The Aqua Net Diaries: Big Hair, Big Dreams, Small Town by Jennifer Niven


  “It’s got a tiny skyscape, and the people are happy here …”

  We flew by Fred First Ford, the movie theater, Mr. G’s Hairstyling and Lounge, the Richmond Square Mall, Burger King, Long John Silver’s, and the Target parking lot where the usual Trans Ams and Corvettes were lined up, kids sitting on bumpers, drinking and laughing. We spun past the Arboretum and Glen Miller Park, and past the Promenade. We turned down North A Street and drove past Morrisson-Reeves Library, Le Crazy Horse Salon, and the Palladium-Item.

  Billy Idol was back on the stereo. Joey was driving wildly, but neither of us cared or noticed. We were carried away as usual—by the music, by each other. We were young and invincible. We were bored out of our minds and the town couldn’t contain us. We were wild and free. Joey took a drink from his milk shake, draining it, and hurled it out the window.

  We were just careening around the corner by Swayne-Robinson, an abandoned, burned-out old factory (former maker of farm machinery) on the corner of North A Street and Main, when, above the sound of our singing and the sound of tires squealing, we heard the siren. In the rearview mirror and in the side mirrors—everywhere suddenly—we could see flashing lights.

  “Is that for me?” Joey yelled.

  I was checking all the mirrors. I turned around over the seat and stared out the back window. “Yes!”

  “Goddammit!”

  “Oh my God!”

  “What do I do?!”

  We were hysterical. In all of our many driving adventures, we had, unbelievably, never been pulled over before. Billy Idol was still screaming and we didn’t think to turn him down. We screamed over him.

  “Pull over!” I said.

  “Where?!” Joey looked around frantically and swerved across two lanes.

  “Turn down the next street!” I pointed. “There!”

  We crossed the Main Street Bridge, passing Pizza King where I recognized people from school just outside and in the parking lot. Joey didn’t even bother stopping at the red light. He shot straight on through, turned right (without using a signal), and finally came to a stop. The police car pulled up behind us, lights flashing.

  We turned off the stereo. The night grew silent. We sat there waiting, both of us too petrified to talk or move. In a moment the policeman appeared in the window. He was a big man. In the dark, he seemed like a giant. He peered in, looking first at Joey, then at me. He said, “Son, I’m going to need you to step out of the car and come with me.” It was like a scene out of a scary movie or an Afterschool Special.

  Joey fumbled with the door and finally, with the policeman’s help, got it open and followed him to the police car. I sat there imagining all of the horrible things that must be happening right that minute to my very best friend. What if he was being arrested? What if the cop was booking him right now and reading him his rights? What if he was going to take Joey to jail? What if I had to call Joey’s parents from the Wayne County Safety Building, where the jail was located, and tell them what happened? What if I had to drive Joey’s car there myself? This was almost the worst thought of all because I hadn’t driven once since getting my license, since the nightmare of Driver’s Ed. And then I thought of something far worse: What if we were both going to be expelled and now I would never graduate Richmond High School but have to live in this town forever?

  As I sat there—as Joey sat behind me in the squad car—cars were slowing down and passing us. One car kept circling, going around the block and coming back again. Rhonda Treadway was behind the wheel and Bea McGraw, Joey’s tenth-grade Homecoming date, was sitting beside her. They were smirking and laughing. They kept circling around and coming back, inching past us.

  After about fifteen minutes, Joey reappeared. He opened the door and sat down beside me and buckled his seat belt and flipped on his turn signal and checked all his mirrors, and then he pulled out into the street—as the policeman watched—and headed toward my house.

  He said, “I hope I see Bea McGraw have problems with a police car one day, but instead of being in one, I hope she’s under one.”

  We looked. They were gone.

  “What happened?” I said. It came out very low, like a whisper.

  “The cop said, ‘Look, I don’t want to embarrass you in front of your girlfriend, but when you’re driving a car, you’ve got to be responsible. A vehicle is not a toy. You can’t just be trying to impress the pretty little lady.’ And then he gave me a lecture on driving maturely and safely.”

