The Way To Schenectady
Chapter One: Dinner for Breakfast
Excitement hung in the air like smoke. Smoke hung in the air, too. It was seven thirty in the morning, and Dad was at the stove frying chicken legs. Whenever we have dinner for breakfast, something exciting always happens.
“Who wants another drumstick?” He turned around, brandishing the tongs like a rapier. “Who wants another delicious drumstick? You, Captain Bill?”
Bill’s my brother, sitting across from me with his mouth full.
“Wilco,” he said. He can eat all day. That’s why Dad asked him first. He’s not a real captain, of course, but he spends a lot of time pretending to be things. Right then he was being an astronaut, and “wilco” is what astronauts say when they mean “yes.”
“Good for you.” Dad gave him a piece of chicken.
“Now, how about some melon? Or carrots? Anyone want a carrot? You, Bernie?”
Bernie’s the baby, sitting beside me with his hands full, and his diaper, too, from the smell of things.
“No,” he said. Bernie is almost three, and a good talker, even if he isn’t toilet trained. Not really a baby, I guess, but he has been a baby for so long, it’s hard not to think of
him that way.
“How about you, Jane?”
That’s me. “No, thank you,” I said. I was too excited to eat much. What with starting our vacation, and missing Mom, and my new hair, and the beautiful summer morning outside, and Bernie’s diaper, I’d barely touched my first plateful of food.
Dad frowned. “Well, drink your juice. Everyone, drink your juice. There’s a lot to get rid of before we can go.”
That’s why we were having dinner for breakfast. Dad hates to throw out food.We always end up cleaning out the fridge before we leave on vacation. Last summer we had fried egg and spaghetti sandwiches before we left. I can still taste them sometimes.
“Drink your juice, Bernie. Come on.”
Bernie obediently put his cup to his mouth. And spilled.
“That’s it,” said Dad, dashing over to wipe up the spill. The frying pan on the stove sputtered industriously. “You, too, Bill.”
“Negative,” said Bill. He’s asserting himself a lot these days. It comes from being ten. I remember when I was ten, a couple of years ago. I never said “negative,” but I used to say “no” a lot.
“Come on,” said Dad. “We can’t take half a can of juice with us in the van.”
A hiss from the stove sounded like a whole herd of angry cats.
“I already have to go to the bathroom,” said Bill. “Go to the bathroom, and then come back and drink some more juice.”
“Negative!” said Captain Bill.
“Just drink it,” I told him. “Don’t be so juvenile. It’s easier to give in on the little things.”
He scowled and slid down low in his chair.
“Ouch. Dad! Bill kicked me under the table!” Bernie was pointing at the stove. “Dad! Fire!”
Dad whipped round, tried to lift the flaming pan off the element, burnt his hand, dropped the pan with a yell, and reached for the fire extinguisher.
Bill watched closely. “Remember to pull out the pin,” he said, recalling last month’s rocket-fuel episode. He’d found a recipe on the Internet – grass seed and oil, I think, though that doesn’t sound right – and the whole mess caught fire in the basement. Captain Billy had to spend a week confined to quarters.
Only when the stove was covered in white foam did Bill leave the table to go to the bathroom.
“Isn’t this exciting, Bernie?” I said.
He nodded. “I’m done my breakfast,” he said.
“Good for you. Let me help you down from the chair,” I said. He lifted up his arms and let me carry him away from the table. I put him down as soon as I could.
“I think I’ll go upstairs and finish organizing my travel case,” I said.
Dad didn’t answer. He was holding a piece of chicken under running water, trying to wash off the foam. I hoped he wasn’t going to make one of us eat it.
I ran to get the phone when it rang. Usually the phone is for me, and I guess you could say it was now, too, but not just for me. It was Mom.
“Hi, Mom, guess what?” I said breathlessly. “I dyed my hair.” The phone is in my parents’ bedroom. I checked my hair in the mirror.
Mom said the right thing – the thing that no one else had said so far, not even my best friend Bridget, who had been standing right beside me in the bathroom. “I’m sure it looks great,” said Mom. “Do you like it?”
“You bet,” I said. “But no one else is very enthusiastic. Bill laughed, and Dad sighed.” Mind you, he’d been looking at the bathroom when he sighed. Dyeing hair is a messy job. “I can hardly wait until you see it, Mom,” I said. “I’ve worked out our time of arrival at Auntie
Vera’s. We should be there around noon tomorrow.”
“I thought you would be,” said Mom. Then she sprang a surprise on me. “You’ll be in time to come to the show with me tomorrow night,” she said.
I gasped. So did the me in the mirror. “D’you mean it?”
“Just the two of us. I’ve got the tickets and everything. The Music Man, starring Ron Swoboda – whoever he is. And the Berkshire Light Opera Tour. Their initials are BLOT.”
She laughed. I smiled into the phone at the sound of her voice. Even though I knew she couldn’t see it, I couldn’t help smiling. I felt closer to her.
“Thanks, Mom,” I said. “I’ll make sure Dad gets us there on time.”
“I’m sure you will, sweetie.”
