Based on a true story, a young artist's work is stolen. But justice served is so sweet!
Based on a true story, a young artist's work is stolen. Helen Castle is knock-kneed, pigeon-toed, half-blind and speaks with a lisp. Yet, she possesses a rare gift. |
When a new girl comes to town, the fourth grade class in the small town of Taylor is turned upside down with jealousy and all sorts of shenanigans.
Narrated by Charlie (Charlotte) Cordova, a fellow student, A Righteous Design tells of the tragedy that befalls Helen and the surprising revenge served cold much, much later.
You are guaranteed to savor justice!
Chapter 14: Andrea Pounds the Snot out of Renata
I didn’t find out until the next week that Andrea got kicked out of the sixth grade for pounding the snot out of Renata Regent. This was one time Andrea was truly picking on someone her own size; they were both the same height now. And very close to the same age.
The library was the only thing you could count on doing in the small town of Taylor, once the sun went down. All the teenagers went there to study on Tuesday and Thursday nights, but everyone knew that their real destination was the lot behind the library, where smoking and hickey practice went on.
I once had the idea that I was going to read every book in the junior section from A to Z. I got as far as Louisa May Alcott, skipped to Alfred Hitchcock and never looked back. I hung around there so much, and the librarian got so use to me, she actually let me check out a book that I was far too young for. I wonder if she had any idea about the description on page forty-five of this teenage girl with her hand down this guy’s pants and what it all felt like. When I returned the book, thoroughly read, and then some, I felt my face warm up. Surely everyone there could see it written on my face, “I know what a penis is now.” I thought I would get in some big trouble, but no one said a thing. The library attendant put that book right back on display; where it had caught my attention in the first place. The book’s title was “Ghosts.” Ghosts, indeed.
But the real thrill was the Book of Health. This was a huge, slab of a book that everyone used now and then for reports. It had the creepiest pictures of skin diseases and stuff like that. But it also had an incredible array of bare breasts spread across four pages. For this reason, if the librarian caught us with this book, she always took it away. Never mind that we had reports to write. The Book of Health, at the time, was the only resource available, to clue us in on the changes awaiting us. The intimate pictures started with a girl’s boobs at age eleven and progressed to age sixteen. These were real boobs, these weren’t just drawings and the first time I saw them, I felt I’d stumbled on a gold mine.
I only pulled that book out of its slot when I was sure the librarian was preoccupied. So far, it was the only bona fide sex education I got as a kid. Oh for sure, the next year we had special hush-hush films on reproduction and the pamphlets and speeches about the most wonderful time in a girl’s life. Dear god. That doesn’t even bear description.
A week after Renata’s return visit, me and Doreen were at the library pretending to be studying, when Andrea opened the library door, shook the rain off her shoulders, and came in from the cold night. Andrea Tomak showing up to study at the library was on the order of the second coming of Christ; it just wasn’t going to be on the calendar for awhile. So when she plopped herself down between Doreen and I at the study table, I knew she had news.
“I’m expelled,” she said between clenched teeth. She looked around, to see if the librarian was anywhere near.
“You mean you’re kicked out of school?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she blew air out of her mouth, ruffling her raven hair. She ran grubby fingers through it, and let out a heavy sigh. “I don’t give a rip. Is that the Book of Health?”
“Shh!” Doreen warned.
“You perverts!” Andrea grinned.
“We are studying for our report on Elephantitus,” Doreen huffed.
“What happened?” I asked.
And then Andrea told us about riding her horse that weekend. She was riding past Randalson’s and saw Helen Castle coming out of the store. Helen had her tattered notebook and a loaf of bread in the basket of her bike, when Renata rode up on a Sting Ray bicycle. Only the rich kids had Sting Rays.
When Helen saw Renata her face got all flushed and she scrambled to get on her bike in a hurry. Renata parked her fancy bike and set the kick stand. From across the street, Andrea slowed her horse to a halt and eyed the two. Renata didn’t see her. All Renata saw was Helen’s angry, red face.
“What’s the matter with you Helen?” Andrea heard Renata say in a taunting voice.
Helen’s face grew stony and she said, “Nothing.” She got on her bike to leave.
