Chapter 18


Split Level



Vicki Volester, having gotten very tired (not to mention sick) of sitting beside her brat of a brother on the Civic’s back seat, almost offered to get out and walk the rest of the way to Vanderlund.  But the weather that day, the last day of June, was stew-pidly hot (as they used to say, back in Pfiester Park) so Vicki stayed put.  Sickly/tiredly.


“Oh, what’s the use?” she sighed aloud.


“Mah-umm!  Vicki’s gonna kill herself!”


“That’s not amusing, Christopher.”


“Hey, I’m just trying to warn ya.  Betcha she’ll do it by jumping in the canal, if ya make a stop on Panama.  We could pull over there for her to jump when we get off the Expressway—”


“That,” said Felicia, “is enough!”


“Really!” Vicki agreed.  “If I wanted to drown myself I’d do it in the Lake, not some gross-out sanitary canal—”


“Victoria Lorraine!  What is the matter with you children??  Anybody’d think we were on our way to the morgue!  I don’t want to hear another word about suicide from either of you, not even in jest!”


“Sorry Mom,” went Goofus.


“It’s just that it’s, y’know, such a hot day for moving and all,” added Vicki.


“Don’t you worry about that, kids!” smiled their father.  “Our new house has central air conditioning!  No more balky wall units!  It’ll be cooler than any igloo in Eskimo Town!”


“Y’know what’d be really cool?” said Goofus.  “If we had our own pool there!”


“What, like a wading pool?”


“No, a real one, deep enough to go scuba diving in!  Please, Dad?  I’ll help dig it.”


“Well, I’ll make you kids a deal: no more talk about drowning, no more rhubarbs between you two till we get ourselves good and settled, and...”


“And?” asked Vicki.


“And then we’ll give the matter some serious thought.”


Not much of a promise; yet not completely dismissable.  Enough incentive, anyway, for an unspoken truce on the Civic’s back seat—and for maintaining it even when Goofus cleared his throat (loudly) while the car idled at a Panama Boulevard stoplight.


“Uh-HEM!” he went.


Do that again, twerp, and you’ll be scuba diving through the sewer.


(Silently vowed with a sweet sisterly smile, for anyone who might happen to glance in the rearview mirror.)


This time, knowing there was no turning back, Vicki paid closer attention to their final approach on Lesser Drive.  What were the cross streets called?  Check out the signs speeding past: Mullein—Knotgall—Black Knot—Oakapple—something Green—Cedarapple—Velvetleaf—Nutsedge—Foxtail: turn right.


Too many apples and too many knots.  How could you ever get them straight?  “Velvetleaf” was a pretty name, though; and at least they wouldn’t be living on “Nuts Edge.”




Around then to Burrow Lane.  Into their new cul-de-sac.  Up the driveway of 3132, a split-levelly sort of number: thirty-one, thirty-two.  All the little cows go moo moo moo...


Ozzie opened the garage by remote control, using a Genie gizmo that Goofus fell in love with and had to be forcibly kept away from.  “All this space!” Felicia said divertingly as they parked inside an enclosure that, to City eyes, looked big enough for a barn dance.   “I’m going to get a car of my own—a ‘sporty roadster,’ like Nancy Drew drove.  I’ve wanted one since I was a little girl.”


“Get a Jag, Mom!” advised Goofus.  “An XK-E!  They don’t come any sportier than that.”


“Son, I’m gonna pretend you didn’t say those words,” said Ozzie the Honda dealer, leading them out of the garage and along a flagstone walk to 3132’s front door.  Vicki lagged behind, convulsed at the thought of her mother solving earnest mysteries with Bess and George and Ned Nickerson.  The Secret of the Old Sanitary Canal.  The Clue in the Booger-Filled Scuba Mask.  “Oh Ned!  You are my special friend!”


“Lookee herethey forgot to take this knocker,” said Ozzie, regarding a fat brass lump inscribed the eisensteins.  “Oughta file that off and put ‘volester motors’ on top.”


He wrestled with key and lock while Goofus pressed the doorbell, snortling as the first six notes of Peter and the Wolf echoed within.  And re-echoed as Goof re-jabbed and re-snortled, till Vicki swatted his finger off the buzzer.


“Aroooo!” he howled.  “Ya better not wear a red riding hood in this house, Sis!” 


“Christopher Blaine—” warned Felicia.


“Hey, that wasn’t a rhubarb!”


“Way to go, runt!  Now we’ll never get a pool!”


