Chapter 47

 

Another Music in a Different Kitchen

 

 

 

“Drop you a line

  Leads you to think

There’ll be something to learn—

  Messages in bottles

But all that you get

  Are tequila-soaked worms—

 

Bite off their heads

  In search of the words

That you’re sure you’ll find

  (Some magical words combined)

Sure you’ll find

  (Some secretive words entwined)

Sure you’ll find

  (Some way to unwind)

 

Not paper cuts

  From the envelope

That’s slicing your tongue

  As you lick it shuh-uh-uh-ut—

 

Why reply when you never received

  An RSVP you could ever believe in?

Just squirming wormheads

  You can’t ever return to sender

  Blank lines dropped in a dead letterrrr—

 

Last track on a cassette spinning in a player on the table in Villa Neapolitan’s poky little kitchen, so much smaller than the Villa basement or garage.  And not made any roomier by Robin’s drumsticks hammering away on her practice pad in time to the track, now reprising its chorus il più forte:

 

 

You can’t ever returrrrn to sender

Blank lines dropped in a DEAD LETTERRRR—

 

“Yeah!  Gotta admit, you ‘n’ Groningen sure came up with a bitchen tune!”

 

Bitchen like “Ditchen,” thought Fiona.  Composed in much the same manner, with staff paper hither-and-thithering between the Plexiglas Palace and Sunny Squash Court.

 

It was Britt who’d pushed for recording a Downbite demo tape—though not by Flake Hasleman, still out of commission at Cobbler Topping.  In his place she’d enlisted technosavvy Jasp Melcher from Multch Township to do the mix-and-match Memorex honors.  Competently, too: no complaints about the audio quality, other than PoonElly’s shrieking vocals, and even those got toned down on “Dead Letter.”  There, as during the Rosa Dartles’s heyday, Fiona’s throaty rasp took the lead in a ranting chant while Britt’s uncanny soprano danced around it, chiming in, chiming out, ringing penetrative changes all about.

 

Which, once again, gave Fiona a diabolic chill that had nothing to do with the February weather.

 

She’s only fattening us up so she’ll have more to scavenge.

 

Such as what?  Such as Cramps Aplenty, who’d hooked up after New Year’s with Charlie Hoarse of the Nodules, a band slightly more functional than Downbite.  Hoarse was not only a breakneck rhythm guitarist but had access to a Dodge Street Van, ideal for haulage of musical instruments (among other items—remember Krewel & Unusual Punishment’s dungeon-annex “Misery Machine”) though the van actually belonged to a girl called Shaggette, with whom Hoarse had some sort of intimate affiliation that hadn’t seemed to cramp Aplenty’s style.

 

So far, no sweat; but Fiona’s suspicions kept growing that Britt intended to purloin Cramps, Hoarse, and Shaggette’s van for her own group Smooch Smarks, dormant since Flake’s “accident” yet with a history of playing a lot more parties than Downbite’s two (both in Villa Neapolitan’s basement).

 

A month ago they’d all gone to see the Ramones and Runaways at the Avalon Ballroom.  Fiona’d been more uneasy about finally telling Robin about having seen the Ramones last summer in Huntington Beach, risking years of arm-socking reproach for doing this without her.  But it turned out Robin had gone solo to a Ramones show at the Ivanhoe right here in The City, three weeks prior to their Huntington Beach concert and featuring the Dictators to boot.

 

“(You never said a word about that!)”

 

“Why should I?  You were off cooling your skinny ass in La-La Land—and besides, you don’t even like the Ramones!”

 

“(I like their music—I just wish their lyrics weren’t so moronic!)”

 

“Not this again—”

 

“‘(Let’s all go run with scissors / Yes, all go run with scissors / We’re gonna run with scissors / All day long—)’”

 

“Give it a rest, Spooky!”

 

Which the Ramones hadn’t done at the Ballroom, blitzkrieging through surfadelic selections from Rocket to Russia.  As always, Fiona got spurred along by their faster!  louder!  brasher! performance, though only “Teenage Lobotomy” came halfway close to making a statement; otherwise, it was the usual waste of hardcore breath.  How did that song “I Don’t Care” go again?

 

 

I don’t care

I don’t care

I don’t care

I don’t care

I don’t care

I don’t care

 

(You said it, Joey.)

 

(Messages in bottles: but all that you get are tequila-soaked worms...)

 

As for the Runaways, live at last in the leather-studded flesh—Miss Feathershag and her bustier corset had long since quit, enabling Joan Jett to move forward and take her rightful place as lead vocalist.  She and the remaining Runaways had packed a lot of power-punch into their numbers, and experiencing an all-girl group’s rockin’ the house made waitin’ for this night worthwhile.  Yet apart from a few lines here and stray phrases there, they’d left Fiona unstirred in the lyrical sense.

 

(Bite off their heads in search of the words that you’re sure you’ll find: some magical words combined...)

 

More bothersome than the lack of Something To Say had been Britt’s introducing Jasp Melcher, who’d worn a smile even more hatchet-honing than her own.  Together they’d brought those grins to bear on Cramps and Hoarse and Shaggette at the Ballroom and afterward, with slithery Jasp giving particular attention to how Cramps got recorded playing the keyboard—though that was the least essential contribution to Downbite’s demo tape.  Noticeably less heed got paid to Fiona’s bass or Robin’s drums or Sheila-Q’s guitar or Poon’s off-key squalls.

