Bonnie was the type of girl about whom other girls said, "I donít know what they see in her." This simply meant that Bonnie was a mantrap, envied, respected, and hated like poison. Specifically, the girls hated her navel, always sliding out above her waistband, drawing the eyes of males with a merciless, inexorable traction.
The girls also hated Bonnieís hair: "Without her hair, sheíd be nothing." The hair was a wavy blonde tumult that plunged past Bonnieís slinky, conniving waistline to brush the obtrusive navel. It wasnít fair! In seventh grade, Bonnie had sported as short and frizzy a perm as the rest of them. And though all the girls had changed, some radically, Bonnie had changed more radically than the rest of them put together. The pout, the narrow blue eyes, the sinuous backósomehow, they had all fallen into place, just like the primordial earth they had studied in science class, shaped by the laws of physics from its cosmic dust mass. So had Bonnie taken form, just as inevitably and about a million times more disturbingly.
What Bonnie had was so potent that Frannie Morris, returning to math class for a forgotten notebook, had stopped short at the door, at the sight of angular, twitchy Mr. Dixon down on his doubleknit knees at Bonnieís feet. Recounting the incident, words had failed Frannie. Mr. Dixonís face had been, she wanted to say, contorted, anguished. But she could only come up with "sad." Bonnie had simply looked "fed up."
Parents invariably uttered one word when they saw Bonnie: Lolita. Mothers did not trust their sonsóor their paunchy, balding husbandsóin her waiflike, flexible presence. "Wish in one hand and spit in the other," had said Kevin Brownlowís mom nastily to Mr. Brownlow when Bonnie dropped by to visit Kevin. "See which one fills up first."
That summer, 1966, Bonnie and her friends spent most evenings hanging out at the Jack-In-the Box on Wilshire in Santa Monica. It was a good central location for starting the night, close to the beach, the freeway, and the notorious party row on Centinela. Eventually, most of the boys in the crowd came to work at the Jack-in-the-Box, lasting an average of three weeks. No sooner would one quit or get fired than another would take his place. The veterans proudly displayed their forearms, burn-scarred from french fry duty.
That Each time she arrived, Frannie Morris would look up and greet Jack's smiling head, rotating on its high pole with moronic benignity. What have you seen, Jack? Frannie would wonder. What secret wisdom did his painted grin conceal? Beneath Jack was the order window, and Mike Braithwaite leaning out on his elbow, a lank comma of dark hair falling across his eyes. Mike was barely eighteen, but he had two pregnant girlfriends, so he held on to his job while the others came and went. Mikeís parents were alcoholic, hardly remarkable in that crowd, but the Braithwaitesí disease was particularly virulent. To compensate him for his turbulent childhood, Mikeís parents had bequeathed him looks that Valentino would have envied. Mike spent most of his time trying to avoid trouble. Nevertheless, he was born for it.
The girls all worked hard on their tans and starved themselves with ferocity and dedication. Any caloric slips were quickly remedied by a finger down the throat. They pursued the boys with a single-mindedness that did not border on obsession, but crossed over and took up permanent residence. Although the girls declared fervently that they believed in virginity, sobriety and fidelity, most of them could be talked into just about anything.
Across from Jack's was a tiny park, where the kids went to drink, make out, talk, fight, and throw up. And across Wilshire facing north stood the Lawrence Welk Building, four stories tall, beige and nondescript. Frannieís sister Angie called the building Lawrence Welk's Last Erection, and some of the kids thought that was very funny. Others did not know who Lawrence Welk was. Since Frannie and Angie came from Minnesota and had spent a whole semester just learning the polka, they well knew of Lawrence Welk.
Frannie Morris was Bonnieís best friend. She was a good candidate for this unenviable position, because Frannie did not have a jealous bone in her body. Small, slim and sweet-faced, with round brown eyes, a bulbous nose and long lashes, Frannie seemed incapable of the cattiness and envy that came so naturally to the other girls, including to her sister Angie. Frannie was mercifully unaware of her nickname, "Grannie." Boys rarely made passes at her, no matter how drunk they got, but they often confided their feelings for other girls, usually for Bonnie.
