Chapter 44

 

Duck Shutters

 

 

“Sugar,” Mr. Prout intoned the following Friday, “was a luxury in 16th Century Europe—very scarce, very expensive, highly in demand.  Portugal” [tapping the map on the overhead projector with a wet-erase marker] “established a colony on the coast of Brazil” [map-tap] “with many sugarcane plantations and processing mills, but failed to turn the native Brazilians into a labor force.  Therefore, from their colony in Angola” [map-tap] “the Portuguese shipped thousands of enslaved Africans across the South Atlantic” [route-trace] “to toil in the fields and mills.  So: colonizers to Angola” [trace] “slaves to Brazil” [trace] “sugar to Europe” [trace] “setting the pattern for the Triangle Trade, which later involved British colonies in North America” [tap] “as we saw televised in the miniseries Roots.

 

Pious glance at Vernonique, seated at the side of the World History classroom; and at Gabriel Bailey, slouched next to wrestling teammate Ewan Dobbs in the back row, where they’d spent Sixth Hour triangle-trading knuckle-taps to each other’s upper arm.

 

[TAP]  Gutbucket: “(Made yuh flinch.)”

 

[TAP]  Haystack: “(Did not.)”

 

Internalized sigh by the outwardly impassive Nonique.

 

She wouldn’t mind being in Brazil right now.  Summer was just starting there, and it was 5,000 miles away [trace route] from Vanderlund Township High School (SIGH).

 

As for Roots, she’d been too preoccupied with Grandma’s stroke last January to feel like watching more than a few depressing minutes of Kunte Kinte’s adversities.  When not in school or church or at the hospital, she’d spent most of that awful month cloistered alone at home with her oboe.

 

Most of this past week, too.

 

 

Away in a manger

  The dog hogs the bed

No room for a stranger

  To lay her sore head...

 

Hush now.  Try to blot out everything except tonight’s Winter Holidays Concert.

 

Yesterday’s dress rehearsal had been the proverbial disaster.  Mr. Frazee told the Chamber Choir “If that’s the best you can do with the Wassail Song, you may as well all drop out and find jobs in a plywood factory!”  Miss Sickles, not to be outdone, threw her vocal score into the orchestra pit after the Girls Chorus coughed their way through Britten’s Ceremony of Carols; and temperamental violinist Alma Battenburg (who got hit by the thrown score) pitched a bow-brandishing tantrum.

 

But Nonique’s own performance as second oboe in Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy had earned a nod of approval from Mr. Conzelman, and a “Guess I better enjoy first chair while I can” from Beau Guthrie.  Who could afford to act gallant, since he and Nonique both knew she didn’t yet have the chops to challenge him—and even if she did and won, some people would be sure to say it was only because she had a black ass so why not do the Orchestra a favor and Ree-bound it the hell AWAY FROM HERE???—

 

(Steady.  Steady.)

 

(Don’t be so unready.)

 

(SIGH)

 

(And write down Monday’s assignment, wishing it could be done in Mexico like all of Alex Dmitria’s.)

 

A whole week had passed, almost to the minute, since the “Incident” happened; but Nonique’s stomach still hurt.  And now as the Seventh Hour bell rang, she had to return to the scene of the crime for the fifth time—

 

—as her way out of Room 419 got blocked by what looked like a big gray tortoise with an ashen pigeon’s head.

 

“Um… yeah… so…” it went.

 

Oh sweet mother, what now?

 

“You posed for my Phantaphyre, right?  That was you?”

 

‘Scuse me? she silently bristled.

 

“In Auldforest?—Jenna drew you?—playing music?—anyway, with her being home sick” [cracked pigeon-hrew on the last word] “and me not able to find the other two she drewcould you give this to Vicki Volester?”

 

A sealed letter-size manila envelope.

 

“Best do that yourself,” Nonique said with hackles ascendant.

 

“She wouldn’t want to see me,” the Mock Turtle replied, its pigeon-eyes round with consternation.  “Not after I… the other morning... well anyway.  Please?  It’s something I kind of overheard backstage today—might be nothing, but maybe not—could be critical.

 

Heave another SIGH and, like Dionne Warwick, walk on by.  But the Mock Turtle pursued her out of Room 419 and down the same flight of stairs Jenna Wiblitz (working intently on a sketch two days ago) had lost her footing on and tumbled to the bottom of.  No injuries worse than a couple bumps and bruises—until she got sneezed at in the nurse’s office and contracted acute bronchitis.

 

“Please—” huffed the breathless Turtle, nudging Nonique with the envelope’s pointed corners.  “Please—”

 

Oh all right.  Snatching the stupid thing, jamming it in her satchel, and making it to Gym just as the tardy bell clanged.  Steeling herself for the fifth consecutive afternoon to undergo another snottyviciouscruelconceited showdown…

 

…which, once again, didn’t occur.

 

And since this was Friday, with a major concert slated for that evening, Coach Celeste devoted most of the hour to yoga.  Deep inhalations through the nose (one, two, three, four, five); hold them for the same count; complete exhalations through the mouth (five, four, three, two, one).

 

Think: embouchure.  Think: Choral Fantasy, Gloria in Excelsis Deo, Hallelujah Chorus.  Not: getting bushwhacked last Friday in the locker room.  Not: taken by surprise, unprepared, her guard let down.  Which would not have been the case if it had happened in September, when such a contretemps was anticipated every moment of every day.

 

Ironic that the harshest set-to till Friday had been with another black girl, Claudia Thurman (whom Nonique still couldn’t abide).  And it wasn’t like everybody hadn’t warned her to watch out for Gigi Pyle, who sashayed around school like the reincarnation of Hannah Hoopskirt.  But up till Friday there’d been nothing worse from her than lipcurled brushpasts, and Nonique wasn’t the only one who got those.

 

Then: WHAMMO.  Delivered out of nowhere, with the impact of a fist in the gut.  Even more excruciating were the hot tears that sprang forth and dripped down Nonique’s face, betraying her and the entire race.  Jackie Robinson hadn’t wept when taunted and insulted; nor had Joe Louis nor Jesse Owens—at least not while surrounded by half-dressed white girls.

 

Most of them rallied around Nonique right awayeasing her onto a bench, bringing her a paper cup of cool water, running to fetch Coach Celeste who insisted on writing up the Incident though Nonique tried to beg off.  No such reluctance from Sheila Quirk, who went into caustic detail describing what Gigi Pyle had said and done.  (Sheila might be Burke Quirk’s sister, but after his boorishness at the Homecoming Dance she’d put itching powder in Burke’s jockstrap.  “Not that you’d notice any difference—Baa-Baa scratches down there nonstop as it is.”)

 

A few holdouts sided with Gigi, then and since; particularly her disciple Enid Stott who squint-sneered at “all this fuss being made over next to nothing,” and Irina Saranoff who wasn’t bothered by skintones but disdained what she called “nappy” hair.

 

The real eye-opener, though, had been Laurie Harrison.

 

During the first weeks of school she’d been a sillier, chatterboxier version of sweet shy Helen on Room 222.  Then suddenly she’d clammed up tight and withdrawn behind sheepdog bangs, leaving her friends torn between worry and thankfulness for the quietude.  Lately Laurie’s shadow had grown longer and wider and deeper, with people sidestepping away from its umbrage; but last Friday it got cast across Nonique as she recuperated in the coach’s cubbyhole.  Everyone else was out on the gym floor; Nonique’d said she just needed to be on her own for awhile.  (Sneer-squint by Eeny; toss of The Hair by Irina.)  Now she was cubby-isolated in Mean Mary Jean’s opaque shade, with any sign of mercy concealed by those dense dark bangs.

 

Please, no more… please, just let me be… please, I’ve had enough—

 

“Don’t worry,” said Mean Mary Jean.  “She’ll get hers.”

 

Merely that and nothing more.

 

Yet nobody’d seen Gigi Pyle anywhere at VTHS all this week.

 

Assuming it was Gigi who was to Get Hers; about which Nonique felt increasingly dubious.  Also mistrustful, like the Old Brandoffer Place had seemed when the Smiths first moved in, and now began to seem again.

 

She should never have relaxed her vigilance.  Or taken anything about Vanderlund for granted.  Or forgotten how it felt to be the only brownskinned person visible on Lilywhite Lane.  Or stopped living out of suitcases, ready and able to move away at a moment’s notice.  Or thought she’d overcome constant jitters and endless uneasiness about the hazards ahead.  Or tried to unburden herselfit couldn’t be done.

 

And her having been lulled into thinking it could was only one person’s fault:

 

Vicki Volester’s.

 

She was to blame for it all.

 

Even more than “Magnolia Puss” (as Robin Neapolitan reputedly dubbed Gigi Pyle) for the shock and pain of last Friday’s slur.

 

Because Vicki was the one who’d misled Nonique up the garden path.  Duped and deceived her into thinking everything might be, would be all right—when it wasn’t, and never could be.

 

So Nonique staved off Vicki’s presumptuous offers of comfort and support.  Saying “Just leave me alone!” last Friday; refusing to see her when Mrs. Volester brought Vicki to the C.O.D. (Creepy Old Dump) on Saturday; not eavesdropping on Alfreda’s explanatory talk with both Volesters.  Or believing Freda afterward when told “they understood” Nonique’s need for time and space to recover.  HA!  Shed kept her black ass re‑covered from the instant it was taken out of the coach’s cubby.  Mighty safe bet it would stay re-covered till she could re-move it from Vanderlund forever.

 

So this week Nonique hadn’t shared a morning bus seat with Vicki, though they’d been doing that since Alex left for Cuernavaca.  In Biology they were still lab partners, but Nonique restricted conversation to nucleic acids and protein synthesis.  In Study Hall she shifted to the desk at the back of the room left vacant by Bunty O’Toole; and in the cafeteria she took the stool next to Lisa Lohe from which Hillel Schiller had been banished.  (This made room for Link Linfold and Sammi Tiggs to sit next to each other, once Holly Brollis persuaded them to return to their table; and it removed Vicki from Nonique’s eyeline at lunchtime, since they now sat on the same side of the table separated by Lisa and Jenna when the latter wasn’t sick at home.)

 

Through it all, Vicki gave her space as well as time as well as no whining “I thought we were friennnnds.”  Once or twice Nonique caught sight (and sound) of Vicki clenching her jaw with apparent frustration, and thought to herself: good—see how YOU like it!

