Authors: Jerry Spinelli
First day of practice. I couldn’t wait to put the pads on. But first we had business with Webb.
Yesterday Mike said to me, “Do you believe we been in school this long and didn’t do anything to him yet?”
I nodded. “It’s unbelievable.”
“It’s a disgrace.”
“We gotta do something.”
“Before he starts thinking he’s safe.”
All last year we tormented Webb. He’s so dumb. He never figures out who’s doing it. He never gets mad at us. In fact he never gets mad at anybody. Day after day, his chippy chirpy perky self. What a moron.
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DR. FRANKLIN’S ISLAND,
ISLAND BOYZ: SHORT STORIES, Graham
SHATTERED: STORIES OF CHILDREN AND WAR
Edited by Jennifer Armstrong
To Carl Francis,
who has danced
on the scoreboard
My real name is John. John Coogan. But everybody calls me Crash, even my parents.
It started way back when I got my first football helmet for Christmas. I don’t really remember this happening, but they say that when my uncle Herm’s family came over to see our presents, as they were coming through the front door I got down into a four-point stance, growled, “Hut! Hut! Hut!” and charged ahead with my brand-new helmet. Seems I knocked my cousin Bridget clear back out the doorway and onto her butt into a foot of snow. They say she bawled bloody murder and refused to come into the house, so Uncle Herm finally had to drag his whole family away before they even had a chance to take their coats off.
Like I said, personally I don’t remember the whole thing, but looking back at what I do remember about myself, I’d have to say the story is probably true. As far as I can tell, I’ve always been crashing—into people, into things, you name it, with or without a helmet.
Actually, I lied a minute ago. Not everybody calls me
Crash. There’s one person who doesn’t. It’s just one of a million things that have bugged me for years about this kid.
I can still remember the first time I saw him. The summer before first grade, seven years ago.
It was a sunny summer day. I was in the front yard digging a hole with my little red shovel. I heard something like whistling. I looked up. It
whistling. It was coming from a funny-looking dorky little runt walking up the sidewalk. Only he wasn’t just walking regular. He was walking like he owned the place, both hands in his pockets, sort of swaying lah-dee-dah with each step.
Strolling and gawking at the houses and whistling a happy little dorky tune like some Sneezy or Snoozy or whatever their names are.
And he wore a button, a big one. It covered about half his chest. Which wasn’t that hard since his chest was so scrawny.
So here he comes strolling, whistling, gawking, buttoning, dorking up the sidewalk, onto
sidewalk, my property, and all of a sudden I knew what I had to do, like there was a big announcement coming down from the sky:
Don’t let him pass.
So I jump up from my hole and plant myself right in front of the kid. And what’s he do? He gives me this big grin and says, “Good morning. I’m your new neighbor. My name is Penn Webb. What’s yours?” And he sticks his hand out to shake.
I ignored his question and his hand. “Penn?” I said. “What kind of name is that?”
“I was named after the Penn Relays,” he said.
“Huh?” I said.
“It’s a famous track meet. When I was born, my parents let my great-grandfather name me, and that’s the name he picked. He won a race at the Penn Relays in the year 1919. Thirty thousand people cheered him on. He lives in North Dakota. I lived in North Dakota too until yesterday. Then I moved here to Pennsylvania with my mother and father. My mother had me when she was forty years old. I was a late baby.”
You’re gonna be a flat-nosed baby if you don’t shut up, I’m thinking. “What does your button say?” I asked him.
He stuck out his scrawny chest. “It says, ‘Hi, I’m a Flickertail.’”
“What’s a flickertail?”
“A flickertail is a squirrel. There are lots of them in North Dakota. That’s why it’s called the Flickertail State. What is Pennsylvania called?”
“The Poop State.”
He didn’t crack a smile, didn’t even know it was a joke. He got all frowny and thought about it and nodded and said, “Oh.” Then his motormouth took off again. “North Dakota is real flat. Where we lived, anyway. And there’s prairies. My dad says when the wind blows over the prairie, it looks wavy, like the ocean. I never saw a real ocean yet, but my dad says we’re going to see the Atlantic Ocean soon. My dad’s an artist. He makes birds out of glass and ceramics and wood and metal. He can make any kind of bird you can name, but he’s the best in the world at prairie chickens.”
I cut him off. “My father is starting a new business. He works seventy hours a week. Sometimes more.”
“My mother works at home, like my father. She makes greeting cards and buttons like this.”
“My mother works and goes to school. Both.”
“I like dogs, but I
turtles. Would you like to see my turtle?”
“No. I have a grandfather named Scooter. He was a cook in the U.S. Navy.”
“I’m an only child.”
“I’m starting first grade this year.”
“Me too,” he said, and for the second time he asked me my name.
