crossed Bittercress Drive, to peer down the block at the picturesque McGillah funeral parlor.  (She had a longstanding dread that one of its hearses would park in her driveway by mistake.)

 

The parlor was framed by a row of tall evergreen trees, changeless even at the height of autumn.  If Barbra Streisand were here, this glimpse might inspire her to croon Love fresh in the morning air along with Spacyjane:

 

 

Ev’ry day is beginning

Spirits rise and their dance

Is unrehearsed…

 

Kathleen would only lip-sync (she was prone to dizzy spells when obliged to sing aloud in public) and only till they reached the bus stop on Chubb Avenue, where Whierry alumni congregated for their weekdaily pilgrimage to VTHS.

 

Not Candy Gates, of course; she got an escort from whichever of her courtiers had the fanciest wheels.  Next year the same would probably be true for LeAnn, who resembled a topheavy Valerie Bertinelli but was forbidden to accept a ride from any licensed guy before her sixteenth birthday.  Still a true-blue (if half-baked) cronette, she smiled and waved at her friends from between the pedestrian boys flanking her at the bus stop.  These did not include Matt LaVintner or Ryan Purvis, whom Spacyjane and Kathleen paired up with as usual.

 

It couldn’t be said that Ryan and Kathleen were “going together,” since Ryan’s heart had been remaindered long ago to the ghost of Dawn Amory; but he and Kathleen usually shared the same seat on the bus and table in the cafeteria, where she did her best to mend his many shreds and tatters.  Ditto for Matt and Spacyjane, though he was far more dependent on her for guidance and support—literally so on a Monday morning like now, after a fully-baked weekend like always.

 

“Root beer,” he croaked, and Spacyjane reached into her embroidered haversack for the bag of resuscitative Jelly Bellys as a big green bus trundled up Chubb to take on the Whierryites.  It headed north and turned east, adding Carly Thibert and her pedestrian devotees; then Nonique Smith and Alex Dmitria and Vicki Volester, all of whom were wearing multihued headgear.

 

Kathleen, noticing this, twisted around to give Spacyjane a panicky glance.  “(I forgot it’s Socks-and-Hats Day!)” she whisper-quavered.

 

So had Spacyjane, though no one would suspect it since she had on her Annie Hall bowler (resumed with the coming of autumn) and a pair of apricot stockings (as part of her celebrate-the-foliage ensemble) which inadvertently prepared her for the first day of Spirit Week at VTHS.

 

“Got your tam?” she asked Kathleen, who sighed with grateful relief and fished a drab wool tam-o’-shanter out of her dull vinyl purse.  As for LeAnn, she could be loaned a big fuzzy mitten from the bottom of Spacyjane’s haversack, and pin it over her Bertinellish hair with rearranged barrettes.

 

No need to provide chapeaux-to-go for Matt or Ryan, neither of whom was into Spirit—at least not the footbally kind.  Nor, apparently, were many other guys at VTHS that morning, not even the sporty types; most of today’s Socks-and-Hats were on female legs-and-heads.  Prominent among them were the long shapely gams and beautiful blonde noggin of Angelique Anstruther, who wasn’t just a senior and varsity cheerleader but also a dead ringer for her namesake witch on Dark Shadows.  Spacyjane and her cronettes had watched this gothic soap in childhood (Kathleen through fingergaps in the hands covering her eyes) and Angelique-the-witch had been their favorite character.  So it was extra neat to be singled out for Spirit-adherent praise by Angelique-the-cheerleader (in legwarmers and a sunbonnet) even though Spacyjane habitally wore eyecatching hats and hosiery to school, regardless of the week.

 

Angelique was in her First Hour class, Introduction to Photography, an elective open to all three grades at VTHS.  Though often the target of camera lenses, Angelique refused to rest on such laurels; she was the senior version of Becca Blair, a whiz at math and science, bound for an Ivy League pre-med program.  More literary-minded and militantly-disposed than Becca, Angelique campaigned tirelessly for feminist causes and the Equal Rights Amendment; she seldom let a chance slip to put down boys or men, and today upbraided all of them in First Hour Photography who hadn’t bothered to put on a Spirited hat or socks.

 

“Now Eek, you wouldn’t be wantin’ me to hide this fine crownin’ glory from the eyes o’ the world, would you now?” crackerbarreled the touslehaired Pete “Chewy” Hewitt.

 

“Don’t call me ‘Eek,’” snapped Angelique.

 

(Spacyjane had observed how many cheerleaders were inclined to be snappish—not Becca Blair, but Gigi Pyle and Nanette Magnus and Margo Temple and Cheryl Trevelyan and Penny Stone.  Perhaps an overdose of pep caused them to grind their peppercorns?)

 

“Let’s hit the road, people!” called Mr. Szot, shepherding the class on a minifieldtrip to try out their light meters around Hordt Field.

 

Spacyjane walked with Tess Disseldorf, who had on a demure stocking cap (“counts as Sock-and-Hat”) and was insolently ignoring Howard Ullmann as he lumbered alongside them, making ponderous remarks about F-stops.

 

“I can think of a few people I’d like to effing stop,” Tess gibed at Spacyjane.

 

Her main purpose in being here was to aggravate ex-boyfriend Eddie Wainwright, who thought Polaroid snapshots were the last word in picturetaking—point, click, self-develop.  Anything more complex would be a waste of his come ahn! come ahn! time.

 

“Eddie wouldn’t know a come-on if it bit him in the tuchus,” Tess confided.

 

“Yeah—it’s like that with most guys.  They fade in and out of consciousness,” said Nancy Buschmeyer, who’d hit a dry patch with Chewy Hewitt since the LitSoc Pop Party, and looked sourly cottonmouthed as Chewy continued trying to chat up the unresponsive Angelique.

 

“Focus, people!” requested Mr. Szot when they got outdoors; meaning minds instead of lenses, since today’s topic was the light meter.  He began talking about shutter speeds and exposure times, but Spacyjane’s focus was suddenly concentrated on the blazing splendor of a rustyheaded superspectacled smoke-and-mirrorsy FLASSSHHHH flassshhhh flassshhhh—

 

—as her Swee’Pea ambled onto the field of vision.

 

Needless to say, Sidney Erbsen didn’t belong in any introductory photography class.  Sophomores might not be eligible for the advanced course, but he could’ve asked that an exception be made.  Instead he opted for the easy A—“I know my place, and how to keep it with a bookmark, and ways to make the most out of placekeeping.”

 

Mr. Szot treated him as a de facto teaching assistant and also department publicist, Photography being on the school district’s budgetary chopping block.  Swee’Pea’d launched a big snap-it-yourself contest, similar to North Squire’s that he’d won last summer (using That Girl from Willowhelm) and given it ample promotion in each issue of the Channel; though Nancy Buschmeyer, who would volunteer for any activity no matter how onerous, got stuck with doing most of the organizational work.

 

“I only wish one of the contest prizes was a coupon for a good hair salon—and that the winner’d take pity and share it with me,” groaned Nancy, her latest bizarre perm packed halfway into a turban for Socks-and-Hats Day.

 

Swee’Pea had capped his own rustiness with a scalloped beanie like the one worn by Goober and Jughead.  On him, though, it was a regal coronet: giving him a profile that could be minted for a commemorative coin, even if it was currently pointed at Tess Disseldorf.  (No matter: Tess might be the school’s most subtle seductress, but she’d disdained Swee’Pea since kindergarten and pooh-poohed him as “the Beast of East Bay.”)

 

(Which, if true, might account for his frequent-flyer matchups with Beauty.)

 

(Which sometimes falsely masqueraded for the real thing.)

 

(Which, of course, was none of his fault.)

 

To Spacyjane he was not a Beast but a Ralph, in both the William Golding and Judy Blume Forever… senses; and had been since the FLASH of his Minolta caused both her heart and puppet-bodice to burst open during Carnival’s dress/undress rehearsal last April.

 

La-dee-da!  La-dee-da!

 

He’d taken her to go see Annie Hall, several times; he’d suggested she adopt Annie’s hat and vest and necktie as a charming theme look; he’d proposed that she assist him with his pictorial engagements.  All of which she’d done and more—readily, willingly, repeatedly—savoring a Springtime in Emotional Paris as her Swee’Pea’s ever-present accessory.  “Excellent at setting up tripods (in a manner of speaking),” as he neatly put it.  And put it.  And put it

 

La-dee-da!  La-dee-da!

 

Till she and Floramour left for Summer Youth Music Camp, spending a month away downstate… and coming home to find a surprise: That Girl from Willowhelm, projecting off the North Squire page and over her bikini top in Swee’Pea’s no-fault contest photo, to the unsung tune of $25 prize money.

 

That’s kind of a revealing picture, don’t you think?

 

He only takes beauty shots.  That are neat.

 

(And sometimes falsely masquerading.)

 

Relationships, as has been said, are totally irrational and crazy and absurd.  But, as has been added, most of us need the eggs.

 

And such things never bothered Spacyjane Groh.

 

“It must be so nice, having a boyfriend who can do things like that,” Alex Dmitria’d wistfully sighed at Zephyr Heaven.  “I bet he missed you lots while you were away.”

 

To which there could be only one reply: “My Swee’Pea is always with me.”

 

 

Though it’s a chill October morn

Out on this grassy gridiron

I’ll cast off all my bright raiment

(While retaining our bowler hat)

And set up your tripod anew

Wholly au naturel for you…

 

Causing a bolder note to swell from Israfel’s lyre within the sky; although the rusty head for which it was intended went unturned.

 

*

 

The cronettes, remembering ahead of time that Tuesday would be Fifties Day, agreed that wearing long skirts and little neck scarves was sufficiently Spirited.  Kathleen did sew a big Lavernelike “L” on the front of LeAnn’s tunic top; and Spacyjane replaced her bowler with a beatnik beret.

 

"C'est très approprié à porter ici,” Monsieur Dunlap commented as she took her seat in Second Hour Advanced French.

 

“(Approprié mes fesses,)” muttered the decidedly unFiftiesish Fiona Weller.  She held Monsieur Dunlap in low esteem for acting too much like her uncle Buck Dunlop, a glib on‑air personality “(Quelle smarm)” who hosted Bowling for Dollars in Pittsburgh.

 

Fiona wasn’t fond of Spacyjane either; but then she seemed to withhold affection from pretty much everybody, and relationships—irrational/crazy/absurd—could always change for the better.  Joss, for instance, who bustled into the classroom wearing an anti-Fifties sweatshirt that read the future is NOW, hadn’t warmed up to Spacyjane till they shared a dorm room at Youth Music Camp.  Then they became good friends, though Joss still had reservations about their other roomie Floramour.

 

Ahem ahem ahem: Joss and Fiona were clearing their voices as Zalman Tergeist dragged past, dressed all in black and toting Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Street Survivors album, released just three days before last week’s fatal plane crash.  Zal was a dramaturge and player of heavy roles; he could shave closely at 7 a.m. and have five o’clock shadow two hours later.  (Jenna Wiblitz said it saved the stage crew from wasting greasepaint.)

 

Behind him hobbled Pebbles Preston, who’d gotten injured last Saturday during NESTL(É)’s season-ending volleyball tournament.  The JV Lady Gondoliers had been second seed but lost the championship to Athens Grove, who won their third straight title with inescapable iciness.  That same frosty-mugged Olympian who’d slammed Vicki to the floor six weeks ago administered the terminal spike, pulverizing Pebbles and breaking Doreen Jobling’s other ankle.  (Just one week before the Homecoming Dance, too; Dory was re-wretchified.)

