“Funeral for a Stooge”, Chapter 5c, Excerpt 14, The Archangel of Hamilton Beach

DANNY LARGEST ORIG PHOTOTommy Butler lived just a few blocks further up the avenue. We’d been friends since third grade. I decided to go see if he was home—though I had no idea where else he would be—and spend the rest of my birthday with him. Tommy’s mother worked at a bar and grill in the neighborhood and had odd hours. His father had odd hours, too, mostly because he drank too much.

Once, Tommy found Dad passed out in bed, apparently having wet himself. I could tell Tommy was embarrassed by the stained sheets. Another time, we found Tommy’s father on the living room couch with a cigarette between his fingers which had burned down to the skin on the two fingers that formed a V. I felt sorry for Tommy’s father. He was a nice guy when he was awake, even drunk. I got the feeling he wanted to escape his life but was doing a lousy job of it. I felt sorry for Tommy, too, though he always made it clear he had no pity for his old man. It was probably why, despite Tommy’s bouncy blond curly hair and big blue eyes, he rarely smiled.

Heading up the short avenue blocks, the air was so frosty it looked almost like a white veil across the houses and trees as I passed them. By the time I arrived at Tommy’s, after walking just a few minutes, my face and hands were numb. Tommy and his parents lived in a four-room apartment on the downstairs floor of a wide, three-story house which stood out on the block as the only one with a front garden overrun by untended thorny bushes.

I prayed he was home as my frozen finger pressed the doorbell, but then remembered the doorbell didn’t work, and that I had to pound on the wooden door for him to hear me. I was relieved when I heard what I hoped were Tommy’s footsteps from the inside hall. The dead bolt slid open from the other side.

“Hi,” Tommy said as he pulled the door open.

“Hi,” I said. As usual, the house was stiflingly hot. The landlord who lived upstairs controlled the furnace, and he was old and always cold. I heard The Beatles, “Nowhere Man” playing in the living room.

Once inside, I noticed the 45s stacked on the record player, waiting to drop down and play next, one after the other. I smiled, knowing how Tommy shopped—shoplifted, that is—about one 45 a week, since he never had money. His mother thought I got a big allowance and bought them for him. That was his standing story. The truth was Michael gave me a dollar every Friday, when Mr. Grenelli paid him which I usually used to buy pizza and cokes or ice cream for Tommy and me up on Liberty Avenue. Money wasn’t a problem for Al, so she never let me spend any on her.

“Happy birthday,” he said.

“Right,” I said. “Thanks.”

The victrola arm lifted up and over, and the next 45 dropped down. “Paint It Black”, began playing.

“What’s wrong?” Tommy asked. “You don’t look so good for a birthday boy.”

This was a switch, since Tommy rarely smiled and was usually the one being asked what’s the matter. I sat down on the couch. The brown and yellow flowered slipcover slid down, as I did, showing the worn brown upholstery underneath. I set my drawing pad down and peeled off my jacket and threw it over to the chair in the corner.

“It’s hot in here,” I said.

“Sorry,” Tommy said. “I’ll open the window.”

“Thanks,” I said.

He sat down next to me.

“I just walked from Al’s and it’s freezing out,” I said. “It feels like a sauna in here.”

“You were at Al’s?” he asked, pulling back.

I nodded.

“What were you doing there?” he asked with the usual tinge of jealousy in his voice whenever I talked about Al.

“I just wanted to get away from my apartment,” I said. “She gave me this for my birthday.” I showed Tommy my drawing pad. “There’s a boss lead pencil in my jacket pocket that came with it,” I added.

“Great,” he said with his typical sarcasm.

I wanted to change the subject before he asked me why I’d gone to Al’s first. “Al’s frog Larry died. Or I think it was Larry. I get their names mixed up. Well, I helped her bury him in her yard. She’s worried about Chow Mein. She thinks he’s going to die soon of a broken heart.”

