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Thursday, June 14
Party in the Park
Despite the summer heat, I’m sprawled on my bed, radio turned up loud to get the full benefit of Little Richard singing "Tutti Frutti." Dad’s not home from work and Mom’s outside hanging up the wash, so there’s nobody to scream "Turn that radio down!"
The window fan blows warm air on my face. I close my eyes and drift off into a daydream about Don Appleton, a boy in my art class. I’ve loved him since eighth grade. Not that he knows it. Not that he loves me. Anyway . . .
The car radio blasts "Tutti Frutti," and the wind blows through my hair. Don smiles at me as he slides one arm around my shoulder, and I move closer to him, till I’m practically sitting in his lap. The way Cheryl rides with Buddy, her hand on his thigh. He kisses me and someone blows a horn at us. "You’re so pretty," he whispers. "I really like you."
Up ahead is the frozen custard stand. Peggy Turner—Don’s real-life girlfriend—is there with her friends. They all stare. They can’t believe Don is with me. Right in front of them, he kisses me again, and then he—
"Nora, phone!" my little brother hollers up the steps. "Phone!"
Jolted out of my daydream, I holler back, "Who is it?" I’m too hot to move.
"I don’t know," he yells. "Some girl."
Dull from the heat, I go downstairs and take the phone from Billy.
It’s Ellie. "A bunch of kids are getting together in the park tonight," she says. "Can you come?"
My mood suddenly improves. "Sure," I say.
"Sleep over at my house," she says. "We’ll walk to school together tomorrow. Last day! Yay!"
"Who’s coming?" I cross my fingers and hope Ellie will say Don, Don will be there. Which is silly, because he isn’t in the same crowd. Don’s on the basketball team. He dates cheerleaders and majorettes. He lives in Dulaney Park, the rich part of town. I got Mom to drive me by his house last Halloween, just to see what it looked like. I was scared he might see me, so I crouched on the floor and peeked out the car window. His house was all lit up. Some trick-or-treaters were ringing the doorbell, and I told Mom to drive on in case Don came to the door.
"All the kids will be there," Ellie says. "Paul, Gary, Charlie, Cheryl, and lots more. You know how our neighborhood is."
"More exciting than mine, that’s for sure." As I speak, I see Mr. and Mrs. Clements drift past our house, their little dog trailing behind them. They’re old. Their dog is old. Old houses, old people—I guess they go together. Not a person on our block is under forty except Billy and me. Boring, boring, boring.
Ellie lives a mile away on the other side of Elmgrove, in Evergreen Acres. It used to be woods when I was little. Block after block, street after street of row houses built after the war for veterans and their families.
Everybody’s young there, even parents. Most of the dads fought in Europe and Africa and all those islands in the Pacific. My dad was too old for the draft, but Ellie’s father was in the navy. Joined up after Pearl Harbor, the first guy in his town, he told me.
And the kids there—dozens of them, from babies to teenagers. Bikes and wagons and sandboxes in every yard, hopscotch games drawn on the sidewalks, toys scattered on front steps, baby carriages and strollers on porches, ball games in the street, dances in the rec center, souped-up cars with loud radios. It’s never boring on Ellie’s street.
After dinner, I toss what I need into my overnight case, kiss Mom, make a face at Billy, and follow Dad to the old Buick parked in the driveway. He grumbles about driving me over there, but I’m thinking he doesn’t really mind because he can have a beer with his buddies at the Starlight on the way home.
When we’re near Ellie’s house, I tell Dad, "Just let me out at the corner of Thirty-Third and Madison. Then you won’t have to bother with turning around and all."
He glances at me and nods. I hope he hasn’t guessed how much the old Buick embarrasses me. Not only is it out of style, but it has dents on the side and the paint is faded and dull. Inside, the drab ceiling liner sags and the upholstery is torn and frayed. The scratchy old army blanket covering the back seat is disgusting. In the heat, it smells like dust.
Worst of all, the radio’s broken. If my parents ever think I’m responsible enough to get my driver’s license, I can’t possibly take my friends anywhere in a car that doesn’t have a radio.
