ME AND THE BLONDES
“Dead? No way should he die!” I tried to recoil from her, but I was beside Mama on the window side of the streetcar seat, and there wasn’t enough room for an effective recoil. “I refuse to kill him, period.”
Mama exhaled through her teeth. “Shhht! Keeping your voice down.” She smiled sweetly at the back of the streetcar driver’s head. “Dey vill be hearing us.”
“I will not ‘shhht.’ We’re on a streetcar, Mama. ‘They’ won’t be hearing us because ‘they’ couldn’t care less. Besides, we’re the only ones here.”
The only reason we were on the stupid streetcar to begin with was because the Pink Panther was in the shop. Again. And the only reason we were on the streetcar together was because we were registering me at a new school, Northern Heights Collegiate, for grade nine.
“Sophia …” Now she was imploring the back of the driver’s head. “Sophia, ve have talking about dis to pieces.”
“No, Mama, you were talking about it. If you recall, that was just your voice last night. I did not …”
“Ve talking, ve deciding. Your Papa tinks is for da best ting.”
Whoa. When did that happen? Just because I hadn’t written or seen him in a while, I didn’t get a say as to whether we should kill him or not? “Papa would not …”
“It vas his tinking.” She gripped my knee in a vise. She has beautiful hands, my mama. I’ll give her that. Mama insists that you can’t be a first-class, top-notch real estate agent without good hands, and it almost makes sense. That’s how Mama usually gets me—by almost making sense.
“Night and day, day and night, he is tinking, tinking. Sophia, darling, five schools in six years, dis must be finishing. Ve are having a new home, ve must be making a new life, Papa says. Dis is da best school, full of first-class-type peoples.”
She had me until the class bit. Papa didn’t care about first-class people. Papa was first-class people. Okay, not at the moment, or for the last six years or so, but he was. Mama said so. Even the Aunties said so and they can’t stand him. Mama patted my knee in a lame effort to restore my circulation.
“My too beautiful, too smart Sophia, I’m killing myself for dis neighbourhood. Papa too is killing.…” Her face blanched. “Okay, never mind Papa killing. Dis time it vill be good! Before, before, da other schools, all low-class phooey peoples! First-class peoples vill …” she searched for the word on the streetcar driver’s head, “vill recognize first class ven dey see you. Dey vill be eating you up.”
Well, she had that right. Two weeks late into grade nine. Lifelong friendships among the new kids had been formed by day four at the latest. Last year’s middle school and junior high groups, with a summer addition or two, were locked into airtight cliques that would take them into their child-bearing years. I was DMOA, dead meat on arrival, and that was before anyone figured out about Papa.
Mama was beaming. A guy came onto the streetcar, engrossed in his Financial Times until he paid his fare and noticed Mama beaming. He beamed back. Mama’s beaming is a powerful thing. She put her arm around me and squeezed, even though I keep telling her never to do that in public. “New job, new home, new school. Dis year, 1974, vill be vatering our shed. Dis is da year dat ve straighten up and fly right.”
“Straighten up and fly right, Mama? What movie is that from?”
“I’m not remembering,” she sniffed.
Mama learned English off the subtitles of old Hollywood movies. You could learn Russian as a second language in Mama’s little Bulgarian village, but English was forbidden, so that’s how a lot of people did it. Picking up a whole language from old movies is pretty brilliant, if you think about it. It’s just that she sounds as if she’s in an MGM musical half the time. Papa doesn’t. He learned his English in Poland, where they didn’t want you to speak English either, but somehow Papa had picked it up perfectly. Maybe it was because Papa is a Polish prince. Really, that or a duke or a count or something seriously up there like that.
Despite the royalty connection, I’m a mongrel. I don’t even know what religion I am. Papa was baptized Catholic but Mama was baptized atheist. Claire O’Conner took great care to explain my mongrelness to me in grade six. She was Irish up and down both sides of her family. “Hundred percent pure,” she said. See, Mama is from Bulgaria, Papa is from Poland, they met in Romania, and they had me in Hungary. Apparently, being an English-speaking Polish prince-type person was not a good thing to be in any of those places, so we all moved here when I was four. I don’t remember any of it. That’s okay.
I’ve got enough to remember with what I do remember.
I used to try playing the Polish prince card when things got ugly at the other schools, but murderer trumps prince at recess every single time.