“She’s strange,” Tommy said.

It had been a long day already, so I ignored the crack about Al. His opinion of Al was mutual.

“Um, I was going to get you a present, too, but, you know, I didn’t have any money,” he went on.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, glad to change the subject away from Al. “You don’t have to give me anything.”

“But I want to,” he said, looking dejected. He looked around the room, his eyes settling on the record player, which by now had been playing “Elusive Butterfly.”

“How about if I give you a couple of my records?” he said.

“Um, sure,” I said. “But you really don’t have to give me anything, Tommy.” Michael had a record player he let me use. He might even like whatever songs Tommy gives me, I thought.

“Oh, that’s okay. I want to.” He went over to the record player on top of the hutch. On the bottom shelf was his mother’s faded green paisley cloth-covered sewing box that he kept his hot 45s in. He brought it to the couch and sat back down next to me.

“Want to pick them out, or should I?” he asked and placed the box on his lap and opened it.

“Still a steady customer of Sam Goody’s, huh?” I asked.

“Ha ha, you’re so funny,” he said. “Here, which ones do you want?” He handed the box to me.

I looked into it and pushed some records back, reading the titles—Bob Dylan “Positively 4th Street,” “The Times They Are A Changin’,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man”; Supremes “Where Did Our Love Go” and “Love is Like an Itching in My Heart,” Four Tops “Baby I Need Your Lovin’”.

“What a collection!” I said. “Sam Goody would be proud.” I smiled and shook my head. “Here, just give me whichever ones you want me to have, Tommy,” I said though I felt guilty taking stolen goods.

“Well, okay,” he said, and took the box back. Then said, “Feel like a drink?”

“A drink?” I asked him. “I don’t know.”

“There’s some scotch in the cabinet,” he said.

“Not after last time,” I said, squishing my face up.

“Oh, right,” he said, making the same face. “Well, then, how about a beer? Dear old Dad’s got some in the fridge today. Maybe he knew it was going to be your birthday.”

“Right,” I said. “Sure, okay.”

He went into the kitchen and came back with two bottles of Ballantine, opened them with Mr. Butler’s metal bottle opener, and gave me one. Then he sat back down and took a few gulps of the beer, as did I, though I really didn’t want it.

He smiled. “Why don’t you drink some more of your beer, Danny.” He took a long gulp of his own and set it down on the coffee table.

“Um, what about my birthday present?” I said. “You were going to pick out records to give me. Remember?” I tried to interrupt one sin with another.

“Oh, right,” he said. “Sure, Danny.” He sat up and picked up the record box. “Sorry.”

“That’s okay. It’s just not my best birthday, between my stupid sister and Al’s frog’s funeral.”

“Oh,” he said.

I knew I had hurt his feelings—as I seemed to do often—with my not being in a drinking mood and seeing Al on my birthday before coming to his house. I left out the part about how Al and, especially her sweet kisses, had made me feel better, but his believing Al had depressed me with her deceased frog seemed to cheer him up.

He began to read over the record labels in the box. “Okay, let’s see. You like the Supremes, don’t you? How about ‘Stop In the Name of Love’?” He gave me his innocent smile which was anything but.

“Sure,” I said. The Supremes were Tommy’s favorites.

A few years before, Tommy had moved into the neighborhood and was the new kid in school. Al had already started skipping grades, leaving me behind. Since her schedule had changed, I was spending most of my lunchtimes alone, dodging bullies. I was the only one in our large third grade class who didn’t torture Tommy for being new, and he became very attached to me. He was a Flower Child, perpetually sad about life’s troubles, such as the mistreating of animals (Tommy was a vegetarian), and the war in Vietnam depressed him.

“Oh, and do you like The Four Tops?” he asked. “‘I’ll Be There’? Oh, and how about ‘Baby, I Need Your Lovin’.’”