 

Pebbles, looking even more wan and pallid than her wasting-fever norm, had her thatch of tangerine hair bound into a Flintstone topknot around a plastic bone: not precisely Fiftiesish, but a commendable effort.  She was helped into the room and to her desk by an entirely Fifties figure—saddle shoes, bobby socks, poodle skirt over petticoats, backward cardigan, and hair worn in a chignon.  Not just any hair either, but a wealth of goldilocks; and not belonging to Becca or Nanette or Cheryl or Angelique or any other blonde in Vanderlund, but to

 

The Embodiment

 

“(Aaagh!)” Joss had gone on the second day of Advanced French.  “(It’s Floramour, come to life!)”

 

“(Wouldn’t that be neat?)” Spacyjane had replied.

 

And so it had been, for awhile.

 

But embodiments owed it to their temporarily incarnated spirits to be proper hosts and conduct themselves appropriately.  Otherwise it would be fleshy possession, and never-do-a-thing-like-that misbehavior might come to pass.

 

(And so it had.)

 

“Événements actuels, s’il vous plait,” said M. Dunlap, and the class divided into their preassigned pairs to discuss preselected news items en français.  Spacyjane was teamed with Rula Hradek, another senior cheerleader and author-in-progress of a Lois Duncanesque chiller-thriller.  This morning she appeared to be test-flying a Homecoming gown, practically strapless but with a snap-on crinoline stole: very Fifties Dayish.

 

They exchanged remarks about Hamida Djandoubi, a one-legged Tunisian who’d recently been guillotined in Marseilles for torturing and murdering a kidnap victim; not unlike the local Mad Bludgeoner (“Matraque Fou”) who still hadn’t been apprehended.  Meanwhile peeks at Rula’s varsity cleavage were being sneaked by M. Dunlap and most of the guys in class—

 

—but not Zal Tergeist, paired with an Embodiment who was doing her way-beyond-level best to distract him from Lynyrd Skynyrd lamentation.  Leaning forward to make her point(s) through a stretched-tight coral cardigan, putting additional strain on the coral buttons lining her spine—

 

—which was something Floramour would never do, even if she had a juttable bosom.

 

Canceling out the good deeds done by assisting her teammate Pebbles, who should’ve been her partenaire de discussion but now had to cope with the you-think-you’re-in-pain? one-upmanship of Marcie Loftus (aka “Cramps Aplenty”).

 

“Quand vas-tu m’inviter au bal de retou?” coquetted The Embodiment with Zal.

 

“(Je sais que rien de tout ça n'est de TA faute,)” Spacyjane reassured the spirit within.

 

Fleshy possession.  Floramour had been prepared for this early that morning, in a Fifties Day outfit that accurately anticipated everything in The Embodiment’s except the backward cardigan and its coral color.  When Spacyjane departed for school, Floramour wore a nice navy sweater buttoned up the front over a nice white blouse.  Meaning changes had taken place between then and now—alterations made to enhance juttability, flirtability, and impropriety.

 

Spacyjane was not a prude.  She hadn’t been upset when her own bodice popped open at that undress rehearsal, at least not until being compelled to wear a pinchy-squinchy bra.

 

But the integrity of a Swiss bisque doll was at stake here.

 

Not to mention the ongoing beguilement of a Swee’Pea Paparazzo: remember that flaunted thigh at the Pop Party.

 

And the flaunted throat of Marie Antoinette on the nonbudgetary chopping block.

 

Que pensez-vous de l’utilisation de la guillotine?” asked Rula Hradek, adjusting her crinoline stole.

 

What did Spacyjane think about using the guillotine?  A rather drastic comeuppance (or dropdownance) as it’d been for Marie, and Anne Boleyn before her; yet no guarantee of dispelling bewitchery worthy of a Dark Shadows Angelique.

 

Which The Embodiment displayed to an even greater extent that afternoon in Seventh Hour World History.  While Mr. Gosling lectured repetitively (“What I’m saying is this… what I’m saying is that… what I’m saying is t’other”) about the decline of the Byzantine Empire, a whole different dropdownance was going on at the desk in front of Spacyjane’s.  Continuous twisting hither and thither to stir up adjacent guys (Rags Ragnarsson on the left, Bradley Faussett on the right) and keep them riveted on the coral cardigan’s undulations and fluctuations (Rags hee-ing, Brad haw-ing) as Constantinople fell and the Ottoman Turks conquered Asia Minor.

 

“Need I remind you all that midterms are next week?” Mr. Gosling testily interjected, rapping the wall map with his pointer.  “What I’m saying is, pay attention here!”

 

Guilty gulp not by The Embodiment, but Kathleen at the desk behind Rags, whom she timidly worshiped from afar even when nearby.  Offended sniff by Willamene Fowler at the desk behind Brad, she being very religious and disapproving of his antics as well as The Embodiment’s.  Resigned sigh by Spacyjane as one, two, three hardpressed buttons got twisted out of their reversed holes: exposing the backstrap of an imposing foundation garment that Grohsi might’ve worn in the actual Fifties.  (Black lace, too: no wonder Zal Tergeist had been drawn in.)

 

No visible reaction by The Exposee to this airy baring as the next textbook chapter was assigned, and the bell rang to end the regular schoolday, and people started surging noisily to their feet.  Then Spacyjane (with another sigh) reached over to tap a peachy-creamy shoulder blade—

 

—which spun around and then again in the opposite direction, as if to be shown off to as many spectators as possible.  “Oops—I’m losing my sweater!” while peachy-creamy butterfingers fumbled behindhandedly with undone buttons.

 

“Need some help?” hee’d Rags; “Here, let me!” haw’d Brad; speechless gulp by Kathleen and irate sniff by Willamene.

 

“Hold on,” said Spacyjane, tending to the refastening with her deepest sigh yet.

 

“Oh—thanks,” from The Embodiment in an ungracious voice that turned melting-marshmallowy as aquamarine eyes caught Spacyjane’s star sapphires over a recovered shoulder.  “Heyyyeeee—we’ve got that Gong thing to go to now, don’t we?  C’mon—”

 

And before Spacyjane knew it they were clattering down four stories together, leaving the heehawgulpsniffers in their wake.  Squeezing through the day-end staircase crowd with an oozy-cooed series of Hiiiieeee’s amid Embodied chitter-chatter about the countless invites she’d gotten to the Homecoming Dance and her ambivalence about ending that brief fling with Jeff Friardale who’d been terrorstricken into escorting Queen candidate Penny Stone but how this school was proving to be tons more fun than anyone could’ve guessed though it’d still be a dream come true to go to school in Switzerland and heyyyeeee! Spacyjane’s family was Swiss weren’t they? had they ever vacationed in the Alps? or gone yodeling on mountaintops? and was that cute little redhead camera guy who acted like Woody Allen taking her to the Homecoming Dance?

 

“He’s taking pictures,” Spacyjane got in edgewise.

 

Not adding that she danced solo by the light of the moon (the moon, the moon) or that she knew none of this was the spirit within’s fault—

 

—even when the shameless host body flat-out pressed her poodle skirt against Dennis Desmond’s leg when he gave the poodle a stroke in passing.

 

“Howzabout taking this for a stroll by the Old ‘Un’s studio, with or without your snowbird sister or any of these conjunctionated petticoats?” he said.

 

“Mayyyybeee I will.  When’re you gonna ask me to the Homecoming Dance?”

 

“Will you won’t you will you won’t you come home Nellie, all is forgiven?”

 

“The name’s Isabel,” pouted an Embodied lower lip and an outthrust Embodied hip.

 

Spacyjane, tearing herself away from this unlicensed dalliance, whisked through the double doors of the VTHS auditorium and found each of its four corners occupied by a small knot of new LitSoc recruits.  They’d been assembling at intervals since the Pop Party, mostly to work on an intersociety float for the Homecoming Parade.  Its design—an open book under a reading lamp upon a lectern atop Don’t-Call-Me-Debbie Karberski’s grandfather’s Dodge Polara—had been hammered out by the seniors, exhausting them.  The juniors had begged off from any participation, saying they were too busy cramming for PSAT exams; so all constructive labor landed on the sophomores.  Austen-Alcott’s sophs had been tasked with producing hundreds of tissue-paper flowers, and Kathleen was delighted to help make these even though she couldn’t muster up the nerve to seek membership herself.

 

Nor would she have enjoyed being cornered here in the auditorium, rehearsing group recitations for tomorrow (Gong Show Day) which would also serve as their LitSoc initiation rite in this post-“Goblin Market” anti-hazing age.  AA had picked the extract from Little Women where Jo was writing in the garret with her pet rat Scrabble, who nibbled her manuscripts when they weren’t shut away in an old tin “kitchen” (reflector oven).  Joss got all wrought up reciting There, I've done my best!  If this won't suit I shall have to wait till I can do better: saying she could hear the words being spoken by her spirited-away mother who’d known Little Women by heart.

 

Right now, though, Joss was scrunched up between Vicki and (galloping over from Dickinson’s corner) Alex Dmitria, both of them evidently agitated about something.

 

“Boy trouble,” diagnosed The Embodiment, sauntering down the aisle.

 

“I’ll say,” murmured Nonique Smith, stepping away from the scrunch-up; though she gave no hints about its details, other than looking bemused.

 

“Okay, you guys, let’s settle down and get to work!” called Alva Dee Bickling, in charge of AA’s recitation rehearsal now that the PSATs were done with and no longer junior-excuseworthy.

 

“Alex!  Over here, please!” called Mary Kate Hazeldene from the Dickinson corner; and Alex obediently complied, though wringing fluttery hands.

 

Joss gently but firmly pushed Vicki into an auditorium seat, giving her a nod followed by a headshake followed by a shrug.  Variously interpretable, thought Spacyjane; what would Opa make of it?  Find out when the next dreamtime rolled around.  Till then, be content with a farsighted spacygaze into Vicki’s disoriented demeanor, from which might spring a neat new dolly opera.

 

“Okay, you guys, let’s take it from the top!” directed Alva Dee; and the sophomore members of Austen-Alcott Literary Society (minus Jerome Schei, unlucky enough on this gossip-likely day to be sick at home with an ear infection) responded with a ragged chorus of Jo was very busy in the garret, for the October days began to grow chilly, and the afternoons were short…

 

*

 

Ninety minutes earlier in Mrs. Mallouf’s class (quieter than customary, what with Jerome’s absence) Vicki was frowning at Joss and Fiona for flouting the Fifties Day theme, while fretting that she herself looked too much like Shirley Feeney in Happy Days duds when she ought to be figuring out how The Great Gatsby fit into the American Dream, instead of frivoling with fantasies of Robert Redford as the title character though she hadn’t seen his film version (which Stephanie Lipperman’d said was “fatuous”) even when it was shown on TV, because Ozzie and Goofus were forceful about watching Kojak that night.

 

P-E-E-E-E-A-L went the bell and away Mrs. Mallouf’s students trooped.  Vicki & Co. were waiting for Nonique to come down the hall from Mr. Prout’s room, when up out of the linoleum rose a taller thinner less-pugilistic Carmine Ragusa who stepped forward and said “Angel Face…?”

 

Gazing at Vicki, who couldn’t be mistaken for Angelique Anstruther.

