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Gert Fram - A Kid's Book for Grown-ups
By Nancy Allen Black
|Edition: Trade Paperback|
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It was time I had a bicycle. It seemed that I was always the last one of my friends to get things. That's how I knew it was my turn, when everyone else already had it, and all my friends had bicycles, so there was no need to wait any longer. Besides, the big Sweeney Elementary Bike Hike was coming up in a matter of days and that was the first year they were allowing third graders to participate. It was major - and I was going to miss out because I didn't have a bicycle.
I don't know what got into me that morning. Maybe it was the weather. Maybe I was just tired. Maybe it was the ham and bean soup Mom fixed the night before (or just bean soup I suppose, I never did find the ham). It was still gnawing at my stomach when I somehow worked up the guts, or audacity, to actually come out and ask Mom and Dad for a bicycle. Dumb idea.
Their bedroom was right next door to mine and I could tell they were up because the old TV they kept on their dresser was on. It had to be 500 years old and the picture didn't even work. It was a blank screen. The volume, however, worked fine. They kept it turned up so far I could hear it in my room. I often wondered what it was they didn't want the rest of us to hear so they kept it up so loud. Maybe they thought the extra volume canceled out the fact that there was no picture. Maybe it was so they didn't have to listen to each other. Good point.
They did manage to hear me knocking on the door. Okay, pounding on the door. Whatever it takes, right? Mom opened the door in her tacky flowered house coat and those awful pink fuzzy slippers.
"Mom, can I have a bicycle?" I sweetly asked.
"A bicycle?," she replied in question form, as if she was hearing the word for the first time.
"Yes Mom, a bicycle."
"What do you need a bicycle for?" Good Mom, play dumb, I thought. That was probably a real tough one to figure out. Then Dad stumbled out of bed looking for his glasses.
"Mother, have you seen my glasses?" I hate it when he calls her that. Like when you become a mom you lose your identity and from that point on you are known to the whole world as "Mother."
"No dear, but Sue Lynn thinks she needs a bicycle." I thought I needed a bicycle?
"She needs a what?" Dad grunted.
"A bicycle?" Great, I thought, now he's starting it. They had this way of communicating by non-communication. They could talk for hours and never really say anything, so once the conversation faded into some other non-productive topic,I somehow managed to sneak away without being noticed. Believe me, no big accomplishment.
I'm what people call a zinger. I wouldn't go so far as to say I was unwanted. Diseases are unwanted. But before Mom and Dad joined the church they had been conditioned on the premise that you have your two kids and you've done your duty. Replaced yourself so to speak. I guess Mom thought they really lucked out when they had twins. A boy and a girl, how convenient. Well, eight years later - surprise - I came along. A "zinger at the end" they called it. The year after that another surprise came. Mormon missionaries at the door. The family was baptized in a matter of weeks and Mom and Dad were inspired to believe that maybe there was a reason for their zinger after all. I just wished they would remember that once in a while, so they could remind my brother and sister. They certainly needed reminding - lots of it.
Can you imagine two children in the house with "Oldest Child Syndrome?" And I'm the one that had to take the brunt of it. They got to boss me, to toss me, to blame me and to maim me. They even got to name me. I could have been happy with Minnie Mouse or Daisy Duck, but no - they had to name me after their own favorite cartoon, Captain Wong - The Chinaman From Mars. "Captain Wong jets through the solar system defending justice with his electro-magnetic chopsticks, capturing evil-doers and grinding them into egg rolls to feed to the dogs. With his trusty sidekick, Soo-Lin, Captain Wong is doing his part to make this universe a better place." So there you have it, that's how I got my name Sue Lynn. Sue Lynn Jones. But most of the time they just call me Zing.
I suppose it could be worse, though. Mom and Dad thought it would be cute to name the twins Jack and Jill. For the baby pictures they had them sitting next to a plastic well with a bucket on Jack's head. Do grown-ups have no originality whatsoever? Jack and Jill Jones. That's just about as cute as Mom's pink fuzzy slippers.
In my room I could overhear a television commercial about Santa Claus coming to the Galleria in Dallas on Saturday. I couldn't believe it - only September and he was coming already.
