Mai Vembada

National Geographic

THE GIRL CLIMBED THE LAST FIFTY METRES to the top of the ridge. Sweat shone on her arms and ran down her face, but she breathed deeply with pleasure. Coming from the deep woods to the north, Murapi was not used to the brilliant sunshine that baked everything all day. Or the lack of tree cover to shield her from potential enemies.

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Some quick help please: short story or novella?

Most of the my short stories run about 3000 words, give or take a thousand. However, I have a tale that is currently at 11,000 words, or almost four times the normal length. My first reaction was to publish it as a novella (Book 2.5 of the Emily & Hilda series). It started life as part of the story that became Rule Number One. It’s short for a novella and long for a short story.

Would you prefer to read it here as a blog post or as a separate book?

Hilda goes to the prom

IF YOU ASKED THEM, Jim and Hilda would have insisted that they were absolutely not going steady. But the knowing winks and glances when they happened to be in the same room told them that no one believed it. Between basketball and the fact that they had most of their classes together, they spent almost their entire school day in the same rooms. They didn’t hold hands or hang around together between classes. By unspoken understanding, they made a point of not sitting together at lunch, which would have doubtless advertised a major relationship in the eyes of their schoolmates.

Hilda was so used to riding to and from school on her bike, that she did not realize what a change her classmates perceived when Jim started doing the same thing. They would not have understood that he preferred the freedom of the bike over taking the bus. They also did not know that he peeled off the Pariser Strasse less than a mile from the school to go home, while Hilda continued into downtown Kaiserslautern on the bike path.

The spring of their junior year was different. One day, as they unlocked their bikes to go home, Jim asked, “Have you been thinking about the prom?”

Hilda paused with the Abus u-lock in her hand.

“No. Why?”

“I only thought of it today when I noticed the tittering and eyerolls in physics class.”

“Oh, yeah. What was that about?”

“One of the guys on the team said I was totally dense not to see the girls coming on to me.”

“I admit that you do have a lot of batting eyelashes following you around.” She grinned and batted hers in an exaggerated, slow motion. They laughed. “So, what about the prom?”

“Why haven’t you thought about it?”

“I don’t know. I know everyone is excited about it, but I don’t see what the big deal is.”

“Sometimes I wonder if you’re American, Hilda.”

“I am, but, like you, I’ve never lived there. At least you spend your summers in Montana, but my grandparents are in London and here. Except for the girls on the team, my friends are all in town.”

“Would you like to go?”

“Are you asking me?”

“You’re the only girl I’ve ever dated. Seems to make sense. I’ve been afraid to ask, because it might signal something, or you might be offended.”

Hilda looked at him while she snapped her u-lock to the bike frame. She glanced at the students walking away from them or boarding the buses.

“Yes. I think it would be fun. Besides, dancing with anyone else would be awkward.” She grinned. They were both well over six feet tall.

“What about the others?”

“What did Bonnie Raitt say to that?”

“‘Let’s give them something to talk about.’ I like it.”

They swung onto their bikes and rode home.

***

One had to be eighteen to have a driver’s license in Germany, so it never crossed Hilda’s mind that a natural consequence of the annual Weasley migration to Montana would include her friend’s getting his own license. Sergeant Weasley lent his son the family car, a Volkswagen Beetle, for the prom.

“Have you driven much?” She asked him on their way to world history one day.

“Yes, I have. Mom doesn’t like to drive. When there’s a commissary run or another errand, she’s happy to let me drive. And on vacations, I do most of the driving. Dad says he drives for a living; he’s fine to have someone else do it.”

“So, this will be the classic setup?”

“Yup. I’ll pick you up at six-thirty.”

“I’m looking forward to it.”

***

Hilda had a black gown, which she wore for classical concerts, recitals, and other musical performances. Tongai and Margareta quickly fought down her insistence that it would be fine for a prom.

“My fault for not asking for duty in Kansas, mudiki.” Little one in Shona. “After you spend some time in America among your peers, you will understand how much the prom means to them.”

“And your friends will all want to know what you wore to your prom, long after you leave here,” said her mother.

For a week, Margareta and Hilda visited dress shops after school. In the end, the tailor who had made many of Margareta’s costumes for the stage suggested a slim gown that clung to her figure but allowed her to move easily.