 

It was a dark sleek compact apparition with diffident puddyboy eyes that made Fiona (of all people) suck in her breath and take to her heels, while Vicki remained rooted to the spot.  “Tony?” she ventured.  “Tony Pierro?”

 

“Yeah, it’s me.  Can I talk to you?”

 

“I, um, gotta, y’know, get to Gym.”

 

“Only take a second.”

 

“Course she can,” prompted Joss, giving Vicki a little shove while reaching out the other hand to take hold of Nonique, who stood by waiting quizzically till Joss tugged her downstairs.

 

“(C’mon.  Those two have a lot of catching up to do…)”

 

“(She call him Tony?  Thought she told me his name was Dave…)”

 

“(That’s the other one she needs to catch up with…)”

 

Joss’s voice faded away and the between-classes crowd dwindled to Split-Pea Erbsen, who paused long enough to remark “Door to the roof is open.”

 

“Hunh?” went Vicki.

 

“At the end of the hall,” he added, trotting down the empty staircase.

 

“They wouldn’t leave that unlocked!” she called after him.

 

“Just saying,” his Woody Allen monotone drifted back.

 

“C’mon,” said Taller Thinner Carmine, taking her hand (ohhh) and pulling her along the corridor to a door marked no admittance whose knob in fact turned freely and allowed them to duck past it just as the late bell clanged: a noise echoed by their feet hurrying up a metallic flight to another off-limits-yet-unlocked door, and also by Vicki’s heart at the thought of how many rules and regulations were being broken here—

 

—as they went up the ladder to the roof.  Where we can see heaven much better.

 

Vicki half-expected to find a Gatsbyesque orgy in progress, but the school roof was deserted except for a few pigeons on the gravelly aggregate.  Even so: wasn’t it insanely risky and ridiculously dangerous for the roof of a four-story building to be accessible by more than two thousand neurotic teenagers and underpaid faculty?  No need to drive all the way to DeRussey’s Point if you wanted a DeLuster’s Leap to make out on, or maybe plunge off of—

 

—grope hastily behind you to ensure the door can still be opened and you aren’t trapped up here (ditching a class! even if it’s only Gym!) with a guy you hardly know, meandering around this stark plateau dotted by short vertical pipes and big grooved towers recalling the Tower—that crenellated cupola atop Reulbach Elementary in Pfiester Park, where juvenile detainees were said to be imprisoned.

 

“Where’ve you been?” Vicki asked.  “I thought you were… I mean, I haven’t seen you since… that is, for like the last six months or so.”

 

“Oh, I’ve been around,” he said.  Stooping to pick up what looked like a very old apple (had Nonique’s kid brother hurled his lunch fruit onto this roof as well as Dopkins’s?) before letting it drop and wiping fingers on Fiftiesish dungarees.  “So anyway—”

 

Rumble from above, and Vicki looked up to find a sky weightily overcast by bulging brooding clouds.  “We better go back in!” she exclaimed, but Tony moved toward the parapet at the edge of the roof.  “Here first,” he called, waving a Fiftiesish leather-jacketed arm at her.

 

OhmyGahd what if he really is planning to jump the hell off??  “Don’t!” she squeaked, scurrying after him, then recoiling as he turned to face her—OhmyGahd suppose he’s the Mad Bludgeoner??  That could be why he’s been so incognito the past six months—

 

—but Tony only blinked big brown unassuming peepers at her, just as he had at the Columbine Deli last April, and gestured over the parapet at the world below.  Vicki (keeping well out of reach) took a giddy glamce down at—OhmyGahd there’s my Gym class heading out to play soccer—with a pang at missing this chance to run around and kick up her heels, though relieved not to do so below a bank of thunderclouds.

 

“So anyway—remember I asked if you wouldn’t mind giving me a raincheck?”

 

“Hunh?” went Vicki, glancing at him and then back up at the sky.

 

“When I asked you to go with me to NESTL(É)’s indoor track meet, but had to bail ‘cause I had to work?  I know it was a long time ago—maybe you’ve forgot.”

 

“No I haven’t,” Vicki bristled, instantly reliving the exasperation of being as-good-as-(no-make-that-bad-as)-stood-up—and because Tony Baloney Breachofpromise here had been enticed and deluded by Kinks Farghetti!

 

But she also hadn’t forgotten coughing “Yeah sure okay” when he’d humbly asked for that dating raincheck, right after Joss composed that future fantasy invitation—

 

 

Mr. and Mrs. Oswald Volester request the honor of your presence at the
marriage of their daughter, Her Highness/Majesty Victoria Lorraine
(attended by beautiful Maid of Honor Jocelyn Murrisch) to Anthony
Whatshismiddlename LetssayPetulascousin Pierro…

 

Nor had she forgotten watching Witness for the Prosecution with Joss and Alex and Fiona, who’d all agreed that Tyrone Power’s character’s being named Leonard Vole must be a sign—obscure, yet unambiguous—that Vicki and Tony were destined to wind up together.

 

Nor had it slipped her memory that the last guy she’d dated once wore a T-shirt silkscreened with a film noir poster for Tyrone Power in NIGHTMARE ALLEY (though Dennis had called that movie “career guidance how to become a professional geek without half trying”).

 

(Takes one to know one, Unlucky Charms!)

 

“So… will you?” Tony was asking—not down on one knee, so not for her hand in wedlock.  “Go with me to the Homecoming Dance?” he clarified.

 

“Oh!  Um… gee… can I think about it?”

 

“Guess a lot of guys’ve asked you already.”

 

“What?  Oh—well—yes—some,” Vicki blushed.  “Haven’t told any I’d go with them… yet.”

 

“Okay,” smiled Tony.  “Can I call you later?  Still at the same phone number?”—rattling it off flawlessly, without consulting a little black book.

 

“Yeah.  Sure.  Okay.”

 

“Oh, one more thing before we go back in.  That is, if you don’t mind me getting ahead of myself”—

 

—as he leaned over, darkly sleekly puddyboyishly, and give Vicki a kiss on the lips that took her as much by surprise as the crawfish-flavored smooch Phonsie Alphonse had stolen at Chez d’Arlequín, but was not at all the same thing.  Nossireebob: Tony Pierro’s kiss, like the baby bear’s bowl and chair and bed, was JUST RIGHT.

 

Even though it left Vicki feeling exceedingly lightheaded.

 

Especially after Tony took her back indoors and down to the fourth floor where he dissolved into dustmotes exactly like the hunk with no name in eighth grade.

 

Vicki splashed cold water on her face in the nearest washroom, but still felt dizzy (as well as damp) so she crept downstairs and got checked by Nurse Rathbone, who asked her many of the same questions that’d been put to chillified Laurie Harrison six weeks earlier.

 

Since the schoolday was almost over and Vicki’s mother had arranged to pick her up after the Austen-Alcott rehearsal, Nurse Rathbone consented to Vicki’s lying down awhile and then gave her a note to take to Ms. Schwall.  Which Vicki (feeling somewhat refreshed) did before the end of Seventh Hour, finding Coach Celeste busy with towel on hair and brow in her humid cubbyhole, while the girls were showering in the extra-sweaty locker room.

 

“This weather could make anybody woozy,” said sympathetic Celeste; making Vicki feel even guiltier with her concern about lingering aftereffects Vicki might still suffer from last month’s volleyball knockout.  Nadine Rugova’s having struck again at Saturday’s tournament (undaunted by her beatdown by firebombers) had reminded everyone of that previous KO blow, and Coach Celeste was filing another complaint with NESTL(É)’s Assistant Commissioner.

 

They could hear Sheila-Q filing a grievance with Laurie in the locker room about her brutal shoulder charges out on the soccer field:

 

“Didn’t enough of our butts get busted by Athens Grove to satisfy your bloodlust?  What’re you trying to do—become the next Mauly the Mauler?”

 

“Just playing the game,” replied Laurie: a lengthy statement for her these days.

 

(No time to worry about that now.)

 

Coach Celeste went “Lay-deez,” waited till S-Q’s boisterous voice diminished to nothingness, then gave Vicki some final words of guiltmaking advice.  Vicki thanked her, hastened out of the cubbyhole through the gym, and almost shoulder-charged Nonique away from the locker room mirror where she was retying her little Fifties neck scarf.

 

“Oof…”

 

“Sorry sorry sorry—”

 

“Got all caught up with your Mystery Man, did you?”

 

Vicki began a Reader’s Digest condensed version of her relationship (such as it hadn’t been) with Tony Pierro as they quickwalked around to the auditorium.  Nonique’d received an even more abbreviated account from Joss, who had to cut it short and run to Personal Typing (“our assignments are superdiscreet”) which left Nonique agog but perplexed as to what sort of dish kinks farghetti might be.

 

Vicki didn’t have time to disentangle this conundrum, or to bring Joss up to date in A‑A’s auditorium corner before Alex came stampeding over like a gunshy gazelle to blurt that Mike Spurgeon had just asked her to the Homecoming Dance, and what was she going to dooooooo??

 

Nonique stepped away from the two ambushed invitees (“Both of them white as a sheet, if they’ll ‘scuse my mentioning it”) so Alex could fill in her most special friends about what’d happened in Ms. Cliffhouse’s Sixth Hour Phys Ed.  There’d been a scrimmage between the senior and junior girls prepping for tomorrow’s Powderpuff football game, with sophs like Alex and Becca cheering from the sidelines along with boys from Coach Bolero’s Gym class.  Among these was Mike, King of the Towheads, who stealthily gravitated his Peter Frampton ringlets into Alex’s proximity…

 

—and then, after Louisa Lang and Amanda Pound halted an advance spearheaded by Meredith Wainwright and Susan Baxter, made his “Signed Sealed Delivered (I’m Yours)” dance request.

 

Which Alex initially paid no heed to, thinking that Mike was asking Becca out.

 

Realization that she was the one being addressed turned Alex to stone, like a reverse Galatea.  Though not as whiteknuckledly as that day in the VW cafeteria when Kim Zimmer’d snuggle-cuddle-nuzzled with Mike, right in front of Joss and Vicki (and Alex).

 

Two years had passed since then.  Plus an additional six months after seventh-grade spring break, when Mike (as Becca’d told Vicki) had either made a move on Alex (his longtime best buddy at Snead Elementary) and she’d either freaked and fought him off, or gone along with it (everyone knowing for years they were sure to become a real couple) and Papa Dmitria had caught them.  Either way, Alex had stiffened and shrunk into a bundle of hyperactive nerves (especially when guys hit on her) and it’d taken eons to get her even partially mellowed out.

 

But then last February she and Mike had danced elbow-to-elbow at Vicki’s disco concert party at the Vinyl Spinnaker; and this semester they shared the same lunch period and homeroom/study hall without Alex relapsing into petrification.

 

Until today.

 

“She’ll think about it,” Becca informed Mike on the Powderpuff scrimmage sideline, before conveying Galatea to their Seventh Hour Honors Biology class.  Fortunately it was a lecture and not a lab session, giving Alex opportunity to defrost… and come unglued, feeling like her Fifties Spiritwear and chaste lingerie had all fallen apart at the seams, leaving her nakedly exhibited like Miss Mazeppa lashed to a rampant stallion.  Which delved into Alex’s privatemost nocturnal fantasy—except no bondage was needed there; just a Cossack girl on her Cossack steed, riding bareback across widespread sundrenched Ukrainian plains.

