Authors: Sue Stauffacher
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HOW TO EAT FRIED WORMS,
THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH,
WITH LOVE FROM SPAIN, MELANIE MARTIN,
PURE DEAD BRILLIANT,
THE LEGACY OF GLORIA RUSSELL,
D. Manus Pinkwater
BELLE PRATER'S BOY,
TROUT AND ME,
This book is dedicated with love to my sons, Max and Walter Gilles, who have taught me that the most important thing is to be kind.
The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.
—Franklin Delano Roosevelt
My name, if you must know, is Franklin Delano Donuthead.
in a room full of fifth graders if you think names will never hurt you.
The Donuthead part comes from way back, from my great-great-great-great-grandfather who came to the United States during the famous turnip famine. Of course he didn't speak a lick of English. His Russian name was something like Donotscked. Somehow, when he came out of the ferry office at Ellis Island with a piece of paper in his hand, he was a Donuthead.
So, basically, I come from a long line of suffering Russian Donutheads.
All the suffering could have been avoided if it weren't for Washington Irving, this very famous writer who recorded the events of his life in his journal. One day, he wrote about these little balls of sweetened dough he liked fried up in hog fat. He called them dough nuts. Because, you see, the very first doughnuts were shaped like lumpy brown walnuts.
If only he'd stuck with the name the Dutch people gave them. They were the ones who created them, anyway. They called them olykoeks. If he had called them olykoeks, my life would have been very different, I assure you.
Then again, with my luck, I would have been named Franklin Delano Olykoekhead.
My mother is a major major fan of our thirty-second president. She likes to listen to the radio addresses that Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave when he came into office during the Great Depression. Believe it or not, she listens to them in her van during her workday. She has them all on tape.
“If FDR could rise above a life-threatening illness to become president of the United States, then you should be able to rise above the curse of a name like Donuthead to at least play third base for the New York Yankees,” my mother says.
I think this is very unfair. Your mother gives you a name when you're all red and screaming and you have a pounding headache. You're not really in a position to question the “future” situation.
Now that I am eleven, I have pretty much accepted my life. I'm a Russian Donuthead who's named after a great handicapped president.
In some twisted way, this all makes sense. Because, you see, I too am handicapped. Yes, one side of my body is shorter than the other. My mother says this is my imagination, but I am here to tell you that a tape measure does not lie.
“Maybe you're just growing from side to side,” she says. “One side first and then the other.”
While this may be possible, I think it's highly unlikely. I have found no evidence to support this theory. Currently, there is an eight-tenths-of-an-inch difference between my left arm and my right arm, and a four-tenths-of-an-inch difference between my left leg and my right leg. Just yesterday, when I measured my legs after school, I found my toe creeping closer to the five. I am preparing myself mentally to have legs that
look like they belong on two different bodies. Both my left arm and my left leg are longer. At this rate, I'm going to have to go to one of those special stores to be fitted for my Sunday suits. Soon, I'll be buying shoes with one high heel.
All my mother cares about is how this will affect my ability to play third base for the New York Yankees. I keep telling her that with my athletic ability, I'd be lucky if they hired me to chalk out the field. I think it's so pathetic how parents are always trying to transfer their dreams onto their kids.
So far, I've just focused on staying alive. If I didn't know there was an astonishingly high probability that I would live through each day—given my age, general health, and relatively high standard of living—I would not get out of bed in the morning.
I avoid motor vehicles whenever possible. According to the National Safety Department, this is by far the most likely way to die as a kid. I also avoid all bodies of water (drowning's number two), and anything that would cause a death-inducing accident (number three). This could be, oh, say, being hit in the temple by a hard grounder down the third base line. In addition, I never play with matches or firearms; never climb trees, ladders, or fences; change the smoke detector batteries every three months; do not drink liquids that are stored under the sink or put any plastic bags over my head.
Gloria Nelots, the chief statistician for the National Safety Department in Washington, has already offered me a job when I graduate from college—if I should live that long. She and I talk at least once a week.
• • •
Me: Good morning, Gloria.
Gloria: What is it now, Franklin?
Me: My school is planning a field trip to a working farm.
Gloria: And …
Me: I was just wondering … what is the likelihood of me being crushed by a moving tractor?
