|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Edition description:||1st ed|
|Age Range:||10 Years|
Read an Excerpt
Wish You Were Here
By Hilma Wolitzer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 Hilma Wolitzer
All rights reserved.
Life with my sister Celia was never exactly easy, and on January 7 it got a lot worse. That morning, an announcement went up on the bulletin board at school. The Plainview High Players were presenting The Member of the Wedding as their spring production, and Celia had been picked for the lead.
I guess it affected her mind, because she started acting like Frankie Addams—sort of deranged—all of the time. She put on a fake Southern accent and made her voice come out in a froggy croak, as if she was imitating me having asthma. Whenever you looked at Celia, she was staring at a chewed-up script and talking to herself.
The really bad part, though, was when she tried to get the rest of the family to help her learn her lines. Ma would do it once in a while, but she goes to work and has plenty of other stuff to do when she gets home. Grace is only in second grade, and it takes her about a year to sound out words that aren't in her reader. She was always busy anyway, drawing weird, scary pictures that Ma hung on the refrigerator door with fruit magnets.
So of course Celia started bugging me. She wanted me to make believe I was Frankie's cousin, John Henry, and read his lines out loud. "No way," I told her.
Ma said, "Come on, Bernie dear, be a sport. Celia helps you with your math, doesn't she?"
Yeah, good old helpful Celia. If I didn't get a concept in about two seconds, she'd say, "What's the matter, bonehead, did the cat eat your brains?" And we didn't even have a cat.
I grabbed the script and flipped through a few pages. "I'm not doing it," I said. "This kid's a total wimp!"
"No, he isn't," Ma said. "He's a sweet and tragic little boy. And besides, you don't have to do very much. Just give Celia her cues, and let her use you as a sounding board."
"Right," Celia said. "It's not such a big deal."
"Forget it," I told her. "That means NO, spelled capital N, capital O."
Any normal person would have taken the hint, but not Celia. I could stay clear of her at school, which is a junior-senior high, by sticking close to the junior side, where I belonged. And we had different schedules, and didn't take the same bus. At home, though, she drove me nuts. She'd knock on the bathroom door the minute I got inside, and say, "You comin' out soon, John Henry, honey? Wanna go pick us some chitlins for supper?" Or some other stupid thing that was supposed to sound Southern. I almost missed the old Celia, who used to shriek, "Have you died in there, Segal? Should I call the paramedics?"
After a while I realized the play was about this twelve-year-old girl with hair chopped off like a boy's. She decides to change her name to F. Jasmine Addams and expects to be part of the marriage between her older brother and his girlfriend. Not just a member of the wedding, like the title says.
The amazing coincidence was that there was a wedding coming up in our family, too. In April, about a week after Celia's play, Ma was going to marry Nat Greenberg, the guy she'd been going out with for over a year.
And my greatest wish was the opposite of Frankie Addams's—I wanted to be a non-member of the wedding. I didn't want to hear them say "I do," or watch them kiss, or any of that other cornball stuff. Before Nat moved in, I'd be moving out. I was going to Miami, Florida, to live with my grandfather, Sam Segal. All I had to do was get the air fare.
I hadn't told anybody about my plans, not even Pete Goldsmith, my best friend. What if he told someone else, by accident, and they told someone else, and Ma found out in the end? That would kill the whole thing. Anyway, it would have been hard to explain why I had to go. I didn't have one of those hang-ups boys on TV always have after their dads die. I mean, I didn't want to be the new man of the house, or anything like that. I had enough trouble being a kid, trying to get along with other kids, and pass algebra. And Nat wasn't your typical cruel stepfather, with a whip and a portable torture rack. The worst you could say about him was that he was disgustingly cheerful. Maybe it was because he had no children of his own and didn't know how to act around them. Somebody had to tell him it isn't normal to be in a permanent good mood.
Well, it wasn't going to be me. My grandfather needed me down in Miami. In one of his letters he said how much I reminded him of his own dear boy, Marty—my father—and he mentioned the loneliness of old age. I'd never even considered living with my other grandparents, in Queens. For one thing, they have each other. And though I love them, they really get on my nerves.
