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Smells Like Dog
By Selfors, Suzanne
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Copyright © 2010 Selfors, Suzanne
All right reserved.
THE PUDDING FARM
Breakfast with the Puddings
What Homer Pudding didn’t know on that breezy Sunday morning, as he carried a pail of fresh goat milk across the yard, was that his life was about to change.
In a big way.
What he did know was this: That the country sky was its usual eggshell blue, that the air was its usual springtime fresh, and that his chores were their usual boring, boring, boring.
For how exciting can it be cleaning up after goats? And that’s what Homer had done for most of his twelve years. Each year his chore list grew longer, taking more time away from the thing that he’d rather do. The one thing. The only thing. But it was not playing football, or riding a bike. Not swimming, or fishing, or building a fort.
If he didn’t have to rake goat poop, or change straw bedding, or chase goats out of the flower bed, Homer Winslow Pudding would have more time to dream about the day when he’d become a famous treasure hunter like his uncle.
“Daydreaming doesn’t have any place on a farm,” his father often told him. “There’s too much work to be done.”
But Homer dreamed anyway.
Mrs. Pudding waved from the kitchen window. She needed the milk for her morning coffee. Homer picked up his pace, his rubber boots kicking up fallen cherry blossoms. As he stumbled across a gnarled root, a white wave splashed over the side of the bucket. Warm goat milk ran down his sleeve and dribbled onto the grass where it was quickly lapped up by the farm’s border collies.
“Careful there,” Mr. Pudding called as he strode up the driveway, gravel crunching beneath his heavy work boots. He tucked the Sunday newspaper under his arm. “Your mother will be right disappointed if she don’t get her milk.”
Homer almost fell over, his legs tangled in a mass of licking dogs. “Go on,” he said. The dogs obeyed. The big one, named Max, scratched at a flea that was doing morning calisthenics on his neck. Max was a working dog, like the others, trained to herd the Puddings’ goats. He even worked on Sundays while city dogs slept in or went on picnics. Every day is a workday on a farm.
And that’s where this story begins—on the Pudding Goat Farm. A prettier place you’d be hard pressed to find. If you perched at the top of one of the cherry trees you’d see a big barn that sagged in the middle as if a giant had sat on it, a little farmhouse built from river rocks, and an old red truck. Look farther and you’d see an endless tapestry of rolling hills, each painted a different hue of spring green. “Heaven on earth,” Mrs. Pudding often said. Homer didn’t agree. Surely in heaven there wouldn’t be so many things to fix and clean and haul.
The dogs stayed outside while Mr. Pudding and Homer slipped off their boots and went into the kitchen. Because the Pudding family always ate breakfast together at the kitchen table, it was the perfect place to share news and ask questions like, Whatcha gonna do at school today? or Who’s gonna take a bath tonight? or Why is that dead squirrel lying on the table?
“Because I’m gonna stuff it.”
“Gwendolyn Maybel Pudding. How many times have I told you not to put dead things on the kitchen table?” Mr. Pudding asked as he hung his cap on a hook.
“I don’t know,” Gwendolyn grumbled, tossing her long brown hair.
Homer set the milk pail on the counter, then washed his hands at the sink. His little brother, who everybody called Squeak, but whose legal name was Pip, tugged at Homer’s pant leg. “Hi, Homer.”
Homer looked down at the wide-eyed, freckled face. “Hi, Squeak,” he said, patting his brother’s head. Squeak may have been too young to understand Homer’s dreams, but he was always happy to listen to stories about sunken pirate ships or lost civilizations.
“Get that squirrel off the table,” Mr. Pudding said, also washing his hands at the sink.
Gwendolyn picked up the squirrel by its tail. The stiff body swung back and forth like the arm of a silent metronome. “I don’t see why it’s such a problem.”
“It’s dead, that’s why it’s a problem. I eat on that table so I don’t want dead things lying on it.”
Confrontations between Gwendolyn and Mr. Pudding had become a daily event in the Pudding household, ever since last summer when Gwendolyn had turned fifteen and had gotten all moody. In the same breath she might laugh, then burst into tears, then sink into a brooding silence. She befuddled Homer. But most girls befuddled Homer.
He took his usual seat at the end of the pine plank table, hoping that the argument wouldn’t last too long. He wanted to finish his chores so he could get back to reading his new map. It had arrived yesterday in a cardboard tube from the Map of the Month Club, a Christmas gift from Uncle Drake. Homer had stayed up late studying the map, but as every clever treasure hunter knows, a map can be read a thousand times and still hide secrets. He’d studied an Incan temple map eighty-two times before discovering the hidden passage below the temple’s well. “Excellent job,” his uncle Drake had said. “I would never have found that at your age. You’re a natural born treasure hunter.”
But the new map would have to wait because the morning argument was just gathering steam. Clutching the squirrel, Gwendolyn peered over the table’s edge. It wasn’t that she was short. It was just that she almost always sat slumped real low in her chair, like a melted person, and all anyone saw during meals was the top of her head. “You eat dead things all the time and you eat them on this table so I don’t see the difference.” She glared at her father.
“Now Gwendolyn, if you’re going to talk back to your father, please wait until we’ve finished eating,” Mrs. Pudding said. She stood at the stove stirring the porridge. “Let’s try to have breakfast without so much commotion, like a normal family.”
“And without dead squirrels,” Mr. Pudding added, taking his seat at the head of the table. “Or dead frogs, or dead mice, or dead anything.”
“But I’ve got to practice. If I don’t learn how to make dead animals look like they ain’t dead, then how will I get a job as a Royal Taxidermist at the Museum of Natural History?”
“Gwendolyn said ain’t,” Squeak said, climbing next to Homer. “That’s bad.”