“Yeah,” I said. “I love The Four Tops.” I drank some more of my beer. He handed me the three 45s. I slipped them between the pages of my sketch pad and put it inside my jacket, so they wouldn’t get broken.

“And I love my birthday present,” I said, “ aside from how you got them. Thanks, Tommy.”

“You’re welcome,” he said and smiled in his no-smile way. Then, he finished his beer and set down the bottle. The effects of the beer were beginning to settle in, and I felt more relaxed. “My World Is Empty Without You,” came on the Victrola.

I never got around to telling Tommy my sad story about Frances and the Diary Dilemma, which sounded like the title of a mystery book. I didn’t even remember to tell him about my new fishing pole. I hadn’t noticed that it was already getting dark, and the walk home would be colder than before. After a while, I started to get up to put on my jacket. I slid my sketch pad with my new 45s under one arm inside my peacoat.

“Don’t leave, Danny,” Tommy said. “Stay over.”

I was not in a hurry to leave the warmth of his friendship for who-knew-what awaited me back at the ranch. I would have been delighted to stay over, as I had done many times, and, after his mother walked home from her job at The Hideaway bar on Liberty Avenue, have some of her great cooking, since I couldn’t remember if I’d eaten anything that day. But with all that had gone on earlier, I had this feeling I should go home, though I wasn’t sure why. Because it was my birthday? I didn’t know. I just wanted to connect with Michael after all that had happened.

“Sorry, Tommy,” I said. “I really do have to go.”

“Okay,” he said, seeming to sense not to push it the way he normally would have. “Will you be around tomorrow?”

“Maybe,” I said, remembering that Al would be away in the Catskills, though sometimes I got to spend some time with Michael on Sundays, so I liked to keep them open. I said goodbye to Tommy and headed down the hallway. I could hear the song “Stay” coming from the living room…“just a little bit longer”. I stepped out into the biting but refreshing cold air.

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“Funeral for a Stooge”, Chapter. 5b, Excerpt 13, The Archangel of Hamilton Beach

ARCH SELZ COVER FRONTI followed her out the back door. The sun was lower in the sky, the backyard had grown more still, and the frostiness icier.

“Isn’t the dirt too frozen to dig through, Al?”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Grab the key from the hook on the wall there.”

I did, and Al opened the garage door and emerged a few seconds later with the—implements of death—a small, pointed hand-shovel and a pick. She carried the mini coffin to the rose-less rosebush, its branches stiff as Larry. On the ground were two large, round rocks sunk into the frosty dirt neatly aligned next to the garage’s outer wall. Andy’s perpendicular influence, I imagined.

She knelt down and, with Larry’s coffin in one hand, began stabbing at the hard dirt with the pick with the other. She hacked away at the frozen ground, then started chopping at it with the shovel, silent tears streaming down her face.

“Want me to help, Al?”

“Yes,” she said, stabbing and digging away with one hand. “Hold Larry.”

“Hold Larry?”

“Daniel, will you please just take him?”

I stuck out my hand and Al placed leathery Larry’s matchbox casket into my freezing hand.

“Okay, Daniel,” she said a few minutes later and about four inches down. “Let me have him.”

I handed her the matchbox. She looked up at me with puffy eyelids.

“Hey, are you okay?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I just get the feeling something’s not right with you.”

“Yeah?”

She nodded.

“Well, maybe that’s because it’s the worst birthday of my life,” I finally blurted out.

“What?”

Her eyes got big and she almost dropped Larry into his grave.

“Oh, no! What are you saying, Daniel? Why didn’t you tell me?” Then she smiled.

I was glad to be able to cheer her up with my news of a nightmarish birthday.

“It’s not important,” I said. “There’s just something I have to tell you about.”

“Daniel, what could be more important than your birthday?” She dropped Larry’s casket into his cold grave and stood up a few inches from my nose and faced me.

“Danny, what is it?”

“Well, it’s a long story, Al.”

“What kind of story?”

“Why don’t you finish burying Larry first? Then I’ll tell you.”

