Ellie Searl Stories


Small (Town) Friends

Ellie Searl

Before Becky moved to town, Gloria was supposedly my best friend, although I never much liked her. She was mean. And bossy. At her house, we played her games, danced her way, and ate her peanut butter, potato chip, cream cheese, and pickle sandwich creations. At my house, she rode my bike, used my mother’s lipstick, and dulled the tops of my new crayons. But she seemed popular with the other kids, so by association, I was popular too. I didn’t understand enough about personality types to figure that because she bullied her way into relationships, probably everybody hated her.

My friendship with Gloria rounded a nasty corner in 5th grade, a month before her soon-to-be-mirror-image arrived. It was at Christmas time, when schools actually celebrated Christmas, before public institutions had to recognize the separation of church and state.

Our school had a tradition of painting scenes on classroom windows for the holidays. On Halloween, we not only painted scenes on the school windows, but we also took a field trip into the village with all of our paraphernalia and painted our designs across huge store windows - Jack-o-lanterns, and witches with black cats riding on broom sticks across a crescent moon, and ghosts wafting over scarecrows sitting in dried-up cornfields - all the while keeping balance on ladders propped up against thick panes of glass. My parents owned the general store in the center of town, so it was a special treat if I painted those windows. But the big kids usually got there first, pushing and shoving their way to the front of the bus; then racing to the best windows when we arrived.

This particular Christmas, our teacher announced a contest – four students would win the honor of painting a scene on the classroom windows. And not only that, the winners would go into town and paint Christmas on all the storefronts. To be considered, we were to submit a hand-drawn picture of Santa. The rules were simple: draw the picture at home, have no help from adults, and do not trace anything. This was a cinch, I thought. I was good at drawing pictures, so I knew I’d win. There were a few times when solid confidence led my way, and this was one of them.

In the Saturday Evening Post that afternoon, I found a small black and white sketch of a smiling Santa, a bag stuffed with toys slung over his shoulder. He stood ankle-deep in a pile of wrapped gifts, boot-fur peeking over the bows and ribbons. This was it.

I had a good eye - a natural instinct for proportion and the elements of detail. With a sharpened pencil and oversized sketchpad, I drew a likeness of the picture, making it much bigger, and Santa much paunchier, than was represented in the Post. No, I didn’t trace it; that would have been cheating. Miss Cuomo never said we couldn’t look at a picture and make one just like it. She never said it had to be straight from our imaginations. I submitted my big Santa to her the next morning.

Most of the other kids in the class didn’t bother to enter the contest. They already knew they weren’t good enough and wouldn’t win, their levels of artistic confidence much lower than mine. Miss Cuomo said my picture was the best, and she gave me the window that overlooked the playground and parking lot where everyone could see it. Was I proud! And I’d be going into the village the next day with the other winners. I’d get to paint the front window of my parents’ general store.

I gathered my colors, hopped up onto window ledge, and started my painting. The non-winners watched with envy, and the non-participators colored mimeographed pictures of Santa’s Workshop.

Within five minutes, Miss Cuomo called, “Eloise, come here.”

I turned around, holding a long, thin paintbrush in mid-air and looked at her, not sure I had heard correctly. A splot of red paint dropped onto the toe of my Mary Janes.

“Eloise. Come down from there.”

I stuck the paintbrush into the tin can and hopped down. The hem of my dress caught on the long handle and knocked the can to the floor. Red paint oozed out, spreading a blood-pool across the linoleum.

Miss Cuomo bent over to rescue the brush and can. She looked up at me from the floor. “Did you draw that Santa yourself?” She walked to the counter and heaved the dripping supplies into the sink. She jerked around, giving me one of those stern teacher glares and slapped her hands on her hips. “Did you?” she barked.

“Yes, Miss Cuomo,” I stammered. “I drew it. . .. myself . . . yesterday . . . after school. Ask my mom.”

“Gloria said you traced it.”

I looked over at Gloria, who was standing at her desk, arms folded, grinning. My brain heard her snarl, “You’re a pig. My picture wasn’t picked, so I’m going to make sure you can’t paint either.”

