Chapter 42

 

Eraserlip

 

 

There were in fact four separate dinner parties when the Volesters hosted the Smiths and Carlisles at Burrow Lane that Sunday.  Felicia, Alfreda, and Aunt Fritzi chattered at one end of the dining room; Ozzie, the Rebounder, and Gross Uncle Doug traded horselaughs at the opposite end; Goofus and Randle ran the dozens on each other, harping on Halloween and head lice (of which there’d been a recent rash of cases in local grade schools); while Vicki and Nonique cleaned their plates as quickly as possible, cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher without being asked, then escaped to Vicki’s room—

 

—though not before Patches Rumpelmagen banged on the terrace’s glass doors with a pumpkin, into which an illuminated pair of mooning buttocks had been ingeniously carved.  The resulting insulting boy-gang ruckus was still audible even after Vicki snapped on her bedroom radio and turned up its volume.

 

“Why couldn’t we have had little sisters?” she wailed, raising her voice over the Alan Parsons Project’s unsympathetic “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You.”

 

“Guess we were extra-blessed,” Nonique sighed.  “Speaking of which—”

 

“(Groan.)  Please promise you can save both our butts on tomorrow’s test.”

 

“Girl, we’re going to be swimming with a shark in the water.  Even if you hold onto me, you’ll still have to kick your own feet to stay unchomped.  So c’mon—”

 

Biology books were cracked open and review was begun of half a semester’s cellular study—structure, function, membranes, hemostasis, photosynthesis, energetics, respiration.  Long before the last page was turned, Vicki could hear nothing but the Jaws fisherman wanting to know “What is this bite radius crap?

 

We’re gonna need a bigger boat to outrun Mr. Dimancheff...

 

“Look at it this way,” Nonique advised.  “We haven’t had to slice ‘n’ dice any animals yet.”

 

“(Groaaaan…)”

 

So it went all midterms week.  Vicki missed the old VW cram sessions, where the whole bunch would gather at one of their homes every night and Robin’d bring a Special Supreme Pan Pie or two to nourish their group scholarship.  Even being on different academic teams hadn’t hindered this, since the standard eighth- and ninth-grade curricula had been similar regardless of who taught it, and an honors student on X could readily tutor any general-level Y’s or Z’s.  But now at VTHS they were all so scattered, taking such different courses with variant teaching methods, that it was safest to stick with your own classmates—Nonique in Bio, Jenna in Spanish, Alex in World History, Robin in Geometry (despite her impatience with the less-mathematical-minded) and Joss and Fiona in English, doubling up there since that midterm was sure to be graded by Madeline Wrippley, and with as much willingness as Mr. Dimancheff to flunk them one and all.

 

Apart from Maddie, Mr. D and other predatory types, the week took grueling toll on everyone including the football Gondoliers, who went up to Hereafter Park on Friday night for the last game of the regular season and, needless to say, got stiffed by the referees on every play.  Penny Stone was so disgusted by this defeat that she not only canceled the afterparty at her house, but threatened anybody who threw one anywhere else.  Nor was Penny mollified when word came from Athens Grove that the Windjammers had lost to the Olympians; meaning Vanderlund had backed into the Shoreside Division title with a 6‑2‑0 record, versus Willowhelm’s 5‑2‑1 and Hereafter Park’s 4‑3‑1.

 

“Call yourselves ‘G-Men!’” she sneered at Jeff Friardale.  “You ought to change your name to F Troop!  Nobody who lets themselves get bilked and fleeced deserves a shot at the championship!”

 

“What the hell were we supposed to do against those asshole H.P. refs??”

 

“I’ll thank you not to cuss and swear at me, Loser!”

 

(Another man might’ve made some mention of the Homecoming Queen contest at this point, but Jeff Friardale was hardly that reckless.)

 

Penny, as Alex later related, was still raging the following night at Dickinson Literary Society’s annual candlelight tea party.  This was intended to formally welcome newly-initiated members and, like most other LitSoc rites and rituals, used to be done with a lot more pomp and circumstance.  “This year we might as well toast S’mores over a campfire!” Penny snarled.

 

(“I’d’ve loved to do that!” Alex the Girl Scout later confided to Vicki and Joss.)

 

All four societies held their tea parties on Saturday the 5th of November.  “‘I know of no reason / why the Gunpowder Treason / should ever be forgot,’” enunciated Mrs. Pentire, Austen-Alcott’s faculty advisor, at whose home the AA party took place.  Her quote was understood by those like Joss who remembered the introductory note to Mary Poppins Opens the Door, and those like Spacyjane who could recite that note word for word:

 

“‘Only the very meanest people refuse to give pennies, and these are always visited by Extreme Bad Luck.’”

 

“Try vocalizing with greater inflection, Jane,” suggested Mrs. Pentire.

 

She was a Speech teacher and herself rather Poppinsish, though with less of a nanny’s aura (as Spacyjane would phrase it) than that of a telephone operator on a hearing-impaired exchange.  Her oral finickiness was lightened by an Austen-Alcottesque sense of humor, though never when it came to proper articulation; she was one of the few who regretted the departure of Candy Gates’s distinct syllables from AA.

 

The Pentires lived in a Prairie School house on Pearlwort Drive near Petty Road, and Mrs. Pentire’s husband Paxton worked as a public relations director for a plastic packaging plant.  Besides providing his wife with a pithy exercise in “voiceless plosives,” Mr. Pentire gave prorated room and board to Miss Rosamond Ambrose, his late mother’s best friend and longstanding concertmistress at Vanderlund Senior High, now retired on a pittance of a pension.

 

“I’m so pleased my Blue Rose china service has a chance to be enjoyed by so many young people,” she twittered during the tea party.  “And please don’t worry about damaging any of the cups and saucers.  Or the teapot.  Or the sugarbowl.  Or the creampitcher.”

 

(Everyone handling any of these promptly found a sturdy flat surface to anchor it on.)

 

“‘Blue Rose’ is kind of a... whatchamacallit, isn’t it?” asked Alva Dee Bickling.

 

“Try to be more specific in your choice of words,” urged Mrs. Pentire.

 

“Um... contradiction?” ventured Scott Grampian.

 

“Oxymoron,” one-upped Lesley Ogilvie, as was her right (indeed duty) as Presiding Genius and Scott’s girlfriend.

 

“They have yeller roses in Texas,” Chewy Hewitt rebutted, with a “Yellow in the north, that is” nod at Mrs. Pentire.

 

“Aren’t carnations really white roses that wind up getting ground up into powdered milk?” wondered Nancy Sykeman.

 

“Not on Aquamarine & Gold Day they weren’t.  Or didnt,” said Nancy Buschmeyer.  “The Pep Club hogged all the white carnations in town for their float.  Monopolize, I mean—not ‘hog,’” with an apologetic glance at Mrs. Pentire.

 

“Much more suitable,” she approved.  “And accurate.  I found their float decoration to be rather excessive.  Overabundance is not necessarily a virtue.”

 

“‘Nothing amuses me more than the easy manner with which everybody settles the abundance of those who have a great deal less than themselves,’” chipped in Spacyjane.  Who added (after the tea party was reduced to silence) “That’s from Mansfield Park.

 

Oh-of-course murmurs from the other AAs, and “Isn’t that the one with the priggish Fanny?” enthused Jerome Schei.

 

“Fanny!  That’s right, I appeared with Fanny Brice in Billy Rose’s Sweet and Low,” remarked Miss Rosamond Ambrose.  “Mind you, I was only in the chorus, but Borrah Minnevitch did let me hold his harmonica.  If you young folks catch my meaning.”

 

Vigorous pay-no-attention headshakes by Mrs. Pentire, causing candleflames to flicker; which didn’t deter Jerome, Isabel, and Holly Brollis from beseeching Miss Ambrose to tell more if not all.  She demurred at first, then went on in graphic detail about her days (make that nights) as a Jazz Age Broadway chorine, including backstage assignations with Chico and Harpo Marx during the original run of The Cocoanuts.

 

Austen-Alcott drank this in with dropped jaws, their tea forgotten; and Rula Hradek took copious notes for her erotic roman à clef till Mrs. Pentire begged everyone’s pardon and firmly escorted Miss Ambrose upstairs to bed.

 

“Please don’t take anything she said seriously,” requested Paxton Pentire the PR pro, whod emerged from his den during his late mother’s best friend’s tell-all if not more.  “Aunt Rosamond is an old lady, and I’m afraid shes slipping into a world of her own.”

 

“(But what a world,)” murmured Rula as she flexed her cramped writing hand.

 

“And all this came out ‘cause Space knows her Jane Austen,” quipped Joss as she and Vicki waited in the vestibule for Mr. Murrisch to pick them up for their Saturday sleepover at Jupiter Street.  (Spacyjane was spending the night with her friends Kathleen and LeAnn, who were respectively too shy and too dumb to join a LitSoc; while Nonique was going down to Riversgate to visit and attend Sunday worship with her Uncle Babe, Grandpa Bram, and great-grandfather Big Zeke.  But Alex would be brought over to the Queen Anne from Dickinson’s tea party; and Jerome, if they’d let him, would’ve come too to elicit the latest latest about Alex and Mike Spurgeon, plus whether Pam Redfern had yet absolved Jeremy Tolhurst of all negligence, plus Penny Stone’s fulminations and Cheryl Trevelyan’s exasperations and how Becca Blair still hadn’t come to cyberterms with Vicki’s having disobeyed her edict to join Dickinson.)

 

(Malfunction.  Malfunction.  This does not compute…)

 

“Byyyeeee you guyyyyeeees!” oozy-cooed Isabel as she traipsed away on Chewy Hewitt’s homespun arm.  Nancy Buschmeyer, watching them go, yanked a balaclava over her own worse-than-usual perm.

 

“Ever wanted to dropkick a girl with bouncy hair?” she asked through knit fabric and gritted teeth.

 

“Um, well… we weren’t allowed to do that, playing volleyball,” said Vicki.

 

“Even so,” scowled Nancy B, stalking off to climb into Nancy S’s Klown Kar (a Rambler Rebel painted the color of streaky bacon).

 

“That reminds me: Toughie’s got this new recipe for extra-egg quiche I want to try tomorrow morning,” Joss was saying as the Murrisch Lincoln Continental pulled up on Pearlwort—

 

—and nearly bumped into a stray pedestrian who’d appeared out of nowhere but evaded head-on impact with a classic backflip pratfall.

 

What the hell just HAPPENED?? Vicki and Joss sub-yelled at each other, hurrying over to the curb where Raymond Murrisch crouched by the silhouetted tumbler, whose butt was in the gutter and legs were splayed onto the sidewalk.  “Dad!” gasped Joss.  “Is he…?”

 

“Oh, I’m okay,” said a semirecognizable voice.  “I know how to roll with the flow.”

 

“Take it easy, son,” Mr. Murrisch told the tumbler; but he reared himself elastically upright, scarcely even using his hands to push.  Vicki was thinking this limber guy had a whole lot of resemblance to Tony Pierro, when she realized this was because he was Tony Pierro, brushing dust from his jacket and jeans and waving off Joss’s father’s concerns for caution.

 

“Guess I wasn’t going where I was looking,” Tony murmured, his big brown diffident-puddyboy eyes (visible even in the evening darkness) fixed on Vicki.  “No harm done.  Sorry I got in your way, sir.”

 

“That was quite a fall you took, son.  Lucky for both of us I’ve got Sure-Track brakes.  Still think you ought to get medical attention.”

 

Vicki’d be glad to examine you, Joss sub-offered.

 

Shut UP!!  You almost said that out loud!!

 

YOU shut up.  You know you’d love it.

 

“Here’s my card, anyway,” Mr. Murrisch was saying.  “Don’t hesitate to call me if you do have any problems.  Now, can I drop you anywhere?”

 

Too late for that, Joss sub-observed.  He’s the Man Who Fell to Earth.

 

That’s not funny!  He could’ve broken something—DON’T you dare say it! Vicki sub-warned.

 

“Oh no thanks, I’m bunking over there now,” Tony replied, indicating the Prairie School domicile two doors down from the Pentires.  Which Vicki hadn’t noticed before, but recognized from past Cicada staff gatherings as Petula Pierro’s house.

 

“Are you living with Downtown now?” she asked.  “Tayser, I mean?  Or whatever she’s calling herself these days?”

 

“Well, actually with my Uncle Beppe and his wife.  I don’t see” (vague handflap signifying Tony’s half-stepcousin-once-removed) “that often.  It’s kind of a long story…”

 

“Which’ll have to wait for telling, I’m afraid,” said Mr. Murrisch.  “Got to get these young ladies home.  If you’re sure you’re not hurt, son?”

 

“Nossir, I’m fine.’

 

SO fine, Vicki couldn’t help but sub-sigh.

 

Doo-lang-doo-lang-doo-lang, Joss sub-chiffoned.

 

“Um, I’ll be at Joss’s till tomorrow afternoon,” Vicki told Tony as he slowly backed away.  “But if you wanna, y’know, ‘talk’ or whatever, about that kind-of-a-long-story…”

 

“I’ve got your number,” said Tony.  “Night now.”  Re-silhouetting under a Pearlwort streetlamp with one hand raised: not for a vague flap this time, but as if to wave—or was it to beckon, Solovayishly?—before Vicki’s goggling eyes.

 

*

 

Nor was that the only echo from a year ago to resound in Vicki’s boggling mind.

 

Even after the Homecoming Dance, Tony Pierro remained as elusive and evasive to answering Twenty Questions as Dave Solovay’d ever been.  To be sure, midterms week wasn’t the primest time to establish a lasting relationship; but Vicki still wasn’t certain whether Tony went to VTHS, or was simply dropping by (like The Man Who Fell to Earth) at odd hours.  He didn’t always appear in Grandma Ivy’s Study Hall; he deflected most of Vickis when-and-where inquiries, shrugging off her who-and-whys.

 

Tony did show up unexpectedly near the end of the English cram sessionette at Burrow Lane.  Three other amazing things about that pop-in were Fiona’s [a] blushing to the roots of her dyed-black hair, [b] stuttering instead of muttering at Tony, and [c] taking off for home on foot, which was not Feef’s preferred mode of travel.  “(Can I help it if I’ve got sensitive soles?)” she’d say.

 

Vicki remembered their trip to the Columbine Delicatessen last April, and speculating then whether Fiona nursed (insofar as Feef could ever nurse) a covert thing for Tony Baloney—weird as that’d been to imagine, even though he was a darker-sleeker-compacter repackaging of the Hunk With No Name who’d inspired her “Ultravirgin” ode back in eighth grade.