“No, tell me now,” she said. “It sounds important.”

“It is important,” I said. “But finish burying Larry. I can wait another few minutes, Alison.”

“Darn it, Daniel.” She turned back to her gruesome task. “Okay. I’ll finish, then tell me.”

“Well, that is why I came over.”

“Oh, sorry, Danny. Guess I sidetracked you. Why didn’t you say something?” Her gloomy mood seemed to lighten as she began to cover poor, stiff Larry in his little sliding-door coffin with frozen, gravelly dirt. When she was satisfied that he was in deep enough to rest in peace, she stood up, brushing the knees of her jeans.

“He needs a headstone,” she said. “To add to Moe’s and Curly’s.”

I was speechless.

“I’ll run and find a rock for him, then we’ll go back to my room, and you can tell me.”

“Right.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you had something to tell me?” she called back from the side of the house.

“You were too sad about Larry.”

“Oh,” she said, back now.

“And then you got sadder and sadder, and crying and everything,” I said.

“Oh, that.”

“I got the feeling you were thinking about your mother, Al.”

“How’d you know?” she asked.

“Because I was, too,” I said.

On her knees, Al finished arranging Larry’s rock with the other Stooges’ tombstones.

“Good-bye, Larry,” she said. “Your friends Moe and Curly are waiting to welcome you to Frog Heaven. And, don’t worry, Chow Mein will, in time, learn to live without you. It won’t be easy for him. Or for me. We’ll miss you.”

I felt like crying, but had already done enough that day.

Al put her hands on my shoulders, her dark eyes still damp.

“Okay, Sweetie,” she said. “Come on and tell me what happened.” She pulled me toward the back door, inside, and back up to her room, where she pushed me down onto her bed and sat next to me, close. I was happy to see she was feeling better.

“Okay, Sweetie, what’s going on?”

Al’s room was cold. Outside her bedroom window, I could see the backyard covered in the sun’s shadow. The warmth of Al’s body next to mine on her soft bed comforted me. I thought about Larry in his matchbox alone in the frozen ground. I thought about my father Frank whom I never knew. I thought about Al’s mother. Al’s tenderness touched me and the tears did start up again. Her face so close to mine, still cool from the outside air, blurred, until the tears spilled over my cheeks and down my chin. I felt like an idiot.

“What’s the matter, Angel,” she asked, and kissed me lightly on my lips, now wet with the tears that had settled in the corners of my mouth. I told her what Frances had done and described the whole mess up to the point when I had to pass the three of them in the kitchen to make my final escape.

“Poor Sweetie,” she said. “That’s terrible.” She squeezed my hands and kissed me again on the cheek.

“Yeah, I was a real mess,” I said, enjoying her softness and sympathy, a side of Al most people never saw. Despite everything, I felt fortunate in that moment.

“Well, Linda never liked you to begin with,” Al said, “and as long as Michael’s not mad at you, that’s all that matters, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. It was true.

“I mean you didn’t really say anything bad, just a bit embarrassing?”

“Yeah,” I said, praying Al would never know she was in my diary, too.

“Well, are you feeling better now?” she asked.

“Just being with you makes me feel better, Al.”

“I have a present for you,” she said.

She smiled. “Here, open it,” she said, and handed me a flat, rectangle gift wrapped in blue, white, and green paper covered in sailboats and seagulls. I tore off the paper. A sketch pad.

“I hope it’s okay,” she said. “Is it the right size?”

I nodded.

“I wasn’t sure if you would like the big one or the small one,” she went on. “I thought a small one would be good because you can take it wherever you go. There’s a pencil in there, too, Daniel, with a special eraser.”

“It’s perfect,” I said.

“Happy birthday, Sweetie,” she said.

“Thanks, Al.”

We sat on the bed for a few minutes, me fingering my art pad and fancy crystal blue pencil, and Al gazing into the tank with its now solo inhabitant, Chow Mein.

