The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez (8 page)

BOOK: The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez
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A. J. Logos

J
ocko, Beanie, and I are outside school again, hanging around the bike rack. It's a beautiful day, but the sun is stinging my eyes, and the whole right side of my body hurts from sleeping on the pool table. Added to that, Crash tossed and turned all night, farting.

“Dude, what happened to you?” Beanie asks.

“Yeah,” Jocko says. “You look like someone beat you with a baseball bat.”

“Crash happened to me,” I say, and I relate the mouse story.

“He's a strange little dude,” Beanie says.

“I think he's cool,” Jocko says.

“‘Scary' is a better word,” I say.

“No, your dad's the scary one.”

“Scary” isn't a word I'd associate with my father.

“You never know what he's going to say,” Jocko adds.

“What do you mean?” I ask, hoping my father doesn't blurt out embarrassing things around them.

“Not bad things,” Jocko says, “just unexpected things, like you might ask him what kind of day he's having, and he'll say, ‘Better than the starving peasants in Afghanistan,' or I'll ask to borrow a pen, and he'll say, ‘Fine, but I know where you live.'”

I'm relieved to hear it was just his usual teasing.

“I'm not criticizing,” Jocko says. “At least it's not boring at your house.”

“No,” I say, “there's always some kind of hullaballoo.”

“You're kidding, right?” Beanie asks.

“What?”

“That's sooooo easy, dude.”

“Au contraire.”

“Only one a day,” Jocko says.

“Well, I'll expect you to guess where the word comes from. That's part of it.”

“Ah, the bar is being raised higher,” Jocko says.

“You guys are giving me a headache,” Beanie says, “but speaking about the Book, I found out yesterday that A. J. Logos is a woman, and that A. J. Logos isn't even her name.”

“Where did you see that?” I ask.

“My dad told me
logos
is the Greek word for ‘word,' and the book is all about words, so I checked out A. J. Logos on Google.”

“And . . .”

“She's an eighty-year-old librarian from Enid, Oklahoma.”

“You're kidding, right?” Jocko says, and I can relate to his shock. I guess it's not that important that A. J. Logos isn't a guy, but an eighty-year-old woman librarian? It's a kind of betrayal.

“Is it just me,” I say, “or is it creepy we're obsessed with a book written by an old lady?”

“I don't think ‘creepy's' the word,” Jocko says, and before he can finish his thought, Beanie's opening the Book.

“‘Creepy: awful, disgusting, disturbing, ghoulish . . .'”

“Okay, okay, I get it,” I say.

“There
is
something I didn't mention,” Beanie says. “When she wrote the book, she was in her twenties.”

Jocko whacks Beanie alongside the head.

“Hey, man, that hurts.”

“He oughta smack you again,” I say. “Why didn't you mention that before? For all we know, A. J. Logos could've looked like Ms. D when she was in her twenties.”

“Maybe I can find her picture,” Beanie says.

“Not necessary,” I say. “We'll take for granted she was hot.”

“Agreed,” Jocko says.

“Yeah, but this proves again you can't trust anyone or anything anymore. People are always running scams.”

“How does what Beanie said prove that?” Jocko says, rolling his eyes.

I'm about to explain my logic when one of the teachers' aides yells for us to come in.

Night Crawler Revisited

I
'm dreading the last twenty minutes of Ms. D's class, because Sara's been eyeballing me strangely since I sat down. She has a look falling somewhere between fear and disgust. One thing that's obvious is that she is no longer a neutral but now is under the spell of Wicked Witch Claudine. Fortunately, between dinner and bedtime I had a chance to rewrite my poem, forcing in a few of her images:

 

Night Crawler

My grandpa and me

go fishing, but first

we wait until the last

car goes home, then

we capture them,

creepy little creatures with big noses
,

half out of holes.

They look like fingers someone cut off

but we grab them, and I don't mind

getting wet and dirty.