 

Vicki’d never really pictured Fiona with any guy (other than her Thin White Duke, Mr. Bowie) though more than a few had expressed interest in her after she’d gotten foxified.  Their interest was always decidedly unrequited, if you didn’t count a fleeting fascination with Arlo Sowell’s enormity when they were both in the Lord of the Flies Piggy group.

 

Nevertheless: Feef was a fox and in no way ineligible to attract (if not captivate!) the very guy on whom Vicki’s heart was currently set, or to desire him just as deeply in return.  Maybe she’d been smitten during the Student Court trial, and they’d carried on a secret torrid love affair all through the summer which Fiona’d only pretended to spend among the punk rockers out in La-La Land—

 

Oh for Gahd’s sake.

 

Listen to yourself.

 

Secret torrid summer love affair with Tony?  Isabel Carstairs, maybe.  Carly Thibert, maybe.  Tess Disseldorf, maybe.  Kinks Farghetti, if she were willing.  Ginger Snowbedeck (doubtless capable of seducing younger boys), perhaps.

 

But never Fiona Weller.

 

Who was merely as susceptible to so-fine puddyboys as the rest of us.

 

And anyway: it wasn’t like he’d dropped by to help Feef or any of them cram for Mrs. Mallouf’s (i.e. Madeline Wrippley’s) Grammar Composition and Literature exam.  He’d come over (so he said) to hand out Paulsie’s fliers—for the whole pizza chain, which would explain his being so far west of Pfenniger Street.  And he hadn’t stayed very long, or come further into the house than the foyer (eyeing its giant-snowball pendant light hanging from the thick icicle chain: “Cool,” he called it); so Feef might just as well have hung around, though they’d pretty much wrapped up their studying anyway.

 

(And all three of them went on to ace the midterm—take that, Mousy Maddie!)

 

However: Tony Breachofpromise went on to mimic Dave Solovay’s NOT calling Vicki on Sunday, despite “having her number” and knowing it by heart.  Of course, she still had Downtown/Tayser’s number from Cicada days and could’ve tried to phone him... but Vicki didn’t feel liberated enough to transcend the time-honored girls-mustn’t-call-boys taboo.  Besides, Tayser/Downtown might’ve answered and Vicki had no appetite for talking to her, even just to ask if Tony was available—and probably get an indecent reply!

 

So Vicki arrived at school on Monday the 7th in less than a good mood.  Which was in no way improved when she again found Lumpy Skinner blocking the way to her back-row desk in First Hour Spanish; or when she again saw him leap in the air and strew his belongings over the back-aisle floor when she barked S’cuse me!

 

“Take Uranus out of here,” added Jenna Wiblitz, not glancing up from her sketch of the Mock Turtle from Alice in Wonderland, whose calf’s head was replaced by a pigeon’s and whose shell was partly submerged in a boiling cauldron.

 

Skinner’s actual pigeonhead, protruding as usual out of a gray turtleneck, stared at Vicki with typical wide-eyed stupefaction.  “It IS you!” he squawked.

 

Vicki, flouncing past him to her desk, assumed this again must mean she was the “perfect” model for Peteliske or Liblikas (character name not yet finalized) in Phantaphyre.  But from behind her back, Skinner announced:

 

“You were the one who was with that man in Auldforest Woods!”

 

That cut through the early-morning start-of-the-week class-not-yet-begun hubbub, at least in this back-half of Room 312.

 

Carly Thibert (busily flirting with Woody Tays, Mario Neri, and Tim McDemid) perked up her ears.  As did Gail Spruce, an upperclass member of the Gossip Brigade; as did Tanya Saranoff, Irina’s older sister, who sat in front of Jenna; as well as Wayne Rhinelander, who sat in front of Vicki and took Spanish because he planned to become a professional wrestler in Mexico.

 

What man?” they all heard Vicki remonstrate.

 

Skinner’s hand rose to rub his sharply pointed nose, shielding his obscurely imitative Solovayish mouth from view.  “The one in the trees by the footbridge,” he faltered behind it.

 

Every trace of olivaceous color fled from Vicki’s face and her heartbeat ground to an appalled halt, as if Skinner had blundered into her bathroom just as she stepped out of the shower.  “Get away from me,” she saidnot loudly, but with a precision and distinction that Candy Gates wouldve envied and Mrs. Pentire would applaud.

 

Jenna, hopping up from her perch, thrust the agape ASS over the threshold and into the corridor where he got entangled with Chookie Yentlebaum’s brother Shecky, who always took advantage of sitting closest to the doorway to stroll in just as the late bell rang.

 

“Did I miss something?” Shecky asked, after shaking himself free from Skinner’s clumsy clutches.

 

“No,” said Vicki in a blanched voice that flared into “And don’t you start anything with me!” as she shot a black laserblast across the room at Dennis Desmond.  He barely had time to parry it with his dental shock-absorbers, and all the Christmas-type bulbs on all the wall maps seemed to vibrate.

 

Silence in the classroom.  (Silencio en el aula.)

 

Broken by Dennis slowly whistling Mimi Fariña’s “In the Quiet Morning.”

 

And then by the teacher’s ¡Señorita Volester!  ¿Cuál es el problema?

 

Vicki, still monochrome facewise and voicewise but with an approximation of composure, took her back-row seat.  “De nada.  Cálmate, comencemos.

 

“Uh… bueno, said Señor Banonis.  “Abramos nuestros libros, por favor.

 

Disregarding over-shoulder peeks from the rows ahead, Vicki opened her textbook with pale white hands that soon unfolded a blotty-ballpoint note from one desk over:

 

 

And when she did, having slunk numbly through Biology and History and Geometry, Jenna’s birdy-wings enfolded her in a petite big-sisterly embrace such as Vicki’d seldom if ever received from Tricia.  It reminded her of Bella the cockatiel and Aldo the budgie and Luigi the parrot back in old Mrs. LoCascio’s apartment on Walrock Avenue, all of whom would roost on your finger or wrist with snug little claws that held fast without biting.  Sooner or later, though, they would flutter off as Jenna did now, briskly saying “All right all right all right.  C’mon, we’ve got a lot of canvas to cover before lunch—”

 

She led the way backstage, which was mostly locked up when the auditorium wasn’t in use; but Jenna had quasi-free rein as a key member of the Stage Crew, and found them a private spot on a bench by the empty props table.

 

“Okay.  Just for you, I lowered myself to speak to that ASS.  He claimed he wasn’t there in the Woods especially to spy on you‘it just sort of happened.’”

 

“What was he even doing in Auldforest that early on a Sunday morning?  Trying to buy drugs?  But the rangers cracked down on that...  Is he really the Mad Bludgeoner?”

 

“Well, he’d definitely be the last person you’d suspect of that,” snorted Jenna.  “But didn’t all this happen a year or so ago?  There wasn’t a Mad Bludgeoner back then—at least not one who did anything we heard about.  No, that ASS was out there fantasizing about girls getting lost in an extradimensional forest.  He didn’t even recognize you as the girl with the guy in the trees by the footbridge till today.  You have on the same top now as then, he said.”

 

Vicki looked down at her purple hooded sweatshirt and realized it was the one she’d worn that particular morning, the September before last.  It had shrunk a bit or she’d grown a bit (less likely bustwise than drycleaningwise) but she’d kept it for its color... and memories.

 

“Anyway,” Jenna continued, “for what it’s worth you gave him the idea for Phantaphyre that day, so thanks.  And for what it’s also worth (which isn’t much) he says he’s ‘sorry.’  Which I can believe, since he’s that all the time anyway everywhere he goes.”

 

“Yeah… I guess… but it’s so embarrassing to know somebody was watching when I, when he, when we…  It’s like finding out your underwear drawer got rooted through.”

 

“Tell me about it,” said Jenna, her birdy-face darkening.

 

“I’d like to… all about it… when we’ve got time.  Could I maybe come over after school today?”  (She’d never told anyone but Joss the full story of Dave Solovay, not till Nonique came along needing reciprocation.  It wasn’t the sort of thing you could share with Alex or Fiona.)

 

“Absolutely.  But right now we’d better get to the cafeteria, before they run out of pineapple slices to go with the creamed chicken.”

 

Vicki paused long enough backstage to give her another hug.  “Thanks… I’m so glad you talked to me.  And listened to me.  And’ve gotten to be my friend.”

 

“I always wanted a little sister,” Jenna said matter-of-factly, adjusting her glasses: framed today with miniature tracks on which tiny choo-choos were frozen in motion.

 

“I suppose everybody in Spanish thinks I’ve gone loco,” Vicki mumbled as she and Jenna headed up the auditorium aisle.

 

“The guys are a lot more interested in you.  The girls want to know your deep dark secret.  So do I, but what I really want is your help convincing Enid Stott she can’t go another day with a squint on her face instead of a pair of Wiblitz specs—‘the Aston Martin of Eyewear.’”

 

*

Vernonique slipped Vicki her second note of the day across the cafeteria table:

 

 

“Oh hey, I just thought of the answer to that Biology question,” Vicki ad-libbed.  “Let me write it down for you…”

 

 

Nonique shook a head with bent brows and descended beauty dot.  No he didn’t and since when do you “think of answers for a subject I'm supposed to save your butt in?

 

Sorry sorry sorry, it’s been that kind of day all morning, I should’ve stayed in bed.

 

“‘Early to bed’ is squirrelly advice,” murmured Jenna beside Vicki.

 

“That’ll leave us free to see through your disguise,” slant-rhymed Lisa Lohe beside Jenna, though not to her or Vicki.

 

“If not now, when?” carped Hillel Schiller beside Lisa, to her and the cafeteria table.

 

Hillel had taken Link Linford’s seat there, and was auditioning for Link’s role as Lisa’s consort; Link having resigned from both seat and role to go care for Samantha Tiggs, who in turn had forsaken her seat between Nonique and Holly Brollis.  (Link fell far short of Sammi’s beau ideal—no way would she need to stand on tiptoe in high heels to kiss him—but they’d begun walking their aged dogs together in Bashford Park, Sammi’s Mr. Splotches and Link’s basset hound Alouette.  Alex found this poignantly sentimental and wished Mike Spurgeon had a dog so they could do the same.)

 

The vacant Tiggs stool should’ve been occupied by Tony Pierro, now and every lunchtime.  Yet even if it were, his reticent presence couldnt have offset the obnoxiousness of Hillel “Call Me Killer” Schiller, including his presumption that you’d immediately notice his spitting-image likeness to Richard Dreyfuss:

 

“That means nothing to you people?  You have no romance, no soul?”

 

“Shut up, Swiller,” from Cheryl Trevelyan at the next table.

 

Hillel’s mother dreamed of him transferring to The City’s prestigious Jewish Academy where he could tread in the footsteps of his grandfather, Rabbi Moishe Lorch.  (“The name says it all,” remarked Rabbi Pip’s granddaughter Jenna.)  But Hillel had no religious ambitions; he yearned to run roughshod over scores of nubile females and racquetball opponents.  His win/loss record in both categories was less than overpowering.

 

Postmenopausal women were blind to Hillel’s faults and urged their offspring to either date or play racquetball with him.  Rachel Gleistein fell into the first trap at the behest of her Bubbe, who should’ve known better; Hillel, if not a dybbuk, was at least a zhlub.  Lisa Lohe accepted the second challenge, got peeved by his court tactics, and was further irritated when Hillel treated her afterward to nothing better than a hot dog and fries.  (“He didn’t even spring for double cheese!”)  Lisa’s veins-standing-out rictus-of-exertion did little to ignite Hillel’s libido; yet he pressed his suit upon her, needing a new table to eat at after pissing off Charisse Slorchik and her boyfriend Cal Cavella.  Cal’s assigned lunch period was 4A, but he paid a special visit to 5D just to chase “Killer” away from Charisse.

 

“I’m not going to waste my time arguing with a man who’s lining up to eat a lukewarm lunch,” Hillel dreyfussed.

 

Lisa actually sympathized, having scorned Charisse Slorchik as a tepid pierogi since seventh grade.  Jenna, though, quicksketched a gesticulating guinea pig (Hillel talked with his hands along with his mouth) that Vicki giggled at and Lisa chose not to be aware of.

 

*

 

All very entertaining yet beside the point, which once again was the whereabouts and whenabouts and whyabouts of Tony Truant Absentee Pierro.  Who still couldn’t be depended on to put in an appearance anyplace at any time; much less to chase off Hillel or Dennis or Skinner, or any other harassing nuisance should that prove necessary.

 

No surprise then (except maybe to him) that when he finally bobbed up on Tuesday, Tony received a rather frigid shoulder from spite-tinged Vickiuntil he apologized, unasked and of his own accord, for being remiss in his wooing.

 

“That’s all gonna change Friday night—that is, if you’re free Friday night.  I wanna take you out on a proper date—that is, if you’d like to go on a proper date.  Dinner, movie, the works.”

 

“Hunh!  You sure you won’t have to work, and bail on me again?  Like you did when you asked me to the indoor track meet last March?”

 

“Uh, yeah, well… like I said, I left that deli a long time ago.  And I can get out of my Friday night shift at Paulsie’s—the manager owes me a favor for handing out all those fliers.  So will you, Vicki?  I really do wanna do the right thing by you.”

 

“Well I dunno,” she sniffed—not so much from playing hard to get, as to keep from being a meltaway pushover.  (Wondering what his ears looked like under all that flowing hair, and how they might taste if nibbled upon, and how Tony might react if she blew in one.  Which sounded dumb if not gross, but was reputed to be hot and unquestionably intimate.)  “So why didn’t you phone me Sunday?  And why didn’t you come to lunch yesterday?  And why are you living in Downtown/Tayser’s house?  And—”

 

“I’ll explain all about everything Friday night.  We’ll have lots of time to ourselves then.  No more interruptions.”

  

“Well… how would we get anywhere?”

 

“Sorry I don’t have my license yet, but my Uncle Beppe can drive us.  Howzabout to the New Sherwood?  Plenty of places to eat, and they’re showing The Last Remake of Beau Geste—y’know, with Marty Feldman.

 

“You’d have to meet my parents first.”

 

“I’d like to meet your parents first.”

 

“You’d have to give me a straight answer to any question I ask.”

 

“I’ll do my best to give you a straight answer to any question you ask.”

 

So call me a pushover, thought Vicki.  Not to mention meltaway she added, when Tony sealed their datemaking with a long sizzly kiss.