Then, Al said, “Oh, Daniel? I would have told you this sooner, but we got sidetracked with Larry, and your story about that sister of yours, and your birthday present.”

“What?” I knew I didn’t want to hear this.

“Well, it’s just that I’m going away tonight, with my father. Upstate. The Catskills? My grandparent’s house. I’m sorry, Daniel. I know it’s your birthday and everything….”

“Oh.”

“Grandma’s not doing well, and Andy decided to go up there, a last minute idea. He’s not sure how long we’ll be staying. He’s worried about Grandma, and even Grandpa, now that my uncle is dead and isn’t there to help out anymore.”

“Right, sure,” I said.

“We’re heading out as soon as Andy gets home from work,” she said. “I’ll call you as soon as we get back, okay?”

“Oh, sure,” I said. “Any idea when that will be?”

“I don’t know yet,” she said. “It’ll depend on how Grandma and Grandpa are doing. I’m sorry, Daniel.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” I said. Up there in the Catskills, Al wouldn’t be just a walk or even a phone call away.

I left Al’s, clutching my new drawing pad under one arm, feeling better than when I had left my apartment, but uneasy about her leaving. I pushed open the wooden gate from Al’s backyard to the sidewalk on 115th Street and stood at the corner, looking both ways. It was late afternoon but already starting to get dark. I was in no hurry to go home.

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“The Queen Of Ugly”, Ch. 4b, Excerpt 11, Archangel

“Danny, what’s wrong with you? Did something happen?” he asked, with a glare in Teresa’s direction. She responded by picking up the remote control, turning on the TV and changing channels until she came to a movie, I Want to Live, with Susan Hayward on the witness stand, crying to the courtroom, “Have you ever been desperate? Do you know what it’s like?”

I studied the green reel on my fishing pole.

“Danny, what’s wrong?” Michael repeated.

“Frances,” I said through runny nose and salty lips.

“Frances? For cryin’ out loud, it’s always something with her.” He shook his head. “What’d she do this time?”

I didn’t know what else to do. It was better if he heard it from me and not from Frances or, God forbid, Linda. My stomach had gotten closer up to my throat.

“It’s my diary,” I whispered, gripping my fishing pole and its red wrapping paper.

“What?”

“My diary. It’s my diary.”

“You have a diary?” He smiled and shook his head. “Goofy.”

“She took it.”

“Whadyu mean? She’s so freaking stupid.”

“Watch the way you talk about your sister,” chimed in Teresa, as if she had some high respect for Frances that nobody knew about. “And what do you mean you’re keeping a diary. What do you have in there?”

“Nothing for you to worry about,” I said.

“You watch your mouth,” she said and turned back to Susan Hayward.

“She took it to Linda’s,” I told Michael.

He shook his head again. “What’d she do that for?” he said.

“To show Linda.”

“Show Linda your diary? What for?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Probably because it says things in there that she thinks are funny.”

“Oh yeah?” he said, watching the TV.

“Yes,” I said.

“So, who cares? What kind of things?”

“I don’t know. About you,” I said.

“Me?”

“I wrote about you in my diary.”

“Geez, Danny, you’re such a goofball.” He half-laughed, still watching the movie.

“Oh, he’s worse than that,” said Teresa, her eyes still on the television.

“I wasn’t talkin’ to you,” Michael told her.

“You watch it, Mister,” she said, flicking ashes, ignoring that she’d missed the ashtray.

Michael turned back to me.

“I guess she wants Linda to hate me more than she already does,” I said.

“Linda doesn’t hate you,” he said. “She just gets weird sometimes. But why would she care about what you write in your diary, anyway?”

“I don’t know. I guess I just said stuff about how much I, you know, like, wish we could live together and stuff like that.”

“Like I said, You’re a real goofball. So, where’s the big deal?” He shook his head. He seemed to have become more interested in Susan Hayward.

