Read an Excerpt
By Betsy Byars
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Betsy Byars
All rights reserved.
"Yes," he lied.
"Well, why don't you come down and study in front of the television? It'll take your mind off what you're doing," his mother called.
He didn't answer. He bent over the sheet of paper on his table. He was intent.
"Did you hear me, Alfie?"
"I heard," he called without glancing up.
"Well, come on down." She turned and spoke to Alma. "Who's the announcer that says that on TV? It's some game show. He says, 'Come on downnn,' and people come running down the aisle to guess the prices."
"I don't know, Mom. I don't watch that junk," Alma said.
"But you know who I'm talking about. Alfie Mason, come on downnnn!"
Alfie didn't answer. He was drawing a comic strip called "Super Bird."
In the first square a man was scattering birdseed from a bag labeled "Little Bird Seed." In the next square little birds were gobbling up the seeds.
In the third square the man was scattering birdseed from a bag labeled "Big Bird Seed." In the next square big birds were gobbling up the seeds.
In the fifth square the man was scattering huge lumps from a bag labeled "Giant Bird Seed." In the last square a giant bird was gobbling up the little man.
There was a smile on Alfie's face as he looked at what he had done. At the top of the drawing he lettered in the words Super Bird. He was going to do twelve of these super comic strips, he had decided, one for each month. When he got through, he would call it "Super Calendar." Maybe he would get it published, and later, when he learned how, he would animate "Super Bird," make it into a film. Whenever he drew something, he always saw it in motion.
"Alfie?" his mom called again.
"I'm busy, Mom. I'm studying."
"Well, supper's ready."
"Come down right now."
"I am. I just want to get my papers in order. If I leave them in a mess, sometimes I can't ..." He trailed off.
He now had two strips for his calendar. "Super Bird" and "Super Caterpillar." He didn't know which he liked best. He looked from one to the other, comparing them.
In the first square of "Super Caterpillar," a giant caterpillar was happily eating New York City. In the second square he was happily eating New York State. In the third he was happily eating the world. In the last square, he was unhappily falling through space, his stomach a big round ball. Alfie was especially pleased with the expression in Super Caterpillar's eyes as he tumbled helplessly through space.
"Alfie!" his mother called loudly. Alfie knew she was at the foot of the ladder now. She rattled the ladder as if she were trying to shake him down. "I'm coming up there and pull you down by the ear if you don't come this minute."
He got up quickly and turned his papers face down on the table. He started for the ladder that led downstairs.
Coming down from the attic was like getting off one of those rides at the amusement park, Alfie thought. It left him feeling strange, as if he had moved not from one part of the house to another but from one experience to another without time to get his balance.
Alfie and his family had been living in this house for seven months, and when Alfie had first seen it he had thought of that old rhyme about the crooked man who lived in a crooked house. Nothing about this house was straight. It had started as two rooms, and then another room had been added. A kitchen had been made from the back porch. The roof was three different colors. The doors were crooked and so were the windows. The floors slanted. If you set a ball on the floor, it would roll to the wall. The house had been built by three different men, none of whom had ever had a lesson in carpentry.
The only thing Alfie liked about the house was the attic. That was his. He had put an old chair and a card table up there, and he had a lamp with an extension cord that went down into the living room. Nobody ever went up but Alfie. Once his sister, Alma, had started up the ladder, but he had said, "No, I don't want anybody up there."
She'd paused on the ladder. "Why not?"
"Because ..." He had hesitated, trying to find words to express his meaning. "Because," he said finally, "I want it to be mine."
Alma had nodded. She understood how important it was to have things of your own because their mother used everything of Alma's from her cosmetics to her shoes.
Now Alfie closed the trap door, easing it down because it was heavy. He climbed down into the living room.
"I don't know what you do up there," his mom said, watching him.
"Well, it's not healthy—no windows, no air. I keep expecting you to smother. Mr. Wilkins has an old window in his garage. Maybe I could get him to—"
"I like it just the way it is," Alfie said quickly.
"Well, you ought to be more like Bubba," she said, eyeing him critically. "When he was your age he was outside every day, passing a football, dribbling a basketball—"
"Stealing a baseball," Alma added.
His mother ignored Alma. "You're never going to be on a team."
"That's true," he said.
"But, Alfie, everybody wants to be on a team!" She broke off, then said tiredly, "Now, where's Pap? Get him, Alfie. Tell him supper's ready but don't tell him it's Sloppy Joes or he won't come."
Alfie went out the back door. He knew his grandfather would be sitting in the yard, reading yesterday's newspaper.
"Supper's ready," he said to his grandfather's back.
His grandfather was hunched over the paper, muttering to himself as he read. "Look at that, will you?"
Alfie knew he wasn't expected to look, just listen. He leaned against the side of the door. "What's happened?" he asked.