She’s got prison cooties.
That’s the murderer’s kid.
The murderer’s kid.
No more, no sir. I wasn’t going through that again. Mama wasn’t there in the playgrounds, in the cafeterias, in the washrooms—all those washrooms.
Okay, really, really slowly, but I did, and it didn’t have anything to do with being surrounded by “first-class peoples.” Surviving school had to do with power. Papa was right: You have to make yourself bulletproof. This time I was going to squeeze myself right into the middle of the power source at Northern Heights. And after five schools, I knew for sure that the power source was going to be the Blondes.
See, I figure if you are in tight with the Blondes, you’re in till you die. It’s like back-stabbing and banishment are for the rich-redheads and the brunettes-with-boyfriends cliques. They had power circles with rings of wannabes at the edges who were ousted, then grudgingly welcomed back in, or not. That sort of stuff was beneath the Blondes—Blondes were forever. So, first thing, before anything, I had to find my Blondes and make them adore me. How hard could that be really? I mean who were the Blondes but the granddaughters of the Crabtree & Evelyn ladies, and they adored me.
Who was I kidding? DMOA.
Mama was still straightening up and flying right. “So, dis time, he is dead for sure. Not vorking in Japan, not behind da Ironing Curtain, is too complicated. Ve keel him. Dat is vat he vants. You can remember dead, no?”
Remember? I’ll join him by tomorrow afternoon.
“And vatever vill it vill be, que sera, sera,” Mama said, apropos of absolutely nothing. “Dis is our stop.”
As we disembarked, the streetcar driver winked at us or her or me. I can never be sure with Mama.
The school was across the street.
“Look! Sophia, look.” Mama was pointing as if she’d built it herself. “Beautiful, no?”
I had to admit, not to her of course, that it was pretty, one of those really, really old-style schools. The sign over the front entrance said northern heights collegiate, 1917. The building had a lot of that detailed stonework that you could get in those days because, as Claire said, the Irish would do all that stuff for the price of a potato. And there was tons of green space with big old oaks and maples where all the portables should have been. Actually, it was beautiful.
“It’s okay.” I shrugged.
Mama and I swung open the heavily carved doors and landed in the main foyer.
It may have been a high-class high school with high-class students, but the place still smelled like every other school foyer I’ve ever been in. Only two weeks into the year and it reeked like the inside of a gym shoe. It sort of calmed me down to know that rich kids’ sweat stinks just as bad as poor kids’ sweat. I trailed behind Mama as she swanned into the registrar’s office.
An old lady, maybe forty, was barely visible behind stacks and stacks of paper.
“Good afternoon to you. I am Mrs. Kandinsky, mawder of Sophia Kandinsky, and ve have appointment to be registering my daughter to your lovely school.”
The lady swivelled around to her typewriter and cranked a form into it. “Yes, right on time too. Please be seated. I’m Mrs. June Haver and we’ll just fill this out, won’t we, and then we can be on our way.”
As soon as Mama and I sat down, we lost complete sight of Mrs. Haver behind the paper towers.
A disembodied voice said, “I see that we have Sophia’s records from, my, my, Parkdale, St. Stephen’s, Hillsdale, St. Teresa, and Dufferin. Well, you’re a bit out of sync with Northern Heights, aren’t you?”
Mama had been crossing and uncrossing her legs all this time, getting more nervous by the second. Mama needs to see the person, or, more importantly, have them see her, in order to direct her high-beam charm at them. She hated operating in the dark, on the phone, and, apparently, behind stacks of papers. Mama totally believed that if someone saw her, experienced her, then they wouldn’t notice the accent. “Excusing me?”
“The school pattern you’ve got going here is Protestant, Catholic, Protestant, Catholic, Protestant, and now Northern. That’s two Protestants in a row.”
Mama couldn’t contain herself any longer. She stood up and peered over at Mrs. Haver. “Oh … no, ya, I see, you are making a little joking vit us. I …”
Here it comes.
Mama cast down her eyes, put her hand on her chest, and sighed. “I am a professional real estate voman. Ya? Ve move all za time to better our situation, you understand? Since her …” now a pitying glance in my direction, “her fawder dropped dead, may he rest vit lots of peace. Oh, he vas a Catholic, but not really a big von, you understand.” Even deeper sigh. “It is not easy for vidow ladies. So, ve move and move and now ve buy, and ve are in your first-class district.” Full beam.
