Chapter 45


A One and A Two



One of the things Vicki Volester admired most about her friends was how musically talented they were.  She herself had a passable singing voice and could pick her way (with furrowed brow) through a printed score; but playing an instrument of any sort, rhythmically and in tune, seemed to require the skill of a magician.  She never ceased to marvel at Joss’s aptitude for the cornet and keyboard, or Nonique’s for the oboe, or Fiona’s for the clarinet and electric bass, or Robin’s for percussion, or Sheila-Q’s for the flute and guitar, or Beth Murrisch’s (and/or Invisible Amy’s) for the violin.


Vicki’s own childhood attempt at piano lessons, with Mrs. Partridge back in Pfiester Park, had made her feel as though her hands had vanished and left her to flail around with wrist-stumps.  Well, so be it: in those days she’d been preoccupied with ballet—until creepy-crawly pubescence robbed her of grace and finesse, relegating her to Klumsy Klutzerhood till she could seek redemption through long-distance running.


On this January afternoon Vicki was not out running but indoors cleaning.  Her household chores had piled up during finals week (thankfully over and done with) at VTHS, and they now needed to be completed toot-sweet—not only so she’d be entitled to her allowance, but because “company” was coming for dinner.  First-time-never-been-to-Burrow-Lane “company” too; so that meant a real Sunday dinner and not leftover potluck.


As per her customary scrubwoman routine, Vicki worked her way up from the lower-level laundry and family rooms to the main floor and then the upstairs bathrooms and bedrooms—excluding Goofus’s, which she categorically refused to set foot in.  Saved for last was her own cozy-corner boudoir, where final maidservant efforts could be accompanied by LPs on Vicki’s portable record player.  Now playing (and being hummed along with) was Bette Midler’s Broken Blossom, with Miss M beaming more prettily than usual (but just as buxomly as ever) from the propped-up album sleeve:



There is a land I know

Where lovers go
And flowers grow



The vocalists in Vicki’s bunch would have a ball singing some of these numbers.  You could just hear Crystal belting out “Red” and “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” or Spacyjane warbling “Storybook Children” and “You Don’t Know Me.”  Alex would doubtless draw the line at the raunchy “Empty Bed Blues,” though she’d appreciate how it segued into Cinderella’s “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes.”


Most intriguing to Vicki was “Yellow Beach Umbrella.”  Its title of course brought New Big Sister Jenna’s “umbrellow” to mind; while the lyrics about flying to Miami and driving to Pensacola and riding to Tampico recalled last June’s trip to Fort Lauderdale, a place Vicki would happily return to this very minute.  (It had snowed in Vanderlund for eight of the past ten days.)


There were repeated references in “Yellow Beach Umbrella” to going where you’d be a mystery to everyone, and not taking a Certain Somebody along with you.  Bette went from sounding wistful about this to jeering goodbyyyeee at the Somebody, whose turn it was to cry because he knew good and well why he “got the gong.”  And the song concluded with an entirely Midlerlike



Plop-plop, fizz-fizz—

Oh what a relief it is...


...or so it might be, if your own heartburn weren’t aggravated by lingering acid reflux from forsaken indignation.




Neither hide nor hair of Tony Pierro had Vicki glimpsed since that momentous night of the Shoreward Club’s bal masqué.


Maybe, as Old Big Sister Tricia had foreshadowed so many years ago, Tony’d been her Gardening Angel and had come too late to save her from the Mad Man.  And the fact that Vicki’d saved herself probably proved she didn’t need him in the first (or last) place.


Also, at any rate, that she could do without him from now on.


As, in fact, she had done for all three weeks of the New Year so far: doing without calls that hadn’t come, notes that weren’t sent, and manifestations that didn’t occur in Study Hall or utility basements or anyplace else.


Oh well...


Even if she’d been as good as stood up (again) by Tony Evaporoni (again) she could at least keep standing on her own two feet.


And it wasn’t as though Buddy Marcellus had offered her any help in reconnecting with Tony Dissolvedintodustmotes, which Vicki sure as hell wasn’t going to ask Buddy for even if he and Ta-Ta Puddyboy still spent their weekends playing that dreary boring rubber bridge game that Junior Nygren probably found just as dull as Vicki did and so made “Big Ziggy” quit doing anyway.


Not that Vicki cared one way or the other.  Not in the slightest.


There’d been plenty of better things to occupy her attention these past three weeks.


Gigi Pyle, for instance, had never returned to school after her vicious outburst at Nonique in the locker room.  According to Gwen Cokingham (a neighbor on Clubroot Drive) the Pyles had shipped Gigi off to live in Peru—or rather on an aunt-and-uncle’s farm outside Peru, Indiana, for broadly-hinted-about reasons and good riddance to boot.  Enid Stott might blame all this on Vernonique and swear vengeance, but Eeny lacked the retaliatory chops to do more than squint in Nonique’s general direction with baleful myopia.


(“We really do need to shanghai that girl into the optical shop,” Jenna’d told Vicki.)


Madeline Wrippley too had been withdrawn from VTHS, and was now being home-schooled by her mother who’d written a scathing letter-to-the-editor regarding the “abysmal state of public education” in Vanderlund.  This had been strongly disputed by a missive from Britt Groningen’s mother Dr. Hilde Krühler, bestselling author of Staying Cool with Your Public School; and soon chimers-in from both sides were filling multiple columns on each day’s editorial page with vented spleen.


[“(I just hope that snippy Wrippley chick won’t act out any other Crucible scenes on any other rooftops,)” Fiona’d muttered to Vicki.]


Alex had returned home from Mexico on a snowy New Year’s Day, so gloriously tan that everyone would’ve hated her if she’d been anybody but Alex.  Her special friends threw her a belated-birthday-and-Christmas/welcome-home party, after which Alex rolled up her sleeves (over enviably sun-kissed arms) and went to energetic work helping to rehabilitate Laurie.  The Harrison-Zanes and Rachel Gleistein had been advocating that she visit a therapist ever since her breakdown at the bal masqué; but Laurie, terrified she might wind up committed to a snake pit or cuckoo’s nest, kept going LA‑LA‑LA‑LA with hands clamped over ears.  (Which, as Susie observed to Rachel, wasn’t the best way to convince people you were compos mentis.)


Then Alex recommended a psychologist who’d addressed her Scout troop about mental health: “He even looked like Bob Newhart, we all thought so; he said he gets that a lot.”  This was somewhat reassuring, as was Dr. Harvey’s going “H-hello” over the phone when he invited Laurie to just come down and have a talk.  Which she did, tremulous in limb and voice; and before that trial session was over, some of her blabberyappishness had been restored.  Regular weekly appointments were scheduled, and Laurie started putting her hair back into pooftails.


As for school, Susie (who still attended VW) recruited Susan Baxter to look after Laurie at VTHS.  Big Sue in turn enlisted Louisa Lang; and together they made it tersely clear to potential menaces like Dennis Desmond, Razor Reid, and Bootleg McGillah that nothing more vindictive than a squint should be visited upon Laurie.  (Bunty O’Toole, heading off to disco assistant-management, advised Bootleg to stay on wary guard against “Harelip”—particularly since Tommy the Torch and Juicer Lynch both remained on the disabled list.)  Meanwhile Samantha Tiggs appointed herself to be Laurie’s personal bodyguard whenever their class schedules permitted, trying to do this with a Mean Girl deportment that was far too sporty-cute to be intimidating.


So those were the January ins and outs at VTHS, up to and through an arduous finals week that made Vicki’s previous ones in junior high seem like dogpaddles in a kiddypool.  The seldom-ending snowfall didn’t make it any easier; nor did her now-permanent status as Ms. Mallouf’s coffee-fetching student aide.  Heaven bless her cramtastic bunchmates for their readiness, willingness, and availability to review and rememorize half a year of schoolwork, especially Vernonique in Biology even though the new semester was bound to involve dissection which Nonique had already begun teasing her about.  In any event Vicki and the entire bunch survived finals, with hopes for better-than-acceptable report cards; and there had been no newsflash—so far, at least—of any organized cheating this time around, not even by Gootch Bulstrode in his second-chance swipe at Trigonometry.


(Bien está lo que bien acaba, as Shakespeare would’ve said in Spanish.)


So finish catching up on Sunday chores by tucking fresh flannel sheets onto your mattress; covering these with a couple of blankets, the regular comforter and a winter quilt; sliding fresh cases onto pillows and arranging them between decorative cushions at the headboard; then celebrating the completion of another housecleaning cycle by stretching out on your newly-made bed and “resting your eyes” as the Doobie Brothers take over the turntable:



Caught up in wheels of fortune

While you’ve been asleeeeeeep...



Oh dear Gahd!  Didn’t I just do that damn (sorry, darn) kitchen?


Oh right—we’ve got “company” coming for Sunday dinner.  And not leftover potluck.




