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When Denny "Donuts" Murphy's mother dies, he becomes the world's biggest class clown. But deep down, Donuts just wants a normal life―one where his mom is still alive and where his dad doesn't sit in front of the TV all day. And so Donuts tries to get back into the groove by helping his best friend with their plan to get dates for the end-of-the-year school dance. When their scheme backfires, he learns that laughter is not the best medicine for all of his problems. Sometimes it's just as important to be true to yourself.
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Matt Blackstone joined Teach for America after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and presently teaches high school English. He lives in East Meadow, New York.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
There’s a gum wrapper at my feet. Juicy Fruit. I wish I knew who dropped it so I could tell him not to litter at my mom’s funeral. The room is musty and smells of lemon. My starchy shirt and stiff suit are drenched in sweat. The priest tells me it’s time. Not for telling people to pick up their gum wrappers, but time for the service. Time to speak. For him to speak. We declined the chance. Like this:
Dad: “You want to say anything at the service, Denny?”
Me: “In front of people?”
Me: “Well then, no.”
Dad: “Me neither. Don’t think I’ll get any words out.”
We sit in the front row. The priest is able to get words out of his mouth; they just aren’t any good. He keeps using the word “essentially” to cover up the fact that he has no clue what to say because he has no clue who my mom is. Was. She’s now past tense, like anything else that happened yesterday: the news, the weather, the ball game.
“Susan Murphy was a loving mother and wife,” the priest says. “Essentially, she was truly a model citizen.” I want to interrupt him and stand up and shout, “NO ONE CARES THAT SHE WAS A MODEL CITIZEN. No one cares that she was a member of the PTA. That’s not why we’re here. We’re here because she was mine and now she isn’t.”
He continues. “She loved her tea. Essentially, she loved tea in the same way she loved her friends and family. She was always there for them in their time of need. She was a hard worker and an avid reader. She was truly a loving and lovely woman.”
There he goes again, reading the CliffsNotes— The Life and Times of Essentially Susan Murphy—and man, I want to run onstage and shake him and scream, “You don’t know her! She was the best! She is the best. The best at telling my dad to swallow a bottle of chill pills, the best at making me do math homework, the best at waking me up on time for school after I fall back to sleep the first three times, the best at packing my favorite cereal, the best at carpooling to soccer practice without saying anything too embarrassing. (Though she did once call me Honey Bunches of Oats. In public. At school, in the hallway. And everyone heard. Everyone. And she did once write on my lunch box, ‘Enjoy the Honey Bunches of Oats, My Honey Bunches of Oats.’) But she’s still the best! The best at making soup when I’m sick. The best! Don’t you know that?”
I almost stand up and do it. Rush the stage, I mean. I even raise my heels and flex my calf muscles, but there are over fifty people sitting behind me and sweat is leaking down my neck and my skin is on fire. It’s hard to rush the stage when you’re on fire.
I peek behind me. Manny’s in the fourth row, wiping his eyes. I don’t recognize anyone else. Because I don’t want to. That way I won’t feel bad when I bust free, which is what my legs have been screaming for me to do: LEAVE! RUN! GET ME OUTTA HERE!
Manny would know how to get home from here. He’s my best friend, not because I like him a whole lot or because we have much in common, but because he’s always been there, like some prehistoric insect that survived the test of time. If I told Manny my scheme, he’d push his thin-rimmed glasses up his skinny nose, twirl a strand of his gelled hair, raise his pencil-point eyebrows (he says he raises his eyebrows when deep in thought because his intellect is “highbrow”), rub his chin, and say, “Indeed, it is quite a flabbergasting conundrum: How can one elude one’s family and/or bamboozle the guards? Some might say that we must let the question marinate to allow the maximum amount of brain juice to saturate this meaty dilemma, but not I.” [Cue the scheme, the mathematical computations on our average speed and distance required to cover, the risk analysis on driving without a license—five years before you’re even eligible for a license, a second reference to ushers as “guards,” a timed escape at the “changing of the guards,” and a request for a “nominal monetary reward” for his “infrastructure of knowledge.”]
If you’re wondering why Manny talks funny, it’s because he thinks he’s smarter than everyone else, and he probably is. Manny doesn’t ever blend words by using contractions. That would be too informal and improper. He once saw someone wearing a T-shirt that read “Nobody’s perfect. Except me.” Manny fell in love with the shirt but disapproved of the contraction, so he had a shirt specially made that read “Nobody is perfect. Except me.” He wears it nearly every single day. He’s probably got it on now underneath his black suit, not that it really matters what he’s wearing. Not that it matters what anyone’s wearing or doing or saying or thinking or chewing.
Though I really wish someone would pick up that Juicy Fruit wrapper.
* * *
The car is black and the seats are black, but as I look out the window, it feels like any other day. The sky is light blue, the leaves are orange and yellow, the air is crisp and cold like an apple from the refrigerator, the roads are clear, and the restaurants we pass are still open for business. The red McDonald’s sign beneath the golden arches brags of billions served. Though I’m not the least bit hungry, I’m aware that it’s lunchtime. I want to pretend that it’s a regular ride home, but my dad isn’t driving. He’s sitting next to me, staring out the window, his whole body clenched like a fist. I realize that mine is, too. I tell it to relax and stop sweating, please stop sweating, but it doesn’t listen. I want to tell the driver with the stupid black hat to turn on the stupid air-conditioning, but my mouth isn’t working. Unfortunately, the radio is. The whole way home all I can think is, That song is ruined. And so is that one. And that one. Now that song is ruined, too.
When we pull into the small driveway, my body is still on fire.