 

And if that weren’t problematic enough, Tayser Pierro had spent the past six weeks swearing that she’d kicked everyone except Epic Khack out of Downbite, whose name/concept/raison d’être was “hers alone by right.”  Just last Wednesday in World History class she’d threatened to sic Rancid Ransom of the Oxidations on Robin and Fiona if they persisted in claiming to be Downbite—as though Robin would be fazed in the slightest by flaccid Rancid (“he can’t even tell a crash cymbal from a hi-hat!”) much less Tayser’s foolhardiness.

 

So far as Bunty O’Toole was concerned, Tayser didn’t register a blip on the menace meter; but that’d done the One and Only Genuine Original Downbite Band no good yesterday after school.  Robin and Fiona had driven to Panama Plaza, where renovation of the Vinyl Spinnaker (alias Spittlecure) into a new disco called La Bugaba was almost complete—as a venue for canned salsa music, not live punk.  No interest in listening to Downbite’s demo tape, whose quality got derided unheard by Bootleg McGillah: “That little squelch Melcher does his recording with two soup cans and a string!  Even punk deserves better’n that.”

 

“Forget it,” Bunty’d told them.  “Disco’s the cash cow here.  It’s gonna get milked dry, then put out to slaughter.  There’s no money in punk.”  Then, focusing falconishly on the Sister Dopesters: “Tell me what’s going on with that Harelip girl.”

 

After testifying that Laurie Harrison showed every indication of maintaining docile bunnyhood, they’d been dismissed from La Bugaba and exited to the sound of “Salsoul Rainbow” being redubbed by Bootleg from the authorized LP.

 

Bringing us back to this frigid present-day Saturday in the Villa kitchen above the Villa cellar—which could end up as Downbite’s sole locale and final resting place.

 

Vicki Volester’d apologetically bowed out as manager after a few futile inquiries whether anyone at VTHS was willing to book an all-girl punk band for any event, social or otherwise.  No dice: “punk” was simply not a selling point in the suburbs.  It’d been easier to market the Rosa Dartles as a Pop Rocks novelty act.  Britt might be able and even willing to book them someplace, but that would mean surrendering to the Smooch Smarks and probable oblivion.  Ditto trying to patch things up with Tayser, who’d never secured them a gig (if you didn’t count that sprung-out-of-nowhere spot in Old Town on New Year’s Eve).

 

So that left only the AnaRCHonda Pit, opportunely approachable via Cobwebs & Strange, whose management was involved with the Pit’s and where Fiona had longtime connections.  Since Robin refused to park her Sweet Babboo anywhere near its dodgy downtown vicinity, they were waiting for PoonElly to pick them up—

 

—which she did not in Le Heap but The Last of the DeSotos, a ’61 hardtop driven by a Weimar cabaret schlagersänger with a Bay of Piggies overlay: Amadeo Camara aka I.M.A. Camera, lead singer of Lepperzee and composer of “Totenrumbatanz.”
 
 

Who comes to sucka sucka suck

  A dead vulture’s bones?

Who comes to plucka plucka pluck

  A sepulcher’s stones?

Who comes to chucka chuckle at

  A doomed skulker’s groans?

Toten-a-rumba-

Toten-a-rumba-

Toten-a-rumba-

  TANNNNZ!!

 

—warbled Cam à la Desi Arnaz (as impersonated by Joel Grey) while PoonElly boom-chicka-boomed an accompaniment from the shotgun seat.

 

“Todeswunsch,” growled Robin the German student in the backseat.  “Smooth ride,” she added as the car clunked over a pothole.

 

“‘It’s dee-lightful, it’s dee-lovely, it’s Dee-Soto,” Cam sang.

 

“(Todes-swish,)” mumbled Robin.

 

“(Be cool,)” Fiona told her, somewhat gratuitously given the wintry temperature and obsolete heating system, yet encouraged by the potent joint they were trading back and forth.  Its effect on Robin was diluted when Cam parked behind Halfsie’s, a gay bar at 5050 West Sussex Street, and by Cam and Poon’s oompahpah-ing
 

 

Don’t be afraid to go whole HOGGGG

When you’re porkin’ out with meeeeeee!

 

as they skipped arm-in-arm up the icy Sussex sidewalk to Crawley Avenue.

 

“Uffa!  This better be worth putting me through this,” gnarled Robin as she lagged behind, reducing the doob to the meagerest-possible roach for Fiona to finish off.

 

“You two still puffing that hippieweed?” Cam wanted to know.

 

“Aah, go peddle your blow to some other sucker!”

 

“No blow—what you want to do is dip a white rose into a blend of ether and chloroform, then lick its petals clean.”

 

“OH!  GROSS!

 

“Good for what ails ya!” giggled Poon.

 

“Where do you find those people?” Robin asked Fiona.

 

“(Well, it wasn’t in a basket on the doorstep,)” Fiona told Robin as they headed up Crawley to Cobwebs & Strange Records & Tapes.

 

Squeeze through its door past an obstructive wooden counter, against which many a music-lover’s limb had collided.  Enter a rectangular tunnel like a horizontal mineshaft, packed deep and high with bins and racks and shelves and cases filled to the spillable brim with auditory media new and old, plus posters and songbooks and magazines and concert tickets and headshop gear and a tortoiseshell cat called Demolisher, known to cause merchandise avalanches while inflicting further damage to music-lovers’s limbs.