  “That’s it?”

  “No.” Joey pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to me. A ticket. “He listed every violation he saw me make. They included littering—when I threw my cup out of the car. Running two red lights. Turning left on red—is that illegal?”

  “I keep telling you that.”

  “Going fifty-five in a thirty-mile-per-hour zone. Running a stop sign. Reckless driving. Going the wrong way down a one-way street.”

  “What one-way street?”

  “I have no idea. Driving without my license. Neglecting to stop when he first turned on his light—but I wasn’t going to stop in the middle of all those people where we could be laughed at! And not staying in my lane. He said to me, ‘Son, if I totaled up everything I saw you do wrong in the past five minutes, it would cost you over $300 and you’d be close to losing your license, so I’m going to let you choose two of these violations.’”

  “Oh my God.” I was in awe. This was my very first run-in with the law unless you counted the time Joey and I had gotten lost in Indianapolis and had to go to a police station there for help (and Joey had stolen the cap from the officer who helped us, but was so scared afterward that we left it in RHS Assistant Principal Sandra Hillman’s unlocked car in front of her house). Until that moment, what we knew about cops was who was on duty and where they lived.

  I had a newfound respect for our men in blue. “That was so nice of him,” I said. “What did you choose?”

  “Exceeding the speed limit and running a stop sign. Who would have believed I was really driving seriously?”

  We drove home quietly, sedately. We left the stereo off. We sang softly to ourselves, repeating what we remembered of “Back Again in Richmond.” Joey obeyed almost every traffic law.

  Jeff Shirazi’s Volkswagen Bug

  Politics

  Finally our senior year is over with.

  I don’t think I could stand much more.

  The yearbook only tells me one thing:

  people don’t matter unless they are popular.

  —Becky Scheele, November 14, 1986

  When we were moving to Richmond, my parents narrowed down their house search to two houses—one in Hidden Valley and one in Reeveston. The one in Reeveston looked like a small gothic castle, complete with a turret. The house had a large pink bedroom that was perfect for me, and, best of all, a tiny maid’s room above the kitchen at the top of a hidden staircase. In my opinion, this was better than a secret tunnel or a cave because it was almost sure to hold a mystery. I really, really wanted that house.

  In the end, though, my parents decided on the Hidden Valley house because it was closer to Earlham College and my dad’s work, and it had a much larger backyard for me to play in, with a creek and woods. I liked the Hidden Valley house, loved my enormous green room, which was twice as big as the pink one, but as I grew older I understood the significance of my parents’ decision. It was a significance none of us could have appreciated at the time: if they had bought the Reeveston house instead—which they almost did, which they came this close to doing—I would have gone to Test Junior High School. The this close factor of it all took my breath away.

  What would my life have been like if I had gone to Test instead of Dennis? Would I have been a member of the Homecoming court every year like Sherri Dillon and Leigh Torbeck? Would Tom Dehner have noticed me first, before he ever met Teresa Ripperger? Would Tom and I have arrived at the high school as the power couple, a force to be reckoned with? Would I have had a cool nickn
ame like Rip and thrown parties every weekend? Would I have ever needed to worry about fitting in, about being popular? Would everything in my life have been effortless and easy? Would I have had better hair?

  On the days when high school was at its worst, when it really and truly couldn’t be stood, I sat in my green room in Hidden Valley on the wrong side of town and blamed my parents for buying the wrong house.

  The town of Richmond was conservative. The local college was liberal. Being an Earlham kid raised in a liberal, freethinking household, I didn’t think twice about shooting my mouth off over my political views. Not that I followed politics or had a deep interest in it, but I did overhear my parents talking about the state of things, and I had once—sadly, misguidedly—voted for Nixon in my preschool class simply because his name sounded similar to my middle name, Niven.

