Chapter 43

 

Wintersault

 

 

My name is Virginia Leigh Pyle.

 

I’ve got to keep hold of myself.

 

Because the Gobble-uns’ll get me if I don’t hold tight...

 

When she came round, she found herself flat on her back in a narrow canoe or watery coffin: buried at sea but still afloat, adrift, with a pair of humansized ducks staring down at her from either side.

 

“Quackup” they went; or maybe that was all she could make out through the pulsing throbbing ache that laid her low.  “We all weigh the same as a duck” chanted the pair as they underwent alteration into Kim Zimmer (who’d always looked like Donald’s Daisy) on her left, and Diana Dabney (in pre-swannified ugliform) on her right.  Together piling more and more weight upon her as she lay wracked in the bottom of the paddleless boat or openlidded casket: didn’t they notice how unwell that made her? or that it added to her shadowed sickness by half?  “Thank Shalott” went the one on the left, dissolving into rustyheaded Sidney Erbsen (definitely not a Lancelot) while the one on the right became a spaced-out live-action puppet singing Yum ticky ticky tum.

 

Between them they managed to dull her pain (maybe by simply being tedious) and extract her from that coffinlike canoe, to sleepwalk through the rest of the week.  Did she go to classes, cheer practice, choir rehearsal?  If so it was on all on blurry autopilot, with no appetite for food or drink or even The Stuff—

 

—at least until Saturday night, when no one would tell her where the Traversers were gathering.  Not that they ever seemed to know this themselves beforehand; but Britt had turned to speechless soapstone, the Great Dane wouldn’t respond to her calls, and every message she left at Cobbler Topping went unanswered—

 

—at least until an unknown voice phoned to say she’d run out of credit and had done nothing that week to warrant an extension.  A sentence that mightve been pronounced by Parnell himself, so astrally slackered did it sound before a terminal click

 

—at which point all her hungers and thirsts kicked in, and craving starvation was brought to the forefront of constant awareness.

 

Cash on the barrelhead was needed, at once, in abundance.  But she’d been overdrawn for a tapped-out month or more; nothing readily sellable or hockable was left within reach, and doing extra chores would only result in a slight reduction of debt.

 

“You—you have yourself,” prompted Scarlett O’Hara, whose solution to a similar predicament had been to convert velvet portières into a beguiling gown and offer its contents to Rhett Butler.  He may have been a hateful skunk, but one with half a million dollars salted away; and that was a sum to make the parched mouth water—

 

—till the notion of obtaining it by carnal hookery spawned a scream-yourself-awake nightmare of lurid debasement by Lenny Otis and Dino Tattagliaoh Lawdy!two pariahs non grata she’d told to stare their loser eyes blind while diddling themselves miserable, but now... but now...

 

No—no—no—NO—

 

Truly a fate worse than death.

 

Even if they could muster up anything close to half a mill.  (Scarlett hadn’t gotten a red cent out of Rhett Butler.)

 

So: fall back on the five-finger discount.  In a place where her face wouldn’t be readily recognized, which ruled out all the better boutiques and emporiums.  And explained why she was entering a Sears—the sort of outlet she normally wouldn’t be caught pushing up dandelions at.  But they were open Sundays from ten to six “for your holiday pleasure, now through Christmas”; meaning shed have to load up on quantity to compensate for the lack of quality.  Hence the baggy beige bra beneath the saggy taupe top beneath the plain brown ski jacket, whose eiderdown wasn’t doing its job to keep her from shuddering.  Hands especially as she shoved them deep into plain brown pockets, willing her fingers to be nimble.

 

Mosey over to the jewelry (more like “trinkets”) counter.  Check out the revolving rack atop it.  Heart-shaped pierced set with 14K gold posts: a pitiful $9.00 retail.  The sort of doodad Squintilla Stott would wear, lacking the insight to distinguish tacky from tolerable.  Even so, hold them up to a trembly lobe and act as though gauging the effect in a countertop mirror.  Then, oh-so-casually, deftly, nimbly allow the earrings to slide down inside the taupe top’s saggy V-neck—

 

“Beg pardon, miss—”

 

Busted!  Caught in the act by a short fat security guard with a straggly combover!  Nabbed for swiping a pair of cheap junky earbobs, at a Sears!  Where she was now going to be subjected to ruthless invasive stripsearching and criminal prosecution!

 

“No no no NO,” she stammered, clutching her bosom as it began to heave.  “They fell in, just slipped out of my hand, yew gotta beeleeve meeee—”

 

“Glory HONNolulu ay-loha ay-men, I beeleeve!” yakked a maniac charging over to seize her by the wrist, haul it off her chest, and exhibit its damp hand palm-forward.  “Have you ever in your storied career as a department store constable be-held such a moisturized display of cold-sweat clamminess?  It’s taking all my strength to keep this wetly woebegone paw from slithering out of my own grip altogether!  Imagine how saturated the rest of this poor perspiring girl must be—how she’ll have to wring the saltwater out of all her sweltery garments, outer and under, upper and lower, exactly as if she’d been washed overboard from a transatlantic steamer and taken a forcible dip in the ever-loving deep blue sea!”

 

Deep blue as opposed to the cherry-tomato-red blush suffusing her face at the picture these words must be unveiling in the security guard’s straggly combover mind.  Which he wrenched back to the matter at hand with an obvious conjecture that two shoplifters were working in cahoots here—

 

—till a heavily-packed shopping sack (trailing an ostentatious register receipt) got hoisted onto the jewelry counter, and an actual business-type calling card was produced for the guard to inspect.

 

Morrigan Foley-Desmond Studio / Gloaming Avenue / Vanderlund?”

 

Is that me dear old mither? you’ll be wondering, and ’tis right you are to think so!  Am I here to purchase supplies for her photographic endeavors? you’ll be asking next, and right again I’m compelled to say!  Then you’ll be guessing that Miss Pie here is one of our choicest modeling prospects—”

 

Pahhhhl!” she reflexively corrected.

 

“Pyyyyle, of course—as in Gomer.”

 

NO-ew!  As in Ernie the war correspondent!”  (Whom her father J.W. claimed obscure kinship with.)

 

“So, correspondently speaking, perhaps you could trouble one of your lovely lady staffers to assist Miss Pyyyyle in retrieving the merchandise in question (which I scarcely need mention will be paid for in full in cash) from the depths of her B‑U‑S‑T‑L‑I‑N‑E, and then we’ll be on our merry way out of your accommodating hair.”

 

The security guard, reflexively stroking his combover, summoned a prison-matronly saleswoman to accompany Miss Pyyyyle into a fitting room, where the heart-shaped earrings were recouped along with many apologies and acknowledgments of her bra’s being baggy and references to recent unwellness and citations of the strap malfunction that’d caused her to be labeled “Lopsy” and insistence that all she’d wanted to do was some early Christmas shopping.  (Though not for the earrings, which got flung into the heavily-packed shopping sack after nine-dollars-plus-tax were tendered.)

 

Then: sweet freedom.  Escape from that infernal Sears, clinging to the arm of Dennis Desmond—a looney screwball maybe, but the absolute opposite of Unlucky Charms so far as Gigi was concerned.  Infinitely preferable to those ooh! ooh! gnnnnogg-ing Smooch Smarks; and he’d alluded to a chance of earning some genuine moolah modeling for a professional artist—albeit an outré one, who’d taken a series of photos of the Carstairs sisters that had yet to be shown to the general public, but was extensively whispered about.

 

No matter.  Gigi’d go as far as necessary or could be gotten away with, given her underage status; further than Odious Isabel ever would.  Ditto when it came to drawing upon Dennis’s own resources—though his repute as “One-Shot Thanks-a-Lot Untie-the-Knot” meant great care would have to be taken.  There might be no second chance, if the first opportunity got wasted.

 

But there was so much in his favor besides the thickness of his wallet.  He frequently harassed Diana Dabney and Valerie Frid, and had tipped an entire cup of pop (cracked ice and all) down the back of Margo Temple’s blouse at the climax of their only date.  That deed alone would make him kissworthy, even before she felt the rippling musculature under his sleeve and over the shoulder she suddenly wanted to rest her head upon.  If only her outfit wasn’t so drab and makeup so muted, and she hadn’t made both worse by coming here on a smelly bus through November wind and rain...

 

“Can’t tell yew jes how grateful Ah am for rescuing me,” she murmured out in the New Sherwood parking lot as they headed not for his snazzy orange Camaro, but an (eww!) Wagonmaster pickup truck.  Even so, gaze soulfully into his topaz eyes: “Hope there’s some way Ah can reward yew for being such a chivalrous gentleman...”

 

Dennis responded by pulling open her ski jacket, grasping her saggy V‑neck, and stretching it far, far forward while he took a lingering (yet offhand) glance down her quavering front.  “Looks like you need a heap of fattening up and fillering out in there—a couple of heaps, not to put too fine a point on ‘em.”

 

Outraged modesty vied with wounded vanity as she twisted away and crossed wrists over her dishonored tatas.  “Ah do not need any figgering out!”

 

Fillering, not figgering—though your figger will get fillered a lot fuller in the process.  Hop in, gorgeous—I’ll feed you a Sunday dinny-din-din that’ll stick to your shall-we-say-‘ribs,’ and best of all I won’t even count it against you as a ‘date.’”

 

Outrage, vanity, and unquenched avarice all gave abrupt way to tearful weariness.  “What Ah really need is someone t’take care of me...”

 

“What you really need is a hearty helping of German cuisine at the Lebkuchenhaus!” announced Dennis, tugging her by the crossed wrists up and into his Wagonmaster.  “Its run by the Hitchens family, you know—Gretel pretends to be a hostess and Hansel impersonates a waiter—and they’ll stuff you like a goose with sauerbraten and sauerkraut and bratwurst and knockwurst and best-of-all spätzle.

 

“Ohhhhhhh,” Gigi groaned.  “Ah don’t know ‘bout that...”

 

“If you clean your plates (note the plural) I might stake you to a teensity-weensity taste of your favorite snotsugar for dessert.”

 

Upset reluctance gave way to avid interest.  “Have yew—have yew got some?”

 

“You’ll find out,” said Dennis Desmond.

 

*

 

The day before Thanksgiving, Cityland radio and television broadcasts were interrupted by a special bulletin that the Mad Bludgeoner Task Force was questioning “a person of interest,” and had obtained a warrant to search said person’s premises.  The general consensus was that a break in the case had come at last after three harrowing months, so extra thanks should be given on Turkey Day.

 

This was of meager comfort to the family and friends of the Bludgeoner’s latest victim—Estela Mantillo, an honor student at unhappy Multch East—whose mangled remains had been found in a leaf-clogged culvert and caused her mother to have a heart attack while identifying the body.  Nor was there appreciative gratitude in the Athens Grove home of Bruno Turkenkopf, whose eldest son Wilmer’s name was quickly leak-linked to the “person of interest.”  Wilmer, besides being grossly tattooed like all the Turkenkopfs, owned a vast collection of blunt instruments which the task force carted away for forensic examination after ransacking the house for evidence.  Although no arrest or charge would be reported that four-day weekend, the news media did imply that a psych ward jail cell was as good as occupied; so festive merriment and soothing relief continued to prevail, despite a four-inch snowfall that hampered the official start of holiday shopping.

 

Few were stirred to lighter-heartedness than Mrs. Dr. Lafayette Carstairs V.  Quaffing straight bourbon as she watched the white stuff pile up outside the Shoreward Club’s cocktail lounge, she declared that the Mad Bludgeoner’s apprehension ought to be celebrated with a bal masqué for all-our-safe-again-little-gals and no-longer-under-suspicion-little-guys.  Why a bal masqué, less than a month after Halloween and a month before Christmas?  Because back in 1952 when she was Miss Winifred Altdorf, she’d played Juliet (with an exotic Texas twang) at the joint Startop-Front Tree Shakespeare Festival, and its masquerade ball had been her favorite scene.  “We need another hoodang just like that, and I’m here to see we get one!”  Opposition cut no ice with whiskeyfied Winnie; she overrode it as per usual, and the concierge duly scheduled her masked hoodang for Saturday the 10th of December (weather permitting).

 

Daughters Millicent and Isabel wasted no time in shoveling out invites.  Each was allotted a specific number to issue, and each used a Xerox machine to multiply her share until (if weather permitted everybody to show up) the Shoreward Clubhouse was doomed to become a jampacked madhouse.

 

Yet even if that were to happen, it was beaten to the bedlam punch by last Saturday’s Junior Harvest Brawl at Petty Hills Country Club.  Two years ago the bloodshed there had been limited to Sonny Lorgnon’s nose when it smote the dance floor; this time the entire joint got shaken by a battle royal between Chipper Farlowe and Mack “The Arm” Pittley.  Both combatants went to the hoosegow by way of the hospital, where both were diagnosed as having ingested an illegal mindblowing substance.  Both pled innocence, alleging their refreshments must’ve been spiked; yet no other Junior Harvester had gone off the deep or even the shallow end, unless you counted Buddy Marcellus and Junior Nygren’s freestyle jitterbugging.  (Ginger Snowbedeck even complained that the Petty Hills punch was so watered down it could be used to bathe guppies.)

 

Vicki wasn’t present at the Brawl, due to [a] Buddy’s having wangled Tony a temp job at the Harvesting and [b] Tony’s unwillingness to see Vicki boogie with anyone else while he was confined to busing dirty dishes.  So she missed [c] Chipper and Mack’s fistfight, [d] Buddy and Junior’s unbridled rugcutting, [e] a censorious chaperone’s attempt to pry Nanette Magnus off Boffer Freuen during a slowdance, and [f] Cheryl Trevelyan’s blowup at Stuart Nugent for being hamstrung with swimmer’s knee.

