“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 jig-gled-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.
Den-ny’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
“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 stock-car 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 say-ing it out loud, all the same-the price of honesty is always high. She had an ad-mirable 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?”
Grace stood up, as if about to recite poetry. “My
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 be-come 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 vin-dicated, as if I had taken on aspects of a justly intervening god. “Whore’s daugh-ter,” 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 ap-prentice.” 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 en-tirely 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 compre-hension, but it was good enough. When you stop to think, the whole idea of com-prehension 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 un-derstanding. 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 pur-chased 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.