Read The Zebra Wall Online

Authors: Kevin Henkes

The Zebra Wall

BOOK: The Zebra Wall


For Laura



1. Spaghetti Sauce

2. The

3. Aunt Irene

4. The Phone Call

5. Night

6. Breakfast

7. Baby

8. The Flowers

9. The Blouse

10. Names

11. The Pixie

12. Stripes

13. The Lunch Box

14. Rain

15. Storm in a Teacup

16. The Mobile

Excerpt from
The Year of Billy Miller

Excerpt from

About the Author

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Books by Kevin Henkes


About the Publisher

Spaghetti Sauce

The long list of names was fastened to the refrigerator door with a thick, hot pink magnet in the shape of an ice-cream cone. At the top of the list was the name Francine, at the bottom—Frito. In between was everything from Faye to Florence.

The list on the refrigerator was a sampling of potential names for the new Vorlob baby. There were no boys' names on the list because the Vorlobs were certain that the baby would be a girl. They were positive. And why wouldn't they be? There were five girls in the Vorlob family already—Adine (age ten), Bernice (age eight), Carla (age seven), Dot (age four), and Effie (age two). It just seemed fitting and logical that the new baby would be a girl and that her name should begin with the letter

Everyone in the family could add as many names to the list as they wanted. Then, after the baby was born—and everyone had had a good look at her—they would have a family meeting and vote.

Adine had written only one name on the list—Florinda. She hoped that everyone would vote for Florinda, but she had her doubts. Bernice and Carla were both pulling for Francine, Dot couldn't decide between Flopsy (“After Peter Rabbit's sister!” she'd yell), and Frito (“After my favorite food!” she'd squeal), and Effie was too little to understand. Mr. Vorlob just kept adding names to the list without voicing his opinion. And Mrs. Vorlob kept saying, “I've always loved the name Phyllis—it's so classy—but I doubt if I'll ever make it to the letter
. Maybe we could spell it with an

Adine thought that Phyllis—spelled with an
or a
, or spelled
, for that matter—was anything but classy. In fact, Adine wasn't too fond of any of their names, including her own. Adine.
her own. She preferred names like Melissa and Jennifer Rose and Courtney and Heather. When she recently told her mother about this, Mrs. Vorlob said, “Adine, those are such fancy-shmancy names. You and your sisters' names have class, and they're earthy. Sturdy as rock.”

I'd rather not be compared to a rock, Adine felt like saying. But she didn't. She knew it wasn't worth getting into. If her mother had her mind set a certain way, Adine doubted if even a Mack truck could budge it.

Determined, was how Mr. Vorlob described his wife. Adine thought that stubborn was a more fitting word. “At least you always know where you stand with me,” Adine heard her mother say on the phone once, in her thick, burly voice. “I don't pussyfoot around. And I'm not like some people who let things bottle up inside them.”

Adine was like that. She'd keep things to herself until her stomach felt like a Sunbeam blender on high speed. And that's exactly how she felt right now. She had found out earlier that morning that she would have to share her bedroom with her Aunt Irene. Aunt Irene would be coming to help out with the new baby.

“How long is Aunt Irene staying?” Adine asked her mother, twisting a strand of her hair around and around her finger. Adine's hair was straight, nearly white, and hung down past her waist. Mrs. Vorlob was sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for the large pot of spaghetti sauce on the counter to cool. She was going to pour the sauce into her Tupperware containers to freeze for Mr. Vorlob to heat up when she was in the hospital. And for when she came home afterward and wouldn't feel like cooking.

“She'll stay until I get back on my feet after the baby,” Mrs. Vorlob replied, a carrot stick dangling out of the corner of her mouth. She was substituting carrot and celery sticks for cigarettes while she was pregnant. She even filled her leather cigarette case with them to bring along if she and Mr. Vorlob happened to be going out. In imitation, Carla and Dot had taken up pretend-smoking with vegetables, too, which Adine thought looked silly.

“How long will that be?” Adine pressed.

“I don't know, Adine,” Mrs. Vorlob answered, flicking the carrot stick over an empty ashtray and blowing imaginary smoke. “A week, a month. However long it takes.” She took a bite of the carrot, crunching it loudly as she chewed. Mrs. Vorlob was wearing her bright yellow, terry maternity dress. Her short blond hair ended midway down her neck and seemed to melt into the color of the dress. Adine thought that her mother looked pretty in the dress. Adine also thought that her mother looked like a giant pear. Thick and round and swelling.

“I can help out all you need,” Adine offered. “I really will.”

“I know that, honey,” Mrs. Vorlob said, smiling. “You're my biggest helper around the house. But it'll just be nice for me to have my sister here. Understand?”

Adine shrugged.

“I know you don't want Irene to come, but she
my sister. And she's been having a hard time since her divorce. It'll be good for her to be surrounded by family—day and night—for a while.” Mrs. Vorlob took a long breath and placed her hands on her abdomen. “I know deep down you understand.”

“Okay, Mom,” Adine said. “I understand.” And she did. Sort of. Adine understood that Aunt Irene was coming and that there was nothing she could do about it. Nothing at all.

“Anyway, Adine, it's more than a month away,” Mrs. Vorlob said cheerfully. “Put it out of your mind for now.”