 

This emporium was the brainchild of Monte Secchi, a fervent devotee of the Who in general and Keith Moon in particular.  He was a master of catalog knowhow and networking with distributors, indefatigable at ferreting out rarities in every genre and format—including a broken drumstick obtained from Moon the Loon himself.  Framed on blue velvet, it always received a reverent gaze from Robin when she visited C&S.

 

This Saturday, however, she cut short her genuflection to go buttonhole Monte, backed up by I.M.A. Camera who might not be Robin’s beau ideal but had played the Pit multiple times with Lepperzee.  He was also much more adept at the unpunklike mending of fences, necessary here since Monte Secchi (like so many others) had gotten cheesed off by Tayser Pierro’s importunements on Downbite’s behalf.

 

While Robin and Cam made their conciliatory pitch in Monte’s office, Fiona and PoonElly chatted with two other C&S staffers.  Lionel “Wrecks” Humberg was said to have inhabited the same pair of bib overalls (let out at intervals by his mother) since attending Triville High School, though he’d don an extra-large old-fashioned bathing suit for performance-art “happenings” as the Creature of Pfenniger Lagoon.  A man-mountain for all seasons, Wrecks had slashed a swath through Carbondale remarkable even for that party school, fronting a Stoogeslike band called the Flaming Humbugs and getting fired from a variety of radio stations, before assuming his present posts as C&S counterman and DJ at the AnaRCHonda Pit.

 

“Just in from England—the Desperate Bicycles!” he told Feef and Poon, placing a 7-inch single on the store turntable.  “Complete do-it-yourself band—did their own low-end recording—released on their own make-do label—‘cut it, press it, distribute it / Xerox music’s here at last!’—‘It was easy, it was cheap—go and do it!’  Practical-assed advice, if you ask me.”  (Lengthy schlurrrpp from a mug of steaming hot liquid that was not coffee, tea, or Ovaltine but some concoction of his own brew—“lagoon juice,” he called it—drawn from an oversized thermos jug that, like Wrecks, had a bald dome with wild side-tufts of yarn-thick hair.)  “Skip performing—go di-rect to self-produced vinyl!”

 

“Nooooooo!  Ignore him and his spacklety-ass!” cried Sylvia Doad, who kept the C&S books and swept the C&S floor when she wasn’t tending bar at the AnaRCHonda Pit.  “Doad of Doad Hall (short for Dodecahedron)” was what Nancy Sykeman or Ginger Snowbedeck might evolve into by the age of twenty-eight, after an additional decade of partyharding—“not a wink of sleep since kindergarten naptime, and not even then!”  She still managed to be a very attractive woman despite her raunchy honking laugh and Goon Island social skills, which PoonElly found admirable and patternworthy.

 

“You’re a ‘do-it-live-or-leave-it-dead’ kinda gal, arntcha?” Poon asked.

 

“Better believe it!” said Sylvia.  “Stick your fingers in your ears around Wreckso there” [honk] “when he gets started on viiii-nyl!  I might work in this store but I only listen to that stuff under protest” [honk] “‘cause it ain’t true music if it ain’t played live!  The stuff in those bins” [sweeping gesture that toppled a Jazz Fusion placard and made Demolisher yowl] “are just echoes, y’know?  Chains rattled by long-gone-ago ghosts!

 

“Long-gone-a-go-go,” emended Wrecks, downing another quaff of lagoon juice.

 

“You keep out of this!  Go-go ring up some customers” [honk] “and stuff a sock in them too!”—meaning the Buzzcocks, whose new single “What Do I Get?” was now being spun.

 

“They released their first EP on their own label,” Wrecks pointed out.

 

“My point pre-zack-ly!” trumped smug Sylvia.  “You girls, stick to your guns” [honk] “and hold tight to your dreams—UNdiluted!  Don’t let ‘em talk you into watering ‘em down!  Serve your music straight from the bottle—in fact, forget the bottle” [honk] “and slosh it right out of the barrel!  In fact, forget the barrel—”

 

“(We already taped a demo,)” Fiona mutter-intervened before Sylvia could sweep away any other paraphernalia.  “(Robin’s in there trying to talk Monte into hearing it.)”

 

“Ohhhhhhh, girrrrrrrls,” Sylvia sorrowfully reproached.  “You’re ‘burbing out before taking your first baby City steps!”  Withdrawing into the C&W stockroom, she protruded her streaky dye job long enough to add “I can only hope ‘n’ pray you guys play the Pit just once LIVE before you break up!”

 

“Your words to Monte’s ears,” PoonElly amen’d.  “Hey Wrecks!  Whyncha put on Rocket to Russia?  Fifibelle here—”

 

“(—do not call me that—)”

 

“—s’just perishing to go hit the beach with her ears!”

 

“Sorry, surf fans—it’s the top o’ the hour,” Wrecks announced.  “Time for a couple o’ umlauts—Blue Öyster Cult and Motörhead!”  Onto the turntable and out through the P.A. went Spectres:
 
 

Ohhhh no!  There goes To-ky-o!

Go Go Godzilla—yeah-h-h-h!

 

“SHUDDUP!” from Sylvia in backstock.

