A Trip Down the Rabbit Hole of America--Winner of Mid-List Press First Novel Award
As a little girl growing up in Squitchit, New York, Leslie Kove doubtless imagined that she and her two siblings would one day marry, have kids, and make ordinary productive lives for themselves. But by 1970, her brother, Peter, has died in Vietnam. Her sister, Susan, a scholarship student at Bennington College in Vermont, has changed her name to Sabra-Sou and dances topless in political demonstrations. And Leslie, a high school senior, has no idea what to say when people ask her what she's going to do with her life: She needs a plan.
This first-person tragicomedy begins with Leslie's visit to Bennington in May 1970 and continues over two decades as she journeys through "the rabbit hole"--like a modern-day Alice in the Wonderland that is America. (Originally published in 2001 as winner of Mid-List Press's First Series Award for the novel, this is a revised e-book edition.)
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My Trip to Bennington
It was 1970, and I was a senior in high school. I never liked school, so when everybody started applying to colleges, I mostly didn't see the point. If I was "school smart" like my sister, Susan, it would make sense. But I'm not. And if I don't see the sense in somethingsay, for instance, algebrathen I just can't get myself to do it, and I flunk.
Susan did lots of senseless things. For instance, cheerleading: She went out in the cold in a tiny little skirt and yelled "Yea, team" with seven other girls, while a bunch of boys in stretch pants and shoulder pads ran around a field beating each other up.
She decided to go to Bennington because it was nontraditional and they gave her a scholarship-some special one for children of secretaries. Also, she liked dancing, which was kind of like cheerleading, and they did that a lot up there, and, at the end, you got a diploma.
Anyway, it was some high school vacation; my brother was dead, my father wasn't, and Susan invited me to spend some time with a "B." Barnum. Or Bailey. I really can't remember. But that's where we went after the naked dancing. Susan said I was awfully uptight for a kid my age, and if I called her Susan instead of Sabra-Sou once more in front of one of her naked dancing friends, she'd send me home on the next bus. She said my possessiveness about my bikini bottoms was a sign that I was uncentered and far too involved with meaningless tangibles and that unless I refocused my karma, my life would become atrivial desert wasteland ultimately signifying nothing.
I said, all that aside, I still wanted my bikini bottoms back.
We ate in a blue dining room upstairs in Commons. Actually I ate. Susan was a waitress. The waitresses ate earlier and then, at the normal dinnertime, took orders for coffee, tea, water, and regular and chocolate milk from the other students who'd already gone through a cafeteria line getting their solid food on trays. I didn't understand why, if they were going to get their food on trays in the first place, they couldn't just pick up what they wanted to drink at the same time. But Susan said shut up and eat before someone noticed that I wasn't a student and was eating stolen food. I offered to pay if she'd lend me the money, but she told me to shut up again and smiled at the other girls at my table like what can you do when you have such a dumb little sister.
After dinner Robin wandered over to my table and told me there was a movie of some French guy and did I want to see it. I said I would adore to normally, but I was sure my big sister would be terribly hurt since she'd been missing me so much, being away at college and not seeing me for so long, and probably she'd want us to sit together and have sister-talk all night, so maybe another time.
Susan gave me the keys to her room since she had a naked dance rehearsal and then worked until midnight in the library. She'd borrowed the cushions from a couch in the Barnum & Bailey living room and they were hidden under her bed. She said if I wanted, I could use the bed, just to leave my sleeping bag out so that when she came in, dead tired from the library, she could unroll it on top of the lumpy cushions. She could be really nice when she wanted to be.
And it was that night, Sunday, May 3rd, 1970, lying there in my sleeping bag on top of those couch cushions, that I first began thinking about my future: considering Plan A.
Here was my sister, a straight-A student and a head cheerleader on partial scholarship to the most expensive school in the country, waiting on tables and working in a library until midnight every night to pay off her tuition. To do what? Dance around naked in the middle of a snack bar? Even though I was only a seventeen-year-old virgin I knew that there were plenty of placesin New Jersey, for instance where they paid you a whole lot to do that sort of thing, and you didn't have subsidize it by waiting on tables. I could only imagine what my father would say if he weren't so busy going bankrupt and having affairs. He'd have driven right up here and said "Susan, you idiot, put on your damn clothes, I'm taking you home!" I swear I'd have done it myself if I'd been five years older and had a driver's license. But instead I fell asleep and didn't wake up until Susan tripped on my head getting into bed.