“What have you got in your basket?” Renata asked her.
“Nothing. I have to go home.”
“Lemme see.” Renata snatched up the notebook.
“Leave that alone!” Helen pleaded.
“Why? What’s in here?” and Renata opened it, rifling through the pages.
“Ohhhh. I see. I see all your little pictures.” Renata began studying them and snickering.
Helen’s lower lip started trembling. Renata tossed the notebook back in the basket, like so much trash.
“And what’s this?” She grabbed the brown paper bag that held the loaf of bread. “Oh, bread! I’m hungry.” She ripped open the plastic bag and pulled out a piece of bread.
“Thtop it. My mom’th gonna be mad!” Helen cried.
Renata tore off a piece of bread and stuffed it in her mouth, eyes sparkling. Then she started pulling out pieces of bread and tossing them in the air, laughing.
“When I saw that,” Andrea said, “I almost rode her down with my horse. She honestly thought it was funny. I saw something in her face; made me think of that Satan guy Old Lady Thompson is always preachin’ about,” said Andrea.
There was nothing funny about ruining a loaf of bread your mother had sent you to get at the store for that evening’s supper. The fact that Helen only bought one loaf instead of the four-for-a-dollar special Ronaldson’s was holding that weekend, said everything to Andrea, whose own family lived on cornbread and home-grown rabbit.
Andrea tethered her horse to a fire hydrant, got down slowly and crossed the street to Ronaldson’s three-stall parking lot.
“You’re mean!” Helen said to Renata.
And there it was. The words no one could say to Miss Renata Regent. The words no adult in our world believed could apply to her.
Before Andrea could cross the street, Renata had thrown down the half-empty plastic bag of bread and grabbed Helen’s prized notebook again. Renata started pulling pages out. She methodically pulled out drawing after drawing, flinging them on the cracked pavement. A few, she studied, then tore into pieces, before tossing away. She found the one of Donna and Nina dressed in froth and white lace and Renata stopped.
“No!” Helen screamed.
“She never cried,” Andrea told us. “She was angry and she looked like she was just gonna explode, but Helen never shed a tear.” Andrea’s face was aglow with a strange respect as she continued.
Renata started to rip the paper down the middle when Andrea reached her.
“I remember kicking a dog like that, when he was chewing the life out of a cat. I felt the same way. I put everything into that kick,” said Andrea.
Andrea raised her right leg, bent at the knee, pulled it back like a spring and brought all the force of well-formed thigh and buttock muscle; years of standing in her horse’s stirrups, and kicked Renata in the butt as hard as she could.
Renata’s head snapped back with the unexpected whiplash of it, and she fell on her hands and knees.
Helen stood there, shocked for a moment, then started picking up shreds of her drawings.
“You hurry home, Helen,” Andrea said.
Then Mr. Ronaldson came barreling out of the glass swinging doors of his store. “Damn you Tomak kids can’t keep outta trouble. I’ve called the cops on you.”
“He never saw the first part of that fight,” Andrea explained.
“Course not,” said Doreen, “they never do, do they?”
Andrea breathed in deeply, as if she’d been holding her breath a long time. Her shoulders relaxed. “So, yeah. I’m out of school for now and on restriction for two weeks. My dad won’t even let me ride my horse.”
“And you got away tonight?” I asked.
“My dad will only let me go to church and the library. And school. But they won’t let me come to school, of course.”
“Some punishment,” Doreen said.
Andrea smirked. “You shoulda seen her bloody knees.”
“I wish I could have,” I said.
* * *
Chapter 13: The Return of the Princess
Two years later, Renata came back and paid a royal visit to our sixth grade class. The teacher brought her in like she was some celebrity and made the announcement.
"Class, we have a very special surprise today. All the way from Arkansas. I'm sure you all remember, Renata."
And she walked in, still tall, and her hair was long and thick and beautiful, and her eyes were green and stunning. The teacher made her stand up at the podium like some special speaker and then had us ask her questions like she was some fuckin' expert. And she answered them like she was some fuckin' expert. God I hated her. I didn't ask her a thing.
The boys did all the asking. They were still smitten.