 

“Sez you!” reacted Robin, emerging from Monte Secchi’s sanctum and jigging a bit to the BÖC rhythm.  Cam followed with a slo-mo stomp across an imaginary Japanese skyline, as if the King of Monsters was doing a goosestep cakewalk to Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome!

 

“He’ll think about it,” Cam declared.

 

“I’m telling this,” went Robin.  “He didn’t hate the tape—”

 

“—loved the last track—”

 

“—will you butt your butt out?—and might give us a shot if they go ahead and have an all-ages night instead of all-fake-IDs.  Maybe in the spring.”

 

“‘Younnnnger than sprinnnng-time arrrrrrre usssssss!” hollered PoonElly, causing a landslide of paperbacks as Demolisher sprang off their shelf.

 

“‘Gayyyyer than laughhhh-ter arrrrrrre usssssss!” responded Cam.

 

“Speak for yourself!” scowled Robin.  “Let’s just say ‘springtime.’”

 

“If the Pit lasts that long,” interjected Wrecks after another quaff.

 

“(What?)” went Fiona.  “(Why shouldn’t it?)”

 

“Oh, y’know—the cops—The City—”

 

“And the mob,” Sylvia’s head re-protruded.  “We don’t make enough moolah” [honk] “to pay them protection.”

 

“‘Let them rise up, and help you, AND be your protection!’” intoned Cam as he helped gather the fallen paperbacks.

 

“BE that as it may,” said Robin, “what we better hold tight to is Groningen.  I say let her have Plenty—we can do without a keyboard—and Hoarse and Shaggette and even the van.  But we’ll need her voice and Gibson axe, no two ways about it.”

 

Proving there was such a thing as a sinking premonition as Fiona flipped idly through the C&S import bins.  Downbite’s future prospects are down and that bites.  Plus Poon would be sure to sense her melancholy, and again push her to share the Thorazine first prescribed after Poon’s “bad date” with Hayzoose the Horrible.  Once more, no thanks—my life has been sufficiently fucked over by pharmaceuticals.

 

Wrench your brain away from such blue devils and Motörhead’s “White Line Fever,” now blasting muddily overhead.  Reattach it to the anthem you wrote for Vicki Volester’s Sweet Sixteen: filling your mind with twin beams of black starlight shining through the bluesy gloom.  Accented by a lead-in trumpet voluntary (Joss could approximate it on her cornet) more New Wave than gutterpunk, yet still kickass in tempo, key and mood:

 

 

We’re all in a rush just to get in the mix

  Ev’rybody hopping, all the cats and chicks

  Ev’rybody bopping as they take their licks

We’re not even slowing down to flick our Bics

  But if we waited long enough to pick up sticks

  We’d realize what all along has made us click—

      Ittttttt’s

      Clicking with clicking with

      Clicking with clicking with

      Clicking with clicking with Vixteen!

 

OH!  Clicks—clicks—clicks—

      Ittttttt’s
      Clicking with Vixteen!

Whoa-OH-oh!  Treats—no—tricks—

      Ittttttt’s

      Clicking with Vixteen!...


*

 

Pre-zack-ly six hours later (as Sylvia Doad would phrase it) Vicki the not-quite-birthday girl was again seated in Avery Loderhauser’s Mustang Boss.  Not being driven to the Valentine Turnabout, nor to join Robin (griping nonstop to Arlo Sowell about I.M.A. Camera) at the Red Devil Bowl; but for a Saturday night out at the Holdahl Dinner Theater on Maine Street.

 

They feed you and put on a play.  So Roger Mustardman had described the place two years earlier, though he hadn’t actually taken Vicki there to see Mimi McLaine in The Kissing Bug.  Roger’d redirected them to Il Sacchetto in Willowhelm... and Vicki didn’t want to reminisce any further about what had happened there.

 

Concentrate instead on this evening, when Avery’s older sister Fran would be stepping up from understudy to featured role in Ready for Teddies, advertised as a “naughty farce.”

 

“I’ve got an Aunt Fran, short for Francesca but we all call her Fritzi, she used to have a dance studio upstairs from a dinner playhouse!” Vicki’d gushed when Avery’d proposed they go to the Holdahl.  She hadnt shared how her tied-for-third-best-friend’s mother was almost a ringer for Fritzi (despite Mrs. Smith’s being brownskinned rather than olivaceous) but did ask Avery a series of not-too-nosy questions:

 

Had Fran Loderhauser gone to VTHS too?  (Yeah.)  How long ago?  (Five years.)  Was she an actress then, with the Footlighters?  (Tried.)  And, um, in college?  (Dropped out, but keeps trying.)  Will, um, your parents be going to see her play a featured role on Saturday?  (No.)  Oh.  Um.  ‘Kay...  (Grunt of acknowledgment.)

 

The Holdahl district, like Vanderlund Township High School, occupied acreage once used for growing onions.  In fact it was Dastardly Dan Holdahl who’d sought to win over the Widow Grooters and combine their farms, spurning the Board of Education’s buyout offer.  Dan’s scheme had been foiled (curses!) yet the neighborhood bearing his name retained a defiant independence from uptown Vanderlund, fostering its own small businesses and entertainments—including this dinner theater on Maine Street, wedged between the Benelux Café and Suzi’s Suede & Leather Cleaning Service.

