Authors: Harry Mazer
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For my friend Barbara Seaman
The door was locked, and he was outside. It had taken both of them to put him out. His mother couldn't move him alone. He'd clung to the door, and she'd had to call Carl.
She made him sit on the steps. There were five steps down. He counted them. His feet were on the second step.
“Sammy,” his mother said. She wanted him to listen to her. “You can't just say things.”
His mother said he'd cursed Carl, used a bad word. All he did was say one word. His mother said it. Carl said it all the time. “People look at you,” his mother said, “and they see an almost-grown-up person, and they expect you to act like an almost-grown-up person. Do you know what I'm saying, Sammy? You have to think about the words you use.”
He knew about words. He had a lot of words. Sometimes the teacher said he talked too many words. He knew about bad words, too. Some words were worse than others. Retard was a worse word than crap. His friend Dennis in school said crap-a-dap all the time. Some kids said crap when they went to the toilet. Say crap backward and it was parc. Say Sammy backward and it said Ymmas.
His mother sat down next to him, close, and held his hand in hers. He kept an eye on her other hand. She hit sometimes. Not in a mean way. Only if he was lazy or wasn't paying attention. Her hand was soft, but it could be hard, too.
“Look at me,” she said. She was always extra nice after she was mean to him. He liked it when she sat so close. He could see where she'd plucked her eyebrows. Plucking had made them look fat, like little pillows.
She got up. “Are you listening, Sammy? Would you talk that way to your father? Think about it.” She went back inside.
Boy, oh boy. He wouldn't talk that way to his father. He never did. He didn't talk to his father, because his father was dead, and you didn't talk to dead people.
His father's name was Ernest E. Ritchie, and he died a long time ago, on November 16. People said Sammy was slow, but he knew things. His father died on Thursday at four-fifteen o'clock in the morning, one month and two days after Sammy's sixth birthday party. Sammy was twelve years old now, but he was mostly done being twelve years old. In twenty-nine days he would be thirteen years old.
He knew a lot of things. He knew that if you farted in front of people you said, “Excuse me.” Carl farted, and Sammy reported that he didn't say excuse me. Carl laughed, but his mother said Sammy had to apologize to Carl for saying he farted, even if he did. Sammy couldn't hold his nose, either, the way he did with his friend Dennis.
Carl liked to wrestle with Sammy. He told Sammy to get a good tight hold around his neck and not let go. Carl's head was bald, and sometimes Sammy would grab on to his ears, but he still was thrown off. As hard as he tried, Sammy could never pull Carl down. Carl would snap his fingers and say, “Hey, man, nothing to it.”
Sammy tried to make his fingers snap, too, but no way.
“Lick your fingers first,” Carl advised.
Sammy tried and tried. He could pop his tongue better than Dennis, but he couldn't snap his fingers.
Today, Carl was in a bad mood. He snapped his fingers at Sammy. “Get me one of those cold drinks, and snap to it.”
The way he said it gave Sammy a pinch in his belly. “Crap to it,” he said. The words just popped out. He wasn't cursing Carl. Maybe just a little. He tried to look sorry, but a smile came on his face, anyway.
His mother said he had to apologize, and she put him outside. “Apologize, and you can come back in.”
He sat outside on the steps. Why did Carl have to be in their house all the time? Like it was his house. It wasn't his house. It was his mother's house and Sammy's house and his sister Bethan's house. Why did Carl take the couch and nobody else could have it? Why did he snap his fingers at Sammy all the time?
Sammy looked at his watch. It was two-thirteen in the
, Sunday, but there was no sun. It was gray, so it should be called Grayday. There was a little sizzle of wet in the air. It wasn't late, but it seemed late because it was so dark and he wanted to be inside.
He practiced saying I'm sorry. “I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.” He said it ten million times till he couldn't say it anymore.
Several times he tried the door, but it was locked on the inside. The garage was open, but the door to the kitchen was locked. He tried the cellar door. He imagined how he would turn the handle silently and slide into the house, and step carefully down the steps into the cellar. There were spiders in the cellar, but he didn't care. Carl was afraid of spiders, but Sammy liked spiders.
Where they lived, there were lots of spiders and lots of houses and lots of fields. Sometimes animals came out at night and knocked over the garbage pails. Once, a big fat raccoon came in the garage and tried to come in through the kitchen door. His sister Bethan saw it and slammed the door. Then they ran to the window and watched the raccoon waddle away.
He got his bike from the garage and put on his helmet. Then he leaned his bike against the house and climbed up on the seat and looked into the living room. Carl was sitting on the couch, stroking his bald head. He shaved his head so he would look like an athlete.
