Sally was at the threshold of womanhood and she knew it from the hours spent before the mirror admiring God’s miraculous evolution from a boring, simplistic state of angles and straight lines to the complex math of subtle curves. Pam, on the other hand, though perhaps as blossoming—conceivably more so—was unaware of it, or did not dwell on it. There lay the difference—that which is market-able, though resistant, perhaps indifferent to fashionable demand and supply owing to the war, and what has been marketed by the commercial dictum of society. Neither—though surely the most logical candidate—was Janie marketed. The publicity for some six months of the Most Beautiful Child contest devastated this very private child. She underwent excruciating embarrassment from well-wishers and envious friends alike. Had it not been for the gallant Johnny running defense for her in the fourth grade, she would have pleaded with her mother to send her to Catholic school—except she feared she would have had to stay there beyond the year, since that was what her mother wanted to begin with. In fact, Janie had convinced her mother at an early stage that Johnny would protect her in first grade and forevermore. Now older and more beautiful, she had no interest in vanity other than what Johnny thought of her—despite the overriding ambivalence of a receding rôle.
"Hello, John, are the lights still on in London?" Sally asked rhetorically, satirically, coldly, as she spread a ruby lipstick-grin across her otherwise naturally lovely face.
His heavy brows raised him from his absorptions. "Gee, Sally, don’t ask me, ask Pam—she’ll know."
"Oh? The decision rests with her, does it?" she asked cryptically while glaring at the English girl.
He shook his head in bewilderment. "Sally, there you go again—what decision?…you didn’t ask for a decision."
Pam broke in. "No, Sally, they haven’t been on for sometime."
Sally noted Pamela’s tragic tone. She felt a cringe of guilt, yet forged ahead. "Oh, I’m truly sorry to hear that, Pamela." She looked down at his sandy shock. "I hope John heard that…that the lights are indeed out." She tossed her bony hip at Johnny and continued on with Janie, who seemed embarrassed, if not confused.
"What in blazes was that supposed to mean?" he asked, scratching his head, even though he sensed deep in the dark chambers of his being the breath of Sally’s wrath and genius blowing on the spark. He wondered if she wanted it to rekindle, or perhaps she did not mean the lights in London were out but that hers were for him. Oddly as he observed them till they were approached by Jimmy at the exit, he gave equal time to Janie’s blossoming figure. He joggled his head over his shameful observation of her figure last summer at the pool, together with amazement that seven or eight months could make such a difference.
"You don’t want to know," Pamela answered, curiously playing the rôle of an older sister. Pamela went on, "Furthermore, neither do I. I have no desire to be drawn into some petty squabble. There are other matters too important. Don’t misunderstand me, John,…Johnny; I’m not inferring pettiness in either of you for that matter.…And actually you have been very comforting this first day…and stimulating; but I have no desire to get involved in your personal matters—I’m sick at heart over world conflict as it is."
"Yeah, I guess, people do bring up a bundle of problems we could do without." He glanced over at the exit: Janie looked dejected while Sally was repeatedly jabbing her finger into Jimmy ’s chest.
"I’m sick over the pedestrian fact that you live across from me!" Sally shrilled.
"Hey, little bombshell, I’m not exactly thrilled either!" Jimmy replied.
"Maybe you should be thrilled! It could conceivably inject some sense into you, in lieu of always wise-cracking to the point of cruelty. Janie’s religion is none of your business and if she wants to come to school with her face totally blackened that’s her prerogative!"
"Aw, gosh, Sally, no matter what it is, you make a G-man’s case out of everything! I was just havin’ a little fun with her," he beseeched in a subdued tone.
She jabbed him in the paunch. "Of course, it’s just like you to pick on the nicest person in the school because you know you can get away with it—well, not this time. I’m going directly to the office and have you suspended for your loathsome behavior."
"Now, hold on, Dragon Lady, I never meant no harm, scouts honor," he explained, pressing palms in mock prayer.
Janie dried her tears and touched Sally’s arm. "No, Sally, don’t make trouble. I know Jimmy didn’t mean anything by it—others with ashes tolerate the ridicule." Sally withdrew her arm.
Relieved, Jimmy changed his tone. "See, Sally? There you are! Why can’t you have common sense like the rest of us in the even classes? And talking about religion, you and Janie go to the same church! Maybe if you had gotten ashes you’d have a little forgive-ness in your heart right now. I know you hate me, but you’ll hurt my mother if you tell on me."
"Just like you to hide behind your mother’s apron strings. But right now I’m not thinking of your mother; I care about Janie. You see in her a weakness to forgive a fool. I see it as more strength than you and I will ever have in a lifetime. Now either you apologize with legitimate meaning right now and then escort her to her next class and carry her books, or you will hear your name called over the PA."
He turned to Janie who was already smiling at him. He cleared his throat. "Gosh, Janie, I’m really sorry. You know me and my big mouth. Why, the ashes actually give a nice touch to an already loving face." He reached for her hand to kiss it.
Janie giggled and drew her hand away. "Okay, Jimmy, I’ve forgotten it already—except for these." She handed him her books. "Now, take me to my sewing class."
"Hey, that’s great—how about making me a parachute that can dance with the wind above the telephone line like Johnny’s used to do?" They laughed as they left—including Sally with shaking head.