The thing is, Dad’s an automobile mechanic. Not that you’d guess it. He’s English, and he has a posh accent to prove it. Most people think he’s a college professor at Towson State. Sometimes I let them go on thinking that.
Anyway, he keeps the Buick running like a top—to quote him. What does he care what the car looks like? What’s important is the engine.
"Here?" Dad pulls over on the shoulder and stops.
I open the door, eager to escape before anyone sees me getting out of the car. "That’s Ellie’s house right there, three doors down." I point at the brick row houses, each with its own small yard and its own chain-link fence. Where I wished we lived instead of in a poky old bungalow down at the wrong end of Becker Street, two doors up from the train tracks.
Ellie’s waiting at the door, ready to go. Like me, she’s wearing short shorts, a sleeveless blouse, and scuffed white Keds. Her red hair is pulled back in a curly ponytail. "Dump your stuff in the hall," she says. "The rec center just opened."
Mrs. O’Brien sticks her head out of the kitchen and smiles. "Good to see you, Nora."
"You, too." I smile at Ellie’s mother. She’s dark-haired and sweet-faced, younger than Mom and fun to be around. Best of all, she makes me feel welcome. Special, even. Ellie’s friend. Catholic like Ellie. Not the kind of girl you worry about. A nice girl.
In other words, a boring girl. A flat-chested, tall, skinny girl. Not the kind to sneak out or smoke or be a bad influence.
"Gary’s bringing his records," Ellie tells me as we leave the house. "He’s got everything—Fats Domino, Little Richard, Shirley and Lee, the Platters, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, the Crew-Cuts, Bill Doggett."
We cut across the ball field to the rec center, a low cinderblock building backing up to the woods. In the daytime, it’s a summer camp for little kids who sit at picnic tables and weave misshapen potholders on little metal frames, string beads on string, squish clay into lopsided bowls—the same old boring craft projects I hated when I was little. The kind of stuff adults think is creative.
At seven thirty, the sun is low enough to cast long shadows across the grass. The rec center’s white walls reflect the sky’s pink light. I hear the Penguins singing "Earth Angel." The song transforms the hot, dusty park into a place where a boy could fall in love with you—or break your heart.
"Oh, no. Look who’s here." Ellie grabs my arm and points at the parking lot beside the rec center. Buddy’s sitting on the hood of his old black Ford, smoking a cigarette. Hair smoothed back into a perfect ducktail, white T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up to hold a pack of Luckies, Levi’s low on the hips, motorcycle boots even though he doesn’t have a motorcycle. A cool cat, that’s how he sees himself. Short and skinny and weasel-faced, that’s how Ellie and I see him.
"Why’s he hanging around here?" I ask. "I thought all the graduates went to Ocean City the minute they got rid of their caps and gowns. It’s what I’m doing next year." I picture myself lying on the beach, getting a good tan. A boy walks toward me—Don, of course, by himself for once. He sees me, he smiles, he—
Ellie says, "I hope he’s not planning to start something with Cheryl."
"She broke up with him at least a month ago," I say. "I thought it was all over between them."
Ellie shakes her head. "For her, but not for him. He calls her all the time. She won’t talk to him, she tells him to stop calling her, but he keeps on doing it. Her parents won’t let him near the house, so he parks his car down the street and watches for her to come out. She won’t go anywhere unless Bobbi Jo or I go with her."
"I didn’t know that." I’m thinking how much in love they used to be, always together—CherylandBuddy, BuddyandCheryl. I’d seen their names carved on a tree in the park and scratched in cement on a new sidewalk. I’d thought then it was true love, it would last forever.
"There’s lots you don’t know, Nora." Ellie drops her voice to a whisper, her eyes widen. "Remember that black eye she had last April? Buddy did that."
I stare at Ellie, horrified. "She’s never told me anything like that."
"She walks to school with me almost every day now. She tells me stuff then." Ellie pauses. "Actually, I wasn’t supposed to tell anybody about the black eye. So don’t mention it, okay?"
I glance at Buddy, still lounging by his car. "I hate him." And I really do. I feel my hatred, I taste it, dark and bitter.
"Me too." Ellie’s voice rises. We stand there and glare at Buddy.