 

Monday through Thursday, rehearsals for the Winter Holidays Concert had been held during extracurricular Eighth Hour; after which Nonique got driven “home” by Reverend Fowler, Willamene’s pastor father.  Kessell Road was pretty far out of his Happel Land way, and the Reverend deplored the Rebounder’s media image, but he was also a big basketball fan and proud to shake Shucks Smith’s hand the one time he found Taw at “home.”  Taw in turn commended Willamene Fowler as a paragon for all teen black girls, since she thought (or claimed to think) that any of life’s dilemmas could be ironed out by prayer and/or a cold shower.

 

(There’s a Baptist for you, Grandma Cat would remark.)

 

(Right back where we started from, Maxine Nightingale might add.)

 

You could talk to Willamene for only so long before she turned the topic to religion.  You could talk to Rhonda Wright for only so long before she began yukking it up.  You could talk to Darren Buckley for only so long before he steered the subject to touchy-feeliness.  (Boys will be boys.)  And you could talk to white people for only so long before wondering what this-or-that one really meant by saying such-and-such to you.

 

Take Pigeon-in-a-Shell and his sharp-edged manila envelope: what could be so critical about its contents?  Nonique had half a mind to throw the fool thing away as she left school and boarded the bus to Kessell for the hardly-worth-going-“home” pre-concert dinner interval.  Vicki was not on this westward bus; nor had she been in Gym, having been excused for an emergency dental appointment.  (Good—see how you like THAT too!)

 

Stupid useless message.  If not discarded, it could at least be set aside till Monday and handed over then.  In the meantime, ignore its unexplained presence.

 

Or maybe the envelope could be opened and whatever might be inside it given a quick lookover, just to determine the proper course of action—scrap now or save for later.

 

 

 

Ohhhh-kaaaay...

 

Slide the crazy message back into the envelope back into the satchel, awaiting the nearest trash receptacle.  Forget about it: think Choral Fantasy instead.

 

 

When music's enchantment reigns,

  Speaking of the sacred word

Magnificence takes form

  The night and the tempest turn to light...

 

And the silhouettes overclouding the mind coalesce into stern implacability: broad and high and black as the Space Odyssey monolith.

 

Are you planning to drop that letter in a wastebasket when it was entrusted to you, child?  Is that how you were raised?

 

Okay, okay, I’ll keep it over the weekend and hand it over Monday morning.

 

You’ll do no such thing.  You done wrong reading it in the first place but now that you have, take it out and read it again.

 

Why should I?  Why should I lift a finger, except to give her the middle one?

 

Because you got a duty and responsibility here, child.  And don’t think I can’t still take a strap to your seat if you sassyfrass me.

 

Wouldn’t dream of it...

 

No one was “home” when Nonique reached the Rented House.  Freda had a substitute teaching gig but would be back in time to share a light meal before the concert.  Salad, yogurt, fruit—none of which Shucks or Randle would touch if either of them showed up.  But before hitting the kitchen, best take a hot shower (sorry, Willamene) since one hadn’t been needed after Yoga-Gym.  So up the wide Tudor staircase, down the dimly-lit Tudor corridor, and into her Tudor bedroom—

 

—make that “her” Tudor bedroom—

 

...except, dammit (sorry, Grandma) it was her bedroom, and had been for going on three months now.  She felt safe here, not spied on by the watchful walls as she had last September.  She could take off all her clothes in here without the least self-consciousness, unlike the locker room at VTHS.  So let’s do that and grab a shower while there’s plenty of hot water—

 

Not yet you wont.  You’re purely a Curry, child, and Currys always do their duty.

 

What about Uncle Mackerel?

 

Dont you mention that player of the Devil’s music when you’ll be playing the Lord’s music in just a few hours!  I aim to see you do it with a clean conscience and a clean body!

 

(SIGH)

 

Befitting a household with an adolescent female, an extra-long cord had been added to the phone in the upstairs hall so it could be hauled into Nonique’s bedroom with the door nearly closed for privacy.  And rumination.

 

She could just dial Burrow Lane and find out if Vicki’d returned from the dentist.  If she hadn’t, that’d be a sign that the letter should be left undelivered till Monday.  Okay...

 

Ring.  Ring.  Ring—

 

“The domm-icile of Volester!” went a cheerful voice.

 

“Uhhhh... Vicki there?”

 

“That you, Nonique?” said Joss Murrisch.  Of course, she always spent Friday nights at the Volester house, even before major concerts.  “Hey girl!  Yeah, Her Majesty’s here and full of novocaine, but she’s halfway coherent.  Wanna speak to her?”

 

“Please.”  (Interpret that word as you will.)

 

Pause.  Background murmurs.  Then a cottonmouthy, somewhat tentative “Hi?”

 

“...how you doing?”

 

“Me?  Got a temp filling.  How’re you doing?”

 

“Me?  Getting ready for the concert.”

 

“Good... good...  so glad you called.”

 

“...yeah, well...”

 

“I mean, dissecting frogs’ll be so much harder if you’re not talking to me.”

 

Once again, a ladylike snort trembled on the brink before tipping over into a reluctant yet unmistakable snortle.  “Dammit, you always make me laugh!”

 

“Yeah?  Now I’ll have to do it while we’re dissecting.  Bet you a pop I can.”

 

“Well anywaywhy I called was to say... um... that... you’ve got a secret admirer.”

 

“Oh no—I’m afraid to ask who.”

 

“He asked me to give you a love letter.  It’s signed ‘Steve S.’”

 

“Steve?  Do I know a Steve?”  (To Joss: “Can you think of any Steves at school?”)

 

(“Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Sophomore?”)

 

(“Oh shut up.”)

 

(“You shut up.”)

 

To Nonique: “We can’t think of any Steves.  What’d he look like?”

 

“A big turtle with a pigeon’s head.”

 

Oh Gahd!  That’s Lumpy Skinner, the ASS!  ‘Adlai Stevenson’—and he calls himself Steve?  Ohhhh noooo, not him... wait a seche’s in love with Jenna, he can’t be my secret admirer too!”

 

“Well, he cares enough to write you this,” said Nonique, reading her the letter aloud.

 

Long pause.  Then: “Did you say ‘Tape me screaming?’”

 

“S’what he wrote.”

 

“But what...?  I mean, who...?  Sheesh!  The mutant guy sounds like that whitehaired weirdo at the Harvest Brawl, and he sounded like Britt’s boyfriend at our disco concert.”  (To Joss: “What was that freaky guy’s name at the QuinceañeraQuisp or Quake?”)

 

(“How would I know?  I’m eating Puffed Rice here, so I can blow my cornet better.”)

 

To Nonique: “Why would Britt tell him to ‘tape me screaming’?”

 

Opaque thoughts crossed Nonique’s mind, but were blocked by a monolith.  “Don’t know Britt, other than her having a good voice in Choir.  Maybe she wants to audition you for a duet?”

 

“Hardy har har... oog, I think my novocaine's worn off.

 

Sorry.”

 

“Don't be!  Thanks so much for calling.  And, y’know, for letting me know.”

 

“Right.  Um, well.  Got to go, it’s getting late...  You gonna be at the concert?”

 

“Course!  Cheering you ‘n’ Puffed Rice Girl here

 

(From Joss, through a mouthful of cereal: “That’s Puffed Rice Woman.”)

 

—and Space and Feef and Q and Robin and Crystal and all you musical marvels.  Lucky Alex too, singing away in Mexico.”

 

“Listen, girl... maybe you better watch out and be careful.  Like, don’t talk to any mutants.”

 

“I’ll try.  You ‘n’ your oboe knock ‘em dead tonight—in a Christmassy way, I mean.”

 

“We’ll try.”

 

“...luvya, Nonique...”

 

“...yeah... me too...”

 

As irresistible beams filtered through her overclouded brain to shed a lot more light and cast a lot less shadow.

 

*

 

(transliterated from the “Dear Lana Eisenstein [really My Diary]” code)

 

 

All that week she’d been having the same old dreams, dredged up from the deepest reaches of her memory.  That same old feeling of being lost on a cold winter afternoon as dusk descended, lost among the shadows of secret darkness and whatever they might conceal.  Such as that same old Something or Other which was spying on her, creeping and crawling unseen till it sprang up and raced toward her, a furious violent hate-filled face with lacerating eyes—it was the Mad Man! out to get away with murder! and Vicki tried to yell for her Gardening Angel, tried to hide but could only take off running, endless relentless running like a terrified kittycat chased by a savage dog or wolf or Beast that stretched out its claws and was about to grab hold

 

run run run LEAP

run run run LEAP

run run run LEAP

 

—while at the same old time Roger Mustardman kept reciting Your whole existence is an imaginary figment, figment, figment.  So’s everybody you know’s, you know’s, you know’s...

 

Friday night she thought she’d be free at last of this monotonous dream, after reconciling with Nonique and enjoying the Winter Holidays Concert.  Instead she had it worse than ever and finally got j-o-l-t-ed awake, panting and shaking and lost like Becky Thatcher in a cave full of bats, till she could recollect where and who she was.  Climbing then out of tangled bedsheets to step around Joss on the nearby air mattress (no-I-do-not­-snore-you’re-thinking-of-Meg) and dig through the bureau’s bottom drawer till her hand found the yellow Pet Rock, clutching it like an undercover talisman.

 

Big girls could tremble.  Big girls could whimper.  Only babies cried.

 

Big girls could also turn a nightmarish run run run LEAP into a flawless mental grand jeté.

 

See that?  Feel that?  I am a butterfly: I float, I glide.

 

To which a perversely tender voice replied: Make-believe is nothing to get hung about.

 

Gahdammit, I’ll make YOU believe I’m a Real Live Big Girl who can be a butterfly!

 

And any lingering qualms about attending tomorrow (actually tonight)’s bal masqué at the Shoreward Club were resolutely quelled.

 

Invited (along with untold others) by Isabel on the Monday after Thanksgiving, Vicki had toyed with possible costume ideas.  Back in Pfiester Park she’d been a ballerina every Halloween till she was eleven, when she and Hayley Tamworth dressed up Junior Hull (not to be confused with Junior Nygren) as Frankenstein’s monster, with Goofus riding his shoulders as Igor and the girls escorting them as two mad scientists.  Then at twelve she and Stephanie Lipperman had trick-or-treated in quasi-19th-Century-garb as Lucy and Alice, the protagonist and predator from Mirror of Danger.  And for the past three Halloweens in Vanderlund she’d helped Alex (always a Cossack horsegirl) at the country club’s kiddyparty, awarding prizes for funniest/scariest/ugliest/cutest/most-original costumes.  There, knowing she’d be stickified by candy-coated children, Vicki’d worn easily-cleanable oilcloth outfits—sailor, pumpkin, waterproof ghost.

