GILBERTINE & THE EXCHANGE (Volume One) — Chapter 17 (Part 1 — The Great Debate Debacle) 20 September 1964

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I was saddened, but not particularly surprised, to find a note from Connie waiting on my desk in homeroom on Monday morning.

At least she hadn’t just dashed it off on notebook paper. It was on good stationary, the kind that’s a mixture of paper and cloth, white in the center, fading to powder blue at the margins, then sealed with lavender sealing wax, impressed with a giant “C” atop a very nice matching envelope. She’d obviously taken some time with it. I considered an instant before I opened it. Perhaps she’d been touched by it after all, and had reconsidered; I was, perchance, completely forgiven. But the envelope’s contents were thin; they weighed practically nothing. Whatever she’d written had been short and to the point – not too likely that it was love note, or even a note of forgiveness. There was no point in prolonging the suspense – or agony. I took a deep breath, and opened the envelope. There was a single sheet. It read:

Reggie Stone:

Do not approach me or talk to me – I hope you know why. You were on thin ice before, but what you and your idiot friend Frank did on Sunday was the last straw. We are through.

Your obsessing over Gilbertine already showed me how pathetic you really are, & I was a complete fool to think that you could ever be anything but a total zeeb. But when you started singing that stupid song to me in front of the whole congregation, my family and especially Monsignor Montecelli, you mortified me past any and all redemption. There is nothing that you could ever say, or could ever do, that could ever make me change my mind about you.

Do not attempt to answer this letter. I never want to speak to you again, and I hope you’re sorry. You have my pity, and that is all. I hate you and every second that we spent together.

Love,

Connie

Not a great deal of room for negotiation there – the note was quite unequivocal.

Connie had definitely returned my serve.

Game over.

I could feel dark, gloomy haze settling around me. A heavy feeling in my heart was slowly dropping into my guts. The weather man had said that today would be a second stage smog alert, I managed to hold back my tears until I got outside, and could blame them on the heavily polluted air.

First period American Lit class was still in the thick of “The Scarlet Letter.” Dad had given me his pocket edition of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” a couple of weeks back so I’d have some background about the author’s ancestor, the judge who’d presided over the Salem Witch Trials, and how Hawthorne’s guilt over that ancestor had colored his writing.

I couldn’t focus at all on what Mr. Deems, the teacher, was saying. So, when he unexpectedly called on me, I did what I always do when I’m under stress: I began to froth at the mouth. I banged on about “The Crucible,” complete with examples from the script, recited my dad’s psychological study, then segued into a rant about how Miller was far more relevant to American Lit than Hawthorne, praying silently all the while for Mr. Deems to shut me up.

Instead, he continued to let me prattle and blather away with no restriction in sight. I declared Miller to be the greatest American dramatist of the 20th Century, except for Albert Maltz, Eugene O’Neil or Dalton Trumbo. At this point, I was just parroting Dad – I’d never seen any of their plays, or even read anything by any of them. I was just hoping to provoke a fight to forget the way I felt.

Luckily for me, Dennis Ulrich, only kid at Johnson known to carry around copies of National Review, an “If I Were 21 I’d Vote for Barry” button on prominent display, took the bait.

“Those guys are all a bunch of commies!” he yelled. I doubt he’d read any of them either. Even then, I suspected  the nature of his source of information wasn’t vastly different from mine. Still, he allowed me welcome repose from my pontification.

“They’re not commies!” I shouted back, warming to the game. “These writers are brave voices, calling for Americans t’rid themselves of prejudice and hysteria– to look at life from a more rational point of view!”

“They’re commies – and if you like them, then you’re a commie, too!” he yelled, his face turning beet red. “Go to Roosha if those’re the kind of guys you admire!”

“Nein, Herr Ulrrrrrich!” I sneered, rolling my “R’s” in a wretched parody of a German accent. “Why doncha go join your Uncle Adolf, y’fascist?”

If that line couldn’t start a fight with a kid like Dennis Ulrich, I’d no idea what would.

I snuck a sideways glance at Connie, expecting her to be amused – at least at my expense – but she looked scared – really scared. Until that moment, I’d no idea that she wore a crucifix – she must’ve kept it under her clothes. But now she’d taken it out and was holding it tight, eyes closed, and her lips moving faster than I thought lips could move.

Dennis drew my attention away. “I don’t think so, Reggie,” he spat. “What’s that short for, Regina, y’little long-haired pansy?”

Oh my, ad hominem attack. I didn’t realize I had him on the ropes.

“Why Dennis, I’m impressed,” I smirked. “I didn’t know that orangutans could say words of three syllables: even proper nouns.”

OK, one ad hominem attack deserves another. I was offering him a window – a good comeback and we’d be back on level ground – I’d have to settle for verbal sparring in place of real fisticuffs. The class was loving it – except Connie – even Charlie was smiling.

“Any time, Stone – any time,” he growled.

Oh my, caveman mode. It looked like the fight was on, after all.

“Y’really not m’type, Ulrich.”

OK, slightly lame, but not bad on a moment’s notice: except that it seemed to have freaked out Dennis: Clearly overreacting, he panicked and dropped the F-bomb, telling me to do a physically impossible act on myself. I’d won the war of words. His only way to save face now was to challenge me to a fight. OK, Dennis, don’t disappoint – throw down the gauntlet.

But Mr. Deems intervened. He kept class loose, and I’d clearly taken advantage of his leniency, as well as abused his good nature – and at this point, he’d had quite enough.

“Ulrich! Detention for the rest of the week! Stone! Another peep out of you and you’re joining him. And thank you, Mr. Stone, for that enlightening – if somewhat provocative and protracted – dissertation.”

Nuts!

My chance for any fight had been short-circuited unless Ulrich challenged me in the halls – the ball, as Lois would say, was in his court.

But after class, Dennis took off as if I were some virus he had to get away from fast.

Poor Connie. I hadn’t intended to unnerve her that way. What, in the name of all that’s holy, was going through her head?

No time to think of that now, though, as Charlie and I dragged our way toward our favorite class: Physical education with the one and only Mr. Yardley, a latter-day Attila the Hun who was inevitably inflicted on every boy at Hiram Johnson Junior High at some point during his academic stay there.

 
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