“This will be easy,” he said, looking at Hilda’s mother. “It’s the dress we made for die Zauberflöte in 1974. Remember that one?”

“Too bad we couldn’t keep the dresses back then. I liked that one.”

“True. But I have the patterns, and Hilda here is a carbon copy of you.” He stood back and admired the teenager. “I was just thinking that either white or a pastel would set off that fantastic skin. You could not have worn a colour like that, Margareta.”

“I agree. What do you think, Hilda?”

Hilda felt a little embarrassed but also pleased to be part of this conversation between masters in their fields. “Are you talking about the outfit on the poster in Baba’s office.”

“That one, yes.”

“I’ve always admired it. I think I’d love to have a dress like that.”

***

For the hair, Margareta marched Hilda to the most expensive hairdresser in town, which happened to be between their apartment building and the Pfalz-theatre.

“Mama, isn’t this too much? We can put my hair up.”

“Nonsense, dear. Rike has been waiting sixteen years for this. She would be offended if I let anyone else do your hair for something like a prom. She said so before every show after I married your father.”

“She was the hairdresser for the Städtebundoper?”

“She still is. And she made me promise.”

In the salon, Hilda sat while Rike Messner examined her hair closely, running her fingers through it, and massaging Hilda’s scalp.

“This is remarkable. She absolutely has your hair, Margareta. I can feel it.”

“So, as easy to work with?”

“Oh, yes. This will be a pleasure. Come, Hilda, let’s look at some magazines.”

***

Jim pulled into a free space outside Hilda’s apartment building. He was still getting over the fact that his father ordered a tailored tuxedo for him. Sergeant Weasley had never shown that much interest in the social life at school.

“It’s a rare chance to get you a quality tux at an affordable price,” his father had said. “We would have had to rent one Stateside. You can keep this for weddings, funerals, command performances – even opening night at the opera, since you seem to have developed a taste for that. A tux is never a waste, as long as you don’t outgrow it.” He patted his flat stomach. Jim knew that his father had never had to let out any of his original uniforms.

Jim took the box with the corsage from the passenger’s seat. He almost dropped it in the street when he cracked his head on the door frame. Pausing to let the dizziness subside, he locked the car and walked upstairs.

***

Hilda felt upset, excited, happy, and afraid. This was a new experience for a girl who had always gotten away with standing taller and acting older than her classmates.

She had been Jim’s friend since fourth grade; she could not imagine going to any event at the school with anyone else. She didn’t hang out at school. Her classmates were friendly, but she wasn’t tuned into their world outside of class and the basketball court.

The reality that she was going to a dance, let alone the prom, with a boy, let alone the captain of the basketball team, had not hit her until this week, when she overheard two girls in the washroom speculating about who Jim was taking to the prom.

“I’ll bet he asks Mirella. He can ask anyone, and she was the homecoming queen last fall.”

“You crazy? Mirella is so into Matt Dukens that I don’t think she knows Weasley is alive.”

“Everyone knows Weasley is alive. Have you seen his pecs when he shoots those three-pointers?”

“Not just his pecs.” Hilda was surprised that their giggling annoyed her. “Still, I’ve never seen him on a date with anyone.”

“Maybe Paisley? I saw them a month ago coming out of Forrest Gump.

“Yeah, but they’re both jocks. That could have been a coincidence, and no one’s ever seen them together here at school. Besides, he could have any white girl he wants at the prom.”

Hilda took in a breath and clamped her hand over her mouth. She had not thought about her skin colour since the first day of fourth grade so long ago.

“You’re probably right. Except for that one movie, I’ve only seen them in class.”

“They do sit together.”

“Doesn’t count. The teachers have been putting those two in the back row forever.”

“Personally, I would love to be able to hide behind Weasley. Much more interesting than the blackboard.”

“Yeah, better view…” The conversation trailed off. Hilda waited to be sure that they had left. When she opened the door to the stall, she was alone in the washroom…

The doorbell rang. Hilda took a short breath and walked to the living room. Margareta went to the door.

Hilda gasped when Jim came into the room. She had never seen his hair combed. Or wearing a tux. His clean, strong chin made her realize that he had never shaved off his fuzz until tonight.