Monday, May 4th was sunny. I had a good breakfast of smuggled brown sausage, scrambled eggs, and chocolate milk and then went downstairs to the Commons hang-out room to wait for Susan to finish her washing-the-mud-off-dining-room-chair-and-table-legs job. Every day she washed a different room. I wondered how there could be enough mud to make a special job, and Susan said it was because of the L.L. Bean hiking boots everyone wore. So sitting there in Commons, I studied shoes. Sure enough, most of the people who were wearing shoes were wearing hiking boots that they rested on chairs, tables, windowsills, and other flat surfaces. Mostly there were girls, but a few boys also. There was one who looked older than the others. He had a large hooked nose, a serious expression, curly black hair and the most enormous Adam's apple I'd ever seen sticking out over the collar of a black leather jacket. His motorcycle boot-clad feet were planted firmly on the floor, and he was reading the New York Times and scowling.
"That's Zapper, one of the vets," said Robin, sitting down beside me. "You like him?"
"I don't know him," I answered. "Good morning."
"Hey, Zapp!" called Robin in her loudest bass voice. "There's someone here who wants to meet you."
I hid my face in my hands. At least she hadn't said I was a virgin.
"She's a virgin!" boomed Robin.
Leon Zapinsky had served two tours in Vietnam and was going to Bennington on the G.I. Bill. He was six five and 130 pounds.
"Are you Jewish?" he asked.
"Not really," I answered.
"What's not really? Either you are or you aren't."
"Well, I don't have any religion."
"Is your mother Jewish?"
"She was before she got married."
"You're Jewish," he declared.
"No, not really," I answered.
"By Jewish law you're Jewish."
"I don't follow any Jewish laws. Are you Jewish?"
Leon looked at me like I had two heads. "It's okay that you're a virgin," he answered and opened the paper.
Robin was making pencil sketches on his business section, and I watched the stairs hoping Susan would materialize.
"I was in Vietnam," said Leon from behind the front page. "I liked it."
I wondered if there was maybe another staircase and Susan, in her hurry to get to her next job or naked dance class, had forgotten all about me.
"It made a man of me," he continued, flexing one of his spaghetti arms. "You like theater?"
We had no theater in Squitchit.
"Sure she does," answered Robin. "Her sister's a dancer."
"Oh?" said Leon, putting down his paper. "What's her name?"
"Susan," I mumbled, wishing on the stairs.
Leon shook his head. "I never heard of a 'Susan' at Bennington."
"Her Bennington name is Sabra-Sou," contributed Robin, tearing off the piece of business section with her sketch on it. "She was in that anti-pigs dance yesterday."
Leon looked at me with new interest. "You mean the one where they wore no"
"She wears clothes at home!" I exploded. I felt like my head was going to blast off my neck. Leon smiled to himself like he'd stolen some secret. "Furthermore those were my bikini bottoms!" He smiled bigger. Lord, did I hate him. "She stole them out of my bureau! She had no permission!" I'd jumped up almost knocking over the table, but Leon just sat there smiling and nodding like one of those stupid little dashboard doggies. I wanted to rip the bobbing head off his shoulders, huff it to the floor, and watch it splat into a million pieces like a pumpkin. "If my father had caught her, boy, would he have given her hell! And what the hell's so great about Vietnam! My brother got killed there!"
A clock ticked someplace.
Leon's face stiffened. Then, without a word, he gathered up his New York Times and walked out of Commons. Some people were staring at me, but nobody said anything so I sat back down.
"Getting a little heavy here, aren't we?" said Robin, tearing her sketch into several pocket-sized pieces and stuffing them into her jeans.
"I just don't like people talking about my sister." I glared at the stairs wondering where the hell she was anyhow.
"Who does," said Robin. "Well, got a class. See ya later."
"See ya," I said and didn't look at her.
There was no TV at Bennington, so it wasn't until dinner that we got the news. I was sitting in a corner of the yellow dining room with a mouthful of stolen chicken when a hand gripped my shoulder. I choked, certain that I'd been caught and would be thrown off the campus with no keys, no money, and no way back to Squitchit, and that Susan would be too busy dancing and working to notice that I was gone. "I'm sorry," I croaked.
