Thursday, April 18, 2013

Why Did the Chicken Raise Her Hand?

PITTSBURGH -- When my daughter Hannah was in high school, a few years ago now, she and her friends talked to me about working on the Homecoming float for their class. They loved/hated the whole experience. Nobody helped but everybody took credit. Nothing got done until the last minute. They didn't care about winning, but actually they did. The perfect mix of angst for a young adult story. Here are some photos from her Homecoming parade days:






I wrote a fictional YA piece called Why Did the Chicken Raise Her Hand? based on some of the kids' experiences. It's a long piece, either a long short story or a short novella. In any event it won't fit in any known publication, so here it is.

*

Why Did the Chicken Raise Her Hand?
            I scan my latest attempt at award-winning literature:
The gold-colored legal-sized envelope lay unopened on the kitchen counter as her mother, hollow-eyed and pale, shuttled leftovers into the fridge.
Hmm. I bite down on my pencil as I stab a pitiful piece of left-over meatloaf and then drown it in ketchup. Pencil out, forkful of meatloaf in. As I chew and chew and chew, I scratch out the whole sentence and start again.
The envelope had lain on the counter since she got home from school and all through dinner.
I erase “lain” but then turn the page anyway. A fresh notebook page always helps.
It continued to lay there and taunt me. Taunt us.
The stupid thing just laid there.
I print in big crazy letters:  The legal-sized envelope stood up and waved at me and said, “Read me! I’m your parents’ divorce papers, and for God’s sake, if you don’t pick me up, your mom will leave me here to rot.”
Maybe even great writers can’t figure out lay/laid/lain. Maybe.
And maybe Mom will get around to reading the divorce papers, although I’m pretty sure she knows what they say and she can’t deal with the finality of it all.
Finality. A good word, but use it judiciously, which, itself, is a pretty good word.
Mom won’t read the papers and she absolutely won’t talk to me about the divorce because in the last few years, she’s barely said anything to anyone. And she got even quieter since last month when Dad and his mouth and his door slamming finally left for good, the day before my seventeenth birthday. Who needs a seventeenth birthday anyway.
Okay, so I never say much either, especially in school.
How to Get Through 4 Years of High School Without Being Noticed. By Jenn A.
I like solitude and I like quiet. But Mom is so quiet she’s negative noise. It’s not like I miss the one-sided shouting matches while hiding in my room or in a closet or on the back porch. I don’t miss that. But now that Dad is really, truly gone, I’m not sure I can stand total silence.
 “Mom?”
She turns her face toward me, but her eyes don’t focus.
I’ve got to say something to pull her out of her perpetual funk. I guess because my brain is preoccupied thinking, perpetual funk, outstanding word choices there, my mouth decides on its own to say, “You’re better off without him.”
Mom’s eyelids open like window blinds rolling up with a snap.
And now here I am with my love of quiet and solitude and not ever saying more words than I have to, and all the sudden I can’t shut up. Words spill out of me. “I wanted to make him stop yelling. Even when I was little, I dreamed I could stop him. Make him take back every shitty thing he ever said to you.” I cringe when I hear myself say “shitty,” but then I just keep going. “You didn’t do all those things he said. You didn’t burn his dinners all the time or cut your hair too short or even buy the wrong trick-or-treat candy. Did he ever buy any? Did he ever cook dinner? You didn’t leave dust on his dresser on purpose. You never leave any dust. Nobody could see any dust because there isn’t any dust!” Every cell in my body is on high alert.
Tears fill Mom’s picture window eyes.
Oh, no. No, no, no. “Please don’t cry. Dad was wrong. You’re not a bad mother. You’re not. You were never a bad mother.”
A small stream of tears starts down her cheek. But maybe it’s a layer of sadness that’s been loosened from her eyes and is washing away. Maybe.
Now my hands are shaking, but I charge ahead. “You didn’t deserve that, Mom. Not any of that. Nobody does.” I grab a paper napkin from the holder and hand it to her. She dabs at her eyes, wipes her nose.
