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Directions: Write an informative essay in which you compare and contrast how Kenny from “The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963” and Harry from “The Worse Birthday from Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets” demonstrate courage in the face of fear.  Be sure to cite evidence from both texts to support your ideas. (Hint: You will have to open both texts while completing the assignment below).

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Informative Essay Title:  _________________________________

Introduction Paragraph

Hook

Bridge

Main Idea

Kenny demonstrated courage in the face of fear by ______________________________________________________________.

Harry Potter also demonstrated courage in the face of fear by ______________________________________________________________.

(Type your response here. At least 5 sentences.)

(Type your response here. At least 5 sentences.)

Body Paragraph 1: How did Kenny Watson demonstrate courage in the face of fear? Use evidence from the novel.

(Type your response here. At least 5 sentences.)

Body Paragraph 2: How did Harry Potter demonstrate courage in the face of fear? Use evidence from the text.

(Type your response here. At least 5 sentences.)

Body Paragraph 3: How are the ways that Kenny and Harry Potter demonstrated courage in the face of fear alike and different? Explain. Use evidence from the text.

Conclusion

Once you fill out the organizer above, you should have a full informative essay of 5 paragraphs.

Once completed create a word document with final draft as well.

Overdrive

THE WATSONS
GO TO
BIRMINGHAM—
1963
Watsons Birmingham 11/1/01 9:39 AM Page 1
This book has been optimized for viewing at a monitor setting of 1024 x 768 pixels.

Watsons Birmingham 11/1/01 9:39 AM Page 2

THE WATSONS
GO TO
BIRMINGHAM—
1963
a novel by
Christopher Paul Curtis
Delacorte Press
Watsons Birmingham 11/1/01 9:39 AM Page 3

Published by Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, Inc.
Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.
1540 Broadway
New York, New York 10036
Copyright © 1995 by Christopher Paul Curtis
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any
means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage
and retrieval system, without the written permission of the Publisher, except where permitted by
law.
The trademark Delacorte Press® is registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other
countries.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Curtis, Christopher Paul.
The Watsons go to Birmingham—1963 / Christopher Paul Curtis.
p. cm.
Summary:The ordinary interactions and everyday routines of the Watsons, an African American
family living in Flint, Michigan, are drastically changed after they go to visit Grandma in Alabama
in the summer of 1963.
eISBN 0-385-72985-5
v1.0
[1. Afro Americans—Fiction. 2. Family life—Fiction. 3. Prejudices—Fiction. 4.
Brothers and sisters—Fiction. 5. Flint (Mich.)—Fiction.] I.Title.
PZ7.C94137Wat 1995
[Fic]—dc20
95-7091
CIP
AC
Watsons Birmingham 11/1/01 9:39 AM Page 4

This book is dedicated to my parents, Dr. Herman and Leslie Lewis
Curtis, who have given their children both roots and wings and
encouraged us to soar; my sister, Cydney Eleanor Curtis, who has been
unfailingly supportive, kind and herself; and above all to my wife,
Kaysandra Anne Sookram Curtis, who has provided a warmth and
love that have allowed me to laugh, to grow and, most importantly, to
dream.
Watsons Birmingham 11/1/01 9:39 AM Page 5

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Acknowledgments
The author wishes to extend his sincere thanks to the following: the
Avery Hopwood and Jules Hopwood Prize of the University of
Michigan, Ann Arbor, for much-appreciated recognition; the staff of
the Windsor Public Library, especially Terry Fisher, for providing a
stimulating and supportive atmosphere in which to write; Welwyn
Wilton Katz, for her valuable help;Wendy Lamb, whose skill as an edi-
tor is matched only by her patience; Joan Curtis Taylor, who forever
will be a powerful exemplar of strength and hope; Lynn Guest, whose
kindness and compassion are a restorative to a person’s faith in
humankind; and particularly to my dear friend Liz Ivette Torres
(Betty), who can’t possibly know how much her friendship, sugges-
tions and insights have meant.
Special thanks to my daughter, Cydney, who makes me feel like a
hero just for coming home from work, and to Steven, who is without
doubt the best first reader, critic and son any writer could ask for.
Finally, a salute to Stevland Morris of Saginaw, Michigan, who so
vividly and touchingly reminded me of what it felt like to be “sneakin’
out the back door to hang out with those hoodlum friends of mine.”
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In memory of
Addie Mae Collins
Born 4/18/49, died 9/15/63
Denise McNair
Born 11/17/51, died 9/15/63
Carole Robertson
Born 4/24/49, died 9/15/63
Cynthia Wesley
Born 4/30/49, died 9/15/63
the toll for one day in one city
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t was one of those super-duper-cold Saturdays. One of those days
that when you breathed out your breath kind of hung frozen in the
air like a hunk of smoke and you could walk along and look exactly
like a train blowing out big, fat, white puffs of smoke.
It was so cold that if you were stupid enough to go outside your
eyes would automatically blink a thousand times all by themselves,
probably so the juice inside of them wouldn’t freeze up. It was so cold
that if you spit, the slob would be an ice cube before it hit the ground.
It was about a zillion degrees below zero.
It was even cold inside our house. We put sweaters and hats and
scarves and three pairs of socks on and still were cold.The thermostat
was turned all the way up and the furnace was banging and sounding
like it was about to blow up but it still felt like Jack Frost had moved
in with us.
All of my family sat real close together on the couch under a blan-
ket. Dad said this would generate a little heat but he didn’t have to tell
us this, it seemed like the cold automatically made us want to get
together and huddle up. My little sister, Joetta, sat in the middle and all
you could see were her eyes because she had a scarf wrapped around
her head. I was next to her, and on the outside was my mother.
Momma was the only one who wasn’t born in Flint so the cold was
coldest to her. All you could see were her eyes too, and they were
1
I
1. And You Wonder Why We
Get Called the Weird Watsons
Watsons Birmingham 11/1/01 9:39 AM Page 1

shooting bad looks at Dad. She always blamed him for bringing her all
the way from Alabama to Michigan, a state she called a giant icebox.
Dad was bundled up on the other side of Joey, trying to look at any-
thing but Momma. Next to Dad, sitting with a little space between
them, was my older brother, Byron.
Byron had just turned thirteen so he was officially a teenage juve-
nile delinquent and didn’t think it was “cool” to touch anybody or let
anyone touch him, even if it meant he froze to death. Byron had
tucked the blanket between him and Dad down into the cushion of
the couch to make sure he couldn’t be touched.
Dad turned on the TV to try to make us forget how cold we were
but all that did was get him in trouble.There was a special news report
on Channel 12 telling about how bad the weather was and Dad
groaned when the guy said, “If you think it’s cold now, wait until
tonight, the temperature is expected to drop into record-low territo-
ry, possibly reaching the negative twenties! In fact, we won’t be seeing
anything above zero for the next four to five days!” He was smiling
when he said this but none of the Watson family thought it was funny.
We all looked over at Dad. He just shook his head and pulled the blan-
ket over his eyes.
Then the guy on TV said, “Here’s a little something we can use to
brighten our spirits and give us some hope for the future: The tem-
perature in Atlanta, Georgia, is forecast to reach. . .” Dad coughed real
loud and jumped off the couch to turn the TV off but we all heard the
weatherman say, “. . . the mid-seventies!” The guy might as well have
tied Dad to a tree and said, “Ready, aim, fire!”
Momma said. “That’s a hundred and fifty miles from home!”
“Wilona . . . ,” Dad said.
“I knew it,” Momma said. “I knew I should have listened to Moses
Henderson!”
“Who?” I asked.
Dad said, “Oh Lord, not that sorry story.You’ve got to let me tell
about what happened with him.”
Momma said, “There’s not a whole lot to tell, just a story about a
young girl who made a bad choice. But if you do tell it, make sure you
get all the facts right.”
We all huddled as close as we could get because we knew Dad was
2
Watsons Birmingham 11/1/01 9:39 AM Page 2

going to try to make us forget about being cold by cutting up. Me and
Joey started smiling right away, and Byron tried to look cool and
bored.
“Kids,” Dad said, “I almost wasn’t your father.You guys came real
close to having a clown for a daddy named Hambone Henderson. . . .”
“Daniel Watson, you stop right there. You’re the one who started
that ‘Hambone’ nonsense. Before you started that everyone called him
his Christian name, Moses. And he was a respectable boy too, he was-
n’t a clown at all.”
“But the name stuck, didn’t it? Hambone Henderson. Me and your
granddaddy called him that because the boy had a head shaped just
like a hambone, had more knots and bumps on his head than a
dinosaur. So as you guys sit here giving me these dirty looks because
it’s a little chilly outside ask yourselves if you’d rather be a little cool
or go through life being known as the Hambonettes.”
Me and Joey cracked up, Byron kind of chuckled and Momma put
her hand over her mouth. She did this whenever she was going to give
a smile because she had a great big gap between her front teeth. If
Momma thought something was funny, first you’d see her trying to
keep her lips together to hide the gap, then, if the smile got to be too
strong, you’d see the gap for a hot second before Momma’s hand
would come up to cover it, then she’d crack up too.
Laughing only encouraged Dad to cut up more, so when he saw
the whole family thinking he was funny he really started putting on a
show.
He stood in front of the TV. “Yup, Hambone Henderson proposed
to your mother around the same time I did. Fought dirty too, told
your momma a pack of lies about me and when she didn’t believe
them he told her a pack of lies about Flint.”
Dad started talking Southern-style, imitating this Hambone guy.
“Wilona, I heard tell about the weather up that far north in Flint,
Mitch-again, heard it’s colder than inside a icebox. Seen a movie about
it, think it was made in Flint. Movie called Nanook of the North.Yup,
do believe for sure it was made in Flint. Uh-huh, Flint, Mitch-again.
“Folks there live in these things called igloos. According to what I
seen in this here movie most the folks in Flint is Chinese. Don’t
believe I seen nan one colored person in the whole dang city. You a
3
Watsons Birmingham 11/1/01 9:39 AM Page 3

’Bama gal, don’t believe you’d be too happy living in no igloo. Ain’t
got nothing against ’em, but don’t believe you’d be too happy living
’mongst a whole slew of Chinese folks. Don’t believe you’d like the
food. Only thing them Chinese folks in that movie et was whales and
seals. Don’t believe you’d like no whale meat. Don’t taste a lick like
chicken. Don’t taste like pork at all.”
Momma pulled her hand away from her mouth. “Daniel Watson,
you are one lying man! Only thing you said that was true was that
being in Flint is like living in a igloo. I knew I should have listened to
Moses. Maybe these babies mighta been born with lumpy heads but
at least they’da had warm lumpy heads!
“You know Birmingham is a good place, and I don’t mean just the
weather either.The life is slower, the people are friendlier—”
“Oh yeah,” Dad interrupted,“they’re a laugh a minute down there.
Let’s see, where was that ‘Coloreds Only’ bathroom downtown?”
“Daniel, you know what I mean, things aren’t perfect but people
are more honest about the way they feel”—she took her mean eyes off
Dad and put them on Byron—“and folks there do know how to
respect their parents.”
Byron rolled his eyes like he didn’t care. All he did was tuck the
blanket farther into the couch’s cushion.
Dad didn’t like the direction the conversation was going so he
called the landlord for the hundredth time.The phone was still busy.
“That snake in the grass has got his phone off the hook. Well, it’s
going to be too cold to stay here tonight, let me call Cydney. She just
had that new furnace put in, maybe we can spend the night there.”
Aunt Cydney was kind of mean but her house was always warm so we
kept our fingers crossed that she was home.
Everyone, even Byron, cheered when Dad got Aunt Cydney and
she told us to hurry over before we froze to death.
Dad went out to try and get the Brown Bomber started. That was
what we called our car. It was a 1948 Plymouth that was dull brown
and real big, Byron said it was turd brown. Uncle Bud gave it to Dad
when it was thirteen years old and we’d had it for two years. Me and
Dad took real good care of it but some of the time it didn’t like to start
up in the winter.
After five minutes Dad came back in huffing and puffing and slap-
4
Watsons Birmingham 11/1/01 9:39 AM Page 4

ping his arms across his chest.
“Well, it was touch and go for a while, but the Great Brown One
pulled through again!” Everyone cheered, but me and Byron quit
cheering and started frowning right away. By the way Dad smiled at
us we knew what was coming next. Dad pulled two ice scrapers out
of his pocket and said,“O.K., boys, let’s get out there and knock those
windows out.”
We moaned and groaned and put some more coats on and went
outside to scrape the car’s windows. I could tell by the way he was
pouting that Byron was going to try and get out of doing his share of
the work.
“I’m not going to do your part, Byron, you’d better do it and I’m
not playing either.”
“Shut up, punk.”
I went over to the Brown Bomber’s passenger side and started hack-
ing away at the scab of ice that was all over the windows. I finished
Momma’s window and took a break. Scraping ice off of windows
when it’s that cold can kill you!
I didn’t hear any sound coming from the other side of the car so I
yelled out, “I’m serious, Byron, I’m not doing that side too, and I’m
only going to do half the windshield, I don’t care what you do to me.”
The windshield on the Bomber wasn’t like the new 1963 cars, it had
a big bar running down the middle of it, dividing it in half.
“Shut your stupid mouth, I got something more important to do
right now.”
I peeked around the back of the car to see what By was up to.The
only thing he’d scraped off was the outside mirror and he was bend-
ing down to look at himself in it. He saw me and said, “You know
what, square? I must be adopted, there just ain’t no way two folks as
ugly as your momma and daddy coulda give birth to someone as sharp
as me!”
He was running his hands over his head like he was brushing his
hair.
I said,“Forget you,” and went back over to the other side of the car
to finish the back window. I had half of the ice off when I had to stop
again and catch my breath. I heard Byron mumble my name.
I said, “You think I’m stupid? It’s not going to work this time.” He
5
Watsons Birmingham 11/1/01 9:39 AM Page 5

mumbled my name again. It sounded like his mouth was full of some-
thing. I knew this was a trick, I knew this was going to be How to
Survive a Blizzard, Part Two.
How to Survive a Blizzard, Part One had been last night when I
was outside playing in the snow and Byron and his running buddy,
Buphead, came walking by. Buphead has officially been a juvenile
delinquent even longer than Byron.
“Say, kid,” By had said, “you wanna learn somethin’ that might save
your stupid life one day?”
I should have known better, but I was bored and I think maybe the
cold weather was making my brain slow, so I said, “What’s that?”
“We gonna teach you how to survive a blizzard.”
“How?”
Byron put his hands in front of his face and said, “This is the most
important thing to remember, O.K.?”
“Why?”
“Well, first we gotta show you what it feels like to be trapped in a
blizzard. You ready?” He whispered something to Buphead and they
both laughed.
“I’m ready.”
I should have known that the only reason Buphead and By would
want to play with me was to do something mean.
“O.K.,” By said, “first thing you gotta worry about is high winds.”
Byron and Buphead each grabbed one of my arms and one of my
legs and swung me between them going, “Wooo, blizzard warnings!
Blizzard warnings! Wooo! Take cover!”
Buphead counted to three and on the third swing they let me go
in the air. I landed headfirst in a snowbank.
But that was O.K. because I had on three coats, two sweaters, a T-
shirt, three pairs of pants and four socks along with a scarf, a hat and a
hood. These guys couldn’t have hurt me if they’d thrown me off the
Empire State Building!
After I climbed out of the snowbank they started laughing and so
did I.
“Cool, Baby Bruh,” By said,“you passed that part of the test with a
B-plus, what you think, Buphead?”
Buphead said, “Yeah, I’d give the little punk a A.”
6
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They whispered some more and started laughing again.
“O.K.,” By said, “second thing you gotta learn is how to keep your
balance in a high wind. You gotta be good at this so you don’t get
blowed into no polar bear dens.”
They put me in between them and started making me spin round
and round, it seemed like they spun me for about half an hour.When
slob started flying out of my mouth they let me stop and I wobbled
around for a while before they pushed me back in the same snowbank.
When everything stopped going in circles I got up and we all
laughed again.
They whispered some more and then By said, “What you think,
Buphead? He kept his balance a good long time, I’m gonna give him
a A-minus.”
“I ain’t as hard a grader as you, I’ma give the little punk a double
A-minus.”
“O.K., Kenny, now the last part of Surviving a Blizzard, you ready?”
“Yup!”
“You passed the wind test and did real good on the balance test but
now we gotta see if you ready to graduate. You remember what we
told you was the most important part about survivin’?”
“Yup!”
“O.K., here we go. Buphead, tell him ’bout the final exam.”
Buphead turned me around to look at him, putting my back to
Byron. “O.K., square,” he started, “I wanna make sure you ready for
this one, you done so good so far I wanna make sure you don’t blow
it at graduation time.You think you ready?”
I nodded, getting ready to be thrown in the snowbank real hard this
time. I made up my mind I wasn’t going to cry or anything, I made
up my mind that no matter how hard they threw me in that snow I
was going to get up laughing.
“O.K.,” Buphead said, “everything’s cool, you ’member what your
brother said about puttin’ your hands up?”
“Like this?” I covered my face with my gloves.
“Yeah, that’s it!” Buphead looked over my shoulder at Byron and
then said, “Wooo! High winds, blowing snow! Wooo! Look out!
Blizzard a-comin’! Death around the corner! Look out!”
Byron mumbled my name and I turned around to see why his voice
7
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sounded so funny. As soon as I looked at him Byron blasted me in the
face with a mouthful of snow.
Man! It was hard to believe how much stuff By could put in his
mouth! Him and Buphead just about died laughing as I stood there
with snow and spit and ice dripping off of my face.
Byron caught his breath and said, “Aww, man, you flunked! You
done so good, then you go and flunk the Blowin’ Snow section of
How to Survive a Blizzard, you forgot to put your hands up! What you
say, Buphead, F?”
“Yeah, double F-minus!”
It was a good thing my face was numb from the cold already or I
might have froze to death. I was too embarrassed about getting tricked
to tell on them so I went in the house and watched TV.
So as me and By scraped the ice off the Brown Bomber I wasn’t
going to get fooled again. I kept on chopping ice off the back win-
dow and ignored By’s mumbling voice.
The next time I took a little rest Byron was still calling my name
but sounding like he had something in his mouth. He was saying,
“Keh-ee! Keh-ee! Hel’ . . . hel’ . . . !”When he started banging on the
door of the car I went to take a peek at what was going on.
By was leaned over the outside mirror, looking at something in it real
close. Big puffs of steam were coming out of the side of the mirror.
I picked up a big, hard chunk of ice to get ready for Byron’s trick.
“Keh-ee! Keh-ee! Hel’ me! Hel’ me! Go geh Momma! Go geh
Mom-ma! Huwwy uh!”
“I’m not playing, Byron! I’m not that stupid! You’d better start
doing your side of the car or I’ll tear you up with this iceball.”
He banged his hand against the car harder and started stomping his
feet. “Oh, please, Keh-ee! Hel’ me, go geh Mom-ma!”
I raised the ice chunk over my head. “I’m not playing, By, you bet-
ter get busy or I’m telling Dad.”
I moved closer and when I got right next to him I could see
boogers running out of his nose and tears running down his cheeks.
These weren’t tears from the cold either, these were big juicy crybaby
tears! I dropped my ice chunk.
“By! What’s wrong?”
“Hel’ me! Keh-ee! Go geh hel’!”
8
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I moved closer. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Byron’s mouth was
frozen on the mirror! He was as stuck as a fly on flypaper!
I could have done a lot of stuff to him. If it had been me with my
lips stuck on something like this he’d have tortured me for a couple of
days before he got help. Not me, though, I nearly broke my neck try-
ing to get into the house to rescue Byron.
As soon as I ran through the front door Momma, Dad and Joey all
yelled, “Close that door!”
“Momma, quick! It’s By! He’s froze up outside!”
No one seemed too impressed.
I screamed, “Really! He’s froze to the car! Help! He’s crying!”
That shook them up.You could cut Byron’s head off and he prob-
ably wouldn’t cry.
“Kenneth Bernard Watson, what on earth are you talking about?”
“Momma, please hurry up!”
Momma, Dad and Joey threw on some extra coats and followed me
to the Brown Bomber.
The fly was still stuck and buzzing. “Oh, Mom-ma! Hel’ me! Geh
me offa ’ere!”
“Oh my Lord!” Momma screamed, and I thought she was going to
do one of those movie-style faints, she even put her hand over her
forehead and staggered back a little bit.
Joey, of course, started crying right along with Byron.
Dad was doing his best not to explode laughing. Big puffs of smoke
were coming out of his nose and mouth as he tried to squeeze his
laughs down. Finally he put his head on his arms and leaned against
the car’s hood and howled.
“Byron,” Momma said, gently wiping tears off his cheeks with the
end of her scarf,“it’s O.K., sweetheart, how’d this happen?” She sound-
ed like she was going to be crying in a minute herself.
Dad raised his head and said, “Why are you asking how it hap-
pened? Can’t you tell, Wilona? This little knucklehead was kissing his
reflection in the mirror and got his lips stuck!” Dad took a real deep
breath. “Is your tongue stuck too?”
“No! Quit teasin’, Da-ee! Hel’! Hel’!”
“Well, at least the boy hadn’t gotten too passionate with himself!”
Dad thought that was hilarious and put his head back on his arms.
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Watsons Birmingham 11/1/01 9:39 AM Page 9

Momma didn’t see anything funny. “Daniel Watson! What are we
gonna do? What do y’all do when this happens up he-uh?” Momma
started talking Southernstyle when she got worried. Instead of saying
“here” she said “he-uh” and instead of saying “you all” she said “y’all.”
Dad stopped laughing long enough to say, “Wilona, I’ve lived in
Flint all my life, thirty-five years, and I swear this is the first time I’ve
ever seen anyone with their lips frozen to a mirror. Honey, I don’t
know what to do, wait till he thaws out?”
“Pull him off, Dad,” I suggested. Byron went nuts! He started bang-
ing his hands on the Brown Bomber’s doors again and mumbling,
“No! No! Mom-ma, doe leh him!”
Joey blubbered out,“This is just like that horrible story Kenny read
me about that guy Nar-sissy who stared at himself so long he forgot
to eat and starved to death. Mommy, please save him!” She went over
and hugged her arms around stupid Byron’s waist.
Momma asked Dad, “What about hot water? Couldn’t we pour
enough hot water on the mirror so it would warm up and he could
get off?” She kept wiping tears off By’s cheeks and said, “Don’t you
worry, Baby, we gonna get you off of this.” But her voice was so shaky
and Southern that I wondered if we’d be driving around in the sum-
mer with a skeleton dangling from the outside mirror by its lips.
Dad said, “I don’t know, pouring water on him might be the worst
thing to do, but it might be our only chance. Why don’t you go get
some hot tap water and I’ll stay to wipe his cheeks.”
Joey told By, “Don’t worry, we’ll come right back.” She stood on
her tiptoes and gave By a kiss, then she and Momma ran inside. Dad
cracked up all over again.
“Well, lover boy, I guess this means no one can call you Hot Lips,
can they?”
Dad was killing himself.“Or the Last of the Red Hot Lovers either,
huh?” He tugged on Byron’s ear a little, pulling his face back.
By went nuts again. “Doe do dat! Mom-ma! Momma, hel’! Keh-
ee, go geh Mom-ma! Huwwy!”
“Hmm, I guess that’s not going to work, is it?”
Every time he wiped away the tears and the little mustache of
boogers on Byron’s lip Dad couldn’t help laughing, until a little river
of tears was coming out of his eyes too.
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Watsons Birmingham 11/1/01 9:39 AM Page 10

