An Annoying Autobiographical Pause: The summer I was 12 I decided to keep a log of all of the books I read for an entire year, with the goal of reading 100 or more by the following summer. I was able to easily exceed 100 books, in a large part because I padded out my library selections with YA paperbacks: your basic Wildfires, Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley Highs. Sadly, my year-long record of titles, authors and comprehensive ratings on a scale of one to four stars disappeared at some point, although I did recently find a couple of ripped-out pages stuck inside anther notebook (I did not care for Love Story, which I apparently read the same day as Lord of the Flies, and was deeply unimpressed by Rumble Fish). For some reason, Just Dial a Number stuck with me, even though the author and title did not. I described the plot in various YA lit forums for a few years (oh, the frustration of constantly being told that it “sounds like a Christopher Pike book!”), when I serendipitously stumbled across a photo of the cover, which I instantly recognized.
The Plot: Graduating high school senior Cathy Shorer has finally gained a tenuous grasp on popularity when she starts dating handsome new guy Todd Dillon and suddenly finds herself on the cheerleading squad, nominated for “Couple of the Year” and even cast in a small role in the school play, which is apparently a really big deal. Previously shunned by the cool kids because she is the daughter of her high school’s crusty, bitter old Dean, Cathy is desperate to hang on to Todd despite the fact he is clearly a sociopath from page one:
Things were always exciting around Todd. In fact, ever since she and Todd had been going together, the whole world had been painted in brighter colors.
Cathy plays the murder victim in the opening scene of the play, and her one line (“Someone tried to kill me!”) is ruined due to tech crew incompetency. A few nights later, Cathy is hanging out with her “wacky” friend Deedee and Deedee’s quiet and sensitive boyfriend Paul, who allow PsychoTodd to egg her on into making a prank phone call: in order to prove that she is a great actress he dials a number at random and Cathy gives her dramatic all to her line from the play.
Everyone agrees that Cathy is a great actress, judging by the reaction on the other end of the line. So everything is great until the paper is delivered the following afternoon and has a front page story about a local couple who was killed in a car accident racing home to their teenage daughter, whom they thought they had received a call from “indicating that she was in danger.”
The rest of the book is a pretty bleak and nihilistic view into teenage life as Cathy wrestles with her guilt about making the call and her friends desperately try to cover up their involvement. When she learns that the dead couple’s only daughter, the already shy and socially awkward sophomore Mary Ann, has been shuffled off to live with her grandmother on the wrong side of the tracks, Cathy tries to alleviate her guilt by anonymously sending her a box of fashionable clothes. Her plan backfires when Mary Ann figures out that Cathy was the sender and is so pathetically grateful that she designs a poster for Cathy and PsychoTodd’s campaign for Couple of the Year. Obviously, PsychoTodd is not pleased that Cathy has been revisiting the scene of the crime.
Complications continue to ensue as Cathy gets more deeply involved with the troubled Mary Ann, spending time with her after school and even convincing Deedee to nominate her for a pity spot on the cheerleading team. Deedee’s sympathy only extends so far, however, and Deedee is mostly going to look out for Deedee: stuck with an alcoholic single mother who tries to compensate by ironing all of Deedee’s clothes so “they always looked brand new”, she’s not going to let anything get in the way of her plans to marry Paul and “live in a smart little done-over Victorian house in San Francisco, eat lunch at Trader Vic’s, and go to the symphony on Thursday afternoons.” In fact, there really aren’t any adults to turn to for guidance here: Cathy’s mother is an obsessed social-climber who is horrified when she is assigned to the less-prestigious chapter of the local Garden Club; Paul’s parents are going broke supporting his older brother Jacques, an unemployed and insufferable hippie with an “old lady” and young son.
One thing is clear: Edith Maxwell hates the Hippies. She never passes up an opportunity to comment on how gross and useless Jacques and his friends are:
Jacques- leader of draft card burning, one of the hard core in various college riots, though no longer a student.
After winning the title of “Couple of the Year” PsychoTodd breaks up with Cathy, who can now devote all of her time to feeling guilty and hanging out with Mary Ann. She does find a sympathetic soul in Paul, who is also wrestling with his feeling of guilt about his part in the prank call gone wrong.
