I Kill the Mockingbird, page 1
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For Mom & Dad
1 . The Queen of England Is in Our Bathroom
2 . What Would Fat Bob Do?
3 . Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia
4 . Jesus in a Bike Basket
5 . A Mob. A Horde. A Multitude. A Throng.
6 . Jesus, Ginger Ale, Norse Gods, and Wiener Dogs
7 . Holden Caulfield Is Undead and Other Things We Learn at the Mall
8 . Conspiracy Theories and Cruel Mistresses
9 . Always Look on the Bright Side of Life
10 . I Kill the Mockingbird
11 . Literary Terrorists Need Office Skills
12 . How to Eat an Elephant
13 . Patron Saint of the Blind
14 . Wanting Is an Act of Courage
15 . Where Is Elena Going with That Ax?
16 . The Mockingbird Manifesto
17 . What I Want
18 . The Secret Circus
19 . The Second Most Exciting Funeral of All Time
20 . Put Back Your Books or Boo Radley Will Get You
21 . Kindling Words
22 . “It Was a Pleasure to Burn”
23 . Spanking the Critics
24 . Ordinary Time
Also by Paul Acampora
The Queen of England Is in Our Bathroom
My mother’s wheelchair does not fit through the bathroom door, and I don’t know what to do about it. I pull the chair back an inch and then roll it into the door frame again. The clunk makes Mom sit up straight. “You have got to be kidding me,” she says.
Actually, these are not her exact words. I am not allowed to repeat her exact words.
“Don’t worry,” says Dad, who stands inside the bathroom, ready to give Mom a hand. “We’ll figure something out.”
This is the first time my mother has been home from the West Glover Hospital in over a month. They only let her leave because she promised to stay off her feet for at least forty-eight hours. I put my hand on Mom’s shoulder. “What if we turn it around and back it in?”
“Lucy,” Mom says to me, “width is not a function of vector.”
Mom studied math in college. She’s a professional photographer now, but she’s always finding ways to work things like vectors and differentials and Hilbert curves into conversation. I rarely know what she’s talking about.
“We don’t have vectors in our math,” Elena calls from the kitchen.
“We’ll get to them in high school,” says Michael, who is in the kitchen, too.
Michael Buskirk and Elena Vallejo are my best friends. They were both on the front lawn waiting to greet Mom when we got back from the hospital. The three of us met back in kindergarten when Elena was a black-haired bulldozer in a pink dress and a leg brace, and Michael was a quiet skinny boy in short pants and Space Invader T-shirts. Now we are all in the eighth grade at St. Brigid’s Catholic School, where my dad is our principal.
Elena sighs. “Vectors and high school,” she says. “I can’t wait.”
Elena is certain that high school is going to swallow us up, spit us out, and crush us like bugs. It’s because she still looks like a little doll that Santa Claus would leave beneath a Christmas tree. I resemble one of those gawky stuffed giraffes that nobody ever wins at the carnival, but Michael is over six feet tall. He’s strong and easygoing with dark hair and brown eyes that match the color of his skin. I think he’s the best-looking boy in our school. He lives just across the street from me, so I see him enough to know that I’m right.
“Elena,” Dad shouts from the bathroom. “Please stop worrying about high school. It’s months away, and it’s going to be fine.”
“How do you know?” she yells back at him.
“It’s one of the things they teach you in principal school,” he tells her.
“He’s got you there,” Michael says to Elena.
“In the meantime,” says Mom, “I still really have to pee.” A few wisps of thin, brown hair have escaped the paisley scarf wrapped around her head. Dark circles beneath her eyes make it look like she’s been punched in the face. Cancer will do that to you.
Dad examines the doorway leading into the bathroom. “We’ll get another inch of clearance if I take the door off the frame.” At school, I’ve seen him unclog toilets, mop up vomit, set a broken bone, and rescue a wide variety of rodents, snakes, amphibians, and other classroom pets without even loosening his tie. Popping a door off its hinges is not going to be a problem.
Michael hops off the kitchen counter. “I’ll get the toolbox.”
“There’s a screwdriver in the junk drawer,” says Elena.
The two of them know where everything is. They’ve pretty much grown up in our house, and sometimes we’re more like family than friends. I love having Elena as a sister, but lately I’m thinking it might be nice if Michael were a little less brotherly and a little more friendly. That’s another door I don’t know how to get through.
“How about we just do this?” says Mom. Without waiting for an answer, she places both hands on the wheelchair’s armrests and pushes herself into a standing position.
“Whoa!” I say.
Dad quickly reaches an arm around Mom’s waist then takes her hand. “May I have this dance?” he asks.
Mom takes a breath. “Lead me to the toilet first.”
