The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez

BOOK: The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez
13.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


This one's for Lucas, my best bud


As always, thanks to Phoebe for her keen editorial eye. Also, a shout-out to Lucas Johnson for his poems
“Sunglasses” and “Balloon.”

The Glass-Half-Full-Half-Empty Episode

irst, a test:

Let's say you're cruising on your skateboard down a street you know better than the secret places where you stash forbidden sticks of gum or that red joy buzzer you trick your younger brother with, when out of nowhere a squirrel cuts you off, making you fall and break your ankle. Bad luck? Punishment for the times you lied to your parents or pranked your older sister? Or is it a sign to be prepared for the unexpected?

And when you're sitting at home watching old reruns of
Tom and Jerry
with your broken ankle resting on a chair while your best friend draws pictures of vampires on your cast, are you mad because your soccer season is as dead as a fly trapped between your front screen and picture window? Or do you look at the bright side and say, “Although my foot hurts worse than getting beat by a girl in arm wrestling, I could've broken my neck”?

“It's about the way you view the world” is what my mother would say, and what she's saying right now for the hundredth time. She's pointing to a half-full glass of water sitting on the kitchen table. The first time she used this expression, I looked up its definition in
Proteus: A Word Dictionary and Thesaurus for Children, with Explanations of Well-Known Phrases
, which me and my friends Beanie and Jocko just call the Book. I even memorized the entry:
The glass half empty or half
full is a common expression used to determine the way someone views the world, whether someone is an optimist or a pessimist. That is, whether they see a glass with an even amount of water in it as being half full or half empty.

I often wonder how long it takes my mother to perfectly measure the water. Does she tape a ruler to the outside of the glass, or follow a scientific formula, like the ones that confuse me on science exams, especially when they try to be funny: “If Beth has a gallon cereal bowl, and it's half filled with milk, will it still be half filled when she adds cereal?”

“Only a cow has a gallon cereal bowl,” I complain to Ms. Butterfield, aka Ms. Demigoddess, or Ms. D for short, who's been strong-armed into proctoring my science exam. “Just take the test, Benny,” she says.

But it's a trick question. Are we talking about oatmeal, Froot Loops, Cheerios? Are we talking about whole milk, 2 percent, or skim?

“Just take the test, Benny,” Ms. D counters again with her excruciatingly pleasant (the Book would say “glorious”) smile, a smile you can't say no to. Ms. D could tell you to stick your head in a toilet bowl for two minutes, and you'd gladly do it as long as she kept smiling. But back to the glass-half-full-half-empty episode.

There's something different about the glass today. When my mother asks me whether it's half full or half empty, I usually nudge the table and watch her face cringe as the water vibrates, making her point hard to prove. But this time nothing happens, as if the water's frozen, even though the glass isn't cold when I touch it.

My father, who's also at the table, peers over his morning paper and chuckles, like he's sharing a private joke with my mother. My sister, Irene, who's toying with her scrambled eggs while working on an extra-credit question for AP Biology, says, “Hmmmmmm.” And my nine-year-old brother, Crash, angrily blurts out, “It's a dirty trick.”

Normally, I pay as much attention to Crash as I do to the yelping of our pug dog, Spot, who's twelve years old, smells like a dead rat no matter how much we groom him, and has half his bottom teeth missing. But this time I say, “What's bugging you today, Crash?”

Crash has flaming-red hair and bright-green eyes the size of bottle caps. His skin's as pale as flour, but when he's mad, his face glows like a ripe tomato, and he's certainly mad now. He points angrily at my mother. “I heard her talking about it. She paid some guy to glue a piece of plastic in the glass. She got it made especially for you.” Next, he's pointing at my father. “And
said to get it mounted like a trophy and have ‘Benny Alvarez: Mr. Negativity' printed on it.”

If Irene or I spoke like this to our parents, we'd be in lockdown for a week, but my mother leans over and pats Crash on the head, while my father lowers his newspaper, still amused.

“Don't call your mother ‘she,'” he says.

“But it's a dirty trick.”

