Crown Thy Good
On May 21st Tricia didn’t actually say “How could you let this happen?” when she spoke to Vicki over the phone. But her tone left no doubt about who was to blame for Christopher Blaine Volester’s having been born that day.
Vicki would never come wholly out of mourning for Julie the unfallen Raindrop, who’d apparently sacrificed her existence so This Boy might live. Which seemed to thrill the rest of the family—not least Diamond Joel Schmelz, father of two girls and grandfather of two others, the younger of whom he was looking after while Daddy and Gran went to collect Mommy and This Boy from the hospital.
“A grandson named ‘Christopher’ yet,” said Diamond Joel. “It’s Boychik I’ll be calling him, the first boy born to a Schmelz since me myself and I.”
“But Dime...” said Vicki.
“Aren’t chicks sposda be girls?”
“Now there you are telling the truth, partly. Some chicks (the best ones) are, as you say, girls. Then there are chicks that run around clucking and squawking like they don’t know where their heads are at. No, pardon me, I am mistaken; those are the little girls—”
“—all right, the not so little girls. Then there are other chicks that grow up to nourish us, after they get roasted or boiled or turned into chopped liver. And now we have coming here in just a few minutes your brand-new brother, who will be called Boychik for reasons I explained before. So you see, Dillydoll, one sort of word can mean all sorts of things if you’re clever. Just as a Dime can be your old grandpa as well as this bright shiny coin I produce thusly—”
One from Vicki’s left ear, another from her right, and a third from within her diminutive nose. She did some cautious probing to see if more dimes could be found, while her grandfather demonstrated pitch and toss and call the turn: “Kopf oder Zahl, Dillydoll? Everything’s gold at Diamond Joel’s!”
Vicki plucked her finger out of her nostril and beamed with pride.
She would never forget the first time she saw Dime say that. She’d been watching a silly movie about four sisters, one of whom had sharp cheekbones and kept saying “Christopher Columbus!” Sisters weren’t Vicki’s favorite subject, what with Tricia having vamoosed to Beansville; but television programs in The City were on a whole hour earlier than back home, meaning Vicki not only got to see Lassie and My Favorite Martian but part of Ed Sullivan before going to bed. So she stuck to the old Philco, greedily relishing even this nonsense about not-so-little women, when it paused for a commercial. And who to her wondering eyes should appear but Vicki’s own Grandfather Schmelz, wearing a derby hat and a suit of many checkers.
“That’s Dime! Dime’s on the TV!!”
“Mmm,” went her mother.
“Twenty years at the same location,” Diamond Joel informed The City, gesturing with a fat black cigar in a flashy-ringed hand. “We’ll be here for you tomorrow because we can’t be undersold today!” And a very tall lady with a very tall hairdo came on in a spangly circussy outfit, to help illustrate the benefits of flexible financing.
It was as good as any kiddie show.
Then there were excursions to the Lot and the Showroom, located on what Dime claimed was the Longest Street in The City if not the world. Vicki marveled at all the cars her grandfather owned, more than she knew enough numbers to count: an auto armada parked beneath the banners and streamers and lines of colorful triangles fluttering overhead. There were even a couple of cars inside the Showroom, waiting to be bought; along with a big bowl of dime-sized chocolate coins whose foil wrappers said everything’s gold at diamond joel’s. The letters were too teensy-tiny for Vicki to decipher, so they had to be read out to her by the very tall lady with the very tall hairdo, who that day was wearing a very snug dress with a very bright badge identifying her as LuAnn. She sat behind the Showroom counter and sighed every time its phone rang.
“I liked the thing you had on, on the TV,” Vicki told her between calls.
“Oh. Thanks, honey.” (Ring.) “(Sigh.) DiamondJoelsAutoSaleswefinanceanyonehowmayIhelpyew?... opentillninetonightlookforwardtoseeingyewwe’reneverundersold.” (Click.)
Vicki sampled another chocolate coin. “I bet it’s more fun to be here than—than Disneyland, even!”
“Mmm,” went LuAnn.
Vicki turned to her father. “Dontcha think so, Daddy?”
“Why sure I do, Kitten. A regular Fantasy on Parade.”
“You bet it is, Dillydoll,” added Dime. “Already your Daddy’s my right-hand wheeler-dealer. Why, he could clean up driving a Good Humor truck in Eskimo Town.”
(Which made Vicki picture her father pushing a broom around polar bears.)
One of the first things Ozzie had done upon joining the Lot was trade in his Corvair for an Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight. It looked new enough, so Vicki didn’t understand why it was called an Olds; and she regretted the loss of the Corvair till overhearing her parents discuss how it was “unsafe at any speed.” That made Vicki’s heart thump, thinking how narrowly they’d avoided spinning out or rolling over or blowing sky-high like the moon rocket they’d only joked about before. Suddenly the New-Enough Olds seemed a great deal more comfortable.
