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LIKE ALL COCKROACHES, SHOEBAG was named after his place of birth. It was the reason that wherever he was, he looked for a shoebag to snuggle into. The one he found this warm early autumn day was in the school dormitory. There were no shoes in it yet, for the students were just arriving by bus and car in the little village of Wayne, Pennsylvania.
Shoebag was having a strange dream. It was a dream of the magic time he'd become a little boy named Stuart Bagg. In the dream his cerci was missing, and so were his two back legs. So were his two middle legs, and so were his two front legs ... and so were his antennae.
"I have tiny hands," he was crying out. "I have tiny feet! I have a tiny nose and tiny ears! I have a tiny head!"
"Wake up, Shoebag!" his mother shouted. "You are talking in your sleep!"
"I have become a tiny person," Shoebag continued.
"You have become nothing of the kind!" His mother flicked a front leg at his cerci, the cockroach name for a tail. A cerci is a remarkably sensitive structure, and even a light puff of air directed at a cerci can send a cockroach scurrying.
Shoebag sat bolt upright. "Where am I?" he said, wide awake now.
"You're right where you've been for two years," said Drainboard, his mother. "You're at Miss Rattray's School for Girls!"
"For girls," said Shoebag, "and now one boy."
"Yes. This year there will be one boy."
"That's why I was having the dream of when I was a boy."
"You were having a nightmare," Drainboard said, "even though it is only four o'clock in the afternoon."
"I was not afraid, though, Mama. So it was not a nightmare, was it?"
Drainboard said emphatically, "It was a nightmare! I remember all too well when you were a little boy. Your father and I lived in fear that you would step on us!"
"I could never step on you or my father, Under The Toaster, Mama. I was not that much of a person."
"But you needed three meals a day, Shoebag. You needed a bed and sheets and blankets! You needed clothes!"
"I needed soap and a washcloth," Shoebag said, remembering. "I needed money. I needed candy. I needed television."
"It was a nightmare!" Drainboard insisted. "You just had a nightmare about the old days when we all lived in Brooklyn, New York."
"Those days weren't so bad, Mama."
"I remember happier ones, son, after you changed back to a roach."
"Like the times we had at the mall in Boston?"
"Exactly! Remember the dark closet behind the deli department, in that big store?"
"Home sweet home," said Drainboard.
"I would sneak down to Appliances to watch my old pal, Gregor Samsa, on television."
"Yes. Your little brother, Wheaties Box, was still alive then."
Shoebag smiled. "Remember what Gregor Samsa used to say, Mama?"
"I never watched television, son. You did."
"Gregor was the Great Breath spokesboy, Mama," said Shoebag. He scampered out of the shoebag, excited to remember Gregor. "He always said, 'Chew Great Breath!'"
"Gregor was a traitor to roachdom, son. He preferred being human to being one of us!"
"He couldn't help it, Mama. He wanted to be a star. A roach never gets to be a star."
"It is best not to look back," said Drainboard. "Live in the here and now, son. Here we are at Miss Rattray's School for Girls."
"And now one boy," Shoebag said.
"And now one boy," Drainboard agreed.
The roach family lived in the Lower School at Miss Rattray's. It was more peaceful there, where the five-to-ten-year-olds boarded. Lights out at nine o'clock — not like the Upper School, where the racket of noisy young girls lasted right up until the ten o'clock news.
Another reason the roach family preferred to take up residence in the Lower School, was that it was nearer the kitchen.
Under The Toaster spent most of his time in there, foraging for snacks. He was the only member of the family not afraid of Cook's yellow cat, who always slept by the rag mop.
Drainboard said, "Stay awake now, son. We have to be on guard with all the students arriving today."
The moment she said that a noise no one could have slept through sounded. WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!
"Oh, no!" Shoebag said.
"Oh, no!" Drainboard moaned.
"The Doll Smasher is back!" both roaches said in unison, shuddering at the thought. "The Doll Smasher is back for another year!"CHAPTER 2
"SOMEDAY THIS WILL ALL be yours," said Mr. Sweetsong to his only son as the limo swept down the long drive leading from Castle Sweet. "But before you become the sole heir here, you must learn to be a gentleman and a scholar."
They were on their way to Miss Rattray's School for Girls (and now one boy).
"I'll learn to be a girl at Miss Rattray's, if you ask me," said Stanley.
"Miss Rattray's," said his mother, "was where I went to school, and where your grandmother went to school, and where your great-grandmother went to school. You should be honored to be accepted there."
"Where did you go, Father?" Stanley asked.
"I went to an ordinary school, son."
"There were no school songs at your father's school. No secret clubs, no school uniforms — they didn't even live in the school. They lived at home!"
"Well, it was an ordinary public school," said Mr. Sweetsong.
"A very, very ordinary public school. Be glad, Stanley, that you can be a Miss Rattray boy! The very first Miss Rattray boy there's ever been!"