Dad tried to straighten his face out when Momma and Joey came
running back with a steaming glass of hot water, but the tears were still
running down his cheeks.
Momma tried to pour water on the mirror but her hands were
shaking so much, she was splashing it all over the place. Dad tried too,
but he couldn’t look at Byron without laughing and shaking.
That meant I had to do it.
I knew that if my lips were frozen on something and everybody was
shaking too much to pour water on them except for Byron he’d do
some real cruel stuff to me. He probably would have “accidentally”
splashed my eyes until they were frozen open or put water in my ears
until I couldn’t hear anything, but not me. I gently poured a little
stream of water over the mirror.
Dad was right! This was the worst thing we could do! The water
made a cracking sound and froze solid as soon as it touched the mir-
ror and By’s lips!
Maybe By’s mouth was frozen but his hands sure weren’t and he
popped me right in the forehead. Hard! I hate to say it but I started
crying too.
It’s no wonder the neighbors called us the Weird Watsons behind
our backs.There we were, all five of us standing around a car with the
temperature about a million degrees below zero and each and every
one of us crying!
“ ’top! ’top!” By yelled.
“Daniel Watson, what’re we gonna do?” Momma went nuts. “You
gotta get this boy to the hospital! My baby is gonna die!”
Dad tried to look serious real quick.
“Wilona, how far do you think I’d get driving down the street with
this little clown attached to the mirror? What am I supposed to do,
have him run beside the car all the way down to the emergency
room?”
Momma looked real close at By’s mouth, closed her eyes for a sec-
ond like she was praying and finally said,“Daniel, you get in there and
call the hospital and see what they say we should do. Joey and Kenny,
go with your daddy.”
Dad and Joey went crying into the house. I stayed by the Brown
Bomber. I figured Momma was clearing everybody out for something.
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Byron did too and looked at Momma in a real nervous way.
Momma put her scarf around Byron’s face and said, “Sweetheart,
you know we gotta do something. I’ma try to warm your face up a
little. Just relax.”
“O.K., Mom-ma.”
“You know I love you and wouldn’t do anything to hurt you,
right?” If Momma was trying to make Byron relax she wasn’t doing a
real good job at it. All this talk about love and not getting hurt was
making him real nervous.
“Wah are you gonna do? Huh? Doe hur’ me! Keh-ee, hel’!”
Momma moved the scarf away and put one hand on Byron’s chin
and the other one on his forehead.
“No! Hel’! Hel’ me, Keh-ee!”
Momma gave Byron’s head a good hard snatch and my eyes auto-
matically shut and my hands automatically flew up to cover my ears
and my mouth automatically flew open and screamed out,
“Yeeeowwww!”
I didn’t see it, but I bet Byron’s lips stretched a mile before they
finally let go of that mirror. I bet his lips looked like a giant rubber
band before they snapped away from that glass!
I didn’t hear it, but I bet Byron’s lips made a sound like a giant piece
of paper being ripped in half!
When I opened my eyes Byron was running to the house with his
hands over his mouth and Momma following right behind him. I ran over
to the mirror to see how much of Byron’s mouth was still stuck there.
The dirty dogs let Byron get away with not doing his share of the
windows and I had to do the whole car myself.When we were final-
ly going to Aunt Cydney’s house I decided to pay Byron back for
punching me in the forehead and getting out of doing his part of the
window scraping. Joey was sitting between us so I felt kind of safe. I
said to her, loud, “Joetta, guess what. I’m thinking about writing my
own comic book.”
“What about?”
“Well, it’s going to be about this real mean criminal who has a ter-
rible accident that turns him into a superhero.”
Joey knew I was going to tease Byron so she sat there looking like
I should be careful what I said. Finally I asked her, “Do you want to
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know what I’m going to call this new superhero?”
“What?”
“I’m going to call him the Lipless Wonder. All he does is beat up
superheroes smaller than him and the only thing he’s afraid of is a cold
mirror!”
All the Weird Watsons except Byron cracked up. Momma’s hand
even covered her mouth. I was the only one who saw Byron flip me
a dirty finger sign and try to whisper without smearing all the Vaseline
Momma had put on his lips, “You wait, I’m gonna kick your little
behind.” Then he made his eyes go crossed, which was his favorite
way of teasing me, but I didn’t care, I knew who had won this time!
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arry Dunn was the king of the kindergarten to fourth grade
where I went to school at Clark Elementary. He was king because he
was a lot older than anyone else and twice as strong as the rest of us.
He was stronger because he was almost full grown and he’d flunked
some grade two or three times.
He was the third-oldest kid at Clark.The only ones older than him
and stronger than him were Byron and Buphead, who were in the
sixth grade and who’d also flunked some grade at least once, we
weren’t sure because it was something that Momma and Dad didn’t
talk about.
Larry Dunn was king of the kindergarten to fourth grade only
because Byron didn’t care about them. Larry was the king of Clark . . .
but Byron was a god.
It seemed like that would make me a prince or a real strong angel
or something but it didn’t work that way, I was just another fourth-
grade punk. I guess having the school’s god as my brother did give me
some kind of special rights but not a whole bunch. It helped me with
stupid stuff like the time I found a dollar bill and got too excited and
was crazy enough to show it to Larry Dunn. I knew this was a big mis-
take about a second before he stuck his hand out and said, “Lemme
see it.”What could I do?
“Kenny,” he said, “where you find this buck?”
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2. Give My Regards
to Clark, Poindexter
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“Outside the school, over by Kennelworth.”
Larry turned my dollar over and over, and I started getting nervous.
“You know what, Kenny?”
“What?” I held my breath.
“This is some real strange stuff but I lost fifty cents over on
Kennelworth yesterday and I bet my fifty cents got hooked up with
someone else’s fifty cents and made this here buck.”
Whew! I let my breath go, smiled and nodded.We went to the store
to get change and Larry Dunn got back the fifty cents he lost and I
got to keep the other fifty that got hooked up with Larry’s. I knew if
it wasn’t for Byron being my big brother Larry would have said some-
thing like “Since my fifty cents found this other fifty cents and they
hooked up to make this here buck I’m gonna keep the whole thing.
You know the rules, finders keepers, losers weepers.”
Having the school’s god as my relative helped in some other ways
too. I had two things wrong with me that would have gotten me beat
up and teased a lot more than I did if it hadn’t been for By. The first
thing was, because I loved to read, people thought I was real smart,
teachers especially.
Teachers started treating me different than other kids when I was in
the first grade. At first I thought it was cool for them to think I was
smart but then I found out it made me enemies with some of the
other kids.
Back when I was in the second grade, Miss Henry used to take me
to different classrooms and have me read stuff out of the Bible or the
newspaper in front of other kids. This was a lot of fun until I started
looking up from what I was reading and noticed that while Miss
Henry and the other teachers were smiling a mile a minute, all the kids
had their faces twisted up or were looking at me like I was a six-legged
dog.
Two years ago Miss Henry took me to Mr.Alums’s fifth-grade class.
Mr. Alums was the toughest teacher in the school and just being in
front of him was kind of scary. He looked down at me and said,“Good
morning, Mr.Watson, I hope you are in good form today.” I just nod-
ded at him because I wasn’t sure what that meant.
“Don’t be nervous, Kenny,” Miss Henry said.“Mr.Alums would like
you to read a few passages from Langston Hughes.” She handed me a
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book and said, “You wait here while we introduce you to the class.”
Man! Some of the time I wished I was as smart as these teachers
thought I was because if I had been I would have dropped that book
and run all the way home. If I’d been smart enough to figure out what
was going to happen next I would have never gone into that room.
I stood in the hall looking at the stuff they wanted me to read while
Mr. Alums told his class, “All right, I have a special treat for you today.
I’ve often told you that as Negroes the world is many times a hostile
place for us.” I saw Mr. Alums walking back and forth whacking a
yardstick in his hand. “I’ve pointed out time and time again how vital
it is that one be able to read well. I’ve stressed on numerous occasions
the importance of being familiar and comfortable with literature.
Today Miss Henry and I would like to give you a demonstration of
your own possibilities in this regard. I want you to carefully note how
advanced this second-grade student is, and I particularly want you to
be aware of the effect his skills have upon you. I want you to be aware
that some of our kids read at miraculous levels.”
I saw Mr. Alums point the yardstick at someone somewhere in the
class and say,“Perhaps you’d like to finish the introduction, I think you
know our guest quite well.”
Whoever he pointed at said, “What? I didn’t do nothin’.”
Miss Henry waved for me to come in and stand in front of the class.
I guess I was too nervous about Mr. Alums to have recognized the
voice before, but as soon as I walked into the room I froze. There in
the two seats closest to the teacher’s desk in the very first row sat
Buphead and Byron! The Langston Hughes book jumped from my
hand and the whole class laughed, everyone but Byron. His eyes
locked on mine and I felt things start melting inside of me.
Mr. Alums slammed the yardstick on his desk and the class got real,
real quiet.
“Let’s see if you find this so humorous after you’ve heard how well
this young man reads. And Byron Watson, if you are incapable of tak-
ing some of the fire out of your eyes I assure you I will find a way to
assist you.
“If, instead of trying to intimidate your young brother, you would
emulate him and use that mind of yours, perhaps you’d find things
much easier. Perhaps you wouldn’t be making another appearance in
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the fifth grade next year, now would you, hmmm?” Byron got one
more dirty look in at me, then looked down at his desk.
Mr.Alums might as well have tied me up to a pole and said,“Ready,
aim, fire!”
I read through the Langston Hughes stuff real quick but that was a
mistake. Miss Henry said, “Slow down some, Kenneth,” and then she
took the book from me and handed it back upside down. She had a
great big smile when she told Mr. Alums,“When he goes too fast, this
slows him down a bit.” I read some more with the book upside down
and got some real strange looks from the fifth-graders.
Finally they let me quit. Mr. Alums stood up and clapped his hands
and a couple of the old kids did too. Byron never looked at me the
whole time but Buphead was giving me enough dirty looks for both
of them.
“Bravo! Outstanding, Mr.Watson! Your future is unlimited! Bravo!”
All I could do was try to figure out how to get home alive.
I didn’t even get out of the school yard before Byron and Buphead
caught up to me. A little crowd bunched up around us, and everyone
was real excited because they knew I was about to get jacked up.
Buphead said, “Here that little egghead punk is.”
“Leave the little clown alone,” Byron said. “It’s a crying shame,
takin’ him around like a circus freak.”
He punched me kind of soft in the arm and said, “At least you
oughta make ’em pay you for doin’ that mess. If it was me they’d be
comin’ out they pockets with some foldin’ money every time they
took me around.”
I couldn’t believe it. I think Byron was proud of me!
When everybody saw Byron wasn’t going to do anything to me for
being smart they all decided that they better not do anything either. I
still got called Egghead or Poindexter or Professor some of the time
but that wasn’t bad compared to what could have happened.
The other thing that people would have teased me a lot more about
if it hadn’t been for Byron was my eye.
Momma said it wasn’t important, that I was a real handsome little
boy, but ever since I’d been born one of my eyeballs had been kind of
lazy.That means instead of looking where I tell it to look, it wanted to
rest in the corner of my eye next to my nose. I’d done lots of things
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to make it better, but none of them worked. I’d done exercises where
I had to look that way, then this way, this way, then that way, up and
down, down and up, but when I went to look in the mirror the eye
still went back to its corner. I’d worn a patch on my other eye to make
the lazy one work but that didn’t do anything either. It was fun to play
like I was a pirate for a while but that got boring.
Finally Byron gave me some good advice. He noticed that when I
talked to people I squinched my lazy eye kind of shut or that I’d put
my hand on my face to cover it. I only did this ’cause it got hard to
talk to someone when they were staring at your eye instead of listen-
ing to what you had to say.
“Look, man,” he told me,“if you don’t want people to look at your
messed-up eye you just gotta do this.” Byron made me stand still and
look straight ahead, then he stood on my side and told me to look at
him. I turned my head to look. “Naw, man, keep your head straight
and look at me sideways.”
I did it. “See? You ain’t cockeyed no more, your eyes is straight as a
arrow now!” I went to the bathroom, stood on the toilet and leaned
over to look in the mirror sideways, and Byron was right! I couldn’t
help smiling. Momma was right too, I was a kind of handsome little
guy when I looked at myself sideways and both eyes were pointing in
the same direction!
Even though my older brother was Clark Elementary School’s god
that didn’t mean I never got teased or beat up at all. I still had to fight
a lot and still got called Cockeye Kenny and I still had people stare at
my eye and I still had to watch when they made their eyes go crossed
when they were teasing me. It seemed like one of these things hap-
pened to me every day, but if it hadn’t been for Byron I knew they’d
have happened a whole lot more. That’s why I was kind of nervous
about what was going to happen if Byron ever got out of sixth grade
and went to junior high school before I caught up to him.That’s why
I was going to send off for that book Learn Karate in Three Weeks that
was in the back of my comic books.
The worst part about being teased was riding the school bus on
those mornings when Byron and Buphead decided they were going
to skip school.
We’d be standing on the corner waiting for the bus, Byron,
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Buphead and all the other old thugs in one bunch, Larry Dunn, Banky
and all the other young thugs in another bunch, the regular kids like
Joetta in a third bunch and me off to the side by myself.When we saw
the bus about three blocks away we all got in a line—old thugs, young
thugs, regular kids, then me. It wasn’t until the bus stopped and the
door opened that I knew whether By and Buphead were going. I
hated it when By walked past and said, “Give my regards to Clark,
Poindexter.” Some of the time those words were like a signal for the
other kids to jump on me.
But the day I stopped hating the bus so much began with those
same words. We were all lined up. “Give my regards to Clark,
Poindexter,” By said, and disappeared around the bus’s back. I got on
the bus and took the seat right behind the driver. The days By rode I
would sit a few rows from him in the back, on other days the driver
was the most protection.
The bus drove down into public housing and after everyone was
picked up we headed toward Clark. But today the bus driver did
something he’d never done before. He noticed two kids running up
late . . . and he stopped to let them get on. Every other time someone
was late he’d just laugh at them and tell the rest of us,“This is the only
way you little punks is gonna learn to be punctual. I hope that fool has
a pleasant walk to school.” Then no matter how hard the late kid
banged on the side of the bus the driver would just take off, laughing
out of the window.
That was part one of my miracle, that let me know something spe-
cial was going to happen. As soon as the doors of the bus swung open
and two strange new boys got on, part two of my miracle happened.
Every once in a while, Momma would make me go to Sunday
school with Joey. Even though it was just a bunch of singing and col-
oring in coloring books and listening to Mrs. Davidson, I had learned
one thing. I learned about getting saved. I learned how someone could
come to you when you were feeling real, real bad and could take all
of your problems away and make you feel better. I learned that the
person who saved you, your personal saver, was sent by God to pro-
tect you and to help you out.
When the bigger one of the two boys who got on the bus late said
to the driver in a real down-South accent, “Thank you for stopping,
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sir,” I knew right away. I knew that God had finally gotten sick of me
being teased and picked on all the time.
As I looked at this new boy with the great big smile and the jack-
et with holes in the sleeves and the raggedy tennis shoes and the tore-
up blue jeans I knew who he was. Maybe he didn’t live a million years
ago and maybe he didn’t have a beard and long hair and maybe he
wasn’t born under a star but I knew anyway, I knew God had finally
sent me some help, I knew God had finally sent me my personal saver!
As soon as the boy thanked the driver in that real polite, real coun-
try way I jerked around in my seat to see what the other kids were
going to do to him.Whenever someone new started coming to Clark
most of the kids took some time to see what he was like. The boys
would see if he was tough or weak, if he was cool or a square, and the
girls would look to see if he was cute or ugly.Then they decided how
to treat him.
I knew they weren’t going to waste any time with this new guy, it
was going to be real easy and real quick with him. He was like nobody
we’d seen before. He was raggedy, he was country, he was skinny and
he was smiling at everybody a mile a minute. The boy with him had
to be his little brother, he looked like a shrunk-up version of the big
one.
Everyone had stopped what they were doing and were real quiet.
Some were standing up to get a better look.The older one got an even
bigger smile on his face and waved real hard at everybody, the little
shrunk-up version of him smiled and did the same thing. Then they
said, “Hiya, y’all!” and I knew that here was someone who was going
to be easier for the kids to make fun of than me!
Most of the kids were just staring. Then Larry Dunn said, “Lord
today, look at the nappy-headed, downhome, country corn flake the
cat done drugged up from Mississippi, y’all!” About a million fingers
pointed at the new kids and a million laughs almost knocked them
over.
Larry Dunn threw an apple core from the back of the bus and the
new kid got his hand up just in time to block it from hitting him in
the face. Little bits of apple exploded all over the kid, his brother and
me. The other kids went wild laughing and saying to each other,
“Hiya, y’all!”
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The bus driver jumped out of his seat and stood between the new
kid and Larry Dunn.
“You see? You see how you kids is? This boy shows some manners
and some respect and y’all want to attack him, that’s why nan one of
y’all’s ever gonna be nothin’!” The bus driver was really mad. “Larry
Dunn, you better sit your ass down and cut this mess out. I know you
don’t want to start panning on folks, do you? Not with what I know
’bout your momma.”
Someone said, “Ooh!” and Larry sat down.The bus was real quiet.
We’d never seen the driver get this mad before. He pushed the two
new kids into the same seat as me and told them, “Don’t you pay no
mind to them little fools, they ain’t happy lest they draggin’ someone
down.”Then he had to add,“Y’all just sit next to Poindexter, he don’t
bother no one.”
I sat there and looked at them sideways. I didn’t say anything to
them and they didn’t say anything to me. But I was kind of surprised
that God would send a saver to me in such raggedy clothes.
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couldn’t believe it! The door opened in the middle of math class
and the principal pushed the older raggedy kid in. Mrs. Cordell said,
“Boys and girls, we have a new student in our class starting today, his
name is Rufus Fry. Now I know all of you will help make Rufus feel
welcome, won’t you?”
Someone sniggled.
“Good. Rufus, say hello to your new classmates, please.”
He didn’t smile or wave or anything, he just looked down and said
real quiet, “Hi.”
A couple of girls thought he was cute because they said, “Hi,
Rufus.”
“Why don’t you sit next to Kenny and he can help you catch up
with what we’re doing,” Mrs. Cordell said.
I couldn’t believe it! I’d wanted my personal saver to be as far away
from me as he could get. I knew when you had two people who were
going to get teased a lot and they were close together people didn’t
choose one of them to tease, they picked on both of them, and instead
of picking on them the normal amount they picked on them twice as
much.
Mrs. Cordell pushed the new kid over to the empty seat next to me.
“Kenny, show Rufus where we are in the book.”
I watched the new kid sideways. He said, “Kenny? I thought they
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I
3. The World’s Greatest
Dinosaur War Ever
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said your name was Poindexter.” The class cracked up, part from his
country style of talking and part from laughing at me. I could tell that
even Mrs. Cordell was fighting not to break out laughing.
Though he was looking friendly when he said this I kind of knew
it had to be teasing, because whoever heard of anybody’s momma giv-
ing them a name like Poindexter? When he sat down next to me I
tried to imitate Byron’s “Death Stare” but it didn’t work because the
kid smiled at me real big and said, “My name’s Rufus, what are we
doing?”
“Times tables.”
“That’s easy! You need some help?”
“No!” I said, and scooted around in my chair so all he could do was
look at my back.This guy was real desperate for a friend because even
though I wouldn’t say much back to him he kept jabbering away at
me all through class.
When lunchtime came he followed me outside right to the part of
the playground where I sit to eat. He forgot about bringing a lunch so
I gave him one of Momma’s throat-choking peanut butter sandwich-
es and let him eat the last half of my apple. He really was a strange kid;
he only ate half the sandwich and folded the rest up in the waxed
paper and when I handed him the apple he even ate the spots where
you could see my teeth had been, he didn’t even wipe the slob off first.
And, man, this kid could really talk! He was yakking a mile a
minute, saying stuff like “Your momma sure can make a good peanut
butter sandwich” and “How come these kids is so darn mean?”
Then he said something that made me get all funny and nervous
inside, he said, “How come your eyes ain’t lookin’ in the same way?”
I looked to see if maybe this was the start of some teasing but he
looked like he really wanted to know. He wasn’t staring at me either,
he was kind of looking down and kicking at the dirt with his raggedy
shoes.
“It’s a lazy eye.”
He stopped kicking dirt and said, “Don’t it hurt?”
“No.”
He said, “Oh,” then kicked a little more dirt and hollered out,
“Ooh, boy! Look at how fat that there is!”
“What?”
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“You don’t see that squirrel?” he asked me, and pointed up at a tree
across the street. “That sure is one fat, dumb squirrel!”
I looked at the squirrel, it didn’t look fat or dumb to me, it was a
regular old squirrel sitting on a branch chewing on something. “How
come you think it’s dumb?”
“What kind of squirrel sits out in the open like that with folks all
round him? That squirrel wouldn’t last two seconds in Arkansas, I’da
picked him off easy as nothing.” The new kid pointed at the squirrel
like his finger was a gun and said, “Bang! Squirrel stew tonight!”
“You mean you shot a gun before?”
“Ain’t you?”
“You mean you really ate a squirrel before?”
“You ain’t?”
“A real, real gun?”
“Just a twenty-two.”
“How’s a squirrel taste?”
“It taste real good!”
“You mean you really shoot ’em with real bullets and then you real-
ly eat ’em?”
“Why else shoot ’em?”
“Real squirrels, like that one?”
“Not that fat and not that stupid. I guess all the fat, stupid ones been
got already. Since I been born all that’s left in Arkansas is skinny, sneaky
ones. I think them Michigan squirrels is worth two Arkansas ones.”
“You aren’t lying?”
He raised his hand and said, “I swear for God. Ask Cody.”
“Who?”
The little shrunk-up version of the new kid was standing by him-
self up against the fence that runs around Clark, watching us.The new
kid waved at him and his little brother came running over.
The big one pointed over at the squirrel. “Cody, lookit there!”
Cody laughed and said, “Ooh boy! That sure is a fat squirrel!”
“Think you could pick him off from here?”
Cody pointed his finger like it was a gun and said, “Bang! Squirrel
stew tonight!”
I couldn’t believe this little kid had shot a gun too. “You shot a real
gun?”
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“Just a twenty-two.”
“With real bullets?”
The little one looked at his big brother to see why I was asking all
this stuff. It seemed like they were trying to be patient with me, like I
was a real dummy or something.The older one said, “Tell him.”
“Yeah, it was real bullets, what else you gonna shoot out a gun?”
I still didn’t believe them but the bell rang and lunch was over. I
know he didn’t think I noticed, but the big kid gave his little brother
the other half of my sandwich. I guess both of them had forgot about
lunch.
This saver stuff wasn’t going anything like I thought it was supposed
to. Rufus started acting like I was his friend. In the morning on the
bus he’d always come sit next to me, and Mrs. Cordell put his regular
seat next to mine in school. Every day at lunchtime he followed me
out to the playground and ate half of my second sandwich, then
sneaked the other half to Cody. He even found out where we lived
and started coming over every night around five-thirty.
I didn’t mind him coming over to play, because both our favorite
game was playing with the little plastic dinosaurs that I had and you
couldn’t really have any fun playing by yourself. That was because
someone had to be the American dinosaurs and someone had to be
the Nazi ones. Rufus didn’t even mind being the Nazi dinosaurs most
of the time and it was O.K. playing with him because he didn’t cheat
and didn’t try to steal my plastic monsters.
The only other guy I used to play with was LJ Jones, but I quit
playing with him when a lot of my dinosaurs started disappearing. I’ve
got about a million of them but before LJ started coming over I had
two million. It’s kind of embarrassing how LJ got them from me. At
first he’d steal them one or two at a time and I asked Byron what I
should do to stop him.
By said, “Don’t sweat it, punk. The way I figure it one or two of
them stupid little monsters ain’t a real high price for you to pay to get
someone to play with you.”
But LJ wasn’t satisfied with doing one or two, I guess he wanted a
raise, so one day he said to me, “You know, we should stop having
these little fights all the time.We need to have one great big battle!”
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“Yeah, we could call it the World’s Greatest Dinosaur War Ever,” I
said, “but I get to be the Americans.”
I should have known something was fishy when LJ said, “O.K., but
I get first shot.” Most of the time it always took a big fight to decide
who had to be the Nazis.
I started setting up my dinosaurs and LJ said,“This ain’t right. If this
really is the World’s Greatest Dinosaur War Ever we need more mon-
sters.You should go get the rest of ’em.”
He was right. If this was going to be a famous battle we needed
more fighters. “O.K., I’ll be right back,” I said.
This wasn’t going to be easy. I wasn’t allowed to take all of my
dinosaurs out at once because Momma was afraid I’d lose most of
them. Especially because she didn’t trust LJ. Every time he’d come over
she’d tell me, “You watch out for that boy, he’s a little too sneaky for
my tastes.” I had a plan, though. I’d go upstairs and drop the pillow-
case I kept my dinosaurs in out of the window. I wasn’t so stupid that
I’d drop them down to LJ, I’d drop them out of the other side of the
house and then run around to get them.
My plan worked perfect! After I went and picked up the pillowcase
I set up my dinosaurs and LJ set up the Nazis and we started the battle.
He took first shot and killed about thirty of mine with an atomic
bomb. My dinosaurs shot back and got twenty of his with a hand
grenade. The battle was going great! Dinosaurs were falling right, left
and center. We had a great big pile of dead dinosaurs off to the side
and had to keep shaking more and more reinforcements out of the pil-
lowcase. Then in the middle of one big fight LJ said, “Wait a minute,
Kenny, there’s something we forgot about.”
I was ready for a trick. I knew LJ was going to try to get me to go
away for a minute so he could steal a bunch of my monsters. I said,
“What?”
“These dinosaurs been droppin’ atom bombs on each other.Think
about how dangerous that is.”
“How’s it dangerous?”
LJ said, “Look.” He made one of his brontosauruses run by the pile
of dead dinosaurs and when it got two steps past them it started shak-
ing and twitching and fell over on its side, dead as a donut. LJ flipped
him on the dead dinosaur pile.
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I said, “What happened to him?”
“It was the radioactiveness.We gotta bury the dead ones before they
infect the rest of the live ones.”
Maybe it was because we had such a great war going on and I was
kind of nervous about who’d win, but this stupid stuff made sense, so
instead of digging each one of the couple hundred dead dinosaurs a
grave we dug one giant hole and buried all the radioactive ones in it,
then we put a big rock on top so no radioactivity could leak out.
This really was the World’s Greatest Dinosaur War Ever. We fought
and killed dinosaurs for such a long time that we had to make two
more graves with two more big rocks on top of them. LJ finally pulled
the trick I knew he was going to but he did it so cool that I didn’t
even see it coming.
“Kenny, you ever been over in Banky and Larry Dunn’s fort?”
LJ knew I hadn’t. “Uh-uh.”
“I found out where it is.”
“Where?”
“You wanna come see it?”
“Are you crazy?”
“They ain’t there, this is Thursday night, they’re up at the commu-
nity center playin’ ball.”
“Really?”
“Well, if you too scared . . .”
I knew this was a worm with a hook in it but I bit anyway. “I’m
not scared if you aren’t.”
“Let’s go!”
I figured the trick would come in right here so I kept a real good
eye on LJ while we put my monsters back in the pillowcase.When we
were done I sneaked a look at his back pockets, ’cause I knew when
he stole dinosaurs he put them back there or in his socks. From the
way his pockets were sticking out it looked like he had one
Tyrannosaurus rex and one triceratops. I couldn’t tell how many he had
in his socks. I figured that wasn’t too bad a price for as much fun as
we’d had.
LJ was talking a mile a minute. “They even got some books with
nekkid ladies! You ever seen a nekkid lady?”
“Yeah, lots of times!” I had too. Byron had borrowed lots of nasty
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magazines from Buphead’s library. I knew LJ didn’t believe me,
though. For some reason if you were famous for being smart no one
thought you’d ever looked at a dirty book.
LJ said, “You gotta be in the house by seven, don’t you?
“Yeah.”
“O.K., we better hurry before it gets too late.”
After I’d sneaked the dinosaurs back into the house we ran off
toward Banky and Larry Dunn’s secret fort.
It wasn’t until nine o’clock at night when I was in bed that a bell
went off in my head. I’d forgotten all about the radioactive dinosaurs!
I put on my tennis shoes, got my night-reading flashlight, climbed
out the back window and went down the tree into the backyard. I got
to the battleground and saw the three radioactive graves, but when I
moved the rock on the first one and dug a little bit down I didn’t hit
one dinosaur, not one! The second grave was empty too. I didn’t even
move the rock from the third one, I just sat there and felt real stupid.
I couldn’t help thinking about Sunday school again. I remembered
the story about how a bunch of angels came down and rolled away the
rock that was in front of Jesus’s grave to let him go to heaven. I think
it took them three days to push the rock far enough so he could
squeeze out. My dinosaurs weren’t even in their graves for three hours
before someone rolled their rocks away. Maybe it was a lot easier for a
bunch of angels to get a million dinosaurs to heaven than it was to get
the saver of the whole world there, but I wished they’d given me a
couple more hours.
But I was just making excuses to myself for being so stupid. I know
if a detective had looked at these rocks he wouldn’t have found a clue
of a single angel being there, but I’d bet a million bucks that he’d have
seen that those rocks were covered with a ton of LJ Jones fingerprints.
I never played with LJ again after that. So playing with Rufus got
to be O.K. It was a lot better not to have to worry about getting stuff
stolen when you were with your friends, and it was a lot better not
spending half the time arguing about who’s going to be the Nazi
dinosaurs.
I was wrong when I said that me and Rufus being near each other
all the time would make people tease both of us twice as much. People
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started leaving me alone and going right after Rufus. It was easy for
them to do ’cause he was kind of like me, he had two things wrong
with him too.
The first thing wrong with Rufus was the way he talked. After he
said that “Hiya, y’all” stuff on the bus he got to be famous for it and
no matter how much he tried to talk in a different way people would-
n’t let him forget what he’d said.
The other thing wrong with him was his clothes. It didn’t take peo-
ple too long before they counted how many pairs of pants and shirts
Rufus and Cody had.That was easy to do because Rufus only had two
shirts and two pairs of pants and Cody only had three shirts and two
pairs of pants.They also had one pair of blue jeans that they switched
off on; some days Rufus wore them and some days Cody rolled the
legs up and put them on. It’s really funny how something as stupid as
a pair of blue jeans can make you feel real, real bad but that’s what hap-
pened to me.
We had been sort of secret friends for a couple of weeks before
people really started getting on them about not having a bunch of
clothes. Me and Rufus and Cody were on the bus right behind the
driver one day when Larry Dunn walked up to our seat and said,
“Country Corn Flake, I noticed how you and the Little Flake switch
off on them pants, and I know Fridays is your day to wear ’em, but I
was wonderin’ if the same person who gets to wear the pants gets to
wear the drawers that day too?”
Of course the whole bus started laughing and hollering. Larry
Dunn went back to his seat real quick before the driver had a chance
to tell anybody the secret he knew about Larry’s momma. I looked
over at Cody. He had the blue jeans on today and was pulling the waist
out to check out his underpants.
Maybe it was because everybody else was laughing, maybe it was
because Cody had such a strange look on his face while he peeked at
his underpants, maybe it was because I was glad that Larry hadn’t
jumped on me, but whatever the reason was I cracked up too.
Rufus shot a look at me. His face never changed but I knew right
away I’d done something wrong. I tried to squeeze the rest of my
laugh down.
Things got real strange. Instead of Rufus jabbering away at me a
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mile a minute in school he scooted around in his seat so all I could see
was his back. He didn’t follow me out on the playground either, and
he acted like he didn’t want my sandwiches anymore. Ever since
Momma had met Rufus and I told her about sharing my sandwiches
with him she had been giving me four sandwiches and three apples
for lunch. When I saw him and Cody weren’t going to come under
the swing at lunchtime I set the bag with their sandwiches and apples
in it on the swing set.The bag was still there when the bell rang.
They quit sitting next to me on the bus too, and Rufus didn’t show
up that night to play. After this junk went on for three or four days I
sneaked the pillowcase full of dinosaurs out and headed over to where
Rufus lived. I knocked on the door and Cody answered. I thought
things might be back to being O.K. because Cody gave me a great big
smile and said, “Hiya, Kenny, you wanna talk to Rufus?”
“Hi, Cody.”
“Just a minute.”
Cody closed the door and ran back inside. A minute later Rufus
came to the door.
“Hey, Rufus, I thought you might want to play dinosaurs. It’s your
turn to be the Americans.”
Rufus looked at the pillowcase, then back at me.“I ain’t playin’ with
you no more, Kenny.”
“How come?” I knew, though.
“I thought you was my friend. I didn’t think you was like all them
other people,” he said.“I thought you was different.” He didn’t say this
stuff like he was mad, he just sounded real, real sad. He pulled Cody
out of the doorway and shut it.
Rufus might as well have tied me to a tree and said, “Ready, aim,
fire!” I felt like someone had pulled all my teeth out with a pair of
rusty pliers. I wanted to knock on his door and tell him, “I am differ-
ent,” but I was too embarrassed so I walked the dinosaurs back home.
I couldn’t believe how sad I got. It’s funny how things could change
so much and you wouldn’t notice. All of a sudden I started remem-
bering how much I hated riding the bus, all of a sudden I started
remembering how lunchtime under the swing set alone wasn’t very
much fun, all of a sudden I started remembering that before Rufus
came to Flint my only friend was the world’s biggest dinosaur thief, LJ
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Jones, all of a sudden I remembered that Rufus and Cody were the
only two kids in the whole school (other than Byron and Joey) that I
didn’t automatically look at sideways.
A couple of days later Momma asked me to sit in the kitchen with
her for a while.
“How’s school?”
“O.K.” I knew she was fishing to find what was wrong and hoped
it wouldn’t take her too long. I wanted to tell her what I’d done.
“Where’s Rufus been? I haven’t seen him lately.”
It was real embarrassing but tears just exploded out of my face and
even though I knew she was going to be disappointed in me I told
Momma how I’d hurt Rufus’s feelings.
“Did you apologize?”
“Sort of, but he wouldn’t let me talk to him.”
“Well, give him some time, then try again.”
“Yes, Momma.”
The next day after school when the bus pulled up at Rufus’s stop
Momma was standing there.When Rufus and Cody got off they said,
“Hi, Mrs. Watson,” and gave her their big smiles. The three of them
walked toward Rufus’s house. Momma put her hand on Rufus’s head
while they walked.
Momma didn’t say anything when she got home and I didn’t ask
her but I kept my eye on the clock. At exactly five-thirty there was a
knock and I knew who it was and I knew what I had to do.
Momma and Joey were in the living room and when they heard the
knock everything there got real quiet. Rufus and Cody were standing
on the porch smiling a mile a minute. I said, “Rufus, I’m sorry.”
He said, “That’s O.K.”
I wasn’t through, though. I really wanted him to know. “I am dif-
ferent.”
He said, “Shoot, Kenny, you think I don’t know? Why you think I
came back? But remember, you said it’s my turn to be the Americans.”
People started moving around in the living room again. I guess I
should have told Momma that I really appreciated her helping me get
my friend back but I didn’t have to. I was pretty sure she already knew.
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ecause she’d been born in Alabama, Momma didn’t really know
anything about the cold. Even though she’d lived in Flint for fifteen
years she still thought cold weather could kill you in a flash.That’s why
me and Joey were the warmest kids at Clark Elementary School.
Momma wouldn’t let us go out on a cold winter day unless we were
wearing a couple of T-shirts, a couple of sweaters, a couple of jackets
and a couple of coats, plus gigantic snow pants that hung on your
shoulders by suspenders, plus socks and big, black, shiny rubber boots
that closed with five metal buckles.
We wore so many clothes that when we pulled our final coat on we
could barely bend our arms. We wore so many clothes that when
Byron wasn’t around, the other kids said stuff like “Here come some
of them Weird Watsons doing their Mummy imitations.” But the worst
part of this was having to take all this stuff off once we got to school.
It was my job to make sure Joey got out of her coats and things
O.K., so after I took all of my junk off I went down to the kinder-
garten and started working on hers.
Joey usually looked like a little zombie while I peeled the coats and
jackets off of her. She got so hot inside all this stuff that when I final-
ly got down to the last layer she’d be soaking wet and kind of drowsy-
looking.
I took her hood off and unwrapped the last scarf that was around
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her head. When that last scarf came off there was always a real nice
smell, like Joey was a little oven and inside all these clothes she’d baked
up her own special perfume, with the smell of shampoo and soap and
the pomade Momma put in her hair. That was the only part I didn’t
mind. I loved sticking my nose right on top of Joey’s head and smelling
all those nice things baked together.
Momma always kept a little towel in Joey’s last jacket’s pocket so I
could make sure her face and hair were dry.
“Kenny,” she said one time while I wiped the sweat from her fore-
head and hair,“can’t you do something to stop Mommy from making
us get so hot?”
“I tried, Joey. Momma thinks she’s protecting us from the cold.” I
started trying to get Joey’s shoes out of her boots. Whoever invented
these boots should be shot because once the boots got ahold of your
shoes they wouldn’t let them go for anything. I pulled everything off
Joey’s foot and gave her the boot while I reached my hand inside to
tug on the shoe. We pulled and pulled but it seemed like the harder
we pulled, the harder the boot sucked the shoe back in.
“Maybe Byron’ll help make Mommy stop if we let him know how
hot we get.”
Joey was too young to understand that Byron didn’t care about any-
thing but himself. He was kind of nice to her, though, and didn’t treat
her like he treated me and other kids.
We tugged and tugged and the shoe started coming out an inch at
a time. Finally it made that funny sound like water going down the
drain and slid out of the boot.
“Whew!” I tied Joey’s shoes back on her feet and used her towel to
wipe my own forehead. I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to not
listen to what Momma told me.
The next morning Momma was burying Joey in all her clothes
again. Joey was doing the usual whining and complaining. “Mommy,
can’t I wear just one jacket, I get too hot! And besides, when I wear
all this junk I’m the laughing sock of the morning kindergarten.”
Momma’s hand came up to cover her mouth but she got serious
when she said, “Joey, I don’t want you to be the laughing ‘sock,’ but I
don’t want you catching a cold. You’ve got to keep bundled up out
there, it’s colder than you think.This cold is very dangerous, people die
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in it all the time.”
Joey pouted and said, “Well, if they die in it all the time how come
we don’t see any frozen people when we go to school?”
Momma gave Joey a funny look and pulled her hood over her head.
“Sweetheart, do what Mommy says, it’s better to be too warm than
too cold.”
Joey whined a little more while Momma put her boots on her. Me
and Byron went outside and waited on the porch. He was trying to
look cool but I said to him anyway, “Man, I hate taking all that stuff
off Joey when we get to school, she whines and cries the whole time.”
I stood next to him and looked at him sideways.
“Seems to me like you got a real bad memory.Who you think took
all that stuff off your little behind all these years? What goes around
goes around.”
I was surprised he’d said anything, since Byron thought it was cool
not to answer stuff when someone younger than you said it. But he
wasn’t being completely nice. While I was talking he kept moving
around me so if I wanted to look at him sideways I’d have to move
too. It must have looked like we were doing some kind of square
dance with me moving around like one foot was nailed to the porch.
“Yeah, but I didn’t cry and whine.”
Byron kept circling me and put his hand behind his ear. “What? I
know you didn’t say what I think you said.You were the cryingest lit-
tle clown there ever was.”
With Byron walking around me like that we must have looked like
we were in the Wild West and I was a wagon train and Byron was the
Indians circling, waiting to attack.
Byron changed directions and started going around the other way,
and I acted like my other foot was nailed to the porch and started fol-
lowing him sideways that way.
I knew there wasn’t much point saying a whole bunch more to
him, so I said mostly to myself,“Man, I hate listening to Joey whining
when I take all that junk off her at school.”
“Well, listen here,” he said, “I’ma help you out.”
I know it’s kind of stupid to think that someone who’s teasing you
by going around in circles is going to help you out but I said anyway,
“How?”
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He kept going round and round me. I bet we looked like the solar
system, with me being the sun and Byron being the orbiting Earth.
“I’ll talk to Joey.You know, kinda put her mind at ease.”
This didn’t sound too good, and I got sick of By teasing me so I let
the Earth orbit by itself.
Joey finally came out and the three of us walked toward the bus
stop.
Byron started right in. “Baby Sis, I know you don’t like wearing all
them clothes, right?”
“Right, Byron, they get too hot!”
“Yeah, I’m hip, but you know there’s a good reason why you gotta
have all that stuff on.”
“Why? Only me and Kenny wear this much junk.”
“Yeah, but what you don’t know is that Momma’s only doing
what’s right, there’s something she don’t want you two to know yet,
but I know you some real mature kids so I’ma tell you anyway.”
“O.K., tell us.”
I wanted to know too. Even though I was in fourth grade I fell for
a lot of the stuff Byron came up with. He made everything seem real
interesting and important.
“All right, but when Momma finally do tell you guys this stuff you
gotta act like you surprised, deal?”
Both me and Joey said, “Deal!”
Byron looked around to make sure no one was listening, then said,
“Have you ever noticed early in the morning some of the time you
wake up and hear garbage trucks?”
“Yeah.”
“And have you noticed how when you get up and go to school you
almost never see them trucks?”
“Yeah.”
“And have you ever noticed how when you do see one of them
trucks it got a real big door in the back of it that opens and shuts so
you can’t see what’s inside?”
“Yeah.”
“And have you noticed how that door is too big for even the
biggest garbage can in the world?”
“Yeah.”
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“And Joey, did you notice how Momma got kind of nervous and
didn’t answer your question about not seeing people being frozed up
on the street?”
“Yeah.”
Byron looked around and made us get real close to him.
“O.K., now this is the part you gonna have to look surprised at
when Momma tells you about it, but before I tell you you gonna have
to practice acting surprised so I don’t get in trouble for letting you
know, O.K.?”
“Yeah!”
“Kenny, you first.”
I made my eyes get real big and threw my mouth open.
“Not bad, but try it with some sound.”
I made my eyes get real big, threw my mouth open and said,“What
the . . . ?”
“Perfect. Baby Sis, your turn.”
Joey did exactly what I did.
“That’s good, but I think we need some action. Do all that stuff and
throw your arms up like you just heard some real shocking stuff.”
We did.
“Cool, now do it together, three times. Go.”
Me and Joey did it three times, then Byron said, “Listen real care-
ful.” He looked around to make sure the coast was clear. “There’s a
good reason Momma makes you all wear all them clothes, and it’s got
to do with them big doors on the back of the garbage trucks, dig?”
Me and Joey nodded our heads the best we could with all of those
clothes on.
“You see, some of them trucks ain’t real garbage trucks at all. Joey,
you was right, every cold morning like this the streets is full of dead,
froze people. Some of the time they freeze so quick they don’t even
fall down, they just stand there froze solid!”
Joey was believing every word. I wasn’t too sure.
“But you notice that not everybody gets froze like that, it’s just
them folks from down South who got that thin, down-home blood
who freeze so quick. And you know Momma ain’t from Flint, she
grew up in Alabama and that means half of y’all’s blood is real thin, so
Momma’s worried that one morning it’s gonna be cold enough to
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freeze you all.
“That’s where them fake garbage trucks come in. Every morning
they go round picking the froze folks off the street, and they need
them big doors because someone who got froze don’t bend in the
middle and they wouldn’t fit in no regular ambulance.”
Joey looked like she was hypnotized. Her mouth was open and her
eyes were bugging.
“But both of you gotta swear never, ever to try and look in the back
of one of them trucks. I did it once and I’ma tell you, there ain’t noth-
in’ more horrible than seem’ hundreds of dead, froze-up Southern
folks crammed up inside a garbage truck. It’s a sight that I’ma carry to
my grave with me. So Joey, don’t be cryin’ and whinin’ when you put
all them clothes on, it would break my heart to see my own family
froze solid so’s they got throwed in one them fake garbage trucks.”
Joey started crying.
Byron told me,“Give my regards to Clark, Poindexter,” and left me
there to wipe Joetta’s tears. I’ve got to admit, Joey didn’t do any more
whining when she had to get into her winter clothes.
The only good thing about Momma being afraid of the cold was
that we were the only kids at Clark who got to wear real leather
gloves.
Most of the other kids had to wear cheap plastic mittens that would
start to crack up after two or three snowball fights or one real cold day.
Some of them had to wear socks on their hands and some of them just
had to scrunch their arms up in the sleeves of their jackets. But
Momma made sure we got real leather gloves with real rabbit’s fur on
the inside of them, and I’m not bragging, but we got to go through
two pairs a year each!
At the end of every winter Momma and Dad would go downtown
to Montgomery Ward’s when gloves were going on sale and buy six
pairs for us kids.The only problem with having two pairs of gloves was
that if you lost one pair you had to wear the next pair kindergarten-
style. That meant Momma would run a string through the sleeves of
your coat and tie two safety pins on the ends of the string, then she’d
pin your gloves to the string and it was impossible to lose the gloves
because every time you took them off they’d just hang from your coat.
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I pulled a trick on Momma to help Rufus. For a while I shared my
first pair of gloves with him. I’d keep the right hand glove and he’d
keep the left hand one, that way we both could get in snowball fights
and, instead of Rufus scrunching both of his hands up in his sleeves,
I’d scrunch one of mine and he’d scrunch one of his. This was O.K.
for a while but then I figured that if I told Momma I’d lost my first
pair she’d give me the second one and me and Rufus each would have
a full pair of gloves.
It worked! Momma put the second pair on my coat kindergarten-
style and warned me, “This is the last one, Kenny, after this you won’t
have anything for the rest of the year so be very careful.” I just about
broke out laughing when she held me by the arms and looked right
in my eyes and said, “Do you know what frostbite will do to you?”
“Yes, Momma.” I looked sad on the outside but on the inside I was
feeling great. I gave Rufus the right hand glove and everything was
fine, for about a week.
That’s when my second pair of gloves, kindergarten string, safety
pins and all, disappeared out of the closet at school.
Rufus had to let me borrow one of my old gloves back and we
were back to scrunching one hand each up in our coat sleeves, but
since Rufus was now the official owner of the gloves he got to keep
the right hand one and I had to wear the left hand one.
Two days later Larry Dunn stopped wearing socks on his hands and
started wearing a pair of real leather gloves with real rabbit fur on the
inside of them.The only difference between my old gloves and Larry’s
new ones was that mine had been brown and Larry’s were black.
Me and Rufus found this out when Larry ran up behind us and
said,“This is Friday, y’all, time to do the laundry.Who’s gonna be first?
Country Corn Flake? Cockeye Kenny?”
He didn’t wait for us to make up our minds and grabbed me first.
He said to Rufus, “If you run away during Cockeye’s wash I’ma hunt
you down and hurt you bad, boy. This ain’t gonna take but a minute
so just stick around.” Rufus stood there looking worried.
Larry wasn’t like other bullies; he wasn’t happy taking a handful of
snow and smashing it in your face and running off. Larry gave what
he called Maytag Washes.
With a Maytag Wash you had to go through all of the different
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cycles that a washing machine did, and even though when Larry gave
you a Maytag all of the cycles were exactly the same, each part had a
different name and the wash wasn’t done until you went through the
final spin and had snow in every part of your face.
Ever since Larry got these new leather gloves he was giving Super
Maytag Washes because he could grind a whole lot more snow in your
face for a whole lot longer since his hands weren’t getting as cold.
Larry was tearing me up, I was crying even before the first rinse
cycle was done and he finally let me go. After he washed Rufus up we
started walking home and Rufus said, “Man, he stole your gloves.”
Who didn’t know this? But you couldn’t prove it, and besides, my
old gloves were brown and Larry’s new ones were black. “Uh-uh,
mine were brown,” I said.
Rufus dug a chunk of snow out of his jacket and said, “Look!”
The snow was covered with black, so was all of the snow I pulled
out of my outer coat. Larry Dunn had stolen my gloves, then painted
them black with shoe polish!
I didn’t know what to do. Sooner or later Momma was going to
notice I only had one glove, and ever since I’d found out that half of
my blood was that thin Southern kind I’d started wondering if frost-
bite really could do some damage to my hands. I couldn’t help myself,
I sat on the curb and sniffled a couple of times, and finally cried. Rufus
knew this was some real embarrassing stuff so he sat down beside me,
looked the other way and acted like he didn’t see me crying.
That’s how come we didn’t see By and Buphead walk up on us, I
was too busy looking down trying not to be too obvious about cry-
ing and Rufus was too busy pretending he didn’t notice that I was.
“What you cryin’ about, punk?”
I made the mistake of telling Byron about my gloves and Larry
Dunn.
“Where’s he at?”
“Washing kids’ faces over by the school.”
“Come on.”
Me and Rufus followed By and Buphead over to Clark. Larry
Dunn was giving a Super Maytag to a fifth-grader. Byron interrupted
the final rinse cycle and said, “Lemme see them gloves.”
Larry Dunn said, “I ain’t.”
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By snatched Larry Dunn’s windbreaker with one hand, then
touched his own mouth with his other hand.
“Buphead, I thought for sure when I got up this morning that my
lips was working fine, and now when I feel ’em like this they still seem
like they movin’ just right. But if they working fine, how come this lit-
tle fool ain’t doing what I told him to do?”
Buphead shrugged and said, “Maybe the boy’s ears is bad.”
“Maybe. Maybe I’ma have to use deaf-people language to talk to
him. Maybe I’ma have to talk to him like that woman in The Miracle
Worker.”
All the Weird Watsons had seen that show together and the way
they talked to deaf people in that movie wasn’t anything like the way
Byron was talking to Larry Dunn. Byron’s style of deaf-language was
just to yell real loud and slap the side of Larry’s head after each word.
“Lemme!” Whack! “See!” Whack! “Them!” Whack! “Gloves!”
Whack! “Young!” Whack! “Fool!” Whackwhackwhack!
This had to be killing Larry Dunn.
Larry didn’t cry or anything, he just stared at By and said, “I ain’t.”
He talked real tough but he didn’t do a thing when Byron snatched
the gloves off of his hands.
The palms of the gloves were brown and the backs were black.
Byron threw me the gloves. “Here, Kenny.”
“Thanks, By.”That would have been fine with me but Byron was-
n’t through.
“Come here, Kenny.”
I went and stood where Byron still had the neck of Larry Dunn’s
skinny little windbreaker wadded up in his fist.
“Pop him,” Byron said.
I gave Larry Dunn a slap on the arm.
“I’ma only tell you one more time. Pop him.”
I hit Larry a little harder. I hoped he’d bend over and act like I’d
killed him but he stood there trying to look cool.
Byron kept his word and only told me that one time, then when I
didn’t hit Larry hard enough, By punched me in the stomach. Hard! I
didn’t even feel it because I had all those sweaters and jackets and coats
on, but I had more sense than Larry, I acted like I’d been popped by
Sugar Ray Robinson and staggered around, then fell on my knees
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holding my stomach. I said, “Uggggh . . .”
A little crowd of kids started bunching up around us and Byron
decided it was time to put on a show.
I don’t know why bullies always have such a good sense of humor,
but they do. Unless you were the one who was in the machine, you’d
probably think that Larry Dunn’s Maytag Washes were pretty funny.
And unless it was your jacket that was balled up in Byron’s fist with a
crowd of kids bunching up, you’d have to say he was pretty funny too.
I knew Byron wasn’t trying to help me anymore. He was just being
mean.
“Well, well, well, Mr. Dunn,” By said. “Today’s your lucky day!”
By dragged Larry over to the chain-link fence that went all the way
around Clark.
“You wanna know why you so lucky today?”
Larry Dunn didn’t say anything so Byron grabbed his hair and
jerked his head up and down a couple of times. “I guess that means
yes.”
The crowd of kids was getting bigger and bigger and was loving
this. Not because they wanted to see Larry Dunn get jacked up, but
because they wanted to see anybody get it, they’d have been just as
happy if it was me or Rufus or someone else.
“Well, today’s your lucky day ’cause I’m about to make a new
movie and guess what, you gonna be the star!”
Byron jerked Larry’s arms over his head three times. Larry Dunn
was really tough! Not only because he wasn’t crying when By was
going to mess him up, but also because when Byron jerked his arms
over his head like that we all could see that Larry’s skinny little wind-
breaker was ripped under both arms and Larry just had on a T-shirt
underneath it. You’d have to be pretty tough to stand around giving
people Maytags on a day as cold as this with those skimpy clothes on!
“Hmmm, I guess that means you real excited about bein’ in my
flick.Yeah,” By said, “but I got some even better news for you.”
By lifted Larry up in the air and threw him. Larry landed on his
butt.
Someone shouted, “Look at them shoes!”The crowd cracked up.
Larry Dunn’s tennis shoes had holes in the bottoms and he’d put
pieces of a cardboard box in them to cover the holes.
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Byron snatched him back to his feet.
“Look at that, you so excited ’bout being in my movie that you
jumping for joy! Don’t you even want to know what the flick’s
about?”
Larry’s head got jerked up and down again.
“O.K., it’s called The Great Carp Escape.”
I hated watching this. Byron was the only person in the world who
could make you feel sorry for someone as mean as Larry Dunn.
The Great Carp Escape was about a carp that was trying to get out
of a net in the Flint River.The stupid fish would run into the net, get
knocked down, then get back up and run into the net all over again.
Since he was the star, Larry Dunn had to play the carp and the
fence around Clark was the net.The director of the movie, Byron, did-
n’t like the way the scene was going and made the carp redo it over
and over again.
“Let’s see a little more fins this time, carp,” Byron would say, then
throw Larry into the fence. Since tennis shoes don’t have a lot of grip
on the ice, Larry would go into the fence hard and couldn’t control
what part of him hit first. I knew it really had to hurt to catch your-
self on that cold fence with nothing on your hands, not even socks,
but Larry Dunn was real, real tough, he had a bloody nose and still
didn’t cry.
I wished I hadn’t told Byron about what happened, I wished I just
could have gone the rest of the year with one glove. I couldn’t stand
to see how the movie was going to end, so me and Rufus left.
I could hear the jink-jink sound of that carp hitting the net and the
screams and laughs of the audience from half a block away.
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yron got caught lighting matches again and it looked like this
time Momma was going to do what she always said she would.That’s
when Joetta turned on the tears and cried and begged so much that
Momma let him off. She swore to him, though, that the next time he
got caught starting fires she was going to burn him.
She told us that same sad old story about how when she was a lit-
tle girl her house caught on fire and for two years after that she and
her brothers had to wear clothes that smelled like smoke. Even though
the story made Momma and Joey get all sad and sobby it was kind of
funny to me and By.We’d heard it so many times that Byron even gave
it a name. He called it Momma’s Smokey the Bear story.
“I won’t have you putting this family in danger. Just once more,
Byron Watson, one more time and you’re burned.” Then, to show
Byron how serious she was, Momma raised her right hand and said,“I
swear that with God as my witness!”
By got put on punishment for a month, but even before a week was
gone he started up again.
I was up in the bedroom looking at comic books when I heard
Byron go into the bathroom and lock the door. I knew something was
up, since he only locked the door when he had something to hide.
I sneaked to the bathroom door and peeked through the keyhole.
By was pretending he was making a movie called Nazi Parachutes
43
B
5. Nazi Parachutes Attack
America and Get Shot Down
over the Flint River by Captain
Byron Watson and His
Flamethrower of Death
Watsons Birmingham 11/1/01 9:39 AM Page 43