Mr. Pudding shook his head—a slow kind of shake that was heavy with worry. “Royal Taxidermist for the Museum of Natural History. What kind of job is that? Way off in The City, with all that noise and pollution. With all that crime and vagrancy. That’s no place for a Pudding.”
“Uncle Drake moved to The City,” Gwendolyn said, emphasizing her point with a dramatic sweep of the squirrel. “And he’s doing right fine.”
“How do you know?” Mr. Pudding asked with a scowl. “We don’t even know where he lives in The City. All he’s given us is a post office box for an address. And we haven’t heard a word from him since his last visit. Not a letter. Not a postcard. What makes you think he’s doing right fine?”
“No news is good news,” Mrs. Pudding said. She set bowls of porridge in front of Mr. Pudding and Squeak, then set a bowl for Gwendolyn. “Now stop arguing, you two, and eat your breakfast. And put away that squirrel.”
Gwendolyn stomped her foot, then tucked the squirrel under her chair.
As Mr. Pudding stirred his porridge, steam rose from the bowl and danced beneath his chin. “I told him not to go. The City’s no place for a Pudding. That’s what I told him. But he said he had important matters to tend to. Said he had to find out about that pirate, Stinky somebody or other.”
“Rumpold Smeller,” Homer corrected, suddenly interested in the conversation. “Duke Rumpold Smeller of Estonia became a very famous pirate. His treasure has never been found. Uncle Drake wants to be the first person to find it.”
Mr. Pudding groaned. Gwendolyn rolled her eyes.
“Eat your porridge, Homer,” Mrs. Pudding said, setting an overflowing bowl in front of him. Then she planted a smooch on the top of his curly-haired head.
Mr. Pudding motioned to his wife. Though she bent close to him and though he whispered in her ear, everyone at the table could hear. “Why’d you give him so much? Don’t you think he’s getting kind of… chunky?”
She put her hands on her hips. “He’s a growing boy. He needs to eat.” Then she smiled sweetly at Homer.
Now, Mrs. Pudding loved all three of her children equally, like any good mother. But love can be expressed in different ways. For instance, Mrs. Pudding knew that her eldest child had a mind of her own, so she gave Gwendolyn lots of room to be an individual. Mrs. Pudding knew that her youngest child wanted to be helpful, so she gave Squeak lots of encouragement and praise. And Mrs. Pudding knew, and it broke her heart to know, that her middle child was friendless, so she gave Homer extra helpings of food and more kisses than anyone else in the house.
“Growing boy,” Mr. Pudding grumbled. “How’s he ever gonna fit in if he can’t run as fast as the other boys? If all he talks about is treasure hunting? It’s my brother’s fault, filling his head with all that nonsense.”
It’s not nonsense, Homer thought, shoveling porridge into his mouth. So what if he didn’t fit in with the other boys? All they cared about was fighting and getting into trouble. He pulled the bowl closer. And so what if he was chunky? A true treasure hunter would never pass up the chance to eat a warm breakfast. Near starvation while stranded on a deserted island had forced more than a few treasure hunters to eat their own toes.
“I like twesure,” Squeak said, porridge dribbling down his chin.
“I like treasure, too,” Homer said.
Mr. Pudding drummed his calloused fingers on the table. “Could we go just one meal without talking about finding treasure? Or stuffing dead animals? I don’t know where I went wrong with you children.”
Mrs. Pudding poured herself a cup of coffee, then added a ladle of fresh milk. “There’s nothing wrong with having interests.”
“Interests?” Mr. Pudding scratched the back of his weathered neck. “Stuffing dead animals and finding lost treasure—what kind of interests are those? Why can’t they be interested in goat farming? Is that too much to ask? Who’s gonna run this farm when I’m too old to run it?”
“Me,” Squeak said. “I like goats.”
As sweet as that sounded, it gave Mr. Pudding no peace of mind. Squeak was only five years old. Yesterday he had wanted to be a dragon-slayer.
“Goat farming’s honest, solid work,” Mr. Pudding said, dumping brown sugar on his porridge. “You children don’t understand the importance of honest, solid work.”
Gwendolyn rolled her eyes again. Then she sank deeper, until her bottom was hanging off the edge of her chair. Homer was bored by the conversation again. He tried to dig a hole in his porridge but the sides kept caving in—like trying to dig for treasure in mud.
Now, Mr. Pudding loved all three of his children equally, like any good father. But he didn’t believe that giving them extra room to be individuals, or giving extra encouragement or extra food and kisses, did much good. Solid work meant a solid life, which in turn meant a roof, and a bed, and food on the table. What could be more important than that?
Mr. Pudding pushed his empty bowl aside, then unrolled the Sunday City Paper. “Wouldn’t surprise me one bit if I started reading and found out that my brother had been robbed or had fallen into a manhole. I’m sure something terrible’s gonna happen to him. The City’s a terrible place.”
As he read, muttering and shaking his head, the children finished their breakfast. Gwendolyn carried her bowl to the sink, as did Homer.
“Mom, when I’m done cleaning the stalls, can I go read my new map?” Homer asked.
“Of course.” Mrs. Pudding kissed Homer’s soft cheek, then whispered in his ear. “I believe in you, Homer. I know you’ll find treasure one day.”
Homer looked into his mother’s brown eyes with their big flecks of gold—like coins half-buried in the sand. When he became a famous treasure hunter, he’d give all the jewels to her so she could wear a different necklace every day and buy new dresses and shoes. And one of those fancy crowns that beauty queens wear.
But chores came first. He started for the kitchen door when Mr. Pudding waved the newspaper and hollered, “I knew it! I knew something terrible would happen to him!”
Excerpted from Smells Like Dog by Selfors, Suzanne Copyright © 2010 by Selfors, Suzanne. Excerpted by permission.
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