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The Loud Silence of Francine Greenby Karen Cushman
Books and Beanies and Montgomery Clift
"Holy cow!" I said when Sophie Bowman told me she'd be joining me at All Saints School for Girls this year. "Why now, in the eighth grade?"
"Because I got thrown out of public school." Sophie and I were in the room I shared with my sister, Dolores. Dolores was on a date with her steady, Wally, so Sophie lay on Dolores's bed, her legs in the air, twirling the navy blue beanie from my school uniform on her foot. "It was either Catholic school or boarding school. No one else would have me. But Sister Basil thinks my soul can still be saved. From what I can tell, she's nuts about saving souls."
I sat up cross-legged on my bed. "Why?" I asked her.
"That's what she learned in nun school, I suppose."
"No," I said. "Why did you get kicked out of school?"
"Oh, that. For writing 'There is no free speech here' on the gym floor. In paint. Red paint."
She grinned at me as though that was the most wonderful thing in the world. I didn't grin back. "Why on earth would you do that?"
"Because the principal banned radios in the lunchroom."
"Radios? You ruined the gym floor because of radios?"
She waved her beanied foot about. "Not just radios, dopey. It was a matter of free speech. Standing up for what you believe in. And fighting fascism."
Fascism? Wasn't that about Adolf Hitler? Did she mean Nazis kept her from playing the radio in the lunchroom?
"Harry says that he may agree with the sentiment, but the expression left a lot to be desired," she continued, stretching her long, summer-brown legs. I sighed and looked at my legs. They were pink and freckled like the rest of me.
"Who's Harry?" I asked her.
"My father. My mother went to Catholic school and he thinks she was nearly perfect, so off I go." I knew from Hettie Morris across the street, who knew Laurel Greenson, whose aunt was Mrs. O'Brien, who lived next door to the Bowmans, that Sophie's mother had died when she was born. "He wants me to be more like her and learn to express myself with patience, self-control, and moderation."
Sophie would be going to the right school. At All Saints we had patience, self-control, and moderation to spare and not a drop of free speech. I myself was so patient, moderate, and self-controlled that sometimes I felt invisible, and I liked it that way. Let others get noticed and into trouble. Let Sophie get into trouble. It seemed a sure bet that she would.
Sophie and I weren't friends or anything, although she lived only a block down from me on Palm View Drive, in a pink stucco bungalow a lot like the one I lived in. We had nodded to each other over the years, and even played Red Light, Green Light together with the other neighborhood kids on hot summer nights. Now she had come over after dinner to learn more about All Saints, recognizing from my uniform that I was a student there. I couldn't imagine Sophie at All Saints, couldn't see her standing patiently in line in a blue sweater and plaid skirt--not the long-legged Sophie Bowman of the thick blond hair, outspoken opinions, and that lovely name, Sophie Bowman. Long mournful O sounds, so moody and romantic. Me? Francine Green, with Es like eeek and screech and beanie. Holy cow.
"I seriously hate beanies," Sophie said. "They make you look so drippy. Why do we have to wear uniforms like we're in jail?"
"It's not the same at all," I said. "Jails have much better uniforms. Black and white stripes, you know, are very fashionable this year."
"I was kidding, Sophie."
"Oh." Sophie wagged her beanied foot at me. "Maybe," she said, "we should find some way to express our individuality even if we're condemned to uniforms."
"You mean like wearing red shoes?" I asked.
"Yes!" she said, raising her arm with her fist clenched.
"And plastic jewelry and white blouses with cleavage?"
"It would be spectacular. Let's do it," she said.
I pretended interest in my bedspread. Bunny ballerinas. Ye gods. "No, I couldn't," I said finally. "We'd get in trouble. And I have no red shoes or anything with cleavage. Or any cleavage."
We looked down at our chests and sighed.
My bedroom windows rattled, and I could hear palm fronds scraping along the street. Los Angeles and I were enduring a period of Santa Anas, the hot winds from the east that made tempers and temperatures rise and your skin itch.
I got up to open the window in hopes of some cooler night air. "Look," I said, "searchlights. There's a movie premiere somewhere."
Sophie got up and stood next to me at the window.
"Don't you love living so near Hollywood?" I asked her. "I mean, movie stars are right there, at the bottom of that light. Gary Cooper, maybe. Or Clark Gable. Or Montgomery Clift. Imagine, right there. Montgomery Clift."
"Montgummy who?" Sophie asked.
"Are you kidding me? Montgomery Clift. He's only the dreamiest dreamboat in the whole world, with the saddest brown eyes." I sighed and looked again at the searchlight connecting me to Montgomery Clift. "He's my absolute favorite. Who's yours?"
"I don't know much about movie stars," Sophie said.
"But Hettie Morris said your father writes for the movies."
"He writes them, he doesn't go see them. He wants us to read books to improve our minds. Good books. Serious books. Boring books. Oh nausea."
"He sounds like Sister Basil. She's always making us read holy, dull-as-dishwater books." I thought for a minute. "Don't you get tired of improving your mind?" I asked her. "I would."
"Sure, sometimes. But you can't improve the world until you improve your mind, I always say." She smiled. "Actually, I don't always say that. I just made it up. Pretty good, don't you think?"
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