“I don’t know.” That’s not the only entry in my diary Frances will enjoy showing Linda, I thought with a cringe, remembering some of the things I’d written about Al.

“Besides, we already live together,” Michael was saying, his eyes still on the television.

“I know, but I mean like, you know, like later, like whenever we get to leave this place.” Teresa shot me a look just as my stomach arrived in my mouth. I ran into the bathroom, slammed the door, smashed down the latch, and raced to the toilet, leaning over it while my insides came up and out. I hadn’t realized it, but I was still gripping my fishing pole inside its box which had become a part of my body. Then there was banging on the door.

“Danny, what are you doing?” Michael was yelling. “Have you gone crazy or something? Danny, open the door, will ya?”

I held on to the toilet, wishing it would end.

I stayed in the bathroom a long time, sitting on the closed toilet cover now, holding my fishing pole, rocking back and forth, keeping a rhythm. One-two on the forward bend, three-four on the backward. One-two, three-four. One-two, three-four.

Michael finally gave up and stopped banging. The hexagon-shaped white floor tiles moved in and out as I rocked. The tears were dry on my face and tingled. I opened my mouth wide to relieve the itchy tightness of my cheeks. Then I heard voices, coming from the living room. Michael’s, then Linda’s, then Frances’s fat mouth. I didn’t want to hear what they were saying. Holding the fishing pole against my body with my elbow, I slapped my hands up to my ears and moved them in and out to block the voices but then jumped at the new loud banging on the door.

“Hey, Danny! Are you in there?”

Frances.

“Come out here, right now, you little queer!” She cackled. “Don’t you want your little diary back, honey, or should I bring it to your little dream girl?” And that laugh again.

Could I ever hate anyone more? I didn’t want to leave the safe bathroom, pulsating tiles notwithstanding, but I had to get that diary, even though it was already too late. Michael knew about it by now. And Linda. Oh, no. But I had to go out there.

More banging, and the sing-song voice, “Better get out here if you want your precious diary.”

I slid off the top of the toilet. The hexagon tiles swayed with me, as I moved toward the door. I struggled with the latch, then forced it up. The door flew open, and The Thing gripped the knob then filled the doorway, my black and white diary in her puffy hand.

“If you want it, come and get it!” She ran back through the living room and into the kitchen, cackling.

I followed after her cautiously, still clutching my fishing pole. I heard Michael and Linda’s voices in the kitchen. I didn’t want to know what they were saying, I just wanted my diary back, though it didn’t seem to matter anymore. The couch was empty, Teresa back in bed, no doubt. The room still reeked of cigarettes; the television was off. I made my way into the kitchen.

Michael was sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette, looking more serious than usual, with Linda next to him. Her long, blonde hair flowed past her shoulders. She wore a pink miniskirt and large, gold hoop earrings. It always surprised me how beautiful she was, in sharp contrast to Frances, her so-called best friend. Linda looked at me, shaking her head, lips pursed, eyes squinting. I looked away. Frances stood by the sink, swaying like an idiot.

“Well, aren’t you going to come and get it, Danny?” she sang.

“Frances, give him the book already, will you?” Michael said.

“I’ll give it to him when he comes and gets it,” she said. “Here, little Danny. Here’s your precious diary.”

“Frances! Give it to him right now!” Michael stood up to make his point.

She flung the notebook at me. It hit me in the stomach and dropped to the floor.

“There’s your precious diary,” she said.

I bent down and grabbed it. Then, her voice switched to mean.

“Now, go write some more about how you’re in love with your big brother or is it your little smart girlfriend, you sick little weirdo!” She stuck out her puckered mouth and made loud kissing noises. The queen of ugly.

“Okay, Danny, get rid of that freaking book now, will you please?” said Michael. “Go put it away somewhere or burn it or something. Geez.” He shook his head while Linda glared at me.