I stifled the urge to leap across the room and wring her neck. Hate isn’t a strong enough word to describe how I felt about her right then.

My throat tightened. “I didn’t trace it,” I cried. “I saw it in a magazine and drew one like it.” Tears welled in my eyes making my nose tickle. Everyone stared. They probably all thought I cheated.

“Well,” Miss Cuomo huffed, “I should have looked at your picture more carefully.” She took a breath and continued her attack on the exhale. “Now that I think about it, your picture is really too good for anyone your age to draw. So . . .” She paused. I waited.

When I think back at that pause, I realize she was stuck in the undermining mire created by fear and a tattletale - cheating might be running amuck on my watch and, if I let it continue, will ruin my integrity as an authoritarian forever. But at the time, I thought she was a mean old hag who believed a brat.

“ So . . .” she sighed, “. . . you aren’t going to paint anymore.” Her voice regained its momentum - strong and loud - as she settled into the finality of her decision. “And you’re not going into town tomorrow. Go to your seat. Now.”

I was devastated! How could I extricate myself from this humiliating, exceedingly unfair situation? Gloria had lied, but the teacher had spoken with conviction. I was doomed.
Keeping any trace of whine from my voice, I protested one last time. “Gloria lied. I drew it myself. The picture was much smaller. I drew it myself. I did. She lied.”

“Enough. Go to your seat. Here - color this.” She shoved a wrinkled mimeographed paper into my hand - a purple outlined picture of Santa’s elves pounding nails into a doghouse with “Fido” printed on the gabled roof.

I looked at my feet and, through tears, saw red paint trickle from the tip of my shoe into my sock. I’d been stripped of my place of honor, I wouldn’t get to paint my mom and dad’s store window the next day, I was embarrassed beyond belief, and I would more than likely get in trouble for wrecking the shoes and socks I was only supposed to wear on Sundays. I sat at my desk, and shook with silent sobs, feeling my faith in humanity go looping round and round a downward spiral.

I sent dagger eyes at Gloria, but by this time she was hiding her face inside her open desk and sniggering, as though she shared some sadistic secret with her scissors and glue. Everyone else was silent, having been stunned into their work with such pretend concentration that only the fire alarm could have raised their heads.

After that episode, my association with Gloria dwindled from friend to acquaintance. She switched her attentions to Becky when she arrived in January, and I took up with Kristen, whose family moved to town a few months later.

For the next few years, Kristen and I carried on as much of a friendship as she could muster, given her predisposition to ignore me whenever someone more important was around. We drank cherry cokes and ate Nabs at the drug store, drooled over pictures of Paul Newman, smoked cigarettes behind the fair grounds, read smutty magazines at the beach, and gossiped about Gloria and Becky.

I felt like a grown-up with Kristen. She had a city sophistication about her and knew the Exclusive Summer People who sailed to Westport from New York and Washington, DC, on their private yachts and stayed in their lake houses. Besides, meals at Kristen’s house were better than Gloria’s PB&P&PC&CC sandwiches. Roast beef served at the dining room table on gold placemats, and formal, somewhat stilted conversation with Kristen’s librarian mother and doctor father. They treated their guests with respect; although, as represented in Kristen’s on-and-off attention, a bit of arrogance mixed in with condescension was present in most of the family gatherings with locals like me.

At the beginning of 9th grade, Kristen was sent to a private boarding school. It was less than a two hours’ drive away, but it was on the other side of the Adirondack Mountains, and it seemed like a million miles to me. A couple of days before she left for her first semester as a freshman, she mused about being so far from home for so long. She said, “Don’t be surprised if I forget your name. I’m going to meet lots of new friends at school, and I won’t have space in my brain for everyone.” The funny thing was, I thought this made sense – I didn’t get offended until a few years later when I realized how insensitive and particularly stupid her remark.

In our town of 800, most of the kids my age came from farm or logging families and lived way out on unpaved country roads in the foothills - the Rural Route, according to the post office. Their family circumstances didn’t allow them much opportunity to socialize - lots of chores and little access to transportation into the village. So, when we were in 9th and 10th grades, before we all started to drive, I had to pal around with kids who lived in the village. Becky, Gloria, and Kristen lived in the village, and Kristen was off learning new names and forgetting mine.