 

(Sometimes the steed was a Cossack centaur.)

 

(Sometimes with long towheaded curlylocks.)

 

(Other times with a big bald head and a toothpick protruding between its lips.)

 

Papa would never in a million years give any guy permission to take her to a dance.  She could only go out with girlfriends (vetted beforehand) and even then only if she made regular check-ins by phone to the Mission Revival house on Sprangletop Road; and that was only because Papa’d been banned-for-life by the Vanderlund Township School District from chaperoning (and desolating) any festivities.

 

But now that the autumn days were growing shorter, Papa and every other parent with a daughter in the northeast suburbs was on constant alert for indications of the Mad Bludgeoner.  Student safety had topped the agenda at the VTHS Open House earlier that month, with a speech made by a morose Mr. Amory whose daughter Dawn had disappeared from Whierry Elementary five years ago.  Alex remembered hearing about that back then and wanting to join the search parties; but her Junior Girl Scout troop had been deemed too young (and endangered) to do more than “keep their eyes open”—which was hard to do while weeping for somebody who might’ve been a special friend someday.  Dawn’s mother still clung to the belief that she’d been abducted by a cult and would eventually be rescued; so that special friendship might yet happen—

 

—as opposed to being taken by a boyfriend to Saturday’s Homecoming Dance.

 

Many guys in all three grades had asked her; Alex’s stock response was “I’ll be glad to see you when I get there.”  But with Mike Spurgeon this deferment seemed unbefitting, and not necessarily valid (would she be glad?) so what was Alex going to dooooooo??

 

Becca wanted her to accept Mike’s offer conditionally—that is, without his coming to Sprangletop Road or phoning her there, so Papa need not be disturbed by even a conditional acceptance.  Rachel Gleistein, also in Honors Biology, had renounced romance and would counsel unconditional refusal of Mike or any other guy.  Mumbles Metcalf, who’d been Alex’s mentor since Snead days, would drawl-advise her to calm dowwwwn—be footloose and fancy-free with boys as well as horses, HA!!  HA!!  HA!!  And Coach Celeste Schwall, who’d been Alex and Becca’s star-spangled heroine as far back as kindergarten, would urge her to achieve mental and emotional release (as well as tone her muscles and strengthen her cardiovascular system) with upbeat aerobic dancing—

 

—to songs from The Music Man.

 

As sung by Fleur Groningen, playing Marian Paroo in last spring’s VTHS Operetta: ballads such as “Till There Was You” and “Being in Love.”

 

 

What a lovely dream!  And yet somehow

Being in love’s only half of what I’m longing for now…

 

Alex couldn’t wait to hear what Vicki and Joss thought about all this.  Neither had (as yet) accepted any of their invitations by guys to Homecoming; but all three girls had gone shopping together at the Green Bridge for dresses to wear, since they planned to go to the dance as their usual triumvirate if all of Joss and Vicki’s inviters ended up unacceptable.  Nobody’d expected Alex to contemplate ways she might “dance around” her Papa and conditionally accept any guy—least of all Mike Spurgeon.

 

But even though she was thinking about how this might be done, she had no choice but to wait after blurting out her news—because Mary Kate summoned her to Dickinson’s rehearsal for their Gong Show initiation, a poetic medley of “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed” and “Wild Nights—Wild Nights.”  Then when the girls regrouped to be driven home by Vicki’s mother, conversation was impeded by Mrs. Volester’s being there along with Spacyjane Groh and Vernonique Smith—nice girls, sweet girls, both of whom Alex had spent a fun sleepover with after the Pop Party; but not yet classifiable as special friends.

 

Vicki’s mother did most of the talking on the drive home, in a Chrysler Town & Country station wagon she’d obtained from the Volester Lot following the Open House forum on student safety.  It’d been enough of a challenge squeezing four girls into her Pontiac Firebird for that trip to Auldforest Woods; if Alex had come along, there’d’ve been no way to fit her and Joss in at the same time since both were so much taller than the other three.  Now Daylight Savings was about to end; sunset would be an hour earlier; Robin Neapolitan was the only bunchkin licensed to drive a vehicle of her own; and the other girls shouldn’t have to wait at bus stops in twilight (or darkness) for secure extracurricular transport.  Hence the Chrysler T&C (which Joss had dubbed “Loopy’s Luxury Liner”) that could accommodate up to nine passengers at a time.

 

“I’ve got major plans for this station wagon!” Felicia enthused from behind its wheel.  “I’ve almost positively decided to become a real estate agent, and with a car this size I could shuttle an entire family of prospects from one property to another.”

 

“Good for you, Mrs. V!” said long-legged Joss in the shotgun seat.  “Then you’ll be able to find me a brand new place on the inland side of town!”

 

“Now Jocelyn, you know your father’ll never sell your Queen Anne—”

 

“He can keep it and buy me my own one-bedroom condo unit.  I’m sure you’ll be able to talk him around, Mrs. V…”

 

In the Chrysler’s middle seat Spacyjane was sotto voce-ing one of her catchy-yet-eerie musical compositions, and Nonique instinctively hummed along while trying not to snoop too unsubtly on Vicki and Alex in the Chrysler’s back seat, where they were passing a note back and forth.  Anxiety and traffic on Sendt Street kept turning Alex’s copperplate script into a wiggly scribble:

 

 

 

A line left unfinished as Loopy’s Luxury Liner pulled into Jupiter Street and let out Joss, who thanked Felicia, bade everyone farewell, super/subbed “Call me as soon as you can with every last little detail” to Vicki, and grumbled “Old, old, old” at the Queen Anne as she trudged inside it.

 

“Room for you up front now, Alex!” Felicia called, but Vicki called back “We’re still working on tomorrow’s History, Mom!” with a tiny “(Oh hush)” in response to Nonique’s ladylike snort, which was followed by Nonique’s stoic sigh as Felicia hauled her into the shotgun seat with a reminder to tell her parents that Fritzi Ritz would be in town on Sunday for the long-postponed dinner with the Smiths at Burrow Lane, and a “separated-at-birth” photo shoot with Freda.

 

The Luxury Liner turned west on Clubroot Drive, went through the Expressway overpass onto Paillis Road, crossed Panama Boulevard and the sanitary canal to turn north on Galloway and drop off Spacyjane (still singing) at her Cecidia chalet.  Meanwhile Alex and Vicki flipped over their notepaper and rephrased everything they’d already scribbled on its frontside, but without coming any closer to a conclusion as Nonique got deposited at the Old Brandoffer Place and the Chrysler drove on to the Mission Revival on Sprangletop, where Vicki tore their note into Papaproof confetti.

 

“(Forget everything but what your heart tells you,)” she quietly fortunecookied.  “(Sleep on it and we’ll get your mind made up at the bus stop tomorrow morning.)”

 

Alex, blushing radiantly to the roots of her pixie-cut hair, gave her a silent sheepish hug before galloping out and away.

 

“My goodness!  Just what is it you’re studying in History tomorrow?” Felicia asked as Vicki joined her up front for the remaining drive home.

 

“Um… big papers on the Dark Ages to finish for Ms. Goldberg,” Vicki improvised.

 

“Well, don’t let Spirit Week sidetrack you too much, darling.  School’s still for education first of all, you know.”

 

“Right, right.  Soon as dinner’s over I need to call Joss about The Great Gatsby—big papers due on that too.”

 

Though when they did get down to telephonic business, it wasn’t to debate about what the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock symbolized (Joss had told Mrs. Mallouf “I think it signifies ‘Hello sailor!’”) but to finally settle on who they’d be going with to Saturday night’s Homecoming Dance.

 

Prior to Tony’s proposal, Vicki’d received four others: from crawfishy John Alphonse, Buddy Marcellus (recuperating from his repudiation by Laurie), ex-“Throb” Garrigan (oh-so-likely after ditching Isabel at the drive-in deluge), and Marshall McConchie (though his offer was tentative since Gigi Pyle had given Graham Aleshire the heave-ho and so was theoretically available again).

 

Joss had been asked by three fellow members of the Orchestra—oily Roy Hodeau (eww), Slim Jim Khim (whose Korean ancestry gave him a slightly darker skintone if nowhere near “brutha” hue), and Hansel Hitchens (Gretel’s profligate twin, who had a car but also the habit of driving it while drunk or high or both).

 

“No accidents so far or even a speeding ticket, but I don’t wanna be anywhere near the vicinity when Hahhhnsel’s dumb-lucky streak runs out.  So I guess I’ll give Slim Jim a go—if you’re sure you’ve nabbed Tony.  Aren’t you afraid he’s trying to call you right now and getting a busy signal?”

 

“Let him!  I’m not holding my breath, waiting for him to cash in his ‘rain check.’  And if he really has changed back into a pillar of chalkdust I’ll say yes to Marshall, if only to save him from Gigi’s clutches.”

 

“I told you, didn’t I, that I saw her the other day at the New Sherwood with that Great Dane guy they say is a black-marketeer in stolen ski jackets?  He and Gigi both had one on—maybe on top of others they’d shoplifted.  I bet trying to do that would make you sweat, even if you weren’t afraid of getting caught.”


“And I told you, didn’t I, that if Gigi Pyle was going to be a shoplifter it’d be stuff like perfume or jewelry or imported silk underwear—not ski jackets.”

 

“Maybe she had that other stuff stashed in her ski jacket.  Or ski jackets.”

 

“Forget Gigi Pyle.  How do we get Alex to go to the dance with Mike?”

 

“Does she want to go with him?”

 

“I think secretly she does, if her Papa never gets the faintest clue about it happening.  Okay, how’s this?  We all pretend we don’t have dates—”

 

“—yeah, we’re used to that—”

 

“—shut up—and go to the dance as our usual bunch of single gals, then meet the guys at school?”

 

“You shut up.  We might as well; it’s not like anyone who’s asked us has his license yet, except Hahhhnsel and ‘Throb.’”

 

“Ex-‘Throb.’  And we wouldn’t be going with either of them anyway.”

 

“You really think Alex the Girl Scout will give in, fool her Papa, and slink off to dance the night away with the King of the Towheads?”

 

“If she didn’t want to, she wouldn’t be in such a dither about it or making so much fuss—he’d just be another one of her fob-offs.”

 

“I’ll bite my tongue and not say what ‘fobbing off a guy’ sounds like.”

 

“Please don’t.  And don’t bite your tongue either—you need that for your cornet.”

 

“And maybe Slim Jim Khim too, tee hee hee—sweet dreams!”

 

No sooner did Vicki hang up than the phone rang again.  “I got it!” she hollered, turning a deaf ear to Goofus’s “You wish!” and Ozzie’s “Five more minutes, then I’m yanking out the cord!” because a Tyrone Powerful puddyvoice was asking if it might speak to Vicki Volester, please.

 

“Thank you,” she replied.  “I mean, you’re welcome—I mean I will go with you to Comehoming—I mean Homecoming—I MEAN, yes this is me Vicki speaking hello there!”

 

(Tyrone Powerful puddylaugh at the other end of the line.)

 

But if you stand me up again, I’ll find the firebombers who beat up Nadine Rugova and pay them to do the same to you, Tony Baloneyso watch your step this time around…

 

*

 

The panel of faculty judges at Wednesday’s Gong Show kindheartedly permitted the four groups of LitSoc initiates to complete their recitations ungonged.  Few other contestants were so indulged, and Dennis Desmond ran over to pre-gong himself without bothering to put on an act.  The winners were senior stage troupers Ron Deacon, Theresa Challis, and Judy Disseldorf (Tess’s big sister) who chanted the Three’s Company theme song while clomping around like baby elephants enveloped in a straitjacket à trois.