He turns his head, sees us, and waves. He doesn’t know what we know. We look the other way and pretend not to notice him.
Behind us, we hear Cheryl calling, "Wait up!" She’s with Bobbi Jo, Ellie’s neighbor. They run to catch us, backlit by the setting sun, one a little taller than the other, both blond, Cheryl’s hair in a long ponytail, Bobbi Jo’s short and curly. They’re both wearing white shorts and blue shirts. I can’t help noticing that Cheryl’s shorts are tighter and shorter than Bobbi Jo’s. Her blouse is also cut much lower, lots lower than I’d dare wear. But then, I don’t have as much on top as she has. They’re both wearing too much bright red lipstick. Cheryl’s idea, I think.
While we’re waiting, I avoid looking at Buddy. "I thought this was a get-together for our class," I whisper to Ellie. "Bobbi Jo doesn’t even go to Eastern—plus she’s only fourteen."
Ellie looks surprised. "Don’t you like Bobbi Jo?"
"Of course I like her. It’s just that . . ." Honestly, it’s just that when Bobbi Jo’s around, boys notice her, not me. But I’m not about to admit that to anybody.
Cheryl slings her arms around Ellie and me. "Hey, you all." She’s wearing enough perfume to knock you over.
"He’s here," Ellie hisses, not looking in Buddy’s direction.
"Damn, damn, damn." Cheryl glances at Buddy, still sitting on the hood of his car, still smoking, still watching us. "I was hoping he wouldn’t come."
Buddy doesn’t move, but he stares hard at Cheryl. Some of his friends have joined him. Like Buddy, they wear tight Levi’s and white T-shirts. Vincent, Chip, and Gene. My father would never let me date guys like them. Not that I’d want to. Their droopy eyes and curled lips scare me.
With an eye on us, Vincent says something to Buddy and laughs. Buddy doesn’t even smile. He just keeps watching Cheryl. It’s creepy the way he looks at her with that cigarette hanging out of one side of his mouth, like he thinks he’s Marlon Brando or something.
"He’s going to ruin everything," Cheryl says. "I hate him."
"We won’t let him near you," Bobbi Jo says.
"We’ll be your bodyguards," Ellie says.
"Or to be more exact," I add, "your Buddy guards."
We laugh, draw closer together, and walk toward the rec center, arms linked. We’re a gang, all four of us. Buddy and his friends aren’t going to ruin our fun.
But maybe it won’t be fun. Maybe it’ll be like all the other parties. Everyone will dance except me. I’ll be the wallflower, hiding in the girls’ room trying not to cry, wishing I was home, wishing I hadn’t come. My mood plunges, I feel like leaving now, before anything bad happens. But of course I can’t leave. What would the others think? I have to stay even if I end up crying in the girls’ room.
Gary stands by the record player. He’s got a stack of forty-fives ready to go. At school he’s the guy who runs the movie projector in science class. He sets up the microphone when it’s needed. He does sound effects for school plays. I wonder if he ever feels like I do. Maybe he’s just pretending to like being the disc jockey while the other kids dance.
A few couples are slow dancing to "Unchained Melody," one of my pretend songs for Don. Slow and dreamy and romantic. Perfect for slow dancing. I dedicated it to him once on a late-night radio show: "To Don from a secret admirer."
When the disc jockey read what I’d written, I almost died of mortification. What if Don guessed I was his secret admirer? I was scared to go to school the next day, but he acted the same as always, kidding me about the picture I was painting in art class. "A masterpiece! But wait, is this horse crippled?"
Nora—a nice kid, but who likes nice kids?
I watch the couples hold each other tight, swaying slowly as if they’re dancing underwater. As if they’ll die if they’re separated. Cheryl and Buddy used to dance like that at parties in Ellie’s basement rec room. Not anymore.
At least they’d been in love. Maybe it didn’t last long, but still . . .
"Hey, Nora." Ellie nudges me. "Let’s get a soda."
The four of us head to the cooler. We don’t want to stand around looking like we’re waiting for someone to ask us to dance. There aren’t many boys here yet, and the ones who are here have partners. Or, like Buddy and his friends, they’re leaning against their cars, smoking and watching the scene.
