Sisterhood of the Traveling Undies: A Short Story

Lindsay leaned over her computer keyboard, intent on the spaceman-green letters on the screen. Though her typing 201 class still used manual typewriters, here in Mr. Coyote’s Business Machines the school went high-tech. The teacher glided past Lindsay’s row like a phantom, peering down at his students through glasses that made his eyes look like pickled eggs. As he passed Lindsay’s friend Candy, who sat beside her, Candy stifled a giggle. She wore baby doll t-shirts, and Mr. Coyote always ogled her boobs.

“Uncle Pervie,” she whispered to Lindsay, as Mr. Coyote finished his rounds. They watched him steal into the mimeograph room, where, they suspected, he got high sniffing ink fumes.

“If you think that’s what he’s doing, you should tell somebody,” Lindsay told Candy.

Candy wrinkled her nose. She did that a lot, because it was cute. “Who doesn’t know it already? Adults don’t care if other adults are perverts. We live in Soap Opera World.”

Lindsay thought Candy had to be wrong. Surely older people still did the right thing, at least some of the time. “If you didn’t act like you enjoyed it, he wouldn’t zero in on you.” And Mr. Coyote did behave like Wile E. when he was around Candy. She might not be a roadrunner, but all the guys, from sixteen to sixty, thought she was a fox.

Lindsay thought so, too, though she couldn’t admit it. Nor could she gape at Candy’s boobs. Friends didn’t do things like that to each other. Especially not when their friends were other girls.

Since she always tried to do the right thing, Lindsay doggedly dated guys. She kept hoping she’d break down and fall in love with one. Now she was dating Rex, another football player with a million hands. That Saturday evening they went to the movies, she reminded him yet again that she was a Christian and didn’t go past first base, and afterwards — so late her mother glared at her for getting a phonecall — she heard from Candy.

“I’m gonna be in so much trouble,” Candy gushed. “You won’t believe what happened!”

“Try me.” Where Candy was concerned, Lindsay would believe almost anything.

“Well, I was babysitting for the Gherkins. Another whole, entire Saturday evening, wasted! But Robb came over, after I put Gigi and Georgie to bed. And we…well, you know…we messed around. Then it was almost time for the Gherkins to get home, so of course I had to make the bed…”

“You made out in their bed?” Lindsay was incredulous.

“Of course we did. Where else were we gonna do it? Anyway, I tried and tried to find my panties, but they were, like, gone, you know?”

Lindsay struggled to keep up. “You lost your underpants in their bed?”

“That sort of shit happens sometimes, you know? Only every other time, I always found them.” There was a shaky breath at the other end of the line. “I had to stop looking, you know? I mean, Robb barely got out the back door and over the fence before they came in.”

This wasn’t even her problem, but Lindsay’s head was reeling. “So your underpants are still stuck somewhere in between those people’s covers!”

“I’ve got to tell you, Lindsay, I don’t know what she’s gonna do when she changes the sheets. She’ll, like, find them, you know? And what’ll she think?

“I don’t know what she’ll think.” Though actually, Lindsay had a pretty good idea. Mrs. Gherkin would find panties not her own, and she would think Mr. Gherkin was having an affair.

Candy laughed nervously. “Well, hey, it’s 1979, you know? People are pretty cool about those things nowadays. She and Mr. Gherkin will probably just have a very interesting conversation.”

Lindsay imagined they’d have an interesting conversation, indeed. Probably involving lawyers, over who’d get custody of little Gigi and Georgie. “I…can’t tell you what Mrs. Gherkin might think,” she told Candy. If Candy couldn’t figure it out, Lindsay doubted it would do much good for her to tell her. “She’ll probably never ask you to babysit again,” she said, knowing that was all Candy would care about.

A snort came down the line. “Which only means that from now on, Robb and I would have Saturdays for ourselves. And he always pays for everything, so it wouldn’t be a tragedy if I didn’t have any money.”

