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FICTION / The Judgment of Helen / Linda McMullen

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I slide along Vine in a strapless bra and my left sock. It’s October – but autumn, like a long-awaited sophomore prime-time sitcom, seems to be enjoying an extended summer hiatus. It’s just after two and the streetlamps tinge the Troy College campus’s brutalist architecture with a glimmer of grandeur.

Also, the walks are pleasingly lined with hornbeam hedges.

The first suicidal leaves alternately crackle and whisper beneath my foot and sock, and I toy with the notion of finding a minimally pulverized one for modesty’s sake. A late-model lemon-colored one will do.  It’s oak, not fig, but no matter.

I hear walrus-plodding footsteps behind me.

I check my twelve, three, and nine: a blue-lit phone on my left, the student union on my right. Just in case. Then I glance, as if Vogue-camera-caught, over my shoulder.

It’s a police officer. Male, perhaps 6’2”, with a shy blond goatee. “Miss!” he calls.

I sigh. Shouldn’t have acknowledged the call.

He approaches, then his gait collapses. He is clearly caught between two worlds, trying to meet my eyes and to tame a crushing, near-Catholic level of embarrassment. If this were a black-and-white film, he might arrest me – and inform me, in an overblown mid-Atlantic accent, that I’m obstructing an officer in the course of his duty.

“Are you all right, miss?” I can almost see steam emerging from the vent between his scarlet neck and his shirt collar.

“Yes, thank you, officer,” I say, in my best acing-the-internship-interview voice.

“Have you been…attacked?”

“Oh, no, nothing like that. I’m just fine.”

He squints, considering. There’s a strong possibility that I’m still wearing eau de Boone’s Farm, but my consonants are as crisp and my vowels as pure as Henry Higgins could wish. Finally he sputters, “You can’t walk around like that!”

I refrain from pointing out that I have covered half a mile at a respectable pace – sober officers of the law not being known for their senses of humor, particularly on the graveyard shift – and, at a guess, pre-coffee. I say, “You’re very kind to be concerned.”

He says, “Wait here.” He goes to his squad car and returns with a Mylar blanket in a plastic pouch. I obligingly wrap it around: instant Lady Gaga-esque halter-toga glamour. Iris would appreciate it. 

“Thank you, officer.”

One exhalation too far: he says, “I’m going to need you to take a breathalyzer test.”

 

In the charming seclusion of the college drunk tank (I am not, in point of fact, intoxicated, but there may have been some Strawberry Hill pre-gaming) I determine that, whatever my sister might think, silver lamé is not really my color; also, I ignore the interrogatory overtures from the female sergeant on duty.

She leans toward me, breathing Virginia Slims and rancid arabica beans into my face. “Were you at the Paris Theatre yesterday evening?”

“No, ma’am.”

Technically, I had arrived there at 12:05 a.m.

 

I had slipped out into the night wearing a cocktail dress under my black trench, and sneakers. I entered Homer Hall – as instructed – through the freight elevator servicing the campus’s main performance venue, unimaginatively christened the Iliad Theatre.

I entered, stage left.

With the ghost light casting oblique shadows, I crept across the stage and down into the vacant house. Some deft hand had stuffed a program from the recent production of Equus beneath the oak door to the lobby. I passed through it, and into the eerily-empty classroom portion of the building. A light poured through a glass door on my left. I mounted black stairs to the fourth floor, where a few lamps had been placed in the hallway, and a former beauty queen in white wearing an earpiece greeted me. “Your name?” she whispered.

“Helen,” I replied.

She arched an eyebrow. It’s also what I would have said if I were being clever, so I didn’t fault her for double-checking the list on her clipboard.

“Follow me,” she said, and we strutted toward the Paris Theatre.

It was a black box venue, although it could have been purpose-built for the event. It contained a single row of twelve chairs, and one additional seat, forming an L. I entered, glanced at the others: a couple of Midwesterners with sunny dispositions and round faces – New Yorkers of every hue – a few southerners – a West Coaster or two. All more-than-worthy competitors. We retrieved the stilettos we had provided to the ski-masked organizer-representative a few days before. Then we took the twelve seats, facing the mirror. It was actually one-way glass, the refuge where (normally) the stage manager and the sound and light operators could watch and run the show, unseen.

The judges, the lady in white informed us, were seated there.

The members of the Four-A or Foray (no one has ever seen it written) scholarship committee.

Iris’s former babysitter, June, who graduated last year and informed me of this unusual opportunity, said it stands for the Annual Anonymous Alumni Allocation, but who knows? It’s reportedly a plush bank account in the Caymans, and…this.

