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1 August 1949 Books and Beanies and Montgomery Clift
“Holy cow!” I said when Sophie Bowman told me she’d be joining me at All Saints School for Girls this year. “Why now, in the eighth grade?” “Because I got thrown out of public school.” Sophie and I were in the room I shared with my sister, Dolores. Dolores was on a date with her steady, Wally, so Sophie lay on Dolores’ bed, her legs in the air, twirling the navy blue beanie from my school uniform on her foot. “It was either Catholic school or boarding school. No one else would have me, but Sister Basil thought my soul could still be saved.
From what I can tell, she’s nuts about saving souls.” I sat up cross-legged on my bed. “Why?” I asked her. “That’s what she learned in nun school, I suppose.” “No,” I said. “Why did you get kicked out of school?” “Oh, that. For writing ‘There is no free speech here’ on the gym floor. In paint. Red paint.” She grinned at me as though that was the most wonderful thing in the world. I didn’t grin back. “Why on earth would you do that?” “Because the principal banned radios in the lunchroom.” “Radios? You ruined the gym floor because of radios?” She waved her beanied foot about. “Not just radios, dopey. It was a matter of free speech. Standing up for what you believe in. And fighting fascism.” Fascism? Wasn’t that about Adolf Hitler? Did she mean Nazis kept her from playing the radio in the lunchroom? “Harry says that he may agree with the sentiment, but the expression left a lot to be desired,” she continued, stretching her long, summer-brown legs. I sighed and looked at my legs. They were pink and freckled like the rest of me. “Who’s Harry?” I asked her.
“My father. My mother went to Catholic school and he thinks she was nearly perfect, so off I go.” I knew from Hettie Morris across the street, who knew Laurel Greenson, whose aunt was Mrs. O’Brien, who lived next door to the Bowmans, that Sophie’s mother had died when she was born. “He wants me to be more like her and learn to express myself with patience, self-control, and moderation.” Sophie would be going to the right place. At All Saints we had patience, self-control, and moderation to spare and not a drop of free speech. I myself was so patient, moderate, and self-controlled that sometimes I felt invisible, and I liked it that way. Let others get noticed and into trouble. Let Sophie get into trouble. It seemed a sure bet that she would. Sophie and I weren’t friends or anything, although she lived only a block down from me on Palm View Drive, in a pink stucco bungalow a lot like the one I lived in. We had nodded to each other over the years, and even played Red Light, Green Light together with the other neighborhood kids on hot summer nights. Now she had come over after dinner to learn more about All Saints, recognizing from my uniform that I was a student there. I couldn’t imagine Sophie at All Saints, couldn’t see her standing patiently in line in a plaid skirt—not the long-legged Sophie Bowman of the thick blond hair, outspoken opinions, and that lovely name, Sophie Bowman. Long mournful O sounds, so moody and romantic. Me?
Francine Green, with Es like eeek and screech and beanie. Holy cow.
“I seriously hate beanies,” Sophie said. “They make you look so drippy. Why do we have to wear uniforms like we’re in jail?” “It’s not the same at all,” I said.
“Jails have much better uniforms. Black and white stripes, you know, are very fashionable this year.” “They are?” “I was kidding, Sophie.” “Oh.” Sophie wagged her beanied foot at me. “Maybe,” she said, “we should find some way to express our individuality even if we’re condemned to uniforms.” “You mean like wearing red shoes?” I asked.
“Yes!” she said, raising her arm with her fist clenched.
“And plastic jewelry and white blouses with cleavage?” “It would be spectacular. Let’s do it,” she said. I pretended interest in my bedspread.
Bunny ballerinas. Ye gods. “No, I couldn’t,” I said finally.
“We’d get in trouble. And I have no red shoes or anything with cleavage. Or any cleavage.” We looked down at our chests and sighed. “Oh nausea,” Sophie said.
My bedroom windows rattled, and I could hear palm fronds scraping along the street. Los Angeles and I were enduring a period of Santa Anas, the hot winds from the east that made tempers and temperatures rise and your skin itch. I got up to open the window in hopes of some cooler night air. “Look,” I said, “searchlights.
There’s a movie premiere somewhere.” Sophie got up and stood next to me at the window.
“Don’t you love living so near Hollywood?” I asked her. “I mean, movie stars are right there, at the bottom of that light. Gary Cooper, maybe. Or Clark Gable. Or Montgomery Clift.
Imagine, right there. Montgomery Clift.” “Montgggggummy who?” Sophie asked.
“Are you kidding me? Montgomery Clift.
He’s only the dreamiest dreamboat in the whole world, with the saddest brown eyes.” I sighed and looked again at the searchlight connecting me to Montgomery Clift. “He’s my absolute favorite. Who’s yours?” “I don’t know much about movie stars,” Sophie said.