And then, her voice creeps from her throat, withered and atrophied, barely alive. She says, “I never knew what to do.”
We look at each other, really look.
Now I’m crying, too. “He’s gone,” I say, sniffling. “And I don’t want to see him. I’ll do it if I have to, but that’s it.”
She whispers, “Don’t make him mad.”
“He’s got other people to get mad at now.” I wipe at my own nose with a napkin. “His boss. The girlfriend.”
She leans hard on the kitchen table as a shudder runs across her shoulders. Wrong thing to say!
“You can have a life now, Mom.”
“Jennifer, honey, how do I have a life?”
Me with my stupid writing and my almost no friends and I can’t wait to get out of school every day and I like it that way. What do I know about having a life?
Mom is wilting in front of me. Empty, fading away. I can’t let that happen.
I stand up so fast that my kitchen chair tips backwards and hits the floor with a crack. Mom sucks in a mouthful of air.
“Please, Mom. Do you remember how you used to lift me up and spin me around when I was little, like I was flying. Do you remember that? I do. You were happy then.”
She looks down at the floor and sighs. She smoothes her pant legs. Then she says, “I was a cheerleader in high school.”
 “What?” I feel like I’ve been Tasered. “Why didn’t I know that?”
My whole life I heard all about Dad’s big-shot high school jockdom.
“He made me quit after my sophomore year,” she says, shaking her head. And then she lifts her chin. A grin pulls tight across her face. Her eyes sparkle like she’s just hit the jackpot, or like she’s finally awakened from a hundred-year sleep. She’s a teenager again, cheering proudly on the sidelines of a high school football game.
And then it’s gone. She’s just Mom sitting at our kitchen table, unable to move.
I set my chair back up next to her and sit down. In my best life coach voice I say, “You’ve got to try, Mom, try something new. Take some chances. You deserve to have a life.”
Without looking, she reaches over and takes my hand and squeezes it, and then she gets up and washes the dishes.
Her daughter knew just what to do. She alone was responsible for her mother’s successful run for Congress.
She alone encouraged her mother to go into space.
To go back to college.
To brush her hair once a day. 
*
I scribble a boatload of drivel in my notebook while sitting with the rest of my lame senior class. We’ve been herded into the auditorium to discuss this year’s Homecoming float competition. My stupid class of 300+ seemingly functional teenagers always gets disqualified. I’ve witnessed the humiliation with Kate from the top of the stadium bleachers for three years in a row.
The Homecoming game starts right after the floats leave the track, and they always announce:  “Any messes or mishaps mean instant disqualification, as do violent, tasteless, or illegal behaviors.” My class has managed pretty much all of the above.
Freshman year my esteemed classmates put a dunk tank on the float. The back panel popped out, creating a small lake on the field. Sophomore year our dragon float’s eight-foot-long tail fell onto the 50-yard line and crumbled. “Debris on the field! Disqualified!” shouted the head judge (Mr. Boone, assistant principal, who secretly wishes he could spend his time building homecoming floats instead of, well, whatever he does). Last year, a fistfight broke out on our float between Anne F. and Jessica R. because someone had told them they both bought the same one-of-a-kind Homecoming dress. I didn’t go to the dance, as usual, but they didn’t go either because they both got suspended.
Milo, our class president, lumbers onto the stage. “Hey, uh, guys, so we’re seniors now. It’s, like, our last chance to lose, I mean our last chance to win the float competition.” Snoring sounds abound. “This year’s Homecoming float theme, and don’t blame me, the school board picked it, it’s Decades in Modern American History.”
Could they have made it duller? At least we seniors get the 1920s, the decade with the most fabulous clothing styles ever.
Milo hoists his jeans. “So, will somebody volunteer to head the float committee? Somebody who hasn’t already done it?” The three previous losers slink down in their seats while nearby seniors boo and throw whatever they can find at them. This year’s volunteer will have to be a total masochist.
And then, what’s going on? My arm is moving. My hand is reaching up past my chin, past my glasses, beyond my way-too-short and slightly-crooked bangs (why did I have to cut them this morning?). My hand, my stupid hand, is all the way up in the air! What is my hand thinking?