 

*

 

Wednesday was one of those days when Cityland temperatures plunged from the mid-60s down to the mid-30s.  This affected everyone at VTHS (especially those who didn’t wear the layered look) and short-circuited Mr. Watford, who taught computer programming and supervised the audio-visual squad.  Hacking into the school P.A. system, he warbled “Tiptoe Through the Do-Loops” over and over it in a hollow sepulchral voice till Becca Blair took bionic charge, talking him down and out and into an ambulance.  This saddened the just-as-infatuated Matt LaVintner, who wished he’d thought of such a coup de grâce first; but gladdened Mr. Rankin the Geometry teacher, who was asked to take over Mr. Watford’s duties and thereby gained a dollop of job security.

 

Then on Thursday Isabel pitched another public fit, this time in the cafeteria.  She’d begun coming there for Lunch 5D (after dining alfresco till that got too chilly) and Vicki’d been worried, anticipating Is might try to capitalize on their kinda-sorta-friendship to take Sammi’s place at the table.  But Izzy’d whizzied over to the largest congregation of jocks and hunks, where she could make an entire meal out of tidbits mooched off jock-and-hunk trays.  This Thursday, though, she loaded a tray for herself and got it as far as the cashier before discovering her Fendi Zucca coinpurse wallet had gone missing from her Bottega Veneta bag.

 

Result: fit pitched, followed by consolation given (and lunch paid for) by jocks-and-hunks Gootch Bulstrode and Rags Ragnarsson and Creaky Locke and Arlo Sowell.

 

Vicki presumed Isabel had either left her wallet at home or in her locker, or been ripped off by Mauly; but Joss had a different idea.  “When the bell rang after Second Hour everyone charged out of all the rooms at once, because of the rumor” [that school would close early due to heavy snowfall, which failed to happen] “and there was this big mob out in the hall that got to see Is go sprawling in the shortest skirt ever worn in November outside the Ice Capades.  Anyway, all the guys took a good long look before helping her up and collecting her stuff, including that fancy Italian bag.  Any one of them could’ve helped themselves to anything inside it.”

 

“And she didn’t check her bag when she got it back?”

 

“No, she was too busy not pulling her skirt down.  Feef muttered ‘(I thought Carly was a bitch-in-heat)’—excuse my Advanced French—in one of my ears, while Space said something like “At least those are pretty butterflies’ in my other ear.  Probably meaning the ones on Izzy’s underpants, but with Space you never know.”

 

“Gahd, is Isabel still wearing those French-cut panties?  I suppose we should be thankful she wears anything.”

 

“Well, don’t be surprised if Floramour has on the exact same pair, except teenier.”

 

*

 

November 11th used to be Armistice Day, then Veterans Day till that got shifted to the fourth Monday of October, and would again be celebrated as such starting next year.  But for right now, November 11th was merely another TGI Friday.

 

Though not TGI to the desolated Tony Pierro, who had to inform Vicki he was no longer on the payroll of Paulsie’s Pizza (a subsidiary of Quicksilver Corner Resources).

 

“Because you asked for tonight off??”

 

“No.”

 

“So why then?”

 

“Can’t tell you.”

 

“Oh, not this again—you promised you’d give me straight answers, Tony!”

 

“Said I’d do my best to.”

 

“Well this isn’t your best  I can’t date a guy who won’t be upfront with me!”

 

“You wouldn’t wanna date me anyway if you knew what happened.”

 

“I probably would so!  C’mon, it can’t be that bad—I mean you didn’t kill anybody, right?”

 

“No.”

 

“Did you beat someone up?”

 

“No.”

 

“Were you like sleeping on the job, or sneezing in the sauce, or selling dope on the side?”  (This sounds like Snow White grilling a Dwarf.)

 

“No, no, no.”

 

What, then?  Are you a secret pizza embezzler?”

 

(Silence.)

 

Tony??  I just made that up!  How could a pizza even be embezzled?—did they like accuse you of stealing Special Supreme Pan Pies?”

 

“No... they said... I took some money.  From the register.”

 

Don’t ask “Did you?”  “Well... that was a stupid thing for them to say.  You don’t have to put up with it lying down, either.  Joss’s dad—you met him in the street last weekend—he’s a lawyer, and can take Paulsie’s to court—”

 

“No!  That’d just give them a chance to, y’know, rake up other things.”

 

“...what other things?”

 

“You know... that whole trial business... saying I cheated on that test...”

 

“Well, but you were found—” (had he been found innocent?) “—I mean it was all Tail-End’s fault, you’d studied the whole night before” (with Kinks Farghetti) “like you said, and didn’t know what was inside that pencil he loaned you—”

 

“I know that, and maybe you believe it, but—”

 

“Course I do!”  Don’t ask if he was anywhere near Isabel’s wallet yesterday morning.  “And we won’t say another word about it.  A nice night out with a beautiful girl (ha ha) is just what you need to get your mind off things.  So have your uncle pick me up around six, and—”

 

“I can’t take you out tonight!  I’m flat broke—hadda pay back all the money they said I stole, so they wouldn’t call the cops.”

 

“That sounds like a shakedown!  Are you sure you don’t wanna—”

 

“Yes I’m sure I don’t wanna—”

 

“Well never mind.  We can still go out.  I can lend you some—”

 

“Nuh-unh!  Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but a guy should take a girl out and pick up all the checks, with his own money.”

 

Commendable and gentlemanly but not very helpful.  “Um… didn’t you have a bunch of jobs last year, all at the same time?”

 

“That was last year and those were kiddie jobs.”

 

“Okay… well, would you like to come over for dinner at my house?  We could go through the want ads

 

“Thanks, but no thanks—I don’t wanna meet your parents till I’m back on my feet and have money in my pocket again.”

 

Grrrr!  “Okay then, how about ME coming over for dinner at YOUR house??  You can do all the cooking if you want to.  And if you know how to.  And just so long as I don’t have to eat with your cousin Petula.”

 

Amusement at last from Tony.  “You really don’t like her, do you?”

 

“She left the Cicada in the lurch!  Saying ‘I won’t open letter bombs for you,’ as if anybody’d asked her to!”

 

“Well… I’d have to check with my uncle and aunt.  Couldn’t be tonight… but maybe tomorrow?  If you wouldn’t mind playing cards with me ‘n’ Bud?”

 

“Bud?” said Vicki, thinking maybe he meant Nancy Sykeman’s BLZ Bub.

 

“Buddy Marcellus—we usually play cards on the weekend, that is when we aren’t working.  He could ask his girl to come too, make it kind of like a double date.  Then me ‘n’ you could save our real date, the night out by ourselves, for when I’ve found another job.”

 

“You’ve already got a job—a big one.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“Figuring out how we can get my folks to okay this without you meeting them first.”

 

Felicia was well-disposed toward Vicki and Buddy Marcellus (whom she had met, and forgiven for dousing Vicki’s coat with a malted milkshake) wanting to go cheer up a mutual friend who was “having kind of a tough time.”  But Fel insisted on at least speaking to Tony’s uncle or aunt for assurance that an adult would be on the premises—standard parental protocol, as in Rosa Dartle days—and Vicki reluctantly gave her the phone number, dreading again that Downtown/Tayser would answer and say something horrible.  For that matter, so might Tony’s uncle or aunt, or even Tony himself if he got on the line.

 

Somebody’s gonna spill the beans! Vicki sub-despaired.

 

You don’t even know what beans he’s got to spill, sub-chided Joss, there at Burrow Lane for their regular Friday night sleepover.  (Nonique had been invited but asked to be excused; Darren Buckley was taking her out on their first solo date, to go see A Piece of the Action instead of The Last Remake of Beau Geste.  Vicki wished her luck and Joss said not to do anything Miss Rosamond Ambrose hadn’t done.)

 

Felicia as she hung up the receiver, said “What a very odd woman.”

 

“...who, Mom?”

 

“Mrs. Pierro—Tony’s aunt.  She said an adult was always at her house, because her husband never took her anywhere.  I asked if one of them could drive you to Jocelyn’s no later than eleven—

 

Yes, Mom—”

 

“—and she said her husband could do it even at 3 a.m., because he never sleeps.  I asked if she wouldn’t mind telling why Tony’s living with them instead of his parents, and she said his mother’s ‘a slugabed who has more vapors than the whole Vicks company.’”  Felicia frowned at Vicki, then at Joss, then at both.  “Isn’t this the boy you were talking about marrying last winter?”

 

“We were just kidding, Mrs. V,” Joss reiterated.

 

“I’m not going over there to tie the knot, Mom!  Just to have some dinner and maybe play some cards.”

 

“Well, I remember Jocelyn saying ‘This is how it all begins.’”

 

“And you said ‘I hope we’ll get to meet this young man before you elope with him,’” Joss smiled.  “I remember too!  We were having Puffed Rice for breakfast, and I said we ought to save some to throw at the happy couple, or maybe shoot out of a cannon—”

 

Quit helping, Vicki sub-clamored.

 `

YOU quit helping.  Now I’m hungry—what’s for dinner?...

 

*

 

On Saturday afternoon the Vanderlund Gondoliers trekked up to Triville with their varsity cheerleaders and a substantial contingent of fans for the NESTL(É) championship game.  Triville’s Red Devils had clinched the Inland Division with a record of 7‑1‑0 versus Athens Grove’s 6‑2‑0, finishing the regular season with a couple of landslide shutouts; but since these victories were over hapless Emery Ridge and winless Multch East, Coach Bolero held out hope for the Red Devils being exploitably overconfident.  Which they may have been, though you wouldn’t have known it from the way the G-Men played.  MVP Knobby Dutton bobbled the very first snap, resulting in a Jeff Friardale fumble that the Red Devils recovered and ran back 79 yards for a Triville touchdown.  Things slalomed downhill from there; and Vanderlund’s substantial contingent of fans, after enduring through the halftime show, seized the excuse of cold inclement weather to beat an early retreat.  (And thus miss Penny Stone’s fourth-quarter tantrum-upchuck on the sideline.)

 

(“One yearbook photo, coming right up,” snapshot Split-Pea Erbsen.)

 

Vicki herself was starving when she reached the Pierro place on Pearlwort Drive.  Triville’s stadium concessions were offensively overpriced, so Vicki bought nothing there but a hot chocolate that tasted like parboiled Play-Doh.  When she and Joss departed at halftime (leaving behind G-Men girlfriends Crystal and Sheila-Q, plus Alex the diehard rootin’-tooter) they bummed a getaway ride in Nancy Sykeman’s Klown Kar to Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips; but Vicki, not wanting to spoil an appetite already blunted by faux cocoa, ate only a few hush puppies that had more grease in them than cornmeal.

 

From there they repaired to Sykedelic Acres (as Nancy S called her home on Nutsedge Road: “Wouldn’t live anywhere else”) for further hanging out and cheering up not of Tony but Nancy Buschmeyer, who’d been eating her heart out since glimpsing Chewy Hewitt’s arm around Delia Shanafelt’s body in the football stands.  Nancy B was deadset certain that Chewy’s next move would be to reconcile with Nancy Hantz, “cause he’s out for spite and knows she’s one of my best friends and never got over her giving him to meeee!”

 

“And the boys don’t call her ‘Hot Pants’ for wearing out-of-fashion short-shorts,” quipped Nancy S.

 

“She won’t be able to help herself if he throws himself at herself,” Nancy B mourned.

 

“She’s ‘jist a girl who cain’t say no,’” Nancy S agreed.  “So say the word and we’ll trick ol’ Chewderhead into thinking Thirsty K’s parched for his lovin’!  Then his keister’ll get keelhauled by Jacuzzi Jake, and you can either fish him out of the drink or watch while he goes gurgle-gurgle glub-glub...”

 

“That’s not funny!  Some things shouldn’t be laughed about,” reproached Nancy B.

 

“Not around here they shouldn’t never,” Nancy S triple-negatived, with a swirl of her Filbert’s ginger ale in the one-ring circus that was the Sykeman rumpus room: her own little comedy club, decked with Second City posters of Del Close, Betty Thomas, Andrea Martin, John Belushi and Gilda Radner.  “Here your bootys ain’t shakin’ till your sides are achin’!”  (Salutatory chug of Filbert’s.)

 

No one would call Nancy S pretty in any conventional sense; her face was too broad-featured, too high-colored, and continually open-mouthed.  (“Guess how many fillings I’ve got!  Guess right and you win one!”)  Yet it had a liveliness and sprightliness that lent her immense appeal; and the only reason she wasn’t with a non-BLZ Bub boyfriend right now was so she could Be There for poor Nancy B, whom Nancy S had caringly mentored since grade school—much as Mumbles Metcalf had done for Alex, and Vicki wished Jenna Wiblitz’d been able to do for her.  On the other hand, Jenna had neither a car nor a license nor much interest in learning how to drive (“That’s what Lisa’s for”) so Nancy S was extra-appreciated when she offered to ferry Joss over to Jupiter Street, dropping Vicki and her empty stomach at Pearlwort en route.

 

Vicki tried to phone Tony to let him know she was on her way, but the Sykeman line was already in use by Nancy’s kid brother Bolivar (“I call him that ‘cause he’s plotting to conquer South America”) who was deep in conversation with Beth Murrisch, no less.  They were both on VW’s 7-Z team this year, and Beth had lured Bolivar into the bizarre labyrinth of Ulysses:

 

“‘Broken hoops on the shore; at the land a maze of dark cunning nets...’”

 

“‘And on the higher beach a dryingline with two crucified shirts...’”

 

“Beth, hang up!” ordered Joss, having grabbed the extension out of Vicki’s hand.  “Bolivar, call her back later!  Vicki needs to use the phone right now!

 

Joss...” went Vicki, with a contrite glance at Nancy S.

 

“Fine by me,” said Nancy, draining her ginger ale.  “Better than Boli ringing up Chile collect, to have a heart-to-heart with Augusto Pinochet.”

 

“And it reduces the threat that he ‘n’ Beth’ll breed a whole weirdo generation,” added Joss.  To Vicki: “Here ya go—phone’s free.”

 

Nothing but a busy signal at Tony’s, which probably meant he was calling around town trying to track her down.  Vicki threw on coat and scarf and started up the rumpus room stairs, but was brought to a halt when Nancy B burst into a fresh batch of tears.

 

“It’s all that stupid slug of a snoop’s f-f-fault!  That’s why Chewy came unhitched and d-d-drifted away, I j-j-just know it!”

 

Back downstairs to do more comforting (and tummy-growling) while keeping a nervous eye on a ticking wristwatch.