 

This year Jenna’d taken her toyed-with notions and sketched a butterfly costume with variant wingsstiff spinal attachments (beautiful but impractical) vs. soft capes sewn onto sleeves (much easier to fit undamaged inside a coat or car).  Either way they evoked misty watercolor schmetterling memories

 

that got shunted to the backburner by Madeline Wrippley’s acid freakout, then the four-timing “date” with Tony & Co., then the marrow-numbing cold and snow and wind, then Gigi Pyle’s appalling attack on Nonique, then Nonique’s alienated hands-off reaction, then making sure Alex got put and stayed put on the plane to Mexico.  All in all, an exhausting couple of weeks.

 

Then this past Monday Isabel’d pleaded with Vicki to come to the rescheduled bal masqué and help save its guest list from being swamped by Mauly’s Traverser cronies.  Well, why not?  If nothing else, it’d be a welcome diversion from giving Nonique “time and space” with no sign this had any effect other than Vicki’s being slighted on the bus, snubbed in homeroom, and rebuffed at the cafeteria table.

 

“Got those butterfly designs from the week before last?” Jenna asked her at lunch on Monday (while Nonique sat out of sight on the far side of Lisa Lohe, who was glaring across the table at Link Linfold).  “Vicki?  Got those butterflies?”

 

“Hunh?  Oh!  Yeah—course.”

 

Coldshouldering [snort] from Nonique.

 

Jenna, taking no notice of the [snort], said “Give them to Spacyjane’s friend Kathleen.  I can never remember her last name but she can whip up a costume in a tearing hurry, so long as nobody watches her do it.  Classic basket case.  She’s the one who should be called ‘Jenny Wren!’”—with a birdy-scowl through gaudy glasses at three-months-ago Dennis Desmond.

 

Vicki still didn’t know what Jenna meant by that, nor who Kathleen the Basket Case might be (unless she was the mysterious contributor of so many tissue-paper flowers to AA’s Homecoming float).  But New Big Sister had spoken; so the butterfly sketches were entrusted to Joss, who’d be seeing Spacyjane at the Eighth Hour concert rehearsal.  And after that was done with and everyone’d had dinner, Vicki found herself at Spacyjane’s chalet on Cecidia Drive.

 

“What a darling house,” said Felicia, who’d given her a ride over despite its being a “school night,” which Goofus loudly protested because he was being denied attendance at Wednesday’s Close Encounters opening because that was on a “school night.”

 

Vicki stared at the alpine cabin, set apart among suburban split-levels like her own on Burrow Lane.  “So this was built to look like this?” she wondered aloud.

 

It’s so ootsie-cutesy-cunning it makes all the other houses in the neighborhood want to dry-heave, echoed Joss’s voice from way back when.  Joss had been back here since making friends with Spacyjane at Summer Youth Music Camp, but somehow Vicki’d never seen the place up close till now—

 

—or this Valhalla of the Dolls which Floramour shared with every conceivable make, model, and material of poppet figurines, plus Spacyjane’s velveteen-curtained canopy bed.  (“I knew she slept in a Stepford Wives-y bed like this!” Joss had exclaimed after her first admission to Valhalla.)

 

Here too was Kathleen I-Can-Never-Remember-Her-Last-Name, who’d been on the VW Z team with Vicki for two years and might’ve even had some of the same classes; but if so, altogether unmemorably.  Clothed in olive drab with eyes downcast in an inexpressive face, she made Ann Hew seem like a glamorous standout and Sammi Tiggs like a gladhanding extrovert.  Kathleen responded to all of Vicki’s questions and proposals with a tiny little nod or headshake or mmm—yes, pockets could be added to the costume for stowage of necessities; no, the caped wings wouldn’t billow too badly so long as they weren’t flapped too fast.

 

“She made a neat set of wings for my Superprincess doll,” said Spacyjane, “though we couldn’t get them to stay cloaked until needed.  And check out these stockings she sewed for Floramour’s masquerade costume—I’m still not sure they’re the proper thing, but what with Isabel, you know...”

 

(Spacyjane had talked Isabel into going to the bal masqué as a lion tamerfor which Floramour had an existing outfit, from a past dolly circus opera—but Is would only agree if she could wear fishnet hosiery instead of trousers.  Now Brad Faussett and Rags Ragnarsson were competing as to who’d be the front and rear halves of her lion.)

 

Vicki, trying to admire Floramour’s stokings while having her own measurements taken by mmm’g Kathleen, was distracted by the sight of an honest-to-goodness pantygirdle tacked to a bedroom bulletin board like a hunting trophy with dangling garters.  It looked much too big for Spacyjane, who didn’t care for binding underwear anyway as everyone who’d been at that bodice-popping Carnival rehearsal knew.

 

“How was Nonique today?” Space asked—not quite out of the blue, since she’d heard about Friday’s Gigi Incident from Joss who’d heard about it from Vicki; yet it was a definite subject-change from fishnet nylons, human or dolly.

 

“Shes still mad... mostly at me, it feels like.”

 

“Nonique got hurt.  But she’ll heal,” said Spacyjane, thrusting another pushpin into the bulletin-boarded pantygirdle.

 

Vicki tried to dismiss voodooish thoughts and turn her attention to the girl kneeling at her inseam.  “So Kathleen, about how much do you think this costume might be likely to cost?”

 

(Tiny little headshake and wounded-sounding mmm.)

 

“Oh, she never charges a cent,” explained Spacyjane.  “Her mother’s a manager at Mary Lester Fabrics, their closets are filled with bolts of everything imaginable.”

 

“But what about her time and labor and all that?”

 

(Not so tiny, not so little headshake, much more vigorous mmm.)

 

“Well, Kathleen... I guess if you’re going to give it to me, like a present, I’ll do my best to give you something just as nice in return.  Y’know, as a Christmas gift.”

 

For the first time Kathleen raised her head and looked Vicki in the shining eye, giving her a tiny little rapturous “(Thanks.)”

 

Oh good grief—what do you give someone who can sew anything and already has closets full of fabric?  A duck dinner for four at La Sauvagine?

 

Spacyjane awarded that notion a glance of beatific approval—which, given those hocus-pocus thumbtacks pinning that pantygirdle to the wall, was probably something else to be grateful for.

 

At any rate Vicki began looking forward to the bal masqué, and Joss agreed to come too as a zootsuited bebop hipster.  Her improved mood lasted till Study Hall on Tuesday, when Tony Pierro swung around from the desk in front of Vicki and went into his unsmiling Michael Corleone schtick: “What’s all this about you going to a masked ball?”

 

“(Ssshhhh!  It’s the one I told you about at the New Shoreward—Sherwood, I mean.  This Saturday at the Sherwood—I mean Shoreward Club.)”

 

Lowering his voice without lightening up: “(If you remember, I told you I didn’t think I’d be able to get another Saturday night off for awhile.)”

 

“(I remember you didn’t actually ask me out again, then or since.)”

 

“(Well, I can’t get this Saturday off.)”

 

“(Well, I’m going with Joss and Spacyjane anyway.)”

 

“(Well, I don’t want you going at all if I can’t take you.)”

 

“(Well tough!)” went Vickiglancing askant at Grandma Ivy muttering “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” at Samantha perusing a Harlequin romance at Nonique’s desk, and at Nonique now seated in the back row apparently engrossed in homework but with antennae aquiver.  “(I don’t need your permission or consent or say-so!)”

 

Tony, showing not a trace of diffident puddyboyishness: “(Vicki... If you go to this ball without me... I’ll be disappointed in you.)”

 

Gnash of white teeth and blast of black lasers: “(You might remember bailing on our track meet date last spring so you could ‘study’ with your guess-you-can-say-she’s-your-girlfriend Kinks Farghetti—and not wasting a thought on whether I might have been disappointed in you.)”

 

Big brown re-diffidenting eyes wavered and fell before the laserblast.  “(Uh... that’s not why I couldn’t go then... I didn’t ‘study’ with her till a couple weeks later... and I did ask you for a raincheck.)”

 

“(Well, until you get your sh—spit together, Mr. Baloney, that raincheck is null and void!)”

 

Ideally-timed clang by the 5D bell, enabling Vicki’s strident march out of Room 325 and away to the cafeteria.  Not waiting for Sammi and certainly not Nonique, who as her tied-with-Fiona-for-third-best-friend-after-Joss-and-Alex ought to be by her side offering the same consolation and support she’d been offered last Friday and Saturday only to go on a slighting/snubbing/rebuffing tootand at least Nonique had a reliable boyfriend, if Darren Buckley was filling that bill like he should, and even Sammi had Link though he wasn’t her beau ideal, while Jenna had Ike (sort of) plus Ken Keezer, and Holly had Nelson and Cheryl had Stuart and Mary Kate had Frank and Vicki was left on the breakup dumper bench with Joss and Robin and Sheila-Q and Lisa Lohe, for crying out loud—

 

—but at least she wasn’t pining after Split-Pea Erbsen, like Spacyjane.  Or engaged in who-knew-what-kind-of-a-relationship with Mike Spurgeon, like Alex.

 

This would be an ideally-timed moment for Dave Solovay to reappear: a year and a day after their fateful sledding excursion to Auldforest Woods.  Ideal, that is, if all his teeth had been straightened and capped since then (clenching her own at the grisly memory).

 

No, forget ideal timing.  What did happen next was Jenna’s [a] falling downstairs, [b] being sneezed at by Slats Shrimpton of the swim team, and [c] catching his viral infection that quickly turned into acute bronchitis which [d] sounded like a mortal ailment though Vicki was told it was “only a chest cold.”  In any case, Jenna’s calamity on top of everything else worsened her own jawclenching into a clearcut toothache.

 

By the end of the week this became so clearcut that an urgent leave-school-early visit had to be scheduled Friday afternoon with Dr. Hoffman, the Unitarian lady dentist who looked like Endora on Bewitched.  She was a far more proficient practitioner than old Dr. Boyle back in Pfiester Park, whom Goofus still wanted to be treated by since Doc Boyle had a wealth of sea stories from when he’d yanked teeth on a battleship.  Vicki preferred Endora, who could sorcerize a temp filling into a cracked molar without a twinge of pain—though her saying a mouthguard should be used at night if Vicki continued to clench or gnash sounded gross and possibly droolsome.  Felicia, though, had bonded with Dr. Hoffman at church and felt bound by her incantations; so pretty soon Vicki would most likely be chewing on a plastic crucible.  Even a gum full of novocaine didn’t prevent her from grieving on the way home: “Might as well stop by the pet store and buy me a rubber bone.”