“Who’s that?” I hear Milo ask. Then he says, “Go Jenn,” and he waddles off the stage.
My heart is attempting to beat through my chest wall. I want to scream nooo! but it won’t matter because the whole class is already up and headed out the door. A slacker stampede.
My pep talk was for Mom, but apparently my brain wasn’t paying attention.
So I am the masochist who will lead this year’s seniors to a fourth and final Homecoming float loss.  
Earth, open up and swallow me now.
*
Would anyone notice if I did absolutely nothing? I mean, really, why work hard and lose when you can do nothing and lose just the same?
But I guess I have to at least try something, and I know one person I can count on:  Mary Beth M. Every year she choreographs the dance routines for our class, and that part of our float entry is always pretty good. Beyond that, I don’t have a circle of friends. In fact, I only have the one, Kate. So maybe instead of a circle, she’s a point. Maybe if I can find one more friend, the two of them can be a line.
Kate walks beside me down the hall. “Are you crazy? Do you have any idea what you just did?”
There’s no use even trying to explain.
Kate says, “I’ll help you. I will. But I gotta catch my bus. I’ll call you.” She takes off.
How can I get people to volunteer? I’m not an athlete or a math-lete or a ROTCy or a trumpeter. I’m not a thespian or a lesbian or a possible valedictorian. Or anyone even remotely interesting.
How do other people get volunteers? How do they get a group’s attention? I know where my brain is going with this, but I refuse to acknowledge my own thoughts.
The chicken suit.
Shut up brain.
The fat, feathery, mangy costume has a huge plastic scary beak, a floppy red rubber comb on its pointy head, and enormous rubber chicken feet. For years, teachers and other authority types in the district have worn the stupid chicken suit to get kids’ attention. My brain thinks I should be the first ever student to wear it.
But then I say to my brain, what about all the teachers and principals and creepy parents and coaches who have sweated in that costume? How do you dry clean a giant chicken suit? You don’t. I’d have to be totally desperate.
Marcela from Spanish class walks by. “Good luck, Jenn,” she says, her hair streaked with chartreuse and magenta that day. “You’re gonna need it,” she says, and keeps walking.
What I need are signs. I head to the art room. “Hi, Miss Hendricks. Can I make some signs?”
“Jenn, nice to see you. What’s the occasion?”
“Oh, well, the seniors’ Homecoming float. I guess I volunteered.”
For just the slightest mili-second, she hesitates. I can feel it. But then she recovers. “Help yourself. Really. Here, I have some big paper already cut. And here’s paint. I can help you, if you want.”
So I guess it’s obvious that I’m pathetic.
“Thanks, but I can do it.”
I paint a couple of posters that say SENIOR FLOAT MEETING AFTER SCHOOL TODAY. MULTI-PURPOSE ROOM. I tape them up in the front hall where nobody can miss them in the morning. And then I wish one more time for the Earth to swallow me whole.
*
At dinner that night, a really great home-cooked meal of roasted chicken and broccoli, Mom asks, almost shyly, “How was your day, Jennifer?”
I’m so stunned by Mom’s question that instead of chewing the huge piece of juicy chicken meat that I just gnawed off the bone, I choke on it. Mom jumps up and smacks me on the back, just what you’re not supposed to do when someone’s choking. The hunk of meat shoots across the table as spit and chicken grease ooze down my chin and onto my shirt.  Mom grabs a kitchen towel for me, and I wipe my face.
After clearing my throat a few dozen times (and changing my shirt), I tell her my big news. “I volunteered to head the seniors’ Homecoming float committee.”
This time Mom looks Tasered.
I fork a broccoli spear. “How about that?”
A crooked smile works its way across Mom’s face. Those smile muscles are getting a long-overdue workout.
*
The next day after school, I sit in the multi-purpose room waiting for all of the seniors to burst through the door offering their assistance.
How many seniors does it take to build a Homecoming float? 100 should do it.
