Chapter 1 – Nicknames

 

This is Chapter One of the novel, Luck of the Draw, by William Scott Morrison. Read along as you listen, or listen along as you read. Or just listen while you work or drive.

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Luck of the Draw

William Scott Morrison

Chapter One

Nicknames

Pittsburgh, 1959

Jenny was one of only two girls in her sixth-grade class to get stuck with a nickname. Linda Tanner got “Bubbles” because of the breasts she’d grown over the summer, which wasn’t too bad as nicknames go, but Jenny got “Honker” because of her nose. Now that her three older brothers had all moved on to junior high, there was nobody to defend her if the boys made fun of her—they would never have dared to even think about it if her brothers were around.

It started one day at recess under the basketball hoop when she beat Rusty Limbergh at four-horses and he got so furious at losing to a girl that he chased her around the playground going “honk-honk-honk” like an old pick-up truck. After that, the boys were always honk-honk-honking at her—loud, on the playground, or muffled, under their breaths, so the teachers couldn’t hear as they passed her in the halls.

Having a big schnozzola wasn’t so bad for her brothers. They were guys, and everybody knows that on a guy a big nose is directly proportional to you know what. But Jenny was the first Abruzzi girl in two generations and the only thing anybody ever seemed to notice about her was her dill pickle of a nose.

Jenny had her dad’s Mediterranean complexion and his glistening, coal-black hair, and she was always being told how lucky she was to have her mom’s blue eyes and prominent Irish cheekbones. But grownups were much too polite to come right out and tell the truth—it was all ruined by the Abruzzi nose.

All her life she had wondered if she might be just a little bit pretty if she only had a normal nose, but since she’d been stuck with that horrible nickname, “Honker,” she didn’t care if she were to be ugly for ever and ever if only the boys would stop honking at her.

Right after Halloween, the school district’s roving music teacher, Mrs. Scott, who came around every Tuesday to lead the class for an hour of singing, held tryouts for the Christmas pageant. Once again, Mrs. Scott picked Jenny, the third year in a row. Jenny was surprised at the first rehearsal when Mrs. Scott asked her to come see her after school. What could she have done wrong?

But it wasn’t like that at all. Mrs. Scott said, “Jennifer, you have a wonderfully pure, angelic voice. How would you like to be the soloist on ‘Silent Night’ this year?”

“You mean…all by myself?”

“No, I’ll play piano, and the choir will sing harmony, but you’ll sing the melody.”

Every Tuesday after school Mrs. Scott coached her on articulation, breath control, and how to breath from her diaphragm. Jenny already knew how to play it from her piano lessons, and she practiced playing and singing for hours on end. The week before the pageant, Mrs. Scott rehearsed them every afternoon; the full choir came in at “sleep in heavenly peace,” but the rest of the song was all Jenny’s.

Her mom was even more excited than she was and gave her an early Christmas present of a velvet dress, very plush, deep green with a white lace collar and ruffles on the sleeves, good enough for Sunday mass and perfect for a Christmas pageant solo performance.

Her turn came toward the end, when Mrs. Scott announced, “Jennifer Abruzzi will sing ‘Silent Night.’” The audience applauded as she stepped out from the choir and walked to the front of the stage into the bright spotlight. The house lights came down, and as she took a deep breath she heard a “honk” from way in the back of the darkened gym, then one from up front, and the whole place erupted in honk-honk-honking like it was downtown at rush hour.

In one more second she would have run right off the stage, but Mrs. Scott crashed down hard on the piano, jolting the room quiet. She gave Jenny her cue, and began to play. Not even Rusty Limbergh would dare honk during “Silent Night.”

Somehow she sang as if nothing had happened and got a standing ovation. Later, when she was helping at the cookie table, many parents and teachers told her how much they liked her voice, but on the drive home she curled up in a ball in the back seat of her mom’s Ford station wagon and cried the whole way.

The next night at bedtime, Jenny was reading a Nancy Drew mystery when her mom came in, shut the door, and sat down next to her on the bed. “Jennifer, would you like to get your nose fixed?”

Jenny clapped her hands. “Oh Mom, do you really mean it?”