Thump went her heart again, faster and harder, as 3W’s door opened and in came Daddy and Gran, each carrying a bag in one hand and steering Mommy along with the other. On Mommy’s face was the well-known smile of hopeful reassurance, always worn when presenting Vicki with eggplant or broccoli or any dish bound to taste bad. And clutched in Mommy’s arms was a blue-blanketed bundle.
Which appeared to contain eight pounds of shrimp.
(Which was another food that Vicki didn’t care for.)
“Well, Kitten, what do you think?” Ozzie chortled. “Say hello to ChrisTOpher the GOpher.”
“Looks more like a Goofer,” said Vicki; and all the grownups laughed except Gran, who smiled slightly.
“Our Lord High Gooferduster!” said Dime. “Come on, hand him over—good morning Boychik! Would you feast your eyes on that head of hair! It’s from his grandpa he gets that. You maybe won’t believe it to see me now, but the hair on my head used to be red like carrots. I couldn’t stretch out on the grass without some bunny rabbit taking a nibble at my noggin.”
Vicki (in the middle of a great big hug with her mother) thought the shrimp-bundle’s fine orange fuzz might’ve been a pretty color on a baby girl. But instead of saying so, she answered Felicia’s many questions: yes, she had missed Mommy. Yes, she’d been eating and sleeping and “going” all right. Yes, she was glad to meet her own little brother at last.
And yes, there was steadily diminishing sincerity to her responses. Vicki could feel her jaw sagging lower and lower, as was its tendency when the rest of her got anxious about sounding untruthful. But Gran’s observant eye caught Vicki’s, and Gran’s vigilant chin flicked upward.
Don’t gape, Miss, or your tongue may not fit inside your mouth.
Vicki’s teeth snapped shut—happily not on her tongue.
Very good, Miss.
Ruth Schmelz came from a place called Vilnius and a clan called the Sennmanns, who (according to Diamond Joel) all whistled through their teeth. “And, what is more, those Litvaks put pepper on their gefilte fish.”
“Better pepper,” Gran would reply, “than to sssugar it like a Galitzer.”
“All our lives she’s been hissing at me,” Dime would say.
Pronouncing SH as SS had not prevented Ruth Sennmann from marrying a Schmelz, or naming her daughters Felicia and Francesca, or telling them all to shush whenever she thought fit. Dime and Mommy and Aunt Fritzi were accustomed to being addressed as Sssmelz and Feleessya and Frenntzzesca; but her eldest grandchild could not get used to the sibilance.
“She knows my name’s not ‘Patrissa’—she just says it that way ‘cause she’s stubborn!”
Gran also knew everything knowable about Manners and Behavior and something called Deportment, which Vicki figured had to do with how to act at J. C. Penney. And since Tricia intended to Go Places and Be Somebody, she was attentive and obedient to Gran’s instructions.
“You are a smart girl, Patrissa,” Gran would declare. “And you are a good girl, Victoria.”
Vicki would feel gratified, though uncertain whether it was nobler to be good or be smart. Or maybe just be QUIET—
—as the shrimp-bundle went off like an alarm clock, causing everyone to jump except Gran. In whose arms Dime hastily deposited the bundle, now imitating a police siren.
“Sssusss,” Gran told the bundle. “Sssusss yourself.” Back and forth she swayed it, back and forth; and the siren-sound soon subsided to a gurgle.
“Always she’s had that knack,” said Diamond Joel.
“Wish she could teach it to me,” said Ozzie.
“It’s all in the wrists—isn’t that right, Mother?” asked Felicia.
“Mmm,” went Gran.
The next two days (and nights) were harrowing.
Fel and Ozzie, who’d undergone jealous-Tricia-tantrums four years earlier, were determined that Vicki not feel neglected or resentful of Baby Goofer. So she was compelled to take part in every aspect of his care—the feeding, the burping, the rocking, the changing—till it blurred into a sordid montage of pee and poop and puke and pacifier-rejection. Fetch this, carry that, oops there he “goes” again, quick bring a sponge, watch how I wipe, hand me the talcum, we need fresh Pampers now—
—till Vicki was ready to do a little screaming herself. She hadn’t asked for This Stupid Dumb Rackety Boy to be brought home from the hospital, but now she was obliged to mask her disgust and help sing him lullabies while holding her breath, and wishing she could open her eyes to find Julie the Raindrop there in the crib or the rocker or on the table or sprawled across Mommy where she (and not This Boy) belonged.