Attack America and Get Shot Down over the Flint River by Captain Byron
Watson and His Flamethrower of Death.
I could see that he’d made a bunch of little toilet paper parachutes
and when he yelled,“Action!” he set one of them on fire and dropped
it over the toilet.The guy in the Nazi parachute screamed as he float-
ed down in flames and landed in the water with a loud hiss. Before the
parachutist was dead By would flush the toilet and the Nazi would go
down the drain going, “Glub, glub, glub!”
When the water was swirling him away Byron said the only Nazi
talk that he knew, “Ya hold mine fewer, off we der same!”
Peeking through the keyhole, I could see Byron salute to the para-
chute when he flushed the toilet. “Such a brave soldier deserves our
respect,” he said, “so we give him a burial at sea.”
The toilet stopped glugging and Byron said,“Not bad, but let’s have
a little more screaming on the way down and how about having the
Flamethrower of Death turned up a little bit?”
He picked up another toilet paper parachute, lit two matches at the
same time, set the parachute on fire, yelled, “Take two!” and sent the
next Nazi screaming into the toilet. Byron was on take seven when
Momma finally wondered why the toilet was being flushed so much
and came upstairs to see what was going on. The whole upstairs
smelled like a giant match and she knew something was fishy even
before she got to the top step.
She moved so quick and quiet that I still had my eyeball in the key-
hole when she stepped into the hallway. I looked up and there she was.
“Momma, I . . .”
I knew I was going to get it for not turning Byron in but before I
could say anything else Momma pushed me out of the way and hit the
bathroom door with her shoulder like Eliot Ness, the cop on that
Untouchables TV show!
The door jumped out of her way and banged into the bathtub,
Byron turned around and screamed, Nazi number seven hit the water
with a hiss, Byron threw his hands up in the air and said, “Momma,
I—,” Momma snatched Byron’s neck and, stopping just to pick up the
matches that Byron had dropped, she dragged him all the way down
the stairs!
I could see that Momma had forgotten all about me so I followed
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right behind. As they went down, By’s feet touched the steps only one
or two times. He looked like one of those ballerinas that dance just on
the tips of their toes. Momma had her hand around his throat like it
was a baseball bat and was holding him up in the air. I never knew
Momma was so strong!
They danced into the living room and Joey started looking nerv-
ous. She ran over and huddled up next to me.
Momma’s eyes got slitty with the eyeballs shooting around from
side to side. It was almost too scary to watch but I kept looking since
I knew there was going to be some real big action this time! Joey
grabbed ahold of my arm and said, “What’s going on, what’d he do?”
She was starting to get jumpy because she’d never seen Momma so
mad either.
I felt kind of sorry for Byron because Momma hadn’t let go of his
neck and, even though he was a lot older, we could tell he was just as
scared as me and Joetta. He kept pretending he was Daddy Cool,
though, and the only way you could tell he was scared to death was
by looking at his eyes.
Momma kept her hand on Byron’s neck and pushed him down on
the couch and stood right in front of him. She opened the hand that
hadn’t been choking him and looked at the matches she’d picked up
off the bathroom floor.
While one hand had been strangling Byron the other hand had
been strangling the matches! The matches were soaking wet because
whenever Momma got scared or nervous or mad her hands got real
sweaty and disgusting.
Momma’s voice got strange, hissing like a snake.
“Joetta, go out to the kitchen and bring me a book of matches.”
“But Mommy . . . ,” Joey said, starting to get all sobby.
“Joetta, do what I told you.”
“Mommy, I can’t . . .”The tears really started coming and Joey was
squeezing my arm.
“Joetta, go get those matches!”
“Please, Mommy, he won’t do it again, will you, Byron? Promise
her, promise Mommy you won’t do it again!”
“Kenneth.” She turned to me then. “Go get some matches.”
This is what I was afraid of. If I didn’t go get the matches I was
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going to be in worse trouble then I already was with Momma, and if
I did go get the matches I knew Byron would kill me as soon as he
got back from the hospital.
“Momma, I—”
“Move, young man!”
“Momma, wait a minute, I can’t move, Joey’s got me by the arm and
if I move—”
Momma pointed her finger at Byron and said, “Don’t you move a
muscle.” We all could tell Momma was super-mad ’cause she started
talking in that real Southern-style accent.
Byron nodded his head and Momma let go of his throat and
stormed into the kitchen.
Old Mr. Cool still had great big bug eyes and as soon as Momma’s
hand left his neck his own hands came up and started choking him
themselves.
“Ooh, Byron, you better get out of here, go down to Buphead’s
until Dad gets home, he’s probably gonna whip you, but Momma’s
really gonna burn you!” I told him.
“Please, Byron, run! Get out of here.” Joey let go of my arm and ran
over to Byron and tried to pull his fingers from around his throat.
“Can’t you tell, she’s not playing!”
Joey kept pulling at his hand but it looked like Byron was hypno-
tized and he wouldn’t move.
We all nearly jumped through the roof when the snake-woman
voice came back into the room and said,“Joetta, move away from him.”
Momma was carrying a piece of paper towel, a jar of Vaseline and a
Band-Aid in one hand and a fresh, dry book of matches in the other.
She wasn’t even going to take him to the hospital! She was going
to set him on fire, then patch him up right at home!
Joetta saw the Vaseline and went crazy.
“Oh no, Mommy, let Daddy whip him, please, please!” Joey began
pulling her braids and stamping her feet up and down. “Please don’t
set him on fire. . . .”
Her face was all wet and twisted up and she looked like a real nut.
It was hard to do, but I kind of felt sorry for Byron, though not too
sorry because I knew he deserved whatever happened, first because he
had a chance to escape and didn’t take it and second because he was
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being a bad influence on me. Nazi Parachutes Attack America and Get
Shot Down over the Flint River by Captain Byron Watson and His
Flamethrower of Death looked like a real cool movie for me to make
too. If Momma just gave Byron some stupid punishment, then maybe
it would be worth it for me to flush some Nazis down the drain
myself. But if you got set on fire for doing it the movie wasn’t worth
making.
So while I felt sorry for Byron because of what was going to hap-
pen to him I did want to see if Momma would keep her word and I
always wondered what part of him she’d burn. His face? His hair?
Maybe she’d just scare him by setting his clothes on fire while he was
in them. But if she was just going to set his clothes on fire why did she
need Vaseline? I knew Momma was going for skin!
“Joetta, move away.” Momma’s voice still sounded strange.
Joey spread her arms out to the side like a traffic cop and stood
between Momma and Byron. “No, Mommy, wait . . .”
Momma gently set Joey to the side but Joetta kept hopping back
with her arms spread to protect Daddy Cool.
They wrestled like this a couple of times before Momma finally set
all the burning equipment down and sat on the coffee table and pulled
Joey into her lap.
She wiped Joey’s stupid tears away with the paper towel and rocked
her back and forth a couple of times going, “Shhh, honey, shhh.”
When Joey finally stopped crying and blew her nose Momma said,
“Sweetheart, I’m so proud of you, I know you’re trying to protect
your brother and that’s a good thing, I know you don’t want to see
him get hurt, right?”
Joey sniffed and said, “No, Mommy.”
“But honey, some of the time Momma has to do things she doesn’t
want to do. Now you really don’t think I want to hurt Byron, do you?”
Joey had to think about this, the matches and the first aid stuff and
the crazy look Momma had in her eyes made it seem like hurting
Byron was exactly what Momma wanted to do.
After Joey didn’t say anything Momma had to answer the question
herself.“No, dear, Momma doesn’t want to hurt Byron, but I don’t want
you going to school smelling like smoke either, and I don’t want to see
you or Kenneth or Daddy or Blackie or Tiger or Flipper or Flapper get
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burned up either. And if that boy”— Momma’s voice got strange again
and we all looked over at Byron, who was still being held on the couch
by his own hands—“if that boy sets this house on fire with his nonsense
I don’t know what I’m gonna do.” Momma’s real voice was coming
back.“So, Joetta, don’t you see how Momma has to help Byron under-
stand how dangerous and painful fire can be? Don’t you see we’ve tried
everything and nothing seems to get through that rock head of his?”
Joetta thought about her stupid cat and goldfish getting burned up
and looked kind of hard over at Byron.
“But look at him, Mommy, he’s really, really scared this time, maybe
he won’t—”
“Joetta, he’s not that scared.Yet.”Then Momma dropped the bomb
on Joey.“Besides, don’t you remember, sweetheart? Don’t you remem-
ber when this happened last week I swore to God that if Byron did it
again I would burn him? What do you think, do you think I should
break my word to God?”
Joey was at the age when you’re real religious. She went to Sunday
school three days a week.
“Huh, honey, should I break my word to God?”
“No, Mommy,” Joey said. Then she scrunched her face up like she
was eating something sour and cried out,“Since you promised I guess
you gotta do it.” She took a giant breath, then sobbed,“Go ahead, burn
him up!”
Joey climbed off Momma’s lap and Byron’s eyes got bigger and big-
ger but his traitor hands kept him pinned to the couch.
“But please, Mommy, don’t burn him too bad, O.K., please, please?”
Joey was starting up again.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart, I won’t. I’m just going to burn his fingers
enough so he won’t be tempted by fire ever again.”
Those were like magic words; they snapped Byron right out of the
spell Momma put on him. It was like his hands said,“Fingers? Did she
say she was gonna burn someone’s fingers?” Because when they found
out it was them that were going to get burned they let go of Byron’s
throat and joined the rest of his body in deciding to wait at Buphead’s
until Dad got home.
Byron was fast.
Momma was faster.
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He didn’t even make it out of the living room before Momma tack-
led him. Momma sure is a good athlete!
She sat on his chest and said, “Not this time, buster, this time you
pay.” She said “bus-tuh.”
Byron squirmed around for a second and then did something I’d
only see him do a couple of times before. He started crying.
Momma lit a match and grabbed Byron by the wrist and said, “Put
your finger out.”
I couldn’t believe it! By’s finger popped right out! He was hypno-
tized all over again!
Momma’s horrible snake-woman voice came out again and said, “If
you ever, ever . . .” The match got closer and closer to Byron’s skinny
brown finger. “. . . play with—no, if you ever even look at . . .” Byron’s
hand was shaking and he was crying like a big baby but his finger still
stayed out.“. . . another match in this house . . .”The match was getting
closer and closer, and I knew Byron could feel the heat.“. . . I will per-
sonally, by myself . . .” It was so close now that I thought I could hear
the sweat on Byron’s finger getting turned into steam and going Pssss!
“. . . I will burn not just one finger, I will burn your entire hand,
then send you to juvenile home!”
Byron closed his eyes and screamed. Right when the fire was going
to give him a good roasting Joetta ran across the room and, sounding
like that Little Engine That Thought It Could, she blew the match out
before it got him! She thought she missed, though, ’cause she stood
there huffing and puffing and patoohing at the match even after it
went out. Momma’s hand, Byron’s finger and the match were soaked
with Joey’s slob.
“Honey, we agreed, didn’t we?”
“Yes, Mommy,” Joey looked down and said,“but I thought you got him.”
“Not yet, sweetheart, but I’m going to.”
Four more times Momma lit a match and four more times Joey
patoohed them out. Finally Momma got sick of having slob all over
her hand and gave up.That night Byron had to deal with Dad. No pic-
nic, but a lot better ending to his Nazi parachutes movie than Captain
Byron Watson Gets Captured and Burned Alive by the Evil Snake Woman
with His Own Flamethrower of Death.
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omma stuck her head into the living room and said, “Byron, I
want you and Kenny to go up to Mitchell’s and get some milk, a loaf
of bread and a can of tomato paste for dinner.” She waved a little piece
of paper at us that had the grocery list written on it.
“How come Kenny can’t go by hisself?”
“Byron, I want a half gallon of milk, a loaf of bread and a small can
of tomato paste.”
If you asked Momma why you had to do something and she did-
n’t feel like explaining she just repeated herself. She was chopping up
onions for spaghetti sauce and I guess the tears made it so she didn’t
feel like talking. If you were stupid enough to ask your question again
there would be the loudest quiet in the world coming from Momma.
If you went totally crazy and asked the question a third time you
might as well tie yourself to a tree and say, “Ready, aim, fire!”
Byron got the message and jerked up off the couch and walked over
to the TV and punched the “Off ” knob. I knew this wasn’t going to
be a fun walk up to Mitchell’s.We went into the kitchen.
“Gimme the money.”
“Just sign for it.”
“Just what?”
“Just tell Mr. Mitchell you want to sign for it.” Momma kept
whacking the onions.
50
M
6. Swedish Cremes
and Welfare Cheese
Watsons Birmingham 11/1/01 9:39 AM Page 50