So when Kristen left in September, I was stuck with reestablishing a quasi-friendship with Gloria and Becky, who by this time, had morphed into the Doublemint Twins - same sweater sets, same clutch purses, same bouffant hairstyles pinned up with the same sequined barrettes, same sing-songy voices.

Conjoined twins saw less of each other than did Becky and Gloria. Attached at the emotional hip, they didn’t go anywhere or do anything without the other – at least not during the day. Their identities must have taken a nosedive when they went home. How did they survive alone with just their families? Did they experience mini-emotional breakdowns? Lose their appetites? Wither away in their rooms? Did their mothers, with sinking feeling and crinkled brow, wonder, “Where did my cheery little girl go?” Did they stare at, but pay no attention to, gorgeous David Considine saunter across their small TV screens, showing off his good looks during episodes of “My Three Sons”?

For two years, I tagged along as an extra in the Becky and Gloria Act, remaining only as congenial as required without compromising my moral codes. When we walked to school, I trailed behind on slate sidewalks too narrow for three abreast. In class, they sat together in the back corner and passed notes. I sat near the window. When one of their moms drove us to the movies, they squeezed together up front and whispered; I rode in the back, unless, of course, my mom drove, and then I sat up front, and they sat in the back and whispered. At the movies, they sat side-by-side and shared a bucket of popcorn - and whispered about – well, maybe me. I never knew. I bought my own popcorn and sat beside our driving mother of the day.

Their birthdays fell close to each other in late November, and that year their moms bought the two of them the same gifts. The Twins traipsed through the snow to my house to show off what they could wear and brag about what they couldn’t. They looked like candy canes stuck in marshmallow in their new shiny red boots and new white, puffy, ski parkas - swishy jobs, with fake white fur bordering the hoods and cuffs, and swirls of red and green embroidery zigzagging around the pockets and down the sleeves. With breathless excitement they boasted about their matching record players – portable, pink, and the matching 45’s - Elvis, Little Richard, Fats Domino. They gave each other that secret friend look, that hush-hush, all-knowing look, the one that says, “We know something else . . . and you don’t . . . we’re just waiting . . . because keeping it from you is fun . . . and will make you feel left out. . . and super jealous . . . because we’re so perfect . . . and we might laugh at you . . . or maybe we’ll just keep looking at each other with these smirks on our faces . . . while you envy us.”

Then with practiced choreography, they cocked their heads to the left, shoved their arms out from under their furry sleeves, and said, “Look at thee-eeze,” as they flaunted scarab bracelets – expensive ones – 14-karat gold dangles of multi-colored silicone-encased dung-beetles dug from some ancient Egyptian cave, at least that’s what their mothers told them - probably in unison.

But the best part, they crowed, was that they got to open all their gifts at Gloria’s house – both families – together – everyone oohing and aahing while the matching boxes with the matching wrappings and the matching ribbons revealed the matching loot, on Gloria’s dining room table that most likely was decorated to match the one in Becky’s house.

At the time, I recognized the ridiculousness of this welded affiliation. I didn’t trust either of them a whit, but they were right if they thought I envied them. I was jealous that at least Becky and Gloria had each other.

Once I entered 10th grade, and we all had our drivers’ licenses, my friendship dilemma diminished as my loyalties shifted and my interests grew. Cheerleading at championship basketball games, a boyfriend on the team, sock hops in Port Henry where I won contests with their best dancers, and a generous, not very professional Algebra teacher, who let us play tennis during class, made the Twins of Westport obsolete.

Eventually, Becky and Gloria drifted apart. I think they got tired of each other. How long can you look at someone else only to see yourself reflected in the other person’s skin?

Kristen ended up running away from home after she graduated from boarding school. Becky became a secretary, took up with some guy twice her age, and moved to Florida. Gloria opened a hair salon in Port Henry, called “Absolutely Gloria’s,” a name she saw in a magazine.

I went off to college, and then on to new adventures, never to be associated with any of them again.

EVS 10/09

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