GILBERTINE & THE EXCHANGE (Volume One) — Chapter 18: “Strega, Strega” (late September 1964)

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I awoke in casualty – the emergency room – a clear mask covering my face, the air inside smelling like that in the submarine ride at Disneyland, Mum standing over me, while a physician tried his best to ease past her to administer a pain shot or adrenaline shot – I wasn’t sure which.

He kept banging on about how it’d been a miracle I’d done nothing to my neck or back, in a tone of voice seeming to almost reflect disappointment I hadn’t. It turned out that, along with scrapes and bruises, I’d sustained a third-degree sprained ankle and a SLAP tear to my left shoulder. They operated on my shoulder the following day.

With the assistance of a morphine drip, I wrote another of my long communal letters on Wednesday, letting my UK friends know I was with them in spirit for Frodo’s birthday and telling them my tale of  woe in copious detail – Mum photocopied and mailed it out Thursday.

Early Friday afternoon, they sent me home in a wheelchair, my left leg was in a cast, my left arm in a sling, with painkillers and the usual Tedral.

Angles and Charlie had burst into my bedroom an hour after I’d arrived to tell me of my newfound fame (after perfunctorily asking if I was OK and if there were anything they could do for me – other than delivering homework assignments and collecting completed work as Mr. Fein, the principal, had already deputized them to do).

Charlie, as the eyewitness, did most of the talking, for once.

He said my fall had been like a scene out of the movies and, for a moment, everyone thought I might be dead.

He said that a few girls were crying, and Connie was absolutely hysterical.   She had to be sent home.


“It was weird. Gilbertine got to you first. She looked like she was trying to draw a picture of you or something. Then Connie screamed out this strange word and charged at her.

“I thought for a moment Connie was gonna kill her, but then Gilbertine –” his voice went to a whisper. “– vanished into thin air.”

“Charlie,” Angles said. “People don’t vanish into thin air – even weirdtoes like Stumont. She must’ve dodgedt Connie and lost herself in the crowdt. She’s quick, I’ll give her that – look how she darts in and out of shadows. People think that she vanishes all the time. But it’s only an illusion – a first-rate one, but nothing more.”

“A crowd wasn’t there yet – honest,” Charlie replied. “One second, Gilbertine was there, the next – she wasn’t.”

“What was the strange word Connie said?” I asked.

Charlie pondered that a moment. “It sounded like ‘Strega! Strega!’ Then she bent over you, and was crying, and kept on saying ‘I’m so sorry, Reggie,’ and ‘You were right, Nanna.’

“Then the ambulance guys came, and kinda got her out of the way. That’s when she fell apart and someone took her to the nurse. Later, someone else told us she’d been so hysterical she had to be sedated and sent home,.”

I became lost in visions of distraught Connie; I wanted to hold her and let her know I was fine.

“Any ideas, Reggie ladt?” Angles question brought me out of the Twilight Zone. I thought a moment.

“From what little I know of Italian, I think ‘strega’ means ‘witch.’”

“So I guess it follows Connie has it in her head that Gilbertine’s a witch,” said Charlie.

Angles scoffed, throwing up his hands, shaking his head and rolling his eyes as if to say “unbelievable.”

“An’Connie laid into Gilbertine ’cause – ?” Charlie raised an eyebrow, but left his question unfinished.

“Most logically ’cause she thinks Gilbertine put a spell’r’curse on me,” I said, “or her – or both of us. She probably thought I’d flipped out during first period – that there were spells or jinxes or curses or whammies or wotevs on me even then. I guess her nanna must’ve told her Gilbertine would do something like that.”

“Hence, ‘you were right, Nanna,’” said Angles. “Andt she didn’t believe her grandmother then –”

“– An’now she does,” I said, finishing the sentence.

“So what do you think?” said Angles.

“I think that Gilbertine might be one,” said Charlie. “Weird things sure seem to happen whenever she’s around.”

“I ain’t buyin’it,” Angles scoffed.