Marcela, Danielle and Bruce walk past slowly. Danielle glances in at me and hollers, “Loser!” and then stomps down the hall.
Finally, Jonathan Elders, baseball player, high school record holder for local parking tickets and, I’d heard, sometimes alt-poet, strolls in, his hair messy in a planned sort of way. He gives me a toothpaste commercial smile.
“Is this after-school detention?”
I growl at him. He shrugs and walks out.
Nobody shows up to volunteer, not Mary Beth M., not even Kate.
How many seniors does it take to build a Homecoming float? Apparently one will have to do.
Cry or don’t cry. I choose don’t cry, and I march down to the art room where Miss Hendricks gives me a great big hopeful grin and then gets out of my way. I make new signs, big, crazy, angry-lettered signs:  HEY SENIORS! FLOAT MEETING AFTER SCHOOL TODAY. DO YOU WANT TO BE FOUR-TIME LOSERS?? FREE FOOD!!!!
Then I call Kate. “Where were you?”
“I really was going to be there. But, um, my mom needed help with my little brother, and. . . .”
Kate only uses “um” when she’s lying.
She knows I know.
“Jenn?” Kate’s voice sounds small and far away. “I don’t know why you’re doing this. You’re hopeless.” She gasps. “No! I didn’t mean you! I meant IT’S hopeless. The float is hopeless.”
Not even one friend. My life is pointless. I snort at my own stupid, private joke.
Kate shouts into the phone, “Jenn, are you choking?” which makes me laugh even harder.
When I finally pull myself together, I say, “I can’t back out now. Promise me you’ll be here tomorrow. And bring food.”
She says, “I’ll be there, I promise. I’ll bring chips.” I wait. “And pretzels.”
The animals smelled food, approached her, realized that she’d make a better meal than measly bags of potato chips and pretzels. It was all over in a flash, and she was grateful.
*
            This time, three beautiful, wonderful, breathing people enter the multi-purpose room and stay. Kate (who has called seven times to apologize), Mary Beth M. (who just finished with a dance recital and insists she won’t miss another rehearsal), and Jonathan Elders (yes, that Jonathan Elders). I am slightly thrilled.
Mary Beth says, “I am NOT going to lose again.” We all sit up straighter as she stuffs a handful of pretzels into her mouth.
“Okay then, let’s get to work,” I say, grabbing a mini box of peanut M&Ms that I took from Mom’s early trick-or-treat stash.
We pull our chairs into a square. I tell them, “My neighbor has a flat bed trailer, and he said we can build our float on it.” Mary Beth claps so sharply that I squeeze my box of M&Ms and they shoot everywhere. A brightly-colored chocolate hailstorm. I reach down to retrieve one of them and almost bump heads with Jonathan. Nose to nose I say, “I’ll get them later,” and sit up.
Kate says, “My mom sews for the local theater company. They’re loaning us flapper dresses and gangster suits and even shoes and hats and stuff.” Seven apologies AND costumes. Mary Beth applauds again, and this time so do I.           
Mary Beth says, “I can put together as many dance numbers as we need.” She jumps up. “You’ve heard of the Charleston, I’m sure. This is how it goes.” Her elbows fly around and her knees, I swear, turn to rubber. Then she moves on to the Lindy Hop. I get winded just watching.
“I’ll write the skit,” says Jonathan. Apparently he knows something about gangsters.
My committee of four yaks and doodles and munches. We leave wearing an added trick-or-treat surprise from Mom’s Halloween stash – candy necklaces -- with a promise to meet at my place on Saturday.
            Two weeks until Homecoming. Maybe we can pull off a win. We all agree to contact as many seniors as we know and beg them to please show up on Saturday. I know that between SAT prep classes, sports team practices and sleeping off hangovers, we might not get much help, but I can dream. 
*
On Saturday, my three beautiful, wonderful, breathing committee members show up. But that’s it. Jonathan gets dropped off by a girlfriend-type person who is wearing a candy necklace. “I’d stay and help,” she says, tipping her head slightly to the side. “But I’m only a junior.” She peels out.
