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I’m Joey Pigza and here I am again back in my roachy row house on Plum Street and living my whole wired past, present, and future all at the same time. I’m sure I need a triple med patch for living the hop-skip-and-a-jump life I lead, but at the moment the house seems to have used them all up. A few weeks ago Mom slipped into one of her drifty moods and hid my meds, or maybe she just said she hid what’s left of them because we don’t have the cash to pay for more. Who knows what she did, because when she’s spacey her memory gets all fluffy like skywriting that fades away for good. But she keeps telling me not to worry because my meds are in “a baby-safe place” and that when she gets all drifty again she’ll remember where they are.
I don’t blame her for wanting to keep my meds out of harm’s way, because she doesn’t want baby Carter Junior getting into them by accident. He’s the opposite of me, and if he got a hold of my meds I figure he’d get wired up and start zooming around the baseboards doing wheelies like a psycho baby in diapers, or else he’d be taking a zonked-out snooze for a few months like a bear cub in hibernation. I’m not really sure what my meds would do to him, but either way we’d have to call 911 for an ambulance and the next thing you know the Child Welfare people would haul Mom away for being a dud mom. I don’t want that to take place, but my clock is ticking and without my meds who knows what kind of meltdown I might have in this roached-out house.
In fact, it seems all the bad things in my life started right here in this crazy house on Plum Street. I even stuck one of my med patches on the front door, but when the meds didn’t change our home life for the better I scrawled Out of Order across the patch and left it stuck there. I always thought this house caused trouble, but once we got away from it the trouble just followed right along with us like the busted furniture we hauled to the new house. And now that Mom and I and baby Carter Junior are back in the old house, with all the old furniture, the bad stuff has started haunting us all over again. Maybe if I lived in a new house, with all new stuff, everything would change for the better. But deep inside I don’t think so. I can’t blame who I am on where I live, because who I am is how I live. My old sped teacher, Special Ed, once told me you really get to know a kid by the type of games he makes up. I think my all-time favorite game was swallowing my house key on a string and pulling it back up with a little drippy lunch dangling on the end, and then doing it again. I perfected it at home but when I swallowed it at school my teacher cut the string. I won’t give you the potty details, but a day later I did get that same key back. It dropped out my revolving door the natural way. And even though I washed it a hundred times with soap and hot water, nobody in class would sniff it—not even if I licked it first!
So, here’s my new favorite game. At night, I stand dead still in our pitch-black kitchen and sprinkle a packet of coffee-shop sugar around my feet. Then I take a deep breath and freeze all my muscles as the roaches inch out of their hiding places and slowly gather around the sugar for a belly-filling feast. But I wait and wait and wait, and even as I silently stand there with a twisted grin growing tighter across my face I know this is all wrong. But doing what is wrong in this House-of-Pigza seems so right, so I don’t move an inch until my lips are clown-crazy huge and can’t stretch any wider without splitting open, and then I flick the light switch and it’s Game on! The roaches take off and you can hear them chirping with fear as they skitter back to the cracks in the walls. They are fast, but so am I, and my hands slap after them like snapping bullwhips and I flatten a bunch of them. I keep a Rubbed-Out-Roach chart written on the inside door of the snack cabinet, which is their private clubhouse. Once I gather up the dead I give myself ten points for the big ones, five for the medium, and half a point for any babies smaller than my fingernail. I figure in a week I’ll have a thousand points. I don’t have a clue what this game says about me, but after playing it I find myself breathing heavily while hunched in front of the bathroom mirror making Japanese-horror-movie faces as if I’m a terrified little roach and a giant human Joey hand is going to slap the guts out of me.
Or maybe I do have a clue about what that game means. Special Ed had also said that everyone in the whole world has a special gift, and my special gift is that I can feel everything everyone else feels. He told me it is the most powerful gift in the world because I can feel everyone’s happiness and become super happy, and he also warned me that it is the most distressing gift because I can feel everyone’s sadness and the weight of their sadness can fill me with sorrow and drop me to my knees. I sure know what he means by that because when I hear my mother weeping at night I weep too. It’s hard to call weeping a gift, but then again, when she stops crying and laughs out loud I’m never happier.
I’m just trying to get back on track and make sense of myself these days because ever since my parents split up again there is no sense in me hoping things will get better between them. All my life I’ve had my ups and downs because of their hit-or-miss moments. Each morning they’d roll out of bed like a pair of fuzzy dice tumbling across a game board and I never knew if they would end up even or odd or not. So while I waited for them to bounce off the walls and maybe add up to a lucky day, I’d just stand as still as a pencil drawing of a boy with my eyes X-ed out and my mouth bolted shut as if I was locked out of my own heart and had lost the key.
It’s bad to fear your parents, but worse is when you fear yourself. I used to think I was getting better without my meds, but now I feel like I’m returning to the old days when I lived with my grandma. In those days I couldn’t look into a mirror without my eyes spinning like carnival lights. Now those old days don’t feel so old anymore. This morning I looked in the mirror and my eyes were sparking and right away I had to twist my head to one side and take a deep breath. “Settle down, Joey,” I whispered. “Take a time-out.” But my eyes were already flashing: Danger zone ahead! I mean, how can seeing me, and being me, be hurting me? How can I be the worst person in my own life? Please, if you know the answer, do get back to me on that!
Text copyright © 2014 Jack Gantos
Table of Contents
2 Meat Cleaver,
4 The Oracle,
9 Black Box,
10 Smells Like Hope,
12 The Secret Key,
13 In a Hole,
14 The Scream,
Also by Jack Gantos,