“(When did Earth Science turn into Sex Ed?)” Carly Thibert whisper-groused to her lab partners.
Vicki and Fiona swapped sidelong eyerolls before refocusing on Ms. Tays-the-Tease, who had a loose blue pump suspended from her nylon toes as she roosted leggily atop the front lab counter. No one could say she lacked the class’s full attention; though how many students were listening to her might be a smaller subset.
“Your meteorology papers” (fiddle diddle twiddle) “are due Friday morning” (diddle twiddle fiddle) “and I want everyone to contribute his or her fair share” (twiddle fiddle diddle) “since these projects count for 25% of this unit’s grade—whoopsie!” (as the pump dropped off the toes, and four male students banged hornyboy heads scrambling to retrieve it).
“Oh, am I gonna be nauseated!” Carly proclaimed.
“(Wait’ll after class, please,)” muttered Fiona.
“You guys wanna get together free period at the Media Center, and start on this thing then?” Vicki proposed.
“(I’ll bring the book,)” said Fiona, meaning The Weather Conspiracy: The Coming of the New Ice Age, which she’d obtained an advance copy of via Cobwebs & Strange.
“Yeah sure okay,” Carly chirped, adding “Hey wait up!” as the bell rang and she pounced on Byron Wyszynski, hanging onto his scrawny arm as though he might twitch tail-first through a window before she could hustle him out of Z303.
“What the hell?...” went Vicki.
“(Now I’m gonna be nauseated,)” went Fiona.
Whose stomach grew more unsettled that free period at the Media Center, as the clock ticked forward till she and Vicki had to acknowledge Carly wasn’t coming.
“(That’s it! If she can’t be bothered to put her butt in a chair and do any work, I can’t be bothered to put her name on any report of ours. Period! End of sentence!)”
“Take it easy, Feef—”
“(Easy nothing! Let her do her report with Gollum—he’s probably the only guy in school she hasn’t ‘done it’ with by now!)”
Ssshhhh went a librarian, the first to ever make such a entreaty to Fiona Weller, and sounding a lot like Tail-End as she did so.
The girls buckled down then to research whether indiscriminate use of aerosol spraycans had triggered an epoch of global cooling—which was all too credible after the past winter. Vicki, who’d anointed her hair and body with several separate spritzes that morning, tried to reassure herself that a few stray puffs of Secret or AquaNet couldn’t possibly wreck the whole world’s atmosphere—
—when she felt a petrifying chill.
And, looking up, spotted a head stealthily protruding out of the fiction stacks. Its rigid unblinking gaze and sinuous, almost prehensile tresses would’ve been ideal for a stage Medusa, if the Drama Club had chosen to do Persée et Andromède as the spring musical.
Vicki, stretching her mouth to its widest extent, silently announced: I—am—NOT—dating—him!—
—and the Medusa head slowly retreated behind shelves of make-believe.
“(Kinks?)” asked Fiona.
“(Kinks,)” sighed Vicki.
One month to the day had passed since the concert party at the Vinyl Spinnaker: a Lent-ish letdown month for everyone, even the irreligious.
Sheila-Q had devoutly renounced her relationship with K.C. Battenburg, saying half a year was her limit for going with any guy. Whereupon Mealy’d swooped in to snap up K.C. on the sisterly rebound; and now Sheila was threatening to transfer back to Archibishop Houlihan and take the veil.
“You wanna be a nurse, not a nun!” Robin argued.
“I can be both! Most of ‘em are, in Catholic hospitals!”
“Quirk, you wouldn’t last two weeks in a convent! You’d be dragging the paperboy into the bushes—”
“Why would a convent have a paperboy, Robbo? Do I have to start lighting candles for your brain?”
Sheila, a-wallow in romantic abnegation, wouldn’t join the bowling team Robin was forming as sister squad to Arlo Sowell’s Pachyderms at the Red Devil Bowl in Triville. Most of the bunch was unrecruitable: Alex couldn’t risk a relapse into overbooking her schedule; Laurie was already on a team with Susie, Sammi Tiggs, and Tina Korva; Crystal was too busy preparing for her next solo recital; Britt didn’t seem the sort to trifle with tenpins; and nothing would be more pointless than to ask Fiona.
“(Do you truly expect me to handle balls for you?)”
That left Joss and Vicki, who agreed to a trial-run triple-date with Robin and Arlo at the Red Devil. Joss was squired there (eww) by Gumbo Krauss, and Vicki by Buddy Marcellus, the Pachyderms’s set-up man.
“That means I’m the one who has to set up the pins when the machine’s on the fritz!” Bud snortled robustly.
“Does not!” Robin objected. “It means he’s the second-best bowler after Arlo, the team anchor—”
“Gahd, Robin, don’t flip your lid before we even get started.”
Vicki hadn’t gone bowling since sixth grade at Aaron’s Lanes, where her “approach” had always been much smoother than her “release.” But she was game to try again, hopefully keeping out of the gutter as much as possible.
She wished the same could be said for Gumbo Krauss, who kept giving Joss what he called “hands-on” instruction—guiding her delivery with both arms from very close behind, so close it was a wonder she could ever let go of the ball, except when gigglefits shook it loose from her grip.
This peeved Robin and Arlo, who took bowling—even a friendly weekend scratch match, as this was alleged to be—as seriously as Downtown Pierro did punk rock. The only permissible humor was to deride your opponent’s performance; but it had to be a make-an-effort performance by a take-it-seriously opponent. Unlike Gumbo, egging Buddy Marcellus on to cut hefty capers or do his Fred Flintstone “twinkletoe” routine—or knock an extra-large malted milkshake over Vicki’s coat as it lay defenseless on a chair.
Bud was just as profuse with apologies and promises to pay for the dry-cleaning, as soon as he’d saved up enough allowance. Even so, Vicki didn’t leap at his offer of a second date.
Instead she accepted John Alphonse’s appeal (which was considerable) to join him and Joss ‘n’ Gumbo the following weekend at Chez d’Arlequín. This Chubb Avenue eatery specialized in Cajun, Creole, and Caribbean fare, and so was home-away-from-home for Gumbo Krauss. Phonsie too seemed to be in his element:
“Y’might like a po’ boy sandwich? Served on a baguette? Don’t be ‘fraid to try the crawfish, they serve it with rémoulade sauce? Mighty spicy, y’know? The kind that makes y’wake up right?”
“Wake upright, hunh?” smirked Gumbo.
“You shush now,” chided Joss.
“I’m just sayin’, ask for extra sauce?” said quizzical Phonz.
Before Happy Days hit the heights, he’d been known as “Sleepy John.” While Britt Groningen’s periodic somnolence might be a put-on, you were never quite sure whether Phonsie wasn’t really about to nod off in class. Teachers would try to catch him napping, yet Phonz could generally solve the equation or select the correct synonym or identify the right amendment—invariably answering in question-form, like a contestant on Jeopardy.
“Mr. Alphonse,” his father was told, “we’re concerned about John. He always seems so drowsy—”
“You damn betcha! That’s from my boy acting like a red-blooded boy oughta act, by damn!”
Indeed, the fair sex had been crushing on Sleepy John since co-ed snoozetimes back in kindergarten. Rarely was he seen in VW halls without some female head pillowed on his manly chest—but unlike Mike Spurgeon, Phonz achieved this without lettering in any sport, or even going out for any team. (“Too lazy, y’know? To do all that runnin’ ‘n’ jumpin’?”)
So indolent were his playboy habits that some said he must be Batman in disguise, or one of the Teen Titans—Aqualad, say, trolling the bayou for AquaNetted girly-fish.
“Better wear your bait-proof bloomers,” Joss advised Vicki in the aerie that Sunday morning. “Unless you want ‘em to get hooked on your very first date!”
“Hardy har har,” said Vicki, trying not to sub-add That sounds like something out of Gumbo’s yap.
She did dress a bit more conservatively than usual (“Well, I’m going with you to church first, aren’t I?”) and applied less makeup than a first date might warrant—though not so little as to cast doubt on her basic desirability.
“Don’t you look fine?” went Phonz at Chez d’Arlequín, helping Vicki off with her laundered coat. For a moment she thought her head was about to get cushioned on his collarbone; but Phonsie kept himself under control, as much as any ninth-grade guy could in the presence of attractive ninth-grade girls. “Leastways I don’t go hog wild like my brother, y’know Sloppy Joe? Last month they were havin’ a kegger at his frat house? ‘n’ bet Slop he couldn’t eat a whole family-size pizza in two minutes flat? Done it too, didn’t he? But izzat any way to taste what it is you’re eatin’? Like these po’ boys here, dontcha know?”
The foursome was tucking in (less rapidly than Sloppy Joe consumed pizza) when Gumbo grinned around his Andouille sausage and said:
“Coupla your exes’ve dropped by, man.”
“Yeah? Gigi, I bet? Ain’t she always eatin’ here?”
(In seventh grade Gigi Pyle had appointed Phonz to be her personal Ashley Wilkes, before discovering his non-exclusive nature: “What were yew doing to that gal with your arm??” “Huggin’ her, right? Gotta be nice ‘n’ pally, don’t I?”)
Vicki and Joss could see Gigi facing away from them, one hand clasping the wrist of her luncheon companion as it went up and down, up and down, conveying spoonfuls of stew from bowl to mouth, and carrying Gigi’s hand along.
Is that Split-Pea she’s eating with? Vicki sub-wondered.
If it is, why would he order oyster stew? Joss sub-replied.
“Take a guess at your other ex,” Gumbo super-snortled.
“Aw crud?—don’t tell me it’s KINKS again?” Phonsie ultra-groaned.
Pivot around to find Miss Medusa alone at a corner table, crunching breadsticks, her eyes fixed on Phonz and her hair on labyrinthine end.
Hear Phonz tell how he’d hitched up with Kinks Farghetti at last year’s Halloween Dance, to which she’d come costumed as a grasshopper—or more likely a praying mantis, given her subsequent devouring obsession with All Things Alphonse. His moving on a few weeks later (non-exclusive, dontcha know?) had only intensified Kinks’s Phonzmania—phoning him day and night, staking out his house in all weathers, even sifting through the contents of his family’s trash cans; she would not quit with the trick-or-treating. Phonsie’d tried to dissuade her gently, firmly, sternly, harshly, but had no more luck than Clint Eastwood in Play Misty for Me.
“Do I gotta start bootin’ her skinny ass outta every place she follers me??”
“Ssshhhh!” went Joss and Vicki.
“Naah, she’d just get off on that,” said Gumbo, chewing sausage.
“Aaah, who needs her? Ain’t I moo-hoovin’ on up?” asked Phonsie, leaning over to plant a crawfish-flavored kiss on Vicki, who was too surprised to dodge it.
Kinks Farghetti’s reaction (if any) got masked by Split-Pea Erbsen (if that was Split-Pea) brushing past as he exited Chez d’Arlequín, leaving Gigi with her raven head in her magnolia hands above an untouched bowl of oyster stew.
Vicki, annoyed by Phonsie’s stolen smooch, declined his bid for a second date. This gamble paid off on Wednesday when Tony Pierro reminded her that NESTL(É)’s indoor track meet was being held that Saturday at the Timonoff Park Fieldhouse. Tony’d pulled a lot of strings to clear his part-time job-slate for this event—and he would be very pleased if Vicki’d come with him as his guest.
Now, this was an offer.
Joss couldn’t go, since the meet was the same time as her cornet lesson; which meant Vicki could finally enjoy a Gumbo Kraussless date. Plus, Tony Pierro was a much catchier catch than Buddy or even Phonsie: certainly the one you’d want to be alone with soonest, the one most welcome to give you a kiss or embrace or commitment to full-fledged couplehood.
“Mr. and Mrs. Oswald Volester,” Joss meditatively composed while breakfasting at Burrow Lane on Saturday morning, “request the honor of your presence at the marriage of their daughter—”
“Will you shut up? It’s just a track meet.”
“You shut up, this is how it all begins—their daughter, Her Highness/Majesty Victoria Lorraine—”
“Oh right—attended by beautiful Maid of Honor Jocelyn Murrisch—to Anthony Whatshismiddlename LetssayPetulascousin Pierro—”
“She’s just kidding, Mom,” Vicki told the crease-browed Felicia.