 

You can always tell a Holdahlite by their lederhosen and wooden shoes.

 

Vicki shoved Roger Mustardman’s ghost/memory back into her subconscious as Avery led her inside a facsimile of a turn-of-the-century honky-tonk, complete with rollicking Scott Joplin syncopations.  A tall teenaged hostess wearing a long slinky frock and a long sulky face regarded them inhospitably.

 

“Well!” she went.  “So you didn’t go to the Turnabout.”

 

“Never said I would,” Bomber replied.

 

“It’s not like I asked,” sniffed the hostess, rolling a long disdainful eye up and down Vicki.

 

“Fran’s on tonight.  Last I heard.”

 

“I know that!  And she will be—after she does her Kazoochie duty.”

 

“Gonna seat us, Ceese?”

 

“Beany’s at the Turnabout, y’know.  With Gootch.

 

“She can do better.  We’ll seat ourselves—”

 

Wait” yelped Mamie Gatto, named after Mrs. Eisenhower but called “Ceese” after Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent because she’d been Bianca (“Beany”) Panucci’s best friend since infancy.  Not only had Mamie’s going to the Turnabout been pre-empted by tonight’s shift on the hostess desk, but she’d expected to inherit Avery’s affections after his forced breakup with Bianca—or for sure when Roz Kuhn ran off to Germany.  Both times Bomber’d declined to make Mamie his amorous heiress, so she’d sworn never to forgive him till the day either of them died.  Yet she needed this job at the Holdahl (her family not being nearly as wealthy as the Panuccis) so she hastened to conduct Faithless Avery and His Skank Of A Jailbait Escort Girl to a table in the back row.

 

“Enjoy yourselves,” Ceese seethed before returning to her podium.

 

“Sorry about that,” Avery told Vicki as he singlehandedly helped her off with her overcoat.

 

“Oh no it’s fine,” breathed Vicki as she tried to decelerate her heartbeat.  (This guy is so smooth about removing women’s clothes—and using only one hand, too!)

 

“Wouldn’t call this the Ritz,” he said, gazing with a critical set designer’s eye at the tiers of ersatz fin-de-siècle chairs and tables.  The latter grew larger (two- to four- to six-seat) as they advanced toward the empty stage, looking like they’d been equipped with hand-me-downs from the Benelux Café and upholstered by donations by Suzi’s Suede & Leather Cleaning.

 

“Well, I still got to ‘doll up,’” she told him, using Avery’s own words from when he’d rejected bowling as a Saturday-night first-date activity.  “You’ll want to doll up,” he’d stated with question-markless certainty, “even if you can’t dance.”  And Vicki did happen to have gone to the Della Verita Boutique and bought what incorrigible Joss had promptly dubbed “your sexy purple dress”—the upper half of which was now on winsome display and being eyed sidelong by Avery.

 

Feel free to make an admiring (yet gentlemanly) remark.

 

“You’ll do,” he told her.

 

Avery himself was comparatively dolled up in a corduroy blazer over a ribbed turtleneck, with no baseball cap for the most extended time since Vicki’d first met him.  His hair was shorter than the late-‘70s norm, and—unlike, say, Brad Faussett’s coif—had probably never felt the whoosh of a blowdryer.  Under the Holdahl’s fluorescent lights, he looked like a full-fledged man of the world.

 

“So will you,” Vicki boldly told him.  “Do, I mean.”

 

His half-hooded glance left her and resumed roaming around the theater, maybe in search of his sister.  Vicki knew Fran was a Kazoochie, one of the Holdahl’s singing waitstaff, and wondered if she’d be serving them drinks and dessert before changing for her featured role in the “naughty farce”; but a young man who might’ve been a Yankee cousin of that flirty waiter in Fort Lauderdale bustled up instead.  In keeping with the oldtime motif, he sported a derby hat and sleeve garters and sang a barbershop-tenor welcome as he took their beverage orders.  Then, dialing down the tenor to an unmelodic whisper, he said “(Hey, Bomber.)”

 

“(How’s she doing, Tuck?)”

 

“(Nervous as hell, but we’re all rooting for her”)—cocking his derby at the lowest tier, where a waitress was doing her own choral something-from-the-bar? solicitation.

 

Vicki strained eyes and ears to catch a better glimpse of Avery’s sister and hear how well she could sing about beer-wine-or-pop, but couldn’t do either in the growing hubbub.  Why didn’t Fran come greet them (or at least Avery) even if they weren’t at one of her assigned tables?  Come to think of it, why weren’t Mr. and Mrs. Loderhauser here tonight for Fran’s featured role?  Because she’d be in a “naughty farce”?  Vicki hadn’t ascertained much about the family, aside from their living on Bedeguar Way.  Jenna’d heard the mother had once been a commercial illustrator and the father was a scientist or engineer of some sort, but knew no other specifics.