“Don’t get your hopes too high. First, we have see what Father Zyhowski says, so promise you won’t breathe a word to your father or your brothers—and especially not to Mama Antonia.”

“Oh I won’t, Mom, I promise.”

One snowy morning right after Christmas they went to see Father Zyhowski in the parish rectory. He listened intently, nodding his head from time to time as her mom told him about the nickname and the horrible honking at the pageant. When she finished he shook his head, sighed, and turned to Jenny. “I know it’s hard, my child, but you must understand that boys will be boys. I’m sure they don’t really mean it.”

Her mom scowled, not at all happy with his answer. “Father, does the Lord not help those who help themselves?”

He seemed to be taken aback. “Yes, surely.”

“Good, because we need God’s help to get Jenny’s nose fixed.”

Old Father Zyhowski sputtered like he’d swallowed a pretzel the wrong way. “You…you want God to perform a miracle…on her nose?”

Jenny had never seen anybody so completely flummoxed, not even on I Love Lucy.

“Oh no, Father,” her mom said. “Nothing like that. We only want Him to lend us a little support, that’s all. You should hear the way her grandmother goes off when I bring it up….”

Jenny couldn’t help but chuckle at how her mom got Mama Antonia’s fractured English and quick little hand gestures just right. “God make’a da nose. She born with it, she die with it. She Abruzzi!”

Father Zyhowski seemed perplexed. “I’m not sure I understand. What exactly is it you want God to do?”

“We don’t want God to do anything, Father. We want you to have a little talk with Mama Antonia, that’s all. Just tell her that plastic surgery is not a sin.”

Father Zyhowski frowned, his countenance very grave. “It may not be a mortal sin, my child, but false pride can lead to the deadliest of the seven deadly sins…the sin of vanity.”

Her mom gasped. “You’re not saying it’s a sin for Jenny to want to be normal, are you Father?”

Father Zyhowski peered at her mom through his horn-rimmed glasses, let out a heavy sigh, then turned and faced Jenny directly, his lips pursing tight, his face crinkling up like used aluminum foil. As he leaned close to her she smelled some kind of alcohol on his breath, and when he laid his icy hands on top of hers it gave her the shivers.

“The Lord works in mysterious ways, my child,” he intoned as he poked his bony finger in her face. “Vanity is the root of pride, and false pride has led many of God’s children into the arms of Satan, and to the eternal damnation of the immortal soul.”

Her mom leaped out of her chair. “But Father—”

His hand shot up like a traffic cop’s, right in her mom’s face. “I know your intentions are good, and you only want what is best for your daughter. But the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. It is not for us to question the will of God.”

Father Zyhowski seemed to think that settled the matter; he looked at his watch and straightened up as if he expected them to accept his answer as God’s will and leave.

Her mom would not let it go. “But Father….”

Father Zyhowski slumped back, resigned to being quizzed on the distinction between deadly sins and mortal sins and whether a simple nose-job in Pittsburgh was any different than fixing a cleft palate in Nigeria or a clubfoot in Bolivia. Back and forth they went, her mom never winning, yet never quite giving in. Jenny had seen her argue with the good Father before about the nature of sin. He was well-practiced in the art of telling his flock what they didn’t want to hear, and he always seemed to win in the end. Despite her mom’s logic and heartfelt pleas, the good Father declined to intercede with Mama Antonia on behalf of a nose-job.

Jenny and her mom bundled up tight and put on their gloves. Father Zyhowski held the door as they grabbed the railing and started carefully down the snow-covered stairs. “Watch your step…it’s slippy,” said the good Father.

“And remember, my children—God made His creations with a purpose. False pride is the root of vanity, which is the deadliest sin of all.”

As they trudged up the sidewalk in the new-fallen snow Jenny wiped back a tear. “Father Zyhowski isn’t going to help us, is he, Mom?”

Her mom stopped, put her arm around Jenny’s shoulder, pulled her tight and said, “No, dear, I don’t think so.”

“Does that mean God doesn’t want me to have a normal nose?”

“Father Zyhowski didn’t say that, Jennifer.”

“But he said it was a sin to want one.”

“No…not exactly. If you listened very carefully, what he really said was that it’s only a sin if you become too prideful. You wouldn’t be like that, would you, Jennifer?”