Irene pauses from her extra-credit assignment, addressing Crash in the adult voice she uses when she's trying to act like a school counselor. “Crash,” she says, “talk like that keeps you from being a productive human being.” So Irene has finally realized Crash is an alien.

Now here's the hard part. Any other guy my age would tell his sister to stop acting superior, or he'd wait until later and mix some toothpaste into her acne cream. I've read all those books where the teenage older sister is nasty and moody and hates her brother, but Irene's the nicest person you'll ever meet. You could tell her a meteor is about to strike, and she'd be more interested in photographing it for posterity than running for cover.

“I'm already a human being,” Crash says.

“And a cool one at that,” Irene says, “but not very positive.”

And there's truth to that. If I'm Mr. Negativity, Crash is the Cantankerous Kid, which is why everyone tiptoes around him, hoping he'll change and not set the house on fire, or maybe they feel bad for naming him Crash after a rich uncle who died on safari a hundred years ago.

But my sister still isn't done. “I think everyone in the family wants you to be happy, Crash, and as Mom says, it's all about attitude.” With that, she looks around the table for support. For some reason, I nod (my sister can make you do things like that, like she's a good witch), my father laughs again, and my mother says, “We need to talk about school, Benny.”


“Yes, school.”

My mother volunteers to help at recess, so she sees Ms. D almost every day, and in yesterday's “Benny discussion,” my response to the science test came up.

“First, I must stress that Ms. Butterfield said you were not loud or disrespectful, but that your constant questions disrupted the exam.”

“It depends on what you mean by ‘constant questions.' If you need an answer, there's no limit to the number of questions you should ask.”

My father lowers his paper, impressed by my reasoning.

“You're just trying to avoid responsibility for rude behavior, Benny,” my mother says.

The Book would have said “weasel out,” but I let it slide and go on. “You want me to get As in science, right?”

My father looks interested now, wondering where I'm going with this.

“Of course we do.”

“Then how can I get an A if I don't understand the question?”

“He has a point, Margaret,” my father says.

“Don't encourage him, Colin.”

“I'm with Dad,” Crash exclaims, the color of his face back to normal.

“You're all missing Mom's point,” Irene interjects.

“Yes,” my mother says, holding up the glass. “I had this made, hoping we'll avoid this conversation in the future. I thought you'd place it on your dresser, so it will be the first thing you see in the morning and you'll say, ‘I'll go with the glass half full today.'”

Inspired by my mother's speech, Irene nods her head so vigorously, she almost falls off her chair.

Crash mumbles, “Fat chance.”

And my father, trying to save face with my mother, says, “You never know, Benny,” though he doesn't look too convinced.

“But first,” my mother continues, “I need to know that you understand the symbolism of the glass.”

“Come on, Mom,” I say.

“So I don't have to repeat it?”

“Trust me, I get it.”

So I take the glass upstairs and place it on my dresser. Why? First, because I made my point. Second, because I don't want to be late for school. And third, because I love my mother, and if she wants me to wake up every morning staring at this strange trophy, I'll do it, though I know I'll always see the glass as half empty. Irene, my mom, Ms. D, and I'm sure my archenemy, Claudine, would think that makes me negative, but that depends on how you define negativity.

The Book

was about seven when my mother first feared I was becoming “negative.” It all started one morning after my father delivered one of his many rants on politics. My mother asked him to tone it down, saying the world wasn't going to end soon and that it was best to focus on all the good things people do. More important, she added, she was beginning to notice the same kind of attitude in me, as if she thought negativity was contagious, or passed down genetically, like blond hair and blue eyes.

“Negative?” my father protested. “I call it enthusiasm for my beliefs. Instead of plopping down in front of the TV, Margaret, I read and develop opinions. The rich are getting richer and want the rest of us to be their gardeners, and people might be more inclined to end these stupid wars if their own kids were soldiers. I don't like thinking about these things, but you can't just paste smiley faces on the refrigerator”—my mother does this—“or . . .” And as my father rampaged on, my mother looked at Irene, who was eleven at the time, both of them nodding knowingly at me and my father, as if to say “Case closed.”

Later the word “negative” followed me around like a bad stink, and when a word seems tattooed on your forehead, when teachers, people you hardly know, call you something, it's time to examine the word.