She talked about beloved Arkansas and how rippin’ smart she was that she had to be moved up to the 7th grade and she was still taking private violin lessons. She was planning to travel this summer to Europe with a special youth orchestra and would even get to play for some big-ass queen somewhere.
I heard Andrea snickering in the back of the class room and saw Miss Davis give her a sharp look. Andrea had her hand raised and Miss Davis wouldn't call on her. But Doreen asked the question for her.
"Yes, Doreen?" Renata said sweetly, demurely.
"Do you still paint watercolors?" Doreen asked in innocence.
Andrea burst out laughing. And I bit my lip trying hard not to giggle.
Renata's gorgeous, green eyes turned positively reptile, but she handled it.
"No. I haven't time with my busy music studies. It was just something I dabbled in.”
It seemed to me that Renata aimed her benediction at Helen Castle, for surely, she looked right at her, lifting her horsy nose, when she said, “Painting was just not worth pursuing.”
I looked at Helen. Helen sitting halfway back in the sixth grade class of Taylor Elementary. She was looking straight at Renata, but really not looking at anything. Her eyes were deeper and emptier than I'd ever seen them.
Helen went home early that day. No one paid attention. Not even the teacher.
* * *
Chapter 12: Girl Fight!
Helen doodled incessantly on things; her desktop, her brown paper lunch bag. She always had her sheaf of mismatched papers with her. First it was just a few tattered papers tucked in her math book. Then it became a stack held together with clips. By the fourth grade, the collection was about half an inch thick and held together with rubber bands. Even when she was just riding her bike to the store for a loaf of bread, those papers were flopping around in her bike basket.
She was always scratching out something during recess, with a fat, black-leaded pencil. On the playground Helen avoided everything but the swings. Her bad eyesight kept her from the monkey bars and foursquare. I started losing my eyesight in the fifth grade, but I would never have to suffer seeing through the coke bottle lenses Helen had to wear.
One day, I was trying hopelessly to play jacks. Now I never understood the big deal about that game and I still don’t. You throw some star-shaped metal things on the ground, bounce a little ball and while the ball is in the air, you grab those little stars. Each turn, you grab one more until you’re the queen of grabbing. I could never get more than four in my hand at once and lost interest at that point. But that day during recess, I was stuck on the school building steps with a bum ankle, playing jacks.
Helen Castle was sitting near me on the steps, closer to the school wall; sheltered from the wind. Her notebook was laid on her lap and she sketched quietly with a pencil.
“What are you working on?” I asked her.
She looked up, startled. “You thcared me.”
“Sorry. What are you drawing?”
“Nothing.” She covered her page with her hands. “I like to draw.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I do, too. I’m not very good at it, though. I like to draw paper dolls.”
“I like to draw that, too.” She squinted up at me into the sunlight. She wanted me to go away, I could tell.
“Why don’t you want me to see your pictures?” I asked her.
She looked at me like I was nuts. “They’re not very good,” she said.
“If you ever saw the stuff I try to draw, you would know what not very good was, Helen!”
She slowly moved those protective hands away from her tablet. And I saw her sketches.
It’s hard to describe them now. Those sketches. Helen clearly had the inner eye of someone much older than she was. Her models had figures, I mean curves, and all in the right places. And how she clothed them! One model wore a dress all covered in grapes and leaves. Another had belt buckles splattered all over her dress. Even her boots had matching belt buckles at the knee. There was yet another sketch that looked a bit like Helen’s sisters Donna and Nina, dressed in gowns that made me think of lace-lined clouds and frothy cotton candy. From far off, the playground noise was getting louder.
“Those are really neat, Helen! Are you going to color them?”
She looked at me like I was nuts again. “I don’t have any crayonth,” she said.
“You don’t have crayons?” I asked.
Then Doreen and Andrea ran up to us, yelling, “Get over here! Lola and Cindy are fightin’!”
I followed them, hobbling. They took off in the direction of the west end of the cafeteria. Round back behind the cafeteria was an open field we were not allowed to play in. This was because the playground supervisor couldn’t keep an eye on you back there.
I limped around the west door of the cafeteria and there was a crowd of kids screaming and yelling. Above and apart of the kids’ noise, I could clearly hear two girls going at it.