 

But Joss proved yet again that she was Vicki’s very best of friends.  Instead of nipping down Sendt Street to spend the pre-concert dinner break in her own Queen Anne aerie, she came all the way out to Burrow Lane to keep Vicki company—"and mooch a big bowl of Puffed Rice.  Toughie, y’know, swears by hot cereal but I swear it’s ‘grits’ and I say the hell with it, at least before a concert.  You’d better eat something that hasn’t been shot out of a cannon—say a nice tureen of jellied consommé.”

 

Fortunately the ringing phone interceded just then; even better, it was Nonique calling to reopen hailing frequencies.  Vicki was so happy to hear from her she nearly sniveled with relief, despite the bizarre message from “Steve Skinner” about being taped screaming.  A joke?  A put-on?  A leftover snub/slight/rebuff?  But Nonique handed over the original note at the Winter Holidays Concert, where she also accepted (and returned) a hug from Vicki, plus ones from Joss and Spacyjane; wishing them all well (especially Vicki) at tomorrow night’s bal masqué, but choosing not to go herself.

 

“You wouldn’t catch me there,” rasped Jenna on Saturday, convalescing in a dormer-room daybed heaped with sketchpad, art pencils, manga books and used tissues, alongside a spearmint-misty vaporizer.  “That Shoreward Club (cough) would’ve sicced the dogs on my grandfather (cough) when he first came here, if they hadn’t (cough) all been out foxhunting.”

 

“Please don’t make yourself worse!” begged Vicki from the doorsill she’d been ordered not to cross lest she too be contaminated.  “Acute bronchitis is bad enough—”

 

“It’s a chest cold (hack hawk tooey) ‘scuse me,” went Jenna, her birdy-chirp an octave lower and hoarser than usual.  “Ignore it.  Tell me more about how that ASS (cough) screwed up last night’s concert.”

 

As was customary, the Yuletide musicale culminated with Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus; but this year the Choir and Orchestra had only reached their second And He shall reign for ever and ever when the stage curtain began to be rung down, inch by inch.  The robed singers on the risers instinctively leaned forward to stay visible, and once everybody was bent over belting out King of kings! and Lord of Lords!, the curtain came to a grinding halt.  After the last Hallelujah and all the laughter and applause died away, the departing audience could hear senior Stage Manager Dexter Rist tearing Skinner a new one behind the scenes.

 

“The blind berating the lame!” scoffed Jenna, whose opinion of Dexter (a doctrinaire zealot with a rod up his rump, like all the Rists) was scarcely higher than her whalepoop estimation of Lumpy.  “Pay no attention to any note that ASS passes you (scoff) or any kidney stone, either.  He’s a sneak and a snoop (scoff) and too much of a slug to do more than leave a trail of slime behind.”

 

“Was he the one who made Chewy DeWitt come unhitched and drift away from Nancy Buschmeyer?”

 

“Wouldn’t put it past him!  Though Chewbacca (scoff) is no great prize either.  Now let me see you spread those wings again, this time with the mask—”

 

Vicki, strapping on a swallowtail-with-eyeholes vizor, stepped far enough into the forbidden room to raise her bright cape-sleeves and display their iridescent gossamer.

 

“Good.  Good.  Told you What’s-her-name knows what she’s doing.  But mask or no mask (cough) don’t do any more crying”—as Vicki’d done at the sight of Jenna sick in bed.  “I won’t be at that Shoreward Club (cough) to fix your face this time”—as Jenna’d done at VTHS during the Homecoming Dance.

 

“I’ll try.  Or not try.  You try to get all well by Monday.”

 

“Yeah, leave it to me to have a chest cold (cough) on a warm December night.”

 

(The Cityland might have barely edged above zero a week ago, but today set a record high of sixty degrees.)

 

“Feels just right to me,” said Spacyjane, balancing on the doorsill in a star-spangled midnight-blue leotard worthy of Celeste Schwall; though she claimed to be Maia from Mary Poppins, and had a wispy wrap of indigo gauze to validate it.

 

Jenna, fumbling through the clutter on and by her daybed, found a pair of faux-fur-trimmed spectacles and focused her 20/20 vision through them.  “Oh heavens to Murgatroyd (cough) and me flat on my back with my legs in the air!”  (Though her legs were in fact tucked beneath a lightweight quilt.)  “Joss-uh-lynn??”

 

“Here, Jen!” piped up Joss, perspiring a bit in a bebop hipster zootsuit better suited for colder temps.

 

“Keep both eyes peeled on these two (cough) every minute you’re at that club, or they’ll land in a peck trouble (hack hawk tooey) ‘scuse me, sure as you’re standing there and I’m lying here.”

 

“Well, I’ll do what I can,” said Joss.  “Assuming they don’t fly off into the wild McJinglepockets yonder.”

 

“Fill up their pockets with rocks,” Jenna harrumphed.

 

“I don’t have any pockets,” said the pirouetting Spacyjane, extending a dainty ballet flat.  “Does this shoe count?  It’s got some folding money wrapped in plastic under my foot, but I wouldn’t want a rock to get in there.”

 

“Urrgghh,” Jenna reiterated.

 

Vicki’s costume did include pockets, produced on request by clever Kathleen Prindle; and one of those pockets did contain a rock—indeed, The Rock.  It bumped her thigh when she walked, but without bulging too obviously or dragging down the fabric like Skinner’s stage curtain, and Vicki was glad to have it at hand.  For some reason she hadn’t wanted to let the thing go ever since unearthing it from her bureau in the wee hours.

 

It rocks me like the Rock of Ages.

 

(Hoodoo, who do you think you’re fooling?...)

 

*

 

(Meanwhile, a mile-and-two-thirds to the southwest...)

 

“So?  How do I look?”

 

“Like you’re going bowling”—in a Pindoras team jacket and regulation shoes, with a mask from that Halloween tournament at the Red Devil Bowl where everybody’d wound up looking like Mr. Dimancheff.

 

“Maybe we oughta.  Might just as well,” grumbled Susie, since her Punkin’ Patrick had opted out of the bal masqué.  Same went for Jed Wainwright, whom Tina Korva was dating; so Susie and Tina were being taken to the Shoreward Club by Jacuzzi Jake and Thirsty K.  “Sure you won’t come with us, Lo?  There’s room in Jake’s car—

 

“I’ve got a ride coming.  Go wait for yours downstairs.”

 

“Can’t I at least get a peek at what you’re gonna wear?”

 

“No.  It’s a surprise.  See if you can pick me out of the pack.  Now go.”

 

“Well...”

 

Honk from below, setting off the Clevinger shepherds.

 

“Get a move on.  Now.  And keep your nose clean.”

 

Hurt-feelings hesitation by Susie till she got pushed out of Harrison & Zane HQ and had its door shut in her Red Devilish face.  Long pause and a repeated honk; then footsteps went down the hall, down the stairs, out of the house (to louder woofs) and away as the Korva car drove on up Grouseland Street.

 

Alone at last: off with the bathrobe, finish donning battle armor.  The boots.  The belt.  The gauntlets.  Then the wig, or more amusingly the scalp with long flowing hair whose shade had been selected with great care even though it might not be totally evident in the night’s diminished light.  Lastly a double-peaked cowl drawn over scalp and eyes, conjoined to a serrated shroud draping the torso from throat to ankles.

 

Regard this ensemble in Harrison & Zane’s full-length mirror.

 

Mummy dust, black of night, old hag’s cackle, scream of fright.  A blast of wind to fan my hate; a thunderbolt to mix it well; now begin thy magic spell…

 

With a deep inhalation through the nose (one, two, three, four, five) held for the same count, and a complete exhalation through the mouth (five, four, three, two, one).

 

To overpower a tarrying reluctance to embark upon this final confrontation with a foe who, in her own quiet way, could be as daunting as Siegfried or St. George.

 

Unbidden, a hidden image bobbed to the surface: Samantha standing on tiptoe to kiss her Dream Guy on the lips.  It’s soooo romantic!  I can see it happening!  Not at any school dance, though—more like a fancy-dress ball—out on a terrace, under the moonlight—

 

Then a lashing and thrashing as if by some silver-scaled reptilian extremity, beating this memento back underwater to sink into the buried depths.  Fancy dress, schmancy dress: a ball would be had tonight.  So stalk down the stairs of the empty house, Mom and Pa Zane having left that morning for Carbondale to bail Jason out of some scuzzy scrape or other that hadn’t even needed to be stage-managed from afar; he’d gotten into it on his own.  And if brought home in disgrace, itd be to a little retribution for all those pantyband-snaps—say an atomic wedgie, hung from the garage rafters.  There’d be no target left for a knee to the ding-dongs after that.

 

Breathe in through the nose (one, two, three, four, five); hold it for the same count; breathe out through the mouth (five, four, three, two, one).  As a jeering derisive voice from the middle distance of the inner ear sangsung:

 

I am so damned.  I am so damned.  I am so damned

 

No, you are.  I’M just along for the ride.

 

On which cue a Toyota Cressida came gliding to a stop out on Grouseland, with an apparition behind its wheel.  Step over the threshold and slam the door behind you, hard enough to hear something crack and goad the Clevinger dogs into clamorous howls.  No turning tail now, canine or otherwise; it’s onward to Shoreward, to finish off your adversary.  Her breath will still, her blood congeal; then Ill be the terrorist of the land...

 

*

 

There is a steep lakebluff on the north side of La Cunae Bay whose paramount yardage was laid out and developed, exclusively and restrictively, as Shoreward Heights.  At its midpoint a Connecticut Yalie built a replica of the Skull & Bones “Tomb,” to serve as club-hub for the élite of Vanderlund; enclosing this with a Stonehenge of detached greystone townhouses, one of which—Number 9 Shoreward Circle—doubled as Casa Carstairs for Lafayette V (DDS) and his family.

