On the Road to Mr. Mineo's
By Barbara O'Connor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2012 Barbara O'Connor
All rights reserved.
Where the Story Begins
Highway 14 stretches on for miles and miles through the South Carolina countryside.
The land is flat.
The dirt is red.
There are mountains to the west. An ocean to the east.
Every few miles there is a gas station. A billboard. A Waffle House.
In the summer, cars whiz up the highway with suitcases strapped on the roofs and bicycles hanging off the backs. Eighteen-wheelers rumble along, hauling lumber and paper and concrete sewer pipes.
The cars and the eighteen-wheelers drive right by a small green sign with an arrow pointing to the left. The sign reads Meadville.
Pecan trees line the main street of Meadville, shading the sidewalks and dropping pecans for boys to throw at stop signs.
On summer afternoons, waves of steamy heat hover above the asphalt roads.
Tollie Sanborn sits on the curb in front of the barbershop in his white barber coat with combs in the pocket.
Elwin Dayton changes a flat tire on his beat-up car with flames painted on the hood.
Marlene Roseman skips to swimming lessons, her flip-flops slapping on the sidewalk.
When the sun goes down and the moon comes up, the street is empty. The shops are closed and dark. The streetlights flicker on. A stray cat roams the alleys, sniffing at Dumpsters overflowing with rotten lettuce and soggy cardboard boxes.
Just past the post office is a narrow street called Waxhaw Lane. At the end of Waxhaw Lane is a green house with muddy shoes on the porch and an empty doghouse in the front yard.
On one side of the door of the green house is a window. The window is open. The room inside is dark.
A curly-haired girl named Stella sits in the window and whispers into the night:
Moo goo gai pan
Moo goo gai pan
Moo goo gai pan
The words drift through the screen and float across the street and hover under the streetlights, dancing with the moths.
Stella is supposed to be saying her prayers, but instead she is just whispering words, like moo goo gai pan.
Across the street from the green house is a big white house with blue-striped awnings over the windows and rocking chairs on the porch. A giant hickory-nut tree casts shadows that move in the warm breeze like fingers wiggling over the dandelions on the dry brown lawn. The roots of the tree lift up patches of cement under the sidewalk out front.
The next morning, Stella will race across the street and up the gravel driveway of the big white house. She will climb the wooden ladder to the flat roof of the garage to wait for Gerald Baxter.
Stella and Gerald will sit in lawn chairs on the roof and play cards on an overturned trash can. They will watch Stella's older brother, Levi, and his friends C.J. and Jiggs ride their rickety homemade skateboards up and down the street.
They will eat saltine crackers with peanut butter and toss scraps down to Gerald's gray-faced dog sleeping in the ivy below.
They will listen to the kids on Waxhaw Lane playing in somebody's sprinkler or choosing teams for kickball. Stella will want to join them, but Gerald won't. Stella might go anyway, leaving Gerald pouting on the roof. But most likely she will heave a sigh and stay up there on the roof, playing cards with Gerald.
They will watch the lazy days of summer stretch out before them like the highway out by the Waffle House.
As the sun sinks lower in the sky and disappears behind the shiny white steeple of Rocky Creek Baptist Church, the lightning bugs will come out one by one, twinkling across the yards on Waxhaw Lane.
Gerald's mother will turn on the back-porch light, sending a soft yellow glow across the yard. Stella's mother will holler at Levi for leaving his skateboard in the driveway again.
Stella and Gerald will put the cards inside the little shed at the back of the garage roof and climb down the ladder.
The next day will start the same.
Stella will race across the street to the big white house and climb the wooden ladder to the garage roof to wait for Gerald.
But this time something will be different.
What Stella Saw
Stella raced across the street to the big white house and climbed the wooden ladder to the garage roof to wait for Gerald.
She went back to the shed to get the cards.
She and Gerald had built the shed last summer. It had taken a long time. Searching for scraps of wood in alleys and on the curb on trash day. Hauling the lumber up the ladder to the roof. Figuring out how to fit the pieces together. Sawing. Hammering. Stella having lots of good ideas and Gerald never wanting to try any of them.
But finally they had finished.
The crowning glory of the shed was a roof made of wavy tin they had found in the scrap pile outside Jonas Barkley's house when his flimsy old carport collapsed.