"What are you sorry for?" said Leon, releasing my shoulder and slumping down into the chair beside me. I coughed until my face felt blue. Leon handed me his water.
"Thanks," I gasped.
"They shot some kids at Kent State," he answered. "I just heard it from the kitchen staff."
"Oh," I said. "Who's 'they'?"
"Oh." I coughed. "Why?"
Leon just shook his head.
I was a seventeen-year-old virgin who'd never had a date, let alone held hands with a boy, but for some reason I put my hand on top of his, and we sat like that for at least a minute: me trying not to cough, and Leon staring at the table.
From the second grade until the tenth grade, I had been madly, passionately in love with a boy named Dougie O'Hara who was two years older and didn't know I was alive. He was the kind of guy everyone fell in love with, but he never fell in love with anyone. All the guys liked him too. He was just so unbelievably nice. He had a way of putting his arm around your shoulder. Not my shoulder. Other people's shoulders. He put his arm around themnot sexy, just warm. He did it when he was having a conversation or if he saw somebody looking lost or sad, like a new kid on the first day of school. He had crazy red hair and so many freckles you could hardly see any normal skin. And if someone mentioned them, he'd say if you connected them with a pen, it spelled the secret of the universe. Then he'd throw back his head and let loose a laugh that shook his whole body. He was on the track team with my brother, and when he graduated I wanted to fling myself off the Squitchit cliffs.
Leon's hand felt warm under mine. "Those kids at Kent Stateare they dead?" I asked, finally clearing a breathing passage.
"Some of them."
"Oh," I answered. "What's Kent State?"
He squinted really funny. "Superman's alma mater." And he left me with his water.
That night they closed the library so Susan got back to the room early. I asked her if she thought a lot about Peter, our brother.
"I don't know," she answered without looking up from her homework. "What's a lot?"
"A few times a day?" She shook her head. "Once a day?" I could see her jawbone rippling the way it did when she ground her teeth in her sleep. "Once every other day?"
"You know what your problem is, Leslie?" She slammed her notebook.
"What?" I asked. At least she was finally looking at me.
"You've never joined a club or worked on a committee; your trouble is you have no school spirit!"
"I was asking about Peter." Sometimes she was really hard to follow.
"I've got classes!" she screamed. "I've got fifty billion jobs, they closed the library, and I still owe seven hundred of this term's tuition. When do I have time to think about Peter!" She threw the notebook at the floor scattering homework everywhere.
"Hey, will you keep it down," yelled a voice from up the hall.
"And you should go on a diet," she hissed. "You're fat."
"That still doesn't give you the right to take my bikini bottoms." I kicked the lumpy couch cushions under the bed and unrolled my sleeping bag on top of her homework. "I'm taking them with me when I leave here."
Susan turned her back on me and pretended to study. I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep.
I'd only seen Susan cry once.
When we were little, our father liked secrets. And mostly he had them with Susan.
Their first secret was a code. He'd call her "BG" and she'd call him "DD." That's how they'd say good-night:
"Good night, BG."
"Good night, DD."
And then I'd hear them kiss.
I wanted a secret code, too, so my father said we could say "No Number," which would stand for how there was no number big enough to describe how much we loved each other, but a lot of times he forgot to say it.
When I was six and Susan was nine, she said she'd tell me what her code meant because our father had invented "secret places" and she didn't need it anymore. DD meant "Dearest Dad" and BG meant "Best Girl."
"Secret places" were when on a Sunday afternoon DD would suddenly lean back, stretch and yawn, saying "Getting a little stuffy in here, isn't it?" Then he'd shoot Susan a secret look, and she'd stretch and yawn exactly the same and say "Gee, I think so." Then, simultaneously, the two of them would stand up and go out for a stroll. I'd ask to go too, but DD would always say that Mom needed me to keep her company, but they'd bring me back a surprise. (I don't remember where Peter was.) And sometimes they'd bring back some flowers or shiny rocks. Sometimes, they'd forget.
Afterwards I'd always beg Susan to tell me where they'd gone, but all she'd say was, "Our secret place." They had private secret places all over the neighborhood.