“Oh, no, Mom. I would never be prideful, I swear. Never. Cross my heart and hope to die.”

“Maybe we’ll have a talk with a psychologist and see what he says.”

“A psychologist? But aren’t they for crazy people?”

“Not always, dear. Sometimes they’re for normal people, too.”

A few weeks later she and her mom took the trolley downtown for an appointment. Jenny’s ears popped as an elderly black man in a red uniform whooshed them up in the polished-copper elevator to the thirty-fifth floor of the forty-four story Gulf Oil Building, which all of Pittsburgh knew was the tallest structure between New York and Chicago. The waiting room overlooked what in colonial times was known as “the forks of the Ohio,” the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers where they join to form the Ohio. The early French explorers thought the Ohio to be the most beautiful river in the world, calling it “La Belle Riviére.”

What a sight, so high up! The hazy disc of the late afternoon sun glowed just above the horizon, bathing the snow-covered hills in the day’s last light like a pale orange blanket the color of children’s aspirin. It was the end of January, and it had been a very cold winter; not a single barge or boat was moving on the frozen rivers. The weatherman on TV had been warning of flooding next spring if rain melted the snow-pack in the mountains before the ice-dams broke up.

Her mom had promised a psychologist like Dr. Westcott would be very scientific and would not have the same concern for her immortal soul as had Father Zyhowski. He certainly looked and sounded like every psychologist she’d ever seen in the movies: curly-haired with flecks of gray, glasses, pipe, goatee. He told her to stand in the middle of the room while he appraised her, circling, staring while thoughtfully pulling on his goatee, going hmmm…hmmm. “Yes, there’s no question that an operation would vastly improve your daughter’s appearance, Mrs. Abruzzi, no question at all. That, in turn, will raise her self-esteem, regardless of what else may be troubling her. Is there anything else wrong, Jennifer? Anything you’d like to talk about?”

“Oh no, Dr. Westcott.”

“Are you absolutely certain?”

“Oh yes, Dr. Westcott. Absolutely.”

And that was that. As to the problem with Mama Antonia, the wise Dr. Westcott proposed a simple solution. “Why get into a fight with your mother-in-law? Don’t tell her, just do it. Make it a fait accompli. She’ll be mad for a while, but in time, since she loves her granddaughter, she’ll come to accept that it’s for the best.”

Armed with the opinion of a Doctor of Psychology, they took the elevator down twelve floors to keep an appointment her mom had made with Dr. Emery, a famous plastic surgeon. Jenny felt comforted as the doctor used his long, slender fingers to probe all over her face as he explained the procedure, called a “rhinoplasty.”

That night Jenny looked up the new word in her Webster’s; she looked everything up. Rhinoplasty came from the Greek: rhino meant “of or pertaining to the nose,” and plasty was “the act or means of forming.” Using her French textbook and her English/French dictionary, she figured out that in English “fait accompli” meant “accomplished fact,” a done deed that was too late to change.

Dr. Emery’s nurse lent them a book with photos of hundreds of possible noses to choose from. Jenny suggested that the best place to hide it was under her mom’s panties and bras, the only place her father and brothers would never dare to look. Her mom agreed, and every night at bedtime for the next week they thumbed through the nose-book like they were shopping for the perfect gift in a Gimbel’s catalog.

It wasn’t easy choosing which nose would turn out to be the best—Dr. Emery promised she would learn to “grow into it,” no matter which one she chose. In the end, they decided she couldn’t go wrong with a nose just like her mom’s, since it was only bad luck that she’d gotten her dad’s nose instead of her mom’s in the first place.

They planned everything as if it were a C.I.A. spy operation, scheduling the procedure for late August, so Jenny wouldn’t miss a whole summer of swimming. That way, her bandages would come off just in time for a fresh start in junior high school. She had trouble sleeping from keeping the secret for so long and wondering how her life would change. When the day finally came, she packed a suitcase like she was going to Camp Tioshango for a week, just like she had done for the last two years. It was a perfect alibi. Nobody suspected anything.

She was only in the hospital for a night, and when she left her nose was bandaged up like a mummy. Grampy Jim and Grammy Liz let her hide out in her mom’s old room at their house up in Beaver Falls. Nobody but the four of them knew she wasn’t at Camp Tioshango.