“Did I yell like that?” Vicki murmured as they tiptoed out of Goofer’s momentarily quiet lair.
“No, you whimpered and fretted.”
“I bet Tricia never yelled.”
“She yodeled. Like a prima donna at the opera.”
Vicki didn’t know what that was, but thought it sounded appropriate. “Can I go play with Hayley now?”
Her mother’s face put on its concerned expression. “You love your little brother, don’t you?”
“Well I can’t play with him, he just went to sleep.”
“But you do otherwise, right?”
“Mmm,” went Vicki. “Hayley loves him—too. She’s got this big doll bed she wants to keep him in, all the time.”
Mommy smiled but didn’t take the hint. “Ask her to come up after awhile, and you can both play with Goofy.” (Meaning they could both play his nursemaid. And without much hope of getting a piggybank penny out of it.)
Hayley Tamworth lived downstairs in 2W. She was a chubby little girl a couple months older than Vicki, with a marked resemblance to Larry Mondello on the old Beaver show. Hayley wore dresses and had longer hair, but could often be found munching an apple like TV Larry. As a fortunate only child she had a whole room of her own, and it was so full of dolls and blocks and Kenner these and Mattel those and Fisher-Price t’others that you could scarcely wade through it all to reach the bed.
“Gee!” Vicki’d gone when first shown this abundance. “It’s like you get to sleep in a toy store.”
“Is it?” went Hayley, sounding confused. “Why?”
“’Cause everything looks so new! Dontcha do stuff with it?”
“Well,” Vicki considered, reaching tentatively for a Skipper and a Skooter. Hayley didn’t say “Leave them alone!” or “Those are mine!,” so she proceeded. “These two could be ‘co-eds’—that means they go to school. But on the way there they could ‘scover this cave, with a treasure hid in it that nobody knows about? But they can’t just take whatever they want, ‘cause they hafta carry it out one treasure at a time? And there’s this bunch of wild creatures” (nod at a furry animal assortment) “guarding the cave, that don’t want them to take anything. And they’re all on a planet in outer space... okay?”
“That sounds like fun,” said Hayley through an admiring apple-bite. “You’re a good thinker.”
“Well, I got this big sister who makes up stuff a lot. So—which one do you wanna be?”
“Um. You pick.”
Vicki, not used to deferential treatment, found it quite agreeable. She quickly learned to feed lines to the less-imaginative Hayley, sometimes growing impatient with her denser reactions. Yet she never lost sight of the chubby girl’s generosity—or her skill at making growly monster-noises.
Hayley’s parents were considerably older than Vicki’s. They looked rather like Santa and Mrs. Claus in middle age, before the beard was grown or the locks turned silver, but already rosy-cheeked and twinkle-dimpled. Mr. Tamworth was Harry the butcher at Hardesty’s Supermarket, where he got to wear a straw hat and a bloody striped apron. “I always get first cut at the best cuts,” he’d say, laying a finger aside of his cherryish nose. And indeed Vicki would never taste steaks or burgers quite so succulent as the ones Mr. Tamworth grilled in the back alley, with Ozzie Volester’s enthusiastic help.
Mrs. Tamworth called herself “an old social worker” (though, like the Eighty-Eight, she wasn’t that old) and used to earn a living as one. Then Hayley’d arrived as a midlife surprise, her folks having almost given up hope of having a child. “Yes, just when I stopped looking, here came my Precious Puddin’—so remember, girls, to always keep your eyes wide open.”
(Hayley rolled her small blue blinkers at being called Precious Puddin’, and Vicki smothered a laugh into a spluttery smile.)
As an old social worker, Mrs. Tamworth looked after everybody at the Walrock greystone. She ran errands, offered a helping hand and receptive ear and cry-onable shoulder, while teaching the girls that doing someone a good deed means it’s your lucky day. Vicki’s mother said Mary Tamworth was the Answer to a Prayer—which was unusual for Felicia, who normally frowned on praying.
The girls accompanied Hayley’s mother as she “made her rounds” of the building. They’d begin (and spend the most time) down in 1W with Mrs. LoCascio, a macaroni-maker’s widow who really was old. She had only one leg and seldom got out of her wheelchair, yet Vicki and Hayley suspected there were actually two Mrs. Los sharing that leg and chair. There was a bad one full of grievances and complaints, objecting to the children’s presence if not existence; and a good one who appreciated their company, pressing them to stay longer and drop by more often.