PsychoTodd’s rich new girlfriend throws a party that ends when it is raided by the police in a subplot thrown in so Cathy can reflect on how her social betters that her Mother wants her to emulate are pretty rotten. I only mention it because I want to quote this passage in which Deedee clutches her pearls over teenagers! Naked teenagers! Well, you know, probably:
“The cabanas!’ Deedee shrieked. “I told you. And you know what else I heard? It wasn’t all going on in the cabanas either. Some of it was right out in the open- right in the rumpus room, if you’ll pardon the expression. Right where everyone could see!”
As the summer wears on the friends drift apart: PsychoTodd is off to install telephone lines in Oregon, Paul ships out to the Navy, Deedee eventually breaks up with him in favor of an older, richer dude who can afford to go to Trader Vic’s, and Cathy is accepted to her mother’s Alma Mater in Virginia, but spends most of her time hanging around with Mary Ann and trying to assuage her guilt. Eventually Deedee breaks up with her too, in a manner of speaking, leaving Cathy to reflect that Deedee “never did like to back a loser”.
While out with Mary Ann at the beach one day, Cathy runs into Jacques and his Hippie friend Spider
His companion, the shorter of the two, and beardless, gave you that crazy is-it-a-boy-or-a-girl feeling because of his long wavy hair. When they came closer, she could see it was indeed Jacques. And his friend, in spite of his hair, was a squat, thick-muscled, well-tanned hippie.
Clearly, The Hippies must have run over Edith Maxwell’s dog or something. Spider (real name: Warren) takes a sinister interest in Mary Ann.
At the end of the summer Mary Ann’s Grandmother invites Cathy to Mary Ann’s sixteenth birthday party, at which Spider is the only other guest. Clearly, despite being a filthy hippie with hair like a girl, he is smart enough to figure out that Cathy is being friends with Mary Ann out of guilt and hints that he’s on to her. Discussion of the phone call that killed her parents so upsets Mary Ann that the party ends early. Cathy calls Paul at the Navy base in San Diego and freaks out about how Spider knows. Paul has very little useful advice to offer.
The next morning Cathy receives a call from Mrs. Connolly, who is hysterical because Mary Ann has run away from home. And at this point we actually get a pretty good plot twist! Mrs. Connolly is actually the mother of Mary Ann’s stepfather, who was killed in the car accident with her mother (Mary Ann’s biological father is long dead) and Mary Ann never got along with her step-family and had a long history of acting out by playing childish pranks, including prank calling her step-Grandmother. Everyone has assumed all along that it was Mary Ann who had made the call that night.
Overwhelmed with guilt, Cathy finally confesses to Mrs. Connolly and heads out into darkest San Francisco in search of Mary Ann. She does not blend in effectively:
She’d been to hippie-land with the kids before, just for kicks. But now the site appeared to be one huge carnival. They were having a Be-In, the banner stretched across the street proclaimed.
A tall boy wrapped in a blanket, wearing a tiny mirror strapped to his forehead blocked her way. “Be, baby, be.” He touched her face with a long fingernail. Cathy shuddered and backed away.
You get a full 10 or 12 pages of nightmare-fuel for squares before Cathy finally locates Mary Ann, strung out on unspecified drugs, having been adopted into some sort of Hippie cult at a nightclub called The Coffin. Symbolic! Also kind of gross:
“Share our Love Circle.” Someone grabbed her hand and she became part of a grotesque circle going round and round, like little kids playing ring-around-the-rosy.
She fails to persuade Mary Ann to return to the safety of suburbia. Her parents assure her that although Mary Ann and her Grandmother don’t hate her now, they surely will once they get over the shock. Her friends get away without anybody finding out about their involvement in making the phone call, and Cathy ruminates about how terrible the entire world is, holding out hope only that Paul will want to marry her when he gets out of the Navy. Unless, you know, he’s killed in ‘Nam. The End.
Total downer, right? I really want to know how many stars 12-year old me gave this book. I’m guessing not very many, since at the time I thought hippies were as gross as Edith Maxwell apparently did.
Sign it was Written in 1971 Department: So many slang words for marijuana! Hippie cults! Be-Ins! Smoking in hospital rooms! Afternoon delivery of Newspapers! Cathy’s mother orders her to stay home from school to watch her Soap Opera for her! Constant references to “The Establishment”!
Edith Maxwell Hates Hippies Department: “He’d cut his hair so that now he merely looked untidy instead of nauseous.” Also: bonus points for correct grammatical use of “nauseous”.
In Denial About One’s Alcoholic Mother Department: “When complimented, Deedee only replied, ‘My mother loves to iron’.”