“Would you all just—ha! gotcha!” said Ozzie, achieving entrance; and the four Volesters filed on in.  To be dangled on in the foyer by a pendant light like a giant snowball, hanging from a thick icicle chain.  “Aw-reeet!” went Goofus, aiming imaginary projectiles at this target and making explosive noises, till a firm parental hand routed him to the foyer’s far end.  Two staircases on the right: one going up, the other down.  Beside the latter was a balustrade with an overview of what Ozzie called “the-family-room-unless-I-make-it-my-den.”


Gallop down into it before he makes up his mind.


Wall-to-wall shag carpet.  Sliding glass doors looking out onto a flagstone patio.  A long countertop on which many cold drinks had evidently been set without using coasters.  (“We can refinish that,” Ozzie assured them.)  One inner door led to the garage; another to a laundry room with its own little half-bath—handy if you got stuck doing a big wash or heap of ironing.  As was bound to happen to Vicki, the only daughter left in this household.


Back upstairs to the main floor, and a breakfast nook by the balustrade: it had naugahyde seats like a drugstore booth and sat under a skylight.  Beyond it was the kitchen, really modern-looking compared to their old greystone scullery, with a picture window above the sink.  You’d always have something to stare out at while loading the dishwasher.  Which would probably also fall to Vicki’s lot, more often than not.


Past the kitchen was a dining room with a high ceiling and slick floor.  Ozzie and Felicia confabbed lengthily about Persian rugs and gripper pads, while Goofus tried to skate over the hardwood in his sweaty bare feet (eww!) and Vicki peeked through another set of sliding glass doors.  These opened onto a flagstone terrace or veranda, upslope from the patio below.  Split levels in action!


At the front of the house, the living room had an even higher ceiling than the dining room and was twice as long, with a monumental fireplace at one end.  Vicki hoped she wouldn’t have to sweep its chimney.  Mantel-dusting was sure to be one of her new chores, along with hearth-brushing and ash-shoveling.  Plus having to polish those fat brass andirons that the Eisensteins must also have forgotten, no doubt deliberately.


Might as well change my name to Cinderella and be done with it.


An open doorway connected the front room to the foyer.  Goof started ogling its big white snowglobe again, but was compelled to climb the other staircase to the secondor would it be the third?floor.


Master bedroom to the left.  It had a walk-in closet, a white-tiled private bath, and access to a genuine balcony shaded by authentic oak trees.  Which was better than the bay window they’d left behind at the greystone, since here you didn’t have to look out at cruddy old Walrock Avenue.


Down the hall was a built-in linen cabinet, a bigger bathroom tiled in aquamarine, and three more bedrooms over the garage.  One at the side of the house was assigned to Goofus; another, in the front corner, was designated as Vicki’seven though the third room, like Baby Bear’s bed and chair and porridge, was Just Right for her.  Its closet had sliding doors like the terrace and patio—but instead of clear glass, these were made out of mirrors.


Vickid never seen anything so absolutely necessary for a teenage girl’s pursuit of happiness.


Yet this wonderful closet (and accompanying bedroom) had been reserved for Tricia.  Who, at the moment, was across an entire ocean.  And who, even when she came back, would be vamoosing off to college in a completely different state for the next four years.  Meaning these beautiful mirror-doors would simply go to waste, when Vicki could be putting them to constant beneficial use at all hours instead of staring at the shallow alcove-like joke of a closet (that didn’t even HAVE a door) in the corner room.  No!  Unh-unh!  Let that one be Tricia’s room, on such occasions when she’d breeze through town for a holiday visit or to collect a tuition check.


Any other arrangement would be terribly, horribly, monstrously UNFAIR.


But before Vicki could present this well-thought-out argument to her temporarily misguided parents in a persuasive, grown-up-sounding voice—


—the moving van arrived.  And the battle was lost.


Her belongings were stacked in the corner bedroom, while the Just Right room became Absent Tricia’s storage depository.  You could barely glimpse its magnificent mirror-doors afterward.  And even if you could reach them and remove them and try to reinstall them in the corner room’s pitiful inadequate hole in the wall, they wouldn’t fit properly: not tall enough.




Felicia made some murmurs about finding similar doors of an appropriate size, but Vicki knew this could never happen; it was the red-patent-vinyl-platform-shoe fiasco all over again.  Probably whoever manufactured magic mirror-doors had gone belly-up during the recession.  Though not before outfitting every other girl in Vanderlund’s closet first!  Vicki’s would be the only one lacking a full-length reflective surface.  And all the other girls would know this immediately, thanks to the embarrassing gaffes she’d be sure to commit in how she wore her clothes and hair and makeup.


