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By Kate Klise
Feiwel and Friends Copyright © 2012 Kate Klise
All rights reserved.
THE LAST SPLINTER
MY PARENTS SPLIT UP over a splinter. You've heard the expression "the last straw"? I guess this was the last splinter. The conversation went something like this:
Mom and Dad's fight: 1/20/1983
MOM (yelling): What in God's name are you doing?
DAD: Shh. You'll wake up Benny.
MOM: No, I won't. He's sound asleep.
[ME: Wrong. I was wide awake and listening from my room like I always did when my mom and dad fought. It was the soundtrack of my childhood.]
DAD: Let me just unload the truck.
MOM: I told you to clean up your crap, and now you're bringing home more crap?
DAD: I had to move my inventory. It wasn't safe in the store.
[ME: I should explain. Dad had a store on Highway 44 called Calvin's Collectibles. Dad said he collected treasures. Mom called it junk.]
MOM: So you're bringing all your junk here?
DAD: I have to protect my inventory.
MOM: Nobody wants your crap, Calvin.
DAD: My collectibles are valuable, Nola.
MOM: Oh, really? Tell me one thing you've ever owned that's valuable.
DAD: I'll tell you three things. My collection of vintage board games. My Tandy computer. And my splinter from the Holy Cross.
[ME: Ah, the mysterious splinter from the Holy Cross. I'd heard about it forever, but never seen it. Whenever I asked to see it, Dad said it wasn't a toy.]
MOM: For the love of God, don't tell me you still have the splinter of wood your grandmother gave you when you were six years old.
DAD: Think how much it's worth now.
MOM: It's worth nothing. Squat. Zero! It's a splinter, probably from your crazy granny's rocking chair.
DAD: Grammy — not granny — Grammy Summer told me it came from the Holy Crucifix.
MOM (yelling again): And you believed her? Are you nuts, Calvin? Are you absolutely nuts? Because you'd have to be nuts to think you own a splinter from the crucifix of Jesus Christ. You're doing this to drive me crazy.
MOM: That! Right there! That look on your face. You're smirking.
DAD: I'm not smirking.
MOM: You're smirking!
[ME: He was probably smirking. Dad smirked a lot.]
DAD: I'm thinking.
[ME: I guess he could've been thinking and smirking.]
MOM: Uh-huh. I'm thinking, too. I'm thinking when are you going to stop collecting and start selling?
DAD: When the time's right, I'll sell things through my computer.
MOM: What? How?
DAD: I've told you, Nola. It's coming. A giant computer network that'll link everyone in the whole wide world. Once we're all connected by computers, I'll be able to sell my collection, piece by piece, right here from the living room. I'll make money twenty-four hours a day.
MOM: Then sell something already, will you? Start with a board game. Fire up your computer and see if anyone's buying Candy Land tonight.
DAD: The superstructure's not ready yet. We have to wait.
MOM: Like I haven't been waiting since nineteen-stinkin'-seventy for you to get a real job? Do you know how many motel rooms I've cleaned since then?
DAD: Wait and watch.
MOM: Wait and watch, wait and watch, wait and watch. No, Calvin. Stop waiting and watch this. Where are the trash bags? If you're bringing more junk into this house, then I'm throwing some of your junk out.
DAD: Don't you dare.
MOM: I have to! I can't even walk through this house anymore without tripping over your piles of quote-unquote collectibles.
[ME: This was true. Our house was jam-packed with Dad's stuff, except for my bedroom. I kept my door closed.]
DAD: I'll start cleaning tomorrow. Let me just unload the truck now. It's late.
MOM: Are you serious?
MOM: You'll really start cleaning tomorrow?
MOM: You'll throw away some of your stuff?
MOM: Prove it.
MOM: Let me throw away one thing now. It can be something small. Tiny, even. How about that stupid splinter? I'm going to throw it away.
DAD: No. Don't. You can't.
MOM: Then you throw it away. Go find it. I want to see it again.
[ME: It's not a toy, Mom.]
DAD: It's not a toy, Nola.