Angie, older than Frannie by a year, was tall, flamboyant and competitive. White-skinned and dark-eyed, with curling, confrontive black hair, Angie Morris resented Bonnie even more than the other girls did. The contrast between the two was almost elemental, light and dark, yin and yang. Fair, languid Bonnie was seemingly unaware of her galvanic effect on men, while Angie was overreactive and intense, alert to any opportunity or advantage. When Angie discovered that Bonnie wrote poetry, she had been frantic to read some and openly relieved that it was bad.
Bonnieís mother provoked as much pity as her daughter did animus. Short and shockingly obese, poor Mrs. Chadwick walked with the rocking gait of a penguin. She worked in a stifling little insurance office and spoiled Bonnie shamelessly. Bonnie had been born out of wedlock, her father a high school football player who had caddishly denied paternity. Frannie could not help imagining that plump little hen of a mother, probably a library monitor, conceiving Bonnie during one gloriously sinful moment in a back seatóno, against a lockerópinioned by the brutal, golden quarterback, his helmet dangling from his arm. One episode of abandon, for which she would pay eternally.
"Iím a mess," Mike Braithwaite said to Frannie. The crowd had gone to a beach party in Topanga, but Frannie had waited to give Mike a ride home after he got off work at eleven. One of Mikeís pregnant girlfriends had moved back with her parents. The other had disappeared in Mikeís dilapidated Chevy.
"It wonít take you a minute to clean up," said Frannie. "Iíll wait."
"I said Iím a mess." Frannie searched Mikeís hazel eyes, not knowing what to say.
"I might as well join up," said Mike.
"But that wonít solve anything. And what if they send you to Vietnam?" Mike shrugged.
"At least itíll feed my kids. The armyís going to get me anyway."
"I donít think so," said Frannie glumly, rendered inarticulate by the nearness of him. The truth was, she loved Mike. She had seen him surfing one chilly evening in his baggy Hawaiian trunks, sliding down a blue wave, silhouetted against an incandescent autumn sunset. His hair was blowing off his forehead and the pantherine eyes were crinkled up against the waterís reflective glare. He had lost his balance momentarily, throwing his head back and laughing fearlessly as he tottered on the board. Frannie, the earnest midwestern transplant, had never seen a human being so astoundingly, unattainably beautiful, so gracefully fashioned. So she loved Mike with a hopeless, humble love. For Frannie, the triangular world bounded by the rotating Jack head, the last erection of Lawrence Welk, and the park, became a microcosm of secret joy and pain.
Angie and Frannie had moved to Santa Monica from Minneapolis following the collapse of their father's contracting business. Their home, heavily mortgaged, had been foreclosed early one morning by apologetic but unyielding repo men with faint Norwegian accents. The family was ushered out into the street with the clothes on their backs and a few keepsakes. That was how they did things then in Minnesota; if you couldnít pay, you had to go. The Morrises had driven to Los Angeles and descended on Mr. Morrisís younger brother, Zack, who tried to find Mr. Morris a job. But by this time, Mr. Morris had no spirit left and had begun to drink. He stuck it out for a few months, then headed back to Minnesota. Mrs. Morris took a job working stock in a department store.
The balmy southern California air, the proximity of the beach, and the infinitely distant horizon of ocean and sky soon seduced the uprooted sisters. Their high school in Minnesota had been three stories of solid brick, with small, barred windows and a grim hall monitor at every door. If you were caught chewing gum in class, you might have to cut that gum out of your hair at night. But Santa Monica High was an "open campus" of many buildings, whose boundaries leaked students. You could see and smell the ocean from the classrooms. Teachers answered to their first names.
"Iím right where I belong," said Mike Braithwaite. He was standing at the back door of the Jack-in-the Box, amid overflowing aluminum garbage cans, a sea of used wrappers and cartons at his feet. But Frannie might have been standing on the cliffs of Monte Carlo overlooking the blue Mediterranean, she was that happy just to be near him, to be alone with him. From experience, though, she knew that self-deprecation was often the prelude to a confidence. Her heart began to quiver with apprehension, because most male confidences had to do with Bonnie. She thought she should say something in response, but asking Mike what was really wrong would be risky. Nevertheless, she had to say something.