With my diary and fishing pole box, I headed for the bedroom. I sat on the bed and opened the notebook to see what The Thing had done to it but found nothing except my own words—one small bit of relief, though little consolation. I closed the notebook and shoved it in deep, back into the tight space between the mattress and box-spring where I kept it. I’d need a new hiding place. Not that it mattered now. But I couldn’t think. I had to get out of there.

I slid open the closet door, stood my fishing pole still in its box into the back corner, and threw an old blanket over it, praying The Thing wouldn’t get her fat hands on it.

The thought of going back into the kitchen brought my stomach back up my throat. I would have to pass all three of them to get out the door. Still a little dizzy, I pushed myself through the living room and past Michael and Linda at the kitchen table. Frances was still at the counter. I didn’t look at Linda again but sensed her staring. Her presence embarrassed me. The words from my diary screamed in my head. I moved straight for the door and turned the latch.

“Where you goin’, Danny?” asked Michael.

“To Al’s,” I said.

“Okay,” he said. “Be careful.”

“Yeah, be careful,” said The Thing. “You never know what you could pick up from your little girlfriend.”

I wanted to hit her. “Drop dead!” I yelled and stormed out to the staircase.

As I slammed the door behind me, I heard Michael say, “Frances, what is your problem?”

END OF CHAPTER 4.

The Archangel of Hamilton Beach

 

“The Queen of Ugly”, Ch. 4a, Excerpt 10, Archangel

Seven years passed. Teresa had recently turned thirty-five. Frances and Linda were both in high school and still supposedly “best friends”. Michael had graduated and still worked at Grenelli Collision, and, strangely, Linda had become Michael’s girlfriend while he was still in high school.

Eventually, as I’d gotten older—and stronger in Alison’s friendship, though I’d never told Alison of the so-called “doctor” visits—I gained the ability to tell Teresa No more!  Whatever illness I’m supposed to have I’ll live with. I may have even had the courage, at some point, to tell Teresa I was going to ask the school nurse about the treatments. I was surprised but thankful when the “doctors” miraculously stopped coming to the apartment.

I hated sixth grade, and all the other grades, as much as I had hated Sister Razor Blade’s kindergarten class, except for Alison (who now went by Al), of course. And it got worse when Al zoomed past me in school. Her father Andy had made her take a test which proved her to be a genius, though she didn’t like that label. She preferred the word advanced. The schools called her gifted. Andy had hired a slue of private tutors for her. It was some new thing they were doing with what they called whiz kids, and Al graduated high school while I still fought the battle that was grammar school. I had always known Al was smart but never realized it was that serious. When she told me she couldn’t go to school with me anymore, school became a real hell.

It was a cold Saturday afternoon in March as I sat alone on my bed, with Teresa passed out on her bed in her room. Nobody else was home. I dug in between the mattress and box spring for the black and white composition book I used for a diary. Sitting cross-legged on the bed, I opened my diary and reached over for my new Bic ballpoint pen in the nightstand drawer. Today’s my birthday, I wrote. I’m twelve. I know Michael’s the only one who will remember. I love him so much. I hope we can always live together, far away from Teresa and The Thing. We would never have to be separated. Ever.

I stopped writing. Someone was in the room. I looked up. Frances. She stood there, watching me, then, in a fast moment that moved in slow motion, she pounced on me and snatched my diary right out of my hands.

“What are you doing?” I yelled. “Give me that!” But she was already gone. “Give it back to me!” I yelled and ran after her. She raced toward the bathroom. I darted across the living room and jumped on her from behind. She pushed me hard, and I fell back against the living room wall. She ran into the bathroom and slammed the door behind her. I heard the lock catch. I threw myself at the door and pounded my fists on it. I pulled on the doorknob, shaking the wooden door on its hinges.

“Open the door!” I screamed over and over. “Open it! I hate you!”