He stood there with his mouth open, taking a short breath as if he wanted to say something. The box in his hands was quivering slightly. Hilda snapped out of the trance first.

“You look good. Really good.”

“You’re – I mean, you’re –” he ran out of words. He looked around for help, but there was only Margareta, standing in the corner smiling as proudly as a mentor watching her protégé win first prize.

“Pick an adjective, James. She won’t bite.”

“Uh, beautiful. No! Stunning. Amazing.”

“Thank you. Maybe I should wear skirts instead of jeans more often at school, eh?”

“I just – I knew you were good-looking, but you’re hot!”

Hilda chuckled and looked at her mother. “Is that what the reviewers wrote when you wore this dress?”

“No, I think that was the reference to smoking hell.” She laughed. “Hilda told me, James. I will call it the Smoking Hell aria from now on.”

Jim chuckled, relieved to have laughter break the spell. “Is this your dress?”

“No, but the tailor who made mine still had the patterns and chose new fabrics and colours.”

“Here.” He offered Hilda the corsage and helped put it on.

“Would you care for something before you go?” Margareta asked.

“I don’t know. Do we have time?”

“I think so,” said Hilda. “Let’s relax and get used to this.”

“Okay. Thanks, Mrs. Paisley. That soda we had before?”

“Sure.” She left the room. They sat on the sofa.

“Is your father here?”

“No. He’s on another mission. The army has my schedule, and they make sure to send him away anytime something interesting comes up. Like our eight-grade graduation, my confirmation, and the prom.”

“I know how that feels. I’m glad to have my dad around for high school. When he was here at Pulaski Barracks, he was in the field almost all the time. At Ramstein, he has a desk job.” Jim thanked Margareta and took a sip. “He is – or was – a helicopter mechanic. What does Mr. Paisley do?”

Hilda looked at her mother, who gave no hint. “We’re not sure. Baba was an Army linguist during the Cold War, but he’s in special operations now.”

Jim put down his glass. “What time do we need to be back?”

“This is Germany, James,” her mother said. “You could go clubbing all night at your age.” She looked at Hilda.

“I have a solo during Communion tomorrow. I’ll need to be rested for that.”

“I’ll return her when she tires of me, ma’am.”

Margareta laughed. “Good plan. I trust her.”

***

Hilda admired the confident, careful way that Jim drove. She had seen enough craziness from the other students. She complimented him.

“It’s Dad’s car and the only car. I can’t afford to be stupid with it.”

“Well, I feel safe.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t drop me off. Just park in the student lot and let’s walk in together.”

“Okay.”

A crowd of noisy students in prom dresses and tuxedos had gathered outside the main entrance to the school. When Hilda rounded the corner from the parking lot on Jim’s arm, conversation stopped as if someone had pressed a big mute button.

Hilda felt Jim’s hesitation. She squeezed his arm and invisibly pushed him to keep walking. During the twenty yards to the door, she noticed how both boys and girls were staring at her. The boys’ expressions were a mixture of surprise and lust. And something else on some of the faces. She wasn’t sure what it was, but it felt negative. The girls were checking her out as they often did, but some were staring at Jim with stunned expressions.

“I guess the eye-batters are getting a surprise,” she whispered to Jim.

“Ya think?” He grinned broadly and extended a high five to the right guard on the basketball team. That gesture snapped the moment and conversation resumed, although at a lower level than before, as Jim and Hilda entered the school. Couples from the two basketball teams followed them in, which made everyone else conclude that there was nothing more interesting happening outside.

Soon, the dancing, drinking and eating was in full swing.

“You’re a good dancer, Jim,” she said on the first slow number.

“You, too. I never thought about it before.”

“This isn’t your first dance, is it?”

“No, but it’s the first time I could talk to my dance partner without shouting or getting a crick in my neck.” He backed his head. “I haven’t seen you at a dance before. Why not?”

“You’re my first date, remember?”

“Oh, yeah.” He seemed intensely happy and spun her in a couple of double-time counts before settling back.

***

A few couples disappeared before eleven, but Jim and Hilda were among the large exodus to the parking lot at the end. They walked slowly, holding hands. By the time they crossed the student parking lot, it was almost empty.