The lady in white introduced herself as Erin and reminded us of the rules: We were competing for a scholarship on the basis of our wisdom, grace, and beauty. We were free to leave at any time. We were not to mention our participation in this event to anyone. One of the west coasters made the obligatory Fight Club joke and she was promptly ejected for not taking the event seriously.

One down, I thought, glad that (for once) I’d held my tongue, because that joke had been right there.

And then we were eleven.

Erin reminded us that they’d seen our transcripts and essays, and asked us to rise, and to circle the chairs.

And so it begins.

This event remains something of a Troy College legend.  Many called the event anti-feminist (when not calling it something worse), and I supposed that was fair. But I would have also noted that the feminist crowd had less on offer. If they had given me a crack at free tuition, room, and board, I’d have participated in their Elizabeth Warren Forensics Competition or RBG Debate Forum or their Inner Beauty Pageant too. Until then, there I was.

On parade.

Erin held her left hand to her ear, and made curlicue notes with her right. “Yes. Yes. I see.” She abruptly thanked one of the Midwesterners for coming – some previously overlooked transcript anomaly, apparently – and then, newly ten, we sat, birds on a telephone wire. The judges said they would ask each of us a question. The girl to my left – Daphne – got, “What is your life’s ambition?” Cassandra got a question about overcoming adversity. And I got a question that would do well enough:

“How have you served, and how will you serve, your community?”

The truth was superior to anything I could invent.

 

“Helen –” This new sergeant hesitates. I sit up, and the Mylar crinkles like a socially-impaired moviegoer’s Dorito bag. The sergeant frowns, helplessly. My last name is relatively unpronounceable and I don’t bother to offer the correct version. “Yes, that’s me.”

“Drinking as a minor is a Class 2 misdemeanor –”

How many times had my father trotted that out at family parties over the years, when Aunt Denise was offering the cousins a taste of her rancid peach schnapps?

“And so is public nudity –”

Also raised routinely, although less for Aunt Denise’s benefit than that of my cousins Ryan and Dean. Their failure to heed him resulted in a Thanksgiving Now Only Mentioned In Hushed Whispers. Mom said if he couldn’t be troubled to do anything productive for the family, that he could at least abstain from policing it.

Dad, it goes without saying, went another way.

“But Officer Thompson stressed that you were not engaged in any lewd behavior, so we’re just going to levy a fine for underage drinking.”

“Thank you,” I issue, stiffly.

“It’s $500.”

“Can we revert to the public nudity charge instead?”

“No,” she replies, unimpressed at my initiative. Her expression is eerily reminiscent of my mother’s, last Christmas morning, when my father’s gift to her proved to be a plastic bag full of the best confections our local 7-11 had to offer, topping a receipt dated in the wee hours of December 25. He ceased to look abashed when he discovered that her gift to him included a generous check made out to Alcoholics Anonymous, with his name in the memo line.

Not our worst holiday, actually. It was a nice change to have Dad home; he was usually at the station. And Iris got a nice sketchbook (Mom had forgotten to take the clearance sticker off) and some pencils; she had immediately begun producing images of her dream concert: Gaga and Adele. It was promptly ruined during the Christmas cake conflagration (schnapps bottle tug-of-war; candle; uproar).

“Why can’t we switch the charges?” I ask.

“This is not a bargaining session,” she snaps, and turns away.

 

“For me, this scholarship means…liberation,” I began. I saw a couple of the other contestants stifling snickers. “Excuse me,” I said, toward the invisible judges. Without even an eyelash flicker, I turned to the nearest giggling Junior Barbie, and added, sweetly, “I’ll be happy to listen to your treacle when it’s your turn.”

She sobered, but her eyes were mean.

“As I was saying…” I recapped my mandatory soup-kitchen-elderly-cheering-riverbank-trash-pick-up circuit in high school, and then pirouetted toward the real act of service I wanted to discuss.

“I love my parents, individually, but not in the same house, and certainly not creating a toxic fug for my sister Iris.”

The college had a rule that freshmen and sophomores had to live on campus. But…with the scholarship money…I could pinch every counter-scrubbing penny from my Student Food Services drudgery and put it toward an apartment junior year. It would be enough to bless and keep us both, as long as Dad agreed to keep us on his health insurance.

I handed the budget sheet I’d brought with me to Erin, who accepted it upside-down, like a dead fish.

I said, “This scholarship will enable me to perform a lifetime of service: saving a young girl from an otherwise inevitable hell.”

