Mellow old Philadelphia, where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have flourished for centuries, now has a new claim to fame. The City of Brotherly Love has been proclaimed number one in the nation...for hostility. English teacher Amanda Pepper, crabbily gearing up for summer school at exclusive Philly Prep, feels she fits right in with the hostility mode.
And it's going to get worse. Amanda gets her first prickling of unease in her own classroom, where a reading of Romeo and Juliet activates some very strange chemistry. Then the computer science teacher begins receiving anonymous "go-back-to-Africa" phone calls. A young Vietnamese boy dies in a drive-by shooting. And late one night, outside a Chinatown massage parlor, student April Tuong is kidnapped.
Random violence? Perhaps. But Amanda refuses to let gentle April vanish without at least asking a few questions, starting in her own classroom.
Gillian Roberts's Philadelphia is the real thing. So, too, are her wit and humor, and her gripping story of Amanda's tenacious search for the missing girl--along the brick streets of historic Philadelphia, in exotic Chinatown, and through the shady, sinister back alleys of the impoverished. The truth, when she finds it, is appalling, deadly, and much too close to home.
She wasn’t the only female constantly referring to him. Not by a long shot. Phyllis-the-politically-correct-and-sibilant-hyphenate, whose marital status was still murky—she referred to one man as her “erstwhile husband” and another as her “so-called husband”—remained in hot pursuit, as did Edie Friedman. The two women’s competition for the prize had been the first week’s entertainment. They’d bared their teeth in false smiles as each of them, almost on a daily basis, appeared with home-baked “surprises” they’d had sudden urges to create. Never had the Philly Prep lunchroom contained such elegant cuisine.
Phyllis and Edie upped the ante, day by day, producing more and more esoteric delights. Figs wrapped in filo, and fruit tarts the size of one’s thumbnail, and meringues swirled into swan shapes.
Five drove them crazy by seeming bent on a democratic appreciation of every offering. No favorites, and a decided lack of a sweet tooth. With one of his charismatic smiles, he most often declined their baked goods. The rest of us snarfed his rejects.
The Phyllis and Edie show ended its run after ten performances when Five absented himself from the lunchroom altogether. He decided to use the hour as conference time—he said my work with April had inspired him—and he seemed as popular with his students as he was with the female staff. I’d squelch a surge of jealousy when, on my way back to my room after lunch, I’d see half a dozen students crumpling sandwich wrappers as they concluded an hour with Five. I’d seen it and squelched it again today.
I hoped the attraction was that his side of the building was cooler than mine.
“I thought to study psychology,” April now said, “but I am writing this paper and I am wanting to study politics as well.”
I hated interrupting her flow of ideas with usage corrections, but that was my job. “I want to,” I said. “I want to study politics in the future—in college, perhaps? And I want to study politics now, too.”
“I am study politics now!” she said. “Mr. Dennison is instructing.”
In my next life I am going to teach something simpler than English, a language as complicated as all the different people and tongues that put it together. “I am studying politics now,” I said weakly. “I’m glad you’re enjoying your history class. And how’s the paper coming along?”
She turned a sheet toward me. On it was typed The Wretched Refuse. “From the poem on the Statue of Liberty,” she said.
I’ve never appreciated that line of the Lazarus poem, or even the sentiment. I looked at the lovely and earnest young woman across from me and could not bear to think of her as “wretched refuse.” Even more, I didn’t want her to think of herself that way. “How about ‘Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor’ as a title, instead?” I suggested.
“Somebody else has that.”
Pushing the issue would be insensitive. I began a chart on past, present, and future tenses. It was good to busy ourselves, good not to keep one ear cocked for the sound of another gun going off across the way. Yesterday, I—I wrote in the first column. Today, I—and Tomorrow, I—in the next two.
“Yesterday, I wanted—what did you want yesterday?” I asked.
She flushed, looked at her hands and shook her head.
“This is an exercise,” I said. “Say anything. It doesn’t have to be true. I hope this will help you understand how to use the verb to want.”
Whatever her discomfort or shyness, she was too obedient a scholar to refuse. “I—yesterday, I was want—”
“Yesterday, I wanted,” I said gently.
“I wanted to see my friend.”
“Good!” I wrote I wanted in the first column. “And if it had been your friend’s idea, you could say to her, ‘You wanted to see me.’ And if you were talking about still another friend, you would say, ‘She wanted to see me,’ but if we were talking about now, today, this minute, the present, do you remember what you would say?”
“I want to see my friend.” It was a lament, not a usage exercise.
“You’re right, but you sound so sad,” I said softly.
“I think that maybe to want in the past is better than to want now. It is sad to want what cannot be. Look what happens to Juliet and Romeo.”
Look what happened, I thought, but I didn’t say it out loud. Instead, “Do you want to talk about what’s troubling you?” I asked, but as the word want came out of my mouth, I felt suspended between the lesson we should be doing and her obvious agitation.
Through bits and pieces offered during other after-school sessions, I knew her family was large and hard-pressed. Her older brother Thomas had dropped out of school and didn’t really help the general finances, and there were younger siblings. Her parents were both employed, but America was expensive. Her own job, every night till eleven, was at a nice café, but the manager bothered her and made her uncomfortable. Still, she said, it was a job.
She sighed. “I thought here it would be…”
“Here? At Philly Prep?”
“Yes, that. But more, in the United States…”
Her power slowly failed. The April Truong lightbulb was dimming.
“I thought…” She shook her head.
She was young and bright and beautiful, but her fine bones, delicate features, and shining fall of jet hair now added together to make the very portrait of loss and desolation.
“April,” I said, “I’m concerned. Can I help you in any way?”
“It is too late,” she said softly. “He is dead. The boy on the street.”
“You knew him?”
She nodded. “Vo Van is—was—my brother’s friend. Is…very scary.”
“Who shot him?”
She set her jaw as if to keep it from moving. For a moment her eyes widened and she seemed on the verge of saying something more, but then she shook her head, as if chastising herself. “Vanny had enemies,” she said. “His group, they do such things.”
For the first time in our brief acquaintance, I didn’t believe April, didn’t think she was telling me the truth. Her truth, that is.