Sorta Like a Rock Starby Matthew Quick
Amber Appleton lives in a bus. Ever since her mom's boyfriend kicked them out, Amber, her mom, and her totally loyal dog, Bobby Big Boy (aka Thrice B) have been camped out in the back of Hello Yellow (the school bus her mom drives). Still, Amber, the self-proclaimed princess of hope and girl of unyielding optimism, refuses to sweat the bad stuff. But when a fatal
Amber Appleton lives in a bus. Ever since her mom's boyfriend kicked them out, Amber, her mom, and her totally loyal dog, Bobby Big Boy (aka Thrice B) have been camped out in the back of Hello Yellow (the school bus her mom drives). Still, Amber, the self-proclaimed princess of hope and girl of unyielding optimism, refuses to sweat the bad stuff. But when a fatal tragedy threatens Amber's optimismand her way of life, can Amber continue to be the rock star of hope?
With an oddball cast of characters, and a heartwarming, inspiring story, this novel unveils a beautifully beaten-up world of laughs, loyalty, and hard-earned hope. The world is Amber's stage, and Amber is, well...she's sorta like a rock star. True? True.
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Sorta Like a Rock Star
By Quick, Matthew
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2010 Quick, Matthew
All right reserved.
Feel the Pain
Lying down, shivering on the last seat of school bus 161, pinned by his teensy doggie gaze, which is completely 100% cute—I’m such a girl, I know—I say, “You won’t believe the bull I had to endure today.”
My legs are propped up against the window, toes pointing toward the roof so that the poodle skirt I made in Life Skills class settles around my midsection. Yeah, it’s the twenty-first century and I wear poodle skirts. I like dogs. I’m a freak. So what? And before anybody reading along gets too jazzed up thinking about my skirt flipped up around my waist, my lovely getaway sticks exposed, allow me to say there’s no teenage flesh to be seen here.
I have on two pairs of sweatpants, three pairs of wool socks, two pairs of gloves, a big old hat that covers my freakishly little ears, and three jackets—because I don’t own a proper winter coat and it’s extremely cold sleeping on Hello Yellow through the dismal January nights.
I can see my breath.
Ice sheets form on the windows.
My teeth chatter.
Sometimes I wake up because my lungs hurt so bad from taking in so much freezing air. It’s like gargling chips of dry ice.
My water bottle freezes if I take it out of my inner coat pocket.
Forget about peeing, unless you want to shiver your butt off—literally.
And it’s pretty lonely too.
Because I am holding him up above my head, Bobby Big Boy (Triple B) looks down at me, panting with his perfect pink tongue hanging out of his mouth. His breath stinks like the butts he’s always trying to sniff whenever he’s around any dog women—BBB’s an awful flirt even though he is totally monogamous and loyal to Ms. Jenny—but I want to kiss him anyway, because he is a sexy mutt and the most dependable man I know. He’ll never leave me—ever—which is why I don’t mind the smelly doggie kisses. Plus he’s wearing his dapper plaid coat, which I also made in Life Skills class, and his doggie jacket makes him look beautiful. His hair is mussed around the ears like Brad Pitt, or maybe like he needs a bath, but his eyes are loyal and kind.
As I finish my confession, I keep him waiting, suspended above me, his little legs running like he thinks he’s on a treadmill or something. There’s no rush. We are alone, we have all night, and Bobby Big Boy digs air running above my face.
I’ve been sleeping with Triple B for somewhere around a year now. I found him in a shoebox half starved—no tags. No lie. He looked like a sock that had been flushed down the toilet—having traveled through all those gross pipes—only to be spit out of some sewer grate into a wet orange Nike box set up sideways like some elementary school kid’s diorama. PATHETIC ALMOST DEAD MUTT, the exhibition would have been labeled, had some little tyke taken it into the science fair. Needless to say, I rescued his butt from the curb and nursed him back to health, mostly with scraps of meat I initially stole from Donna’s dinner table until she caught me and started buying BBB dog food.
Did I put up Lost-Dog-Found posters?
I’ll put it to you this way—if I ever meet the people who let Triple B get so skinny, watch out.
