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       Runt, p.1

           Nora Raleigh Baskin
 
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Runt


  For Kelly, Maxine, Blanche, Willie, Sadie, Eli (Manning Baskin), and Kitty (née Goat)

  And with all my heart I thank:

  My editor, Alexandra Cooper, because writing is an individual art, and then it is not; I am so lucky to have someone who honors and respects both.

  My agents, Marietta Zacker and Nancy Gallt, who need to remind me (quite often) that I do not have to be alone in this endeavor.

  My children’s-writers-who-breakfast friends, Elise Broach and Tony Abbott, who like to meet, have breakfast, and talk about the writing life.

  My young friend, Jennifer Pagnoni, who wrote out my dialogue in text-message form, which was work for her and a complete leap of faith for me.

  My son Sam, whose life experiences—because I feel them so deeply—he allows me to steal. I only hope I do them justice.

  And for my son Ben, who is not only the author and voice of Matthew as well as the basketball team chorus, but talked to me whenever I demanded it about plot, theme, pacing, words, parents, pets, and life in middle school.

  Any errors and near misses I claim as my own; for the good stuff I acknowledge the generosity of these insightful people.

  “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend.

  Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

  —Groucho Marx

  THE ANSWERING VOICE

  * * *

  My mother says male dogs will fight. They will rise up on their hind legs and go for each other’s necks. They will bare their teeth, snarl and bite, until one or the other gives up and then it’s all over. And we can keep those two dogs right in the same room for the whole rest of their stay with us. As long as one is submissive, there won’t be any more trouble, except for maybe a growl or two around their dinner bowls. Once boy dogs know the pecking order, it’s all peaceful.

  But girl dogs, my mother says, will fight to the death.

  If we get an alpha female dog here, she’ll go after the others and she won’t give up, even when the other girl dog shows submission. If any dog got hurt while we were watching them, that would be the end of our business. But we agreed to take Sadie before we knew what she was like.

  I don’t always think my mother is right about the dogs. But after what happened with Sadie, my mom said she had a sneaking feeling all along. Sadie is a Saint Bernard so she’s big, really big, and dogs know how big they are, believe me. It’s like she knows just how much she weighs, which is about one hundred and seventy pounds. When I first met her, she leaned on me.

  “That’s just what she does,” the owner said. “She’s saying hello. But she can’t talk.”

  Like I didn’t know that.

  “It’s her way of hugging you,” the owner went on.

  I could tell they were anxious to get out of there. They were going to Club Med or Paradise Island or Disney World or something like that. They had a limo to catch to take them to the airport. I was just guessing that, but most everyone who brings their dog here is going somewhere.

  But Sadie was not hugging me, that should have been the first clue. She was showing me who’s boss and she thinks it’s her. When the owner lady was not looking, I shoved Sadie back.

  I bent down and looked her in the eye. “Not in my house,” I whispered.

  THE FISHER-REES BIRTHDAY PARTY

  * * *

  Miss Robinson was a bit chubby—okay, she was heavy—so when she wrote on the whiteboard, the flesh under her arm jiggled back and forth and some of the other kids giggled. It’s a good idea to giggle when others are giggling, Maggie thought, even if you don’t know why.

  T-R-E-A-C-H-E-R-O-U-S, Miss Robinson wrote in red dry-erase.

  The class often played this game at the end of the day when there were a few minutes left before the bell and Miss Robinson had already finished her lesson plan. It wasn’t supposed to be a race, but the boys got all geared up and some of the girls, too. The object was to make as many words as you could using the letters in—for instance—treacherous. Then everyone shared their answers out loud, while Miss Robinson wrote the words on the board.

  The students crossed off each word on their own list that was the same until someone had a word that no one else had. That person got a special prize from a drawer in Miss Robinson’s desk, a new pencil or a ruler or a little spiral notepad. Maggie was used to winning things. She was smart and popular. She was pretty. But there was something about the time limit that she didn’t like. Something about the big clock over the door ticking away the seconds and then minutes rendered all those things useless and left her confused.

  Maggie felt her heart start to pound before Miss Robinson had even finished writing the word and she wanted her mind to start silently finding words but all she got was more nervous.

  tree

  her

  a

  at

  Those were the easy words, the little ones. The kids that won always had some big long word that no one else thought of. Maybe a better tactic was to bypass the little words—everyone was going to get those anyway—and just concentrate on the big words.

  teach

  reach

  In the five weeks they’d been in sixth grade, and every time they played this game using the week’s vocab words, Maggie had never come close to winning and that’s because everyone else was cheating.

  They were not supposed to start until the word was completely written on the board and Miss Robinson said Okay, begin, but the boys were scribbling on whatever paper was already in front of them. Alex Pachman was using his permission slip for next week’s field trip. Most of the girls had slipped a piece of paper out of their desk and started, except Elizabeth Moon, who is so weird anyway. She was just sitting there being obedient.

  “Before we begin,” Miss Robinson says, “can anyone tell me what this word means?”