 

What slug of a snoop?  Nancy B wouldn’t say.  Skinner of course sprang to mind, insofar as anyone that sluggish could spring; and so did Split-Pea Erbsen, though sneak was more applicable than slug to his style of snoopery.  Presumably it wasn’t Holly Brollis in her You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown role, even if she was the one who started calling Pete Hewitt “Chewy” after his disastrous experiment with Skoal dipping tobacco.

 

Then too, what had been snooped?  How had it cut Chewy loose?  And why was Nancy B pining for such a Chewderhead?  No answers to these questions either.  (Talk about deep dark secrets.)  At any rate, by the time they calmed her sufficiently down to leave Sykedelic Acres, it was almost seven o’clock and Vicki’d tried twice to let Tony know she was running late.  Both times she again got a busy signal, plus the feeling he must be thinking she’d stood him up.

 

Well good!  See how he likes having that shoe on his other foot for once!

 

Two minutes later, antsy with guilt, she asked if the Klown Kar couldn’t go any faster as it waddled southward on Eugene G. Green Road.

 

“Not on these tires, cookie!” said Nancy S, pausing in her singalong with a Dr. Demento tape.  “They’re balder than an absurd soprano!  Prepare to hydroplane when we cross the Bridge—”

 

“No hurry!  No rush!” cautioned Joss from the backseat.  Though not as averse to motoring as Alex the equestrienne, she had a terror of skids and fishtails that not only made her reject Hansel Hitchens, but forego Driver’s Ed (and persuade Vicki to do likewise) till next Easter at the earliest.  “No way should we try to steer a two-ton toboggan through wintertime traffic in this slick ‘burb.”

 

“We don’t have to rush,” said Vicki, “but it is after seven...”

 

“At least you can be glad you’ve got a guy waiting for you who cares whether you’re late or not,” Nancy B sniffled in the shotgun seat.

 

“Whaddaya mean, late or not?” asked Nancy S, swerving off Panama onto Pearlwort.

 

Not ‘late’ like that!  GAHD, Nancy!”

 

“Well then, be thankful for no small blessings.”

 

“Ooh!” went Joss.  “I wish I’d said that.”

 

“‘You will, Josscar, you will…’  This the place, cookie?”

 

(Please don’t call me “cookie” when I’m so famished. “Yeah—thanks, Nancy—feel better, Nancy—wish me luck!” rapidfired Vicki, vaulting so precipitously out of the Rambler that she forgot to give her overnight bag to Joss for their Saturday sleepover in the Queen Anne aerie.  No choice now but to lug it up to a front door wreathed by... ew, what was this?  Ivy?  Moss?  Seaweed?  Something decorative, she hoped; not symptomatic of moldy decay.  She reached around it to give the bell a hesitant poke.

 

(b-z-z-z-z.)

 

S’OPEN!” from inside.

 

Okay.  Twist the knob.  Push the door.  Step through the wreath into... smokiness?  From a blaze in a living room fireplace with, apparently, a defective damper.  No alarm was sounding; maybe the Pierros hadn’t installed a smoke detector.  (Goofus liked to “test” the ones at Burrow Lane.)  Vicki, coughing a bit and fanning the hazy air, found herself being stared at by a large gray cat curled atop the back of a couch that faced away from the front door.

 

“You moving in?”

 

“‘Scuse me?” said Vicki, then peered over the cat and saw a large gray lady with a large brown bottle in one hand and an off-the-hook phone in the other.  Her small red eyes gave Vicki’s overnight case an incurious look before returning to a TV screen on which the Bionic Woman was getting a shampoo.

 

“Um... no... sorry... is Tony...?”

 

“Back there,” said the large gray lady.

 

She hadn’t been present when Vicki’d come here for Cicada staff conferences, but must be the mother Downtown referred to as “Lotta Grief.”  According to Robin and Fiona, Downtown’s father (“the Immoral Mr. Tays”) had dumped Lotta when he got ensnared by a young chippie who became Ms. Tays-the-Tease of the VW science faculty.  Meanwhile, Lotta’s pubescent daughter Doris went shopping for arts-and-crafts supplies at a Kresge store whose assistant manager was Tony Pierro’s Half-Great-Uncle Beppe.  He no sooner caught sight of the future Downtown than he wooed and married Lotta, adopted Doris, and renamed her Petula for reasons that might’ve been benevolent but felt awfully disquieting—even (especially) when Robin said “Naw, she’s crazy about him!”

 

Vicki felt an odd urge to offer Lotta belated condolences.  But then the large gray cat pounced onto the carpet at her feet and, with a come-hither stare, led the way into what had been the dining room when Vicki was last here.  Now she nearly let out a cry of horror at seeing Tony grown old (or at least middle-aged) amid a welter of hobby-shop bric-a-brac.  Plus multiple streams of smoke: one from a cigarette in middle-aged Tony’s mouth, more from butts smoldering in a plastic cup, and the longest from the engine of a model train that was trundling over miles and miles of track, connected by trestles from table to sideboard to credenza.

 

Pet??” went the stationmaster, gazing through the smokestreams with an eager if rheumy yen.

 

“No... I’m Vicki... here for Tony...”

 

“Oh.”  (Downcast hack hawk hoff.)

 

Uncle Beppe, in the deceptive flesh: he could take the Ambulatory Ashtray title from Mr. Folz the Pre-Algebra teacher.  If Doris/Petula/Downtown/Tayser really was crazy about him, it must be because Beppe provided her with freightcars of thin French coffin nails and taught her how to chainsmoke them.  Even now he was lighting a fresh cancer stick from the last one’s butt, which joined the others smoldering in the plastic cup.

 

“Tony’s in there,” he croaked.  “All a-boarrrrd!”—and away went his train around another bend.

 

Vicki’s shin got bumped by the big gray cat.  Together they entered a kitchen where (thank heavens!) the still-young, still-smoke-free, still-a-puddyboy Tony was using several decks of cards to build an elaborate skyscraper on a formica snackbar.

 

“I’m so sorry I’m la—I mean, that I didn’t get here as early as I—”

 

“Ssshhhh,” from Tony as he edged a nine of diamonds into the skyscraper’s turret.

 

Vicki, tormented by guilt and the odor of finished-and-done-with lasagna, wondered miserably if the other cardplayers had already come and gone; and if so whether she ought to go coax the phone away from Lotta Grief long enough to call Joss’s dad for a premature lift to Jupiter Street—

 

—but then the back door swung wide and in charged Buddy Marcellus, wearing a Tyrolean hat too small for his head and bearing a vast cardboard box.

 

“Here we are!  Free-of-charge delivery, diiii-rect from the Sammitch Shoppe!  This one’s got my eats—the rest of you can share what’s in the other box.”  Meaning the petite parcel being toted by the diminutive girl at his chubby heels

 

“Hope you’ve all got a hankering for day-old head cheese!” caroled Josie Nygren, the Reverse Streaker of Archbishop Houlihan.

 

As one of Sheila-Q’s old parochial pals she was familiar from parties at Castle Quirk and the Grand Parade, plus that volleyball match where she refused to get lost in Boomer Wrang’s shadow despite being less than five feet tall.  Docility was not a word in Josie Nygren’s vocabulary; nor was fear, restraint, indecision, or prudence.  S-Q said she never had to take a dare because she always beat you to it, most notoriously with her voluntary vow to re-enact “Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight” by swinging from the clapper in St. Benedict’s belfry.  It had taken the combined efforts of Sister Loretto and Brother Huntley to thwart her—“for now!”

 

 

No matter when that curfew rings
We’re gonna swing toooonight!

 

“Is head cheese really all you brought?” Vicki asked.

 

“It was supposed to be, but they tossed in some ham and turkey and tuna salad by mistake,” said Buddy, unloading his box on the drainboard.

 

“Oh, yum!  Can I have two?  I’m like dying of hunger here.”

 

“Just keep your mitts off Tony’s pastrami,” leered Josie, looking like a naughty teen version of Little Dot in the old Harvey comic books.  She sure didn’t seem Nordic, though the Nygrens were as Scandinavian as Nanette Magnus or Tina Korva.  Maybe her black hair and eyes, like Vicki’s, stemmed from having a Polish great-grandmother; which could also account for Josie’s being a Catholic schoolgirl instead of a nail-it-to-the-door Lutheran like Nanette.  Whatever her ancestry, she was supercute as she licked mayo from itty-bitty fingertips; and Vicki (wolfing down corned beef) began to worry how immune Tony might be to Josie’s reckless charms.  He’d done no more than nod at the newcomers, leaving that pastrami sub untouched to continue work on his highrise house of cards; but it couldn’t hurt to pin down whether a belfry clapper was swinging his way.

 

(Swallow.)  “So um tell me Buddy—are you two like a couple now?”

 

“I’ll say we are!  She gave me this to prove her love,” Buddy boasted, tipping his too-small Tyrolean hat.

 

“Found it lost in the lost-and-found at the Sammitch Shoppe,” said Josie, who worked there on weekends.  “When he asked me to your Homecoming Dance, I just knew it was his.

 

“But she wouldn’t agree to go with me unless I came up with a better name for her than Josie—”

 

“—sick to death of ‘Pussycats’ jokes—”

 

“—and it couldn’t be a ‘sexy’ name or a ‘cutesy’ name—”

 

“—nothing sticky-sweet—” (another lick of fingertip-mayonnaise)

 

“—so I had a brainstorm and dubbed her Junior!

 

“Why Junior?” asked Vicki.

 

“Exactly my reaction,” said Josie.

 

“‘Cause Junior’s a whole year ahead of Sophomore!” Buddy summarized.

 

“How can you not get hooked by a line like that?” sighed Josie (make that Junior) as she wrapped itty-bitty arms as far around his rotund midriff as they would reach.  “So I started calling him Big Ziggy, after the elephant at the Zoo!  ‘Member how all us kids saved our quarters to raise the money to give him an outdoor home?”

 

“Make mine the tenpin alley!” chortled Buddy (make that Ziggy? no, too peculiar) as he opened his semi-embraced mayo-stained sweater far enough to display a pachyderms bowling shirt.

 

“Heffalump boobs!” squealed Junior, grabbing hold and burying her naughty Little Dot face between them as Buddy made trumpety grunt-noises into the top of her glossy black non-Nordic head.

 

Ewwww went Vicki, slowing her consumption of a second sandwich, and rolling eyes toward Tony who gave no evidence of paying attention to anything but his pasteboard tower.  “I, um, don’t think I remember seeing you two at Homecoming...”

 

“We didn’t make it,” Junior muffle-snuffled into Buddy’s bosomdepths.

 

“Not to the dance, anyway!” Buddy guffawed.

 

EWWWW.  And Vicki’d felt sorry for turning him down when he’d asked her to the dance, knowing how badly Buddy’d been hurt by Laurie’s abandoning him.  It ought to be pleasant to see him now with a new girlfriend who gave him uninhibited endearments and a Tyrolean hat, but this was verging on the gross

 

“We gonna play cards here, or what?”

 

So said Tony: his first words tonight aside from “Ssshhhh.”

 

Plucking a four of clubs out of his skyscraper, he caused it to collapse jackstraws-style into a pile that got swept off the snackbar into the emptied sandwich box.  A fresh deck was produced from the shelf behind him, as well as a trilby with a squashed-flat crown that Tony set firmly on his brow like a gambler’s eyeshade.  Buddy cocked his own Tyrolean at a pugnacious angle as The Godfather Saga’s opening theme could be heard moaning out of Lotta Grief’s TV.

 

“‘When did I ever refuse an accommodation?’” Buddy asked in a Brando accent.  “‘But I thought that when it was your time, you would be the one to hold the strings.’”

 

“‘Another pezzonovante,’” answered Tony, suddenly looking like Al Pacino with murder on his mind.

 

“So what’re we playing?” Junior wanted to know.  “Too cold in here for strip poker.”

 

Amen to that blushed Vicki.  Back in Pfiester Park she and the Peaches had indulged in Old Maid and Crazy Eights; she’d also learned the fundamentals of canasta by watching her grandmothers, though all she could remember now was the word “meld.”  Here in Vanderlund the Murrisch girls preferred board games, while Alex of course went in for actual sports.  “I’m afraid you’ll have to teach me whatever you decide to play,” Vicki confessed.

 

“Rubber bridge,” said Tony.  “Played by two teams of partners.”

 

“Oh, me ‘n’ you against them?”

 

“No, partners get picked by drawing cards.  The deck is spread face down.  High card picked deals the first hand.  Second highest partners with the dealer.  They sit across from each other.  So do the other two, north/south and east/west.  The player to the dealer’s left shuffles the deck.  The player to the dealer’s right cuts the deck.  The dealer deals one at a time clockwise, starting with the player on the left.  Each player gets thirteen cards.  When play starts, each player plays a card in turn.  The four cards that are played are called a trick.  The player who plays the highest card wins the trick.  Ace is highest, two is lowest.  Before any cards are played, bids are placed in an auction.  You bid how many tricks you think you and your partner will win.  You can name a suit like spades to be the trump suit, or bid no trump.  No trump is the highest suit, then spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs.  Next player can bid the same number of tricks in a higher suit, or more tricks in any suit, or pass.  Next player after that can bid higher or pass.  You go on with the auction till three players in a row pass.  If nobody bids, you deal again.  Otherwise the highest bid wins the contract.  That player is the declarer.  His partner is the dummy.  They need to win as many tricks as were in the highest bid.  The player to the left of the declarer plays the first card to lead the first trick.  Then the dummy lays down all his cards face up and the declarer plays for them both...”

 

Vicki had ceased to hear anything but blah blah blah, spoken in a squashed-flat voice like Michael Corleone telling a caporegime how to rub out the heads of the Five Families.

 

She tried to take refuge behind what remained of her second sandwich, but its taste reminded her of the bruschetta she’d eaten at Il Sachetto with Roger Mustardman.  (“Nice work, Lou.  Always wanted a chance to say that line—that and “Paulie?  You won’t see him no more...”  Then Roger’d said her life was but a dream, her whole existence an imaginary figment; as was his, as was everybody she knew’s.  Shortly after which he’d lurched off to the washroom, and Vicki’d never seen him again except in her dreams...)

 

Now she wanted to reach across the kitchen table and touch Tony Pierro with her sandwichless hand, grasp him and clutch him as she’d done to the yellow Pet Rock while she chanted This is real—I am real—the dreams are fake, are false, are lies.

 

But Tony was corleone-ing on and on about drawing trumps and using finesses and establishing the dummy’s long suit; and it all sounded to Vicki like Don’t ask me about my business, Kay.