A few minutes later, the latch clicked, the doorknob turned, and the door flew open with a force that sent me back against the wall. Before I could move, Frances pushed past me, through the kitchen, and out the apartment door, laughing her high-pitched cackle and yelling, “Linda’s gonna love this!”

Linda? What is she doing? I clung to the wall, frozen. There was no way to stop her. She was fat, but fast, and she already had too much of a head start. She was going to show my diary to Linda. I slid down the wall onto the floor.

Just then, Teresa’s bedroom door opened. I pulled myself up, still leaning. Teresa appeared, in a bright pink bathrobe with a cigarette hanging from one side of her mouth. Her voice scraped my entire body like fingernails on a blackboard.

“What’s going on out here?” she said, squinting through the smoke. “What’s all the lousy noise about?”

I kept my eyes on the open bathroom door.

“What are you doing? What’s the matter with you?”

“Leave me alone,” I said. “Please go back to bed.”

“Don’t tell me to go back to bed! Don’t you ever tell me what to do! You hear me?”

“Yes, I hear you.” I’ve heard you from the day I was born, I thought but didn’t say. I kept staring into the bathroom until she gave up and disappeared back into her cave, then I slid down to the living room floor again and stayed there a long time, until I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. I jumped back up. Frances was back already?

“Hey, Shorty. How ya doin’?” Michael, in his work clothes, Yankees cap, the faint scent of his English Leather cologne still with him since he’d gone to work that morning, and, of course, the ever-present cigarette between his fingers.

“What are you doing? You okay?” He sounded like his usual cheerful self, except for the pulsating veins on either side of his forehead, usually a sign of trouble.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” I said.

“You sure, Goofy? You look kinda funny.”

I didn’t want to know what he meant by that. “No, I’m fine,” I said. “Um, did you see Frances outside?”

“No, thank God. Why?” He bounced over to the couch and sat down. By now, Teresa had reappeared and was staring at Michael with her usual begrudging look. He ignored her.

“Um, she just left here a little while ago,” I told him. “I thought maybe you saw her.” I stayed propped up against the wall, trying not to slide down again.

“Nope,” he said. “Why? Does it matter?” Even though he was sitting, he kept moving as if restless.

“No, it doesn’t matter,” I said. I realized Michael would have been driving up the block with Frances running in the opposite direction. The wind outside blew right through the walls and into my bones. I didn’t know if I had stopped hugging myself, or rocking or shaking. No wonder Michael had said I looked funny.

“Oh, here,” he said, and jumped back up and into the kitchen. Teresa took the opportunity to steal his place on the couch. He returned to the living room with a package about two feet long and wrapped in red paper.

“Here’s your birthday present.” He poked my stomach with it, though his smile turned down when he glanced over at Teresa.

“Here,” he said. “Take it, will ya? You want your birthday present, don’t you, ya little goofball?” He smiled again.

“Yeah, I want it,” I said. Boy, did I want it. But the image of Frances and Linda shuffling through the pages of my diary flashed inside my head, and turned around in my stomach.

“Aren’t you going to open it, Shorty?” he asked. “You don’t look too excited.”

“Oh, I’m excited. I’m very excited.” I knew my smile was crooked because I could feel my face all twisted up. I tore open the thick red paper and stared at the cardboard box for a minute, confused. Then through the cellophane I saw what it was—a fishing pole, in two pieces in the box, and just like Michael’s but brand new with a shiny, dark green chrome reel. I wished we could run right then with it to Hamilton Beach.

“You like it?” he asked with a big smile. He put out his cigarette in Teresa’s ashtray and took out another one from the crumpled Camels pack in his shirt pocket and lit it.

I nodded. I wanted to say thank you, but couldn’t make any sounds.

“Hey, kid, what’s wrong? Are you crying? Don’t you like it?”

“I love it,” I blubbered out. “It’s the best fishing pole in the world.” I sounded as if I had just turned two, not twelve.

END OF EXCERPT 10 FROM CH. 4, The Archangel of Hamilton Beach