Read an Excerpt
By JOAN BAUER
speak Copyright © 2002 Joan Bauer
All right reserved.
Chapter One "And where is home this week?"
Mrs. Pierce, the school administrative assistant, asked him this.
His brain blistered.
"Your parents didn't fill out the multiple-residence sheet that we sent to them in the fall. We need to know where you are, and when, for emergencies."
She handed him a form with multiple boxes for two home addresses, two business addresses, faxes, e-mails, cell phones, beepers.
He handed her the monthlong schedule his mother had given him-color-coordinated for each week (yellow for when he would be living with her, blue for when he would be living with his father).
When life got tough, his mother got organized.
Mrs. Pierce looked at the schedule. "Will this be changing monthly?"
He shifted. "Yes."
"You'll be getting a new schedule monthly?" She had a too-loud voice.
"You'll need to bring that by the office on the first of the month. And we need to know who is the custodial parent-your mother or father."
"They're doing it together even though they're divorced." He said this quietly.
"If your parents are co-custodians, then that's a different form."
She handed him that form.
"Is there one parent who should be contacted with all school issues?"
He sighed. "They kind of take turns."
She handed him a form for that. "If both parents want to be contacted on any issue, it makes it a little more difficult for us. If they both want to receive your report cards, we need to know that, too."
He didn't want anyone to receive his report cards. He wished there was a form for that.
Mr. Cosgrove, the school janitor, was fixing a squeaky door. He took out his little can of oil, squirted a few drops in the hinges. Opened it, closed it. Instantly fixed.
Mr. Cosgrove could fix anything.
"Is there anything else?" Mrs. Pierce shoved her reading glasses low on her nose.
He wondered if oil worked on administrative assistants.
"Oh, yes," she snipped. "Who will be receiving the invoice for school trips?"
She gazed up at him, way up.
He bent his knees to seem shorter.
"I don't know," he said.
"That can be put on this form-from C-which you can attach to form D, which covers any emergency medical care you might require when you are off school property but participating in school activities, like athletics. And if both your parents want to receive an audiocassette of the principal's nondenominational holiday address, they need to put an X in that box. I think that's it. The newsletter comes out quarterly and can also be mailed to grandparents and other interested parties."
"My grandpa lives with my dad."
"That saves us on postage. I'll need those back by Friday."
He looked at the forms in his hand.
There it was in black and white, just how complicated his life had become.
He stood in front of the huge white oak tree in the middle of Ripley Memorial Park. It was tall and thick with serious bark.
An oak with attitude.
He cocked his head, stretched his long arms out, imitating the tree, and froze.
He'd seen a street performer do this in New York City-the man drew a big crowd. Every so often the man would move slightly. People put money in his hat.
Mrs. Clitter walked by with her granddaughter and stopped.
He didn't move, didn't breathe.
They looked up at him for the longest time.
He moved his right hand a little.
Then his left.
The little girl giggled.
Mrs. Clitter said, "Now, where'd you learn to do that?"
He said nothing. Part of the act.
Winked at the little girl, who grinned.
He had an itch, but didn't scratch it. Mrs. Clitter moved off, laughing. He lifted his leg slightly, wiggled it.
"You say a big hello to that grandfather of yours," she shouted. Mrs. Clitter was in love with his grandfather. "You tell him I'm going to do everything I know to do to help him in his time of need." His grandfather, currently in the Veterans Administration Hospital in Baltimore, had his right leg removed just below the knee two weeks ago. His grandfather usually hid when he saw Mrs. Clitter coming. This was harder to do with half a leg, but he was working on it.
The little girl waved good-bye and crossed the bridge with her grandmother.
He straightened to full height-six feet, three and a half inches.
He was the tallest seventh-grade boy in the history of Eleanor Roosevelt Middle School.
The tallest twelve-year-old boy anyone in Ripley had ever seen.
Now you know why people called him Tree.
It had been years since anyone had called him by his read name, Sam. Jeremy Liggins had first called him Tree in fourth grade. Jeremy was one of those emperor athletes who got to do whatever he wanted. He'd stood on the baseball diamond and renamed half the class, like Adam named the animals in the Bible.
Jeremy's friends got the cool names.