Trudging back downstairs, Vicki’s stomach growled at the enveloping scent of disjointed chickens being sautéed with chopped green onions.  She felt a feline impulse to rub against her mother’s ankles, as Mittens and Fingers and even the eccentric Thumb would do whenever a can of savory tuna was opened at the Murrisch house.  But Felicia, wearing a bib apron over a bathrobe, was in no mood for catty nonsense.  “I need you to make the sauce,” she barked.  “Quick, now—they’ll be here soon!”


So beat eggyolks in a bowl, then beat half-and-half into the yolks, then stir the gooey mixture (“slowly!”) with a spoon (“wooden!”) over the onions after the chicken has been removed to a serving platter (“hot!”)—and keep stirring till the sauce is thick and smooth, but don’t let it boil (“or the eggs’ll curdle!”).  Then get shooed back upstairs to wash and change (“and hurry!”) so your mother can do the same; but give a passing shout down into the family room where your father and brother are loitering over a movie about Harry Houdini as portrayed by Tony Curtis.


(As if the world needed another escapologist named Tony...)




Be that as it may, you should feel pleased for Felicia’s having made a new friend worth getting into such a tizzy to feed and entertain.  She’d met Miriam Monticello at Lakeside Central during registration for the “Principles of Real Estate” evening course that Fel had been vowing for years to take.  Mild surprise that someone like this Mrs. Monticello would enroll in such a course, since she was said to be the wife of the new music director and orchestra conductor at the Kickshaw Conservatory of Music.  Vicki would’ve thought that’d guarantee the Monticellos were wealthy; but last night in the Queen Anne aerie, Joss had enlightened her about the meagerness of professorial salaries:


“Kickshaw’s never been what you might call a ‘highfalutin’ school.  People said my mom made a big mistake transferring there instead of sticking with Juilliard, but she really loved her violin teacher Agatha Cringle (called ‘Kriss’ of course) who played with The City Symphony—and in fact the Kickshaw faculty’s always had some real standouts.  But even those don’t get paid anywhere near what they’re worth.  A few years back there were all sorts of labor disputes that made the Conservatory president go paranoid and have to be evicted, and they’ve been trying to pick up the pieces ever since.  This Sandro Monticello that you’ll be breaking bread with tomorrow (memorize every last detail about him and fill me in when we talk at bedtime) already has a musical reputation, and I’d’ve gone to see him conduct their orchestra’s winter holiday concert if that hadn’t been the same night as our orchestra’s winter holiday concert.  Then I missed the reviews of their concert ‘cause they came out the day after the Shoreward shambles, and by the time I remembered it was too late—Toughie’d already bundled our newspapers off to the recycling center.”


“So what should I wear to Sunday dinner with a conductor, anyway?”


“White tie and tails.”


“Okay, what should I wear that you know I can find in my closet-alcove?”


“Your sexy purple top, of course—that always drives men wild.”


“Oh shut up.  What do conductors eat for dinner, anyway?”


“You shut up.  Conductors gobble down orchestra backstanders—just look at Conzelman’s toothmarks all over my forearms.  But since batons are like chopsticks, you can’t go wrong with Chinese food.”


Hardy har har Vicki had gone then and did so again as she donned an ought-to-be-good-enough-for-first-time-“company” outfit of Shetland wool pullover and twill slacks.  Joss, if she were here at tonight’s dinner table, could’ve shown off those toothmarks as befitting one of the few sophomores (Nonique being another) who’d been admitted to the “varsity” Symphonic ensemble at VTHS.  Sheila, Fiona, and the disgruntled Robin were all in the Cadet Orchestra, though not necessarily for the whole school year; Mr. Conzelman operated like a baseball manager, sending anticlimactic upperclassmen down to the minors and bringing up sophs who showed unexpected promise.  As Joss put it, “For people who mostly play sitting on our duffs, we’ve got to keep on our toes every minute with Mr. C.”


Meaning she’d be perfectly equipped to deal with a conductor/director/professor like Sandro Monticello—chatting knowledgeably about sonatas and concertos, boasting about her summers spent at Stupid Youth Music Camp.  Joss would’ve also provided protective shelter (if not Sammi Tiggslike bodyguarding) against one of the other invited dinner guests:


They have a daughter your age.  She goes to Startop and takes ballet.


Oh dear Gahd (Vicki’d gone then and repeated now) how could such a person not be a snot?  Maybe even another Sonya Medved, “the next Gelsey Kirkland” back at the Fischel Academy, brandishing her prima donna potential and soloist’s attitude at you in your own home, at your own dining room table—






“Please don’t dawdle!...  Everything should be under control,” said Felicia, sounding less than assured about this as she edged out of the kitchen.  “Just keep a close eye on the sauce—and the rice—and the peas—and don’t forget the chicken, keep its platter hot—Oz!  Christopher!  Turn off that TV and get washed!


“(In a minute!)” from the family room.


Now, I said!”  And upstairs Fel sprinted, despite knowing Goofus was hardly likely to do more than wipe his grubby palms on the seat of his pants.


Well, if the Volesters could cope with that on a daily basis, so could their “company” including a Nose-in-the-Air Startop Ballerina who probably ate like an anorexic anyway and would spurn this fine Sunday dinner simmering on the stove and making your tummy growl louder than ever: delicious sautéed chicken with green onion sauce (don’t let it curdle) plus saffron rice, French petits pois (guisantes in Spanish), and Apple Charlotte for dessert.  A much better meal than Chinese food, which was inextricably associated in your mind with Dennis the Foul Fiend Flibbertigibbet—


—as was a sudden VA-VA-VA-VOOM up the driveway—


—that caused an unwanted no-it-can’t-be mental spit-take—


“Hey, check out the bitchen Jeep!” went Goofus, after hurtling upstairs and over to a living room window.


“Oh no, they’re early!” wailed Felicia, hooking frantic earrings into fretting lobes as she dashed back downstairs in a new jade-green double-knit dress.  “Vicki, come zip me!—Oz, they’re here!—Christopher, go wash your hands and comb your hair this minute!—”


(Honestly, you’d think Cher and Gregg Allman were arriving...)


The first six notes of Peter and the Wolf rang out as the front bell was pressed, and loud laughter could be heard through the door.  Open it swung to admit a blast of January evening air and a quartet of winter overcoats.


The first was doffed to unveil a slim dark lady who exchanged cries of greeting and exclamatory fingerpoints with Felicia, since both had on the same double-knit dress except that Mrs. Monticello’s was cherry-red.  In looks and mannerisms she reminded Vicki of Ms. Yehle, the art teacher and yearbook advisor at VW, who’d been a pose-striking blend of Rhoda Morgenstern and that silent film star burlesqued by Carol Burnett.


“Oh, Midge, you shouldn’t have!” Felicia remonstrated as Mrs. Monticello presented an enormous Tupperware container that wound up weighing down Vicki’s arms.


“Could I come without bringing a little something?  My grandmother may-she-rest-in-peace called this dish tejszínes uborka—creamed cucumbers, Hungarian style—serves eight to ten.”


Oh Midge, you really shouldn’t have! reacted Vicki, trying to hold the Tupperware as far from herself as possible without being obvious about it.  Maybe this isn’t as yuh‑ucky as creamed carrots, but still...


The next overcoat (extra long and extra thick) came off along with a widebrimmed hat, extensive muffler and pair of leather gauntlets to reveal a taller broader version of Harpo Marx.  Same wild mop of once-reddish, now-graying curls; same expressively flexible face and pliable mouth; same wide staring eyes that constantly rolled this way and that while the head stayed immobile.  Vicki’d known a couple of Harpoish characters before now—Dumb Mark back at Reulbach Elementary, and Lenny “Ooh! Ooh!” Otis who was half-Harpo and half-Horshack—but Sandro Monticello had them both beat resemblancewise.  Except for his voice: a deep resonant evocative purr, tinged with an accent not so much Italian as Canadian:


“Her grandmother may-she-rest-in-peace was prepared to make a kerfuffle about my having Tuscan ancestry and a Catholic background, till she heard I conduct the classics.  After that she would gussy up in her most formal togs whenever I came calling, and use her best snifter when pouring me an afterdinner pálinka.  Allow me, tonight, to contribute this afterdinner bottle of peppermint schnapps—‘Once you’ve tasted Leroux, no other liqueurs will do’—though it can be a during-dinner bottle if you’re ah-beh-oat” [about] “to flambé anything you’ll be serving, eh?”


“If you are, don’t let him flambé it,” Mrs. Monticello advised.  “Last time he tried, he set the tablecloth on fire!”


Mr. Monticello’s wide staring eyes rolled her way; then he ran a fingertip down his startlingly long thick tongue, and used the moistened tip to place a stroke upon an imaginary chalkboard.  “That’s one,” he announced.