 

Meanwhile Buddy and Junior were feeding each other morsels of BLT (Bub?) along with the stickiest of sweet nothings, burbled to and fro like a pair of addlepated lovebirds.  And if that weren’t bad enough, up onto the shelf behind Tony’s trilby’d head climbed the large gray cat to sit and stare and grin at Vicki, like the ancient stuffed Cheshire animal whose phosphorescent teeth used to glow at her in the eerie darkness.

 

*

 

At that very moment a mile and a half to the northwest, Fiona was huddled inside PoonElly’s maxicoat along with Poon herself as they stood in the posh driveway of the stately Lingerspiel manse on Velvetleaf Road.  The view of Lesser Park across the street (imposing even at night, by streetlamp) was slightly impeded by three parked cars: Poon’s Le Heap, Cramps Aplenty’s Gremlin, and Robin’s Sweet Babboo.

 

The members of Downbite were engaged in a heated coldweather outdoor debate on how they were going to drive to the AnaRCHonda Pit, where the Oxidations and Lepperzee were scheduled to perform.  Parking near a downtown punk venue was bound to be a bitch, so the fewer vehicles the better; but there were seven Downbites including Sheila Quirk (who’d broken up with Avalanche Dobbs that afternoon over his slothful execution in the loss to Triville).  Even if all seven of them could’ve fit inside a ’61 Plymouth Fury, Robin would not allow Epic Khack anywhere near it; her “Back off, Khack!” was rattling the Velvetleaf streetlamp.  So the multipart question was: [a] which two cars should they take, [b] who would ride with whom in which, and [c] who might be trusted to drive into The City without imperiling cars/passengers or attracting The Law.

 

“You’re a hygienist, Quirk!” Tayser was howling at S-Q, who pointblank refused to enter the same automobile as the unbathed Epic.  “Next thing you know, you’ll be making us all floss!”

 

“Blow it out your knothole, Doris,” retorted Sheila.  Which earned a Robin-snortle, followed by another when Tayser took a swing at Q with a rolled-up Gabba Gabba Gazette (“The City’s only punkzine”).

 

These snortles were almost the first uttered by Robin in a disillusioned fortnight.  For the past five years she had coveted Craig Clerkington, only to find out his favorite musical genre was country pop and his record collection ran heavily (make that lightly) to Glen Campbell, Kenny Rogers and Charlie Rich.  He demeaned punk rock and said the Dopester/Dartle interpretation of “True Grit” should be relabeled “Screw This.”  Consequently Robin had spent much of the two weeks since the Homecoming Dance drumming her fortissimo heart out through “Razzlin’ Blues” and “Bring Out Your Stupid.”

 

Meanwhile Tayser’d been listening nonstop to the just-released Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, which she called a template-from-the-mountaintop for Downbite’s own endeavors.  Fiona, though, was pretty much fed up with Tayser as their self-styled “designer” or “visionary”: nearly a month had passed since Robin’s Jambalaya, with nary a gig booked and hardly even a full-group rehearsal.  Feef wished there was some way to put Vicki back in the managerial saddle—not that Vicki knew anything about promoting a punk band, but at least then they wouldn’t be awash in Petula-the-Purist’s poppy-with-thorns froth.

 

“Shaddup shaddup shaddup!  Let’s just pile in and get our asses going, people!  We coulda been there by now if you’d quit giving me this codswallop!  And remember that Epic has to have the window cracked so he won’t get carsick—”

 

(Oh for some bona fide spume from the New Wave, to bring the Scene back home...)

 

“Let me know when you kids make up your minds,” interjected the shivering Cramps as she withdrew into her Gremlin.  Cramps took an occasional I’m-an-upperclassman-and-you’re-not stance despite being only three months older than Robin, while Epic actually outranked her as an alleged senior.

 

Okay: it would make the most sense (or the least codswallop) for Epic and Tayser to go with Cramps in the Gremlin, and Feef and Poon and Sheila-Q with Robin in her Babboo.  Poon was willing to leave Le Heap parked on Velvetleaf, where there’d be a better class of car thieves than downtown or in Athens Grove.  But before they could act on this plan, their numbers swelled by one as Tippi Lingerspiel (technically grounded and thought to be sulking in her bedroom) popped up among them.

 

“Can somebody gimme a ride to Annika’s house?” she asked, blazing up a doobie of what smelled like primo weed.

 

“Annika?” went S-Q.  “So what’s your name, Tippi or Pippi?”

 

“Piss off!” said Tippi, who’d suffered through more Longstocking jokes than Josie Nygren had Pussycats.  “Gimme a ride or I’ll say you sold me this.”  (Drag on her doob.)

 

“Hell, you could at least offer to share it,” gnarled Robin.

 

“You guys got your own.  This is mine.  Travis, I’m riding with you.  Gahddammit!” she swore as her big brother lobbed a loogie across the driveway that almost landed on Tippi’s platform clogs.  “Spit at me once more ‘n’ I’m gonna staple your mouth shut!”

 

Applause from Robin and Sheila; vehement disapproval by Tayser; hushing of Tayser lest anyone else in the Lingerspiel manse be stirred to investigate what was going on outside.

 

“(You gone to sleep on me, Sugar Pop?)” PoonElly mumbled to her maxicoatmate.

 

“(Enough with the tickling,)” mutter-objected Fiona.  “(You know you can’t make me laugh.)”

 

“(Gloomy Gussie!  Long as you’re in there, whyncha fish me out a smoke?)”

 

“(Got anything better than Marlboros?)”

 

“(Could be.  See what you can find by feeling around.)”

 

Fooling around, and right there in front of everybody.  Feef shook her brain free from dalliance and concentrated on tonight’s show.  “(Tell me again about your friend with Lepperzee.)”

 

“(Told you fifty times already.)”

 

“(So make it fifty-one.)”

 

“(Sigh.  He goes by ‘I.M.A. Camera,’ his real name’s Manolo Camara.  We took the same art class in junior high when I was a sevvie and he was a freshman.  Ol’ Hayzoose was horrible to him too, and not just ‘cause Cam’s gay—he’s also Cuban and there’s some sorta blood feud between Cubans and Mexicans.  Anyhoo, Cam hung out with oddfuckingballs like Jeanine Greeley’s brother Geyser and Dolph Turkenkopf whose whole family is tattooed like sideshow carnies.  Cam ‘n’ them’d get wasted on Thunderbird and play what they called ‘shitfaced rock’ on dimestore geetars.  That’s how Lepperzee got started, but don’t be jigswiggered if they’ve changed their name again by the time we get to the Pit.  If we ever get there.)”

 

Fiona’d heard a few other things about I.M.A. Camera from her connections at Cobwebs & Strange: they said he was a composer of sorts who tried to blend (or churn) the decadence of pre-Castro Havana with that of Weimar Berlin in songs like “Gemütlich Orgía” and “Totenrumbatanz.”  Which demanded some degree of subtle virtuosity, and meant punk music could be more than Let’s all go run with scissors / Yes, all go run with scissors / We’re gonna run with scissors / All day long.  Which got old fast, as Feef had said from the get-go.  Look at the Oxidations, who by every account were a passel of speedfreaks who popped diet pills by the handful as they adlibbed rapid-yet-vapid lyrics onstage.  (As you might expect, the Oxidations ranked right behind the Sex Pistols in Petula Pierro’s tayser’d estimation.)

 

“(Wish we were going to see Krewel & Unusual Punishment,)” Fiona muttered as Cramps honked the Gremlin’s horn and people finally started moving toward the cars.

 

“(Or anyone at Starwood or the Whisky,)” grumbled Poon.  “(With an afterparty in the Vault at the Mayerling.  After we go back in time and fucking well luck out into finding where Aunt Maybelle hid her coke stash.)”

 

*

 

At the precise same minute a mile and a half to the northeast, Virginia Leigh Pyle was gargling with unflavored mouthwash in the claustrophobic bathroom off Roald Bjelke’s pintsized bedroom in what felt like the sub-basement of his family’s house on Axel Crescent in Hereafter Park.

 

(Rinse.  Spit.  Repeat.)

 

What a gyp.  Not even a medicine cabinet door to slam.  Nothing in here worth swiping, either.  Upstairs she’d spotted a beautiful big floor globe (the Bjelkes owned a travel agency, lucky them) but Gigi could hardly sneak it out of the house under her coat.

 

Pilferage: a pastime the so-called Great Dane had trained her in to perfection.  She’d always been nimblefingered, and back in Refineryland she’d been taught some legerdemain by her Grampy Orpington.  He was a factory-town cardsharp (described by Gigi as a riverboat gambler) who could make a deck do cartwheels and handsprings.  Too bad for Lizabeth Ann that such coordination had skipped a generation; it helped make Gigi not simply a good cheerleader and first-rate actress, but superb at shoplifting, pocketpicking, and general petty theft.

 

Case in point: last Thursday morning in the school’s Foreign Language wing.  Usual crush of students as Second Hour classes let out.  Usual clot of drooljawed hornyboys surrounding—almost surrounding—Odious Isabel, who hadn’t secured her Bottega Veneta bag over her shoulder like any sane woman would, but was letting it dangle from her hand.  Easy as pecan pie for Gigi to hook a foot around Isabel’s thick ankle and send her sprawling, bag dropped and bootable away from the crowd as it watched her pay the fat-assed price for wearing a miniskirt in November.  Quick as a wink, a coinpurse wallet got fished out of the bag before the latter was booted back into the gawking crowd.

 

Alaka-damn-zam.

 

The only downside to this artful feat was the wallet’s containing no credit cards, nothing better than chump change.  Plus a bunch of stupid photos and keepsakes that Gigi had pleasurably reduced to ashes.  A pity the wallet couldn’t be kept as a souvenir, like a scalp upon her belt; or planted on that colored Rebounder girl, to blacken her reputation (haw).  But it was a nearly-new Fendi Zucca, eminently fenceable, and so got handed over to Roald the Dane who had associates for liquidating anything from eiderdown ski jackets to imported silk lingerie.

 

No cash for Gigi; no cash wanted.

 

Credit only, for obtaining more of The Stuff.

 

Same thing went for items boosted out of department stores and the random private home.  Unbulky clothing and low-risk jewelry were child’s play for nimblefingers skilled at misdirection.  Particularly if, of late, you’d lost a few pounds and had room to spare inside your own loosening clothes.  Incredible what could be stashed within a push-up C-cup bra if its natural-born contents had shrunk (a bit) in the wash (as it were).

 

Same thing went for “hand-to-mouth” favors done for the Dane, who wasn’t that Great endowmentwise but responded appropriately enough—below the waist.  Above it was a different matter.  Gigi expected guys she favored to gasp and groan and do some pleading; Roald Bjelke just sat or lay there wearing a phlegmatic expression, impassive except for a slight bob-bob-bob to his chin.  As if he were listening to an unheard beat through invisible headphones.  Which was something all the Traversers seemed to do.

 

(Stand.  Wipe.  Flush.  Repeat.)

 

Worth it, though.  Worth it for The Stuff.  The hand-to-nose return favors of magic pixiedust, that made you feel like Wendy up-up-and-on-her-way to Never Never Land.  Not by stage-harness flying—no, it was like racing on ice, skating faster and more acrobatically than Renee Shackleton: your unstoppable blades slicing through the surface, cleaving the bone to reach the marrow, gouging long thin lines of the finest whitest pulverization.

 

Britt had clued her in how to convert a lipstick tube into a secret-compartment receptacle; though a cosmetic compact would seem more apropos, and lend more meaning to the clichéd phrase I’ve got to go powder my nose.

 

So I can think lovely thoughts, and take off flyingskatingracingbeating the world.  With a bob-bob-bob to its subliminal beat.

 

As Gigi had done two Saturdays ago at cheerleading practice.  It was the first one Margo Temple’d attended since getting clobbered in the Powderpuff match.  (O blessed Mauly Carstairs for knocking the peroxide off Margo’s contemptible head!)  That had been on a Wednesday; Margo stayed home sick on Thursday; the Homecoming Parade and Game took up Friday; cheer practice didn’t resume till Saturday afternoon, with some girls still fretting about Willowhelm vengeance and others still apprehensive that the Homecoming Dance would be canceled.  Ms. Royston the JV coach, who’d served in the military, whistled them all to ten-hut; she was intent on wrapping up football season at the tiptop of their form, regardless of how lousily the JV football team might play.

 

Margo claimed to have fully recuperated from Powderpuff grogginess, but everyone could tell her cheering was below par—especially compared to the pixiedusty tour de force put on by nimblebodied limbertorsoed Gigi Pyle.  Never had she kicked such superlative butt, outleaping and outlunging and outshouting even Bionic Becca Blair.  Which didn’t outrage Becca (nothing ever did) but royally honked off Maleficent Margo, who blew her bottle-blonde top when Gigi rose from a perfect split without using either hand.  “Aw, knock off that showboating!” she seethed—and got whistled down in front of the whole squad by Ms. Royston, who snapped “That is not the attitude of a captain!  IS it, Margaret?”

 

(...no maam...)

 

I—can’t—heeeear—you!

 

“NO MA’AM.”

 

It then took tremendous willpower for Gigi to channel ultra-energized jubilation into an air of injured dignity, which she took into the locker room where Margo pursued her for what was intended to be a vindictive tête-à-tête but (thanks to Gigi’s adroit stage blocking) got overheard by Ms. Cliffhouse the varsity coach, who considered enmity to be a violation of school spirit and called Margo into her office for a private dressing-down while Gigi oh-so-forlornly told Ms. Royston and the other JVs it might be best if she (Gigi) quit the squad rather than cause more conflict which was repeated when Ms. Cliffhouse called her in to hear her side which she (Gigi) nobly didn’t give but asked her (Ms. Cliffhouse) instead to bear in mind that she (Margo) had been brutally blindsided in the Powderpuff scrimmage just a few days ago which they (Ms. Cliffhouse seconded by Ms. Royston) said was no excuse for abusive leadership but no further mention would be made if they (Gigi and Margo) would agree to forgive and forget and shake hands.

 

“Mah pleasure,” Gigi agreed, graciously extending nimbler-than-usual fingers.

 

You could practically hear Margo’s blood vessels straining to erupt.

 

Back in the locker room the varsity girls had begun to arrive for their practice and hear about the fracas and join the JVs in taking sides with most on Gigi’s led by Cheryl Trevelyan and also junior JV Valerie Frid who urged Gigi not to quit since (unsaid aloud) her staying might drive Margo over the edge into a demotion and give the captaincy to Val along with an almost-guaranteed spot on next year’s varsity squad.

