Authors: James Howe
SO HERE I am, not a half-hour old as a tie salesman and trying to look like I know what I am doing, which have got to be two of the biggest jokes of all time, when who should walk into Awkworth & Ames Department Store but Skeezie Tookis.
Now ordinarily I would be happy to see Skeezie, do not get me wrong. In my book, he is a fine fellow, although I have heard him more than once referred to as “that young hooligan.” I suspect this may have to do with his fondness for black leather jackets and slicked-back hair, combined with a certain carelessness in the area of personal hygiene and what I guess you might call a direct manner of speaking, even to those of a more advanced generation. But all I can say is that if you are willing to dig below the surface, you
will discover the real Skeezie Tookis, and there you will find as big a heart as was ever produced by the little town of Paintbrush Falls, New York.
If I seem to be going on at some length to defend a character you have barely met (remember, I myself have only just glimpsed him coming toward me through Ladies' Wear & Accessories, batting at the rows of white cotton nightgowns with hands that look like they may have spent the previous twenty minutes digging a nickel out of a recently tarred road); if, as I say, I am defending him before you've even met him, it is because of the look on my boss's face as he, too, beholds Skeezie's approach.
The manager of the Men's Wear & Accessories department is a Mr. Kellerman, although I have already learned that employees under a certain age refer to him as Killer Man. Apparently, he only smiles in private, if then, and he certainly isn't smiling this particular Friday afternoon.
“It is highly irregular,” he told me right off the bat when I showed up for work after school, “to hire a twelve-year-old as a tie salesman.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, trying to hide my light under a bushel, as my father had that morning advised me. He told me it might not pay to show off how smart I am. Well, I may be smart, but I did not get what a light and a bushel had to do with each other or anything at all, for that matter, but at the moment that was beside the point. I suspect it still is.
“Stock boy, fine,” Killer Man went on, polishing his glasses with the fine silk handkerchief he'd pulled out of the breast pocket of his gray flannel blazer. It is only September and it is still hot in Paintbrush Falls, even if we are pretty far north, but Killer Man has decided, I guess, that the season dictates gray flannel.
“I worked as a stock boy over the summer,” I told him.
“I am aware of that,” Killer Man said.
“In the lawn furniture and garden department.”
“Yes. It's on your record.” He snapped his silk handkerchief in my direction, then shoved it back in his pocket withâthere's no other word for it-panache. You have to hand it to the guy, he has style, even if he has the personality of a doorstop.
“Well,” he said, sighing dramatically, “it seems that I am stuck with you.”
“Only two afternoons a week,” I pointed out. “And the occasional Saturday.”
“I shall remember to count my blessings.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
So Killer Man hasn't taken his eyes off me the whole half hour I've been standing here trying to look like I know what I am doing, although in point of fact I have been doing zip, when along comes, of all people, Skeezie Tookis, on whom Killer Man is now getting ready to move in, and he doesn't even know yet that the young hooligan is
friend. And all I'm thinking is, once he does, I'm done for. I'll be canned before I box my first tie. And I don't even want to think what my father will have to say about it.
I decide to head trouble off at the pass. I make my move.
“Excuse me, Mr. Kellerman,” I say, “I think I see a customer who needs my assistance.”
“If you are referring to that young hooligan,” Killer Man says (you could chip ice off the words), “Security will take care of him. Don't waste your time.”
“Oh, it's not a waste of my time, Mr. Kellerman,” I say. Then, remembering something I read in the six stapled pages Awkworth & Ames gives its new employees, I add, “A customer waiting for assistance is a friend waiting to be made.”
Killer Man grimaces, but there's not a whole lot he can say to that. I smile a little smugly. I suspect some of my light is leaking out from under its bushel.
doing here?” I hiss at Skeezie. I do not mean to be hostile, but with Killer Man hanging out behind me like a vulture in the wind, I've got to act fast.
“The question is, What are
doing here?” Skeezie asks back. “Geez, look at you. Tie and all.”
He starts to finger my tie, but I don't let him. “It's not mine,” I tell him. “If I get it dirty, I have to pay for it out of my salary.”
“What kind of stinkin' rule is that?” Skeezie retorts. “Is that your boss over there? The Grim Reaper? I'm going to go right over there and tell him, What kind of stinkin' rule is that?”
I put my hand on Skeezie's chest. “Don't,” I say. “Okay? I need this job. If my dad didn't used to work here, I wouldn't have this job. So do not mess it up for
me, do you hear what I am telling you, Skeezie? Are you reading me, loud and clear?”
With Skeezie it is sometimes necessary to say things more than once.
“Yeah, fine,” says Skeezie. “I get it. But maybe I'll write a letter to Misters Awkworth and Ames.”
“You do that,” I say.
“I'll bet Misters Awkworth and Ames are dead,” he goes, picking at his teeth with a grotty thumbnail. “I mean, this store is like a thousand years old, man. Who shops in here anyway?”