For some reason the excitement that was usually in my stomach was replaced by a big lump. I wondered if that was what they called a stupor of thought - or a stupor of lump maybe? The ham and beans couldn't have possibly still been there, or could they? I couldn't quite describe it, but it was there, hard as a rock. There had been much talk lately at school about the whole Santa Claus thing. Some kids were saying it was all a myth and it was time to grow up and get a life. Others made solemn vows they would believe to the end, sealed by writing Santa's name in spit on the playground wall. I was torn. I felt stuck in the middle. I felt alone. Was I to go join the Believers and add my saliva to the wall of spit Santas? Or gain the respect of my more mature peers and take a stand against the old man? The poor guy. Of course, if he wasn't real, why feel sorry for something that didn't exist?
What turmoil! I couldn't believe it was happening! Talk about a waste of an eight-year emotional investment. I refused to believe for a minute that for all those years parents all over the world would blatantly deceive and manipulate their children. Or could I? I'd heard those rumors about turning into a grown-up and immediately throwing all scruples out the window; becoming cold and hard and ... and ... mature! Is that what they call reality? Well, I certainly didn't want any part of it, and besides, I'd never personally seen anyone go through such a drastic change from normal to "grown-up." But, come to think of it, any grown-ups I'd ever known were grown-ups to begin with. I was still stuck.
Mom and Dad were still in their room with that TV blaring. Good old Stanley and Iris. They're real gems. I could barely make out Dad saying something about his glasses not being where they were supposed to be and Mom saying something to the effect of where are they supposed to be and Dad saying they were supposed to be on his face and Mom saying how could they be on his face when he just woke up. Then she recited the story of the last time Dad slept with his glasses on and woke up in the morning with a cockroach sitting on one of his bifocals and, it being magnified in triple, Dad thought we were being invaded by giant insects from somewhere or other and pushed the panic button on the alarm system, which immediately sent the Sweeney Police, not to mention the Fire Department, in less than three minutes. (Sweeney, Texas is a pretty small town, but even that was a record.) And since we were fortunate enough to live across the street from Bishop Dillwin (we called him Bishop Dillweed) we had the entire bshopric, plus our home teachers on our doorstep ten minutes later. Naturally, Dad wasn't about to spill the real story to that lethal audience so he blamed it on me, saying I was using the panic control as a make-believe microphone to lip-sync with. And me, being the sweet and loyal - and stupid - child, accepted graciously. By the way, the Fire Chief did catch the cockroach.
Dad gets pretty uptight when Mom reminds him of this family classic, and she often does, but that morning I guess it didn't matter because in two minutes Dad was running down the stairs and out the door. No time to get defensive, no time to yell, not even time to slick his thinning hair over that funny little bald spot on the top of his head. I opted not to point that out to him and I think I made a good choice. Poor Stanley. He did, however, have his glasses on his face, right side up and straight. That was a bonus.
"Where did you find them this time, Mom?" I inquired.
"Oh, the usual place."
That told me a whole lot considering there are about a hundred usual places. But who had time to worry about such trivial matters. I had more important things to think about. Bicycles and Santa Claus, it was enough to stress anyone out. What timing, the two inevitable turning points in a grade-schooler's life striking simultaneously. The need for one's own wheels and the dreaded Santa Claus Awareness Syndrome.
Then it hit me - like a bolt of lightning it hit me. The most perfect, the most sinister, the most excellent plan I'd ever had. The best way to solve a conflict is to go straight to the source, right? That's why I decided then and there to take it upon myself to put an end to the Santa Claus mystery once and for all. To find out first hand what was really going on. To carry out THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE.
It was actually so simple I couldn't believe no one had ever thought of it before. I could be famous. Once I had proven Santa's existence, people might take me seriously. I'd be important. And I had the perfect ammunition ... my bicycle. Well, it wasn't mine yet, but if Santa Claus was really out there, what was a dream could truly become reality. All of a sudden not having a bicycle wasn't such a tragic thing. In fact, it was turning out to be quite convenient. I was young, there would be other bike hikes. YEEHA!!! No bicycle!!! It was perfect. Immediately my head started spinning, trying to invent the most excellent bicycle I could - down to the last detail.