When it came to nonathlete nobodies, the names got harder.
He'd gotten used to the name. Considered the white oak.
Some of its roots protruded from the ground-fat roots that wound around rocks.
He had studied the root systems of trees. Figured if he was going to be called one, he should at least know how they worked.
He'd learned this from his grandfather, who could fix almost anything except Tree's parents' marriage. "You've got to take a thing apart to see what it's made of," his grandpa always said.
So he learned how roots could go as deep in the ground as a tree's branches grow tall.
How they suck up nutrients from the earth like a boy slurps a milk shake through a straw. How the bark protects the tree's insides like skin protects people.
How being a tree is the best thing going in the plant world. People expect trees to be strong and steady and give good shade.
Tallness is packed with great expectations.
He picked up his duffel bag, remembered what he'd forgotten to pack.
Now that he was living every other week at different houses, he always forgot to pack something.
His warm gloves were at his mother's house.
His good sneakers were, too. He needed them for basketball practice, but it would take a lot more than sneakers to make him good at the game.
He couldn't remember if he packed underwear.
His personal park squirrel, Nuts, came a foot away to greet him. Nuts had half an ear, so he was easy to spot. He was more nervous than the other squirrels. Tree always wondered what happened to him. A dysfunctional childhood, probably.
"Hey Nuts." Tree took out a bag of almonds, tossed one to the squirrel. "How's life in the park?"
Nuts shook a little, ate the food.
"You being treated okay? Because if anything's hassling you, you give me a call."
He threw the squirrel another nut.
A strong, cold wind whipped through the park. He'd been playing here, walking here for so many years. But since his parents got divorced, it felt like a different place.
Up the stairs to the north was where he'd go when he was staying at his mom's new house.
Across the footbridge to the south was where his dad and grandfather still lived.
So much had changed since the summer.
Including the white oak.
Its fat green leaves had turned red in the fall, then shriveled up. The acorns had fallen off, picked up by squirrels getting ready for winter.
It was winter in his life, too, and not just because it was December.
He started walking toward his father's house, past a lone Salvation Army trumpeter playing Christmas carols. Fished in his pocket, found a dollar, put it in the red bucket.
Mrs. Stench's dog, Fang, trotted toward him, barking mean.
"Fang, be nice." Mrs. Stench yanked on the expanding leash, lurched forward.
Fang ran up to the white oak, lifted his leg, and peed on the noble gray bark.
Tree sighed deep; cold air came out.
Being a tree isn't easy.
Chapter Two Tree sat at the computer in his father's dining room.
Typed in heymom.com.
Up on the screen came the smiling face of his mother. A bouncing bird flitted across a cloud that read Thought for the day.
The cloud morphed into Divorce ended our marriage, but our loving family will never end. This was a big theme that Tree's parents were trying to get across.
A little Christmas tree appeared on the screen. An elf was underneath it.
19 Days Till Christmas appeared over the tree. I can't wait. The elf giggled.
This would be the first Christmas since the divorce.
The computer screen flickered.
Up popped his mother's schedule. She was in Boston for three days teaching computer seminars, but she was reachable by beeper, cell phone, and e-mail for anything he needed.
He pictured his mother beeping, ringing, and whirring all at once.
Remembered all the hours she put in when she was going to school to become a computer whiz. She'd sit at this machine, working late into the night.
Went from teaching aerobics to running computer seminars in three and a half years. Once his mom got interested in something, she'd learn everything about it that she could.
She'd done that with divorce, too.
A letter from his mother appeared on the screen.
Dear Curtis, Larry, and Tree, it began.
Curtis and Larry were his big brothers, both away at college.
I've been collecting thoughts about Christmas. I'd like us to talk about our feelings in the midst of so much change.
Tree didn't like talking about his feelings.
A wreath came up on the screen.
Then the words: Change is part of life. It is the healthy family that learns to adapt to change that prepares each member for our ever-changing, complex world.
And here's the first question we can discuss. How are we all feeling this Christmas season?
In the response section was a three-word reply from Larry, a freshman at Penn State.
I've got gas, Larry wrote.
Tree started laughing. He could see his mother's smile getting tight when she read that.