 

Of course my real version is in sentences, but I don't want to end up with Sara's pen stuck in my forehead.

“You like it?” I ask.

She waits a long while, then says, “Very much, Benny, but why did you leave out the ‘anonymous'?”

“Because I don't know what it means.”

“Worms are anonymous because they all look alike,” she says.

“But they don't. Some are short, some long, some redder than others.”

She's not going to let this go. “But they all squirm and have a similar shape. It's not like some have eyes and some don't, or that some look like grasshoppers.”

“True,” I say, though I'm still a bit lost. “Can I see your version?” And she passes over a sheet of paper with pink borders.

 

Night Crawler

The last automobile of night passes.

I drop to my knees on a blanket of wet grass.

Silence,

except for the opening and closing

of tiny dark doors.

Flashlight in my right hand,

creatures scatter under its enormous eye,

or I catch them, half out of holes,

damp noses breaking the surface.

Anonymous creatures, soft-bellied fragments,

I gladly crawl on grass

for a handful of them.

 

I can't say I know everything that's going on in this poem, but it's clear I'm out of my league. This is either a great poem or unintelligible, but one thing I've learned from six years of school is that people like poems they can't understand.

“What happened to my grandfather?” I ask.

She looks a bit hurt. “That's all you can say?”

“No, it certainly sounds a lot better than mine, but I thought the poem was about my grandfather and me.”

“It's supposed to focus on an object. Remember?”

We must be raising our voices, because kids are looking at us, one being Claudine.

“Mind your own business, Claudine,” I want to yell.

“I thought you'd put your grandfather back in later,” Sara says. “I mean, I don't even know him.”

“Can I ask you why you broke the lines where you did?” I ask.

“I read and reread the poem about a hundred times, trying different line breaks, until the poem sounded right. You know what I mean?”

Actually, I wrote my version over a half-hour span while I was eating popcorn and watching reruns of
Looney Tunes.
“Yeah, it takes a while to get the sound right,” I say.

“I didn't expect you to use my version, Benny. I figured you'd tinker with it over the weekend.”

“So you don't mind me rewriting it?”

“As long as I can see it before you read it.”


Me
read it?”

“I can't do it, Benny. I get too nervous.”

“And I don't?”

“Well, you never
look
nervous. You're always talking and arguing in class.”

I'm trying to decide whether this is a compliment. “Okay,” I say. “I'll read it and I'll email you my revision on Sunday.”

As we begin to exchange email addresses, Ms. D says, “Time to finish. On Monday we'll try to stump Mr. Jones and the whole class. Remember, I expect your poems to be neatly typed, and they must be a group effort.” She looks at Paige when she says this.

Suddenly, Claudine speaks up. Her hair's hanging loose, and it seems to change to various hues of red when the sun, which is streaming through our windows, strikes it. “These poems have to be verse poems, right?”

Knowing she'd try this, I actually wrote down Caulfield's exact instructions. But before I can speak, Ms. D says, “Mr. Jones said poems in verse
or
sentences, Claudine. We must respect that.”

Boy, is Claudine mad. “Well, that's stupid.”

Ms. D seems a bit surprised, and the whole class momentarily freezes.

“Nevertheless, Claudine,” Ms. D says, “those are the rules we agreed upon.” Then she shoos us out of the room.

At recess Big Joe approaches me, and I'm thinking he's going to sit on me for ten minutes for “bugging” Claudine.

“I think you're a jerk, Benny,” he says, “but it's hard enough to write a stupid poem without thinking about the junk Claudine's freaking over.”

I'm wondering whether I should call him a jerk too before speaking. Maybe this is Big-Joe-speak.

“Thanks, Joe,” I say.

“Don't thank me. You're still a jerk. All the guys feel the same way.”

“That I'm a jerk?”

“No, about the poetry stuff.”

“Well, Joe,” I say, like I'm accepting the nomination for class president, “tell them I'll do my best on Monday to represent them.”