 

Then Delia Shanafelt toddled over acting as if the clique hadn’t broken up six months ago to invite Gigi to join her and Nanette and their dates for that night’s Homecoming Dance if it wasn’t canceled but she (Gigi) told them (Delia, Nanette and the entire locker room) that after what’d happened today she no longer felt like going and Graham Aleshire (whom she’d already eighty-sixed) could take whoever he chose (Lisa Lohe, for crying out loud) which shocked most of the cheerleaders (except Becca) who couldn’t imagine opting out of any semiformal social occasion and seemed to convince even skeptical Nanette of her (Gigi’s) authenticity meaning Margo was boxed in every which way and Gigi held the whip hand.

 

V-I-C-T-O-R-Y, thats Virginia’s battle cry!!

 

Yet by the time she got home, all her pixiedust euphoria had dissipated.

 

Instead of skimming over ice, she was sinking back into slushy muddy woe.

 

At least that gave artistic verisimilitude to telling Ma about practice and possibly quitting the squad and not going to the dance but spending the night at Britt’s instead.  As Gigi left for the latter, Lizabeth Ann was frantically trying to phone Ms. Royston, Ms. Cliffhouse, and Margo’s mother to keep the pot a-biling.  No objection though to Gigi’s slumberpartying at Sunny Squash Court, the home of Fleur Groningen—yes, the Fleur Groningen!  (The fact that Fleur was long gone to Connecticut made no difference; nor that Britt aspired to none of Fleur’s gilt-edged goals, but had blue-gaslight designs of her own.)

 

(Which she made your own.)

 

(And led to your standing in this claustrophpobic bathroom in this dank sub-basement, shpritzing 4‑Way Long-Acting Nasal Spray in each nostril to ease their inflammation.)

 

(But not restore exuberance or vitality.)

 

(That would take stronger Stuff.)

 

So: time to get a move on for another Saturday Night Enlivening.  Each one was at a different Traverser hideaway—the first at Jive Mansfield’s, five weeks ago; then at Renee’s, then Lynndha’s, then Britt’s, and last Saturday here on Axel Crescent.  Tonight Gigi hoped they’d go to Shoreward Circle, for another and more lucrative shot at looting Odious Isabel’s possessions.  (Mauly could take the rap.)

 

But Dane drove his Buick Invicta not east to the Lake but westward, out of Hereafter Park through Triville to Emery Ridge, then south into Athens Grove: more and more distant from any known Traverser stomping ground.

 

Gigi began to clench her fists and grit her teeth.  She’d been counting on a fix (or more euphemistically a refill) in the nearest future, and now Lawdy knew how soon it might come if ever—maybe Dane was scheming to take her down to The City and sell her into white slavery!  Her Everglade-eyes started darting around the Invicta, looking for anything she could use as a weapon—

 

—when Dane pulled up somewhere outside someplace and into the backseat piled two somebodies, girl bodies: one resembling a pony and the other an Eskimo squaw.  Silent Dane, letting the motor idle, checked them out in the rearview mirror.

 

“Hey,” the pony whinnied.  “I’m Gina.”

 

“Nadine,” grunted the Eskimo squaw.

 

Dane nodded and stepped on the gas.  Gigi kept her lips clamped tight, resenting the pony for having a name too similar to her own.  All they needed now was to run into Ginger Snowbedeck... wait a dadgum minute.  Gina?  In Athens Grove?  She must be one of those Four Genies of the Apocalypse, about whom Gigi’d heard a thing or two that sure weren’t sports-related.  Unless your sport was inverted—and not by transposing a chord’s bottom note up an octave, either.  Lawdy!  What sort of Saturday night was this turning out to be?

 

Now they were driving past the Carrefour Shopping Center onto Paillis Road, which would become Clubroot Drive after they went through the Expressway overpass.  Gigi thrust away a craven temptation to bail out and run home; nothing replenishful awaited her there.  Probably they were just going to pick up Gwen Cokingham, though she usually rode with Mauly.  Well, it’d serve Gwen right to bunk in the backseat with boondaggers; she might as well face facts and sign up on the lezzy line.

 

But the Invicta turned left on Grouseland, passing the cross streets to where Kim Zimmer used to live, and McGrum Elementary School...

 

...and stopped just long enough for Harelip Harrison to climb into the car.

 

Gina the pony girl, scooting over to make room for her, went “Hey!  You play volleyball for Vanderlund, right?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“You rocked in the tournament.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

“Played hard,” said Eskimo Nadine on Gina’s other side.

 

“You too.  Good match.”

 

“Took Melina a week to quit limping after you socked her.”

 

“Same for Pebbles, after your last spike.”

 

“How ‘bout the one with the busted ankle?”

 

“Still in a cast.”

 

“Tough break.”

 

“She’s used to it.  On crutches all semester.”

 

“WHUT TH’ HAYL’RE YEW DEWIN’ HERE, HARELIP??”

 

Bursting through clamped lips and gritted teeth, despite Gigi having resolved to show no sign of recognition.

 

Silence inside the Invicta as Dane drove it up the onramp to the Expressway.

 

Then a fistful of Gigi’s raven hair got nearly yanked out by its roots as her head and shoulders were slammed back over the shotgun seat and she found herself staring up at the Invicta’s unlit dome light, while a voice rasped into her magnolia ear:

 

“Be nice, Dixie Cups.”

 

Another wrench to make her blench.  Then the profaning hand was out of her hair, and the profoundest pain was into her neck.

 

Heh heh heh went the Athens Grove boondaggers.

 

“Good one.”

 

“‘Dixie Cups?’”

 

“S’what we used to call her in grade school,” Harelip told them.

 

YOU didn’t!!  YOU never did!!  YOU wouldn’t’ve DARED!!

 

But the whip hand had been thrashed by whiplash, and raven eyelashes failed to keep hot tears from scalding down magnolia cheeks.

 

Speechlessly, to Dane: Are you gonna let her get away with that??

 

Wordlessly, from Dane: a lane change without use of turn signal.

 

Gasp.  Groan.  Voiceless pleading.  Cautious testing of spine and skull, same as that time you got jolted off the top of a human pyramid at summer cheer clinic.  No fractures or paralysis then; evidently none now.  But also no beaker of sulfuric acid to fling into Loathsome Laurie’s face, no jagged dagger to plunge into her throat, no .38 Special to fire cyanide-tipped bullets through her pestilential plague-rat’s heart.

 

And no one to turn to for sympathy or protection.  Trapped once again with hostile strangers in an ugly car heading to who knew what hellhole on a Saturday night... instead of being arrayed in a Scarletty gown as the sure-enough belle of a Homecoming Dance.  So many, many people were to blame for this—Graham and Margo and Jeff Friardale and Odious Isabel and Lizabeth Ann and all the Traversers and all the faithless ex-cliquers but most especially and immediately Laurie the Harelip Harrison who was going to pay for what she did and who she was and not just with that money-clipped wad that Britt wouldn’t help figure out how to nab oh no “Let it be a challenge to you” she kept saying all through Spirit Week and midterms week as if this were a production of Up the Down Staircase but what goes down must have its comeuppance and it will yes it will just as soon as The Stuff’s refilled ‘cause then Wendy will shed her skateblades and borrow the pirate captain’s grapnel to cleave Harelip to the brisket and throw her shredded flesh into the gaping maw of a passerby crocodile!

 

 

Naught’s left upon your bones
When you have shaken hands with Hook!

 

 *

(Listen...)

 

(Listen up...)

 

(Listen here...)

 

(As the still small voice speaks from the middle distance of your inner ear...)

 

Our time is coming.  Bide yet awhile.

 

While what? Laurie briefly wonders, before tuning back in to what’s going on in the backseat and the frontseat and outside the car.

 

Three weeks it took since the first Drop in the second-floor washroom.  Lola Svoboda kept tabs and gave counsel on when to bear down, when to ease up.  Antoinette and Bootleg McGillah kept their distance.  Ditto Wanda Lynn, whether from fear of them (and Juicer Lynch) or wariness of Latter-Day Laurie.  Wariness is key to survival and success; so are patience and perseverance.  All these factor into the right strategy, whether you’re playing volleyball or basketball, or operating on behalf of what Lola calls an “extramural” crew.

 

Sometimes you can operate on impulse without losing momentum or drawing a penalty—such as by acting chiropractic just now with Gigi Pyle.  FLASH went the lightning in your heart; clatter went the hail before your eyes; bang bang bang went the hammer nailing a rearranged pecking order into place.

 

(Oohs and ahhs from the sixth-grade ghost of So-Dumb Laurie.)

 

Nobody rose to Gigi’s defense; no one protested or complained, not even Dixie Cups herself.  Maybe she’s planning to tell on you to Britt, but that shouldn’t interfere with any of your planning—short-term or long.

 

Three weeks spent planning.  Neither Gigi nor Britt are in any of your classes or have the same lunch period, or can be counted on to use the second-floor washroom between Third and Fourth Hours.  Other encounters needed to be set up.  Their length didn’t matter—a single glance can be more effective than a thousand words.  Gigi entering the cafeteria as you leave it; two hours later, you entering the locker room as she leaves it.  Between those pathcrossings you sometimes pass Britt on the stairs, you climbing up as she comes down—in spite of her having Lunch 5D on the first floor.  Which tells you something right there.

 

It was Britt, not Gigi, who rose to the three-week-old bait and summoned you over the phone to a Saturday night “shindig” at a place to be determined.  Your folks—relieved you were going out at all, having boycotted Homecoming—jumped to the conclusion that Britt would be hostessing this at the gated-community home of Hoyt Groningen (Action Weather) and Dr. Hilde Krühler (Staying Cool with Your Public School).

 

Susie, who remembered Britt from the ’75 Ladybugs, suspended both belief and relief.  “I hear she runs with a pretty fast crowd,” Susie remarked in the privacy of your shared bedroom.

 

“Maybe we’ll start a cross country team for next year,” you replied.

 

By car if not on foot, as a raucous little sportster comes shrieking up behind and then around with scarcely an inch of leeway.  Its driver leans out of an open window (on a frosty night) to give your car a one-finger salute.  Your big blond broad-shouldered driver doesn’t sound his horn or step on the brake but pulls up alongside the sportster, racing so closely in tandem you can peer through parallel windows at its passengers.  They appear to be Mauly Carstairs and Gwen Cokingham—yes, that’s the Mauler behind the wheel, mugging like a bloodthirsty maniac instead of watching the road.  So you roll down your window and give her a chopper-baring Dimancheff grin, plus a birdflip in return.

 

“Hey… don’t…” goes Gina beside you, sounding pretty nervous for a Genie of the Apocalypse.

 

“We there yet?” cracks Nadine beside her, beating you to the wiseass punch.

 

No response from Big Blond, but you can tell you’re way beyond Hereafter Park and out of The County as the car starts scaling Dowager’s Bluff, the high ridge overlooking the Lake As Big As An Ocean—maybe to go sailing off it into the air to land in the Lake and see how far you can float?  Or to explore the luxury haunts of the very rich, wealthier even than Britt; the Groningens don’t own a castle like the one bulking on the horizon at the end of the road.  A genuine castle, not ironic like Castle Quirk that Sheila calls a “swollen overgrown distended shanty.”  This is a massive pile of roughly-finished stone and brickwork, thick and weighty and forbidding, that could double as Frankenstein’s watchtower.

 

 

reads the floodlit sign above a tall round rugged arch, through which the sportster hurtles just ahead of Big Blond’s car.  Mauly almost plows into some shrubbery before hauling herself out (not bothering to switch off her ignition) and careening up the walk to an immense front door beneath another round rugged arch.  This she deals a resonant slap with a gloatful “HAW!” at the rest of you trailing behind—Gwen bitching at Mauly, Gina sticking next to Nadine, Gigi hiding on Broadshoulders’s far side while mumbling to herself and giving you the stink-eye.

 

Which you catch.  And flex prehensile fingers at.

 

Causing Dixie Cups to shrink further away.

 

You’re admitted into the castle by a French maid, or somebody (who has some body) dressed as a French maid, complete with fishnet stockings and four-inch heels.  Underneath a shellacking of makeup her face seems familiar, and yours seems to strike her likewise before she steps aside to let you be greeted by a ghoul on the grand staircase:

 

“Welcome, my poppets.  Welcome to the Grindhouse.”

 

You’ve never seen an authentic albino in pigmentless person before, but did glimpse this ghoul at the Vinyl Spinnaker when he tape-recorded that Rosa Dartles concert party for You Know Who.  Elsewhere too since then, always in Britt’s company, though they haven’t behaved like a customary couple.  Not that they easily could, being lookalikes for Johnny Winter and Sissy Spacek—Carrie Captured Live!

 

Here he is ghoulishly kissing your hand with cold damp lips as he fixes eggshell eyeballs on your red vinyl coat and brunette drooptails.  “Dear Dyna Girl,” he calls you, pronouncing it dine agh hurl.  “So glad you could make it—”

 

“HAH there, Flake!” Gigi practically yells at him, to emphasize her frequent-flyer credentials; but the mottled bruises surrounding his bonked-out eyes don’t twitch her way.  Nor do they shift to Gina (though she’s fairly attractive) or Nadine (though she’s certainly coldblooded).  No, they remain on you as he twines a ghoulish arm about your red vinyl waist and leads you up the stairs.  You mobilize your own sangfroid to give him a steady unwavering c-h-i-l-l and see how he likes it.

 

(Quite a lot, so far as you can sense masculine reactivity.)

 

“Refreshments in the projection room!” he calls out to the French maid.

 

“‘Giddy-yap giddy-yap giddy-yap let’s go!’” sings Mauly.  “I wanna watch those chestnuts pop!”

 

“No chestnuts tonight, poppet,” the ghoul tells her.  “No coffee or pumpkin pie.  Just a happy feeling nothing in the worrrrld can buy.”

 

While you and the others are conducted through richly-furnished halls and down richly-decorated corridors, you consider what you’ve heard tell concerning Newley Hasleman, alias “Flake.”  Only child of H.R. Hasleman (“Pufnstuf” to his son) whose family cornered The Cityland’s rock salt market.  A junior at Front Tree Country Day School.  Was accused of ridiculing hunchbacks when he went to a school cotillion (not a costume ball) garbed as Riff Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, escorting Britt who went as Squeaky Fromme.  Is regarded in certain circles as something of a tech wizard—

 

—though it’s Britt who’s threading film into a Bell & Howell in the castle’s heavily-draped projection room.  Tonight she’s wearing her “ravishingly pretty” face (if you don’t mind umpteen freckles) and a sexy expensive outfit of skintight sweater and disco pants.  She comes forward to greet you and introduce you (plus Gina and Nadine) to a twosome of oddities slumped in the front row of a dozen plush movie-theater seats.