“Well, I hope we’ll get to meet this young man before you elope with him.”
But meeting and elopement were both deferred indefinitely, as the phone rang and Vicki answered and Tony Breachofpromise dolefully confessed that the strings he’d pulled had come unstrung. He would have to work at the deli today after all, and ask if Vicki wouldn’t mind giving him a dating raincheck.
“Yeah sure okay,” she coughed.
Stood up! As good as stood up, anyway!—no, make that bad as, and call it the last straw! Sheila-Q’s vow to become a nun suddenly made a lot more sense. Enough was enough; no more waiting to be asked out by jive turkeys! She’d go to Timonoff Park with Alex and Mumbles Metcalf, and they’d enjoy girls-only entertainment by NESTL(É) boys at a safe distance—no strings attached.
NESTL(É) stood for the Northeast Suburban Townships League—“Our Accent’s on Excellence!”—in which Vanderlund Senior High competed. Girls teams hadn’t been invited to take part in this meet, otherwise Mumbles herself would be out there; she and the rest of last year’s freshmen Ladybugs had made this year’s VTHS varsity track squad. Mumbles bragged about Ms. Grigoryan, coach of the Lady Gondoliers, whose drills and strategies were bound to bring Vanderlund the state championship:
“Or regional, for sure. Or NESTL(É), at least. But I bet you we’ll win staaaate, ‘cause the Grigster’s that gooood—even though she keeps calling me YUHHH-VETTE! HA!! HA!! HA!!”
You almost had to speak that loud to be heard inside Timonoff Fieldhouse: it resembled a three-ring circus, with contests going on simultaneously and almost overlappingly. Forget “safe distance”—quarters were cramped, and one pole vaulter who veered too far to the right nearly whacked the baton out of a relay-racer’s hand.
Then a Multch North Hurricane accused a Multch East Screaming Eagle of deliberate bumping during the high hurdles, and before you knew it their teammates had joined in an all-out brawl. Not only were Multch North and Multch East archrivals in NESTL(É)’s Shoreside Division, but there was a rumor that the two schools might be consolidated and one of them closed. Nothing more outrageous could be imagined in Multch Township—except trying to merge the Multch West Tomahawks with the Multch South Buccaneers.
“Never date a runner!” Mumbles advised Vicki and Alex over the melee. “Give ‘em the least little head staaaart, and I guarantee you won’t be able to CATCH UP WITH ‘EM! HA!! HA!! HA!!”
It was the most fun Vicki’d had since Presidents Day.
Or would’ve been, had she not run into the Bobbsey Twins out in the parking lot.
“Vicki! Do you know Kinks Farghetti?” asked Caroline Appercy, a couple steps ahead of Karen Lee Bobko.
“I saw her at a restaurant last Sunday. She was staring her eyes out at Phonsie Alphonse—”
“Well!” Karen Lee broke in, “she’s been asking me if I know you—well not you, but somebody who sounds a whole lot like you—”
“She’s been asking me about you,” Caroline interrupted, “and I, unlike some people, kept my mouth shut and didn’t tell her who you are—”
“Ha! Some blabbermouth whose name starts with ‘C’ told her, all right—”
“Make that initial a ‘K’ and it will be all right—”
“The MAIN thing is, maybe you’d better be kind of careful, Vicki, so you’ll be all right—”
“‘Cause Kinks can get sort of weirdish, y’know, when she thinks she’s jealous—”
(The Bobbseys had gone to school with her since third grade, when she was known as Annamaria; and Kinks still lived in their neighborhood on Whierry Way.)
“Well,” said Vicki, “tell her she’d be wasting her time being jealous of me. I am not dating John Alphonse anymore.”
“Really?” chorused the Bobbseys, who both had crushes-from-afar on him.
“I’m not dating anyone anymore, for awhile. I’m sick and tired of how guys act.”
“Well, if you’re sick of guys you should date a sweetiepie like Terry Blitstein,” suggested Caroline.
“He is not my sweetiepie! We are Just—Good—Friends!” insisted Karen Lee.
“ANYWAY,” went Vicki, “tell Kinks her best bet for winning Phonsie back would be to leave him the hell alone.”
The Bobbsey Twins pledged to pass this along; but Kinks evidently heard only the last five words, and took them as a challenge.
That night at Jupiter Street, Vicki and Joss watched the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and found it a bit of a fizzleflop. After seven seasons, couldn’t Mary have come up with a better bow-out than “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”? Joss was unpacking her cornet to demonstrate how much better “Never Can Say Goodbye” would’ve been, when the aerie phone rang.
“Murrisch residence... yeah, she’s here... s’for you,” to Vicki, handing her the receiver.
Silence at the other end; then a dial tone.
When the same thing happened twenty minutes later, she got mildly worried and called Burrow Lane, where Goofus grumped that some dumb girl had been asking for Vicki and he’d notified her that his dumb sister had gone over to her dumb friend Joss’s house. Now could everyone stop bothering him? Starsky and Hutch was about to start!
Click from Goofus. Mmph from Vicki as she hung up too. RING from the phone while it was still in her hand. Yelp and thump as she dropped it on the floor. Dial tone by the time she picked it up.
The girls had begun a game of Sorry! with Beth and Invisible Amy, when the phone rang yet again.
“Is this Kinks Farghetti??” Vicki snarled into it.
“(Why the hell would I want to be that?)”
“Feef! Oh—hi! Did I drop the phone on you awhile ago?”
“(Did you do what to me when now?)”
Fiona’d just returned to the Plexiglass Palace after buying The Weather Conspiracy at Cobwebs & Strange, and dining on Polynesian eggrolls at Shanghai Lil’s. Vicki commended her expanding appetite, then told Feef about Kinks’s potential weirdishness.
“(You think you’ve got problems? At least you don’t have to share a bedroom with Tweety Snot!)”
Chloe Rumpelmagen, newly teenaged, had landed her first official boyfriend: a fellow sevvie named Bart Schtapp. If that alone weren’t enough to convulse Patches and her other brothers, the heart-enclosed “C.R. + B.S.” motifs Chloe was doodling everywhere were sure to cinch their hysteria.
And Chloe’d begun putting on what Fiona considered snippy-assed airs, treating Feef with pity and condescension instead of timorous reverence. Chloe had a boyfriend now; Fiona had none. Chloe was going out on indubitable dates; Fiona stayed home alone, trying to compose songs. Singlehandedly too, without a collaborator, as in the good old days before Britt was admitted to the band—
—and having no more success than in the bad old nights of Psmith-block.
She’d set one passage from Joss’s Connstung to music, but with next to no lyrical input; and then Robin whistled down her attempt to play it before Feef got halfway through.
“Jesus, are you writing for Helen Reddy now?”
On which dismissive note, Robin changed the subject to how utterly unsatisfactory Arlo Sowell was at all things l’amour—curtailing this diatribe so she could don rubber hipboots, head for the Lake, and go smelt-netting with Arlo.
(It took more than a plate of Polynesian eggrolls to disremember a thing like that.)
“SORRY!” said Beth at the gameboard, on behalf of Invisible Amy.
The first week of spring saw snow return to The Cityland, astonishing no one there except the imprudently optimistic. (Such as Cass Rumpelmagen, who’d planned to put in a new bed of bare-root roses.)
It also saw Vicki trying to wriggle off Kinks Farghetti’s hook—if you could call it a “hook” when it felt more like a smelt-net, shapeless yet restrictive; or a fishbowl, through which two lidless gorgon-eyes kept scrutinizing her. Vicki’d felt that sensation before, and hadn’t savored it then, and didn’t relish it now.
Especially not when it emanated from an eighth-grader. Kinks belonged down on 8-Z with the Bobbseys, but didn’t let that inhibit her from sneaking upstairs to spy on the third floor. Back in Vicki’s day (a year ago) only the boldest or most reckless eighter (e.g. Roger Mustardman) would’ve dared do such a thing! And it was no joy having a bold-or-reckless Daytime Night Stalker on your disrespected tail, even if all Kinks did was reconnoiter. Who knew what that could spiral into?
Try to confront her—try even to draw near her—and Kinks transformed from gorgon-fish to kitchen-insect, scuttling into the sink and down its drain. (Eww...) Stretch your mouth to its widest extent and repeat: I—am—NOT—dating—him!—which only compelled temporary retreats.
How to get rid of her? Tattle to Mr. O’Brien or Mrs. Driscoll?—and charge Kinks with what? Trespassing, voyeurism, making you squeal like a paranoid fruitbat?
No! Not Loopy the Enforcer, pride of the Pfiester Park Pherrettes.
But before you could arrange a hit job, John Alphonse took a non-exclusive trot round the bases with LeAnn Anobile, who might be none too bright but was extra cuddlesome in a cold snap. Surely that qualified as an off-the-hook (out of the fishbowl, away from the smelt-net) wriggle opportunity!
So Vicki, pulling rank as Z-Wing’s chief Secretary, obtained the number of Farghetti, Annamaria’s second-floor locker; and through its vent inserted a cease-and-desist (‘cause-you’re-barking-up-the-wrong-tree) order, as authoritative as she could contrive it—with technical assistance from Gumbo Krauss.
“Haw haw haw haw!”
“Quit laughing about this! Quit it, Gumbo, or I’ll have Joss clobber you!”
“Oooh, please do! With rawhide, while dressed like a cowgirl—”
(Aargh! Of all the degenerate lowlifes Joss had to throw herself away on...)
The cease-and-desist’s postscript—And for your information, Phonsie’s going with LeAnn Anobile now—cost Vicki a pang of conscience. But LeAnn was such a dimbulb she probably wouldn’t even realize she was being stalked; and as the snowy week wore on, Vicki did sense gradually diminishing gorgon-scrutiny.
If she still felt ensnared by a net, it was just the old grab-bag of imminent midterms.
She and Fiona wrote their meteorology paper without Carly, who (given Vicki’s blessing and Feef’s good-riddance) defected to do her project with Tail-End. Carly’s ex-lab-partners suspected he wrote every syllable of “How Air Masses Collide,” in exchange for her warm front bending over his homeroom desk every morning in a half-unbuttoned blouse.
Mrs. Hurlburt finally commented on this phenomenon, saying: “I have a supply of safety pins here, Carly—feel free to avail yourself.”
“(Instead of unveil herself,)” Fiona muttered to Vicki.
Other than exhibitionism, the impetus behind this was Keiko Nakayama’s fall from tutorial grace. Her parents had heard how pretty she’d looked at the Vinyl Spinnaker; and since no daughter of theirs had any business looking pretty at disco concerts, they’d given Keiko a dressing-down and severed her ties to Carly Thibert, even the academic ones. Or so they believed: Keiko and her Carly Godmother continued hanging out on the defiant sly, with schoolwork the furthest thing from either of their minds.
No such frivoling for Vicki’s bunch as midterms descended like a swarm of hungry hornets. As per usual, each teacher behaved as though his or her course were the only one on your book-hitting, oil-burning menu. It hardly seemed possible that studying for tests in senior high or even college could be a greater ordeal. (In college, at least, you’d be able to empty a keg or two at your cram sessions; here and now you had to wash down erudition with Mr. Newports and Dr. Peppers.)
Algebra: review exponents, polynomials, factoring. Language Arts: reread grammar, vocabulary, poetic analysis. Earth Science: go over world climates, wind and air pressure, weather prediction. Civics: memorize, in their entirety, the executive and judicial branches of government.
This last class was especially fiendish for Mr. Koehler’s third period honor students. “Advanced placement,” as Mr. K stated twice a week, “imposes higher benchmarks of thought and conduct.” Meaning there’d be no facile true/false questions on his midterm, nor readily-guessable fill-in-the-blanks. Even the multiple-choices would be boobytrapped with options like “A and C” or “All but D”—so you could know most of an answer and still get the question wrong.