  It was important to be Republican and Catholic in Richmond. With the presidential election approaching, people in my high school class—those who lived in Reeveston and came from money—trashed Walter Mondale and talked about Ronald Reagan as though they knew him, repeating things about him that you just knew they had heard their parents say.

  My parents weren’t crazy about Walter Mondale, but they certainly didn’t like Ronald Reagan. All I knew was that Reagan would be a bad, bad president. Whenever Tom Mangas and Curt Atkisson and any of my other friends got started about Reagan and how poor Mondale would suffer the defeat he deserved come November, I talked back. I went on and on about Walter Mondale as if he were Tom Petersson of Cheap Trick.

  On election night, I was in my room reading and watching television and listening to music, all of which I liked to do simultaneously. (This made my father crazy.) It was late, and the returns were still coming in, but it seemed pretty clear that Reagan was going to win. My mom was downstairs and my dad was still at Earlham. The air had turned bitter almost overnight, unseasonably cold even for November.

  Over all the noise in my room, there was the distant thud of a car door slamming. I kept reading and eventually got up to turn off the TV and turn down the stereo. From outside, I heard voices. I opened the blinds of one of the two front windows. At first, I thought it had snowed. The trees were white and the lawn was white. But then I looked closer and it wasn’t snow, but toilet paper. There were dark figures crouched in our yard and swinging from our trees. My heart did a little leap.

  I knew that Teresa Ripperger and Tom Dehner and the whole gang of them were always TP-ing one another’s houses. Jeff Shirazi had told me about a time when an entire group of them drove out to his house at two in the morning and Rip and everyone started throwing toilet paper everywhere until Jeff ran out screaming. He said it scared them to death, and he just laughed and laughed as they drove away.

  We had never had our house TP-ed. I consoled myself by thinking about how far out our house was, on the other side of town from Rip and Dehner and all the rest of them. Sometimes at Halloween, the boys from my neighborhood TP-ed a tree or two, but these were boys like Duane Rooks and Gary Greenwalter who took Auto Shop and hung out in the Smokers Hall.

  It was beginning to look like a blizzard outside when there was, suddenly, a flash of silver from the street. I watched in horror as my father pulled up in front of the house and climbed out of the car, dressed in one of his impeccable and expensive custom-tailored business suits. He was carrying his briefcase, and at the curb he stopped and yelled something. All the dark figures scattered in five directions, and just like Superman, my father, in his suit and spectacles, threw down his briefcase and began running after them.

  I watched, helpless, from the window, unable to stop him. I heard a male voice scream, “Mr. McJunkin is coming!” And then the unmistakable putt-putt-putt of a VW Bug speeding away.

  I was sick. What had my father done? I sat there for a long time on my green floor, and then I thought about calling Joey, but realized it was after midnight and I didn’t want to wake his parents. I went downstairs.

  My mother was looking out the living room window, puzzled. “Have you seen this?” she said, waving at the yard.

  “Where’s Dad?” I asked.

  “I don’t know.”

  “Dear God,” I said. Because I somehow knew, but didn’t know, who might be behind this. I only knew one person who drove a VW Bug, and it was too wonderful and impossible to even think that he might come all the way out to my house and go to the trouble of TP-ing it.

  Mom and I stood there, staring out the window. We stood there for several long minutes—more like hours—until the front door opened, and my father walked in. His face was shiny, damp, and flushed, and he was grinning like a wicked, angry devil.

  “I chased them out to National Road,” he said.

  My eyes grew wide. “National Road?” That was at least a mile away.

  “One of them fell into the Blakeys’ pool.”

  “Was he hurt?” my mother asked.

  “There was still water in it,” he said.

  “How many of them were there?” I said, my voice barely a whisper.

  “Five, maybe six.” My dad pulled back the curtain and stared outside as if he had special night vision that allowed him to see in the dark. “I scared the hell out of them.” He looked at my mom, triumphant. “And I got the license plate of the get-away car. It said ‘JPS.’ ”

  “What?” I said. My heart stopped beating for one full minute and then began doing flips.