Very funny, she'd replied. Humor is one of the ways to diffuse feelings of alienation and frustration at the holidays.
Then up on the screen was a response from his brother Curtis, a sophomore at the University of New Hampshire.
I've got more gas than you.
Tree really laughed now. He knew his mom was trying to reach out, but how she did it sometimes was hard.
His mother wrote, It's certainly nice you're learning such cogent ways of communicating at college. It's certainly nice that you've bothered to respond at all.
Tree tried to think of what he could write back. He ate some barbecue potato chips, burped twice. Maybe I've got more gas than anybody.
Tree really broke up at this and wished his best friend, Sully Devo, was here. Sully had the best laugh of anyone Tree knew. Sully would laugh so hard, he'd fall off a chair and say, "You're killing me, you're killing me," then he'd pull himself together, sit down, and start cracking up all over again.
He clicked on the elf. "Deck the Halls" began to play in that computer-generated musical way.
He shut the computer down. Watched his mother's cyber self disappear from the screen.
On-line quality time, she called it.
He looked at the empty wall where the big hutch used to be.
His mother had taken it when she moved out. The shadows of where it had been remained. His dad said they were going to get a new hutch, but they hadn't vet.
His dad said they were going to repaint the downstairs so the darkened places on the walls where the pictures had hung-the ones his mother took when she moved out-would be gone.
They hadn't done that, either.
Divorce casts so many shadows.
Tree and his brothers had helped her move out.
Their old dog, Bradley, kept going up to Tree's mother to get rubbed, and every time he did, she'd start to cry. Bradley tried to climb in the U-Haul truck, but Tree's father dragged him back into the house.
Tree's grandpa spoke for everyone: "My God, Jan, I'm going to miss you like crazy."
It was like a sci-fi movie where someone is there one minute, gone the next.
Curtis said he'd seen the breakup coming.
Larry knew Mom was going to leave Dad, too.
Tree sure hadn't. It was like watching floodwaters burst through a dam he'd always expected to hold.
Tree tried to understand how his parents went from seeming okay, but kind of bored and crabby, to living in different houses.
They'd waited to get divorced until Larry had gone to college.
Why hadn't they waited for Tree to go, too?
He stretched his long legs out. His muscles were sore, which meant he was growing more.
He wondered when he'd stop. He'd been wondering that for years.
In first grade when he sat on a stool for the class picture while the other kids stood around him.
In second grade when Mr. Cosgrove had to add another panel to the "How Tall Am I?" poster just for him.
In third grade when he got stuck in a desk and Mr. Cosgrove had to pry him out.
In fourth grade when he played a kind tree in the school play and no one had to sit on his shoulders to be the branches.
In fifth grade when he was Frankenstein at the Women's Auxiliary's House of Horrors and scared Timmy Bigelow's sister so bad, she peed in her pants.
In sixth grade when he was taller than his teachers and the principal.
And this year, seventh grade, when he just sat in the back at the table because he was too big for the desks.
The back table wasn't so bad.
Bradley padded over, put his paw in Tree's hand. Bradley understood when people needed comfort. The older and slower Bradley got, the more he seemed to know.
Tree scratched Bradley's head, massaged his neck like the vet showed him.
"We've got to practice your trick."
Tree walked into the kitchen, Bradley followed. Tree got out a large dog biscuit from the canister.
Tree got the picture he'd drawn of a sitting dog balancing a biscuit on his nose. He showed it to Bradley, who looked at it. Tree had invented this method of dog training.
"Okay, that's what you're going to do. Ready?"
Tree balanced the biscuit on Bradley's nose, put his hand out in the stay command. Bradley sat still, balancing it, as Tree timed him with his watch.
People think you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but an old dog is going to pay attention when you're doing something serious.
After forty-five seconds, the biscuit dropped, Bradley ate it.
He made Bradley his dinner, put it on the floor. He made two serious submarine sandwiches with extra meat and cheese, put them in a bag.
A car horn outside.
"That's my ride, Bradley. I've got to go see Grandpa."
Bradley looked up, wagged his tail.
Seeing Grandpa was the best part of the week for just about anybody.
Excerpted from STAND TALL by JOAN BAUER Copyright © 2002 by Joan Bauer . Excerpted by permission.
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.