But Stanley would miss Castle Sweet with its great gardens, its tiny red gazebo down by its round blue pond, and its long green lawns where Stanley played croquet with Tattle, the chauffeur. Often, after a game, Tattle would let Stanley see his pet tarantula, a South American red-toe called Weezer.
Stanley was ten years old, the very same age that his mother had been when she went to Miss Rattray's, and the very same age his father had been when he went to the very ordinary public school.
Stanley was short for his age, with brown hair and large brown eyes that fixed on Castle Sweet longingly as they left it. "I will miss my home," he said.
"But you will appreciate it more, dear, each time you return," said his mother.
"And when we see you next, at Thanksgiving," said his father, "you will already be bigger and braver than you are now, and you will probably be eager to go back to school."
"I am not brave," said Stanley, "and I will never be eager to leave Castle Sweet."
Behind glass, in the front seat, Tattle drove the limousine very slowly, for he knew Stanley wanted to prolong his last moments at the estate.
"I will miss Tattle, too," said Stanley, "and Weezer."
"Who ever heard of missing a chauffeur?" said his mother, "and who ever heard of missing a spider?"
"I would miss Tattle if he were to leave us," said Mr. Sweetsong.
"Who ever heard of a chauffeur leaving us?" said Mrs. Sweetsong. "Cooks leave. Maids leave. Such servants come and go. But chauffeurs don't. Tattle loves our Rolls Royce."
"So do I," said Stanley.
"You are spoiled, darling," said his mother. "You probably think everyone lives as luxuriously as we do, but you will learn at Miss Rattray's that you are a very special little boy. Heir to a fortune!"
"If I'm a hair to a fortune, then —"
"Not hair, darling."
"Hair is what you have on your head, dear boy," said his father.
"If I'm an heir to a fortune, then why can't I keep my private tutor and not have to go away to school?"
"Because," said his mother, "you need friends."
"I don't know how to make friends."
"Besides," said his father, "we don't want you to be an heir with a big head. An heir with a big head would have too much hair to comb. Ha-ha."
"Not funny," said Stanley.
"Where does a sheep get his hair cut, son?" said his father.
"Where?" said Stanley.
"At the baa-baa shop. Ha-ha."
But nothing could make Stanley Sweetsong laugh late that afternoon in early September.
Tattle turned right at the end of the driveway and the long, silver limousine headed over the rolling hills of Bucks County, on the way to Wayne, near Philadelphia.
"What is Philadelphia known for, Stanley?" asked his mother, who was trying to get his mind off leaving home.
Stanley knew full well that it was the fourth largest city in the United States, known for Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed. But he did not feel in a mood to mention independence when his own was being taken away. So he sat over in the corner of the backseat and sulked. And did not answer his mother.
"Here's a clue," said Mr. Sweetsong, "'... and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.'"
Mrs. Sweetsong said sharply, "That is the Gettysburg Address, dear. That is not the Declaration of Independence!"
"You see, Stanley?" said Mr. Sweetsong. "Your mother knows more than I do, because your mother went to Miss Rattray's School for Girls."
"And now one boy," said Mrs. Sweetsong.CHAPTER 3
THE LILTING TONES OF Miss Rattray sounded down the hall.
"Your room," said she, "is right this way.... We are so pleased to have you, Stanley. Would you like some dinner? We are serving dinner in the dining hall."
"I'm not hungry, thank you, Miss Rattray."
"Well, then. You settle in and after dinner you'll meet the little girl who lives in the room next to yours."
"The Doll Smasher," Shoebag said. He stayed up in the corner of the ceiling, for he was known to be fairly fearless (except when he was expected to kill anything. And except around the yellow cat who lived by the rag mop in the kitchen).
Shoebag also wanted to get a good look at this boy, who was about to enter the very room where Shoebag had been sleeping earlier.
Miss Rattray led the small boy inside. "Your trunk is right there near the closet, Stanley. You may unpack it and put your clothes in the bureau drawers."
"At home a maid does that," said Stanley.
"But you are not home now, dear."
"Will I have a roommate, Miss Rattray?"
"On this particular hall, no one has roommates. You cannot have a roommate, for you are the only boy in Miss Rattray's School for Girls. And the little girl next door to you cannot have a roommate because —"
"Because," Shoebag silently finished the sentence for her, "she is a Doll Smasher."
"Because," Miss Rattray finished her own sentence, finally, "she is a very special little girl."
"So am I a very special little boy," said Stanley Sweetsong, "according to my mother."
"Then you two should get along very well, Stanley," said Miss Rattray. "You will share the bathroom across the hall."
Miss Rattray was a very tall, sturdy woman, who looked as though a string suspended from the ceiling was attached to her head. She had a very erect posture, large black spectacles, and short black hair. She wore a blue-and-white striped seersucker suit, for the school colors were royal blue and white.
"I hope you will be happy here, Stanley."
"The bed isn't made," said Stanley Sweetsong.
"Here we make our own beds, dear."
"I have never made my own bed in my entire life."
"No time like the present to start," said Miss Rattray.