How many years had I sat on Santa's lap five hundred times before Christmas Eve even got there, and told him over and over again what I wanted, giving him, or whoever, plenty of time to find it, buy it, order it or build it. Well, things were going to be different. Oh I'd sit on his lap all right, and I'd even think of something to ask for, changing my mind with each sitting - as girls my age, about to become women, have every right to do - but I wouldn't tell him what I really wanted until Christmas Eve. And not even in person. No leeway there. I'd write a letter to Santa Claus stating specifically what type of bicycle I wanted - the perfect bike - and place it on the mantle right next to my stocking. Either Santa can deliver, or he can't, I thought. Either he's real or he isn't. The time had come for serious action and I was going to take it.
School whizzed by me in a daze. In fact, the entire day was like a blur. I was a complete zombie all day long thinking about THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE and by bed time I still hadn't made much progress.
Then she dropped the bomb. Iris dropped the bomb and it hit me smack in the face. Why did everything work out exactly opposite of how I'd planned it?
"Sue Lynn," she said as she popped her head in my room, "I believe your school's Bike Hike is on Thursday and now that you're old enough to go, your father and I have been discussing buying you a bicycle." Mom and Dad discussing something other than the weather? Intense. "Jack and Jill were about your age when they got their first bicycles," (the first of many) "so we figured it's about time."
So that's the reason they came up with. Not because I deserved it, not even because I wanted it and happened to ask just that morning, but because Jack and Jill had one when they were eight and we certainly needed to be fair. Sure Mom, I thought, we don't want that weighing on our conscience now do we?
It was terrible. The words I had been longing to hear for so long and they cut through me and pierced me to the core. I felt the life drain out of my body. I couldn't let them buy me a bicycle at that point. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to carry out THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE and make my mark in life. I had to think of something fast.
"Uh, gee Mom," I stammered. "I ... I've been thinking about this too and I really don't think I'm ready for such a big step quite yet. I'm enjoying my childhood and would really like to bask in it a little longer." Was that the best I could do? I was lousy when it came to being put on the spot.
"Well, if that's how you feel. But we have a little money set aside we were saving for Christmas and we thought this could be an early present."
Please, Mom, stop, I begged in my mind, no more, I can't take any more of this pressure. "Um ... er ... I wouldn't want your money to be wasted on something I wouldn't really use much. Texas winters are too icy and cold to ride a bike anyway. What I could really use is maybe uh ... uh ... maybe a set of encyclopedias." I choked on the words as they came out.
"Encyclopedias?" Mom was duly shocked. "That's what you call basking in your childhood?"
I realized I had an inconsistency in the story. "Well, in re-examining my life, maybe I should skip the bicycle and pre-teen phase and just go straight on to becoming a grown-up. I have a lot of catching up to do with Jack and Jill so much older than me." Lame, oh so lame.
"Hmm ... you do have a point there. I'll mention it to your father. I'm sure he will find this interesting. You realize, don't you, that you will miss out on the Bike Hike this Thursday."
"That's okay. I really don't think it would be wise for me to go anyway. I feel my allergies coming back."
She left my room and went downstairs. What she didn't realize was that I had never even had allergies. I shut the door and sat down to ponder what I had just done. Talk about the supreme act of faith.
"If Santa Claus doesn't come through, I'll be stuck with no bicycle and a roomful of encyclopedias," I said to myself. "Encyclopedias that I asked for. If this gets out I'm finished."
All week long I avoided Mom, Dad, Jack, Jill, everybody. It really wasn't too difficult considering I was kind of a background observer in the family anyway. By the time Thursday came I was completely depressed and totally bummed. Staying home from school would result in an unexcused absence so I had to go even though I was the only kid in the entire school that wasn't going on the Bike Hike. My best friend, Polly, said she would stay back with me so I wouldn't be lonely, but I convinced her to go. It was my problem, I got myself into it, so why should she suffer?
My teacher, Mrs. Cragmire, gave me two options for the day. I could clean the third grade classrooms or sit in the office and read a book. What a choice. I figured cleaning the classrooms would give me a little more freedom. Then I realized what I had just said. Classroom and freedom in the same breath? How ironic.
I whizzed through those classrooms so fast my head was spinning by the time I was through. I sat down to rest and when the lunch bell rang and woke me from my daze, I looked at the clock and realized I had been sitting there for a solid forty-five minutes staring at a moth stuck on the window.
"Hmmm ... staring at insects for long periods of time." I said to myself. "At least I have something to look forward to for the rest of the afternoon."