At least there’s no music in our house—if you don’t count the murmured sound track of visitors. They’re gathered in the family room. Though I’m not sure they’re family. And even if they are, I’d trade them all for my mom. For just one more year or month or day or afternoon with her. I take a peek down the hall and notice most of them are strangers.
I also notice that I smell. My black suit is a damp towel and my white shirt is a soaked, stinking mess. There’s so much I want to say, want to write down, but first: Dear Old Spice deodorant, I’m glad we recently met each other. I thought we had a good thing going. A real solid relationship. But you’re a traitor and you’re weak and I smell. I know I shouldn’t think about it, but thinking about it makes me not think about it. Why we’re here, I mean. Why I’m on fire.
Neighbors and old friends and people claiming to be my cousins hug me. “I’m sorry for sweating on you,” I tell them. They say their thoughts and prayers are with me, but nothing extinguishes the fire. Not their hugs or their platters of food or the pile of phony sympathy cards written by some guy with a waxy mustache sitting in an attic that smells of mothballs. That’s the way I picture it anyway. The image isn’t comforting. And neither is the one in my family room. A play-off baseball game is on. The Phillies just blew a save in the bottom of the ninth, and the people on the brown velvet couch are muttering under their breath, grunts and grumbles and groans, but they manage to shove chocolate chip cookies and apple cake and corned beef sandwiches in their mouths. They talk politics and baseball and tell jokes like “You heard about the constipated accountant? He couldn’t budget.” This from someone claiming to be my uncle twice-removed. I think I get his joke but it still isn’t funny.
What is funny is that the guy’s got mustard on his mustache. Not the brown spicy kind with seeds; the yellow one, bright as a highlighter, a neon blob on the side of his mouth. Each time he takes another bite, the mustard quivers. I want to laugh because “mustard” and “mustache” sound similar and anything stuck in a mustache is funny, especially yellow mustard, but I can’t cry and I can’t laugh—at this or the next joke from Uncle Mustard’s son, Cousin Mustard, aka My Long-Lost-and-Should’ve-Remained-Lost Cousin: “Why couldn’t the pirate get into the movie? Any guesses? Anyone? It was rated Arrrrrrr.”
Saw that coming a mile away, but didn’t have enough energy to stop it—or the next, from Uncle Mustard: “Last week I met this dog that could talk, I swear. I asked him what’s on top of a house and he said, ‘Roof!’ I asked him what’s on the outside of a tree and he said, ‘Bark!’ I asked him what’s the feel of sandpaper and he said, ‘Rough!’ And then I asked him who the thirtieth president of the United States was and he scratched his head thoughtfully and said, ‘Calvin Coolidge?’”
Someone tells Uncle Mustard to wipe his mouth. “Hey, it is what it is,” I hear Uncle Mustard say, though I’m not sure whether he’s talking about the mustard or why everyone’s gathered here. I want to ask him and hear him lie, tell me what he thinks I want to hear, and I’ll slash through, cross out, slice through all the phony bologna (though I know he’s eating corned beef, not bologna, and it’s not phony bologna, it’s real bologna, and it’s already sliced). I want to get to the real truth about whether these people even care, but Uncle Mustard is already walking away and I don’t want to yell.
I turn my attention to my dad, who, instead of greeting guests at the door, permits entry, his wide body stepping aside with a curt nod. He looks like a bouncer. He must think uncle impersonators will barge in and steal the corned beef. You can steal a lot from my dad (not that I do) and he won’t notice, but steal his food … cue the sirens, call the authorities. It’s best to alert someone before the explosion, as it’s tough putting him back together again.
My dad greets Manny at the door and allows him entry. Manny’s eyes look red under the rims of his glasses. “I am sorry,” he says. “She was a great lady and mother. To me as well. Please accept my condolences.”
My dad nods. “Come in,” he says, then blocks the door with his body once again. I’d tell my dad to stop being a bouncer and join the, I don’t know, party / sports bar/competitive corned beef fest, but he’s better off where he is. Neighbors and these strangers don’t know their boundaries.
“Sure looks like there’ll be plenty of leftovers … can feed a whole fleet … or just your dad. Take care of the old man, will ya?” “Playin’ any sports, Denny?” “You should talk to someone.” “Really sorry about, you know … ever been to Maine?”
And then someone says, “It’s really heartbreaking for me, too,” and all I hear is I’m leaving, I barely knew her, I’ve stayed too long.
There are sweat stains under my arms. Thanks, Old Spice. There’s a mustard stain on the carpet—not from Uncle Mustard. This one’s brown and probably spicy and definitely making a wet circle the size of a quarter on top of the fabric. At the crowded dining room table, the smell of sour pickles, the sound of crinkling cellophane. Neighbors and aunts talk about the SATs, how the test is hard and rotten and so are the tutors. I should feel grateful I still have about five years before I take it. But I don’t feel grateful. I hope whoever is in charge of Thanksgiving cancels it next month.
Someone fills a glass at the sink without waiting for the cold water to cool down. I should tell them it’s warm.
My bouncer dad eyes the corned beef. The neighbors are buzzing in my ear again and it’s making me dizzy: “If there’s anything you need, Denny, you know where to find us.” “Following the Phillies?” “Man, you’re in the seventh grade already?” “Do people at school know?” “You look snazzy in that suit.” “It must be so tough.” “Make sure you keep busy.” “It is what it is.” “How are you coping?” “Seen any movies recently?” “What are you up to later?” “Sure looks like it’s shaping up to be a lovely day outside.” “Such a lovely service this morning, wouldn’t you say?”
The sweat stains under my arms are swelling, and there’s so much I want to say to these people, shout to these people, write down for them to read and reread so they’ll never ever bother me again, but all I can think is, Dear Old Spice deodorant: You suck.
Text copyright © 2014 by Matt Blackstone
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