GILBERTINE & THE EXCHANGE (Volume One) Chapter 13: Queen of the Freaks (Part 3) — early September 1964

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It felt so good to be free I didn’t want to upset the apple cart by mentioning what had happened at Ben’s party.

But try as I might not to, I couldn’t help wondering how Angles knew what he’d told me. He later admitted he’d never met her, much less conversed with her, nor spoken to anyone who had.

It was the same all over. I checked around over the next week: While half the school knew her name, no one remembered actually speaking to her, nor could they recall how they knew – they’d just “heard it around.” No one had any classes with her, they’d only seen her lurking in shadowy corners, often from the corners of their eyes – no longer there if they looked at her directly.

I did learn Angles was wrong about the pronunciation of her name. It wasn’t “Gilbertine,” with a hard “g.” For that matter, it wasn’t anything that would sound like “Jillbertine.”

No, her name was “Gilbertine,” with “g” that sounded like the “s” in “measure,” a barely detectable “l” and vowels the Anglo larynx could only hope to approximate during severe head colds or extreme allergy attacks.

Why couldn’t it be “Gigi” – something memorable and pronounceable? Oh well, wasn’t mine to say, was it.

Connie was patient at first, even putting the matter behind her to enjoy our movie date, but as days went by she got her knickers in a twist over the whole thing. She knew who Gilbertine was – again, she’d “heard it around” – and my making inquiries was getting her green-eyed monster up and roaring.

When she asked me what Gilbertine had that she didn’t, I tried to explain that it wasn’t what she thought. I told her of how she’d come out of nowhere at Ben’s birthday party, and how I’d been trapped backstage at the Fox with her – that it had all been rather creepy. I was only trying to sort facts, trying to find out who – or what – she really was.

Unfortunately, what Connie got out of what I said was that I’d been alone with Gilbertine in a dark corner at a party, and in the one place at the Fox darker and more isolated than The Flats. To her, we’d been in the most compromising situations possible, and now I was out there obsessing on her. One day at lunch, she completely lost it, told me where to go and stomped off.

We’d met at the Halcyon Street end of the park for our date, and I’d no idea where Connie lived. To make matters worse, the Capulettos weren’t in the phone book, either. So I had to settle for leaving a nosegay of baby roses on her homeroom desk, attached by a ribbon to a poem I’d written her. Even if she didn’t like the poem, I hoped she’d appreciate my sacrifice – the cost of the flowers meant a good four or five singles down the drain.

But I’d yet to learn about Italian tempers. Those dark eyes, more alluring than anything when they glow adoringly? If they flash in anger, head straight for the hills – do not pass GO, do not collect $200 – RUN!

I arrived at first period American Literature to find my desk covered in a heap of tattered baby rose petals and itsy-bitsy shredded pieces of paper, topped off by something that looked as if it might once have been a ribbon.

Connie sat a knight’s move away – one row over and two rows down – I felt her angry stare burning a new hole into my medulla oblongata all morning. Even though we were in separate gym classes, I saw her glaring at me across the way as if she wanted to put a whammy on me.

I don’t remember much about rest of the morning, except an overwhelming feeling that it might be best if I went off somewhere alone for lunch to hide out and lick my wounds.

Even if it meant the creepiness of the park.

I told Charlie to give regrets to Angles, and lit out, I took a path through the trees that seemed even more dark and ominous than usual. I took a full ten minutes to check for creepy phenomena, before plopping down at a picnic table 50 yards or so from the sidewalk – the better to make a quick getaway if I had to – beside what, once upon a time, might or might not have been a stone wall, but which had become part and parcel of an imposing, gnarled root system of a particularly large tree that likely predated the park itself.

I opened my three-ring binder and my lunch bag. I took out the bag’s contents – which could well have been a deep-fried lizard and shoelace sandwich, a mandrake root and a vacuum flask of iced bat venom cocktail from concentrate, for all the attention I paid – and morosely ate it.

I stared at a blank piece of ruled and lined notebook paper in front of me.

Eventually, I put pen to paper, in an effort to clear away some of the mental fog as much as anything else. Angles and I’d started to make our first few hesitant, faltering attempts at songwriting; it was becoming more comfortable for me to jot down chords and melody first, and then dash off the first of many drafts of lyrics to fit them.

But this time, I’d no idea what the music would sound like, but lyrics were instantly set in my mind. It was a lament and apology – perhaps a bit self-pitying – inspired by Connie and what we were going through, consisting of three verses, a chorus after each, a bridge between the second and third verses.

A few weeks from now, I’d work out chords and melody. In six months, I’d sing it in public a few times.Then it would be over two years before I’d be allowed a chance to sing it again. I started jotting random musings – some frightened, some almost mystical, some bemused, some irate – about Gilbertine.

I was still writing furiously when a shadow crept over the page, and I froze in terror.

What had come for me?




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