Excerpt from Listen (Bloomsbury, 2006) by Wendy Salinger
Prissy was a cool blonde. Her hair was almost white on top, darkening to a kind of no-color underneath. Her skin was a smooth tallow, her clear gray eyes made a steady appraisal of the things and people around her.
Adults never liked this. In high school a teacher warned me, “Don’t get hard like Prissy.” Her name was a common one for little girls in the South but exotic to me: bestowed some weekend morning in the living room of a ranch-style house near a golf course by a young matron lazing like a cat on her sofa, one hand holding a Bloody Mary or a tall glass of iced tea. So much ice has melted in the tepid Southern morning that the drink threatens to spill over as she makes a pretense of rising to look over the rim of the glass when her golden preschooler marches in and twirls before her mother in a new dress stiff with crinolines.
“Well, looky here,” the mother says, watching her tallow-dipped child. “If it isn’t Miss Priss.” Her voice is honey and vinegar, her own hair is harshly peroxided.
Most girls lose the nickname as they grow up or it stays at home, but with Prissy it stuck, it worked. It made a space around her that kept her a little apart, like the cool currents stirred by a paper fan or a starched petticoat you can twirl in.
Her father died the night before school started in the sixth grade. He came home from his job as a chemist at the tobacco factory and lay down on the sofa to take a nap and never got up. I was rereading Little Women when Prissy called me—Beth was dying in her sister’s arms and when my mother said I had a phone call I was sorry to be interrupted.
The next day at school I didn’t know what to say. Prissy put her arm around my shoulder and walked me up the stairs to find our new classroom and teacher.
There were rumors about Prissy’s mother and other men after her husband died. She was only thirty. I thought she was like a movie star—rising at noon on Saturdays to show up in her kimono in the kitchen where Prissy and I were drinking Kool-Aid after our morning bike ride. She and Prissy exchanged challenging remarks and let them drop. Once she let me taste her martini.
Eighth grade was our wildest year. Everyone in our class pulled together to rebel. We met in the park after school to smoke. At slumber parties the girls strolled the neighborhood arm in arm after midnight looking for the boys. Our teacher was Mrs. Mordred, a horsy blonde with buck teeth who wanted to be like a friend. We hung her in effigy the second week, her raincoat tied with a jump rope to the rafter of lights, rubber boots dangling below the hem. The principal was summoned. He asked the ring leaders to stand so he wouldn’t have to punish the whole class. The whole class stood up.
Mordred was crazy for Nixon. She gave me the Kennedy side of the hall bulletin board and teased me in class with breathy imitations of Jackie’s voice. She liked to discuss the extensive gun collection she and her husband kept.
I stopped making A’s on my report cards. Mordred called my parents and said Prissy and I were leading the class in rebellion, which was more than we could have hoped for. She told them I smoked, which I denied. Daddy wanted to make an appointment for me to see their friend Tilly von Reichman, but I cried and said I wasn’t crazy.
Prissy fell in love with Johnny Pickett, the handsomest boy in the two eighth grade classes. They made a duet of silver blond perfection. I had a crush on the glamorous music teacher, Mrs. Poe, who taught the other eighth grade class and who was kind to me. She used endearments like Dear and Little One. She had a laugh that bubbled up from high C, then went down to G, then a long D. I hung around after music period to listen while she practiced at the piano, her long arms sweeping up and down the keyboard, the crashing chords of Rachmaninoff striking the rafters of the old auditorium. She played some of her own compositions too—I’d never met anyone who wrote her own music. Songs without words, songs she sang for me. A piece set to the epigraph of The Great Gatsby:
Then wear the gold hat if that will move her.
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry “lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, I must have you.”
Her husband was the high-hatted gold lover–a doctor as handsome as Mrs. Poe was beautiful. We daydreamed in whispers about their life together. Maybe she taught him songs on the ukulele, as she did us, campfire relics from a romantic past we could only imagine: “King Edward was noble, King Edward was great, but ‘twas love that caused him to abdicate….”
I was mystified by Prissy’s new state. I still had two years to go before I met Patrick in high school. No one like Johnny would ever choose me. I cultivated a few of my more peripheral friendships to fill in the times I was left alone. A girl named Kathy had a crush on a different teacher, and we plotted together how to engineer accidental encounters with the objects of our affection.
When school ended in June, I missed the bus deliberately and Mrs. Poe drove me home. Mother wasn’t happy when I came in the kitchen door late. She disapproved of the vivid young music teacher and her glamorous makeup. She suspected my passion.
Wendy Salinger is the author of Listen (Bloomsbury, 2006), a memoir, and Folly River (Dutton, 1980), which was the winner of the first National Poetry Series (Open Competition). She directs the Schools Project at the 92nd Street Y in New York.