And I sat down.

Junior Barbie coughed.

Erin moved toward a corner, began erecting a partition or a tent or a bivouac out of PVC pipe and a stage-curtain remnant. Junior Barbie went next, unprepossessing as a rotting carnation. The others spoke too – an exquisite black girl from Atlanta named Corinne made a persuasive case: the scholarship would free up enough money at home to fund her mildly autistic brother’s trade school ambitions. A Filipina-American, Mahalia, was the first in her family to go to college; she wanted to set an example for her five brothers and sisters by finishing…and going on to medical school. A blonde from Nebraska, Stephanie, sought a degree in agribusiness to rescue her family farm (Dwindling Acres).

The field narrowed from twelve to four – with Junior Barbie out, and Corinne, Mahalia, Stephanie, and myself as the last women standing.

Erin spoke, like the oracle.

“The finalists are invited to demonstrate their graces.”

That was the moment.

I retreated behind Erin’s makeshift partition, along with Mahalia and Stephanie, but Corinne frowned. “What are you doing?”

How was it possible that she didn’t know?

Erin high-heel-hobbled over to whisper something; Corinne’s beautiful dark eyes flew open, and she just murmured, “Uh-uh,” and exited.

I removed my heels (gratefully) and then everything else (less delightedly) – then the three of us reappeared, in all our classical glory. I fancied us models for Dégas, or some other soft-focus artist with a kind brush.

At that exact moment, there was a crackle from the judges’ booth, and an announcement on what is normally the stage manager’s channel, what cynical thespians refer to as “the God mike”:

“They’re coming!”

We scattered, no longer semi-divine nymphs, but suddenly-illuminated cockroaches – and I managed to don only the two articles of clothing before security burst in, be-badged, be-flashlighted, and immediately beleaguered. Mahalia cleverly flung the curtain in the man’s face, and we darted out the far door, each spiraling down a separate staircase, and vanishing into the autumn dark.

 

Clutching a $500 rose-colored ticket and elegantly swathed in a work-release uniform, I retreat in good order to my dorm at about five. Roz is at the front desk. “Hey.”

“Hi,” I return. Roz is the Strawberry Hill procuress for floors two and three only (“I have my reasons,” Roz explained once, darkly).

“Someone left a bag for you,” she says, depositing the staticky plastic sack on the counter. It contains the remainder of my clothing, neatly folded.

“Thanks,” I say. She looks a thousand questions, but I just offer a regal nod after confirming that my room key is, indeed, still inside my trench-coat pocket.

Back in my room, I discover that I have a What’sApp message from a private number.

Perhaps you could afford to keep yourself and your sister – barring calamity. But we do not believe that you have parsed the legal ramifications, or discussed this with your parents (or sister), or considered what you should do, should your parents decline. We are, in short, deeply concerned about your judgment.

That said, we admire your obvious affection for your sister, your academic success, and your obvious tenacity.

…and my shapely bottom, no doubt.

We have decided to be generous, and to divide the scholarship funds among the three finalists; we will deposit funds equivalent to 1/3 of your annual tuition with the registrar forthwith.

We also recognize that the hasty end to the competition may have caused the contestants some difficulty; therefore, we will be sending each of you $1000 via PayPal in the next few days.

The message is unsigned.

I don’t care for the split decision, or the lofty tone of the message, as if the committee were indeed descending from Olympian heights to grace me with a few ambrosial crumbs. I do have a written strategy – and an objection-tree diagram – prepared for the inevitable conversation with Mom and Dad; I think they’ll be relieved, frankly.  And Student Legal (admittedly, not practicing lawyers, but they are supervised by one) explained that the paperwork was a headache, but ultimately feasible.

Also, a third of a golden apple is better than none.

I scribble down some figures…

…if I can just get myself promoted to shift supervisor…I might still be able to manage a jovial little apartment for myself and Iris, by junior year…Twenty-one months to go.


Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Chaleur, Burningword, Typishly, Panoply, Open: Journal of Arts and Letters, Allegory, Enso Publications, The Write Launch, Palaver, Curating Alexandria, SunLit, Coffin Bell Journal, Five:2:One, Every Day Fiction, The Remembered Arts Journal, Raw Art Review, Weasel Press, Dragon Poet Review, Scribble, Cosumnes River Journal, Watershed Review, the Poet's Haven, Pixel Heart, Ordinary Madness, Flash Fiction Magazine, Metafore, the Anti-Languorous Project, The Passed Note, and Luna Station Quarterly.