Other issues stacked against him are the strong reservations of his mother who feels Mateo should be spending his time studying, not skating, and his inability to eat gluten—no more grabbing a pizza with the guys. Despite these conflicts, Mateo keeps his sense of humor and channels his innermost strength into an incredible ride on roller skates that just might take him all the way to regionals.
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|Publisher:||Regal House Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.40(d)|
|Age Range:||9 - 12 Years|
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If he'd been told eight months ago he'd someday be called Roller Boy, Mateo García would have said: "Definitely not. Inconceivable. As in No way, José." But, like they say, when a door slams in your face, a window sometimes cracks open.
It was a dark, dreary, miserable day. Or maybe it wasn't. Mateo was too busy to notice what the weather was like. Let's just say it was a lousy day — and it had nothing to do with gray clouds or drizzly rain. Right off the bat it went downhill, starting with his substitute teacher. Roll call.
"May-toe?" she said.
"Tomato head," said the kid behind him with a snort. Sash, of course, always making his life miserable. Other classmates snickered.
"It's Ma-tay-o," said Mateo, feeling as red as his new nickname.
The sub droned on all afternoon — stuff they'd already learned last year — while Mateo daydreamed about making the baseball team. When the team list was posted at the end of the school day, he'd finally be someone at Franklin Middle School. Someone besides that short kid with the crazy hair. Mateo's frizz was wild, especially if it had been a while since his sister, Ava, had given it a trim. And in wet weather, forget it. He looked like a dark-haired Ronald McDonald, the fast-food clown. But after today he'd be that baseball player — part of the team.
Even though Mateo had sometimes struck out during tryouts, he was sure he'd improve once he made the cut. He hadn't been able to practice much, mainly because he lived so far from the field. But Mateo was quick. He could run the bases faster than anyone. Surely Coach McGillicuddy had noticed.
The screeching dismissal bell made him jump. He leaped off his chair, grabbed his glove from under it, and raced out of the room, only to collide with his buddy, Jason, coming from across the hall.
"Come on, Mateo, let's go!" said Jason. Together they charged down the crowded hallway. They'd been planning on being teammates for years and couldn't wait to see their names on the team list posted outside the gym.
Jason had older brothers. All three had played on their middle-school and high-school baseball teams. The oldest brother was kind of a 'hood hero and had been constantly in the newspaper since winning a full scholarship to BU. Sometimes Jason and Mateo took the bus over to watch him play.
The seventh grade team hadn't done too well the last few years, but now, with a new coach, the two friends hoped to put Franklin Middle School back in the game.
The boys flew around the corner and took the stairs two at a time. Mateo dropped his glove in his excitement. He stumbled to pick it up, looked both ways, but held onto his cool while Jason ran ahead and beat him to the bulletin board. A bunch of the guys were already there waiting. Coach McGillicuddy joined the mob, a sheet of paper curled up under his freckled arm. The crowd surged forward. The coach took his sweet time finding a thumbtack. Shoulders pressed in on either side of Mateo's head.
Finally the coach posted his list. "Move it back, boys. Let me out of here."
Mateo tried to find an opening between the boys in front, the ones cheering because they'd already found their names. Someone twice his size blocked his view. Mateo hopped up and down a few times, but couldn't get past him. Eventually the kid moved and Mateo nudged his way through.
He read the list. Then he read it again more slowly, from top to bottom. He couldn't believe it. His name wasn't there. Mateo hadn't made the team.
Jason had. He and the other guys who made it were all slapping each other on the back and sharing high-fives. As Mateo slunk farther from the group, he caught Jason's glance. Jason gave him a shrug of his shoulders, as if to say, Sorry, better luck next time. Mateo turned away, hoping he wouldn't start bawling. Now, typically, he wasn't one to cry, but this let-down was an exception. He had really, really wanted to be on that team. It was all he'd been thinking about for weeks, months — heck, maybe his whole sorry life.
Mateo made his way out of the school. The entire time he walked an ugly voice in his head said, You stink.
He wondered if he should have practiced more. Would it have made a difference? Mateo trudged home. The familiar blocks of Rabchester looked more miserable than ever that day. Little girls skipped rope in the old schoolyard. Sometimes their rhymes seemed pretty clever and he usually liked the slap-clap beat of their sneakers. But not today. Their voices sounded whiny, like they had clothespins on their noses. They may as well have been singing One, two, three, four, five, Mateo's the stupidest kid alive. He almost hurled his glove at them, but held back, stuffing it into his backpack instead. Down at the other end of the block, a basketball thumped against the pavement, annoying him with each thud.
Before Mateo got halfway home, he saw a cluster of guys and knew the kids from Dudd Street would cross his path. He wasn't going to make the day worse by having to deal with them.
He took a sharp turn and ended up in a little mom-and-pop variety store.
"May I help you?" the elderly store clerk asked gruffly. He arched one eyebrow like Mateo didn't have any business there. The man had been working at the shop for years, but Mateo figured his memory was going, because he should've known Mateo by then, known that he was one of the good kids who wouldn't rip him off.