“What, just go in there and tell Mr. Mitchell I wanna sign for some
food?”
“Your daddy and me made all the arrangements last weekend,
Byron. Mr. Mitchell will let us sign for groceries until payday. Lots of
people do it. A half gallon of milk, a loaf of bread and a small can of
tomato paste.” Momma started chopping the onions a little harder.
“So I ain’t gotta give him no cash?”
Whack, whack, whack.
All of a sudden Byron’s face jumped like a bell went off in his head.
“Wait a minute! I know what this mean—we on welfare, ain’t we?”
I held my breath. If I found out we were on welfare I was going to
really have to get ready to be teased.
“No.We’re not on welfare.”
“I can’t believe it.You really gonna start serving welfare food in this
house? You really gonna make me go embarrass myself by signing a
welfare list for some groceries like a blanged peon?”
I guess By hadn’t been counting how many times Momma had
repeated herself. She smacked the knife on the kitchen counter and
jumped right up in By’s face.
“Listen here, Mr. High and Mighty, since you just got to know, food
is food.You’ve eaten welfare food in this house before and if need be
you’ll eat it again. Don’t come playin’ that nonsense with me. I already
told you, this is not welfare food.You’ve got about five seconds to have
that door hit you in the back. Kenny, move.”
By pouted and walked real fast up to Mitchell’s so I had to kind of
run along to keep up with him.
He didn’t say anything while we got the stuff Momma wanted, he
just snatched the things off the shelves.Then he dropped the bomb on
me. “You go get in line and hold our spot, I’ma look at some comics
for a minute. When you get up to the register I’ll come and tell ’em
how we gonna pay.”
Aww, man! I knew what that meant, By’d figured out a way not to
get embarrassed. He was going to hide until after I’d signed for the
groceries, I was going to be the one who got embarrassed. I couldn’t
argue or anything so now it was me who was pouting.
Byron disappeared around the comic-book rack.
“Hi, Kenny.”
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“Hi, Mr. Mitchell.”
“This all you want?”
“Uh-huh.” He took the groceries and rang them up on the cash
register.
“That’s a dollar and twenty-three cents.” I saw By’s head come
peeking around the comics.
“Uh, this has gotta go on the welfare list,” I said kind of quiet.
Mr. Mitchell twisted his face up. “On the what?”
I said real low so only Mr. Mitchell could hear, “We just found out
we got put on welfare and we’ve gotta sign this food up on the wel-
fare list.” Byron’s head disappeared again.
Mr. Mitchell laughed. “Kenny, this isn’t a welfare list, it just means
your daddy’s gonna pay all at once instead of a few times every week.”
“Really?”
Mr. Mitchell reached under the counter and opened up a little
brown box. He pulled out a bunch of yellow cards and I could see
“Watson” was written on the top one of them. He wrote “$1.23” on
the first line and said, “Sign here,” then pointed to a spot next to the
“$1.23.” I wrote “Kenneth Watson” and gave him back the pen.
“That’s it?”
“That’s it.” He put the groceries in a brown paper bag and handed
them to me.
“See you, Mr. Mitchell.”
The second I walked out of the store Byron was next to me and he
was in a lot better mood.
“Man, I can’t believe it! We just had a chance to get a bagful of free
food and all we took was some stupid milk, a loaf of bread and a can
of tomato sauce!”
Byron’s good mood started getting to me too. He was smiling and
even put his arm around my shoulder as we walked. I couldn’t help
myself, it felt so grown-up to have By walking with me like that, I
started laughing right along with him.
His mood was so much better that he even took the bag of gro-
ceries from me. Most of the time when Momma made us go to
Mitchell’s, Byron would make me carry the bags from the store right
up to the front porch. Then he’d take them from me so Momma
would think he’d carried them the whole way. But now he started car-
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rying them four blocks away from home!
“This is just too much, all you gotta do is sign that stupid card and
that old fool Mitchell’ll give you what you want! Too, too much!”
Now that By was happy, I had two questions I wanted to ask him.
First, he’d said a word that I’d never heard before and since he said it in
front of Momma I knew it wasn’t cussing.As we walked home with his
arm around my shoulder I thought I might get a real answer from him.
“Byron, what’s a peon?”
“A peon? Didn’t you see The Magnificent Seven? Peons was them
folks what was so poor that the rich folks would just as soon pee on
them as anything else.”
I knew this had to be a lie.You could get yourself in a lot of trou-
ble if you listened to half the stuff Byron said. But I asked my next
question anyway. “What do you think the welfare food was that
Momma said she gave us?” I wished I hadn’t asked ’cause this brought
back his bad mood.
He took his arm from around my shoulder and said, “I know what
it was.” He handed me back the groceries too.
“Don’t you remember how some of the time Dad sneaks up in the
morning and goes in the kitchen and when he come out there’s a big
jug of milk? Ain’t you ever wondered where that milk come from? You
ever seen any udders on Dad? That milk come out of one of them big
brown boxes they keep up on them high shelves, pure-D welfare food!
“And don’t you remember that cheese? Who ever heard of cheese
coming in a box as big as a loaf of bread? You ever try to pick one of
them things up? Real cheese come in hunks or slices, not no blanged
loaf that weigh forty pounds. I always thought there was something
strange about that mess and now I know, she been sneaking us welfare
food! Pure-D welfare food!”
The cheese tasted O.K. to me and, except for a big powdery lump
every once in a while, Dad’s milk was all right too. But to try to get
Byron back into his good mood, I acted real disgusted and said,
“Awww, man . . .”
A week later I was walking in the alley behind Mitchell’s when a
big cookie with pink frosting just about hit me in the head. It went by
like a little flying saucer, then crashed in the dirt. I looked all around
and didn’t see anybody so I put my hands over my face and stood still
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because I knew if something weird like this happened once it usually
happened again. Sure enough, another cookie hit me right in the back
and a big laugh came out of the green-apple tree. Byron.
He dropped out of the tree like a superhero. He had a great big bag
of cookies in one hand and a green apple with a giant bite out of it in
the other.
“Want some?” By tipped the bag of Swedish Creme cookies at me.
I knew this was a trick, the bag must have been empty, but I looked
inside anyway.There was still a half a bag of cookies!
“Thanks!” I grabbed two of the cookies and looked at them real
good in case By had put bugs or something on them.They were clean,
but I still kept waiting for the trick. Why would Byron waste four
good cookies on me?
Man! Swedish Cremes have got to be the best cookies in the world.
I gulped them down and wiped my hands on my pants. I couldn’t
believe it, By tipped the bag at me again!
He jumped up and snatched a green apple off the tree, checked it
for wormholes, then handed it to me.“You best eat some of this, them
Swedish Cremes is good at first but they get kinda thick in your throat
after a while.”
Byron was being too nice, so I knew something bad was about to
happen. Then I noticed a crumpled-up Swedish Cremes bag on the
ground next to the tree and I could figure out why he was being so
generous. He’d already eaten a bag and a half.
A bell went off in my head. I knew now why he’d been so excited
and happy when he found out about getting “free food” at Mitchell’s.
By was signing up for stuff that Momma and Dad didn’t even know
about!
It was like he read my mind, ’cause I was just about to say “Oooh,
By . . .” when he stopped being friendly and crossed his eyes at me and
said,“Don’t even think about it, Poindexter, you ate two of ’em your-
self so quit wastin’ my cookies and just shut up and enjoy what’s left.”
He tipped the bag at me again.
He had me. I couldn’t tell on him, or else I’d be in just as much
trouble as he would. I took another one.
By went over to the green-apple tree and slid his back against it
until he was sitting down. I did the same thing right next to him and
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we sat together munching. I wasn’t used to being this friendly with
Byron so I guess I was kind of nervous and didn’t really know what
we should talk about. By just sat there chomping down apples, so I
tried to think what him and Buphead would talk about when they sat
around like this. Finally I said,“So By, how about you and me doing a
little cussing?”
He twisted up his face and said, “I thought I told your jive little ass
to shut the hell up and enjoy the damn cookies. Now do it!”
I got a huge smile! This was a perfect day! But like always, By
ruined it.
“Look!” He pointed up at a telephone wire where a big bird sat.
The bird was about the size of a pigeon and was grayish brown with
a long pointy tail hanging underneath it.
By jumped up and said, “That’s a mourning dove, they’re the
coolest birds in the world, don’t nothing shake them up!” By threw a
Swedish Creme at it. The cookie zipped right by the bird’s head and
all the bird did was raise its wings once and look behind it.
He threw three more cookies at the bird and it still didn’t move.
When Byron’s fourth Swedish Creme left his hand I knew that if
the bird didn’t move he was going to get whacked.The cookie popped
the bird smack-jab in the chest! The bird’s wings both stuck out to the
side and for a hot second with its tail hanging down and its wings
sticking out like that it looked like a perfect small letter t stuck up on
the telephone wire. Then, in slow motion, the bird leaned back and
crashed to the dirt of the alley behind Mitchell’s.
I’d been throwing rocks and things at birds since I was born and had
never even come close to hitting one, I’d seen a million people throw
a million things at birds and no one had ever really hit one, not even
a pigeon! But now By had knocked a bird right out of the sky with a
Swedish Creme cookie!
When I got to Byron he’d picked up the bird and was holding it in
his hands.The bird’s head drooped backward and was rolling from side
to side. Dead as a donut.
“You got him! You got a bird!”
Byron held the bird in one hand and with his other one gently
brushed pink frosting off of the dove’s chest.
“You got him! I’ve never seen a bird get . . .”
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I looked right at By and his face was all twisted up and his eyes
were kind of shut. He dropped the bird, walked over to the green-
apple tree and started throwing up.
I stood there with my mouth open, I couldn’t believe Byron was
starting to cry. And I couldn’t believe how much vomit a bag and a
half of Swedish Cremes and some green apples could make.
When it looked like he was done I walked over and put my hand
on his back.As soon as I touched him, he popped me in the arm, hard!
“By, what—”
He picked up a rotten apple and threw it at me. “Get the hell out
of here, what you starin’ at? Them apples got me sick, you little cross-
eyed punk! Get out of here.”
Rotten apples started coming at me real hard and fast so I left.
It was hard to understand what was going on with Byron. Some of
the time if a genie came and gave you three wishes you wouldn’t mind
using all three of them to wish some real bad stuff on him. Not stupid
things like that woman in the fairy tale when she wished her husband
had a sausage on his nose either, I mean stuff that would make Byron
hurt so much that he’d have to think every day about how mean he is.
If he just had a sausage growing off of his nose people might laugh
at him behind his back but no one would have nerve enough to tease
him to his face and call him Weenie-Nose or something. He wouldn’t
know how it feels to always have someone jumping on you, how sad
that can make you get. Sometimes I hated him that much and thought
he was the meanest person in the world.
After my arm quit hurting from his punch I went back to the alley
behind Mitchell’s to take another look at the dead bird but it was
gone. Right in the spot where the bird had crashed By had dug a lit-
tle grave, and on top of the grave there were two Popsicle sticks tied
together in a cross.
Leave it to Daddy Cool to kill a bird, then give it a funeral. Leave
it to Daddy Cool to torture human kids at school all day long and
never have his conscience bother him but to feel sorry for a stupid lit-
tle grayish brown bird.
I don’t know, I really wished I was as smart as some people thought
I was, ’cause some of the time it was real hard to understand what was
going on with Byron.
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was sitting at the kitchen table doing homework and watching
Momma make dinner when Byron came in through the back door.
He was surprised we were there ’cause as soon as he saw us he turned
around and tried to walk right back out.
Both me and Momma smelled a rat.
“Byron,” Momma said, “what have I told you about wearing that
hat in the house?”
“Oh yeah, I was just going right back . . .” He pushed the screen
door open again.
“Wait a minute.”
Byron was trapped in the doorway, with his right foot in and his left
foot out.
“Come here.”
Momma put down the knife she’d been peeling potatoes with and
wiped her hands on a dish towel.
Byron’s inside foot joined his outside one in trying to get away.
“Uh, I’ll be back in a minute, they’re waiting for me down at—”
“Byron Watson, you take off that hat and get over here right this
minute!” It was “he-uh” instead of “here.” Uh-oh.
Byron started walking toward Momma in slow motion, sliding his
feet on the linoleum. He pulled off his hat and stood there looking
down, like his shoes were all of a sudden real interesting.
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Byron’s head was covered with a blue-and-white handkerchief.
Momma sucked in a ton of air. “What have you done?” We all
knew, though. She took a step back and leaned against the counter like
if it wasn’t there she’d have fallen down.“Oh my God, your father will
kill you!”
“He don’t have no cause to.”
“You’ve gone and done it, haven’t you.”
Byron kept his head down.
“Haven’t you!” Momma yelled.
“Yes!” Byron yelled back.
Momma reached out and snatched the handkerchief off of By’s
head.
Me and Momma both went, “Huhhh!”
Byron had gotten a conk! A process! A do! A butter! A ton of trou-
ble!
His hair was reddish brown, straight, stiff and slick-looking. Parts of
it stuck straight up like porcupine stickers because Momma hadn’t
been too gentle when she snatched the handkerchief off.
He smoothed his hair back in place.
“Well,” Momma said, “that’s it, you are now at your daddy’s mercy.
You’ve known all along how we feel about putting those chemicals in
your hair to straighten it, but you decided you are a grown man and
went and did it anyway.” Momma was real hot, but she surprised me,
she just shook her head and went back to peeling potatoes.
Byron stood there looking at his feet and I kept pretending I was
doing homework.
Finally Momma slammed the knife down and turned around to
look at By again. Byron stood perfectly still while Momma walked
around him a couple of times taking a better look at his hair. This
looked like the Indians circling the wagons again, but this time it was
Byron who had to be the white people!
Finally Momma stopped and said, “But before your father gets to
you, let me ask you something. What do you think? What do you
think now that you’ve gone and done it? Does it make you look any
better? Is this straight”—Momma flicked some more of Byron’s hair
back up porcupine-style—“is this straight mess more attractive than
your own hair? Did those chemicals give you better-looking hair than
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me and your daddy and God gave you?”
It was strange, a little laugh was starting to get into Momma’s voice.
“Huh, what do you think?
“Well, Bozo,” she said, flicking a piece of By’s hair out over his left
ear and then another piece out over his right one, “maybe you were
planning on joining the circus, ’cause you sure do look like an hon-
est-to-God clown now.
Momma was right. With big clumps of his hair sticking out to the
side over his ears like that he really did look like Bozo. I broke out
laughing, but Byron shot me a real dirty look and I stopped and
looked back down at my math book. I hated it when things like that
happened and my head automatically went down by itself!
“Why on earth would you do this, Byron?”
“I wanted Mexican-style hair. I don’t see nothing wrong with it.”
When he saw Momma just looking sad and me looking like I want-
ed to crack up again, Byron got kind of mad and said, “I think it’s
cool!”
“Well, Daddy Cool, you enjoy your Mexican-style hair while you
can, ’cause I’m sure when your daddy gets through with you you
won’t be enjoying too much of anything, and cool is the one thing
you won’t be feeling.
“You just slide your cool self right on up those stairs to your bed-
room and wait for him, Daddy-o.”
Byron clomped up the stairs.
I told Joey about what happened as soon as our next-door neigh-
bor, Mrs. Davidson, brought her home from Sunday school. Me and
Joey went up to see Byron.
Byron was on the top bunk with his feet dangling over the side and
his hands covering his face.
I loved times like this when Byron was about to really get it and
couldn’t pay me back for teasing him.
I started in on him as soon as me and Joey got into the room.
“Death row prisoner number five forty-one, you have a visitor.
“Please make this a short visit, ma’am, the priest will be here any
minute to give the prisoner his last meal and his last cigarette. Oops! I
forgot, no cigarettes for you, Five Forty-one, you’ve been banned from
ever looking at matches, remember?”
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Byron was feeling very sad. He didn’t say anything to me, he didn’t
even give me a dirty look.That made me a lot braver.
When she saw his hair, Joetta’s eyes got real big and her voice got all
choky. “Byron Watson, what were you thinking about? Look at your
head, Daddy’s gonna kill you! Come down from there, let’s go to the
bathroom and wash that stuff out of your hair before Daddy gets here!”
Byron raised his slicked-down head from his hands.“Go away, Joey.”
“Come on, Byron, we gotta wash your hair till that junk comes out,
hurry!” Joetta pulled on Byron’s dangling legs.
“Stop, Joey,” he finally said.“This don’t wash out, it’s gotta grow out.”
“You mean you have to keep it like that until it comes back normal?
“Yeah,” Byron said, kind of smiling.“They can’t do nothin’ to it till
it grows back.”
“Oh no! Daddy’s gonna tear you up!”
I said, “That’s right, ma’am, Five Forty-one is just waiting for the
executioner to get home. Would you like to stick around and write
down his last words?”
Joey turned and snapped, “Why is this so funny to you, Kenny?”
Her eyes looked real mean. “Who knows what Daddy is gonna do to
him?”
Byron’s hands came back up to cover his face.
I said to Joey, “Why are you yelling at me, it wasn’t me who went
and got a butter, and no one forced him to do it either.” It makes me
sick the way she’s always protecting Byron.
She turned back to him. “Who did this to you, By?”
She didn’t have to ask.There was only one other fourteen-year-old
in the neighborhood who had a conk.
I answered for him. “It was Buphead.”
“Why’d you let him, By?”
“I told you to go away, Joey.”
“No, Byron, why’d you let him do this?”
“ ’Cause I wanted to, that’s why.”
“But didn’t you know Mommy and Daddy would find out?”
“Shoot, you think I care what them squares say?”
I said, “And there you have it, ma’am, the reason Five Forty-one
must die. He won’t confess his guilt.”
Byron looked at me for the first time and I started easing toward
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the door. He said, “You think I don’t know what you’re doing, punk?
You think I don’t know you’re loving all this mess?
“But I been expecting this. This is just like that show I seen about
wolves.They said that the top-dog wolf is always getting challenged by
jive little wolves.They said the top-dog wolf can’t show no weakness at
all, that if he do, if he gets hurt or something, if he steps on a broke bot-
tle and starts limping or something, all the little jive wolves in the pack
start trying to overthrow him. That’s what’s happening right now, you
think I’m hurt and you and every other punk Chihuahua in America
is climbing out of the woodwork to try and get a bite out of me.
“Lemme tell you something, when—”
We all heard the squeal of a car’s brakes outside.
Joey and I ran over to the bedroom window that looked out to the
street.
The Brown Bomber had just parked in front of the house.
Joey started blubbering.
Byron’s legs dangled faster and faster.
Dad got out of the Brown Bomber.
I pretended I was holding a bugle and started playing that “Day Is
Done . . .” song that they play at funerals.
“Byron, why won’t you behave? Why won’t you think about what’s
going to happen to you when you do something wrong? Why do you
always do stuff to get people mad at you?” Joey asked.
“Why don’t you make a break for it, Five Forty-one?” I asked.
We listened to the noises of Dad coming home from work, the
clump-clump of his boots coming off and being dropped in the closet
by the front door, the whoosh his chair made when he sat in it, Dad
saying, “Whew, it sure is good to be home,” the second whoosh of the
chair when Momma sat in his lap, the sounds of kisses and giggles and
laughs, then the words we’d waited for from Dad: “So what’s new on
the home front, Mrs.Watson?”
“Oh, not much. There is a surprise that one of your little darlings
has for you, though.”
“Good or bad?”
“Hmmm, well, I guess that depends on your point of view.”
“Let me guess, which one of the crumb-crushers is going to sur-
prise Big Daddy today?”
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“Your first one.”
“Oh Lord, what’d he do? How serious this time? It can’t be too
bad, you seem pretty calm.”
“Well, let’s just say I’m numb.”
“That bad?”
“It depends. If you were happy with your son the way he was, this
might be pretty bad. However, if you’ve always wanted a child from south
of the border, you might be happy with the new young Mr.Watson.”
“O.K., what’s up?”
“Let me put it this way, do you remember the line Big Daddy used
to give every girl at Central High School?”
“Hmmm, can’t say I do.”
“It goes like this: ‘I can show you better than I can tell you.’ Ring
any bells?”
“Oh yeah, that does seem kind of familiar. Well, now’s as good a
time as any. Show me.”
“All right, you asked for it. Byron dear, could you please come
down here for a minute?” Momma didn’t even raise her voice, she
knew we’d been listening to everything they were saying.
Byron took a deep breath, then jumped off the top bunk and start-
ed down the stairs. I followed right behind him pretending I was a
reporter. I shoved an imaginary microphone in his face.
“Any famous last words, Five Forty-one? Anything to say to all the
little Chihuahuas before they start coming out of the woodwork? Do
you think the governor might call before they pull the switch? Are you
going to come clean and tell what led you down the road to crime?”
By figured he didn’t have anything to lose so when we got about
halfway down the steps he popped me square in the ear. Hard!
Getting hit when you’re not expecting it can really shake you up.
My legs started wobbling like my knees were made out of Jell-O, my
eyes started leaking water, my nose started running.
I tried to go tell on By, but all I could do was sit on the next-to-
the-last step and hold my ear as tears jumped out of my eyes. My
throat wouldn’t quit jerking up and down and making weird noises.
Joey sat on the step next to me with tears jumping out of her eyes too.
When Byron walked into the living room Momma said, “Mr.
Watson, I’d like to introduce you to your long-lost son from Mexico
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City, Señor Byroncito Watson!”
Joey made me quit sobbing so we could see what Dad was going to
do, but for the longest time there were no sounds from the living room.
We looked at each other.
Finally the chair whooshed as Momma got off of Dad’s lap, then
whooshed again as Dad stood up.
After a long time Dad said,“Uh, uh, uh.”Then,“Well, son, what can
I say? It’s pretty much permanent, isn’t it.” Dad’s voice was real calm
and that was scarier than if he’d been yelling.
“Yes, Dad.”
“ ‘Yes, Dad.’ So there’s really nothing I can do, is there.”
“I don’t think so, Dad.”
“You don’t think so, Dad. Well, judging by the condition of your
hair I wouldn’t say thinking is one of your strong suits, is it.”
Byron mumbled something. Wow! He must have really felt like he
didn’t have anything to lose, ’cause Momma and Dad just didn’t tol-
erate mumbling.
Dad’s voice shifted. “Excuse me?”
“I said, ‘No, Dad.’ ”
‘‘ ‘No, Dad.’ ”
Joey started boo-hooing again.Whenever Dad repeated everything
you said like this some real big trouble was about to follow.
“Hmmm, you know, maybe there is something that can be done
about this after all.”
Suddenly Dad and Byron were in the doorway leading upstairs.
Dad looked surprised to see me and Joey sitting there. He smiled at us.
“Hi, Kenneth. Hi, Punkin.Why are you two crying?”
I could just point at my ear but Joey said, “Oh, Daddy, please, what
are you gonna do?”
“Don’t worry, Jo, everything’s O.K., you just wait down here.”
Dad and Byron disappeared into the bathroom and the door locked
behind them.
Dad hadn’t told me to wait downstairs so I ran up and stood at the
bathroom door peeking through the keyhole. Someone had stuffed
some toilet paper in the hole, though, so I had to drop to the floor and
peek under the door to see what was going on.
From the way Dad and By’s feet were standing I could tell that By
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was sitting on the toilet and Dad was standing at the sink.
Dad was rumbling around in the medicine cabinet.
I could hear By sniff a couple of times, then Dad started whistling
that stupid song “Straighten Up and Fly Right.”
Dad’s feet took the two steps from the sink to the toilet.
Byron said,“Awww, man!” I heard a choo-chicka sound and the floor
around their feet started being covered with stiff, reddish brown
Mexican-style hair.
Dad kept whistling and cutting.
Choo-chicka.
“Awww, man.”
“Hold your head still, I’d hate to take one of these ears off by mis-
take.” Dad went on whistling.
Choo-chicka.
“Aww, man.”
“Kenneth, what are you doing?” Momma called me from down-
stairs.
I ran from the door and got halfway down the steps before I said,
“Nothing, Momma.”
“Come on down here and do nothing.”
“Yes, Momma.”
“What’s your father doing?”
“He’s whistling ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’ and cutting all of
Byron’s hair off!”
Momma laughed. Joey sat next to her still looking worried.
The three of us sat on the couch for about half an hour before we
heard By scream as loud as he could.
Dad hollered down to us, “Just a little aftershave.”
We heard the bathroom door open. Dad came down the steps first.
“Mrs.Watson,” he said,“I’d like to introduce you to your long-lost son
from Siam, His Royal Highness,Yul Watson!”
Byron stepped into the living room with a real mean scowl on his
face. Not only had Dad cut all of Byron’s hair off, he’d also shaved his
head! By’s head was so shiny it looked like it was wet.
“And, Mrs. Watson,” Dad said, “you can’t possibly deny this is your
child.You can tell this boy has got a ton of Sands blood in him, look
at those ears!”
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Poor Byron. If he’d have known how far his ears stuck out to the
side I bet he never would have gotten that butter!
Momma put her hand over her mouth and said,“Lord, don’t blame
that on my side of the family, someone switched this child at the hos-
pital!”
Joey laughed because she was relieved Byron hadn’t been executed,
Momma and Dad laughed at Byron’s ears, but none of them laughed
as hard as me.
“Go get the broom and dustpan and sweep that garbage in the
bathroom up, then go stay in your room. This is it, By. You’re old
enough now and you’ve been told enough, this time something’s
going to be done. Now beat it.” Dad’s forehead was all wrinkled when
he said this.
They sent me and Joey outside so they could have one of those
adults-only talks.
When me and Joey drifted back into the house after what seemed
enough time for them to talk, Dad was on the telephone. He was
holding the receiver away from his ear and making a funny face.
I could hear someone yelling from the phone.
Dad whispered to Momma, “Why does she think she’s got to yell
into the phone for a long-distance call?”
Momma slapped his arm and whispered back, “You leave my
momma alone!”
They were talking to Grandma Sands! All the way in Alabama!
Me and Joey crowded up next to them on the couch and heard
Grandma Sands yell,“This is costing y’all a fortune, Daniel, let me talk
to my baby again.”
Dad handed the phone back to Momma, then dug his finger
around in his ear like he was going deaf.
Momma gave Dad a dirty look and said, “O.K., Momma, we’ll be
getting back with you. We love you. Bye-bye.” She said this stuff
Southern-style.
And that was it. We thought that was the end of Byron’s Latest
Adventure until a week later when Dad brought home the TT AB-
700 in the Brown Bomber.
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don’t know why we didn’t catch on that something different was
really going to happen this time, Momma and Dad started acting real
strange right after they talked to Grandma Sands.
First Momma started writing in a notebook and adding things up
and subtracting things, then Dad and Joey and Rufus and me started
driving all over Flint buying things for the Brown Bomber.
We stopped at Genesee Junkyard and bought a new antenna for the
radio and four new used tires, then we stopped at Mr. Biller’s Garage
and had the tires put on the car, then we stopped at the Yankee Store
and bought some spark plugs and some oil and antifreeze, then we got
our next-door neighbor Mr. Johnson to help put all that stuff in the
car, then we washed and waxed the Brown Bomber.
When Byron walked by while we were working on it he said,“Y’all
done real good. It still looks like a turd on wheels, but I gotta admit,
now it looks like a polished turd.”
We ignored him.
While Joey cleaned the windows, me and Rufus washed the seats,
even the parts that were torn and worn away. But the more we washed
them the worse they looked and Dad ended up going back to the
Yankee Store and buying some brown-and-white seat covers for the
front seat.
The Brown Bomber looked great! Not almost new, but not almost
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fifteen years old either.We brought Momma out and showed it to her
and she gave us one of those big hand-over-her-mouth smiles.
“Well, folks,” Dad said, and we all knew he was getting ready to cut
up, “all it needs now is that final touch, that special something that sets
it apart from all of the other buckets of bolts on the road, that one piece
of all-American engineering that shows that this fine automobile is
worthy of the name Brown Bomber. Any guesses as to what that is?”
“A new hood thing?” I asked.The thing in the middle of the hood
was a long chrome rocket that pointed out over the road. The only
thing that was wrong with it was that one of the wings of the rocket
was broken off.
Like with everything else, Dad had a crazy explanation for that. He
told us that right after he got the car from Uncle Bud both wings were
there but that he had taken it to a special garage and had one wing
“scientifically and mathematically” taken off.
When we asked him why, he told us that that way when we came
back from a long trip we’d be “coming in on a wing and a prayer.”
That’s the kind of junk Dad thinks is funny.
“No,” Dad answered my question, “it’s not a new hood thing. The
one on there now is perfectly fine.
“Joey, what’s your guess?”
“I don’t know, Daddy, I don’t think anything can make the Bomber
any better, I think it’s perfect.”
“Bless you, sweetheart. Rufus, your turn, what do you think?”
“I don’t know, Mr.Watson, I like y’all’s car just fine.”
“I knew there was something I liked about that boy. All right,
Wilona, what’s your guess?”
“I don’t know either,” Momma said, and rolled her eyes. “I think
the car is per . . . per . . . per . . .” Momma was cutting up too. “. . . Oh
my God, I can’t say it!”
“Real cute, Wilona. Well, since Kenneth and Momma have insult-
ed the Great Brown One, I guess that leaves it up to Rufus and Punkin
to put the final piece on.” Dad handed the keys to Rufus.“Rufus, you
open the trunk, and Punkin, there’s a small bag in there.You have the
honor of putting what’s inside of it on.”
Rufus popped the trunk open and Joey took a small paper bag out.
She turned her back to everyone and looked inside.
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“Oh, Daddy, I love it!”
“Do you know where it goes?”
“Yes, Daddy.”
“O.K., time’s a-wasting, put it on.”
She put her hand in the bag and, without pulling it out, said, “And
now, the thing that makes this car more perfect . . .”
Dad started helping Joey cut up. He said, “The final touch.”
Joey repeated, “The final touch!”
“The height of technology.”
“The height of technology!”
“The ultimate in American knowledge.”
“The ultimate in American knowledge!”
Momma couldn’t take any more.“For God’s sake, Daniel, what is it?”
“It’s the pinnacle of Western civilization.”
“It’s the pea knuckle of Western civilization!”
“Now, Joey, dazzle ’em, girl!”
Joey pulled her hand out of the bag and said, “It’s a smelly green
pine tree!”
Momma went “Ugh!” and walked back into the house.
Joey hung the smelly green pine tree from the rearview mirror and
scooted out of the car to let me and Rufus smell her fingers.
But Dad wasn’t through adding things to the Brown Bomber. On
Saturday morning Joey and me got up real early to watch cartoons and
Dad was already up brushing his teeth and shaving. I went into the
bathroom to watch him. I love the way that shaving soap smells.
“Hi, Dad.”
“Morning, Kenny, how’d you sleep?” Dad said this with his tooth-
brush in his mouth.
“O.K., I guess.”
Then Dad pulled one of his famous tricks on me. He said, “Kenny,
look!” and pointed out in the hallway. Even before I could think my
head turned around and I followed Dad’s finger. When I saw nothing
and looked back Dad was smiling a mile a minute, acting like he had-
n’t done anything but I noticed that his toothbrush was gone. I let him
know he didn’t fool me.“Dad, how come you always hide your tooth-
brush, why don’t you keep yours with ours?”
Dad laughed.“Well, Kenny, I guess I don’t keep my toothbrush with
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the rest of yours because unlike your mother, I was a little boy once
myself.”
I thought about this for a second, then said, “What does that
mean?”
Dad picked up my toothbrush and said, “Look at this, not only is
this instrument perfect for brushing teeth, it has other wonderful uses
too.You see, Kenny, I know that in a little boy’s eyes there isn’t any-
thing in the world that is better for general cleaning than a tooth-
brush, and the greatest thing about it is that with a good rinse after-
ward no one can tell what it was used for.
“I also know that the best toothbrush for cleaning stuff is always
someone else’s. So, rather than wondering what my toothbrush last
cleaned, I think it’s better that it only goes places that I know about.”
Dad was right. I caught Byron using mine once to shine up some
quarters and another time to brush Blackie’s teeth. I didn’t really care
but Blackie didn’t like it. That was the only time he ever growled at
someone in his own family.
Dad was stirring the soap dish up with his shaving brush, and I got
close to the sink to smell the soap. Dad painted his face with the soap,
then bent down and rinsed it off. I know it sounds crazy, but he always
did this twice, he said it really made your beard super-soft. He learned
that ’cause he used to work in a barbershop when he was a little boy.
That’s where he also learned that if you go to the barbershop you’ve
got to make sure your neck is real clean, otherwise the barber talks
about you like a dog after you leave.
“So,” Dad said as he put the second coat of soap on his face,“let me
guess why you’re standing so close. Could it be that you want me to
soap your face up and hold you up here while you shave it off? It’s
been a long time since we’ve done that.”
“Aww, man, I’m way too old for that. Besides, I’m starting to get a
real mustache. Look.” I stuck my upper lip out for Dad to see.
“Where?” Dad leaned down and looked real hard. “I can’t see it.”
“Here, look.”
“Maybe if you got closer to the light.” Dad bent over and picked
me up to the mirror. I automatically turned my head sideways when I
saw my reflection. Some of the time I forgot all about my lazy eye.
“Well, I don’t believe it! If you squint your eyes and look real hard,
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there’s no doubt about it, this boy’s got a real mustache going here!”
I didn’t know if Dad really could see it or not, but I knew it was
there. He put me down.
“Won’t be long before you and I have to share the mirror in the
morning, huh?”
I couldn’t help it. Even though I knew he might be kidding, I broke
out in a real big smile and nodded my head up and down.
Dad started shaving. “Well, just so there’re no problems, I’ve got
seniority on you, so I get the bathroom first, deal?”
‘‘Deal!”
When Dad finished he asked me, “You too old for a little Old
Spice?”
He slapped the cologne on me and said, “I don’t want your moth-
er to know I put this aftershave on you. What with you smelling so
good and this new mustache coming out I don’t want her blaming me
when all these little girls start attacking you.” I twisted my face up.
We walked into the living room to watch cartoons, but when we
got there Dad kept going and said,“If your mother gets up before I’m
back just tell her I won’t be long.”
“Where you going, Daddy?” Joey asked.
Dad gave his famous answer, “Out,” and closed the door behind
him.
Dad missed Felix the Cat, Soupy Sales, Beany and Cecil,The Rae Deane
Show and Betty Boop. He missed Momma getting up and Byron get-
ting up. When he finally got back we were all sitting on the couch
watching the worst cartoon ever made, Clutch Cargo.
Dad walked in and turned the TV off.
“Dad!”
“Sorry, kids, everybody’s got to come outside right now. You too,
Daddy-o, and you too,Wilona. I’ve got a surprise.”
Dad made us stop at the front door and get in a line, one behind
the other, Momma first, then Byron, then me, then Joey. Except for
bald-headed By, we were all laughing and wondering what Dad’s sur-
prise was when he opened the door.
Following Dad, we walked down the front porch steps and stood
on the sidewalk like a little parade. I bet the neighbors wondered what
the Weird Watsons were doing this time.
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“All right,” Dad said,“when I say it, I want everybody to close their
eyes, and I’m warning you, anyone who looks before I tell you to is
going to get it.”
My eyes, of course, would be sealed. If a bomb exploded under me
I’d be standing in the hole with my eyes sealed. Even if my head got
blown off they’d have to say, “Here’s that kid’s head, and yup, his eyes
are locked tight as a safe!”
Byron said I was stupid for listening to everything that Momma and
Dad said, but if I was so stupid why was he the one who had a great
big, bald, shiny, knotted-up head?
Dad said,“O.K., now hold the person in front of you by the shoul-
ders. Wilona, you hold on to mine. This is only going to take a
minute.”
He said that last part because Momma rolled her eyes and was real
close to stopping everything by turning around and going back into
the house.
“All right, close ’em.”
Momma gave him her “last straw” look and closed her eyes, then so
did we. Dad shuffled us ahead a little bit and then we all stopped. It
was real hard not to peek.
“O.K., keep ’em shut, I’m not playing.”
I heard a car door open, heard a loud pop, then heard Byron say,
“Awww, man . . .”
Me and Joey cracked up.We knew a certain person had peeked and
got popped, right smack-jab on that bald head.
Finally Dad said, “That’s it, open your eyes.What do you think?”
Dad had opened the driver’s side of the Brown Bomber and was
standing with one arm pointing the way inside.
In the middle of the dashboard, to the right of the steering wheel,
something real big was sticking out. Dad had taken one of our giant
towels and set it over the thing. Everybody stood there staring.
Finally Momma said, “Daniel, what on earth is that towel doing in
there?”
“The towel is fine, Wilona. Aren’t you wondering what’s under-
neath it?”
“Yeah, Dad, what is that thing?” I asked.
“Well, Kenneth, since you seem to be the only one with any curios-
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ity, I guess you’ll be the one who gets to unveil the Bomber’s latest
addition.”
I crawled into the front seat and raised a corner of the towel so no
one but me could see what was under it. I couldn’t believe it!
“Dad, it’s great!”
The rest of them, Byron included, crowded up to the Brown
Bomber’s door.
Momma had a worried voice. “What have you done to this car
now? Daniel, what’s under that towel?”
I grabbed a corner of the towel. “Ladies and gentle—”
Byron interrupted me when he saw I was going to tease them. He
said, “Awww, man, just pull the blanged towel off so I can get outta
here. I ain’t got all day to listen to your mess.” He was always in a hurry
to get out of someplace but never had anywhere else to go.
“Byron, how many times have I told you about saying ‘ain’t,’ and
Kenneth, you stop playing and move that towel this minute!” Momma said.
I talked real fast before Momma could get any madder.“Ladies and
gentlemen, the newest addition to the Brown Bomber!” I whipped the
towel aside. “Our very own drive-around record player!”
Momma went, “Oh my God!” and gave Dad a dirty look, then
walked back into the house.
Joey squealed, “Oh boy!”
Even cool old Byron forgot how cool he was and screamed out,
“Awww, man, this is too, too hip! No one’s got one of these. Speedy
don’t even have one in his Cadillac! Too much, man, way too much!”
Joey and Byron climbed into the car on either side of me.
We all said, “Turn it on, Daddy!”
I knew Dad was kind of disappointed by the way Momma had
acted. She really hurt his feelings by walking off like that. Some of the
time I think she forgot how sensitive Dad was. Even though he acted
cheery with us I knew it wasn’t the same for him now. I knew if
Momma had stayed and hadn’t gone off mumbling about money we
would have been having a lot more fun.
But Dad forgot all this stuff real quick and got excited about show-
ing off the record player. Dad was like me, he loved putting on a show,
or as Momma said, we both loved acting the fool. Dad was the best at
it, though, and I couldn’t wait until I was as good as he was.
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“Well, well, well,” Dad said, leaning down into the car, “I see you
three have the ultimate in taste. I see you’ve chosen the top of the line,
the cream of the crop, the True-Tone AB-700 model, the Ultra-
Glide!”
We had too, ’cause right on the front of the record player in big red
letters it said, “TT AB-700, Ultra-Glide”!
“As I’m certain you are aware, the problem in the past with this
new technology in automotive sound has been road vibrations inter-
fering with an accurate dispersal of the phonic interpretations.”
“Huh?” Byron said.
Dad said, “In other words, I’m sure you know that in the good old
days every time you drove over a bump with one of these things the
needle would jump and scratch the record.”
Me and Joey played along. “We know, we know!”
“And, as I’m sure such a fine, intelligent-looking family as this one
. . . it is Mr. and Mrs.Watson and your son, isn’t it?”
“Oh no,” Joetta said, and pointed at Byron. “This isn’t our son, this
is just a little juvenile delinquent boy that we feel sorry for and let fol-
low us around some of the time. Our real son has hair!”
Even this didn’t bother Byron, who was amazed by the Brown
Bomber’s latest addition.
Dad kept imitating the guy who sold him the record player. “Yes,
as I’m sure a nice family like this one is aware, it was only last year that
the scientists at Autotronic Industries made a brilliant, beautiful,
breathtaking breakthrough and developed a suitable system for con-
trolling these vibrations.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I saw it last night on the news.Walter Cronkite said
it was a miracle!”
Dad laughed.“Precisely, Mr.Watson.Walt has two of these babies in
his car and one on his motorcycle!”
“We know, we know!”
“Yes, the vibration problem has been overcome by the exclusive
Vibro-Dynamic-Lateral-Anti-Inertial Dampening system.”
Dad had memorized that word ’cause right on the arm of the
record player it said “V.D.L.A.I. Dampening, Patented”!
“Come on, Daddy, turn it on, stop teasing!”
“Now, now, Mrs.Watson, be patient, and tell that little-delinquent-
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that-follows-you-around that if he touches one more knob on that
record player I am going to pull his fingers off.”
Byron mumbled and sat back in the seat.
“Before I dazzle you with the symphonic sound of this unit, let me
point out some of its less-appreciated features.”
“Oh, please do.”
“Awww, man, just turn the blanged thing on. If I gotta listen to all
this jive I’m gonna go in the house and get some real cool sounds.”
Byron opened the passenger door and ran into the house.
“Now, Mr. and Mrs.Watson, I’d like to direct your attention to the
rear of your classic automobile.”
Me and Joey crawled up on the backseat and looked at the back
window. On the rear shelf a hole had been cut and was covered with
that same stuff that’s on a screen door.
“I can see you’re wondering what that is.Well, let me explain.What
we have here is, believe it or not, a second speaker! And I can tell by
that intelligent look on your face, Mrs.Watson, that you have grasped
that that speaker is not placed in the rear deck haphazardly, no, ma’am.
“Some people think we just have a hole hacked in back there by any
old mechanic, but nothing could be further from the truth.That open-
ing is scientifically and mathematically positioned by a factory-trained
technician to enhance the TT AB-700’s true high-fidelity sound!”
“Wow!”
Byron exploded through the front door with an armful of 45s and
Momma right on his tail.
“Byron Watson, don’t you stomp on those stairs like that and don’t
you slam that screen door!”
She trailed Byron all the way to the car, fussing at him the whole
way. I knew she was using Byron as an excuse to come back out and
see what was going on. I guess all the laughing and fun we were hav-
ing made her want to join in.
Now that she was back Dad started really cutting up.
“Well, well, well, Mrs. Watson,” Dad said, but not to Momma, to
Joey, “I see your beautiful young daughter has decided to join us, and
not a moment too soon either.Why don’t you scoot over a bit and let
her in.”
Joey loved this chance to pretend she was Momma’s mom. She pat-
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ted the seat next to her and said, “Come on in, honey, this is really
cool!”
Momma slid in under the steering wheel with a halfway smile on
her face.
“Wunnerful, wunnerful!” Dad said.
Byron lifted the record that was already on the turntable and start-
ed putting one of his own cool songs on.
“Put it back, son, you’ll get your turn. First we have a special
request from a certain young lady to a certain handsome young man.
If you’ll excuse me, ma’am, I’ll just reach over here and get this show
on the road.” Dad reached over past Momma to start the car, but on
the way his hand kind of accidentally on purpose brushed her chests.
Boy, did they think we were blind? Even though Dad thought he
was being slick, everybody saw this.
Momma puckered up her lips to squeeze down a smile and crossed
her arms over her chests, Joetta giggled and me and Byron scrunched
our faces up.
Momma did a fakety little slap at his hand and smiled.
Dad turned the key and the Brown Bomber fired up.“O.K., young
lady, here’s that special number you requested.”
Dad couldn’t help himself and started imitating a disc jockey.
“Here’s the man with the patter,
Here to spin the platter,
Why, it doesn’t matter,
’Cause the world is getting fatter.
I’m the man with the tune
That’ll take you to the moon,
That’ll make your poor heart swoon,
I’ll hold you like a spoon.
I’m the man with the jive . . .”
Byron chirped up, “Ain’t that the whole natural truth?” but Dad
didn’t miss a beat.
“. . . Put your love thing in drive,
Bring your little world alive . . .”
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Momma slapped the car seat. “Daniel, start that record!”
“All right, all right.” Dad stopped his rhyming, not because
Momma told him to, but because I bet he ran out of stupid poems.
“But first, let me tell all you people out there in Radio-Land that
this number was requested by a Miss Wilona Sands for the wunnerful,
wunnerful man in her life, the Big Daddy of love, Daniel Watson. We
at Flint’s only soul station,WAMM, dedicate this song to Daniel, from
Wilona. Spin it, maestro!”
Dad reached over past Momma to start the record player.
Joey grabbed my arm with one hand and squealed into her other one.
Byron was grinning like a giant, bald-headed kindergarten baby.
Momma still had her arms crossed but was starting to smile. She
brought one hand up to cover her mouth.
My foot was tapping on the Brown Bomber’s floor a mile a minute
and I couldn’t make it stop no matter what I did. I guess I was grin-
ning pretty hard too.
Dad’s hand touched a knob that had “Start” written on it, but before
he turned it he pulled his hand back and said, “First, however . . .”
We all screamed.
“Daddy!”
“Awww, man!”
“Come on, Dad!”
“Daniel!”
But Dad wasn’t through yet, and you couldn’t rush him. In fact, the
more you’d complain, the longer he’d take.
He put his hand up to stop the noise.“But, first, we at WAMM want
to apologize to the nine other women who called in requesting love
songs to be dedicated to Daniel Watson. If they stay tuned, we’ll play
their songs later in the evening.”
Momma said, “That’s it,” and started climbing out of the car. It was
a fun “That’s it,” though, not a serious one.
Dad blocked the door and finally, finally turned the knob that said
“Start.”Then he got into the backseat.
We all froze. Even the Brown Bomber seemed to get quieter as the
V.D.L.A.I. arm from the record player lifted itself and moved toward
the 45 that was on the turntable.The arm dropped and a hollow little
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boom bounced around in the car. A moment of silence and then . . .
And then the most beautiful notes of music I’d ever heard came
from the front of the car and the back of the car at the same time.
“DOOM, DA-DOOM DOOM,
DOOM, DA-DOOM DOOM,
DOOM, DA-DOOM DOOM,
DOOM!”
The notes were so deep and strong it felt like we were sitting inside
a giant bass fiddle.
Momma screamed and put both of her hands over her mouth. She’d
recognized “her song” after the first couple of notes.
The guy on the record started singing “Under the Boardwalk” and
I had to turn around and look because it sounded like he was right in
the backseat with Dad.
We sat in the car for almost two hours as everybody got a chance
to go in the house and get their favorite records.
Even though we had a pretty good record player in the house, it
couldn’t compare with the sounds that came from the scientifically
and mathematically put-in speakers that the Brown Bomber had.The
Ultra-Glide cast a spell on all of the Weird Watsons.
Byron was always saying that Momma couldn’t stand to see anyone
having too much fun; but, to be fair to her, I have to say that she
stopped us from having fun in steps instead of doing it all at once.
First she thought the music was too loud and made us turn it down
some; then after all of us kids got to play four songs each (I played
“Yakety Yak” all four of my times) she made us get out of the car and
she and Dad played Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington and other
mush-ball singers; then she said to Dad, “Did you tell them yet?”
Oh-oh! I leaned into the car to get a look at Momma’s stomach.
This sounded like the way Byron and me found out we were going to
get a sister.
Everybody’s ears jumped up. Something big was going on.
Dad wasn’t too comfortable with things like this and said, “No, it
can wait.”
“No, it can’t.”
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Momma let the last song finish, then said, “Turn it off, Daniel.
“Children, in a little bit Daddy’s going to get some vacation time
and we’re going to drive to Alabama. Grandma Sands is going to keep
Byron for the summer and if things don’t work out he’ll stay there for
the next school year.”
This was too good to be true, a long trip in the Brown Bomber and
no Byron for the whole summer! And probably for the whole year,
’cause when it came to Byron nothing ever worked out!
Byron looked at Momma and Dad with his mouth wide open.
“We’ve been telling you, Byron, you’ve been given warning after
warning and chance after chance to straighten up, but instead of
improving, you’re getting worse. Do I have to remind you of the things
you’ve done just this last year?”
Byron still didn’t close his mouth.
Momma started ticking off the things that Byron called his Latest
Fantastic Adventures.
“You’ve cut school so much that Mr. Alums has come here three
times to see what’s wrong with you, you’ve been lighting fires, you’ve
been taking change out of my purse, you’ve been in fights, you had that
trouble up at Mitchell’s Food Fair, you had that . . . that . . . problem
with Mary Ann Hill, you set mousetraps in the backyard for birds, you
fell out of that tree when you were trying to see if that poor cat always
landed on its feet, you got that conk, you joined that gang. . . .There’s
just too much, Byron.We can’t have all this nonsense going on.”
I hoped those weren’t the only Latest Fantastic Adventures that
Momma knew about. I could list about a hundred more.
“That’s why Grandma Sands is going to look after you for a while.
You’re about to run us crazy.”
Momma changed the tone of her voice. “You’re going to like
Birmingham, Byron. It’s a lot different than Flint.There are lots of nice
boys your age down there who you can be friends with. There’s lots
of fishing and hunting that you can do.Things are a lot better there. I
love that city. Your grandma tells me it’s quiet in our old neighbor-
hood, she says that that stuff on TV isn’t happening around her. It’s just
like I remember it being, it’s safe, it’s quiet. And there’s no Buphead!”
Momma and Dad had threatened to send Byron to Grandma Sands
about a million times but we never thought it would happen.This was
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for three good reasons.
The first reason was that Alabama was about two million miles from
Flint and By knew Momma wouldn’t let him ride the bus that far
alone. He also knew it would be just about impossible for her to sit on
a bus with him for the three days it took to get there.
The second reason was that Momma and Dad were always threat-
ening to do stuff to Byron that everybody knew they wouldn’t do.
Dad had been keeping a countdown on how many more months it
would be before they could force him to join the army, but we knew
they wouldn’t do that.
But the biggest reason Byron and Joey and me thought they’d never
send him to Alabama was because we had heard so many horrible sto-
ries about how strict Grandma Sands was.The thought of living with
her was so terrible that your brain would throw it out as soon as it
came in.
Well, Byron’s brain had better get used to it, we all knew by the way
they’d gotten the Bomber ready and by the way Momma’s voice
sounded that they meant it this time.
The big, cool baby finally shut his mouth and ran into the house.
He slammed the door as hard as he could and we all heard him say,
real clear, the S word.
Joey said, “Oooh . . .”
Dad started to go in after him but Momma said, “Let him go,
Daniel, he better get as much of that nonsense out of his system as he
can. Grandma Sands won’t be putting up with any of that mess.”
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hat Sunday I got up early.There weren’t any cartoons on then but
it was always fun to wake up and not have to worry about going to
school.
When I got into the living room I was surprised to see the front
door open. I looked outside and saw Dad sitting in the Brown
Bomber. I guess he was listening to records because he had his arm
across the seat and was beating his hand up and down like it was a
drum.
I ran back upstairs to the bedroom and changed out of my pajamas.
I peeked out of the bedroom window to make sure Dad hadn’t left.
He was still in the car so I ran downstairs and through the front door.
I remembered and caught the screen just before it slammed.
I tapped on the window and Dad turned and smiled at me, then
pointed to the passenger side for me to get in. I ran around the car and
climbed in.
“Hey, Kenny.”
“Hi, Dad.”
“How’d you sleep?”
“O.K., I guess.”
“Go on in and get ‘Yakety Yak’ and sit with me for a while.
“That’s O.K., I’ll just listen to what you’re playing.”
We listened to a couple of jive songs and then I said, “Dad, does
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Byron really have to go to Alabama? Couldn’t we just drive down to
about Ohio and pretend we’re going to leave him to scare him?”
Dad looked at me and smiled kind of slow. He reached over and
turned the Ultra-Glide down a little bit. “Kenneth, I know you’re
going to miss Byron, we all will, but son, there are some things that
Byron has to learn and he’s not learning them in Flint, and the things
he is learning are things we don’t want him to. Do you understand?”
“No.”
Dad turned the Ultra-Glide down a little more. He looked like he
was thinking whether or not he should tell me something. He was
looking straight at me, and even though it was real hard, I looked right
back at him.
I tried to look real intelligent and I guess it worked ’cause finally
Dad said, “Kenny, we’ve put a lot of thought into this. I know you’ve
seen on the news what’s happening in some parts of the South, right?”
We’d seen the pictures of a bunch of really mad white people with
twisted-up faces screaming and giving dirty finger signs to some little
Negro kids who were trying to go to school. I’d seen the pictures but I
didn’t really know how these white people could hate some kids so much.
“I’ve seen it.” I didn’t have to tell Dad I didn’t understand.
“Well, a lot of times that’s going to be the way of the world for you
kids. Byron is getting old enough to have to understand that his time
for playing is running out fast, he’s got to realize the world doesn’t
have a lot of jokes waiting for him. He’s got to be ready.”
Dad looked at me again to make sure I was understanding. I nodded.
“Grandma Sands says it’s quiet down where they are, but we think
it’s time Byron got an idea of the kind of place the world can be, and
maybe spending some time down South will help open his eyes.”
I nodded my head again.
“Momma and I are very worried because there’re so many things
that can go wrong to a young person and Byron seems bound and
determined to find every one of them.
“Now, do you really understand why we’re sending Byron to
Birmingham?”
“I think so, Dad.”
“Good, because, Kenny, we’ve done all we can and it seems the
temptations are just too much for By here in Flint. So hopefully, the
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slower pace in Alabama will help him by removing some of those
temptations. Hopefully he can see that there comes a time to let all of
the silliness go. By’ll be back, maybe at the end of the summer, maybe
next year. It’s completely in his own hands now.”
I loved when Dad talked to me like I was grown-up. I didn’t really
understand half the junk he was saying, but it sure did feel good to be
talked to like that!
It’s times like this when someone is talking to you like you are a
grown-up that you have to be careful not to pick your nose or dig
your drawers out of your butt.
“O.K., Dad, thanks.” He smiled again, turned the Ultra-Glide back
up and ran his hand over my head.
Some of the time when you think about being a grown-up it gets
to be kind of scary. I couldn’t figure out how Momma and Dad knew
how to take care of things. I couldn’t figure out how they knew what
to do with Byron.
“Dad?”
“Hmmm?”
“I don’t think I’ll ever know what to do when I’m a grown-up. It
seems like you and Momma know a lot of things that I can never
learn. It seems real scary. I don’t think I could ever be as good a par-
ent as you guys.”
Dad turned the Ultra-Glide back down.“Kenny, do you remember
when we used to go on drives and I’d put you in my lap and let you
steer the car?”
I smiled. “Yeah, does that mean I get to do it on the way to
Alabama?”
“Sure, but that’s not what I meant. Do you remember how big and
scary the car seemed to be the first time you were behind the wheel?”
Dad was right. Even though I knew he was watching everything
real close it still was scary to steer the Brown Bomber.
“Well, that’s what being a grown-up is like. At first it’s scary but
then before you realize, with a lot of practice, you have it under con-
trol. Hopefully you’ll have lots of time to practice being grown-up
before you actually have to do it.”
This was making sense to me.
“And as far as you being a good parent, don’t worry. You’ll learn
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from the mistakes your mother and I make, just like we learned from
the mistakes our parents made. I don’t have a single doubt that you and
Byron and Joey will be much better parents than your mother and I
ever were.” Dad stopped talking for a second. “Besides, some of the
time we don’t think we’ve done such a good job. But you’re right,
Kenneth, it can be scary, and it gets a lot scarier when you see you’re
responsible for three little lives. A lot scarier.”
I waited to see if Dad was going to talk to me like this anymore but
he turned the music back up.We listened to his junk a little more, and
then I said, “Dad?”
“Yeah.”
“I’ve got one more question.”
He turned the Ultra-Glide down a little again and gave me his seri-
ous look. “What do you want to know, Kenny?”
“Is it too late to go get ‘Yakety Yak’?”
Dad laughed and sent me in to get it. I had to promise to play it
only three times, though.
After the third time I asked, “Dad, why did you buy this record
player? Don’t they have radio stations in Alabama?”
“Sure they do, lots of them, but you see, once you get south of
Cincinnati the only kind of radio station you can get is hillbilly music.
And you won’t believe this, but if you listen to any kind of music long
enough, first you get accustomed to it and then you learn to like it.
“Now, your mother and I made a deal when we first got married
that if either one of us ever watched the ‘wunnerful, wunnerful’
Lawrence Welk Show or listened to country music the other one got to
get a free divorce. I’m kind of used to your mother and I don’t want
to have her dump me, so instead of taking the chance I would get
hooked on hillbilly music I thought it would be wise to bring our
own sounds along with us.”
Even though this made sense to me, Momma didn’t buy it, and for
the next week, while we were getting everything set for going to
Alabama, she kept reminding Dad how much the Ultra-Glide cost and
how it messed up all the plans she’d written in her notebook.
Me and Joey were in the living room playing when Momma and
our neighbor Mrs. Davidson came in.
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“Hello, Joetta. Hello, Kenneth.”
“Hi, Mrs. Davidson.”
I noticed right away that she had something behind her back. She
said, “Since I won’t be seeing you for a while I thought I’d give you
something so you wouldn’t forget about me, sweetheart.” She stuck a
box out toward Joey.
I could kill Joey the way she opened presents. Instead of ripping the
wrapping paper off she hunted around to find each piece of tape, then
peeled it off real careful. It took her about two days to get all the paper
off and open the box. Joey finally held up her present.
I didn’t think Mrs. Davidson noticed but I could tell there was
something that Joey wasn’t too happy about. She looked at Momma
real quick and Momma looked at her, then Joey said,“Thank you very
much, Mrs. Davidson.”
Momma smiled.
Mrs. Davidson took the present from Joey and handed it to
Momma. “See,Wilona, it’s just like I told you. Look at that smile! The
minute I saw it it reminded me of Joetta! Is that her smile or what? In
fact, do you know what I named this angel?”
Joey pretended she was stupid and said, “No, Mrs. Davidson.”
“I’ve named her after my favorite little girl, this angel’s name is
Joetta!”
I went over for a closer look. Mrs. Davidson had bought Joey a lit-
tle angel that was kind of chubby and had big wings and a halo made
out of straw.The only thing about its smile that looked like Joey to me
was that the angel had a great big dimple too. It was made out of white
clay and it looked like someone had forgotten to paint it. The only
thing that had any color on it were its cheeks and its eyes.The cheeks
were red and the eyes were blue.
Mrs. Davidson said,“Ooh, child, give me one more big hug before I go.”
Joey got up and hugged Mrs. Davidson, then took her angel and
said, “I’m going to put her in my room.Thank you, Mrs. Davidson.”
“You’re welcome, precious.” Mrs. Davidson looked like she was
going to cry.We all knew she’d kidnap Joey if she had the chance. She
liked her that much.
When Mrs. Davidson left, Momma went upstairs and into Joey’s
room.
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I eavesdropped.
They were both sitting on Joey’s bed.
“I was very proud of the way you behaved, Joetta. What was
wrong?”
“That angel, Mommy.”
“Oh?”
“Mrs. Davidson said it reminded her of me, but it didn’t look like
me at all.”
Momma looked around the room. “Where’d you put it?”
“It’s in my socks drawer.”
Joey was so neat she had a separate drawer for socks.
Momma went and got the angel and sat next to Joey.
“Sweetheart, I can see how it reminds her of you. Look at that dimple.”
“But Mommy, it’s white.”
Momma laughed. “Well, honey, I can’t say it isn’t, but an angel’s an
angel, what do you think?”
“Maybe, but I know that angel’s name isn’t Joetta Watson.”
“Well, I’m glad you didn’t hurt Mrs. Davidson’s feelings. Keep the
angel around, you might get to like it.Where do you want me to put it?”
“Back under the socks.”
Momma laughed.
The only one who didn’t do anything to get ready to go to
Alabama was Byron. He acted like nothing was going to happen, even
though Momma got a bunch of our clothes together and put them in
suitcases.
The smelly green pine tree was hung from the rearview mirror and
all the lists and figuring were done, but Byron acted like he didn’t
notice. Even after a few more yelling phone calls were made to
Alabama, Daddy Cool just kept being cool.
Byron didn’t even get nervous when Momma packed a whole
bunch of food in the giant green cooler we borrowed from the
Johnsons. After all of this stuff it was finally the night before we were
supposed to leave.
We’d just got in bed. Byron was up in his bunk and I was down in
mine. I was so excited that I was talking a mile a minute, but I was
talking to myself. Byron wouldn’t answer or anything. There was a
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knock at our bedroom door.
“Come in.”
It was Momma and Dad. Momma said, “Lights out, Kenneth.
Byron, you come with us.”
“What for?”
“We thought since this was the last night you were going to be
spending in Flint for a while that you might like to sleep in our room
tonight.”
“You thought what?” Byron had a way of saying stuff in a few
words that made it seem like he was saying a whole bunch more.
“Come on, By, you’re bunking with us tonight,” Dad said.
“Awww, man . . .”
Byron jumped out of the top bunk and gave me his Death Stare.
I just shrugged.
I guess the grapevine had gotten back to Momma and Dad that By
was going to make a prison break tonight before he got transferred to
Alabama. He thought I was the snitch but it was Joey.
She knew if Momma and Dad got up in the morning and Byron
had flown the coop that he’d really be a dead man when they finally
recaptured him, so I guess she saved his life by snitching. But By sure
didn’t appreciate it.
I sneaked out of bed after Momma and Dad arrested Byron. I was
too excited to sleep and too excited to read. I looked out of the win-
dow at the Brown Bomber and couldn’t believe it was going to take
us all the way to Alabama.
The trip didn’t become real to us until nine in the morning when
we were in the car waving good-bye to Rufus and heading toward I-
75, a road that runs all the way from Flint to Florida. One road!
We weren’t even on the expressway before Momma started reading
out of her notebook telling us everything that was planned for the
next three days.
“Day One, today. We leave Flint and drive for three hundred miles
in about five or five and a half hours, that will take us to Cincinnati.”
Three hundred miles in one day! It just didn’t seem like that could
be done. Me and Joey shook our heads. Byron looked out of the win-
dow.
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“In Cincinnati we’ll get a room in a motel. We brought plenty of
blankets so you kids will be able to sleep on the floor.”
Me and Joey cheered.We’d never been in a motel before. Byron just
kept looking out of the window.
“Day Two, tomorrow. Now your Daddy and this car both aren’t as
young as they used to be so we don’t want to push either one of them
too hard.” Dad looked shocked.
“So we rise and shine real early in the morning and drive for two
hundred and fifty miles in about five or six hours. That should put us
right outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. Mr. Johnson says that there are
some clean, safe rest stops there so we can spend the night in the car.
If that’s true we’ll stay there, if not we’ll have to see if we can find a
motel room in Knoxville.
“Day Three, Monday.This is going to be a tough day for your daddy
because he’s gonna have to drive for more than six hours. After we
leave Knoxville we’ve got about three hundred miles to go. If we leave
early enough we’ll be pulling in to home about three in the after-
noon.” Momma turned the page in her notebook.
“We’re gonna be able to stop once a day on the way down for ham-
burgers and once a day on the way back.”
Me and Joey cheered again at this news. Byron acted like he didn’t hear.
“Now, if we sleep in the car outside Knoxville we can stop one
more bonus time coming and going, otherwise the cooler in the trunk
is full of chicken, soda pop, potato salad, sandwiches and fruit for the
whole trip down. I’m sure Grandma Sands will have everything set for
the way back.”
I thought about it for a minute, then asked, “Momma, how come
we don’t just drive until Dad gets tired, then stop?”
Dad did an imitation of a hillbilly accent.“’Cuz, boy, this he-uh is the
deep South you-all is gonna be drivin’ thoo.Y’all colored folks cain’t be
jes’ pullin’ up tuh any ol’ way-uh an be ’spectin’ tuh get no room uh no
food, yuh heah, boy? I said yuh heah what I’m sayin’, boy?”
Me and Joey laughed again, and even Byron kind of smiled. This
only encouraged Dad to say some more Southern-style stuff.
“Y’all didn’t know that, boy? Whas a mattah wit’ choo, you thank
this he-uh is Uhmurica?”
Momma had everything planned about the trip, everything! Where
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we’d eat, when we’d eat, who got baloney sandwiches on Day One,
who got tuna fish on Day Two, who got peanut butter and jelly on
Day Three. She’d figured out how long we could hold ourselves
between going to the bathroom, how much money we’d spend on
hamburgers, how much was for any emergencies, everything. She’d
figured out who’d get the windows on each day and who was respon-
sible for keeping paper and junk from piling up in the car.
When she finished reading all that stuff to us I asked her if I could
look at the notebook. She handed it to me and I saw written on the
cover in big, black letters, “The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963.”
She’d even drawn a picture of a flower with a big, fat, stupid bird try-
ing to land on it. Man, Momma sure is a bad artist!
“Why is this bird trying to land on a flower, Momma?”
Dad cracked up.“Ooh, Kenneth, I asked her the same thing and she
was highly offended.”
Momma said, “That’s a bee, not a bird!”
I guess if you squinted up your eyes it might look like a bee, but
not too much.
Momma’d also gone to the library to look up stuff about every state
we’d travel through. We heard a bunch of boring junk about the
expressway—how many years it took to finish it, how many miles long
it was, how much it cost to build it, how it ran all the way from the
Upper Peninsula in Michigan to Florida, all kinds of thrilling news.
The only thing that was a little bit interesting was how many people
got killed and hurt making the road.You never would think putting
an expressway down was so dangerous.
She’d bought books and puzzles and games too. She really did try
to make the trip interesting.The most interesting part for me, though,
was going to be Byron. Two days before we’d left, Buphead came by
to visit Byron. The three of us were in my and By’s bedroom. They’d
tried to bully me out of the room but I stayed. They were sitting in
the upper bunk and I was in the lower one.
“Man,” Buphead complained, “I couldn’t live with your ol’ man,
we’d be comin’ to blows daily, Jack!”
“What can I say?” Byron answered.
“Not much. I can’t believe they gonna make you spend the whole
blanged summer in hot ol’ Alabama. Shoot, I’d find somewhere else to
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stay.You gonna be black as the ace of spades when you get back, they
got some sho-nuff sun down there!”
“Yeah, but dig, I got a way to pay them jive old squares back.”
“Yeah, what you gonna do?”
“I ain’t even sure I’m gonna go but if I do I know how they is, they
gonna try some of that Ozzie and Harriet TV show mess on the way
down, you know, playing games and counting cows and guessing how
many red cars we gonna see in the next two miles and all that kind of
three-six-nine, but I’m ready for ’em.”
“Yeah?”
“Yeah, I got somethin’ that’ll mess that junk up for all of ’em!”
“What’s that, Daddy-o?”
Byron remembered I was still in the lower bunk and stuck his head
over the edge, then pointed at me. “You say one word about this to
anyone and I’m gonna jack your little lightweight behind up, you
hear?”
I said, “Awww, man . . .”
By disappeared back into the top bunk. “Yeah, Buphead, if I do go
I’m gonna go that whole blanged trip and, no matter what they do to
me, I ain’t gonna say one single word!”
“Whoa! How long that trip gonna take?”
“Three days.”
“Cool, that’ll show ’em.”
They slapped palms and By said, “Yeah, you know it will.”
But as soon as we got to Detroit, Byron said,“How we gonna work
this record player?”
Dad looked in the rearview mirror and said to By, “What do you
mean?”
“We gonna take turns?”
“Well, Byron, I don’t think we’ll be playing it for quite a bit yet, we
can carry CKLW all the way down into Ohio and they play some
pretty good music.”
“But when we do play it, we gonna take turns?”
“Sure.”
“Cool, am I first?”
“Sure, we’ll go by seniority.” Dad was in the United Auto Workers
at work so seniority was real important in our house.
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“Cool.”
I couldn’t help myself, I leaned over Joey and said kind of quiet to
By, “I guess you really showed them, didn’t you? Boy, they were really
begging you to talk, weren’t they, Daddy-o?”
Byron made sure Joey wasn’t watching, then flipped me a dirty fin-
ger sign and made his eyes go crossed.
“On the left, kids, is Tiger Stadium!” Momma was pointing out all
the important things we passed on the way.
As the payback for giving me the dirty finger I said out loud to By,
“How many cows you counted, By? How many red cars so far?”
He gave me his famous Death Stare, then leaned over Joey and
whispered, “No cars, no cows, but I counted yo’ momma six times
already.”
I couldn’t believe it! What kind of person would talk about their
own momma? I said, “That’s your mother too, stupid!” I knew he did-
n’t care, though. But I had to get him back, so I called him the only
thing that bothered him. I said,“You might have counted my momma
six times, but have you counted your mouth lately, Lipless Wonder?”
I got him! He showed his teeth and said, “You little . . .” and tried
to grab me.
Dad’s eye was in the rearview mirror.
“All right, you two, I said no nonsense and I don’t mean maybe.”
Byron used silent mouth language to say, “I’m gonna jack you up
in Alabama, you punk!”
So as we drove down I-75 headed for Birmingham I felt pretty good.
Even though every time I looked at By his eyes were crossed I didn’t
care because this one time I bugged him more than he bugged me!
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hio, about one minute away!” This was the first interesting
thing that Momma had come up with since we’d been through
Detroit. Just outside of Toledo we pulled over at a rest stop.
Momma said,“O.K., who’s got to go to the bathroom? Who’s hun-
gry?”We got out of the car and started scratching and stretching.
The Ohio rest stop was really cool! It was chopped right out of the
forest and had picnic tables made out of giant logs. The bathrooms
were made out of the same kind of log cabin wood. The only thing
about them was that they looked kind of small from the outside.
Momma looked in her “Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963” book
and told us, “O.K., just a sandwich, some fruit and some Kool-Aid
here. Daniel, could you open the trunk so I can get the things out of
the cooler?”
While Momma got the food and Dad looked under the hood of
the Brown Bomber I went to the door in the little log cabin that had
“Men” carved on it.
As soon as I opened the door I gagged! The toilets in Ohio weren’t
anything like Michigan toilets. Instead of a white stool with a seat
there was just a seat on a piece of wood with a great big, open, black
hole underneath with the sound of flies coming out of it. No flusher,
no water, no nothing. It looked like if you sat on the seat you might
end up getting sucked down under Ohio somewhere!
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10. Tangled Up in God’s Beard
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I breathed through my mouth and spent only enough time in that
log cabin bathroom to unroll a bunch of toilet paper.The woods out-
side looked like a whole lot better bathroom.
When I was done in the woods I passed Byron, who forgot again
about his promise not to talk. He told me, “Man, they must be crazy
if they think I’ma set my behind on that hole.” By’s hands were full of
toilet paper too.
We ate our lunch on one of the picnic tables and Momma made a
jug of Kool-Aid with water that me and Joey pumped. Only Momma
liked it, though.The water seemed like it had metal in it and made the
KoolAid taste like grape medicine.
Me, Dad, By and Joey dumped our Kool-Aid when Momma wasn’t
looking, but I had to ask for seconds and plug my nose and drink it
because Day One was my day to have peanut butter and jelly and
Momma always puts too much peanut butter on the sandwich and
you’ve got to have something to wash it down in case you start choking.
When we finished eating Byron asked, “What’s the word on them
toilets?”
Momma and Dad cracked up.
“So you like those, huh?” Dad said.
Momma said, “You better get used to those, Byron, that’s an out-
house and that’s what Grandma Sands has.”
“What?” If you try to be cool all the time and something surprises
you you sure do look stupid.
“Uh-huh,” Dad said,“that’s where you’re going to be taking care of
your business for a while.”
By said, “Wait, let me dig this, you mean if I gotta go to the bath-
room I got to go outside into a little nasty thing like that? Ain’t they
got no sanitation laws down there? How you gonna have a hole for a
toilet and not get folks sick? Don’t them things attract flies?”
Momma and Dad laughed again. Momma said, “Your grandma
Sands always says it seems a lot nastier to her to be doing that in the
house.The way she looks at it a house is a whole lot nicer place if the
facilities are outside.”
“Ooh, I remember those outhouses!” Dad said. “I remember when
we used to go visit my grandmother in the country and there would
be a Sears catalog in the outhouse and when you were done you just
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tore a page out of the catalog and—”
“We get the point, Daniel.” Momma stopped Dad. After lunch By
went back into the log cabin outhouse and came back with his pock-
ets bulging with toilet paper. He told me,“Man, they must be on dope
if they think I’ma wipe my butt on some rough ol’ catalog paper.”
We loaded the cooler back in the car and got back on I-75.
When you’re ten years old, like me, some of the time no matter how
excited you are, or no matter how hard you try, you just can’t help
falling asleep in the car. I did a lot better than Joey, though. She was out
before I’d even sucked all the leftover peanut butter out of my teeth.
She stretched out across the backseat and me and By argued about
who would hold her head and who would hold her feet. Joey drooled
a lot and so it was the worse job to hold her head.
We had teased Momma so many times about planning everything
so much in her notebook that By decided to be cute, and asked, “Uh,
could someone check that ‘Watsons Go to Birmingham’ book and see
who’s supposed to be holding Joey’s leaking head for the first hundred
miles in Ohio?”
Momma and Dad looked at each other and laughed, and I did too.
I really don’t know why bullies have such a good sense of humor.
It didn’t matter who won the argument ’cause the car started rock-
ing me to sleep. Maybe someone could say the Brown Bomber was
old and ugly, but you could never say anything bad about its seats, they
were the best things in the world. I leaned my head back and watched
Ohio go zipping by.
I couldn’t keep my head from sinking deeper and deeper into the
Brown Bomber’s seat.
I woke up and got real nervous real fast. I felt something wet in my
pants starting to run down my leg. I opened my eyes and said,
“Whew!” It was just Joey drooling all over me. I complained and
Momma made By take Joey’s head for a while.
I took her shoes off for her, and inside one of her shoes was a kind
of worn-down picture of a little white boy with a girl’s hairdo and a
smiling dog. In a circle around both of them it said, “Buster Brown.”
As I drifted back to sleep I wondered what a little white boy would
think if he knew he was getting stepped on every day by my sister.
Then my neck got rubberized again and my head nodded down.
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It nodded back up when I heard Momma say real soft to Dad,
“How you doing? Cincinnati’s just ahead.”
“Oh, I’m fine. I’ve still got a lot in me. I think I’ll just stop in Cincy
for a stretch and some gas.”
“Really?” Momma didn’t sound too happy.
“Sure, why not? The kids are all asleep and you looked like you
were about gone yourself.”
Momma didn’t say anything, but I knew she’d have to change her
plans if we didn’t stop for the night in Cincinnati. Dad kept trying to
make it seem O.K. He smiled and said, “Don’t worry, Wilona, we
might as well go just a little further.”
I wanted to lean up and whisper to Momma that I knew what Dad
was planning, but the last time I was asleep Byron had put Joey’s head
back in my lap and I was just too lazy to move her. But I knew if I
wasn’t so sleepy I could tell Momma what I’d heard Dad and Mr.
Johnson saying before we left.
Mr. Johnson knew a lot about cars so Dad asked him to take a good
look at the Bomber before we went to Alabama. I was sitting in the
car pretending I was driving and Dad and Mr. Johnson were under the
hood.
“Oh, yeah, Daniel, this baby’s sound as a dollar.”
“Well, let me ask you something, Theo,” Dad had said. “Do you
think she could run it to Alabama straight?”
“Hmmm.” Mr. Johnson thought for a minute.“I don’t see why not.
As long as you keep your eye on the oil and the water it shouldn’t give
you a lick of trouble. The question isn’t the car, the question is could
you do it straight?”
“Well, the most I’ve done before is eight hours and Wilona says this
will take about fifteen, but I’ve talked to some people in the shop and
they say it shouldn’t be too tough.A couple of them are from Texas and
they say they’ve driven it straight. Alabama’s closer, so . . . why not?”
“This Plymouth can do it if you can, Daniel.”
“Good. Besides, think of the money we’ll save. I’ma give it a shot,
but I’m not going to tell Wilona, she’d die. She’s got this whole trip
planned down to the last minute.”
Dad made his voice go kind of high and Southern. “And Daniel,
between Lexington and Chattanooga you will inhale 105,564 times
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and you’ll blink 436,475 times—that is, of course, unless you see
something exciting, in which case you’ll inhale 123,876 times and
blink 437,098 times!”
Dad and Mr. Johnson cracked up.
As we were going into Cincinnati I wanted to lean up and whisper
to Momma, “Hang on, Momma, you’re going to blink and inhale
about sixty-two zillion more times before you get out of this car!” But
the warm air and the highway noise and the Brown Bomber’s seat and
the way Joey was breathing all pushed me back to sleep.
I was out through most of Kentucky even though we stopped at
some more Ohio-style rest stops. I was so tired that I even used a cou-
ple of outhouses, but I kept the door open and made Dad stand out-
side so in case I fell in he’d be able to pull me out.
The next time I woke up we were pulled over at a Tennessee rest
stop. There were no bathrooms and no outhouses or anything, just a
pump and a picnic table. When Dad turned the headlights off every-
thing disappeared into the blackest night anyone had ever seen.
As we looked out of the windows Momma checked her notebook,
then announced, “This is the Appalachia Mountains. We’re over six
thousand feet above sea level, this is higher than we’ve ever been
before.” And she didn’t sound real happy about it either.
All four doors of the Brown Bomber opened and the Weird
Watsons got out. As soon as everyone was awake enough to look
around we all bunched up and hugged up around Momma and Dad,
even cool Byron.
