Authors: Sue Stauffacher
Mr. Perkins thought about that for a moment. “Well, Franklin, I would have to say yes to that. You'd be surprised at the number of children who come in here and take things without paying.”
“Well, I for one will not swell their ranks, Mr. Perkins,” I declared, slapping the wart treatment on the counter.
And I told him my story.
When I was finished, Mr. Perkins walked casually over to the front window and began to straighten the greeting cards. As he was doing that, he glanced outside. Then he came strolling back to me.
“Franklin,” he said. “I'll tell you what. I have a fund for situations like this one. I'll give you what you need and the fund will take care of paying for it. And this will remain just between you and me, Franklin.”
“Mr. Perkins,” I said solemnly. “Someday, when I occupy a highly respected position in the community, I will repay you for this kindness.”
And I reached out to shake his hand, which I think he knew well was a gesture of my greatest respect. Mr. Perkins went back to Foot Care and put two more sheets of wart paper into a small bag. Then he went to First Aid and added a tin of bandages and a manicure scissors.
I walked out of the store with my head held high and handed over the bag. Sarah grabbed it without saying thank you and squinted furiously at the glass window of Perkins' Drug Store.
“You were holdin' out on me,” she said.
“I beg your pardon?” “Most times, when you lift something, they don't give you a bag.”
As I stared at the bag, the thought occurred to me that maybe Sarah Kervick was not as violent as she first appeared.
Maybe she was like one of those wolf girls, raised in a cave in India and later found by missionaries. She just had no understanding of the rules of polite society. Besides, she could hardly grind me into a pulp right here on Main Street in front of Perkins' Drug Store.
“When I undertake a project, Miss Kervick,” I said, straightening the lapels of my jacket, “I always do it with a touch of class.”
At that she laughed, throwing her head back and looking directly at the sun. Then she continued walking six steps in front of me to my house. Which is very strange, considering I never gave her the directions. And she'd only been there once.
“Tell me something,” she said after a fourteen-block silence. “This freaky stuff you got goin' about germs and all. Is that a act?”
We rounded the corner and crossed the street to my block. The wind had picked up, and I dug my hands deeper into my pockets, hunching forward.
“If you're referring to the attention I pay to my personal hygiene, I assure you I am completely in earnest.”
“So it's for real?” She stopped, waiting for me to catch up. When I was as close as I was likely to get, Sarah Kervick asked me, “Does a kid like you have any friends?”
For a moment we faced each other in silence, shivering there in the cold. I'd never really looked at it that way before. I mean, I have always felt that when the right candidate came along, we would be fast friends. Trouble was, there were
candidates, let alone right ones. The kids at Pelican View Elementary weren't
exactly vying for the honor of hanging out with Franklin Delano Donuthead.
I started to feel this sadness again, creeping up under my shirt and wrapping my heart in cold Styrofoam. I thumped my chest, wishing Sarah Kervick would stop looking at me, wishing I could, just for once, not be the object of someone's pity.
“Do you ever watch those nature programs where the lioness goes after the herd of gazelles?” I asked her, blowing into my hands as if, somehow, miraculously, this would ease the icy feeling in my chest.
“Sure. I like that stuff.”
“Well,” I said, “I have a theory about that.”
And so I told her my theory of the weakest gazelle and the elementary school playground. She nodded in agreement. You can't attend elementary school and not see the truth in this comparison.
When I finished, Sarah Kervick lifted one eyebrow and slapped me on the back. I lost my balance and stumbled dangerously close to the curb.
“You're a smart kid, Donuthead,” she said. “You got a lotta fancy theories. But I think you need to know something about the playground.”
She looked off into the distance, trying to figure out how to explain herself to me. It was then I noticed. Her lips were blue. It was cold! Her fingers and her kneecaps were red and chapped. But if Sarah Kervick felt any pain as a result of the weather, she wasn't letting on.
“You don't fight back, you get flattened. See, all the other
kids, even the runts, will be lookin' to build their reputation on your back.”
Sarah Kervick squared my shoulders and waited for me to meet her gaze.