“You think you’re so hot! You and your stupid tap-dancing shoes!”
“I do not. Just leave me alone.”
“Well, then you leave me alone.”
“I am leaving you alone.”
“You gave me a note that said you wanted to beat me up!’ Cindy screamed.
“You did, too. You told me to meet you at 4:30 in the baseball field!”
I had heard rumors about this and some of it was true. Cindy showed up last Friday at the baseball diamond, right on time. She didn’t want to fight Lola, but there was no way she was going to back down. Lola never showed up for the fight.
“You sent me a note this morning telling me you wanted to fight me tonight at the library!” shouted Lola.
“I did not!”
Lola just looked at Cindy defiantly. And then Cindy jumped on Lola.
Cindy was trying to get a good grip on Lola’s hair, but Lola was pretty damn strong and had longer arms. She held Cindy off. All Cindy could do was claw at Lola’s skirt, but this was enough.
Now the noise was getting huge. The boys were yelling, “Get her! Hit her!”
The girls were screaming and of course some one had run off to find an adult. I looked around and saw Renata standing off by the old oak tree. She was leaning up against it, arms folded and watching the whole thing with fascination. I wondered why she wasn’t in there rooting for her buddy Lola.
Cindy was lucky, because I think Lola might have pounded her if Lola’s skirt hadn’t somehow fallen off. Cindy grabbed a hunk of Lola’s skirt and pulled and pulled. I think she was just trying to hang onto something so she wouldn’t hit the ground.
It was Lola’s misfortune to wear something so stupid to school, but then, she always did. This time it was a big red circle skirt; the kind you wear to a square dance. She had a flouncy, white slip underneath, which she called her “petticoat.” Pretty soon that’s all she was wearing.
I don’t think Cindy had a clue what was happening; she was shielding her head from the blows Lola was repeatedly landing on her head, all the while clinging desperately to that white slip. And then
the white slip was gone.
Lola started screaming hysterically. She had nothing on but her blouse and some skuzzy underwear. She tore off bawling like a cow.
“What happened?” Cindy asked, blood streaming from a scratch in her forehead.
“You tore her slip off,” Andrea threw her head back, laughing.
“Yeah, you did,” said Doreen, holding up a white lacy petticoat, “and she’ll never see it again.” Doreen ran away waving that thing in the air.
Just then the principal came huffing and puffing around the corner with Renata at his heels.
“I should have figured,” Andrea scowled.
He meant to really scold us, but the fight was over. The kids had scattered, saving their own hides and Cindy was already one block away on her bike.
“What happened here?” he asked. “Where’s Cindy?”
“Lola picked a fight with Cindy,” I said.
“That’s not what Lola told me,” he said.
“Course not,” Andrea sputtered, “Weasely little show-off!”
“That’ll be detention for you Miss Tomak,” he said to her.
Renata snorted and laughed.
Lola never got her slip back. Doreen said she stuffed it under the foundation of the gym. Rats were probably feasting on Lola lace now.
* * *
Chapter 11: Lola the Satellite
After Christmas I got to be pretty good friends with Renata. I went to her house after school a lot where she taught me how to pretend to drink. We drank pink lemonade out of wine glasses and pretended to be adults. We listened to her Beach Boy records.
Up until Renata sucked Lola McTyne into her orbit, it seemed to me I was the only close friend she managed to make that year. After what she did to Helen Castle, I refused to speak to her and it didn't matter anyway because partway through the school year she moved away. She said she was going off to live with her dad and it was going to be a better school, in a better town where people weren't so stupid and “uncouth.” The teachers were all sorry to see her go. The boys were, too.
But not me.
Two years later she came back and paid a royal visit to our sixth grade class, but I’ll get to that.
There were certain people I always felt like beating up in school. You know, how you just really want to get somebody for being puky in general? But I could never bring myself to go there. I could never lay my hands on another person if that makes sense. It just felt so wrong.
I really wanted to beat up Lola McTyne, because I knew she was the one who stole my go-go rings. She was the only other person I saw Renata get close to that year. Lola was another new kid in school and she had so much trouble fitting in. She was wacky and nobody paid her any mind until she and Renata struck up their friendship. Pretty soon she was staying after school with Renata, practicing to be teacher’s pet, and not too much later she started acting really snooty. Then, her feud with Cindy Hanford began. Cindy Hanford ended up doing the job for all of us.