            I slap a grin on my face. “It doesn’t matter.” I hoist a long skinny board onto the flatbed trailer and pull myself up. “How hard can it be to build a back wall on a float? We’ll just stand these boards up and nail them along the edge.”
            Jonathan says, “I don’t know if . . . .”
            “Hand me some nails!” Turns out I’m pretty good at hammering. I attach three boards in a row and then stand back to check out my handiwork. I let go of the boards, and in slow motion, all three too-tall boards lean away from the float. Two pull their nails out screeee, and fall to the ground. The other one hangs like a gangplank.
            Just when I can’t be more embarrassed, Mom hikes across the front yard with an armload of juice boxes. Oh boy. Drinks for a six-year-old’s birthday party.
            “My little brother likes these,” says Kate. “Apple-grape. Sounds, um, fruity.” She peels off the straw wrapper and punches the straw through the hole. Juice jettisons straight into Mary Beth’s eye.
            Mom freaks. “Oh, no! I’m so sorry!” She runs into the house and comes back with towels and cotton balls and eye wash and eye patches, but Mary Beth is fine. Sticky but fine.
With Jonathan’s direction and Mary Beth’s amazingly powerful arms, we build two tall posts out of boards and secure them at the back corners of our float.
Kate says, “We can run a rope between them to hang the backdrop.”
Mom, who had stayed close by since the juice box incident, says, “I’ll get a sheet.”
“We should draw the design on paper,” says Kate, “and then sketch it on the sheet before we paint.” She notices my who-are-you look. “What?” she says. “I’ve been working with the set designers at the theater.”
Nobody tells me anything.
Mary Beth turns up the1920s music that she brought. “I’ve choreographed three numbers. ‘Shim Sham Shimmy,’ ‘Minnie the Moocher,’ and ‘Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby.’ My dancers will all be at rehearsal here on Wednesday.”
I have no doubt about that.
            “I started the skit,” says Jonathan. “I’ll bring it Wednesday, too.”
            We’re rolling.
            The four superheroes enacted their plan to conquer the world.
*
            On Wednesday, as Mary Beth demonstrates the opening number to the eight dancers lined up in my garage, her phone rings. She tosses it to me. “It’s my mom. Tell her I’ll call her back.”
I say, “Hello?”
“Tappy Toes, it’s Mom,” says a mom voice.
“Oh, Mrs. M? This is Jenn.”
“Oh, you’re in charge this year, right?”
“Yes, I guess that’s me.”
“I assume she’s teaching a dance number right now.” Tappy Toes. “Can you have her call me?”
“Sure.”
She says, “Thanks,” and hangs up.
The song, “Shim Sham Shimmy,” ends.
“Hey, Tappy Toes,” I yell, grinning. “Your mom wants you to call her.”
Mary Beth’s face turns vaguely purple as her dancers snicker. “Yeah, so what,” she says. “My mom has called me that since I started tap dance lessons when I was three.” She adjusts her ponytail and smiles just enough to look like a three-year-old.
One of her dancers, a gangly red-haired giant named Richard, says, “You don’t even want to know what my mom called me.” The dancers are off on a blab fest. So Mary Beth cranks up the music and shouts, “Back in line! We’re going to practice until you get it right. Now, straight line, chins up!” They jump to attention and Charleston like mad.
Jonathan looks like a Greek god (one with an obnoxious girlfriend). He’s sitting in a lawn chair, his computer in his lap, typing what I hope will be the best Homecoming skit ever.
Kate paints the backdrop. “It’s sort of my Broadway interpretation of a speakeasy slash jazz club,” she explains. It’s spectacular with bold black and white forms and gray shadows with just a few touches of red and aquamarine. Very dramatic. I know it will look great even from the top of the bleachers.
After Kate, Mary Beth and the dancers have left, Jonathan is taking a long time putting his computer into his backpack.
As he stalls, I ask, “Is your girlfriend picking you up?”
Quick nod.
“Okay, well, thanks,” I say. “I’m sure your skit will be great.”
