“Hi, it’s Lizzie Hardwick. Remember me?”
“Lizzie! Where are you?” I flop on the maple desk chair.
“Regent Street. We just moved back yesterday. Wanna come over?”
“Sure!” I can’t believe it. Lizzie Hardwick, my best friend from eighth grade, back in my life only days before I start my senior year.
I park my turquoise Schwinn in front of a big white house with black shutters. I bang the brass knocker, and peer through the side lights beside the front door. The square foyer is full of boxes. The living room and dining room on either side contain clumps of furniture. A stairway ascends straight to the second floor. At the top I see her mom, a short brunette in a plaid skirt bouncing a baby on her hip, and obviously issuing commands. She looks my way, and I wave.
“Come in,” she motions from above.
The house smells like crackers, peanut butter, and dirty diapers.
Her mom smiles, still jostling junior. “Great to see you. Lizzie will be right down.”
Five little brothers and sisters trundle down the stairs. The hand of a more grown up Lizzie glides down the mahogany bannister that ends in a splendid swirl. Lizzie’s auburn hair is now below her shoulders like mine. Her freckled cheeks bunch into a grin.
She pulls the heavy door shut, and we walk out into the bright September sunshine. A few red leaves litter the sidewalk.
I kick a decapitated acorn. “So where were you anyway? Why did you come back?”
Maybe she said her dad was a professor at Kent State. Maybe she said that’s why he went back to work at GE. I don’t remember exactly. I was too busy formulating my next question. “Isn’t that where the National Guard shot those students?”
“Yeah, protesting the war’s expansion into Cambodia. There were TV crews everywhere.”
“Wow!” I kick another acorn.
“But that’s not the big news.” She laughs. “My mom finally finished grad school—after seven kids—can you believe it?—and then had my oops baby brother.”
I don’t know what to say. “He’s cute.”
“Yeah, but she wanted to start a career. Now she’s back to Baltic Ave. You know what I mean?”
“DO NOT PASS GO. DO NOT COLLECT $200.” We round the block.
“Hey, you want to swat some tennis balls? We can use the courts at the high school if I can find the box with the rackets.”
“Absolutely!” Suddenly I see the old Lizzie, and I am up for anything.
The first day of school I head for the cafeteria expecting to sit with Lizzie all by myself, but she is surrounded by a cloud of familiar faces.
Lizzie waves me over. “Hey, sit next to me. Jane, shove down.”
A girl with long, blonde hair and hazel eyes pushes her tray aside to make space for me.
“Ann, this is Jane Bernard.”
I nod. Introductions feel awkward. Even if Lizzie checked out for the first three years of N.H.S., I already know that Jane writes poetry for the school literary magazine. Next to her, Neil Mankewicz, with bushy red hair and granny glasses, is editor of the school paper. Beside him is his best friend, Barney Schacter who reeks of cigarettes. Opposite Barney sits his girlfriend, Julia Agnelli who looks like Sophia Loren cast as a high school student. Grandpa Agnelli developed my neighborhood, and two of her cousins were the first kids I ever heard say the word shit. Lastly, there’s Elaine Bellacroix, the shy, dark girl who skipped kindergarten because she could already read.
Lizzie completes the intros. “I saw these guys all morning because we’re all in the AP track.”
“Oh, yeah, except Julia.”
I pull my Lebanon bologna on pumpernickel out of a brown paper bag. “AP? What’s AP?”
Julia smiles and covers her mouth.
Neil Mankewicz shifts his eyes to Barney and back. “Really, you don’t know what AP is? Really?”
All I can think of is the A&P grocery store. I know that’s not right, so I keep my mouth shut.
Lizzie explains, “It’s short for Advanced Placement classes. If you get good enough grades, guidance counselors select you. If you pass an AP course, you’re exempted from college freshman requirements in that subject.”
My thoughts clank against each other. First, when did Lizzie get so smart? In eighth grade we were detention partners for disrupting science class because she had a teacher crush on Mr. McGee. Second, when did I get so dumb that I missed the memo about AP? Finally, why is Lizzie friends with someone like Neil Mankewicz, an arrogant prig?