 

At 6:30 the buffet opened and Vicki preceded Avery through the line, wondering whether he’d let her go first out of gallantry or to check out the seat of her sexy purple dress (redden tingle blush) as they took selections from what the menu described as

 

 

Tossed Greens with Cherry Tomatoes,
Bacon Bits and Shoestring Beets
 

 

Boneless Breast of Chicken
à la Chiquita
 

Choice Round of Beef Bordelaise
with Fresh Woodland Mushrooms
 

 

Sauteed Cherry Tomatoes
and Snow Peas in Lemon Butter
 

French Fried Country Fresh Zucchini
Oven Roast Potatoes
 

 

Prepared in Our Own Kitchen Especially for You

 

Vicki ranked cherry tomatoes only slighly above cooked carrots on her gag-reflex index, so avoided them in both her salad and veggie helpings.  The chicken breast didn’t appear to have any banana garnishment, but Vicki played it safe by choosing the beef.  Avery loaded both his plates with an indiscriminate scoop, saying he was “in training.”

 

“Me too, for track,” Vicki volunteered, which led to some topical dinner conversation.  Avery was surprisingly well-informed about girls’s sports at VTHS: he knew the Grigster—Ms. Grigoryan, the track coach—as well as team captain Louisa Lang and Helen “Hurdles” Hendon, who’d set NESTL(é) records last season in the 80- and 110-yard events.  Vicki was a big fan of Hurdles and aspired to run such events herself, but it was a tad irksome to hear Bomber speak so favorably of her exploits.

 

I’ll make you talk that way about me and mine, Mister, just as soon as I set foot on that cindertrack.

 

She was further irritated by the smell of the beef Bordelaise, the taste of the French fried zucchini, and the incessant sound of ragtime on the Holdahl’s speakers—as if to underscore that this was a passé dinner theater, not a trendy disco.

 

The arrival of cinnamon-apple fritters for dessert perked her up, though, as did their being served by handsome Tuck who warble-offered to pour Vicki an afterdinner cup of coffee—Vicki’s very first in a certifiable social setting.

 

“Um sure,” she agreed, despite a lifelong dislike of hot beverages.

 

“Need an ice cube?” Avery inquired as she took tiny cautious sips after extensive blowing on each one.

 

“No thank you, this is fine,” Vicki tried to reply with mature dignity, halting midway to lick singed lips.  Which sparked another eye-flicker from across the table, plus a widening of Avery’s lips in what many observers might’ve interpreted as a smile.

 

Then the ragtime faded out and a plum-pudding voice georgie-porgied in, urging all the happy well-fed Holdahl patrons to sit back, relax, and give a warm hand to their own—their very very own—Amazing Kazoochie Troupe!

 

Tuck and seven other waitstaffers pranced onstage, bringing a banjo, a mandolin, a tambourine, an accordion, and four kazoos as they went into an enthusiastic Oh we’re the kids of the chorus / We hope you’ll love our show / We know you’re rooting for us / So tip us big after we go! routine.  The female Kazoochies were costumed as frontier dancehall chippies, showing plenty of petticoats and fishnet hosiery.  From where Vicki sat, one chippy looked very much like Marlo Thomas (minus the ‘60s flip) in the opening sequence of a That Girl episode: you anticipated her pulling a wacky pratfall as someone uttered the two-word title and an orchestra struck up the diamonds/daisies/snowflakes theme song.

 

But the smile, smile, smile on her lovely Marlo face froze, froze, froze when her false Marlo lashes swung toward and were arrested by Avery’s half-hooded glare.

 

Yet she didn’t miss a step or a syllable or a toot on her kazoo.

 

The Amazing Troupe pranced off to generous applause, and the curtain rose for the first act of Ready for Teddies—after a plum-pudding announcement that the role of Lacy Frill would be portrayed that evening by Kazoochie Fran.

 

Tremendous ovation—not for Fran, but the appearance of Bert Wilbur as Teddy Teddesley.  He’d starred for six seasons in the sitcom Cooking at Crumble’s, which aired opposite to That Girl a decade ago.  Its premise had Bert plotting to become a master chef in a haute cuisine restaurant, but relegated to short-order fry-ups at Crumble’s Diner “on the far side of nowhere.”  Even worse, this diner was owned by Bert’s harridan mother (played by Edna Etching, here tonight as Teddy’s landlady) who scared away all the women Bert tried to woo.  One of his catchphrases was a mumbled “You old battle-axe,” prefatory to a louder “I’m practing my sax” or “I’m working on the tax” or “I’m giving it a few whacks” (pounding a tough steak) when Ma went “What was that, Ber-tram?”

 

Like other shows of its era, Cooking at Crumble’s got swamped by the Norman Lear revolution; its typecast actors forsook TV for summer stock, touring companies—and dinner theaters.  There’d been a hushed-up scandal concerning Bert Wilbur and a much-younger starlet or two, rumors of which did nothing to boost his career.  Yet he was a sentimental favorite in The Cityland, having hosted the local early-‘50s kiddie show Uncle Bertie and Friends with animal handpuppets as his co-stars.  And he was an accomplished funnyman, the kind who could get a big laugh just by turning his head or pausing for thought.  Yet Bert excelled most at “broad” comedy, broader now than on Crumble’s when he’d been merely chubby as opposed to frankly fat, and only suspected of wearing a rug instead of this being overly obvious.

 

Subtle humor wasn’t a requisite for staging Ready for Teddies; schticky slapstick and risqué quips were, and those Bert Wilbur could roll out by the barrelful.  Fat or not, he pulled off several split-second exits and entrances and one spectacular tumble over a bedstead, adlibbing “Lucky thing I keep a spare mattress back there.”  He and Edna Etching brought down the house with an exchange—“You old battle-axe” / “What was that, Mis-ter Teddesley?” / “I’m hemming up these slacks”—that was not in the original script.

