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As fifth grader Bingo Brown strives for the triumphs of today and steels himself against the tribulations of tomorrow, he discovers that he will have to undergo a few more trials and triumphs before growing up.
The Groundhog Mustache
EVERY TIME BINGO BROWN smelled gingersnaps, he wanted to call Melissa long distance.
Actually, it was more of a burning desire than a want, Bingo decided. One minute ago he had been standing here, smiling at himself in the bathroom mirror, when without any warning he had caught a whiff of ginger. Now he had to call Melissa. Had to!
"Are you still admiring yourself?" his mom asked as she passed the door.
"Mom, come here a minute."
His mom leaned in the doorway.
"Is that a mustache on my face or what?"
"Mom, you didn't even look."
"Do your lip like that."
Obediently Bingo stretched his upper lip down over his teeth.
His mom said, "Ah, yes, I was right the first time—dirt."
"Mom, it's not dirt. It's hair. There may be dirt on the hair but ..." He leaned closer to the mirror. "I would be the first student in Roosevelt Middle School to have a mustache."
"Supper!" his dad called from the kitchen. His dad was stir-frying tonight.
"A lot of women would be thrilled to have a son with a mustache," Bingo said, "though I'll have to shave before I go to high school. You aren't allowed to have mustaches in high school."
Bingo moved away from the mirror, still watching himself. "You can't see it from here, but"—he stepped closer—"from right here, it's definitely a premature mustache."
"Bingo, supper's ready." His mother picked up a bill as she went through the living room.
Bingo followed quickly. "Hey, Dad," he said. "Notice anything different about me?"
His father turned—he was holding the wok in both hands—but before he could spy the mustache, Bingo's mom interrupted. "You will not believe the trouble I'm having with the telephone company."
Bingo's father said, "Oh?" He put down the wok and wiped his hands on his apron before taking the bill.
"Can you believe that? They're trying to tell me that somebody in this family made fifty-four dollars and twenty-nine cents worth of calls to a place called Bixby, Oklahoma."
Bingo gasped. He caught the door to keep from falling to his knees.
"Fifty-four dollars and twenty-nine cents! I told the phone company, 'Nobody in this family knows anybody in the whole state of Oklahoma, much less Bixby.' Bixby!"
Bingo said, "Mom—"
"The woman obviously did not believe me. Where does the telephone company get these idiots? I said to her, 'Are you calling me a liar?' She said, 'Now, Madame—'"
Bingo said, "Mom—"
"Wait till I'm through talking to your father, Bingo."
"This can't wait," Bingo said.
"Bingo, if it's about your invisible mustache—"
"It's n-not. I wish it were," he said, stuttering a little.
Bingo's mom sighed with impatience. Bingo knew that she got a lot of pleasure from a righteous battle with a big company and must hate his interruption. He hated it himself.
"So?" she said. "Be quick."
Bingo cleared his throat. He walked into the room in the heavy-footed way he walked in his dreams. He clutched the back of his chair for support.
"Remember Melissa—that girl that used to be in my room at school?"
"Yes, Bingo, get on with it."
"M-member I said she moved?" he was reverting back to the way he talked when he was a child.
"No, I don't, but go on."
"You have to remember! You and Dad drove me over to say good-bye! It was Grammy's birthday!"
"Yes, I remember that she moved. What about it, Bingo? Get on with it."
'Well, she m-moved to Oklahoma."
There was a long silence while his parents looked at him. The moment stretched like a rubber band. Before it snapped, Bingo cleared his throat to speak.
His mom beat him to it. "Are you telling me," she said in a voice that chilled his bones, "that you made"—she whipped the bill from his father's fingers and consulted it—"seven calls"—now she looked at him again—"for a total of"—eyes back to the bill—"fifty-four dollars and twenty-nine cents"—eyes back to him—"to this person in Bixby, Oklahoma?"
"She's not a person! She's Melissa! Anyway, Mom, you knew she had moved. I showed you the picture postcard she sent me."