By February 2, I had only two dollars saved, all of it from my allowance, and mostly because I'd hardly bought any candy lately. On the way home in the school bus, I opened my algebra book and took another peek at the airlines ad I'd cut out of the newspaper the week before. The paper was starting to tear, because I'd folded and unfolded it so often. I had memorized the whole ad by then, but it made me feel good just to look at it again. In gigantic letters, it said: YOU COULD BE BASKING ON A SUNNY BEACH RIGHT NOW FOR ONLY $99! Then there was a tiny star, and another one at the bottom of the page, next to a lot of small, boring print about a special package deal. I didn't care about that, or about basking on some sunny beach, even though it was freezing out and we were riding past piles of dirty snow. "$99!" was engraved on my brain. I could see why they didn't charge a hundred dollars, just to round things off—two numbers looked like a lot less than three. But I still didn't know where I was going to get the money.
All the local paper routes were taken. My mother probably wouldn't have let me deliver papers anyway, because of my asthma. She was always reminding me that I wasn't supposed to overexert myself, or be out in bad weather. I pictured her driving me from house to house every time it drizzled, or delivering the papers herself if I had the sniffles. Snow shoveling was out, too, and she'd spoil any chance I'd have at Zee's Farms, where a couple of guys I knew helped unload the fruit and vegetables from the trucks. If I was a little older, fifteen or so, they might have hired me at one of the industrial plants, as a mailboy, or a messenger. Pete works after school, for full minimum wage, at Harwell's Plastics on Jericho Turnpike. He says it's a cinchy job and that there are great-looking chicks around, with great-looking boom-booms. He never talked that way about girls before he started working. I don't think he even noticed them.
A rubber band got me on the back of the head. I turned around and saw Pete a few rows behind me, trying to look innocent. "What are you doing there, Captain Marvel?" he said. "Studying Playboy ?"
I refolded the ad and stuck it back in my book, while a few of the other kids made stupid remarks and laughed. Then I picked the rubber band up from the floor and aimed a paper clip at Pete. It hit Mary Ellen Burns instead, right on her overdeveloped chest, breaking up the whole bus. Mary Ellen seemed upset, as if I'd hurt her, although she was wearing a down jacket and it was only a paper clip. Pete squealed, "Oh, Bernard darling, I didn't know you cared!"
Pete's thirteen and a half, like me, but he's about six feet tall and sprouting hair all over the place. His regular voice is really deep, and only cracks into a funny soprano once in a while. He lied about his age when he applied for the job at Harwell's. His older brother works there, and vouched for him. Easy for Pete, with an older brother and a rapid growth spurt. Little Rabbi Stein, who trained both of us for our bar mitzvahs, used to stand on a chair to yell at Pete when he screwed up on his portion of the haftorah. I was unlucky enough to be the rabbi's pet—a half orphan who remembered everything, especially not to be taller than the rabbi.
As I walked from the bus stop on my corner, I decided to babysit the Wolfe boys on Saturday, although I couldn't stand them. At the rate of two bucks an hour, I'd probably get to Florida in about twenty years. If those brats let me live that long. But any money toward my fare was better than nothing—April and the wedding were only two months away. I wished I'd made my decision about Florida before I spent my Hanukkah gelt playing Pac-Man and buying candy and baseball cards. And Ma had deposited all my bar-mitzvah checks in one of those savings accounts you can't touch until you're too decrepit to enjoy it. She said my money would grow in the bank and be there for my future, when I'd need it. I kicked at a mound of snow with my sneaker and thought that I was the one who'd better grow. And why did adults worry so much about the future? I needed ninety-nine dollars right away.CHAPTER 2
The Wolfe boys are identical eight-year-old twins, with mean little eyes and skinny, non-stop bodies. I don't know why there have to be two of them when one would have been plenty. If I wasn't so hard up for dough, I'd have gone to the park with my friends on Saturday, instead of babysitting.