Jonathan blurts out, “I don’t know how to write a skit.” He pulls a baseball cap out of his pocket and wrings it in his hands. “I didn’t know I’d have to actually do anything when I volunteered.”
“So why’d you volunteer?”
He squeezes the cap again. “Well, you looked so sad the other day.” He scratches at his ear.
I say, “I’ll write the skit.” And then I turn and leave him and his mangled hat standing in the driveway.
“Oh, man, thanks,” yells Jonathan. “I’ll get some kids to act out the parts.”
Sure.
The spaceship landed in her yard and swept her away to a planet where everyone sat quietly, so quietly that they never spoke, never made a sound, never interacted at all. It was called Heaven.
*
Jonathan is coming down the hall right toward me.
I say, “It’s done.”
“Huh?”
“The skit. It’s done. I started it Wednesday night and reworked it yesterday, and now it’s done. I’ll email it to you.”
He looks past me. “Oh, yeah. I’m supposed to get people to sign up for the parts, right? When is Homecoming again?”
At least I know who to blame when we lose this time. “It’s a week from today,” I tell him. “No hurry. Take your time.”
*
Mom and I are cleaning up the dinner dishes. She says, “The float looks really nice, honey.”
The flood gates open. I sob like a kid who didn’t get a juice box at her own party. Mom holds me up because, well, I’m sort of draped over her.
“It’s not really nice, it's a mess. Nobody cares,” I blather.
“It’s not a mess, Jenn. The dancers are wonderful. And the skit’s all finished, right?” She nods, trying to get me to nod with her.
No tissues in sight, I use the dish towel to blow my nose. “But we don’t have people for the skit, and the dancers haven’t practiced on the float, and seniors really don’t care about anything.”
Mom asks, “Isn’t there anything you can do to get them psyched up?”
“You mean like a cheer?”
She blushes. “Yeah, maybe.”
And then it hits me. We have to win this thing. I am officially totally desperate.
“Thanks, Mom. Really.”
She presented her case to the school board with such composure and confidence that they gave her a standing ovation and permission – as the first student ever -- to borrow the chicken suit.
She stole the chicken suit and returned it before anyone knew it was missing.
She worked herself into a frenzy of nerves before trying to ask the principal if she could use the chicken suit. In fact, before she could actually ask him, she almost passed out and had to breathe into a paper bag. But he got the point, and she got the suit.
*
On Monday, I tape up my newest, craziest signs. SENIORS! THIS IS IT!!! OUR LAST CHANCE TO WIN A HOMECOMING FLOAT COMPETITION!!! GET SOME SPIRIT! GET SOME SNACKS! GET A PICTURE OF JENN IN THE CHICKEN SUIT!!!!! WEDNESDAY AT HER HOUSE!!!!
I’ve used my entire lifetime allotment of exclamation points. No turning back.
*
            I’m almost asleep when my cell phone rings. It’s Jonathan! Perhaps I’ll have interesting dreams tonight.
“Hi, it’s Jonathan. Thought you’d want to know. Mary Beth gave me the songs for the dance numbers, and I recorded them. And a bunch of kids signed up to act out the parts and so I recorded them, too, you know, so really all they have to do is mouth the words. It’s gonna be great. Too bad you told everybody you’re wearing the chicken suit.”
            I squeak.
            “Huh? Oh, and a couple of us added more wood to the float to make sure it’s strong enough. You weren’t home, so maybe you were out shopping or something.”
            Too bad I wasn’t out moving to another state.
She would die that day, a premature death, a particularly ugly, smelly death. Death by chicken suit.
*
Peeking through my bedroom curtains, I can see maybe a hundred kids mingling in front of my house. My committee’s out there supplying a variety of salty snacks and lukewarm juice boxes. I’m guessing that a few of the kids have liquid refreshments of their own.
“Chicken! Chicken! Chicken!” the crowd chants.
            Mom and I pick up the body of the chicken suit, and I step into it. Not as awkward as I thought it would be. And the chicken feet are actually like snowshoes. But now, the chicken head. How long can I hold my breath?