 

During the first intermission Tuck and six other Kazoochies (but not Fran, who hadn’t yet appeared as Lacy) hawked cocktails.  Though Vicki didn’t plan to order one, she took the opportunity to visit the washroom and dispose of previous drinks.  Upon her return, she overheard some terse dialogue between Avery and Tuck:

 

“(Any sign of him?)”

 

“(Not a trace.)”

 

“(Even in the dressing room?)”

 

“(Hardly big enough for her.)”

 

Tuck continued on his rounds, leaving Avery to answer Vicki’s “Um... should I be helping to look for somebody?”

 

“No.  Got you another pop.”  Then: “(If you spot a guy who looks like a human rat, let me know.)”

 

“(A human...?)”

 

“(Rat.  You’ll know him if you see him.  Believe me.)”

 

Vicki did, and started scanning the tiers for such a creature; but soon the lights dimmed for Act II—or, since this certainly wasn’t Shakespeare, the Next Act.  Lacy Frill made her debut almost immediately and altogether conspicuously, clad in a lurid pink teddy with gartered black stockings and stiletto pumps.  Truth to tell, this getup was no more revealing than Fran’s Kazoochie outfit; yet underwear was underwear, and Vicki wasn’t at all sure Avery ought to behold his own sister garbed that way.  She definitely wouldn’t want Goofus feasting his peepers at her wearing only lingerie!

 

Avery didn’t seem bothered or bawdified by the sight; he clapped hard for Fran and didn’t glower when whoops rose from other tables.  (Semi-decorous whoops: this was a family dinner theater.)  And Fran acquitted herself fairly well in her featured role as a ditzy neighbor seeking shelter in Teddy Teddesley’s apartment, having been locked out of her own.  The “naughty farce” grew more manic, its identities more mistaken, its entendres reduplicated; yet Fran kept steady pace with Bert and Edna and the rest of the cast, while avoiding overspillage out of her intimate apparel.

 

In the end Teddy was left sitting on his heavily-crisscrossed divan, alone except for a small stuffed bear which the delighted audience recognized as Shoo-in Bruin from Uncle Bertie and Friends.  “I think I’m ready for beddy; what do you think?”  “I’m ready if you are!”  “Say beddy-bye to all the kiddies, Shoo-in.”  “Beddy-bye, all you kids!”

 

Blackout and curtain calls.

 

Bert, Shoo-in, and Edna Etching remained onstage to chat with fans and sign autographs while Fran and the other actors beat a quick exeunt.  Avery jumped up from the table and off the back row, striding down the tiers to a side door marked staff only; one of the Kazoochies opened it for him—and Vicki, hurrying at his heels.  Were they about to confront the human rat?  In a narrow passage leading to the Holdahl kitchen, where sudsy dishwashers could be seen plying their trade—not to the sound of Scott Joplin but Con Funk Shun?

 

  Give me your hand and we’ll have ffun, ffun, ffun...

 

Partway down this constricted corridor, Avery stopped and knocked resolutely on the wall beside a draped-off alcove.

 

“Who is it?”

 

“Me!”

 

Silence, other than You are my one and only under the sun from the kitchen.

 

Then Fran, wrapped in a kimono and with false eyelashes still attached, slid the dressing alcove’s drape aside.

 

“...hey, Bom.  How’d I do?”

 

“Not bad.”  (Her head, darting forward, planted a peck on his cheek.)  “In the play.”  (Her head retracted, like a tortoise’s into its shell.)  “So where’s the Tamb-ass?”

 

“Please don’t call him that.”

 

“He’s a Tamb-ass—what else should I call him?”

 

“His name—Remo Tamburello.”

 

“So where’s ‘Remo Tamburello’ tonight?”

 

“Not here.  I don’t know where he is.”

 

“Couldn’t be bothered to see your debut?”

 

“That’s not fair!  I only found out myself yesterday I’d be going on ‘cause that bitch Donna got a shampoo commercial and kept it secret just to mess with me so I had to stay up all night rehearsing so I could play the part without puking my brains out or—or—or ‘taking’ anything which I didn’t do and how’d you find out about it anyway? was it Tuck who told you? I bet it was Tuck I’m gonna kill him I didn’t want you to watch me flop which I didn’t do either Jesus Bom! can’t you quit being judgmental long enough to be a little supportive? I don’t know where Remo is an’ I did keep it together an’ I think I came off really kind of pretty well—”

 

All this in the mile-a-minute husky squeak she’d used as Lacy Frill.  But far less ditzily than desolate, and concluding with her Marlo face pressed into Avery’s corduroy shoulder while his corduroy sleeves went around her shuddering kimono.

 

“Okay, Frannie... okay now... take it easy...”

 

“I thought you did great!” Vicki couldn’t help but exclaim.

 

Four Loderhauser eyes swiveled over.  Avery’s seemed startled to see her, very briefly, before their half-hoods descended; Fran’s gaped with astonishment, one of them missing its set of false lashes.

 

“I’m, um, Vicki—Bomber’s date.  You were the best one in the whole show!”

 

Which was a lie but white as snow, told in hopes of pacifying Fran and restoring some of her Kazoochieness—like offering a nice hot bite of cinnamon-apple fritter.