 

Tony didn’t have much to tell about any of these goings-on, but Vicki heard volumes from Cheryl and Nanette and others who’d been there.  The highest volumes were about the Farlowe-Pittley fracas and what had triggered its first punch, if as Ginger said you couldn’t blame it on spiked guppy-bathwater.

 

Mack and Chip each mumbled vaguely about a whitehaired weirdo (who looked like one of the Winter brothers, Johnny or Edgar) whispering wantonly that he (Mack/Chip) would be in-like-Flynn if he (ditto/ditto) asked Kailey Cravath to get down with him (echo/echo) and the sooner the better, ‘cause Kailey was steamin’ for a creamin’ from him (reverb/reverb).

 

Yeah right was the logical response.  Kailey Cravath, while summer-vacationing in California, had taken impulsive part in a commercial cattle call and been cast as the new “face” of  Salvacreme antibacterial skin cleanser—a product Robin Neapolitan swore should be banned from the market as more toxic than pHisoHex.  Be that as it may, Kailey’s blemish-free countenance was all over the airwaves that autumn, even outReboundering Shucks Smith; and the fact that she was barely thirteen, an eighth-grader at VW when not shuttling to the coast, hardly excluded her from adolescent male fantasies—particularly when ogled in a zitless décolleté party gown at the Petty Hills Harvestfest.

 

So Yeah right stood no chance against hallucinogens, spiked or otherwise: Chipper and Mack wound up pounding each other with knuckles and elbows and a couple of chairs after they approached Kailey simultaneously on the same dance floor Sonny Lorgnon had stained with nose-gore, and now bore the sanguine marks of Farlowe-Pittley mayhem.

 

“Even Boffer couldn’t pull them apart, and he’s on the wrestling team this year!” Nanette told Vicki.  “It took four policemen to break it up and put them in cuffs, calling them ‘Mad Bludgeoner copycats.’  I wish they’d taken a swing at that nasty chaperone who made such a fuss when Boff and I danced to ‘Love’s Grown Deep’—I mean, that’s our song.”

 

“Did they find the whitehaired weirdo guy?” asked Vicki, recalling a character of that sort whom Britt had brought to tape-record the Quinceañera disco concert.  (What was his name?  Freak?  Quake?  Quisp?)

 

“Oh, I think Chip and Mack just dreamed him up—y’know, from whatever it was they were on.  It must’ve been something potent—they both sure acted like they were out of their gourds.  I’m just glad only their drinks got spiked, if that is what happened and they didn’t shoot up or snort up or whatever they did do to go so crazy.”

 

“I just hope it wasn’t something in the air that the rest of us could catch!” said Vicki.

 

This hope was evidently dashed the Wednesday after Thanksgiving, when a noxious end-of-November fog rolled in off the Lake to smother Vanderlund.  People groped their way to school (some of the boys literally groping—“Oh, was that your boob?  Sorry, thought it was a doorknob”—and all the Gym classes stayed indoors, which they would’ve done anyway since basketball season had begun.

 

The Third Hour tardy bell clanged; Ms. Goldberg started discoursing about the Renaissance; and Vicki was taking diligent notes when the sound of a siren split through the fog.  It was rapidly followed by another and another as all the windows in Room 416 got crowded by the inquisitive.  “Everybody please keep their seats till we sound the all-clear,” crackled Mr. Stabeldore’s terse voice over the P.A.; which convinced Alex the Girl Scout and Rachel Gleistein the Red Cross worker that their services were sorely needed, most likely in Doreen Jobling’s Home Ec class (again).  Ms. Goldberg had to bar them at the door, though not Becca Blair who (as always) appeared to know exactly what was going on and be unfazed by it as well as unforthcoming, though she shook her regal head at every mention of Dory’s firebuggery.

 

“Space aliens!” Marked-Down Mark Brown told Claudia Thurman.  Mark, a dedicated member of the Alpha Centauri Club like Egghead Skinner, was counting the days till Spielberg’s Close Encounters movie went into general release.  “‘We are not alone!’”

 

“Mmm-hmm,” went Cloudy.

 

“I’m serious!  That fog’s a dead giveaway—either it’s exhaust from the mothership, or the secret government UFO patrol’s using it to throw us off the scent!”

 

“Mmm-hmm,” repeated Cloudy, looking ready to throw off Mark and his scent.

 

After awhile the sirens ceased, all-clear was sounded, the 4A bell P-E-E-E-E-A-Led and other rumors flew, each more outlandish than the last.  Leave it to Jerome Schei to discover the ultraoutlandish truth and circulate it before Sixth Hour: Madeline Wrippley, absent from Advanced English for the first time that semester, had been spotted (how, in the fog? and by whom?) dancing naked on the VTHS roof!  Then when the rescue squad and suicide-prevention staffers made it up there, Maddie went into convulsions and collapsed in a coma!

 

“(That’s taking The Crucible way too much to heart,)” Fiona mutter-observed to Joss and Vicki, who couldn’t help but peek at Split-Pea Erbsen.  Door to the roof is open he’d told her and Tony a mere month ago; Just saying he’d added.  Here and now he was no more forthcoming or informative than Becca Blair; his only reaction to Jerome’s latest latest was to sail a paper airplane (like one of Jenna Wiblitz’s grotesque airgoyles) across the room to land with a spittoon-ping in Mrs. Mallouf’s wastebasket.

 

Mrs. Mallouf herself arrived then, late and out of sorts and equally silent on the Maddie topic, apart from saying she’d need a new student assistant for the foreseeable future.  Not even Jerome was eager to enlist for that narc-duty, so Mrs. M arbitrarily checked which name was next up from Wrippley at the bottom of the class roster.

 

“Vicki Volester, thanks for volunteering.”

 

“I knew you had it in you!” Joss applauded.

 

“(Glad you kept it out of us,)” Fiona muttered.

 

“Am I supposed to go get you a cup of coffee now?” Vicki tried to ask politely.

 

“You can start tomorrow,” said Mrs. Mallouf, with a decaffeinated sigh.

 

Meaning Vicki’d have to fetch it from the faculty lounge after each Lunch 5D.  That part would be convenient; but she would have to carry a heated beverage—one of her least-favorite commodities—up four stories without any spillage or burnage.  Maybe she could coax Mrs. M into switching to a nice glass of iced tea?

 

“At least it’s not strained carrots,” said consolatory Joss, who knew her too well.

 

As for poor Madeline, the obvious assumption was that she’d finally snapped under the stress of being an uptight killjoy.  Obvious, that is, until cops began to grill the girls basketball team about their ongoing fundraising bakesale, at which Maddie’d bought a big frosted cupcake to nibble on each Zero Hour that week.  Now the sale was cut short, all unsold merchandise had been confiscated, and the police interrogated every supplier from Crystal’s pâtissier mother to combustible Doreen.  (Who burst into blubbery flames: wasn’t it enough that she’d broken both her legs, lost her eyelashes and gotten dumped by a disloyal boyfriend, without being given the third degree??)

 

By Friday morning the Gossip Brigade could broadcast a special bulletin that lysergic acid diethylamide (i.e. LSD) had been detected in Madeline’s bodily fluids (eww) and was most likely derived from Wednesday’s Zero Hour cupcake.  Maddie wasn’t accustomed to consuming processed sugar—her parents shopped a lot at Uni-Nute and kept a strictly health-conscious pantry—but that alone wouldn’t account for her behaving oddly in First Hour Choir, ditching Second Hour Latin, and ending up bare-assed on the school roof.  No other bakesale customer had been affected (at least not to such a noticeable extent) so the question was: Who’d slipped Madeline Wrippley a cupcake laced with Orange Sunshine?

 

She had no outright enemies on the varsity or JV basketball squads, and once even got thanked for handing Dory an elusive crutch; so no mortal feuds there.  The paramedics found no sign of sexual assault or even hypothermia, despite her fogbound nudity; Maddie’s clothes and shoes were all piled neatly beside the parapet.  She disapproved of stoner-boys like Skully Erle and Matt LaVintner, and certainly wouldn’t have accepted any sweet-tooth edibles from them; even if she had, it was far more likely they’d have been doped with hash than acid.

 

However: less than a fortnight had gone by since an acid trail was blazed at Petty Hills Country Club, so Chipper Farlowe and Mack Pittley (back in school on probation) were prime contenders.  Each, though, could prove he hadn’t been anywhere near Maddie on Wednesday morning, and Mack ungallantly added that he’d sooner chop off The Arm than make any move that might result in seeing Madeline Wrippley naked.

 

Who else?  A number of Junior Harvesters had identified Newley Hasleman of Dowager’s Bluff as the “whitehaired Winter Brotherly weirdo.”  He’d been tracked down (or rather up, his father being a rock salt tycoon) to Cobbler Topping, and there gotten quizzed about his role in the Brawl:

 

“Why, I was just trying to break the ice for that sweet little Salvacreme Queen—all her sudden celebrity has made Kailey so shy—and I guess her wholesome clean appeal drove those roughneck boys right up the wall.  Oh, you’re telling me it was LSD that did it?  My my my—wouldn’t you say that’s rather a quaint drug in this day and age?”

 

Maybe so; but the investigators of the cupcake freakout took note when Spacyjane Groh mentioned having seen a Haint (whose description tallied with Newley Hasleman’s) “standing and waiting” by a VTHS stairwell on the Monday before the Brawl, at a time when he should’ve been at his own Front Tree Country Day School.  So back the gumshoes went to the Grindhouse for a new pop quiz, this one conducted via a high-dollar family attorney.  No, his client had definitely been where he belonged on Wednesday the 30th.  No, his client was entirely unfamiliar with anyone by the name of Madeline Wrippley.  No, his client was wholly uninvolved with lysergic acid diethylamide and knew nobody who might be.

 

Again, maybe so; but acting on a hunch the cops called on Linda (alias Lynndha) Ednalino of a prominent pharmaceutical clan, whom Newly did documentedly know.  They soon concluded Lynndha would be suitable casting for any of the Three Weird Sisters in Macbeth, yet had no traceable connection to Maddie’s doping.

 

That left Sidney Erbsen, whose previous contretemps with the dopee was cited by several of Mrs. Mallouf’s students.  Yet that same Spacyjane Groh was able to vouch for every step Sid took from the moment he arrived at VTHS that morning.  During Zero Hour they’d bypassed the bakesale to evaluate Snap-It-Yourself contest submissions with Mr. Szot and Nancy Buschmeyer.  They’d remained together in First Hour Photography; then Sid had ushered Spacyjane upstairs for Second Hour German and French respectively.  No, they couldn’t have seen Madeline outside Grandma Ivy’s Latin classroom, which predated the Foreign Language wing and was up on the third floor (closer to the roof).  They’d remained on the second floor for Third Hour Geometry and Biology respectively; and Spacyjane said her Swee’Pea’d had no clue at the time why all those sirens were sounding, unless they were foghorns to warn sailors not to beach their boats on school grounds.

 

(Thank you, Miss Groh.)

 

The least helpful of everyone questioned was Madeline Wrippley herself.  While understandably bewildered when she came out of her coma and realized she was in a hospital bed, her disoriented eyes took on an impenetrable rodentlike glint when asked if she knew any whitehaired Winter Brotherly weirdos.

 

“I don’t remember.  And I’m not going to remember anything either, about what may or may not have happened.  So don’t ask.”

 

“But Maddie—” went her uptight killjoy mother.

 

“Not anything.  Anytime.  To anyone.  And that’s final.”

 

(“She will have her little joke,” said Split-Pea Erbsen when word of this got out.)

 

*

 

Rosemary Hempstead, age 21 stated the newest fake ID picturing Rula “Erotic” Hradek, age 17.  Namewise this was an homage to Miss Rosamond Ambrose and her purportedly torrid Twenties liaison with a Guggenheim on Long Island.  Fakewise it was almost too authentic, as Rula’d groused to the ID’s creator.

 

“What can I say?  I’m a fine artiste,” bragged Lola Svoboda.

 

Best friends since nursery school, they were the DoubleCzech Twins of North Crocker Street—“a little slice of suburban heaven for upscale Bohunks,” as their lodge-brother fathers billed themselves.  Mr. Svoboda had gone so far as to wed the sister of a college professor, whose daughter Carly Thibert would be a pesky tagalong kid-cousin to the DoubleCzechers till they got her out of their hair by encouraging Carly’s early interest in boys, and enhancing her natural-born attractivity thereto.

 

Lola had always been the expert with such enhancements.  From a very young age she’d treated Rula as a lifesize Barbie doll to dress up and make up and style coifs for.  And Rula had always been a fitting subject for such ministrations, recognizable from a very young age as The Next Kim Novak.  (Or, if you preferred brunettes, The Next Julie Newmar.)

 

She enjoyed gymnastics and choreography and taking the drill/pompon/cheerleading route to indulge these pursuits; but Rula had no interest in becoming an actress, reciting lines scripted by other people.  As soon as she learned to write she began filling Big Chief tablets with stories of her own, advancing to spiral notebooks and then an electric typewriter bought by her well-meaning father: “This way you’ll have a skill to fall back on, even when you lose your looks.”

 

To which Rula silently replied: Looks might not last, but spooks are forever.

 

And she should know.  Her story-subjects never varied; each was composed of suspenseful mysterious dark matter with a stealthy erotic overlay.  (Limited to kissing in the Big Chief tablets, yet even there the smooches were bestowed by ghosts.)

 

These literary experiments were kept secret from everyone except Lola (who sometimes illustrated them) and Carly (who got off on their content) until halfway through eighth grade, when a New Bohemian Girl arrived disguised as a Bad Irish Broad.  Bunty O’Toole, hearing of Lola’s skill in forging excuse notes and hall passes, sought her out and offered to subsidize her enterprises.  The DoubleCzech Twins were wary till they first visited Bunty at the Vacamonte and met her supercool Aunt Hay—Helene Favray the deluxe courtesan, who had a skill to fall back on because of her looks.