  Why are teachers so stupid they can’t see what’s going on? It’s not fair. It’s so unfair. By the time someone answered her, Maggie knew some kids would have ten or twelve or fifteen words down.

  search

  house

  “Okay, now take out a clean sheet of paper and let’s get started,” Miss Robinson said. She went back to her desk and fiddled with something and didn’t look up again.

  It was so not fair.

  Joey whatever-his-last-name-is won. After the words everyone had in common were crossed off, he had the last one and, wouldn’t you know it, it was the easiest word.

  Star.

  He got to pick from the prize drawer, a plastic key chain with a Batman emblem.

  Just before the end of the day, Miss Robinson called out, “Remember, tomorrow we start our unit on poetry. Everyone come in tomorrow with their favorite poem to share with the class.”

  “What if you don’t have a favorite poem?” someone asked.

  Good question.

  “Ask your parents,” Miss Robinson said. “They must have one. It’s worth five points.” Nobody was listening anymore. It was too close to the end of the day. People’s brains started to shut down, but not Miss Robinson’s.

  “Hopefully we will put all your original poems together and get it published for you to bring home and share with your parents. We will need someone to design our cover, and we can have a contest to pick just the right title. The class can vote for their favorite cover design and title.”

  If she said anything else it was drowned out by the final bell, the screeching metal chairs, and the stomping parade of sneakers out the door and onto the school buses.

  • • •

  Maggie’s parents weren’t home. Her mom was at work and her dad was in DC for a week. Five points toward her grade that she wouldn’t be getting. So what else was new?

  Angelica put out a snack, Goldfish and apple juice, and then began emptying the dishwa
sher. “Make sure to do all your homework before your mother gets home.” Maggie liked Veronica better. Angelica was old and didn’t want to play or even watch TV shows.

  “I don’t have any,” Maggie answered.

  “Suit yourself.”

  Maggie turned her computer on.

  She needed to find a poem.

  She could hear Angelica flitting around the other bedrooms, putting away clean clothes and mumbling to herself. Maggie kept her cell phone on vibrate, plugged in and charging, on the bed, her laptop propped up on her knees. Her television was on low—a Degrassi re-run—she wasn’t supposed to watch TV until her homework was done. It was an episode she hadn’t seen.

  “I hope you are doing your schoolwork,” Angelica’s voice came up the stairs.

  “Home work.”

  “Homework.”

  “I am,” Maggie called back.

  Maggie opened a blank document to begin her humanities paper on global conflicts. She picked the font and the line spacing and then clicked onto person2person to check for any after-school activity. She poked around a few people’s pages. Zoe had changed her profile photo. Ethan posted a video. Maggie opened Google and typed in “World War II.” She checked her cell phone for messages, went back to her person2person page, changed the channel on the TV, and then searched on Wikipedia for a while: horse racing, rugby (what’s that?), soccer. Romans, the black death, stately homes. Then she typed one sentence:

  Ireland is an island divided between Republic of Ireland (she copied and pasted) and part of the United Kingdom.

  Enough homework for now. Maggie maximized her person2person profile. Gabby Fisher-Rees posted a photo from her fourth grade birthday party and five people had already commented. Maggie hadn’t thought about Gabby in so long. Gabby had moved away, but every now and then she posted something and tagged someone from school.

  Ethan—dang, I was good looking even back then

  Stewart—Maybe on your planet, Ethan

  Zoe—Don’t listen to him, Ethan.

  Larissa—OMG, look at my hair.

  Stewart—nobody’s looking. nobody cares, Larissa.

  Gabby—thought you’d all like this blast from the past

  Stewart—Matthew wasn’t invited. Even in third grade Gabby had some taste.

  Matthew—I didn’t live here then, genius.

  Stewart—poor excuse, Madeleine.

  Zoe—Check it out Freida Goldstein wearing something other than all black.

  The whole class had been invited to that party—the last year anybody did that. By fifth grade kids started inviting only friends and wannabe friends and leaving the used-to-be and never-really-were friends out. Maggie pushed her knees up to look more closely at the screen. Freida was wearing a pink T-shirt, or at least it looked pink in the tiny photo. Her purple sneakers with bright green shoelaces were poking out between all the other feet. She was original right from the start. She liked sticking out. She was already drawing really well by then, and making her own homemade jewelry.

  But what was really different about Freida was that she was smiling and holding hands with her best friend. They were inseparable then. Smiling and holding hands and looking into the camera, Maggie and Freida. Freida and Maggie. People called them The Twins. Fourth grade was a long time ago.

  EYES AND TEETH

  * * *

  Humanities

  period 3

  Freida Goldstein

  In ancient Babylonian times the law was written on a giant stone tablet. It mostly had to do with work stuff, contracts, wages, liability. Some of it was about family issues, divorce, marriage, money, children, inheritance.

  But naturally, the same rules didn’t apply to everyone.

  Rich people, officials, kings and those people didn’t really have to follow the same procedures. But, given the circumstances and the times, for most people it was better than nothing.