Most of the sitting jobs in our neighborhood go to girls, or older boys, but Mr. and Mrs. Wolfe can't be fussy. They have to pay fifty cents more than the going rate just to get anybody. If you ask me, they should pay double. When I got to their house, on Stephanie Drive, Ronnie and Randy were fighting over a comic book, ripping it into a million pieces. They had a whole closet filled with comics, and lots of toys they used mostly as weapons. They were usually too busy trying to murder each other to just play like ordinary kids.
Their parents were going to visit somebody in Hicksville, a couple of miles away, but Mrs. Wolfe acted as if they were going to the moon. She gave me a phone number where they could be reached, and she rattled off all these emergency numbers: police, fire department, doctor. She told me that today Randy was the twin in the green shirt and Ronnie was the one wearing red. Then she said, "Now remember, boys, be good, and mind Bernie." What a laugh!
Mr. Wolfe had gone out to their car the minute I stepped in the door. I could hear him revving up the engine over Ronnie and Randy's yelling. When the car pulled away, I shouted for their attention—they never listened if you just talked to them—and asked if they wanted to go outside and ride bikes, or run around the yard. I figured I'd keep them busy doing something harmless.
"Nah," they answered together, and then Ronnie said, "You're supposed to play with us, Bernie. That's what you're getting paid for."
"There isn't enough money on Planet Earth to pay me for this," I said, but naturally nobody heard me. Hang in there, I told myself. Think about Florida, think about Grandpa.
I found a basketball with some life left in it and remembered there was a hoop behind the Wolfes' garage. I dribbled the ball and called, "Come on, you guys, let's shoot a few! I challenge you—one on two!" Somehow I got them into their jackets and out the back door. It began to rain immediately. Not a little shower you could stay out in, but a downpour that left bullet holes in the snow and soaked our jackets. "Oh, shit," I said, practically to myself, and by some miracle both of them heard that.
"Oh, shit, oh, shit," they echoed. "Doctor, doctor, call the nurse! Bernie Segal said a curse!" And they ran in circles like a couple of maniac dogs.
I felt like banging their heads together as I dragged them inside. Now what? I looked at the clock and saw that Mr. and Mrs. Wolfe had only been gone a few minutes. How would I make it through the rest of the day?
Then Randy turned the TV on and switched from channel to channel so fast I thought the dial would come off in his hand. It was kind of fun, for a minute, to watch Fat Albert, a giant space crab, and a preacher all going by as if they were chasing each other across the screen. But the sound was up so high the knickknacks were dancing around on the shelves.
I'm not sure how long the doorbell was ringing before I heard it over that racket. When I got to the door, Pete was there, hunched over and wet. "Man, I was about to leave before I drowned," he said. "Why do you have that on so loud?"
I jerked my thumb at the living room, where Ronnie and Randy were wrestling in front of the TV, while the preacher begged them to find peace in their hearts through the Lord.
Pete marched in, lowered the volume, and told me that the get-together in the park had been rained out, so he'd come over to keep me company. He took out his big comb and, bending his knees to look in the mirror, began combing his dark, wavy hair. "I don't think my nerves can take these clowns, though," he said. "Can't you make them take a nap or something?"
"Are you kidding? They probably don't even sleep at night," I said. "They've been going like this since I got here. Maybe they'll wear themselves out eventually."
"Yeah, sure, and maybe old Mary Ellen Burns for you."
"What's that supposed to mean?" I said.
Pete shoved a throw pillow down the front of his sweater and started wiggling around, squealing, "Don't you know, Bernard darling?"
I tossed another pillow at his head, scoring a direct hit. Of course he tossed it right back, and then Ronnie and Randy joined in. We ended up having a colossal pillow fight that wasn't over until all four of us were lying on the floor, totally wiped out.
Ronnie recovered first. He jumped up and yelled, "Air attack!" waving a pillow over his head.