“You gotta learn to fight, Donuthead.”
By this time, my teeth were chattering. “Have you ever seen a gazelle win a standoff with a lion?”
She thought for a while. “No, but gazelles don't know the ground-floor punch, either.”
“Ground-floor punch?” I repeated. Just talking about the possibility of violence was increasing my pulse rate. I lowered my head and pushed on, knowing my house wasn't far, and feeling right then the way an old horse feels about his stall in the barn.
She followed, closer than she normally did, kicking through the soggy piles of oak leaves at our feet and spattering mud on my shoes.
“When you're goin' after someone bigger, it's gotta be a surprise or it doesn't work.”
Suddenly, she stopped. “Okay,” she said, grabbing my shoulders and kicking my feet into a wider stance. “Put your feet like this. That's your power. Don't back down! Think you're Joe Louis or somethin'.”
I studied Sarah Kervick for a minute. She really thought she was being helpful. She really thought that there was some possibility I would warm to the idea of perpetrating physical violence on another person. Not to mention that after one ineffective swing, that other person would be perpetrating physical violence on me.
“There is no such thing as security for any nation—or any individual—in a world ruled by the principles of gangsterism,” I told her. “That quote was made possible by the late, great Franklin Delano Roosevelt. My namesake, I might add. I think I will follow his guidance, if you don't mind, Miss Kervick.”
Sarah Kervick sighed. “You are one weird cluck, Donuthead,” she said. “I was just sayin' you get it up in your face all the time because you don't fight back, that's all. I was tryin' to help you, kid.”
Then she left me, standing on the sidewalk at the edge of my driveway, trying to bring myself to say thanks.
In the house, my mother was ready for us. She even had a snack waiting! Sarah sat on the barstool and politely ate four brownies and drank a container of orange juice. When Mother offered her another, she asked if she could save it for later. Another four brownies, three apples, and two boxes of juice went into a lunch bag.
Then my mother set a shopping bag on the table and pulled out a flower-print bag that looked like a miniature suitcase. She undid the two snaps just below the handles, and the bag opened flat on the table. Inside were two big, clear pockets. Stuffed in those pockets were enough toiletries to take a trip to the Far East and back. Shampoo, conditioner, hairbrush, soap, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrush, you name it. Then there was a bunch of items I had trouble identifying, like complicated devices for sticking in hair and pots of questionable goo to make lips shiny.
Sarah and I just stared and stared. She wiped her mouth with the paper towel my mother had given her and reached
over and closed the bag and snapped it and took hold of the handles.
“Where do you get a thing like this?” she asked, as if she were holding up a magic crystal ball and not a toiletry bag with a little tag that read “Made in China” on it.
“I got it at Selvidges, in the mall,” my mother said. She was smiling. I could see she was really pleased.
Later, after Sarah left, with her toiletries and her bag from Perkins' in one hand and a bag with half our pantry in the other, I decided to have a talk with my mother.
“Why is it that when a stranger tries to manhandle your son, you give her presents?” I asked. “And when your son gives you a simple request, for, say, a can of Mace so he can protect himself against the evils of the world, you refuse?”
“I help her, Franklin …,” she responded, energetically sweeping crumbs off the counter into her palm. “No, let me put it this way. I
helping Sarah Kervick …” She paused, dusting her hands off in the sink and returning to the counter to stare into my eyes. “… because she has real problems.”
Some people take pills when they feel anxious. I review statistics. Statistics can be very calming. If you're caught in the middle of a thunderstorm, for example, and you're worried that you might be struck by lightning, it is comforting to know that according to the National Safety Department, your chances are about 2,794,493 to 1 of getting fried. Of course, this rises dramatically if you live in Singapore. Don't ask me why, but Singapore is the lightning capital of the world. It also rises if you live in Florida and like to golf a lot. A preference for metal clubs will not aid your profile, either. But for the most part, your chances of being struck by lightning in any given year are so small that you can confidently get home without a panic attack.