MOM: I know. It's a sliver of wood. You showed it to me the night we met.
DAD: Mardi Gras. New Orleans. February 10, 1970.
MOM: You and your crazy splinter. It's worthless, Calvin. Throw it away.
DAD: When pigs fly.
MOM: What's that supposed to mean?
[ME: I was wondering the same thing.]
DAD: It means I'll throw away a priceless splinter from the Holy Cross on the day pigs fly.
MOM: Which means never.
DAD: I didn't say that.
MOM: You didn't have to. It's written all over your face. You're never going to get rid of anything, are you?
DAD: Never's a long time.
MOM: I'll give you one more chance. Go get your stupid splinter and throw it away.
[ME: Silence. Just the sound of Mom's furious voice hanging in the air.]
[ME: Nothing. No response from Dad. This was serious.]
MOM: Calvin, I'm asking you to choose between me and a worthless splinter.
[ME: By this point I was standing next to my door, waiting for Dad's answer.]
MOM: Fine. You've made your choice. And wow, look at that. You've managed to throw something away. Our marriage.
DAD: What about Benny?
[ME: Yeah, what about me? Don't throw me away.]
MOM: I'll come back for him when I get settled.
[ME: I could hear things rustling in the living room. Keys jingling.]
DAD: What should I tell him when he wakes up in the morning?
MOM: Tell Benny I love him and I'll be back for him soon. Oh, and tell him I signed him up for piano lessons. The first lesson is tomorrow after school. Four o'clock. Mrs. Crumple's house.CHAPTER 2
THIS IS A TEST
I LEARNED HOW TO WRITE transcripts like that from my job at the radio station. It was a job I got because I went to my first piano lesson. Or maybe I should say because I didn't go to my first piano lesson.
I was standing on Mrs. Crumple's front porch on Friday afternoon, just about to knock, when I heard someone calling me from across the street.
"Benny, can you do me a favor?"
It was Myron Kazie, a floppy-haired hippie friend of Dad's who owned an electronics shop. Myron's dog, Ringo, an Australian shepherd, was at his side as usual.
"Hey, Myron," I said, relieved to have an excuse to be late for my first piano lesson. "What do you need?"
Myron wanted me to run down to the Mexican restaurant a block away, and ask Carmen, the owner, to turn her radio to 88.1 on the FM dial.
"And then what should I do?" I said.
"Just stay there and listen," Myron directed.
So I did. At first Carmen resisted.
"Radio?" she asked. "I don't know if I have one. We play cassette tapes here."
"Can you look?" I said. "It's for Myron."
"Ayyy," Carmen sighed dramatically. Two minutes later she was pulling a dusty radio off a kitchen shelf and plugging it in. I'd never been in the kitchen of Carmen's Casita. It smelled like tortilla chips mixed with Pine-Sol.
"Now what?" she asked, clearly unhappy with this chore.
"Myron wants us to turn the dial to 88.1," I said.
As soon as we did, we heard an ear-splitting noise followed by an announcement.
"This is a test. For the next sixty seconds, this station will conduct a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test." There was a high humming sound and then we heard Myron's voice. "Benny, can you hear me? Benny? Benny? Carmen? Can you hear me down there in the restaurant?"
"What in the world?" Carmen said, staring at the radio. "Myron, can you hear me? Hello? Hello?"
"I don't think he can hear you," I said. "It's a radio, not a phone."
But Carmen wasn't listening to me. She was too busy talking to the radio. "Myron? Myron? Myron? Say something."
Two minutes later Myron was running through the kitchen door. "Did it work?" he asked, short of breath. "Could you hear me?"
"Yeah," I said. "Where were you?"
"At my new radio station," Myron replied. "KZ88, just like my name, Kazie. Isn't this great? I've always said this town needs a radio station."
"Why do we need a radio station in Dennis Acres?" Carmen asked. She was still looking at the radio like someone had pulled a trick on her.
"So you can advertise," Myron explained. "Let people know what you're cooking. Tell folks about the daily specials."