Word Warriors to the rescue.

The Word Warriors are me and my best friends, Jocko and Beanie. Those aren't their real names, but they decided you needed a nickname to join our club. I don't blame them. Jocko's real name is Reginald and Beanie's is Jefferson. Beanie didn't like his name because he said no one trusts a kid with a last name for a first name, especially if he's black, and Jocko said he always wanted to be called Jocko after some WWF wrestler who died years ago in a car accident.

I told them I didn't want a nickname. I'm president of the club, so what could they say? I actually like my name, even though it doesn't fit. When people meet me, they expect me to speak Spanish because of the “Alvarez,” but in fact, no one in my family looks Hispanic or speaks Spanish or has even been to Spain or South America or Mexico. I guess my father had a great-great-great-great-grandfather named Alvarez who married an Irishwoman. After that it was Irish plus Irish until my father married my mother, who's French. So if you're expecting a rush of Spanish when I get worked up, you're going to be disappointed.

Which brings me to the Book.

As I said, the Book is
Proteus: A Word Dictionary and Thesaurus for Children, with Explanations of Well-Known Phrases
by A. J. Logos. I came across it when Borders closed and they were having a huge book sale. At first, I refused to go with my father because he was bent on protesting the closing, wanting to give a tough time to “the buzzards feeding off the death of a beautiful animal.” But I decided to give him moral support, and even he ended up buying a book on golf for my grandfather, though not until he had complained out loud for ten minutes to anyone who'd listen about “greedy corporations.”

While he patrolled the store, I scanned the kids' section, coming across a pile of little blue books with gold emblems on the covers. Small enough to fit in your back pocket, they were stacked alongside hundreds of those stupid vampire novels Jocko reads. The dictionary part didn't blow me away, but when I paged through the thesaurus, I got excited. I guess I had always known about the thesaurus, but I had never held one in my hand. The first word I looked up was “dumb.” I found “inarticulate, mute, silent, dim-witted, moronic, thick, dense,” and the list went on. That's when I realized a thesaurus could actually be fun. For example, there's this one bully in school named Big Joe, and sometimes it's hard to tell whether he's a jerk or plain dumb, but I know if I call him dumb, he'll have three of his friends hold me down while he kicks soccer balls into my face. But I might be able to get away with “thick” or “dense,” and if I call him “inarticulate,” he'll think I'm complimenting him.

Now my mother would say I had discovered ammunition to aid me in my so-called negative approach to life, but, if you look at a thesaurus, even “negative” isn't the right word. Consider some of its synonyms: “adverse, antagonistic, contrary, dissenting, repugnant.” You could see me as contrary or adverse, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The Founding Fathers were contrary, and if they hadn't been, we'd all be talking funny and wearing bowler hats. And no one can ever accuse me of being repugnant. I wouldn't even like to be called antagonistic, but sometimes you have to be if you want to change something, and there's always something to change at school, especially with Claudine infecting the hallways with her nonsense.

Maybe none of this excites you, but Jocko and Beanie, after I gave them
, could see the interesting possibilities of playing with words. Beanie nailed it after Jocko said one afternoon that he was “scared” of that week's English exam. Trying to cheer Jocko up, Beanie opened the Book and read, “‘Scared: alarmed, dismayed, worried, terrified, paralyzed, upset.' No, Jocko, you aren't ‘scared' of your exam. You're alarmed and worried and upset. You're scared of spiders, and terrified of your father, and paralyzed when you have to talk in front of class.”

“Bravo!” I said.

“Thanks,” Jocko said, “though I still feel scared.”

In his own way, Jocko was right, but he still saw the logic of Beanie's comment, and he was the one who suggested we start a club. “Besides the thesaurus,” he said, “let's use a new word or expression from the Book every day, but it's got to be a weird one, something the other two will have to guess at, and you can never know it's coming.”

Beanie and I liked this idea. Then we all agreed to be what you might call an “exclusive” club, meaning we'd have only three members. If that sounds bad, then think of us as being “particular” or “classy,” or if you want to be nasty, I guess we'll have to live with “narrow-minded” or “snobbish.”

BOOK: The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez
13.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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