"I thought she'd moved across town."
"She drew the postcard herself. I'll get it and show it to you if you don't believe me. It said 'Greetings from Bixby, OK.' Her address was there, and her phone number.
"As soon as I got the postcard, I went into the living room. You were sitting on the sofa, studying for your real estate license. I showed you the postcard and asked you if I could call Melissa."
He was now clutching the back of the chair the way old people clutch walkers.
"My exact words were, 'Would it be all right if I called Melissa?' Your exact words were, 'Yes, but don't make a pest of yourself.' That's why the calls were so short, Mom. I didn't want to make a pest of myself!"
His mother was still looking at the bill. "I cannot believe this. Fifty-four dollars and twenty- nine cents worth of calls to Bixby, Oklahoma."
"I'm sorry, Mom. It was just a misunderstanding."
"I should have explained it was long distance."
Bingo's father said, "Well, it's done. Can we eat?" He glanced at the wok with a sigh. "Dinner's probably ruined."
"I don't see how you can eat when we owe the phone company fifty-four dollars and twenty-nine cents," Bingo's mother said.
"I can always eat."
"May I remind you that I have not actually gotten one single commission yet?"
"You may remind me. Now can we eat?"
In a sideways slip Bingo moved around the back of his chair and sat. He began to breathe again.
"Mom, can I ask one question?" Bingo asked, encouraged by the fact that his mother was sitting down, too.
"Promise you won't get mad."
"I'm already furious. Just being mad would be a wonderful relief."
"Well, promise you won't get any madder."
"What is the question, Bingo?"
"Can I make one more call to Melissa? Just one? You can take it out of my allowance."
"What do you think?" she asked.
"Mom, it's important. I need to tell her why I won't be calling anymore."
"Bingo, when you put fifty-four dollars and twenty-nine cents into my hand, then we'll talk about telephone calls. Until then you are not to make any calls whatsoever. You are not to touch the telephone. Understood?"
"I'm really not terribly hungry."
Bingo helped himself to the stir-fry. The smell of ginger was overpowering now. It was coming from the wok! No wonder he was being driven mad. And if the mere scent of ginger had this effect on him—it was at the moment twining around his head, pulling him like a noose toward the phone—what would the taste do to him? Would he run helplessly to the phone? Would he dial? Would he cry hoarsely to Melissa of his passion while his parents looked on in disgust?
Bingo broke off. He had promised to give up burning questions for the summer, cold turkey, but how could he do that when questions blazed like meteors across the sky of his mind? When they—
Bingo put a small piece of chicken into his mouth. The taste of ginger, fortunately, did not live up to its smell.
As he swallowed, he rubbed his fingers over his upper lip. The mustache—as he had known it would be—was gone. It had come out like the groundhog, seen its shadow in the glare of his mom's anger, and done the sensible thing—made a U-turn and gone back underground.
After supper Bingo went to his room and pulled out his summer notebook. There were two headings in the notebook. One was "Trials of Today." Under that, Bingo now listed:
1. Parental misunderstanding of a mere phone bill and, more importantly, their total disregard and concern for the depth of my feeling for Melissa.
2. Disappearance of a beloved mustache and the accompanying new sensation of manliness.
3. Breaking my vow to give up burning questions for the summer.
4. Tasting ginger, which, while it did not drive me as mad as I had feared, has left me with a bad case of indigestion.
The second heading was "Triumphs of Today." Under that Bingo wrote only one word: none.CHAPTER 2
A Knock at the Window
Bingo lay on his Smurf sheets. He had always been able to count on a peaceful night's sleep on his Smurf sheets. But last Tuesday Billy Wentworth had come over, looked at his unmade bed, and smiled condescendingly at the Smurfs. After that, Bingo had not been easy on them.
Right now he was as uncomfortable as if he were lying on real Smurfs. However, he knew tonight was not a good time to ask his mother for more manly sheets.
He glanced at his letter and read what he had written.
He retraced the comma and stared up at the ceiling.
