(Canon-compliant for everything up to Ramona’s World.)
They seem to make school chairs smaller every year, Ramona Quimby thought to herself, as she tried to find a comfortable spot in the slippery orange seat without clacking the metal back of it into the chalkboard behind her. She recrossed her legs, tucking her blue knit skirt under her knee before fiddling boredly with the handles of her portfolio, then flung a glance to the large clock mounted behind her sister’s head. One twenty-eight, only a minute later than the last time she’d checked.
Her glance hadn’t been quick enough, and her look caught Beezus’ attention. Clasping her hands upon her desk, Beezus stared sharply at Ramona until she turned her attention to the accountant delivering a stirring speech about the importance of numbers.
Ramona glanced out into the audience of thirty-two fifth-graders ordered into neat rows of six. They were about as bored as she was, and weren’t experts at hiding it. One little boy plunged his index finger in rhythmic intervals from his nose, into his mouth and back again; a blonde girl with fat curls who reminded Ramona of her old friend Susan twirled her hair into a snarled mess; a boy nearest her pretended to take notes, but to Ramona’s eye he seemed to be doodling a comic strip in which Beezus was an evil queen with laser beam eyeballs.
“…And that’s why you can ACCOUNT on having a stable future if you enter the fine world of accounting!” smiled the speaker, concluding his speech. A single clap sounded from the back of the room; the man’s proud son, grinning up.
“Our final speaker will be Miss Ramona Quimby.”
A little flutter of nerves echoed through Ramona’s stomach as she got up and walked to the spot the previous speaker had vacated. Picking up a piece of chalk, she quickly scribbled her name in still-somewhat sloppy cursive (none of her teachers had had enough impact to change her scrawl; by high school they’d all given up), with loops and letters she knew would be visible from the back of the room; then she gave them a smile and pulled a large poster board out of her portfolio.
A buzz of mild interest spread through the audience as they saw what she had brought. She held it up. “Who can tell me who this is?”
A dozen hands shot up, and Ramona picked the hair-tangler. “Ricky the Rabbit?”
Ramona nodded her head. “Ricky the Rabbit from?”
“Hunny Drops Cereal!” the entire room chorused, even the adults.
“Guess who made Ricky the Rabbit the handsome guy he is?” More confused murmuring. Ramona pointed to herself proudly. “Me.”
Questions were called out as Ramona turned back toward the chalkboard. “I’m a graphic artist,” she explained. “Does anyone know what a graphic artist does?”
Comic Book Boy called, “draw?”
“That’s right, but what do I draw?”
“…Stuff?” he suggested.
She had to laugh. “I work with companies who want to make commercials. They tell me what they’d like a guy like Ricky – or Ozzy the Orangeita Turtle - to look like, and I draw it.” Sometimes it was a frustratingly political business, but Ramona didn’t want to bother the kids with this small detail.
Suddenly, the audience was filled with questions, and they were all being shouted at once. “They have stuff like that in Oregon?” one girl asked.
“I live in San Francisco,” she explained, something that drew audible gasps. “Most of the time, I work with an agency called Tormaline and Sons, but I also paint.” Ramona had to admit that the later gave her the most pleasure.
The class had a few more questions for her (What did she use to draw? What else had she made?). She ended her presentation by drawing a mascot for them, using suggestions shouted out. Ramona eventually stood back from her creation – a bear with the ears of a rabbit, frogs’ legs, the stomach of a bumble bee . The kids shrieked their delight until Beezus demanded their silence, and the bell rang.
Satisfied with her performance (and once she had thought herself incapable of public speech!), Ramona slumped down in Beezus’ chair while she escorted the kids out to their busses. When Beezus returned to collect her with summer-rain washed hair, Ramona had been close to slumber.
“Lazybones,” Beezus tisked, stopping to grab a pile of textbooks.
“It was a long drive,” Ramona excused herself.
“C'est tout exact,” Ramona wrinkled her nose. “I told Mona to wait for us at Miss Tarelton’s room.”
Ramona smiled. “How has she been?” They stood together, heading toward the door.
“Making good grades,” Beezus says, pushing open the heavy, honey-colored door as they head into the deserted hall. The heels of Ramona’s impractical boots click on the parquet, a loud echo to Beezus’ sensible flats, her portfolio tapping her thigh in pleasing rhythm to her walk. The fourth grade classrooms were two lefts and a right away, nearby a drafty exit door. Her niece waited for them in the doorway, and, on sighting her aunt, ran at full speed toward Ramona.