Not only did it look as if Mrs. Haver practically understood her, but she was also nodding emphatically. “Tell me about it,” she said. “My Stanley went five years ago. Two kids, sons.”
“Oooh.” Mama clutched at her heart. “A terrible tragedy. It is not easy, I know.”
“Thank you. Is this the right address?”
Mama glanced at the sheet and nodded. “Ya.”
I crossed my eyes at her. Mama can read perfectly in Bulgarian, Russian, French, and even English, but she can’t read a word without her glasses, which she point-blank refuses to wear in front of another human. I’d have to check all the forms when we got home.
“Isn’t that the new apartment building on Logan?” asked Mrs. Haver. “Looks real nice.”
“Condominiums,” I said, just for the sake of saying something.
“Ya.” Mama smiled. “Like apartments but you own dem. It is a very new ting. Very first class. I’m giving you my card.”
Someone save me.
“Yeah, I’ve been reading about those things,” Mrs. Haver said between keystrokes. “Must say, it sounds interesting.”
“I vill explaining everyting.” Mama walked around the desk and over to Mrs. Haver. “You know, I vas also a beauty consultant for Mary Kay.”
Here we go.
“No kidding. I heard about her, from my sister-in-law in Buffalo. They’re only in the States though.”
Mama shrugged. “I used to got my supplies from Buffalo. I von a pink Buick, I vas, not to brag, so good. I still have supplies. You vill come, talk, and I vill give you a facial.”
If I’d told her once, I’d told her …
“It’s a deal, Mrs. Kan … Kandin …”
“It’s a deal, Magda.”
“Ve vidow ladies have to stuck together.”
“You can say that again. And your daughter … Sophie?” she called.
“This office is your refuge. Home away from home, got it? You need something, your mom’s working, you come and park yourself here.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“You are first-class lady, Meesus …”
“June. It’s like you said about us single mothers. How did your poor husband pass away?”
Jesus. We forgot about that bit. It was always like that. The devil is in the details, as Father McKenna always used to say. Mama and I both sucked at details. We’d get all carried away, make things too elaborate, and then we’d forget what we started out with. Make it simple, Mama, I tried to bore into her, simple, simple.…
“His brains exploded.”
I heard a gasp. It was me.
“Okay,” said Mama.
“I’m sorry, hon,” said Mrs. Haver. “At least it was fast.”
“It vas?” Mama looked puzzled.
I nodded furiously at her.
“Ya. It vas. Yours?”
“Oooo, dat’s good too.”
I could’ve killed her.
“Didn’t have time to suffer, that’s for sure.” I heard paper being ripped from the typewriter. “Well, that ought to do us. Welcome to Northern Heights, Sophie.” She handed me my class schedule. “This is temporary. You get the permanent one first thing in the morning at the vice-principal’s office.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” She called me Sophie, not Sophia. Sophie. I liked it. I liked it a lot. It sounded breezy, carefree, potentially popular.
“Magda, I’m going to take you up on your offer as soon as I get a handle on this.” She glared at her desk. “You can count on it.”
“I vill be counting. It vas a really pleasure.”
Mama practically skipped out of there, stiletto heels and all. She hadn’t moved like that in a long time. Years even. I was kind of skipping too, on the inside. Sometimes, I disgust myself. I mean, I haven’t seen or talked to Papa in forever, and then we go and kill him off. We kill him and I feel great? What was this? I like to be nice. I want to be famously nice. It’s like a serious goal and everything. When people hear my name, I want them to feel compelled to say, “Sophia—no Sophie—is sooo nice.” My hunch is that you can’t kill off your father, feel really good about it, and still be considered nice.
Oh well. I could live with that.
Excerpted from Me and the Blondes by Teresa Toten. Copyright © 2006 by Teresa Toten. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Books. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
- Finalist, Governor General’s Literary Award, 2006
- Finalist, Ontario Library Association White Pine Award, 2006
- OLA Best Bets: Young Adult Fiction: Overall Top 10 2007
- Shortlisted, Canadian Library Association Young Adult Canadian Book Award, 2007
- Canadian Children’s Book Centre Starred Our Choice Award