“Huh?”

“Just tell them thanks.”

Bald as the Behind of a Chimpanzee

I
go right to soccer practice after school, then toss the football with Jocko for a while, so I'm not home until five thirty. Aldo's Cro-Magnon car is in the driveway. I enter the house to the smell of chicken soup and see Irene toiling in the kitchen. She makes incredible chicken soup, and she always bakes her own bread, continually brushing butter on its crust until it glows in the oven. My father and grandfather are sitting at the granite table by the window, and my mother has the recliner kicked back, reading a novel and enjoying her night off. My father has offered to cook dinner every night, but fortunately, she declines. “Fortunately,” because the only meals he can't ruin are grilled cheese and tuna fish sandwiches. Sometime he gets adventurous and combines the two, making a grilled-cheese-tuna-fish sandwich with rye bread. Whoop-de-do!

“Hi, sweetie,” my mother says.

“Hi, Mom,” I reply, then greet my father and grandfather. “I'm afraid to ask, but where are Crash and Aldo?”

“You won't recognize Aldo, anyway,” my father says.

Irene sighs.

“Why's that?”

“He shaved his head.”

I can't decide whether my father's happy or angry about this.

“You mean he's bald?”

“As bald as the behind of a chimpanzee,” my grandfather says.

“Why did he do that?”

“First,” Irene says, “he's not as bald as what Grandpa says. He got a buzz cut.”

“There goes the caveman look,” I say, pretending to be serious.

“I don't think Aldo cares what anyone thinks, Benny,” Irene says, and I suddenly realize that's why she's fallen for him. The only other guys I know who don't care what people think are my father, my grandfather, Crash, and me. It won't be a big leap for her to move right in with him.

Irene is seldom mad, but she's close to it now. “You guys don't like it when he has long hair, and you don't like it when he has short hair.”

Suddenly, a voice penetrates the kitchen floor. “We can hear you,” Aldo yells.

An embarrassing silence follows, until my father responds with “We love you, Aldo.”

“Ditto, Mr. Alvarez” comes back through the floor.

“You gotta like that kid,” my grandfather says, “even if he doesn't have a behind.”

Even my mother laughs at that.

“He's just skinny, Grandpa,” Irene says.

“Come here, kiddo,” he says, and when Irene joins him, he hugs her. “You and your mom are diamonds in the r-r-r . . . ,” and he's having trouble finishing the sentence until my father says, “Rough.” “Yeah,” Grandfather says, “Bilbo's lucky to have you.”

“It's Aldo, Grandpa.”

“What kind of name is that?” he asks for about the hundredth time.

“It's Old German,” Irene says.

“Really,” my father says, intrigued by this discovery. “I thought he was Italian.”

“Better German than Italian,” Grandfather says, pronouncing the
I
in “Italian” like “eye.”

“Inappropriate, Kieran,” my mother says, never looking up from her book.

A few minutes later Aldo and Crash appear in the kitchen, holding an empty plastic half-gallon milk bottle with a yellow contraption screwed to its mouth. Inside the container, Hector lies. You'd think he'd be going ballistic, but he seems relaxed, almost half asleep.

“Oooooh,” Irene says.

“He's a little thing,” my mother adds, lifting herself off the recliner. “He can't escape, can he?”

My father reaches for a poker next to the woodstove and brandishes it like a sword. “I will defend you to the death, Margaret.”

Aldo, contrary to what certain Alvarez boys say, is not really bald. He seems unfazed by all this nuttiness, explaining how the trap works. “You place some goodies in the bottle”—I can see pieces of cheese and ground-up peanuts—“then screw this gadget on. Eventually the mouse crawls in and you close off part of the opening, so he can't squeeze through. You can release him then, but that's inhumane. It's better to let him eat for a while, so he gets tired and lazy instead of flipping out in the bottle.”

“We wouldn't want to upset him,” my father says. “So what's the plan now?”