The third overcoat was shrugged off by a gangly boy somewhat older and bigger than Goofus, but with similar freckles and shaggy orange hair.  He also sported stuck-out jug-ears like Jason on The Waltons; a down-home howdy-ma’am demeanor like Chewy DeWitt; and a dollop of earnest callowness like Ron Howard as Opie or Richie or that guy he played in American Graffiti.  This was Masetto Monticello, who’d reputedly “gone native” during his family’s recent stretch in Casper, Wyoming: abandoning the French horn (on which he’d excelled) to take up the banjo, rename himself Roscoe, and start gnawing on straws.


(“Notte e giorno faticar / per chi nulla sa gradir!” was his Mozart-loving father’s despairing commentary on these developments.)


The last of the four overcoats got flung to one side by a tawny-maned Wonder Girl in a tricolor warmup suit that clung so snugly to her curves it might have been a velour leotard and tights.  This hotcha figure advanced on shrinking Vicki like one of the brass-bold Quirk sisters—but, unlike Sheila or Amelia, she was daubed with far more cosmetics than her hotcha face ought to need.  Which indicated either a skin condition (like Robin used to have) or “making a statement” (like Fiona before she got foxified)—or, just possibly, having been socked on the schnoz by a rogue volleyball.


Vicki, still clutching the Tupperware at arm’s length, was backed out of the foyer and into the breakfast nook to bump against a naugahyde booth-seat and recoil from the unstoppable Wonder Girl, whose overly-glossed lioness-lips parted to say:

“Do you know Keiko Nakayama?”


Blink.  Blink.


“I, um, used to know a Keiko Nakayama...”


“This one says she used to go to your school.  And went to a birthday rock concert you had at some disco” (this word said with a slightly-curled overly-glossed lioness-lip).  “Oh put that awful thing down already, it must weigh a ton.  And take my advice and don’t taste what’s inside.”


Vicki couldn’t help but giggle as she unburdened herself of the creamed cucumbers.  “Um, yeah, that’s the Keiko I know—knew, that is—we heard her parents sent her to Startop to ‘keep her away from boys.’  So how’s that working out?”


“Well—” began Wonder Girl, when Mrs. Monticello called “Zerlina?  Where are you?” from the living room.


Zerlina?” went Vicki.


“ZERL,” truncated Wonder Girl, with sharp emphasis.  And for the first time Vicki noticed her tricolor warmup jacket had a Zorro-like Z above one hotcha breast, precisely where Laverne DeFazio wore her curlicued L’s.




Their attempts to resume hobnobbing about Keiko were hindered by Mr. Monticello’s monopoly over conversation at the dinner table.  He maintained this domination even while consuming second helpings of everything on the menu; yet without talking grossly through halfeaten mouthfuls, each of which got munched invisibly and swallowed with scarcely a breath taken as his monologue rolled sonorously on:


“I remember a night west of Raleigh when I was teaching at East Carolina and eh‑oar” [our] “orchestra went on a tour of sorts—decidedly shoestring sorts—during which we were fed a local delicacy called ‘livermush’ that included parts of the pig far removed from its liver, and contained rather more cornmeal than the pâtés I was accustomed to, which weren’t typically dished up with a side of hominy grits.  Nevertheless I did develop a palate for some of the homegrown Carolina cuisine, such as hushpuppies, red slaw and pawpaw fruit, though she-crab bisque struck me as little better than soupy caviar—would you be so good as to pass me the sauce, if any is left? as well as the rice for me to put it on? thank you—they also make what they call ‘chicken bog’ in the Carolinas, a dish that when prepared properly lives up to its name, but I remember a night in the Lowcountry where this was served with a sausage so highly spiced the chicken did more hovering over the rice than bogging down into it—”


Ozzie, who’d given up trying to sneak a word into this spiel, kept a butter-and-egg smile on his bemused face while methodically cleaning his plate.  Goofus and Roscoe, having rehashed last Sunday’s Super Bowl and reassessed the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, mopped up their own edible remnants speechlessly (though not soundlessly: eww) with slices of bread.  Miriam made occasional interjections, such as “He likes you to call him ‘Maestro’ so he can shake his head and say ‘Nooo, nooo, not I’”—to which Sandro would respond with a lick-and-stroke and “That’s four,” “That’s five,” or whatever the tally’d amounted to by then.  Felicia, being a good hostess, took a few stabs at diverting questions to Midge and the Monticello children:


“Zerlina, I understand you’re interested in ballet?”


“It’s ZerlAnd avant-garde, not ballet.”


“Oh.  Well, that sounds exciting—”


“I must admit there was a singular lack of quality contemporary dance in Casper, Wyoming,” expounded the nooo-nooo-not-I Maestro.  “No sooner did we move from there to here than Surly Zerly signed up for a series of lessons with a student in the Kickshaw Dance Division named Octavia—the sort of girl we referred to, when I was a lad in Ontario, as ‘a real strapper, big, brown, and buxom’—indeed considerably browner than your average Ontarian, and not unlike a more robust Josephine Baker in her early Parisian career when she gamboled with La Revue nègre, though I haven’t ascertained as yet whether eh-oar Octavia ever takes the stage wearing a girdle of bananas—”


“She doesn’t!” broke in Zerl.  “And she’s not that ‘big,’ either!”


Felicia, hastily intervening, asked “Would you like someday to dance in France?”


“In nuh-thing but her unn-der-pants!” chanted Roscoe, with Goofus gleefully chipping in and giving Zerl a repellant leer.


How dare you, creep!  You’re not even twelve yet! thought the indignant Vicki, while Miriam snapped “Language!” and Zerl herself went “Shaddup, Rebozo!”


“Well, a girdle of tropical fruit, eh?” suggested Mr. Monticello.  “Which reminds me of a night in Havana when I played alto saxophone in a hotel casino’s heh‑oase” [house] “band during the summer of ‘58—”


“Just before The Godfather Part II,” put in Midge.


Lick, stroke.  “That’s six.  Into this hotel casino on that Havana night wandered a dewy-eyed Miss Treh‑oat-wein, newly graduated from the Hartt College in Connecticut, who’d treated herself to a fifty-dollar ticket from Miami so she could experience Cuba at its gaudily decadent zenith—”


“Oh, here we go.  Strike up ‘Guatanamera,’” said Midge.


Lick, stroke.  “That’s seven.  From my spot high atop the bandstand I caught this Miss Treh‑oat‑wein’s dewy eye across the crowded dance floor—”


“—lemme help you clear the table,” Zerl told Vicki, not loudly but distinctly, as she pushed back her chair and picked up her dinnerware.


Vicki, a trifle nonplused, gathered her own and followed Zerl into the kitchen.  “(Are we not supposed to know about Miss Treh‑oat‑wein?)” she whispered.


“(Trautwein.  You’ve met her—she’s the one who brought the creamed cucumbers.  This is the saga of their ‘whirlwind courtship’ and how they ‘pre-eloped’—he recites it everywhere we go and I can repeat it in my sleep.)”


They returned to collect more crockery and cutlery from the dining room, just in time to hear Sandro say “—having pre-eloped, we completed tying the marital knot in Miss Treh-oat-wein’s hometown of Grinch—”


“The Greenwich who stole Christmas,” interpreted Midge.


Lick, stroke.  “That’s eight.  Pray let me keep this tureen just a tad longer,” Sandro told Vicki.  “I must commend the cook for an especially scrumptious hors d’oeuvre—indeed I seem to have eaten most of it.  I trust the rest of you don’t want any of what’s left.”


“Hog, that’s the uborka WE brought!” chided Midge.  To Felicia: “There sits the sax player who popped the question in a Havana honkytonk after only a week’s acquaintance!  Simply scandalous!  Well of course I had to accept—how can you turn down a man who buys you a pair of black satin Cuban heels so he can drink rum-and-Coca-Cola out of them?”


Vicki noticed Zerlina mouthing along with these words as they withdrew to the kitchen.  There Zerl laid her stack of dirty dishes on the drainboard before bracing tricolor limbs against the breakfast nook’s doorframe, then straining away with isometric vexation: c‑r‑e‑a‑k it went, as did Zerl’s joints.


“(Hey, take it easy!)” Vicki cautioned.


“(I know exactly what they’re gonna say, line by line!)” grunted Zerlina.


“(Well, don’t hurt yourself over it.)”  Or damage our house, either.


Zerl let go of the frame and came sagging over to the sink.  “(Look, can we just hand them the dessert and go to your room or someplace that’s quiet?  If I hear any more of their blithering I’ll bust wide open!)”


Out of that skintight warmup suit—wouldn’t that be a treat for Goofus?  “(C’mon, bring those,)” said Vicki, indicating a pile of fresh plates and forks, which got deposited on the cleared-except-for-Sandro’s-cucumber-tureen table alongside the Apple Charlotte.  “(I’m gonna go show Zerl my pictures of Keiko Nakayama,)” Felicia was discreetly informed.


