CHAPTER 20

“Oh, man,” Richard Keene said from the back of the room, and his voice sounded tired and sighing, almost exhausted.

That was when a small, savagely happy voice broke in: “I thought it was great!” I craned my neck around. It was a tiny Dutch doll of a girl named Grace Stanner. She was pretty in a way that attracted the shop-course boys, who still slicked their hair back and wore white socks. They hung around her in the hall like droning bees. She wore tight sweaters and short skirts. When she walked, everything jiggled-as Chuck Berry has said in his wisdom, it’s such a sight to see somebody steal the show. Her mom was no prize, from what I understood. She was sort of a pro-am barfly and spent most of her time hanging around at Denny’s on South Main, about a half-mile up from what they call the corner here in Placerville. Denny’s will never be mistaken for Caesar’s Palace. And there are always a lot of small minds in small towns, eager to think like mother, like daughter. Now she was wearing a pink cardigan sweater and a dark green skirt, thigh-high. Her face was alight, elvish. She had raised one clenched fist unconsciously shoulder-high. And there was something crystal and poignant about the moment. I actually felt my throat tighten.

“Go, Charlie! Fuck ’em all!”

A lot of heads snapped around and a lot of mouths dropped open, but I wasn’t too surprised. I told you about the roulette ball, didn’t I? Sure I did. In some ways-in a lot of ways-it was still in spin. Craziness is only a matter of degree, and there are lots of people besides me who have the urge to roll heads. They go to the stockcar races and the horror movies and the wrestling matches they have in the Portland Expo. Maybe what she said smacked of all those things, but I admired her for saying it out loud, all the same-the price of honesty is always high. She had an admirable grasp of the fundamentals. Besides, she was tiny and pretty.

Irma Bates wheeled on her, face stretched with outrage. It suddenly struck me that what was happening to Irma must be nearly cataclysmic. “Dirty-mouth!”

“Fuck you, too!” Grace shot back at her, smiling. Then, as an afterthought: “Bag!”

Irma’s mouth dropped open. She struggled for words; I could see her throat working as she tried them, rejected them, tried more, looking for the words of power that would line Grace’s face, drop her breasts four inches toward her belly, pop up varicose veins on those smooth thighs, and turn her hair gray. Surely those words were there someplace, and it was only a matter of finding them. So she struggled, and with her low-slung chin and bulging forehead (both generously sprinkled with blackheads), she looked like a frog.

She finally sprayed out: “They ought to shoot you, just like they’ll shoot him, you slut!” She worked for more; it wasn’t enough. It couldn’t yet express all the horror and outrage she felt for this violent rip in the seam of her universe. “Kill all sluts. Sluts and sluts’ daughters!”

The room had been quiet, but now it became absolutely silent. A pool of silence. A mental spotlight had been switched on Irma and Grace. They might have been alone in a pool of light on a huge stage. Up to this last, Grace had been smiling slightly. Now the smile was wiped off.

“What?” Grace asked slowly. “What? What?”

“Baggage! Tramp!”

Grace stood up, as if about to recite poetry. “My mother-works-in-a-laundry-you-fat-bitch-and-you-better-take-back-what-you-just-said!”

Irma’s eyes rolled in caged and desperate triumph. Her neck was slick and shiny with sweat: the anxious sweat of the adolescent damned, the ones who sit home Friday nights and watch old movies on TV and also the clock. The ones for whom the phone is always mute and the voice of the mother is the voice of Thor. The ones who peck endlessly at the mustache shadow between nose and upper lip. The ones who go to see Robert Redford with their girlfriends and then come back alone on another day to see him again, with their palms clutched damply in their laps. The ones who agonize over long, seldom-mailed letters to John Travolta, written by the close, anxious light of Tensor study lamps. The ones for whom time has become a slow and dreamy sledge of doom, bringing only empty rooms and the smell of old sweats. Sure, that neck was slimy with sweat. I wouldn’t kid you, any more than I would myself.

She opened her mouth and brayed: “WHORE’s DAUGHTER!”

“Okay,” Grace said. She had started up the aisle toward Irma, holding her hands out in front of her like a stage hypnotist’s. She had very long fingernails, lacquered the color of pearl. “I’m going to claw your eyes out, cunt.”

“Whore’s daughter, whore’s daughter!” She was almost singing it.

Grace smiled. Her eyes were still alight and elvish. She wasn’t hurrying up that aisle, but she wasn’t lagging, either. No. She was coming right along. She was pretty, as I had never noticed before, pretty and precious. It was as if she had become a secret cameo of herself.