Then with a smile and a wave she left the boy by himself in the room, except for Shoebag, now clinging to the twenty-second slat in the Venetian blind.
When the boy sat down on the unmade bed, he put his hands up to his face and sobbed.
"Cheer up," Shoebag said. "It's not that bad here."
But, of course, humans rarely hear anything roaches have to say, and Stanley Sweetsong was crying too loud, anyway.CHAPTER 4
"WHY ARE YOU CRYING?" the little girl asked. She was taller than Stanley, a skinny redhead with freckles on her face, her arms, and probably on her long legs, though Stanley could not tell for she wore white knee socks. She was in the school uniform: a royal blue blazer with gold buttons, a white shirt with a royal blue tie, and a white pleated skirt.
"I'm crying because I had to make my own bed and unpack my own trunk, and I am also crying because I am the only boy in Miss Rattray's School for Girls."
The little girl stood in the doorway, hands on her hips, a look of exasperation on her freckled forehead.
"We cannot practice with you crying so loudly," she said.
"What do you practice?" Stanley asked.
"We are putting on a play, and the play must go on!"
"No one told me anything about a play."
"My name," she said, "is Josephine Jiminez, and I am the director, producer, and playwright for the Black Mask Theater."
"My name is Stanley Sweetsong. I've been to theater, but it was in New York City. It was a play called Cats."
The little girl folded her arms and took one step into Stanley's room. "Our play is called If You're Not In, You're Out!"
Stanley said, "Can I see your play?"
"Do you have any Mallomars, Hydrox cookies, something like that? For dessert tonight we only got one awful pear."
"I have no food, just my allowance."
"How much do you get?"
"Five dollars a week."
"That's what it'll cost you to see it."
"But it is only Monday. What if I need money for the rest of the week? And what will I put in the offering in church, on Sunday?"
"You can't afford our play, I guess," she said.
"How long will it run? I could save up."
Josephine took another step forward. "It is the longest running play ever at Miss Rattray's School for Girls."
"And now one boy," said Stanley. "Where is this theater?"
"Right next door."
"In the next building?"
"In the next room," said Josephine.
"In a room like this room?"
"Not exactly like this room, since the Cast of Characters lives there with me."
"Then it must be a big, big room!"
"Come and see for yourself."
Stanley jumped down from the badly made bed, and followed the girl.
"Do the Cast of Characters share the bathroom across the hall with us?" he asked. He had never shared a bathroom with anyone. At Castle Sweet he had his own big bathroom.
"They don't need a bathroom," said Josephine.
"Everyone needs a bathroom."
"They don't!" she said. "You have to be quiet as we enter. They are in the middle of their rehearsal."
It was a dark room, for she had pulled the blinds shut. A floor lamp with its shade tilted was aimed at a square royal blue rug, filled with a dozen dolls.
"Shhhhh!" Josephine said.
On the bed, on the two chairs, on the bureau, there were more dolls.
All the dolls wore black masks.
Stanley had never seen so many dolls. He had never seen any doll wearing a black mask.
"All right, everybody!" Josephine shouted. "We'll have a ten-minute break!"
Stanley said, "So this is your theater."
"This is it," said the girl.
"And this is your Cast of Characters."
"This is it."
Stanley was too polite to say what he was thinking: that it was all just make-believe, that none of it was real.
"And what is your play about?" Stanley asked Josephine Jiminez.
"It's about a secret club."
"We belong to the Bucks County Country Club," said Stanley, "and also to the Red Fox Hunt Club."
"Who belongs to them?" Josephine asked as she moved two masked dolls aside to sit on the bed.
"We Sweetsongs do."
"But they are not secret clubs."
"No, they are not."
"And anyone can belong."
"No, they cannot. Only members can belong."
Josephine Jiminez heaved an impatient sigh and shook her head vigorously. "What I mean is, anyone can be a member."
"No, they cannot," Stanley insisted, "unless they have a lot of money."
"You cannot buy your way into this club!" said Josephine. "You don't know beans about this club. You don't know anything about such a secret club!"
"Why should I?" Stanley answered. "Where I come from clubs are not secret!"
"But you are here now," said Josephine. "And here there is one! And the one that there is, is the most important club in Miss Rattray's School for Girls ... and now one boy."
"Then possibly I'll join it," said Stanley, looking around for someplace to sit where there wasn't a masked doll in the way.
"Join it?" said Josephine Jiminez, her eyes narrowing, her skinny body leaning forward. "JOIN IT?" she thundered. Then she let out a hoot of ridicule.
"I have to go back to my room," Stanley said, for he realized that he must have said something very laughable, or very sad, or very stupid ... and possibly all three.
As he left the room, Josephine Jiminez was rocking back and forth on her bed filled with masked dolls, stamping her feet, holding tight to her freckled arms, laughing while she tried to exclaim:
"He thinks ... he's ... ha-ha ... going to join the Better Club!"
Excerpted from Shoebag Returns by M. E. Kerr. Copyright © 1996 M. E. Kerr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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