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Authors: E.L. Konigsburg

About the B'nai Bagels (10 page)

BOOK: About the B'nai Bagels
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MOTHER
: Strategy it is, Mrs. Jacobs. Until the season is over, I won’t know if it’s the right thing to do.

MRS. JACOBS
: It’s so hard on him, a boy used to being champion.…

MOTHER
: My pot is burning on the stove, Mrs. Jacobs, and my arm is not long enough to…

Spencer had come into the office and saw me carefully replacing the receiver of the extension phone. “For crying out loud, Mark, don’t tell me that you listen in on phone calls.”

“How else will I know if it’s about me?”


About
you isn’t the same thing as
for
you. What’s the matter with you, kid, don’t you think Mother and I have enough trouble with the overlaps?”

“What do you mean, overlaps?”

“I mean the parts of you that… oh! just skip it, kid. Just skip it.” Spencer left the office fast and me confused.

E
ven after the season officially began, I continued going to the Projects on Saturdays. After those first two times, I went in the afternoons. Every Saturday, and usually on Sundays, too, even if I wasn’t buying
Playboy
. I went until the incident with Botts. There was something about handling a ball there at the Projects that was like magic. The ball would come to me: in my mitt if I was fielding or square onto my bat if I was batting. At Little League I was like a watched kettle; I got hot, but I never got up enough steam to boil. I was better than average. Better enough than average to be in the starting line-up even though Mother and Spencer never worked with me at home, the way I had thought they would. And I no longer wanted them to. When I played at the Projects, I wasn’t anybody’s pupil or somebody’s brother or someone’s son. I was myself,
and I liked that. I felt guilty for sometimes preferring the Projects to the Bagels.

The thing with Botts happened late in June, more than three-quarters of the way through our season. Cookie had made a habit of walking me part of the way home. Every time she would ask me to bring back my good jacket, the one whose lining I had ripped. Finally, one Saturday I remembered, and I brought it in a brown paper bag. And that was the last Saturday I went to the Projects.

Who would ever have taken Cookie’s walking me part way home seriously? Certainly not me. Cookie was like a puppy or a mascot or something. After the first week I mostly forgot that she was a girl. Except when she smiled. One time I had asked the kid with the beginnings of a beard why it was that everyone listened to Cookie. (He really ought to have started shaving. He didn’t look kempt.) He explained that there were seven Riveras; six of them were boys. Cookie had to do a lot around the house. She was a little bit spoiled, being the only girl, but only a little bit; being that she worked so hard around the house, I guess she deserved it.

On the Saturday it happened with Botts I had gotten into the game right away. Botts had been waiting and my arrival made an even number. Our teams were not
full count, and the guys in the outfield had to cover a lot of ground. Which they did. I dropped one fly ball, but since it didn’t break a window or anything, the only comment was
Stupid
and
Greasy-fingers
. At first I tried to say something in my own defense, but they didn’t care; they just wanted to pitch the next ball, and we all had to concentrate on that. It was great not having an audience.

Then Fortune came down and called time out.

Just like that.

And everyone took time out.

Just like that.

“I want to see Mark Bagel,” she said.

I walked over to her. “There was already an even number when I got here.”

“I’m not playing today, anyway,” she answered. “I came down to fix your jacket. Did you bring it in that bag I saw you carrying in?”

“Oh, yeah. Almost forgot. Just a minute, you guys,” I called as I ran to get the bag.

Simon, who was due up at bat, got impatient. “Really, Cookie,” he said, “Why do we all have to take time out while you woo with Mark?”

He shouldn’t have said that. Sylvester began singing, “Woo woo woo-ooo-ooo.”

And that was all it took for the others to pipe in.

“Go along and play,” I yelled. “I’ll be up for my time at bats.”

Cookie pulled a needle and thread out of her pocket. The right color. And I had worn it only those first times; she had remembered the color. The jacket had been a present from Aunt Thelma: navy blue with silver buttons and a scarlet lining. The best I had ever had.

Cookie sewed invisibly. You could hardly see where it had been ripped. “Where did you learn to sew?” I asked.

“Guess I was just born to it. Mother works in a girdle factory. She sews the elastic across the tops.”

“Oh,” I said. “Must be interesting work.”

“I don’t know why you’d think that. It’s a job.”

“Well, there are all those different sizes and all,” I stammered.

“That’s nothing. The big ones need big elastic and the small ones need small elastic. It’s that simple.” She handed me my jacket.

“Say, thanks. Thanks a lot. You sure have a talent for sewing.”

“I am also excellent at drawing and arithmetic. I speak Spanish as excellent as I do English. I make marshmallow fudge, and I can hold my breath to a count of eighty-five—if you count fast.”

She turned and started back upstairs.

“Cookie!” I yelled.

“Your time at bat, Setzer. C’mon, let’s make it count.”

“Just a minute, you guys.” And I began to run after Cookie, yelling, “I brought you something.”

The whole gang heard me. Which wasn’t very hard because I didn’t exactly whisper. You don’t whisper when you’re trying to get a guy’s attention out in the open air. Or a girl’s.