Me: Trapped in a hay silo and suffocated by grain?
Gloria: They don't make percentages that small.
Me: Can mad cow disease be transmitted by saliva? I mean, if a cow licks me, and …
Gloria: Franklin, you would have to eat it, and since you never touch red meat …
Me: Gloria, I think you should know our school bus does not have seat belts.
Gloria: I'll get someone on it right away, Franklin.
Me: It's Bus Number 987 in the Pelican View School District. In addition, I think the rear tires are overinflated, causing premature baldness. I was just wondering, Gloria …
Gloria: You won't get a note from me, Franklin, if that's what you're angling for. I think it's perfectly safe for you to go to the farm.
Me: Well, obviously, I'm concerned for the safety of all the students, not just myself. Recently, I noticed that several children have been coming to school with their shoes untied. These are young children, Gloria …
Gloria: Do you ever think about girls?
Me: Girls, Gloria?
Gloria: I think it would be better for your health if you thought about girls rather than disasters. Stress plays a major role in the leading causes of death in this nation.
Well, let me tell you, I didn't have anything to say to that. I just had to hang up right then. After all, Gloria is a girl. How could I tell her that girls filled me with so much stress they ought to come with warning labels?
Girls I do not understand. Girls cannot be quantified in any way. The laws of mathematics, physics, and chemistry do not apply to anything wearing a barrette or a gold bracelet. Unless, of course, it's not real gold. Then you may witness a green ring on the skin resulting from the interaction between base metals and the acids in both perspiration and the atmosphere.
The only thing that frightens me more than girls is the Pelican View Basketball Team. We don't have the full complement of sports teams like you get in middle school. Just a basketball team and a baseball team.
Anybody who wants to can be on the team. You can have the mental fitness of a pretzel, and the grace of a station wagon on black ice, and Coach Jablonski still has to take you on the team. In winter, I was being terrorized by the basketball team. Come spring, it would be the baseball team. For some reason, all the boys who like to pound on sensitive, asymmetrical guys like me are also attracted to Pelican View sports teams.
There's one other factor in my safety profile that I should mention. I am fatherless. My mother is husbandless. This is
both devastating and out of my control. I have mentioned to my mother that coming from a single-parent home puts me at a disproportionately high risk for all sorts of life-threatening behaviors, like alcohol and drug abuse, depression and anger management issues, and being abducted by kidnappers on the rare evening she has to work late.
When I ask her what she intends to do about this, my mother gets rather testy. “Franklin, you gave a medical questionnaire to the last guy. Remember? At the door?”
The medical questionnaire was for the mechanic she met on the Internet. I thought it necessary to take a few extra precautions. Normally, a brief interview is sufficient.
“I cannot understand why you object to learning about a person's overall state of health,” I said.
We were having dinner together and it was my turn to be chef. I'd chosen a dish composed mostly of dark orange and green vegetables for their antioxidant properties. Though I'd made it myself, my mother was dissecting her serving as if it were a frog she'd found flattened at the side of the road.
“When the Lepners bought their dog,” I continued calmly, “they had a licensed veterinarian check his eyes, his legs, even his hips. The way I see it, a father is an investment. You don't want to put all your energy into getting one and then have him keel over from a heart attack two years down the line.”
My mother flipped over a slice of sweet potato and inspected the underside. “For your information,
not looking for a father. And I'd rather leave some things to chance, to … I don't know … the great unknowable.”
“Do you think my real father has children by now?” I asked.
“Now don't go calling him your
father, Franklin. He didn't want to be a father. He was a sperm donor.”
“But he might be a father now!”
“And the Lepners' dog might be alive with a litter of puppies.”
“Baron was a male.” “You know what I mean.”
Unfortunately, I did know what she meant. My mother meant that some questions have no answers. Of course I had a father. Everyone does. But I also didn't have a father. Because the man whose genes were coursing around inside me had never met my mother and he'd certainly never met me. I probably had a couple dozen half brothers and sisters too, maybe even here in Pelican View, and he was and he wasn't their father either.
Come to think of it, I hope they keep good records at the sperm donor clinic. Those half relatives will come in handy in the event that I need an organ donation someday.