"No, thanks," Mateo said, "just looking." He stared at the candy shelf and stalled for as long as he could. He flipped over a few packs of gum to see if they had gluten in them and then returned them to the display rack. Mateo couldn't eat anything with gluten in it. Well, not without bothering his stomach, anyway, or as Mateo would call it, blowing up his guts. Ever since finding out he had celiac disease he was always checking what he could still eat. And at times like this — not much.
Mateo poked his head out of the store entrance. The coast was clear. He made his move and headed for home.
Ten steps into his walk, a distant taunt caught his ear. "Hey, muchacho! ¡Hola!" The Dudd Street boys' cheerful calls didn't fool Mateo. One quick glance showed him Sash had caught up with them now. Even though he was younger than the other guys, Sash lived on Dudd Street and was enough of a jerk to fit right in. "Yo, it's Tomato Head!" he yelled.
Mateo threw back his shoulders and attempted a casual strut, but at the same time, picked up his pace. Apparently the bullies had picked up speed, too, because before he knew it, they were closing in on him.
"Muchacho, wait up!"
That did it. Time to run. And as previously mentioned, Mateo could move fast when he wanted to. He zigzagged down an alley to throw the boys off his tail.
Ignoring the sweet smell of butter, Mateo sped past a popcorn cart and then bolted around the last corner. He glanced over his shoulder once more before stopping in front of the pale green triple-decker to pull out his key to his top floor apartment. Nobody in sight. He figured it was probably pretty wimpy to always run, but no way did he want those kids to know where he lived. Mateo stepped inside, slid his hands through his thick hair, and got his breathing down to normal. As he stomped up the many stairs to his place, he whistled loudly and tried to erase the gloom inside him.
Halfway up, Mr. Obeneski peeked out his door, peering over his wire-rimmed glasses. "What's all the racket about?"
"Just celebrating another day of survival, Mr. O.," Mateo said with a grin. Mr. Obeneski ducked back inside as Mateo climbed one last flight, reached his own door, and let himself in.
Mamá wouldn't be there for another hour and he always beat his sister home by about ten minutes. Their papa had taken off when they were small. Mamá said he'd probably left the country, was probably back in the Dominican Republic by now.
Mateo remembered his father a little — mostly his hair. It had been thick and wild, like his. But other than that, hard as Mateo tried, he couldn't remember much else. For many years, Mateo had hoped that Papa would somehow be home when he swung open the door after school, that he would leap up from behind the sofa and shout, "Surprise!" And then maybe Papa would tousle his hair and they'd play catch or something. When day after day this never happened, Mateo's dream faded and he had eventually given up hope of it ever coming true. Mateo tossed his books on the floor and peered into the refrigerator: one dinky-looking yogurt in the back corner. He snatched it and plunked down on the sofa with a sigh.
He was still sitting there when Ava came in. Being two years older than Mateo and up at the high school, she thought she was pretty hot. Ha, thought Mateo.
"Hey, Mateo," she called out. "Wanna buy a raffle ticket?" He shook his head.
"Oh, come on, there are great prizes and it's for a good cause." Ava was on student council. She was always trying to sell him something for a good cause.
She stopped in front of him. "Did something happen? You look awful."
"Yeah, so what are the prizes?" he asked. No way was he going to tell Ava about not making the baseball team. He could do without the Poor little Mateo comments.
"Dinner for two at Mario's," she said. "Six weeks of roller-skating lessons. Or a half-price coupon for Sam's Jewelers."
"Oh, I almost forgot, and tickets for a Wheelers game!" That got his interest. The Wheelers were a local minor- league baseball team. "How much?"
"One dollar per ticket or ten tries for five dollars. You love watching the Wheelers play."
Mateo thought about it. Ava knew he'd received five dollars in a birthday card from their abuela and that it was the only money he had. Then again, Jason would be mucho impressed if Mateo had tickets. Going to the game might make up a little for not being on the team together. He handed over the bill without batting an eye. Adios, five dollars.CHAPTER 2
For the rest of the week Mateo attempted to push baseball to the back of his mind. This wasn't easy. Some of Jason's new teammates had begun to join them at the lunch table. All they talked about was the previous day's practice or the next one coming up.
"That was some run," they'd say, leaning over a slab of mushy meatloaf on their lunch trays to look past Mateo's big hair at Jason who sat on his other side. Or "When's the next practice?" or "Should we go for pizza after?" There it was again. Only Mateo couldn't eat pizza at the local hangout anymore. Feeling like a dweeb, he put down his fork and shoved the last fried plantain back into his lunch bag.
Once in a while, Jason tried to get Mateo to join in. "Come watch us practice," he'd say.
"Yeah, maybe I'll do that," Mateo would say back, but heck, what kind of fun would that have been?
If anyone asked what was new with him, Mateo always had the same boring answer — "Nada."
By Friday he'd had enough and hid in the school library — though he would never have admitted it — sneaking bites of his hummus and rice chips until lunch was over.
