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 de-fendant. ”
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.
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 hor-rified. 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 . . . ” shescreamed. Her arms came up and covered her face with terrifying slowness. “God I want to be d-d-d-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 shal-lowly. 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?”