 

One of the weirdos is obviously a teen witch, and not named Sabrina either.  Instead of a platinum bubble cut her hair is lank and stringy, and in place of a broomstick she clasps an ornate leatherbound book (obviously of sorceress incantations) whose occult gravity has shriveled her down to skin and bones.  This is Linda (spelled L‑Y‑N‑N‑D‑H‑A) who takes it upon her rigid dogmatic self to present you to her companion guru.  This appears to be a homeless young hobo given charitable shelter and cleanish dryish clothes, though he could do with a shampoo and shave and twelve-step program.  (He’s devoidly absorbed in an unseeable movie on the projection room’s blank screen.)  Lynndha-the-witch reverently refers to him as “Parnell,” but no one is home when you probe for an occupant—neither a paragon nor a paranoid, nor even a paradox.

 

The French maid hands out small cups of what smells like syrup, and saucers of what looks like Turkish delight.  Gina, beside you, hesitates at putting either in her mouth.  Gigi, beyond Gina, frankly gobbles down both; as do Mauly and her cousin Jive Mansfield and a Startopper named Renee who’s been furiously chomping a big cud of gum.  You (sensing watchful eyes upon your every movement) take a sample from cup and saucer and taste only sticky sweetness.  Somebody’s idea of a joke, and probably not the some-bodied maid’s.

 

With refreshments served, showtime is announced and Flake’s poppets are directed to specific plush seats.  As tonight’s newbies you and Gina and Nadine are sent to the back row along with sputtering indignant Gigi.  Jive, Gwen, Mauly, and Renee occupy the middle row, while Broadshoulders joins Lynndha and Parnell up front.  As does Flake, who nods at Britt to douse the houselights and start the projector, while telling the conclave:

 

“Be warned—the nightmare has not gone away.  We give you… Eraserhead.

 

What follows onscreen might’ve given So-Dumb Laurie lifelong horrors, but strikes the New You as bizarre black-and-white stupidity.  You suspect it makes some of its viewers uncomfortable (Gina’s squirming, Nadine emits short annoyed grunts) while others act increasingly impatient for a helping of goodies more robust than any dished up so far.

 

“We got chicken tonight,” says a man in the movie.  “Strangest damn things—they’re man-made.  Little damn things, smaller than my fist...”

 

Then a gurgle-glubby voice is raised in the front row:

 

 

Y’put y’r left arm up ‘n’ y’r right arm too
  Lemme tell y’just what y’gotta do
Start both of ‘em flappin’, y’r feet t’kickin’
  Then y’know y’doin’ the Funky Chicken!

 

This gets screechily echoed by Lynndha, with a “Harkee—so be it” finale.

 

(“Come, we shall have some fun now!” pops into your head from the Mad Hatter’s tea party.)

 

“Do I just cut them up like regular chickens?” asks the eraserheaded-haircut guy onscreen.  “Sure, just cut them up like regular chickens,” he’s told.  And while the tiny stabbed chicken bleeds and writhes, and the black-and-white people in the bizarre movie react stupidly, good old Gurgle-Glub resumes:

 

 

This is th’ kinda stuff t’make y’feel
  Like y’wanna do sump’n nasty
Like waste some chicken gravy
  On y’r white shirt right down front
    Here w’go y’all!

 

Raising your back-row voice, you chime in:

 

 

Y’work both arms ‘n’ y’work both feet

Use a dabba gravy, y’right on the beat—

 

“WHO’S DOING THAT??” screams Lynndha Splintertonsils.

 

“I am,” you retort, standing up to leave no doubt about it.

 

This is not a Baptist choir rehearsal!!  When HE speaks, YOU hearken!!

 

“If HE gets to sing, WE get to sing!” you insist.

 

“GET OUT!!  GET OUT!!  SOMEONE THROW HER OUT!!” Lynndha castigates your blasphemy, continuing with diminished coherence when you throw your saucer of Turkish delight at her and she’s smacked squarely by a cloud of powdered sugar.

 

I didn’t bring her!  I didn’t want her to come!” Gigi blathers as Big Blond Dane steers you through the mêlée, over Flake (rolling on the carpet with ghoulish laughter) and past Britt (giving you another sleepy-smily-sounding “Later”) on out of the projection room.

 

“You going to drive me home now?” you ask the Great Dane.

 

He shrugs his broad shoulders, shakes his head no, then returns inside.

 

Well, here’s a howdedo.  Not only have you blown your infiltration mission (meaning Antoinette will be displeased) but you mustn’t blow it worse by calling Lola or Bootleg for a ride, not even to arrange pickup somewhere down the road—not using an eavesdroppable Grindhouse phone.  Nor can you call Mom or Pa, who think you’re at Sunny Squash Court.  Susie’s years away from her license, Jason’s doubtless whooping it up down in Carbondale, and most of the car-owning students in your mental Rolodex are at the Homecoming Dance.  So…?

 

“Come on,” says the French maid, shrugging into an ulsterette.  “I’ll take you home, but we’ve got to be quick.”

 

“Thanks.  I live on—”

 

“Grouseland... right?”

 

Then you know who she is.  Though she doesn’t confirm it till you’re in a brand-new-scented Diplomat Medallion and it’s rolling down Dowager’s Bluff, away from the castle.  Only then does she exhale and say “Laurie...?”

 

“Yeah.  Doodles?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

A decade ago she was Deirdre Weiner, the Big Girl Next Door, who babysat you and Ingrid (but not Wanda Lynn, whose parents didn’t trust teenaged sitters.)  Maybe not the brightest girl on the block, yet enviably built and with artistic aspirations: encouraging you and Ingrid to wear out entire Crayola boxes coloring inside and outside the lines.

 

“Draw what you see,” she’d tell you.  “Doodle till you see it.”

 

(Many a wishful self-portrait of growing up to look like Deirdre.)

 

Her departure for college was one of the many tragedies befalling you between fifth and sixth grade.  Soon afterward the Weiners moved away, so Doodles never came back even for a visit.  Tonight’s the first time in four-and-a-half years that she’s returned to Grouseland Street—gazing silently through the Diplomat windshield at what’s now the Clevinger house, from whose side yard rises the usual late-evening barks.

 

“What...?”

 

“Sheepdogs.  They work in shifts.”

 

“Hunh,” goes Doodles.

 

“Well—” you say, unbuckling your seatbelt.

 

“Wait.  We’ve got to talk.  Not now, not here.  Is Jewel Foods still on Sendt?”

 

“Sure.”

 

“Can you be there tomorrow morning, say about ten?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Okay.  Find me there then, but don’t act like we know each other.”

 

“‘Kay.  Thanks.”

 

You climb out of the Diplomat and watch it swoop away.  Then the Baxters’s Vista Cruiser arrives, so Big Sue can drop Susie off from her date with Punkin’ Patrick.  Who dares not kiss her in front of their sisters, but mimics gallantry by getting out and running over to open Susie’s door for her; fooling no one including Susie.  (Big Sue didn’t go to the Homecoming Dance; she spends Saturday nights at her gun club’s shooting range.  Highlight that in your mental Rolodex—possible availability for a future undercover ride.)

 

“So?” Susie asks as you head into your mud room.  “What’d Britt say about cross country?”

 

“She said ‘Later.’”  (Nothing but the truth.)

 

*

 

 

Oh the world is your snohhhhwball, see how it grohhhhws

That’s how it goehhhhs whenever it snohhhhws...

 

Now it’s Monday morning.  First Hour Girls Choir for those who didn’t pass the audition to get into Mr. Frazee’s Advanced Vocal Music, and are now stuck singing Miss Sickles’s selections for next month’s Winter Holiday Concert.  “A Marshmallow World” might be tailor-made for Isabel’s voice, or Delia’s or LeAnn Anobile’s or even Chookie Yentlebaum’s, but for you at this particular moment it’s quelle ironique.

 

Eyes on your music folder.  Ears open to what’s underway in the rest of the room.  Leaving your mind free to review the report you compiled last night: not in code, but with misleading abbreviations (TC for Cobbler Topping, HL for yourself, etc.) and the key on a slip of different-colored paper.  Both hidden in your folder, ready for submittal to Lola.

 

Yesterday morning’s rendezvous went without a hitch.  Again you dragged Susie out of bed for a nice cold Sunday sunrise run.  Again you outpaced Big Sue sprinting to the sanitary canal.  Then after breakfast you took a grocery list and biked to the Jewels on Sendt Street, reaching it just as church bells bonged ten.

 

(You and Ingrid used to go to the Congregational Sunday school, learning more about Joyce Usher’s superstitions than any psalm or parable.  You quit going after Ingrid moved away and all the other bad things happened, irrespective of your prayers.  When the Zanes came, they said they’d been de-churched—a sanctimonious cleric having censured Pa for the sins of the First Mrs. Zane, and then trying to chastise Susie for kicking him on the kneecap.  Henceforth your combined household worshiped informally, with scuzzy Jason idolizing Penthouse Pets.)

 

The Diplomat Medallion was waiting for you in the Jewels parking lot.  Doodles, wearing a non-French sweatsuit and no-inch gym shoes, entered the store while you chained your bike and casually caught up.  Joss Murrisch wasn’t on bagger duty yet—she still went to church—and you saw no one you knew as you each pushed a basket up and down the aisles, Doodles whispered earnestly and urgently, peeking around for spies.  You brought all your Good Listener powers into play, even acting So Dumb to draw Doodles out about why you must never have anything further to do with Flake Hasleman and his fringe elements.  Don’t end up as Doodles had, dropping out of college after an unhappy liaison and in mounting debt, being chased back to The City to degrade herself by—

 

The bell rings (at school today, not church on Sunday) and out you go, leaving Miss Sickles in mid-rebuke of three altos who slouched during a crescendo: almost as heinous a choir crime as ruminating on Juicy Fruit.

 

There’s little chance of running into Britt or Gigi, since Mr. Frazee’s musical sanctum sanctorum isn’t even on the same floor as the Girls Choir room; so you can saunter over to Contemporary Living and nonchalantly slide your report onto Lola’s desk.  “Here’s those notes on no-fault divorce,” you say, sneaking her the different-colored key while Ms. Derwent dissects courtship and wedlock (plus a few alternatives) in the Late ‘70s.  Jot a few notes on these while mentally recounting the bullet points of what you elicited from WD [Deirdre Weiner] yesterday at FJ [Jewel Foods].  Sorted chronologically: 

Report delivered; mission accomplished; job well done.

 

Except for one loose end.

 

Nowadays Susie leaves her closet unlocked since you rarely use the pink touchtone Princess anymore, letting the Phone-Mate to record thirty-second messages from any incoming calls.  Among yesterday afternoon’s was one with a coldish dampish dissonance:

 

“Hello, my Dine Agh Hurl... this is your friendly Flake... hoping you weren’t miffed by last night’s little tiff... you’re still my kilowatt cutie... be seeing you sooooooon...

 

Had he cottoned onto Doodles’s tipping you off about him and the Traverser nose-candy connection?  And even if so, aren’t your tracks sufficiently covered so Antoinette will get what she asked for?

 

You know now what he’s capable of.  We must be on our guard.

 

(When the still small voice speaks from the middle distance of your inner ear, you hearken.)

 

*

 

Meanwhile, alphabetic is as alphabetic does.  When it does, which isn’t always.

 

For example: Groh, Jane Esmé came right before Groningen, Britt Regan in every alphabetic roster from seventh grade to tenth, but the two were always on separate academic teams at VW.  Not till here in senior high did they have a class together, and that was Third Hour Biology with Doc Plassy (Gustav Plassmann PhD) who said there were so many better things to be concerned about in This World Of Ours than arbitrarily paired-up lab partners.  So Spacyjane wasn’t matched with Britt by virtue of their juxtaposed surnames, or indeed at all—which was rather a shame, since Britt had one of the most fascinating auras Spacyjane’d ever perceived.

 

Working at a neighboring lab station did enable Spacyjane to keep a star sapphire on Britt and her aura, though Britt seldom corresponded with one of her flickering gaslights.  Their stations were at the front of the lab, which was beneficial since Doc Plassy’d had a stroke a few years ago, and this (on top of his softspoken Rhinelander accent) made him intermittently enigmatic, as well as less energetic than when he’d led wide-ranging field trips through Auldforest to watch birds or find wild mice for mazework.  Happily Spacyjane was partnered with Ryan Purvis, who might be doleful yet could decipher Doc Plassy when he got inscrutable, which happened more and more often with their current unit on genetics.  Spacyjane enjoyed hearing how Gregor Mendel experimented with pea plants, but Ryan did much better translating this into genotypes and phenotypes, dominant and recessive genes, and using a Punnett square (instead of Tarot cards or a Ouija board) to make predictions.

 

Britt’s aura was unperturbed by anything Biological.  That including her partnership with Dino Tattaglia, who kept biting the heel of his hand and going gnnnnogg at every reference to stamens and pistils, male and female gametes, or cross-fertilization.  Doc Plassy rarely got through a lecture or lab without shaking an already shaky post-stroke finger at Dino, who’d once secreted a fetal pig into Lyle Wilkie’s pocket at a meeting of the VW Science Club.

 

Britt was able to bring Dino to heel, jerking on a psychic leash.  Spacyjane’d seen her do this, most recently last Thursday when The Embodiment fell down in the hall after French class.  T.E.’d put on a skirt much shorter than Floramour’s, so this immodest spread-eagling might’ve been just another of her fleshy-possession violations.  But Spacyjane had witnessed T.E. getting tripped—and deliberately too, since she (Spacyjane) also saw something being stolen from her (T.E.’s) kicked-away-then-back handbag.

 

To mistreat The Embodiment, while she was Embodied, was to mistreat Floramour.

 

But who could have done the tripping and kicking and stealing?  It all happened so quickly and in such a crowd: there was the flash of a foot, the flash of a hand, and a prolonged flash of T.E.’s garish underpants (the sort Floramour would never wear) for Dino Tattaglia to gnnnnong at till Britt tweaked his psychic leash and led him downstairs.

 

Yet Spacyjane was fairly certain Britt had observed the same trip and kick and theft.

 

Half a dozen solicitous guys had helped The Embodiment up to her feet as she gradually tugged that too-short skirt down over those too-brief panties.  Intimate exposure put Spacyjane in mind of her own bodice-popping at Carnival’s undress rehearsal, which in turn reminded her of Swee’Pea (deep heartfelt sigh) and also Gigi Pyle, who’d made such an impresario-fuss about the Spring Musical in general and that rehearsal in particular.