Adine wanted to be mad at her mother, but she wouldn't let herself. After all, Mrs. Vorlob always seemed to come through for Adine when she needed it most. And Adine could tell her mother things that she wouldn't think of telling anyone else. Private things that often hurt. Like last school year, when Mr. and Mrs. Vorlob came to Adine's class for Parents' Day wearing blue jeans, plaid flannel shirts, and their matching, sateen Milwaukee Brewers jackets. Mr. Vorlob's hair was the exact shade and length of his wife's. And their husky bodies looked like carbon copies. All of which caused Adine's classmate, Gary Wilker, to say, “Adine, I can't tell your mom and dad apart. They look like twins. Short, fat, men twins. They're identical.” Then he laughed.

Adine held out all day, but burst into tears upon arriving home. She reluctantly told her mother about Gary Wilker.

“Oh, Adine,” Mrs. Vorlob said, hugging her. “Don't worry about it. I'm not going to let something like that ruin my day, and you shouldn't, either. I wouldn't put much stock in Mr. Gary Wilker. Isn't he the one who flung tabs of butter around the cafeteria when I had lunch supervision?”

Adine nodded. She couldn't understand how her mother could be so calm. She also couldn't understand why her mother wore blue jeans, plaid flannel shirts, and her Brewers jacket all the time. “Couldn't you wear dresses more often or let your hair grow?”

“Adine,” her mother said, lighting a cigarette, “I don't
dresses—unless I'm pregnant. And I don't like long hair on me.
, I'm not going to change for Gary Wilker.”

What about changing for me? Adine said to herself, watching smoke stream out from between her mother's plump lips.

“I'll tell you what, though,” Mrs. Vorlob said. “I guarantee you I'll come up with something.”

And she did. The very next morning Mr. Vorlob stopped shaving. Soon he had a thick, golden beard that curled like pencil shavings around his face. And Mrs. Vorlob started wearing her hair a
longer. She let it fall a couple of inches over her shirt collars before she got it cut now. “I don't think that even Gary Wilker would confuse us now,” Mrs. Vorlob whispered to Adine one night, winking.

It was because of things like that, that Adine had a hard time harboring a grudge against her mother. Even if Aunt Irene

Mrs. Vorlob rose from the kitchen table, holding a celery stick between her forefinger and thumb, her other fingers spread out like a fan. “Well, ready or not, I'm going to freeze the sauce,” she said. “I want to get this done before your dad and your sisters come home from the hardware store, or there'll be spaghetti sauce everywhere but in the freezer. Want to help?”

“Sure,” Adine replied.

“I hope the hardware store has the right colors of paint so we can finish the nursery.”

“We could paint tonight,” Adine suggested. “It'd be fun.”

“Oooooh,” Mrs. Vorlob said suddenly, dropping the celery stick into the pot of sauce, then laughing. “Phyllis with an
is dancing, I think. A fast dance. I wouldn't be surprised if she was singing, too. Want to listen?”

Adine rested her head against her mother. “I hear her,” she said. Then, very softly, she whispered into her mother's dress, “Hello, Florinda, this is your sister, Adine.”


By the time Adine's father and sisters returned from the hardware store, the spaghetti sauce was in the freezer and Adine and her mother were waiting on the front porch with Mrs. Vorlob's packed suitcase. Mrs. Vorlob was leaning against the door, cradling her belly. Adine was perched atop the railing, like a squirrel on a branch.

Bernice, Carla, and Dot raced up the sidewalk, each carrying a small can of paint. Effie dawdled behind, clutching a large, flat paintbrush and sucking on it. Mr. Vorlob brought up the rear, swinging a gallon of Colonial White, a silver prize at the end of his solid arm. Bullets of sunlight ricocheted off the large can of paint. “We got all the colors, Helen!” Mr. Vorlob yelled.

“Roland, it's time,” Mrs. Vorlob said calmly, when he reached the porch. “Let's go to the hospital.”

” Mr. Vorlob asked, setting the paint near the front door. “You're not due for a month.”

“Mama's like a library book—due in a month, due in a month,” Dot said in a singsong voice.

“It's time,” Mrs. Vorlob repeated. “I know it's time.” She turned to face her daughters and grimaced. “Girls, Adine's in charge until Aunt Irene arrives. I called her on the phone; she'll be here any minute. Now, mind Adine and give me a quick kiss. And by the time I come home with your new baby sister, I want the nursery wall finished. Do a good job and make me proud. You know how much that means to me.”

Mr. Vorlob blew a kiss in the general direction of his daughters and helped his wife into their converted school bus (the only lime-green bus in Mason, Wisconsin). “Be good,” he called. “I'll give you a jingle from the hospital,” he added, before pulling out into the street and rumbling away.

Adine picked up the gallon of paint; it hit her bare leg and she was sure it would bruise. When Adine was younger, her father called her “Miss Banana,” she bruised so easily. And in third grade, when Adine's class was learning about similies and metaphors, Mary Rose Wampole said, “Adine Vorlob's skin's as white as my mother's new Kenmore washer.” From that day on, Adine wasn't terribly fond of Mary Rose Wampole.

“Come on, you guys,” Adine said to her sisters. “Let's go paint. Let's paint the wall for Mom.”

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