That afternoon, when Ava came in late from an afterschool meeting, she announced, "Mateo, you won!"
"Yeah, right." Mateo didn't bother to look up from his Spiderman graphic novel.
"Seriously, Mateo." She pulled an envelope out of her pocket.
Mateo's eyes bugged out. Wheelers tickets? Maybe things were starting to look up for him. He snatched the envelope from Ava's polished fingertips and ripped it open. Ava bounced around like she was the one who'd won. He pulled out a piece of blue paper and then shook the envelope in case anything else was still inside.
"What ...?" Mateo stared down at the Roller City logo on his coupon. "No way."
Ava burst out laughing. "Hey, it might be fun."
"Forget it. Five bucks down the drain." Mateo tossed the coupon for free roller-skating lessons at Ava and left the room.
Mamá, a short, sturdy woman, was in the kitchen stirring something on the stove. One whiff of the spicy meat made Mateo's stomach growl.
"¿Qué está pasando?" she said. "What is going on?" "Nada, nada, nada," he answered. "As usual."
"How are your classes, Mateo?"
"Okay. I'm passing." Mateo got pretty good grades, but it seemed all Mamá talked about was his making it to high school graduation. Even though he had no plans to let her down, still she worried. She figured Ava was all set, but ever since Mateo had had one rotten semester in sixth grade, she hadn't been so sure about him.
Mateo went over to the counter, broke a little corner off a fried corn tortilla, and popped it into his mouth. Friday night dinners were awesome. It was the one night of the week that Mamá had time to make authentic chow — sometimes Mexican, sometimes Dominican.
A year before, when the doctor told Mateo he had to give up gluten, they had all thought it was the end of normal food. But after months of struggling to figure out how to do it, their whole house was now gluten-free and Mamá had even learned how to make wheat-free pizza, just for Mateo.
"No, no," she said, shaking her new wooden spoon at him. Yep, they had had to get all new wooden spoons — it turned out the old ones had invisible gluten smooshed into the cracks.
Mamá stirred the filling again. "One of my patients told me this. A hundred kids dropped out of school. Right here in last three years." Mamá cleaned people's teeth over at Dr. Miglione's office on Fifth Street.
"Ma, I'm making it."
"The senior class is down to two hundred and seventy-five niños!"
"Sí, but there's a difference." Mateo paused for effect. "I like school." He snatched another piece of tortilla. Mamá slapped his wrist lightly with her spoon.
Mateo put three plates on the table, along with silverware, then decided to go back to the living room to flip through his graphic novel until dinner.
Ava was still holding the coupon. She had that scheming look in her eyes. "This ticket is for six free lessons for two and it says they have classes on Saturdays."
"Enjoy," he said, landing on the sofa with a thud.
"You have to go. The coupon is in your name," said Ava. "I'll tell you what, Macho Mateo." Ava stood with her hand on one hip as her favorite nickname for him rolled off her tongue. "I'll come with you. We'll both learn to roller-skate. Remember how we used to love to watch ice-skating on television? It'll be a blast to spin around on the floor. And it's not like ice; it won't even be cold there."
Mateo did always like watching the skaters on TV during the winter Olympics. But being the only guy in his family, with hair that looked like it got struck by lightning, and who was still hoping to grow at least a good half foot more, the last thing he wanted to do was something sissy like roller-skating. Besides, he thought, I'd probably stink at skating, just like I did with baseball.
Ava was already picking up the phone and punching in numbers. Mateo ignored her conversation and went back to his comic.
"Yes!" Ava cheered as she hung up the phone. "Beginner classes are held at nine and a new session starts next week. I gave the guy our names, so we're all set."
Mateo sat up straight. "Un momento. Slow down."
Ava pressed on. "We'll ride our bikes there early on Saturday mornings when Mamá leaves for work." Mateo shook his head, but she kept talking. "Nobody else will be up at that hour."
Ava's enthusiasm was catchy. Mateo was always fast, could even get to the top of the ropes first in PE, but his aim wasn't too great. He laughed, wondering if there was anything to aim at in skating. Ha, right. But Ava had a good point. There wouldn't be anyone around to see him. All the jerks in that older gang that scared the cool right out of him would still be sleeping off their Friday night. And the really cool kids? They'd probably be at baseball practice.
Still, he didn't think he could ever get through six lessons. Mateo punched Mamá's crocheted pillow into the arm of the sofa and sighed. "Nah," he said with a final shake of his head. "You're on your own."
"We'll see about that," said Ava.
Mateo figured it was up to him whether he went or not, since it was his prize, so he decided not to bother. By the time they sat down to dinner, he'd wiped the whole crazy idea from his mind. He'd spend his Saturday doing something else, thank you very much. He hadn't quite figured out what that something else would be, but he was working on it. Unfortunately, as they say, life happens when you've made other plans.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Roller Boy"
Copyright © 2018 Marcia Strykowsk.
Excerpted by permission of Regal House Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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