 

 

Come and knock on our doooor (clomp x 3)

We’ve been waiting for yooooou (clomp x 3)

 

Nonique had to wait until Study Hall to hear the latest latest from Vicki, since they didn’t dare pass notes under Mr. Dimancheff’s piranha nose.  Vicki in return got updated on matchmaking endeavors by Rhonda Wright, who’d long since quit sifting through the sparse black male pickings at VTHS and foraged instead in Willowhelm’s Spaghetto.  One of her senior steadies there (“We call ‘em ‘soul mates,’ honey!”) had a sophomore brother who was allegedly ideal for Nonique; and even though she was still convalescent from the Eddie Ray Anderson fiasco, Nonique didn’t want to spend the next three years (or however long the Smiths might live in Vanderlund) stranded on the unromantic bench.

 

 

 

The Buckley brothers, Luther and Darren, did drop by VTHS that afternoon and inspire Joss to reprise the routine she’d performed time and again for Lamar Twofields—flinging open her hooded topper and standing in profile, flopperoos to the fore.  Which the Buckleys may have taken favorable note of, being teen males; but were undemonstrative about, being black teen males visiting a nearly-lilywhite high school.

 

Vicki thought Luther looked like an older browner version of Skully Erle: lankishly starveling, in need of a deep potent toke before his next sax solo.  Darren, though not an instrumentalist, seemed far more suitable for Nonique: with an “air of detached remoteness” similar to Reuben Burns, yet clearly aware of Nonique’s Thelma-on-Good-Times attributes.

 

(Her flopperoos were kept concealed within a zipped-to-the-throat polyester parka, resisting Vicki’s helpful show-him-you’re-interested nudges.)

 

Sub-suggestion: Don’t let Joss outbosom you.

 

Sub-retort: Oh hush up and keep your mind on the game.

 

Spoken aloud by Darren Buckley, a lot less remote and detached: “Look out now!” as the Powderpuffers transformed Hordt Field into a class-warfare combat zone.

 

Mauly Carstairs got ejected for tackling a touch-football opponent and knocking Margo Temple groggy.  This infuriated the junior girls, particularly Cheryl Trevelyan who may have despised Margo but considered Mauly’s tackle to be a savage underhanded attack.  And not even Boomer Wrang of Houlihan could’ve led a more offensive countercharge: Cheryl’s kamikaze blocks pierced the senior line anchored by Louisa and Amanda, twice causing Ginger Snowbedeck to fumble the ball away.  Penny Stone berated Ginger as a sloppybutted showboat, and got derided in return as a preciousassed Peony (her legal first name, prolonged to “Peeee-on-kneeee” as in preschool days) which set off a hairpulling brawl and resulted in two more senior ejections.  Gwen Cokingham and Joyce Usher tried their understudy best to stem the tide; but Lisa Lohe sprang loose to sprint downfield and catch a bomb from Meredith that tied the score at 17-17, with Rhonda kicking the extra point to win an upset victory for the juniors.

 

They were still celebrating at lunchtime on Thursday—Country-Western Day in the Spirit Week lineup—with a heapin’ helpin’ of cowgirl hats, boots, and bandannas.  Fiona kept muttering something about “(Shudder Bugge)” that no one except Robin understood; and Robin took no notice because she’d finally attained her five-year ambition: Craig Clerkington asked her out, and not just out but to go with him to the Homecoming Dance.

 

“I’ll be his San Antonio Rose!” she exulted.  “Anybody got a pair of spurs?

 

WVTR, the school radio station, broadcast downhome music from records spun by Beau Guthrie and Chewy Hewitt and Faye Howell the Princess of Pony Paradise Stable, much admired as an equestrienne by Mumbles and Alex.  “Filly Faye” was a prime contender for Homecoming Queen: she not only looked like a young Tammy Wynette but was dating Knobby Dutton, the Varsity G-Men’s starting center and probable MVP, who never botched a snap despite being deaf in one ear.  “I can feel the vibes,” he’d say, though some irreverent folk scoffed that what Knobby felt was Jeff Friardale goosing his perineum.

 

On Country-Western Day the cafeteria served barbecue (albeit City-style) and baked beans, whose musical-fruitiness supplemented the junior girls’s whoopery.  No one had ever seen Lisa Lohe so effervescent; her Immaculate Reception had flushed away all the bitter frustrations of volleyball season, and Jenna was going to depict it in vivid acrylics.  Cheryl too was in an unusually ebullient mood, though not above taunting any senior jockettes within range and making light of Mary Kate’s benign reproaches.

 

Vicki missed all of this, along with the City-style barbecue and baked beans; yet she did not rue the loss, nor suffer any hunger-pangs from staying put in Study Hall.  There Grandma Ivy’s extra-large chair was vacant (how had she been winched out of Room 325?) until the same stoner-or-equivalent sub from Yom Kippur Spanish wandered by to hold down the fort, leafing idly through a copy of Us magazine.  Samantha Tiggs lurked in the back row, her blue funk deepened by knowing that after yesterday’s Powderpuff loss, Amanda Pound would be ten times as Demandin’ at basketball tryouts.  Nonique (thankful that her mother hadn’t been called in as homeroom substitute) was passing a new note to and fro with Vicki regarding her now-definite double date with Rhonda and the Buckley brothers, when the inconspicuous person at Sammi’s usual desk swung around in front of Vicki and was revealed to be—

 

—Tony Pierro.

 

No bandanna or cowboy hat, but a bolo tie beneath the collar of a checkerboard shirt.

 

“(Howdy, ma’am,)” he quietly moseyed.

 

“(Um… d-d-do-si-do,)” Vicki stammered, squinting askant at Nonique’s ladylike half-smothered guffaw.  “(H-how long have you… y’know… been here?)”

 

“(Oh, awhile,)” said Tony, giving her a Marlboro Manly smile that tickled Vicki’s fancy in a way that Dennis Desmond’s relentless teethbaring never could.

 

“(So… are you in this homeroom now?)”

 

Self-evident shrug of checkerboarded puddyshoulders.

 

“(Have you met my friend here, Ver—um, Ver—um…?)”

 

“(Verrrrypleasedtomakeyouracquaintance,)” Nonique finessed, arching her spine to swell out her gingham blousefront.  Don’t let me outbosom you, she wickedly sub-sassed.

 

OOH just for that I’m gonna make your brown eyes blue! Vicki sub-seethed as Tony gave Nonique a genial nod, while the stoner-or-equivalent let out an unsmothered guffaw at an Us article on “Ann Landers’s Search for a New Man,” and Link Linfold sidled in like an ambulatory gargoyle from his own homeroom to sit with Sammi and offer her comfort as he’d been doing periodically over the past three weeks.

 

“(I bet you don’t even go to this school!)” Vicki told Tony.  “(I bet you’re sneaking over here from one of the Multches, or… oh, don’t tell me you really go to Willowhelm!)”

 

“(I wouldn’t tell you that,)” Tony assured her.

 

“(So who’s your regular homeroom teacher, then?  What’s your Sixth Hour class?)”

 

“(Charlie Rich—‘Rollin’ with the Flow,’)” said Tony, either in answer to her questions or Name That Tune’s.

 

The 5D bell rang at that point and most of the students promenaded out of Study Hall, with Link leading Sammi in an allemande left; but Nonique dawdled in the doorway as Vicki and Tony stuck to their seats.

 

“Uhhhh… aren’t you guys supposed to go to lunch now?” the stoner-or-equivalent inquired.

 

“They’re still working on tomorrow’s History,” Nonique intervened.  See?  It can be good to eavesdrop sometimes.

 

Vicki picked up Ms. Goldberg’s heavy textbook and displayed it to the sub.  Okay, I owe you—your eyes can stay brown.

 

“’Kay,” caroled the credulous sub, following Nonique out of Room 325 and even closing the door behind them.  Leaving Vicki alone with Tony Pierro and the piped-in sound of Dolly Parton’s newly-released crossover hit:

 

 

All you gotta do is smile that smile

And there go all my defenses…

 

Filling up Vicki’s senses as Tony rose from behind his desk, took her by the hand, gently lifted her to her feet, and began a sweet swaying slowdance.

 

 

Shakin' me up so that all I really know

Is here you come again—and here I go…

 

*

 

Spirit Week started to unravel that afternoon.  An old-fashioned ice cream social had been arranged by the senior class, with frozen treats and unlimited root beer to be supplied by the uptown Zephyr Heaven; but its manager had taken the advice that Jay Gatsby fatally rejected—“go to Atlantic City for a week, or up to Montreal”—and Zeff Heff’s staff was neither aware of his ice cream social deal, nor where to reach the manager to confirm it.  So Pamela Redfern and Jeremy Tolhurst were obliged to refund more than $1,000 to a disgruntled crowd of country-western hankerers.  Fortunately none had a pitchfork, but a few did carry lariats and one of those was being twisted into a noose when Jeremy beat a hasty retreat, pursued by Pam who added to his beating for having gotten them into this pickle.

 

Friday the 28th—Aquamarine & Gold Day—got off on a much better foot, thanks to the successful distribution of pre-ordered school-color carnations to loyal Vanderlunders.  This enterprise had been sponsored by the Pep Club in conjunction with Bedeguar Way Florist: a partnership which also produced the massive “Love Gondola” cruise-ship float that dwarfed all competitors in the afterschool Homecoming Parade.

 

Vicki, wearing an aquamarine carnation as she watched the queue of decorated cars snake out of the VTHS parking lot to circumnavigate the block, was both annoyed that only upperclassgirls had been allowed to ride the joint LitSoc float, and grateful not to be on it herself.  Even after everybody’s efforts, it was far from the most impressive parade entry; but at least its signs and slogans were all spelled right.

 

The Lettermen’s car had a Goodyear blimp aloft above a stadium scoreboard showing the battle cry “skuttel the jammers,” while the Limelight Club’s float urged the school to “get pysched” while Judy Disseldorf, Theresa Challis and Ron Deacon again flailed around, their threesome straitjacket now labeled “Willowhelm Whackos.”  Which might be in questionable taste; yet Vicki found it less cringemaking than the Pep Club’s flamboyant megaGondola (how many flatbed trailers were linked together in that beflowered convoy?) trumpeting “Lovvvve, exciting and newww…

 

(Eww.)

 

Vicki and Joss had tried to watch The Love Boat just once.  “It’s as if Gilligan’s castaways were trapped at sea aboard the Minnow and never made it to the island,” Joss concluded.  “Even those guys in Lord of the Flies were better off on their island than circling above it in a plane full of laughtracky guest stars.”

 

Speaking of stars: this year’s Homecoming theme, “A Little Starry Night Music,” was featured on several floats, but none took it to more literal lengths than Alpha Centauri (the Science Fiction & Fantasy Club) who’d rigged constellation charts with Christmas-type lightbulbs à la Señor Banonis’s wallmaps, mounting these atop an AMC Gremlin alongside a loudspeaker that played a continuous loop of Holst’s The Planets.  All these accoutrements caused the Gremlin to break down and block what Jenna Wiblitz called “the ASS end of the parade” (Skinner being one of Alpha Centauri’s crew) till the derelict float got shunted over to the Wheaf Avenue curb.  There Jenna drew a sketch she titled “Uranus the Magician.”

