Read an Excerpt
1. Roger Mancuso
OR "The Stink Bomb King of Fifth Grade"
On the Tuesday before Easter, a substitute teacher appeared behind Mrs. Kosciouwicz's metal desk. His face looked like a dented Yukon potato. His jazz shoes were the color of cement. He was tall and thin except for a pillow-sized potbelly that spilled helplessly over his plaid pants. "I'm Mr. Spumato," he announced to the assembled fifth-graders. "And I'll be your sub until further notice."
Euphoria swept through the classroom at the thought of Mrs. Kosciouwicz never coming back.
She was always lecturing them about the importance of sitting up straight. She made them read the dictionary and watch boring filmstrips on the origins of math. She was highly intolerant of lateness and (despite her own abysmal record) deranged on the matter of absenteeism. Over the educational-games shelf, she'd hung a poster of a beak-nosed owl reading PROCRASTINATION IS THE THIEF OF TIME. On the back of the door, she'd tacked another one asserting SILENCE IS GOLDEN. The only time she baked them cupcakes was when Reagan beat Carter. The only time she let them leave school early was when Reagan got shot. Her pull-on pants were the color of dog shit. Her bosom hung down to her waist. Her bifocals hung from a necklace. She was probably only sixty.
She seemed about as old as ancient Mesopotamia.
Roger Mancuso's hand shot up-not before he'd blurted out, "Did Mrs. K. croak-or what?"
"What is your name, young man?" snarled Mr. Spumato.
"Mick," he answered. "Mick Jagger. "
"Well, Mr. Jagger," said Spumato, trying to drown out the tsunami of laughter that rose from the back row. "If you'd like to take your question to the principal, I'd be happy to accompany you to his office."
"0000000hhhhh," crooned the class in unison.
"I just wanted to know if the old lady was alive," countered Roger.
"You'll know what I tell you!" cried Spumato.
"I'll know what I want," said Roger. "And I want to know what happened to my friggin' homeroom teacher."
Now the class cheered. Poor Spumato. He must have known he was losing control. He couldn't have been happy about it. He pointed a single, trembling finger at his nemesis. "One more peep, Mr. Jagger, and you're outta here for good!" Then he cranked his thumb backward over his shoulder in the direction of the principal's office, in case anyone thought he was kidding. (No one did.) The class fell silent-even Roger, who went back to his guitar magazine. The rest of them fixated on Mr. Spumato's flaccid backside jiggling up and down as he began to script grammatical terminology on the board.
He about-faced several minutes later. "Who can tell me the difference between a pronoun and a noun?" he wanted to know, his tobacco-stained moustache twitching ever so slightly. But not a single hand rose. "None of you little punks knows the difference between a pronoun and a normal noun," he tried again. And then again: "I SAID WHO THE CRAP KNOWS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A NOUN AND A PRONOUN?" Now the class shrieked in ecstasy. Crap was the kind of word Mrs. K. deemed grounds for suspension, and here was the substitute teacher making unrepentant use of it.
"Spumato! Spumato! Spumato!" Roger started to chant, palms pounding rhythmically on his ink-stained desktop, and the rest of the class quickly joined in. "Spumato! Spumato! Spumato! Spumato!"
It was when Spumato started to shake that they finally shut up. They were suddenly mortified for their sub-for his failure to control them, for his irrational fear of their harmless delirium. They stared at their hands. They prayed for the bell. They didn't really want to see him fall apart.
They were rescued by the introduction of a terrible odor.
It wafted through the classroom, inflicting punishment on all possessed of a sense of smell. It wasn't long before the situation became insufferable. Their throats threatening to close, they ran for the door gasping. The smart ones pinched their noses. "Come back here, you little punks!" roared Mr. Spumato.
But then he, too, succumbed to the stench-and followed the stampede into the hall.
That was the last anyone saw of Plaid Pants.
As for Roger Mancuso, after confessing to the stink bomb, he was suspended for three days and threatened with expulsion. He was only too happy to have the time off to listen to his favorite Rolling Stones album, Some Girls, another hundred times. And upon his arrival back at Whitehead Middle (a.k.a. Blackhead Middle and/or Shit-Head Middle) the following week, he was given a hero's welcome, complete with chanting, backslapping, synchronized farting, and a new nickname: "Stinky."
He was also presented with a change of seats. Seemingly back from the dead, Mrs. K. moved the so-anointed Stink Bomb King to the front row, one seat to the left of Phoebe Fine, who couldn't believe her luck. Not that she was expecting Stinky to feel the same way. When he slipped a note under her elbow, she didn't even think it was for her. Then she saw her name printed on the outside. She waited until Mrs. K. turned her back to write the word volunteerism on the board. Then she pushed the note into her lap.
Waiting for her was the following declaration: "YOU LOOK FINE!"
Her face turned red; her hands began to tremble like Mr. Spumato's. Was this Stinky's idea of a joke? Was he passing the note on someone else's behalf? Was he mocking her last name? Was she merely a convenient target? Had he heard from someone, who'd heard from someone else, who'd heard from her best friend, Brenda Cuddihy, that she had a huge crush on him-and was this his way of telling her that he already knew?
Or might he have meant exactly what he'd written?
The latter possibility seemed unlikely, especially considering the only extracurricular contact she'd had with Stinky in the past year consisted of a single, recent occasion during which he'd circled her with his BMX bike on her way to her violin lesson, sung her excerpts from Fiddler on the Roof, and demanded that she play him "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." She kept telling him she didn't know how. He eventually performed a wheelie and disappeared. In short, it didn't seem like Stinky Mancuso was madly in love with her. If anything, it seemed like he thought it was pretty weird that she played the violin.