Cookie stopped and turned around and smiled. Her smile sort of dawns on her face; it starts as a small streak and then lights up everything. It’s like announcing daybreak. Even if her mouth is too big.

I dug my hand into the bag and took out what I had brought. Cookie held out her hand, and something about the way she did it made me slip it onto her forefinger.

“A bagel,” I explained. “It’s to eat.”

She looked up at me and still looking at me began to nibble around the edge as she held it on her forefinger.

“It’s delicious,” she said.

“It’s delicious-er with cream cheese,” I said.

I should have noticed how quiet the whole gang had been. That would have given me a good idea that they were watching us. But I guess I was so interested in Cookie’s reaction to the bagel and that smile and all that I
didn’t pay any real attention. Until they began that chanting again. “Woo woo wooo-ooo-ooo.” They kept it up.

“Cut it out, you guys,” I said.

They kept it up.

Botts broke out of the rhythm by calling out, “Is that why you never buy a look at my magazine? Because you’ve got a girl of your own?”

“Don’t be silly,” I said. “I don’t have a girl. I have my own copy.”

“I’ll just bet,” he smirked.

“I do, too. I’ll bring it. I’ll show you.”

“I’m going to tell you something, Setzer. And I’m going to tell you good. You better never bring that magazine around here. You hear me?”

“I hear you,” I said. “I imagine that the kids up on Crescent Hill can hear you. Now, you hear me. Quit calling Cookie my girl. She just did me a favor.”

“Yeah, a favor,” he said. “Is that why you slipped a bagel over her finger?
…And with this bagel I do thee wed…

“Cut that out,” I yelled. By this time Botts and I were kind of separated from the rest of the gang. Cookie walked up to Botts and stretched her neck so that she was practically nose to nose with him. She said, “Botts, you drop this subject. Drop it right now. Because if you
don’t, I’m going to tell your mother and your aunt what you do with your money. And what you do with your time. I know, and I’ll tell.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“I would.”

“They won’t believe you.”

“They will,” she said softly and calmly. We knew, as Botts must have known, that she would dare tell, and that they would believe.

Botts blinked his eyes fast; his shoulders and chin dropped. The whole gang saw it, Botts backing down. Cookie shouldn’t have done that even if she did it for me, and even if she did it to a louse like Franklin P. Botts.

He turned on me. “You just better never bring that magazine around here, Setzer. You cut in on my territory, and I’ll liquidate you.”

When a guy isn’t on TV and he uses a word like
liquidate
to another guy, he comes off pretty silly.

I laughed.

Botts socked me.

I’m not great at hand-to-hand combat, so I was slow winding up. Simon pulled on Botts, and I felt Sylvester pinning my arms back.

“Break it up. Break it up,” they yelled together.

Botts, with his arms pinned back and his neck stretched out, yelled again, “Wattcha gonna do, Setzer? Tell your mother and have me kicked off the team?”

“That’s what you deserve,” I said. “But I’m no squealer. I won’t tell.” The B’nai Bagels certainly deserved better than him, I thought. If my mother had not been manager, I probably would have told on him, but I couldn’t. He knew that.

“Go ahead and tell,” he teased. “See if I care.”

“I’m not going to tell. You just quit poking fun at other people like Cookie.”

“Why ya so worried about Cookie? Cookie
is
your girl. Woo woo wooo…”

I freed one arm and landed it in Botts’ stomach. It didn’t have much punch, though, so much of the muscle having been wasted in freeing it from Sylvester.

Simon spoke up. “Now you’re even. Let’s finish the game. You’re at bat, Setzer.” He let Botts go after saying that.

And Sylvester added, “Hey, Cookie, how about your not calling times-out any more?”

Cookie sniffed the air. “O.K., I won’t call times-out when it’s times-out for supper, either.”

“You know what Syl means,” Simon scolded.

“O.K.,” Cookie said. She looked at me and said,
“Thanks for the bagel, Mark.” She looked at Botts and said something in Spanish. I would write what she said, but I don’t know Spanish, and I’ve already included enough foreign words like
haftorah
.

Botts didn’t understand Spanish either. Cookie looked up at Botts and smiled and said, “O.K.?” That smile!

Botts softened. “O.K.,” he answered.

Cookie walked toward their building.

“What did she say?” Botts asked. No one answered. “What did that mean?”

“Skip it,” Sylvester said.

“C’mon now, you guys, what does that mean?”

The big kid said, “Cookie told you that…”

Simon interrupted, “Let’s play ball.”

“I wanna hear,” Botts urged. “What did she say?”

The kid with the beard continued, “She said, ‘If brains were Holy Water, you wouldn’t have enough to baptize a mosquito.’”

Simon and Sylvester poked the ground with their toes. The big kid laughed, and so did I. That Cookie was a clever guy.

Botts looked from the big kid to me and then squinted his eyes and said, “Watch it, Jew Boy. Watch who you’re laughing at.”

And that’s the way it happened. That’s the way it is
with kids like Botts. The feeling is always there. Like bacteria, just waiting for conditions to get dark enough to grow into a disease.

I picked up my jacket and went home.

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