Dad laughed. “What’s wrong with you guys?”
“Daddy, look how scary it is here!” Joey said, pointing at all the
giant shapes in the darkness.
“Nonsense, Punkin, those are just the mountains.”
What Dad was calling “just the mountains” were the scariest things
I’d ever seen. On every side of us were great big, black hills, and behind
these were even bigger, blacker hills, and behind these were the biggest,
blackest hills. It looked like someone had crumpled up a pitch-black
blanket and dropped the Weird Watsons down into the middle of it.
The air up this high didn’t seem right either. It made you feel like
something bad was going to happen. If this was a movie there would
be loud, scary organ music playing right now.
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“Mommy,” Joey asked, sounding real scared, “where did all these
stars come from?”
We all looked up and instead of seeing the normal amount of stars
it looked like there had been a star explosion. There were more stars
in the sky than empty space.
“That’s because the air is so clean here. This looks like the sky in
Birmingham.”
Up close to us in the rest stop all we could see was the pump. It
looked like a deformed, evil, one-armed space robot. As our eyes got
used to the dark we could also see the picnic table and behind it that
black woods.
Most of the time Momma and Dad don’t like arguing in public but
Momma was real hot. She said, “Well, do you see what your nonstop
driving has done? Do you see? Instead of being in a motel you’ve driv-
en us straight into Hell!”
That got everyone’s attention because Momma almost never cuss-
es. This really scared me. I know it’s stupid, but before I could stop
myself I said, “Hell? I thought you said this was Tennessee!”
Joey started boo-hooing right away.
After we nervously nibbled on snacks (everyone sat on the same
side of the picnic table), me and By had to go to the bathroom in the
woods.
We found two trees where we could keep our eye on each other
and I said, “By, do you think there are snakes out here?”
“Snakes? I ain’t scared of no damn snake, it’s the people I’m wor-
ried about.”
I stopped looking at the ground and began watching the black
woods. “What people?” I wished I’d picked a tree closer to Byron.
“Didn’t you hear Momma say this was Appalachia?”
“So?”
“Man, they got crackers and rednecks up here that ain’t never seen
no Negroes before. If they caught your ass out here like this they’d
hang you now, then eat you later.
“What’s a redneck?”
“A hillbilly. Only worse. Some of ’em don’t even speak English.”
We made a break for the Brown Bomber. If Byron was trying to
scare me he was scaring himself too. I went too fast, though, and I felt
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a couple of warm drips dribbling down my leg. This time I couldn’t
blame it on Joey’s drooling either. But I didn’t care. Having a little pee
in your pants had to be better than being dinner for some redneck.
We loaded the car back up and no one really relaxed until Dad
drove back out on I-75 and turned the headlights on. The lights
knocked some of the darkness out of the way and we felt safe again.
Everybody was better and laughing and talking a mile a minute.
“I can’t believe how this air feels!” Dad said.
He was right, everything smelled light and green.
“Whose turn is it on the Ultra-Glide?”
“Mine!” I yelled. I handed Momma “Yakety Yak” and they all
moaned.
Dad stuck his hand out of the window just as the song came on and
said, “Feel that coolness. It feels like you’re running your fingers
through silk.”
Me, Momma, Joey and even Daddy Cool all did what Dad told us
to do, and Dad was right, it felt great.
“Wiggle your fingers in it,” Dad said.
We all did, and the air seemed slippery and cool as it blew on your
hand.
“We’re so high and the air is so perfect that do you know what I
think we’re doing?” Dad asked.
“What?”
“I think we’ve got our fingers in God’s beard and as we drive along
we’re tickling him.”
Byron acted like he was going to throw up.
As we drove down the mountain with our arms sticking out of the
windows and our fingers wiggling in the breeze, I thought the Brown
Bomber must look like a bug lying on its back with four skinny brown
legs kicking and twitching to try to put it back on its feet.
Whatever we were doing it was the best part of the trip so far.What
could be better than driving on a mountain while “Yakety Yak” played
and cool, light air blew all over you?
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he next time I woke up it was just starting to get light and some-
how I was in the front seat and Momma was in the back. When my
eyes got used to where they were I saw Dad holding the steering
wheel with one hand and resting his other one on the mirror outside
the car.The green lights from the dashboard made his face look puffed
up and tired, but he was smiling to himself.
I knew what woke me up this time.The Ultra-Glide was stuck. As
we drove, the record was saying,“. . . and don’t forget who’s tak . . . and
don’t forget who’s tak . . . and don’t forget who’s tak . . . and don’t for-
get who’s tak . . .”
I started to say something to Dad but he looked pretty happy and
before I could open my mouth the record hypnotized me back to
sleep.
The next time I woke up it was bright day and Joey was in the front
seat drooling all over me. The Ultra-Glide was still saying, “. . . and
don’t forget who’s tak . . .”
Dad must have heard me breathe different ’cause he looked down
at me and said, “Well, well, well, look who’s decided to come back to
life!”
“Hi, Dad, are we there yet?”
“Oh no, et tu, Brute? You were my last hope.With By and Joey and
your mother popping up every few minutes asking ‘Are we there yet?’
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it’s been like a stuck record.”
“Dad, it is a stuck record.”
Dad seemed to notice the record player for the first time. “Ahh,
that. Well, Kenny, I’m afraid it’s more than a stuck record. Something
isn’t working right.”
He lifted the arm off the record and looked in the backseat at
Momma, who was asleep.
“But let’s keep that between you and me, O.K.?”
“Sure. How long before we stop?”
“We’ll be at Grandma Sands’s before you know it.”
Joey had been listening to us. “Daddy, that’s what you said the last
time. How much longer? I’m sick of this old car.”
“Not too much longer, honey.”
“I’ll stay up and keep you company, Dad,” I said.
“Yeah, me too,” Joey added.
I don’t know who conked out first. I didn’t remember anything
about coming into Alabama. I don’t think any of us did, especially Dad.
We’d been in the car so long that Dad had started growing a beard.
Little tiny hairs were coming out of his face. Most of them were black
but nine or ten of them were white.
Dad was looking real, real bad. He was still smiling to himself but
now instead of a real smile it looked like he was gripping his teeth
together to get ready to bite something.The worst thing, though, was
that he had turned the radio on and was listening to country and west-
ern music! He was even tapping his hand on the steering wheel like
he was really enjoying it.
“Dad, do you know what you’re listening to?”
Dad decided to cut up. “Kenneth, I been thinking about having all
of our names changed to country names when we get back to
Michigan. I’ll be Clem, you’ll be Homer, By will be Billy-Bob, Joey
will be Daisy Mae and your mother will be . . . uh, your mother will
be . . . well, I guess your mother’s name can just stay Wilona, I don’t
think we’re going to find a more country name than that one, do
you?” Me and Dad cracked up.
Momma’s head popped up from the backseat and she said in a
super-Southern style, “O.K., Clem, Ah hopes when us get to
Birmingham you can ‘splain tuh these he-uh babies’ granny how come
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you turnt ’em into little zombies from sittin’ in this car so long.”
Dad laughed, “Now, Wilona, you know it hasn’t been that bad. In
fact, I’m gonna admit to something that I probably shouldn’t.”
Momma rubbed her eyes, then put her hand on top of my head.
“You gonna do this here admittin’ in front of little Homer he-uh?”
Everybody started waking up and stretching and scratching.
Momma kept teasing Dad.“And what ’bout some vittles, Clem, the
sun been up fo’ hours and you ain’t even been out to check them
traplines to see if we’s gonna have some coon pie fuh bruk-fuss.”
Dad yelled out,“Yee-haa!” and then said,“Haven’t any of you won-
dered why you’ve been sleeping like a little herd of angels?”
Byron said,“Like there was anything to keep anybody awake in this
carful of squares.”
“Anyway,” Dad said,“I’ma let the cat out of the bag. I’ve been using
two kinds of mind power to keep this trip going so smooth. First, after
a while I started locking into the road and there was nothing to it! Just
me, the road and the Brown Bomber, all tuned in to one hum, and as
long as I listened to that hum everything was fine.
“My biggest worry was you,Wilona. I knew after ’while you’d fig-
ure out that I wasn’t going to stop, and you gotta admit you were good
and salty about it at first, right?”
“You know I still am.” Momma was upset because all of her note-
book planning had been wasted.
“But, Wilona, you got to admit that once you figured out how
much money we’d save by not stopping you went along with it.”
Momma kind of grunted, not saying yes and not saying no.
Dad cleared his throat and rubbed his hand over the little stubbles
that were coming out of his chin. We all knew this was a sign that he
was going to start acting the fool. He’d tested Momma to see how mad
she really was and decided it was safe to play around.
“Yup,” he said, rubbing his chin until it made a scratchy, sawing
sound, “eighteen big hours in a row! Nearly a thousand miles! I had a
load to deliver and”—he punched the air with his fist—“I delivered
it. It’s just like this great song I heard a couple of miles back, ‘Big
Daddy Was a Truck-Drivin’ Man!’ I’m not gonna lie and say it was
easy, uh-uh.There was many a time I wanted to stop, but when those
times came I’d just think of my old pal, Joe Espinosa, driving all the
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way to Texas without stopping and I’d keep my foot in that tank.
“Oh yeah, there were times when your mother was giving me
looks like she was gonna kill me the first time I slowed down, but I
just kept smiling at her and kept the Brown Bomber chugging on. I’d
tell her, ‘You’re right, sweetheart, we’ll just go a little bit farther.’ And
you kids! You talk about some pathetic, tortured-looking little faces.
Eighteen hours in a car can age a kid forty years. Yeah, I swear I’ve
been looking in the rearview mirror and wondering where my babies
were and where these three bad-dispositioned, sour-faced, middle-age
midgets came from. But your sorry little mugs couldn’t stop me either.
“In spite of all the cryin’ and bawlin’ and moanin’ and wailin’ and
gnashin’ of teeth I kept pushing on.”
Dad must have been real tired, he hardly ever talked this much
straight.
“I got to admit to the other trick I used too, but I can’t take full
credit for this one.”
I hoped Dad was going to say that I helped him by keeping him
company, but, “No, some of the credit has to go to Scientific Popular.”
That was the name of a magazine that came to Dad in the mail every
month. It had real cool covers, there were always drawings of smiling
white people on it standing next to cars with wings or sitting in pri-
vate submarines or eating a whole meal in one little pill. The covers
were real interesting but the insides were real boring.
“Yup, good old Scientific Popular, they had an article about sound
frequencies and said that certain sounds caused certain effects in all liv-
ing things, even Weird Watsons! It said the sound of one of those vac-
uum cleaners can put a baby to sleep. And it works!”
Momma laughed a little. It was strange for all of us to see Dad talk-
ing so much.
“When we first hit Alabama and had a bunch of miles to go and
you kids were popping up like prairie dogs and crying and saying,
‘How much longer?’ and ‘Mommy, make him stop!’ and ‘Is that
Birmingham over there?’ all I did was use that vacuum trick.
“I started buzzin’ like a Hoover vacuum and you guys dropped off
in reverse seniority! First Joey dropped, then Kenneth, then Daddy
Cool, then even you,Wilona!
“Shoot, you guys were out cold from the state line on! I threw a
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blanket over you in the backseat and then even those whines and
whimpers and moans you guys were making didn’t bother me.
“And you, Wilona, once I got buzzing, the only thing that was
coming out of your mouth was drool!”
“Is that what that sound was?” Momma asked.“I thought you were
driving so long you’d lost your mind. I’m still not sure you haven’t.”
Everybody woke up but it was a fake wake-up, we were all soon
back asleep, even though it was morning.
The next thing I remember I was waking up back in the backseat
and Momma was saying real, real Southern, “Babies, we home!”
Momma was honking the horn of the Brown Bomber like she was
crazy.
I raised my head out of the seat to look at what Momma was call-
ing home and couldn’t believe it!
Birmingham looked a lot like Flint! There were real houses, not lit-
tle log cabins, all over the place! And great big beautiful trees. Most of
all, though, there was the sun.
Me, Joetta and Byron unfolded ourselves into the Alabama heat and
it was like we all remembered at once that we were going to finally
see what Grandma Sands really looked like!
We all bunched up together by Momma’s door but she didn’t get
out, she was still honking the horn like a nut! We had to cover our ears.
Dad said, “Nothing’s changed.”
The door of a regular little old house opened.
Me and Joey had never seen Grandma Sands in our lives. Byron said
he could remember that she was the meanest, ugliest person in the
world but he was probably lying, he was only four the last time
Momma and Dad were here. Byron said he’d had nightmares for a
couple of weeks after they left Alabama ten years ago.
All the Weird Watsons had real good imaginations but none of us
was ready for what came out of the door of that house.
I was expecting a troll. I thought Grandma Sands would be bigger
than Dad, I thought she’d be foaming at the mouth like she had rabies.
I remember a couple of years ago how Momma had cried and cried
when someone called from Alabama and told us that Grandma Sands
had had a little stroke, so I knew she walked with a cane now. I’d imag-
ined the cane would be as big as a tree trunk with crows and owls and
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lizards living in it.
What came out was a teeny-weeny, old, old, old woman that looked
just like Momma would if someone shrank her down about five sizes
and sucked all the juice out of her!
Grandma Sands waved a little skinny stick in the air and said,“What
are you all doin’ here today? You ain’t supposed to be here till
Monday!” Man, if you think Momma can talk Southern-style, you
should hear Grandma Sands!
Momma was blubbering and smiling and covering her mouth with
both hands and ran right up on the porch and nearly broke that little
old woman in half.
“How you doin’, Momma?” She cried on the woman’s shoulders,
then held Grandma Sands out to look at her. “You look so good!”
Boy, Momma can lie when she wants to!
“Y’all come on over here and give your granny a hug,” my
Southern-style mother said.
Me and Joey and Byron shuffled over in a little crowd and when
we got through pushing each other forward I was at the front and had
to go on the porch to hug Grandma Sands first.
I tried to be real careful with her. She was just a little taller than me
and skinnier than anything I’d ever seen alive. I could see her brown
scalp right through her curly silver hair.
Grandma Sands squeezed me hard and cried all over me. She wiped
a bunch of tears away with a twisted-up hand and blinked a couple of
times before she looked at me. She was so short she didn’t even have
to look down!
She tried to say something but she couldn’t talk, she just stuck her
bottom lip out some and nodded her head up and down a couple of
times, then pulled me back to her and squeezed me like crazy.
Momma slapped the back of my head and said, “Kenneth Bernard
Watson, you’d best quit actin’ so silly and give your grandmother a
good hug!”
I squeezed her a little.A smell like baby powder came out of her when
I did. I really think I could feel her lungs when I touched her back!
I don’t know what got Joey started but she was off to the races with
her tears. She was the only one who’d practiced what she’d say to
Grandma Sands. She sniffed a couple of times then said,“Hi, Grandma
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Sands, it’s a real pleasure to meet you.”You could only half understand
what she was saying, she was blubbering so much.
Grandma Sands matched Joey tear for tear. They squeezed each
other for a while, then Grandma Sands got her little, squeaky voice
back and said to Momma,“Lord, ’Lona, if this child ain’t you! Look at
this baby, just as pretty and sweet as you!”
Momma and Joey grinned like two nuts.
Byron was next.
This was what I’d dreamed about. These were the two meanest,
most evil people I’d ever known and I knew only one of them was
going to come out of this alive!
There was going to be a battle something like if Godzilla met King
Kong, or if Frankenstein met Dracula, or like when champion wrestler
Bobo Brazil meets the Sheik!
I’d imagined that a week or two after we got back to Flint we’d get
a phone call from Alabama with the winner of the big battle on the
other end.
If it was Byron, he’d talk kind of cool and low out of the corner of
his mouth and say, “Shooot, man, you better come get this old chick,
I ate her alive.”
If Grandma Sands won the battle we’d have to hold the phone away
from our ear while she shouted,“ ’Lona, you call this a bad child? This
li’l saint is ready to come back North and go to Sunday school and
scrub all y’all’s floors!”
But as soon as I saw Grandma Sands I knew that Byron would
destroy this poor old woman. I was even afraid Momma might decide
not to leave him in Alabama.
Byron walked up on the porch real cool and kind of bent over to
give Grandma Sands a hug. Grandma Sands squeezed him hard.
“ ’Lona, what you teach these babies up North? Don’t they know
how to give no one a proper hug?” She held Byron by the arms and
looked at him from top to bottom. “You grew up to be a fine-lookin’
boy.You was so puny when you was born you nearly worried us crazy.
Got strong too.” She slapped Byron’s arm and he kind of laughed.
Grandma Sands reached up and ran her wrinkly old hand over
Byron’s head. “A little short on hair, but we gonna get on just fine,
what you think, By?”
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“Yes, ma’am.”
“Good, good, see, there’s lots of things you can do down here, Mr.
Robert ain’t as much help as he used to be, so all them things he used
to do you can do now.”
Momma said, “Who? Mr. who?”
Dad came up on the porch and got a ton of hugs and tears too, then
Grandma Sands pulled everybody together. Her little arms could only
get around one person at a time but as the Weird Watsons stood there
with some of us laughing, some of us crying and some of us looking
cool it felt like we all were wrapped up in a big ball.
Grandma Sands kept saying, “My family, my beautiful, beautiful
family,” except with that Southern-style accent and all the weeping it
sounded like she was saying “fambly.”
Finally the crowd started breaking up and Grandma Sands said,
“Now what am I gonna feed y’all? I wasn’t expecting you till Monday.
Me and Mr. Robert usually just has leftovers on Sunday, but I guess if
By’ll go down to Jobe’s and pick up some things we can have chick-
en tonight.You good at following directions, Byron?”
“Huh?” By’s face twisted up.
“What?” Grandma Sands’s voice popped like one of those big
brown grocery bags being snapped open.
By looked surprised and said, “I meant, ‘Huh, ma’am.’ ”
“You good at following directions? Jobe’s is a good little walk.”
I said,“He can follow directions real good, Grandma Sands, he’s not
as dumb as he looks.”
I shut up real quick and wished I hadn’t said anything when
Grandma Sands looked at me and said,“ ’Lona, maybe there’s two who
should be spending the summer down here with their granny.”
Everybody started going inside the ugly little house. Momma
sounded worried. “Momma, who is this Mr. Robert?”
Grandma Sands laughed just like the Wicked Witch of the West and
said, “Honey, we got to talk.You jus’ be patient and soon’s he gets up
I want all of y’all to meet him.”
“Soon’s he gets up? Awww, Momma . . .” Momma sounded real
upset and disappointed and Southern.
But not as disappointed as me.
The way Byron kept his head down and was smiling and saying
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“Yes, ma’am” this and “No, ma’am” that, it looked like he had surren-
dered before the first punch was thrown.
Instead of King Kong and Godzilla it was like King Kong and
Bambi; instead of Bobo Brazil and the Sheik it was like Bobo Brazil
and Captain Kangaroo; instead of Dracula and Frankenstein it was like
Dracula and a giraffe, and Byron was all neck.
He knew exactly what I was thinking.
After Grandma Sands gave us directions Byron looked at me side-
ways and said, “What the hell you starin’ at?”
I just shook my head.
“What you expect?” By asked. “You seen her. That bird’s as old as
dirt. She’s so old I bet she used to step over dinosaur turds. I ain’t
gonna have her death on my hands.”
I knew that was a lie.
It seemed like all of the fight was out of Byron and we’d only been
in Birmingham for a couple of minutes.
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irmingham was like an oven. That first night I couldn’t sleep at
all, me and By had to share a bed and we both were sweating like two
pigs. It got so hot that Byron didn’t even keep a sheet on himself to
make sure I didn’t accidentally touch him in the night. He finally slept
on the floor because he said it was a little bit cooler.
When I got up Byron was gone. I looked out of the window into
the backyard and By and Dad and Mr. Robert were standing under a
great big tree with a dog. I went to the bathroom real quick, did my
morning scratches, then ran out to be with the guys.
“Morning, Kenny.”
“Morning, Dad. Morning, Mr. Robert. Morning, By.”
Byron just grunted, then said, “Man, you gotta quit drinking so
much water, you sweated up the whole bed last night, I ain’t sharing
the bed with your leaky little bu—”—he looked at Dad—“with your
leaky little self again.”
Mr. Robert said, “You boys’ll get used to the heat.”
Dad petted the dog and said, “He’s too old to hunt?”
“Oh yeah, that dog won’t hunt no more. He’s just like me, lost the
desire. Both of us got to the point where we just couldn’t pull the trig-
ger. Both of us got to be just like Joe Louis toward the end. Remember
his last fights, Daniel? Remember how Joe’d just walk around the ring
waving that left fist like a threat, he just couldn’t throw it, he just
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couldn’t pull the trigger no more, his mind told him to do it but his
body wouldn’t cooperate. That’s me and Toddy. There’s times at night
I hear him howl and I know he’s dreaming about being back in the
woods, but both of us know that’s gone.”
Mr. Robert bent down and rubbed the dog’s head. “Yeah, son, in
his day this was the best coon dog in all Alabama. Used to get a hun-
dred bucks just to stud him.”
Byron rubbed the old, gray, nasty-looking dog’s head too. “A hun-
dred bucks? Man!”
“Yeah, me and Toddy saved each other’s lives, hate seeing him get
so old.” Judging by the way Mr. Robert looked I bet the dog was say-
ing the same thing about him.
“How’d you save his life?”
“You ever been coon hunting?”
“No, sir.”
“Well, there ain’t too many animals wilier or tougher than a old
coon. Most people think you just chase ’em up a tree and pop ’em,
but that ain’t half the story.
“Toddy’d trailed this coon all the way out to this lake, and the coon
went in the water. Now most of the time a dog’ll stop right at the
water, they know better than to go in, but Toddy must’ve just dove
right in after that coon. He musta been a half mile ahead of me when
I heard him holler and then get real quiet.”
“What happened?”
“The coon got him in the water and held his head under till he
drowneded him.”
I stopped believing this junk right there. A raccoon drowning a
dog? I looked at By and Dad but they both were believing what Mr.
Robert was saying.
Dad said, “I’ve heard about raccoons doing that.”
“Oh yeah,Toddy here’s living proof.”
Byron said, “If he drowned how come he ain’t dead?”
“Well, when I finally got to that lake I seen the coon going out one
way and Toddy nowhere in sight, and I knew what happened. I dove
right in that water and started looking for him. Took me only a
minute. I dragged him back to shore, turnt him upside down to let the
water run outta him, held his mouth shut and breathed right in his
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nose. He kicked a couple of times, then came to.”
Byron said, “Man! That’s too much! That’s cool!”
All I could think of was that Mr. Robert was probably the only
human being who’d ever put his mouth on a dog’s nose.That was pret-
ty cool!
I asked Dad, “When do we eat?”
“Kenny, you’re the only one who hasn’t eaten already.Your mother
and grandmother are in the kitchen, go on in.”
I went back inside.
Even before I got in I could hear Momma saying that Birmingham
wasn’t anything like what she remembered. Her favorite sayings got to
be “What’s this?” and “How long’s this been like that?” and “When did
that happen?” and “Why do you do this like that?” and, most of all,
“Awww, Momma . . .”
Grandma Sands thought Momma was hilarious and cracked up
every time Momma got upset or worried about something that she
didn’t remember or didn’t like. Grandma Sands must have seen The
Wizard of Oz a million times because every time she laughed it sound-
ed just like that Wicked Witch of the West. At first her laugh was so
scary that whenever me and Joey heard it we wanted to go get behind
something or someone. But after a while we got used to it.
It took us even longer to get used to the Southern style of talking.
Man! Grandma Sands and Momma would get yakking to each other
and we could only understand half of the things that they said.
The smell of bacon dragged me right into the kitchen. Momma,
Joey and Grandma Sands were sitting at the little, skinny kitchen table
yakking.
“Morning, Kenneth.”
“Morning, Momma. Morning, Joey. Morning, Grandma Sands.”
“You sleep O.K.?”
“It was real hot.”
Joey was sitting in Momma’s lap looking all drowsy. She said, “I
know, I was sweating all night.”
The bacon was sitting on a plate on a piece of paper towel. Momma
had another piece of paper towel in her hands because all the things
that Grandma Sands was telling her were making her hands get all
sweaty and disgusting. I got some cereal and bread and bacon and sat
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at the skinny table with them.
I must have interrupted something real important because as soon
as I sat down Momma acted like I’d disappeared and started asking
Grandma Sands more questions.“Well, what about Calla Lily Lincoln?
I always wondered what she’s doing. . . .”
“ ’Lona didn’t I write to you about that? Uh, uh, uh . . .”
They kept on talking and kept on ooohing and aahing and Grandma
Sands kept on interrupting breakfast by scaring me and Joey with that
laugh and Momma kept on saying “Awww, Momma . . .” and she kept
on having to get up and get more paper towels to wipe her hands and
most of all she kept on talking more and more Southern-style.
They talked about how much trouble people were having with
some white people down here, who got married to who, how many
kids this one had, how many times that one was in jail, a bunch of bor-
ing junk like that. It didn’t get interesting until I noticed that Momma
got real, real nervous right before she said, “And what about you,
Momma? Mr. Robert seems like a nice man and all, but . . .”
Grandma gave that laugh and my spoon flew out of my hand and
spilled corn flakes on the table. Momma acted like she didn’t even
notice, but without even looking at me she handed me one of the nasty,
soaking-wet pieces of paper towel and kept looking at Grandma Sands.
“I was wondering when we’d get to that.” Grandma Sands smiled.
“We been good friends since right after you-all left for Flint—”
Momma was being kind of rude, she interrupted and said,“Awww,
Momma, good friends? What does that mean?”
“Wilona Sands, what is it that’s bothering you? Why don’t you just
say what’s on your mind?”
Momma started wringing the neck of another piece of paper towel.
“I just don’t understand what’s going on here. How come I never
knew him? Did Daddy know him?” Momma said that last part like she
was dropping a bomb on Grandma Sands.
Grandma Sands looked at her for a minute. “ ’Lona, things are dif-
ferent from what they were when you left. Nearly everything changes.
Your daddy’s been gone for almost twenty years.” Grandma Sands had
stopped smiling. “Now Mr. Robert is my dearest friend.”
Wow! I could see where Byron learned how to say a couple of
words and have people think he’d said a whole bunch more! Grandma
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Sands didn’t yell or scream or anything, but the way she said those
couple of things made everybody who heard it shut their mouths and
listen real hard. Even though she only told Momma that Mr. Robert
was her friend it seemed like I heard her also give my mother a real
good scolding Momma pouted and kissed the top of Joey’s head.
I picked up my spoon and kept eating.This was great! I’d never seen
Momma act like a little kid who just got yelled at but there she was,
picking at a piece of paper towel and looking kind of embarrassed.
Dad and Byron came in with Mr. Robert.
“Mr. Robert’s going to walk us over to the lake, show us the best
fishing spots for later. Joey, Kenny, you coming? Give these two some
time alone to talk.”
Momma pushed Joey off her lap and we followed the little parade
outside.
The heat made me and Joey feel like we couldn’t wake up. I didn’t
want to do any walking but the dirty dogs made me go anyway. The
only kid that acted like he was having any fun was Byron. He walked
the whole way with Mr. Robert and Dad and laughed and joked with
them about every stupid story they told.
When we finally got back I went to sleep under a fan. They were
going to force me to go fishing with Byron and Joey the next day and
I knew I needed a ton of rest. I started to think that making Byron
spend all of his summer in this heat was more punishment than even
a juvenile delinquent like him deserved. But he seemed like he was
having a great time.
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f y’all are going to the water you stay away from Collier’s Landing.
A couple of years ago Miss Thomas’s little boy Jimmy got caught up
in some kinda whirlpool there and they didn’t find the poor soul’s
body for three days.”
I’d only halfway listened to what Grandma Sands had said, and now
me and Joey and Byron were standing at a sign with arrows that point-
ed in two directions. The one pointing to the left said “Public
Swimming” and the other one, pointing to the right, looked like it had
been on the post for a million years but if you got close to it you could
read, “WARNING! NO TRESPASING! NO SWIMING! NO
PUBLIC ENTREE! Signed Joe Collier.”
“Oh, man! Collier’s Landing,” I said.“Let’s go!” I knew Joey would-
n’t like this, but I figured me and By could talk her into coming and
not snitching.
Joey said,“Uh-uh, Kenny, you heard Grandma Sands tell about that
little boy getting lost in the water.What was that thing called that she
said got him?”
Daddy Cool said,“Didn’t you hear what she said, Joey? She said he
got caught by the Wool Pooh.”
“Is that a fish?” Joey asked.
“Uh-uh.You know who Winnie-the-Pooh is, don’t you?”
Me and Joey both nodded.
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I
13. I Meet Winnie’s Evil Twin
Brother, the Wool Pooh
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“Well, the Wool Pooh is Winnie’s evil twin brother. Don’t no one
ever write about him ’cause they don’t want to scare y’all kids. What
he does is hide underwater and snatch stupid kids down with him.”
By figured that dumb story was enough to scare me off and he
started walking in the direction of the public swimming. “If Kenny
wants to take his stupid little behind down there and get snatched, let
him.” By grabbed Joey’s hand and started pulling her along with him,
but she skidded her feet in the dirt.
“But Byron, what if the Wool Pooh comes down to where we’re
going? Can’t he swim down there and get people too?”
“Naw, Joey, the Wool Pooh don’t come on public beaches, he just
grabs folks that are too stingy to let peons come on their land, like this
Collier guy.”
Who could understand Byron? Here was a chance for another
Fantastic Adventure and he was going in the wrong direction.
Something was wrong with him. If he was in Flint and you told him
not to do something he’d go right out and do it, but now he was act-
ing real dull and square. Maybe it was the heat, maybe just like it had
sucked all the energy out of me it had sucked all the meanness and fun
out of Byron.
“What you gonna do, punk?” Byron shouted over his shoulder. Joey
yelled, “Come on, Kenny! You know what Grandma Sands said.”
I couldn’t believe it. I really wanted to go see where some kid
drowned and now By was choosing this time to listen to what a
grown-up told him.
“Awww, man, I’m going to Collier’s Landing.”
Byron shrugged. “Have fun.”
I shouted, “What’s wrong with you? When are you going to start
acting like you normally do? What would Buphead say if he saw you
acting like this?”
Byron flipped me double middle fingers and another finger sign I’d
never seen before and said,“Just keep your stupid little butt out of the
water.”
“Forget you, I’m going!”They kept walking.
“I’m not playing!”
Joey waved.
“I’m going to Collier’s Landing!”
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They were gone.
I looked in the direction that the warning sign was pointing and
started to get a little nervous. I turned and started to follow Joey and
Byron, but finally decided I really was going to go to Collier’s
Landing. Maybe Byron was getting sick of having more Fantastic
Adventures, but I figured I was getting old enough to have some
myself.
“You’re a couple of jive squares!” I shouted, then walked off the
way the warning sign pointed.
Byron must have thought I was stupid. Whoever heard of some-
thing called a Wool Pooh? I wasn’t sure what the lie was, but I knew
Byron had made that junk up. Besides, if Winnie-the-Pooh had an evil
twin brother it seemed like I would have read about it somewhere.
Some of the time it was kind of hard to understand what Grandma
Sands was saying, but I couldn’t remember her saying anything about
any Wool Pooh. If there really was something that snatched kids into
the water Momma and Dad wouldn’t have let us come down here,
would they?
I knew all that stuff but I was still kind of nervous when I followed
the little trail that went through a bunch of bushes and led to the
water. I forgot all about Byron’s lies as soon as I saw the water. Collier’s
Landing was great! The water was dark, dark blue, and best of all, it was
about a hundred degrees cooler.
Joe Collier had put up another sign on a giant tree: “WARNING!
DANGER! NO SWIMING! SIX LIFES BEEN LOST HERE! BAD
DROP OFF! Signed Joe Collier.”
Six? Grandma Sands had said one little boy drowned here, not six!
I felt dumb but I looked real hard at the water to see if the Wool Pooh
was hiding there. I even looked up and down the shore to see if there
were any strange footprints on the ground. I was kind of worried
because this sign looked a lot fresher than the first one.
I kept waiting for By to jump out of the bushes and say something
like, “Aha, you little dope, I got you! I made you look for a Wool
Pooh!” but everything was real calm and quiet, the water didn’t even
look like it was moving, but like it was breathing, going up and down,
up and down, and it made a sound like the wind blowing through big
trees in Flint.
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I walked right to the edge of the water and still didn’t see anything
strange so I figured if there really was anything dangerous Byron
would have followed me here and stopped me from getting hurt,
wouldn’t he?
Then a bell went off in my head. I knew Joe Collier put that sign
up because he didn’t want to share his lake with anyone! The Wool
Pooh was some made-up garbage!
There’s one good thing about getting in trouble: It seems like you
do it in steps. It seems like you don’t just end up in trouble but that
you kind of ease yourself into it. It also seems like the worse the trou-
ble is that you get into, the more steps it takes to get there. Sort of like
you’re getting a bunch of little warnings on the way; sort of like if you
really wanted to you could turn around.
The first warning I should have listened to was when Daddy Cool
and Joey followed the arrow to the left and I went to the right. The
second warning came when I decided to wade in the water and the
knots wouldn’t come out of my tennis shoe laces and I had to pull and
tug the shoes off with the laces still tied. After that it’s kind of hard to
count how many warnings I got, because with the trouble I ended up
in I must’ve had a zillion of them.
Step by step I kept easing into trouble until I finally was standing in
the lake with the water up to my knees. I’d gone out into the water
because there were a bunch of little, stupid-looking, slow-moving fish
right near the shore and I thought I might be able to catch some of
them and make them pets. I wasn’t afraid because I figured if there was
a real Wool Pooh and he was in the area these little fish wouldn’t be
hanging around.
Alabama fish were a lot friendlier, and a lot trickier, than Michigan
ones. I bent over and stuck my hand in the water and tried to grab a
couple but they kept slipping away like they were covered with soap.
They were right there and I couldn’t grab them. They didn’t even act
like they were afraid of me, they just kept swimming around my legs,
even bumping their faces into me, like they were trying to kiss me. It
seemed like they wanted me to catch them and take them back to Flint.
After missing about a hundred times I stood up and saw the reason
the fish wouldn’t go out in deeper water. There was a big green tur-
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tle, about the size of a football, cruising back and forth in the deep
water, and he looked just as slow and stupid as the fish did.
Wow! Who’d want to have a fish for a pet when you I could have
a turtle?
I took a few more steps out and the cool, blue water came all the way
up to my arms. Getting cool all of a sudden like this made me bug my
eyes and suck in my breath. I made a quick grab at the stupid turtle and,
zoom, he flapped his arms once and disappeared into deeper water.
That quick grab was my last step. Boom, all of a sudden I was in
big, big trouble!
The rocky ground under my feet started sliding away from the
shore. I didn’t get nervous because I knew I could flap my arms like
the turtle and get back to the dirt. I looked up and saw the shore was
still real close. I flapped my arms and nothing happened, I stayed in the
same spot.Then the rocks under my feet were gone and I was kicking
in water.With the tips of my toes I could still brush some of the rocks
but they were all slipping and sliding away from shore.
I pushed away to try to swim back and my head bobbed under the
water. All the sound and light from Alabama disappeared because my
eyes automatically shut and it seemed like my ears were stuffed with
cotton. I got a mouthful of water but my head came right back up. I
laughed because I was spitting and patoohing a mile a minute when
my head popped out of the water. But the laughing stopped real quick
when I tried swimming again and my head went back under.
That’s when I got really scared. I’d seen enough cartoons to know
that when your head goes down three times it doesn’t ever come up
again! I knew if I went down one more time I was as dead as a donut!
My eyes looked at the shore, where my shoes were sitting safe on
some rocks.“Awww, man,” I said to myself,“I wish I had a magic lamp
so I could have the genie make me be where those shoes are and they
could be where I am!”
That was the last thing I thought about before I found out that
Grandma Sands and Byron and Joe Collier weren’t lying at all. That
was the last thing I thought about before I found out that the Wool
Pooh was real and big and mean and horrible and that he didn’t care
at all about dragging kids out into the water!
I’d never, ever been this scared in my life! I hollered out,“Momma!”
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My arms were punching the water like it was a person and my legs
were going a mile a minute to try to get back to the shore. But now
even my toes couldn’t find anything to touch.
“O.K., Kenny,” I said to myself, “you know you’re going to be all
right. Just get real calm and swim back to the land. When you count
to three just go back to your shoes.” I stopped kicking for a second
and said, “One, two, three . . .”Then I gave my arms one more flap to
go back to shore and down I went again! My head went under for the
third time and I knew I’d never come back up again. Going down
three times like this is just like waking up and finding yourself tied to
a tree with someone saying, “Ready, aim, fire!”
That’s when he came swimming real slow out of the deep, and even
though my head was underneath the dark water I could see him com-
ing right at me. He didn’t look like he was related to Winnie-the-Pooh
at all, he was big and gray with hard square-looking fingers.Where he
should have had a face there was nothing but dark gray. Where he
should have had eyes there was nothing but a darker colder-looking
color. He grabbed my leg and started pulling me down.
I kicked and scratched at him but he was just too strong, it seemed
like he didn’t even feel my punches! My head felt like it was going to
explode; I didn’t think I could hold my breath for another second. I
was feeling real, real scared and dizzy from holding my breath this
long. Then suddenly I could see that there was someone else in the
water and the Wool Pooh was pulling me right toward them.
It was a little girl and she had on a real pretty blue dress and big,
yellow wings and something tied around her head. When the Wool
Pooh pulled me closer I could see that it was a little angel, and wait a
minute, it was Joetta, looking just like the angel Mrs. Davidson had
given her! Joey had wings and a halo! Her face was real calm too, but
she was pointing straight up like there was something important I
should look at.
This angel that looked like Joey was telling me I had to swim up
one more time.
This really scared me. I knew it wasn’t a good sign when you start-
ed seeing angels so I kicked and flapped my arms and started going
toward the sky! My head came up and I spit out a bellyful of water
and took a couple of good, deep breaths.
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“Momma! Momma! Help me . . .”
But the Wool Pooh wasn’t through with me. I felt his hard, hard
hand go around my ankle and I went down for the fourth time!
I got pulled a little further and saw someone else in the water with
me, kicking up a ton of dirt and scratching at the water like they were
crazy. Byron!
Man! The Wool Pooh is going to let me see all my family one more
time before I go!
Byron tried grabbing at me but the Wool Pooh was pulling me
away too fast. I saw By’s legs swim back up toward the sky.
Pull-whisshh-stop, pull-whisshh-stop. Up ahead someone else was in the
water. It has to be Momma and Dad! Good-bye, Momma! Good-bye,
Dad! No, it’s By again, still looking all crazy, still scratching the water.
Byron and the Wool Pooh started duking it out. By must have hit it
a hundred times in that place where its face should’ve been. Finally the
Wool Pooh couldn’t take any more and I felt those hard cold fingers
come off my ankle. The Wool Pooh swam back into the deep water.
The last thing I noticed about him was that he had big square toes.
Byron grabbed me and put his arm around my neck and it felt like
he was trying to choke me.
As soon as he got me on the shore and turned me upside down I
felt like I was going to die! I started throwing up a ton of water and
food. If there was a forest fire somewhere all they would have to do is
hold me over it and I would have put it out! I threw up and coughed
and choked and vomited about a million times, and all this just
because I’d breathed in some air!
By held my ankles and kept banging me up and down and scream-
ing at me. When the sound from the water in my ears and the sound
of me vomiting my guts out and the whisshh sound from the Wool
Pooh finally left me I could hear Byron shouting, “. . . Awww, man,
awww, man, awww, man . . .” over and over.
Finally I yelled, “Stop! Put me down!”
Byron dropped me on the ground right on top of all the water and
junk that I’d thrown up. I knew he was going to make a stupid joke
about me landing face-first in all that mess but he didn’t, he just
wrapped his arms around my shoulders real tight and put his mouth
right on top of my head! Byron was shaking like he was getting elec-
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trocuted and crying like a baby and kissing the top of my head over
and over!
This was real disgusting. He just kept saying,“Kenny, Kenny, Kenny
. . . ,” a bunch of times with his mouth wide open on top of my head.
I could feel his teeth grinding into my skull but By didn’t care.
I said, “Awww, man . . .” and tried to make him quit but all I could
do was sit there too tired to do anything but let Daddy Cool nibble
on the top of my head while he cried like a kindergarten baby.
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know it was Sunday because I heard Joetta getting ready for
Sunday school. The neighbors came and got her as soon as I got out
of bed. I was standing in the doorway of the bedroom doing my
morning scratches when she walked by.
“Hi, Kenny. See you later.”
“Bye, Joey.”
She had on a fluffy white skirt, a regular blouse and the little white
gloves Grandma Sands had made her. I don’t know why, but I said,
“Joey . . .”
She stopped. “Huh?”
I couldn’t think why I called her name so I just kind of threw out,
“You look real pretty.”
She smiled and thanked me. She did look kind of pretty too, she
had on a lacy white hat and little lacy white socks and her shiny, shiny
black shoes.
The people that came to get her saw me and one of them said,
“How come you ain’t coming to Sunday school, young man?”
I smiled and said, “I forgot to get up in time.”
Everybody in the house knew that was a lie but no one seemed to
care. I wondered if there was something wrong with me, because it
was real easy for me to lie, even to a pack of religious people on
Sunday morning.
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I
14. Every Bird and Bug in
Birmingham Stops and
Wonders
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I had my cereal and went out into the backyard. It was too hot even
this early in the morning, so I walked over to the giant magnolia tree
and rested in the coolness of its shade.
All of the energy was gone from me already. It had been a few days
since I almost got snatched by the Wool Pooh and I still felt weak and
tired all the time.
Byron had made me promise not to tell anyone what had happened so
everybody thought I was just being lazy. I heard people waking up and mov-
ing around inside but I was feeling too tired to go and speak to anyone.
Momma stuck her head out of the back door and got ready to yell
for me but when she saw me plopped down at the foot of the tree she
smiled. “Well, Kenneth, I thought you’d wandered off. How are you
this morning?”
“It was too hot to sleep.”
“Think you can last one more week?”
“Uh-uh.”
“Well, isn’t this better than winter up North?”
“Quit teasing, Momma, you know it isn’t. I wish I was back in our
igloo in Flint.”
She laughed and the screen door closed behind her.
I started going to sleep under the tree and thought I was dreaming
when the noise came.
I felt it more than heard it.The giant old magnolia tree shook one
time like something had given it a hard snatch by the roots.Then there
was a sound like a far-off thunderstorm coming. Except it only thun-
dered one long time.
It seemed like every animal and bird and bug in Birmingham
stopped making noise for about two seconds. It seemed like every-
thing that was alive stopped whatever it was doing and was wonder-
ing the same thing:
What was that noise?
Doors opened in the neighborhood and people came out and
looked up in the sky but there was nothing there, not one cloud, noth-
ing to give a clue to what the big hollow sound was, nothing but
bright, hot, stupid Alabama sun.
Dad came to the back door, in pajama pants and a T-shirt. “What
was that? Was that back here?”
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I shook my head. He looked like a bell went off in his head and
said, “Oh Lord, where’s Byron?”
Byron poked his head out of the door, still in his underpants and
still doing his morning scratches. “What?” he said. “I didn’t do noth-
ing. I was asleep.What was that bang?”
Dad kept looking toward the sky and said, “Hmm, must have been
a sonic boom.”
He closed the screen door.
If this had happened in Flint I would have investigated to find out
what it was, but that horrible sun had sucked all the curiosity out of me.
I leaned back against the tree and closed my eyes. I don’t know if I
got to sleep or not but Momma’s scream made me jump nearly to the
magnolia’s top branch. I’d never heard Momma’s voice sound so bad.
I felt like I did that time I stuck a bobby pin in a wall socket.
I ran to the door and into the house and By almost knocked me
over running back toward the bedroom.
“What’s wrong with Momma?” I asked.
I looked in the living room but Momma and Dad weren’t there. I
ran back to the bedroom, where Byron was trying to wrestle into a
pair of pants.
“By! What happened?”
He got the pants up and said, “A guy just came by and said some-
body dropped a bomb on Joey’s church.” And he was gone, exploding
out of the front door trying to zip up his pants at the same time he
ran off the porch.
Some of the time I wondered if something really was wrong with
me. Byron had just told me that someone had dropped a bomb on
Joey’s church, hadn’t he? If that was true why did I just stand there
looking stupid? If that was true why was I only thinking about how
much trouble By was going to be in when they heard how loud he’d
slammed the screen door, and asking myself why hadn’t he put on his
shoes? His socks wouldn’t last two minutes on the Alabama mud.
I ran out onto the porch and into the street. It looked like some-
one had set off a people magnet, it seemed like everyone in
Birmingham was running down the street, it looked like a river of
scared brown bodies was being jerked in the same direction that By
had gone, so I followed.
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I guess my ears couldn’t take it so they just stopped listening. I
could see people everywhere making their mouths go like they were
screaming and pointing and yelling but I didn’t hear anything. I saw
Momma and Dad and Byron holding on to each other, all three of
them looking like they were crazy and trying to keep each other away
from the pile of rocks that used to be the front of the church. Momma
was so upset that she even forgot to cover the space in her front teeth.
I couldn’t hear her but I’d bet a million dollars she was shouting,
“Why?” over and over like a real nut. It looked like Dad’s mouth was
yelling, “Joetta!”
I was kind of surprised no adult stopped me from walking right up
to the church.
I got right next to where the door used to be when the guy came
out with a little girl in his arms. He had on the same thing Dad did, a
T-shirt and pajama pants, but it looked like he’d been painting with
red, red paint. The little girl had on a blue dress and little blue frilly
socks and black shiny, shiny shoes.
I looked into the church and saw smoke and dust flying around like
a tornado was in there. One light from the ceiling was still hanging
down by a wire, flickering and swinging back and forth, and every
once in a while I could see stuff inside. I could see a couple of grown-
ups moving around looking lost, trying to pick things up, then the
smoke would cover them, and then the bulb would flicker out and
they’d disappear. I could see Bibles and coloring books thrown all over
the place, then they’d get covered by the smoke. I could see a shiny,
shiny black shoe lying halfway underneath some concrete, then it got
covered with smoke, and then the lightbulb flickered out again.
I bent down to pull the shoe from under the concrete and tugged
and pulled at it but it felt like something was pulling it back.
All the hair on my head jumped up to attention.The light flickered back
on and the smoke cleared and I could see that hanging on to the other end
of the shoe was a giant gray hand with cold, hard square fingers.
Oh-oh. I looked up and saw a familiar guy and before he got cov-
ered with smoke he looked at me and I saw he had big square shoul-
ders and nothing where his face should have been.The Wool Pooh.
Oh, man. I gave the shoe one more hard tug and it popped loose
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from a frilly white sock. I got real scared. I walked as slowly and as qui-
etly as I could out of the church. Maybe if I moved quietly he would-
n’t come for me. Maybe if I walked and didn’t look back he’d leave me
alone. I walked past where the adults were still screaming and point-
ing, I walked past where that guy had set the little girl in blue, right
next to where someone else had set a little girl in red. I knew if Joey
sat down next to those two their dresses would make the red, white
and blue of the American flag. Grown-ups were kneeling down by
them and the adults’ hands fluttered down toward the little girls, then,
before they touched anything, fluttered back up, over and over. Their
hands looked like a little flock of brown sparrows that were too nerv-
ous to land.
I walked past people lying around in little balls on the grass crying
and twitching, I walked past people squeezing each other and shaking,
I walked past people hugging trees and telephone poles, looking like
they were afraid they might fly off the earth if they let go. I walked
past a million people with their mouths wide-opened and no sounds
coming out. I didn’t look behind me and walked back as quick as I
could to Grandma Sands’s house.
I felt like I floated up the front stairs, then I made sure the screen
door didn’t slam and took my shoes off and went in and sat on my
bed. I hadn’t remembered to make it that morning so I got up and
tucked the sheets in and fluffed up the pillow like Momma does. I sat
back on the bed and looked down at my hands.They were acting like
nervous little sparrows too so I squeezed them between my knees.
I reached in my pocket and took out the shiny, shiny shoe. When
me and the Wool Pooh were trying to grab it away from each other
the back part had gotten ripped. Man! The shoe was ripped like it was
made out of paper! The picture of the little white boy with the girl’s
hairdo and the dog was torn right in half.All that was left was the dog,
smiling at me like he’d just eaten a cat.
I tried to remember if I’d been mean to Joey this morning. I
guessed I hadn’t. I never did tell her how she helped Byron save my
life in the water. I guessed I should have.
“Where’d you go? How’d you get back here so fast? How come
you changed your clothes?” My ears had decided to work again.
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I looked up toward the door but stopped looking when I saw the
white, white frilly socks standing on the wooden floor in front of my
door. I guessed the Wool Pooh was taking Joey around for her last vis-
its. I was afraid to look up, I was afraid to look at her face, I knew I’d
see the Wool Pooh’s rope tied around her waist.
“Hi, Joey” was all I could think of saying.
“Where’re Momma and Daddy?”
“Oh.You’ll probably get to see them next. He takes you around to
see your family before you go.”
She sat beside me on the bed. I still wouldn’t look at her. I dropped
the shoe and used my knees to stop the sparrows from fluttering
around.
Oh, man! This was very scary. I’d seen the two little girls on the
grass in the red and blue dresses and I didn’t want to see my little sis-
ter that way too.
“What’s wrong with you, Kenny? How come you’re looking so
funny?”
“I guess I should have told you thanks for saving my life, huh? Is it
too late to tell you that?”
Joey didn’t say anything for a second, then got up off the bed.
“Why’re you acting so crazy? Where’re Mommy and Daddy? What’s
that you dropped? What’re you trying to hide?”
She picked her shoe up from where I’d dropped it.
“Oooh, Kenny, whose shoe is this? What did you do to it?”
“It’s yours, Joey, I got it from the Wool Pooh.”
“You better quit trying to scare me, Kenny, or I’m gonna tell
Momma! This better not be my shoe or you’re in big trouble, buster.”
Joey walked out of the room but I still couldn’t look at her. The
Wool Pooh was pull-whisshh-stopping her away.
“Joey!”
After a second she came back into my bedroom. “What?” She was
sounding real, real mean.
I didn’t look up. I kept looking at my hands. “I love you.”
Whop! The shiny, shiny, ripped black shoe hit me right in my chest
“Whose shoe is that?”
I finally looked up to see what Joey looked like.There were no ropes
around her waist and nobody with square toes was hanging around. But
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what really surprised me was that Joey had both of her shiny, shiny
black shoes in her hands. She’d taken them off at the front door.
“Kenneth Bernard Watson, you better tell me what’s going on or
I’m really gonna tell! I’m not playing with you!” Joey was imitating
Momma so much that she didn’t say “Bernard,” she said “Buh-Nod.”
“Joey, didn’t you go to Sunday school?”
“You know I did.”
“Don’t you know what happened?”
Joey sat back down next to me. “Kenny, I’m not playing with you,
why are you acting so weird?” Her voice was starting to get all choky.
“Why aren’t you still in that church?”
“It was so hot in there that I went and stood on the porch and saw
you.”
“Saw me? Where?”
“Kenny, you’d better stop this nonsense.You know you waved at me
from across the street, you know when I tried to come to you you kept
laughing and running in front of me, you know I chased you all the
way down that street!” Joey got a funny look on her face. “But you
had on different clothes.” Joey’s voice was getting higher with every-
thing she said, and when she was done she was sounding real crazy.
“Joey, I—”
“That’s it! You’re through this time, mister.You don’t know when
to stop teasing, do you? That’s it, I’m telling on you!”
Joey stood up and ran up the stairs screaming, “Mommy! Mommy!
Mommy!”
I could hear Grandma Sands moving around upstairs and she final-
ly clomped down the steps and came into my room. Joey was hang-
ing on her arm still screaming.
Grandma Sands must have real thin blood, because even though it
was hot as a furnace in the house she had on a big thick nightgown
and a big thick robe.The smell of baby powder came into the room a
second after she did.
“What on earth are y’all doing raising this much Cain this early in
the morning? Joetta honey, stop that noise. Kenny, what’s wrong with
this child?”
Joetta finally said,“He’s trying to scare me, Grandma Sands, he won’t
tell me where Mommy is!” Joey kept boo-hooing like a real idiot.
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“Kenneth, where’s Wilona and Daniel?” Grandma Sands pulled Joey
off her leg and held her shoulders, then gave her a little shake. “Joetta,
you stop that noise! Grandma Sands can’t handle that much noise this
early, sweetheart.”
A bell went off in my head! The Wool Pooh had missed Joey! He
wasn’t having much luck at all with any of the Weird Watsons! I had
to go to the church to get Momma and Dad and Byron!
Grandma Sands said,“What are all them sirens doing? Lord, has the
whole world gone mad today? Where’s your momma and daddy?”
The last thing I heard was Grandma Sands yelling,“Boy, if you slam
that door like that again . . .” I looked down and saw my socks flying
over the Alabama mud.
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omma and Dad didn’t know I was in the living room. We’d
been back in Flint for a couple of weeks and they were still talking
about what had happened, but never around us.The only thing I knew
for sure was that the bomb wasn’t dropped on the church by an air-
plane. Grandma Sands called a couple of times and told them that the
police thought two white men drove by in a car and threw it in dur-
ing services, or that they’d already hidden it in the church with a clock
set to go off during Sunday school. However it got in the church it
had killed four little girls, blinded a couple more and sent a bunch of
other people to the hospital. I couldn’t stop wondering if those two
little girls I saw on the lawn were okay.
From my secret hiding place in the living room I could listen to
Momma and Dad and it seemed like they spent most of the time try-
ing to figure out how they could explain to us what happened. Some
of the time they were mad, some of the time they were calm and some
of the time they just sat on the couch and cried.
Even though none of us kids got hurt by the bomb they acted like
they were worried about us. They weren’t too worried about Byron
and weren’t worried at all about Joey, we’d all agreed not to tell her
what happened at that church and had left Birmingham that night,
before she had a chance to find anything out. I was kind of surprised
because the way Momma and Dad were talking I could tell they were
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M
15. The World-Famous
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most worried about me.
They came out of the kitchen and sat on the couch. I knew they
were talking about me again. Momma said, “He’s been disappearing,
Daniel. Hours go by and I don’t know where he is.”
“What’s he say when you ask him where he’s been?”
“He tells me he hasn’t been anywhere, he says I shouldn’t worry. It’s
so strange, I call him and he’s nowhere to be found but a few minutes
later he just pops up.”
“Doesn’t Byron know where he goes?”
“He says he doesn’t.”
“He is being awfully quiet.”
“Something’s wrong. I wonder if Mr. Robert’s friend was right, I
wonder if he really did see Kenny in that church afterward. Lord, who
knows what that poor baby saw.”
“Wilona, he says he only left Grandma Sands’s to tell us Joey was
O.K. I don’t know, what can we do?”
“But Joey swears it was him she followed away from there, and you
know that child would just as soon die as lie. I just wish I knew where
he goes. And why.”
I had been disappearing, but Momma really didn’t need to worry, I
wasn’t going anywhere. I’d just been going behind the couch for a lit-
tle while every day.There was a big enough space between the couch
and the wall for me to squeeze in back there and just sit in a little ball.
It was quiet and dark and still back there.
Byron called this little area the World-Famous Watson Pet Hospital
and he made me and Joey believe that magic powers, genies and angels
all lived back there. I was waiting to see if that was true.
He started calling it the World-Famous Watson Pet Hospital after
we noticed that if something bad happened to one of our dogs or cats
they just automatically knew they had to crawl in that space and wait
to see if they were going to get better.
Since Momma and Dad had told us that animal doctors cost about
a thousand dollars each time you went to them, our pets knew they
wouldn’t be seeing any veterinarians and that the most help they could
get was to crawl behind the couch and see if they could make a deal
with the magic powers there.
If one of our dogs got hit by a car and could walk away or if one
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of them chewed through an electric wire or ran away from home and
showed up a couple of weeks later half-starved or something they’d
head right for the back of the couch. If one of our cats got beat up by
a dog or spent too much time throwing up disgusting pieces of things
or got thrown out of a tree or something they’d zip right straight into
the World-Famous Watson Pet Hospital.
Those times when one of our pets got hurt I’d wake up the next
morning and run out to the living room and climb up on the back of
the couch and look over to see how it was doing. If I looked down
there and the dog looked up at me with sad eyes and banged his tail a
couple of times before he put his head back down, or if the cat looked
up and hissed at me, I knew they’d made it through their first night
and that the magic powers were probably going to keep them alive. If,
when I looked behind the couch, I just saw a crumpled-up yellow
towel where the dog or cat had been laying I knew Momma would
soon be telling us that Sooty or Fluffy or Scamp or Lady or whoever
the patient was hadn’t done too well and would be spending the rest
of time running around happily in cat or dog heaven. But I knew bet-
ter. I knew this was some made-up garbage, I knew the magic powers
had decided not to keep the animal alive and Dad had got rid of the
body before we woke up.
It was kind of strange, because whatever it was that was behind the
couch seemed to work best on dogs. Whenever dogs survived the
World-Famous Watson Pet Hospital they always came out a lot friend-
lier. When they came out, they might walk kind of funny but it
seemed like all they wanted to do was lick you and wobble around
after you wherever you went. Blackie had been in the hospital twice
and he got along great with everyone now, even strangers. Even cats.
But cats were different, if one of them survived the hospital it’d
come out and give you a dirty look and be a lot meaner than it was
before it went in. Most of the time after a cat visited the World-
Famous Watson Pet Hospital it wouldn’t let anyone but Joetta touch
it, but that was O.K., because most of the time nobody but Joetta
wanted to touch those stupid cats anyway.
I was waiting to see if the magic powers were going to treat me like
a dog or a cat, or if when Byron or Joey woke up one morning they’d
find a crumpled-up yellow towel where I was supposed to be.
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The only trouble was that the magic powers seemed to be taking a
real long time to decide what was going to happen to me. Maybe I
wasn’t spending enough time back there.
Momma started trying to force me to do more things with Rufus
but it seemed like he’d changed while we were gone and wasn’t as
much fun to be with. Him and Cody got real happy when I gave them
my pillowcaseful of dinosaurs. I was getting too mature to play with
toys anymore. Momma even forced Byron to take me with him when
him and Buphead played basketball, but you didn’t have to be Albert
Einstein to figure out that the only reason the big guys were playing
with me was because Byron had threatened them when my back was
turned. But what really bugged me the most was when Momma tried
to force me to do things with Joetta.
I’d never noticed what a little crybaby and snitch she was. Every time
you turned around she was threatening to go tell on you or was whin-
ing about something or being just a plain old pest. After a while to get
even with her I wouldn’t even look at her. I started hating her guts.
I only wanted to come out of the World-Famous Watson Pet
Hospital to eat and go to the bathroom. I even started going into it
after Momma and Dad went to bed at night. I started sleeping there.
I spent so much time there that Byron finally figured out where I
was going. I looked up one day and there were his eyeballs staring
down at me.
“Hi, By.”
“Hey, Kenny. So this is where you been hanging out, huh?”
“Are you going to tell on me?”
“Man, when you ever known me to be a snitch?”
“Never.”
“You’re right.” He just kept looking at me. “You want me to get
you something to eat?”
“Uh-uh.”
Byron walked over and turned on the TV, then stuck his head back
behind the couch. “You wanna watch some TV?”
“Uh-uh.”
His head disappeared and he watched Bat Fink.
When the show was over his head came back. “I’m going to play
some ball, you wanna come?”
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“I’ll come in a minute.”
By looked like he didn’t believe me. “Cool. Later.”
Even though Byron had a reputation for not being a snitch I got
the feeling he told on me. When they sat on the couch Momma and
Dad quit talking like nobody was around and got real careful about
what they said. They started saying stuff about how proud they were
of me and what a nice kid I was and junk like that, but it sounded like
they’d been practicing what to say. I turned my ears off when they
came around. Momma also quit bugging me to find out where I was
going. I knew they’d busted me for sure when Joetta’s snitchity little
face started peeking around the couch every morning.
Byron even started sleeping on the couch at night. Right after
Momma and Dad went to bed and I crawled back there he’d come
out with his pillow and blanket.
“’Night, Kenny.”
“’Night, By.”
Every morning I’d wake up and Byron would be looking down at
me. He’d wake me up by touching the top of my head.
“Hey, Kenny.”
“Hi, By.”
“You already eat?”
“Uh-uh.”
“Come on.”
I crawled out from behind the couch and let Byron pour out my
cereal and milk. After I finished I said, “Thanks.”
“Wait, ain’t you gonna change outta them PJs?”
“Oh, yeah.”
I changed and went back to the couch. By was sitting there.
“Hold on, Kenny.Watch some cartoons with me.”
“O.K., I will in a minute.”
Byron grabbed my arm before I could crawl behind the couch.
“Naw, man, at least stay for Felix the Cat.”
“O.K.”
I sat next to him on the couch.When Felix was over I thought By
would force me to watch more cartoons but he didn’t, he let me crawl
back behind the couch.
“Check you out later, Kenny.”
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“See you, By.”
As much time as Byron started spending on the couch I thought I
was going to have to make room for a bed for him in the World-
Famous Watson Pet Hospital. Every time I’d look up he’d be there and
we’d have to go eat or watch some TV or go to Mitchell’s for some-
thing or change clothes or stuff like that.
One day his head popped over the back of the couch and he said,
“Come on! I got something to show you!” I knew I had to go, if I
wouldn’t he’d pull me out by my legs.
I followed Byron upstairs into the bathroom and he stood in front
of the sink and looked in the mirror. He scrunched his face up so he
could see the bottom of his chin, then he took his thumb and finger
and felt around there. He smiled and real slow pulled the thumb and
finger away. “Check this out, Jack!”
I looked real close and there was a long, long, skinny black hair grow-
ing out of Byron’s chin. He held it like it was worth a million dollars.
“And there’s another one coming out too!”
This made me wonder about my mustache. I hadn’t looked at it for
a long time and thought it might be pretty long by now.
I climbed up on the toilet and leaned over the sink to see.
Maybe it was because I hadn’t looked in the mirror for a long time,
but as soon as I saw myself with my lazy eye still being lazy and my
face looking so sad I slammed my eyes shut and started crying. I even
fell off the toilet. Byron caught me and set me on the floor.
He knew this was some real embarrassing stuff so he closed the
bathroom door and sat on the tub and waited for me to stop, but I
couldn’t. I felt like someone had pulled a plug on me and every tear
inside was rushing out, if there was a forest fire somewhere all Smokey
the Bear would have to do was hold me upside down over it and the
fire wouldn’t have a chance.
Byron sat next to me on the floor and put my head in his lap. I still
couldn’t stop, even though I was soaking him worse than Joey ever
drooled on anybody.
It was real embarrassing. “I’m sorry, By.”
“Shut up and cry if you want.”
That sounded like a real good idea so I did. I think I cried for about
two hundred hours.
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“Why would they do that, Byron?” I was sounding real bad. My
throat was jumping around in my neck and making a bunch of weird
noises. “Why would they hurt some little kids like that?”
He waited a long time before he answered, “I don’t know, Kenny.
Momma and Dad say they can’t help themselves, they did it because
they’re sick, but I don’t know. I ain’t never heard of no sickness that
makes you kill little girls just because you don’t want them in your
school. I don’t think they’re sick at all, I think they just let hate eat
them up and turn them into monsters. But it’s O.K. now, they can’t
hurt you here. It’s all right.”
My Adam’s apple felt like it was going to blow a hole in my throat
but I said,“I did go to the church, By. I saw what happened. I saw two
of those little girls. I thought Joey got killed too.”
“We all did, Kenny. There ain’t nothing wrong with being sad or
scared about that. I’m sad about it too. I got real scared too.”
“But . . .”
“Man, no one’s gonna hurt you here, Kenny.”
“But By . . .” I tried to think how to say it.“I’m not scared, I’m just
real, real ashamed of myself.” That was it. That was the main thing I’d
finally found out from being a patient in the World-Famous Watson
Pet Hospital.
“Kenny, you ain’t got nothing to be ashamed of.”
“But you don’t know what happened, Byron.You don’t know what
I did.”
“Man, everybody cried. Momma was crying, Dad was scared—he
cried too.That was some real scary stuff.That was some real sad stuff.”
He still didn’t understand. “Byron, I left Joey. I thought the Wool
Pooh had her and instead of fighting him like you did, I left, I ran from
him. How come you were brave enough to fight him and all I could
do was run? All I could save was a shoe, a stupid ripped-up shoe.” I
couldn’t stop crying.
“Awww, man, you ain’t gonna start talking that Wool Pooh mess
again, are you? I told you the Wool Pooh was some made-up garbage.
I told you the only one I was fighting in the water was your stupid lit-
tle behind, wasn’t no one in that water but you and me.”
“That’s what you think, By, but I know better, I’ve seen him twice.”
I couldn’t believe Byron was still talking to me. Most of the time if I
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started sounding weepy and whiny he’d take right off.
“Look, Kenny, if you don’t quit talking that Wool Pooh nonsense
I’ma leave you in here to cry all alone. There ain’t no such thing as a
Wool Pooh.”Then he stopped sounding so mean and said,“And there
ain’t no such things as magic powers, neither.” I was surprised he’d
brought up the magic powers.“You think I don’t know why you been
hanging out behind the couch?”
He grabbed my ear and twisted my head until I had to look at him.
“You think I don’t know you waiting for some stupid magic powers
or genies or a angel to make you feel better? Dig this: You can wait
behind that couch for the rest of your life and ain’t no magic powers
gonna come back there and make you feel nothing. Only thing that’s
gonna happen back there is that you gonna stunt your growth from
being in a little ball all day.” He pulled my ear to make sure I was lis-
tening. “If you been spending so much time thinking about how you
didn’t save Joey why don’t you stop and think about why she wasn’t
in that church, why don’t you spend some time thinking about who
it was that led her away?”
“But it wasn’t me, Byron, I never—”
“Man, shut up and listen.” He twisted my ear to make me be quiet.
“Ain’t no genies in this world, Kenny, ain’t no magic powers, there
ain’t even no angels, not in this neighborhood anyway. Man, I just
don’t get you, you supposed to be the one who’s so smart. How can
you believe in something as stupid as magic powers and genies living
behind a couch but not believe it was a part of you that took Joey
outta that church?”
Byron started throwing me curveballs. “If you hadn’ta been born
who would have took her away from that bomb? No one. If you had-
n’ta been born and she walked outta that hot church and saw some
stranger waving at her from across the street you think she would have
followed him? Hell no. She’da gone right back in there. If you hadn’t
been born who woulda gone in that church to see if Joey really was
in there? Me and Momma and Dad was all too scared, you was the
only one brave enough to go in there.” Every time he made a point
he twisted my ear to make me understand better.
“But Byron, it’s just not fair.What about those other kids, you know
they had brothers and sisters and mommas and daddies who loved
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them just as much as we love Joey, how come no one came and got
them out of that church? How’s it fair? How come their relatives
couldn’t come and warn them?”
Byron let go of my ear and thought for a second. “Kenny, things
ain’t ever going to be fair. How’s it fair that two grown men could hate
Negroes so much that they’d kill some kids just to stop them from
going to school? How’s it fair that even though the cops down there
might know who did it nothing will probably ever happen to those
men? It ain’t. But you just gotta understand that that’s the way it is and
keep on steppin’.”
Byron let me sniff and wipe my hand across my eyes before he slid
my head back onto the linoleum and stood up. He went over and got
some toilet paper and wiped my tears and my boogers off his legs.
Then he let a couple of sheets of toilet paper float down and land on
me and said, “Blow your nose. Wash your face.You been behind that
couch long enough. It’s ’bout time you cut this mess out, Momma and
Dad beginning to think your little behind is seriously on the blink.
Today is the day you check out of the World-Famous Watson Pet
Hospital. Don’t let me catch you back there no more.You ain’t got no
cause to be ashamed or scared of nothing.You smart enough to figure
this one out yourself. Besides, you getting the word from the top wolf
hisself you gonna be all right, baby bruh. I swear for God.”
He walked over to the mirror and scrunched his face up so he could
look at his chin again, then used his thumb and finger to pull that long,
skinny black hair out a little bit. He let the hair go, smiled at himself
and ran his hands along his head like he was brushing his hair.“Shoot,”
he said, “I sure wish someone would come clean and tell me who my
real folks was, there just ain’t no way in hell two people as ugly as your
momma and daddy could ever have a child as fine as me!”
He blew himself a kiss in the mirror, then left the bathroom. Before
he shut the door I could see that Momma and Dad and Joey were
standing there in a little knot trying not to let me know they were
eavesdropping.
Momma whispered,“What’s going on, By? Why was Kenny crying
like that, is he O.K.?”
He told her, “Kenny’s gonna be cool. He’s related to me, ain’t he?”
“Byron Watson, how many times am I going to have to tell you
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about saying ‘ain’t’?”
Some of the time it was hard to figure Byron out. He was very right
about some things and he was very wrong about some things. He was
very wrong when he said the Wool Pooh was something he’d made
up. If he’d ever had his ankle grabbed by it he’d know it was real, if
he’d seen the way it was crouched down, crawling around in the dust
and the smoke of the church in Birmingham he’d know it wasn’t some
made-up garbage, if he’d ever seen those horrible toes he’d know the
Wool Pooh was as serious as a heart attack.
He was also very wrong about there not being anything like magic
powers or genies or angels. Maybe those weren’t the things that could
make a run-over dog walk without wobbling but they were out there.
Maybe they were in the way your father smiled at you even after
you’d messed something up real bad. Maybe they were in the way you
understood that your mother wasn’t trying to make you the laughing
“sock” of the whole school when she’d call you over in front of a
bunch of your friends and use spit on her finger to wipe the sleep out
of your eyes. Maybe it was magic powers that let you know she was
just being Momma. Maybe they were the reason that you really didn’t
care when the kids would say, “Yuck! You let your momma slob on
you?” and you had to say, “Shut up. That’s my momma, we got the
same germs.”
Maybe there were genies in the way your sister would throw a stu-
pid tea party for you and you had fun even though it was kind of
embarrassing to sit at a little table and sip water out of plastic teacups.
Maybe there were magic powers hiding in the way your older
brother made all the worst thugs in the neighborhood play basketball
with you even though you double-dribbled every time they threw
you the ball.
And I’m sure there was an angel in Birmingham when Grandma
Sands wrapped her little arms around all of the Weird Watsons and said,
“My fambly, my beautiful, beautiful fambly.”
I climbed up on the toilet and leaned over the sink to take a look.
I smiled. Byron was very right about some things too. He was very
right when he said I was too smart to believe magic powers lived
behind a couch. He also knew what he was talking about when he said
I was going to be all right.
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Joetta banged on the bathroom door. “Kenny, Byron said you’re
feeling much better now, if that’s right come on out, I gotta go to the
bathroom real bad!” She said “real” like it had a million letters in it.
Some of the time I wondered if there really was something wrong
with me.A few minutes ago I’d been crying on the floor like a kinder-
garten baby and now I was looking in the mirror laughing. I blew my
nose and splashed a little water on my face ’cause I wanted to go out.
Besides, I had to think of a way to get at least half of my dinosaurs back
from Rufus.
“Come on in, Joey.”
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At the time of the Watson family’s trip, the U.S. South was caught up
in a struggle for basic human rights that became known as the civil
rights movement. Although the Declaration of Independence states
that all men are created equal and the Constitution had been amend-
ed after the Civil War to extend the rights and protections of citizen-
ship to African Americans, changing the law of the land did not always
change the way people behaved. In the Northern, Eastern and Western
states, African Americans often faced discrimination, but it was not as
extreme and pervasive as in the South. There communities and states
passed laws that allowed discrimination in schooling, housing and job
opportunities; prohibited interracial marriages; and enforced segrega-
tion by creating separate facilities for African Americans and whites.
In most of the South, African Americans were not permitted to
attend the same schools as whites or to use the same parks, play-
grounds, swimming pools, hospitals, drinking fountains or bathrooms.
Hotels, restaurants and stores would not serve African Americans.The
worst sections of public facilities were set aside for “Coloreds Only.”
White children often attended large, well-equipped, modern schools
while African American students went to one-room schoolhouses
without enough books or teachers. Rigged laws and “tests” prevented
African Americans from voting.
A number of organizations and individuals were working tirelessly to
end segregation and discrimination: the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial
Equality (CORE), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
(SCLC), as well as Thurgood Marshall, John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy,
Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.Along
with many other people whose names have been forgotten, these men
and women strove to change the laws through nonviolent resistance.
They adopted many of the techniques that Mohandas Gandhi had used
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Epilogue
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to liberate India from British rule. Sit-ins and boycotts of stores and
public transportation applied economic pressure. Freedom Riders—
African Americans and whites—took bus trips throughout the South to
test federal laws that banned segregation in interstate transportation.
Black students had enrolled in segregated schools such as Central High
in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the University of Alabama. Picketing,
protest marches, and demonstrations made headlines. Civil rights work-
ers carried out programs for voter education and registration.The goal
was to create tension and provoke confrontations that would force the
federal government to step in and enforce the laws. Often the tension
exploded into gunshots, fires and bombings directed against the people
who so bravely fought for change.
The characters and events in this novel are fictional. However, there
were many unsolved bombings in Birmingham at the time of the
story, including the one that took place at the Sixteenth Avenue
Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. Four young-teenage girls—
Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia
Wesley—were killed when a bomb went off during Sunday school.
Addie Mae Collins’s sister, Sarah, had to have an eye removed, and
another girl was blinded. In the unrest that followed the bombing, two
other African American children died. Sixteen-year-old Johnny
Robinson was shot to death by police, and thirteen-year-old Virgil
Wade was murdered by two white boys. Although these may be noth-
ing more than names in a book to you now, you must remember that
these children were just as precious to their families as Joetta was to
the Watsons or as your brothers and sisters are to you.
Despite the danger, the civil rights movement grew stronger, gain-
ing support all over the country. On August 28, 1963, two hundred
thousand people marched on Washington, D.C., to pressure Congress
to pass the Civil Rights Bill, and heard Martin Luther King, Jr., deliv-
er his unforgettable “I have a dream” speech. President Lyndon
Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill on July 2, 1964, and signed the
Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. In 1968 Congress passed the
Fair Housing Act.
The individuals who supported the civil rights movement took
great risks to force America to change. It was a people’s movement,
inspired by the courageous acts of ordinary citizens like Rosa Parks,
140
Watsons Birmingham 11/1/01 9:39 AM Page 140