 

At the post-parade Pep Rally back in the parking lot, the six Homecoming Queen candidates and their G-Men escorts were introduced.  Bootleg McGillah and his bookie cohorts, working the crowd and assessing its applause levels, gave Rula Hradek the best Erotic odds of winning and Penny Stone the longest shot—her chances largely based on people’s fear of how much vengeance she might wreak if she lost.

 

Then Tilda Purcell took the rally’s microphone.  As editor-in-chief of the Channel she’d obtained today’s issue of Willowhelm’s newspaper, the Topsail; and from it she read out an article insinuating that the students of Vanderlund, more often than not, were an effete corps of impudent snobs who thought themselves entitled to hog fortitude.

 

This was an unsubtle reference to last spring’s contretemps when a new Corvette Stingray (driven by a VTHS senior) ran a used Subaru Coupe (driven by a Willowhelm senior) off Fortitude Road and into a lakefront greenbelt.  When the Corvette’s driver (Brewster Canute, Tyler and Hardy’s preppified older brother) was pulled over and questioned by police, he laid all the blame on the Subaru’s driver (Corey Dumas, brother of an unemployed longshoreman) for obstructing traffic with his “rusted-out shitbox.”

 

Principal Stabeldore did his best to defuse this powder keg, excluding Brewster from commencement exercises (he went on to Middlebury unscathed) and making a public apology to Corey (still on the community college waitlist).  This was thought to be sufficient redress by most of the girls at Willowhelm, many of whom had been undressed, exploited and abandoned in that Dumas Subaru; and explained why the Lady Windjammers held no grudge when they came to VTHS for last month’s volleyball match.

 

Far less placated were the Topsail’s editor and other males at Willowhelm, who’d enshrined Corey as a carnal-knowledge casanova and condemned Brewster Canute’s wrongdoing as a nouveau riche assault on Middle American machismo.  There’d been a number of minor altercations between students from the two schools during the summer and early fall, but tonight’s Homecoming Game would be their first major competition (i.e. not girls playing volleyball) of the semester, and Mr. Stabeldore did not appreciate Tilda’s inflammatory discourse at the Pep Rally.

 

(Just as well Mr. Tuerck had vetoed the traditional rally-ending bonfire.)

 

It didn’t help that the Jammers held a half-game lead over the G-Men, 5-0-1 to 5-1-0, for first place in NESTL(É)’s Shoreside Division.  Tonight’s winner was almost certain to clinch the title and a slot in the November 11th league championship game against either Triville or Athens Grove; and the winner of that would probably qualify for The State’s 5A semifinals.  So a helluva lot was on the line tonight—not least for Bunty O’Toole’s crew, who pegged Vanderlund as 3-to-2 underdogs.

 

Those odds might be the final score too, since both teams were renowned for defense: the Gondoliers behind Judd Courtney, the Windjammers led by Herschel Brach and Willie “the Wheelbarrow” Whitman.  Willie’s nickname had various explanations, some of them obscene; Robin Wright claimed he toted his grandfather around in one, Big Daddy refusing to use a wheelchair.  At any rate Willie was an All-Conference linebacker and hardly anybody got past himassuming they could get past Hershey Brach “the Rabid Badger,” NESTL(É)’s most feared defensive lineman, who led the league not only in tackles and sacks but injuring opponents and teammates alike.  “F’you don’t want yer asses busted, keep ‘em the hell outta my way!” he advised unwary Jammers.

 

Such a threat would trigger derisive laughter if made by Sal Farghetti, Willowhelm’s foghorn of a quarterback and cousin of Kinks.  Their fathers and two other Farghetti brothers were all in the delicatessen business; united they could have run the biggest deli in The Cityland, but lifelong vendettas kept them apart and strapped for cash.  Foghorn Farghetti was strapped for leadership talent; his team paid him scant attention, preferring to ad-lib its own offense and blame Foggy when it failed.  This happened so frequently that Brandy Heinzerling (Willowhelm’s counterpart to Ginger Snowbedeck) had reputedly sworn to remove an article of clothing every time the Windjammers put points on the board, and when Ginger got wind of this, she lost no time in pledging the same to Jeff Friardale’s Gondolier offense.

 

So a lot of cameras were taken to Hordt Field that evening, though how well their flashcubes would fare in the vast outdoor darkness was debatable.  (Mr. Szot got consulted left and right.)  Some girls like Isabel and Carly Thibert were eager to join Ginger in “encouraging our boys,” but the cheerleaders viewed this as censorious encroachment on their galvanic turf.  However often they might flip pleated miniskirts in the air, the cheerybabes were a fairly modest squad—you wouldn’t catch Becca Blair in a wet T-shirt contest, or Nanette or Meredith or Gigi Pyle.  Maybe Delia (if tricked) or Cheryl (if tiddly) but never Mary Kate.  As for Angelique, she advocated that cheerleading was a sport in its own right and not simply an energizer for other athletes, much less a burlesque fetish for boyish libidos.  No love was lost between her and Ginger, who’d worn compression shorts (“Gotta let my legs breathe, and give the fans their money’s worth!”) at Wednesday’s Powderpuff dustup.

 

Neither of them could abide the sight of Brandy Heinzerling being carried shoulder-high by a quartet of admirers into the Hordt Field visitor stands and seated directly under the brightest arc light.  (Ginger immediately took the corresponding spot on the home side, ostentatiously unbuttoning her letter sweater.)  Vicki, sitting with the bunch and not planning to shed any layer of her apparel, remembered Brandy as the scandalizing daughter of The Heinie—Mr. Heinzerling, assistant principal and security guard at Reulbach—who’d packed an actual gun under his suit jacket, yet couldn't clip Brandy’s way-out wayward wings.  “She’ll never wear a braided chain made of finest silver from the north of Spain,” Stephanie Lipperman had cackled.  “Steal and pawn one, maybe, but not wear it.”

 

PHWEEEET went a whistle, ending preliminary ceremonies and kicking off the Homecoming Game, which soon settled into deadly dullness.  Neither team could move the ball past the fifty-yard line, so no significant stripping took place in the bleachers.

 

Vicki quickly lost interest in pigskin-on-the-gridiron and fretted instead about Tony Pierro’s whereabouts.  He hadn’t exactly said he would be here tonight, but there’d been no clearcut denial either; Tony was as difficult to pin down as a hopped-up moth.

 

“You did see him there in Study Hall, right?” she’d asked Nonique.

 

“Saw him, heard him, spoke to him.  If he’s a hallucination, it must be contagious.”

 

Gloating yells as Judd-for-the-Defense intercepted another Farghetti pass.  The name brought Foghorn’s cousin to Vicki’s uneasy mind: presumably Kinks was still attending VW, as a freshman this fall.  Could she have come here tonight “for the game” but really to recapture Tony’s susceptible affections and spoil Vicki’s rendezvous with him again?  That would be so like Kinks!  Why couldn’t she rekindle her obsession with Phonsie or Fast Eddie, or better yet stalk Dennis Desmond and put his One-Shot Thanks-a-Lot Untie-the-Knot mindset to the grindstone?

 

BANG went a gun: not in committing a crime of passion, but to end the dismal first half.  Off went the footballers; on pranced the Drill Team and Marching Band to strut through a choreographed act (Joss repeating her “I can’t believe you wanted me to join that train wreck” witticism) and then prizes were awarded to the top three parade floats, with the “Love Gondola” of course weighing in as number one.

 

Set a course for adventure, your mind on a new romance…

 

(As was Vicki’s, though far less buoyantly than if Tony Pierro were there beside her.)

 

Leave it to me to fall for a guy with the initials “T.P.”  Which might also stand for Tricky Poser or Trifling Puddyboy or Totally Pointless.  But at least not Terribly Pathetic, as everybody thought when Tug Pulley went out to take his annual bow on the midfield stripe.  Winner of more letters and setter of more records than anyone in Vanderlund sports history (except Phyllis Exelby) Tug had been All-State halfback on the undefeated Gondoliers in 1941, when Thundering Mort Hordt called him “the next Red Grange.”  And so he might have been, had Tug not quit school to enlist in the Navy, have a mediocre war, never go to college or turn pro, and wind up in “the wholesale seafood business” (i.e. work for his fishmonger father-in-law).  Now he haunted VTHS Homecomings and was cited by Coach Bolero as a melancholy example to avoid: “Be as respectful as you can, men, but don’t let him Tug you down—stay revved up for the second half!”

 

Good advice as the Windjammers came charging aggressively out of their locker room—the Vanderlund girls locker room, now tarnished and befouled—to seize control of momentum.  Foghorn and the Jammer offense worked in synch for once, driving the G-Men back as they advanced downfield.  What sparked this off?  Willowhelm’s Coach Marish was known for meanness (and breeding attack dogs as a hobby) but not as a motivational speaker.  Rumors spread through the Vanderlund ranks that Brandy Heinzerling and other wantons had snuck into the Jammer locker room during halftime to provide “encouragement” (and add to the befouling tarnish)!

 

“We gotta get even!” declared Sheila-Q.  “Crystal, it’s up to you!”

 

“What’s up to me?” went Crystal, before exerting her almighty lungs in a Push ‘em back, push ‘em back, waaaaaaay back” rah-rah for Judd and the defense.  “Nobody here’s cheering louder than I am!”

 

S-Q said that wasn’t enough; for retaliation’s sake, Crystal needed to pop the lid off her almighty boobs.

 

“No way!  Do it yourself, Sheila!”

 

“That’s right, Quirk, show us how it’s done—just as a morsel of an appetizer,” jeered Robin; and they argued about this terminology through Willowhelm’s scoring a touchdown (and Brandy discarding her gaudy down vest) but missing the extra point (and Brandy rebuckling her gaudy beaded belt).

 

Things looked pretty bleak for the Gondoliers (and bright for those 3-to-2 odds, if not now 2-to-1) until Woody Tays and Diesel Erle came off the bench to play tight end and fullback.  Neither had done anything spectacular so far this season; but in the fourth quarter they began to gain enough yardage to keep making first downs, while Knobby Dutton and the front line started giving Jeff Friardale better protection from Willowhelm blitzes.

 

Crystal and Sheila might hesitate to “retaliate,” but Carly Thibert frolicked down from the stands to sling off her corduroy car coat, thrust out her perkified blousefront, and egg on the offense.  Ginger, caught napping, promptly followed suit; Isabel and likeminded likechested girls did likewise; flashcubes popped all over the bleachers.  Angelique and the other cheerleaders gave angry keep-your-shirts-on! glares to those brandishing bustlines on the sideline, even as they bounced their own uniformed bosoms exhorting the crowd to roar and the team to score.

 

Buoyed by so much cross-your-heart support, the G-Men made incremental progress through Willowhelm territory but had to use all their time-outs to stop the clock after the two-minute warning.  Finally, as only seconds remained, Jeff eluded the Jammers and threw a long slant pass to Woody Tays on the goal line—where Wheelbarrow Whitman loomed up like a zombie from a tomb to snatch an interception as the gun went off.  And Vanderlund gave a great communal GROAN at not simply losing its Homecoming Game, but getting skunked by its archrival in the process.

 

Except that a ring of yellow flags lay on the turf, encircling a supine Gondolier.

