Angie sprinted, slowed, veered left, then right, doubled back, the dust flying in her face, a pebble pinging off her glasses. On the blacktop now, she skirted the four-square games, jump ropers and tetherballers and then onto the dirt field again, dodging dodge ball players, slashing through ordinary games of tag. She didn’t need to be part of those games, because she had entered the chase. The breeze trapped her dress between her knees, clung to her legs as if to dissuade her. Her socks slipped off her heels and disappeared into her Hush Puppies. But still she ran.
After days of standing on the sidelines, she had joined the group, the small mob of sixth-grade girls in pursuit of Miles Jones – the boy with the English accent. He was not exactly from Liverpool, but that was a flaw easy enough to forgive. How someone with an English accent could find his way to Kimball Park was a miracle, one in a million, and no one should take it lightly. Certainly not this gang of girls, some of whom were already plotting to sneak Miles, a mere fourth-grader, into the sixth-grade dance on Saturday. The thought of the sixth-grade dance, that gateway event to junior high, made Angie want to run backward in time, rather than in circles as she was doing at the moment in this chase, mindless with Beatlemania.
And though she was a part of it now, she refused to scream or swoon at the sight of Miles’s floppy brown hair or the sound of his Paul McCartney lilt, despite Jori-Page Schroeder.
Jori-Page Schroeder was the biggest, screaming swooner of the pack, the tallest girl in the sixth grade and the most developed physically. She was not delicate and she lumbered when she ran, but she had a perfect blonde pageboy and blue eyes. Her name was really Debbie, but she had somehow managed to get everyone to call her Jori-Page – a name she had jigsawed together from the first two letters of the name of each of the Beatles. Jori-Page was smart and had a large vocabulary, she read fat books and spoke up in class, and even when she was wrong, she would give a smile that made you think she was really right after all and the teacher was a sorry idiot. Angie always made a mental note to work on her braces-hindered smile.
Jori-Page Schroeder made Angie feel small, not just because she was small, and skinny to boot, but because Jori-Page used words as if they were baseball bats. Just yesterday in the girl’s lavatory, Angie emerged from a stall only to be confronted by Jori-Page’s blue eyes boring down on her.
“Don’t you like the Beatles?”
“Yes, I love the Beatles.” Angie had recently learned to gush by listening to Judy Wiekamp, whose status derived from the fact that her mother appeared to be PTA President for life. Even Sylvia Rico, her next door neighbor and sometimes best friend, had become a gusher. Angie gave it another try. “I adooooooooore the Beatles.”
“Then why aren’t you chasing after Miles like the rest of us?”
Angie thought it best not to point out that Miles was not a Beatle.
“I have asthma or something,” she lied. Her cousin Eddie was afflicted with all sorts of maladies, and Angie often borrowed one when it was convenient.
“I would sacrifice my life for something I believed in,” Jori-Page said, narrowing her blue eyes at Angie before flouncing past her into the stall and slamming shut the door.
“But I think it might be under control soon – the asthma,” Angie called through the door. “I have some medicine at home. I’ll be fine tomorrow,” she promised over the flush of the toilet.
Now tomorrow was today and she was in the chase. So she ran, and though a stitch in her side distorted her gait and one of her shoelaces had worked itself loose, she kept on running. Angie was normally not one to chase after boys, certainly in not so literal a manner, an all-out gallop through the playground, in a posse of silly, shrieking girls. As she dashed breathlessly behind the others, she knew she was ridiculous. But at least she was not alone.
Still, she was not safe from reproof because there was Letty staring at her as she ran. Letty, the tattletale, always ready to share news about someone else’s life at the dinner table when their mother asked them how their day was and Letty thought she was really supposed to answer.
Angie, trying to think of a bribe to keep Letty from tattling, suddenly realized she was running alone. There was just too much clutter with dodge ball and kickball games going on around her and kids running in and out of the sand box that held the monkey bars. She had lost the hunt and now trotted back and forth trying to locate the others. She stopped a moment to get her bearings when a stray ball bounced into her back, making her stumble and dislodging her glasses. She was adjusting them when she heard Jori-Page shout her name. Though she had her glasses on straight now, her vision was impaired by the cloud of dust kicked up by Miles as he shot passed her, followed soon by the panting posse. Jori-Page skidded to a stop in front of her, a scowl of incomprehension inflaming her face. “How could you just stand there and do nothing?” Then she was off, her rebuke trailing into a Beatlemania scream as she rejoined the chase.