Grampy Jim bought her a Made-in-Japan transistor radio so she could listen to her own music, while Grammy Liz took her to the library, where she checked out Gone With the Wind, Little Women, and Black Beauty. She tried to check out Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Peyton Place, but Grammy Liz wouldn’t hear of it.

Jenny spent her time recuperating by reading and listening to the Pirates’ pennant-drive on the radio with Grampy Jim as the Bucs kept winning on their way to the World Series. At dusk, she caught lightning bugs in a mayonnaise jar, and when the stars came out and reception got good, she tuned in stations from Boston to Chicago as “The Twist,” “Chain Gang,” and “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” battled for Number One on the Top 40 countdowns. She watched the Olympics on TV, and was captivated by the women’s diving. She loved going off the high dive—all the Pittsburgh pools had one—but she had never seen a competition with judges holding up scorecards and the divers trying for a perfect ten. If she couldn’t play in Little League because she was a girl, she would be a diver instead.

The entire Abruzzi clan was at Mama Antonia’s big table for Sunday dinner when Jenny and her mom came in, a little late, just back from “camp.” As Jenny took her usual seat all the Abruzzis froze in place like concrete cinder blocks, gaping in astonishment. Mama Antonia squinted from across the table, shuddered, and burst into tears.

To everybody’s surprise, Papa Carlo leaped up and wagged his finger in Mama Antonia’s face. “Hush’a you up, woman. It a good thing, a good thing.” He leaned close to his wife and touched his finger to the tip of his own giant schnozzola. “Whad’a you know? You no gotta see in da mirror. You think I marry you if you gotta da nose? Ha!”

Papa Carlo, having taken charge, came around the table, smiling and spreading his arms wide. He took Jenny by the shoulders, planted two big old-country kisses on her cheeks, and gave her a grandfatherly hug. “Now you bella, mia cara. Molto bella!”

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The previous September, Arthur Bolton McGill III, called “Arthur” by his parents and “Art” or “McGill” by everybody else, had been in the sixth grade at Calvin Coolidge Elementary School in Milltowne, an industrial city of about 30,000 an hour’s drive outside of Pittsburgh. It was a hot September day, just two weeks into the school year, when he began his first serious day-dreaming about girls.The teachers assembled the boys from the sixth-grade classes in the gym and the girls in the cafeteria. They showed each group the same educational film about the birds and the bees. McGill was astonished by the amazing journey of the sperm, which leaped from the gonads through the vas deferens and burst into the vagina, where they struggled upstream, like migrating salmon, fighting their way into the womb. Millions of the squiggly little suckers engaged in an epic battle, fighting it out, winner-take-all, over the single female egg that coyly dropped down from the ovary.

McGill learned a lot from that movie. All those fancy anatomical words were new to him. He had never heard of a penis; his mom insisted he had a “weeser,” although the guys called theirs “cocks,” “dicks,” or “peckers,” and their testicles were “balls” or “nuts.” The boys called the girls’ most secret parts “pussies,” “cunts,” “twats” or “beavers.’’ Some girls loved shooting “beaver shots,” nonchalantly spreading their legs so you could see all the way up to the whites of their panties as they pretended to work on arithmetic problems before they clamped their knees shut and snatched your heart away.

In addition to shooting beavers, accidentally or not, most girls, once they got to junior high, acquired another anatomical feature—breasts. Of course the guys never called them that, instead calling them “titties,” “bazooms,” and “knockers,” while the girls who didn’t develop as quickly were snickered at for being “flat.” McGill never did learn what terms his mom would have thought appropriate to describe a girl’s hidden body parts, as she preferred to never talk about hidden body parts at all. Vaginas and breasts might have been acceptable, but his mom would never have approved of pussies, cunts, twats or beavers.