 

Butterfly Vicki, heading clubward in the Murrisch Lincoln Continental, passed the turnoff to Sunny Squash Court and was starkly reminded of the day Fat Bob Neapolitan trucked the Rosa Dartles to that gated community.  Its security officer hadn’t wanted to let them in till Vicki’d said “We’re with Britt Groningen’s band”; amending this (after Fiona whacked her shoulder) to “She’s with our band.  Could you check with Britt, please?”

 

Why in the world would Britt describe you to Quisp-or-Quake, backstage at VTHS, and say he should “tape you screaming”?

 

Vicki couldn’t recall having had a single conversation with Britt this whole semester.  Their only class together was Geometry, and there Britt hung out with Gigi Pyle—though not this past week, when Gigi’d been absent every day and so avoided Vicki’s denouncing her head-on for that sneak attack on Nonique.  (Robin and S-Q said shed also gone missing from German, where a denunciation would be far more multisyllabic.)

 

Well, never mind Gigi—concentrate on Britt.  Remember that strange phone call a couple months ago from Feef, who (of all people!) had been concerned about Laurie Harrison becoming a henchgirl for Bunty O’Toole in some kind of complicated dispute with the Traversers.  “(I told Bunty that Britt’d eat Laurie alive,)” Feef’d mutter-fretted.  That hadn’t happened, so far as Vicki knew… not that Vicki would know if it had happened... mentally kicking herself for always meaning to worry more about Laurie, and postponing it over and over again... but now was not the time to fuss over Laurie either.  Focus on Britt.

 

Spacyjane’d told the cops investigating Madeline Wrippley’s rooftop freakout that she’d seen a whitehaired weirdo “Haint” waiting by a VTHS stairwell, the week before his manifestation at the Petty Hills Harvest Brawl.  Vicki turned to ask Space (softly singing “Stardust” beside her in the Continental’s backseat) if this Haint had been waiting there with Britt Groningen—

 

—but just then the gate to the Shoreward Club swung open before them.  Taller and grander than Sunny Squash Court’s; reminiscent of the pointy-topped iron fence that had shielded curious kindergarteners from probably-haunted houses on Manderley Avenue back in Pfiester Park.  You almost expected to hear the Wicked Witch of the West’s sentinels chanting ohh-EEE-ohh YOHHHH-ohh

 

—till the gate stuck open with a portentous SKRONNNNG, followed by some City-style cursing by the gatekeeper that dwindled in the distance as Joss’s father sped them away and around the Stonehenge Circle.

 

“Jeez, I didn’t know Skinner worked here too,” quipped Joss in the frontseat.

 

“Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome,” sang Spacyjane.

 

They were a few minutes early (habitual with Raymond Murrisch) yet part of a growing crowd as they drew near the entrance of the “Tomb.”  To Vicki this looked like a lugubrious ivy-covered prison or fortress, nothing like the rambling convivial clubhouse at Petty Hills.  Why would anybody want to shell out the megabucks for membership here?  Hardly what you’d call an inviting hangout—

 

—yet the lobby was already crammed with incoming guests, thanks to the Xeroxed hospitality of the Carstairs sisters.  A line from The Great Gatsby popped into Vicki’s head—“I like large parties, they’re so intimate”—which she and Joss had laughed over in Mrs. Mallouf’s class.  The youthful mob thronging this foyer might’ve been transported here from Gatsby’s mansion, half a century ago and halfway across the continent; except that at Shoreward everybody was in “fancy dress” instead of Twenties chic, and would soon be dancing not to Charleston-y jazz but the whubb whubb whubb of deejayed disco.  That is, if they weren’t all chucked out on their ears first: the club’s staff, outnumbered more and more every minute, seemed like docents at a museum or art gallery faced with busload after busload of hyperactive schoolchildren.  Even a crew of industrial-strength bouncers might’ve struggled to ride herd on this lot; Shoreward had only a dozen or so butler-and-parlormaid types on hand, while the club’s regular Saturday night habitués damned Winifred Carstairs for this raucous incursion as they barricaded themselves in the card room and smoking room and library.

 

“Barbaric beargarden!” thundered one old stormcloud as he shot the bolt in the library’s lock.

 

But there was more to it than uncouth immaturity.  Disquiet reigned in the clubhouse lobby and on the staircase leading up to the ballroom; not simply noise (though that was escalating and intensifying) but restless oppressive agitation—“a pervading harshness” like at Gatsby’s last blast, the one Daisy came to but didn’t have a good time at.  And a lot of the fancy-dressers here tonight gave Vicki the impression they were jumping to a similar conclusion, though the party hadn’t really gotten underway yet

 

Hiiee,” went Isabel, loudly but flatly, with little of her characteristic oozy-coo.  Though subdued she looked a luscious treat in her sequined Mardi Gras mask and lion tamer’s outfit, with a white top hat on her goldilocks and black fishnets on her goldilegs, plus a realistic whip and miniature chair to curb the hornyboy hoi polloi. “You guys seen my stupid lion anywhere?

 

I’ll help you hunt for him,” offered Spacyjane, sounding positively proud for once of Izzy-Whizzy as Floramour’s Embodiment; and in a twinkling they were swallowed up by the crush.

 

Oh Gahd we’ve lost SpaceJenna’s gonna kill us! thought Vicki as she got a firmer grip on Joss’s zootsuited arm.  Kathleen won’t appreciate it either, and I went and promised her a nice Christmas present…

 

C’mon!” hollered Joss, who’d been here before on a more decorous occasion.  “It was so warm today, the doors to the garden might be unlocked—”

 

Vicki wished she’d worn a reinforced chrysalis costume as Joss tugged her through the traffic jam of motley fools, none of whom she recognized; umpteen had come in Star Wars regalia or as extraterrestrials from other enterprises.  The five-note Close Encounters motif rang out as if to herald these aliens, rattling windowpanes and deafening eardrums: bum BUM bum bum BUM it went, again and again, before segueing into the bass line (whubb whubb whubb) of Shoreward’s too-late-to-stop-it-now bal masqué.

 

All at once the club lights dimmed and the disguised phalanx began to boogie.  It felt like a topsy-turvy replay of that Back-to-School Debacle at VW, where all hell broke loose and Vickid been shoved and groped by anonymous nonentities till she teetered on the verge of panic—except that had happened in power-outage darkness, from which Dave Solovayd arisen to rescue her.  Here at Shoreward there was still illumination enough to see by, sort of, for a short girl like Vicki hemmed in on every side by gamboling Skywalkers and bunheaded Leias.  And here she maintained her grip on Joss who gasped “Made it!” as they reached the garden doors and didn’t exactly escape through them, since there was a sizable populace outside too and the disco beat there was almost as loud.

 

 

You can't turn me off
 
(no you can't turn me off)

Not in the middle of turning me on

  (in the middle in the middle)

I can't suddenly stop

 

—but you can let fly a sudden gasp of your own at the sight of a six-foot-tall effigy sculpted out of copper tubing!  Or so it appears in the nebulous garden lamplight, a lifesize version of the diminutive knickknack Dave gave you, whose arms and legs move up and down like a jogger’s when wound with a key.  And no sooner do you tallyho this coppery C‑3PO than it (he?) goes into action, jogging away beyond the pack of Barbarellas and Obi-Wan Kenobis; so you start in semivoluntary pursuit—

 

—only to emit a strangulated yelp as you run up against a couple of honest-to-God circus freaks with monstrous deformed faces!  One of which twists repellently toward you, seething “BACK OFF” in Millicent Carstairs’s maulicious voice—

 

“Do we have to keep these crappy-assed nylons over our heads all damn night?” the other freak beefs with Gwen Cokingham’s inflection.

 

“A piss-poor bank robber you’d fucking make!”

 

“Hey, don’t blame me ‘cause your precious Buhhhhzzzz went and screwed us over!”

 

“He—is—just—late—is—all!!  If he fucking well knows what’s good for him!!”

 

“Th sun came out last night and sang to me!” gurgles an oracular gargle, and the freaks move far enough apart to unveil a scraggly Astral Slacker perched upon the garden’s dry fountain.  At its base stands a string-and-bones High Priestess who echoes his words and copies the maxim into a thick logbook.  “Harkee—so be it!” she amens.

 

Repent!” counters Gwen, and “Kill the wino!” adds Mauly.

 

Snotrags!  Snotrags!  Snotrags! Lynndha Ednalino lambasts them, till Mauly slaps her upside the head and into the fountain which isn’t dry and causes to yowl like a scalded cat when her ornate Traverser logbook, though leatherbound, proves not to be waterproof.  “Sacrilege!  Sacrilege Sacrilege

 

“Ever’thin’s ready hyah on th dark side o’ th’ moon,” comments the vacant-peeper’d Parnell Travers from the fountaintop.

 

You shrink back as far as possible against the garden wall, willing your butterfly outfit to blend into the shadowed stucco like camouflage—and nearly spring over the wall when a third misshapen circus freak lopes grotesquely through the lattice.

 

“He’s here!

 

“You sure, Jive?”

 

“Seen him!  At your place!”

 

“Has he got the goods?

 

“Says so!  You got the dough?

 

“Once we shake ‘em down we will!”

 

“Let’s go then!  On the fucking double!”

 

Refreshments, people!!  Everybody to Number Nine!!

 

“NUM-BAH NYE-UNN... NUM-BAH NYE-UNN...” drones a milling horde of migrant zombies, transported maybe from Undead Fort Lauderdale—look at the funhouse-mirror facsimiles of Joe Silvertooth, Oh Belvedere and Peeling Preppy!—whose erratic drift accelerates into mass movement and then a gradual stampede around the Stonehenge Circle.  You’re swept along with it, your wrist grasped securely (thank goodness for Joss) as a big rectangular pillar of a townhouse looms out of the turf for the horde to converge on: “NUM-BAH NYE-UNN!  NUM-BAH NYE-UNN!

 

Its windows, unusually for a greystone, feature exterior shutters; and all the shutters appear to be closed over those windows, as if boarded up against a braineater invasion.  Even more extraordinarily, each of the shutters has a decorative central cutout shaped like a duck, as though Donald and Daffy busted clean through them seeking escape—

 

uffff stumble without warning across an old-fashioned bulkhead door slanted as if over a storm cellar or bomb shelter at the precise instant you realize your arm is being held not by a bebop hipster but a black-clad Batgirl who flings open an unbattened hatch with her free arm and hurls you down the interior steps with the other

 

—yet your drilled-deep volleyball training reawakens to save you with a perfectly executed dig-and-roll / go into a crouch / tuck hands and chin to your chest / dip one shoulder / roll over onto your back with knees bent / keep rolling till your feet make contact with the floor / give a push with your legs and spring up to standing / relatively unhurt since the steps feel shag-carpeted though you’re still shaken up or rather down and left in what the hell?? darkness—

 

—till it’s dispelled by flickering fluorescence—

 

—and you find yourself between an opulent furnace and a posh water heater.