Cindy and Lola never liked each other to begin with. For one thing, they were too much alike. Cindy had a thing for Nancy Sinatra and Lola had a thing for Elvis. They liked to dress older than they were and they both needed an audience.
Cindy once wore her mom’s patent leather go-go boots to school even though they were way too big. She went stomping through the halls every chance she got, shouting, Ready boots? Start walkin’! Then she’d stomp up and down the stairs, and back and forth through the hall as loud as she could. She did this again and again until she was threatened with detention.
Lola, on the other hand -- there was nothing she couldn’t or wouldn’t do for that audience. In addition to hula dancing half-naked in front of our grass hut, she claimed to be a tap-dancer, a ballerina, and a part-time backup singer for Herman’s Hermits. For some reason, we thought this was all true, until she started doing ballet moves on the playground in her mother’s spiked heels. After that, she lost all credibility.
I don’t think it would have come to blows if Lola hadn’t began egging Cindy on. Lola started challenging her to dance contests on the gym porch steps. Nobody gave a rip about this until money started changing hands. Lola was getting paid for her performances. A nickel here, a dime there, a candy bar.
The gauntlet was thrown down. First it was dance contests; then singing contests. And then, fighting.
Cindy started getting notes from Lola, challenging her to fight. }There were insults in those notes; about go-go boots and Nancy Sinatra being a no-talent gutless wonder and who did Cindy think she was anyway? I often saw Lola huddled up with Renata on those gym porch steps during recess and wondered what they were up to. I always wondered if Lola really wrote those notes. For one thing, she couldn’t spell. And for another, she wasn’t clever enough to come up with any decent insults.
* * *
Chapter 10: I Meet Helen Castle's Family
Mr. Huddie did teach us to splatter-paint and to square dance. He taught us to paint with watercolors. And we actually did make a grass hut and coconut trees. This really stupid girl named Lola McTyne showed up at school in a grass skirt and a tiny top with fake flower leis around her neck. She got up and danced barefoot and bare stomached in front of the grass hut.
At Christmas time we made huge, overhead-projector-generated Santa Clauses. It was at our Christmas Concert that I met Helen's family. Back then, you could have something as heathen and pagan as a Christmas Concert and nobody gave a rip about it. Our musical pieces were sprinkled with Religious Christmas Carols as well as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and nobody seemed to give a bung’s snout. For me, things have now gotten to the point where pretty soon only certain colors will be allowed at Christmas in public, because colors linked to certain lore and tradition will most surely offend someone. Red and green are going to be taboo. Progress, indeed.
That Christmas the fourth grade class of Taylor Elementary performed the Latin version of O Come All Ye Faithful. And I was given my first violin solo, While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night. I didn't think anything of that opportunity. I didn’t think about setting myself up for foul play. I was too young and too new at it all, to even be nervous. I wouldn't get nervous and shy about performing until way later.
As my family walked through the open house classrooms after the concert, I saw Helen in her red winter coat. Behind her, I saw a tall, somber man, with slightly stooped shoulders and a sad, dark-haired woman. I saw two little girls, destined to be tall also, both with huge blue eyes and untrusting faces, standing like pawns before a tired King and Queen.
"That wath a really nithe tholo," Helen said quietly to me.
"Thank You, Helen," I said. Then I looked at the little girls flanking her.
"Theeth are my little thithterth, Nanthy and Tabitha."
"Hello," I said to them.
They just looked up at me with those unending eyes. They never smiled.
"Merry Christmas, Helen," I said and looked up at her parents. Neither said a word or smiled. I was invisible to them.
I turned and Doreen elbowed me. "Those are her little sisters?" she jabbered.
I frowned at Doreen. "So what?"
"I heard they're not allowed near water," she said.
"Their mom won't let them go anywhere near water," she explained.
I looked at Doreen. "That doesn't seem right to me."
"I know," Doreen said.
“Where’s Davey?” I asked, remembering the boy with the bulky shoulders. Shoulders that did no good against a swift river.
