Authors: Sue Stauffacher
“What's he talkin' about?” she asked.
“Bernie and Franklin have this list of characters in literature who are most likely to die in a preventable accident,” my mother said, wiping the dirt off her hands and standing up. “It's something they do for fun.”
“We already got Pippi Longstocking, Tom Sawyer, the Hardy Boys, Peter from
Jack the Giant Killer, and Ralph the Motorcycle Mouse, but we haven't ranked them yet,” Bernie said in a rush. “We're trying to decide if we should make two lists, one for the kids and one for the animals.”
I made a mental note never to share any classified information with Bernie.
Sarah Kervick stood up and carefully replaced Bernie's
porcupine. Wiping her hands on her dress, she headed up the steps with my mother. “Some fun,” she said.
Bernie went back to his porcupine battle plan. What else could I do but follow my mother and Sarah Kervick?
Normally, after school, my mother and I debrief at the kitchen counter. She tells me the joke that her boss pastes on the watercooler while I wash my hands. Then I slice up some organic fruit and muesli, and she eats one of those prepackaged snacks filled with artificial dyes and preservatives.
“Want a Twinkie?” she asked Sarah, pressing me up against the lip of the sink in her haste to get to the pantry.
“Sure,” Sarah said. I'd never seen her so agreeable.
I tried once again to lather up my hands, but my mother jostled past me for a second time, disturbing my concentration. I'd been humming the “Happy Birthday” song under my breath, and her body blocks made me lose my place.
“Do you have some?” The way Sarah Kervick asked, with such astonishment, it was as if she'd never seen chocolate milk and Twinkies in the same place before.
While it seemed irresponsible for my mother to lead Sarah Kervick down the road to nutritional ruin, I wasn't about to say so. I waited for her to raid the refrigerator once again before I reached in and pulled out an organic apple.
“So, how'd it get this way? Your hair?” my mother asked after they'd settled at the kitchen table.
Sarah Kervick picked up her Twinkie and put it down again. She shrugged her shoulders.
“Fair enough.” My mother grabbed a paper napkin from the
pile in the middle of the table. “Sometimes things just get away from you. Now you get to ask me a question.”
Sarah smiled a little smile to herself and looked down at her plate. She took a wolf-size bite from her Twinkie, just sort of snapped it in two, and said through the food, “So it's just you and him that live here?”
My mother returned the smile. “Just me and him,” she said. Then she leaned forward on her elbows and lowered her voice. “You wouldn't think so to look at him, but Franklin takes up quite a bit of space.”
That made Sarah laugh, and my mother sat back, satisfied, and took the same-size bite out of her Twinkie.
I decided to forgo the muesli and take my apple to my room. After all, they hadn't even waited for me to reach the table to begin eating.
My room is my sanctuary. No one is allowed in here. Certainly not my mother, whose boots have been in unseemly places and probably carry boatloads of bacteria on each sole. Every evening before I go to bed, I vacuum my carpet in an east-west pattern that never fails to show the footprints of intruders. Twice I've caught my mother, who claimed to be looking for her car keys. Bernie has tried, too. Even the dog, Baron, before his untimely demise, breached security when my mother invited him in for half a ham sandwich.
Everything in my room is neatly organized, categorized, and sterilized. My Lego kits are fully assembled and covered with the kind of protective plastic used in the dry-cleaning industry. The sheets over my bookcases protect the pages from dust spores as well as damaging ultraviolet rays, and my diagnostic
medical equipment is stored in a locked filing cabinet. Surge protectors and antivirus software keep my computer in good working order. When not in use, it is covered with a heavy anti-static nylon cover. Having said all this, I think it's quite plain that havoc could be wreaked if visitors were allowed in here.
After measuring my arms and legs and noting the slight variations from yesterday in my notebook, I sat on my bed and thought about what to do.
Should I eat my apple slowly, to aid in digestion? Should I add Stuart Little to my database? Should I read another chapter of
Diet for a Poisoned Planet
I walked to the entrance of my room and poked my head into the hall, where I heard the sound of laughter and talk floating down from the kitchen.
“Why's he do a thing like that?” Sarah said.