Bobby Big Boy is still air-running like a champ, and will keep at it until I lower him.
Regarding time, the parking-lot streetlights go out around eleven, and then there is no reading or writing—because I can’t risk some curious passerby seeing me using a flashlight. That would blow our cover. With no lights—all alone—things can get quite weird, which is why I like to keep Bobby Big Boy around. But it’s only nine-something now, so I’ll have plenty of time to do my homework, after I’m done confessing to Triple B, who doubles as my at-home priest, of course, because Father Chee is only God’s servant and not God, so therefore, not omnipresent. I have priorities, and keeping my soul white with a nightly confession is high up on the list. I’m a pretty good Catholic; I’m still the big V. Momma Mary and me are, like, five-by-five; I’m a holy teenager of God, sucka! And Mom won’t be back until after the bar closes, and maybe not even then. She’s gone a fishin’ for men, as Jesus says.
“Today, I kicked Lex Pinkston in the shin,” I tell 3B, his legs still going like mad, “which I know is a sin, especially since God made man in his own image, so He probably does have sympathetic (divine) shins prone to the unmerciful ache of a swift kick to the holy shin bone, and those Roman thugs probably kicked good old JC in the shins a few times before they nailed Our Lord and Savior to a tree, making Him equally sympathetic to the plaintiff’s case, but before you go telling God all about my sin of punting teenage-boy shin, Father Big Boy, let me stress that there were extenuating circumstances. Lex made Ricky echo something filthy again—and I warned that plebian, Lex, like fifty times—so I let him have it. I kicked him square in the shin, and he started hopping on one leg—his friends laughing like hyenas, or maybe apes. Scratch that. Primates are cute, and way smarter than Childress Public High School football players, who suck and never win any games, because they are too busy being morons.”
I could be wrong but—with his legs still running—Father BBB sorta smiles at my story, like he might even appreciate a good shin-kicking inflicted on an exceptionally evil classmate—which makes Father Thrice B seem almost human for a second. Or maybe I just want him to be human.
So anyway, what happened was… while I was throwing away my trash, Lex told Ricky to tell Ryan Gold that her “boobies are lovely,” which Ricky did, of course—not because he is one of God’s special children but because he is a guy who can get away with such things because he is special—and Ryan Gold turned bright red before she started to cry, because she’s still a prudish virgin pre-woman, like me, and Ricky just started robot laughing—“Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi!”—like he does whenever he is upset and confused, and boy, did it make me mad. Especially since Ricky knows better, and is trying to earn the right to take me to prom. Donna would be devastated if I told her what her only son said today in the cafeteria.
I lower Bobby Big Boy down to my chest. He stops running and licks my under-chin in an effort to console me. The weight of him on my chest makes me feel less alone—sorta loved—which I realize might be whack, but we get love wherever we can, right? At least that’s what Mom says anyway.
“So am I forgiven, Father B3? Off the divine hook? Bark once for yes.”
“Rew!” BBB says, just like I taught him. He’s a good little doggie. Truly.
When I finish writing the above essay, I rip it up and sigh. It kicked apple bottom, and yet I had to rip it up.
Bobby Big Boy runs south, ducks his little head, and burrows up under my jackets and shirts, snuggling up against my barely bumpy pre-woman chest and keeping me quite warm without scratching up my belly so much, because he is a frickin’ gentleman.
Maybe you think I had to rip up the essay because it was sorta a confession, and therefore private, but the truth is that I trust Mr. Doolin, my English teacher, the guy who asked our class to write a slice-of-life story. He’s pretty hip and lets us express the truths of our lives in our writing, gaining our trust so that our words can be more authentic, which is cool of him, because I’m sure our writing honestly—the truth—pisses off some teachers and parents, even though all freaky teenagers keep it real when we can.
Maybe you think I ripped up my essay because I didn’t want to narc out my friend Ricky or those moronic football players, but I don’t really care about narcing them out, because when you say or do repellent stuff in the lunchroom, that’s public knowledge as far as I’m concerned. True? True.