When we were little, our street was a dead end. One Sunday afternoon when Mom and DD had gone out for a walk, I begged Susan for a whole hour and promised I'd do all of her chores for a week if she'd show me a secret place, and finally she agreed.
We went down to the dead end, then off into the woods along the trail that led to the cliffs. About twenty feet before the cliffs we veered off the trail. I was afraid we'd get lost, but Susan said, "Don't be a baby," and led the way through the trees and high brush to just outside one of DD's and her private secret placesa clearing in the middle of the woods.
Susan stopped dead. I whispered, "What? What?"thinking she'd seen one of the deer that sometimes came out of the woods and grazed in our backyardbut she didn't answer, and I was too short to see over the brush. Then, without a word, she turned with her hand over her mouth and tears streaming down her face, and she ran back out the way we had come.
I was more scared of missing a deer than of getting lost, so I squatted down as low as I could to see up and under the brush. And there in the middle of DD's and Susan's private secret place was DD. His arms were wrapped around Mom whose blouse was unbuttoned all the way down her back, and they were kissing so tight it looked like they had one head.
The next morning the Bennington student government called a community meeting to discuss retaliation for the Kent State Massacre of the war protesters. Susan's naked modeling job for art classes was canceled due to no attendance, so we went.
Neither of us spoke as we trudged through the Vermont mud to the modern partially constructed lecture hall. A steep row of partially carpeted concrete steps led down to a narrow stage on which stood eight metal collapsible chairs, a podium, and a tall thin girl. Strung across the stage above her head was a huge white sheet. The girl stared out through a tangle of red hair with unblinking blue eyes as the auditorium slowly filled with boys and girls. Mostly girls. As I stood in the sea of chattering blue work shirts and jeans in my starched yellow top and brown bermudas, I vowed to go on a diet. Somebody tapped Susan on the shoulder and whispered something, Susan whispered back, and before I could open my mouth to apologize for the night before, she had disappeared into the blue sea.
After about ten more minutes, the tall thin red-headed girl nodded to somebody at the back of the auditorium and the lights dimmed. Then from out of nowhere came Susan's voice, friendlier and more efficient than I'd ever heard her. "Ready when you are," she called from someplace I couldn't find. There was a "click-click-click" and three large shaky black blurs flashed across the white sheet. "Focus!" yelled the crowd, and the blurs sharpened into three shaky black letters: WAR.
What followed was a silent movie of white people killing black people in the South, then black people killing each other in Harlem, then black and white people killing Asian people in Vietnam; the last part I'm not sure of because it kept going out of focus. (Susan had only become the campus projectionist the week before when the senior who'd been doing it decided she needed more time for her thesis.)
When the movie was over, the lights came up and nobody clapped. Then the tall thin red-headed girl nodded and seven more people filed up on stage: one black and two white square-shaped girls in jeans, un-ironed work shirts and hiking boots; a boy with waist-length golden hair, wearing jeans, a work shirt and cowboy boots; a beautiful fine-featured Asian girl with shiny black hair pulled back in a smooth ponytail exposing two sets of tiny diamonds on each of her delicate lobes. She was dressed in a pleated blue jean work shirt and vest ensemble and soft black leather knee-high boots. There was a skinny bald older man in corduroy who looked like my social studies teacher. And Leon.
The tall thin red-headed girl said a few words about how our country, and thus the universities, and thus our own community here at Bennington were in crisis, and then she introduced the golden-haired boy who, it turned out, had made the movie. His name was Mitch, and he said it was time the artists of the world said no, and if it took getting shot at on college campuses like his brothers and sisters at Kent State, then so be it.
I started wondering if he meant that he and those Kent State kids were really related, and if they were, if they all made movies or painted or something, and if any of their other family went to or got killed in Vietnam, or if they'd all dodged the draft and were living with cousins in Canada. And by the time I came to again, the three square-shaped girls were at the podium arguing about whether the lesbian community should form a strike committee to stop the invasion of Cambodia or whether the black girl was right and the black lesbians deserved a committee of their own. Then the tall thin red-headed girl called for order, but nobody listened. All during this, Leon's face was getting pinker and pinker, and just as the golden-haired filmmaker was about to hit the black lesbian, he stood all of his cadaverous six feet five inches up on top of his little metal chair and shouted at the top of his lungs, "I was there!"