"Whatís really wrong?"
"But what Ö is the most wrong?" She held her breath.
"I knew it," Frannie couldnít help blurting.
"You do? That makes it easier for me," said Mike. "Iíve held it all inside till I thought Iíd go nuts." He sighed and flipped his dingy counter rag over his shoulder. "I know Iíve got no right." No, you havenít, thought Frannie, but she would never say such a thing to him.
"Have you told herÖyet?" Frannie asked, dreading his reply. In Frannieís experience, boys seldom suffered in silence or loved from afar for long. They wanted to confess, confront, resolve, prevail. They wanted an answer, which, with Bonnie, was usually no. Once a boy declared his love, Bonnie seemed only to want to put distance between them.
"She doesnít trust guys very much," said Frannie "after what happened to her mother."
"And I would be her worst nightmare," said Mike. Frannie could not think of Mike being anybodyís worst nightmare. Nevertheless, it was true.
"What about Abbie and Eileen? And the babies?"
"Thatís why I think I ought to just join up," said Mike. "Put it all behind me. I have to tell you something." Uh-oh, thought Frannie. Here it comes. She braced herself. He leaned close to her, and she tried to take in all his beauty and intensity, secretly pretending they were meant for her.
"I love Bonnie more than Iíve ever loved anybody in my life. I would devote myself to her forever. I would never, ever leave her." This, Frannie knew, was for her to pass along. She tried it on. It was almost too much to bear. Her eyes stung.
"Iíll tell her."
"Yes!" Mike threw his dishrag up at the sky. It soared and fluttered like a soiled bird before flopping back to the tarmac. "I swear, Iíd go to school, Iíd work so hard. Iíll become a lawyer. Or a doctor. Iíd do anything for her."
"But what about your babies?" Mike picked up the towel again, but this time he whipped it against a full trash can so violently that the can tottered. "Come on," said Frannie. "Iíll take you home."
The next morning, Frannie knocked at Bonnieís door to go to the beach, feeling as if she were going to an execution. Bonnie was washing dishes, wearing her motherís housedress over her bikini. From the way Bonnie slammed the plates and cups, rinsing them perfunctorily, Frannie knew that Bonnie had been ordered do the dishes or she could not go to the beach. The house was furnished with the kind of cheerful china that a certain type of lonely woman buys: china flowerpot roosters, little dogs and cats with woeful eyes, and a huge, grinning pink piggy bank.
"I might as well get this over with," she said, while Bonnie washed.
"What over with?" said Bonnie.
"Mikeís got the hots for you." Frannie picked up a pen and inserted it into a Mexican straw coaster and spun the coaster around her head disconsolately like a pinwheel.
Bonnie turned, dripping suds onto the floor, and said, "I love him too."
"Oh no," said Frannie, half rising. "Donít love him."
"Why not?" Frannie had often witnessed how wicked gossip came back around like a boomerang and clobbered the speaker. But for the first time, she felt the rage of jealousy. It surged up in her like a tsunami of yellow bile, coursed through her veins, and distorted her face. Her heart pounded. Why should Bonnie get everything? Her sister Angie hated Bonnie. The other girls hated Bonnie, and with good reason. Bonnie drove men crazy, and now she was going to cause Mike to abandon the babies he had fathered. Poor little babies, so innocent and pure. And what about Abbie and Eileen, the mothers, their lives ruined just like Mrs. Chadwickís had been! Frannie had to speak out for them and nip this thing in the bud.
"He told me he wanted to fuck your lights out. Because he knows he can. It was terrible."
"He did?" Bonnie blinked. "Maybe thatís not so bad, I mean, maybe itís passion." Even recoiling from herself, Frannie was shocked that her lie had not delivered its intended effect. She must press onward, complete the deed. Her head swam.
"He said Öhe said he thought you were a slut."
"He did? That Iím a slut?"
"He said he just wanted to fuck you. ĎCause thatís all you deserve. Just like your mother."