"I thought there’d be lots more kids," Bobbi Jo says, obviously disappointed.
Cheryl looks around and shrugs. "It’s early."
Before we finish our sodas, kids start arriving. Cars pull into the parking lot, radios blaring. Doors slam. The concrete floor fills with dancers, jitterbugging now to "Maybelline."
That’s when Ralph Stewart shows up. What’s he doing here? He’s from Don’s neighborhood, a basketball player, a big wheel, not the type to hang out in our part of town. I crane my neck, hoping to see Don follow him in, but it’s just Ralph. He stands there, scanning the crowd.
"Oh my God," Cheryl whispers. "He came! I asked him, but I didn’t think he’d really come." Her face is red. I can almost hear her heart beating faster.
I glance at Ellie. She doesn’t look surprised. This must be another secret they shared walking to school.
With a big grin, Ralph saunters over, takes Cheryl’s hand, and leads her into the crowd of dancers. Cheryl laughs, tosses her ponytail, moves fast, hips shaking. Ralph matches her every move. He’s so cute, I think. Maybe not as cute as Don, but almost. How does Cheryl get boys to like her? What’s the secret? Will I ever figure it out?
Suddenly Buddy’s beside me lighting a cigarette, his eyes focused on Cheryl and Ralph. "What the hell is Ralph Stewart doing here?"
He asks like it’s my fault, like I should apologize. My face burns and I shrug. "How should I know?"
"Cheryl invited him." Bobbi Jo leans past me and grins at Buddy. "They’re dating, if you want to know."
I stare at Bobbi Jo. I thought Ralph was going steady with Sally Smith. She wears his ring around her neck. I’ve seen it. Suddenly I feel like I’m not really part of Ellie’s neighborhood. I don’t live here, I don’t walk to school with Cheryl, she doesn’t tell me her secrets.
I glance at Ellie. She’s shaking her head, sending signals to shut up, but Bobbi Jo ignores her.
"Cheryl thinks he’s going to ask her to go steady tonight," she tells Buddy. "He might even give her his class ring."
"What do you know about it?" Buddy sneers. "You should be home playing with dolls or something."
Bobbi Jo’s face turns red. "I’m almost fifteen," she says. "I know plenty."
"Don’t make me laugh." Buddy starts to walk away just as "Maybelline" ends and Wild Bill Doggett comes on with "Honky Tonk." The music has a deep dark driving rhythm that you feel inside. You want to dance, and not just ordinary jitterbug—you want to use your body in strange new ways. Twist and sway and move your hips. I can’t explain the effect it has on me—it’s almost scary.
I wish I had the nerve to go out there and dance like Cheryl and Ralph—not exactly the dirty boogie, but pretty close. At the junior prom, a bunch of wild kids from Holly Court got thrown out of the gym for doing it. The look on the chaperones’ faces was really funny. You’d have thought it was the end of the world.
Boys whistle and shout as Cheryl boogies. She shoots a look at Buddy like she’s taunting him. Making sure he notices her short shorts and tan legs and low-cut top.
"That bitch," Buddy mutters. "Just look at her. I could kill her."
Cheryl whispers something to Ralph. They both look at Buddy and laugh.
"Oh, come on," Ellie says to Buddy, "Don’t you ever watch TV? They do stuff like that all the time on the Milt Grant show."
"Not like that, they don’t." Without another word, Buddy walks away.
"Honky Tonk" ends, and "Tutti Frutti" starts. Paul asks Ellie to dance and Walt asks Bobbi Jo. That leaves me sitting there by myself as usual. Just as I’m thinking I’ll go the girls’ room, Charlie shows up. "Come on." He sticks out his hand. "Let’s dance."
I take his hand and follow him into the crowd. He’s shorter than I am. But he’s funny, and I like him the way he likes me—as a friend. Dancing with him is a whole lot better than crying in the girls’ room.
"Gary," Charlie shouts, "put on Little Richard next—‘LongTall Sally.’ "
As soon as "Tutti Frutti" is over, Gary drops the needle on "Long Tall Sally," and Charlie and I laugh. It’s his song for me—he’s dedicated it to me more than once on radio show call-ins: "And now, for long tall Nora from short skinny Charlie, here’s Little Richard singing ‘Long, Tall Sally.’ "
Ellie thinks Charlie likes me more than he lets on, but I don’t believe it. I want him as a friend, not a boyfriend. Someone to have fun with. Besides, I can’t imagine kissing a boy shorter than I am.