“Okay, Irma,” she said. “Here I come. Here I come for your eyes.”

Irma suddenly aware, shrank back in her seat.

“Stop,” I said to Grace. I didn’t pick up the pistol, but I laid my hand on it.

Grace stopped and looked at me inquiringly. Irma looked relieved and also vindicated, as if I had taken on aspects of a justly intervening god. “Whore’s daughter,” she confided to the class in general. “Missus Stanner has open house every night, just as soon as she gets back from the beerjoint. With her as practicing apprentice.” She smiled sickly at Grace, a smile that was supposed to convey a superficial, cutting sympathy, and instead only inscribed her own pitiful empty terror. Grace was still looking at me inquiringly.

“Irma?” I asked politely. “Can I have your attention, Irma?”

And when she looked at me, I saw fully what was happening. Her eyes had a glittery yet opaque sheen. Her face was flushed of cheek but waxy of brow. She looked like something you might send your kid out wearing for Halloween. She was blowing up. The whole thing had offended whatever shrieking albino bat it was that passed for her soul. She was ready to go straight up to heaven or dive-bomb down into hell.

“Good,” I said when both of them were looking at me. “Now. We have to keep order here. I’m sure you understand that. Without order, what do you have? The jungle. And the best way to keep order is to settle our difficulties in a civilized way.”

“Hear, hear!” Harmon Jackson said.

I got up, went to the blackboard, and took a piece of chalk from the ledge. Then I drew a large circle on the tiled floor, perhaps five feet through the middle. I kept a close eye on Ted Jones while I did it, too. Then I went back to the desk and sat down.

I gestured to the circle. “Please, girls.”

Grace came forward quickly, precious and perfect. Her complexion was smooth and fair.

Irma sat stony.

“Irma,” I said. “Now, Irma. You’ve made accusations, you know.”

Irma looked faintly surprised, as if the idea of accusations had exploded an entirely new train of thought in her mind. She nodded and rose from her seat with one hand cupped demurely over her mouth, as if to stifle a tiny, coquettish giggle. She stepped mincingly up the aisle and into the circle, standing as far away from Grace as was possible, eyes cast demurely down, hands linked together at her waist. She looked ready to sing “Granada” on The Gong Show.

I thought randomly: Her father sells cars, doesn’t he?

“Very good,” I said. “Now, as has been hinted at in church, in school, and even on Howdy Doody, a single step outside the circle means death. Understood?”

They understood that. They all understood it. This is not the same as comprehension, but it was good enough. When you stop to think, the whole idea of comprehension has a faintly archaic taste, like the sound of forgotten tongues or a look into a Victorian camera obscura. We Americans are much higher on simple understanding. It makes it easier to read the billboards when you’re heading into town on the expressway at plus-fifty. To comprehend, the mental jaws have to gape wide enough to make the tendons creak. Understanding, however, can be purchased on every paperback-book rack in America.

“Now,” I said. “I would like a minimum of physical violence here. We already have enough of that to think about. I think your mouths and your open hands will be sufficient, girls. I will be the judge. Accepted?”

They nodded.

I reached into my back pocket and brought out my red bandanna. I had bought it at the Ben Franklin five-and-dime downtown, and a couple of times I had worn it to school knotted around my neck, very continental, but I had gotten tired of the effect and put it to work as a snot rag. Bourgeois to the core, that’s me.

“When I drop it, you go at it. First lick to you, Grace, as you seem to be the defendant.”

Grace nodded brightly. There were roses in her cheeks. That’s what my mother always says about someone who has high color.

Irma Bates just looked demurely at my red bandanna.

“Stop it!” Ted Jones snapped. “You said you weren’t going to hurt anyone, Charlie. Now, stop it!” His eyes looked desperate. “Just stop it!”

For no reason I could fathom, Don Lordi laughed crazily.

“She started it, Ted Jones,” Sylvia Ragan said heatedly. “If some Ethiopian jug-diddler called my mother a whore-”

“Whore, dirty whore,” Irma agreed demurely.

“… I’d claw her fuggin’ eyes out!”

“You’re crazy!” Ted bellowed at her, his face the color of old brick. “We could stop him! If we all got together, we could-”

“Shut up, Ted,” Dick Keene said. “Okay?”

Ted looked around, saw he had neither support nor sympathy, and shut up. His eyes were dark and full of crazy hate. I was glad it was a good long run between his desk and Mrs. Underwood’s. I could shoot him in the foot if I had to.