“What?  Who?”


“A girl we both know,” said Zerl.


“Oh how nice” and “What a coincidence” went their mothers as the girls hurried out of earshot and away upstairs.


“Good thinking!” Zerl applauded.  “Sorry to impose myself on you like this, but they’re driving me absolutely batshit.  It got so bad in Casper, Wyoming that I ran away one night and started hitchhiking to New York.”




“Well, I could have, I made all the preparations.  This your room?  Mind if I prowl?”  Which Zerl proceeded to do, thoroughly catlike, inspecting the contents of Vicki’s bookcase and music shelf and doorless closet-alcove.  “Course now that I’ve got my license, I could ‘borrow’ the Jeep and make a clean getaway—don’t think I haven’t thought about it.  This one’s wicked,” she remarked, giving the sleeve of Vicki’s sexy purple top an appreciative pluck.


“So you’re sixteen?” asked Vicki, torn between pride and pique at her personal effects being favorably prowled.


“Yeah, for the last couple weeks—they wanted a New Year baby, but I held out till January 8th.  You?”


“Not till March 1st—I was born the wrong year to be a Leap Day baby.  Here’s the pic that must’ve cooked Keiko’s goose with her folks.”


Zerlina pirouetted from rummaging through Vicki’s tape cassettes and let out a whoop at the Cicada photo of Keiko Nakayama in red-hot partygarb, dancing at the Vinyl Spinnaker.  “I LOVE IT!  She never dresses like that at Stuckup!”


“You mean Startop?  Way to cheer your alma mater,” Vicki hooted.


“Hey, I didn’t ask to be sent there.  I wanted to go to Runcible” (a prestigious high school of fine arts, down in The City) “but they didn’t offer me a scholarship and Stuckup did.  Keiko’s there on one too—it makes us feel like underprivileged spiders in the Land of Miss Muffets.  We’re just glad we were able to pal up with each other.”


Vicki recounted Keiko’s career as Cinderella-san under Carly Thibert’s bippity-boppity-boo tutelage, and Zerl’s restless intensity melted into peals of hilarity: her face shining through its layer of redundant cosmetics, her tricolor bosom heaving with hotcha delight.  “Oh God!” she gasped, “I haven’t laughed this hard since we left Corona!”




“California—that came after East Carolina and before Casper, Wyoming.”


“Seems like you guys’ve moved a lot.”


“Five times in fifteen years.  It’s like being an army brat.”


“Well,” Vicki said a mite shyly, “I hope you get to stay here for a good long while.”


“Before tonight I don’t think I’d have agreed with you,” said Zerlina, giving her a toothy smile that disappeared when the bedroom door was flung open without so much as a token knock, and Goofus thrust in his gargoyle noggin.


“Hello,” he squiggied as Roscoe’s grinning jug-eared mug peered overhead.


“HEY!” chorused their offended older sisters.


“Is for horses,” retorted Roscoe.


“Mom sent me up to remind you ‘that dishwasher ain’t gonna load itself,’” smirked Goofus.


“Want us to break your arms so you’ll have an excuse not to do it?”


“Aw, we wouldn’t wanna steal women’s work away from any so-called women—”


WHAP went a cushion hurled with bull’s-eye accuracy, and Zerl snarled “De te ike!” at the kid brothers as they beat an obnoxious retreat.  “That means ‘Get lost!’ in Japanese,” Vicki was told as Zerl went to retrieve the projectile.  “Hope this wasn’t your favorite pillow, now that it’s coated with cooties.”


“S’okay, you put it to good use.  C’mon ‘n’ watch me be a galley slave.”


“Gimme a sponge and I’ll swab all the countertops.”


“You’re here as a guest.”


“I can swab for my supper, I’ve done it before—washed a lot of cars to raise money for jazz-and-tap classes in Casper, Wyoming.”


They found the kitchen filled with the sound of Mr. Monticello holding forth in the living room, his eloquence evidently augmented by peppermint schnapps:


“Dorothea McPaddock—‘Dot’ in her youth, ‘Thea’ in her prime, ‘Little Nell Horner’ on the burlesque stage—was a fan dancer of the second magnitude, falling short of the ree-neh‑oan” [renown] “won by Faith Bacon and Sally Rand.  Yet her feathered plumes bore Thea as far as Columbia Pictures, via Harry Cohn’s casting ceh‑oatch” [couch] “and there, I’m told, she graced a number of short subjects starring the Three Stooges.”


“(I haven’t heard this one more’n a half-dozen times yet,)” murmured Zerl as she scrubbed the drainboard.


“Despite all the custard pies and seltzer water that besplattered Thea, she succeeded in ensnaring Nicholas Lyng the Codfish King—first as his mistress, then as his deathbed bride.  The Lyng family contested the marriage and inheritance of old Nick’s estate; Thea insisted on receiving ‘her fair share’ of cod profit, which she ultimately acquired thanks to employing an attorney with suspected connections to a peh-oh-er-ful” [powerful] “crime syndicate.”


“Just goes to show you the benefits of working with the Three Stooges,” commented Miriam.


(Audible lick and stroke.)  “That’s thirteen.  Let us transition to the recent past, and picture Dorothea McPaddock Lyng as an elderly lady of considerable wealth, with a taste for younger men whether eminent or neophyte.  Her rheumy eye lit upon Hugh B. Chitney Jr., formerly of Star-Spangled Life & Casualty—‘We don’t want to sell you insurance, we want you to buy it from us’—who’d taken a Music Appreciation course in college, and on that basis was chosen to design a restructuring plan for the moribund Kickshaw Conservatory.”


(Audible sip of schnapps.)


“What with Mrs. Lyng’s rheumy eye, beefy taste, and generous bequest, Hugh B. Jr. was able to replace Theas feathered plumes with angel’s wings by converting her donation into sorely-needed working capital.  He was rewarded when the Kickshaw Board of Trustees named him as the Conservatory’s new president, a high office that would be his to occupy for as long as Mrs. Lyng maintained her largesse.  His first act was to launch a nationwide search for a new music director, since the aged incumbent had seen fit to drop dead shortly before a major recital (his assistant being obliged to step over the body and carry on) but Mrs. Lyng pre-empted that coast-to-coast quest by happening upon yours truly last July.  I was back on my home turf at the time, guest-conducting a Stratford Festival production—”


“(He was a last-minute substitute,)” hissed Zerlina, and Vicki did a mental lick-and-stroke.


“—of Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict.  Eh-oar rendition of the duet ‘Nuit paisible et sereine’ touched Mrs. Lyng’s nocturnal heart, so there and then she exercised her angelic prerogative to offer me the post of Kickshaw music director.  Hugh B. Jr. rubber-stamped that fait accompli, as did the Board; so thither we came and hither we are tonight, eh?”


“Did Mrs. Lyng go to the Stratford Festival because she’s a Shakespeare buff?” Felicia ventured to wonder aloud.


“Nooo—Thea was on a nostalgic summer tour reliving her nights in burlesque, which included Stratford’s old Doxie Theatre.  I was but a child in her prime and 150 kilometers away in Toronto, so alas I had no chance to catch Little Nell Horner in the act.  She might be willing to revive it today, but Hugh B. Jr. is trying to channel her bigheartedness into an endowment for a brand-new up-to-the-minute ‘Dorothea McPaddock Lyng Center for the Performing Arts’—or, as I privately call it, the ‘Church of Latter-Day Fan Dancers.’”


“(Your dad sure can tell a story,)” Vicki told Zerl as they finished tidying the kitchen.


“(Oh yeah, he’s good at that,)” said Zerlina.


Mr. Monticello was also good at letting out a high-volume yell when he redonned his extra-long extra-thick overcoat, which had spent the January evening in an unheated foyer closet.  “Enough with the dramatics, Sandro!” said his blasé wife, who turned aside to notify the Volesters “You’re all expected at our place next week for Sunday brunch!” before her husband could get off another lick-and-stroke.  A mutual dare by Goofus and Roscoe to pinch each other’s sister’s butt (by way of farewell) was nullified by Zerlina overcoating hers before Goofus could get to it, and Roscoe wussing out when it came to Vicki’s.


“(I think those goobers were up to something,)” Vicki warned Zerl as they shared a parting hug.


“(Down, not up, and what else is new?  Ignore ‘em both.  So glad we met,)” said Zerl.


Then the four Monticellos took their leave, their bitchen Jeep VA-VA-VA-VOOM-ing away; and in the ensuing silence Vicki harked back to the end of last summer’s A Whale of a Time, when cloudbanks would close ranks and shed rain to reduce sizzling summery paradise to a wet deserted beach, day after day after day.


(That’s Part I... that’s Part II... that’s Part III...)