Either way, old Mrs. Lo needed less attention than her birds. There was Aldo the budgie and Bella the cockatiel and Luigi the Amazon parrot, all of whom could talk and usually did simultaneously. Other birds came and went, most often on warm days—“You can always tell when the poor soul leaves her window open,” Hayley’s mother would say—and at times so many flocked together that Mrs. LoCascio looked like the Tuppence-a-Bagwoman in Mary Poppins. An entire Sunday newspaper would be needed to reline all their cages. (Bad Mrs. Lo scared girls and birds alike, shouting at them to keep away from each other, while Good Mrs. Lo trained the birds to greet Vicki and Hayley by name.)
Across the hall in 1E lived Beany Boy the Mighty Beagle. No friendlier dog could be found in The City: he’d fetch a ball thrown down the alley till everyone involved was thoroughly worn out. His name did give Vicki a brief pang, reminding her of Beansville; and she was baffled by Beany Boy’s being owned by a postman. Even less explicably, Mr. Frank didn’t deliver the mail to his own building.
“Well,” he explained, “dair’s dese guyyyyce, see, dat tell me where I’m sposda go. So, I gahda go over by dair.”
“Dat’s right,” chimed in Mrs. Frank, a lunchlady at the local grade school. “Just like I gahda dish up wahdever sammitch’s on da menu dat day. And da kiddies, dey gahdeet wahdever I dish up, hunh?”
(The Franks had been City-dwellers unto the fourth generation.)
Upstairs in 2E lived another widow, Mrs. Partridge, who despite her name kept no birds except plucked ones in the freezer. Instead she had an upright piano on which she gave professional lessons. (Bad Mrs. LoCascio griped about the noise of these, almost as often as she deplored Beany-Boy’s barking—not that either dog or lessons could be heard over 1W’s screeching cackle-chatter.)
Along with the piano, Mrs. Partridge had a pair of twelve-year-old granddaughters named Candice and Corliss Grusza. Unlike the two Mrs. Los, the Grusza twins were rarely seen separately. They’d descend the greystone staircase side by side, wearing identical outfits and hairstyles and inscrutable demeanors. Out back they’d mount matching Schwinn Starlets and pedal away, trailing a chill in the air behind them.
Vicki would never discover why Candice and Corliss lived with Mrs. Partridge. Hayley’s mother knew, and she told Vicki’s mother and they shook their heads sorrowfully, but kept the reason mum. Even Mrs. Lo at her worst wouldn’t breathe a word of it. Vicki and Hayley privately speculated that the Gruszas were orphans like Pollyanna, but played a Gruesome Game rather than a Glad one.
Finally there were the Hulls in 3E, across the hall from the Volesters. Mr. Hull (the Munchkin Mayor) had been a cement contractor before he retired and bought the greystone. His wife Nellie fit nicely into the role of cartoon Mama Bear, though instead of saying “But Henry...” Mrs. Hull would go “But Baldwin”—probably because Mr. Hull had such a bright shiny scalp.
Their son Junior let Vicki and Hayley ride on his massive shoulders as he roamed around doing chores, and always wanted to hear about Skipper and Skooter’s Astro Co-ed adventures, which he took even more seriously than the girls did.
“No no no,” he might argue, “Skooter mustn’t fall in love with Ricky if he is now a robot. What if he got switched off, like Mac on The Jetsons? Then Skooter would go crazy—like Rosie on The Jetsons. Unh-unh: she mustn’t do it.”
“She could switch him back on and not go crazy,” offered Hayley, who made Skooter fall in love with Ricky every week.
“Like the kiss in Sleeping Beauty,” Vicki added. “It’d wake him up in time for the happy ending.”
“But the Sleeping Beauty was not a robot,” Junior protested.
“Then I guess Ricky can’t be one too,” Hayley sighed.
“He could be brainwashed,” suggested Vicki. “That’s almost like a robot. Talk like one and walk like one, but be a real boy—”
“—and then Skooter could dry out his washed brain!” said the romantic Hayley.
Junior mulled this over, biting the end of his mop handle. “Uhhhh...” he decided, “that might work.”
What didn’t work was Junior’s plea to help his father unfurl and hang a gigantic flag on the Saturday before Memorial Day. Mr. Hull wouldn’t even let him put the “O Beautiful for Spaceship Guys” record on their portable phonograph, which deeply hurt Junior’s feelings (and therefore Vicki’s and Hayley’s as well).
That same Saturday was significant because MomMom and PopPop brought Tricia for a visit, to see Baby Goofer for the first time. On this occasion the elder Volesters didn’t stay at a hotel but with their Schmelz in-laws, up in the northern suburb whose name always reminded Vicki of The Poky Little Puppy. Gran and MomMom had a lot of canasta to catch up on.