Then too, old Mr. Koehler was the kind of teacher whose viewpoint you’d do well to parrot in your mini-essays. Pile it on by agreeing that Jimmy Carter, in the ten weeks he’d occupied the White House, had brought America to the brink of calamity by:
A) Walking down Pennsylvania Avenue during the inaugural parade
B) Pardoning all Vietnam War draft dodgers
C) Appointing Communist sympathizers to high office
D) Offering Red China a discount on peanut exports
E) Calling for bans on saccharin and nuclear testing
F) All of the above but D
G) A, B, and E
Artie Rist, though no fan of Jimmy Carter—“Exploiting the masses with fake populism!”—was not about to toe that line, and spent more time preparing a strident protest of his anticipated grade than in actual study for the test. Howard Ullmann, contrariwise, had an A+ locked up—unless he forfeited the “+” through mind-numbing turgidity.
Blame the alphabet for seating this stodgemaster next to Vicki in the back row of Advanced Civics; and blame the apathetic voters of 9-Z for electing him their Vice President, simply because Howard Ullmann (no relation to Liv) was the sort to seek such a position. His idea of a pickup line was to read aloud tidbits from National Review or American Spectator; and every time Howard mounted one of these tedious come-ons, Vicki wished Fiona were seated on her other side so they could trade eloquent eyerolls.
But Feef didn’t have Civics till sixth period, so Vicki had to make do with Madeline Wrippley. This was a sober little mouse of the Sarah-Jill Shapiro species, and just as inept at understanding jokes. When Buddy Marcellus told her to change a couple letters of her last name so she’d be entitled to a Field full of chewing gum, Maddie’s reaction was deadpan puzzlement.
As Mr. Koehler’s student aide she really belonged in the front row with Alex and Becca; but Maddie was a stickler for alphanumeric order and kept to the back row, even if that meant being seated next to Tail-End and having to bear constant witness to his spluttery missteps. Each time he’d drop something or knock something off his (or her) desk, Maddie would give Tail-End a teetotal glance, an abstinent headshake, and a parsimonious it’s-down-over-there fingerpoint.
“Seriously, doesn’t he drive you distracted?” Vicki asked her once.
“Distraction is a trap to back away from,” deadpanned Madeline: looking fifteen and sounding fifty.
To compensate for these neighbors, the alphabet placed Vicki behind Jerome Schei, who’d adopted Charles Nelson Reilly as his role model and was second only to Laurie Harrison as VW’s topnotch gossip. (Susie Zane’d had to gently edify Laurie why Jerome, despite his handsome physique and better-than-average hygiene, might not be conventional boyfriend material.)
He tended to spend the first minutes of third period twisted around in his chair, filling Vicki in on all the latest latest. Mr. Koehler’d learned not to ask, “Do you have something to share with the rest of us, Mr. Schei?” since Jerome would reply, “YES I DO!” and spring up to spread the latest latest wealth.
But at 10 a.m. on Thursday, March 31st, Jerome was as face-forward-focused as Mr. K could ask, poring over his notes on War Powers and Cabinet-Level Officers and the Electoral College and Federal/State/District Courts and Marbury v. Madison; as were his classmates in their individual ways, ranging from the superorganized (Alex, Becca, Madeline Wrippley) to the bombastic (Artie Rist, Howard Ullmann) to the carefree (Keiko Nakayama, shuffling her index cards like a riverboat shill) to the popeyed (Tail-End, pawing through his jumbled ring binder when Tony Pierro asked to borrow a pencil)—
thock! thock! thock! went the gavel in Mr. Koehler’s hand.
His Civics students gathered all books and folders and non-writing-instruments, stuffing these into the wire racks beneath their desks.
Mr. K assessed the honors class briefly yet cuttingly, like a well-honed guillotine blade. (thock!)
“Do not begin until I give the word,” he decreed, passing out the exams facedown for good measure. Another steely-sharp gaze raked the room, and then: “Begin!”
Over flapped the papers; groan went the class; skritch skritch skritch began their various writing instruments.
Vicki was picking her way through “Define these types of jurisdiction: Original, Appellate, Exclusive, Concurrent,” with a sub-grumble that Gahd! we’re in ninth grade, not law school! and vague cognizance of Mr. K patrolling the aisles between the desks, when there came a sudden “ulp” from the side of the room—
Two dozen heads swiveled ulpwards.
“EYES DOWN!” sliced Mr. Koehler’s ice-edged voice.
Two dozen necks got hasty-compliance cricks.
“(All right—both of you—out of here,)” sotto’d Mr. K.
Two dozen peripheral visions strained four dozen sockets as Tony Pierro (deathly pale) and Byron Wyszynski (twitching fitfully) removed themselves from Z305.
Mr. K shadowed them to the doorway and straddled its threshold, one rheumy iris trained on his deportees in the hall, the other circling his two dozen holdovers like a ravenous hawk.
Which did not make it any easier for those holdovers to give suitable examples of ambassadorial duties, or differentiate the Interior Department’s function from the Agriculture Department’s.
Had there been an accident? A medical emergency? That could account for the “ulp,” the twitching, the pasty-white face. Had Tail-End, succumbing to stress, thrown ulp like Wernie Ball back in fifth grade? Who’d barfed tuna noodles over his desk and Eileen Agnew’s beside it, sending her into a panic frenzy—“Is it on me?? Did he get any on me??”
“TEN MINUTES LEFT,” announced Mr. Koehler’s visible half, his visible hand holding what appeared to be a broken writing instrument.
Aargh! This wasn’t doing anything to relieve your own tummy-tension. Treat it like you would a home stretch in cross country—breathing deep and slow, staying straight and smooth with every skritch of your #2 Ticonderoga:
|Habeas Corpus The right of an arrested person to be brought before a judge or court, and given a reason why [erase erase erase] a legal reason why he or she should be given detention [erase erase erase] remain in custardy [erase erase erase] stay in jail.|
Jerome Schei’s handsome physique nearly got ruptured over the next hour, trying to contain its snoopiness about what had happened. During free period Jerome nabbed Laurie (in a Just Good Friendly way) and together they pumped the cafeteria crowd at lunch; but by final bell all they could say for certain was [a] Tony and Tail-End had been escorted to Mr. O’Brien’s office, [b] neither’d been seen leaving it, [c] or in any of their afternoon classes.
On which unsatisfyingly inadequate note, midterms ended and spring break began at 3:15 p.m.
Vanderlund Township only got Friday and Monday off, so you could scarcely call this a vacation; but Alex Dmitria would be heading downstate on Saturday to attend an orientation workshop for the Wrangler-in-Training job she’d have at Summer Horse Camp. (“We Make Everyone a Whinny-er!”)
Before she departed, Alex joined Vicki and Joss for their Friday night sleepover at Burrow Lane, to which she brought her remaining stock of Scot-Teas and Lemon Crèmes. Vanderlund’s Stop-ERA Committee had declared a cookie boycott after the Girl Scouts endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment, but a counterprotest boosted sales dramatically; Felicia Volester’d ordered six boxes of the new Cheddarette crackers, donating some of these as sleepover nosh-goodies.
The girls persuaded Fiona to come bunk in too. She was raring to escape from Chloe’s conceits for a night, even while thinking it an April Fool’s joke to be paired with Alex in Tricia’s room—Feef taking the bed, Alex the carpet in her trefoil-emblazoned sleeping bag.
“We are gonna have such a blast!” Alex enthused.
“(If I wake up brainwashed into going on a hike, I’m blaming you two,)” Fiona warned Joss and Vicki.
Besides cookies, Alex brought a breaking news bulletin from Marshall McConchie, President of 9-X and the Frosh Board, which doubled as VW’s Student Court. Marshall (who looked and sounded like Gregory Peck in The Omen) had phoned Alex and Mike Spurgeon, his fellow team presidents, to alert them that Student Court would hold a special meeting Tuesday afternoon, followed by a hearing next Friday of the school’s case against Tony and Tail-End—accused of conspiring to cheat on the Advanced Civics midterm.
“I’m sure this is all a big misunderstanding,” said Alex. “Student Court’ll clear it all up, but till then we’d better not talk about it—”
“AL-ex! We’re only human, y’know!”
“And girl humans, too—we have to talk about it!”
“No no no no, we’ve got to keep absolutely impartial! Vicki and I do, at least!”
“Well, Feef and I don’t!” Joss retorted.
Fiona raised a hand to affirm indifference. “(There’s a Late Movie on tonight that you Justices can watch, about trials and testimony—no it is not boring; I’ve seen it before and want to watch it again. But for right now, can we please make some music?)”
She’d brought her Fender, Joss got out her cornet, and Alex and Vicki looked over Feef’s score for “Salvage Me,” the Connstung extract that Robin hadn’t liked.
“Could it be more like a ballad, do you think?” asked Alex.
“(Dartles don’t do ‘ballads,’)” Fiona muttered.
Vicki ahem’d and Joss went “Well...” but Alex said, “Why not try it a few different ways and see?” Though not opera-voiced like Crystal Denvour, she had a flair for tempo changes and put this to use singing variations on Feef’s rock-‘em-sock-‘em beat. Joss played the alternate takes receptively, Vicki sang them diplomatically, and Fiona performed with a chip on her shoulder under her bass strap.
Yet even she took active part in rearranging “Salvage Me” along jazzier, bluesier lines. The result was seductively rhythmic, not unlike Joni Mitchell’s new Hejira album:
No regrets, Coyote; a strange boy is weaving dreams and false alarms...
“(Not bad,)” Feef allowed.
“Not bad? It was fantabulous!” Joss rejoiced. “If I’d had a tune in my head when I was writing the words, that woulda been the tune! And Alex! You just earned your Girl Scout chanteuse patch, if they have those!”
“Really!” Vicki agreed. “Course, you’ll have to sew it on a slinky lowcut nightclub gown—”
“Yeah, with a slit up one side so you can stretch out on top of my piano—”
“Oh stop it, you guys!” Alex blushed. “I do like how that song’s turned out, but you’ll have to be real careful to pronounce the L in ‘salvage,’ or else it’ll sound like you’re singing ‘Savage Me.’”
(Smothered snortles by those who’d read or written The Horns of Africa.)
Music having been made, the girls opened fresh boxes of Scot-Teas and Lemon Crèmes and settled down for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, after evicting Goofus from the family room. He claimed he’d had a “bad dream” and needed snuggle-comfort from Alex, who would’ve gladly supplied it if Vicki hadn’t chased Goof’s fraudulent butt upstairs.
“Aw! Why’d you do that?” went Alex.
“‘Cause he’s never gone to sleep before midnight on a Friday in his life! He was just pulling another April Fool on you,” said Vicki, sparing her from the gruesome truth that Goofus, at going-on-eleven, was groping ever closer to hornyboyhood.
“What’s this show about again?” asked clean-living Alex, who normally hit the hay by 10 p.m. The others gave her a bowdlerized lowdown on Fernwood USA, little suspecting that before the month was through, Louise Lasser would quit and Mary Hartman be cancelled: sic transit syndicated gloria mundi.
Then came Fiona’s Late Movie, Witness for the Prosecution, during which she sat complacently back while the others roared at Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, gasped “NO WAY!” at Marlene Dietrich’s tour de force, and agreed that Tony Pierro would probably look like Tyrone Power in twenty or thirty years. Also that his character’s being named Leonard Vole must be a sign—obscure, yet unambiguous—that Vicki and Tony were destined to wind up together.
“But we get to pick out our bridesmaid outfits,” said Joss.
“With slits up the side, so we can sing in them,” laughed Alex.
“(You guys are talking weird,)” muttered Fiona.
Talking about Tony reminded the girls of the indictment against him, yet Alex still wouldn’t permit any chitchat on such a delicate matter.
“And for heaven’s sake, please don’t let Laurie hear a word about it till after I leave town tomorrow morning!”
Needless to say, Laurie’s bunny-ears were extra-busy during spring break, and she came to school on Tuesday the 5th with a bushel of plausible rumors. This somebody’d heard Mrs. Pierro had taken to her bed when Tony got suspended! That somebody’d seen Tail-End wandering around with a black eye and bloody nose! T’other somebody’d said Student Court’s special meeting would be held in HB226—Miss Stabeldore’s Home Base Typing room—where Laurie and Vicki just happened to have their seventh period class.