“My brother said he ran away,” Doreen said.
That night I vowed that I would someday really learn to swim. And I did. First I signed up for the diving team in high school which was a huge mistake because it wrecked my sinuses for good. Then in college I made myself take swimming. I still never got good at it, but I passed that college swim test and I'm proud of it.
I also swore that Christmas Concert evening that if I had any kids, they would learn to be champion swimmers. I thought Helen's mom was crazy. I never saw Davey Castle of the Dog Paddle ever again.
* * *
Chapter 9: A Day in the Life 101
There were so many lessons I had yet to learn that had nothing to do with academics and in a sense, the season of 1964-65 was a renaissance year for all of us. The town of Taylor, population 962, was very much like the Beatles' Penny Lane; in our ears and in our eyes. The skinny streets, backyards, and the empty lots scattered throughout Taylor, were the backdrop for all the important changes to come. If I want to, I can recall it as if it were yesterday.
I can smell the fresh-mowed grass. I can hear small planes buzzing over head and the occasional sonic boom, back when they were legal. I can feel the hot tar sizzling under my calloused feet on a parched summer day. I can hear my brother practicing his guitar in the bathroom.
I can even feel that immense hope and joy in me, that despite my crappy home life, we still had transistor radios (well, Doreen did), our boobs were budding, and maybe Carl Thompson would notice me someday.
There are times when I can still stand at the big paned windows in my schoolroom and lean against the sill, looking out. I can feel the breeze carrying the sweet smell of leafing wild blackberries into our classroom, ruffling school papers. I stood there many times looking away to where the hills became misty and I could smell the opening trees. Looking east toward the rim of the valley, the railroad tracks and lush fields of green, I heard and felt in my heart an unmistakable voice calling to me.
The Beatles had just become a phenomenon; never to be repeated in the twenty-first century. Tent dresses in neon colors were in fashion. Heavy black eyeliner was wild and there were really cool white boots for girls and black boots for boys (which none of us ever wore because no one could afford it).
It was like the whole world was entering a spring time; a time of wonder and experimentation. Drugs were getting into the news and trickling down into our small town lives. Doreen's brothers were experimenting with hashish and peyote, and she talked about it a lot. She talked about sex a lot too, but this was something I had no ears for. I mean, I adored Carl Thompson and was dying for him to kiss me, but there was no way I wanted to see what was in his smelly underwear. Are you kidding? Honestly, I didn’t believe half the stuff she told me.
Andrea never bullied anyone smaller than her again. She’d still get into fights, but mainly with boys, and she still refused to take baths. She turned some of that preteen and troubled energy to her horse. She spent much of her free time on the back of a gigantic (to me) roan. She knew every trail, lot, and dirt road in the south end of the Stuck River Valley.
She and Doreen would spend long afternoons with the Tomak horses. Me? Terrified of horses. Still am. I have the scars to prove it.
* * *
Chapter 8: Andrea Tries to Beat Me Up
Like I said, the only one who didn’t buy Renata’s act was Andrea. But I figured that was because she was, well, Andrea. Up until the fourth grade, the only girl she hung out with was Doreen, and that was because Doreen was the only girl who would climb to the top of The Crows Nest with her. The Crows Nest was the biggest, tallest tree in Taylor and we were not allowed to climb it. It stood in the center of an empty lot amidst a clump of other shade trees and tangles of deadly nightshade. Kids were always trying to prove themselves on that stupid behemoth. And they were always falling out and breaking things.
Andrea was into that type of daredevil act. But I wasn’t. I was into bigger feats of bravery such as standing up to Andrea Tomak’s bullying. Andrea and I didn’t really get to know each other until the day I told her to leave another kid alone on the playground. Andrea was threatening to beat up this third grader and it shocked and stunned me that someone would pick on someone else so much smaller.
“You leave her alone!” I yelled at Andrea. She had the third grader in some sort of head hold and the girl was crying and whining, and no one was doing anything about it.
Andrea swung her mane of black hair around to see who had the goddamn nerve to even address her Highness of the Horses. She looked at me and laughed, sneering,
“Oh? What are you gonna do about it? I’ll beat the shit outta you when I’m done with this chicken!”