 

Could Gigi have been the tripper/kicker/thief?  She’d been there in the hall outside the Foreign Language classrooms, and made no secret of her dislike for The Embodiment.  Plus Gigi had undergone quite a few vicissitudes since leaving junior high—some before then, too.  Recall that supper party to which she’d invited the VW Drama Club (and then the entire freshman class) last Presidents Day, only to see it pre-empted by the disco concert at the Vinyl Spinnaker for Vicki Volester’s Quinceañera.  Everyone (apart from Gigi and Kim Zimmer) had gone to that instead, including Britt...

 

...and the Boo Radley doppelgänger remanifesting itself right now outside the open door of Doc Plassy’s lab.

 

Unless it was a genius loci: the protective spirit of Vanderlund Senior High.  Some upperclassmen said Whielding Wheaf, the school’s first principal, would step out of his portrait in the main lobby to roam the Pantheon he’d envisioned but not lived to see built.  However, in that portrait Mr. Wheaf had short hair and a beard, whereas this doppelgänger had long hair and a gaunt bare chin.  And why would a genius have left its loci to go visit a stripmall disco, even on the night before Mardi Gras?

 

“Zee failure of homologous chromosomes to separate during meiosis,” Doc Plassy was slightly-slurredly saying, “issss called… vhat?”

 

“Nondisjunction,” Ryan plaintively answered.

 

Whereupon an image began to generate in Spacyjane’s farsighted mind.

 

Return to last Thursday.  She’d gone home to check on Floramour, who (as per usual) had gotten there first and been restored to her normal form, as well as the proper-length skirt and proper-sized lingerie she’d had on before school.  No sign of abrasion or contusion from trippage or fallage while Embodied.  Nor was anything missing from Floramour’s best purse—not that it was large enough to contain more than a tiny comb and brush.  T.E. would’ve loaded her bag with lots of other things, so there was no telling what might have gone in and been stolen out.

 

No telling on Thursday… but showing now on Monday, in the farsighted mind’s eye.  Of whatever-it-was getting handed over to the doppelgänger (or some secondary phantom) and then being turned into a pillarette of salt.  Or sugar.  Or flour.  Or cornstarch.

 

Or snowflakes...

 

At ten past eleven Doc Plassy’s desk alarm buzzed, signaling the students to tidy up the lab and receive their homework assignment on abnormal chromosomes.  At quarter past the corridor bell rang; Ryan trudged off to have lunch with Kathleen, Dino was hard on Irina Saranoff’s heels, and Britt ambled out to join the doppelgänger (whom Spacyjane decided should be thought of as “Haint”) to take a stand near the stairwell around the corner from the lab.  Standing and waiting there, as if for a bus or train.

 

Until somebody tore down the stairs from the third floor to the second, whirled across the landing, and vanished inside the girls washroom.

 

Spacyjane, lingering behind Britt and Haint, blinked her star sapphires.  Could that have been Gigi Pyle?  Clad not in a chic stylish ensemble, but nondescript jeans and a camouflage-patterned pullover?

 

Britt and Haint, without so much as an exchanged nod, took their leave from each other: Britt ambling away to Fourth Hour Geometry, Haint to whatever plane of existence he otherwise occupied.  Spacyjane, having a couple of minutes till Study Hall, took a step toward the washroom—

 

—and was taken in hand, literally, memorably, unforgettably: a can-it-really-be arm around her waist, a please-let-it-be-true finger against her lips, as she got transported down the hall and through a door into the auditorium balcony.  Which was supposedly off-limits when no assembly or adult-supervised activity took place; but locks and bolts (not to mention inhibitions) yielded without a struggle when handled by...

 

...her Swee’Pea.

 

His first touch, his first feel since the Homecoming Dance, sixteen barren days ago.

 

Spacyjane gave a thousand thanks to the whim that made her don a cute outfit this morning: orange and yellow like on Socks-and-Hat Day, but with more of a harvest-ballish quality—hot apple cider spiced with cinnamon and cloves.  And buttered rum.  Alone on a balcony with her rustyheaded Romeo:

 

 

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,

My love as deep; the more I give to thee,

The more I have, for both are infinite—

 

But Sidney Erbsen hunkered vigilantly by the not-quite-closed door, his camera lens pointed outward past the jamb like the Beast of East Bay on the alert for paparazzo-quarry.  Even as Spacyjane arranged her cutely-outfitted self on a balcony seat: I am your prisoner.  Hold me hostage.  Keep me captivated.  Enslave my tenderest affections.

 

“Later,” said Split-Pea.

 

*

 

(Meanwhile...)

 

Keep your eye on the ball and your mind on the game.

 

So spoke the s.s. voice: sounding like Ms. Tibbs the JV basketball coach, or Beverly Kelly the JV basketball captain, or Maureen “Strudel” Muller the JV basketball manager, who rumor had it was carrying on something fierce with...

 

Keep your eye on the ball and your mind on the game.

 

(Easier still-small said than here-and-now done.)

 

Third Hour English with Miss DuJardin.  You and Samantha had expended a lot of effort trying to get transferred into the same class, but the authorities wouldn’t relent and you remained in Third Hour while Sammi stayed in Sixth.  Same teacher, same textbook, same lesson plan—nothing different except variant quiz questions, so Third couldn’t tip off Sixth at midday.  Not that it’d mattered much during the past month or so, when the only tipping-off you’d done with Sammi was on a gym court.  Still... it would be better to have her here, now, in this class, instead of Carly Thibert and Tess Disseldorf and those stoner-boys Skully Erle and Matt LaVintner.

 

This week’s assigned reading material was A Dream to Touch, the sort of book tailor-made for Samantha who devoured all those Young Love romance comics.  It was holding your interest too, more than Silly Ass Marner or Julie Ass Caesar ever did.  A Dream to Touch was set in The City twenty years ago, on a slummy street where a teen girl from an immigrant family yearned for escape while worrying that her boyfriend and kid brother were involved with a street gang.  So far, so what?  Yet there were passages that stirred the stagnancy of this time-biding autumn, stirred it in ways that smacking a ball or yanking some hair or even giving a gut-poke hadnt and couldnt.

 

Climb up to the tenement roof with Marya Rose on a hot summer night, seeking sleep but feeling your spirit expand and be set free under bright stars and a rising moon.  Gaze with Marya at the Lake As Big As An Ocean, your body inert yet your spirit taking wing like a seagull as it dips and soars over the wild blue waves.

 

Silly, maybe.  But you used to feel things like that.  So did Sammi, and Susie, and even Rachel (though she’d take a more scientific interest in things like stars and waves).  Unlike Carly, trying to tease admiration out of wasted Matt; or Tess, trying to score discount weed from stingy Skully.

 

You and Sammi had the same assigned reading.  You could drop a casual comment about A Dream to Touch during afterschool basketball practice.  Be a nice change from dropping bogusly-loaded money clips.  You’d earned some points toward badassification, and it was time to take a break.  (While, of course, keeping eye-on-ball and mind-on-game.)

 

The 4A bell rang and you descended from the fourth floor to the second.  Better check out the washroom to see if Britt and/or Gigi were there, and if so how they’d react.

 

Nope.  Nobody you knew well.  Typical mirror-hoggers fixing makeup, fluffing ‘dos; typical smoke-snatchers taking furtive puffs, tamping unfinished cigarettes.  No impulse to bum one right now, not in school where Bev or Strudel could get wind of it and tattle to Ms. Tibbs.  But as long as you’re here, you might as well make use of the plumbing before Study Hall.  A stall was vacated and you headed in—

 

—sudden motion behind you from a body hurtling out of the neighboring stall to slam into your back and wham parts of your front against the partition and TP dispenser and toilet bowl wedging you tight as you feel seizure of a drooptail and shoulderbagstrap but you haven’t forgotten Charlotte Pauk’s self-defense lessons in the Villa Neapolitan cellar so you kick backward aiming for a kneecap like Susie would which de-wedges you enough to jab with the same elbow you planted into Lenny Otis’s kidney and that opens up enough space for you to do a fullbodied mule kick that makes contact and produces an OOF like the one from Mumbles when she got bombed by Boomer Wrang at the Houlihan volleyball match

 

—but by the time you finish pivoting around, the OOFer’s vamoosed and the washroom door is swinging shut.

 

Sit down heavily and take a few deep breaths.

 

What the hell kind of whack job was THAT??

 

Sonny Corleone got mowed down by machine guns.  Luca Brasi and Carlo the brother-in-law were garroted.  Moe Greene was shot dead through his glasses.

 

You didn’t even drop your lunchsack.

 

(Though it’s considerably smushed and starting to leak.)

 

By now the 4A tardy bell’s rung, no one’s in the washroom, there’s no reason to rush as you assess other ambush-damage.  First on the toilet seat, then in the mirror.

 

Probably a bruise or two.  Sore scalp where your drooptail got tugged (by what hardly qualifies as a yank).  Half-snapped shoulderbagstrap.  Slight trickle of blood from one nostril; plug it with tissue.  Lip starting to fatten on that side; maybe a small mouse under that eye.  Teeth unchipped; tongue unbitten; inner ear undeafened.

 

Stare into yourself while hearkening to the s.s. voice.

 

Then step out into an almost-empty corridor being patrolled by a portly teacher—Mr. Prout of Social Studies, who points at a wall clock and pontificates that the late bell has rung, young lady.

 

Assume your So-Dumb persona and tell Mr. Prout you tripped and fell in the too-bashful-to-say-the-word-aloud, indicate-washroom-with-your-head.

 

“Slipped and fell?” says Mr. Prout, fretting about potential litigation, embarrassed to think what could be slipped on inside a girls john.  No no, you reply; just tripped over your own two feet and bumped your face on the tile wall.  Can you please go see the nurse now?

 

Mr. Prout would never believe such an allegation if made by a boy; but since girls don’t beat each other up at VTHS—except with words, glances, and ostracization—he buys it and leads you downstairs to ensure you do no more tripping en route.

 

(Showing no sign, before you leave the second floor, of hearing a distinct click from the door to the auditorium balcony.  Not of its closing; more like a camera shutter.

 

In the nurse’s office you nod abashedly at student aide Nancy Buschmeyer and, while waiting your turn to be treated, analyze the botched ambush.  Gigi’s your obvious suspect, but Wanda Lynn might’ve decided to defy Antoinette and wreak delayed revenge.  Or maybe it was Mauly?  Gwen Cokingham?  Both were erratic enough during volleyball season to make blowing a Traverser dry-gulch believable.  Yet none of the above are here in the nurse’s office, and you know you left an OOF mark on whoever it was.

 

Ms. Rathbone, remembering you from your visit last September, is slower to accept the tripped-and-fell story.  But Monday lunch periods are a busy time for her; so she gives you cotton for your nostril, an icepack for your lip, and a note for your homeroom teacher (or rather the sub filling in for cracked-up Mr. Watford).

 

4B has come and gone and 5C’s bell is clanging as you’re discharged, so no lunch today; you already discarded your mangled leaky sack.  Yet out in the lobby your name is called and here’s Britt Groningen lounging against a trophy case, giving you a sleepy little hatchet-honing smile: dart—flick—gash.  “Come have a bite to eat,” she says.

 

“Can’t.  Got to get to Bio before Dimancheff locks me out.”

 

“Ditch it.  Just this once.”

 

Never in your life have you intentionally ditched a class, and Mr. Dimancheff’s is the last one you ought to begin with.  Britt, though, is turning up the gaslight under her heavy lids and bringing it to bear on you, as if bent on fridgifying any resistance you might put up.

 

Poor Britt.

 

Can’t she guess that freezeouts are futile?

 

Your sangfroid has automatically kicked in: that steady unwavering c-h-i-l-l that kewwwwwls your mind even as it gooses your flesh.

 

But you put on a so-dumb show of being intimidated and follow her bold egress through the school’s front doors.  (Lola the master forger can emend Nurse Rathbone’s note to cover Fifth Hour as well as Fourth.  Assuming you live long enough to use it tomorrow.)

 

“Where we going, Britt?” you ask in a scared-wittle-wabbit whimper.

 

“You’ll see...”

 

Lengthen your gait.  Pick up the pace.  Pull out ahead—Britt wasn’t an impressive cross country runner at VW and hasn’t been on a sports team since eighth grade, so she lags behind as you leg it toward—what? which? there—a Toyota Cressida loitering on Pandean Street, with a wannabe albino lurking in the driver’s seat.

 

“Lookit, there’s Flaky!” you holler and take off at a gallop, leaving Britt to eat your dust as you reach the car and give its roof a hail-fellow thump, call “Shotgun!” and fling open the passenger door, barrel in beside the disconcerted driver and punch the power locks so Britt has to rattle a rear handle till Flake can gather his ghoulish wits and let her into the backseat.

 

“Not cool,” she remarks, a trifle breathlessly.

 

“Uh hi there, Dine Agh Hurl,” Flake attempts to reassert; but you snatch an unlabeled cassette from his cold damp hand, inquire “Is this a mix tape?” and pop it into the dashboard deck.  Stabbing the play button, twirling the vol knob, you inundate the Cressida with the sobby sound of a woman begging for mercy.  Or acting like she’s begging, with audible vexation as if this were Take Thirteen of an all-night recording session.

 

Lame!” you react.  Is this supposed to make you quake with fear that you’ve fallen into the clutches of the Mad Bludgeoner?  More like the clammy paws of Pitiful Tom Sawyer, playing at being a big mean pirate attending his own funeral!  “Black Avenger of the Spanish Main your snowy-white ass, Newwww-leeeey!

 

Flustered Flake hits the off button and the car falls silent as your fattened (despite the icepack) eraserlips widen and broaden and amplify into something akin to a smile or maybe a smudgepot as a fine gray mist fills the Cressida till even Britt’s abysmal gaslights go dim, her face as drained of blood as Flake’s so its freckles stand out like polka-dots.

 

Our time has come.

 

Let Marya Rose watch the waves and stars to her so-dumb heart’s content.

 

You have risen above and beyond them.  Throw off all subterfuge, and woe betide any misguided ignoramus who dares try to top your badassery—be it Mr. Dimancheff, or Dennis Desmond, or Antoinette O’Toole herself.

 

“Come, we shall have some fun now! you inform the car and the street and the ‘burb and the world, with a crashing peal of blistery shivaree laughter.

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Return to Chapter 41                          Proceed to Chapter 43

 

 

A Split Infinitive Production
Copyright © 2022 by P. S. Ehrlich

 

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