Sometimes, if I hear strange noises at night and am having trouble sleeping, I calculate the probability of a violent crime occurring at our address on that particular evening. To do this I take the number of days we have lived crime-free in the house, factor in the part of town in which we live and the absence of convictions on drug or fencing charges for the house's occupants (my mother and me), and come to the conclusion that it is highly unlikely anything life threatening will happen to us before daybreak.
So, all in all, statistics have always been my friend. My friendly guide, so to speak.
That is, until I came across a statistic that did not comfort me at all.
It happened not long after my mother became Sarah Kervick's hairdresser. I was innocently surfing the Web to find out more about seasonal patterns of deer-car collisions when I discovered that there is a factor that is more important to your health than what you eat or how much alcohol you drink or even having arms and legs that are different lengths. If you have this one thing, you can get through just about any catastrophic accident or illness and live out your normal life span. Even live longer than you are supposed to!
That one thing is hard to describe statistically. It's love, if you can believe that. The love of friends, of spouses, of neighbors, of teachers, of mothers who pester you to play ball with them, of dreamy little fourth graders who live next door and let their dogs wander the streets.
Put another way, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to indicate that people who are socially isolated—that means they don't have friends or family—are two to five times more likely to die a premature death from all causes. Shocking!
Since the possibility of adding a father in the near future was not so good, and my mother's parents lived far away— they spend most of their time golfing (yes!) in Florida—I decided I'd better get us some friends. The case wasn't as urgent for me as it was for my mother, who at forty-seven was entering a whole new risk category based on her age.
Historically, my mother has not had great judgment when it comes to friends. She prefers Bernie to his far more orderly parents, for example. The friends who stop by after work seem to
feel it is perfectly acceptable to keep their shoes on in the house, spread mustard with a communal knife, and use the bathroom without washing their hands. I always find animal hair in whatever dish Penelope brings over, and Paul has a gold tooth because the real one was knocked out in a barroom brawl!
So why was I surprised when my mother decided we should be friends with Sarah Kervick? Philosophically, I am not opposed to befriending a girl; I just did not agree on this particular girl. If my mother had asked me, I might have suggested someone like, oh, say, Glynnis Powell.
I have observed that Miss Powell wears very sensible shoes, is always neat and orderly, and does her best not to escalate tensions. She is quiet and thoughtful, not rude, law-breaking, and violent. And she understands the importance of good hygiene.
My mother, however, seemed convinced that Sarah Kervick was the one to improve our overall health profiles, going so far as to suggest that we all see a movie together sometime. A movie?? I suppose she expects us to dip our hands into the same bucket of popcorn while we're at it.
Since there were no calculations to cover this sort of dilemma, I thought it wise to consult the most brilliant statistician this nation has to offer on probable risk.
Gloria: Gloria here.
Me: Gloria, it's me. Franklin. Gloria:
What is it now, Franklin? Me: I met a girl.
Gloria: A girl. That's a good thing.
Me: I'm not so sure, Gloria.
Gloria: Let me guess. She doesn't like you.
Me: Oh no. That's the good part. I don't like her, either. She practices very risky behaviors, Gloria.
of risky behaviors?
Me: She's violent, for one thing. She punched Marvin Howerton on the school bus!
Gloria: Did he deserve it?
Me: Well … yes, but I hardly think that's the point. To continue, she doesn't bathe regularly. I've also noticed that she doesn't look both ways when she crosses the street. She eats breakfast and lunch at school every day. I'm sure you are aware, Gloria, of the declining quality of school lunch meat. There's quite an uproar about it in Washington.
Gloria: You sure know a lot about this girl you don't like, Franklin.
Me: But, Gloria, I'm seeing patterns here.
Gloria: Babies see patterns, Franklin.
Me: Not like me. You know that. Through careful observation, I can predict the future course of events. Remember Mr. Pitts? Gloria: He smoked filterless cigarettes for twenty-seven years, Franklin. You hardly need to be … Listen, I've got a meeting in five minutes on the rising tide of personal watercraft accidents. Why don't you find something you and this young lady have in common? You like to read, for example. Maybe she likes to read, too, and you could—