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?
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.
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.
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
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.”
“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
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.”
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
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
Without looking, she
reaches over and takes my hand and squeezes it, and then she gets up and washes
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
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.
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
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
Earth, open up and swallow me
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
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
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
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
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.
and Bruce walk past slowly. Danielle glances in at me and hollers, “Loser!” and
then stomps down the hall.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
says, “I don’t know if . . . .”
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
started the skit,” says Jonathan. “I’ll bring it Wednesday, too.”
The four superheroes enacted their plan to
conquer the world.
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
“Oh, you’re in
charge this year, right?”
“Yes, I guess that’s
“I assume she’s
teaching a dance number right now.” Tappy
Toes. “Can you have her call me?”
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.
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
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?”
“Okay, well, thanks,”
I say. “I’m sure your skit will be great.”
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
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
“Oh, man, thanks,”
yells Jonathan. “I’ll get some kids to act out the parts.”
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
“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
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.
almost asleep when my cell phone rings. It’s Jonathan! Perhaps I’ll have
interesting dreams tonight.
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.”
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.”
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
Chicken!” the crowd chants.
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!” 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
She does, and then
she stares at the card in her hand. “A gift certificate for ten tap dance
“Mary Beth says
she can teach anybody to dance, and I believe her.”
Mom says, “I don’t
“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
They waved to the cheering crowds. “Thank you,”
they said. “It was nothing.”
They cured the sick and saved the
They put on their pajamas and
watched an old movie and didn’t have to say another word.