It was enough to make you burst out crying.


If you weren’t thirteen years old, that is, and doomed to be practically mature.




Fortunately (or un-) there were no girls (or boys) her age living in the Burrow Lane cul‑de-sac.  Some of the neighbors did have children—the Baumeisters, the Rouses, the Sweeneys—but they were all little kids, younger than Goofus, with parents eager to know how soon Vicki might be available to babysit.


Might as well be now.  It wasn’t as though she had anything better to do, other than gradually unpack while helping Felicia repaint the corner bedroom.  “Her” room.  At least it was her paint choice: a light lavender that Sherwin-Williams called wisteria.  Which pretty much summed up Vicki’s current mood.


She did find a kind of satisfaction in plying rollers and brushes, and a slightly illicit enjoyment in the smell of fresh paint.  Though that got a tad overpowering at times, particularly when you were trying to fall asleep.  Which wasn’t made any easier by Vicki’s curtains having been boxed by mistake with the winter quilts and not turning up till midweek.  Meaning “her” bedroom windows had no covering those first few nightsthe Eisensteins, while abandoning andirons and door knockers, had made off with all the shades and blinds.


Vicki (already in a snit of victimization) decided to hit the sack unshielded from Vanderlund’s prying eyes.  Yes, let the whole world bear witness to her distress!  Though not to her bareness: she changed into summer PJs behind the aquamarine bathroom door.


And nearly suffered heart failure the first night when she returned to the exposed bedroom and found a human face staring in at her through the opposite window.


(Good thing you’d just emptied your bladder and had nothing left to lose.)


Whew.  It was her own face, obviously, in the dark uncovered glass.  No Peeping Tom or domestic spy or overeager babysitter-seeker.  Not even Goofus playing wolf; nobody out there at all.


Unless... just maybe... Steph had snuck away to catch a train at Pfiester Park Station, travel the dozen or so miles to Burrow Lane, locate number 3132 at this time of night, climb a tree and pull a Mirror of Danger-ish prank.  That would be so like Steph.


But nobody answered when Vicki opened the window and made cautious inquiries.




(Talk about feeling wisteria...)


(Never wouldve believed it if, a year ago, you’d been told you could miss Stephanie Lipperman this badly...)


Vicki spent much of Tuesday preparing a postcard for her father to mail to Tendone Avenue on Wednesday.  Postcard rather than letter, which Steph would definitely throw away unopened—or tear to shreds and grind underfoot.  That would be so like Steph.  A postcard was harder to leave unread: you basically had to read it while checking to see who sent it.


One side of the card shouted GREETINGS FROM VANDERLUND!  On the other, Vicki wrote her new phone number in bold black digits, followed by:



Running out to the garage on Wednesday morning as Ozzie was getting into the car, to retrieve this and underline the please.


But hearing in her mind’s ear a forecast of her GREETINGS being shredded into confetti, the instant this postcard reached its unforgiving addressee.




Okay.  It might actually be a good idea to have a closet with no door(s).  So you could survey your complete wardrobe at a single glance, assuming everything got picked up off the floor and put on hangers first.


Vicki’s only lasting complaint, as she lightly sanded “her” alcove prior to applying primer, was that it shared a back wall with Goof’s closetwhose reek was guaranteed to seep through and pollute her clothes.






And Hunh? at the sight, on this same alcove wall, of two letters hand-printed in bold black marker: L.E.


Lost Entry?  Last Exit?  Or somebody’s initials?




“Hmm?” went Felicia, painting the window trim to match the rediscovered curtains.


“Did the Eisensteins have any kids?”


“I’m not sure.  I think they mentioned a daughter.”


“Did she live here, in this house?”


“Well I suppose so.  The Eisensteins were about our age; I guess any children they’d have would be about yours.  Why?”


“Um, just wondering.”


L.E.   It looked like a girl’s printing, not crude and splotchy like a boy’s, and done at the exact level where Vicki would mark a V.V. 


So let’s say “L.E.” was a fellow thirteen-year-old, the same height as yourself, and had slept in this very bedroom—initialing this very closet after cleaning it out for the move to California.  Which, presumably, she’d tried to talk her parents out of, and would regret for years to come.  This will always be my room, the initials implied.


(Poor L.E.)