Then the recess bell rang and I thought I was done with Andrea.
She was waiting for me on the school steps when school let out and as I ran down the steps, she yanked me backward by the hair.
“You next? You little brat?” she whispered in my ear.
“You stop it!” I yelled, which was hard to do with any threat when your head is doubled back and your neck is in some grotesque arch. It came out more like a reedless whistle.
“Why? Who’s gonna make me?” She lessened her hold on my hair.
I pulled away, looked her straight in the eye and said, “You shouldn’t pick on people smaller than you. It isn’t right!”
There was a crowd of kids gathered around and suddenly it was very quiet. No one had ever said so many words to Andrea Tomak. I waited. I waited for her to pound the holy shit out of me and I stared back at her defiantly. She could read it on my face.
Every now and then in my life, I have gotten brave and stupid enough to look trouble in the face. Honestly? Not often enough, but we all have some sense of self-preservation. Mine left me that day. It was to me, a simple matter of right and wrong. If I was to have any pride in myself and my values, I had to stand my ground. I was ready to take a beating and I didn’t care.
Andrea looked at me, giggled, mumbled about getting me later, and then she just slunk away.
From that day on, we were friends. I think she was waiting for someone brave enough to not only climb trees and swing from the highest branches like monkeys, but also to tell her how to act; tell her the truth. Nobody else would. Not even our worthless twit playground supervisor.
This is a theme that would run through my school years like some backward civility curse levied on me. It would be a rare thing for me to run across an adult or person in a leadership position who would have a backbone stronger than a limp and greasy French fry. I would find that the basic Precepts to Life would be to Look the Other Way, Not Get Involved, Leave Well Enough Alone. In this way poison creeps into soft wood and slowly rots the young sapling.
On that day, standing nose to chest with Andrea Tomak (she was that much taller than me) I was ready to take my punishment. I refused to run away from the consequences of my bravery. Instead, I gained the rare friendship and respect of a misunderstood girl.
* * *
Ch 7: Some Things You Just Know
The Biggest Boobs in class had been Andrea Tomak's title for some time. But no more. The boys were talking non-stop about Renata's boobs and green eyes. The proper word for our feelings about Renata, is actually jealousy. She had the best clothes. She had flawless manners and never screamed or shouted on the playground. She was quietly pleasant and followed me and Doreen around the playground like a puppy. Pretty soon we had some kind of triumvirate going; me, Doreen and Renata.
This had some good fallout, because the teachers adored Renata. Because of her blessed presence, Doreen was actually getting smiled at by a teacher occasionally.
Andrea wouldn't have a thing to do with her and would never play with her. But then Andrea never played much with anybody because she was always running off the school grounds at recess to blow up firecrackers.
I sort of liked Renata at first. Well, I liked everybody except Greeney Morris because he was always throwing rocks at me. And Renata Regent liked me too, I thought.
What I really didn't get about the whole thing that happened is why Renata cared so goddamn much about any of us. She was the best looking girl in class. I was in awe of her. We found out she was older than us, and just got stuck in our grade because of the unfortunate day of her birthday, which somehow explained her different maturity level and height.
And I thought really that she was a better person than all of us, because she could help other students. She carried herself with such model posture. While the rest of us had dirty nail beds, scraped and scabby knees, and filth positively ground into parts of our feet, she was immaculately clean.
The only thing I think that made me more popular than her in the long run, was that maybe I was just not so perfect. I didn't work so hard at making the teachers love me. Hell, anybody with brains knows that eventually backfires. I played my playground games just like everybody else, was a good sport, and never backed down from a worthy challenge. The boys liked me because I played softball with them every summer and could actually use a mitt. The girls liked me because we shared our crushes with each other. The rough kids liked me because they knew my family was rough. The smart kids liked me because I was smarter. And the unpopular kids liked me because I was never mean.
I never acted this way with the calculation that I was winning votes. I acted the way I did, because I thought this was how you were supposed to act. Period. And I was so naive. I was so very naive. I thought, I believed! everybody else knew the same things I did.