 

“You’ve got to keep the kettle boiling or the kettle won’t boil,” she sagely advised the DoubleCzechers.

 

“Rula here writes a lot of Hot Stuff,” Lola confided.  “Obligatory sex scenes and everything, but with phantoms.”

 

“(Lola!  That’s supposed to be private!)”

 

“Well, I’m proud of you.”

 

“You mean like demonic possession?” scowled Bunty.  The Exorcist might be all the rage that year, but it was far too Catholic-clichéd for her taste: like fighting vampires with garlic, mirrors and sunshine.

 

“Well, um, have you... heard of incubuses?” Rula reluctantly asked.

 

“Incubi,” corrected Aunt Hay.  “Incubi and succubi, dropping by while you sleep.”

 

“Yeah—but with no pea soup or fooling around with crucifixes.”

 

Nondenominational otherworldly love?  “Hunh,” went Bunty.  “I bet there’s publishers that’d print Hot Stuff like that.  You interested in selling yours?”

 

“Mine?  How?  I’m just a kid.”

 

“Leave it to me,” said Agent Antoinette, ready to skim fifty percent off the proceeds and donate a share to her multiconnected Uncle Alley Mushmouth.

 

Thus was launched the professional pulp-fiction career of “Darlene Crandall,” a pseudonym that would appear (with Age 17) on the inaugural fake ID devised for Rula by Lola under the savvy direction of Bunty (all age 13).

 

“Not bad,” said Bunty after close inspection.

 

“Not bad!  With that pinned to her tit, she could win Miss America!” boasted Lola.

 

“Phantom Passion at the Possessed Pageant,” mused the visionary Darlene Crandall.

 

Four lucrative years later her phantastic smut continued to be sold, mostly in Cityland headshops and adult bookstores.  Not precisely fodder for a college application; but Rula anticipated signing her own name to Spirit Within, Spirit Away, that Lois Duncanesque roman à clef-in-progress.  Scott Grampian even hoped to sneak an excerpt past the censors into this year’s Aqueduct magazine, perhaps (as Spacyjane Groh suggested) by translating it into unglossed French.  “Either way, it’s bound to send sales through the roof,” said Scott.

 

So over-the-counter marketability might be on her horizon; yet it was Rosemary Hempstead (Age 21), not Rula Hradek (Age 17), who clandestinely followed up on Harelip Harrison’s “nose candy” report.  Spending two weekends making the rounds of Campus bars and hangouts, asking “Seen Buzz lately?” in a careless casual not-all-that-interested way.  Pickings were sparser than usual during the Thanksgiving holidays, but she still received too many I’ll give yuh a buzz, baby! replies.

 

Finally a tug on her hook: “Buzz Hovercraft?  Yeah, I ran into him just the other night at the Pole—the Magnetic Pole, y’know.  Been there yet?  I can get you in, no prob—their bouncer knows me ‘n’ owes me a favor.”

 

Sure he does.  This from Chad the Grad Student, futzing around with an MBA while he worked in “entertainment promotion” (i.e. booking halftime acts) for Carmel Sanborn Chiese, whom Chad later let slip wasn’t simply his boss but also his mother.  Even so, he seemed to be a viable connection and Rula set up a trip to the Pole on Friday the 2nd—

 

—only to see the scheme get threatened with derailment on Wednesday the 30th.  Cops swarmed over VTHS after some high-as-a-kite sophomore went on a nudist rooftop spree; and the O’Toole crew tread choppy waters till word came that it’d been an old-fashioned acid trip.  Had it been a coke jag, all their prep work would’ve gotten wasted (so to speak) in the resulting crackdown.  As it was, the incident might be appendable to Spirit Within, Spirit Away—if, say, it was caused by paranormal acid from an extrasensory pusher.

 

At any rate the trek to the Pole took place as planned on Friday, following a cheerless varsity basketball loss at Multch West that got capped off by Tommy the Torch Dwyer’s setting himself on fire with malfunctioning skyrockets outside the school in December.  (Any punishment meted out by his Presbyterian minister father or Calvinist God would be a kiss-on-the-brow compared to what Bunty would do to him for being such an inflammatory fool.)

 

Rula’d arranged to have Chad collect her at the Vacamonte, to augment his impression that Rosemary Hempstead was a femme of fatale means.  Aunt Hay loaned her a Halston gold lamé halter dress, an expensive tweed overcoat and a new pair of calfskin platform boots; sighing ruefully that they all fit Rula better than herself.

 

Along came Chad in a Cardin knockoff outfit and a bought-used 911 Carrera; and away they drove to The City’s newest smackback variation on the Studio 54 theme.  It had been converted from an indoor skating rink by Pucey Waslewski, onetime ethnomusicologist and birdcall-imitator, who could snub would-be patrons with captious impunity and piercing whistles: “My Magnetic Pole is too slippery a climb for peckerwood whip-poor-wills!

 

That didn’t dissuade a block-long queue of yearning-to-be-shaken booties from lining up at the Pole’s plush stanchion rope; behind which loomed a titanic doorman with a cold appraising eye and hard unbending heart.  Not the slightest indication did he give of knowing Chad the Grad Student or owing him one thin dime, much less anything approximating a “favor.”  Yet the stanchion rope parted like a plush Red Sea for Rosemary Hempstead; and in she swept with the begrudgingly-admitted Chad at her platform bootheels.

 

whubb

whubb

whubb

whubb

 

pulsed a ventricle-vestibule and atrium-cloakroom where Rula checked Aunt Hay’s tweed coat and Chad shed his nondesigner outerwear.

 

whubb

whubb

whubb

whubb

 

beat a massive bassline beyond the walls and floor and ceiling of this cardiac setting; which for all its palpitating cadence was an obdurate reminder of a Fitzgerald story Rula’d read in her 20th Century Lit class, “The Diamond As Big As The Ritz.”

 

Except that this place was clearly constructed of that new mass-produced diamond substitute, “A Cubic Zirconia As Big As The Blackstone.”

 

Except that everything here was blue: a glittery frostified blue, as if carved from a glacier.  Bringing to mind another Fitzgerald story setting—“The Ice Palace,” inside whose labyrinthine tunnels a transplanted Southern chick had gotten trapped.  And speak of the Dixie devil: who did Rula spy when she stepped into the cavernous dance hall but Gigi Pyle, that soi-disant Confederate belle, whose imbroglio a month ago with Margo Temple had disjointed the entire Pep Club.  Then she’d dropped out of sight the past couple of weeks—only to pop up here, far more underagedly than Rula, wearing an apple-green catsuit... and getting force-fed what looked like a Twinkie, by some seen-from-the-back man in a carrot-colored leisure suit.  Then they were engulfed by the multitude and lost to view as the Brothers Gibb raised their falsettos in an exhortation to do what everybody’d come here to do, roundabout this magnetic maypole.

 

Chad wanted to dance, “wanted to” in the sense that he plainly didn’t know how; but Rula/Rosemary effortlessly offset his gaucherie and became the centerpiece, the cynosure, the focal point of the whole pulsating Ice Palace—

 

whubb

whubb

whubb

whubb

 

underneath the swirling flashing strobes, at one of the last moments of “unadulterated” disco before the mainstream dam got kaboom’d by an imminent Stigwood detonation starring that guy from Welcome Back, Kotter, who just last year had dumped a bucket of pig’s blood over Sissy Spacek.

 

Whirling off the dance floor then, led by Chad to a glittery-blue alcove where a lizard lounged in a leather bomber jacket, white silk scarf and aviator glasses: Buzz Hovercraft in the flyboy flesh.  Here Chad was at least marginally truthful: sufficiently acquainted to buttonhole Buzz and initiate an introduction.  He could then be jettisoned like a spent booster stage; Rosemary/Rula maintained ascent to orbital velocity, Buzz zeroing in on her focal points and the perfumed cleavage between them, wherein was tucked a crisp new century-note bankrolled by Bunty O’Toole to trade for a gram of Hovercraft tinsel.

 

‘Tis the season, after all.  And whatever happened next was bound to become a dynamite chapter à clef...

 

*

 

“(Okay, I know you’re a great stage manager, but this is even less what I had in mind,)” Vicki murmured.

 

“(Maybe so, but you’re still saving my brisket,)” Jenna Wiblitz murmured back.

 

They were on a Saturday evening group date at the New Sherwood, waiting while their escorts purchased eight tickets for a sneak preview of The Goodbye Girl.  (Agreed upon after dismissal of Heroes, Bobby Deerfield, and the R-rated Rolling Thunder which would’ve obliged the only over-17 group-dater to serve as group-guardian.)  Another couple was busily canoodling till they could head for the candy counter, while the fourth couple (if you could call them that) bickered in front of the preview poster: Thank Neil Simon for making us laugh about falling in love... again.

 

Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason, meet your quasilookalikes Hillel Schiller and Lisa Lohe as they fall into a mangle-wrangle... again.

 

“(Double vision.  Uncanny,)” sighed Jenna, blinking behind frames dotted with tiny vanity-mirror lightbulbs.  “(And the worst of it is, Ike likes ‘Killer.’)”

 

Lisa’s big brother, the collegiate operatic tenor and standby adult guardian, was home for tomorrow’s first night of Hanukkah.  He’d graciously offered to host his sister, sister’s best friend, and sister’s “cavalier” (to say the least) on this jaunt; but even though Jenna was officially in love with Ike, she wasn’t sure he alone could help her survive an evening in Hillel Schiller’s proximity.  So she’d pounced on her own little sister when Vicki’d flounced into Spanish yesterday morning, ticked off at Tony Pierro for acting densely unromantic.

 

“I told you, didn’t I, that Petty Hills took him on regular-parttime after the Brawl?  So he called me last night to say he’d put in so many hours they were giving him tomorrow night off, and he’s got money in his pocket again and his self-respect back so finally it’s time for us to go on our First Real Date, right?  Just the two of us, him ‘n’ me, ‘a night out by ourselves’ like he promised, right?  HA!  He takes it for granted we’re gonna double with Buddy ‘n’ Junior again ‘n’ when I go ‘But—but—but—’ he goes ‘I thought you liiiiked them’ ‘n’ ‘Bud’s my best friennnnd’ which he sure wasn’t during the Trial last spring ‘cause Buddy didn’t excuse himself off Tony’s jury so don’t ask me when they got so palsy-walsy he’d rather hang out with him and his girlfriend instead of just me just for once ‘n’ I’ve got a good mind to stand HIM the hell up once ‘n’ for all, except... I really do want him as a boyfriend, if he’d behave like one for a single solitary night, is that so awfully much to ask for??”

 

Jenna, finishing a sketch of Vicki as an indignant kitten savaging a ball of yarn, proposed an alternative.  “Don’t get mad—but don’t get even, either.  Take it to the twice-as-much level.  Not by two-timing him—more like four-timing.”

 

“Hunh?”

 

“Do you trust me?”

 

“Course!”

 

“Then say ‘yes’ and I’ll handle the rest.”

 

Jenna, though diminutive, could be as domineering as Princess Tricia Smartysnoot; so Vicki meekly yielded and by lunchtime was assured by the Great Stage Manager (with Lisa and Hillel’s tacit concurrence) that everything had clicked into place for tomorrow’s four-timing.  Which allowed Vicki to concentrate on getting that styrofoam cup of hot java up all those stairs to Mrs. Mallouf unspilled, before T.A.-ing a discussion of “The Told Fortune”—Rowland Thornford’s saturnine tale of a melancholy gypsy’s ironic premonitions.

 

(Nonique, when consulted about this, confessed she’d never read any of Thornford’s stories; and given her history with Eddie Ray Anderson, didn’t want to hear about one featuring a gypp-see woman...)

 

Premonitions mixed with recollections of last September’s washout at the drive-in.  It was just Vicki’s luck that her new big sister had to be a rabbi’s granddaughter and thus unavailable on a Friday night for further reassurance over the phone.  Of course Episcopalian Joss was right there at Burrow Lane for her weekly sleepover; and Vicki tried to wheedle her into giving Slim Jim Khim a second chance, making tomorrow’s group date a five-timing tensome.

 

“Forget it!  What kind of Korean chooses a bacon cheeseburger over bulgogi with bamboo shoots?  I was so ashamed!  Nope, I think I’ll hit the town with Robin and Sheila and see if we can’t pick up a hunky jazz trio.  Or at least three guys who aren’t Slim Jim, Craig Clerkington or Avalanche Dobbs.”

 

“Robin and Q’ll just spend the whole night arguing in German.”

 

“Ooh, you’re right—better make that a hunky gesangstrio.

 

As for Vicki’s premonitions, Joss recommended calling Cecidia Drive and having Spacyjane bring over her Tarot deck to forecast the future; but Vicki chickened out and decided instead to be “fatalistic,” a vocab word from yesterday’s Thornford confab.  Fatal charm the gypsy kept chanting: fay-tull-chomm like some bird that hadn’t migrated south for the winter but tarried in Vicki’s subconscious all that night...

 

By Saturday morning her fatalism had dwindled to a Doris Dayish (not Doris Taysish) Que sera, sera: which may have sub-nudged Tony Breachofpromise into phoning to say Half-Great-Uncle Beppe would be bringing him over to be formally presented to Ozzie and Felicia—not to mention Joss, whom even a gesangstrio on three wild horses couldn’t have prevented from witnessing this “nostalgic re-enactment” of the night Roger Mustardman came a-calling in a penguin tuxedo and Silver Cloud Rolls Royce.

