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Thirteen-year-old Earl Pryor is much too big for his age, and much too powerful for the anger that rages within him when classmates tease him, the girl he likes disappoints him, or his parents' problems get too real.
Right and wrong is a simple deal, and everybody knows it. As long as you have all the facts, right and wrong make themselves very clear to you. If you really want to know.
Don't ever be a rat. You don't fink. It's not right. No matter what, you don't fink, and you don't complain. It's just not what you do. It's just not right.
And don't lie. Don't lie, don't fink, don't complain.
I try not to complain. But what can you do sometimes? Times like these times. Times like these days -- and these days, they are all like these days. Deep dark cold night-all-day winter days that won't give you a break, ever. On these days, I find myself at school, or on my way to school, before I even realize that I am awake, that I have gotten up and eaten and dressed and all prior to finding myself where I am. It's as if I have woken up right on the pavement in mid-stride or in my seat waiting for class to begin, or like I never even slept at all but am still walking through yesterday and the day before because they are really all just one long dark restless winter day that won't give you a break.
Days like that, like these, they just make you feel angry the whole time. Like somebody somewhere is pulling something on you, but you can't quite put your finger on who. And you really want to put a finger on him.
By the time I become aware of things today, I am delivering milk. I am the milkman today. We have a milk program here, and we all get the chance to deliver the milk on a special trolley all around school when it's our turn. The milk company comes by and drops the stuff off at the back door where it sits and freezes in the tiny little cartons that are stacked up inside the plastic-cube carrier crates that are then stacked up on top of each other in a tower as tall as me. it's a lot of milk and a fair-size school, so two kids from our class get the assignment each week, one taking the rooms on the east side of the corridor and the other the west until everybody has milk. It's a chunk out of class time, a bite out of the boring day, so most people love to do it.
I don't. I don't feel like seeing any people today. Now I get to see everybody. At least everybody on the east side of the corridor.
"Well well well well," says Mrs. Sanderson, the firstgrade teacher, as I wheel my stupid squeaky cart into her classroom. I always get the stupid squeaky-wheel cart when it's my turn, and I don't know how that is, why that is. Somebody has to be rigging things, and I'm going to find out. They could at least oil the wheels, but they don't. And Derek, who's the other milk Dud with me, even the law of averages would say that he'd get the squeaky wheels sometimes. But never. And he's always pulling stuff like this. He's never left with the blunt scissors that make your artwork look like you've been biting it off instead of cutting it. He never gets to the pencil sharpener when it's so full of shavings it's puking up curly bits all over the place. These things don't happen to just anybody, and they don't happen by accident. I am going to find out about this. No slipping into or out of any classrooms unnoticed when you have this stupid squeaky cart, and that stinks. I just want to be quiet and unnoticed and go about my --
"Class!" Mrs. Sanderson says with so much enthusiasm you would think the Christmas break was just ahead instead of lying dead in the snow behind us. "Class, do you see this big strapping man right here?"
Of course they see me, Mrs. Sanderson. You kind of made it impossible not to see me even if it was possible not to see me, which it's probably not, even if they didn't want to see me, which they probably didn't, and even if I didn't want to be seen, which I definitely did not.
But I like her anyway. I have liked her all the time.
"This fine strapping tower of a man," she says, frogmarching me away from my stupid squeaky cart to the front of her class, "was once right in here, where you children are now sitting. Can you believe it?"
Their innocent little first-grade faces say they cannot believe it. I must look like a tree to them. They must have thought that milk came from trees.
Mrs. Sanderson has an arm around me. That is, she has a hand on my shoulder as she stretches to try and drape an arm over me. She's really little. And really proud. As if she is somehow responsible for the size of me. As if the size of me is something to be proud of, anyway.
"He used to fit in one of those desks like you children are sitting in right now."
The kids all wriggle now, and murmur, stretching around them to look at their own legs under those desks, to try and see their own little backsides on those connected seats. Like there is some kind of answer there, to the physical wonder of me.
"So," Mrs. Sanderson says, giving my shoulder a last extra pat, "make sure, all of you, that you drink our milk up, to grow straight and strong just like big Earl Pryor."
I could break up that stupid squeaky cart, right now into five million pieces. Break it right over that rat Derek's head.
Like it or not -- and the answer is not -- I have a job to do, and when I have a job to do, it gets done. But it gets no better.
It almost scares me, the quiet slashed apart by my squeaky wheels in the big open empty corridor of the school. The ceiling is high, the floor is checkerboard black and white, and the silences are silent and the noises exaggerated. I want to be alone, and I can't. I want to be unknown, and I can't. Every step I take, with its accompanying trailing sound track, makes my heart beat a beat faster, makes my hands mad so that they squeeze the handle of the trolley just that much harder, so my own effort is making my fingers redder than even the frozen milk did. My stomach feels so hard and tense you could bounce a cannonball off it.Who the Man. Copyright © by Chris Lynch. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.