Laurie was bursting with schemes to hide under this/that/t’other to eavesdrop on the proceedings; but Vicki was bursting with too many trips to the drinking fountain (to dampen down tummy-butterflies). At 3:15 she had to make a mad dash for the washroom, and ended up being the last person to enter HB226 for the 3:30 meeting. Laurie, though, was the last one to be chucked out, and even then loitered nearby with Susie, Tina Korva, and Jerome Schei.
“We’re just talking about bowling!” Jerome dissembled.
“Kindly close that door behind you, Miss Volester,” requested Mr. O’Brien.
Vicki did so, then edged through rows of covered typewriters and aisles of freshman potentates. Marshall McConchie (President of 9-X) stood up front, gravely parleying with Mr. O’Brien and Mr. Koehler; Howard Ullmann (Vice President of 9-Z) hovered weightily at their elbows. Gumbo Krauss and Buddy Marcellus (Treasurers of 9-Y and 9-Z) were guffawing in one corner; in another, Mike Spurgeon (President of 9-Y) carried on a full-scale flirtation with Irina Saranoff (Treasurer of 9-X) while she tossed and twirled and tantalized her hair. You never saw Irina not doing this; she even referred to her crowning glory in the third person—“Don’t touch the hair,” rather than “my hair”—as if it were some tawny jungle beast that she alone could tame.
(Speaking of a third person: Irina and the hair were supposedly going with Sell-O Fayne, yet here they were shaking their stuff at the King of the Towheads! So whatever else might happen, Vicki’d have a juicy nugget to feed the Gossip Brigade outside.)
Fast Eddie Wainwright (Vice President of 9-X) was glancing impatiently at his watch as he tapped restless gym shoes on the floor, wanting to bolt for baseball practice. Sheila-Q and Crystal had each dated Eddie in the past, but only briefly because he was a come ahn! come ahn! cut to the damn chase already! sort of person, like all the Wainwrights.
Gigi Pyle (Vice President of 9-Y) seemed every bit as eager for this affair to be over and done with, as she sat fretting over how many minutes would be stolen from Carnival musical time. Kim Zimmer (Secretary of 9-Y) crouched by her side, glaring acidulously at Vicki; who paid Kim minimal mind as she took a seat next to Alex (President of 9-Z) and Hope “Esperanza” Eckhardt (Secretary of 9-X).
“¡Hola Victoria!” they greeted her, Hope adding “¿Estás listo para juzgar?”
“Um, hi, sure,” went Vicki. (Am I ready for... what now?)
Hope was a large and somewhat disheveled girl, who somehow always smelled like hot vegetable broth. She also reigned as VW’s campeóna de español, her accent as true or truer even than Alejandra Dmitria’s, despite not having a drop of Latin blood.
“¡No puedo creer que alguien pudiera ser tan estúpido como para hacer trampa en un examen!” Hope exhaled soupily.
“Ahora, no sabemos todavía si alguien hizo trampa,” cautioned Alex.
What does “trampa” mean again? Vicki wondered. Could they be talking about Irina Saranoff?
“We’d better get started,” said Marshall McConchie, every inch a teen Atticus Finch.
The Freshman Executive Board met twice monthly: once as itself, and two weeks later as VW’s Student Court. In the latter guise it meted out “kangaroo jurisprudence,” as Roger Mustardman quipped whenever the Smarks Brothers got hauled before it. There was a lot of rhetoric (high-blown and feather-layered, like the Saranoff coif) about “resolving disputes through interpretation of school bylaws by one’s peers”—which meant that [a] miscreants could appeal detentions and suspensions, [b] Student Court could review these, usually after they were served, and either [c] uphold the disciplinary actions or [d] send them back for the faculty to modify. If no miscreant bothered to file an appeal in any given month, Vice Principal O’Brien would arbitrarily pick a case for “learning purpose” appraisal.
The chief justiceship rotated monthly between the three team presidents; two prosecutors and two defense counsels were selected by lot, along with a bailiff who doubled as court clerk. The other six members filled in as that month’s associate justices, putting them next in line to be saddled with a more demanding job next month.
Before this semester, Vicki’s bunch’s involvements with Student Court had been limited to [a] when Robin’d appealed her detention for ditching school after Fiona passed out (Chief Justice Lisa Lohe expressed formal sympathy but sustained the punishment) and [b] last fall, when they’d thrown the book at those slimeballs who caused the Back-to-School Dance debacle. (Lenny Otis, Dino Tattaglia, Dwight Whitehead and Roy Hodeau each received a week’s suspension, which suited them just fine.)
Then Vicki’d been elected to Frosh Board and picked as bailiff/clerk for the February Court hearing. Howard Ullmann had prosecuted four sevvies caught smoking in a john, and Chief Justice Alex lectured them for so long about the perils of tobacco that the sevvies cried foul: they’d done time for their crime, and now had to put up with this?
In March a habitually tardy eighter got tried (in absentia) with Chief Justice Mike obliging prosecutor Eddie by rushing to judgment in the least amount of time permissible. Vicki, an Associate Justice for that hearing, barely had time to cast her vote before Court was adjourned; and now in April she was liable for assignment to a busier role in a messier case.
As this month’s Chief Justice, Marshall called on Mr. Koehler to present the facts of VW vs. Pierro & Wyszynski. This Mr. K did in a funereal voice, wearing a black bow tie instead of his trademark blue polka dot:
Tony, just before the midterm started, had asked to borrow a pencil from Tail-End, who sat directly behind him. Tail-End had handed over a Scripto mechanical pencil, which Mr. Koehler later spotted in a state of disassembly on Tony’s desk, with a thin slip of paper tucked inside the barrel. Upon this slip, in tiny yet legible printing, was a condensed recap of the Advanced Civics third-quarter syllabus.
(Gumbo, Buddy, Fast Eddie, and Mike and all appeared impressed by this subterfuge.)
Further facts: Tony and Tail-End were given automatic F’s on the test and a week’s suspension for cheating. Both boys denied the charge, Tail-End saying he hadn’t prepared the cheatsheet or placed it in the Scripto, and Tony that it’d “just come apart” in his hand to reveal wholly unexpected innards.
“Thank you, Mr. Koehler,” said the Vice Principal. “I need not remind you young people how very seriously we take all forms of cheating, including plagiarism—” (making everyone jump and squirm, including those who thought “plagiarism” was some kind of Biblical epidemic).
Howard—who, like Vicki and Alex, hadn’t witnessed enough of the alleged transactions to be recused—put up a heavy hand. “Did they plagiarize too, Mr. O’Brien?”
“As I see it, Mr. Ullmann, anyone who cheats on a test is stealing credit for someone else’s work. To do this, or to assist another student to cheat or steal—these are bad enough. But then to lie about it doubles the infraction, particularly in a class of honor students!”
(Another group jump-and-squirm.)
“The penalty for that,” Mr. Koehler crisply interjected, “can be expulsion.”
“Even so, we are prepared to extend some leniency,” said Mr. O’Brien, though his goatee seemed to disagree. “If the boys admit their guilt, there will be an additional week of detention starting next Monday; a failing grade for the third quarter of Advanced Civics; and demotion to a standard Civics class for the fourth quarter. We leave it to you, their peers, to convince these boys this is more than fair.”
Alex, raising her hand, asked a question only she would pose: “What if we find them innocent?”
Short pause. Then Mr. Koehler replied, “We’ll burn that bridge if and when we have to cross it.”
Longer pause. Then Marshall put the names of last month’s associate justices in Eddie’s varsity Beetle baseball cap, and drew forth five designees:
bailiff/clerk Alex Dmitria
prosecution Morey Krauss and Hope Eckhardt
defense Vicki Volester and Gigi Pyle
“WHAT??” went Gigi. “No! Ah don’t have time for this! Pick somebody else!”
“The selection has been made, Miss Pyle,” frowned the Vice Principal.
“Well, can’t we just go ahead and find ‘em guilty now?”
“That is hardly the right attitude for a defense counsel, young lady!” exclaimed Mr. Koehler.
“You may be excused,” said Mr. O’Brien, “providing you resign from the Freshman Executive Board.”
Hesitant lull in Gigi’s storm.
Marshall (like Gregory Peck as the Marooned flight director) took advantage of this lull to move for adjournment till 3:30 p.m. on Friday the 8th. Eddie Wainwright loudly seconded, and Student Court dispersed before Gigi could rally and object.
“Ah do NOT have time for this!” she futilely reiterated.
“This is important, Gigi, and won’t take that long,” said Alex the advocate, with everyone sidestepping around them except Kim, Hope, and Vicki (who wanted to leave but was stuck behind bulky “Esperanza”).
“You’re so raht,” Gigi swiftly do-si-do’d. “‘Scuse us Alex, ‘scuse us Hope—Ah got to confer with mah other defender.” Making room for them to withdraw, which they promptly did; leaving Gigi (and Kim) to confer with Vicki alone.
“Okay, what?” Vicki bravely pherretted.
“Oh, it’s yew!” went Gigi, connecting the face to the name to the past. “All raht then, looky here: yew owe me one, bigtime—”
“Do too! I hadda give up a whole dinner party ‘cause of your stupid disco concert!”
“Yeah!” contributed Kim.
“But here’s the deal,” said Gigi. “Yew handle this Court gobbledygook without me having to do anything, and I’ll call it even. ‘Kay?”
Vicki contemplated asking if this wouldn’t be cheating-or-plagiarism, but thought better of it. “You’ll have to say something on Friday, y’know—”
“Oh that’s easy—just jot down mah lines and Ah’ll read ‘em like Ah’m checking mah notes.” Her beautiful Everglade eyes widened, then narrowed. “Yew were the one helped Candy Gates with last year’s musical, weren’t yew?”
“Well, sort of...”
“We should talk about Carnival. Maybe yew could help out again—”
“HEY!” quacked Kim Zimmer.
“Hey what?” went Gigi.
“Maybe I could help, but only if you do me a favor,” Vicki said stoutly. “Next time you talk to Sid Erbsen, tell him to quit giving me the runaround!”
Gigi’s Everglades bulged like twin swampbubbles, as they’d done that day she’d acted naked-on-an-auction-block in the cafeteria. “(How d’y’know ‘bout him?)” she breathed.
“Hunh? He’s the Cicada photographer—I’ve been after him for weeks now to retake our staff yearbook picture. Pretty soon it’ll be too late!”
“Ohhhh,” went Gigi, smoothing down the front of her dress (another simple unsullied country-orphan frock) with a deep relieved sigh. Then, re-narrowing: “Why’d yew think Ah’d be talking to him?”
“Well,” said Vicki, “he’s part of Drama Club, isn’t he? And—um—didn’t I see you two the other day at that ‘Darlykin’ restaurant? I mean it kind of looked like Sid Erbsen, the guy you were with...”
“(He wouldn’t be in the musical,)” said Gigi, drawl sinking back to a whisper. “(Ah asked ‘n’ asked, but... but... he just kept saying no.)”
“Hmm,” went Vicki, surprised that any male could resist Gigi Pyle and her but-buts; even Jerome Schei kowtowed to them. “Guess he’s giving us both the runaround.”
“(And the thing of it is? Ah didn’t want him. Isn’t that crazy? Ah didn’t even want him,)” Gigi reverie’d, drifting out of the Typing room.
Kim Zimmer lingered a moment longer, small fingers curled into small claws, to seethe at Vicki: “She’s MY friend! MINE! And don’t—you—forget it!”
Stamp of small foot, whirl on small heel, and scuttle after her drifting friend.
Vicki was glad not to have to work with Gigi on a day-to-day basis, especially since Kim had taken to the manic-demented warpath. But someone was needed to divvy up the defense work with, because—after all!—she had a life of her own to lead this week, culminating Saturday in a Led Zeppelin concert at The City’s most famous Madhouse.
“I still can’t believe Meg ‘n’ Brooksy are taking us!” Joss raved that night during their pre-bedtime phone call. “Even if it is my birthday present and the rest of you had to pay for your tickets. But I can’t believe Brooksy wheedled Meg into letting us go with them! Too bad he’s such a drip at being her boyfriend—otherwise I might try to swipe him out from under Meg’s nose (which sounds really gross) like ‘Taters’ did to Sheila-Q!”