“But Hettie Morris said your father writes for the movies.” “He writes them, he doesn’t go see them. He wants us to read books to improve our minds. Good books.
Serious books. Boring books.” “He sounds a bit like Sister Basil.
She’s always assigning holy, dull-as-dishwater books. Don’t you get tired of improving your mind?” I asked her. “I would.” “Sure, sometimes. But you can’t improve the world until you improve your mind, I always say.” She smiled. “Actually I don’t always say that. I just made it up. Pretty good, don’t you think?” I nodded. “But jeepers, you could take a day off now and then. Just read a novel or a comic book or something.” “Okay, like what?” “Well,” I said to her, “you have come to the right place. There is nothing here that will improve your mind.” I walked over to my dresser and examined the clutter on top. Dolores had a pink-skirted dressing table in our room, so there was no space for me to have a desk. I thought that said something about what was important in the Green household. “Let’s see. Archie comic? Donald Duck?” The only book I owned was Stuart Little, which my aunt Martha and uncle George had sent me for Christmas last year. I held it up. “How about this,” I asked her, “about a family with a son who’s a mouse?” Sophie frowned.
“Okay, you’re a little old for that.” I tossed her a copy of Modern Screen magazine. “Take this. It has a story about Montgomery Clift. You can borrow him until you get a favorite of your own.” “Don’t you think movie stars and fan magazines are a bit frivolous and juvenile?” She took the magazine anyway and hopped back to Dolores’ bed. The magazine fell right open to a picture of Monty. Sophie took out the dried banana peel I had used as a place marker and studied the photo. “Jeepers,” she said, “he is good-looking. Kind of shy and haunted, like he’s been persecuted and misunderstood.” The telephone in the hall rang. I could hear my little brother, Artie, answer it, “Duffy’s Tavern, Archie the Manager speaking,” just like the guy on the radio show. Artie liked Duffy’s Tavern. He said he would own a tavern just like Duffy’s when he grew up if he wasn’t going to be a cowboy. Artie says things like that. He’s five.
“Is it for me?” I called to him.
“It’s for Dolores, like it always is,” he said, sticking his head in. His yellow cowlick was standing straight up from the back of his head, and his glasses hung from the very tip of his nose. “Where is she?” “Out,” I told him, “like she always is.” Artie left. I flopped back onto my bed. “It’s so depressing being the sister of Miss Popularity. I’m surprised I don’t have a complex.” “Do you get along with her?” “Are you kidding? Dolores hates me. If she could, I think she she’d return me, like underwear that doesn’t fit.” Sophie looked puzzled. “I don’t think you can return under—” “Never mind. It was just a joke. I meant that she’d like to get rid of me. I wish she was someone else’s sister.” “Still, she’s your family. I think you’d be awfully lonely being an only child.” “Are you?” I asked her. “No,” she said, “but I think you would be.” I leaped up and began jumping furiously on my bed. “We’re acrobats on the trampoline,” I shouted as I bounced onto Dolores’ bed, “and we’re gorgeous and popular and everybody loves us and we’re never lonely and—” Dolores blew in like the Santa Ana wind. “Stop it!” she shouted. I stopped. “Get off my bed. And get her off!” I jumped down. “This is Sophie. She’s a friend of mine from school. Or she will be when—” “I don’t care. Get her off my bed. And get out of here. Both of you.” “It’s my room, too.” “Who cares?” Sophie got off the bed. Dolores flopped onto it and kicked her shoes across the room. Sophie walked regally to the door, stopped, and looked back over her shoulder. “Gee, Francine,” she said, “she’s not nearly as pretty as you said.” Dolores stuck her tongue out, and Sophie stuck hers right back.
“Wow, Sophie,” I said once we were safely out the door. “That was great.” We slapped hands.
In the hall we bumped into Artie and his stuffed bear, Chester. Rice Krispies spilled from Artie’s pockets and snap-krackle-popped as we walked over them. Sophie looked at me quizzically. “He carries them in his pockets in case of sudden starvation,” I told her.
“Little kids are such a mess,” she said, scraping Rice Krispies off her shoe. “I can’t stand them.” “Artie’s okay. He’s sweet. Unlike Dolores.” Sophie shrugged and left.
I pushed Artie’s glasses back up his nose. “Almost time for Dragnet,” I said, taking his hand. “Dun da dun dun,” he sang, like the Dragnet theme song. Dragnet was one radio show Artie and I wouldn’t miss for anything. We sat on the floor in the living room, our backs against the big radio. When we heard Jack Webb say, “This is the city. Los Angeles, California,” we whooped and clapped. Los Angeles was our city.
After that day Sophie and I were friends. Good friends. On the way to being best friends. It’s funny how that happens, so suddenly, first just neighbors and then best friends. Copyright © 2006 by Karen Cushman.
Reprinted by permission of Clarion Books / Houghton Mifflin Company.