 

Uncle Beppe drove a vintage Mercury Montclair with Flo-tone color styling.  Ozzie scrutinized it lot more closely (as he and Beppe puffed on Lucky Strikes in the chilly Volester garage) than he did Tony, even though thirty-seven Saturdays had passed since This Boy first asked out Ozzie’s Little Girl.  Now This Boy was belatedly here and open-to-question; but Ozzie knew Felicia would take care of the questioning with far more finesse than he ever could.

 

Vicki died a hundred deaths of mortified embarrassment, stretching beseechful eyes toward watch and clock as the minutes ticked by and Felicia touched on every unexplained concern regarding Tony’s school record, work record, living situation, etc.  To every question Tony made a low-key noncommittal reply that, however deferential, didn’t quite satisfy mother or daughter (who’d been waiting a long, long time for him to “explain all about everything—no more interruptions”).  He was so appealing, though, as he awkwardly squashed that flat-crowned trilby to his coatfront (not a tux but a nice gabardine Balmacaan).  So Felicia took pity, eventually, and gave their date her blessing with a formal hope that he would often return to Burrow Lane.

 

So we can debrief him again! sub-gushed Joss, her face crimson with suppressed mirth as she teetered on the verge of blabbing about that stupid fake wedding announcement.

 

Shut up shut up shut up!!

 

YOU shut up shut up shut up (hee hee hee)!!

 

“Hurry now, you don’t want to be late for your dinner,” said Fel—as if dawdling here had been their idea!  So out into the subfreezing evening, where Tony opened a Flo-tone door for Vicki with one courteous hand while shaking Ozzie’s with the other, and still somehow keeping that hat crushed to his chest.

 

Uncle Beppe, cramming half a pack of nicotine gum inside one cheek, backed the Montclair out of the cul-de-sac onto Foxtail.  In the backseat, Vicki gently disengaged the trilby from Tony’s grip and placed it on his sleek dark puddyhead; then took his clenched fist, undid it finger by finger, and clasped it with her own mitten; waiting for him to deal the first conversational card.  (So long as it wasn’t about boring old rubber bridge.)

 

Finally a longdrawn exhalation as they sped down Eugene G. Green Road and crossed the canal.  Not a word said, though—not that any could be easily heard over the sports recap show blasting out of Beppe’s radio.

 

Then Vicki saw his lips move.  What? went her eyebrows as she tugged an ear out of her stocking cap and reached it toward Tony’s mouth.

 

“Duck’s okay,” she heard him say.

 

“‘Scuse me?”

 

“Don’t mind a duck dinner.”

 

Well!  Withdraw that ear (unkissed, unblown-in) and let go of his densely unromantic hand.  Here she’d begun to think—make that dream—they might ditch this group-date thing and go off somewhere on their own, like he’d promised.

 

Before long (though it sure felt long) they were pulling up outside La Sauvagine, a semifancy French restaurant on the Willowhelm lakeshore that specialized in waterfowl.  This was favorite food of their host Ike Lohe, and Jenna’d booked two adjacent tables for four since a single one for eight wasn’t available at such short notice.

 

Along came the East Bay quartet right on cue (great stage management) in the Lohes’s Chrysler Cordoba.  Ike the Tenor stepped out from behind its wheel, every bit as handsome as advertised, to give Vicki’s mittened knuckles an operatic buss.  She couldn’t help but giggle as she dodged a mock-jealous thwack by Jenna... while Tony Baloney gave Ike, Lisa, and Hillel Schiller a short silent nod each before standing aloofly aside.

 

(Make that Tony Cold-Cut Olive Loaf.)

 

“Do you think we might possibly thaw our popsicle-asses inside La Spoon-de-Grease?” suggested Hillel the Head Cheese.

 

“Language!” snapped Lisa the Noodle Kugel, sounding like she wished she’d said it first.

 

Ike the Kielbasa took the lead, piloting them (Tony bringing up the rear) through a semifancy door into La Sauvagine, which was filled with Gallic field-and-stream murals and concertina music.  “Reservation for Lohe, party of eight,” Ike warbled to the maître-d’, who suavely responded that theirs was a party of six: word had been received that Mr. Marcellus and Miss Nygren wouldn’t be able to join them for dinner, but might make it to the movie.  Regrettably, a table for six was equally unavailable; but they could be seated at once at their adjacent tables for four-and-now-two.  Vicki and Jenna were petite and Lisa was slender, so it might have been possible to fit all six of them at a table meant for four; but the maître-d’ wouldn’t permit them to try, so Vicki and Tony were relegated to what Hillel called “the children’s table.”  He then saw canards on the menu and started speculating (at length) about what sort of baseless falsehoods had been quacked and how such untruths would affect the flavor of their slow-cooked confits.

 

Ike laughed resonantly; Lisa narrowed already-thin lips; Jenna drew a doubtless libelous sketch on her semifancy French placemat; and Tony crumbled a breadstick into his water glass while staring blankly into space.

 

Vicki sat and stewed, trying to think of ways this night out might yet be salvaged.  Tony’s self-respect could be (re-)restored by offering to split the check with Ike; or he could pay for the movie tickets, his and Vicki’s at least, plus afterdinner popcorn should they have any appetite once they got to the New Sherwood.  Assuming he and Vicki made it that far, since transport was supposed to have been furnished by Junior Nygren’s family; now there was only a Cordoba in which six group-daters couldn’t all squeeze at once, even if two were petite and one some-might-say skinny.

 

Crumble crumble crumble went another breadstick into what was now a slurryglass.

 

“(Look, d’you wanna just leave?)” Vicki hissed across the children’s table.

 

Tony jumped and dunked what was left of his stick.  “Who, me?”

 

“(Us!  Forget dinner here.  Call my folks or your uncle and let’s get out.)”

 

“(Oh no you don’t!)” clucked the sharp-eared Jenna, fluttering over to dig birdy-claws into their collarbones.  “(No running off—I can’t undertake to make it through this night without you!)”

 

“What’s all that whispering about?” barked Lisa.

 

“Trying to decide whose slow-cooked leg would taste better—Donald’s or Daffy’s,” Jenna retorted.

 

That set Killer Schiller off on a fresh declamation, fortunately interrupted by the arrival of their meals.  Tony, for the first time that evening, seemed to lighten up as he dug into his duck.  Conversation at the two tables gave way to chomps and slurps, between which Vicki could hear a too-familiar voice rise from a smaller table further away:

 

“No mundane run-of-the-old-mill-stream hors d’oeuvre will do for our entrée, my good servingperson—bring us a five-gallon tub of your secondbest pâte de foie gras, and garnish it with a sprinkling of string beans!”

 

“Aw, Ah don’t know...” went another too-memorable voice.  “Isn’t pahh-tayy like goose liver?

 

“The live-live-liveliest liver that ever honked a swansong to a Livingston seagull, ma chouchou!

 

“Aw, Ah don’t knoooow...”

 

Vicki stole an over-the-shoulder peek and, sure enough, there sat a pair who could well and truly be said to deserve one another: Dennis Desmond and Gigi Pyle.  The latter’s face was as bright a red as Joss’s had been trying not to bust a gut at Burrow Lane.  It also looked a lot rounder and fuller than Vicki remembered it, so maybe she would do better with a daintier appetizer.  Not that Vicki gave a hoot whether Gigi binged or starved; but if this was her One & Only Date with Mr. Unlucky Charms, she might as well make him pay through the nose for it.  Which reminded Vicki—

 

“Tony’s paying for our movie tickets,” she informed the East Bay table.

 

“I am?” from Tony.

 

“Not all of them,” Ike insisted.

 

“Feel free to pay for mine, either of you,” Hillel interjected.  “Hers too, if you feel like it.”

 

“Thanks a freaking lot!” went Lisa.

 

“Still got to get you guys there.  Let me go work the phones,” went Jenna, dabbing her birdy-beak with a semifancy serviette and darting off to the public booth.

 

By the time the group daters were declining a sample from the dessert cart, Jenna’s cousin Hyman (also home from college for tomorrow’s first night of Hanukkah) rolled up in a Jeepster Commando.  Not exactly the horsedrawn carriage of a schoolgirl’s fantasies; but its backseat wasn’t too frigid and Vicki could snuggle up to Tony for a warming moment that soon cooled off as Hymie and Ike lollygagged in La Sauvagine’s parking lot, swapping conservatory war stories (Hymie was a violin major at the Cleveland Institute of Music) till Jenna leaned on the Commando horn just as she had on the Wagonmaster’s during that flash flood at the drive-in.  And by the time Hymie got them out of the lot and onto the road, Tony’d gone back to gazing mutely into the remote distance and Vicki to sinking into unsatisfied discontent.

 

This is even less what I had in mind...

 

Buddy and Junior, both amorously disheveled, made it to the New Sherwood not too much later than the other three couples, and volunteered to collect refreshments for everyone (Buddy could juggle half-a-dozen popcorn bags with one hefty arm) while Tony went halfsies with Ike on the sneak preview tickets, and Lisa and Hillel bickered noisily beside the poster for The Goodbye Girl.

 

Jenna, leaning heavily (for such a birdlike person) upon her supportive little sister, gave murmured thanks for “saving her brisket” staminawise and sanitywise—so far, at least, for now.

 

But not for very much longer.

 

Into the theater.  Handful of popcorn.  Coming attractions for Semi-Tough, Saturday Night Fever, Close Encounters of the Third Kind—as if the world needed another Richard Dreyfuss film, so soon after the one now starting on the big screen.  As an obnoxious soundalike voice launched an unsolicited running commentary from the row directly behind Vicki, punctuated by kneebumping the back of her seat.

 

“(Quit it, Hillel!)”

 

“Neil Simon is nothing but a gagman!  As in he makes you gag on an endless run of one-liners!”  [Kneebump]  “Look at The Prisoner of Second Avenue, if you can bear it, and you’ll feel like you’re in a Death Row toilet bowl!  As he strains for pea-sized chuckles with constipated humor!”  [Kneebump]

 

“(Quit it, Hillel!)”

 

“And Murder by Death, which is what you get if you watch it!  Manslaughter without any laughter!”  [Kneebump]  “A snuff movie, boring you to tears and into the grave, killing you with stale clichés!”  [Kneebump]

 

“Hey, pipe down, we’re trying to watch the picture!” went others in the vicinity.

 

But the critique persisted, turning to The Goodbye Girl’s plotline and portrayals and cinematographic style, rising in pitch and volume as demands to stifle it came from every part of the theater.

 

Jenna would later theorize that Hillel’d hoped for a general cry of “Good heavens, is that Dreyfuss Himself we hear amongst us, freely imparting perceptive wisdom?”  If so, he must’ve been disappointed when management shut off the projector, brought up the house lights, and sent in a couple of mall security officers to extricate Killer Schiller from the angry movie patrons, one of whom dealt a lethal blow by jeering “Who do you think you are—Albert Brooks?”

 

“C’mon, we’re leaving!” Hillel told the group daters.

 

“As far as I care you can crawl home!” fumed Lisa, to a smattering of applause.  Ike, though, got up (still grinning at the Schiller witticisms) and shrugged on his overcoat, then helped Jenna into hers.  Vicki and Tony, however, stayed firmly put; while Buddy and Junior didn’t pause the making-out they’d been obliviously up to since midway through the coming attractions.

 

“You’ll be okay?” Jenna asked Vicki.

 

“Yeah, I’ll call Joss’s dad to pick us up.  Will you be okay?”

 

“Better than I was,” said Jenna (as Lisa propelled Hillel into the aisle with an unforgiving clout on the arm).  Her vanity-bulb specs frowned down at Tony: “You better treat Vicki right, or I’ll give you one of those!” she admonished.

 

“Um, sure,” he replied.

 

“G’night—oh, and Happy Hanukkah,” said Vicki.

 

“Happier than it would’ve been.  May all our candles burn brighter, Little Sis.”

 

Jenna followed Ike and rictus-faced Lisa up the aisle after Hillel and the mall cops.  Theater management then extended an apology for the disruption, brought down the house lights and restarted the projector; but Vicki found she couldn’t stomach any more Richard Dreyfuss or indeed any more popcorn.  So she left the bag, gathered coat and cap and mittens and purse, and excused her way past everyone in her row—including the still-at-it (don’t-they-ever-come-up-for-air?) Buddy and Junior.

 

She was slightly surprised to find Tony tagging along with her to the lobby.  Out there she swung around and gnarled: “Was this our First Real Date?”

 

“Hope not,” he said, with the first glimmer-hint of a smile he’d shown since the one displayed to Vicki’s mother, with that same old diffident dutiful charm-your-pants-off distractability...

 

Pull yourself together and try (unsuccessfully) not to whine: “You promised it’d just be the two of us, by ourselves.”

 

Glancing left and right: “Well... here we are.  You, me—us.  Do you have to call Joss’s father right away?”

 

“Well... he doesn’t have to pick us up right away.  If you really do ‘wanna do the right thing' by me.  Like you said.  If you remember.”

 

“Well... guess there’s a first time for everything,” he observed, putting on his crushed-crown trilby.  “Or a best time,” he added, taking it off and leaning in for another long sizzly kiss.

 

Fay-tull-chomm fay-tull-chomm fay-tull-chomm...

 

“How do you feel about masked balls?” she asked.  “Oh Gahd!  Forget I said that!”

 

“Slowly but surely,” smiled Tony Pierro.

 

*

 

One of Bunty O’Toole’s advantageous traits was an absorbent retentive memory.  She only needed to skim through a textbook to ace its subject’s final exam—and without cheating: that was for Traversers.