Writing Melissa was not the same as calling her, because as soon as she heard his voice, she always said something like, "Oh, Bingo, it's you! That's exactly who I was hoping it would be."
Her voice would actually change, get warmer somehow, deeper with pleasure. Girls were fortunate to have high voices so they could deepen them so effectively. His own voice got higher when he was pleased, which wasn't a good effect at all.
If his mom only knew how it made a man feel to hear a girl's voice deepen with pleasure. He knew there was no point in trying to explain that to his mom. His mom was in no mood to understand.
After supper, he had asked her for a stamp, one measly stamp, and she had said, "I'll sell you one."
"Yes, sell." She walked to the desk, tore one stamp off the roll, and held it out. Her other hand was out, too, palm up. "That'll be twenty-five cents."
"One quarter, please."
Then he had to go through the indignity of borrowing a quarter from his father.
And after all that humiliation, he couldn't seem to get the letter started.
He changed the comma to a semicolon.
As he lay there, he thought of that terrible, heart-stopping moment when he had learned Melissa was moving.
It had been a spring day. Mr. Mark, their teacher, was back after his motorcycle accident. He walked with a cane, but there was the general feeling in the classroom that everything was back to normal at last and things would go well for the rest of the year.
Bingo was at the pencil sharpener, grinding down a pencil, admiring the April day, when Melissa stood up behind him.
Bingo had not heard the snap of pencil lead, but his pulse quickened because he thought Melissa was going to join him. He and Melissa had had pleasant, even thrilling, pencil sharpener encounters before.
He turned toward her with an encouraging smile. Melissa was standing stiffly by her desk, arms at her side. She said, "Mr. Mark?"
"May I make an announcement?"
"Can't it wait a bit? Some people are still working on their journals."
Melissa's eyes filled with tears. She started to sit down, and Mr. Mark reconsidered. "Gang, is anyone working so hard on his or her journal that their train of thought would be shattered forever by an announcement from Melissa?" His bright eyes looked them over. "Melissa, it's all yours."
"This is a personal announcement. Is that all right?"
Bingo's heart had moved up into his throat. As soon as he had seen the tears, he had started closing the distance between them. He and Melissa were now two feet apart, close enough so that Bingo could see her tears were getting ready to spill.
Bingo could stand tears if they stayed where they were supposed to, but if they spilled ...
"My dad," Melissa said. She looked down at her desk and blinked her eyes. Two tears plopped onto her open journal.
Bingo gasped with concern.
"My father," she began again with brave determination, "is being transferred to Bixby, Oklahoma, and we'll be moving next month. I hope some of you will write to me. That's the end of my announcement."
Melissa sat down, but Bingo stood there. He vowed with silent fervor to write daily, and to write such letters as the post office had never seen, letters so thick postal workers would marvel at their weight. His letters would go down in postal history. Years later, an unusually thick letter would be referred to as a "Bingo letter." His letters—
"What? Oh, yes, Mr. Mark?"
"Melissa said that was the end of her announcement. I believe you might begin to think in terms of returning to your seat."
"I'm on my way."
That memory caused Bingo to pick up his pen with renewed determination.
"Well," he wrote firmly, "I guess you're surprised to be getting a letter from me instead of a call, but our telephone bill came today."
There was a knock on his window. Bingo leaped in alarm. No one had ever knocked on his window before. He was as shocked as if someone had knocked on his forehead.
He got to his feet. Whoever was doing the knocking was either incredibly stupid or incredibly impolite!
Bingo strode to the window and bent down. The reflection of his own face, frowning, was all he could see.
"Who's out there?" Bingo asked. "Didn't your mother ever teach you not to knock on—"
"It's me, Worm Brain."
Bingo swallowed the rest of his words.
"Oh, all right." Bingo opened the window and looked at Billy Wentworth. Billy was wearing his camouflage T-shirt and his Rambo expression. "What can I do for you?" Bingo asked.
"Why can't you talk on the phone?"
"Who says I can't?"