 

Whirl around and blink behind your swallowtail vizor at Mr. Freeze chilling idly on a different set of carpeted steps that probably lead to the townhouse kitchen or pantry.

 

He wears a space-type suit and space-type boots, holds a long cryogenic raygun in his space-type gloves, and has a clear bubble helmet over what you hope is a skull-with-staring-eyeballs mask.  Through this he wheezes Darth Vaderishly, his jawbone unmoving:

 

“Look at the pretty butterfly that’s fluttered by!  (hawwww  Call me a Collector and break out the chloroform!  (hawwww)

 

“Get on with the taping,” says Batgirl in a serpentine voicecould this be Kinks Farghetti? blocking off the bulkhead steps as Mr. Freeze rises from the other set to expose a pair of open-reel tape decks behind him: not the ones from the Vinyl Spinnaker disco concert, but of greater size and apparent sophistication.

 

“Yes, let’s,” he hawwwws, cocking a glove beside where his ear would be if it were visible inside the skull mask and bubble helmet.  “Hear any noise upstairs?  There’s a-plenty, I assure you.  (hawwww)  Hear any noise outdoors?  There may be a dozen police sirens, soon if not now.  (hawwww)  Yet we can’t hear them.  And they can’t hear us.”

 

“The Neapolitans don’t have the only soundproof basement in town,” Batgirl reports, folding sinuous gauntleted arms over her Bat-emblem’d chest.

 

Nonna nonna nonna nonna goes Rags Ragnarsson in your dazed memory; but this sure isn’t Jenna Wiblitz out of her sickbed.  Nor is it Britt Groningen despite the long red hair cascading from her cowl—too brightly bouffant and Brenda Starrish—since Batgirl’s noticeably taller and sturdier than Britt.  More like Kinks with her rigid Medusa gaze through those cowlsockets from which you can’t tear your own even as Mr. Freeze gets his tape decks rolling with an unctuous “Vicki Volester, take wunnnn... annnnd... ohhhnleeee...”

 

“Wh—?” you go, followed by “—utt?” when Freeze’s raygun discharges a sudden b‑z‑z‑z‑zand has it gotten a helluva lot colder in here?

 

“‘Poor Butterfly, ‘neath the blos-soms way-ting,’” Freeze croons, compelling your complete unwilling attention.  “(Hawwww)  I believe we can teach your friend Desperate Desmond a lesson on how to have REAL fun with a captive girlie (hawwww) using the RIGHT kind of medium.  Audible trumps visual any old night—”

 

“Oh would you get ON with it?” snaps Batgirl.

 

“No, let’s get OFF with it—meaning your costume, Mam’selle Butterfly,” crackles Freeze.  “(Hawwww I’m certain you’ll be even prettier without it, and much more open to REAL fun!  Start with those caterpillar shoesies, toss them over here (hawwww) then work your way upward, leaving the mask till last.  If you find it necessary to SCREAM (hawwww) at any time, feel free to do so—the higher the volume the better!  Try to send my recording needles into the red zone!”

 

All the blood drains out of your body.

 

Before surging back in a full-frontal blush till the ladybug earrings nearly burst out of your lobes as they almost did that time Roger unzipped your little black dress in the Z-Wing stairwell.

 

Followed by a tidal wave of perspiration from the roots of your hair to the soles of your feet that drenches every garment you have on and adheres them protectively yet revealingly to your horrorstricken gooseflesh.

 

As you relive that traumatic moment when you saw Tricia’s Girl of the Big Ten glossy glamour print and how you told Joss How horrible the first day of senior high’d be if all the guys there were pointing and leering at you (—they do that already to pretty much every girl—) yeah but suppose it’s ‘cause they know your sister posed that way and what she looks like that way even if it IS nothing like the way you lookI would die, absolutely die of shame if that ever happens

 

—but this is ridiculous you can’t have fallen into the clutches of the Mad Bludgeoner he’s in custody and you can’t be facing rape or worse by some other supervillain not in a utility basement at The House of Duck Shutters where the real Mr. Freeze might bind you to a comical conveyor belt feeding a ginormous popsicle machine right up to the cliffhanging Tune in tomorrow same Bat-Time same Bat-Channel but then the director would yell Cut and That’s a wrap people and the mob of extras would melt away Studly Trio and all like they did at the beach this is just a silly joke you’re perfectly safe unlike Fortunato who had no suspicion that Montresor was going to brick him up alive in “The Cask of Amontillado” as you told Miss McInerney’s class back in eighth grade while Joss tried to crack you up by mouthing “Mandingo” claiming she was only biting her very best friend lips You nut! I was worried about you

 

—another b-z-z-z-z from the raygun j-o-l-ts you back to the present—

 

—as Freeze draws a bead on your scarlet-behind-the-vizor face then aims it at your heaving-behind-the-bodice bosom then suggestively zeroes in below your waistline saying “Think of me as Abe Omminable, Snowman—Yeti and the kids send their warmest personal regards!  Now are you going to lose those shoesies yourselfie, or do you require a helping hand?—”

 

—don’t scream don’t give him the satisfaction—

 

Gran can see what I see and hear what I hear

 

—but as Freeze leisurely paces forward under the flickering fluorescence who should pop up but Fiona (of all people!) from a different soundproof cellar where she took their self-defense seminars in deadly earnest mutter-rebuking Joss and Sheila whenever they cracked jokes and mutter-reciting Robin’s mantra about which hurts most when it’s rammed into a guy’s groin?—your foot, your knee, or your fist holding a roll of nickels?

 

—as one of the open-reel tape decks goes sproing and shoots out a long brown ribbon in a proliferating snarl that’s matched by Batgirl’s “You idiot!” and Freeze’s own “Buggeration!” as he turns his helmeted skull toward the entanglement—

 

—leaving an unguarded groin open to your fist which holds a mustard-yellow Pet Rock that produces a high-pitched whinnying HAWWWW and doubles Freeze over as you keep him between you and the advancing Batgirl long enough to wrench the raygun out of Freeze’s convulsive gloves and swing it by the barrel like a softball bat to crack the side of his bubble helmet sending him sprawling onto the other tape deck knocking it over as he cracks the front of his helmet whose plastic fragments evidently get deposited in his staring eyeballs which he grapples with while you reverse your batting stance and take a swing at Batgirl who dodges it and seizes the raygun by its stock fighting you for possession even as you both tumble over Freeze’s writhing legs and land with Batgirl on her back you prone on top and the raygun between you like a barbell she bearing up on it you bearing down more weight! more weight! the raygun making occasional b‑z‑z‑z‑z‑es and a cold gray mist slowly rising but not so foggily that you can’t peer through the cowlsockets below you to the fastbatting eyes which aren’t gaslight-blue like Britt’s nor gorgon-green like Kinks’s but dark brown like a newly-dug grave and filled with furious violent hate—they’re the Mad Man’s! out to get away with murder! and there’s nowhere to hide or take off running for and just like Tricia’d predicted long ago your Gardening Angel will come too late to save you from hideous destruction nothing will be left but a few bloody bones—

 

help

 

—goes a still small voice penetrating the now-constant b‑z‑z‑z‑z

 

help me Vicki

 

—no no no it’s a trick a feint a ruse keep bearing down more weight

 

—please Vicki help—

 

—as just for the splittest fraction of a second the pupils in those mineshaft eyes dilate far enough for you to see inside and glimpse the dominated hostess of the Mostest—

 

—who scrunches the hostlids shut and shakes the hosthead no no no till you take your hands off the raygun/barbell bearing down on it with your forearms now while you grab both sides of the Batcowl and dig your thumbs into the Batsocketcorners with an unyielding clasp as you shout “Look at me Laurie look at me Laurie LOOOOK AAAAT MEEEE—”

 

—and when the hostess forces her lids open the teeniest tiniest crack you blast forth black laserbeams like you did at the Varsity volleyballers and Gigi and Britt when they made Isabel erupt and Dennis Desmond who barely had time to parry them with his dental shock-absorbers but that was a single shot across the Spanish classroom and this is prolonged at extremely close quarters bearing down beamwise just as you’re doing barbellwise LOOOOK AAAAT MEEEE LAUUUURIEEEE

 

—till out of the Batmouth comes an unearthly echoing SCREEEEAMMM that would definitely make those tape deck needles burst off of their dials if any of them are still operational which isn’t likely as the gray mist swells into a vast icy miasma that you’d think would be welcomed by Mr. Freeze but no no no he leaps to his booted feet and charges blindly up the far steps yelling Not me! Not me! Not me!” smashing through what sounds like a locked door like Donald and Daffy did to those closed shutters vanishing into the townhouse kitchen or pantry or wherever those far steps go and taking the b‑z‑z‑z‑zing miasma away with him...

 

...while the girl in the Batcostume beneath you ceases resistance to the raygun while dissolving into the same shuddery spastic sobs she gave way to last summer on Joss’s half-mown lawn.

 

“(I’m sorry, Vickeeee... I’m sorry, Vickieeee.. I didn’t meeeean it...)”

 

“I know,” you tell her, rolling off onto your back to lie exhaustedly beside your favorite blabberyap, taking her slack hand in your cramped own...

 

Sometime later somebody yells “She’s down here!” before you have a proper chance to let your lasers cool off.  Blearily you look up and squint at Glinda the Good (speaking in Angelique Anstruther’s voice) and a female Hamlet complete with Yorick relic (speaking with Valerie Frid’s inflection).  Then they’re joined by a frantic bebop hipster (who sub-cries I let you out of my sight for one freaking minute) and a curious Christmas starlet (Ooh, the auras in here are so remarkable) plus, most unexpectedly, a baggypantsed puddyboy who falls to his baggyknees next to you, squashing a flat-crowned trilby to his coatfront.  Looks like somebody got another Saturday night off from Petty Hills and came to the bal masqué after all.

 

“Well hey there,” you greet him.  “Who’re you supposed to be?”