 

Aloysius Walsh made occasional use of this skill, Bunty being the secret weapon in his own personal arsenal.  When he came to spend that weekend with Aunt Hay at the Vacamonte (as was still his occasional habit) he told Bunty to stick around instead of retreating to Lola’s or Rula’s on North Crocker Street.  There was a lot of work to be done, capitalizing on the valuable info Rula’d obtained at the Magnetic Pole.  (Plus a remnant of the coke she’d purchased there, which was sent off for purity analysis.)

 

Rula’s score came in the nick of time, given how pissed off Al Walsh was by Tommy Dwyer’s skyrocket antics at Multch West—all too near the Hudden & Dudden Pub.  Illegal fireworks setting a juvenile asshole ablaze garnered the sort of publicity Alley Mushmouth neither wanted nor needed nor intended to pay for.

 

But Bunty could make amends by absorbing. retaining, digesting and collating all the cryptic phone calls made to and from the Vacamonte that weekend.  Which she did, impeccably; and before Al Walsh departed early Monday morning, a complete cocaine supply chain had been laid out for the North Side Gang to infiltrate.

 

Start with street dealers like “Buzz Hovercraft,” born Bryce Meadowcroft in Grosse Point.  While attending the Cranbrook School he’d stolen a football from George Plimpton at the Paper Lion training camp and sold “it” multiple times afterward.  From there he’d gone to Pepperdine in Malibu, where he learned to fly planes (among other means of getting high) at Manhattan Beach and dated fellow freshman Celeste Schwall, taking her up a couple of times in a two-engine Cessna.  Then she’d broken off their relationship, saying Bryce was too “unfocused”—possibly because (unbeknownst to Celeste) he was helping to smuggle marijuana by air from Mexico to California.

 

Bryce/Buzz’s flying instructor and smuggling employer was John Carlowe Buell III, scion of a cartographic family that had been employed for several generations by Rand McNally.  John, uninterested in selling maps and atlases, went into The Cityland waterbed business; and as Jackie BMD (for Blow Me Down) he would also become a cocaine retailer, distributing ten ounces at a time to street dealers like Buzz Hovercraft.  Those ten ounces translated to 280 grams, with approximately twenty snortable lines per gram; and could generate almost $30,000 in street sales.

 

Jackie BMD in turn acquired his coke from Martin Kempton, an appraiser of antiques and sponsor of art galleries, who last summer had been established as the wholesale purveyor for the entire Midwest.  Martin won this plum after an encounter at the Playboy Mansion with an individual known as Boston George, who was a key member of the evolving Medellin Cartel in Colombia where The Stuff came from in the first place.

 

Connect all the dots and you get a supply chain.

 

“I had my doubts, kid, but you done good,” Uncle Al told Bunty before a bodyguard walked him down the Vacamonte backstairs.  More to the point than forgiveness, he handed Bunty an envelope of unmarked Christmas bonus, some of which would go to Rula as a reward for her derring-do.  (Though Bunty didn’t forget that she’d inhaled a sizable amount of the gram bought with the O’Toole crew’s C-note.)  As for Tommy the Torched, he might get a complimentary bottle of Bactine in his fireplace stocking.

 

One peripheral screw remained loose.  Among the messages Lola’d phoned in on Sunday was a plea from Maureen “Strudel” Muller, a Vanderlund junior who had a passion for basketball but was too short and chunky to do more than manage the JV girls team.  That is, until she started “carrying on something fierce” with Lola’s younger brother Hobie Svoboda, a six-foot point guard for whom short chunky chicks were hotness personified.

 

(“So?” went shortish chunkish Bunty.  “Wait,” went grimvoiced Lola.)

 

It had been determined that Strudel was the one who’d sold Madeline Wrippley that cupcake with acid-laced frosting last Wednesday.  When questioned by the police, Strudel turned into a mustacheless Sergeant Schultz and spluttered that she’d seen nothing, heard nothing, knew nothing.  “Think about it and let us know if you can remember any detail,” the cops requested.  After racking her rattled brain, she seemed to recall needing a fresh supply of cupcakes just as Maddie’d stepped up to the bakesale table.  Hadn’t another hoopster handed her (Strudel) a nice big one for her (Maddie) to buy?  And hadn’t that other hoopster been... Laurie Harrison?

 

If so, Strudel was hesitant to share this detail with the police or anybody else, least of all Laurie.  Most of the JV squad except Alex Dmitria found her intimidating; even the varsity captain, Demandin’ Amanda Pound. handled her with care.  Laurie was probably the first visiting player in NESTL(É) history to not get whistled for a foul by the crooked refs at Hereafter Park, even when she elbowed every Blue Angel on the H.P. court.  Referees and Angels alike were cowed into averting their eyes and carrying gingerly on.

 

Hence Strudel’s not wanting to get involved in a clash with Laurie the Intimidator.  Yet she (Strudel) already was involved, as she (Laurie) already knew; so where could she (Strudel again) go for help and protection?  Not to her boyfriend, lest he too be threatened with who-knew-what.  Hobie, though, had an older sister who just happened to be friends with a Very Dangerous Person, who ought to be able to strong-arm even an Intimidator.  So Lola was implored to please ask Bunty O’Toole to resolve this quandary before push came to shove came to a flagrant (even fatal!) foul.

 

Bunty and Lola mulled the Muller matter over.  One unaccountable element of the acid-induced-dancing-naked-on-the-roof was Madeline Wrippley’s rumored association with the Traverser cheating rung.  Could that doped cupcake have been payback for a cheatsheet deal gone wrong?  Maybe inflicted by a Harelip gone rogue?

 

Even a single loose screw can cause a systematic breakdown; so tightening was in order and without delay.  Bunty told Lola to tell Harelip, when they met in Monday’s Second Hour Contemporary Living, that her ass should be planted on the backseat of Bootleg’s Galaxie in the student parking lot at 11:25 am sharp.  Since Harelip and Bootleg both had 4A Study Hall, Lola should prep the usual hall passes and excuse notes in case some faculty hall monitor had a bust-quota to fill.  (Bunty herself had Fourth Hour Psych class with Mr. Leeway, but he’d be sure to chalk up her absence to “independent study.”)

 

Monday the 5th of December was a dismal verging-on-bitter-cold sort of day.  Bootleg showed no enjoyment at exiting a warm dry school at 11:20 to attend to some screw-tightening in a car whose heater wasn’t in the habit of speedy response.  Well, tough; the heir to a mortuary ought to be used to chilly temps by now.

 

A light noontide snow was trickling onto the beamers and beaters in the student parking lot.  Threading through these, staying alert for potential adversaries, Bunty and Bootleg were nearly upon the Galaxie when they saw a figure leaning against the driver’s door—or not so much leaning as hovering, as if suspended from an invisible trick rope.  Despite the wintry drizzle, this figure wore nothing heavier than a thin gray hooded sweatsuit, and looked no more intimidating than a rabbit in a hunter’s crosshairs.

 

Until you got up close.

 

Where the flurries b-z-z-z-z-ing about the thin gray hood suddenly reminded you of insects festooning a corpus delicti with rigor mortis.

 

Neither a sound nor a move was made as Bootleg approached, key in glove.

 

“You gonna let us in or what?” he growled.

 

Then two bare hands took abrupt hold of his head and dragged it down for a great big sloppy full-on-the-lips kiss, such as Bugs Bunny used to give Elmer Fudd regardless of his loaded shotgun.

 

Bootleg staggered back, his face an unhealthy shade of blue.  “Whutha fuhhhh?...”

 

“You go Uruguay and I’ll go mine,” said Harelip Harrison.

 

Bunty thrust Bootleg aside and stepped forward, that very dangerous gleam in her fearsome hawkish eyes, ready to rake and slash a hapless quarry with finely-honed talons—

 

—only to be caught and held by a basilisk-stare from within the thin gray hood.

 

There in a deep dark lair behind snow-dappled bangs lurked a creature that dined and supped on birds of prey: four-and-twenty falcons baked in a pie.

 

Come in!  Come in and know me better, child! snortled a silver-scaled dragon poised on a vast mound of colorless gems: no holly or ivy or other trace of Christmas Present.  The dragon-glance took her measure, drained her absorbent retentive memory, weighed up its contents and marked them down as belonging to a silly little schoolgirl who pretended to be badass.  Run away now—run away and play your childish games, and leave the bona fide badassery to Me.

 

“Whutha fuhhhh?...” went Bootleg again, through chattering teeth.

 

“I’ll have Juicer ‘talk’ to you,” Bunty managed to say with an extremely dry mouth.

 

“I’m afraid Juicer had a bit of an accident this morning,” Harelip replied, with a laugh that shivered the dim drear air.  “On that Harley Super Glide you got him.  So soon after Tommy the Torch, too.  Poor Juicer.”

 

Bunty’s entrails, almost as ironclad as Alley Mushmouth’s, felt the whetted burn of acute frostbite.  “Where... dyou get an idea like that?”

 

“Oh, I hear things.  Not the best weather for bike-riding—black ice on the streets—things like that.  But if you’re planning to blame anyone—like, say, Fat Bob Neapolitanfor Juicer’s spill, take my advice and think twice.  Some people can get nasty when riled.  Know what I mean?  Nasty.  When riled.”

 

Another shivery laugh as the figure in the thin gray sweatsuit waved a barehanded bye-bye and strolled off through the b-z-z-z-z-ing flurries across the whitening asphalt: still seeming to hover half an inch or so off the ground, and leaving no footprints behind.

 

*

 

Easy-peasy.  And not at all queasy.

 

Rule #1: Tell, don’t Ask.

 

Rule #2: Tell and Show.

 

Example A: Tell Flake Hasleman to score you some acid, by hook or by crookpreferably by Lynddha Ednalino, to get her so-to-speak fingerprints upon it.

 

Examples B through D: Tell Flake to escort you to the Petty Hills Country Club Junior Harvesting; then to deliver a couple of drinks (spiked by yourself) to Chipper Farlowe and Mack “The Arm” Pittley; then to boost their competitive certainty of steamin’ creamin’ with Kailey Cravath.

 

Rule #3: Stir until Mixed.

 

Example Do-Re-Mi: Whip the batter of Mack and Chipper’s bust-up into a two-loser soufflé till it goes kablooey and sinks into a sodden trodden puddle.

 

Such batter-whipping takes considerably more Craft and Guile than Talk and Show.  But playing hostess to the mostest brings an escalation and intensification ofvibes,” let’s say—that can accelerate the hell out of Stirring till Mixed.

 

And, evidently, leave a few so-to-speak fingerprints of your own for others to detect.

 

Gotta hand it to Lynndha-with-a-Y-two-N’s-and-a-final-ha: if she walks like a witch and talks like a witch, she must not be a duck however much she might weigh.  Lynndha must have picked up your prints on her Craft and Guile radar—why else would a winged monkey have been deputized to run interference?

 

Or, if not a winged monkey, a prickly mouse.

 

“(You better watch your step,)” Madeline Wrippley had preached in an ominous undertone before First Hour Girls Choir, a few days after the Brawl at which, apparently, you were noticed hanging out with Flake.

 

Shift into So Dumb mode: “(He just gave me a ride there.  Y’know, a lift.  A spin.  We’re not dating, if that’s what you’re worried about.  He’s not my type.  Y’know, my sort.  My kind.)”

 

Unimpressed rodent-huff.  “(Whether you watch it or not, you are being watched.  Don’t say you weren’t warned.)”

 

“(Oh, I’d never say that.  I would say ‘Have a Happy Thanksgiving!)”—if only to echo Maddie’s own sober Easter wish after the trial last spring.

 

“(Mmph,)” Maddie had gone before Miss Sickles summoned everyone to order for another swipe at “A Marshmallow World.”

 

Observation.  Surveillance.  On and off the Craft and Guile radar?  Only of the hostess, not the Mostest.  You might be watched preparing edibles for Thanksgiving dinner, but the Mostest went unseen as it concocted an oh-so-special cupcake identical in appearance to those baked by Crystal’s mother or (when not singed to a crisp) Dory Jobling.  Its frosting, though, was a glaze of a different Stirrage-till-Mixage—imaking this a magic wishing cupcake!  “One bite and all your dreams will come true!  There must be something your little heart desires...”

 

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

 

Even as you reluctantly regretfully leave the snow outdoors, shake off its residue, change into a dry denim outfit and hit the steam-counter line for Lunch 4B.  Untroubled by any liability of an immediate Bunty reprisal, what with Juicer and Tommy on the disabled list and “Uncle Al” unlikely to greenlight a gang hit on a fifteen-year-old girl.  If Bunty couldn’t rule her own roost, she could go sleep with the fishes.

 

Load a tray with two Taco Joes and tater tots, coleslaw and butterscotch pudding and a minicarton of chocolate milk.  Who should be graced with your hostess presence while the Mostest gets fed?  Such a temptation to go yank Fiona’s chain, or Wanda Lynns, or Hope Eckhardt’s, or even Becca Blair’s bionic anchor...

 

No.  Plunk down beside unobtrusive Ann Hew, at a table where Split-Pea Erbsen is conversing with Gail Spruce and being hearkened to by Tim McDermid and Spacyjane Groh, though not Matt LaVintner whose bent-down head rests on folded arms.  The five other heads (even nondescript Ann’s) gradually turn toward you; yet Spacyjane is the only one who behaves as though nothing has changed (“Hello, Laurie, you look neat”) and Split-Pea is the only one to acknowledge, if only obliquely, the existence of the Mostest:

 

“Comfy-cozy are we, snuggled up together like beasts in black leather?”

 

Oh go sleigh yourself.