  Another part of the tablet was about crimes that occurred. It was about punishment, about justice, about revenge. The Babylonians wanted to make sure that the retaliation a victim pursued was equal to the crime. No more. No less. Surely there had to be rules for taking someone’s eye out.

  These were not primitive peoples, after all. This was 1775 B.C.E., the height of culture and civilization. If a person caused another person’s death, they should be put to death.

  Fair’s fair, as long as both parties belonged to the same social class.

  A citizen was certainly allowed to try and seek justice outside his or her stratum. He or she could wait weeks, perhaps months, pay the appropriate court fees, and appear before the tribunal. The offended party of the lower class was then welcome to plead their case, present evidence, and ask for justice, but fat chances, bub.

  There is the well-known story of the Babylonian sheep herder and the Hittite Princess, but its ending is far too gruesome to relate in this paper.

  Of course, there is the famous yearlong trial of Ramses’ two sons, both of whom believed he should be Pharaoh, but only one lived long enough to kill his father and take the throne.

  And how can anyone forget the case against Osiris, captain of the chariot team? Osiris was known to have lost over two hundred slaves due to his harsh and inhumane treatment, and was sued by his own stockholders.

  The Ten Commandments (also written in stone, interestingly enough) came along about two hundred years after the Babylonian Code, and were a slightly improved version.

  The Bible says, Ayin tachat ayin.

  An eye for an eye.

  But at least this time, the same rules were supposed to govern both the rich and the poor, both kings and peasants.

  The Romans followed, with monetary compensation taking the place of an actual tooth or eye extraction.

  And in modern times, of course, there are all sorts of safe and creative punishments for people who try to step out of their ascribed social standing.

  No one, however—not Moses, not Hammurabi—could have predicted middle school.

  B minus.

  Very creative, Freida.

  Great illustrations,

  but you did not do the assignment.

  THE MILLENNIAL GENERATION

  * * *

  Allison Robinson stared at herself in the mirror and made a pact with the higher powers, and at that moment she didn’t really care which higher power was available. The mirror hung inside her closet door, and the door swung only partially open because the edge of Allison’s desk stuck out too far. So in order to see her whole twelve-year-old body, Allison needed to stand partially inside the closet, pressed up against the shirts, skirts, dresses, and coats that never looked as good on, as they had in the store.

  “Okay, so what’s worse?” Allison asked aloud to herself. “Braces or being fat?” Allison wanted to be a teacher one day and she often practiced the art of directing a conversation with leading questions.

  When no answer came she added another variable. “Or having pimples?”

  In this case, Allison thought, logic could prevail. Braces weren’t really part of your own body, so no one could really judge on how you looked with a mouthful of metal, right? But they certainly didn’t help and they made your lips look puffy, so in that way braces were pretty ugly. Besides, if you were pretty to begin with and had straight teeth, you wouldn’t need them.

  Well, pimples aren’t really your fault either, are they?

  Allison’s skin was clear, “like peaches and cream,” her grandmother said. Allison’s hair was dark with soft curls, the kind you only see in shampoo ads. And she had the longest, thickest lashes in the world, apparently, because whenever someone was trying to be nice, that’s what they said. And apparently long, thick lashes were desirable, at least to old ladies and other plain, overweight girls.

  So it’s being fat. That’s the worst.

  “You’re the farthest thing from fat,” her dad said.

  “I had the same exact body when I was your age. It’s just baby fat,” her mother said, and
so Allison had scoured her mother’s old childhood albums. The woman must have been delusional—Allison’s mom looked like she weighed no more than sixty-five pounds when she was in sixth grade, with arms you could wrap your fingers around and legs so skinny there was no difference between the top thigh and calf.

  And this was Allison’s pact:

  If I could be skinny I’ll never ask for anything ever again.

  • • •

  Henry and Allison sat together at the far end of the cafeteria table, the table designated for those with nowhere else to sit. In her mind, Allison had dubbed it the No-Tolerance table.

  “Do you know how many words you can spell with the letters in ‘tolerance’?” Allison asked Henry.

  “Where did that come from?”

  “I don’t know. Nowhere.”

  Allison liked Henry and not just because they had the same last name. He was smart and funny and shared things with her. He wasn’t afraid to tell her embarrassing stories about his life. It made her feel like she could trust him and tell him things about herself, but Allison wouldn’t dare tell him how she felt about him. Even Henry Robinson wouldn’t want to hook up with a girl like her.

  If I could be skinny I’ll never ask for anything ever again.

  “There’s nothing worse than being unpopular in sixth grade,” Allison said.

  “Now where did that come from?”

  Allison shrugged.

  Henry said, “But since you asked, I will tell you what’s worse than being unpopular in sixth grade, which, by the way, you are not. Popularity is all relative.”

  She knew it wasn’t true, but it felt good all the same.

  “Being stupid,” Henry told Allison. “That would be worse. Being dumb is the kiss of death.”

  “You’re probably right. And by the way, it’s fifty-seven.”

  “What is? The number of words in ‘tolerance’?”

 
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