The Cityland was dealt a one-two punch the following Thursday when a blizzard, the worst in seven years, dumped a foot of snow over all creation and high winds blew it back onto the streets faster than they could be plowed.  Schools everywhere were closed Friday; Vicki and Joss couldn’t do their regular weekend sleepovers; auditions for the Spring (ha!) Operetta were interrupted; Spacyjane’s Sweet Sixteen had to be postponed, as did the Monticellos’s Sunday brunch.  Everybody hunkered down to entreat Dame Nature for a quick return to normal routine, not another winter as harsh or even harsher than last year’s ordeal.  And their mass beseechment may have been hearkened to, since the first week of February brought nothing worse than a series of flurries—comparative dustings that any bona fide Citylander could tromp through or drive over without a second thought.


That weekend the standard sleepover arrangement was reversed: Vicki stayed at the Queen Anne on Friday night and Joss at Burrow Lane on Saturday.  This was because Zerlina’d rung up to say Keiko Nakayama would be at Sunday’s deferred brunch, which inspired Vicki and Zerl to work on their parents and induce them to let Joss (who packed a deal-sweetening hamper of Toughie’s fluffy biscuit muffins) go too.


First, though, was Spacyjane’s birthday party at the chalet on Cecidia, rescheduled for Saturday the 4th.  Eight guests were invited to this Sweet Sixteen, with a request to come dressed “mathematically.”  When asked for clarification, Space said “It should be something that divides evenly—like four into eight into sixteen.”  Most of the invitees conferred among themselves and settled on wearing button-up blouses, dresses, or sweaters.


“How ‘bout a button-down collar?” Joss asked Vicki as they got ready in the aerie.


“How ‘bout a button-down lip?” grimaced Vicki as, for the third straight time, she fastened her shirtwaist unevenly.


Also converging on the chalet that Saturday were Spacyjane’s best friends LeAnn Anobile and Kathleen Prindle, plus Alex and Nonique—and Laurie Harrison, making her post-breakdown mid-recovery social comeback.  She nervously nibbled pooftail-tips while huddling behind Alex and avoiding Vicki’s eye; yet Laurie at least looked like their favorite blabberyap again, and hadn’t missed her psychotherapeutic session even while snowed-in last week, when she’d conversed with Dr. “H-hello” Harvey by phone.  So progress was being made, with hopes for the future; and in the meantime (as Sheila-Q’d once quipped) “enjoy the hush while it lasts.”


The eighth guest and undeniable life of the party was Isabel Carstairs.  Yes, the same Izzy-Whizzy whom Spacyjane had once abhorred (insofar as Space could abhor) for taking immodest liberties with Floramour’s come-to-life body if not soul.  Not to mention all the times Is had gone to wanton lengths and blatant depths to capture attention from Sidney Erbsen’s camera lens.


Now watch Isabel sweep into Space’s velveteen bedchamber, clad in the same coral cardigan she’d worn on Fifties Day but this time with the buttons in front and thus even likelier to pop apart as she oozy-cooed “Lookit all the dolls!  Ohhhhhhh, isn’t this one beautiful!”—and made an unerring beeline for Floramour, thereby breaking the Blue Fairy’s transformative spell into existential smithereens.


(Vicki felt Joss’s fingernails dig into one of her own arms, while Nonique’s did the same to the other.)


Yet Spacyjane didn’t accuse Isabel of violating a fantasy or tearing a hole in the space-time continuum.  Instead she formally introduced doll and girl to each other, then pointed out other Swiss objets d’art—a cuckoo clock, a music box, a cheesy chocolate yodeler—to the Heidi-loving Isabel.  With no trace of animosity on Space’s part, not even when Is simpered at Split-Pea’s framed self-portrait.


And when Spacyjane proposed staging a Sweet Sixteen dolly opera, Isabel plumped down on the braided rug (popping her topmost button) and rallied the other guests to take part.  “I still have a few of my Barbies, the ones I was able to save from Mauly,” she confided.  “They kind of helped save me too.  Wish I had time to go get them, so they could have fun play-acting with us!”


Under her inventive guidance the opera was set in a driver’s ed class.  (Is was the only girl present who’d taken one of these as yet—and would need to repeat, since her learner’s permit had been revoked soon afterward.)  A dozen dolls were selected and compelled to watch Crashes in Toyland, a safety scare film starring four other dolls whose DUI, DWI, and plain old heedless speeding resulted in tragic consequences for all concerned.  Which further discouraged the two oldest guests, Kathleen and Alex, from actually learning to drive; Kathleen was already cowed by any device more complicated than a sewing machine, and Alex of course preferred four-footed transport that could be saddled and galloped.  “I might just get a carriage and hitch it up whenever I need to go someplace that’s too far to run to.”  Dreamily: “I always wanted to travel by stagecoach.”


Nevertheless Alex said (hesitantly) that she’d join her younger friends in tentative plans to become licensed motorists come springtime, or no later than June when Nonique turned sixteen.  “Will your father let you practice-drive his Caddy?” Nonique was asked, the Fleetwood Brougham having been featured in the latest Rebounder commercial.


“Doubt it!” she replied.  “He’d trade me in first.”


“Well, doesn’t Vicki’s dad have a whole Lot of cars we could take out for test spins?”


“After we’ve got our licenses, and if we’re planning to buy them,” Vicki demurred.


“You mean have them bought for us,” said Isabel, who had no intention of not being pampered.  “And not some Alfa Romeo like they gave Mauly, either.  I’m getting a Lotus Éclat—that means ‘Brilliant Water Lily” in French.”


“Guess I’ll have to drive a Colt or Mustang,” smiled Alex.


“Just don’t go near a Pinto,” advised Vicki.


“When I turn sixteen I get to let guys give me rides in their cars,” LeAnn volunteered.


“Be sure you keep your seatbelt buckled at all times,” Joss solemnly counseled her.


“And both feet on the floor.  To, um, keep your balance,” added the sadder-but-wiser Vernonique.


“I think... I might wait... till Susie’s... old enough... to take the class with me,” Laurie faltered.


“Mmm,” went the noncommittal Kathleen.


“Well, springtime’s still a long while off,” Spacyjane philosophized.  “My Swee’Pea says we should focus on the moment.  So—is everyone ready for a little fondue?”




Back in the previous century, one of Edwin Hynde’s genial witticisms was that he might be the same age as Martin Chuzzlewit and had voyaged from England to America at the same time, but while Martin sought his fortune in the Valley of Eden and there found only a malarial swamp, Edwin settled in The City (chartered just six years earlier) and there made his fortunes—“for so I call them, precious as they are to me”—within a decade.  Starting as a journeyman printer, he wooed and wed Mary Claredon from a long line of looking-glass manufacturers; established the Evening Reflector as a well-grounded daily newspaper; assisted Jan van der Lund’s missionaries to found the College of the Hereafter between La Cunae Bay and the Hereafter Hills; purchased land north of this seminary and platted a community he named after his home county of Leicestershire; and there built a summer home that Edwin called Hynde Park but said ought to be called Hynde End—if it were occupied by a man so unfortunate as to lack Edwin’s treasured wife and daughters.


As opposed to his only son, Edward Claredon Hynde, a burly pugnacious individual usually referred to as “Roughneck.”  He’d been born shortly after the Reflector’s first issue (his arrival meriting a headline) and the two grew up together; Ruff would claim he learned how to set type before he mastered cursive handwriting.  Over the years he absorbed every aspect of journalism, covering multiple beats, honing his editorial blue pencil, then taking over as publisher when Edwin retired to Hynde Park.  And for the next four decades E.C. Hynde aggressively immersed himself in documenting and influencing events in The City, The County, The State, occasionally The Nation and and sometimes The World.


In a weak moment (as he would later phrase it) this Roughneck married Lucretia Lutterworth, a lady of great refinement but sparse family revenue.  She had an endless number of financially-challenged siblings, uncles, aunts, and cousins, none of whom Ruff would allow to freeload at the country manor he’d expansively remodeled and ironically renamed Hyndesite.  For them a row of skinny greystone townhouses was built along Lutterworth Terrace, sufficiently distant to keep E.C.’s in-laws out of his hair; and nearly ninety years later, one of these greystones (three blocks south of the Kickshaw Conservatory) would be rented to the newcoming Monticellos.


There the Volesters and Joss went for brunch on Sunday the 5th, their Luxury Liner lumbering up Panama Boulevard and turning north on Unity Street, which paralleled the Lakeside Central campus and also the El tracks till those swerved westward to skirt the Hereafter foothills.  Passing Harborough Way (host to the annual Harborough Fair) they reached Lutterworth Terrace, parking behind the bitchen Jeep on a narrow driveway made tighter by flanking snowbanks.  And as the Volesters, Joss and her muffin hamper all squeezed cautiously out of the T&C, they were abruptly besieged by a floppy-eared dog so frantically glad to greet them that its entire rear half was wagging.


“Meet the Mooche,” wheezed Roscoe, running up with an escaped-from leash.  “Don’t mind him—he’s a beagador—half beagle, half Lab—Paw calls him a ‘retrieagle.’”