"Oh no!" Bonnie burst into tears. Like Mike, she whipped a dish towel with all her strength.
"He called you a bastard." Bonnie was really sobbing now, and Frannie felt frightened, yet intoxicated. She had crashed through the gates of conscience to frolic in the brine of pure evil.
"You tell him I hate him," sobbed Bonnie. "Tell him heís worthless and I really think he should go to Vietnam."
"Oh I canít tell him that."
"If you donít, I will. And tell him never to look at me or speak me." At this, Frannie too burst into tears.
"Bonnie, I was lying. He never said any of that."
"Itís okay. I know what he is now. I know what people really think of me." Well, you donít exactly, thought Frannie, but youíre getting a little closer. She had never felt so miserable in her life, even when her father left. Bonnie continued to sob, but instead of getting it off her chest and composing herself, she began to wail loudly, and launched into a fit of hysterics. She howled and screamed so fiercely that Frannie realized she must have breached a very deep vein of misery within Bonnie. Fortunately, Bonnieís mother was not at home. But an elderly lady neighbor in a bathrobe knocked at the door and asked if she should call the police or a doctor? Frannie told her that Bonnie had failed a math test in summer school. The lie slid out easily and smoothly.
"Well at least she has a friend here to lean on. That means everything. My dear," the old lady said to Bonnie, "you shouldnít take things to heart so." It took Frannie over an hour to calm Bonnie down. Then the girls walked to the beach, but Bonnie was silent all day, gazing out at the horizon with uncomprehending, reddened eyes.
That night, when Frannie confided the episode to Angie, her sister agreed that she had done wrong. But now that she had told Bonnie the truth, it was no longer her business or responsibility what went on between Bonnie and Mike, if anything.
"I want to go back to Minnesota," said Frannie. "Iíve made a mess of my life."
"Donít be silly," said Angie. "This place is miles ahead of Minnesota."
"But youíre graduating. Iím going to be all alone in school next year, and look what Iíve done. Everybody is going to hate me."
"No they wonít. Most people have very short memories."
But Frannie was right. That Friday night, when the girls pulled into the Jack-in-the-Box in their motherís old Chevy Bel Air, the other kids clumped together like a herd of buffalo and stood staring outward at the Common Enemy. The chill was as frigid and palpable as the early February gales that surged down from Canada to turn their knees blue back in Minnesota.
Angie reached into the back seat of the car for the bottle of gin that they had stolen from under the kitchen sink where their mother stored it, along with the other household poisons. The sight of the bottle piqued a stir of interest, but the kids did not approach.
"Weíre finished," said Angie. Mike emerged from the Jack-in-the-Box and pushed through the crowd to Bonnie and defiantly put his arm around her. She clung to him and kissed him fiercely. They glared at the Chevy as if it contained Fafnir the dragon.
Angie and Frannie sat in the car passing the bottle of gin back and forth. After a while, the kids dispersed for the evening to cruise and go to parties. Frannie got out of the car and stood uncertainly in the middle of the drive-through lane. A couple of carloads of customers maneuvered around her to reach the order box. After they had passed through, Frannie followed them to the order box and stepped on the cord as hard as she could.
"Take your order please?" came Mikeís voice.
"Iím sorry, Mike," said Frannie. She began to cry.
"Itís okay," said Mike. "Will you get off the cord?"
"I love you, Mike," said Frannie.
"Thank you," said Mike, "but Iíve got enough problems."
"Okay." Frannie drooped back to the car. By this time, Angie had sobered up somewhat, and the two Minnesota girls drove home.
Like a dam bursting, the event inundated everyone for a while, then petered out in little rivulets of who said what and to whom. Later that year, Bonnie married the manager of the Hollywood Ranch Market. Mike joined the Navy and married his girlfriend, Abbie, who had a little boy. Nobody knew what became of the other pregnant girlfriend. After graduation, Frannie found a job working dispatch for a plumbing contractor who rented space on the second floor of Lawrence Welkís Last Erection. From her desk, she could gaze across the street into the face of the all-knowing Jack head, onto the scene of her first love and her perfidy.
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