“Dare you to try it!” said Vicki. “Wear your turquoise tanktop to the concert, and—”
“I can’t, you know I can’t, I mean I could (especially in that tank) but I can’t, he’s asked her to the senior prom and everything. And besides: speaking of Gumbo—”
“—who’s speaking of Gumbo? I wasn’t speaking of Gumbo—”
“Uh hunh, sure you weren’t—so anyway: I really do wish I could help you with the trial and all. But (sigh) I suppose you’d better watch what you say to me about it, till the whole thing’s over.”
Too true: your dearest, most faithful friend was dating half the prosecution team. And apt to spill anything confidential she might hear regarding the case, if it struck her as sufficiently funny.
Entrust Joss with a solemn secret, and she’d keep it mum even under torture. But let it be funny-haha, funny-strange, or funny-sick (like sealing a deal by French-kissing Roger Mustardman) and she could only swear to do her best not to blab. Joss was aware of this—“my only fault”—and vowed to join Blurters Anonymous the moment such an organization got founded.
Likewise unavailable to help the defense was Alex, who’d self-administered an oath of strict neutrality in her role as bailiff/clerk. So Vicki turned to Fiona, who might not lose any sleep if “Gollum” sold himself up the river, yet would leap (insofar as Feef ever leaped) at a chance to assist if it meant getting away from the Plexiglass Palace.
“(This’ll save Chloe’s life, y’know. Her neck, at least. And me from being sent to jail for wringing it.)”
“Oh please don’t—not this week! I’ve got enough criminals to defend as it is.”
And just three days to goad two guys into taking the rap for their misbehavior. Or, possibly, three days to prove their innocence. Either way—three days.
Wednesday after school Vicki and Fiona took the bus to the Columbine Delicatessen, where Tony Pierro had one of his part-time jobs—the one, in fact, for which he’d good-as-stood-up Vicki the day of the indoor track meet. On the bus, though, Vicki indulged in a bit of fantasizing: she would play Nancy Drew and uncover a clue in some old clock or hidden staircase that would totally exonerate Tony, making him more grateful than words could express—so he’d have to do his expressing with deeds. Such as lip-upon-lip.
There was a new Nancy Drew TV series on Sunday nights, alternating weekly with the Hardy Boys, but Vicki’d only been able to stomach a few episodes. They’d smushed George and Bess into a single character, eliminated Hannah Gruen and made Ned Nickerson a nearsighted nerd! It was like nobody involved had ever read a Nancy Drew book, even the wishy-washy recent editions.
Joss had all the blue-covered originals, inherited from her mother, and (being Joss) had indexed every unintentionally suggestive scene. Some were mild—in The Clue of the Tapping Heels, Nancy “half expected to see a colored man leering at me”—but there was an actual line in Password to Larkspur Lane where “men ejaculated in astonishment” when Nancy told them “I promise nothing.” Even more hilarious was Joss’s re-enactment of asking Meg, “What does this word mean?” and Meg’s discombobulated response. Vicki’d howled for half an hour the first time she’d seen this, and still cracked up at the memory.
“Hee hee hee hee hee!...”
You okay? mouthed Fiona, inaudible over the bus noise.
They found Tony Pierro staunchly pushing a broom around the somnolent little corner deli on Whierry Way, whose drab walls were hung with once-cheerful, now-faded mottos. you’ll never see pasta whipped up any fasta, boasted one; more than stars make you drool when you try our fagioli, emoted another.
“All right if I take five, Mr. F?” Tony asked a granite-gray man at the butcher block.
“No schmoozing. Keep sweeping.”
“But they’re here about me and school.”
Mr. F sized up Vicki and Fiona: a couple of foxy ladies. “When I went to school, one plus two equaled a crowd.”
“We’ll buy a couple of pops,” said Vicki the businesswoman, reaching for her purse. “Please, let me,” offered Tony, pouring two root beers on the rocks and carrying them to an empty booth. “Five minutes, Mr. F.”
“Keep it about school and make it snappy.”
Tony slid into the booth across from the girls. “It sure means a lot, you helping me straighten this out.”
“(They picked her name out of a hat,)” Fiona informed him. “(I’m just along for the ride.)”
“Feef!” went Vicki.
“Sorry?” went Tony, blinking big brown diffident-puddyboy eyes, before which Fiona’s wavered and fell. “Look, I didn’t need to cheat on that test! Except for losing my pencil after second period, I was ready for it! I studied the whole night before—Annie helped me, she can tell you!”
“Annie’s your sister?” asked Vicki.
“No, she’s—well, I guess you can say she’s my girlfriend. Yeah!” smiled Tony as the bell over the deli door went cling. “Here she is now! Speak of the dev—well, I don’t wanna call her a dev—”
As onto the seat beside him undulated Kinks Farghetti.
“Ciao, piccola colomba!” called Mr. F from the butcher block.
“Hi Dad,” replied Kinks, flatly.
“Isn’t she great?” beamed Tony, sneaking an arm round her circuitous waist after checking that Mr. F(arghetti) couldn’t see it happen. “We’ve always kinda known each other, specially since I began working here, but we didn’t get together till our study date last week. Hey, that was a Wednesday too! This is sorta like our anniversary!”
Giving Kinks an extra squeeze, which did not budge her stone-cold stare at Vicki one iota. Her hair, on the other hand—Irina Saranoff would be running both hands through her (make that the) hair, twining the tresses into long coils before letting them slowly unwind. Kinks could do all that without lifting a finger, causing every lock and strand to rise and point Vicki’s way.
While Tony displayed nary a trace of embarrassment.
OH!! You asked me out on a Wednesday, Mr. Anniversary-Rememberer—just three weeks ago! And then asked for a “raincheck” I don’t hear you mentioning to me or your “girlfriend” who just two weeks ago was obsessed with John Alphonse—so much so, I had to stick a cease-and-desist through her locker vent! Then she started stalking you, and you let her capture you, and now expect me to defend you from accusations of CHEATING??
“(Aren’t you in eighth grade?)” asked Fiona.
“So?” went Kinks.
“(So what do you know about Freshman Civics?)”
“I can open his book and read it, can’t I?”
“Yeah, she opened my Civics book and quizzed me about it,” Tony confirmed.
“Okay then—define ‘appellate jurisdiction’ for us!” demanded Vicki.
“I don’t have the book on me—”
“C’mon, she doesn’t have it on her,” Tony corroborated.
“—but, since you ask: it’s reviewing and maybe changing a lower court’s decision when it gets appealed,” said Kinks, with Tony chiming in on the last two words.
“Isn’t she great?” he repeated adoringly.
Vicki took a long swig of root beer, its ice no colder than Kinks’s inflexible gaze; while Fiona, shoving her drink aside, got to her feet with a sigh.
“(Long as I’m here, I might as well check out the liverwurst.)”
Vicki went aargh aargh aargh all the way home.
This was why Tony’s strings got unpulled, the day of the track meet! It was Kinks’s revenge for Phonsie’s kissing Vicki at the Darlykin restaurant! Miss Medusa had sensed that Vicki really wanted to date Tony—which any sane Phonz-lover would’ve encouraged and helped to happen, thus clearing the Phonsie-field for herself (if not LeAnn Anobile). But no! Kinks Faargh-etti had to play jinx and steal Tony’s heart—plagiarize it away, before Vicki could exercise her entitlement to it—and now go be his cheating-alibi to boot!
Fiona meanwhile was downer-in-the-mouth than usual, despite Mr. F’s giving her a good bargain on salsiccia di fegato. It was almost as if she too had nursed (insofar as Feef ever nursed) a covert thing for Tony Baloney, weird as that might be to imagine.
But no! He was a darker-sleeker-compacter repackaging of that Hunk With No Name who’d inspired Fiona’s “Ultravirgin” ode. And if he could be seduced by Miss Medusa (aargh) why shouldn’t he have fallen for Foxy Feef? Or for Alex, who had a soft spot for guys named Tony—like Mr. Zero the hockey superstar, and her own baby/chihuahua? Or if not Feef or Alex, why the hell not Joss who badly needed wooing out of Gumbo’s clutches?
Not that Baloney Breachofpromise was remotely good enough for ANY of your three best friends—or the rest of the bunch either, for that matter! If he thought Kinks was so “great,” let her save his bacon from being tossed out of the frying pan and into the fire!
Unfortunately, that happened to be your duty.
“Wish I could drop out for the rest of the week,” she told Feef as they left the bus.
Fiona pinched thumb and forefinger together and held them up to inquisitively puckered lips.
“Not like that! Gahd, Feef!”
“(Good for what ails you. Better’n this,)” she said, jiggling the bag of liverwurst.
“I’ll take your word for it.”
And take a leaf from Alex Dmitria’s tree as you run to VW on Thursday morning. (Or was it a leaf from Alex’s book? Except “book” makes you think of Frozenface’s taunt that she could “open” Tony’s and “read” Tony’s and “quiz”—)
Stop right there! Be like Alex: aim for absolute impartiality as you reach school, change clothes in the locker room, say “See you in Civics” when Alex takes off for a quick shift at the Media Center. Maintain it all the way upstairs to 9-Z, thinking about other things—the Pythagorean theorem, Romeo and Juliet (which Mr. Erickson just had to assign, didn’t he?), whether Lance will ever wake up from his coma on A Lover’s Question, what’ll you wear to the Zeppelin concert and to St. Paul’s on Easter Sunday, how about those crossed-vamp ankle-straps you saw at Tanya’s while shopping for Joss’s birthday present—
—and whatever had become of that Hunky Dory guy, anyway? Had he dissolved into dustmotes, or one of Mr. Folz’s chalkdust clouds?
There ought to be a market for powdered instant boyfriend mix. And not just as a birthday present: you could dial your locker combination, reach for a packet of Hunk-in-a-Cup, add boiling water, stir it and presto!—
“You wanted to see me.”
AARGH you go, heart nearly stopping at the indistinct sight of big glasses on a big nose that materialized between you and the window.
But no—this guy was slight, not squat, with rusty hair instead of black, and had a complicated camera hanging around his neck.
“Gahdammit, Sidney!! Do you have to creep up and jump out at people like that??”
“You do if you want to be a true paparazzo,” said Split-Pea Erbsen. “Only fake ones wait for invitations. They can go their whole lives without getting a ‘gotcha.’”
Vicki closed her locker and took a step away from his lens. “You better not be planning to take any ‘gotchas’ of me.”
“Isn’t that what this is about—the Cicada staff photo? Sorry, no retakes; Old Yehler likes her profile in the one we have. You can quit worrying about Krauss’s arm, though—I took care of that.”
“You took care of... Gumbo’s arm? The one he put around me in the picture?”
“Unless you’re worried about his other arm. The first one’s gone. I took it out in the darkroom, during development.”
“Really? You can do that?”
“Can and did. Nobody’ll see it in the yearbook.”
Vastly relieved exhalation, like Gigi’s in the Typing room—
—before Split-Pea’s camera went FLASH in her face, at her body, like Gigi’s in the cafeteria.
“You’re welcome. The light was just right for you, just then,” explained Split-Pea. “Well—be seeing ya.”
Rubbing dazzled eyes: “Wait just a damn second!”
Through the afterflash: “Can’t—shouldn’t be here yet—still too early. By-the-bye,” (came his already-distant voice) “you’ll find Byron in Lesser Park. Whether you want to see him or not...”
Byron? Who’s Byron?
Oh. Right. Tail-End.
But the nerve! The gall! Snapping your picture without warning, or giving you a chance to check your hair first! And you don’t want to begin mulling over what he intends to do with that snapshot, or the ones he’d ambuscaded of Gigi Pyle.
Give your eyes a last rub as the corridor suddenly filled with Z‑frosh. Among them was Fiona, clanging the locker next door after spending the previous night sniping at Chloe, gnarling at Robin, having an unsettling dream about Tony Pierro, and starting her rat’s-ass period; so not disposed to be overly cordial this particular a.m.