“There’s a logical basis for everything that happenedt,” he insisted, “even backstage at the Fox.

“As for Capuletto, I dunno which of those chicks is more bats, her or Stumont. You sure know how to pick ’em, Reggie ladt.”

“Might’ve agreed with you, Angles – if it weren’t for the incidents at the Fox and at the Zellers,” I said.

“At our house!?!” Charlie’s eyes bulged, saucer-like. “Gilbertine was in our house!?!

“Her or someone like her,” I responded. “Your living room, Ben’s birthday party.

“Y’ guys can’t know, y’weren’t there. I mean, y’were around, but y’weren’t there when it happened.

“It was weird – weird in a way that could be rationally explained at the Fox only by lots of equipment and a crew of accomplices. Gilbertine might well be rich, but even poor little rich kids don’ have th’dosh t’hire whole crews to hang ’round backstage on some off chance of some little twerp like me’s going t’go back there for them t’perform soome weird stunt in front of.

“As for Ben’s party, I grant you that she could easily have slipped in and not be noticed. But she had me in an embrace half a sec before you guys called my name. And, neither of you saw it, or her. Nobody’s that fast.

“I dunno what to think of her. Some o’th’looks that she gets on her face, like those on the steps of St. Dymphna’s, or that day she just appeared as we were getting ready t’jump the fence – all those emotions that must be lying behind them – I’m starting t’feel a bit sorry for her.

“As for Connie, yeh – her Nan’s a little strange, but she’s the best ally I’ve got in Connie’s family. Even you, Frankie boy, admit I owe her my neck. So I’m inclined t’give th’ol’dear benefit of th’doubt; and f’Connie wants t’believe her, I’m not so sure, at least for now, s’all such a bad thing. I certainly don’t think it makes Connie yampy, off’er head or a weirdo. Wot else happened?”

“Well, Mr. Yardley ordered the gym classes not to discuss what happened with any other students,” said Charlie.

“Guaranteeing the whole student body knew about it before lunch,” Angles added. “Yardley in genious mode once again. It’dt be an understatement to say you upstaged that clown Gunderson – Charlie told me about him.

“It’s more like you buriedt him. His gymnastics were just a footnote to what happenedt to you.”

As he said this, an iota of concern did begin to arise in the back of my mind: Glen might decide the best balm for his resentment of my upstaging him would be to call up his mates for a lynch mob – that the Hitler Youth might extract exceptionally heinous revenge.

I briefly considered asking them both to play “body guard” when I got back to school. But in the end I decided against it: If that horde of would-be Vikings truly intended to attack me, they’d annihilate three as easily as one. The only good to come of their “protecting” me would be we’d all hang out together in a hospital room twenty-four hours every day – and if the time when Stan, Dexter and I were all hospitalized at once was any indication, even that might not be the jolliest of occasions.

Besides, a second trip to care for me this school year – especially if it were third this calendar year – would be nearly certain to secure me a place among the local teen “immortals,” the ones talked about incessantly – the last thing Glen would want. Even he’d be smart enough to wait – see how the situation panned out – and I’d be well advised to do the same, rather than get Angles and Charlie involved.

I was in no shape to play the guitar, and Charlie, claiming he had a multitude of sick animals to look in on, departed shortly thereafter.

I showed Angles the musings that I’d written in the park about Gilbertine.

His response was to make me work out four or five separate melodies with chords, twelve to sixteen bars each, dictating to him as I went. He made separate paper strips out of each observation I’d made, found a small bottle sack from the liquor store and threw the strips into what he dubbed the “barf bag.”

We pulled the strips out one by one and began assembling the lyrics in the way one might put together a jigsaw puzzle – filling in the gaps with lines we’d write jointly, on the spot and fitting each of the stanzas we’d assembled to one of the melodies.

Half my musings were still in the barf bag when we finished the song – the first of the many, many songs that I’d write – or co-write – about Gilbertine, over the next few years.



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