Though Candy always wore blue jeans — the tighter the better — she’d been born without a clue gene. She had no idea the trouble she was bringing down on innocent people. She didn’t need to worry the trouble would fall on her; she’d never even own up to it. Lindsay could already hear her, facing the Gherkins and their lawyers with her Little Orphan Annie face and telling them she had no idea whose underpants had made their way, like the Serpent of Eden, into their matrimonial bed.

If Lindsay had never heard about this nonsense, it would be none of her business. But she had, and so it was. She was a Christian; she knew her duty. Once God had thrust the knowledge upon her, the responsibility became hers. Somehow, however improbably, she had to make this right.

“The time is out of joint,” she read in Hamlet. “O cursed spite, That I was ever born to set it right.” Surely there was a reason they were reading Hamlet right now in Mrs. Mason’s English class. But whole precious days went by, and — like the ill-fated Prince of Denmark — Lindsay stayed silent. “I am pigeon-livered, and lack gall.” She kept her head down, kept studying hard, kept dating Rex the mutant octopus and remained a dutiful believer.

Then came another Friday, three weeks later, when Candy slunk into class with her own head down. Her cheeks burned with what, had this been anybody but Candy, Lindsay would have taken for shame. “You won’t believe what’s happening now,” Candy murmured as they took their seats before the ten-key adding machines in Mr. Coyote’s classroom.

“Probably not,” Lindsay said, checking to see where the teacher was. Mr. Coyote was safely on the other side of the room, dropping his chalk, picking it up and sneaking a peek up Kathy Grady’s skirt.

“Mrs. Gherkin called me last night to say they don’t need me to babysit anymore.” Candy wasn’t following the worksheet at all. She was punching dumb, random numbers into her machine — multiplying tens of thousands until the keys jammed.

“She found the underpants,” Lindsay guessed.

“I suppose she did.” Candy gave her adding machine a whack to unjam it.

“That’s really rough.” Lindsay wouldn’t preach. Friends didn’t do that. “Getting fired must be terrible.”

“Well, I didn’t exactly get fired.” Candy prettily bit her lip, popping open the adding machine and rooting around inside with a pencil. “They sort of…laid me off. They’re selling the house and moving, you see. Mr. Gherkin’s moving to one place, and Mrs. Gherkin’s moving to another, because they’re getting a divorce.”

Cold horror descended upon Lindsay. “Do you…know what for?”

Candy scowled, slamming the top of her adding machine shut. “How the hell would I know? I mean, it’s not like it’s any of my business.”

Lindsay started to tell her that it certainly was her business, and why, but there, looming behind them, was Mr. Coyote. “Young lady,” he cooed, his pickled eggs on Candy’s bosom as he leaned over her, “when you have a problem with one of these machines, call me and let me fix it.”

While the teacher stood breathing on them, Lindsay wasn’t about to say a word. She just sat and stewed. Whether he would pay attention to their conversation, however, was debatable. If she mentioned the word “panties,” he’d be all ears. Otherwise, he could be remarkably obtuse.

Besides business machines, it appeared to Lindsay that Mr. Coyote focused only on sex and sleep. Lindsay and Candy’s friend Helena — affectionately known to the student body as Javelina — had him two years prior for Driver’s Ed. He was little help as an instructor, because he took little catnaps on every drive. Not that Javelina ever minded. Once, before he woke up, she took him halfway from Phoenix to Flagstaff.

“Thanks, Mr. Coyote,” Candy said, in her Marilyn Monroe voice, when he presented the restored machine to her. Lindsay was actually grateful for the time-out. She’d decided exactly what to do.

“I’m going to help you,” she promised Candy when Mr. Coyote had disappeared into the mimeograph room.

For reasons she didn’t understand, any other friend to whom she said this would have looked at Lindsay in horror. Candy merely beamed. “Cool! Oh, Lindsay, you’re a true friend!”