Whatever his designation, Mooche leaped joyously from one Volester to another (Joss and her hamper taking sanctuary between car and Jeep) before concentrating on Vicki, who might fondly recall Beany Boy back on Walrock Avenue but now was decidedly a cat person.  The only dogs she knew at all well these days were Alex’s Tonio and Yermak, respectively too angsty and too dignified to leap at her; the Sweeneys’s Snickerdoodle, who marked territory all over the Burrow Lane cul-de-sac; and Rags Ragnarsson, a Norwegian elkhound in jockboy form.  If not for Ozzie’s alleged allergy to felines, Vicki would’ve gotten one of Mittens’s kittens and had a full-grown cat of her own by now, instead of this flop-eared crossbreed trying to bowl her over with slushy paws and snout—


“Rebozo!  Drag that mongrel off her so she can come inside!” ordered Zerlina from the skinny greystone’s arched entryway.


Roscoe and Goofus lassoed the hopped-up Mooche and bore him away around the townhouse.  Miriam, appearing under the entry arch beside Zerl, bade the Volesters and Joss welcome and began to chatter with Felicia in realtorspeak about Romanesque Revival, limestone façades, recessed windows and pressed-metal bays.  Vicki introduced Joss to Zerl and they both greeted Keiko, who was hanging bashfully back in much the same garb as when she’d first arrived in Vanderlund: sailor-collared middy blouse, knee-length pleated skirt, sensible kneesocks and serviceable loafers.  Still not the most flattering ensemble—particularly when topped off, now as then, by outmoded hornrims.  (Jenna Wiblitz would have something to say about those.)


“I did not think I would be able to meet any of you again,” Keiko intimated with quiet politeness.  Then, more eagerly: “How is Carly-chan?”


Joss nudged Vicki, who threw her an annoyed sub-vibe.  Answering this question would require some evasive hedging, since for Carly Thibert out-of-sight was definitely out-of-mind.  Vicki’d had to jog her negligent memory (“Kay who?”) of someone Carly’d assumed had gone home to Yokohama months ago; she was surprised and displeased to hear Keiko was still living in the same apartment on Cedarapple Road.


“Well, that sucks!  How come she hasn’t called me or anything, all this time?”


Because her parents felt you were a corrupting influence and forbade Keiko to have anything more to do with you.  “I think you ticked off her folks.  Y’know, for getting her to dress racy and wear makeup and stuff.  But I bet she misses you, stuck up there at Startop.”


“They’re all stuck up there at Startop,” huffed the cutely irate Carly, unwittingly echoing Zerlina—who here in the greystone vestibule was asking “Yeah, how is Carly-chan?  Does she still have that red-hot party dress?”


“That belonged to her cousin, Lola-senpai—I was too tall to borrow Carly’s clothes,” blushed Keiko, remembering how short Carly’s skirts were to begin with.  Then, yearningly: “She is well?  She was happy to hear we would be meeting today?”


“She, um, sends her love,” Vicki hedged.


“And hopes you like fluffy biscuit muffins,” added Joss.


“‘Oo mentioned muffins?” went a husky voice, and out of the kitchen bustled Mrs. Bridges from Upstairs, Downstairs—except it was in fact Maestro Monticello, all gotten up in a lace mobcap and frilly pinafore.


(Groan from the face-averting Zerl.)


“Well I never, lawks-a-mercy!  Wot an amply-packed hamper this is, to be sure!  Chock-full of muffiny goodness, I shouldn’t wonder, and just what we need for brunch!  Such a brunch awaits your lucky stomachs, my dearies, and no mistake!  Let’s take this splendid ‘amper straight into the larder so we can be pampered with haute cuisine ardor...”  To Ozzie: “Nah then, young man, none o’ that!—I’ll thank you not to make sheep’s eyes at this respectable chef in her own decent honest upright pantry!”


“B—” protested Ozzie.


“Nah then, none’s wot I said and none’s wot I meant!  There’ll be no sheep’s eyes on the menu this fine Sunday!  If you want to make yourself useful, young man, go through there—you’ll find a grog tray set up with everything you need to mix hot toddies for the grownups!”


“(Now you’re talking,)” mumbled Ozzie, heading off to play bartender.


“And mind you use the Canadian Mist!—that Kentucky whiskey has too moonshiny a flavor for morning consumption, if you’ll forgive my mentioning it!...”  Herding the girls into the kitchen: “Nah then, ‘ark at that beastly wind a-blowing!  Like to freeze my old bones, it is!  ‘Orrible to think winter’s only ‘alf done with—drat that inconsiderate greh-oaned-hog” [groundhog] “for seeing its shadder and cursing us with six more weeks o’ misery!  Be so good, my dearies, as to line up ‘ere at the tap and wash every one o’ your ‘ands—I’ll not be having any dirty fingers on my conscience, thank you very much!—as you prepare for the glory and rapture o’ dishing up one of Mrs. Pigott’s patent-pending déjeuner-buffets!


“Mrs. S-s-pigot??” spluttered Joss.


“At your service, dearie, but with less sibilance—it’s puh-puh-Pigott and leave off the suh-suh-suh!  Nah then, I’ll wager you’re the cornet player I’ve ‘eard tell of, are you not?  Well, never you forget to empty that nasty spit valve—”


Which sent Joss into such a silent gigglefit she had to be propped up on either side by Vicki and the tittering Keiko.  Zerl shook her tawny head, stalked over to the sink, did some perfunctory wrist-rinsing, then seized the nearest chafing basin and marched out of the kitchen blaring “BRUNCH!”


The rest of the provender got conveyed to the dining room and arranged on a stubby-legged sideboard.  Mr. Monticello, having swapped mobcap and pinafore for an extra-long extra-thick smoking jacket, made a grand entrance—“How lovely to see you all!  Why did no one tell me you were here, eh?”—and everyone heaped a plate to take to an oversized table that must’ve been difficult to fit inside so many surrounding shelves that all teemed with bric-a-brac, curios, ornaments and tchotchkes.  These had been accumulated from Canada, Connecticut, and every stopping-place on the Monticellos’s expeditions—Havana to Hackensack to Columbus to East Carolina to Corona, California to Casper, Wyoming and now Lutterworth Terrace in Leicestershire.


No telling where they’d obtained the ebony Masai warrior who glowered down at Vicki as she fidgeted in a corner between Keiko and Zerl, across from Joss and Maestro Sandro.  My tied-for-third-best-friend is black, she tried to assure the fierce carving; but it silently dared her to taste the potato glop on her brunch plate.  Tryyyy it, you’ll liiiike it went Joss, sub-quoting an old Alka-Seltzer catchphrase.  Sandro referred to the glop as “poutine” and said it was a Québécois specialty: French fries and cheese curds slathered with hot brown gravy.  “S’good,” declared Zerl, tucking into her share; even Keiko was sampling some, though last year at VW she’d shyed away from anything cheesy.  Joss scarfed hers with an mmm-mmm good (Mandingo!) expression, sub-gloating You can’t believe I ate the whoooole thinnnng; and Vicki would never sub- or super-hear the last of it if she left her own glop untouched.


At least it isn’t as yuh‑ucky as creamed carrots or cucumbers...


So hold your breath, fork a morsel into your mouth, swallow it with minimal chewing and emerge to gargle “So Keiko, you still wanna be a weathergi—um, meteorologist?”


“Oh yes, thank you for bearing me in mind.”


Last year she’d taken Ms. Tays-the-Tease’s Advanced Earth Science class, not the regular one with Vicki and Carly and Fiona, and had gone on a field trip to visit Britt’s father Hoyt Groningen in his Action Weather TV studio.  After that, Keiko’d begun doing her own forecasting experiments using homemade vanes and gauges and a thermometer tethered to a small helium balloon.  (Carly’d urged her not to emulate Hoyt Groningen but his glamorous competitor Anita Bordeaux, who’d previously been Mimi McLaine’s chief rival for local covergirlish commercials.  Mimi’s daughter Becca Blair, who rarely stooped to vulgarity, defined Anita as a “what’s the right word?  ‘Bitch,’ let’s say.  Yes: in every sense.”)


Now at the Monticello dinner table Keiko spoke modestly, learnedly, and a-bit-too-softly-to-be-understood about her atmospheric aspirations.  Then Zerl broke in to demand details about the all-girl punk rock band that Vicki was supposedly superintending.  Vicki gulped down another sample of congealed poutine, followed by one of fluffy biscuit muffin, before confessing that Downbite had accomplished very little since New Year’s Eve—not so much because of blizzardy weather as the sheer lack of demand.


“But we” (meaning Fiona and Robin) “hope the new management” (meaning Bunty O’Toole) “at the Panama Plaza disco” (meaning the Vinyl Spinnaker, if Bunty didn’t change its name) “might let us—that is, them” (meaning Downbite) “have a sort of concert there, kind of like we—they” (meaning the Rosa Dartles) “did a year ago.  Well, you were there at that one” (meaning Keiko).