"The special's always the same," Carmen said. "Two burritos, beans, rice, chips, and salsa. Two dollars."
"I know," said Myron. "But now you can mix it up."
"Why would I want to mix it up?" Carmen demanded. Her hands were now in fists on her hips.
"Okay, so maybe you don't want to mix it up," Myron conceded. "But surely you want to hear the local news and weather."
"The weather?" Carmen said, her voice rising. "It's January. It's cold. And news? There's no news in a town of fifty-four people. Or fifty-three, I should say, now that Nola's left Calvin again. But that's not news because it happens all the time, and everyone already knows it, anyway. Oh!"
Carmen looked at me and clapped her hand over her mouth.
"Benny," she said, her hand sliding down to her chin. "I'm sorry. I forget she's your mama."
"It's okay," I said.
"She'll come back," Carmen said, gently petting my cheek. "She always comes back after a day or two. You know this, yes?"
"Yeah," I lied. I wasn't sure if Mom was coming back this time or not.
"Hurricane Nola," Myron said, smiling. "That's what I call your mom. She's a hot and spicy Cajun."
"She's from New Orleans," I said. "That's how she got her name. The 'N' and the 'O' are for New Orleans. The 'L' and 'A' are for Louisiana."
"Now this I did not know," Carmen said. "See, Myron? This is something you could put on the radio. Tell us how people got their names."
I winced at the thought of anyone asking how I got my name. Nobody except my parents knew that my real name was Beignet. I was named after the deep-fried donuts Mom grew up eating in New Orleans. They're called beignets (pronounced ben-yays). But this was not the kind of news I was eager to have broadcast in my small town.
"I remember the first year Nola lived here," Myron was telling Carmen. "She killed a wolf spider with a shotgun. Saw it on her porch and shot it dead, just like that."
"Mom doesn't like spiders," I said. Or messy husbands, I thought.
Carmen was nodding her head in approval. "These are the stories you can tell on your radio station, Myron. I don't even know how Dennis Acres got its name. Tell us those things and then play music. I have some mariachi cassette tapes you can borrow."
Just then Ringo came blasting through the kitchen door. His mouth was full of tortilla chips.
"Get that dog out of my kitchen!" Carmen yelled.
"We're going, we're going," Myron said, trying to catch Ringo by the bandanna he wore instead of a collar. "Thanks for letting me test out the emergency signal. That will be a lifesaver if we ever have a hurricane or a —"
"Get OUT!" Carmen shouted as Ringo proceeded to casually jog around the kitchen, sniffing every corner and smiling. "Besides, we don't have hurricanes in Missouri."
"You're right," Myron said. He was having a tough time catching Ringo. "I'll concentrate on music instead. And maybe a feature on how people got their names. As you can probably guess, Ringo here got his name from —"
"I don't care!" Carmen hollered at the top of her lungs. "Get that dog out of my kitchen!"
By the time we were on the sidewalk, Myron and Ringo were both panting.
"Carmen's temper is almost as bad as your mom's," Myron said. He was retying the bandanna around Ringo's neck.
"Almost," I said.
"She'll come back," Myron added quietly.
"When pigs fly," I said.
Myron laughed. "You sound more like your dad every day. Come on, I want to show you my new radio station."CHAPTER 3
IS THIS THING STILL ON?
THE WALK FROM CARMEN'S CASITA to Myron's shop took less than five minutes. You could walk anywhere in Dennis Acres and it wouldn't take more than five minutes. There were only three streets and twenty-nine houses in the whole town.
We passed the gas station and the post office. Next to that was the First Church of Dennis Acres, the only church in town. It was officially Baptist, but almost everyone in town attended the Sunday service, including Carmen, a Catholic, and Izzy, our Jewish postmaster. Even Myron showed up sometimes, and he claimed to be an atheist.
Myron's shop was in an old two-story white house. He lived on the second floor of the house and used the first floor for his shop. I call it a shop, which suggests people came to buy things. Not really. Most folks wanted money for broken stuff they already had: radios, TVs, electric typewriters, even vacuum cleaners.