“Try this.” Mom hands me a jar of that menthol smelling cold medicine goop that I put under my nose when it’s stuffed up. “It’ll block out the smell,” she says.
She’s right. Now, just get it over with. I snow-shoe through the garage and into the front yard in full chicken regalia, flapping my arms.
“Jenn! Jenn! Jenn!” They whistle and cheer.
I hold the beak open and yell, “Come on, seniors, it’s our turn! Everybody show some spirit on Friday. We’re gonna finally win this thing!”
And then I dance a big-chicken version of the Charleston.
*
In the packed bleachers, clumps of seniors hold up hand-made banners. “Seniors Rule!” “It’s our Turn!!” “Fourth Time’s a Charm!” Marcela and Bruce hold a sign that says, “Jenn’s not a chicken, she’s the best!” Apparently they don’t hang with Danielle anymore. Marcela gives thumbs up and shouts, “Great job, Jenn! Really!” Next to them sits Mom wearing a thoroughly exercised grin. I will not tear up.
Mary Beth and I stand in front of the bleachers wearing the most fabulous flapper dresses ever. Mine is black with long white fringe and satin bows on the skinny straps. Mary Beth is wearing fire-engine red with a long string of beads and a foot-high feather in the wide headband across her forehead.
It’s five o’clock on the nose. Let the homecoming float competition begin. The three judges, Principal Higgins and teachers Mr. Lang and Ms. Popelski, are sitting in the first row of the bleachers holding clipboards and looking way too serious.
The freshmen float lumbers down the track. It’s pulled behind a tractor that backfires causing a collective AHHH! from the crowd, followed by a collective giggle. Freshmen dancers and skit people, dressed for a 1950s sock hop, run toward the float and jump on.
During some vigorous sock-hopping to “At the Hop,” the back wall of their float, painted to look like a diner, starts to tip over backwards. It looks like it’s built out of boards just nailed to the back of a flatbed trailer. A couple of kids grab onto each end and hold that sucker up. The judges are scribbling away on their clipboards.
Gabby, their leader on the ground who’s standing next to me, shoves her assistant toward the float. “Cut the skit! Get the float moving before it falls!” The assistant takes off just as their pre-recorded skit soundtrack starts. A girl’s voice starts, “Now that World War II is over, it’s great to be able to buy things again! Isn’t that right, Bitsy? That’s right Annette. . . .”  Gabby swings her arms in a sweeping motion, trying somehow to propel the float down the track. By the time their recording ends, the float is already out of sight.
Not disqualified, but not exactly stellar.
I jump and hoot, but then I catch myself and try really hard to look like I feel bad for them.
The sophomores’ 1960s float moves into place. A few girls are wearing wide bell-bottoms or go-go boots with hot pants, and the guys have on tie-dyed shirts, fringe vests and long haired wigs with headbands. They’re joined by a few Twiggy look-alikes in mini-dresses, each girl wearing an ultra-short blond wig and fake eye lashes that can probably be seen from space. Strobe lights flash during their dance to “The Age of Aquarius.”
They all jump down, and a new group takes their place carrying picket signs, some with smiley faces and peace signs, some with “Get out of Vietnam!” They shout, “Cops are pigs! Cops are pigs!”  The homecoming crowd gets quiet, and some parents in the stands look sort of uncomfortable. But like it or not, they’re historically accurate. Maybe too accurate. A man launches himself from the fourth row of the bleachers and runs toward the float. He crouches low, gripping an imaginary rifle. It’s Mr. Blankenship, a Vietnam Vet whose granddaughter, Meghan, is on the float.
“Grampy!”
He throws himself to the ground and crawls on his belly under the float. Ms. Popelski jumps up and runs out, along with a couple of fathers from the bleachers. They talk him out of there, the skit finishes, and the crowd cheers for the poor shaken-up sophomores.