“Hold still. This might hurt a little,” my mother replied. “He thinks his arms and legs are two different sizes. Am I pulling too hard?”
“Go on and pull. You can't hurt me.”
There was a long silence, during which I imagined Sarah Kervick in serious pain.
“Are they?” she asked, kind of grunting it out, as if through clenched teeth.
“Are they different sizes? His legs?”
“Oh. They might as well be. Franklin looks so hard for what's wrong with him, he's bound to turn up something.”
I went back inside my room and closed the door. At this stage of my life it might be nice to have a decent friend, I
thought, mentally crossing my mother off the list. Someone tidy like myself, someone who understood a
young man. At the very least, perhaps I could have a mother who took my physical abnormalities seriously and who realized that not all boys were meant to play third base for the New York Yankees, even though their blood was indeed red.
Take Hans Christian Andersen, for example. He had the widow Bunkeflod to listen sympathetically when he poured out his troubles.
understood his little idiosyncrasies, like the languages he made up that no one could understand, and his need to stuff pamphlets into his clothes to make himself look bigger. Without her sympathy, we might never have had “The Ugly Duckling,” or “The Little Mermaid,” or “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.”
Myself, I would prefer someone a little younger, with all her own teeth and no dowager's hump. I'd been thinking very seriously about what Gloria said, but it never went anywhere. There
a certain someone at school who had caught my eye, but I didn't have a shred of evidence that I'd caught hers.
I don't know what it was. As I sat there on the edge of my bed, I felt paralyzed with this sadness. All of a sudden, it hit me that there might not be a person on this earth who would ever appreciate me.
I guess you could say my mother has hidden talents. I mean, her only child is a boy. Where did she learn to comb out girl hair? By the time I felt it safe to venture back to the kitchen, she was finished. I expected Sarah to be bald. But she wasn't. Her hair looked okay. Even something close to clean.
“Do you need a ride home?” my mother asked Sarah.
“No, that's okay. I can walk.”
I wondered, having trouble imagining a boxy brick house that contained Sarah Kervick and her mom and dad and all their ratty, unraveling sweaters.
“Come back tomorrow and I'll give you some cream rinse to help keep it smooth,” my mother said. “You can walk home with Franklin.”
As she passed by us on her way out the door, Sarah glared at me as if that were the last thing she wanted to do.
Well, excuse me.
I watched her go, all the way down the block. When she thought she was a safe distance from the house, she started skipping. Then, on the corner, she stopped, letting her hands travel up and down the back of her head. When she started skipping again, she proceeded directly into the street. Without even looking both ways.
My mother moved to Pelican View so that I would have a safe place to grow up. Maybe I should be thankful she didn't want to live on the Lower East Side of New York City or Calcutta, India, but frankly, it was hard to feel grateful the following day when I found myself walking home with Sarah Kervick.
We headed home along Main Street, past Fortuna's Hobby Shop, the post office, and Professor Quiggle's Book Nook. Sarah walked about six steps ahead, which was just fine with me. Being seen with her wasn't exactly good for my reputation, either.
Suddenly, she stopped dead in front of Perkins' Drug
Store. As I came up behind her, I could see she was staring at a picture of a lady holding out her hands in front of her and smiling.
“No more unsightly warts!” the lady announced to the camera. “Finally, I can go out again.”
I continued on my way, past a frozen Sarah Kervick. Suddenly, her hand shot out, grabbed me by the shoulder in some kind of kung-fu torture grip, and twirled me around.
“Listen,” she said. “I want some of that stuff.”
I remembered the wart on her knee. But now, with her hand on my shoulder, I saw something else. She had warts on her fingers, too. Notice I said
as in plural. Let's just say more warts than most ladies have rings.
“Fine,” I said, trying to sound calm as I imagined wart juices leaking onto my jacket. “I'll wait here.”
“Not me. You go in there and get some.”
“I'd be happy to buy you some wart remover. Really, I would do it gladly,” I replied in the same tone of voice I might use when talking to a malnourished Bengal tiger. “But I don't have any money right now.”
“No problem there,” said Sarah, pointing to an emblem on the front door. “They take MasterCard and Visa.”