 

Tim McDermid ducks his meek mild Schroeder-playing head almost as far as Matt LaVintner’s, but Gail Spruce fairly quivers with suspense.  A reporter for the Channel and fundraiser for the Red Cross, she’s also a topnotch Gossip Brigadier who cant fathom your transformation.  Gail likes to gasp, and how you’d relish making her suck breath and bulge out of sockets while relating how you helped at the bakesale table last week, maintaining distance from Madeline Wrippley as she stopped by for a pre-Choir cupcake each Zero Hourgiving you the stink-eye on Monday, a mousy squint on Tuesday, then no glance at all Wednesday when Strudel Muller said “Here comes our best customer!” and reached for a nice big gâteau, which you crafted-and-guiled into her chunky hand as dexterously as you’d Dropped that money clip for Britt and Gigi, but this time without seeking observation or surveillance.

 

Now take a bite.  Don’t let the wish grow cold…

 

Before the end of First Hour, Maddie began to look peculiar and miss a cue or two.  Child’s play to divert Miss Sickles from having her stay for a scolding.  Child’s craft to beguile the wobbly Wrippley into heading out and up and away, for further guidance by a person who didn’t need to be Told or Shown what steps should be taken next.

 

Unlike Flake Hasleman, whom you did have to Tell to mail a carton of doctored skyrockets from Acme Athletic Equipment Ltd.—or so the label said—to Thomas J. Dwyer in Multch Township; after which nature took its explosive course.

 

No need for you to be outside Multch West when that happened.

 

No need for you to be on the roof for Maddie’s Crucible danceathon.

 

No need for you to be on the scene for the next night of reckoning, either.

 

Just to finish your pudding, empty your minicarton, smack your lips and snag Split-Pea’s eye behind its big glass lens.

 

“Tell Slappy to wrap things up,” you say.

 

“Who’s Slappy?” gasps Gail Spruce.

 

Resist the gratuitous yen to Show her the Mostest, if only for a moment.  Simply remark: “He’s the man who gives a big hand to little ladies.”

 

*

 

One wish did grow cold that week while coming true: it snowed, it snowed, it snowed.  With thermometers plunging down to zero and windchills to 48 below as howling gusts turned rush hours into crippled inch-by-inch crawls.

 

No school closures in Vanderlund, naturally—“(It’ll take the Coming of the New Ice Age for that to happen,)” Fiona mutter-grumped.  But the Shoreward Club’s bal masqué got postponed from Saturday the 10th to Saturday the 17th, since weather wasn’t permitting.

 

This would make no difference to Alex Dmitria if her grandparents got their way.  Abuelo Enrique Ramirez, a commercial advisor at The City’s Mexican Consulate, had to go to his native Cuernavaca on business for three weeks; and he and Abuela Amparo invited the Dmitrias to come along—not just to celebrate Navidad among relatives, but as a special treat for Alex’s sixteenth (on the 19th) birthday.

 

Alex, though moved to tears by the offer, of course couldn’t accept: it’d mean missing two whole weeks of school and basketball and caroling and Scout work and the animal shelter and the Winter Holidays Concert and the Shoreward bal masqué (if that ever did take place) not to mention being away from her Papa who had to stay in town for the Christmas rush at Double-A Sporting Goods, etc. etc. etc.  Everyone at VTHS from Mr. Stabeldore on down urged her to reconsider and not miss this golden opportunity—or, if she absolutely refused to go, asked for her ticket (“Esperanza” Eckhardt repeatedly) to go bask in the balmy sun.

 

Finally Mr. Dmitria hauled out Alex’s suitcases and ordered her to pack them.  Yermak and Tonio would spend the holidays with their old playmates, Mumbles Metcalf’s dogs; Papa himself would catch a red-eye flight to join Alex and Mama and the Ramirezes as soon he closed the store on Christmas Eve.  “So no more objections, Alexandra!”

 

“Yes, Papa.”  But Alex conscientiously gathered all her class assignments for the two weeks before winter vacation, even soliciting an extra-credit project on Mexican history from Ms. Goldberg; and no one doubted this homework would be scrupulously completed before any indulgence in tourism or fiestas or riding her gran tío’s Azteca horse.

 

On Sunday the 11th (when temperatures warmed up to twenty degrees) Vicki and Joss came to the International Airport to see Alex off and pledge yet again that a belated local birthday/Christmas party would take place promptly upon her return.  All three special friends were apprehensive that Mike Spurgeon might make a dramatic Framptonesque entrance and croon “Putting My Heart on the Line”but he didn’t, and nothing worse happened than Alex sobbing and clinging to Papa till the final boarding call.  Even after she got carried onto the plane, nobody breathed easily till it was in the air and out of sight; at which point Papa swabbed his big bald head and took a bite of his protruding toothpick.

 

Bozhe, ya dumav, shcho vona nikoly ne pide,” he grated in Ukrainian.  “God, I thought she’d never leave.”

 

*

 

At that very moment fifteen miles to the southeast, Fiona hunkered down on a jouncing El seat and cinched her watch cap more tightly over her ears as PoonElly “sang” another chorus of Lepperzee’s latest tune:

 

 

Fraggin’ at the frat house

  Shootin’ up the keg!

Target ev’ry last souse

  Chop ‘em down a peg!

 

An ode penned not by I.M.A. Camera but Dolph Turkenkopf (stage name Adolf Turdminoff, “after the Park”) whose older brother Wilmer still hadn’t been formally charged as the Mad Bludgeoner, though he kept getting detained for more interrogation.

 

 

Say “We know yer guilty

  “So better fess it up!

“Fraggin’ all the frat boys

  “Initiatin’ schtup!”

 

(That last line deserved to be flushed, if it wouldn’t clog the pipes, and presuming you could find a sewer or cesspool that wasn’t frozen solid.)

 

Cobwebs & Strange was having a special Sunday sale in hopes of recouping some of the business they’d lost during the snowsocked week.  So Feef and Poon were headed downtown to do a little Bah Humbug shopping, traveling via the El since Le Heap was currently out of commission.  Okay, that made Poon cranky, but she didn’t have to take it out on Feef by “singing” on the train, or claiming to know a stop to get off at and shortcut to take that would get them where they were going twice as quickly.

 

“Unless you wanna walk for blocks ‘n’ blocks with chapped lips ‘n’ chilblains.”

 

“(Youre full of chilblains!)” Fiona mutter-jounced.  “(I’ve been coming here for years and know where to get off.)”

 

“You never knew how to get off till I came along, Sugar Pop!”

 

Tell the whole El, why don’t you?

 

It’d serve Poon right if they got separated.  Then she’d have to hitchhike home, probably thumbing toward the wrong direction and winding up in Yell County, Arkansas.  (Ugh.)  All right then,get off at Poon’s chosen stop... and find yourselves outside the Greyhound bus station, for crying out loud

 

—no, make that screeching out loud—

 

as they heard, then saw, a beleaguered man being pummeled by a distraught cowgirl swinging a saddlebag with one hand while, with the other, she gripped a large musical instrument case decorated like Nefertiti’s sarcophagus

 

“Holy shit, it’s Shudder Bugge!” yelled PoonElly, and they ran over to rescue or support her.

 

“Gawdam bassurd pimp!” she was piping in that Dixieland treble so out-of-synch with her Ming China face.

 

“Quit hitting me!” whined the man between pummels.

 

“If she quits, we start!” Poon threatened.  Whadja do to her?”

 

“Nothing!”

 

“Nuthin’?” Bugge screeched, setting down her cello case to swing the saddlebag with both hands.  “Only tried t’recrewt me t’be a hooker fer him, the asshole bassurd!”

 

This was a grave and plausible charge.  “Gentlemen of leisure” were notorious for hanging around the Greyhound station, on the lookout for newly-arriving naïfs who might be conscripted into prostitution.  An Okie from Manchuria would be the crème de la crop—to amateur as well as professional panderers:

 

I was just trying (ouch!) to pick her up!  Just for me (ouch!) just for tonight!”

 

“Well, she don’t wanna get picked!” grimaced PoonElly.  “So hop on the bus, Gus, and get yourself free!”

 

“(That song is so moronic,)” muttered Fiona, picking up the discarded sarcophogus.

 

Prying Bugge away from Make-a-New-Plan Stan and gawking Greyhounders, they took her down the slick street to a seedy bistro called Gibaldi's, next door to the crumbling McGurn Theater.  Feef and Poons fake California IDs enabled them to buy beer or wine, but they ordered three hot coffees with biscottis and took these to a table whose occupants (slow to go back out in the cold) were encouraged to depart by Poon’s jagged-pumpkin grin.

 

“Ew look, they were drinking espresso,” she winced.

 

“(Sludge in a demitasse,)” Feef agreed, sweeping the grubby little cups over to a corner of the table.  “(Hope you don’t mind plain black java,”) she told Bugge, who was gulping hers down with both hands clutching the mug.  Hardly garbed for a snowy City sojourn: nothing thicker than a buckskin jacket had been added to the cowgirl costume.

 

Poon skreeked her chair over and draped a maxicoated arm around Bugge’s shivering shoulders.  “Got some flannel longjohns in that bag o’ yours?  Go put ‘em on in the crapper, we’ll guard the door—”

 

Bugge peered over the tilted mugbrim at Poon, then at Fiona; then she wiped her mouth on her buckskin cuff.  “Dew I know yew gals?”

 

“Sure!  Last summer, on the Strip—I was Rerun then (call me PoonElly now) and this here’s FTW!”  To Fiona: “Show her—”

 

Feef fished out the thin brass necklace with the small brass FTW pendant and Vicki Volester’s tiny electric-bass charm.  “(‘Member giving me this?  You said it was guaranteed to turn my neck green.)”

 

“Oh.  Yeah.  Way-ull... whutchew tew dewin’ way out hyar?

 

“(We live out here—in the ‘burbs, at least.  You still on tour with Krewel and the gang?)”

 

“Yeah, is ol Tawdry Meadows here too?” asked Poon.

 

“Dunno whar she is,” Bugge whimpered.  “I’m skeered that they got her, like they almost got me.  That’s why I runned away”—covering almond eyes and biscotti face with splayed fingers.

 

She and Tawdry had returned from the K.U.P. tour to their Vault at the Mayerling and resumed the Scenester lifestyle.  Then, a few weeks ago, Tawd hadn’t come home from an Elvis Costello concert at the Whisky.  Bugge didn’t worry at first, figuring she was off on another adventure; but days passed and news of the Hillside Strangler kept dominating the airwavesbody after body found raped, tortured, choked to death, and left to rot on the side of a hill.  Some of the victims had been streetwalkers, others were students as young as twelve; and while Shudder Bugge never wanted to deal with the police at any time for any reason. her dread grew so dire that she finally reported Tawdry as a missing person.

 

Then, a few nights later on Hollywood Boulevard, she got beckoned over to an unmarked car by a couple of guys who weren’t in uniform but flashed badges at her.  Plainclothes cops, she thought, with news or questions—until they dragged her by force into the car.  Out of which she fought with tooth and claw and cowgirl boot, making tracks with the latter as she ran like hell and hid till dawn.

 

“Still got bits of ‘em dug deep under these,” Bugge breathed, staring at her ten tremulous fingernails.

 

“(But you were able to describe the guys to the police?)” prompted Fiona.

 

“No no no no no, I coont—them bassurds grabbed m’camera case, it had m’name ‘n’ address inside the lid, I hadda git away jiffy-quick ‘fore they found me!”

 

She’d furtively circled the Mayerling for an hour, eyes strained for that unmarked car, before sneaking in to retrieve her big-ass fiddle and whatever else she could jam into a saddlebag; then hightailing it to the Greyhound station.

 

“(Did you leave Sleekie with the Baroness?)”

 

“?????”

 

“She means that black cat of yours,” Poon interpreted.

 

“Oh, him—he lives free all round the Mayerling, ever’body feeds him.  ‘At’sa way it should be, too—lockin’ up kittycats is krewl!”

 

“(And unusual punishment,)” Feef muttered.

 

“Well, you’re safe now,” Poon said stoutly.  “Better come home with one of us and get rested up proper—”

 

Way to leave you and me wide open again, Elly May! thought Fiona, who might be supersympathetic to Shudder Bugge’s plight but knew Ardine wouldnt allow such a creature to cross the Pilchard threshold; meaning Feef would have to explain boarding her at the Plexiglas Palace.

 

“Oh no thanks, I got me a ticket to Milwaukee,” Bugge replied, wiping her eyes on her other buckskin cuff.  “I figger ‘at’s ‘bout as fur from Hollywood as yew kin git.  ‘Sides, Erin/Aaron’s thar ‘n’ kin he’p me git a job in a photo lab—we wuz in the same foster home back in Houston, when he wuz jes Aaron ‘n’ I wuz jes... aw shit, I’m gonna need a new name.”  Her wiped eyes darted around Gibaldi’s, as if one might be lying in wait there.

 

“You can have ‘Rerun,’ I don’t use it no more,” said generous PoonElly.

 

“Oh no thanks... but mebbe Sleekie?  Got a nice ring to it—Sleekie Nefertiti.”

 

“(I’d pay to see an act with a name like that,)” Fiona told her, transferring much of the Bah Humbug shopping budget from grouch bag to Bugge/Sleekie’s hand.  Poon followed suit, and their ex-mistress of Scenester ceremonies shed a few more tears while tucking their money into her buckskin pockets.

 

“Whoa-kay then—gotta git goin’—thanks so much, yew guys, fer the drink ‘n’ the grub ‘n’ the loan—I’ll be payin y’back soon’s I git t’Milwaukee—startin’ with tradin’ hats!”  She yanked off Feef’s wool watch cap and replaced it with her own miniature Stetson.  “Thar y’go!  ‘N’ yew kin have this”—pressing the key to the Vault into Poon’s hand.  “Walk me back t’the bus?”

 

They did, each giving her a hug and contact info before she boarded the Greyhound and took off for whatever fate had in store for her, cello and all.  Fiona and PoonElly stood watching the departure, then turned by unspoken consent back to the El stairway; Cobwebs & Strange would have to keep waiting.