My parents say it’s the everyday moments—folding laundry, washing dishes, pouring each other a cup of coffee—that make their marriage a good one. I know they’re right, but I’m hoping for something a little more romantic than a stroll into the bathroom one day.
With Dad’s help, Mom takes a small step forward. “Are you okay?” I ask her.
Mom takes another step then places a free hand on the sand dollars and sea fans and junonias that decorate our bathroom wallpaper. “I’m happy to be home.”
“And cancer free,” says Dad.
She nods. “That too.”
A year ago, the doctors explained that Mom’s disease—something with a name that sounded like angie-mumbo-jumbo-plastic-lycanthrope—was rare, aggressive, and generally fatal. In other words, she had a roughly zero chance to live. Even I understood that math. A week ago, those same doctors announced that she was cured. “How is that possible?” I asked.
The doctors shrugged. Sometimes, they told Dad and me, it just happens. Afterward, one of Mom’s nurses found us in the hospital corridor. “God heard your prayers,” she said. “That’s how it happened.”
It’s true that we’d been doing a lot of praying, but until now it didn’t seem like anybody was really listening. “I don’t know about that,” I said.
“God heard you,” the nurse said again. “It’s a miracle.” And then she burst into tears.
Neither Dad nor I backed away. I think it’s because we both spend our days in Catholic school. That’s where you learn that faithful people can be a little insane sometimes. On the other hand, is it more sensible to accept that everything is random or is it better to believe that God can step in occasionally and repair your T cells? I don’t know.
Either way, Mom is on her feet now. She’s moving forward with Dad on her arm as if they are about to meet the Queen of England in our bathroom. Mom even offers dainty royal wrist waves as she exi
What Would Fat Bob Do?
After a few days, Mom can use the bathroom by herself. After a few weeks, it’s clear that she really is getting better. Before I know it, the last day of eighth grade has arrived. Miss Caridas, who is our English teacher today and will be our English teacher again next year at St. Patrick’s High School, scratches a list of book titles onto the board. “These are your summer reading choices,” she announces.
Miss Caridas recites each title aloud as she writes it down so that the list is revealed in a weird kind of slow motion.
“War of the Worlds
The class sighs.
I’ve already read most of these books. Michael has, too. Elena’s probably read all of them twice. Her Uncle Mort runs a used bookstore in the center of town, and we’ve been helping out—and sometimes just hanging out—in the shop for as long as I can remember.
Elena lives with Mort in an apartment above the bookstore because her parents died in a big car crash when she was just a baby. Elena was in the car crash, too. Obviously she survived, but that’s why she used to have the leg brace. Except for a very slight limp, which you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t looking for it, that part of Elena’s life is ancient history. According to her, it’s a book that nobody wants to read and she doesn’t want to open. “But don’t you miss having parents?” I asked Elena once.
She just shrugged. “I have Mort,” she told me. Mort was her mom’s big brother. “He gives me food. He gives me shelter. He gives me love. He gives me all the free books I can read. What part of the parenting thing am I missing?”
Miss Caridas finishes writing. She replaces the marker on the ledge and claps her hands together. “Any questions?”
I have a question: Why do teachers think that shoving summer reading lists down our throats is a good idea?
I turn to St. Brigid whose picture hangs on our classroom wall. She’s our school’s namesake as well as the patron saint of dairymaids, chicken farmers, and children whose parents are not married. I don’t fit into any of St. Brigid’s categories, but I mutter a little prayer to her anyway. “Please,” I say, “can this school year be over now?”
St. Brigid says nothing. Of course nobody else is speaking, either. Around me, my classmates hardly move. I’m not sure that any of them are even awake.
“People!” our teacher shouts. “Atención!”
Miss Caridas grew up in Puerto Rico, and she pulls out the Spanish whenever she really wants to get our attention. She’s been with us for most of the year, but I still think of her as a substitute. Dad hired her after our first teacher, Mr. Robert “Fat Bob” Nowak, died in the line of duty.
Mr. Nowak was as big around as a Volkswagen. He started every day by printing W.W.F.B.D? (WHAT WOULD FAT BOB DO?) in giant letters across the top of the whiteboard. He died in the St. Brigid cafeteria just before Halloween. I was standing beside him on the day it happened. He was paying for his lunch, and the cafeteria lady at the cash register asked, “Do you want fries with that?”
“Fries would be—” Mr. Nowak stopped. He stepped back. He put a hand on his chest. “Good.” He took a breath. “Fine.” He looked around the cafeteria. “Wonderful.”
He sounded almost wistful, which is when I knew something was wrong because St. Brigid’s fries are good, but they do not inspire wist.
“Mr. Nowak?” I asked. “Are you okay?”