Before then, McGill had not thought about girls’ anatomies very much, but once he started getting a few pubes on his crotch he thought about very little else. It started in earnest in that fall of 1959, a year and a half after the Russkies sent up Sputnik, the first man-made satellite. That enemy triumph freaked out the American military-industrial establishment, which proceeded to enlist the nation’s schools to help win the Cold War. Working together, the generals and the principals came up with a crash program to get more science into the schools and keep America safe. The call went out: America needed rocket scientists to close the missile gap!
At Coolidge Elementary, this meant duck-and-cover drills to keep the future scientists safe. The entire school would scramble under their desks when the air raid siren blared, and everybody made sure to cover their faces so they’d be safe from flying glass when the shock wave from the H-bombs hitting Pittsburgh blew out their windows. Everyone knew the tune to the corny song in the TV cartoon from the Civil Defense Administration starring Bert the Turtle: “Duck…and cover, duck…and cover,” which had instantly been changed by the older guys to “Fuck…your mother, fuck…your mother.”

All over town, even more bomb-shelter signs—three black triangles on a yellow background—popped up on brick and stone buildings such as churches and schools to let people know they had a safe refuge when the H-bombs started falling. The Sputnik threat also meant that a science lab was installed in one of Coolidge’s sixth-grade classrooms.

McGill’s teacher, Miss Deale, just two years out of college, had the boys in her class enthralled in a collective crush…and boy did she ever seem to enjoy it. “Built like a brick shit-house,” was the highly-complimentary term for her anatomy.

One day, Miss Deale was sitting on the top of the teacher’s desk facing the class, her legs carefully crossed. It was only her second year, and she was already called “Sexy Mary.” Perched on her desk, knees at eye-level, the lucky guys in the middle aisles had the best seats when she parted her legs; everyone knew she did it on purpose.

“You’ll be glad to know,” Miss Deale said, “that we get two hours a week in the new science lab. Since our turn is tomorrow, after lunch we’ll trade classrooms with Miss Williams class and she will give you a tour of the new lab, so we won’t have recess today.”

McGill raised his hand and complained, “It isn’t fair to cut out recess, Miss Deale. Let’s cut out arithmetic instead.”

It didn’t do any good, and after lunch Miss Deale led the class down the halls, the girls in one line, the boys in another, short to tall, and left them at the mercy of “Witch” Williams.

McGill took the seat he always tried to get in every class, way in the back of the room, as far away from the teacher as he could get. Because he was tall, it usually worked. But the first thing Witch Williams did was point to him and say, “You, Arthur, there in the back. Come up here.”

He hadn’t even had a chance to do anything.

“Hold out your hand,” she ordered. Then, with a fat eighteen-inch wooden ruler, she gave him a stinging RAP across his palm. “That’s just to let you know I’ve heard all about you.”

Then Witch Williams gave the class a pep talk about how everyone was to take turns exploring the lab, get to know it well, because they would be there every Friday afternoon for the rest of the year. McGill was still mad they’d stolen recess, so he hogged one of the microscopes, checking out the legs, wings, and compound-eyes of a dead fly.

After a while, some of the girls were buzzing around a microscope, giggling and pleading for Candy Riley, who was looking through the eyepiece, to hurry–hurry–hurry up. They were making a lot of noise, and nobody made noise in Witch Williams’ class. “What’s going on over there?” cackled Witch Williams.

The girls went instantly quiet.

“I said, what’s going on?”

“Nothing, Miss Williams,” one finally answered.

“Then what has you all riled up?”

The room was hushed; nobody said a word. Everybody was frozen, except for Candy, who was still looking through the eyepiece, oblivious to everything around her. Witch Williams said, “Candy, what are you looking at?”
Candy glanced up for an instant, ignored the question, and put her eye back down to the lens.

“Candy!” shouted Witch Williams. “Answer me! What are you looking at?”

Candy blurted out, “Sammy Duncan’s sperms! Want to come see? They’re really cute.”

Witch Williams turned pale and sat slowly down in her seat. She’d probably never come so close to any live sperm before.

Candy, who still had her eye to the lens, asked, “Miss Williams, why are all the sperms swimming in circles? The movie said they always swim in the same direction, like salmon.”

Witch Williams could only manage a gasp as Candy answered her own question. “Is it because they don’t have any place to go? Is that right, Miss Williams?”

Sammy was older than everyone else in the class, almost fourteen, and he hadn’t flunked two whole grades for nothing. He was smiling like a football hero as the girls giggled and grinned when he strutted to his seat after his three-day suspension.

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