That I knew Doreen was wild because she lived in a house full of men and had no mom. That Greeney Morris threw rocks because he had a crappy life and didn't come to school much at all. That Haley Clyde pulled straight D's and would be a career screw-up because both his parents were shit-faced drunk twenty-four hours a day. That Andrea Tomak was a son of a bitch tomboy and you better not ever fuck with her.
That Helen Castle should be treated kindly because at least you weren't half-blind, pigeon-toed, and could say shit and spit the word out without it sounding like, "Thit!"
That Renata Regent was so utterly cool because she was a true lady, better than we would ever be, and as the teachers said, "You kids can learn from her."
And somehow I mixed up cool and ladylike with being good and fair. Somehow I mixed up having everything you ever wanted; the latest Beach Boys record, a bedroom set with a pink coverlet matching your pink-ruffled curtains, the most expensive violin at Straus's String Shop and private lessons along with it . . . well, I mixed this up with never needing anything else.
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Chapter 6: No Title – from the novel “A Righteous Design”
Doreen Scholby and I walked to school every day together, listening to her transistor radio. We talked. We played Barbies. We slept over at each other's house , we studied together, we planned every afternoon what we would wear the next day, doing our best to dress like twins.
Doreen was crazy. And the teachers didn't like her, because her family was wild and reckless. She had two older brothers who were always getting into trouble. And she didn't have a mom. My brother got into trouble too, but for some reason the Scholbys got talked about more than the Cordovas. I think now, it was because I was a brilliant student and I had a mom. My mom was not your basic mom who was there for you, but my teachers didn’t know that. Grownups figured if you had a mom and dad, you were complete. If you didn’t, you were like, missing a limb or something. Can you imagine?
The teachers tolerated Doreen because she and I were inseparable and I think they figured some of my achievement addiction would rub off on her eventually. When I was voted Class President, it secured her acceptance. Renata Regent was voted Vice President.
All Renata and I did was sit with our desks up at the front facing the class, flanking the teacher like a couple of spazzy bookends, passing out papers and shit. Maybe I was the head of the class, but the one I was really impressed with was her. I mean, she was helping other kids with their Math and English after school. She even knew how to set a table, something she demonstrated on her first visit to Camp Fire Girls, for Christ’s sake.
This was something my mom never taught me. I longed for my mom to teach me the things I thought were so important back then. I remember going to the library and looking up a book on etiquette so I could actually figure it out. It was too complicated. All those forks and spoons and different-sized plates. This glass goes here precisely, and this cup goes on this other side and to the left approximately one half inch, so as to leave room for the bread plate, and at that point, I slammed the book shut.
If they had had a simple diagram of a plate and three utensils, I might have caught on, but because I was ten and as I said, impressionable, I knew there was no hope for setting a proper table.
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Chapter 5: Laying the Groundwork for Treachery
There were only six kids in my string class because musical instruments were pretty expensive, but more so, not many kids were too thrilled with the idea. I don't know how my daddy came up with the money to buy the violin that sat under Shawn’s bed. I heard something about picking it up in a pawn shop and, even at that it cost $80, which was close to my dad's paycheck. But he would do anything for Shawn and lucky for me, Shawn declared the violin was just too wimpy and he concentrated on guitar instead.
At age ten, I was very impressionable and eager to please. Some would say that has never changed, but back then I loved school. I loved everything about it and I wasn't afraid to try the violin, not knowing if I was musical at all. That didn't make any difference to me. I practiced my violin diligently and made progress weekly because I practiced. I must have had some aptitude because I couldn't keep to just the class music book. I tried to play songs out of my mom's hymnal and the neighbor’s All-American Song Book. Somehow or other, I happened upon a pop fake book and taught myself songs like The Lonely Bull and The Impossible Dream.
Which was how I got better at violin than Renata. I was first chair that entire year and I could play circles around her. Mr. Sorenson asked me to play my first solo, While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night,” at the Christmas concert. I never gave it a thought that I was partially responsible for laying the groundwork for her treachery.
When I think of it, the fourth grade was the best year of my life. The only other time that comes even close was my first year in college when I discovered jazz and my singing voice. That was a wild and gifted time for me. I was surrounded by talent undreamed of and I blossomed in that garden for a short while, but nothing, nothing compares to that golden, last, innocent season of 1964-65.
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