“Oh yes, they played very loudly.”


“Well, loud’s half the battle,” nodded Zerl.  “But punk at a disco?” (with the same slight curl of overly-glossed lioness-lip).


“Hey, we’re not talking Studio 54 or Magnetic Pole here,” said Vicki.  “This is a tacky stripmall disco.  And its new assistant manager was a gangster-boss at our high school, even though she’s a teen girl too and hardly any taller than me.”


Zerl stroked her heavily cosmeticized chin.  (Why did she lay the warpaint on so thick?  Because of a pimply complexion, like Robin’s used to be?  Or to stand out from the throng and not get shoved aside, as Fiona was intent upon?)  “I guess I can see that could work.  Not that I’ve had much chance to see real punk live.  The closest they got to punk in Casper, Wyoming was Merle Haggard.”


Meanwhile across the table Joss was hanging onto Sandro Monticello’s every word, now quaveringly delivered (with a clawlike hand on Joss’s arm) as if from the aged mother of Stanley Wurtz, a bassoonist on the Kickshaw Conservatory’s woodwind faculty:


“Young lady, answer this for me.  Suppose you have a son.  Suppose that son grows up.  Suppose he breaks his father’s heart by choosing to blow a bassoon when he could have gone into the wholesale thread business and become a first-class thread-seller.  Suppose this son of yours gets to be fifty-eight years old and still can’t find a girl who will marry him!  Suppose all this happens, may God not shrivel my tongue for saying such a thing ah-leh-oad” [aloud] “—what would you do then?”


“What would I do then?” asked Joss, glistening enchantedly.


Farther down the table, Roscoe and Goofus were appraising last night’s TV movie Ring of Passion, which despite its title hadn’t been based on one of Sammi Tiggs’s Harlequin romances but dramatized the fistfights of Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling.  Roscoe asserted that either boxer could have wiped the mat with today’s pugilists, while Goofus countered that Muhammad Ali wasn’t called “The Greatest” for nothing.  (Ten days later Leon Spinks would dispute this.)


At the table’s other end Felicia was drawing Miriam out about her vocation for interior decoration, which eventually led her to the night course in Principles of Real Estate.  “My first job was sewing cut-rate slipcovers for a tyrannosaurus in Hackensack, but it didn’t turn into sweatshop labor till that one” (pointing to Zerlina) “came along a week overdue and my slavedriver of a boss who hadn’t let me take a sick day wouldn’t phone Sandro or an ambulance till my water went and burst and soaked those bargain-basement slipcovers—”


“Ma, quit being gross!” said Zerl as she drained her third cup of mocha java.


“There slurps a Jersey girl,” Midge lamented to Fel.


At any rate, with another mouth (“and such a mouth”) to feed, Sandro’d been motivated to leave his teaching position at Hackensack High School and find a better-paying one at a junior college near Columbus, Ohio, where Masetto (“he may answer to ‘Roscoe’ but not to me he doesn’t”) was born three years later and even more chaotically, during a tornado that tore half the shingles off the little house on whose interior Midge had lovingly practiced decorative ways and means.  Then as a mother of two under a leaky roof (“once again my slipcovers got soaked”) she fell back on her Hartt degree in musical composition, entering numerous jingle contests and winning several.  This knack stood her in good stead when the Monticellos moved on to East Carolina University, where Miriam threw herself into fundraising activities for which the fine arts had an insatiable need, not least in the South—nor the West, as was later confirmed in Corona and especially Casper, Wyoming.  “Don’t get me wrong, there were some wonderful cultured people there, but you couldn’t say they outnumbered the hoi polloi.  Even so, we did our best to hook them and their uncouth checkbooks with good earcatching jingles:



Thrill over Beethoven

And our Tchaikovsky to-do’s!


“Not the most original, maybe, but it brought in a few shekels from the philistines.  And I got to do some of their home furnishing on the side.”


“As I recall, the men’s dorm at Kickshaw is—or was—called ‘Jingles,’” said Felicia.


“And how exactly do—or did—you recall that?” Ozzie wanted to know as he drained his third hot toddy.


“When I first went to Lakeside Central, some of the Kickshaw students—male and female—would come to our mixers,” Fel primly replied.  “One of the boys explained what they meant by ‘living at Jingles.’  But I’ve forgotten where the name came from.”


“I’m told that dormitory was named in honor of John Ernest ‘Jingles’ Mannhalter, the only son of the Conservatory’s then-president,” Sandro purred in his own resonant voice, not Mrs. Wurtz’s.  “While serving on a battleship toward the end of World War II, the poor soul got himself killed by a kamikaze—”


“Better watch what you say, mister!  I was Navy myself!” rasped Ozzie, half rising from his chair before having to steady himself with both hands on the tablecloth.


Silence in the Lutterworth dining room.


Vicki, staring hard at a poutine-stained brunch plate, blanched to the roots of her silky black hair.  Hardly ever did her father lose his temper, least of all in public, least of all while tipsy; but naval service was a sore point with him.  Too young to fight in Korea, Ozzie’d spent a couple years aboard an antiquated oil tanker unofficially dubbed the Sitting Duck, because any enemy submarine could have scuttled it without wasting a torpedo.


“(Oz...)” went Felicia.


“(Sandro...)” went Miriam.


“The very thing,” went Mr. Monticello, his immobile Harpo-head eyeing Ozzie from an oblique angle as he reached for a decanter on a nearby shelf.  “Seeing that you’ve been a sailor, ah-leh-oh” [allow] “me to offer you an afterbrunch nip of Bacardi 151.”


“(I don’t think he needs any more...)” Fel murmured.


“Nonsense,” intoned the Maestro, presenting a hefty slug of potent rum to Ozzie and pouring another for himself.  “Fermented molasses, to a man of the sea, is like oil upon troubled waters.  Sir, let us toast one another: alla nostra salute.


“Na zdrowie,” responded Ozzie, his angry face taking on a blissful countenance that lasted for the rest of the visit to Lutterworth Terrace.  (Riding home, though, in the Luxury Liner driven by Felicia, he would stir and scowl and mumble “Pop sure knows what he’s talking about when he talks about Eyetalians...”)


As the Bacardi was replaced on its shelf, Stanley Wurtz’s mamaleh reappeared in voice and claw.  “Just one sip, mind you—any more would put me right to sleep if you can call it sleep since it’s more like hunting all night for a noodle in a haystack...  Oy, what a lot of essing and fressing’s been done at this table!  So many dishes to wash!  And such a mitzvah for me and my varicose veins to be excused from standing over them in a hot sink, since you young dearies are so willing to handle all the washing up—”


“What are you talking about, Sandro?” Miriam objected.  “These girls are our guests, except for that one—”


“It’s okay, we’ll help, like Zerl helped at our house—my house, I mean—so I’ll help,” dithered Vicki.


“Please, I too would be grateful to assist,” chimed in Keiko.


“Blessings on this house the both of you are,” droned Mrs. Wurtz’s voice.  “And so kindly thoughtful not to need this shayne maydel” (clawlike fingers descending on Joss’s mohair shoulder) “to help you, when such an interesting chat we’re still in the middle of!”


Mmm-mmm (Mandingo!) Joss subbed complacently as she got conducted out of the dining room along with the adults, while Roscoe and Goofus ran off to play with Mooche.


Reverberating SNORT from Zerl.


“Please don’t be mad at Joss, she’s my very best friend,” Vicki implored over a stack of soiled brunchware.


“Mad at her I’m not—sorry for her I feel,” Zerlina mimic-wurtzed.  “‘Cause being star-struck’s no different than being truck-struck if you don’t watch your step.  Find a way to warn her.  Let’s go dump this stuff,” Zerl grumped, leading them back to the kitchen with two scarlet Z’s wiggling crossly on the rear pockets of her taut dungarees.


“Lookit those!  Don’t you wish she’d been with us on the Z team last year?” Vicki asked Keiko, loudly enough to be overheard.


“Don’t I wish I had been, whatever that was!” answered Zerl, squirting Palmolive over her stack and leaving it to soak.  “And don’t I wish she ‘n’ me were going to your school (if not Runcible) instead of Stuckup, this year!”


“Oh, I wish that also,” Keiko sighed pensively.  Hanging her diffident head till the hornrims slipped down her timorous nose, she asked a question that had to be repeated so Vicki could hear it: “Does... Michael... Spurgeon-san... still attend... there?”


The King of the Towheads, whom Jerome Schei swore would’ve taken Keiko to last spring’s Cicada Dance if her scandalized parents hadn’t put her under virtual house arrest—the first step toward exiling her to Startop Academy.  “Yeah, ol’ Mike’s still with us,” said Vicki, giving Zerl a capsule description of him and his Frampton ringlets, then slyly detailing all the flirt-vibes sent Mike’s way by the Carlyfied Keiko till Zerlina’s bosom quaked again with hotcha laughter.