the seamstress from Montgomery, Alabama, who began the first great
effort of the movement—the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56—
when she refused to give up her seat to a white man.
Many heroic people died in the struggle for civil rights. Many oth-
ers were injured or arrested or lost their homes or businesses. It is
almost impossible to imagine the courage of the first African American
children who walked into segregated schools or the strength of the
parents who permitted them to face the hatred and violence that
awaited them.They did it in the name of the movement, in the quest
for freedom.
These people are the true American heroes. They are the boys and
girls, the women an men who have seen that things are wrong and
have not been afraid to ask “Why can’t we change this?”They are the
people who believe that as long as one person is being treated unfair-
ly, we all are.These are our heroes, and they still walk among us today.
One of them may be sitting next to you as you read this, or standing
in the next room making your dinner, or waiting for you to come out-
side and play.
One of them may be you.
141
Watsons Birmingham 11/1/01 9:39 AM Page 141

Christopher Paul Curtis won the Newbery Medal and the Coretta
Scott King Award for his bestselling second novel, Bud, Not Buddy. His
first novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, was also singled out
for many awards, among them a Newbery Honor and a Coretta Scott
King Honor, and has been a bestseller in hardcover and paperback.
Christopher Paul Curtis grew up in Flint, Michigan. After high
school he began working on the assembly line at the Fisher Body
Plant No.1 while attending the Flint branch of the University of
Michigan. Today he is a full-time writer. He and his wife, Kay, have
two children, Steven and Cydney. The Curtis family lives in Windsor,
Ontario, Canada.
142
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Watsons Birmingham 11/1/01 9:39 AM Page 142