I wouldn’t want to turn in an essay that made Ryan Gold look bad, because she is a nice person, but I would have turned this essay in if Ryan was the only thing stopping me, because sometimes—when it comes to writing—you have to sacrifice the feelings of other people to make a statement. Serve the greater good and all, which Mr. Doolin says almost every day.
But the truth is that I don’t want anyone to know that I am living out of Hello Yellow—that my mom’s last boyfriend, A-hole Oliver, threw us the hell out of his apartment, and that my mom has to save up some dough before we can get four walls of our own. I mean, it’s a pretty pathetic story, and I’m not really all that proud to be my mom’s daughter right now. Homelessness reflects badly on both of us. True? True.
I’m sure there are people who would let us crash at their houses, because the town of Childress is full of good-hearted dudes and dudettes. Word. But charity is for cripples and old people and Mom is sure to come through one of these days. I still have Bobby Big Boy, and Mom still has her job driving Hello Yellow, all of our clothes and stuff fit in the two storage bins between the wheels, below the bus windows, so it’s all good in the hood.
Except that sitting here with my legs up and BBB on my chest, I can’t think of anything else to write about—especially since my original essay was so killer.
The quiet of an empty Hello Yellow can drive you a little nuts.
Bobby Big Boy and I just cuddle until the streetlight blinks out and everything goes black.
I can rest my eyes, but I can’t really sleep until Mom gets back from fishing, because I worry about her.
She’s still pretty.
Bad things happen to pretty women who have daughters like me and can’t afford to do jack crap for ’em, which makes said pretty women desperate for a Prince Charming—only Prince Charmings marry hot young chicks my age, or maybe a little older. Mom’s almost forty, so she’s pretty screwed when it comes to men. Sometimes I like to think about her marrying an old rich dude, who would act all grandfatherly and leave Mom tons of money when he croaked. That would be cool, but it ain’t gonna happen. Truth.
Another thing: Mom’s taste in men is akin to a crackhead’s taste in crack cocaine. Any old hit will do. And it sucks for all nearby loved ones (me) when mi madre is hitting the man-pipe again, because she sorta loses her frickin’ mind—to put it bluntly.
All alone on Hello Yellow, I think about Mom for a long time.
She sucks at being a mom. Emphatically.
She’s so ridiculously irresponsible and socially dumber than Ricky—who is diagnosed with autism—but I still love her. I’m a sucker for love and having a mom in my life. Call me old-fashioned, maudlin, or mawkish.
When I hear Hello Yellow’s front door being keyed into, I freeze and hold my breath.
Should be Mom.
Must be Mom.
What if it’s not Mom?
I’m in a creepy parking lot outside of town; it’s full of eerily similar school buses parked in perfect lines. Too much symmetry can be daunting. There are train tracks on one side of the parking lot and creepy woods on the other. Bad stuff happens by train tracks and in woods, because some men are inherently evil, and left unchecked, these dudes will do bad hooey—at least according to such cool cats as Herman Melville, who illustrated this exact point through that evil Claggart character from Billy Budd, which we just read in my Accelerated American Lit class. The Handsome Sailor. Budd Boy spilling his soup on Claggart in the mess hall—when Billy does that, it’s a metaphor for accidental homosexual ejaculation according to Mr. Doolin, who has coitus on the brain 24/7, and sees a sexual metaphor in just about any old sentence. “Handsome is as handsome did it too.” Herman Melville. Funny stuff. Truly. But being in a bus alone at night near train tracks and woods ain’t so ha-ha, believe me.
Plus there have been a few rape-murders on the outskirts of town lately and the cops haven’t caught the bad guy yet, which has lots of people freaked out and for good reason.
Finally, I cannot take it and completely blow any chance I have of surviving an encounter with the local psychopath, mostly because I am only seventeen, and a chick, even if I am a junior now. “Mom?” I say.
“Amber? Did I wake you up?”
Whew. It’s Mom. “No. Some crazy lumberjack train conductor was just about to abduct me and make me his slave, but you scared him off. Thanks.”
“That’s not even remotely funny.”
“How was fishin’ fo’ men, any bites?”
