Read an Excerpt
The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis
By Barbara O'Connor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2009 Barbara O'Connor
All rights reserved.
Popeye opened his eye and looked up at the heart-shaped stain on the ceiling of his bedroom. Rusty water squeezed out of the hole in the peeling plaster and dropped onto the foot of his bed.
It had been raining for over a week.
The stain on the ceiling used to be a tiny circle. Popeye had watched it grow a little more each day.
He got out of bed and nudged Boo with his foot. The old dog lifted his head and looked up at Popeye, his sagging skin drooping down over his sad, watery eyes.
"Still raining," Popeye said.
Boo's big, heavy head flopped back down on the floor, and he let out a long, low dog groan.
Popeye padded across the cracked linoleum floor of the hallway and into the bathroom. He splashed water on his face and ran his wet fingers over his head. The stubble of his new summer buzz cut felt scratchy, like a cat's tongue. His white scalp showed through his pale blond hair.
He examined his teeth in the mirror.
They looked clean.
He rubbed his good eye.
Then he rubbed his bad eye. The one that was always squinted shut thanks to his uncle Dooley.
Popeye hadn't always been Popeye. Before he was three years old, he had been Henry.
But when he was three, his uncle Dooley had placed a small green crab apple on the fence post out back and turned to his girlfriend and said, "Watch this, Charlene."
Then he had walked back twenty paces, like a gunslinger, taken aim with his Red Ryder BB gun, and pulled the trigger.
Dooley was not a very good aim.
Charlene was not impressed.
When the BB hit Henry square in the eye, she had screamed bloody murder and carried on so much that when Popeye's grandmother, Velma, came running out of the house to see what all the fuss was about, she had thought it was Charlene who'd been shot in the eye.
Popeye had been Popeye ever since.
And Charlene was long gone. (Which hadn't bothered Dooley one little bit 'cause there were plenty more where she came from.)
Popeye went up the hall to the kitchen, his bare feet stirring up little puffs of dust on the floor. Velma didn't care much about keeping a clean house. She mainly cared about not cracking up.
"You get old, you crack up," she told Popeye when she couldn't find her reading glasses or opened the closet door and forgot why.
While Popeye made toast with powdered sugar on top, Velma sat at the kitchen table with her eyes closed, reciting the kings and queens of England in chronological order.
"Edward V, Richard III, Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I ..."
Popeye knew that when she got to the last one, Elizabeth II, she would probably start all over again.
"Egbert, Ethelwulf, Ethelbald, Ethelbert ..."
Reciting the kings and queens of England in chronological order was exercising Velma's brain and keeping her from cracking up.
But sometimes, Popeye worried that it wasn't working.
This was a big worry.
Popeye needed Velma to not crack up because no one else in his family was very good at taking care of things.
Not his father, who lived up in Chattanooga and sold smoke-damaged rugs out of the back of a pickup truck.
Not his mother, who came and went but never told anybody where she came from or where she went to.
And definitely not his uncle Dooley, who lived in a rusty trailer in the backyard and sometimes worked at the meatpacking plant and sometimes sold aluminum siding and sometimes watched TV all day.
Popeye's grandmother, Velma, was the only one good at taking care of things.
"Edward VIII, George VI, Elizabeth II." Velma opened her eyes. Instead of starting all over again with Egbert, she shuffled over to the kitchen counter and poured herself a cup of coffee.
"Hey there, burrhead," she said, running her hand over Popeye's fuzzy buzz cut.
"What're you gonna do today?"
"This dern rain is driving me nuts," she said, stirring a heaping spoonful of sugar into her coffee.
Popeye stared out at the muddy yard. A waterfall of rust-colored rainwater poured off the edge of the metal roof of the shed out back and made a river. The river snaked its way down the gravel driveway and into the drainage ditch that ran along the side of the road. The ditch was nearly overflowing. Every now and then, soda cans or plastic bags floated by in front of the house.
Boo ambled into the kitchen and ate a scrap of toast off the floor under the table, his tail wagging in slow motion.
Popeye licked powdered sugar off his fingers and went into the living room.
Dooley was stretched out on the couch, snoring one of those throat-gurgling kinds of snores. The smell of cigarettes hovered in the air around him and clung to the worn corduroy couch.
Popeye flopped into Velma's big armchair. The metal tray table beside it was stacked with crossword puzzle magazines. Crossword puzzles were good brain exercises, too. Velma knew more words than anybody. She taught Popeye one new word every week. He wrote it on the patio with sidewalk chalk and studied it until it got smudged up by Dooley's worn-out work boots or washed away by the rain.
This week's word was vicissitude, but he hadn't been able to write it on the patio yet because of the rain.
vicissitude:noun; a change of circumstances, typically one that is unwelcome or unpleasant
Popeye slouched down in the chair and slapped his bare foot on the floor.