“Crash and I are going to free him at the lake by the Little League field.”

My father surprises me by saying, “Mind if I come?”

Aldo looks to Crash for an answer.

“You promise not to make jokes?”

“Promise,” my father says.

“You want to come, Benny?”

“No thanks, Crash. I'm going to help Irene make dinner.”

“How about you, Grandpa?”

“It'll take me a half hour to get to the front door,” he says, not bothered in the least by this admission.

“That's okay, Grandpa; we're in no hurry.”

“Just don't take too long,” Irene says. “The bread tastes best right out of the oven.”

They're about to leave when Aldo turns to my grandfather. “Mr. Alvarez?”

“Call me Grandpa, Bilbo.”

“Really?”

“Sure—you'll be part of the family before you know it.”

“Inappropriate, Grandpa,” Irene says, blushing.

“It's true, kiddo, you learn something after eighty-five years.” Then he looks at Aldo, waiting for his question.

“What's this stuff about my behind?” Aldo seems genuinely concerned about this physical deformity.

“That's a discussion for you and Irene,” my mother interrupts, trying her best to get everyone out the door. My father's the last one to leave, but before he does, my mother pulls him aside and kisses him on the cheek. “I love you,” she whispers, thinking no one can hear her. My father smiles and says, “Up, up, and away.”

After the door closes, my mother says she needs to discuss something with me. I'd like to think she wants to compliment me on being an attractive, intelligent, and generally speaking superior individual, but that's probably wishful thinking.

“I have to talk to you about Becky Walters's party.”

“Sure,” I say.

“Becky's mother asked if I'd help chaperone it. She wants one of the boys' mothers to be there.”

“Aren't you busy enough with work?”

“You don't want me to go?”

“It's my first real party.”

“Should I tell her no, then?”

“What do you plan to do there?”

“Help out.”

“You promise not to dance or give any of the guys a tough time?”

“You think I'm an idiot, Benny?”

“No, but I don't want everyone, especially Claudine, wondering how such a nice woman like you ended up with me.”

“That's a little dramatic.”

Irene's been listening but doesn't say anything until now. “What're you worried about, Benny? These parties aren't a big deal.” She goes over to the soup and starts stirring it. “Is it the dancing?”

“No, because I'm not going to dance.”

“Trust me, no seventh-grade girl will ask you, anyway,” Irene says.

“Especially the ones in my class. They hate me.”

“I doubt that, Benny,” my mother says.

“You haven't met Paige or Claudine.”

“I've certainly heard enough about the latter.”

“Well, it's kind of gotten worse with this poetry thing we're doing,” I say. Then I explain the whole prose poem/verse poem battle.

“A conflict like that isn't going to make someone hate you,” my mother says.

Irene laughs. “You haven't been in middle school for a while, Mom.”

Irene's right, and I wonder if Claudine even cares about poetry, or if it's just another chance to stick it to Benny.

“You sure you're not describing your own motives? You can be very argumentative.”

At least she didn't say negative.

“See, that's what I'm worried about. You'll side with the girls, and the next thing I know you'll be sipping punch and feasting on cheese and crackers with Claudine.”

“Actually, Becky's mom is having it catered, and you can't expect me to ignore a certain group of guests. Claudine is a beautiful girl. Have you ever seen her?” my mother asks Irene.

“Yes, she's very cute.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

They both kind of smile, and I know it's time to end this conversation.

“Just go, Mom, but don't ask me to dance and don't mention my ‘negativity.'”

“I'd never do that, though I'd love to dance with you,” she says. And she places my arms in the proper position, leading me around the kitchen, humming some tune she has stuck in her head from a hundred years ago. I'm stumbling and dizzy and don't understand why anyone would want to dance like this. Whenever I've seen people slow dancing on TV, they stay in one place, swaying. Then she passes me on to Irene, and they're having a grand old time until I say, “I think the bread's burning,” which ends this fiasco.

BOOK: The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez
8.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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