The stitch in Angie’s side seemed to have moved to her throat. She swallowed hard and stooped to retie the wayward shoelace. She would get back in Jori-Page’s good graces, she vowed to herself. There was still lunch recess. Yesterday after school, Jori-Page had reminded the posse that they were all to know the words to “Help!”
So Angie had gone home and played “Help!” on the record player over and over, closing her eyes, moving her lips to the words, fixing them in her head. But then Eva walked in. She was in junior high and wore a bra and black flats with nylon stockings, and a touch of lipstick, all of which made her seem an imposter.
As she sang along to “Help!” Angie watched Eva take off her shoes and stockings and lipstick, watched her unmask herself, hoping to see the old Eva appear, the one who once showed her how to shuffle a deck of cards, ride a bike with no hands, track the arc of a fly ball so it landed smack in her glove.
“What are you staring at?” Eva snapped.
Angie moved her gaze to the ceiling and kept singing.
Eva turned off the record player.
“When did you get so mean?” Angie asked, but she knew the answer, knew that it was the junior high costume, its poor fit, the feeling of being trapped in those stockings.
Eva plopped onto her bed and opened her geography book and began reciting the main exports of Tunisia.
Angie, deprived of the record player, talked the words to the song.
When I was younger, so much younger than today
I never needed anybody's help in any way
“Shut up, Angie.”
But now these days are gone
I'm not so self assured
The words drove Eva from the room and Angie sat alone to learn them by heart. Angie was good at memorizing and now she was consoled by the prospect of redeeming herself with the posse at lunch recess. Having tied her shoe and pulled up her socks, she stood and looked around.
She was sweaty from having run and she could feel a layer of dirt skimming her neck and clotting her scalp. If she stood where she was, other people might be convinced that she was part of one of the games around her, an outfielder for kickball or part of the ragged dodge ball circle, so there she stood. But she didn’t know what to do with her arms, whether she should let them hang at her side or bend them at the elbows in readiness for something. She settled on the ready position, but finding a spot to fix her gaze other than her scuffed-up shoes was a problem. Shouldn’t the bell have rung by now?
She squinted upward as if the answer was there in the sky, cloudless and blue, the sun beaming genially as if all life were fun and games. Orange spots were beginning to zip across her glasses, so she turned her head to the ground, too swiftly, though, for now she could see nothing. Just when the ground began to appear again, she heard the frantic shouts of her name, the command issuing from Jori-Page and Judy Wiekamp and Silvia Rico and the others. “Grab him, Angie!”
She looked up and saw Miles running her way, his John Lennon hair flapping. A breeze filled his shirt so that its ballooning fabric offered a handhold, but when she reached for it, the airy shirt fluttered from her grasp.
She made one last, heroic lunge and was rewarded with a fistful of sleeve, which she clutched triumphantly. Miles, slight fourth-grader that he was, still outmuscled her, and as he tried to continue his momentum, he pulled Angie after him. She staggered, fought for balance, finally gained both feet again, when he suddenly twisted sideways, away from the unyielding grip she had on his sleeve and the rip that followed seemed to slice through all the noise of the playground, seemed to bring all the games to a halt.
She was sure that everyone witnessed Miles staring at her, at the gap in his shirt, at the shred of fabric in her hand. He gaped in horror as if she’d torn off his arm rather than his sleeve. She stared back, unable to speak, and then he ran off in tears to the teacher on playground duty.
It was then that she understood, that despite all shouts of “catch Miles,” it was never the intention that anyone really catch him, much less touch him, much less tear the sleeve off his shirt. It was all about the chase. Only the chase. Jori-Page, glassy-eyed and open-mouthed, sleepwalked toward her. Angie held the sleeve helplessly in front of her and she could see in Jori-Page’s crushed expression, now that the chase was over forever, how much she wanted to grab the sleeve in Angie’s hand, but couldn’t, because even screaming, swooning Jori-Page Schroeder knew better – knew the rules of the game.
In the principal’s office, Angie sat on the other side of Mr. Campbell’s enormous desk. He was leaning back in his big swivel chair, waiting for Angie to explain why she tore the sleeve off Miles’s shirt.
“It was a mistake,” Angie said, her voice wobbly as her knees.