 

Hershey Brach had come up on Knobby’s deaf side and rabid-badgered the soon-to-be-MVP into unconsciousness.

 

For the next hour or two, residents of all the houses and condos within earshot of VTHS wished they lived elsewhere as Knobby was carted off the field and Faye Howell had to be restrained from hurling herself onto his stretcher and the Windjammers, raising unrepentant voices over the volcanic din, argued that Badger Brach had made a clean hit and legal tackle, which the Gondoliers hotly disputed while the Vanderlund fans shrieked for blood.  What they got were ten seconds put back on the clock; a first down on the five-yard line; a Friardale handoff to Diesel Erle; a sweep behind Knobby’s righteous fellow linemen into the end zone; and (after a flurry of further attempted disrobing on the sideline) a triumphant extra point to win the game 7-6.

 

Celebratory hullabaloo extended from Hordt Field into the boys locker room and on out to the VTHS parking lot, where some Vanderlundians were less than gracious in victory.  As the dejected Jammers tried to board their team bus, Coach Marish looked like he wished he’d brought a few Rottweilers for protection; Hershey Brach got soaked with sharp-iced beverages from the concession stand; Willie Whitman, who’d done nothing worse than intercept that last-second pass, was targeted with racial slurs; and the bus itself got pelted with handfuls of parking lot gravel.  The police, belatedly called in by Principal Stabeldore, imposed enough order for the Willowhelm bus to vamoose; and the Vanderlund crowd huzzahed Knobby Dutton as he shakily emerged, leaning on Filly Faye’s fair arm.

 

“None of this would’ve been necessary if you’d just flashed your boobs at ‘em,” Vicki heard Robin telling Sheila-Q.

 

*

 

Scuttlebutt ran wild through the night that a mob was on its way from Willowhelm, led by Spaghetto thugs bent on burning Vanderlund to the ground.  (Willowhelm’s population was in fact predominantly white, many of whom blamed blacks rather than unscrupulous blockbusters for Spaghettoizing the old Italian neighborhood.  Foghorn Farghetti was one of these faultfinders: he’d even laughed at Willie Whitman’s getting denigrated in the VTHS parking lot.)

 

But once the brouhaha cooled off, nothing disturbed the peace other than some rowdy postgame parties and the usual TGIF drunks at local taverns like the Conga Line Cocktail Lounge.  Then there was fresh blather Saturday morning that the Homecoming Dance had been canceled; but Jerome Schei, laboring valiantly without Laurie to bolster the Gossip Brigade, received confirmation from Mr. Stabeldore’s own lips (dragged away from their Quaker Oats on Scotchbroom Road) that the dance was still on.

 

Vernonique Smith, however, needed considerable persuasion to agree that she’d still go.  All her earlier fears and trepidations had resurged to the surface, and when Nonique wouldn’t talk about them on the phone, Vicki ran over to the Old Brandoffer Place to entreat her in person.

 

“Please don’t let some nasty stupid bigots scare you away from anything as cool and crucial as a dance!”

 

“…cool and crucial?…”

 

“You heard me!  And remember, you ‘n’ Darren won’t be there on your own—his brother ‘n’ Rhonda’ll be there too, plus all the rest of us backing you up side by side!”

 

“…sounds painful…”

 

“I’m serious!  We’re like a team, our bunch, and some of us are AA sisters besides—whatever happens to one of us happens to all of us!”

 

“…don’t want you fighting my battles for me…”

 

“I won’t!—we’ll all fight them together.  That’s what friendship’s for.  And anyway, don’t you wanna be there to see how things work out between Alex ‘n’ Mike?  Or Joss ‘n’ Slim Jim?  I know you wanna know what’ll happen with Tony ‘n’ me—you can’t deny it!”

 

“…oooooooh… you can be a real Sneaky Pie sometimes, girl…”

 

“Oh and let’s not forget Spacyjane—she still thinks she’s going with Split-Pea Erbsen!  We’ll all have to be there for her, no matter what else happens to the rest of us.”

 

*

 

 

Coming home, coming home

  Nevermore to roam

Open wide Thine arms of love

  Lord I’m coming home…

 

Though not to the chalet on Cecidia Drive, but Alex Dmitria’s Mission Revival house on Sprangletop Road, where some of the girls gathered before being driven to the dance.

 

Spacyjane came in a midnight-blue knit dress with a long skirt and long sleeves, and silver shoes that got sniffed appreciatively by a handsome Borzoi dog called Yermak.  She also wore the Annie Hall bowler hat affixed to her hair with a silver épingle, its brim shading her star sapphires as they peered out at what appeared to be an oasis resort in some arid desert—Mexican or Siberian, or maybe Egyptian.  Which would account for the gigantic Pharaonic figure that hardened the heart of the Dmitria living room, looking averse to Opa’s or Joseph’s or anyone else’s interpreting his dreams.

 

He had no headdress on his vast bald scalp; nor was King Tut generally pictured with tinted glasses or biting a toothpick.  The longer Spacyjane studied him, the less he looked like Ramses or Amenhotep and the more like Snorro Stone Troll, one of her Legion of Dolls: a Tor Johnson-y Hallowe’en prop put to operatic use.

 

Snorro stood with stony arms folded, glowering while Alex’s and Vicki’s mothers snapped photos of the four girls lined up in their Homecoming Dance outfits—Alex wearing turquoise, Vicki her favorite violet, and Joss a shade of almond she called “café au rhum.”  (Nonique was at Rhonda Wright’s house, awaiting the arrival of their double dates.)  Alex told the troll to “come stand with us, Papa,” but he wouldn’t budge till Spacyjane went over and took hold of his stony sleeve—he staring down at her astounded, as if she were Alex’s little chihuahua (hiding in back of a potted cactus) and had his stony cuff between her teeth.  Spacyjane, unbothered as usual, shifted Snorro into position as she would on a dolly stage, assisted by Alex bounding over to grab his other arm; and they held him in place while Joss and Vicki moved so far away that they had to be motioned closer to get back in the picture.

 

“Everybody say ‘Yay Gondoliers!’” Alex beamed at the cameras.  “It’s like we’re all going to the dance with Papa!”

 

So said the mesmerized Superprincess, rapt with entrancement; yet her trollish captor was powerless to thwart her taking flight from his stony coop to breezy freedom.  (Should the Superprincess have wings like a butterfly?  Maybe cloaked until needed?  Kathleen could make her a neat pair out of gossamer fabric…)

 

“Behave yourself, Alexandra,” Papa grated at the Mission Revival door; out of which Vicki and Joss, serving as Alex’s wings, propelled her at high speed toward Mrs. Volester’s station wagon.

 

“(He knows!)” Alex bleated.

 

“(He doesn’t know,)” Vicki told her.

 

“(He at least suspects—)”

 

“(He’d do that even if Sheila-Q changed her mind again and did become a nun and we were going to visit her in a convent someplace where there wasn’t a man for miles around,)” said Joss as they boarded the Chrysler.

 

“What Mr. Dmitria told Alex goes for all of you,” Vicki’s mother instructed during the drive to school.  “Be extra careful tonight, and think twice if anyone suggests doing anything better left undone—”

 

“We will, Mom!” Vicki broke in.  “We’ll think twice and be careful and leave things undone—”

 

“Not our zippers, though.”

 

“Joss!”

 

“Just kidding!”

 

“I hope so, Jocelyn!”

 

“Don’t worry, Mrs. V—I’ll see to it that they behave themselves tonight.”

 

“Us?  You’re the one we’ll have to watch out for, if you go on one of your whirling dervish kicks—”

 

“Now simmer down, girls.  Save it for the dance floor—”

 

But Spacyjane began to sing; and Alex, who’d been twisting around to see if her Papa was trailing them surreptitiously in the Dmitria sedan, added her glowing alto:

 

 

She’s the girlfriend of the whirling dervish

She’s the sweetest one he’s found

  But ev’ry night in the mellow moonlight

  When he’s out dervishing with all his might

She gives him the runaround!

 

“Oh I love that song!  I learned it at Scout camp!” Alex crowed to Joss and Vicki’s applause and Mrs. Volester’s “That’s more good advice to keep in mind,” as they pulled up on Wheaf Avenue.

 

Van Gogh met Han Solo met Stephen Sondheim in “A Little Starry Night Music’s” something-for-everyone cafeteria décor.  Spacyjane detected the scenic-designing hand of Jenna Wiblitz—and here she was in a polychrome dress with Ken Keezer, who’d played the title character in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and was just as impervious as Jenna to Candy Gates’s bluster.  Here too was Lisa Lohe in basic black, with Graham Aleshire (who’d helped coach the junior girls to their Powderpuff win) instead of Melvin Linfold (who’d switched his link to Samantha Tiggs).

 

Kathleen of course wasn’t here, and wouldn’t have come even if asked by Ryan Purvis (who danced only with the dead) but was waiting avidly for Spacyjane’s descriptions of what everyone wore to the dance.  LeAnn of course was here, in bright pink and with Kerry Hinterwald, whose invite she’d accepted since he was a junior (albeit slightly younger than herself, due to past grade-skipping) and familiar from the Whierry neighborhood, where he’d been the first boy to precociously wolf-whistle at LeAnn’s blossoming.

 

Here too was The Embodiment, of course in gold: Spacyjane had adorned Floramour in a golden gown and slippers before leaving for Alex’s house.  She (T.E.) was with Zalman Tergeist, who’d been brought far enough out of Lynyrd Skynyrd mourning to wear a gunmetal-gray suit that matched his five o’clock (now nine o’clock) shadow.  Nearly all the guys had come in unflashy suits and ties, this being a semiformal cafeteria dance where jackets could be doffed and tossed onto tables or stools; though Jerome Schei did have on a dazzling set of rainbow-striped suspenders.

 

Vernonique, clad in cobalt, tried to make an unobtrusive entrance but Rhonda Wright, in ruby red, proclaimed their approach with one of her piercing beep-beeps!  They and their escorts were greeted by Joss and Slim Jim Khim, but Vicki and Alex had disappeared into the crowd—probably to go search for their whirling dervishes, or find out whether they’d been given the runaround.

 

Which was more good advice to keep in mind.

 

So Spacyjane went forth to do likewise.

 

If I could but know his heart, everything would become easy…

 

So wrote Miss Austen, premier member of the Legion of Janes and foremost incentive to join the AA LitSoc, even if that meant belonging with The Embodiment.  Then again, Miss Austen had also written Could there be finer symptoms? Is not general incivility the very essence of love?  (And she might as well have penned that sage horoscope caveat Surfaces are deceptive: some by nature, others by design.  Evaluate each independently.)

 

A band was playing, a genuine professional if down-on-their-luck group from Lakeside Central called Omega Vega, who couldn’t seem to decide whether to sound like Styx, the Temptations, or the Electric Light Orchestra.  At any rate lots of people were dancing to their music; and among them Alex Dmitria boogied elbow-to-elbow with Mike Spurgeon, though not in such a way as to signify they were supposedly here together.

 

A cosmic throne had been set up on a galactic platform for the Homecoming Queen’s imminent coronation, and behind it Spacyjane stumbled across Vicki Volester with her head tilted back—not from interest in the ceiling’s universal streamers and balloons and glitterball, but to save her eye makeup from getting smudged by an abundance of unshed tears.