  “‘JPS,’” my dad repeated.

  “Like Jeff Shirazi?!” My voice came out loud and high. From the kitchen, our dog Tosh started barking.

  “I suppose,” my dad said.

  “Jeff Shirazi TP-ed my house?!” I threw the door open and ran outside in my bare feet. The trees dripped with white. The lawn was completely covered so that the green of the grass showed through only in patches. Little trails of white paper waved like flags from the bushes and the gutters. It must have taken rolls and rolls of toilet paper. There was shaving cream on the ground. “Jeff Shirazi did this?!” I was shouting by this time, so loud that the neighbors were sure to hear.

  “What is wrong with her?” my dad asked my mom. They were standing on the front step.

  I started dancing and leaping about. And then slowly, just like a windup toy unwinding, I came to a stop. “What do you mean you chased them?”

  “I chased them out to National Road, up to Frisch’s,” my dad said. He meant Frisch’s Big Boy with the sign out front that always read Try our Cheery Pie because the man who changed the letters was slow. “Except for the one who fell into the pool and the one who drove away.”

  My heart stopped again and my breath stopped. I stood blinking at him. “How could you do this to me?” I said finally, when I had recovered my ability to speak. I rarely confronted my father or talked back to him, but I couldn’t help myself. He had chased, on foot, Jeff Shirazi and God knows who else. He had run them down like some mad, wild dog in a suit.

  I stomped into the house and ran up to my room and slammed my door. As I ran, I heard my dad say to my mom, “What in the hell is wrong with her?”

  The very best thing to ever happen to me, and my dad had ruined it. This was what happened, I told myself, when you had a father who ran marathons. My dad ran eight or nine miles a day—a day—and twenty-six on the weekends. He was a maniac. Until now, it had never interfered with my life. He went for his runs, sometimes with Tosh, sometimes alone, and he came back sweaty and hungry, and, depending on the season, would either complain about it being “hot as the Devil,” or would have to cut the icicles from his beard. My mother and I endured the complaints and the sore muscles, the knee that sometimes gave him problems, and the midnight snacks that my father made in secret, or so he thought. They stank up the entire house for days—fat Bavarian sausages fried up at the stove while he smoked his pipe and drank a glass of wine, thinking no one could smell the onions. But this …this was too much to bear.

  I raised the blind and looked out the front window. In the center of th
e lawn, right beneath my room, I could tell that the shaving cream spelled something. I rubbed the glass where my breath had made a cloud, and looked. Regan, it said in crooked white letters.

  Idiots, I thought. They could have at least spelled it right.

  Indiana cornfields

  Signs

  This goes out to the person or persons that found it necessary to take a wreath from a grave. Every time you look at this wreath remember one day someone you love will be buried and when someone carries your flowers away as you have done, you won’t be able to say a word, will you!

  —Mary Ann Harrison, Palladium-Item, “Your Opinion” section

  Sandra Hillman was assistant principal of Richmond High School. Joey and I once filled her van with helium balloons, as many as we could fit, and laughed till we cried picturing her face as she opened the door and all those balloons sailed away. We thought it would be a lovely scene, like something from a movie— Out of Africa or Trip to Bountiful, both of which we’d loved. It would be almost like poetry.

  It was just something we thought up to do, like climbing the Purina Tower or driving fast in circles or writing stories about how we were separated at birth, creating an entire elaborate backstory for ourselves in which we were stolen from our original (shared) parents and smuggled across the world through a series of wild and dangerous adventures only to end up in the World’s Most Boring Town. In other words, we didn’t do it to be mean.

  But there were some things that our classmates did do to teachers to get back at them for unfair exams, for pop quizzes, for picking on them in class, or for just trying to do their jobs. One of these things was to steal realty signs and, in the dark of night, stick them in their front yards. Some teachers woke up on weekend mornings to find seven or eight For Sale signs—possibly more—on their lawns, depending on how unreasonable they had been in class that week.

 
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