What L-names went with Eisenstein?  How weird if she’d been a Lorraine—maybe even a Lorraine Victoria!  Talk about your inside-out sensations.  Which weren’t eased any by an abrupt remembrance of the only other Eisenstein you’d ever heard of: an old Russian guy who made a silent horror movie.


Bizarre memory from three summers ago.  Vicki, unable to sleep, out of bed to get a drink of kitchen water.  (Not bathroom: eww.)  Her mother up watching late-night PBS.  Not Masterpiece Theater or The French Chef, but a little boy getting trampled by a grainy black-and-white mob.  Right onscreen!  Literally STOMPED on, while somebody filmed it!!  And Vicki’s own mother calmly sitting in front of the TV with a glass of wine, watching such a thing happen.


“What IS this??”


“Eisenstein,” Fel had said.  Adding “It’s a classic” as Vicki fled back to bed, her kitchen water abandoned.


The next morning Vicki’d wondered if it’d been a gruesome nightmare.  But why should she dream up a name like “Eisenstein”?  Reluctance to ask her mother or Tricia about it.  Seek answers instead from Sarah-Jill Shapiro.  Learn much too much about Battleship Potemkin and the Odessa Steps—also the fact that Sergei Eisenstein was from Russia.


So it stood to reason that an “L” Eisenstein should have a Russian first name, suitable for the ballerina Vicki figured “L” (like any normal girl) aspired to be.  Ludmila?  Lizabeta?  No—Lana, short for Svetlana, embarrassed by the Svet.  Also by people who misrhymed her name with “Hannah,” no matter how often she’d remind them it was pronounced like “Donna.”


Poor Lana.  She too must’ve endured mockery for closet-doorless fashion blunders.  Yet somehow Vicki knew she’d wanted to stay here in this house, and not be uprooted to California.


(You don’t suppose that was her face peering through the window the other night?)


(Course not.  Don’t be silly.)


(It wasn’t like the Volesters were intruders or anything.  Ozzie and Felicia’d bought 3132 fair and square.  If any ex-occupants chose to hang around the premises in ghostly form, they were the ones doing the trespassing—not you.  No way.)


Nevertheless.  No point being provocative.


It wouldn’t hurt to put a masking-tape frame around the initials on the alcove wall, and avoid obliterating them with primer or paint.


Call it another split level.




Vicki could’ve filled her cow-shaped piggy bank (dear old Mildred Milkpail, still in use after all these years) that Friday evening.  The Rouses wanted her to babysit Baby Rance; the Baumeisters offered double to sit with two kids, Nova and Pippin; while the Sweeneys outbid them both in hopes of landing a keeper for their demonic son Todd.


But Ozzie wanted the whole family (minus Tricia, across that entire ocean) to spend the 4th of July at Vanderlund’s Maine Street Beach.  There was a parade with floats, and a twilight concert by a Dixieland band and bagpipers, followed by fireworks over the Lake that Ozzie claimed were really to welcome the Volesters and celebrate their arrival.


And there were crowds.  Sweltering crowds.  A potential mob, in fact.  Lucky thing no Odessa Steps were nearby.  If Goofus went and got himself trampled underfoot, who do you think would be blamed for it?  Not the mob, that’s for sure.  Oh no, it’d be Big Sissy’s fault for failing to look after Little Brother.  And how many babysitting gigs would she be able to get then?


(Stew-pid Goofus.)


Here, at least, were a great many girls (and boys) Vicki’s age.  Probably a lot of her future classmates, potential schoolfriends, even a conceivable sweetheart or twomilling about, fooling around, yelling up at the sky and its pyrotechnic marvels.


Out here in the actual palpable open at Maine Street Beach, they didn’t seem so intimidating.  Young teens were young teens, whether City or suburban.


The problem was that Vicki remained a stranger to them all.


She was in exile.


Like Gran Schmelz had confessed to feeling.  Sometimes slightly, sometimes excruciatingly, but always in exile—from the first day she and the other Sennmanns left Vilnius (when Gran was thirteen!) to the last night of her death on Fiddler Key.


Tricia, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to expatriate herself from Pfiester Park.  And Goofus would be like PopPop, never looking back: “Let’s talk about now.”  Mom and Dad were parents and thus unable to understand anything.  So there was not a soul in all Vanderlund for Vicki to turn to—no one except Lana Eisenstein.  And she belonged on the far side of the bedroom window, back on Burrow Lane.





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Return to Chapter 17                          Proceed to Chapter 19



A Split Infinitive Production
Copyright © 2012 by P. S. Ehrlich


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