 

*

 

The police did come to Shoreward Circle that evening; as did an ambulance, to collect Newley Hasleman after he blundered up to the greystone’s third story, barged  into Isabel Carstairs’s bedroom and plunged out through a window, carrying one of its duck shutters with him.  Isabel (who was there at the time, lion-taming Dr. Zaius from Planet of the Apes) told the cops that this shattered-looking astronaut or deepsea diver or hazmat worker wreaked havoc in her boudoir, overturning the vanity table and a costly assortment of perfume bottles, before making his airborne exit with a shriek of I’m melting, melting!...”

 

“It was awfully unpleasant,” Is testified.

 

Useless for them to question Laurie Harrison: she’d suffered a nervous breakdown and could do no more than hold onto Susie Zane for dear life, blubbering inarticulate apologies into her stepsister’s Pindora collar till they were driven to St. Benedict’s ER.

 

Vicki thought it best to minimize mention of Batgirl’s role in the utility room turmoil; she blamed herself for not practically worrying about Laurie when that might’ve done some good—in the Girls Gym, say, after shed stepped aside from the volleyball team, or when Laurie’d unbent long enough to warn her about going out with Dennis Desmond.  So Vicki told the police an unidentified hijacker had shanghaied her into the townhouse cellar, where the girl in the Batcostume (not then known to be Laurie) might or might not have already been; it was hard to remember.  Likewise, the Abe Omminable assailant could’ve targeted them both, not just her, with his lewd demands to strip naked while screaming into his tape decks; it was difficult to say.  Vicki did detail these obscene ultimatums as crispy-clearly as she’d once described the groping undergone during the Back-to-School Blackout; but recounted her self-defense efforts against Mr. Freeze without reference to the Batwrestling aftermath.  (Cops, she guessed, would prefer not having to deal with possessions by or banishments of any demons, dragons, or dybbuks.)

 

Then Vicki too got taken to St. Benedict’s—though not handcuffed to Joss, despite Joss’s pleas to the police: “If anybody else tries to kidnap her, they’ll have to take us both!”  At the ER Vicki was again treated (in overdue course) by Doctor Younghunk, who either recognized her from three months ago or pretended to which was even more gentlemanly.  Tending her bruises and contusions, he pronounced her to be “in fine shape”—his very words! delivered with a dreamboat wink!—and certainly she was in far better shape than Melting Flake Hasleman, detained in an ICU coma and police custody.

 

Flake, as it turned out, would be the only bal masquer caught with cocaine on his person or in his bloodstream.  No drug bust took place at Shoreward; Jive Mansfield had been mistaken or misunderstood concerning the “goods,” so the Traversers were left bereft.  And not just of “goods”: Parnell himself disappeared from the fountaintop that night and would never be seen in Vanderlund again.  According to Lynndha Ednalino, hed obviously hitched a ride on some astral mothership or other; she began to rewrite his Book of Maxims and prophesize his Foretold Return.

 

As for allegations that Flake attempted to sexually abuse Vicki and/or Laurie, the Haslemans’s high-dollar attorney would float a notion that multiple Mr. Freezes mightve entered Number Nine and gotten their bubble helmets damaged in a variety of circumstances.  But that trial-balloon line of defense would be deflated by [a] Lumpy Skinner’s cautionary note, [b] further particulars reluctantly provided by a Cobbler Topping maid named Deirdre Weiner, and [c] an offer by the Carstairs family to help subsidize legal costs for the Volesters and Harrison-Zanes, in exchange for release from liability for anything that had occurred on their premises.

 

Meanwhile the Mad Bludgeoner Task Force would write Flake off as a copycat trying to ride the M.B.’s rapacious coattails.  At the same time the T.F. regretfully declared Wilmer Turkenkopf, after a month of questioning and finetooth-combing, to no longer be a Person of Interest.  Wilmer’s father Bruno promptly hired a low-dollar lawyer to sue the Task Force for property ransacking and every kind of news media for character defamation.

 

So the Mad Bludgeoner remained unknown and at large.  Yet Vicki Volester was widely regarded as having struck a wham! bam! make a new plan, Stan! blow for endangered local femininity.  Even her kid brother expressed admiration (albeit skeptical) and wanted to hear all about how she’d wielded her raygun-saber against that buckethead stormtrooper like a badass Jedi she-knight.  Ozzie and Felicia, who’d scarcely left off smothering Vicki since her release from the ER, told Goofus to quit aggravating her “post-traumatic stress”; they wanted her to speak to a counselor or maybe a clergyman, such as the Unitarian minister or old Father Phelps of St. Paul’s.  But Vicki, somewhat to her own surprise, felt in fine shape mentally and emotionally, just as Dr. Dreamboat had pronounced her to be physically (s‑i‑g‑h)—and definitely more so than she’d been after last year’s Auldforest frightfest with Dave Solovay, about which and whom her parents had never heard an inkling.

 

She rather suspected she hadn’t seen the last of that Mad Man Out to Get Away With Murder, by bludgeoning or otherwise.  Still, for once in her life she hadn’t tried to run or hide from him, but stepped up to the plate and slugged her way out of peril like a true Gardening Angel.

 

As a result she received nine days of celebration by friends and acquaintances, at home and at school.  For the first time Vernonique not only initiated an embrace but extended it during Vickis renewed thanks for putting her on guard before the bal masqué.  “That Skinner guy’s the one who wrote you the noteI only passed it along,” noted Nonique.  “Well, I don’t want to hug him, now do I? Vicki replied.

 

An equally-long cuddle from Fiona (inconceivable when they first knew each other) was even snugglier, and made Feef’s mascara run again when Vicki told how she’d inspired the counterattack using the Pet Rock.  So another “(Oh—ugh…)” at black-stained fingers, followed by a “You really ought to try that waterproof Regime brand” per Jenna’s product endorsement after Vickis own liquefication at the Homecoming Dance.

 

Jenna herself hack hawk tooey’d big-sisterly sustenance over the phone every evening till her bronchitis abated; by which time a portrait of Vicki as an onna-musha (female samurai) had been painted in acrylics and presented as a Christmas gift.  Its title: Beware My Naginata (pole weapon) and Don't Forget to Duck.

 

Robin, while giving Vicki and approving sock on the upper arm, hogged all the credit for Flake’s punishment since their self-defense classes had been her idea and conducted in her basement.  Besides, she’d never liked his washed-out weaselface” and had known from the retrospective start that Flake meant nothing but trouble.  Sheila-Q, calling this a blatant case of after-the-fact-itis, rekindled old arguments that Robin’s frothmouthing proved she had a secret crush on Flake, just like she’d been in denial-love with Roger Mustardman.  “OH!  GROSS!” gagged Robin, exactly as of yore; and she and Q kicked off a vintage donnybrook that lasted all through the winter holidays.

 

Alex, calling long-distance from Cuernavaca on her December 19th birthday, got distorted wind of Vicki and Lauries Shoreward exploits and had to be talked out of cutting her Mexican trip short so she could hurry back and nurse them both.  Laurie was in fact doing a little better: Samantha, Rachel and Jerome each visited her at Grouseland Street and made their separate peaces with the convalescent, who even squeezed a few drops of gossipade out of the latest latest rumorfruit.  (Crystal was supposedly splitting up with Judd Courtney to restart her intermittent romance with Rags Ragnarsson.)

 

At VTHS Vicki was congratulated by Coach Celeste, Ms. Goldberg, Mrs. Pentire, and Mrs. Mallouf, though the latter wouldn’t excuse her from T.A. duties.  She was stopped in the hall long enough for the Principal to ask “How’re you doing?” and be told “Fine, Mr. Stabledore.”  Becca Blair and Lisa Lohe, Nancy Sykeman and Rhonda Wright, Holly Brollis and Mumbles Metcalf, Nanette Magnus and Chookie Yentlebaum all paid tribute in their several fashions; Cheryl Trevelyan savored Flake’s fate with the greatest relish, while Mary Kate Hazeldene put in a pitying word for his having fallen so low.  Even Bunty O’Toole, who’d be graduating at semester’s end next month to take over the Vinyl Spinnaker and other stripmall discos, gave Vicki a nod of formidable acknowledgment.

 

Boys mostly parroted Goofus’s ovation—“Hey, Badass!” “Way to go, Badass!”—usually doing this with at least one eye on Vicki’s tush.  Soon, though, she was able to shield it with an extra-long cardigan of amethyst cashmere, provided by Santa via MomMom and PopPop when they flew in from Beansville for the Christmas weekend.

 

Both seemed to have grown older (and shrunk smaller) since last summer’s reunion, with slower responses and unmoored attention spans.  They, like Burrow Lane, had received a no-return-address Hallmark card of a potted poinsettia with the inscription

 

 

—but whatever the grandparents might have been told about Tricia’s unreachability went unspoken.  The younger Volesters were just as closemouthed; Goofus even refrained from saying he’d heard poinsettias ranked right up there with poison ivy.  Of course everybody kept mum about Vicki’s recent adventures, but MomMom did mention how pleased Babcia Brygid was with “Wiktoria’s” gift—a blueberry pie from La Boulangerie de la Ruelle.

 

(Kathleen Prindle was even more gratified by her pie-gift, and had worked its constellation  of crème Chantilly into the pattern for Floramour’s new navy negligée.)

 

Joss would’ve been tickled pink if Meg hadn’t come home for Christmas from Overton-not-Oberlin-in-Ohio—or so Joss asserted, not quite right in front of Meg, who claimed to be happier seeing Vicki than either of her sisters.  Particularly since Beth was setting Ulysses to music, in a fantasia for strings and vocal octet:

 

  Of the twoheaded octopus, one of whose heads
  Is the head upon which the ends of the world
                
(sing: tirra lirra)
Have forgotten to come while the other speaks
  With a Scotch accent: the tentacles
                
(sing: tirra lay)

 

“Oh my Gahhhhd,” Meg whined, “why didn’t I let Brooksy take me with him to Wisconsin?”

 

“‘If only in your dreams.’” warbled Joss.  “So, Meggy—got a lot of coke dealers out there in Overton?”

 

“What?  No!  I mean, how would I know?”

 

“Too bad Great-Great-Grandpa Barney Barnabas isn’t still in business.  I bet he’d be ‘shoveling snow’ all over Lakeside Central—”

 

“You are so weird!” huffed Meg.

 

Which phrase (a familiar one from Meg’s lips) sent Vicki wafting back in time to her Close-Up Encounter of the First Kind with Dennis Desmond, surrounded by the volleyball team on the Yellow Submarine:

 

 

Hail, hail our gal-Gondolieri

  Benvenuti!  Tutti-frutti!