He looked out the window, wishing that maybe some vicissitude would come along and make this dern rain stop. Even something unwelcome or unpleasant would probably be better than this.
He watched a fly land on Dooley's big toe.
He wrote vicissitude with his finger on the flowered fabric of Velma's chair.
He scooped saltine cracker crumbs off the coffee table and tossed them over to Boo, who had settled onto his raggedy quilt by the woodstove.
The hands of the clock over the couch jerked noisily.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Around and around.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Popeye was beginning to hate that clock. He was sick to high heaven of watching it turn minutes into hours and hours into days.
Every day the same.
So what if the rain stopped? Popeye thought.
It would still be boring.
It would always be boring in Fayette, South Carolina.
Every day would always be the same.
Popeye was certain about that.
But Popeye was wrong.
Because that very day, that day with the rain dripping out of the heart- shaped stain on the ceiling and that fly sitting there on Dooley's big toe, things changed.
Elvis came to town.CHAPTER 2
POPEYE PUSHED the screen door open and went out on the porch.
The rain had stopped.
The dark clouds were drifting apart, and a sliver of sun poked through, making the raindrops glisten on the leathery leaves of the magnolia tree out front.
The water in the rainspout still made gurgling noises, but the little river snaking down the driveway was slowing down and spreading into puddles.
Popeye jumped off the rickety wooden porch, sending up a spray of muddy water. He went out to the road and walked along the edge of the drainage ditch. Every now and then, he picked up a few pieces of gravel and tossed them into the murky water.
Boo ambled along behind him, his head hanging so low his floppy ears dragged on the wet gravel.
Then Popeye rounded the curve in the road, and right there in front of him was the last thing he would ever have expected to see.
A motor home.
A big motor home.
Big as a house.
It tilted precariously to the side, one of its giant wheels sunk deep down into the gloppy red mud of the road.
"Dang, Boo," Popeye said. "Wouldya look at that!"
The lopsided motor home sparkled like tinfoil in the sun. Glittery gold lightning bolts zigzagged along its sides. On the front, under the enormous windshield, was a painting of a coyote, howling up at a round yellow moon.
Bumper stickers and decals were stuck every which way all over it. Above the door. Along the roof.
SEE ROCK CITY
CAN'T DRIVE IN THE RAIN? GO BACK TO CALIFORNIA.
I ATE CATFISH AT COUNTRY BILL'S ON HIGHWAY 14
American flags and smiley faces and peace symbols bordered the curtain-covered windows.
Just looking at that big silver motor home was pure entertainment.
Popeye wondered if there was anybody inside it. He put his ear up against the side and listened.
He walked around behind it. Beat-up bicycles of every size were tied to a rack with bright orange rope. A narrow metal ladder led up to the roof.
Popeye stood on his tiptoes, trying to see what was up there, but it was too high. Maybe he could climb up that little ladder and just take a quick peek.
Popeye looked up the road.
Then he looked down the road.
He looked at Boo. "Tell me if anybody comes," he said.
His heart raced as he climbed up the ladder and peered over the top. Aluminum lawn chairs and a rusty barbecue grill were strapped to the railing that ran along the sides.
Popeye looked up the road.
Then he looked down the road.
Then he crawled out onto the top of the motor home and stood up, his knees shaking and his stomach fluttering.
In one corner was a big metal toolbox. Popeye tiptoed over and opened it. Inside were footballs and baseballs and badminton rackets. Jump ropes and Frisbees and croquet mallets. A pair of stilts. A pogo stick.
"Hey, you skinny-headed ding-dong!"
Popeye let the lid of the toolbox slam shut with a clang.
"You want me to come up there and give you a knuckle sandwich for lunch?"
Popeye peered over the edge of the roof. A whole passel of scruffy- looking kids glared up at him. The oldest one stood in front of the others with his fists jammed into his waist. His hair was long. Dark, wavy curls flopped over his eyes and covered his ears.
Popeye didn't know what to do.
A couple of the kids gathered around Boo, hugging him, stroking his back, lifting his ears.
Popeye felt a little irritated at Boo for not warning him about these kids.
"I was just looking," he said, his voice coming out all trembly.
"You wanna look at something, you come down here and look at this." The boy shook his fist at Popeye.
"Yeah," one of the other boys said. "You come down here and look at that."
"This your dog?" the only girl in the bunch said. She kissed Boo right on the mouth and hugged his neck. A wild halo of curls bounced around her head, like little springs.
Popeye nodded. "His name is Boo."
The smallest boy kept saying, "Shake," and holding his grubby hand out for Boo to shake hands with him.
Boo was not interested.
"What kinda dog is he?" the boy asked.
"Oh," Popeye said, trying hard to make his trembly voice sound cool and casual-like, "Part this, part that, and part the other thing." That was Velma's line, but Popeye figured some humor was called for now. He grinned at the kids, hoping to calm things down a little with that oldest boy still glaring up at him.
