Maltshop Guy: What’s outside of Pleasantville?
David: Oh, it doesn’t matter.
Margaret Henderson: What’s outside of Pleasantville?
David: There are some places that the road doesn’t go in a circle. There are some places where the road keeps going.
Margaret Henderson: Keeps going?
David: Yeah, yeah. It just keeps going. It all keeps going.
– Pleasantville (1998)
CHAPTER 1: Wootton
Busted, she thinks, as trouble arrives with a tap tap tap.
“Ruthie, I can never tell if you’re late for your last class or early for your next one?” says the Principal as he approaches holding his T-handle cane, tilting his head to the side as he does when he’s not so much wondering at all.
“Dr. Coles, question.” The sophomore shakes a textbook at chest height. “Why’s it called History? Is it because the stories are about men?” She cracks it and points to a random page. “And manifest destiny?”
“Go on,” he says, repressing a smile. “Hey. Your hair–red now?” Ruth shrugs, and gives the wink of a veteran winker, where the non-winking eye moves not a millimeter. Principal Coles misses it; he’s already lurched away, dragging his withered leg, seeking more teen-sized puzzles to solve.
It’s 11 am at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Maryland on Valentine’s Day, 1996, and Ruth had way overslept. She’s at her locker in the empty corridor, not far from her third period History class. An irredeemable minute remains before the bell rings, signaling students to sprint from one teacher to the next.
Ruth is an inch past five feet, with a ponytail, hazel eyes, and freckles on her cheeks. Dangling from her neck is the only jewelry she owns, a chain with an ivory dolphin figurine hanging from it. With jeans and a t-shirt featuring the OutKast logo, she wears scuffed combat boots that add another two inches to her height. A transfer student in her first month at the school, she’s yet to find a friend, but then her attendance has been spotty.
She whirls the dial and pulls open her locker door, looping her black winter coat with its twice-patched sleeve on the hook inside. At the bottom is a clutter of classroom work that remains unstarted or unfinished. She plants the textbook on the locker shelf, and unbands and rebands her ponytail, stalling before heading off to appraise days past.
History, she thinks, could be the school subject most shot through with hubris. Science changes, with inventions. In Math, some nerd’s always cooking up a new theorem, or disproving an old one. PE–they create fresh games yearly, like Pickleball, all the rage at Wootton. And English–there are loads of books published annually, even if the old fogie teachers insist on browbeating everyone with the tired classics.
Everyone figures that History–arrogant, prideful History–is immutable, unchangeable. It has no need to throw anything on in the morning but a comfy sweatsuit and holey slippers. Folks believe it can’t be altered and they dare anyone to try.
But they’re wrong.
* * *
On Valentine’s Day in 1996, Bill Clinton is President. In January the Dallas Cowboys won yet another Super Bowl and 31 inches of snow fell on the eastern part of the USA.
Thomas S. Wootton’s Student Government Association, aka the SGA, is powerful. Ali, a junior and three-time Homecoming Queen, isn’t part of it; she’s not into groups or clubs or sports. The SGA makes Valentine’s Day quite the rigmarole at Wootton, encouraging students to participate by buying cards, single roses and boxed chocolates, at prices ranging from $1 to $20. The SGA encourages students to give … and receive. The carton for like and love notes must be “sufficiently narrow to fit in front of your locker, jutting out no more than twelve (12) inches.”
Ali’s is made of sturdy fibreboard, two feet square. As the bell rings signifying the end of third period and the beginning of lunchtime, she approaches her locker, #436. She gives not a glance to her filled-to-the-brim Valentine’s receptacle, and ignores the mob of students retrieving their food, checking themselves in mirrors on the back of locker doors, and contemplating their places in the rigid pecking order.
To her right, at her open locker, is the new girl with her dyed red hair; Ali doesn’t offer a hello. Ali’s aware she’s been at the school for four weeks, but the new girl never says hi and Ali’s not a say hello first type of girl. Ali notices the redhead’s empty Valentine’s box.
At the water fountain, a tall boy with a five o’clock shadow goggles the new girl. “Carpenter, what’s goin’ on!” he shouts. He struts toward her and leans close, all two hundred and thirty pounds of him.
“What have you heard about me so far?” the boy asks, and she doesn’t make eye contact. He slaps her locker door shut; she moves her fingers just in time to keep them uncrunched. “Hey–I’m talking to you,” he says with a glance at his buddies hovering at the water fountain; they guffaw into their hands. He pats her on the head roughly, then ruffles her hair while squeezing her skull tight. “Might wanna wash it,” he says, wiping his hand theatrically on his pants leg while booting her card-less carton down the hall.