Pete grabbed it and put it back on the sofa. "Fight's over," he announced, making his voice come out extra deep. I wished I could do that. The twins were impressed, too, and before they could get over it, Pete said, "Cause now we're going to play the greatest game on earth!"
"Yay!" Ronnie and Randy said. "The greatest game on earth!"
I tugged at Pete's sleeve. "What's that?" I whispered.
Pete shrugged. "Beats me," he said. "What do they like to do?"
"Them? Play with matches. Have spitting contests. Torture ants."
"Oh. Well, don't worry, Captain. We'll think of something. We'll improvise."
"You improvise," I told him.
Pete held up his hand. "Okay, everybody," he shouted, "listen to your Uncle Pete!" He sounded just like a camp director. "The main thing in this game is ... uh ... strategy!"
"What's that?" Ronnie asked suspiciously.
"It's what generals use in battles," I said.
"Like bombs?" Ronnie said, looking interested.
"You better gimme more strategy than you give him," his brother warned.
"You can't give anybody strategy," I said, wondering where all this was leading.
"Right, right," Pete agreed. "Strategy is just using your old noodle. In this game, good strategy earns you advantage points."
"Are they like money?" Randy asked. "Can you buy comics with them?" His face brightened.
"Yeah, why not?" Pete said. "Whoever wins the most strategic advantage points gets the money to buy a comic."
"Hey!" I said.
"How do you win, Uncle Pete?" Ronnie asked.
"He's not your uncle," I muttered.
"By sitting real still," Pete said. "By not saying or doing anything. Comics cost fifty cents, right?"
"Sixty cents," Randy said.
"Whatever. Anyway," Pete continued, "you earn one point—that's worth a penny—for every minute you sit still. The game lasts sixty minutes. So one hour of good strategy gets you a free comic! Of course you lose points if you start running around and making noise."
"Gee, I don't know about this, Pete," I said. "It's kind of like bribery, or gambling or something." But I was really worried about the money part.
Ronnie was more worried about the ground rules of the game. "Can you go to the bathroom without losing points?" he asked.
Pete pretended to think it over. "Okay," he said at last. "If you go quietly."
"I'm gonna win, dogface," Ronnie said, punching his brother.
"No, you're not, conehead," Randy answered, hitting him back. Didn't they know they looked exactly the same? They began a fistfight, and Pete and I had to pull them apart.
"You could both win, if you're smart, by having a tie," Pete said. "Then you could each get a comic. But you're both going to lose if you keep this up! Now, Ronnie, you sit over here on the sofa, next to me. And, Randy, you get on that chair. Bernie'll keep an eye on you. Ready? Get set. Go!"
The twins rushed to their places. As soon as they got there, Ronnie wriggled his tongue at Randy, and Randy rolled his eyes back so only the whites showed.
"Quit that," Pete growled, and the boys finally settled down. Pete smiled at me.
I didn't smile back. "Where are we going to get the money to give them, if it works?" I said.
"You're getting paid for this job, aren't you?" he asked.
"Yeah, sure, you don't think I'm doing it for laughs, do you? But I'm not going to—"
"It's only a few cents, man. Listen to this peace and quiet, will you? Isn't it worth it?"
"It's more than a few cents," I said. "And I need every bit of it."
"I'm saving for something."
I felt like blurting everything out then. It was hard keeping it to myself, and maybe Pete wouldn't tell anybody. But I couldn't take any chances, so I said, "Nothing important."
"You using dope?" Pete asked.
"You know I'm not."
"I told you already—nothing."
"Could it be a little valentine surprise for a certain foxy chick?" Pete asked.
Excerpted from Wish You Were Here by Hilma Wolitzer. Copyright © 1984 Hilma Wolitzer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Mature Teenager,
Bigfoot and the Mad Knitter,
A Winning Number,
Mendel's Pea Plants,
The Invisible Hero,
Nat the Gnat,
The World's Fair Ring,
The Dead-Horse Float,
Bernard Martin Segal,
Money to Burn,
A Biography of Hilma Wolitzer,