"The President of the United States," Pap said, his voice heavy with disgust, "has given away twenty million bushels of grain to the Russians."
"He didn't give it to them, Pap?"
"As good as. And you know who's going to pay, don't you?" He looked around, his heavy brows drawn low over his eyes. Then his brows jumped up as if they were on strings. "You and me."
"Yeah," Alfie said.
His grandfather turned back to the newspaper, looking for something else that would irritate him. "Ha," he said, finding something. He circled the important articles with a yellow Magic Marker. "Listen here. The state highway department is going busted. They're going to be six million dollars in debt by the end of the year if the state senate don't bail them out."
"Pap, supper's ready," he said quietly.
"And you know who's really going to bail them out, don't you?"
"You and me."
"Yeah, you and me who don't even own a car." He snapped the newspaper back into place. "I built me a car when I wasn't much older than you. Did I ever tell you about it?"
"Stole all the parts. It never cost me a cent."
"It wouldn't run, though."
"I had one ride in it. Best car ride I ever had. My brothers pushed me down the road in it, see, hoping it would start up when it got rolling. We lived at the top of a steep hill in those days, and it got rolling, all right. Oh, did it roll!"
"It didn't start, though."
Pap ignored him. "Wind was whipping back my hair—I didn't put no windshield in the car—I can still feel it. And my brothers was yelling and hanging on—they jumped on soon as I got going—my brother Alvin was lying on the hood—and I was steering. I felt as good as if I was at the Indy 500. That was some ride." His grandfather sat staring into space, remembering.
"Are you two coming to supper or not?" his mother said. She was standing just inside the screen door.
"We're coming," Alfie said. "Come on, Pap."
Slowly his grandfather got to his feet. "You steal me enough parts and I'll make you a car. I can do it. We could coast down the hill on it anyways. It would be something to do."
"I don't want to make a car."
"If you'd been on that ride with me, you'd want to."
"I didn't want to do nothing else for the longest time. When you find something you like to do, well, then you want to keep on doing it."
Alfie thought of his drawings upstairs. "That's true," he said.
"I wish we still had the wrecking business," Pap said sorrowfully. "Maybe you and me can get it going again—just one or two good wrecked cars and we—"
"He's going to be a football player," his mom said behind them.
The three of them stood without moving for a moment. Alfie looked down at his feet. His feet turned in. When he was just beginning to walk, a neighbor had told his mother that if she put his shoes on the wrong feet, his feet would turn out. His earliest memories were of women stopping his mother in the A&P and saying, "Did you know your little boy's got his shoes on the wrong feet?" He used to stand with his legs crossed so that his shoes would look like everybody else's.
Now he tried to imagine his turned-in feet in football shoes, waiting on AstroTurf for the kickoff. He glanced back at his mom. She had a pleasant look on her face. She was in the bleachers again, cheering for Alfie as she had once cheered for Bubba. She was wearing her good-luck pants suit and holding her good-luck monkey's paw. She would turn around from time to time to brag to people, "My boy's number twenty-eight, the quarterback."
"The one with the turned-in feet?" they'd ask, leaning forward over their pom-poms.
Smiling a little, Alfie glanced at his grandfather. He was still going down the hill in his make-do car with his brothers hanging off like monkeys. His face looked younger, less lined, shoved forward slightly to meet the wind.
"Well, let's eat. I got a lot of studying to do after supper," Alfie said. Studying, these days, meant drawing comic strips.
His grandfather blinked. Alfie could see he was back in the yard again—abruptly—old and disgruntled by yesterday's news. He put the paper in his chair and lumbered to the porch. As he entered the kitchen and saw the Sloppy Joes on the table, he let out a groan that seemed to come from the depths of his stomach.
"Now, Pap," Alfie's mother said soothingly, "Sloppy Joes are good for you. They build up your blood."
"Ain't no need building up an old man's blood," Pap said. He sat and shoved his paper napkin angrily in the collar of his shirt. "An old man's blood gets too strong, his veins'll give way. His veins get too strong, his skin'll give way. His skin gets too strong, his mouth'll give way—"
"I guess that's the only way we'll get any peace around here," Alfie's mother snapped. "Pass the Sloppy Joes, Alma."CHAPTER 2
ALFIE CLIMBED UP TO the attic again after supper. His mother was hooting at a fat man on Let's Make a Deal who had on a gigantic baby diaper.
"And look, he's got a pacifier and everything. Come look at this fool, Alma."
"Oh, Mom, those people are disgusting."
"Pap, you want to see something funny?"
