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Chapter 9

THE SLEIGHRIDE PARTY

Lucy touched the brass doorknob of Aunt Mabel's home to give herself tingling pleasure with the electric shock she had discovered the first freezing dry day in Congress. As usual Vida was waiting. They walked and slid on the icy snow with small steps so as not to fall, hands over ears, teeth clenched against a tongue-biting jar from snowballs pitched by horrid little boys.

"Will your mother let you go?"

"I didn't tell her it was a sleighride. I said a few of us girls were going to Emmy's for popcorn balls. I'm glad now we have no phone so Ma can't call and find out."

Harry, a sophomore at Fourth High, had organized a sleighride party. He and five other boys chipped in and hired a driver and sleigh with two horses from Tyson's Livery. The boys and girls were all from high school except Lucy and Vida. Lucy had told Harry her friend Vida must be invited.

"Okay," grumbled Harry, "if you want her along, but she won't fit. She's just a kid."

Emmy, Dora, Dottie, and Birdie were as a phalanx against the 8th grade invaders. At Birdie's where they were gathered the high school girls examined Lucy's Alice-blue cape coat and bonnet edged with white rabbit fur and hooted.

"Who do you thing you are, an Easter Rabbit, or Lillian Gish all dressed up and no place to go?"

Lucy laughed good-naturedly. She didn't have a mackinaw like the other girls. Of course mackinaws were warm but she'd rather be cold and save her posing-money so she and Mother could go to New York City.

The uninvited on Birdie's street breathed peepholes in frosty parlor window's. Just as they suspected, no chaperon! A petting party! How awful!

Lucy's cadenza trilled and disappeared up toward Venus shining in the moonlight. This was fun, a bunch together, and they all would sing. Norman was beginning to play his harmonica. She sat in the corner under the driver's seat next to Harry who managed things as he wanted. He was so bossy. Anyway, he couldn't be rough with all these kids around. She settled herself and then leaned forward to see where Vida was.

"For goodness' sake, Vida, come up here, you'll fall off there." Lucy waved to a space between Norman and Dottie, who was sitting close to Eddie.

Vida threw back her head and opened her mouth in simulation of gaiety. "I like it here, I like to watch the tracks in the snow."

Eyes popped at her from craned necks and then necks and bodies resettled to pleasurable pursuits.

What a silly thing to say, they'll think I'm not a good sport. Vida waved at Norman and sang in loud accompaniment to his harmonica.

Norman winked at her.

"For crying out loud, Vida, crawl over and sit next to Norm!" Harry shouted officiously, eager to get everyone settled so he could concentrate on Lucy.

Norman beckoned with his head, continuing to play. Vida scrambed over sprawling legs. At first she hadn't noticed what a good-looking boy Norman was, especially close by when his big teeth didn't show. She wiggled her shoulders and snapped her fingers.

"Chinatown, my Chinatown."

"That's right, Vida," encouraged Lucy lazily, "you show 'em." When they reached the river road in the country out of sight of prying streetlights the party quieted down. Harry's hand fumbled at Lucy's skirt under the smelly horse blanket.

"Stop it," she said, and pulled the offending hand out into the cold. So this is a sleighride party. Same old thing. To revive the communal spirit, dampened by her reproof, she smiled at Dottie and Birdie but they glared. For heaven's sake, they think I'm trying to get their fellas. Those girls are the limit, they can hardly wait to begin necking. And Vida, why doesn't she stop trying to be the life of the party? They don't like her but not as much as they don't like me. Harry's mad and I'm glad.

She cocked her head like a little snowbird and looked at him teasingly. Harry's sullen pout hardened as he sucked his breath and pulled her down under the scratchy blanket.