“I only wanted to say good morning—”
“(Right.)” Slam went the locker next door. “(And then what? Ask me to go see Gollum with you, down in some cave under a mountain? No thanks.)”
Trot after her to homeroom. “Honest, Feef, I was just saying ‘hi’ is all! And offer to buy you a lemon fizz at Zephyr Heaven after school—y’know, as thanks for helping out yesterday.”
Take your places in Mrs. Hurlburt’s back row, where Seat 40 was conspicuously vacant. “(Well. Okay. Sorry.)”
“Is it the usual?”
“Well, hang in there. Course, if you’d like to get your mind off it, I could still really use your help this afternoon...”
Fiona, burying her face in her music spiral: “(I knew I should’ve ditched today!)”
They found Byron Wyszynski slumped on a bench by the Lesser Park jogging path, across from the black walnut tree under which the Dopesters did fine-weather dopestering.
His arms were stretched out, left and right, along the benchtop behind him; his head sagged sluggishly backward, then slothfully forward; from a distance he looked like a hobo taking a nap. But as the girls (sucking fizzy lemonades-to-go) hove into nearer view, they could hear his offkey whistle-serenade of “Paper Moon” segue shakily into “Paper Doll”:
... it's tough to love a doll that's not your owwwwn...
There was space enough to sit on either side of him, with room to spare; yet Vicki and Fiona chose to remain standing, separated from his bench by a coo-coo flock puttering round the new spring grass at their feet.
“Pigeons,” Tail-End observed. “On the grass. At last.”
One eye did sport a blue/green/yellow shiner, and there was a motley stain on his shirtfront that might have resulted from a nosebleed. Vicki quickly diverted her attention sideways to the jogging path.
“So,” she said. “How’s it going?”
Hrew hrew hrew went the feathered bevy.
“Really. Good to. See you...” Tail-End fellowmeladded.
“Um well—I’m supposed to, like, defend you tomorrow? At the Student Court hearing? Y’know, from them saying you um well cheated on the Civics test?”
Back and forth lolled the head: “Them saying?... About me?...”
“Well, that you helped Tony Pierro try to, at least—by giving him that pencil with the cheatsheet inside. He says he didn’t need it—”
“Sommme hide it under their watchband,” Tail-End sangsung to the overcast sky. “Sommme hide it inside their waistband,” he sangsung to the milling pigeons. “Sommme write it down on their hand, their wrist—” (lewd snortle) “—‘n’ girls in skirts write it up on their leg, their thigh... I don’t get to write it for ‘em, no no no...”
Hrew hrew hrew counterpointed the bevy.
Vicki exchanged eyerolls with Fiona. “Okay then,” she persisted, “what did you do?”
“Meeee? Finish last. Always, always. Even at ring-around-the-rosie. ‘Ass-shes! ass-shes! all fall dowwwn!’”—his noggin plopping backward as if riven by Mr. Koehler’s guillotine-glance.
Fiona slurped the last of her fizz through a noisy straw.
Vicki took a deep unsustaining breath and tried once more. “So—are you telling us the same as you told Mr. O’Brien—that you didn’t write that cheatsheet, or put it inside the pencil you gave Tony?”
“I’m just the paper boy. Give paper dolls to paper moons. Get it? Paper boys don’t write ‘em, read ‘em, ring ‘em up, rosie on down...”
“Okay! But if you don’t, who does? Do you know?”
(Silence, broken only by hrews.)
“Look! If somebody told you to do it, or made you do it, that could help get you off the hook! You’ve already done your suspension—”
(Wriggle of arms along benchtop, floppily yet silently.)
“Tai—Byron! You’ve got to understand! They could expel you for this, kick you out of junior high with just a couple months left! That’s something worth snitching over, so c’mon—”
Tail-End’s head rosie’d up, only to join the flock’s in a bob bob bob.
“(Don’t say ‘snitch,’ say ‘stool pigeon,’)” muttered Fiona. Crumpling her empty Zephyr Heaven to-go, she asked pointblank: “(You there!—are you a Traverser?)”
Abrupt rattle of creepy glee, like dice shaken in a skeletal fist.
“One of them? One of them? Gooble-gobble! Hangin’ out their laundry’s all I do—‘n’ so do you! You two do! You got ‘em on your chests!”
Reflexive looks downward, with instinctive scowls at what seemed a vulgar allusion to brassieres. But no cups or straps were detectable: Vicki had on her varsity Ladybug sweatshirt, Feef wore a buttoned-up denim jacket, and these had nothing in common except for scored-through smoochmark Dartle pins.
“What do you mean by that?” went indignant Vicki.
“(Money laundering. By a cheating ring,)” Fiona deciphered. “(You there!—cough once for yes.)”
huff went Tail-End. Possibly a cough; possibly a laugh; possibly a sniff at Feef, despite her liberal use of Summer’s Eve. Or perhaps it was a private aside to the pigeons, who all looked up in mid-hrew.
Then two large tears seeped slothfully past the blue/green/yellow shiner (none out of the other eye) to roll sluggishly down one cheek.
“Ew, don’t cry about it,” Vicki said with queasy compassion. “We’ll get you off—”
A second, slightly lewder huff, followed by a dark shadow of a dull sigh.
“You I expected,” he told Vicki.
“You were a surprise,” he told Fiona.
“There’s a joke for you,” he told them both.
“What do you mean, a joke?” Vicki wanted to know; but Tail-End’s eyelids closed, both wet and dry. His head sagged back and stayed there, giving no further word or whistle.
Feef tugged Vicki’s sleeve and they tiptoed off toward Lesser Drive, half-anticipating some melodramatic denouement—pigeons taking sudden flight, sunburst blazing through the clouds—
—yet the flock kept milling round the bench, and the sky above stayed gloomy.
“What was he on?” Vicki quietly exploded. “He was ‘on’ something, right?”
“(Luded out of his gourd,)” diagnosed Fiona. “(Just like the Traversers. Weird that it stopped him from spluttering.)”
“But Tail-End, one of them?”
“(I’d wondered why he helped Flake Hasleman tape us at the Spittlecure.)”
“And they run a cheating ring, too?”
“(Heard there’s one at the senior high, and Front Tree; maybe Startop. They don’t get all those high-GPA awards by studying.)”
“Wow!... And the Travers gang runs the rings?” Striding faster: “So d’y’think that means Britt...?”
“(Wouldja slow down?)” Fiona huffed. “(Some of us don’t run cross country!... I still say she’s not one of ‘em, not for real. But I bet she handles their money laundering, at least at VW.)”
“What exactly is that, anyway?”
“(Cooking the books, so money you make crookedly looks like you made it straight. Such as,)” Feef added grimly, “(by selling rock band T-shirts, and stickers, and pins—)”
Vicki gaped down at hers in dawning horror. “Oh Gahd, Feef! This is awful! We could all go to prison—”
Fiona caught hold of her elbows as Vicki careened into the Foxtail Road streetsign. “(Be cool! Be cool! The pins are legit, remember? All the Dartle stuff is! And Britt took care of everything, right?—the supplies ‘n’ orders ‘n’ payments? You didn’t do any of that, did you?)”
“I, I, I—helped her sell the stuff when we first got started. Y’know, at the Grand Parade, and those house parties? I always set up her ‘concessions,’ made sure the order forms got handed out... I meant to ask her how much we were making—”
“(She was making—)” Fiona corrected.
Fear morphed into fury: “Well, now I’m gonna tell her a thing or two! Soon as we get to my house I’m gonna grab the phone ‘n’ call Miss Britt ‘n’ say—”
“(What, exactly? ‘We think you drugged Gollum into delivering cheatsheets for you’?)”
“Hunh? What’s Gollum got to do with... oh. Right. Um. Well, I could ask...”
“(Face it—we got nothing to go on but guesswork. Britt’s rolling in dough, probably gets more allowance a week than we make in a month. All those Traversers do—and Lynndha Ednalino keeps ‘em stocked with ‘ludes, so they don’t even need to pay for that. They could afford to dish out free cheatsheets with cherries on top, and give away whole basketfuls of Dartle stuff! There’s no way we can prove a damn thing—)”
Pause in mid-tirade to inhale.
“Hey!” went Vicki as they let themselves into the Volester foyer, below the pendant light hanging from its icicle chain like a Snowball of Doom. “Suppose I tell Britt my dad says we need a copy of her Dartle accounts for tax reasons? He’s been sweating over our taxes all week. And if Britt really is cooking her books, this’d tip her off that we’re on to her shenanigans!”
“But before I do that, I better call Becca Blair—there’s nothing goes on at VW that she’s not on top of. Though I can’t believe she wouldn’t blow the lid off any cheating ring.”
(Flashback, though, to deep cleavage jutting over a full white bra exposed for “tutorial” reimbursement.)
(And to your own kisses in a stairwell, with or without benefit of mistletoe; and making out in a janitor’s closet, among the Drano and coarse-grade toilet paper...)
“That’s completely not the same thing at all!”
“(What isn’t?)” asked Feef.
“Hi, Fiona! How’s your mother?” Felicia asked as the girls raided the breakfast nook’s fruit bowl.
“(H’lo Mrs. Volester, fine Mrs. Volester.)”
“Can Feef stay for dinner, Mom? We’ve got some business to take care of.”
“Oh, you’re more than welcome, dear. Just don’t mention ‘taxes’ around Vicki’s father.”
“See?” Vicki told Fiona, who poked fragile nostrils into the kitchen.
“Chicken fricassee and rice pilaf,” said Felicia. “Do you like it?”
“(Long as it’s not cooked goose.)”
“Hardy har har,” went Vicki.
Before and after a tax-free dinner, three calls were placed to Sunny Squash Court. Busy signal the first two times; then Fleur Groningen picked up briefly to insist the line be left clear for her use. (No, she neither knew nor cared where Britt might be.)
All attempts to contact Becca got fielded by the joint answering service for Mimi McLaine and J. Calvin Blair MD.
“Okay,” sighed Vicki, “we’ll just have to talk to them at school tomorrow, before the trial. Thank Gahd that’s almost done with! Then we can have real conversations with Joss and Alex again, and get ready for the Led Zeppelin concert!”
“(Good Times, Bad Times,)” Fiona mutter-prophesized.
Friday the 8th of April.
Vicki garbed herself for combat in a safari jacket, sage-green gauchos, and knee-high zippered platform boots. Thus clad she approached Becca Blair (wearing a geometric shirtdress rather than her cheerleading uniform, since basketball season was over) and requested an audience during free period.
They met out on the Z-Wing’s third-floor walkway, and sat on a stark stone bench.
“I told you, didn’t I?” tsk’d Becca, toying with her geometric scarf and sash. “It’s guys like Byron you have to watch out for.”
“This is his way, you see, of asking you out.”
“W—!! How is this like that? My name got picked out of a cap!”
“Everything’s arranged for a purpose,” Becca predestinated, applying an emery board to her fingernails. “Y’know, like an old-fashioned—”
“—wedding, yes I remember. Yuck!... All right then—does ‘everything’s arranged’ mean there IS a cheating ring here?”
Skritch skritch skritch.
“Becca? D’y’think Tony Pierro paid the Trav—somebody to get him a cheatsheet for the Civics test? Or that Tail-End had it for himself, or maybe someone else, and gave it to Tony by mistake? Tony says he didn’t need one.”
“And Byron says...?”
“Oh, you know him—just a lot of gibberish. I don’t think he’s right in the head, or ever was! ‘Member that time at your place when he wouldn’t drink Swiss Miss ‘cause he thought it looked like hot tomato juice?”
Golden brows soared high above red LED optics. “When did that happen?”
“When we were doing that Beast group thing for Lord of the Flies. You told him to quit twitching, he was making us all sick; then Rog—well... never mind what happened then. What’s important now is who’m I supposed to defend at this trial, and how?”
Junoesque sigh from Becca Blair as she reGucci’d her emery board and rose to creamy-aura’d feet. “Just see what you can see, and hear what you can hear. Then you’ll know what to do.”
During that same free period, Fiona Weller (dressed in her denim jacket, an old Physical Graffiti T-shirt, and punk-rocker dungarees) acted on a hunch and headed for the remotest carrel in the Media Center, where she found Britt Groningen and Flake Hasleman sharing a pair of headphones. From the sound seepage, they were listening to a tape cassette of the Doors.