A respectful hush fell over the auditorium and they waited for more. But Leon didn't say any more. He just stood there swaying and glaring at the world.
Finally the bald-headed teacher stood up and said he certainly thought some demonstration of protest from the college was warranted, and whatever the students decided would be supported in full by the faculty and board. Then one of the square-shaped white girls called him a fascist pig and walked off stage, and Leon sat back down.
The Asian princess took the floor. Her name was Tina, she announced as she glided up to the podium. "What I would propose," she said quietly, with an ever so slight British accent, "is a Pause for Peace." She held for a moment, letting the words sink in. "This would be a time agreed upon by the northeastern colleges and universities when all work, all commerce would stop. It would be a moment of silence in honor and protest of those killed at Kent State, as well as the hundreds of thousands in Southeast Asia." She flicked an imaginary hair out of her eyes. "I would suggest in the meantime that we join the other colleges in the moratorium to be held this Sunday in Washington, D.C."
"Sunday? How can we possibly"
With a slight gesture she silenced the lesbians and continued. "I've spoken to several friends in the area and if it would be agreeable, we would like to share chartered buses. The cost would be approximately ten dollars per person, assuming capacity seating. Members of the alumni association living in the Washington area have volunteered overnight housing." Then, cocking her head in the direction of the tall thin red-headed girl, "If there are no objections, I would like to ask for a voice vote." The tall thin redheaded girl, the lesbians, the filmmaker, and the teacher nodded in mesmerized agreement. Leon glared at the floor. "All right then."
And as Princess Tina looked serenely out over the auditorium, I could have sworn she lingered on me, reading my thoughtswhich were that I wished that I were as thin as she was, but I didn't believe for one second that she or I or anyone else in this room knew what the hell we were doing. And I wondered what Peter would think of it all.
Peter was kind of a cross between me and Susan. He never joined a club either, except for track, because, he said, that was easy and he'd run even if there were no club. He was never in any group, but everybody liked him. He never played team sports because he hated competition. Mostly he just liked hanging out at the soda fountain in John's Drugstore, riding his motorcycle on the unpaved Squitchit back roads, playing imaginary guitar, and having a good time.
And suddenly the thought of him out in the middle of a rice paddy carrying a gun struck me as so silly I thought I was going to have an accident. I tried pretending to cough like there was something stuck in my throat, but these yelpy little laughs kept popping out, and people were starting to stare, but not too much since this was Bennington where they wore moose antlers and danced naked. Somebody said I must be a freshman, then Princess Tina asked for "all in favor" and I was drowned out by the roar.
My father was a Republican and my mother, a Democrat, so when you think about it, the marriage was doomed from the start. My mother cried for two weeks after each of the Kennedys got shot; my father said it was too bad, but he still thought they were bums. When they called Peter's draft number my mother wrote to her cousin in Canada, and my father, who'd served in Korea, said over his dead body would a son of his be a commie fag draft dodger. When they sent Peter home in a body bag, my mother said she had no more tears to cry, and my father moved out of the house.
On our way back from the community meeting, I asked Susan what her plans were.
"I don't know," she said, scraping some mud off her heel. "Join some committee. Go to Washington, I guess. Maybe it'll be fun."
I thought about Peter alone in a rice paddy. I thought about me alone on this campus. I thought about my Christmas present key case in the Port Authority ladies room. "You know, Mom's been sober for five months," I said scraping some mud off of my heel. "Isn't that great?"
Excerpted from PLAN Z BY LESLIE KOVE by betsy robinson. Copyright © 2001 by Betsy Robinson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Table of Contents
My Trip to Bennington
Plan A: Surviving
Plan B: Losing My Virginity
Plan C: Holding Down a Responsible Job & Seeking Mental Health
Plan D: Back to Plan B
Plan E: Working My Way Up at PRS&C
Plan F: Getting to Know Leon
Plan G: Exploring My Jewish Roots
Plan H: Getting to Know My Mother
Plan I: Getting on with It
Plan J: Discovering the World
Plans K to Around V (I had a small problem with continuity here): Looking for Purpose Via Various Careers 1
Plan W: Saving Susan
Plan X: "How Things Are" by Sally Washington
Plan Y: The Hell if I Know
Plan Z: What To Do When Nothing Makes Sense
The Real Ending
About the Author
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