Ramona couldn’t contain her delight at seeing the little girl; dark-haired, blue-eyed Mona, who looked so much like her mother, with only the smallest hint of Henry Huggins in her smile to mark her linage. Ramona remembered seeing her for the first time, arriving at the hospital in paint-splattered overalls to find the deed done, and having a small-sweet-smelling bundle handed to her. “I thought I’d continue the family tradition,” she said, her voice so near to tremulous pain that Ramona couldn’t suggest she put it aside.
“How are you doing, honey?” Ramona asks, brushing stray bits of hair away from Mona’s face.
“I had the best day!” Mona proceeded to detail the small joys of being a ten-year-old; they consisted of a good recess, a National Geographic documentary and kickball at gym as they walked to the parking lot and climbed into Beezus’ Sedan. Paying undivided attention to her niece, Ramona barely noticed the passage of time, and Beezus’ tight-lipped exhaustion faded into the background. Ramona remembered well what it was like to feel as if she were being treated like a kid, and how much it meant to have Aunt Bea treat her like an adult.
Nothing much had changed about the neighborhood – Ramona noticed the same old trees lining Klickitat Street, the same fifties-era houses, the same dull exteriors and old street signs. Everything she had wanted to escape in her teens, brought back to life in lush waves of green.
Beezus pulled into the far-too-familiar driveway; a thousand afternoons spent in boredom at the Kemp house came flooding back as Ramona opened her passenger-side door and helped her niece out of the back seat. Henry and Beezus had bought the place off of Howie and Willia Jean when their grandmother had died; Ramona’s sister and brother-in-law had only made slight modifications to the place since that time, and walking into the kitchen felt like stepping backward through a porthole into the past.
Mona poured herself a glass of water – Beezus, like her mother, didn’t approve of sweet drinks – before pouring her textbooks out on the kitchen table.
“Homework?” Ramona asked, sympathetically.
“A TON,” complained Mona. “Missus Tarelton’s such a w-..”
“Ramona Jean Huggins!” scolded Beezus, getting herself a cup of coffee.
Mona grumbled, turning to her math homework. Ramona didn’t ask if she could help; Beezus insisted on allowing Mona to make her own mistakes, figure out her own problems and make her own solutions.
“I’ve got tests to grade,” confessed Beezus, somewhat embarrassed. “Mom and dad said they’d bring Robbie by at six for dinner,” then she whispered conspiratorially, “they don’t know about the party, it’s supposed to be a surprise.”
Ramona could only eye her sister. “Because surprises always work out so well in this family.”
“You don’t mind entertaining yourself for an hour, Ramona?”
She shook her head. “I could get in some exercise in.”
“A walk?” Ramona’s eyes glimmered as she shook her, and Beezus shook her head. “I hate those things. One day you’re going to split yourself right in two!”
Ramona didn’t pay any heed to her sister’s worry. Beezus, she reasoned, had always been that way; stubborn, anxious, just a little sour. Her time in France had changed her slightly, but deep down she was the same disapproving big sister.
Her rollerblades were feather light as she glided over the pavement, down to Grant Park, through the walking path and back again. Her shoulders glistened with sweat in the late spring afternoon. She had turned, taken a left, had NOT been looking when the man stepped out of his car to pick up Beezus’ mail and bashed right into his chest.
“Unf!” he remarked, toppling backward, carrying Ramona with him to the ground. She hadn’t hurt herself – only managed to scrape her elbow against the pavement.
She scrambled away from the body pressed to hers, embarrassment in her eyes. “I’m so…I didn’t mean to…” she tilted her head as the man she’d knocked to the ground. “Howie?”
His frown – that familiar, uncannily unchanged frown – remained in place. “You still don’t look where you’re going,” he complained.
Ramona couldn’t stop the fond smile that crossed her face; caught up in the whirl of art school, then building a career, she hadn’t heard from Howie since his grandmother’s wake. She noticed his frown at her speculation – he was as serious as he’d always been. “I didn’t know you were in town.”
“No, I got back a year ago,” he said. “Found a job working for A and M Construction doing drywall.” Ramona wasn’t surprised that Howie had followed his longtime affection for heavy machinery.
“You didn’t end up in demolitions?”
He snorted, shook his head. “Beezus invited me,” he said, as if he had to qualify his presence in their lives.