“A good man is hard to find.”
“Damn skippy,” my mother says, like a used-up chippie who will never find her Prince Charming, but you can tell—by the tone of her voice—that Mom is faking something, trying to sound hopeful enough to make her daughter feel as though she will not be sleeping on a school bus forever, so I give her a little credit. She’s had a harrowing life.
“Always tomorrow,” I say through the darkness, as my mom pats my forehead like I am Bobby Big Boy. I like dogs, so I do not take offense.
“Does your puppy need to go out before I hit the hay?”
“Bob probably could squirt a few drops.”
“Please don’t call him Bob.”
“That’s his name.”
“Your father was—best to forget him, and—”
“Well, Bob here has to take a squirt, and I have school tomorrow, so can we skip the broken-record talk and get doggie duty over with, please? I can’t sleep without my pup.”
“Come on, little dog,” Mom says, clapping her hands. And Bob bursts forth from my pre-woman chest, widening the neck holes of—like—four shirts, and scratching the hell out of my neck. He loves to piss. It’s his favorite.
“Use his leash!” I yell, because I don’t want 3B to get lost in the dark.
“Okay,” Mom says, but I know she doesn’t use the leash, because I’m on it—it’s under my butt.
My mom lies to me all the time. She sorta has a problem. She is a fabricator of falsehoods. Or maybe she is just drunk again, which is no excuse.
Sometimes when I am losing faith in Mom—which is, like, all the time lately—I like to think about one of the top-seven all-time Amber-and-her-mom moments. These are little videos I have stored in my brain—all documenting the mom I knew before she sorta gave up on life, before Oliver broke Mom’s spirit and got her drinking so heavily. Here’s the number-seven all-time Amber-and-her-mom moment:
Back in the 80s—when Mom was in high school—she was a big-time softball player who helped her team win a state championship, which was the highlight of her entire life. She used to talk about softball all the time, and even used to play on a local bar team in a beer league. I used to go and watch Mom play softball against fat men with huge beer bellies and foul mouths. There were only a few other women who played in the league, and Mom was a million times better than all of them. Mom was better than most of the men too, for the record. She couldn’t hit the ball that far, but she knew how to hit through the holes in the infield, and she was one hell of a second-base woman—never making any errors.
Anyway, when I was a little girl, Mom got it in her head that she would train me and make me into a killer softball player just like her, so she took me to the sports store and bought me a glove and a bat and a ball and a hat and cleats and even a pair of batting gloves, even though I hadn’t asked for any of these things. This was well after my dad took off on us, and we never had all that much money, so this purchase was sorta a big deal, which I understood even as a little girl, so I just went along with the idea, even though I really didn’t want to play softball.
The next day, Mom took me and all of my new gear to the park. She showed me how to swing a bat and throw and catch a ball, but—even though she was a really good coach—I just couldn’t get the hang of any of it, and trying made me feel like a complete idiot. For weeks I swung the bat and never hit any of the balls Mom threw me; all of the balls she hit went over my head, through my legs, and occasionally nailed me in the face or stomach, and all of my throws went to the right or left of Mom or hit her feet. Mom never yelled at me or anything like that, but after a few weeks of steady failure, after swinging the bat and missing for the bazillionth time, standing at home plate, I burst into tears.
Mom ran off the mound and toward me. She picked me up and kissed me on the cheek. “Amber, this doesn’t happen overnight—you have to work at it if you want to be a good softball player. It takes lots of practice. It took me years!”
“But I don’t want to be a good softball player. I hate softball. I really do.”
Mom looked me in the eye, and I could tell that she was surprised by this news—I could tell she had never even once thought that maybe I wouldn’t want to play softball.
“I never want to play softball ever again!” I yelled. “Never again. I hate this! All of it!”
“Okay,” Mom said.
“What?” I said, shocked, because I thought that Mom would make me keep trying, because that’s what adults usually do.
“Amber, it’s just a game. I thought you might like it, but if you don’t want to play, well then, you don’t have to play softball.”
“You won’t be mad at me?”
“Why would I be mad at you?” Mom said, and then laughed.