DON’T MISS
Bud, Not Buddy
Winner of the Newbery Medal
by Christopher Paul Curtis
It’s 1936, in Flint, Michigan.Times may be hard, and ten-year-old Bud
may be a motherless boy on the run. But Bud’s got a few things going
for him:
1. He has his own suitcase filled with his own important, secret
things.
2. He’s the author of Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having a
Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself
3. Bud’s momma never told him who his father was, but she left a
clue: posters of Herman E. Calloway and his famous band, the
Dusky Devastators of the Depression!!!!!!
Bud’s got an idea that those posters will lead him to his father. Once
he decides to hit the road and find this mystery man, nothing can stop
him—not hunger, not cops, not vampires, not even Herman E.
Calloway himself.
Bud, Not Buddy is full of laugh-out-loud humor and wonderful
characters, hitting the high notes ofjazz and sounding the deeper tones
of the Great Depression. Once again Christopher Paul Curtis takes
readers on a heartwarming and unforgettable journey.
* “A crackerjack read-aloud.”
—School Library Journal, Starred
* “A remarkable and disarming mix of comedy and pathos. . . .
Bud’s journey, punctuated by Dickensian twists in plot and enlivened
by a host of memorable personalities, will keep readers engrossed from
first to last.”
—Publishers Weekly, Starred
Watsons Birmingham 11/1/01 9:39 AM Page 143