I do not have an answer for this. In my half hour as a junior tie salesman, I have not seen another living soul, except for Killer Man, who is questionably living and arguably without a soul, and now Skeezie Tookis, who is definitely not shoppingâexcept maybe for trouble.
We stop talking for a minute and I wonder when the Skeeze is going to get down to business and tell me the purpose of his visit. Killer Man harrumphs in the background.
“So what's up?” I say at last. “I gotta get back to work.”
“Yeah, that boss of yours is burnin' holes in your shirt with his eyes. I hope it's yours, at least. Otherwise, you're going to have to pay for the damaged goods out of your salary.”
“Very amusing. So,” I repeat, “what's up?”
Skeezie puts a filthy hand on my shoulder and I am glad the shirt I am wearing is in fact my own. “Bobby,” he says, giving me that deep look he uses to hypnotize his victims when he's about to hit them up for something. Only this time he isn't hitting me up for anything other than my attention.
“Bobby,” he says again, “what day of the week is it?”
“Friday,” I give back.
“And what happens on Fridays after school?”
“I go to work at Awkworth & Ames Department Store.”
“As of when?”
“As of today.”
“And what, may I ask, about the Forum?”
“The Forum?” I ask stupidly, because I know exactly of what he is speaking.
Skeezie squeezes his eyes tight and nods his head back and forth, like he's in pain or something. Only I know it isn't pain, because I know this look of his and what it is, is he's telling you how disappointed he is in you. Like you've done some terrible thing that has just put a dent in the perfect silver goblet that is his life.
“Bobby, Bobby, Bobby,” he croons, his eyes still squeezed up as tight as if there was a whole pan of frying onions right there in front of him.
“Listen,” I tell him, “I gotta go. I'm sorry about the Forum. Maybe we can do it another day.”
Skeezie's eyes pop open like his head is a car that's just been rear-ended.
“Another day? Did I hear you right? What about
my man? I got two people sittin' down the street at the Candy Kitchen, sittin' in
booth, Bobsters, the back booth with the torn red leatherette upholstery. They have sent me as their emissary, because we cannot begin the Forum until all are present and accounted for. And you are telling me
“Mr. Goodspeed,” I hear behind me. It is the voice of the executioner.
“Really, I gotta go,” I tell Skeezie.
Skeezie removes his hand from my shoulder and brushes it off on his jeans, like he'd just picked up some germs or something from my clean shirt, and says, “You can't let us down, man.”
And I say, “I don't get out of work until five. Tell Addie and Joe I'm sorry. Maybe I can get my days switched here and
Skeezie walks away, shaking his head.
Killer Man harrumphs again and says behind my back, “Perhaps next Friday you will no longer be working here at all, Mr. Goodspeed.”
And I think,
How come life always has to be so complicated? Will it get any easier when I'm an adult?
And then my dad's life comes to mind and I think,
A few minutes later, I'm watching Killer Man from out of the corner of my eye and he's standing there tapping his foot and checking his watch, waiting, I figure, for a customer to show up or another day to end, and I'm guessing his life isn't complicated at all. But
I'm also guessing that it isn't happy. What Killer Man's life mostly comes down to, I figure, is waiting.
All of a sudden, my mixed-up, preadolescent life seems pretty good. Even working as a tie salesman at Awkworth & Ames Department Store seems pretty good. Because I'm only twelve and I'm just passing through. Mr. Kellerman is stuck here for the rest of his life, with his silk color-coordinated ties and pocket handkerchiefs, waiting every day for a voice to announce, “Shoppers, the store will be closing in fifteen minutes.”
And when the store does close, where does he go? My mind draws a blank.
SKEEZIE TOOKIS is not the only one who gets names slapped on him just on account of how he looks. Names come Addie's way, too, only in her case it is because of her being so tall, in addition to the factor of her intelligence, both of which fall on the plus side of the ledger if you happen to be a boy and are major liabilities if you were born into the world a girl. At least, that is my impression of how it goes in the dreaded middle-school years. I will not speak for high school, having neither firsthand experience nor an older sibling to shed wisdom on the subject.
As for Joe, well, he's been called more names than the world's most stinking umpire. He even gives himself names, although they are not bad ones and would appear to arise out of a creative urge that runs deep in him. Joe is the most creative person I knowâtoo
creative for some people, and maybe that is part of the problem. The other part of the problem is that he acts more like a girl than a boy much of the time, and this makes people nervous. Especially other boys. Joe figures he is who he is and what's the big deal, and I figure he is right about that.
Me, I've been called, amongst other things, Pork Chop, Roly-Poly, Dough Boy, and Fluff. I hated that last one most of all. It was the name of choice back in third grade when I ate peanut butter and Marsh-mallow Fluff sandwiches every day for lunch. Everybody called me Fluff that year. Or almost everybody. Not my best friends. And not the teachers. They called me Bobby or Robert, and they were all very nice to me that year, as if I had special needs. Which I guess I would have to say I did. But the way I figure it is, Who
have special needs?