The wavy tin roof was good, but it wasn't perfect. It hung over the edge of the shed and made the door stick. Stella had to yank the door hard to open it. When she did, a startled one-legged bird fluttered wildly on the roof of the shed, its wings flapping and its foot tap, tap, tapping on the tin.
Stella jumped back.
The bird stopped flapping and tapping and looked at her, its head cocked to one side. Its orange eyes blinking.
Stella had never seen a one-legged pigeon in Meadville, South Carolina.
She had never seen a one-legged pigeon anywhere.
"Hey there," she said, not moving a muscle.
The pigeon tucked his leg up under him and sat on the edge of the wavy tin roof.
Stella barely breathed.
She wanted to reach out and stroke the pigeon's smooth, silky back. The gray wings with two black stripes. The iridescent green neck, sparkling like jewels in the morning sun.
"I hate Carlene!" Gerald hollered as he stomped onto the roof, his red hair damp with sweat and stuck to his forehead.
The pigeon flew away in a whirl of flapping feathers and disappeared into the branches of the oak tree above the garage.
"Dang it, Gerald!" Stella slapped her hands against her sides.
Gerald just stood there, looking confused.
"There was a one-legged pigeon on top of the shed." Stella pointed to the wavy tin roof.
Gerald looked up into the tree. "Really?"
"Maybe it'll come back and we can catch it," Stella said.
Stella waved a hand at Gerald. "You never want to do anything fun."
"Yes I do."
Stella rolled her eyes. "You think playing crazy eights the livelong day is fun?" She kicked at the rotten leaves on the garage roof. "Well, I'm sick of it."
"What do you want to do?"
Stella pointed to the branches overhead. "I want to catch that pigeon."
"Okay." Gerald blinked at Stella. His cheeks were fat, like a chipmunk's, and flushed with the summer heat. "But I still hate Carlene."
Carlene was Gerald's older sister. She painted her fingernails black and argued with a long-haired boy in an old car in her driveway. One time she hollered cuss words at her father right in the middle of the bank.
Stella sort of hated Carlene, too.
"Come on," she said, hurrying down the wooden ladder to the gravel driveway below.
"Where are you going?" Gerald asked worriedly, peering over the edge of the roof.
"To find something to catch that pigeon with." Stella went into the garage, squinting into the darkness, breathing in the smell of dampness and mold and gasoline.
She could hear Gerald clomping down the ladder and then huffing and puffing outside the garage.
"I'm not allowed in there," he called from the doorway.
Stella rummaged through the garden tools, climbed over a rusty lawn mower, and peeked under a torn blue tarp. She stepped over paint cans and greasy car parts. She opened the drawers of a warped and mildewed bureau with missing knobs and poked through the fishing tackle and nails and screwdrivers inside.
"I'm not allowed in there," Gerald called again.
Stella studied all the things hanging on the walls of the garage.
A bicycle wheel. A wooden tennis racket with no strings. A fishing net.
A fishing net?
"Hot dang!" Stella called out, stepping over flowerpots and old tires to get to the net.
"What?" Gerald called.
Stella climbed onto a sawdust-covered workbench.
"What?" Gerald called again.
Stella grabbed the net, hopped off the workbench, stepped over the flowerpots and old tires, and made her way to the door.
"What?" Gerald hollered, stomping his foot.
Stella stepped out of the dark garage and into the dappled morning light.
"This!" she said, thrusting the fishing net toward him.
Then she wiggled her eyebrows and grinned. "I have a good idea."
When Gerald Fell Off the Roof
Gerald had a familiar feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Whenever Stella got a good idea, something bad almost always happened.
A dent in the side of his father's car.
His grandmother's embroidered tablecloth left out in the rain.
A stripe of black paint that stayed on his forehead for a long time.
And one particularly good idea that eventually involved a fire truck and a crowbar.
The dread in Gerald's stomach worked its way down to his feet, making them heavy, like cinderblocks, as he followed Stella across the driveway.
And even heavier when he climbed the ladder to the garage roof.
By the time he stepped onto the garage roof, the dread was circling around him like a thick, dark cloud.
"Okay," Stella said. "Here's my idea." She pushed at the springy curls that had fallen across her eyes.