Pap didn't answer. He was making his way to the back fence, where he hoped to talk politics with his neighbor, W. C. Spivey. This was a nightly occurrence in good weather. Just after the evening news he and W. C. would meet at the back fence to curse politicians, newscasters, and the President of the United States. It was the happiest time of Pap's day. He stopped at the back fence. "Governor!" he shouted. It was what he called Spivey. Spivey called him the Colonel. Neither title was earned. "Oh, Governor!"
Alfie pulled himself up into the attic and, as he always did, turned his head to the rafters. There were his drawings. They hung from every beam, every board. He never looked up without feeling better. No matter how low he was, looking up at his drawings always made his spirits rise.
He eased into his chair and turned over his papers. He looked at "Super Caterpillar" and "Super Bird" to see if they were as good as he remembered. He smiled. They were. He leaned "Super Bird" against a jar of pencils so he could glance at it as he worked.
He took a fresh sheet of paper and started on another super strip. He had it all planned. The idea had come to him when he had seen his mother painting her fingernails at the supper table.
He might have missed it if Alma hadn't said, "Mom, don't polish your nails at the table. This isn't a beauty parlor."
"I'm almost through." She finished the last nail and held out her hands. "How's that? It's a new shade called Tahiti Pearl."
"I know it's a new shade. I bought it," Alma said. She glanced at her mother critically. "And put the top back on tight." At some point, Alfie thought, Alma had become the parent; his mother, the child. Alma was the one who was stern, who never gave in. Alma was the one who bossed him, who told him what to do.
It was the pearl nail polish that gave Alfie his idea. In the first square a girl would be painting her fingernails Pearl. In the second she would be painting her hands Pearl. In the third she would be painting her arms Pearl. In the fourth she would be painting her whole self Pearl. In the last square a giant would appear, pick her up, and set her in a tacky ring.
He would call it "Super Ring," and he knew just how the girl's face would look in that last square as she sat yoga fashion in the tacky ring.
As soon as he got the idea, he wanted to tell everybody at the table about it. He looked up. His mom was waving her fingers in the air to dry them. Pap was picking suspicious- looking things from his Sloppy Joe. Alma was reading a book beside her plate.
Alfie decided to keep this idea to himself. No one would think it funny, especially his mom. He had only made her laugh once that he could remember.
His brother, Bubba, had been able to make her laugh all the time. Everything Bubba did seemed funny to her. Alfie remembered how she had laughed the time Bubba sat Dexter Wilkins on the water fountain at school and turned on the water. She had laughed at that until tears ran down her cheeks.
"You mean Dexter Wilkins whose dad owns Wilkins Hardware? I knew him in high school."
"Yeah, and he had on a pair of new pants."
"Green double knit."
At that, his mom had leaned back on the sofa, holding her sides, laughing as if she would never stop. Even the fact that she had to go to the principal's office with Bubba the next day had not dimmed her enjoyment. In the principal's office she burst into laughter again—she had not meant to—she just couldn't help it. Every time the principal mentioned water fountain or Dexter Wilkins or green double-knit pants, she had laughed. She had tried to pretend she was coughing—she told them this when she got home—but she couldn't, and in the end the principal got disgusted and dismissed them both. Before they left the building, his mom made Bubba show her the water fountain.
Alfie ruled his paper into five squares. He drew the lines carefully because he had to save paper. A man at Logan's Printers and Binders had given him a box of old paper, and it was already half gone. Some of the sheets had printing on one side or smudges or letterheads, but Alfie had learned to use whatever he had. Before he discovered this friend at Logan's Printers and Binders, he had gotten so desperate for paper that he had torn the front and back pages out of all his school books.
The drawing went well. In the first square the girl looked as if she were really painting her fingernails. Then he skipped to the last square. He wanted to draw that one while it was still clear in his mind.
"Alfie?" his mother called from downstairs.
He jerked, making a line across his paper. Carefully he erased it and blew away the scraps of eraser. "What?" he called back.
"Are you still studying?"
"Well, come on down and keep Pap and me company."
"I will in a minute." He bent back over his work. His pale straight hair fell over his forehead.
He sketched in the giant, looked at what he had drawn, and erased it. The card table wobbled every time he erased. He wiped the scraps away. He tried again, erased that. He grimaced as he regarded his work. His mother had broken his concentration.
He twirled the pencil, batonlike, in his fingers. His thin fingers handled the pencil skillfully, and he began to draw again. He sketched lightly this time.
"In a minute."
Suddenly the light went out in the attic. Alfie knew what had happened. His mother had pulled the extension cord out of the wall below.
"Mom!" he protested.
"Well, I want you to come down here," she said.
"Mom, plug my light back in."
Alfie sat in the dark. A patch of light slanted up from the living room. "Mom, plug my light back in," he said in a sterner voice. He sounded like Alma. "You want me to fail Science?"
Excerpted from The Cartoonist by Betsy Byars. Copyright © 1978 Betsy Byars. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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.