“That was wonderful, Jim. I don’t want this evening to end.”

“Me, neither. Hey, what’s this on the car?” He pulled a notebook-sized page from under the windshield wiper. His face paled as he read. Hilda could see a single word bleeding through. It was too fuzzy to read.

“Jim, what is it?”

He held the note out to her. “I thought we didn’t have this kind of trash here.”

Hilda read the scrawl in red magic marker. Her first reaction was fear for Jim.

Her next was to scan the parking lot. “We’ve got company.”

A trio of boys approached them from the direction of the housing area east of the school. They wore tee-shirts and jeans. Hilda recognized two of them as seniors. The largest one was repeating junior math and physics with her and Jim, having flunked them last year. The one next to him spoke first.

“Didja get the message, Weasley?”

“What do you want, Ramsey?”

“Kick your ass, nigger-lover.”

They were close enough now that Hilda could smell the beer on their breath. She nearly laughed when the thought went though her mind, drinking cheap Budweiser in Germany. Figures. These were the kind of people her baba had told to be ready for. She just didn’t expect it until boot camp. She breathed slowly and moved into the alert state that Tongai had drilled so many nights in the forest.

“No one is kicking anyone’s ass tonight, Ramsey, unless you three want yours trashed. Just go away, all of you.”

“Who do you think you’re talking to, black bitch?”

“You and your two friends. Now leave!” The big one lunged for her. She pulled his arm through and chopped the back of his neck with her elbow. Ramsey came at her, but she used his momentum to swing him into the third boy, who had Jim bowled over from a punch to the solar plexus. As the two assailants went down, she followed them with a straight kick in the back, which cracked Ramsey’s face on the pavement. The one under him started to move but stopped and put his hands up in terror when Hilda dared him to move with a flash of her eyes and a foot on his groin. Jim was standing straight, breathing carefully.

“Jim, do you have a phone? We need to call 112 or get a teacher out here.”

***

The military police station was just across Fifth Avenue from the school, so the response was quick. The sirens brought the teachers out. When they saw that the police were taking charge, they let the principal watch and shooed the onlookers back into the building.

The sergeant who responded recognized the three boys. “Ramsey and his buddies.” He looked at the three of them on the ground, and watched Hilda shake her head at the big one when he tried to move. “What happened here?” he asked Hilda.

“These three put a note on the windshield of my date’s car, then attacked us as we were about to get in and leave.”

“Note?”

Jim gave the sergeant the page with its blood-red insult. “Ramsey admitted that he wrote it.”

The sergeant whistled and handed the note to his partner, whose eyes flared with rage. He called for backup and handcuffed the three boys.

An hour later, the MP who had responded first drove Jim and Hilda back to his car from the MP station.

“Sorry Ramsey ruined your evening. Don’t worry about him. His father has been warned twice already. This will put the whole family on the next plane Stateside.”

“Thank you, officer,” they said. He drove off.

“Where did you learn to fight like that?” Jim asked as they sat in the car.

“Third generation Army brat. My father taught me.”

“Thanks. They would have made a mess of me.” He took the car keys from his pocket. “Did this ruin your evening?”

Hilda leaned over and put her hand on his before he put the key in the ignition.

“It could have, but now it will be the most memorable prom ever…”

***

Hilda tried to let herself in as silently as possible, but the light was on in the living room. Margareta looked up from her book.

“I didn’t expect you back so soon, cära,” she said. “Isn’t there a tradition of a little something after the prom?” She glanced at the wrinkles in the front of the evening gown and looked back up.

Hilda paused to read her mother’s arched eyebrow and the twinkle in her eyes. Then she got it.

“We tried, Mama, but it’s too hard to make out in a Volkswagen.”

© 2022, JT Hine

 

Hilda discovers dating

HILDA LOCKED HER BICYCLE outside Kaiserslautern High School, unsnapped the book-bag pannier and joined the flow of students going to their homeroom. She no longer felt self-conscious about her height, now that some of the boys were as tall as she.