"Your mom. I called and asked to speak to you, and she said, 'Bingo is no longer allowed to receive calls.' Bam! She could have busted my eardrum. You being punished?"
"Unjustly," Bingo said.
"Is there any other way? What'd you do?"
"I ran up a fifty-four-dollar phone bill," Bingo said. "So, why did you knock on my window?"
"I wanted to ask you something. Well, my mom wanted me to ask you something."
"We're going on vacation and we can't take our dog."
"Misty the poodle?" Bingo asked.
A feeling of dread began deep within Bingo's soul. Before Misty had moved next door, Bingo had not known it was possible to actually dread being stared at by a dog.
"Mom, she stares at me all the time, right into my eyes."
"That's known as eye contact," his mom had said, in her usual unconcerned way.
"And I don't know what she wants me to do. Mom, she can stare for hours. Sometimes I have to go in the house!"
"You better get used to eye contact," his mom had said. "Later on you'll be having eye contact with girls, and if you run in the house then, you've blown it."
"Yes," Billy Wentworth went on, "Misty the poodle. How many dogs you think we got, Worm Brain?"
"That's the only one I know about."
"You want to keep her?" Billy asked.
"Well, I don't know. We're probably going on vacation, too."
"Go ask your mom."
"Er, I think she's in the bathroom just—"
"No, she's in the living room. I saw her through the window."
Bingo went into the living room. "We can't keep Misty, can we?"
His mother glanced up. "The Wentworth dog? Sure, why not?"
Bingo lowered his voice. "Mom, you know I can't stand to be stared at by that dog. She—"
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Bingo Brown, to mind being looked at by a ten-year-old half-blind miniature poodle with kidney trouble!"
Bingo stood in silence. Up until the business of the phone bill, Bingo and his mother had been getting along unusually well. His mother had a new job selling real estate, and even though she hadn't gotten a commission yet, she was very happy.
"Tell Billy yes!" she went on forcefully. "Tell Billy we will be glad to keep the poodle. Certainly it will make up, in part, for their having to keep you last fall."
This last humiliation, being put in the category of a dog, made Bingo turn—he hoped with dignity—and start back to his room.
He went directly to Billy, at the open window. "Yes," he said. He closed the window and went back to his bed.
Well, at least he now had something to write to Melissa. "Billy Wentworth's poodle, Misty, will be spending next week with me, so this will probably be my last letter for a while. I'll have to keep an eye on her. Sincerely, but somewhat despondently, Bingo Brown"
He fumbled under the bed for his summer notebook and flipped to "Trials of Today." He wrote:
1. Continued animosity from my mother and the cruel implication that I am, socially, on the same level with a poodle.
2. Having the privacy of my bedroom invaded by an enemy agent.
3. Inability to create postal history by writing Bingo letters to Melissa.
4. Continued failure in reaching the mainstream of life.
It made Bingo feel somewhat better to have survived four trials of this magnitude, but he still had only one word to list under "Triumphs": none.CHAPTER 3
BINGO TIED ON HIS apron and looked down at the cookbook on the counter. It was open to page forty-four: chicken breasts in tarragon sauce.
Bingo cracked his knuckles, cheflike.
"Let's see," he said. Beneath his breath, he began to read the ingredients. "Chicken breasts—I have those. Onions—I have those...."
In order to make up for his phone debt, Bingo had agreed to cook supper for his mom and dad for thirty-six nights. His mom had originally wanted fifty-four. "That's fair, Bingo," she had argued, "a dollar a night." But he had bargained her up to a dollar and a half.
"All right, thirty-six," she'd said finally. "But no Hamburger Helper, Bingo."
"Of course not."
This was Bingo's third supper, and he was ready for something from the spice rack. As he rummaged through the little scented tins, he caught the aroma of ginger, but with a quick glance of regret at the telephone, he continued to rummage.
Excerpted from Bingo Brown and the Language of Love by Betsy Byars, Cathy Bobak. Copyright © 1989 Betsy Byars. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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