“Who knew you had it in you?” she gasped.  “I did, that’s who—I guessed from the start that your whole getup’s a secret identity!  And that given half a chance you’d go find a phone booth, change into Lola-sandpie’s wicked party dress, and take This City’s nightlife by storm!”


“(Lola-senpai,)” corrected Keiko in a minuscule whisper, her half-hidden face the same shade as Zerl’s rear-Z’s; but she denied nothing.


“Hey, that reminds me—do you ever read any shōjo mangas?” Vicki asked.


Keiko looked up in crimson-cheeked surprise, resettling her hornrims with quite a Wiblitzish gesture.  “Oh yes, everyone in Japan reads manga.  But I have never met any Americans who do.  How...?”


“My New Big—that is, an older-girl friend of mine (should I call her my senpai?) has a lot of them, and is even drawing one called Phantaphyre—she’s a superfine artist.  I’m sure she’ll wanna talk to you—and the Downbite girls’ll wanna talk to you,” nodding at Zerlina.  “We’ll have to arrange a get-together—if your parents’d let you come,” nodding at Keiko.


“Oh yes, I’m sure they will, they approved of you very much.”  Which was news to Vicki and fresh entertainment for Zerl as Keiko listed Vicki’s ninth-grade achievements as yearbook editor and Z team secretary and Frosh Board member and defense attorney on the Student Court.


“Wow, a Renaissance Woman—all that and punk-rock-band-manager too?”


“What can I say?  ‘Smarter than the average bear?’”


Another chesty guffaw from Zerlina.  “I’ve got a Yogi Giraffe upstairs, wanna go see it?  We’ve done all I intend to do in here.”


A plush giraffe twisted into a serene yoga posture?  What a perfect gift for Coach Celeste—and overdue amends for fibbing to her about the cause for feeling woozy when Tony TallerthinnerCarmineRagusa’d resurfaced out of nowhere last October.


“You didn’t make this Yogi Giraffe, right?  It can be bought somewhere?” Vicki was asking as they started up the staircase to the third floor (originally the Lutterworth servants’s quarters) when Zerl came to a sudden halt.


“Just a sec—I’ve only heard this one a couple times before,” she said, leading them back down and around to the living room warmed by a crackly blaze behind an ornate scrollwork firescreen.


“Olga Afanasyevna Tarasenka,” Mr. Monticello was crooning evocatively.  “In the Twenties and Thirties there were Renée Chemet, and Kathleen Parlow, and Stefi Geyer, and Hélène Jourdan-Morhange—but Olga Tarasenka was the Prodigal Prodigy among violinists of international ree-neh-oan.  The marvel of Tsarist Russia, tutored by Leopold Eh-oh-er” [Auer] “she performed as a teen before Nicholas and Alexandra and Rasputin.  After the Bolshevik Revolution she fled to the New World with a young man said to be her brother, Ilya Afanasyevich Tarasenko, though others veh-oad” [vowed] “the true Ilya had gone missing during the Baranovichi Offensive.  Be that as it may, the new Ilya was a talented pianist and well able to accompany his ‘sister’ during her concert tours through North America, her triumphant return to Europe, and her many trips ah-reh-oaned” [around] “the world.  Everywhere she went, Olga’s virtuoso skill and bravura technique won her standing ovations and celebrated acclaim.


“Great as her expertise on the violin was, it was eclipsed by the notoriety of her romantic conquests and extravagant lifestyle.  Lavishly she spent every cent that came into her gifted hands, on clothes and furs and jewels and cars and yachts and especially Olgaskoe, her vast mansion on Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana.  Yet she never ran short of cash, not even during the Depression when she made many recordings and radio broadcasts, and accepted frequent awards from her myriad admirers—including Boris Korsakoff, one of my predecessors as music director of the Kickshaw Conservatory, who named her honorary concertmistress of eh-oar orchestra after her one-night show on eh-oar campus, and his one-night stand (that extended to an entire weekend) in Olga’s bed.


“Still, even the luckiest streak can come to an end, as the immortal Mozart tells us:



Il destin così defrauda

  Le speranze de' mortali.

Ah, chi mai fra tanti mali,

  Chi mai può la vita amar?


“‘Thus destiny con-feh-oands’” [confounds] “‘eh-oar mortal hopes.  Ah who, amid such sorrow, can ever more delight in life?’  The Forties were not kind to Olga Tarasenka: she threw over her ‘brother’ Ilya once too often, and he departed to begin a successful solo act.  Her beloved Olgaskoe was destroyed by a hurricane in 1947, even as her violin playing became impaired by arthritis.  She resorted to quack medicines and reliance on a Louisiana ‘vitamin supplement’ called Hadacol that consisted of 12% alcohol and 88% bilgewater—Olga testifying to its curative benefits and touring with the Hadacol Caravan medicine show till the Federal Trade Commission drove them into bankruptcy.


“Boris Korsakoff had left the Conservatory some years earlier to manage what remained of Olga’s career.  On Halloween night in 1951 he arranged for her to return to Kickshaw and perform once more at O’Dean Hall—”


“The Odeum!” exclaimed Joss.


Silence in the Lutterworth living room.


No lick-and-stroke-and-“That’s-one”-or-whatever.


“ what I’ve always heard it’s called,” Joss lamely appended, her face ruby-redder than Keiko’s ever got.


“I think the same boy who ‘lived at Jingles’ when I went to LCU called it that too,” corroborated Felicia.


Maestro Sandro had sat motionless, except for wide staring Harpo-eyes, since the initial cut-in.  Now he lifted a goblet of refreshment to flexibly pliable Harpo-lips, took “just one sip” (so Mrs. Wurtz would not have to hunt all night for a noodle in a haystack) and picked up where he’d left off:


“—but so clumsily did Olga wield her bow, so badly did she mishandle her violin, that some of the audience in Godsacre Auditorium presumed it must be a Halloween prank.  Then, when her incompetence became all too painfully evident, she was booed and hissed off the stage—and that was the last time anyone saw Olga Tarasenka in the flesh.  No one could be feh-oand who witnessed her departure from O’Dean Hall” [lengthy pause] “or her return to the hotel where none of her belongings had been disturbed.  In due course the police gave up their investigation, terming her where-a-beh-oats” [whereabouts] “an unsolved mystery.  Boris Korsakoff continued to search, devotedly yet futilely and ultimately hopelessly.  He took to drink” [goblet lifted back to lips for another just-one-sip] “and later took his own life.  Olga herself was declared legally dead in 1958, and a small marker to her faded memory was placed in an obscure niche outside O’Dean Hall.


“But inside O’Dean Hall” [lengthier pause] “there are shadows; and in the midst of the deepest darkest shadows some have sensed a lurking presence, veiled and shreh-oad-ed” [shrouded] “and armed with a spectral violin.  And each night when the great clock in Godsacre Auditorium strikes twelve, some have heard a not-so-distant



Click, click, click... Death is prancing,

  Death, at midnight, goes a-dancing,

Tapping on a tomb with a talon thin,

  Click, click, clack goes the grisly violin—


“So if such uncanny music ever reaches your ears, you must lose no time in locking your doors and fastening your windows, lest you be assailed and beset by” [lengthiest pause] “a fiddler on the loose.”


Raucous reaction in the Lutterworth living room, and a phffft from Zerlina.  “He won’t ever leave well enough alone—and don’t you dare say ‘Who’s Velinoff?’” she scolded Vicki and Keiko.


“You didn’t let any Phantom of the Philharmonic stop you from insisting all the Kickshaw concerts be staged at this ‘Odeum,’” Miriam told the Maestro.


“Ghost or no ghost, the Godsacre acoustics are superb,” he replied.  “They’re atrocious in that Pink Elephant of a Mannhalter Hall.  And dear old Thea Lyng prefers O’Dean also, until we can get her Church of Latter-Day Fan Dancers eeee-rected.”


“Language, Sandro!”


Roscoe and Goofus popped in then with the Mooche and made him do his party trick: going into a doggy-trance and doing a doggy-dance when his namesake song by Duke Ellington was played.


But despite the crackly fire burning on the scrollwork-screened hearth, Vicki was engulfed by a chill that had nothing to do with the wailing woodwinds on the stereo or the glassy-gazed beagador on the carpet—an iciness unfelt, blizzard or no blizzard, in the fifty wintry days since the bal masqué at the Shoreward Club, and the encounter with Mr. Freeze in that momentous utility basement.


Then, from the middle distance of her inner ear, came a perversely tender voice:


There are more ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggèd Beasties to be dreamt of than a mere Mad Man out to get away with murder...




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A Split Infinitive Production
Copyright © 2023 by P. S. Ehrlich


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