 

Oh Lawd please don’t let me be misunderstood implored Santa Esmeralda over the dishwashers’s radio.

 

Then came hints of brightening as Fran twittered “Thanks” to Vicki and “Whuh?” to Avery, retrieving her stray lashes from his turtleneck.  He appeared to verge on saying a few words of his own, to Fran or Vicki or both—

 

—but a pong of sweat and plume of smoke filled the passage as Bert Wilbur joined them, towel around his neck and cigarette between his teeth regardless of all the No Smoking signs.

 

“Heighdy-ho, Frannie!” ventriloquized Shoo-in Bruin at the end of a corpulent arm.  “We sure could use an extra hand here—” as most of Uncle Bertie vanished behind an alcove-drape on which an honest-to-God felt star was pinned.  Shoo-in peeked out long enough to bestow a parting beckoning.

 

“Gotta go,” said Fran.  Giving Avery’s cheek another peck and Vicki’s elbow a fleeting squeeze as her kimono brushed past them and wriggled around the star-struck drape.

 

Avery stood there in the passage, as coldly immobile as the aluminum statue he’d reputedly sculpted of Rosalind Kuhn.

 

Then he took a weighty mechanical step toward the pinned felt star before Tuck burst out of the kitchen to hiss “(No, Bomber!)” and seize him by the shoulder against which Fran’s head had just been pillowed.  Seize and haul him away through the scullery where Bill Withers was sustaining the long last note of “Lovely Day,” while dishwashers awarded Vicki some not-so-decorous whoops as she hitched up her sexy purple dress and sprinted past the sinks.

 

Getting in shape for track season...

 

*

 

Seated again inside Bomber’s Boss, Vicki hunkered down within her inadequate overcoat as the thermometers outside neared zero.  The atmosphere around Avery wasn’t much balmier; he hadn’t even put on his coat, just pitched it in the back and sat gripping the wheel with gloveless hands as the Mustang engine idled.

 

Vicki was suddenly reminded of Dave Solovay’s coldweather attire—a skimpy sweatsuit with the hood off, thin socks and ordinary racing flats.  Packed a lot of body heat wearing that, though.  Not that he’d had much else in common with Avery, other than an ave in both their names.

 

Brave, crave, fave, knave, rave, save, shave, wave—

 

“(...never thought anybody could be worse than Tamb-ass...)”

 

A mutter barely audible over the engine-idling and heater-clatter, but caught by Vicki whose ears were accustomed to Fiona Weller’s speech pattern.

 

“Is that Tamb guy her boyfriend?”

 

An almost imperceptible jolt—nowhere near a j-o-l-t—as if he’d forgotten her presence; followed by another sidelong glance, this time as if to gauge her mettle.  Then:

 

“No.  He’s her pusher.”

 

Blink by Vicki.  “Her...?  Oh.”

 

“Done everything I can to scare him off, short of narking him out.  ‘Cause she’d get narked worse, him being a rat bastard who’d sell her the hell out.”

 

Blink.  “That’s awful!  Couldn’t your folks...?”

 

Slow shake of uncapped head.  “The old man’s a drunk—all he can do to stay on the wagon and keep his job.  The old lady gambles—good at blackjack, blows most of it on the ponies.  When Fran turned eighteen they said ‘You’re on your own, kid’ and cut her loose.  Then that Tamb-ass got his rat-bastard claws into her.”

 

Blink.  Blink.  “She has you, though.  You were there for her tonight.”

 

He let out a breath, let out the brake, and backed the Boss onto Maine Street.  “That’s a brother’s job, to look after his sister—”

 

“—not just now but always.  Yeah, you told my kid brother.  He might even have listened to you.”

 

“So might Frannie—to you.”  (Another transitory sidelong flicker.)  “That was nice, what you said to her.  She needed to hear something like that.”

 

“Well, she really was pretty and funny and, y’know, musical.  I may only be a Stage Crew apprentice, but I know what I like watching a show.”

 

“She didn’t do too bad—in the play.  But then—”

 

“Now don’t get all uptight again.  You should’ve put on your coat—here, let me—”  Twisting around, fishing it out, arranging it over as much of him as she could reach without impeding his piloting them down Panama Boulevard.

 

Grunt of presumable thanks.

 

“...I really did have a good time tonight.”

 

(Snort)  “You know you druther gone dancing.”

 

“Well... there’ll be other dances.”

 

Avery tapped the tape deck, and Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra came on.  Over its mystic pulsations he asked, “When do you get your license?”

 

“My...?  Oh!  I’m turning sixteen on the 1st,” said Vicki, who’d been hoping for a chance to let him know this.  “My friends ‘n’ me’ll be taking the driver’s ed course this spring.”

 

“How’d you like some lessons before then?”

 

“From you?  You’d let me try driving this car?”—as it glided choreographically off Panama and onto Lesser.

 

“Well, maybe not at night.  But yeah, I think you’re good to go.”

 

There’s other things we can do in a car in the dark.

 

Such as an unexpected demonstration, once parked inside the Burrow Lane cul-de-sac, of what it was like to be kissed on the lips by a man of the world to the sound of ambient krautrock on the night of the Valentine Turnabout.

 

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Return to Chapter 46                          Proceed to Chapter 48

 

 

A Split Infinitive Production
Copyright © 2024 by P. S. Ehrlich

 

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