Mr. Campbell tilted his bald head to one side, waiting for more, but Angie could form no other words with her tongue trapped inside cheeks clenched to hold back tears. Mr. Campbell’s face reddened at her silence, and he put paper and pencil in front of her to write letters of apology to Miles and to the whole Jones family. “Of course, I’ll have to bench you,” he said, shaking his head at her shameful self.
At lunch recess, Angie sat on the wooden bench outside the principal’s office, a public display of the doers of bad deeds who were expected to ponder their crimes. But all Angie could think of was how she was missing her chance to give Jori-Page and the others a perfect recitation of the words to “Help!”
After school, she had to return to the bench for ten minutes, and she knew her life was really ruined. She was supposed to walk home with the other girls. They were all going to talk about what they would wear to the sixth-grade dance. But they left without her.
When Angie got home, her mother was in the kitchen on the phone with Nelda, the receiver pressed between her ear and her shoulder while she cut up onions and wept. Angie considered taking over at the cutting board since she could use a good cry. But she sensed from the pitch of her mother’s words, which see-sawed between English and Spanish, and the vigor with which she worked the knife that she did not want to be relieved of the chopping. Angie veered to the other side of the room divider and threw herself down on the sofa. Anthony was on the floor, his face inches from the TV, watching Huckleberry Hound botch another career – this time as dogcatcher. Angie envied the six-year-old mind which seemed not to question why a blue dog with a gentlemanly Southern accent would be working as a dogcatcher. Letty was hunched over the coffee table doing multiplication problems.
Angie sat up. “Need any help,” she asked Letty, whispering so as not to incite a riot from Anthony who did not tolerate well sounds that did not come from the TV while he was immersed in its glare.
Letty frowned but didn’t look up. “Nope,” she whispered back, filling in an answer with a flourish. “Don’t need your help.”
Help, Angie thought, flopping back on the sofa with a sigh loud enough to warrant shushing from Anthony. The words from the song looped uselessly in her head and danced with the image of her hand letting the shred of Miles’s shirt fall to the playground dirt.
At dinner, Letty had no opportunity to tell on Angie, since their mother never did ask them how their day was. She was too busy relaying Nelda’s news that she was taking classes to become a real estate agent.
“Nelda? Real estate?” their father said.
“Yes, why not?” their mother said.
“It’s a big leap from selling Avon.”
“Nelda’s a natural. She’s going to be a success.”
In her defense of Nelda was also a tiny hiss of jealousy in the way she said “success.” Angie knew she wasn’t the only one who heard it. It wasn’t the first time family dinner talk was stalled into fierce silence, interrupted only by fierce chewing. Nelda was going to be a success and Delia was going to be stuck just being their mother and part-time cafeteria worker at their school. It was only a few hours a week and there was no glamour in spooning steamed carrots into little side bowls. Plus she had to wear a hairnet and an apron.
“Huckleberry Hound sold real estate once,” Anthony said.
“Your Aunt Nelda is not a cartoon.” Their mother, who hardly ever snapped at Anthony, let her fork rattle onto her plate.
“I was sent to the principal’s office today,” Angie said.
“Really, Angie, not now.”
On Saturday, Angie stood in front of the mirror and practiced smiling without snagging the inside of her lip on her braces. There was still a chance she would go to the sixth-grade dance. She had called Sylvia’s house. Busy said her mother. She had tried Judy Wiekamp’s house. Not home, said Mrs. Wiekamp. They would call her back later, she was told. So Angie practiced her smile.
“What are you doing?”
Angie whirled around to find Eva, arms folded beneath her padded bra.
Even though it was Saturday and Eva was minus the flats and stockings and lipstick, there was still that padded bra that made her a stranger.
Angie pushed passed her sister with her best retort, “Wouldn't you like to know?”
Eva followed her, demanding that their mother take Angie to a child psychiatrist. She emphasized the word child, and this somehow pierced Angie to the core of her skinny, undeveloped body. She fell to pieces, smearing her glasses with her sobs, and snagging her lip on her braces.
Their mother shushed them and delivered a single blow that shattered them both. “When are you two going to grow up?”
Eva stomped to her room to play Neil Sedaka and Angie escaped to the back yard and sat in one of the swings that even Anthony now shunned. She scraped the dirt with her heels as she thought about her mother's question, which was the wrong question. Angie knew the when of growing up was now. The real question was how.