Lindsay’s heart skipped a beat. Making Candy smile was the closest she would ever get to ogling her boobs. After Lindsay did what she had to do, Candy would never even smile at her again. Though she should be glad she was being saved from causing a divorce, she’d probably hunt Lindsay down and beat the crap out of her.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

That Saturday afternoon, Lindsay went over to the Gherkins’ house. She knew who they were and where they lived because before Candy had become their babysitter, the job of sitting for the then-infant Gigi had belonged to Lindsay’s older sister, Ruthie. The wildest and most rebellious thing Ruthie had ever done was drag Lindsay along with her. There was a “For Sale” sign in the front yard, and as Lindsay parked her ’67 Dart at the front curb, the gravity of the events Candy had set in motion really hit. Lindsay wished Ruthie wasn’t away at college, so she could drag her along with her.

When Mrs. Gherkin answered the door, she seemed friendly enough to Lindsay. She invited her in, gave her a glass of iced tea, and motioned her into a big, leather armchair that let out a thunderous farting noise when she sat down, opposite two more just like it. In one of those sat a fat little guy with a bald head and hair growing out of his ears. Mrs. Gherkin introduced him as Marcus Pomeroy, her attorney.

Mrs. Gherkin sat in the third chair, primly ignoring another fart. “How can we help you?” she asked Lindsay with a polite smile.

Lindsay just stared at them for a very long moment. She’d known exactly what she wanted to say — until now, when it was time to say it. She planned on saying it eloquently, as a Shakespearean character might: “That which I would uncover, The law of friendship bids me to reveal.” Now, in her mind, it all sounded stupid. It scrambled up inside her skull like an omelet.

“I don’t like feeling disloyal to my friends,” Lindsay blurted at last, “but those underpants you found in your bed were Candy’s.” She’d come there to say that, though she’d rehearsed getting the words out in a way less-incriminating to Candy. But one way or another, it had to be said, and she’d said it. If Candy didn’t forgive her, Lindsay would simply have to live with that.

Lindsay started to add something that might make Candy look better, but at the cold look on Mrs. Gherkin’s face her tongue froze. “Did you hear that, Marcus?” the woman demanded to her lawyer. “Peter’s been screwing a high school girl!”

Mr. Pomeroy’s piggy eyes gleamed. “That should up our ante considerably.”

“Oh, no!” Now Lindsay had to set the record straight. “No, Candy had her boyfriend over while you guys were out, and she was…fooling around in your bed with him.

The tension oozed out of Lindsay like the air from a balloon. She sank back in that whoopee-cushion of a chair, waiting for the happiness — the sheer relief — to overtake Mrs. Gherkin. Instead, the lady and her lawyer gaped in what looked, to Lindsay, a lot like disappointment.

“Oh…no,” Mr. Pomeroy said.

“Oh, no!” said Mrs. Gherkin.

“There goes the sailboat,” said Mr. Pomeroy.

Mrs. Gherkin put her head in her hands. “We can kiss the cabin in Prescott goodbye, too!”

Lindsay was mystified. “But now that means you and Mr. Gherkin can stay married!”

Mrs. Gherkin peeked out from between her fingers. “Young lady, you just cost us at least two hundred thousand dollars.”

They hustled Lindsay out the door without even letting her finish her iced tea. She sat for a while in her Dart, wondering why she’d gotten a reaction she would have expected only Candy deserved. As she ground the tired old engine to a start and lumbered off toward home, she realized that older people probably did what was right a whole lot less often than she’d wanted to believe. By the time she turned the corner off of the Gherkins’ street, it occurred to her that people who loved those they were supposed to might not be any more moral than people who didn’t.

Lindsay supposed that in a way, Candy had done her a huge favor. A much bigger one, certainly, than Candy would ever think Lindsay had done for her. That more than made up, Lindsay had to conclude, for the fact that Candy might never smile at her again.

That night over pizza and root beer, Lindsay broke up with the Octopus. All she knew, at the moment, was that she didn’t want to date any more guys. The rest of it, she’d just have to figure out later. Candy was right about one thing: it was 1979, and the world was changing fast.