He sashays over to his acolytes and pantomimes high fives. “She digs me,” he says. Then much louder: “But that dog’s got flies,” while he claws a lunch bag out of the hand of a kid walking by. The kid begins to protest, then thinks better of it. The tall boy pulls a box of HoHos out of the bag, and says one word to his buddies: “Score!”
Ali swans past the girl with red hair, then hits the brakes. “Carpenter’s your last name?” asks Ali. She’s eleven inches taller than the red-headed girl, whose hands are mid-tremor. “You know Ben?”
“No, no. He likes to say I’m flat as a board,” she answers. “I have three classes with that idiot. I’m Ruth,” and she offers her right hand, then pulls it back when there’s no shake forthcoming. Ali ping-pongs, in visual analysis mode: Ben, then Ruth; back to Ben. “Explain?” Ali asks.
Ruth worries Ali’s checking her chest and cuts her eyes there as her cheeks flush to scarlet. “Doesn’t matter,” she stammers, jiggling her locker handle. She twirls the dial. “He hates me because I wouldn’t let him cheat off me on a math test, by the way.”
Ruth says this in effect to no one, as Ali is gone; with a few swings of her long legs she approaches Ben, who ogles her. “New talent?” he asks jokingly. No one at the school doesn’t know Ali. “Where from?” he asks, to the complete delight of his sidekicks, who hoot with laughter, spraying HoHo bits from their mouths.
Ali tucks a stray blonde curl behind her ear as Ruth observes, hand idle on the locker dial. Ali slides nearer to Ben, who is six foot four; the hallway becomes quiet. Ruth imagines they’re a secret couple, the most attractive ever at Thomas S. Wootton High School. Ali cants her mouth toward Ben’s mouth. Imagining a kiss is imminent, repugnance washes over Ruth. “Ben,” she hears Ali whisper. He dips his chin an uncertain inch.
Ali propels her knee like a hammer from hell, connecting to Ben’s crotch with a force lifting him off the floor, and he folds to form an inverted L, his torso level with his knees. “Ben, Dover,” answers Ali. “It’s in Delaware.” She whips her knee a second time, making a minuscule adjustment as it lands, such that her strike is tangibly to the side of his aquiline nose, so as to not drive it deep into his skull. He crashes to the ground like a box of hangers, holding his groin and head.
Blood gushes from Ben’s nose; Ali floats away. Ruth dons her coat and heads to the football field, to her habitual solo lunchtime site on the bleachers, where she wrenches her uncut bologna sandwich in two, and chews.
“Join me?” Ten rows higher on the bleachers, at the tip-top, is Ali. Ruth gathers her lunch and approaches, sitting on a bleacher row one below Ali, who pats a spot next to her. “Can’t be easy transferring mid-year to a school like Wootton,” Ali says. She’s coatless.
Ruth maneuvers higher so they’re side by side. “Yep,” is all Ruth says, and tries to think of a question not so mundane as “are you a cheerleader?” or “do you have an after school job?” She lifts the bread on her sandwich. As usual, no mustard.
“Have things worked out like you’d hoped? Would you say?” Ali asks without preamble, her mouth full of her turkey croissant sandwich.
“No,” says Ruth, setting her sandwich down. “You?”
“I guess,” Ali says, chewing. She swallows. “Looking like I do–” and she’s interrupted by a fire engine screaming by. “It’s no picnic,” Ali continues. She starts on an apple, and Ruth notices that her teeth are as straight and white as you’d see in a fashion magazine.
Ruth rips the plastic off a sleeve of store bought cookies that bear a REDUCED FOR CLEARANCE sticker. “You’d rather be ugly?” Ruth asks, and instantly regrets it. She offers a cookie to Ali, who shakes her head no. “Also–um. Thanks for helping me–Ben and his gang of simpletons have been torturing me–daily.”
The stretch of silence is a desert, giving her time to reconnoiter Ali’s fingernails (manicured), her boots (expensive) and her hair (streaked blonde, by a professional). Ruth can’t abide another second. “Want to hangout after school one day? Like go to the mall?”
With a mighty heave, Ali sends the apple core onto the football field and collects her hair into a graceful updo with a scrunchy she fishes from her pocket. “They won’t attempt to breathe the air you breathe anymore,” Ali says, not answering the question. “I gotta go. AP English. Advanced Placement.” Ruth nods, and Ali stands and departs, flying down the bleacher steps at warp speed.
“AP Life,” Ruth says to herself, and bites into her stale cookie.
* * *