Name: Class:

“Where Has That Boy Got to Now?” by Dennis D is licensed under
CC BY-NC-ND

2

.0.

“The Worst Birthday” from Harry Potter and the
Chamber of Secrets

By J.K. Rowling

1

9

9

8

Joanne “Jo” Rowling, pen name J.K. Rowling, is a British novelist, screenwriter, and film producer best known
for creating the Harry Potter series. The title character, Harry Potter, is an orphan who attends a boarding
school to learn about magic. On his summer vacation, he is forced to live with his non-magical extended
family. As you read, take notes on how each character responds to magic.

Not for the first time, an argument had broken out
over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive. Mr.
Vernon Dursley had been woken in the early hours of
the morning by a loud, hooting noise from his
nephew Harry’s room.

“Third time this week!” he roared across the table. “If
you can’t control that owl, it’ll have to go!”

Harry tried, yet again, to explain. “She’s bored,” he
said. “She’s used to flying around outside. If I could
just let her out at night —”

“Do I look stupid?” snarled Uncle Vernon, a bit of fried
egg dangling from his bushy mustache. “I know what’ll
happen if that owl’s let out.”

He exchanged dark looks with his wife, Petunia.

Harry tried to argue back but his words were
drowned by a long, loud belch from the Dursleys’ son,
Dudley.

“I want more bacon.”

“There’s more in the frying pan, sweetums,” said Aunt
Petunia, turning misty eyes on her massive1 son. “We
must build you up while we’ve got the chance… I don’t like the sound of that school food…”

“Nonsense, Petunia, I never went hungry when I was at Smeltings,” said Uncle Vernon heartily. “Dudley gets
enough, don’t you, son?”

[1]

[

5

]

1. Massive (adjective) enormous

1

Dudley, who was so large his bottom drooped over either side of the kitchen chair, grinned and turned to
Harry.

“Pass the frying pan.”

“You’ve forgotten the magic word,” said Harry irritably.

The effect of this simple sentence on the rest of the family was incredible: Dudley gasped and fell off his chair
with a crash that shook the whole kitchen; Mrs. Dursley gave a small scream and clapped her hands to her
mouth; Mr. Dursley jumped to his feet, veins throbbing in his temples.

“I meant ‘please’!” said Harry quickly. “I didn’t mean —”

“WHAT HAVE I TOLD YOU,” thundered his uncle, spraying spit over the table, “ABOUT SAYING THE ‘M’ WORD IN
OUR HOUSE?”

“But I —”

“HOW DARE YOU THREATEN DUDLEY!” roared Uncle Vernon, pounding the table with his fist.

“I just —”

“I WARNED YOU! I WILL NOT TOLERATE MENTION OF YOUR ABNORMALITY UNDER THIS ROOF!”

Harry stared from his purple-faced uncle to his pale aunt, who was trying to heave Dudley to his feet.

“All right,” said Harry, “all right…”

Uncle Vernon sat back down, breathing like a winded rhinoceros and watching Harry closely out of the corners
of his small, sharp eyes.

Ever since Harry had come home for the summer holidays, Uncle Vernon had been treating him like a bomb
that might go off at any moment, because Harry Potter wasn’t a normal boy. As a matter of fact, he was as not
normal as it is possible to be.

Harry Potter was a wizard — a wizard fresh from his first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
And if the Dursleys were unhappy to have him back for the holidays, it was nothing to how Harry felt.

He missed Hogwarts so much it was like having a constant stomachache. He missed the castle, with its secret
passageways and ghosts, his classes (though perhaps not Snape, the Potions master), the mail arriving by owl,
eating banquets in the Great Hall, sleeping in his four-poster bed in the tower dormitory, visiting the
gamekeeper, Hagrid, in his cabin next to the Forbidden Forest in the grounds, and, especially, Quidditch, the
most popular sport in the wizarding world (six tall goal posts, four flying balls, and fourteen players on
broomsticks).

[

10

]

[15]

[20]

[25]

2

All Harry’s spellbooks, his wand, robes, cauldron, and top-of-the-line Nimbus Two Thousand broomstick had
been locked in a cupboard under the stairs by Uncle Vernon the instant Harry had come home. What did the
Dursleys care if Harry lost his place on the House Quidditch team because he hadn’t practiced all summer?
What was it to the Dursleys if Harry went back to school without any of his homework done? The Dursleys were
what wizards called Muggles (not a drop of magical blood in their veins), and as far as they were concerned,
having a wizard in the family was a matter of deepest shame. Uncle Vernon had even padlocked Harry’s owl,
Hedwig, inside her cage, to stop her from carrying messages to anyone in the wizarding world.

Harry looked nothing like the rest of the family. Uncle Vernon was large and neckless, with an enormous black
mustache; Aunt Petunia was horse-faced and bony; Dudley was blond, pink, and porky. Harry, on the other
hand, was small and skinny, with brilliant green eyes and jet-black hair that was always untidy. He wore round
glasses, and on his forehead was a thin, lightning-shaped scar.

It was this scar that made Harry so particularly unusual, even for a wizard. This scar was the only hint of Harry’s
very mysterious past, of the reason he had been left on the Dursleys’ doorstep eleven years before.

At the age of one year old, Harry had somehow survived a curse from the greatest Dark sorcerer of all time,
Lord Voldemort, whose name most witches and wizards still feared to speak. Harry’s parents had died in
Voldemort’s attack, but Harry had escaped with his lightning scar, and somehow — nobody understood why —
Voldemort’s powers had been destroyed the instant he had failed to kill Harry.

So Harry had been brought up by his dead mother’s sister and her husband. He had spent ten years with the
Dursleys, never understanding why he kept making odd things happen without meaning to, believing the
Dursleys’ story that he had got his scar in the car crash that had killed his parents.

And then, exactly a year ago, Hogwarts had written to Harry, and the whole story had come out. Harry had
taken up his place at wizard school, where he and his scar were famous… but now the school year was over,
and he was back with the Dursleys for the summer, back to being treated like a dog that had rolled in
something smelly.

The Dursleys hadn’t even remembered that today happened to be Harry’s twelfth birthday. Of course, his hopes
hadn’t been high; they’d never given him a real present, let alone a cake — but to ignore it completely…

At that moment, Uncle Vernon cleared his throat importantly and said, “Now, as we all know, today is a very
important day.”

Harry looked up, hardly daring to believe it.

“This could well be the day I make the biggest deal of my career,” said Uncle Vernon.

Harry went back to his toast. Of course, he thought bitterly, Uncle Vernon was talking about the stupid dinner
party. He’d been talking of nothing else for two weeks. Some rich builder and his wife were coming to dinner
and Uncle Vernon was hoping to get a huge order from him (Uncle Vernon’s company made drills).

“I think we should run through the schedule one more time,” said Uncle Vernon. “We should all be in position at
eight o’clock. Petunia, you will be — ?”

“In the lounge,” said Aunt Petunia promptly, “waiting to welcome them graciously to our home.”

[

3

0]

[35]

3

“Good, good. And Dudley?”

“I’ll be waiting to open the door.” Dudley put on a foul, simpering smile. “May I take your coats, Mr. and Mrs.
Mason?”

“They’ll love him!” cried Aunt Petunia rapturously.2

“Excellent, Dudley,” said Uncle Vernon. Then he rounded on Harry. “And you?”

“I’ll be in my bedroom, making no noise and pretending I’m not there,” said Harry tonelessly.

“Exactly,” said Uncle Vernon nastily. “I will lead them into the lounge, introduce you, Petunia, and pour them
drinks. At eight-fifteen —”

“I’ll announce dinner,” said Aunt Petunia. “And, Dudley, you’ll say —”

“May I take you through to the dining room, Mrs. Mason?” said Dudley, offering his fat arm to an invisible
woman.

“My perfect little gentleman!” sniffed Aunt Petunia.

“And you?” said Uncle Vernon viciously to Harry.

“I’ll be in my room, making no noise and pretending I’m not there,” said Harry dully.

“Precisely. Now, we should aim to get in a few good compliments at dinner. Petunia, any ideas?”

“Vernon tells me you’re a wonderful golfer, Mr. Mason… Do tell me where you bought your dress, Mrs. Mason… ”

“Perfect… Dudley?”

“How about — ‘We had to write an essay about our hero at school, Mr. Mason, and I wrote about you.’” This was
too much for both Aunt Petunia and Harry. Aunt Petunia burst into tears and hugged her son, while Harry
ducked under the table so they wouldn’t see him laughing.

“And you, boy?” Harry fought to keep his face straight as he emerged. “I’ll be in my room, making no noise and
pretending I’m not there,” he said.

“Too right, you will,” said Uncle Vernon forcefully. “The Masons don’t know anything about you and it’s going to
stay that way. When dinner’s over, you take Mrs. Mason back to the lounge for coffee, Petunia, and I’ll bring the
subject around to drills. With any luck, I’ll have the deal signed and sealed before the news at ten. We’ll be
shopping for a vacation home in Majorca3 this time tomorrow.”

Harry couldn’t feel too excited about this. He didn’t think the Dursleys would like him any better in Majorca than
they did on Privet Drive.

[

4

0]

[45]

[50]

[55]

2. Rapturous (adjective) full of joy
3. an island off the coast of Spain and a popular vacation spot

4

“Right — I’m off into town to pick up the dinner jackets for Dudley and me. And you,” he snarled at Harry. “You
stay out of your aunt’s way while she’s cleaning.”

Harry left through the back door. It was a brilliant, sunny day. He crossed the lawn, slumped down on the
garden bench, and sang under his breath:

“Happy birthday to me… happy birthday to me…”

No cards, no presents, and he would be spending the evening pretending not to exist. He gazed miserably into
the hedge. He had never felt so lonely. More than anything else at Hogwarts, more even than playing Quidditch,
Harry missed his best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. They, however, didn’t seem to be missing
him at all. Neither of them had written to him all summer, even though Ron had said he was going to ask Harry
to come and stay.

Countless times, Harry had been on the point of unlocking Hedwig’s cage by magic and sending her to Ron and
Hermione with a letter, but it wasn’t worth the risk. Underage wizards weren’t allowed to use magic outside of
school. Harry hadn’t told the Dursleys this; he knew it was only their terror that he might turn them all into
dung beetles that stopped them from locking him in the cupboard under the stairs with his wand and
broomstick. For the first couple of weeks back, Harry had enjoyed muttering nonsense words under his breath
and watching Dudley tearing out of the room as fast as his fat legs would carry him. But the long silence from
Ron and Hermione had made Harry feel so cut off from the magical world that even taunting Dudley had lost its
appeal — and now Ron and Hermione had forgotten his birthday.

What wouldn’t he give now for a message from Hogwarts? From any witch or wizard? He’d almost be glad of a
sight of his archenemy, Draco Malfoy, just to be sure it hadn’t all been a dream…

Not that his whole year at Hogwarts had been fun. At the very end of last term, Harry had come face-to-face
with none other than Lord Voldemort himself. Voldemort might be a ruin of his former self, but he was still
terrifying, still cunning,4 still determined to regain power. Harry had slipped through Voldemort’s clutches for a
second time, but it had been a narrow escape, and even now, weeks later, Harry kept waking in the night,
drenched in cold sweat, wondering where Voldemort was now, remembering his livid5 face, his wide, mad eyes

Harry suddenly sat bolt upright on the garden bench. He had been staring absent-mindedly into the hedge —
and the hedge was staring back. Two enormous green eyes had appeared among the leaves.

Harry jumped to his feet just as a jeering

6

voice floated across the lawn.

“I know what day it is,” sang Dudley, waddling toward him.

The huge eyes blinked and vanished.

“What?” said Harry, not taking his eyes off the spot where they had been.

“I know what day it is,” Dudley repeated, coming right up to him.

[60]

[65]

4. Cunning (adjective) clever
5. Livid (adjective) furiously angry
6. Jeer (verb) to mock or taunt

5

“Well done,” said Harry. “So you’ve finally learned the days of the week.”

“Today’s your birthday,” sneered Dudley. “How come you haven’t got any cards? Haven’t you even got friends at
that freak place?”

“Better not let your mum hear you talking about my school,” said Harry coolly.

Dudley hitched up his trousers, which were slipping down his fat bottom.

“Why’re you staring at the hedge?” he said suspiciously.

“I’m trying to decide what would be the best spell to set it on fire,” said Harry.

Dudley stumbled backward at once, a look of panic on his fat face.

“You c-can’t — Dad told you you’re not to do m-magic — he said he’ll chuck you out of the house — and you
haven’t got anywhere else to go — you haven’t got any friends to take you —”

“Jiggery pokery!” said Harry in a fierce voice. “Hocus pocus — squiggly wiggly —”

“MUUUUUUM!” howled Dudley, tripping over his feet as he dashed back toward the house. “MUUUUM! He’s
doing you know what!”

Harry paid dearly for his moment of fun. As neither Dudley nor the hedge was in any way hurt, Aunt Petunia
knew he hadn’t really done magic, but he still had to duck as she aimed a heavy blow at his head with the soapy
frying pan. Then she gave him work to do, with the promise he wouldn’t eat again until he’d finished.

While Dudley lolled around watching and eating ice cream, Harry cleaned the windows, washed the car, mowed
the lawn, trimmed the flowerbeds, pruned and watered the roses, and repainted the garden bench. The sun
blazed overhead, burning the back of his neck. Harry knew he shouldn’t have risen to Dudley’s bait, but Dudley
had said the very thing Harry had been thinking himself… maybe he didn’t have any friends at Hogwarts…

Wish they could see famous Harry Potter now, he thought savagely as he spread manure on the flower beds, his
back aching, sweat running down his face.

It was half past seven in the evening when at last, exhausted, he heard Aunt Petunia calling him.

“Get in here! And walk on the newspaper!”

Harry moved gladly into the shade of the gleaming kitchen. On top of the fridge stood tonight’s pudding:

7

a
huge mound of whipped cream and sugared violets. A loin of roast pork was sizzling in the oven.

“Eat quickly! The Masons will be here soon!” snapped Aunt Petunia, pointing to two slices of bread and a lump
of cheese on the kitchen table. She was already wearing a salmon-pink cocktail dress.

Harry washed his hands and bolted down his pitiful supper. The moment he had finished, Aunt Petunia
whisked away his plate. “Upstairs! Hurry!”

[70]

[75]

[80]

[85]

7. a British word for dessert

6

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Copyright © J.K. Rowling 1998

Unless otherwise noted, this content is licensed under the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license

As he passed the door to the living room, Harry caught a glimpse of Uncle Vernon and Dudley in bow ties and
dinner jackets. He had only just reached the upstairs landing when the doorbell rang and Uncle Vernon’s
furious face appeared at the foot of the stairs.

“Remember, boy — one sound —”

Harry crossed to his bedroom on tiptoe, slipped inside, closed the door, and turned to collapse on his bed.

The trouble was, there was already someone sitting on it.

[90]

7

Text-Dependent Questions

Directions: For the following questions, choose the best answer or respond in complete sentences.

1. PART A: What is the central idea of the passage?

A. Harry feels alone because his family fears his powers, and he can’t be around
his friends where he feels comfortable expressing himself.

B. Harry completes chores for Petunia because he believes that being obedient is
important to supporting a strong and united family.

C. Harry behaves and decides not to cast any spells because he cannot use magic
outside of school and he is afraid the Dursleys will find out about his magical
powers.

D. Harry argues with Uncle Vernon because he believes his uncle’s hatred of
people who are different is unfair, and he wants his uncle to treat all people
fairly.

2. PART B: What evidence from the text best supports the answer from Part A?

A. “Harry tried to argue back but his words were drowned by a long, loud belch
from the Dursleys’ son, Dudley.” (Paragraph 6)

B. “Ever since Harry had come home for the summer holidays, Uncle Vernon had
been treating him like a bomb that might go off at any moment, because Harry
Potter wasn’t a normal boy.” (Paragraph 23)

C. “Aunt Petunia knew he hadn’t really done magic, but he still had to duck as she
aimed a heavy blow at his head with the soapy frying pan.” (Paragraph 80)

D. “While Dudley lolled around watching and eating ice cream, Harry cleaned the
windows, washed the car, mowed the lawn, trimmed the flowerbeds, pruned
and watered the roses, and repainted the garden bench.” (Paragraph 81)

3. PART A: Which of the following best defines what Uncle Vernon means when he says
“abnormality” in Paragraph 19?

A. Harry’s evil nature
B. Harry’s special powers
C. Harry’s different appearance from the Dursleys
D. Harry’s teasing attitude

4. PART B: What quote from the text best supports this definition?

A. “‘HOW DARE YOU THREATEN DUDLEY!’ roared Uncle Vernon, pounding the table
with his fist.” (Paragraph 17)

B. “Uncle Vernon sat back down…watching Harry closely out of the corners of his
small, sharp eyes.” (Paragraph 22)

C. “Uncle Vernon had been treating him like a bomb that might go off at any
moment” (Paragraph 23)

D. “As a matter of fact, he was as not normal as it is possible to be. Harry Potter
was a wizard.” (Paragraphs 23-24)

8

5. PART A: How does Harry’s repetition of the phrase “I’ll be in my bedroom, making no noise
and pretending I’m not there” impact the tone of the passage?

A. It shows how much Harry loves sitting in his room all by himself so he can
practice magic.

B. It shows how much the Dursleys love Harry and respect his privacy.
C. It highlights the contrast between Harry’s love for quiet time and Dudley’s

hatred of it.
D. It highlights the contrast between the Dursley’s excitement for the dinner and

Harry’s loneliness.

6. PART B: Which TWO phrases from the text best support the answer to Part A?

A. “Dudley, who was so large his bottom drooped over either side of the kitchen
chair, grinned and turned to Harry.” (Paragraph 10)

B. “Uncle Vernon cleared his throat importantly and said, ‘Now, as we all know,
today is a very important day.’” (Paragraph 33)

C. “Harry fought to keep his face straight as he emerged” (Paragraph 54)
D. “He didn’t think the Dursleys would like him any better in Majorca than they did

on Privet Drive.” (Paragraph 56)
E. “he would be spending the evening pretending not to exist… He had never felt

so lonely.” (Paragraph 60)
F. “Harry had been on the point of unlocking Hedwig’s cage by magic and sending

her to Ron and Hermione with a letter” (Paragraph 61)

7. Contrast the Dursleys’ perception of magic with Harry’s perception of magic in this passage.
Cite examples from the text to support your claim.

9

8. How does the point of view contribute to how the events are described in the passage?

10

Discussion Questions

Directions: Brainstorm your answers to the following questions in the space provided. Be prepared to
share your original ideas in a class discussion.

1. The Dursleys treat Harry very cruelly in regards to his magic. How does fear drive their
actions? How does fear control us, and why might it be hard to be tolerant of others when
afraid?

2. Harry must hide his magical powers from the Dursleys. Have you ever been in a situation
where you had to hide something about yourself? Is it better to hide your true self around
people who may not accept you or is it better to feel comfortable to be yourself?

3. Harry is treated differently from Dudley in the Dursley household. What message do you
think the author wants to convey about what is fair? Is it fair that Harry is punished when he
threatens Dudley with magic? Describe a time when you have been treated unfairly in your
own life.

4. Harry spends his summer surrounded by family, yet his magic isolates him. In the context
of the passage, what does it mean to feel alone?

11

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