 

“Nilla’s gonna bust a gut when she sees you in that sombrero,” Poon cackled.

 

“(If you say I look ‘cute’ in it I’ll shellack you,)” swore Fiona.

 

*

 

At that precise same minute fifteen miles to the north, Dennis Desmond bellowed “Spontaneous impromptu ad hoc deeee-toooour” and, swerving his Wagonmaster off South Petty Road into the skeletal tree-tunnel that was Vermeer Place, began charging up its curlicue slope to Baroque Vista.  Which might be better-plowed and more-thoroughly-salted (thanks to H.R. “Pufnstuf” Hasleman) than the average local neighborhood, but was still atop a glassy hill with a steepening slant.  Gnnnnogg went the Wagonmaster’s chained tires, sounding like Dino Tattaglia biting the heel of his swarthy hand: gnnnnogg-nogg-nogg-nogg...

 

Lawdy Gawd prayed Gigi Pyle, her heart wedged in her esophagus, don’t let me get killed in this crew cab pickup truckIf I have to die, let it be in a stretch limo—

 

SKId-D-D-D to a halt outside a padlocked chain-link fence beside a sign reading VW / Vanderlund Junior High School / Home of the Beetles.  (“And Ladybugs!” some jockette had graffiti-added.)

 

Out leaped Dennis, leaving the driver’s door wide open to the frozen air.  “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; or cloak this joint up with our two-ply wipes!  Cry God for Mister Whipple and let’s squeeze the Charmin!”  (A roll of bathroom tissue unfurled as it got flung over the fence to enwreathe a tall evergreen, no stranger to TPing.)  “Mon bon sapin!  Mi hermosa abeto!  Moya novogodnyaya yelka

 

“Can we please get OUT o heah??”

 

Dennis leaped back in and halfway across the pickups front bench seat, mashing Gigi’s hip and thigh and calf against his own.  “Such impatience!  Such zealous hotheaded rarin’ to kick off our At Long Last Date!  Such inability to wait till you get a figgy pudding plumbed by the thumb of What A Good Boy Am I!”

 

OH!! went Gigi’s viscera.  Still capable of being scandalized, two months after that first snort at Jive’s place.  Still susceptible, after three weeks of being stuffed like a foie grassy goose—though with only soupçons of The Stuff, doled out like gruel at a Victorian orphanage.  (“Please sir, may I have some more?”)  Even last weekend at the Magnetic Pole disco, where they could’ve and should’ve skipped directly to The Stuff.  Every nostril there had been percolating with It, except her own.

 

But no: everything had to be food, food, food—relentless gobble-gorging wherever Dennis took her on their not-a-dates.  All the weight she’d shed had been regained, with more fleshy poundage added.  How much was unverified; Gigi didn’t step on any scales these days, or strike nude poses before the three-way mirror in her antebellum bedroom.  And even if she had money to spend she wouldn’t disgrace herself by buying larger-sized lingerie, though undie-elastic was digging into shoulders and armpits, leaving unsightly pink stripes on waistline and tops-of-thighs.

 

“He won’t be satisfied till Ah have to borrow a dadgum corset from Alva Dee or Crystal Denvour,” she’d lamented yesterday while wrestling a pair of skintight ski pants over frumpish thermal underwear over pink-striping briefs.  Knowing Dennis wouldn’t let that evening’s not-a-date end without grabbing a double handful of her end through those layers of fabric, and treating it like twin rolls of Charmin.

 

The first time he’d done this (after their initial feeding frenzy at the Lebkuchenhaus) Gigi’d reared up with a vehement shriek and completely forgot the plantation-bred drawl she’d been cultivating since sixth grade.  “DOOO—YOOOU—MIIIIND??”

 

“Do I mind your behind?  Isn’t that what I signed up for on the dotted line with which were entwined, because its so fine it gives you a shine—though not nearly ripe enough for full-blown harvest moonery, yet.”

 

Same pronouncement made after same heinie-groping done after each subsequent not-a-date.  If Gigi showed signs of getting fed up with being felt up down back—on top of getting fed up and up and up, though not with Stuff—Dennis would shift his topaz gaze from her bottom to her bosom and make gross Tab Tchorz-y melon-manipulation gestures.  So gross!  So vile!  Let’s ram a cherry-picking knee into his nutsack and see what color his eyes turn then, why don’t we?

 

Except that Dennis remained her Great White Hope when it came to great white powder.  Contact with the Traversers was as good as lost: Britt had reverted to a silent little she-gator pretending to be a bayou log; Mauly stalked the halls like an underfed tigress; Gwen pivoted away every time their paths chanced to intersect.  No doubt others at VTHS (especially among the Limelight Players) would use The Stuff if it were available and affordable; but since It wasn’t, they had to be (or act) content with booze and pills and pot.

 

Gigi couldn’t be (or act either) anymore.

 

Least of all last Friday afternoon.  She’d tried to transfer out of Honors Phys Ed following her resignation from the JV pep squad, but Ms. Cliffhouse wouldn’t authorize this till the end of the semester.  In the meantime Maleficent Margo had snatched back the whip hand: fending off Val Frid’s challenge for the captaincy, promoting that devious little brown-noser Taffi Applebuff to be Gigi’s replacement, spreading slanders that Gigi’d been expelled from the squad for unspeakable offenses.  Which did nothing to cheer the atmosphere in Sixth Hour Gym; nor to buoy up Gigi’s attitude, already deflated by the shortage of Stuff and freezedried by the inhumane weather.

 

Then last Friday Ms. Cliffhouse twice raked her over icy coals: first for slapdash halfhearted exertion, then for saying “Ah asked to be transferred out o’ this few-tile class, didn’t Ah?  Then Gigi’s hasty exit through the locker room got blockeddeliberately, like a playground bully bent on swiping a lunchboxby Harelip Harrison, who had to be humiliatingly dodged around; and then she ran headlong into that same uppity colored skank, who had no business looking so complacent while Gigi was feeling so wretched. 

 

“Why don’t yew dew us all a favor ‘n’ REE-bound your black ass the hail AWAY from heah?” she hissed in Sheba Baby’s smugly stuck-up brown-noser face—

 

—before shoving past prissy Vicki Volester (whose jaw was hanging off its hinges) and rotten Sheila Quirk (who shoved back and snarled “Pass auf, Fettsack!”).

 

Wretched?  Who’s wretched?  Wild fierce savage fury, all the way out to the hall.

 

Where her rage got snuffed by the bleak realization that she’d made a stupid unforced error.  Prissy Vicki would be sure to tattle to Ms. Schwall the Seventh Hour Gym teacher, who was into cool things like aerobic dance and might’ve been a worthwhile ally against Ms. Cliffhouse.  Too late now—another chance squandered, like at the Sears jewelry counter.

 

No way could Gigi climb all the way upstairs to the fourth floor after that.  Not when nothing awaited her there but a speechless soapstone she-gator and two Smooch Smarks burbling “zaftig” comments about her T&A.  Plus she couldn’t remember if she’d done her English homework, or even what Mrs. Staghorn had assigned.

 

So she simply ditched the final hour of that foul-weather week: snuck out of school past the faculty monitors and endured hypothermia till she could catch a bus to Clubroot Drive.  Fully expecting to be busted once there, or soon after; but maybe everyone else was just as glad to see that horrendous week come to an end, deferring any disciplinary tasks till Monday.  At any rate no calls came from principal, vice principal, teacher or parent or Gruesome Twosome (Threesome with Taffi Applebuff) to accuse Gigi of dastardly deed-doing.

 

Lizabeth Ann already had that base covered.  Oh yes: direct communication mightve been broken off when Gigi quit cheerleading, but maternal reproaches could still be addressed to the open air, with cautionary clippings left on antebellum pillowslips—like Friday’s “A spurt in weight gain is a danger signal,” underscored in blood-red ballpoint.

 

(Elegant phraseology, Ma...)

 

So it was with multiple millstones encircling her neck (and skintight ski pants throttling her lower torso) that Virginia Leigh Pyle was taken to House o’ Chopsticks Saturday night, and served every item from Column A and Column B till she feared she’d chuck it all up like Nanette Magnus used to disgustingly do on purpose.

 

Dennis wouldn’t allow any of the mottos from her many fortune cookie to be read.  His method of assessing Gigi’s fortune was to elevate her by the seat of her ski pants and guess her wedgifying weight, out in the arctic Chopsticks parking lot.

 

“Ohhhh pleeeease donnnn’t,” she moaned.  Just let me have my fragmentary dose of dessert and take me ho-o-o-o-ome...

 

His widespread paws tightened their grip through polyester and nylon, silk and lace and cringing skin and amplified fat, to clamp her very buttbones.  “Yes!  Yes!  You are ready!—and then some!—for our At Long Last Date!—at my place tomorrow!—with, as a bonus, a profitable modeling job for payment in cash or equivalent—

 

Her limp arms instinctively rose and wrapped around his millstone-free neck.  Miss Pie here is one of our choicest modeling prospects, he’d told the security guard at Sears, but hadn’t followed up on since. “Modeling?  For your mother?  For real?”

 

“The Old ‘Un may be past her prime photographywise, but isn’t resting on her laurels or her hardys.  Whereas you (me heartie) have reached your pumped-up plumped-out prime-of-times, and can rest on this most succulent of moneymakers while being immortalized!”

 

“Just... how... would... she want me to pose?”

 

“Think fin de siècle overlaid with Gothic melodrama!  Think Mae West as Red Riding Hood, strongarming a Snidely Whiplash werewolf!  Think how richly rewarding the results might be—”

 

“With cash or... equivalent?”

 

“To quote Confucius, or his fortune cookie copywriters: ‘Not all snow falls from skies above.’”

 

So there you had it: despite the additional pink stripes he’d imprinted on her derriere, here Gigi was in Dennis’s truck.  Arrayed in her Sunday best, or at least the best that could still be worn without cutting off circulation: a cashmere cowl-collared sweaterknit dress over a non-cling slip over (Lawdy forgive her) an actual pantygirdle and merry-widow bustier, both pilfered from Lizabeth Ann’s wardrobe.  The intended effect was hourglassy rather than foie grassy, accentuated by granny boots (now-out-of-fashion but loosely-lace-uppable) to lengthen the leg and readjust her centermake that centers, fore and aftof gravity.

 

Plenty to readjust after the Wagonmaster gnnnnogg’d down Bedeguar Way and up Gloaming Avenue, to slam through a grandly gated porte-cochère and SKID-D-D-D into a murky courtyard, where Gigi stepped shakily out and slumped jellylike against the truck.

 

“Welcome to Foley’s Folly!  Enter freely and of your own frilly will!  You won’t find a more bang-on imitation of County Kildare’s ‘Wonderful Barn’ outside Ireland!”

 

She peered up at what appeared to be a lofty limestone anthill, several stories high, with a coiling exterior staircase.  “This where yew live?

 

“Live and love, sleep and snore, work and warp!”

 

The Foley family had been famous for affluent eccentricity almost as long as the Carstairs clan, and Morrigan Foley-Desmond had maintained this tradition by converting the Folly into what her adopted son called a Starmaking Planetarium of Sideshow Abnormalities.  Anyone would get abnormally starmade if they tried to ascend that exterior staircase in weather like today’s; luckily the anthill had a front door on its ground floor, and this was opened by the spitting image of Lewis Carroll’s Frog-Footmanexcept he wore a black suit instead of livery, and had a shoe-polished scalp instead of a powdered wig.

 

“Zur,” he croaked at Dennis.

 

“Howdy, Jaeger!  Say buenas noches to Miss R here!”

 

R?  “Um... it’s P, or G—”

 

“Miss Arrrr,” went Jaeger, sounding like a Frog-Pirate as he removed Gigi’s down jacket.  (Arrrr you to get in at all?  That’s the first question, you know...)

 

But she was in, and being towed by the hand up a staircase paralleling the corkscrewy one outside.  The wall beside it was decked with oversized enlargements of black-and-white photos, each almost palpable in focus, and each of something Gigi didn’t want to look at much less touch.  A sinkful of soiled dishes from which flames were rising; a toothless old woman captured in mid-sneeze; a young male amputee stump-straddling a runaway baby carriage.  “Hypersurrealistic,” Dennis described their style: “the Widow Foley-Desmond’s trademark, brand name, theme song, Batsignal-against-the-night-sky.”

 

And she wants me to pose for her?  Doing what, exactly?

 

Never mind.  If Morrigan was inclined to share her wealth, who was Gigi Pyle to decline taking part?  Glamour might not enter into the bargain, but plain old barrelheads could be laden with cash (and ordinary panes of glass with lines of equivalent).

 

Remember your vow to go as far as necessary—or can be gotten away with, given your underage statusfurther than Odious Isabel ever would...

 

“This is the Wintersault Room,” Dennis was saying as he let go of her hand and cupped her girdled haunch.  “On the opposite side of the Folly from the Summersault Room, in case you were anticipating acrobaticsnot that those never took place within these four walls.”

 

Darkly shadowed walls till he flipped a switch and revealed a hearteningly familiar backstage-type chamber, full of framed scenic drops.  Plus a black lacquered chair beside a black lacquered table on which sat an empty brandy snifter, a bottle labeled “VSOP,” a radio or tape player or something acoustic, and a small geometrically-patterned wooden box.

 

“By any chance, was the question ‘Did Dennis ever have a governess?’ on the tip of your tongue?  If so, you can use that tip to lick those lips because yes I did have a governess, and a Japanese one to boot—not that I booted her all that often.  Nor was she a dead ringer for Mrs. Livingston on The Courtship of Eddie’s Father: no indeed, Masako Fujisaki was a live young lady in an abbreviated miniskirt, which I’d just begun to appreciate at the time.  She gave me this himitsu bako or ‘box of tricks’ to remember her byas if I were likely to forget the least little detail, down to her teeny-weeny toenails.”