“But I don't—”
“Listen, punk,” she whispered, moving her hand from my shoulder to my throat. Her fingers were now inside my jacket, close to the skin. She had penetrated my first line of defense! Now seemed a good time to panic.
“You may like being a freak. You may get something out of it. But I don't. Now go in there and get me some of that stuff in
the picture. Do it any way you know how. Do it or I'm going to push on these shoulders”—with her hands, she demonstrated some sort of crushing Slavic nutcracker technique that would result in one's lungs exchanging places—“until I close you like a suitcase.”
As soon as I finished hyperventilating, I straightened my jacket and entered the store. Perkins' was an old-fashioned drugstore with a soda fountain up front and the shop in the back. Mr. Perkins is the third Mr. Perkins to run this store. He is always impeccably dressed, with a red bow tie peeking out of a starched white lab coat. While his personal cleanliness is not to be questioned, we have had many conversations regarding public health and food-borne illnesses.
As a rule, you see, I refuse to eat in a restaurant. I know what those service people are doing behind the swinging double doors. Once, I caught sight of a greasy-haired teenager dragging my glass through the ice machine without gloves on! Unfortunately, I had to report him to the health inspector right away. Mr. Perkins was very sorry to hear about that.
“Oh, hello, Franklin.” Mr. Perkins smiled at me. “I'll be with you in a minute.” And he went in the back, like he always did, to get the results of his most recent health inspection.
I realized that this was my moment. My moment! With Mr. Perkins off the floor, I could accomplish my dirty deed and be gone. How unprepared I was. Where were the wart removers? In Beauty Aids? In Topical Applications? As I frantically raced up and down the aisles, Mr. Perkins reappeared with a handful of papers.
“I'm so sorry, Mr. Perkins,” I said, panting. “I don't want
anything to eat. I was just wondering … er … do you have any wart remover?”
“Oh. Sure. In Foot Care. What kind of wart is it?”
I realized with horror that he thought I, Franklin Delano Donuthead, was the carrier of a fungal virus.
“Fortunately, I am disease-free, Mr. Perkins. It's my … my mother who suffers.”
“Oh, okay. Where's the wart?”
“The wart is on her …” I glanced between the blinds to see that Sarah Kervick had not deserted her post. Her hands were shoved up under her armpits, and she was leaning against the mailbox, frowning. Poor old Mrs. Finster, who at ninety-seven was the oldest lady in town, was trying to straighten up long enough to mail a letter.
“Her finger,” I said, finally.
“And is it raised or below the surface of the skin?”
“I would say … raised.”
I followed Mr. Perkins's crisp white lab coat through the aisles to the Foot Care section, where every manner of disgusting and horrifying condition was depicted on the packages. Treatments for warts, corns, athlete's foot, and excessive odor lined the shelves.
“She has a couple of options, Franklin. She can use this solution and paint it on with a brush … sort of like fingernail polish,” he said, smiling at me as if we men understood something about the way women like to do things.
“Or she can use this specially treated bandage approach for several days. Or, what I recommend most often, because it's economical, is this patch. You can cut it to the size of the
wart and stick it on. But you should cover it with a regular bandage.”
At that, Mr. Perkins left me to consider my choices. Little did he know that instead of weighing my choices of various topical treatments, I was envisioning a long prison term, eating food laced with lard, and bathing
in a public shower with men who had committed violent crimes.
Hands shaking, I reached for the most economical choice. Maybe I could get my sentence reduced by pleading that I was trying to have as little effect on Mr. Perkins's financial picture as possible. As I started to stuff the sheet of acid-coated paper into my jacket pocket, I froze.
Seeing my distorted reflection in the little round security mirror, I realized I was standing at a crossroads in my life. Not just the intersection between Foot Care and Beauty Aids but a point where I had to choose between doing the honorable thing and doing the cowardly thing. It was the point in the story …
story, mind you, where the hero's character is tested. Yes, this was a character-building moment!
I decided to throw myself on the mercy of the pharmacist. “Mr. Perkins,” I called, jogging through the store until I found him in Seasonal Items. “Have you ever had the opportunity to steer some down-on-his-luck youngster away from a life of crime?”