Sammy dropped down and went around to his sister's window and climbed up on the bike seat again. He pressed his face against the glass and flattened his lips so he looked like a goldfish. Bethan came to the window and opened it. Bethan was his little sister and his best sister. Emily used to be his best sister till she went away to college. Now he played with Bethan, and she was in charge when his mother wasn't home.
Bethan hugged him. “You going to say you're sorry to Carl?”
“Pull me in,” he shouted.
“Shhh, honey! You want to convince Mom to let you come back in.”
“I'll convince her,” he shouted.
Bethan tried to pull him in, but she couldn't because he was bigger and heavier than she was.
“You smell like ketchup,” he said.
“Oh! Like ketchup?”
“No! Worse! Like mustard. No, like smelly cheese!”
“You're bad!” She was laughing. Then she put her finger to his lips, but it was too late. Their mother had heard and come into Bethan's room.
Sammy ducked his head under the window.
“Why's your window open?” his mother said.
“I'm hot,” Bethan said.
His mother looked out the window. “Sammy, are you there? Where are you?” She looked right over his head.
He bit his lip to keep the laughing inside.
“Why does he have to stay outside, Mom?” Bethan said. “It's going to rain.”
“He can't be rude to Carl.”
“Carl doesn't care. What's so terrible about saying crap, anyway? He didn't even say it to Carl. He said, âCrap to it.' That's funny, Mom.”
“Don't do that,” his mother said. “Don't excuse him. You know he has to learn not to just say things and then blow it off. He has to behave properly, or people are not going to like him and he's going to have a harder time in life. He's not just a cute little pup anymore.”
His mother looked down and saw him. “Oh, there's my little pup. What a surprise.” She scratched his helmet. “Look at you, your shoelaces.”
He looked down. “They untied themselves.” They both laughed at his funny joke. He started to climb in through the window.
“No, Sammy, I'm serious.” He hung on the windowsill. “When you apologize to Uncle Carl, you can come in.”
“What time?” he said.
“That's up to you. As soon as you do it.”
She looked at his watch. “Say it in two minutes and you can come in.”
He watched the second hand go around twice. “Can I come in now? It's two minutes.”
“Are you ready to apologize to Uncle Carl?”
She wanted him to say yes. He wanted to, but he still couldn't make his mouth say the words. “He's not my uncle. His name is Carl Torres. My father's name is Ernest E. Ritchie, and my name is Samuel Ernest Ritchie.”
“Why are you so stubborn? Carl's my friend, and he's your friend, too. Who plays with you? Carl. Who took you to buy the bike? Carl. Who bought you the special chain? Carl.”
“Carl is a big fart.” The words jumped out of his mouth.
His mother slapped his face.
He dropped to the ground. His face burned. He wanted to run and hide his face. He wanted to charge into his mother and bite her as hard as he could.
His mother leaned out the window. “I'm sorry I did that, Sammy.” Her face had the sorry look, but she still wouldn't let him in. “I don't want to hear that kind of language again from you. I feel ashamed and worried when you talk that way. You're getting too old to just blurt out any words you want to. I want you to pay attention. You can do it. I know you can. As soon as you're ready to say you're sorry, you can come back in.” She shut the window.
“I'm never coming back in.” It made him feel good to say it, and he said it again. He shouted as loud as he could, “Never, never, never coming back!”
He fastened his helmet. The light went on next door, and Tessie, the cat, came out. “I'm never coming back,” he told her, and tears came to his eyes, and he had to squinch them so they wouldn't come out.
It started to rain. Just like Bethan said. His sister was smart. A drizzle. It tickled his ears and got down his neck. Nobody was out on the street. Not even cars. He pulled his collar up and rode over to Billy's house. Billy Pryor was his friend. He lived two blocks away, and Sammy could go there.
There were no lights in Billy's house. No car in the driveway. Sammy rode his bike in circles in the driveway. Nobody came out and said, “Oh, it's you, Sammy!” Mrs. Pryor always wanted him to come in and eat something. She said he was too skinny, but his mother said he was just right.
Sammy closed his eyes and made circles and figure eights. He kept hoping Mrs. Pryor would come out. She was nice to him. “Oh, it's Sammy, my favorite boy.” Sometimes he loved her more than he did his own mother. She didn't want him to do things all the time. And sometimes she gave him candy bars.
He wanted a candy bar now, and he wanted it real bad. He felt the money in his pocket against his leg as he rode toward Marsden's Market on South Bay Road. He wasn't supposed to go there by himself, but he had money, and he could go there if he wanted to! He knew the way. You went past Billy's house, and then you went three more blocks.