I ate lunch with the first and second graders and for a brief but beautiful moment I felt superior. Then reality stepped in, in the form of the "lunch is over, get back to your class" bell and I went back to my big, empty classroom. I thought doing dishes was boring. I thought watching The MacNeil/Lehrer Report with Dad was boring. But that ... sitting in a big empty classroom all by myself while all the other kids were riding bicycles ... that defined boring. I was even too depressed to think about THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE.
I sat in my desk and looked out the window. My moth wasn't there anymore. All that was left of him was a tiny piece of wing still stuck to the glass and flapping in the breeze. I really couldn't deal with getting all worked up over an insect casualty at the moment. I had to do something to keep my mind off my mood, my bicycle, my life. I took some blank paper and started cutting it up in pieces. I cut each sheet in half, then in half again, making four little pages out of every big sheet of paper. Then I stapled them together and stared at what I had made. It kind of reminded me of my life. An empty book, waiting to be fulfilled. I`d escape my mood by writing! Not writing about me, or even about anyone I knew - that would defeat the purpose. I'd write about something silly. Something that didn't even make sense. Something totally off the wall. I titled my story DANGLING TOADSTOOLS and started to put "by Sue Lynn Jones" but my pencil stopped me. Something wasn't right. My story couldn't be written by me. If anyone found it, I would be laughed out of town. I needed a pen name. I needed to invent someone else; someone who was one part me and three parts who I wanted to be; someone who could take over when I wanted to take off. I sat down and Gert Fram started to write.
by Gert Fram
DANGLING TOADSTOOLS. They're everywhere. In the fireplace. In the microwave. In the salt shaker. Even in your box of Cling-Free sheets you keep on the top shelf way above the dryer. They dangle from cardboard. They dangle from plastic. They dangle from cellophane. Yes, DANGLING TOADSTOOLS dangle from just about everything. How many times have you gone to the shoe store and the size shoe that usually fits is now too tight? No, you haven't gained weight, you just didn't realize that DANGLING TOADSTOOLS are dangling from the inside of the shoe. Yes, they dangle from leather, vinyl, you name it. How many times have you ordered a Big Mac and discovered they started adding mushrooms to their burgers? Well, they haven't, it's those DANGLING TOADSTOOLS. Yes, they can now dangle from hamburger. In fact, they dangle from all sorts of foods. I've found them dangling from the egg salad sandwiches I keep in the fridge, from the fresh cut rhubarb leaves I have delivered daily, and from every can of Campbell's Soup in the cupboard. The other day I even found them dangling from the side of beef hanging in the garage. Is there no end to this invasion, this nightmare? Is there no end to DANGLING TOADSTOOLS? How many times have you gone to clean your room and shove everything under the bed, but DANGLING TOADSTOOLS got in the way? How many times have you reached for new towels in the linen closet but instead pulled out a handful of DANGLING TOADSTOOLS? Yes, this is an increasing problem, getting worse every day, and nobody knows how to stop DANGLING TOADSTOOLS! How many times have you taken a shower surrounded by DANGLING TOADSTOOLS? How many times have you had car engine trouble because of those darn DANGLING TOADSTOOLS? And what about all those movies you've been to where you had to ask the person in front of you to move out of the way so you could see the screen? Well, when DANGLING TOADSTOOLS are in the way, you can't do anything about it. They just dangle from the ceiling like they had a right to. Just think, in a matter of years, months maybe, the whole planet could be covered with DANGLING TOADSTOOLS. What are we going to do with all the toadstools we find dangling from our clothes, our toys, our pets? And what about all those telephone wires all over the country weighted down with DANGLING TOADSTOOLS? Just think what a mess the airports are going to be when each time a plane lands it smears the toadstools dangling from the landing gear all over the runways. Yes, DANGLING TOADSTOOLS are a threat if you let them get the best of you, but the idea is not to let them overcome you. Put them into your daily routine. Make them a part of your lives. Don't work against them, work with them and yes, you will become a better person as you master the art of coping with DANGLING TOADSTOOLS.
Gert Fram finished just as the 3:00 bell rang. I could faintly hear in the distance the screaming and yelling of the rest of the kids coming back on their bikes. I really wasn't in the mood to see any of them so I went out the back door and ran around on the grass to the front where Mom was waiting for me. I was in such a hurry that I tripped over my own feet and fell, face down in the grass. Face down into a little mound of toadstools. How fitting.
Copyright © 1991 by Nancy Allen Black