Oh well, I'll let him have a little fun, she thought indulgently. He did spend a lot of money on this ride. But he's spoiled because he has more money than the other kids. Money makes a lot of difference—look how they all do what he wants. All these girls would rather have him than their boy friends. He is good-looking with those thick eyebrows and wild curly brown hair. But his lips are too red for a boy. He'd better watch out or he'll be a fatty. He always looks hot when he's cold. I bet you I could count on one hand those whiskers he always talks about shaving. Who cares anyway? I'm mean. Poor Harry. Funny, but she felt more comfortable with Clem. But Clem was funny too. He never even tries to kiss me. I wonder what his kisses are like? He must know a lot about love because he always stops that Semy from saying things when I'm posing. Semy always stands looking at me as if I didn't have anything on and pretending he isn't looking at me at all. It's cute how after a while Clem gets mad and says "Beat it, Semy!" and then gets crosser when Semy bows and says "Forgive me, I didn't realize you two wanted to be alone"—or, "Ah, forgive me for interrupting the Muse, if that's what I'm interrupting." Semy's nasty. Of course she wanted to be alone with Clem. He told her lots of interesting things. Not the way Semy told things, as if trying to prove all the time how smart he is. She knew a lot now about New York City from Clem. Even the names of streets besides Broadway. One of these days I'm going to give Clem a nice big kiss and get him to cut off his beard, she decided as Harry parted her lips.

Vida had given up singing and sat staring out at the icy trees bordering the frozen moonlit river. Norman sat hunched over his harmonica, serenading himself with a soft humming rendition of "Moonlight Bay." I'm sorry I came, Vida thought bitterly, no one wants me. She thought of the poem she had reread many times.

I'm nobody, who are you?
Are vou nobodv, too?
Then there's a pair of us—don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

Emily Dickinson hadn't been wanted either. It was awful not to be pretty. Seeing Harry taking the lips she never had dared to touch nauseated her, and only fear of attracting attention to her neglected self prevented her scrambling wildly off the jingling sleigh and running home. How could Lucy let Harry touch her lips, that awful Harry about whom dreadful stories were rumored, especially about the girl who got in trouble and whose family was bought off by Harry's father.

Norman finally stopped playing and yawned. He splayed Vida's cold fingers with his own, drew her close, and her congealed blood began to flow like a dreamy gentle summer brook. "Come on, Vida, let me put my head on your shoulder." He nudged away her coat collar with a long nose and found a soft spot. A babbling affectionate spring welled at the base of her throat. Queer that it took her so long to appreciate him. He was refined too, not messy like the other drooling boys. Maybe he would kiss her later. She was uncomfortable but afraid to move because he was asleep.

Quiet enveloped the sleigh, broken only by small shiftings, sighs and cheeps of kisses like the stirrings of birds in summer night trees. Sleighbells jingled in monotonous syncopation to clopping hoofs. A waft from the periodic wind-letting of the horses distended Lucy's pink nostrils. "My goodness, horses have no manners."

The boys laughed as the girls tsk-tsked in a united front against such vulgarity. Vida too was uncomfortable. She could not decide whether Lucy should be so frank. Lucy said anything.

Back into streetlights and, after coy rebuffs for snatched last-minute kisses, the sleigh halted at Birdie's house.

"Aren't boys awful?" Lucy remarked to Vida. "My clothes are all wrinkled, and I have a piece of hay in my pants."

Vida was cross. Norman had not kissed her. Not that she was crazy about him, but he needn't have slept all the way. She was worried about the time, too, and hoped it wasn't as late as she feared.

"Let's hurry," she said anxiously, "my mother will be crazy when I get home."

The Lucy who answered was strange and evasive. After all, you couldn't always have Vida tagging along. "Maybe you'd better not wait for me. Harry is taking me for a hamburger."

Vida felt unwanted by everyone as she ran and slid home.

Harry's tin lizzie was parked in front of Lee's house, a half block away. The Fourth High flank watched them escape. It was half-past eleven when Harry chugged up to a ramshackle wooden building on the edge of town. Lucy knew that in Congress restaurants closed at nine-thirty except for the diner near the depot where she thought Harry was taking her.

"Listen, Harry, I don't want to go here." MacCurdy's was a bootleg joint and everyone knew it.