Ramona nodded. “Dinner should be ready soon.” Her voice remained even, polite, as he helped her to her feet. She was stricken again by how tall Howie had grown, and how solid his body had become. He still had the same blond curls, though.
Beezus fussed over Ramona before treating her small scrape; mortified by the attention, Ramona felt relief when her mother appeared, a sullen Roberta and a chicken casserole in tow.
Roberta, in her preteen years, had developed Ramona’s taste for loud noise and even louder music. She had loaned the girl her drum kit, and – according to their mother – she played for long hours after school every day. To Ramona’s amusement, the girl had dyed her hair fushia – or tried to, for now it was a sickly shade of heavily-bleached red. Her mother kept sending the girls sideways glances of concern and affection; she remembered what it was like to be a teenager, too.
By the time Ramona’s father showed up with a loaf of fresh bread the dinner was in full swing; Ramona couldn’t help but notice how tired he seemed, somewhat grouchy, lines around his eyes due to extended hours.
“Tommy-toes,” Ramona said abruptly, picking up a dish of stewed tomatoes, making him look up from his supper plate. “I do just love tommy-toes.”
“Tommy-toes?” giggled Mona.
Very seriously, Ramona concluded, “tommy-toes. They’re the best.”
Her father’s eyes glowed, though he didn’t acknowledge this old memory.
She lay awake in her borrowed bed, listening to the wind whistle through the eaves of the Kemp house. Oddly, she couldn’t recall ever sleeping there, though at some point in her childhood she must have.
In the distance, a barred owl hooted.
The stillness was familiar but disquieting. She had grown quite used to the vague hum of San Francisco, its salty air and warm breezes. Everything here felt colder, though the distance was a comparatively small one.
Closing her eyes, Ramona wondered if there was anything in the world that would make her consider moving back to Oregon.
The party was, by all accounts, a rousing success. Uncle Hobart and Aunt Bea flew in from Alaska to attend, completely unchanged by time. Hobart was his sarcastic self; Bea, sweet and attentive. They were utterly happy up north, though they told everyone that they missed home.
Beezus’ house buzzed with activity, jammed with happy people. Ribsey the Second huddled beneath her kitchen table, out of the way of foot traffic; Ramona petted the dog, feeding him a handful of cheese crackers under the table.
“I saw that,” Howie spoke from behind her, Ramona’s heart jumping involuntarily.
“Hush!” she whispered, slipping automatically into the position of scolder and ringleader.
He scowled, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jeans, blond curls hanging down over mopey eyes in a retro pompadour. “Haven’t you grown up at all in the past ten years?”
“Yes. Enough to consider starting my own design firm.” She stared at the red plastic cup of punch in her hand, wishing she could spice it up with a splash of rum.
Howie could only stare at her. “Really?”
“Don’t my parents tell you anything?”
A shrug. “We’re not very close,” he admitted. Ramona flushed to realize that this was true; with Hobart and Bea in Alaska, the Oregon branch of the Kemp/Quimby family had fallen apart over the years, spending Christmases and Thanksgivings separately, especially once Ramona grew old enough to stay alone and to babysit Roberta.
“Oh,” Ramona said shortly. She jumped in surprise when he touched her shoulder.
“I wouldn’t mind hearing what you’re up to,” he said.
She gave him a smile. “Are you sure you have the time?”
He smiled back crookedly. “You used to be the one who didn’t have time for me.”
True enough. “I was a kid who wanted to be a grown-up. I used to think I’d outgrown you.”
“What about now?”
A note of alluring temptation had entered Howie’s voice. Ramona had no idea what he was getting at, but it made her cheeks turn red. “Maybe it’s just Oregon I’ve outgrown.”
“Guess this place grew on me,” Howie said. “I tried to move to Las Vegas and ended up back here in a month or two?”
“Maybe you have a rain fetish,” she teased.
“At least the rain doesn’t dye my fingers blue.”
Ramona choked. “I forgot about that!” she laughed. She looked Howie up-and-down, judging his lean body appreciatively. Suddenly the notion of seeing him in his underwear didn’t seem so unappealing.
“Would you like to take a walk?” he asked, suddenly.
A nod of the head gave her permission.
As they walked out Beezus and Henry’s front door, Ramona wondered where they were going. Then she realized that she didn’t need to know, not when the possibilities were infinite. Like the tens of hundred of her in that department store mirror, the ideas went on and on. They would try this, see where it led, hope that the end of the road meant something sweet and good, the kind worth searching for.