Accept our love, our homage and our duty

  Benvenuti!  Oho-rootie!

A-wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom—

 

(Give it a rest, Dennis.)

 

And, yes: she had a few regrets.

 

The police wanted Vicki’s Pet Rock as Exhibit A or B or C, but couldn’t locate it in the Carstairs basement or embedded in Mr. Freeze’s space-crotch or popped out onto the greystone’s grounds.  Isabel, who’d probably never set foot in a utility room before, tried to find it too (if only so Mauly wouldn’t) but turned up no mustard-colored trace.

 

“Don’t worreee,” she marshmallowed to Vicki, “I’m sure nobody’ll think you made all this up.  Not after the mess he made in my bedroom!”

 

(Thanks, Is.)

 

Well, maybe her Pet Rock had served its purpose and moved on, like Mary Poppins or Parnell Travers.

 

Then there were some anticlimaxes, if that was the correct plural.  Gigi Pyle was again a no-show the whole week before Christmas break, as was Madeline Wrippleyand, annoyingly but not altogether astonishingly, Tony Nowyouseehimnowyoudon’t Pierro.

 

(“You did see him there in the storm cellar, right?” she asked Joss and Spacyjane and Angelique and Valerie.  Three out of four said yes; so as Nonique put it, if he was a hallucination it must be contagious.)

 

Unlike Dave Solovay a year ago, Vicki knew where Tony lived and where he worked and could’ve tried to séance him back into contact by one means or another; but to hell with that.  Let him come knock on my door and ask to see me.  Let him call me on the phone and make a real true date.  Let him mail me a Christmas card and sing me a Christmas carol and kiss me on the lips between verses.  ‘Cause I am a nice girl and a heroine-of-the-moment and I’d be a wonderful girlfriend and these are still not unreasonable things to wish for.

 

Even if I am too old to believe in Santa Claus.

 

Thank you once again and repeat that amen.

 

*

 

It took a heap of coaxing before Vicki’s folks would let her go to the New Year’s Eve blowout at Villa Neapolitan.  Felicia was afraid that being in another soundproof basement might trigger a post-traumatic flashback; but Joss assured her the only risk Vicki could run at “Nilla’s Villa” was of temporary deafness, since Downbite would be performing there all night.  Fat Bob and his vigilant pool cue would be on bouncer/sentry patrol, and Felicia herself was welcome to ferry everyone to-and-fro in her Chrysler T&C station wagon.

 

Luxury Liner, forty tons of steel

If I dont find my baby now

I guess I never will

 

harmonized Joss and Spacyjane, with Vicki warning them against a segue into The Love Boats theme song as they cruised into port unfashionably early (not habitual with Felicia) since snow was again falling, temps were again dropping, and Old Man Winter was again descendant upon The Cityland.

 

Robin put her premature guests to work completing the setup for New Year revelry, while she resumed a toe-to-toe rhubarb with Petula Pierro who’d chosen this of all occasions to book Downbite for a different gig elsewhere.

 

“And you shoulda been there half an hour ago, too!”

 

“In case you haven’t noticed, Doris, I’m having my own! party here! right now!  I told you about it a week ago and you said and I quote: ‘Cool!’”

 

“Well, this other spot just opened up and I jumped on ityou’re welcome, my pleasure, de nada—so get your gear loaded and follow us there, we’ll be in Cramps’s car—”

 

“(Follow you where in Cramps’s car?)” mutter-inquired Fiona, entering the cellar with her Fender bass, PoonElly Scales, and a couple bottles of Lassers champonette.

 

“Old Town, north of North—”

 

“(Old Town?)” went Feef.

 

Downtown?” went Robin.

 

“No—Tayser!” snapped Petula.

 

“‘North of North’ sounds like a fairytale setting,’ Spacyjane observed to PoonElly, who wandered over to check out the buffet.

 

“‘East of East’ sounds like a Chinese soap opera,” remarked Poon.

 

“Will you ditch that carbonated Pepto-Bismol and move your asses already?” Tayser told Robin and Fiona.  “C’mon, we gotta make tracks—”

 

“Uffa!  Have you pissed away the last little dribble of what’s left of your mind?”

 

“Don’t waste your mind or my time with bollocksy question!”

 

“(Here’s one,)” gnarled Fiona.  “(Ever heard of such a thing as ‘prior notice?’)”

 

“Schmior schnotice!” sneered Tayser.  “Ever heard of spontaneity??  Have you learned nothing from punk??”

 

“Not if you seriously expect us to pack up everything and truck it on down to some dump at the drop of your damnfool hat—use the fucking can, Lingerspiel!!

 

Ptooey,” went Epic Khack, not entirely into his gob-spittoon.

 

“Ooh, are those Vienna sausages?” asked Poon.

 

“Italian pork—my friend LeAnn’s dad imports them,” answered Space.

 

“Am I sensing a certain lack of appreciation here?” Tayser wanted to know.

 

“(If you smelt it, you dealt it!)” Feef exerted.

 

“‘Well the danger on the rocks is surely past,’” chorused PoonElly and Spacyjane, essaying a Steely Dan duet over the platter of Italian sausages.

 

“Oh that is IT, chickies!” Tayser notified the Sister Dopesters.  “Me ‘n’ Epic are outta this pit and outta this band!  Buncha pitiful doily-drapers, womb to tomb—Cramps!—where’s Cramps?—put your damn coat on, Cramps, we are splitting!

 

“Not now,” replied Ms. Aplenty, in mid-flirtation with Hahhhnsel Hitchens.

 

“‘So long hey thanks my friend / I guess I’ll try my luck again...’” chimed in the buffet duo.

 

Oh for shit’s sake!!—you there, you got a car?” to the just-arriving Zal Tergeist and his ten-o’clock shadow.  “Good!  Guess what: you won the New Year’s sweepstakes and get to drive us to Old Town!”

 

Exit Petula, Epic Khack and bewildered Zal.

 

“AAY LOOP-AAY!” Robin exploded over the rising crowdnoise.

 

Yeah?” from Vicki, holding a ladder steady while Joss hastily hung the last of the leftover black-and-orange Halloween streamers.

 

Loopy, you’re our manager again!”

 

“Hunh?

 

“So start booking gigs for Downbite, beginning tomorrow—just give us fair warning ahead of time!”

 

“Robin, I don’t know the first thing about punk rock!”

 

“Then it’s about time you learned!  Oh yeah, we’ll also need a new lead guitar—”

 

“Got that covered!” hollered Sheila Quirk as she swooped into the basement.  “Just like always, Robbo!  I told you, didn’t I, we never shoulda let this one get away—”

 

Cue the theme music from Jaws.

 

As a cucumber-cool redhead with a slightish build, sleepy eyes, and hatchet-honing smile surfaced alongside S-Q.

 

Yeesh!  It’s the Queen Bitch!

 

“Well hey,” Britt Groningen said by way of greeting.

 

You, hunh?” reacted her gracious hostess.  “Oughtn’t you to be mourning by your boyfriend’s sickbed, like Jill after Jack fell down and broke his crown?”

 

“Nothing to do with me,” disclaimed Britt.  “I don’t ‘go tumbling after,’  Just dropped by for some Auld Lang Syne, and maybe kiss a few fellows at midnight.”

 

(Hornyboy ears pricked up at this temptatious prospect.)

 

“You always bring your guitar to smooch sessions?” Robin growled as a chrome-plated Gibson SG with britt spelled out in mother-of-pearl letters was unpacked and strapped on.

 

“Forearmed is forewarned,” said Britt.  “Got an amp free?”

 

Vicki found Fiona at her elbow, both of them harking back to the summery day Feef hiked a whole mile-and-a-quarter to confess and confide that Britt scared her:

 

“Scares you—how?” Vicki’d asked.  ‘Cause she’s part of that Parnell gang?

 

“(No!  They’re just luded-out rich kids—and Britt’s not one of ‘em, not really.  She’s only fooling around...  I mean, it’s the way she looks—and the way she acts—she made Robin ‘n’ Sheila fight, not just argue but fight...  But without her, we wouldn’t have a band.  But we barely do have one, with her.  And she just... scares me.)”

 

Nor was Feef the only one.  All very well for Britt to renounce Flake Hasleman in his custody-coma; that hardly guaranteed she wouldn’t seek revenge of some sort for Vicki’s having consigned him there.  It’d be entirely typical for Britt to do so—even if every move she made still had a trifling, dallying, fooling-around patina to it.

 

Yet Feef needed Vicki for bolstering support, now as much as then—“(I don’t wanna be invisible.  See?  Or shoved aside.  This is my band; I’m supposed to sing lead; they’re supposed to do my songs.  Y’know?)—especially when PoonElly bounded up to ask Sugar Pop for the score of “Seventy-Seven Tromped Bones,” Downbite’s new elegy to the year just ending: “I want that Spacygal to sing backup on it.”

 

“(There goes my last nerve...)” Fiona mutter-moaned to Vicki.

 

“Go on and insist they do it your way—I’ll back you up,” Vicki tried to reassure her.

 

“(Don’t forget to duck,)” advised Feef.

 

In the meantime Buddy Marcellus had commandeered the cellar turntable, putting on The Who by Numbers so he and Junior Nygren could boogie to “Slip Kid.”  They had immediate dance-floor competition from Patrick Baxter and Susie Zane, whod been asked to come by Laurie who wasn’t up for partying but longed to hear all about it.  (Nonique, on the other hand, had politely declined Robin’s extraordinarily openminded secondhand invite: “Tell your Cocoa Krispie she can feel free to look in on us.”)

 

FLASSSHHHH went a paparazzo in Vicki’s face.

 

“Gahdammit, Sidney!!  Will you quit creeping up and jumping out at me like that!!”

 

“You’re welcome.  Be seeing ya,” said Split-Pea Erbsen, moving off to snap candids of the New Downbite prepping for their inaugural jam.

 

“Felicitations,” Joss super-told Vicki while sub-hee-hee-hee-ing at her.  “First Mrs. Mallouf’s substitute T.A, then regaining your manager’s tiara—what further splendors await you in 1978?”

 

“Oh shut up.  But really, doesn’t this year seem to have gone on forever and ever?”

 

“You shut up.  We’ve had ourselves a whaaaale of a time!”

 

Be convulsed by that, as per usual.

 

And as for the year ahead?

 

Let there be lights! camera! action!

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Return to Chapter 43                          Proceed to Chapter 45

 

 

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

 

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