That’s pretty much it for me and the AP crowd—until tryouts for the school play, “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” Lizzie informs me that Neil Mankewicz, who gets the lead, wants me to be the prompter. Why me? The girl who didn’t know about sacred AP? I say yes only because one of my secret dreams, very secret, is to be an actress.
At the first rehearsal, I’m handed a script by Mrs. Fond du Lac and shown my place in the wings. Neil, whose dad is a doctor, has already secured a wheel chair for his part as a cantankerous celebrity who slips on the ice and ends up an unwelcome house guest until his injury heals. For the read through, Neil rolls to center stage. The rest of the cast arranges their folding chairs in a semi-circle on either side of his majesty.
For the rest of the week we rehearse every day after school, me, nose in script, Mrs. Fond du Lac, blocking the action, Neil, center stage, typecast as a sarcastic know-it-all.
During a brief moment when he’s not on stage giving bombastic speeches, Neil rolls over and says, “Since I have such a major role, I wanted a prompter who is smart enough not to lose her place.”
I blush. Is that a compliment? Or an insult?
On Friday Lizzie says Neil wants us to go to Barney’s house and listen to them jam. Out of curiosity I pick her up in my Mom’s new maroon station wagon.
Pert, blonde Mrs. Schacter answers the door. “The boys are in the basement.” As if we couldn’t hear the racket. “You can leave your shoes by the door.”
Lizzie and I tip toe over the living room’s burnt orange shag carpet, through the kitchen, covered in harvest gold wallpaper, past an avocado range and refrigerator, and down the stairs into the pine paneled rec room. Neil, eyes closed, wails on his glittering sax while Barney strums rhythm on his electric guitar. Sven Doppler, his eyes slits behind coke bottle lenses, picks an electric bass. None are aware of our entry until Julia Agnelli yells, “Hi.”
We join her on a beat up couch along with Barney’s little sister, Marcia. She looks like a younger version of Mrs. Schacter, dressed in silky, red hot pants and black platform boots.
Neil strides over a tangle of cords to face his audience. “That was Cannonball Adderley. You know anything about jazz?”
I look at Lizzie. Cannonball Adderley? I don’t feel like telling him my dad plays musicals like Oklahoma every Saturday morning on his eight track.
Neil looks directly at me. “When do you have study hall? I’m in the English resource center after lunch if you ever want to hang out. There’s a record player in a back room where we could listen to albums.”
The word we surprises me. “Maybe,” comes out of my mouth. Maybe he’s more interesting than arrogant.
Neil turns back to his friends and picks up a guitar. “Let’s do Sweet Home Chicago.”
He’s not Eric Clapton, but he’s good enough to get Marcia shaking her hot pants for Sven. I stay bolted to the couch next to Lizzie.
But on Monday, after lunch I do have study hall. I peek into the English resource center. Neil is waiting for me. We listen to Robert Johnson’s Crossroads, Mississippi John Hurt’s Candy Man, and Howlin’ Wolf’s Wang Dang Doodle while I tap my feet. Neil grins and carefully cues the needle on the next cut.
“Man, who is this?” I pick up the album cover.
How does he get that twangity, twangity, twangity, twangity, twang, twang out of his guitar?”
“By sliding a bottle neck over the strings.” Neil leans close to point to the picture on the front of the cardboard sleeve.
I sit back. “So how do you know all this stuff?”
"I read about it for my senior research paper."
I notice a stack of books next to the turn table. Who ever heard of studying something you’re actually interested in? My last paper was on the Teapot Dome Scandal of the Warren G. Harding administration.
Neil starts packing up. “I’m discovering new artists all the time if you ever want to listen again, but right now I’ve got AP physics.”
I don’t tell him my next class is Basic Art where I’m carefully sanding a balsa wood letter opener. But as suddenly as a bullet can strike a student, I want to be on Boardwalk too—instead of Baltic Ave.