Returning greetings and high-fives, she made her way to room 32B and took her seat at the back of the room. Jimmy Weasley slouched next to her in the same seat he had occupied since their first day together in fourth grade. The little boy whose feet had dangled from his chair had grown to more than six feet and was the captain of the basketball team. He was still pale, with a mess of freckles all over his arms and face, and an unruly mop of red hair. His eyes were blue, but watery compared to the striking lapis-lazuli of Hilda’s.

They had known each other longer than anyone in the school. Most families moved in and out in three or four years, a normal tour of duty, but Jimmy’s father had transferred from Pulaski Barracks to Ramstein Air Force Base, so the family was still living in Vogelweh housing. Jimmy started his adolescent growth only two years ago. He was still self-conscious about his height when he was not on the court. Standing near Hilda helped.

Hilda helped in other ways. A very shy boy, Jimmy did not make friends easily, and he struggled with his studies. In middle school, he had taken more grief at the hands of bullies than she had, especially during seventh grade, when the Paisley family spent a year at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. Jimmy knew that if he were simply near Hilda that the bullies would leave him alone, like they left their friend Ai-lan alone in fourth grade. Even after his size made bullying less likely, he liked having Hilda around. When she scowled and flashed her eyes, new thugs trying to establish their street cred usually backed off.

She was as generous as she was smart. During middle school, she had helped Jimmy after the subjects became too complicated for his mother. Hilda taught him how to approach math problems, how to focus on key words and ideas when reading, and how to take notes. By the time they reached high school, Jimmy had a comfortable B average and seemed destined to succeed on his own. He never forgot.

“Hey, Jimmy, what’s up?”

“Nothing. You?”

“Same. Hey, sit up, man. You make me look like a sequoia.” She grinned as Jimmy unwound himself and sat up. He returned her smile eye-to-eye.

Their homeroom teacher tapped her pointer on the desk. “Good morning, everyone. Today we have what I hope will be the first of similar events for all of you: choosing what you want to do next. For the next hour, you will complete these cards.” She held up a five-by-eight-inch piece of white cardboard. “There is space for you to describe your preferred career, what schools, if any, you think you need or want to attend, and why.”

“Later, the guidance counsellor may call you in for an interview, or you can ask for a meeting yourself. Is this clear?” Assorted nodding heads. “Any questions?”

A sandy-haired boy halfway back on the right raised his hand. “How much does this count towards our GPA?” Grade point average. Titters and laughter.

The teacher smiled. “Funny, though I get that question every year. Nothing. But it may be the most important paper you ever turn in, if it helps you start looking ahead, or if you are wondering what to do with yourselves after high school.”

Just as the teacher returned to her desk, Hilda stood to turn in her completed card. Jimmy tapped her arm with his. “Thanks,” he said. Because she was the first to have her card done, she was surprised. She resisted the temptation to read his card on the way to the teacher’s desk.

***

The following week, the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams were working out at opposite ends of the gymnasium. During a break, the girls’ coach approached her colleagues and suggested a friendly match.

“You’re kidding, right?” The boys’ coach laughed.

“No. I asked them. They think they could whip you.”

“Wait a minute, Melinda. You’re talking about whipping the K-Town Raiders, DODDS champs for four years running.” Department of Defense Dependents Schools.

“Yup. We’re both DODDS champs, so it’s a chance to match two teams that are arguably the best in the league. But the league won’t let us do it in regular play, will they?”

The boys’ coach looked at his two assistants, who stood there with surprised expressions.

“Want to make it interesting?” Melinda asked. She could smell the money baking in their wallets.

“Let me ask the boys.”

Five minutes later, Jimmy Weasley and his championship squad faced off against Hilda Paisley and the most athletic girls in the school. To the coaches’ surprise, Hilda easily won the jump-ball against Jimmy by six inches. It was all downhill from there as the girls’ team stayed ahead for the agreed twenty minutes of the scrimmage.

Hilda knew that Jimmy transformed into a completely different person on the basketball court. He was like Patton with his army: fast, totally in control, guiding his teammates with nods and tilts of the head instead of shouting. He had drilled them in hours and hours of practice.

Hilda’s girls were simply more athletic: faster, nimbler, and all five of them could shoot three-pointers from outside the circle. They, too, had developed a habit of keeping an eye on their captain even in the tightest scramble with their opponents.