Not to touch the earth, not to see the sun...
“Hey,” Britt sleepy-smiled.
Nothing left to do but run run run...
“(Hey,)” went Fiona into Britt’s free ear, behind the burgundy waterfall. “(Thought he goes to Front Tree.)”
“He’s taking a break.”
“A Flake break,” said Mr. Hasleman.
Run with me / run with me / run with me...
“Heard you wrote a ‘ballad,’” Britt remarked.
“(More or less. Heard you can help people with grades.)”
“Oh,” said Britt, subtle yet penetrative, “I always try to be helpful. More or less.”
Fiona buttoned her jacket against a not-unanticipated chill. “(Cost a lot? Being helpful?)”
“On the subject,” elaborated Flake, his eggshell eyes twinkling like starlit flurries. “Geometry’s e-e-easy. History’s dre-e-eary.”
The minister’s daughter’s in love with the snake...
“Didn’t think you needed help,” said Britt. “With—Civics.”
“(Asking for a friend,)” Fiona replied, thrusting trembly hands into jacket pockets. “(You going to that Student Court thing this afternoon?)”
Casual gaslight from under heavy lids: “Should I?”
“(Might find it... interesting.)”
Hoot from Flake Hasleman. “Sounds duller’n Civics, even.”
“(Could be. Could be not.)”
Soon-soon-soon, moon! moon! moon!...
Britt turned up the gaslight then and brought it to bear on Fiona, who felt no warmth in this regard. More fridgifying than Kinks Farghetti’s malocchio; more clammifying than Uriah Heep’s lank insolence; more abysmal than the mouth of The Beast in Lord of the Flies—
—it took all her strength to not visibly shiver, or turn tail and run run run.
But she conjured an image of Vicki to stand beside her, and Robin who’d never been afraid of any Queen Bitch, and Joss and Alex and Sheila-Q (and Tony Pierro wearing a dog collar, as he had in that unsettling dream) who together helped her collect every ounce of endurance, stamina, and True Grit she’d accumulated since the YOSH in You Reeka—
—and fling it, like an El Thorro hammer, at the hooptedoodling face opposite.
Which didn’t get scarred or scored through, yet reverted to roughly carved soapstone.
I am the Lizard King: I can do anything.
Remove hands from pockets and unbutton your coat; red river thawing in your heart.
“Put it this way,” said Britt, quite mildly. “Do I need to be at the Student Court thing?”
“(Probably not,)” Fiona admitted. “(This time.)”
“So,” bobbed Flake, “how much help with your Civics grade do you want?”
Swap the eternal female reaction to perpetual male oblivion.
Then see a shade of something akin to regret dart out and flick over the soapstone.
“Suppose I’ll see you around,” said Britt. “Sometime.”
“(Pleasure doing business with you,)” said Fiona. “(Almost.)”
“Break a leg with your ‘ballads.’”
“(Same to you, with your ‘little tunes.’)”
And on those notes they parted.
“Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!” Alex yodeled at 3:30 p.m. “All persons having business before the Honorable Student Court of Vanderlund Junior High School are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now in session.”
“(Come ahn! Come ahn! Let’s cut to the damn chase already!)” mumbled Fast Eddie Wainwright, barely managing to convert an Oh shit! addendum into a fake sneeze at the sight of Kinks Farghetti, who’d made him the object of her obsesso-affections for a brief yet memorable spell last spring.
“(It was like one of those old-timey plagiarisms of crocuses!)” Eddie grimaced to Buddy Marcellus.
Student Court was sitting, legally and literally, in Room Z305—the Scene of the Crime, as described-in-his-own-words by Mr. Koehler to co-prosecutor Hope Eckhardt. Portraits of Washington, Madison, Lincoln, and Eisenhower monitored the hearing from on high, seeming to nod approval of the charges and Eddie’s push for accelerated judgment.
Tony Pierro formally appealed his automatic F and week’s suspension, pleading not guilty in-much-the-same-words he’d used at the Columbine Delicatessen.
“Tell us, Mr. Pierro,” said Hope (clearly wishing she could interrogate as Esperanza: Decirnos, Señor Pierro), “if you needed to borrow a pencil for the test, why’d you turn all the way around and ask for one from the student sitting behind you? Wouldn’t it’ve been easier to ask the people next to you or in front of you?”
“Objection!” declaimed Gigi Pyle in a thrilling voice, as if this were an audition for Inherit the Wind.
“On what grounds?” asked Chief Justice Marshall McConchie.
“What are you objecting to?”
“Uhhhh... how ‘bout ‘leading the witness’?”
“Mr. Pierro’s a defendant,” Marshall corrected her. “But objection sustained.”
“Oh, I don’t mind answering,” Tony said cooperatively. “See, my desk here’s next to the wall on one side, and Artie Rist sits on the other. He never lends anybody anything, though he’ll take all day telling you why.”
[Laughter] in the Court from those who knew what Artie Rist was like.
“And I couldn’t ask the girl who sits in front of me for a pencil—Keiko Nakayama there—”
“Hi!” called Keiko from the back of the room, where she and Carly Thibert were being spectators with Joss, Fiona, and the avid-eared Laurie, Susie, Tina, and Jerome.
“Order,” Marshall gaveled.
“She just said ‘Hi!’” objected Carly.
“Please refrain from saying anything unless you’re called to testify,” said Marshall.
“Oh, I’m gonna be!” chirped Carly.
“Why couldn’t you ask Ms. Nakayama to loan you a pencil, Mr. Pierro?” queried Hope. (¿Por qué no se puede pedir la Sra. Nakayama a prestarle un lápiz, Sr. Pierro?)
“‘Cause she never has any pencils—she takes all her tests in ink!”
[Giggle-gale] from the back of the room.
[GRUNT] from Howard Ullmann, itching to seize command of the prosecution.
Which, if Hope had been on her toes, would have called Tony’s half-step-once-removed-cousin Petula as an anticharacter witness. “Of course the little tool was trying to cheat! He needs top grades to win a scholarship ‘cause that’s the only way he’ll ever be able to go to college, and of course he botched it ‘cause he’s such a little choirboy he couldn’t shoplift a pack of gum without screwing up—”
—was what Downtown would’ve told the Court, had she been called.
Gigi Pyle, reciting from Vicki’s defense script, established Tony’s good track record in Advanced Civics up till the midterm, and then had Kinks testify about helping him study for it “the whole night before.”
“What would you say is your relationship to the defendant?” Hope cross-examined.
“Objection!” trilled Gigi.
“Overruled,” went Marshall. “I’ll allow the question.”
Another [Oh-shit!-fake-sneeze] from Fast Eddie.
“We’ve ‘always kinda known each other,’ is what he tells people,” quoted Kinks.
“Aren’t you in fact his—girlfriend?” suggested Hope. (¿No es usted de hecho su—novia?)
“Objection!” Gigi tried again.
“Sustained,” said Marshall.
“He works for my father,” Kinks overrode them in a rock-hard monotone, even as her hair wafted agitatedly about. “So I helped him study. That’s all.”
“But Annie!” went Tony, only to be ignored by Kinks and silenced by Marshall.
The cases pro and con Anthony Pierro rested then, and Student Court moved on to the second appeal.
Gumbo Krauss, taking over the prosecution, made an entrance à la Apollo Creed in Rocky: sporting an Uncle Sam hat and ta-ta-ta-ing “From the Halls of MontezuOOHma!”
For this he was gaveled down by Marshall and reprimanded by Mr. O’Brien; yet Gumbo justified his conduct as befitting a future Marine.
“Since three years, two months, and a day from today—then it’s Parris Island for me! Like Jimmy Cagney says in What Price Glory: ‘It’s a lousy war, kid, but it’s the only one we’ve got!’ So Semper Fi, do or die, from here to eternity!”
“Very commendable,” said Mr. Koehler, who had two sons in the Corps, “but not really relevant to the matter at hand. Please dispose of the hat.”
“Sir yes sir!” Gumbo saluted, sailing Uncle Sam over to Joss in the back row, where she used it to cover her jubilant face and so preserve decorum.
(Vicki, feeling a bit sweaty and a tad nauseous, fished out a monogrammed VV handkerchief and started to dab her own brow and lips.)
Gung-ho Gumbo cracked his knuckles, his elbows, and a smile whose width Sell-O Fayne might’ve envied. It was a grin that filled Room Z305 like a flooding basement, a grin from which gray mist rose to becloud the portraits of Washington, Madison, Lincoln, and Eisenhower.
“Calling Carly Thibert—come on down!”
Carly frolicked forward to beam at her ex-boyfriend. Agreeing to tell nothing but the truth, she hopped atop the desk serving as witness stand; was redirected down into its chair; and showed off as much of her legs as possible in the process. (Teenage legs: eat your thirtyish heart out, Ms. Tays!)
“Mizzzz Thibert,” began Gumbo, tenderly addressing the peppermint-striped triangle peekabooing between those legs, “who’d you do your last Earth Science project with?”
Fresh gigglespaz by Carly: “Make her quit looking at me like that!”
“I am not looking at you any wrong way!” protested the laughing Keiko.
“You are so! She is too! Make her quit—”
“This is neither the time nor the place for levity!” bristled Mr. O’Brien, scowling at Carly’s lower torso. “Compose yourself, Miss Thibert, and answer the question.”
Carly yanked at her skirt while stating for the record that she’d written “How Air Masses Collide” with Byron WhizIdunnohowtosayitright.
“Has Mr. Wyszynski been your lab partner the whole semester?” asked Gumbo.
“No, just for that project.”
“Why you didn’t work on it with your regular lab partners?”
“Hunh? Well, they were doing the New Ice Age or something and that sounded gross, y’know, so they let me do Air Masses with Bryan—Byron, I mean.”
“Why’d you choose Mr. Wyszynski to Do It with?”
“Gumbo!” squealed Carly, echoed by Keiko from behind the borrowed Uncle Sam hat. “Y’mean do the science project with, right? I dunno—he just knew about Air.”
“Did he invite you to work on this project with him?”
“Oh come on! Tail-End ask a girl? No, it was my idea—he’s a smart guy, y’know, brainy I mean, and always gets good grades—”
“So you chose Mr. Wyszynski to do this project with, so you’d get a good grade?”
“Well sure! D’y’think I’da picked a dummy to do it with?”
[Laughter] in the Court, another [GRUNT] from Howard, and an inquiry from the bench as to whether this line of questioning was germane.
“Well sure, your honor!” grinned the prosecutor. “Ms. Thibert: tell us what grade you and the defendant got on that Earth Science project.”
“An A!” preened Carly.
“And the same day you got that A, did you not give Byron Wyszynski a twenty-dollar bill?”
[GASP] from the Court.
“Ob—” went Vicki, but Carly interrupted to shrill: “I bought him a pizza is all, the poor guy’s so skinny he never looks like he eats enough—”
“Did you go out with him and share this pizza?”
“Go out with Tail-End? No! I mean, I didn’t really wanna eat with him...”
“So you treated the defendant to twenty dollars’s worth of pizza, all for himself?”
“Well... he helped me get an A, and... why’re you being like this?”
“In other words, the twenty dollars was a reward—a premium—payment, shall we say?—for Byron Wyszynski getting you that A?”
“Objection!” Vicki succeeded in saying this time, over her dab-dab handkerchief.
“Sustained!” said Marshall. “The witness is not on trial here.”
“Really!” concurred Carly, looking ready to cutely cry. “Can I resent how he asked me that? Ooh, my dad was so right about him!”
“Noooo further questions,” Gumbo bowed, the better to take another gloat at her peppermint triangle before Carly clapped reproachful thighs over it.
Vicki, rising to cross-examine, balled up her damp hanky as she glanced back at Fiona. What could you ask without landing Carly in more trouble?
(Articulate shrug by Feef.)
Did you bet the defendant he could eat a whole family-size pizza in two minutes flat?
“Um... okay. When we were all working on our meteorology papers, didn’t I see you talk to Byron every morning in homeroom?”