“Mergatroid,” I said.
He didn’t even blink. He just stuck out his hand and said, “Nice to meet you, Mergatroid.”
Instead of my hand, I stuck out my shovel. He shook it. He laughed. He thought it was the funniest thing since Bugs Bunny.
For some reason, that laughing was the last straw. I plucked the silly button off his shirt, dumped it in the hole I was digging, and covered it over with dirt. I stomped and flattened the dirt with my foot.
The kid froze in midlaugh. His eyes took up his whole face. Then he turned and walked down the block. He wasn’t whistling now.
I figured that was the last time I’d ever see that hambone.
The next day I was out digging again. This time I brought my dump truck along. I shoveled dirt into the dump truck; then I drove the truck over to the flower bed and dumped dirt onto a purple pansy until I buried it.
In the meantime my little sister Abby was picking worms out of my shovelfuls of dirt. She was having worm races. It surprised me to see a girl not afraid to pick up worms. But she was only four then, so I figured she was too young to know better. I figured in a little while she would become a regular girl and scream if she ever touched anything slimy or crawly.
Anyway, as I was busy burying pansies I kept looking down the street. Maybe it was more than looking. Maybe I was hoping to see the new kid, Penn Webb, hoping to do something else to him. But I wasn’t seeing him, so after I buried the last pansy I hopped onto my bicycle and headed down the sidewalk.
I had no idea where he lived. I wasn’t supposed to cross streets at that age, but I did. Pretty soon the houses and the yards were smaller. I made a U-turn. I was heading back when I heard his voice: “Mergatroid!”
He was running toward me. He wore a new button. He seemed all happy to see me, which made no sense.
“My name’s not Mergatroid,” I told him.
He gawked at me. “No?”
“No. It’s Humphrey.”
He grinned. “Ah, you were tricking me, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said, “I’m a real tricker. But I’m not tricking you now. My name really is Humphrey.”
He nodded and snapped his hand out. “Okay, nice to meet you, Humphrey. I’m still Penn Webb.”
I stuck out my hand, but when he went to shake it, I snatched it away. I poked his forehead with my finger. “Ha-ha, tricked ya again.”
He laughed. “Want to see my turtle?”
“No,” I said. I pointed at the new button. I could tell it only had one word. “What’s it say?”
“Peace,” he said.
“Peace?” I snickered. “What kind of junk is that to say on a button?”
I pretended to reach for the button. His hand shot up to cover it. “Hah!” I laughed. “Tricked ya.” His hand went away. He stepped closer to me. Crazy as it sounds, I got the feeling that he was inviting me to snatch this second button if I wanted.
So I did. I plucked it off his shirt But there was no hole this time to dump it in. I thought of pinning it on myself, but what did I want with a button that said PEACE? So I gave it back to him.
“Where’s your house?” I said.
He pointed right behind him. “There.”
I couldn’t believe it. “Who’re you tricking?” I said. “That’s no house. That’s a garage.”
He looked at the place, looked at me. “No, I’m not tricking you. We live there. We moved in two days ago. Honest.”
I still couldn’t believe it. It was no bigger than a garage. In fact, I found out since then that it really was a garage once, until somebody changed it into the world’s dinkiest house.
An old man came out of the place. He waved at us, called, “Hello, boys,” and went around back.
“Your grandfather lives with you?” I said.
The kid giggled. “That’s my father.”
“Your father? That guy has white hair.”
“Sure. He’s fifty-one years old. He’s five years older than my mother. I was a late baby.”
“I know, I know.”
“I was a happy little surprise, too.”
“I was. My mother and father thought they could never have any babies. And then all of a sudden,
—he threw his hands in the air—“I came along. They called me their happy little surprise.”
I was ready to give him a two-finger surprise up his nose if he didn’t cut out all this baby doodle.
Seeing the white-haired old guy, father or whatever, made me remember something from the day before. “Who did you say you got your name from?”
“My great-grandfather. He named me after the Penn Relays. Not many children have a great-grandfather. My dad says I’m really lucky. Want to see my turtle now?”
“No,” I said. “I’m lucky, too.”
“Really? Do you have a great-grandfather?”
“No … I have a great-
His eyes rolled, his head wobbled. “Wow! You are lucky!”
“He’s a hundred and fifteen years old.”
His head almost wobbled off. “Yikes!” He staggered backward across his front yard, which was the size of a bathroom mat, and flopped onto his back. “One hundred and
I could tell this moron anything. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll see the turtle now.”
He jumped up and ran into the house. He came back with a turtle. The shell was yellow and brown.
“It’s a box turtle,” he said. He turned it over. “See, here’s his name.” THOMAS was carved into the bottom shell. “Want to hold him?”