At the end of the scrimmage, the score looked like something from the professional leagues: 30-27. When the final whistle blew, Hilda let out a whoop and hugged Jimmy.

“Man, that was fun!”

Jimmy grinned. “Yeah, it was.” He shouted at his coach, not noticing the man’s scowl. “Hey, coach! We should do this more often. It would up our game.”

Melinda Harlow laughed. “Wrap it up, ladies.”

“Clean up and showers!” the boys’ coach said, breaking a reluctant smile. “I want to talk to Ms. Harlow here.”

When the teams came back to the gym after their showers, the two head coaches announced a pizza party. Practice the next day would be cut short to make time for it. By then, the boys’ coaches got over their disappointment, and agreed that both teams would benefit from regular scrimmages. They even picked up the tab for Melinda Harlow and her girls, without admitting publicly why.

***

The basketball season ended as expected, with both Raider teams taking their championships. What was not expected was the extent of the thrashing that they imparted on their opponents. Score differences of twenty points became commonplace during the last half of the season and into the playoffs.

The coaches and the players did not draw attention to their practice matches, although the coed scrimmages were no secret. What drew more attention around the school was the way the two teams interacted socially. Half the players on each team were going steady with someone on the other team, a natural outcome of throwing teenagers with a shared passion together.

Their respective captains did not date, however. Hilda and Jimmy simply never thought of it, having been friends for so long, and being so busy. Jimmy was active in his church, the Scout troop, and helping with his younger siblings.

Besides studies and basketball, Hilda had choir rehearsal Wednesday night at her church. Her mother was preparing to take over from her grandmother as music director. Both women held high expectations for practice and musicianship from Hilda and the other choir members.

On evenings when Tongai Paisley was in town, he and his daughter would don trekking clothes and ride out to the woods around Kaiserslautern. Long before she had filled out the white card in homeroom, she had convinced her father that she was serious about joining the army.

“Not as an officer, Baba, at least not at first. A soldier, like you and my sekuru.” Her grandfather had fought with the British Eighth Army in World War Two.

In the twilight and in the dark, the special forces warrant officer would drill her in backwoods skills, survival techniques, tactics, and unarmed combat. Much of Hilda’s confident leadership was a side effect of these lessons.

When possible, they would go to the shooting range, where Hilda learned how to shoot, fieldstrip, reassemble and maintain a wide range of handguns and rifles.

He knew she was serious, so he did everything he could to equip her not just to survive but to thrive.

***

“Hey, Hilda, wait up!” Jimmy called as she walked to the bike racks after school. The April day had been much warmer than usual for spring, and the sun was still bright and hot on the concrete. She was looking forward to the wind on her body on the way home.

“What’s up? Won’t you miss the bus?”

“No big deal. I can walk home.” He caught up with her and continued walking to the bike racks. “Would you like to catch a movie this weekend? Forrest Gump is at the base theatre. I haven’t seen it. Have you?”

“No, I haven’t. I’ve heard good things about it.” She stopped with her key in her hand. “Wait a minute – are you asking me on a date?”

Jimmy seemed as surprised as she. “Uh, I guess so. I think you’re the only one I’d want to take to a movie, so it felt natural.”

They stared at each other for a minute. “I think I’d like that, Jim. Let me clear it with my parents. Saturday?”

“Yeah. Let’s catch the five o’clock show and eat after.”

“Where shall we meet? You know I live in town.”

“Oh, yeah.” He thought for a minute. “I guess I could come get you, but Dad needs the car to go to work. Do you mind taking the bus?”

“Not at all, but do you still have a bike?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s meet at the theatre or at your house. You’re still on Arkansas Street, right?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll come to your place. It’s an easy ride to the theatre from there.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. I hope my parents clear it. I’ll let you know tomorrow.”

“Okay. Tomorrow. Bye.”

She could have sworn his neck was as red as his hair as he walked away. He did have a spring in his step, though. My first date, she thought. Wow!

Only much later did she notice that she never called him Jimmy again.

***

Going to the early movie and having a light meal afterward was so much fun, that they did it again the next weekend. On Wednesday after the second movie, Hilda walked with Jim to math class.

“Do you like Mozart?”