His face was bright red. His breathing sounded suddenly difficult. For some reason, he turned toward a shelf filled with a whole bunch of pre-wrapped sandwiches. Most of them were egg salad. “Lucy,” he said, “I’ve been teaching for a lot of years, and let me tell you something.” He tried to take a deep breath. “You’ve got to enjoy every sandwich.”
“Mr. Nowak,” I said, “I don’t like eggs.”
I wish I had responded with something a little more meaningful, but at least it made him laugh. He leaned against the cafeteria wall. “Don’t be afraid, Lucy.”
I still didn’t understand what was happening. “Afraid of what?”
“Anything. Everything. Be brave.” He took a cell phone out of his pocket. “And now I’m going to call 911.”
I felt my pulse began to race. “What are you talking about?”
He stared at his phone and then laughed again. “This is going to sound crazy, but I think I forgot the number for 911.”
Before I finished speaking, a massive heart attack dropped him to the floor. He went down like a boxer on the wrong end of a knock-out punch. “Help!” I shouted. From there, I remember ambulances and stretchers and sirens in our school. None of it mattered. Fat Bob was dead.
Miss Caridas arrived not long after that. She is young and pretty. She graduated from college at the end of last May. Sometimes she doesn’t seem much older than us, but she is much stricter than Mr. Nowak ever was. I think she thinks that she has to be. Now she takes a neon-orange yardstick from the ledge and taps it against the board. “You will choose at least four titles from your summer reading list to enjoy once at your leisure, and then you will review them again before ninth grade begins. Each work contains its own symbolic vocabulary that … blah, blah, blah…”
I stare at the space above Miss Caridas’s head that used to say W.W.F.B.D?
WHAT WOULD FAT BOB DO?
Mr. Nowak definitely would not have served up a long list of summer reading options. “To Kill a Mockingbird is the only book I will assign over your next summer vacation,” he told us back in September. “By then you’ll be good enough readers to appreciate it.”
I remember thinking, I’m already a good reader.
“You might be thinking that you’re already a good reader,” Mr. Nowak said.
More than a couple of us shifted in our seats.
“It’s not enough to know what all the words mean,” he continued. “A good reader starts to see what an entire book is trying to say. And then a good reader will have something to say in return. If you’re reading well,” he told us, “you’re having a conversation.”
I raised my hand. “A conversation with who?”
“With the characters in the book,” said Mr. Nowak. “With the author. With friends and fellow readers. A book connects you to the universe like a cell phone connects you to the Internet.” He tapped on the side of his head. “But it only works if your battery’s not dead.”
That made us laugh. Mr. Nowak liked to make us laugh. He told us stories about his life before he became a teacher. He actually had a short career in the Canadian Football League. After that, he had some success as a professional wrestler. “In the high stakes world of professional wrestling,” Mr. Nowak told us, “Fat Bob was six feet eleven inches tall. He weighed four thousand pounds. He was feared on seven continents, and he was a three-time International Smackdown Champion of the Universe. Several nations classified Fat Bob’s left hand as a lethal weapon.”
“Is any of that true?” we asked him.
“Every word,” he promised.
“You don’t really weigh four thousand pounds,” we told him.
“Catholic school does not require my full fighting weight,” he explained.
“You’re not six feet eleven inches tall.”
He shrugged. “Old age makes you shrink.”
The priest was interrupted by a loud SPROING!
Then there was a SNAP! And a PING! And a WHIRRRRR!
The straps supporting the coffin started to unwind like a fishing line hooked into Moby Dick. Fat Bob, who’d been going down about an inch a minute, accelerated into the pit with all the force that gravity can muster on an almost four-thousand-pound man. In case you’re wondering, that’s a lot of force.
“Sweet Jesus,” said the funeral director.
The casket roared into the ground like a fighter plane crashing out of the sky. The box disappeared from view, but the straps buzzed and whined until a muffled BOOM! brought everything to a halt. There was a cloud of dust. I was dimly aware of shouts and chaos. A woman standing near Father Wrigley stumbled back in a faint.
Our whole class moved forward to stare into the grave. Shiny pieces of metallic blue casket lay scattered below. All four sides of the coffin had burst apart. It looked as if a Lincoln Continental had exploded down there.
“Oh my,” said Father Wrigley.
Dad stood as open-mouthed and shocked as the rest of us. Standing in a cemetery beneath a bright blue autumn sky was the last thing my father or I wanted to be doing that day. Nobody but Michael and Elena knew, but my mother had just entered the hospital to start getting filled with cancer drugs and radiation treatments.
Timing, Mom says when she’s shooting wedding photos, is everything. Standing over Mr. Nowak’s open grave, it struck me that the rule might also apply to funerals. I wouldn’t be surprised if it comes up in other situations too.
“Mr. Jordan?” one of the Clooney twins said to my dad. “What should we do?”