Myron gave a dollar or two for just about anything. Then he fixed up the stuff and sold it at flea markets on the weekend. Whatever Myron couldn't fix — the "unredeemables," as he called them — he sold to my dad for five dollars a box.
"Ignore the mess," Myron said as the cowbells clanged above the front door.
He led me through the former living room and dining room to the back of the house. The place was dusty and crammed full of stuff. But unlike our house, Myron's place was organized. Radios were on one table, clock radios on another. The televisions were lined up in rows like gravestones in a crowded cemetery. Even the typewriters were displayed in a row, each machine bearing a clean white sheet of typing paper.
"This is what I wanted to show you," said Myron. He opened the kitchen door.
My first thought was: Why would Myron hang mismatched carpet squares on the walls of his kitchen? Cheap soundproofing, I found out later. My second thought was: What's that big black board the size of a door with all the knobs sitting on Myron's kitchen table in the middle of the room? A console, I found out later. It's the dashboard of a radio station. My third thought was: Microphones and headphones. Okay, I've seen those before. And record players, too. But why would Myron need two turntables? So he could play songs back to back. This, too, I would learn with time.
"Cool," I said, not knowing what any of it was other than the old-fashioned school clock hanging on the wall.
"Isn't it?" Myron said. "And look at this. Alphabetical order."
He opened the kitchen cabinets. Record albums were arranged neatly inside.
"And check this out," Myron said, directing my gaze to his stove, which he'd painted bright red with the words "Hot Hits Served All Day Long."
"Cool," I repeated. "Really cool."
Myron was beaming. "How many towns our size have a radio station?"
"Not many, I bet."
"Not any, I'd bet," he said. "Well, I can't be certain of that. But there's no reason we shouldn't have our own station. Sure, we can get weather reports from Springfield. But they're not always accurate. And why not cover the local news? I want to do interviews with people who live right here in town."
Myron's kitchen phone rang. He answered it.
"Hello? Oh, hi, Mrs. Crumple. She what?"
Myron's eyebrows crinkled. He listened for a minute, holding the phone several inches from his ear. Then he covered the mouthpiece with his hand.
"Benny," he whispered, "do you mind waiting in the front?"
I left the kitchen, closing the door behind me. In the front room, I flipped on a radio and turned the dial to 88.1 FM. Mrs. Crumple was on the radio. Her voice was like a trumpet. It traveled without distortion from Myron's telephone earpiece to the microphone.
"I saw her at the gas station on Highway 71 at ten o'clock last night," Mrs. Crumple was saying. "Nola was filling her tank, which she never does. I asked where she was going that she needed all that gas. She said, 'Mrs. Crumple, I'm driving straight through to New Orleans.'"
So there it was. Mom was gone. For good.
"Said she's had it with Calvin," Mrs. Crumple continued. "Said she's never liked it here, anyway. Not the food or the coffee or the weather. But that's not all. Izzy says he won't deliver mail to the house anymore."
"Why won't Izzy deliver mail to your house anymore?" Myron asked. His voice sounded tinny coming out of the cheap radio. I moved to another table and turned on a clock radio.
"Not my house," Mrs. Crumple corrected sharply. "Calvin and Nola's house, only Nola's not there anymore, so it's Calvin's house. Calvin's and Benny's."
"Why?" said Myron. He sounded better on this radio. I put my head on the table and drew a circle in the dust. I moved my ear closer to the radio to hear Mrs. Crumple.
"Have you seen the house lately?" she asked. "Calvin's always been a pack rat, but now he's filling the yard with car batteries and charcoal grills and old bikes. Izzy says last week when it snowed, he tripped on an old tricycle that was sitting right in front of their mailbox."
"I wonder why Calvin had a tricycle outside in the snow," Myron said. He was trying to sound diplomatic, like there might be a good reason why my dad, whose only child (me) was twelve years old, would have a tricycle in the front yard in the middle of winter.
Excerpted from Homesick by Kate Klise. Copyright © 2012 Kate Klise. Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
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