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THERE ARE certain things that happen to you that you never forget. I'm not sure why that is. But I know it's true. For example, no matter how old I get, I'll never forget the first time I was in a school program.
I was in the first-grade chorus. And since I was a very short first grader, I got to stand in the front row where everyone could see me.
Boy, I really thought I was hot stuff, too. I stood up there and sang my guts out. I even used my hands the way the singers on television do.
When it was all over, the audience started clapping like crazy. It made me feel great. I must have bowed about two hundred times. Even while we were walking back to the room, I was still bowing.
I love going back to the room after a school program. You always get to horse around with the other kids until your parents come pick you up. The teacher tells you to calm down, but at night she doesn't really care. She only gets paid to keep you calm during the day.
Pretty soon, I saw my mother hurrying in the door. She was walking so fast, my father couldn't keep up with her. I could tell she was pretty excited about my performance.
Wow! I said to myself. I must have been even better than I thought. My mother looks like she wants my autograph or something!
As soon as she spotted me, Mom ran over and bent down beside me. I closed my eyes and got ready for one of her big fat kisses. But instead, she leaned over and whispered, "Charles, your zipper was down."
I looked down to see. And there, sticking out of my navy blue pants, was this big fat wad of underwear all bunched up in my zipper.
All I could think of was how stupid I must have looked on stage in front of all those people! How can you look like a big singing star with a bunch of underwear hanging out of your pants?
So I started to cry.
Okay, I know that there are a lot of first graders who wouldn't have cared one bit. They would have just zipped up and forgotten all about it. But that's not the kind of kid I am. To me, underwear is real private stuff. I don't even like my cat to see me in it.
After I fastened my zipper, I started yelling at my mother. Anytime you're upset, you're supposed to yell at your mother. They expect it. It's part of their job.
"It's all your fault!" I said. "You're the one who made me so short."
Mom tried to quiet me down. A couple of the other parents who had come in began to stare. Meanwhile, my father started looking around the room, pretending he didn't know me.
"Shh!" said my mother. "You don't have to shout, Charlie. And besides, what in the world does being short have to do with your fly being down?"
"Well, if you didn't make me so short, I would never have had to stand in the front row," I said. "And if I wasn't in the front row, no one would have seen that my zipper was down."
I guess I shouldn't have been talking so loud. Benjamin Fowler's parents started to laugh. My father left the room and headed for the car.
"Charles, please," said Mom as she hurried me out the door. "I'm sorry you're so upset about this. But I don't think it's fair to blame me just because you forgot to zip your fly."
"And stop calling it my fly!" I yelled.
Fly. Isn't that just about the stupidest name you've ever heard for a zipper?
My parents finally took me home and put me to bed. Before my father turned out the light, he gave me a little talk on zippers. He told me that being caught with your zipper down is just part of wearing pants. He also told me I would get used to it.
Well, he was wrong. I'm almost eleven years old now, and I'm still not used to it.
My mother says it's because I'm too sensitive.
Sensitive means that certain things bother you a lot more than they bother most people. For instance, whenever our family watches a real sad movie on TV, I'm always the first one to start blubbering. I try not to. But just when I think I've got myself under control, someone in the movie goes and dies. That's when the blubbering starts.
Sensitive also means that you get your feelings hurt easily. I know this is true about myself. Sometimes, my feelings can get crushed over the least little thing. In fact, it just happened again a few weeks ago.
It was my father's birthday. And if there's one thing around our house I love, it's birthdays.
But this particular birthday was going to be even more special than any other. For the first time ever, I was going to get to buy Dad a present totally on my own. My mother said I could even keep it a surprise from her.
A few days before the big event, she drove me to the shopping center to buy his gift. She waited in the car while I ran in to get it. It didn't take long at all. I knew exactly what I wanted.
As soon as I got it home, I ran to my room to wrap it. I was afraid if I didn't wrap it right away, my mother might look in the box while I was in school. I don't mean to make Mom sound like a sneak or anything. But sometimes it's better not to test her.
I really can't explain why I wanted to keep this whole thing such a secret. I guess it just made it more special that way.
Anyway, when my father's birthday finally came, I couldn't wait for him to open my gift. When he started to unwrap it, my heart began to beat very fast. I felt kind of dumb getting so excited about it. But I just couldn't help myself.
Slowly, Dad lifted the lid of the box and peeked under the tissue paper.
I knew right away that I was in trouble.
"Oh, wow. Look at this," he said. "Gee whiz, Charlie. This is just great."
He didn't fool me a bit. Whenever someone opens a present and says, "Oh, wow. Look at this," it only means one thing. They don't know what it is.
Think about it. What do you say when you open up a new shirt? Simple. You say, "Oh, wow. A new shirt." And when you open up a new game, you say, "Oh, wow. A new game." But if you're not exactly sure what it is you're looking at, that's when you say, "Oh, wow. Look at this."
My father took his present out of the box and began examining it more carefully. He was trying his best to figure out what it was.
Finally, he unfolded it and put his hand inside. "Oh, boy. I've always wanted one of these," he said.
It was so embarrassing I couldn't stand it.
"It doesn't go on your hand, Dad," I said at last. "It goes on your head. It's a chef's hat. You're supposed to wear it outside when you barbecue."
Dad laughed. "Oh, right! A chef's hat! Of course! A chef's hat!" he said.
He put it on his head. "Just call me Chef Boyardee!" he said in this ridiculous Italian accent.
By then, my mother was laughing, too.
I wasn't laughing at all. The reason I wasn't laughing was simple. It was not supposed to be a funny gift. If I had wanted to get a funny gift, I would have bought rubber vomit.
Anyway, by this time I guess my father could see that my feelings were hurt. He took off the hat and stopped clowning around.
He came over and hugged me. "Thanks a lot, Charlie," he said. "I really do like it. As a matter of fact, I think I'll barbecue tonight so I can wear it right away."
"Yeah, sure, Dad," I answered, trying to act cool. But inside, I felt awful.
Since then, my father's worn the chef's hat two or three times, probably. But I'm pretty sure he only put it on when he thought I was watching.
And if that's true, I guess I won't be seeing him wear it very much around here anymore.
Because two weeks after his birthday, my father moved out of the house.
He and my mother are getting a divorce.
Divorce. To me, that word never really meant much. I think it's one of those words like death. You know that it happens to a lot of people, but as long as it's not you, you don't pay much attention.
As a matter of fact, I don't ever remember seeing divorce spelled before. I'm positive it's never been on any of my spelling lists at school. Come to think of it, neither has death. I guess you're supposed to learn how to spell all the sad words on your own.
I looked it up in my dictionary. It said: divorce/dih-vors'/n. 1. a complete legal breaking up of a marriage. 2. complete separation.
Well, that may be what the dictionary thinks divorce is, but I'll tell you what it really is.
Divorce is like watching your parents back the car over your brand-new bicycle. You can see what's about to happen, but the car is already moving.
You shout, "STOP! STOP!" But no one hears you. So you just stand there and watch the tires of the car crush your bike as flat as a pancake. And you get this terrible, sick feeling inside you, like you're going to throw up or faint or something.
You cry, but it doesn't help. Your parents say they're sorry, but that doesn't help, either.
It's all smashed to pieces, and it will never be the same.
From the Trade Paperback edition.