Popeye glanced from kid to kid. They all had the same curly hair. The same dark eyes. The same skinny legs all covered with scabs and mosquito bites. The boys were barefoot and shirtless, their shoulders sunburned and freckled. The girl wore a camouflage T-shirt over a bathing suit and tap shoes. Black tap shoes tied with yellow ribbon and covered with mud.
"Get yourself on down here," the glaring boy said, his fists still jammed into his waist.
Popeye put one foot onto the ladder.
Then he put the other foot onto the ladder.
And then he went down.
"WHAT HAPPENED to your eye?" one of the boys said.
"My uncle, Dooley, shot it with a BB gun."
The boys looked at each other with eye-widened, jaw-dropping glee and said, "Cool!" and "Awesome!" but the girl said, "Eeeyew!"
"Turn your pockets inside out," the oldest boy said. The other kids gathered in a bunch behind him.
"What for?" Popeye said.
"We got checkers and stuff up there." The boy jerked his head toward the roof of the motor home.
"Yeah, and some good rocks," one of the other boys said.
The girl squinted at him. "Did you take our good rocks?" she said.
Popeye turned the pockets of his shorts inside out. Two quarters and a Tootsie Roll fell onto the wet gravel.
The girl darted over and snatched the Tootsie Roll.
"You can have it," Popeye said, picking up the quarters.
"It's all mushy," she said, tossing the gooey candy into the drainage ditch.
It made a ploink noise and disappeared beneath the muddy water.
"What were you doing up there, anyways?" the oldest boy said.
Popeye shrugged. "Just looking."
"Ain't you ever seen a motor home before?"
"Not one like that." Popeye looked over at the shiny, tilted motor home.
"At least, not up close," he added.
"It's a Holiday Rambler," the boy said.
A Holiday Rambler?
Popeye loved the sound of that. "You on vacation?" he asked.
"Heck, no," the boy said. "That's where we live."
"All the time?"
The boy nodded. "All the time."
Popeye had never heard anything so glorious. This gang of scruffy kids lived in that silver motor home with the howling coyote and the lightning bolts.
"Why'd you come to Fayette?" he said.
Elvis shrugged. "Took a wrong turn."
"Where'd you come from?"
"Come from all over."
Popeye remembered one of Velma's vocabulary words.
nomad:noun; a wanderer
Popeye tried to imagine being a nomad in a Holiday Rambler instead of waking up every livelong day in the same old place where nothing ever happened.
"You wanna be in our club?" the girl asked.
The boy whirled around and yelled, "I'm the inviter of this club!" He punched her in the arm with a knuckle, making her jump around and holler.
When she was done hollering, she kicked him in the shin with the metal toe of her tap shoe.
Then they scuffled around in the gravel road for a bit, calling each other names and yanking hair until the girl held her arms up in the air and made peace signs and hollered, "Truce!"
The boy turned to Popeye. "You wanna be in our club?" he said.
"The Spit and Swear Club."
"A club where you spit and swear," the boy said, tossing his head back and spitting in the ditch.
All of the other kids spat in the ditch.
Popeye spat in the ditch.
Then the boy let loose with a string of the most amazing and wonderful swearwords, and all the other kids did the same until the air was filled with the swearingest words Popeye had ever heard. He had always thought his uncle Dooley was pretty good at swearing, but these kids made Dooley look like a harp-strumming angel.
So Popeye joined in, calling swearwords out into the steamy air beside the ditch.
That seemed to please the oldest boy. He looked solemnly at Popeye and said, "Okay, you can be in our club."
Then he pointed at the other kids one by one. "Calvin, Prissy, Walter, Willis, Shorty." He jabbed a thumb at himself and said, "Elvis."
Popeye jabbed a thumb at himself and said, "Popeye."
All the kids started hooting and hollering and poking each other with their elbows and holding their sides and saying, "Popeye?"
Popeye's face grew hot.
Elvis ignored the other kids and slapped a hand on Popeye's shoulder. "I'm making you senior vice president," he said.
"Hey!" Calvin hollered. "I'm senior vice president."
"Not anymore, you ain't," Elvis said.
Calvin clamped his mouth shut tight and glared at Elvis.
Popeye didn't want to make Calvin any madder than he already was, so he tried hard to keep his face serious and not all smiley like he was feeling inside.
He had started this day as a fly-staring, clockwatching, bored boy.
And now here he was, senior vice president of the Spit and Swear Club.CHAPTER 4
POPEYE SAT on the side of the road and waited. The door of the motor home stayed shut. The curtains stayed drawn. No sounds came from inside.
"Guess it's too early," he said to Boo.
Boo's tail brushed back and forth in the weeds, still damp with the morning dew.
Excerpted from The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis by Barbara O'Connor. Copyright © 2009 Barbara O'Connor. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.