 

“I can’t find Tony,” she gulped.  “I don’t think he’s here and he didn’t call before I left so maybe he’s just late but what if he isn’t coming like he didn’t to the track meet last spring but at least then he had the decency to say so and tell me ‘cause it really is getting stood up if he didn’t even bother to do that ‘cept I don’t feel ‘stood up’ (gulp) I feel knocked flat like at that dumb old volleyball match I didn’t even want to play in and why does this keep happening to me again and again, Space?  It’s not fair, it really truly isn’t…”

 

Spacyjane took Vicki in her midnight-blue arms and laid Vicki’s gulping head on her midnight-blue shoulder (which wouldn’t show much spottage from molten mascara) as she did when real life got to be too much for Kathleen or LeAnn or Floramour; lightly rocking Vicki to Omega Vega’s rendition of David Ruffin’s “Walk Away from Love”:

 

 

So I'm leaving (I'm leaving, yes I am)

This time I'm playing it smart (I'm leaving, yes I am)

I'm gonna walk away from love (walk away from love)

  Before love breaks my heart…

 

“There you are!  Mind if I cut in?”

 

Oh Gahd!” cried Vicki, leaping off Spacyjane’s shoulder to whirl dervishly around Spacyjane’s back, averting her streaked face from the evaluatable resurfacing of Tony Pierro.

 

“Sorry I’m late, but—”

 

“Space!  Ask him where has he been??”

 

“Hello, Tony.  It’s neat to see you again.  Where have you been?”

 

“Er well—hi, Jane—I didn’t get off work when I thought I would, and—”

 

“Space!  Ask him if he’s still working at that deli with Kinks??”

 

“The Columbine Deli?  Are you still working there, Tony?  I haven’t seen you there in forever.”

 

“Er well no, I left them a long time ago.  Now I work Saturdays at Paulsie’s Pizza, and—”

 

“Oh, the one on Bedeguar?” Spacyjane asked unprompted.

 

“No, the one on Pfenniger, up near the Lagoons.  I had to—”

 

“The Lagoons!  I haven’t been there in forever.  Do you get to go kayaking—”

 

“Space!” went Vicki.

 

“—had to wait for a ride home,” Tony persisted.  “So I could get cleaned up, y’know, and put on a suit… hey, you’ve been crying!”

 

Useless for Vicki to have Spacyjane deny this.  Or to stay as resentful, since Tony’d cleaned up very neatly and wore an appealingly purple bow tie; he even carried a wrist corsage of what looked like sweetheart roses.

 

“Oh… is that for me?” Vicki asked him directly.

 

“Yeah, hope you like it.”

 

“Um… thanks… maybe I oughta get cleaned up, though, before I put it on—”

 

“Space, have you seen Vicki?” said Joss, craning her curly head behind the throne.  “There you are!  We’ve got trouble—Nonique’s date’s getting hassled at the snack table, and—aaagh!  What happened to you?”  Dervish-whirl on the startled Tony: “What’ve you done to her?”

 

“I—I—nothing!  Just got here late is all—”

 

“Never mind that,” said Vicki, swiping a crisp white handkerchief from Tony’s blazer pocket and applying it to her facial streaks, which only made them smearier.  “Where’s Nonique?”

 

“With him!  That” (lowered voice) “butthole Baa-Baa’s got ‘em hemmed in—”

 

“Let’s go,” Vicki ordered; and off the four of them went on the double to the table by the steam counter that’d been set up with a punchbowl, plates of cookies, dishes of finger foods and other refreshments.  At one corner they found Nonique, Rhonda and the Buckley brothers being accosted by a large boozy-breathed guy whom Spacyjane recognized as Sheila Quirk’s older brother Burke, said to be the family black sheep: hence “Baa-Baa.”  (Recently he’d vowed to “throw everybody who ain’t Irish” out of the Grand Parade Bar & Grill, under the schnockered impression that Columbus Day was supposed to be St. Paddy’s Part II.)

 

Now Rhonda Wright was cracking unresponded-to jokes while Darren Buckley offered baritone gospel pacification; but there rooting for Baa-Baa was an even bigger guy, Craig Clerkington, who had a mean little smile on his heavy meaty face and two cups of punch in his heavy meaty hands.  Haw haw haw he went as Baa-Baa interrogated the “Buckwheat boys” on what school they attended when they weren’t crashing Vanderlund dances; and though Darren and Luther might be skilled at protective camouflage in combative situations, they didn’t look likely to put up with this much longer before putting up their dukes which was just what Baa-Baa probably wanted to provoke and Craig too, all set to “accidentally” spill those cups of punch—

 

—though maybe not on the Buckleys as Joss and Vicki swooped around from either side to stand next to Rhonda and Nonique, the latter completely expressionless except for enormous brown eyes that somehow widened even further at the sight of Vicki’s streaky-smudged face—

 

“Jesus, Loopy, this isn’t an Alice Cooper lookalike contest!” said Robin Neapolitan, who stood by smirking in a strawberry dress till Vicki turned in her direction and ZAP—sent practically-visible laser beams out of blotchy blackened sockets, making Robin (that hardcore toughminded biker chick) practically-visibly flinch.  “Yeah, well… c’mon, babe, I’m thirsty here,” she told Craig.  “Thought you were getting us something to drink.”

 

“Thirsty, hunh?” grinned Craig, allowing himself to be detached from the tablecorner and drawn away.  Spacyjane took his place, gazing up with great interest at Burke Quirk, who stared down at her in much the same astonishment as Papa Dmitria.

 

“Who’re you s’posed to be—Panama Hattie?” he barked, reaching for her bowler-brim; but Spacyjane, serene as always and securely épingle’d, did a laidback bob-and-weave (you can’t dance and stay uptight) to Omega Vega’s “Lido Shuffle,” causing Baa-Baa to overextendedly sprawl onto his unstable knees and nearly capsize Slim Jim Khim, who was rambling around in search of Joss.

 

“What’s going on here?” demanded Mr. Wright, career counselor and Homecoming chaperone, who as Rhonda’s father had (at her request) been patrolling the other end of the cafeteria.

 

“Why, I do believe it looks as if Quirky Burke took a li’l fall,” Rhonda remarked.

 

“Might’ve known,” grimaced Mr. Wright as he heaved Baa-Baa halfway upright.  “Been sampling something stronger than punch, Mr. Quirk?”

 

Garbled burble by Baa-Baa, drowned out by Alvin Dobbs avalanching over to report “That rat bastard Brach’s out in the parking lot, trashing our cars!

 

“MY BABBOO!!” shrieked Robin Neapolitan, racing through the crowd with her strawberry hem held knee-high for greater acceleration.  Many others tore out after her, including Craig and Alvin and Baa-Baa and Mr. Wright, though the latter shouted for everyone else to slow down and stay calm.

 

“Are all your dances like this?” Darren Buckley asked Nonique.

 

“You got me—this is my first here,” she replied before turning to Vicki.  “Girl, what happened to you?

 

“Sorry I wasn’t here sooner.  Are you okay?”

 

(Exhalation unleashed as she accepted Vicki’s embrace.)  “Oh, I ‘spect so…  Are all the dances here like this?”

 

“Gahd, I hope not.”

 

“Well, this one isn’t over yet,” said Tony Pierro: taking back his hanky, dipping it into a glass of clear liquid (water? Sprite? Smirnoff?) and dabbing tenderly at Vicki’s motley blotches.

 

“Don’t!” went Spacyjane, shooting out a delicate elfin hand—not at Tony, but the lens of a complicated camera raised to a big-glasses-on-a-big-nose’d eye by a paltry figure with a shock of rusty hair, who’d sprung up out of thin air to advance Vickiwards.  The lens bobbed; Spacyjane’s hand bobbed.  Lens weaved; hand weaved.  Lens was lowered; hand was not.

 

“You shouldn’t’ve oughtn’t’ve done that,” reflected her Swee’Pea.

 

Fingers trembled, yet hung in there resolutely.  “Just leave them alone,” said Spacyjane.

 

“Why certainly.  How much would they like—five hundred, a thousand?” he firesigned before fading away.

 

 

And nobody does it better

  (Though sometimes I wish someone could)

Nobody does it quite the way you do

  (Why’d you have to be so good?)

 

—played Omega Vega as Tony led Vicki onto the somewhat-depopulated dance floor, where they were followed by Joss and Slim Jim; Alex and Mike were already slow-waltzing there, almost together.

 

“Man, let’s blow this joint!” groused Luther Buckley.

 

“Ooh honey, try not to blaze up till we get outdoors,” recommended Rhonda.

 

*

 

Luckily for Hershey Brach, he fled the VTHS parking lot before doing any damage to Robin’s Plymouth Fury and incurring her eternal wrath.  (If it was Hershey who’d been out there vandalizing; some suspected Clark Barrantes, the Trashman of Athens Grove, of going on a vengeful spree for getting battered by the same firebombers as Nadine Rugova.)

 

It took quite awhile to herd the dispersed dancers back into the cafeteria, but Fleur Groningen couldn’t wait; as last year’s Homecoming Queen she’d agreed to come crown her successor as tradition dictated, but not to spend the whole damn weekend in Vanderlund.  So at the stroke of eleven she plunked the tiara onto the new Queen (Faye Howell, of course, after last night’s melodrama) and took off for her red-eye return flight to Yale.

 

The Homecoming Dance continued for another hour, toward the end of which Spacyjane’s restive path again crossed that of her Swee’Pea, whom she discovered with Dennis Desmond and an out-of-water nymph or naiad or nixie (emphasis on the nix) spilling forth from a décolleté sea-green gown.

 

That Girl from Willowhelm, in the flesh.

 

Talking a mile a minute with Dennis about her scheme to pop into the homecoming galas at every NESTL(É) school, plus Startop, Front Tree, and Archbishop Houlihan.  Some of these fêtes were on the same night, necessitating a fuel more potent than coffee or tea; as might be surmised from the glistening glint in her eyes and upon her nostrils.

 

“Appears that you had to hike over here from Hereafter Park through seven miles of a seven-foot-high snowfall without benefit of shovel or plow or roof rake or sidewalk scraper,” said Dennis.

 

(Giggle-iggle-iggle.)  “They do know the best ways how to party.  And have the best stuff to party with.”

 

FLASSSHHHH flassshhhh flassshhhh by Swee’Pea’s camera at jiggle-iggle-iggles.

 

“Eww, it’s that floozie-pooh, I just hate her!” hissed The Embodiment in Spacyjane’s ear.  “Don’t you just hate her?  She’s so obvious.”

 

Pots and kettles and the calling of blackness.

 

Or of darkness: as of the heart.  Or the enshrouded moon, unable to blush (through no fault of its own) as love lies bleeding below: a phantom like Dawn Amory, needing candles to be lighted for its release from the mundane.

 

Westburb Heartbreak: challenging the practice to be perfect Stepford Wives for guys that fade in and out of consciousness, whether theirs or yours.  And beware of any superficial masquerade as Beauty—yet you have to treat embodiments (however shameless) with great care, lest their temporarily incarnated spirits be jeopardized.

 

Ongoing beguilement by those lacking souls, though, was quite another matter.

 

Envision a dolly opera with an old-fashioned spinning newspaper headlined:

 

 

 

(But not too soon…)


 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Return to Chapter 40                          Proceed to Chapter 42

 

 

A Split Infinitive Production
Copyright © 2021 by P. S. Ehrlich

 

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