 

Opening the wooden box with a series of intricate moves, he took out two items and set them side by side.

 

“We’ll dispense with what’s behind Door Number Three and cut right to the mustard.  Here on the left is a stack of $250 in nonsequential bills; there on the right is an equal-value Baggie filled with two-and-a-half grams of high-quality snotsugar.  Sign this release” (produced from a back pocket) “and pose cooperatively, and you can take your pick.”

 

Gigi cautiously unfolded the sheet of paper and read:

 

 

For consideration of TBD, I, Aline Renoir, give the Morrigan Foley-Desmond Studio the irrevocable right to use my picture, portrait or photograph in conjunction with my name or a fictional name in all forms and manners, including composite and distorted representations, and I waive my right to inspect or approve the finished product that may be used in connection with it.  I am over the age of 18 years and have read this release and am fully conversant with its contents.

Date December 11, 1977

   

 

Again that visceral outcry.  “Uhhhh... how much trouble... could I get into... by signing this... with that name... at that age?”

 

“Oh, no more than you might imagine—no more than Masako Fujisaki ever did.  Her nom de guerre was ‘Kushinada Hime,’ the Japanese equivalent of Andromeda.  Did a whole lot of Greek-mythological-type modeling, right here in this room.”

 

“But... wasn’t she over eighteen when she was your governess?”

 

“Well, eventually.”

 

Enough of this.  Muster up the old Tara-talking hauteur: “Ah would lahk tew speak tew yore mother puhsonally ‘fore Ah put mah signature tew any setch dockewment—”

 

Dennis, for the first time since they’d begun going together (if that was an accurate summary of their relationship) lost his ear-to-ear smirk.  Plopped the money-stack and Baggied coke back into the box of tricks.  Went through the elaborate motion-series to shut it back up.  And said: “You’re free to go.  Trot downstairs and ask Jaeger to call you a cab; we’ll pick up the tab.  Don’t be afraid of that mark on his face, it’s only a dueling scar—”

 

“NO!!” Gigi blurted, her heart pounding so hard and fast it nearly burst through the merry-widow bustier and cashmere sweaterdress.  “Ah’ll sign!  Ah will!  Ah’ll do what she asks!”  Nearly scrawling Virginia Leigh Pyle on the release before spelling out Aline Renoir, letter by careful letter.  “There!  See?  Okay?”

 

“Very good, Miss R.  May I start calling you Aline?”

 

“Um... there something special ‘bout that name?”

 

“It belonged to a Rubenesque poseur (I should say poseuse, she being decidedly feminine) of the previous century.  Who, so far as I know and unlike Masako alias Kushinada, was not obsessed with portraying Kushinada alias Andromeda.  Speaking of whom, here’s the proper backdrop—”

 

Selecting one showing rough gray rocks by a foamy blue sea, he positioned it beneath something Gigi hadn’t noticed till now: an iron ring screwed into the ceiling.

 

Through which Dennis looped a pair of padded manacles.

 

That did not look like a breakaway prop.

 

“Wh...?”

 

“You have heard of (or read about, or been exposed to) the legend of Andromeda, right?  Ethiopian princess—mother boasts shes hotter than nymphs—pissing off Poseidon, who sends a giant serpent to ravage the kingdom—they decide to sacrifice princess (not mother) to the monster—she gets chained to an ocean rock—Perseus comes to the rescue, but not till a thousand B&D artists have a ball illustrating her wearing less and less and finally nothing but flecks of foam.  Today we’ll make it a thousand-and-one.”

 

Rapping on the door behind him, which swung open to admit big glasses on a big nose atop a paltry figure—

 

oh Lawdy

 

“Wie hängt es, fräulein?” asked Sidney Erbsen, glancing at the manacles dependent from the ceiling hook.

 

“Th-that’s n-not y-your m-mother!!” Gigi babbled at Dennis

 

“It’s NOT?  Why land o’ Goshen, you’re correct—it’s our apprentice paparazzo!  But where’s his lovely aide-de-camp?”

 

Spacyjane Groh poked her unbraided-Wednesday-Addams head around the jamb, then lugged in armfuls of photographic gear and laid them down beside Split-Pea.  “Let’s get more light in here,” he told her, his specs trained on Gigi. “Got a lot to illuminate.”

 

Gigi may have evaded paralysis when she’d been jolted off that human pyramid at summer cheer clinic, but it overtook her now; she was barely able to move mouth and tongue and larynx enough to ask “Muhhhh-ther?”

 

“Oh, the Old ‘Un’s away visiting Masako Fujisaki.  She tried to hang herself after leaving our employ—“It’s all for you, Dennis-san!”—but only succeeded in confining herself to a wheelchair.  Still makes a living, though—the Old ‘Un shells out mucho dinero for paraplegic posing.”

 

In a miniskirt? Gigi absurdly wondered.  Then a hypersurrealistic vision shot through her agitated brain: Kim Zimmer as Daisy Duck with a noose around her throat and one dislocated shoulder, while her Tropic Island Cruise sarong slithered off a drooping flaccid body plucked of every feather.  Why aren’t you wearing a bra, young lady?? demanded Mrs. Zimmer; to which Kim could only reply with a WA‑A‑A‑A‑I‑I‑I‑I‑L‑L‑L‑L—

 

“Fascinating,” Split-Pea said in his pseudo-hesitant Woody Allen nebbish-voice, pointing that complicated camera at Gigi’s face as it blushed cherry-tomato-red from raven hairline to cashmere cowl-collar.  Hypersurrealistic FLASHback to that first ambush last February in the VW lunchroom, when he’d rooted her to the spot like a naked bondmaid on a Gorean auction block—

 

Got to keep hold of myself.

 

Because the Gobble-uns’ll get me if I don’t hold tight...

 

One cashmere-sleeved arm came unfrozen and was used to frantically wave Dennis over while Split-Pea directed Spacyjane in the setup of lamps and tripod.

 

“YAYess?” said Dennis, again cupping a haunch.

 

“(—please please please can’t we do this just the two of us Ah won’t mind if it’s just me ‘n’ yew but not him please not him yew take the pictures Ah’ll model any way you want just make him leave first Ah don't want him here please—)”

 

The toothy Joker-grin went upside-down with comic remorse.  “Woe is me and wurra the day—I don’t know one end of a Kodachrome spool from the other.  Young Erbsen may be a callow soph, but he knows his Stuff” (significant pause) “and the Widow’s given him the run of the studio when she’s not here to be run into.  But never fear: I’ll hang around in a soo-per-vie-zer-ee capacity.  And don’t forget: you can yank the ripcord and bail out of the chopper any time you choose.  Yet bear in mind: your cash-or-EQUIVALENT payment will only be tendered if you hang around till the time we choose.”

 

Struggle not to hyperventilate (surreally or otherwise) as Spacyjane turned on every lamp in the Wintersault Room, aiming their shades at the Andromeda backdrop.  “(But... but... but...)”

 

Dennis gave each nethercheek a girdled pinch.  “Never can predict reactions.  Now Millicent, she dropped her drawers while climbing the stairs—Jaeger found them later in the umbrella stand.  Her sister Isabel, though, proved to be bashful even after getting a hashful.  Amazement for everyone concerned with that photo session.”

 

“Meaning him and me,” Split-Pea nebbished.

 

“She wouldn’t accommodate us till we let her wear a sequined Mardi Gras mask which then went missing—I presume it’ll be part of her costume at next week’s Shoreward ball.”  (Pinch.  Pinch.)  “No, you can’t anticipate what anybody’s liable to do.  We’ve even been stupefied by all-out stripteases performed on foggy rooftops!.

 

“One,” said Split-Pea.

 

“And that one was inspired beforehand by others than ourselves.  Regrettably, Jaeger didn’t whip up any encouraging cupcakes” (pinch pinch) “but I’d be glad, no proud to pour you a finger or two of cognac.”

 

I’m not eighteen, no matter what that form says.  Selling nude photos of underage girls is illegal.  Even taking them will land you in jail… unless they can be called Art.

 

“(If… Ah... let yew... take pictures... of me… wh-wh-what’ll... yew do... wi-wi-with... them?)”

 

“Enjoy,” said Dennis, holding the snifter to her lips; then taking a seat in the black lacquered chair and twirling a dial on the radio or tape player or acoustic device, from which Toccata and Fugue in D Minor pipe-organ’d forth.

 

“Okeydoke,” went Split-Pea.  “Let’s get under way and down to fundamentals.  I suppose you could go somewhere to change,” he told Gigi, “but since you won’t be changing into anything, what would be the point?  Or the rest of us could turn our backs while you ‘brace yourself’—but that’d be so rude.

 

OH!!  OH!!  OH!! screamed every atom in her mind and body.  This isn’t happening, this can’t be happening—not to me, not for real!  It must be a bad dream, a scream-awake nightmare, a sick probing intrusive hallucination of lurid debasement—

 

“If you’re shy,” Dennis interjected, “and require assistance getting doffed, I believe Miss Groh here has oodles of experience as a lady’s maid.”

 

“Though on what you might call a much smaller scale,” Split-Pea added.

 

Ah’m not afraid o’ yew, Sid Erbsen, or any man in shoe leather!!” bawled Gigi, stung by what she took to be a heft-allusion.  Do your worst, losers!  Anything Odious Isabel or Madeline Wrippley could get away with, Virginia Leigh Pyle could do better!

 

Except she couldnt.  Not in front of them—in front of him.  All she could do was start to perspire, as when busted by that straggly-combover security guard at Sears.

 

Then a spaced-out live-action puppet came forward and popped open her bodice—no, stooped down and began to unlace Gigi’s right granny boot.  The audacity!  The effrontery!  One well-placed cheerleader’s kick would punt her right through the Wintersault doorway—

 

…but what then?  Ripcord yanked, but no parachute.  A plummeting free fall till you go to pieces, disintegrate, burn up on re-entry.  Cut off by Old One-Shot Thanks-a-Lot Untie-the-Knot, so no more soupçons of orphanage gruel—

 

(Whubb goes the right boot as it’s painfully extracted; Yowtch! you cry, followed by a yipe as your swollen stocking foot touches the cold tile floor.  Silence from Spacyjane as she starts unlacing the other boot.)

 

Think—think—think—think—use that nimblebodied limbertorsoed brain so skilled at misdirection.

 

Okay… okay… get your hands on that Baggie and hide The Stuff where it can’t be found, then go to the police and act up a storm about how you were coerced from the very beginning—compelled by Flake Hasleman to take that first snort, then forced to shoplift and be debauched by Roald Bjelke, then blackmailed into undressing and posing all bare for a couple of brutish high school boys with a complicated camera!

 

Oh, Ah know Ah should’ve called on yew sooner, officer, but Ah was so frightened—those boys come from such rich families with the fanciest lawyers, and they threatened to dew the most shameful things to me if I snitched, but (sob) Ah jes can’t bear it any longer (sob) I’m jes a sadly embarrassed underaged li’l gal...

 

In one fell swoop everything will be fixed, resolved, explained at home and school.  You’ll be the Brave Suffering Heroine, the Poor Bedeviled Ingenue, forgiven for all your transgressions.  By New Year’s Day you’ll be on top again, with a brand-new clique and everyone’s envy and a shining future on the stage and maybe even no more need for The Stuff, save as a recreational pastime—rubbing Margo Temple’s and Diana Dabney’s and Taffi Applebuff’s gruesome noses in it—

 

(Whubb goes the other boot with an achier Yowtch! and chillier yipe.)

 

“Step away,” Split-Pea tells Spacyjane; then a sudden FLASSSHHHH flassshhhh flassshhhh that re-roots you to the cold tile floor.  “For referential purposes,” you’re informed.  “Nylons next?” to Dennis.

 

“Easier later, I should think,” Dennis replies, sipping from the snifter as the pipe organ moves on to Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme.  “Pray continue, Miss Groh.”

 

This is just a part I’m playing, a role I’ve been cast in, be glad it’s not Joan of Arc as Spacyjane undoes your ribbed tie-belt, grasps your cashmere hem, and lifts the sweaterknit skirt up-up-up till your arms are raised to the ceiling as they’ll have to remain when your wrists get manacled but right now they surrender the dress and leave you in a so-called non-cling slip that in fact is plastered to your figure by cold-sweat clamminess and another referential FLASSSHHHH flassshhhh flassshhhh but if Spacyjane will vouch for your story to the cops they’ll be bound to believe it, two girls’s words will count for twice as much

 

“(Pssssssst)” you microwhisper in Spacyjane’s ear as she begins to peel off your sweltery slip.  “(Wait—no—listen—Ah got a plan—”)

 

“(You made Nonique cry,)” Spacyjane microwhispers back.

 

Nonique?  Who the hell is Nonique?

 

“(And you made Vicki and Joss mad.  I used to think Isabel was to blame for everything, till I saw you steal that wallet out of her purse.  Then I knew the truth.)”

 

Up go your arms, off goes the slip, leaving you in nothing but your mother’s hideous unmentionables—FLASSSHHHH FLASSSHHHH flassshhhh—as the pipe organ starts to play The Merry Widow Waltz.

 

HELP ME you soundlessly mouth at Spacyjane: no breath left even for a microwhisper.  HELP ME—

 

But those star sapphire eyes give you an entirely hypersurrealistic look, and she utters six words that make no sense whatsoever:

 

“You have to answer for Floramour.”

 

 

 


* As told in “Bruise from Nowhere,” Chapter 11 of 13 Black Cats Under a Ladder.

 

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Return to Chapter 42                          Proceed to Chapter 44

 

 

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

 

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