The juniors’ 1940s theme is V-E Day and V-J Day, celebrating the U.S. victory in World War II. The kids are dressed like sailors, sailors’ girlfriends, soldiers, soldiers’ girlfriends, airmen, airmen’s girlfriends, and nurses. Their whole skit pretty much consists of music from that era, like “That Old Black Magic” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” and lots of hugging and kissing. Then somebody sets off a string of firecrackers under the bleachers and it sets a patch of dried grass on fire. Aaron Johnson, a junior volunteer firefighter, jumps off the float and grabs the hose used to water the field. His quick thinking puts out the fire. Most people didn’t even notice. The float rolls down the track to polite applause.
For the first time that I can remember, there’s a chance that none of the classes will be disqualified. It’s our turn. We can’t mess up.
Our float rolls down the track and settles in place. Mary Beth’s dance medley starts us off, the dancers moving in unison to “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby.” The girls sparkle in gold and silver hand-beaded flapper dresses and feathered hats, with stockings rolled just below their knees. The guys strut in dapper pin-striped zoot suits and grey fedoras. They Charleston, and the crowd goes wild. But as part of the routine, all the guys slide on their knees to the edge of the float. With the newly added wood, the float is so heavy that it starts to tip. Mary Beth lunges forward and yells, “Line up in the middle! Now!” and the dancers jump to the middle. The float rights itself. Sweat trickles down my sides.
And then, the skit. Our recording starts, and everything is perfect. Jonathan, who has made himself the head gangster, carries a violin case. He said something the other day about actually putting a plastic machine gun in it for a joke. He was joking, wasn’t he? Was he? A gun, any gun, a plastic toy gun. Disqualified! And whoever’s in charge here is under arrest!
Jonathan is setting the violin case on Matt’s outstretched arms. Jonathan unclasps the latch and slowly opens the lid. I can’t watch. I crumple to the ground and cover my head. Then I hear the crowd laughing and applauding and I look up. It’s a violin!
*
The judges sure take their time. Finally, Miss Popelski walks the results all the way up the bleachers to the booth at the top.
The announcer’s voice says, “In fourth place, the freshman class.” Slight applause mixed with the sounds of disappointment. Their reps step forward and accept a piece of paper that probably says LOSERS. Okay, probably not, but they are.
“In third place, the sophomores.” Applause. But there’s a pause and a discussion in the booth. “I’m sorry, third place, the seniors.” My throat closes. But then there’s another discussion. “Wait, third place is the sophomores. Mr. Lang, you’ve got some weird handwriting.” The crowd laughs as the sophomore reps step forward to claim their lame piece of paper.
And then, “In second place, the juniors.”
Every senior, even those who didn’t lift a finger to help out, is screeching and shrieking in my ears.
*
The trophy will live on my kitchen counter. I think that at least half of the senior class is at my house. We lost the homecoming game, as usual, but who cares. Mom has handed out all the food and drinks she could find in the house, including her latest batch of trick-or-treat contestants:  trail mix snack packs and giant lollipops. Kate is here, and Tappy Toes, and the dancers, and Marcela and Bruce, and the skit people, and Jonathan (minus the girlfriend-person). If not a circle, at least a trapezoid of friends.
*
The house is finally quiet. I plop down onto a kitchen chair next to Mom. I’m wiped out, but I have one more thing to do. I hand her an envelope.
“What’s this?”
“Open it.”
She does, and then she stares at the card in her hand. “A gift certificate for ten tap dance lessons?”
“Mary Beth says she can teach anybody to dance, and I believe her.”
Mom says, “I don’t know.”
“Come on, Mom, try it. Take a chance.”
She looks up slowly, smiling. “I’ll do it if you’ll do it.”
Since I’ve already danced the Charleston in giant chicken feet, how hard could tap dancing be? “Sure,” I say. “Why not.”
She stands up and grabs me and hugs me. A bear hug. Like she’s trying to crush my ribs. Or like she’s compressing years of non-hugs into that one. I can’t breathe. I don’t care.
            They waved to the cheering crowds. “Thank you,” they said. “It was nothing.”
            They cured the sick and saved the poor.        
            They put on their pajamas and watched an old movie and didn’t have to say another word.