But what if he liked her for the reason that she was unique among her peers? Which is to say that he'd never encountered anyone quite as "gifted and talented" as Phoebe, with the encouragement of her parents and teachers, imagined herself to be?
Reluctant to make eye contact until she had more information one way or the other, Phoebe stared straight ahead for the rest of the class period. And when the bell rang, she jumped out of her chair and bolted for the door.
In the girls' room some time later, she caught up with Brenda Cuddihy. "Did you tell Stinky I liked him?" she challenged her Born Again best friend.
"I swear on the Bible I didn't tell anyone!" her Born Again best friend held fast.
"Well, look at this," said Phoebe, pulling Stinky's note out of the patch pocket of her tie-dyed apron dress and handing it over to Brenda, who read it out loud before she gasped, "Oh my God, Stinky likes you!"
"How do you know he's not just joking around?" said Phoebe.
"Well, he didn't send me a note," said Brenda.
"Well, you don't sit next to him in homeroom."
"So nothing-I bet Stinky wants to go out with you."
"Well, I don't want to go out with him."
"But I thought you had a crush on him!"
"I did," Phoebe told her. "But I don't anymore."
But she was lying; she was just scared-scared of boys in general and what they might require of her, but perhaps even more terrified of finding herself attracted to the very thing her daffy, well-meaning, culturally contemptuous parents had worked so hard to protect her from-namely, the world out there in all its crudest, crassest, most inglorious expressions of animal need.
It wasn't merely that Stinky Mancuso was a huge fan of the bat-eating heavy metal musician Ozzy Osbourne. His favorite expression was "Ya mental"; his second-favorite expression was "Ya gay." As early as fourth grade, he'd been spotted palling around with Whitehead's hearse-driving drug-dealer-in-residence, Rupert Slim. He was notorious for having talked some special-ed kids into taking down their pants in the middle of the playing field. A cheap tin arrowhead pendant dangled from the gold-toned chain he wore around his scrawny neck. He kept a red plastic comb with an aerodynamic handle in the back pocket of his Lee jeans-even though he had buzz-cut hair. He wore a different rock concert T-shirt every day of the week.
The only concert T-shirt Phoebe owned was emblazoned with the logo of the Lincoln Center summer series "Mostly Mozart." Her father, Leonard, was a professional oboist who moonlighted on the English horn and the oboe d'amour. Her mother, Roberta, was a semiprofessional violist. Her older sister, Emily, was a dedicated if singularly untalented student of the cello. Phoebe herself had been started on the violin (Suzuki method) at the age of five. More than a vocation, however, classical music was the air the Fine family breathed, the religion they practiced, the shelter under which they sought refuge from the technological excesses of the current century. It blared from the family "Victrola" all day every day, if it wasn't already being played live in their music room.
On Saturday nights, while Phoebe's classmates sat zombiestyle in front of the television humming along to candy-bar commercials, the Fine family-who owned a black-and-white TV the size of a toaster oven-rehearsed Mozart's Oboe Quartet in F Major. Roberta and Leonard's idea of a fun party was inviting over a few friends to eat stale coffee cake and run through Schubert's Trout Quintet. Nor was Phoebe entirely convinced that the murder of John Lennon, the news of which had spread like wildfire through Whitehead Middle band practice the previous December, wasn't the first either one of her parents had heard of the Beatles.
And on long car trips in summer-the Fine Four were always parading across the heartland en route to yet another obscure chamber music festival in which Leonard felt financially obliged to participate despite the obscenely low weekly rate they invariably wound up playing "Name a Classical Composer for Every Letter of the Alphabet." It would be Leonard and Roberta in the front seat and Phoebe and Emily counting license plates behind them until they'd counted all fifty-two states and their itsy-bitsy rear ends had become branded with the diamond pattern of the vinyl upholstery and Emily had willfully extended her legs past the imaginary line that divided the backseat into two distinct fiefdoms, prompting Phoebe to moan "Mmmooooooooooomm!" and Emily to mutter, "Worship them, wart face!"
That's when Roberta would chirp merrily, "I have an idea. Let's try to name a classical composer for every letter of the alphabet! "
Phoebe and Emily would groan. But it was always clear to Phoebe that Emily was merely making a show of her discontent. It was clear by the way she always volunteered to start.
She always started with "Tomaso Albinoni."
Leonard would continue with "Berlioz." Roberta would chip in with "Chopin. " Phoebe would do her part with "Debussy." So the game would go: "Elgar, Faure, Grieg, Haydn, Ives, Janacek, Kabalevsky, Liszt, Mussorgsky, Nielsen, Offenbach, Puccini, Quantz, Rachmaninoff, Schubert Until it was Phoebe's turn again.
"Torricelli," she'd stammered last summer, rather than take the chance that Tchaikovsky's name started with a c, as it should have.
"Torricelli's our congressman, you moron!" Emily had squawked gleefully.
"Emily," Roberta had scolded her older daughter, "don't be obnoxious to Bebe."
So the game had ended, with Phoebe falling asleep-the best defense, she soon learned, in the face of adversity. When you were asleep the only people who could get to you were the people in your dreams, from which you always eventually woke to find out they were no more than that: people in your dreams. Conversely, there was no way to wake up from real life except to go back to sleep.
Thus began Phoebe Fine's love affair with the bedroom.