Charlie spins me in close. "Oooh, baby!"
I laugh and step on his foot. When he spins me, I bump him with my elbow. He does a dirty boogie move and I imitate it. "Oooh, baby," we shout.
By the time the song is over, we’re laughing so hard we can’t dance. It’s dark now. A few couples drift away from the shelter’s lights toward their cars, toward the woods. The night air is hot, humid, heavy. An almost full moon has just risen over the dark mass of trees. Somewhere in the shadows a mockingbird sings, almost like a nightingale, I think.
"Unchained Melody" is playing again. I picture myself with Don, dancing, slow and close, his cheek pressed to mine. He’d be singing to me and me alone, his lips pressed to my ear, his breath a tickle on my cheek. Why can’t life be the way I want it to be? Just once?
But it’s only Charlie I’m with, and we’re walking back to the picnic table, talking about chemistry. I’m scared I’m getting a C or even worse and he’s telling me not to worry so much.
He’s right, I do worry too much. All the time, about everything. Chemistry and math are just little things on my worry scale. I worry about being too tall, too skinny. Sometimes I have weird thoughts and then I think I might be secretly crazy. What if I crack up someday? Lose my mind? Go nuts? What if I end up in Spring Grove Insane Asylum? The people there howl when the moon’s full, at least that’s what a boy in my math class told me. He should know. He lives on the street that ends at the asylum grounds. There’s a big iron gate and a guard in a little booth and a tall fence with spikes. I’d be afraid to live on that street.
Do other people ever worry about the kind of things I worry about? I glance at Charlie. Not him. He’s still talking about chemistry and how much trouble he’ll be in if Haskins gives him a C.
It’s just me. There’s something wrong with me, with my brain or something. I might have a tumor, I might die young before I even graduate from high school.
We sit down beside Walt and Bobbi Jo. I try to push the heaviness in my head away. I smile, I laugh, I pretend I’m just like everyone else. The Great Pretender. I’m good at that. Acting normal.
While Gary chooses the next record, Cheryl and Ralph join us. Her face is flushed, her eyes bright. She’s holding Ralph’s hand.
Over on the other side of the rec center, just where the rec lights meet the dark, Buddy is watching her. He’s looking at Cheryl like he hates her.
Cheryl notices Buddy and holds Ralph’s hand tighter.
Ralph grins at Bobbi Jo. "Aren’t you a little young to be out this late?"
"Less than two years to go and I’ll be sixteen," Bobbi Jo says.
"Yeah, but when you’re sixteen, we’ll be eighteen," Ralph reminds her. "You’ll never catch up with us."
"I can pass for sixteen right now," Bobbi Jo says. "I told that cute guy at the Esso station I was sixteen and he believed me. He wants to take me out, but I know what my father would say if he showed up at our front door. He won’t let me date." She pouts for a second and then smiles at Ralph.
How I wish I had dimples like hers. But maybe they wouldn’t look as cute on me. Maybe my face is the wrong kind for dimples. Too long maybe, too plain.
Ellie and Paul come over. "It’s too hot to dance," Ellie says. "Look at my hair, it’s all frizzed up and I’m roasting."
"There’s a cure for that." Cheryl drops her voice low. "Ralph’s got a couple of six-packs of Rolling Rock. We’re going over to the playground. Want to come?"
I glance at Ellie. If we get caught with beer, we’ll be in a lot of trouble. She looks a little worried, but she says, "Count me in."
Bobbi Jo grins. "Me too."
Me too, me too, me too . . . I will if you will . . .
We walk across the baseball field lit by lights from the rec center. Our shadows stretch out toward the woods, long and thin with impossibly small heads.
For maybe the first time in my whole life, I’m doing something really reckless. Beer. The nice kid is going to drink beer. Maybe the nice kid will get drunk. Maybe the nice kid will make out with somebody. Who knows what the nice kid might do on a warm, dark summer night?