When Geraldine Volester had first met Ruth Schmelz ten years earlier, both felt the instinctive antagonism of Polish Catholic vs. Lithuanian Jew. Then each took the other’s measure, with Geraldine concluding that Ruth and her daughter were Real Ladies, while Ruth determined that Geraldine and her son had Good Hearts. Neither household was particularly religious, least of all Felicia Schmelz; so when she and Ozzie were married by a justice of the peace, MomMom only regretted the lack of any circumstantial pomp.
She herself was by no means a constant churchgoer. Following last month’s trek to The City and her night at the Conrad Hilton, MomMom did attend mass at Holy Name: “I hardly ever go two Sundays running—but who can pass up a cathedral?” (Which gave Tricia and Vicki the giggles since MomMom hardly went anywhere running, and “Holy Name” sounded like a place of worship for Robin the Boy Wonder.)
The previous Sunday, MomMom had gone to St. Stan’s in her home town of Bay City, where she’d done Easter Duty every year of her life. Still living in Bay City was her mother, Ozzie’s “Babcia Brygid,” the relic of sugar-beet refiner Casimir Kosnowski. Ten years ago Babcia had denounced her irreverent grandson for marrying a “Jewess,” and one who didn’t even practice her own faith but tied the knot at a registry office. Two years later Ozzie’d brought the heavily-pregnant Felicia to see her, hoping for a reconciliation; it turned into a Scene that sent Fel into furious premature labor at Mercy Hospital. There Patricia Elaine was born—on a day that, in the distant future, would prove fateful—and there she remained for a touch-and-go while afterward. Everyone was shaken up by the ordeal, even Babcia Brygid, though once the crisis passed she demanded a formal christening at St. Stan’s. MomMom persuaded Felicia to yield on this point, providing a beautiful Kosnowski-heirloom baby gown for the ceremony; and Tricia herself supplied melodic yodeling throughout. The Schmelzes were prominently present, Gran decorously composed and Diamond Joel sizing up prospects. (“That your Studebaker parked outside, Padre?”)
Dime and PopPop had hit it off from the beginning. Every get-together was a chance for them to doff jackets and ties, roll up their sleeves, and enjoy long mechanical conversations under the hood of each other’s car. Ozzie often joined them there, all three getting begrimed and begreased. The week-old Christopher Blaine would soon be taken out for his first engine inspection and there, to the horror (but not surprise) of his mother and grandmothers, get his fuzzy orange fontanelle dabbed with motor oil.
“That’s how men perform christenings,” the ladies agreed, sending Vicki on the double for petroleum jelly and a wet washcloth.
Before the three Volester children were put to bed that significant Saturday night, everyone’s stock of film and flashcubes had to be exhausted. By then Vicki felt equally exhausted, not to mention dazed by all the flashes; but Tricia had to rearrange their bedroom’s furnishings to her satisfaction before either could retire.
“Here, help me move this.”
Vicki dragged her weary self over and obeyed. “Are you staying for good this time?”
“No—there’s two more weeks before school’s out. My class is throwing me a going-away party, I made sure of that.”
“I don’t wantcha to go back. It’s been awful here.”
“I thought you made friends with the little fat girl downstairs.”
“She’s not so fat!” Vicki said loyally. “But she loves Goofer—”
“Goofus,” insisted Tricia, a reader of Highlights magazine.
“—Goofus. She even says she’ll take him an’ keep him, but Mommy won’t let her.”
“Mmm,” went Tricia, collapsing on her bed (now shifted beside the window). “I bet she won’t. You know what him being a boy means—it’s move-to-the-back-of-the-line for us two.”
“Yes, me! There’s a boy in the family now. And you just have to look at him to see how impossible he’s going to be to live with, the older he gets. I wonder how soon we’ll be able to smack him around?”
The future promptly seemed nearer and cheerier. “Can we do that?”
“Hey, we’re his big sisters—it’s our job to do that. We’ll have to work together: you’re too little to do much yet, and I’ll be too busy to do it all. Maybe we can get your friend downstairs to help—take blame for things, stuff like that.”
Vicki (not for the first or last time) rode a great wave of adoration toward Tricia. “Um... tonight, can I sleep with you? Please?”
Tricia started to give her the emerald glare, then softened. “When’d your toenails get clipped last? Let me feel your feet... Well—okay then. But just for tonight: you’re getting too big to fit with me in one bed.”
Flattered by this implication of maturity, Vicki snuggled down next to her and the two sisters started drifting off. Then—as usual, without warning—the police siren erupted next door:
“Oh, for crying out loud!” went Tricia.
“Yeah, get used to that,” mumbled Vicki.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Copyright © 2009-2011 by P. S. Ehrlich
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