“Ready, girls?”

Grace Stanner grinned a healthy, gutsy grin. “All ready.”

Irma nodded. She was a big girl, standing with her legs apart and her head slightly lowered. Her hair was a dirty blond color, done in round curls that looked like toilet-paper rolls.

I dropped my bandanna. It was on.

Grace stood thinking about it. I could almost see her realizing how deep it could be, wondering maybe how far in over her head she wanted to get. In that instant I loved her. No… I loved them both.

“You’re a fat, bigmouth bitch,” Grace said, looking Irma in the eye. “You stink. I mean that. Your body stinks. You’re a louse.”

“Good,” I said, when she was done. “Give her a smack.”

Grace hauled off and slapped the side of Irma’s face. It made a flat whapping noise, like one board striking another. Her sweater pulled up above the waistband of her skirt with the swing of her arm.

Corky Herald went “Unhh!” under his breath.

Irma let out a whoofing grunt. Her head snapped back, her face screwed up. She didn’t look demure anymore. There was a large, hectic patch on her left cheek.

Grace threw back her head, drew a sudden knife-breath, and stood ready. Her hair spilled over her shoulders, beautiful and perfect. She waited.

“Irma for the prosecution,” I said. “Go ahead, Irma.”

Irma was breathing heavily. Her eyes were glazed and offended, her mouth horrified. At that moment she looked like no one’s sweet child of morning.

“Whore,” she said finally, apparently deciding to stick with a winner. Her lip lifted, fell, and lifted again, like a dog’s. “Dirty boy-fucking whore.”

I nodded to her.

Irma grinned. She was very big. Her arm, coming around, was like a wall. It rocketed against the side of Grace’s face. The sound was a sharp crack.

“Ow!” someone whined.

Grace didn’t fall over. The whole side of her face went red, but she didn’t fall over. Instead, she smiled at Irma. And Irma flinched. I saw it and could hardly believe it: Dracula had feet of clay, after all.

I snatched a quick look at the audience. They were hung, hypnotized. They weren’t thinking about Mr. Grace or Tom Denver or Charles Everett Decker. They were watching, and maybe what they saw was a little bit of their own souls, flashed at them in a cracked mirror. It was fine. It was like new grass in spring.

“Rebuttal, Grace?” I asked.

Grace’s lips drew back from her tiny ivory teeth. “You never had a date, that’s what’s the matter with you. You’re ugly. You smell bad. And so all you think about is what other people do, and you have to make it all dirty in your mind. You’re a bug.”

I nodded to her.

Grace swung, and Irma shied away. The blow struck her only glancingly, but she began to weep with a sudden, slow hopelessness. “Let me out,” she groaned. “I don’t want to any more, Charlie. Let me out!”

Take back what you said about my mother,” Grace said grimly.

“Your mother sucks cocks!” Irma screamed. Her face was twisted; her toilet-roll curls bobbed madly.

“Good,” I said. “Go ahead, Irma.”

But Irma was weeping hysterically. “J-J-Je-Jesusss…” she screamed. Her arms came up and covered her face with terrifying slowness. “God I want to be d-dd-dead…”

Say you’re sorry,” Grace said grimly. “Take it back.”

“You suck cocks!” Irma screamed from behind the barricade of her arms.

“Okay,” I said. “Let her have it, Irma. Last chance.”

This time Irma swung from the heels. I saw Grace’s eyes squeeze into slits, saw the muscles of her neck tighten into cords. But the angle of her jaw caught most of the blow and her head shifted only slightly. Still, that whole side of her face was bright red, as if from sunburn.

Irma’s whole body jogged and jiggled with the force of her sobs, which seemed to come from a deep well in her that had never been tapped before.

“You haven’t got nothing,” Grace said. “You ain’t nothing. Just a fat, stinky pig is what you are.”

“Hey, give it to her!” Billy Sawyer yelled. He slammed both fists down heavily on his desk. “Hey, pour it on!”

“You ain’t even got any friends,” Grace said, breathing hard. “Why do you even bother living?”

Irma let out a thin, reedy wail.

“All done,” Grace said to me.

“Okay,” I said. “Give it to her.”

Grace drew back, and Irma screamed and went to her knees. “Don’t h-h-hit me. Don’t hit me no more! Don’t you hit me-”

Say you’re sorry.”

“I can’t,” she wept. “Don’t you know I can’t?”

You can. You better.”

There was no sound for a moment, but the vague buzz of the wall clock. Then Irma looked up, and Grace’s hand came down fast, amazingly fast, making a small, ladylike splat against Irma’s cheek. It sounded like a shot from a.22.