She ran her finger across her braces as she considered this. Soon she was aware of other music drowning out the faint croon of Eva’s Neil Sedaka. She climbed to the top of the old swing set, though her father had warned her plenty of times that she was getting too big for the flimsy structure. She could see across the fence to the Ricos' backyard and there was Sylvia with Judy Wiekamp and Jori-Page Schroeder and some other girls from the sixth grade. They were playing records and dancing. Some of them had rollers in their hair. None of them noticed her.
She lifted herself higher on the swing set, and as she waited to be seen, she realized that there was no Beatle music playing and there was a definite absence of swooning. Angie felt as if someone had suddenly switched TV channels on her.
“Hi,” she finally called. “What are you doing?” She had to say it again louder to be heard over Bobby Boris Pickett's “Monster Mash.” This time everyone stopped and stared at her and she expected someone to ask what she was doing, perched on top of an old swing set, spying on them. But apparently no one cared.
“Dancing,” Jori-Page answered her, resuming her mashed potato.
“We're practicing for the sixth-grade dance,” Sylvia explained.
“Are you going?” Judy asked.
“Maybe,” Angie said. “I might be busy.”
“It's tonight,” Judy said.
No one seemed to hear her. They had changed the record and were practicing slow dancing with invisible partners.
Angie slithered down the leg of the swing set. When she touched down, she squatted on her haunches, elbows on knees, chin in hands. She listened to the talk sifting through the slats of the fence that separated Silvia Rico’s backyard from hers.
“I’ll die if a boy doesn’t ask me to dance,” Jori-Page said.
The other girls gushed reassurances. Angie twisted her face in a mock gush. She wanted and didn’t want to be in Sylvia Rico’s backyard. She wanted and didn’t want to go to the dance.
“Monster Mash” was playing again. Angie imagined a boy asking her to dance. Still in her squat, she shuffled her feet and bopped her shoulders back and forth, matching her movements to those of her own faceless, nameless partner.
She waddled in her squat to the back door. Inside, she straightened up and plodded heavily across the carpet past her father who was watching a baseball game on TV, past her mother who was scanning the classifieds in the newspaper, and past Eva in the bedroom who was playing Scrabble by herself. It was Angie’s favorite board game, but she didn’t ask to play, would not subject herself to rejection. She lay on her bed and closed her eyes, trying to picture the dress she would wear to the dance, knowing it didn’t exist in her closet.
At dinner, Angie’s mother announced her intent to look for a real job. No more cafeteria work. No more chintzy hours with chintzy pay.
Angie’s father shook his head. “As if our lives aren’t complicated enough.”
“Who’s going to make our dinner? Letty asked.
“I’ll make it,” Anthony said.
“You’re all going to help,” their mother said, and the way she said it made them all study their vegetables as if trying to glean the secret to cooking them.
After dinner, Angie went to the garage to contemplate a household in which the mother was not there when you came home from school. Angie had long ago decided that when she grew up she would have a job – an important one. She just never imagined her mother doing anything other than being at home when they needed her, even though when they needed her, she was not really there. Like now, when Angie really would like her mother to know that she had done something embarrassingly, painfully stupid and she needed help. And a dress for the dance. And the courage to go.
The dance was at the community center and the girls would have to walk past her house to get there. She could crouch behind the family station wagon and watch without being seen. Soon though her legs began to ache and she slumped to the cement floor next to a box of discarded toys and games. Help, I need somebody.
She pulled out Eva's baseball mitt, threw it back and found her own and scrabbled through the jumble of things until her fingers grasped a ball. She played catch with herself, delighting in the weight of the ball in the perfect fit of her glove. But the space in the garage was too confining, so she went outside to the empty lot next door. She threw the ball high into the air and opened her glove to capture its simplicity, its soundness. She did it over and over. She didn't miss. She threw it higher this time, following its path in the pink light of dusk, never meaning to take her eyes off of it, but something made her turn and she felt the ball drop at her feet. Help, not just anybody.
There they were. They wore lipstick and nylon stockings with black flats. Their hair was styled like Annette Funicello's. They carried purses. They didn't look at her and after a moment she stooped down to retrieve the ball, stayed there until they passed.
“What are you doing?”
Angie turned around to find Eva with her arms behind her back. Before Angie could muster an answer, Eva showed her hand – it had her baseball mitt on it.
They played catch in the empty lot until it was too dark to see.
DONNA MISCOLTA is the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press, 2011). Her short story collection manuscript was selected by Randall Kenan for the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman and will be published by Carolina Wren Press in 2016. “Help” is from her new novel in progress called The Education of Angie Rubio.