“I think so. We heard some in music appreciation class in seventh grade.”

“How’s your German? I can’t believe that after all these years, I’ve never heard you use it.”

“It’s okay. Nothing like yours, of course, but I have lived here for seven years.”

Die Zauberflöte is on at the Pfalz-theater this weekend. We can get in for free with our student ID. Want to go?” The Magic Flute.

“I’ve never been to an opera. Sure, let’s do it!”

The following Saturday, Hilda rode to the Weasleys’ apartment building. Jim’s father was out front, playing catch with their youngest, who was in fifth grade.

“Hello, Hilda. James tells me that you’re taking him to the opera tonight.”

“Not really, sir. We both get in free, so we’re just going together.”

“Well, considering that I’ve never seen him take any girl anywhere, especially three times, I must say I’m impressed.” He threw a long, high ball to his son, who scrambled to the edge of the yard for it.

“Is anything wrong?”

“Not at all. His mother and I are delighted. You must have noticed how shy he is off the court.”

“Oh, yeah, kind of.” They both smiled.

“He’s inside, probably struggling to figure out what to wear.”

“It’s casual in the regular seats. The people in the boxes only dress up on opening night.”

“Let him know before he panics.” He waved for her to go on. “And thanks for getting him to ride his bike again. With only one car, that’s a blessing.”

She smiled and nodded as she went into the building.

***

“That was really fun!” Jim held the door as they came out from the theater. “I’m glad the words were in the program, but I understood more than I expected.”

“It’s one of the most popular operas for a reason.” She felt a happy satisfaction to see his enthusiasm for the music and the lyrics.

“How does the Queen of the Night do that incredible thing with her voice —” he looked at his program “— der Hölle Rauch aria. That’s ‘smoking hell’ or something, isn’t it?”

“Close enough.” Hilda chuckled. “I can show you later if you want. It’s kind of public here.”

“Want to eat?” He asked. “There’s a Burger King around the corner.

“Yes, but this is my neighbourhood, so let’s eat at the beer garden over there.” She pointed across the street. “We might as well keep the atmosphere, don’t you think?”

“Sure. We hardly ever eat in German restaurants. Mom says they’re expensive, but I think she’s afraid to go into town without Dad.”

“You can eat cheaper there than at McDonalds. C’mon.” She took his arm and led him across the street. The drivers could hardly miss the two tall teenagers and flowed around them like water in a brook.

“Omigod, Hilda, do you always cross the street like that?”

“Usually. The secret is eye contact and moving steadily. If they know where I’m going, they adjust.” She indicated the other patrons crossing the street. “I think everyone knows that this is the place to go after the show.

“Hilda! Vad gör du här?” What are you doing here? They stopped on the sidewalk. Jim’s jaw dropped at the sight of the incredibly tall woman walking toward them on the arm of the tallest man he had ever seen. The blonde was the spitting image of Hilda, but Hilda had his skin and hair colour.

“Hi, Mama,” she said, “this is Jim Weasley. Jim Weasley, this is my mother, Margareta, and my dad, Tom Paisley.”

Margareta switched to English. “I’m so delighted to meet you at last. Hilda has been a little tight-lipped about her first two dates, but we know you from the basketball court.” They shook hands all around. Margareta looked at her daughter. “Well?”

“We were just coming here for dinner. We went to die Zauberflöte.”

“I wish we’d known. I could have gotten you tickets.”

“No need, Mama, we get in with our student ID.”

“Do you want to be by yourselves for supper?” asked Tongai. “We usually come here, which you should know, Hilda.”

“I forgot about that. I was really thinking about the food.” She looked at Jim. “Shall we join them?”

“Okay.”

As they started toward the door, the crowd noticed the pause in their conversation and closed on Margareta. A half-dozen theatregoers pressed programs into her hands. Tongai smiled and pulled an ultra-fine-point Sharpie from his jacket.

“I didn’t know your mother was famous,” Jim whispered to Hilda. “What is that for?”

“She sang here for many years. People still remember her.” She pulled the door open, motioning that they should go in. At the reception stand, she asked for a place for four in German. The owner approached them from the middle of the room.

Willkommen, Fraulein Paisley!” At Hilda’s quick glance to Jim, he switched to English. “Will you be alone?”