Irma fell heavily on one hand, her curls hanging in her face. She drew in a huge, ragged breath and screamed, “Okay! All right! I’m sorry!”

Grace stepped back, her mouth half-open and moist, breathing rapidly and shallowly. She raised her hands, palms out, in a curiously dove-like gesture, and pushed her hair away from her cheeks. Irma looked up at her dumbly, unbelievingly. She struggled to her knees again, and for a moment I thought she was going to offer a prayer to Grace. Then she began to weep.

Grace looked at the class, then looked at me. Her breasts were very full, pushing at the soft fabric of her sweater.

“My mother fucks,” she said, “and I love her.”

The applause started somewhere in the back, maybe with Mike Gavin or Nancy Caskin. But it started and spread until they were all applauding, all but Ted Jones and Susan Brooks. Susan looked too overwhelmed to applaud. She was looking at Gracie Stanner shiningly.

Irma knelt on the floor, her face in her hands. When the applause died (I had looked at Sandra Cross; she applauded very gently, as if in a dream), I said, “Stand up, Irma.”

She looked at me wonderingly, her face streaked and shadowed and ravaged, as if she had been in a dream herself.

“Leave her alone,” Ted said, each word distinct.

“Shut up,” Harmon Jackson said. “Charlie is doing all right.”

Ted turned around in his seat and looked at him. But Harmon did not drop his eyes, as he might have done at another place, another time. They were both on the Student Council together-where Ted, of course, had always been the power.

“Stand up, Irma,” I said gently.

“Are you going to shoot me?” she whispered.

“You said you were sorry.”

“She made me say it.”

“But I bet you are.”

Irma looked at me dumbly from beneath the madhouse of her toilet-paper-roll curls. “I’ve always been sorry,” she said. “That’s what makes it s-s-s-so hard to s-say.”

“Do you forgive her?” I asked Grace.

“Huh?” Grace looked at me, a little dazed. “Oh. Yeah. Sure.” She walked suddenly back to her seat and sat down, where she looked frowningly at her hands.

“Irma?” I said.

“What?” She was peering at me, doglike, truculent, fearful, pitiful.

“Do you have something you want to say?”

“I don’t know.”

She stood up a little at a time. Her hands dangled strangely, as if she didn’t know exactly what to do with them.

“I think you do.”

“You’ll feel better when it’s off your chest, Irma,” Tanis Gannon said. “I always do.”

“Leave her alone, fa Chrissake,” Dick Keene said from the back of the room.

“I don’t want to be let alone,” Irma said suddenly. “I want to say it.” She brushed back her hair defiantly. Her hands were not dove-like at all. “I’m not pretty. No one likes me. I never had a date. Everything she said is true. There.” The words rushed out very fast, and she screwed up her face while she was saying them, as if she were taking nasty medicine.

“Take a little care of yourself,” Tanis said. Then, looking embarrassed but still determined: “You know, wash, shave your legs and, uh, armpits. Look nice. I’m no raving beauty, but I don’t stay home every weekend. You could do it.”

“I don’t know how!”

Some of the boys were beginning to look uneasy, but the girls were leaning forward. They looked sympathetic now, all of them. They had that confessions-at-the-pajama-party look that every male seems to know and dread.

“Well…” Tanis began. Then she stopped and shook her head. “Come back here and sit down.”

Pat Fitzgerald snickered. “Trade secrets?”

“That’s right.”

“Some trade,” Corky Herald said. That got laughs. Irma Bates shuttled to the back of the room, where she, Tanis, Anne Lasky, and Susan Brooks started some sort of confabulation. Sylvia was talking softly with Grace, and Pig Pen’s eyes were crawling avidly over both of them. Ted Jones was frowning at the air. George Yannick was carving something on the top of his desk and smoking a cigarette-he looked like any busy carpenter. Most of the other; were looking out the windows at the cops directing traffic and conferring in desperate-looking little huddles. I could pick out Don Grace, good old Tom Denver, and Jerry Kesserling, the traffic cop.

A bell went off suddenly with a loud bray, making all of us jump. It made the cops outside jump, too. A couple of them pulled their guns.

“Change-of-classes bell,” Harmon said.

I looked at the wall clock. It was 9:50. At 9:05 I had been sitting in my seat by the window, watching the squirrel. Now the squirrel was gone, good old Tom Denver was gone, and Mrs. Underwood was really gone. I thought it over and decided I was gone, too.

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