"First ..." She held up one finger. "We look for that pigeon."
"Next ..." She held up two fingers. "We sit real still so maybe he'll land on the shed again."
"And then ..." She held up three fingers. "We scoop him up with this net." She waved the net in the air. "Easy peasy," she added.
Gerald shrugged. "Okay," he mumbled.
And so they started step one of Stella's plan.
They looked for the pigeon in the tree branches above the garage.
And they looked.
And they looked.
But they didn't see him.
Gerald's cloud of dread started to lift a little.
But then Stella whispered three words that brought it back: "There he is!"
Gerald looked where Stella was pointing into the oak branches overhead. Sure enough, a one-legged pigeon with a shiny green neck was perched above them.
"Shhhh." Stella put her finger to her lips and tiptoed in slow motion over to the lawn chairs. She sat down and patted the seat of the chair beside her. Gerald and his dread sat down.
Then they began step two of Stella's plan. They sat real still so maybe the pigeon would land on the shed again.
And they sat.
And they sat.
But the pigeon did not land on the shed again.
And then, just like all the other times that Stella got a good idea, something bad happened.
Stella started spewing out more ideas, and the next thing Gerald knew he was searching the pantry for popcorn to toss onto the top of the shed. The pigeon swooped down out of the tree to peck at the popcorn. Stella looked wide-eyed and whispered, "Help me catch him." So Gerald tiptoed around to the other side of the shed, and then he fell off the roof.
Why Mr. Mineo Was Aggravated
On the outskirts of town, in a rusty trailer beside a lake, Arthur Mineo scraped meatloaf off a plate and into a dog bowl.
A very fat dog with a stub of a tail waddled out from under the kitchen table and gobbled up the meatloaf.
"Let's go look again, Ernie." Mr. Mineo held the screen door open for the fat dog, and the two of them went around the side of the trailer to a weathered blue shed with a slanting roof. A large wire cage jutted out of one side. The door of the shed was made of chicken wire. The sound of cooing drifted through the door.
The soft cooing of homing pigeons.
Mr. Mineo opened the door and stepped inside. He pointed at the pigeons one by one, calling their names.
"Gol-dern it, Ernie," Mr. Mineo called out to the dog. "Where in the heck is Sherman?"
Ernie cocked his head and peered through the door with sad, watery eyes.
"I'm so aggravated." Mr. Mineo stepped out of the shed and searched the sky over the lake.
He walked down to the edge of the water, muttering to Ernie.
"I knew that dern fool bird was going to get lost sooner or later.
"I told you he was wandering too far from the others.
"I told you he was heading off toward Meadville instead of across the lake like he's supposed to.
"He's liable to get into a tussle with a hawk again and lose that other leg.
"Dern fool bird."
Then he trudged back up to the side of the shed and opened a shuttered window. One by one, the pigeons hopped onto the ledge of the window and soared out into the cloudless blue sky.
"Y'all go find Sherman," Mr. Mineo called as they flew off across the lake and disappeared behind the trees on the other side.
While the pigeons flew, Mr. Mineo cleaned the shed.
He swept the floor.
He changed the water bowls.
He scrubbed the perches on the walls.
Mr. Mineo had gotten the homing pigeons from his brother, Carl, who went to live in a nursing home a few months ago. When he had first gotten them, he didn't think he would like them.
But he did.
He didn't think he would enjoy taking care of them.
But he did.
When he was finished cleaning, he scooped birdseed out of a bucket with a coffee can and sprinkled some on the floor. Then he went outside and shook the can, calling, "Come and get it!"
The seed in the can rattled.
Mr. Mineo watched the sky. Before long, a cluster of birds appeared in the distance. When they were over the shed, they circled once or twice. Then they swooped down one by one, landed on top of the wire cage, and hopped through the bars of a small window into the shed.
But not Sherman.
Mr. Mineo whistled for Ernie. Then the two of them ambled back up the path to the rusty trailer, Ernie's stub of a tail wagging and Mr. Mineo muttering, "I'm so aggravated." (Continues...)
Excerpted from On the Road to Mr. Mineo's by Barbara O'Connor. Copyright © 2012 Barbara O'Connor. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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