“No. My parents are outside.” She shrugged. “The usual delay, you know.”

He smiled, took four menus, and stood with them. “No problem. Her fans follow her in. It is good for business.”

The table was ready when her parents came in. As the owner ushered them to the back, most of the patrons stopped eating to stare. Many waved and smiled. Jim blushed fiercely.

Once they sat, Tongai and Margareta engaged Jim in easy conversation. Tongai knew his dad. The boy relaxed by the time their food came.

Hilda took her father’s arm when the bill arrived.

“We came here prepared to pay for ourselves, Baba.”

“I know, but I am so pleased to meet James here, that I want to do this. Use your money for the next date.” He looked at Jim. “We’re not scaring you off, are we?”

“No, sir, uh, thanks.”

“Good. When you’re a highly paid Army officer like me,” he said to Hilda, “you can treat the two doddering pensioners. Deal?”

“Deal, but I’ll be a sergeant, not an officer.”

“Don’t bet on that. The Army won’t let you hide under a bushel for long, mudiki.

“What’s mudiki?” asked Jim.

“Little one. Family joke now, eh?”

Jim smiled. “My dad calls me little squirt.”

“Same idea.”

Tongai paid the bill. They rose and walked out. Hilda and Jim crossed the street to where their bicycles were locked; her parents turned left and walked home.

***

As Jim and Hilda rode down Arizona Boulevard before the turnoff to the Weasleys’ apartment building, Hilda pointed to the park on the corner.

“Let’s stop there. There’s no one in the park, and I can show you how the soprano does those passages in the – what did you call it? – Smoking Hell aria. That’s funny: I have to tell my parents.”

“Sure. Why here?”

“Wait till you hear it.” She led him to the bike racks and then to a picnic shelter. “First I need to warm up. It’s not easy.”

Hilda did some vocalises and swoops and a few scales. “What differences did you notice between opera and, say, the pop artists or, even better, country-western?”

Jim thought for a moment. “For one, something about the opera singer is clearer, more distinct. Not that I can understand the words any better – I got it – country singers swoop from one note to the next. It’s cool, but the opera singers don’t do it.”

“You got it! Most people don’t learn that until the choir director screams at them for the two-hundredth time. Actually, they do swoop, but only if the composer puts it in the music. You’ll notice the orchestra doing it too.” Listen.

Hilda sang a few bars of Shut up and kiss me. After she reached the first refrain, she stopped.

“That just came out!” he said. “I love that song.”

“I figured you would know it. Hear the swooping in the refrain?”

“But you were very articulate on the first verse.”

“So was Mary Chapin Carpenter. She sang many different styles before Columbia Records made her a country-western singer.”

“And the Queen of the Night?”

“Ah, now that’s a matter of getting the feel the composer is going for, which is why opera stars get the big bucks.” Listen.

Hilda sang the der Hölle Rauch aria, very slowly at first, then ever faster, until she was popping off the thirty-second notes like bird shot. Jim sat on the bench in wide-eyed wonder.

“Wow. You nailed each note. I could feel spaces between them. No sliding.”

“That’s how she does it.”

“That’s so smooth it looks easy. How did you learn to do that?”

“My mother had to sing that role more often than any other, because the Mozart was so popular. She made me sing everything she had to.”

Jim caught his breath, then asked, “how was the soprano tonight compared to your mother?”

“Honestly?” He nodded.

“She was good, very good. But Mama is in a different league altogether. If life had dealt her a different set of cards, she would be a poster child for the Met or La Scala. I’ve never heard anyone who could match her.”

“I love what you did with that song, and this is so interesting. Can we go to another one?”

“Sure. I think der Freischütz is on in two weeks. Want to do that?”

“I don’t know anything about it.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll bring some articles, the libretto and a recording on Monday, if you’d like.”

“Cool. Thanks!”

***

Jim discovered a new passion for opera and classical music. He still liked the pop and country music, but he was in awe of the skill of the singers he watched at the Pfalz-theater. His admiration for his friend Hilda grew in new directions.

Hilda rode home that night feeling something different about her friend Jim. She could not put her finger on it but being with him felt good. Very good.

 

© 2022, JT Hine