"Oh Lucy, honey, the hamburgers are the nuts here."

Well, she might as well go in. The lemonade Harry ordered made her dizzy, something was in it besides the lemon. It made her feel warm but not hungry. The hamburgers were better at the depot diner.

On the way home, Harry stopped the car on a side-street short cut to get a blanket. He opened it, put it over his shoulders of all things and then, before she knew it, was lying on top of her on the seat.

"Let me, let me," he whispered hoarsely, and held her wrists in one rough hand.

She stretched out her legs close together and locked her ankles. Not this way, not this way, she determined, and sank her strong white teeth into Harry's nose.

"You devil, I'll kill you!"

"You just take me home, Harry Burden, and take your dirty old hands off me."

Soon she would have to learn about it, but not from Harry Burden. It would be a lesson, not a battle with a greedy boy about whom she felt nothing.

Harry didn't get out of the auto when they reached Aunt Mabel's but drove away sullenly when she stepped to the curb. Lucy was annoyed. Harry and his old sleighride party. Fine thing!

As the detonating din of Harry's auto thinned in the distance Lucy waited to see if a light would go on in Aunt Mabel's room. It was a relief to have a minute alone in the clean cold night to sort events of the evening to relay to Mother. Well, everything except about Harry in the auto. Mother would worry.


Mr. Bertrand had had a miserable evening. First of all he had to put his old woman in her place for whining because he now drank gin instead of cheaper beer.

"I earn the money and can do what I want with it. If you don't like it, get out and earn some yourself."

Mrs. Bertrand gasped. He never had spoken to her like that before. She slaved and slaved to make a good Christian home for him and his child and this was her thanks. She had seen it coming ever since Mae Claudel and that girl came to live next door. Mae Claudel and her airs and her girl with bleached hair. At the grocer's, the butcher's, no one talked about anything else but the Welland house. And Vida, that little fool. Mr. and Mrs. Bertrand did not speak the rest of the evening. Aggrieved, she went down into the cellar and sorted out rotting apples and vegetables from the barrels of winter supplies. At last, tired of waiting for him to go to bed, she went up to see what he was doing. He was in the parlor looking out the window. Mrs. Bertrand went up to bed thinking he would wait for Vida.

St. Cecilia's had struck eleven when Vida arrived, her throat sore from the strain of running, her breath coming in gasps. Her father was outside to meet her.

"You little no-good, where've you been? You get in the house and in bed before I beat the living daylights outa you."

She ran past him and up to her room where her mother waited.

Mr. Bertrand smoked a cigarette, walking up and down until the lights went out in Vida's room and his own. There was the sound of an auto and he moved quickly up the dark passage between his and the Welland house. The excitation he expected in seeing a leavetaking of Harry and Lucy deepened as the auto wheezed off without Harry getting out, and Lucy stood alone looking up at her aunt's room.

He whispered her name softly. It must be about Vida, thought Lucy frowning, and went to see what Mr. Bertrand wanted.

"What is it?" she asked, forming Vida's defense.

A ray from the moon caught the cheekbone of his upside down pear head and turned it into a fanged skull as he leered. Cruel machinist's fingers dug to the bone of her arms and the stinking hulk bent over her.

"How about a little kiss."

"Don't you dare, or I'll yell."

The sharp heel of her slipper sought a vulnerable spot but, terrified of being caught, he threw her down.

"You dirty little bitch, you let my girl alone or I'll teach you."

Mr. Bertrand stalked into his house and Lucy got up from the snow as the light went on in Mabel's room.

As Mr. Bertrand slammed and locked the kitchen door he heard a scurrying sound in Vida's room above. Inexorably he stamped to the bedroom and got his razor strop.

Vida, pretending sleep, held the covers tightly to her trembling body, but the light clicked on and lit the bloodshot eyes of her father as he pulled her bare. His awful breath came hard and fast as the blows fell.

"I saw you—I saw you!" Vida screamed, hoping she would die and never have to see her parents again.