Carly, brightening with gratitude: “That’s right! You did! I was!”
Hanging out of half-undone blouses—payment in advance, shall we say? “Were you talking to him about your Air Masses project?”
“ObJECtion!” went Gumbo. “Lee-ee-eading the witness!”
“Er—sustained,” decided Marshall.
Unball the handkerchief, wipe dewy palms. “What, exactly, were you talking to Byron the defendant about, every morning in homeroom?”
“Our science paper, of course! Why else would I wanna talk to a guy like him?”
Quit while you’re ahead—or at least not further behind. “No more questions.”
Carly escaped from the stand and was replaced by Madeline Wrippley, the sober little mouse who sat between Vicki and Tail-End in Civics. She came dressed for testimony in a very proper, very modest outfit; looking in fact rather like Marlene Dietrich as the Witness for the Prosecution, minus the gloves and beret.
(A sub-snortle from the back row confirmed that Joss thought so too.)
“Mizzzz Wrippley,” said Gumbo, adjusting his Blue Öyster Cult shades and Jewfro, “where were you at 10 a.m. on Thursday, March 31st?”
“Wight heeuh,” went Maddie, in a far-from-normal Fuddish accent.
[Laughter] from the Court, and [“Baba Wawa!”] fake-cough by Buddy Marcellus into a cupped fist.
“Order!” barked Marshall McConchie, thock-thock-thocking Mr. Koehler’s gavel. “People, let’s act like we’re supposed to act, and wrap this thing up!”
“Bravo!” applauded Gigi Pyle, who’d lost all interest in the trial till Marshall started brandishing his Chief Justiceship. (Was it too late to cast him as a bitter puppeteer?)
“Beg pardon,” said Madeline, clearing her demure throat. “I was right here—in this room, about to start the Advanced Civics midterm.”
“Who was sitting at the desk to the left of you, at that time?” asked Gumbo.
“Did you hear anyone say anything to Mr. Wyszynski, at that time?”
“Yes: Tony Pierro turned around and asked Byron if he had a pencil Tony could borrow.”
“Did you see what the defendant did then?”
“Yes: he gave Tony a pencil.”
“Did you notice if he gave Mr. Pee-erro a choice of pencils?”
“I saw Byron take some out of a zipper pouch, sort through them and choose one for Tony. A few others fell onto the floor between our desks; I picked those up and gave them back to Byron.”
“When Mr. Koehler apprehended the two defendants, as he’s described to the Court, did he ask you to do anything?”
“Yes: he touched my shoulder, and nodded at the boys’s desks.”
“What did you take that as meaning?”
“That I should gather up their things after I finished the test, and bring them to the Home Base office.”
“Why do you think Mr. Koehler would ask you to do that?”
“I’ve been his student aide all year, helping him prepare handouts and alphabetize assignments, that sort of thing.”
[Teacher’s narc!] several spectators and members of the Court didn’t say aloud.
“After finishing the test, did you gather up those things and bring them to the office?”
“Yes: Mr. K took the boys and the pencil, and I took their books and ring binders and so on.”
“What happened then?”
“Mr. K gave me a late pass for Gym. Then during free period I came back here, and he told me what was going on.”
“And that was...?”
With a priggish Mary Poppinsish countenance: “Byron and Tony had both been suspended. For cheating. On the midterm.”
“Noooo further questions!”
“Your witness,” Marshall told Vicki, away from whom Gigi edged as a new bout of perspiration spouted.
My “wetness,” all right—Gahd! Anybody’d think I’M the one on trial, Vicki blushed, tugging at her safari jacket in hopes of detaching the polo shirt beneath from her armpits, and wishing she had one of PopPop’s immense bandannas instead of this wispy hanky.
Glance again at Fiona’s dark watchful brooding. At Joss’s blessed lagniappe smile. At Carly trying to happify herself by wearing the oversized Uncle Sam hat. At Keiko sending flirt-vibes toward Mike Spurgeon, much to Irina Saranoff’s toss/twirl/tantalize annoyance. Up front at Alex, taking absolutely impartial minutes as bailiff/clerk.
At Madeline Wrippley sitting patiently, with petite hands enfolded.
What to ask?... Anything at all?...
“Maddie—do I sit on the other side of you in Civics?”
Polite little smile: “Yes.”
“All year long, I’ve thought you’re a superorganized sort of person. Would you call yourself that?”
“Well, I try to be.”
“Is that a big reason why you’re Mr. Koehler’s student aide?”
“I suppose so.”
“Would you say that Byron the defendant is superorganized?”
Petite hand raised to suppress a mild titter: “No: I don’t think I could say that.”
“Is he usually the first person in class to finish tests and turn in papers?”
“No: he tends to be the very last.”
“So did it surprise you to see Byron fumbling through his stuff and spilling things off his desk, when Tony asked to borrow a pencil?”
Petite hand lowered, re-enfolding the other; mild mirth quelled.
“Well. No. Not really,” said Maddie, with a slight deadpan headshake that oscillated to and fro, to and fro, as if to the rhythmic cadence of an unheard beat—
Is she one of THEM?
Madeline Wrippley, a Traverser??
Of course not; that was ridiculous. You might just as well suspect Alex or Rachel Gleistein, girls who’d never stray from straight-and-narrow propriety (unless their asses got slapped in the cafeteria or exposed at a dance). Maddie was simply shaking her head “no” in a superorganized way.
Yet the thunderbolts kept coming, each flashier than Carly Thibert’s underpants:
I bet SHE wrote that cheatsheet and put it in that pencil—
‘Cause SHE’D know all the answers, even if she weren’t Mr. Koehler’s aide—
And SHE’S got itsy-bitsy fingers that can print teensy-tiny letters, and fit a slip of paper inside a mechanical pencil’s barrel—
And if Tail-End had any other “loaded” pencils in his pouch, SHE could’ve grabbed them and hidden them away for later use—
And if I say a single word about this... they’ll lock me up in a loony-bin.
Maybe I am loony. Maybe that’s why I’m sweating like a pig. Maybe they should be coming to take me away ha-ha to the funny farm—
Except for one thing.
Even though Kinks Farghetti was in the room, with Gigi Pyle and Gumbo Krauss and grunty Howard Ullmann and manic-demented Kim Zimmer—
—not one of them was looking at Vicki with less goodwill or benevolence at that precise moment in time, than rodent-eyed Madeline Wrippley.
Back away from the distracting trap.
“No more questions,” Vicki told her wet handkerchief.
Up jumped Gumbo. “For my last witness, I call—Byron Wyszzzzzzzynski!!”
Who duly emerged from out of nowhere to take the stand. Or flobber down onto it, with a Gollumesque ach and sss.
“Byron, my man!” Gumbo greeted him. “Long time no see!”
Tail-End lifted his noggin, stretched his spindly neck, and made no reply.
Gumbo turned into a drill sergeant then, giving a jarhead recruit the third degree:
“You’re here to appeal being suspended, isn’t that right? For conspiring to help another student cheat on a midterm exam, isn’t that right? By passing him a cheatsheet smuggled inside a mechanical pencil, isn’t that right? Which at VW is considered just as much cheating as if you’d used that cheatsheet yourself, isn’t that right? For which the penalty is an automatic F and week of suspension, isn’t that right? Which you’re appealing because you say you didn’t prepare that cheatsheet or place it in that pencil, isn’t that right? And if this Court decides you’re lying, the sentence could be immediate and permanent expulsion from school, isn’t that right?
“F’you hssay hsso,” fizzled Tail-End.
“Objection to—to the manner in which those questions were being put!” balked Vicki, recalling a line from Witness for the Prosecution.
“Sustained! Counsel will tone it down!”
Gumbo, tenting repentant fingertips at chin-level, let his Man-Tan glow above them like a jack-o’-lantern. “Byron my man, tell us something,” he purred. “What do your parents think about all this?”
Cringe and flinch by the defendant. Then, with that dice-in-a-skeletal-fist rattle:
“‘Well, hain’t he got a father? Yesss, he’s got a father, but you can’t never find him these daysss—he uuussed to lay drunk with the hogsss in the tanyard, but he hain’t been hsseen in theesse partsss for a year or more!’”
“I think we’ve heard enough,” Mr. O’Brien began; yet Gumbo forged ahead with a gloat more profound than any engendered by Carly’s peppermint stripes:
“Byron my man, tell us this: isn’t it true you believe yourself to be another Red King or Little Nemo? That you think this room and school, this entire world and everybody in it, are just figments of your imagination? That they exist only in a dream you’ve been having—a sort of phantasm, shall we say?”
“Hsso you hssay,” responded Tail-End, tongue lolling out to lick his teeth.
“Objection,” went Vicki, more in wonder than in anger; but she was drowned out by sudden hubbub, with the Vice Principal demanding explanations and the Chief Justice seeking to get a gavel in edgewise.
“Just trying to make the defendant WAKE UP!!” yelled Gumbo, flipping a hand at the witness stand, on which Tail-End tilted droopily to one side like a rag doll propped on a careless child’s chair.
“This farce has gone on long enough!” raged Mr. Koehler on behalf of Messrs. Washington, Madison, Lincoln, and Eisenhower. “I am ashamed of each and every one of—”
“Wait!” snapped Vicki, in a voice that cut through the hubbub and gray mist. Though weltering from every pore, she stood and stared them into silence: Kinks and Kim and Keiko and Carly, Gumbo and Gigi and Howard and Hope. “I have a question, if... you... please...”
Mr. O’Brien nodded at Marshall, who told Vicki to proceed.
For a moment she déjà vu’d being new and lost in Baroque Vista, a place that even now she wouldn’t venture into alone. Pound pound pound went her heart again, over the disorienting beetle b-z-z-z-z from rocking-horse-flies and snap-dragon-flies of Looking-Glass Land—
—or from Byron Wyszynski, fizzling and grizzling to himself.
“Byron? Do you have anything to say in your own defense?”
Tail-End, glancing at her then with foolish fare-thee-well fondness, opened his yap and hoarsely croaked:
He was still regaling the room with “Misty” when he got carried out of it by Mike, Eddie, and Buddy as instructed by the Vice Principal, with Alex hurrying after to plead “Don’t hurt him! Don’t hurt him!” and Mr. Koehler slinging back “No photographs!” at Sidney Erbsen—who showed up just then out of the dissipating gray mist, to behold the passive-resistant soles of Tail-End’s Earth Shoes as they (and he) were dragged out of sight.
Split-Pea took no pictures, but stooped to retrieve a Scripto pencil that must have fallen out of someone’s pocket. “Oh cool, a fringe benefit,” he Woody Allen’d. “I always wanted something I could write with.”
Laurie and Jerome ran off in search of phones to start spreading their latest latest. Kinks Farghetti departed in the opposite direction, trailing incredulous Tony Pierro (“But Annie!... but Annie!”) while Gigi Pyle went to comfort Marshall McConchie, who had his Gregory Peckish head in his gavelless hands. And Madeline Wrippley, calmly wishing those who remained a Happy Easter, removed her sober mouselike self from the scene.
“Yours, I believe?” said Gumbo Krauss, picking up Vicki’s crumpled sodden handkerchief and rubbing it oh-so-grossly over his ignis fatuus face.
“What the hell is this?” fumed Joss, plucking the hanky away.
“A little whiff of heaven!” leered Gumbo, plucking it back to bury an artificially bronzed nose in what had once been neatly-ironed folds. “Vickeee knows what I mean—dontcha, Vickeee?”
She recoiled from Joss’s anger, trying to stammer denials; but Joss wouldn’t listen to a one.
“I knew I should’ve held out for the real thing!” she griped, snatching back the hanky once and for all, then wrapping a long arm around her very best (albeit all icky) friend. “Let’s get the hell out of here and go the hell home!” she told Vicki—meaning Burrow Lane, it being a Friday—and “C’mon, but leave that damned hat!” she told Fiona, who was depositing a wad of Beemans inside Uncle Sam’s brim.
“(Not exactly Led Zeppelin, was it?)” muttered Feef as they headed down the hall to their lockers, and there found Tail-End’s already yawning open and empty.
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Copyright © 2015 by P. S. Ehrlich
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