“Because you spent all that money on equipment, and now I don’t want to play softball.”
“If you don’t want to play, you don’t want to play. It’s okay.”
We left the field, got some Italian hoagies at the local deli, and ate by the lake sitting on a park bench. We fed parts of our rolls to ducks, and it was really nice to just sit with my mom after telling her how I felt. It was good to know that I could tell my mom what I truly felt inside and still be able to feed ducks with her afterward. I really love ducks. I like watching them waddle around on land, and their quacking noises crack me up. True.
I remember the sun reflected in the lake so brightly, it hurt to look at the orange water.
“Thanks for not forcing me to keep playing softball,” I said.
Mom put her arm around me.
She never ever again tried to make me play sports, although we ate many more hoagies on that bench and fed flocks of ducks for years to come—and the feeding-ducks memories are something I truly treasure.
Back in the present moment, when Mom and BBB don’t return to Hello Yellow right away, I’m just about to get up and take care of business myself, making sure my best friend doesn’t get eaten by a rogue coyote or some other dastardly carnivorous mammal, but then Bobby Big Boy is tearing through Hello Yellow, jumping up into my shirts again, warming my belly and chest, and all is well under the comforter Mom had thrown over me before she left the bus, even though I had left it out on the adjacent seat for her, because we have only one comforter.
Bobby Big Boy’s pretty warm from running around and a little lighter without a bladder full of pee. I hear my mom lock up Hello Yellow and then walk toward me.
“This is only temporary, Amber,” Mom says.
“I like it. It’s like camping, only on a school bus, and without fattening marshmallows, a cancer-causing campfire, or the pesky Kum-Ba-Yah singing.”
“Did you get enough food today?”
This question pisses me off, especially since she probably blew what little dough she makes on cigarettes and vodka tonight, providing no dinner whatsoever for me or B Thrice. Mom only works four hours a day at nine dollars an hour, and she’d happily buy you a drink at some crappy bar before she’d buy a meal for herself or me. So depressing.
“Watching my figure,” I say, stealing Franks’ joke, “but Bobby Big Boy had a steak I swiped from Donna’s dinner table.”
“Ms. Roberts,” Mom corrects me, because the drunk has some sardonic notion of proper etiquette when it comes to surnames.
“Right,” I say, like a total bitch, because I can be a cat.
My mother kisses me on the forehead real nice, says, “Sweet dreams, my love,” and so I let go of the day’s frustrations, push my palms together into prayer position, and I silently hold up all the people and dogs in this world who I absolutely positively know need me to pray for them: Mom, 3B, Ricky, Donna, Franks, Chad, Jared, Ty, Door Woman Lucy, Old Man Linder (my manager), Old Man Thompson, Joan of Old and all of the old people down in the Methodist home, Father Chee, The Korean Divas for Christ, Mr. Doolin, Private Jackson, Ms. Jenny, Prince Tony, the Childress Public High School faculty, and the whole damn town of Childress, even the football team, even Lex Pinkston, EVEN my absentee biological father, Bob, who may or may not even be alive for all I know—I hold them all up to JC in my prayers, asking God to help everyone be who they need to be, and then I simply listen to Mom breathe across the aisle until Triple B and I find sleepy land together, and I dream of the real bed on which Bobby Big Boy and I will rest one day. My future bed’s going to be an ocean of mattress, maybe even a queen-size, sucka! Word.
Excerpted from Sorta Like a Rock Star by Quick, Matthew Copyright © 2010 by Quick, Matthew. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Matthew Quick (aka Q) is the author of The Silver Linings Playbook (Sarah Crichton Books / Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and three young adult novels, Sorta Like a Rock Star, Boy21, and Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock (Little, Brown & Co.). His work has received many honorsincluding a PEN/Hemingway Award Honorable Mentionbeen translated into many languages, and called "beautiful...first-rate" by The New York Times Book Review. The Weinstein Company and David O. Russell have adapted The Silver Linings Playbook into a film starring Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence. Matthew lives in Massachusetts with his wife, novelist Alicia Bessette. His website is www.matthewquickwriter.com.
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