“How is your work going? Did you find homes for lots of people?”
Mom’s work is called social planning. This past week she was doing it in Boston. Some kind of conference; she goes to a lot of them. Now she was visiting Auntie Vera, who lives near Boston, in the Berkshire Hills.We were on our way to meet her there. Me and my brothers
and my dad driving all the way to Massachusetts in the van. I was in charge of the maps.
“Is your dad around?” she asked.
“He’s downstairs,” I said. “I miss you, Mom. I’m wearing the earrings you gave me, with the little hearts on them. Do you miss me?”
“I sure do.”
“No, Mom, but do you really miss me?” She is so busy. And the work she does is important. I sure missed her. I hoped that she missed me, too.
“Of course, I miss you. Now can I speak to Dad?”
I called him, and hung on to the phone until he picked up the kitchen extension.
“Thank heavens the fire’s out,” he said.
“Fire?” said Mom. “What fire?”
I hung up.
Bernie was tottering down the stairs, with a dark colored magic marker in his hand – a dangerous
weapon for a baby. I followed him quietly, so as not to surprise him.
“Give me that,” I said, when he was in the front hall. He frowned. I tried to be more tactful. “I mean, isn’t that a nice marker? Can I see it?”
“Please?” I said, edging closer, smiling winningly.
“No.” He stood there, eyeing the wallpaper. Eyeing my shirt. Oh, dear.
“Come on, Bernie,” I said. “Give me the marker.”
“What?!” cried Dad from the kitchen. He was still on the phone. I could see the back of his head, where he was grabbing his hair with his free hand. “Whose idea was this?” he said.
Bill appeared at the other end of the hallway. I saw him over the top of Bernie’s head.
“Bossy!” said Bernie. It’s what he calls me when he’s mad. “Bossy, bossy, bossy!”
I kept my distance. My shirt was new and white. “Bernie, I want you to put down the marker.” I spoke distinctly, like a cop on TV. “Can you do that? Then no one will get hurt. Do you understand me, Bernie?” He glowered.
“Why do we have to take her?” said Dad.
Bill was sneaking down the narrow, dimly lit hall. “Look at me, Bernie,” I said. “Don’t turn around. I really think you’re making a mistake here. Just put the pen down. . . .”
“Two days! Easy for you, you’re already there,” said Dad.
“Captain Stardust, to the rescue!” Bill pounced on Bernie from behind. I took a swift step forward and grabbed him from in front.We both tried to get our hands on Bernie’s wrist, but he was waving his arm wildly. In our excitement and the strength of the combined rush, we all ended up on the floor. Time passed slowly, all of us struggling together. I felt something poke me in the stomach a couple of times, and heard Bill cry out once. Bernie, the baby, wriggled between us in silent, determined fury.
“Grandma’s coming with us?” said Bill, his face screwed up in horror. At least I think it was. Hard to tell behind the magic-marker lines. “In the van?”
Bernie started to whimper.
Grandmothers on TV all seem to be short and fat and jolly. They make cookies and give presents and hugs. Their houses always smell like something really good is about to come out of the oven. Ours is not a TV grandma. She is long and thin and stringy. She sniffs a lot, and doesn’t look at you when she’s speaking. Once I heard her call Bernie a limb of Satan. I think he’d just knocked over a vase full of flowers. I asked Dad what a limb of Satan was, and if Bernie really was one. “No,” he said, “it’s just Grandma being mean.”
“Why is she coming with us?” I said. “We don’t like her and she doesn’t like us.”
“It’s your Auntie Vera’s idea,” said Dad, with a sigh.
“She thinks it’ll do Grandma good.”
“Why can’t she take the train?” I asked. “Or walk?”
“Or stay home,” said Bernie.
“You won’t let me take Charles and Paul,” said Bill, “because there won’t be enough room.” Charles and Paul are gerbils – space companions for Captain Billy Stardust. We used to call them Charles and Pauline, but after a year together it was pretty clear that we’d guessed wrong. A friend of Bill’s was looking after them for us. “I miss Charles and Paul already,” said Bill. “How can there be room for Grandma, and not for them?”
New England is a long way from Toronto, where we live. We couldn’t drive there in a day. I had spent a lot of time with the map, and I couldn’t see a way around it. We would have to stay overnight somewhere. A night with Grandma; another night without Mom.
“When are we leaving?” asked Bill.
“Right away. As soon as I clean up the kitchen.We’ll pick up Grandma, and then get out on the highway. Put some real distance under our belts before lunch.”
Bill and I looked at each other. “Right away” was what Dad always said. As far as he was concerned, everything was going to happen right away. In this case, right away sounded like about an hour.
Dad stared at us. Separating the three of us in the hall had been difficult – like separating eggs in an omelet – and he’d been distracted, thinking about Grandma. Now he was noticing us for the first time. “Bill, I want you to wash your face. And Jane, honey, I think you’d better change your shirt. It’s covered in magic marker.”
My clean white shirt. “Okay,” I said, with a murderous glance at Bernie.
“Wilco,” said Bill.
Bernie hung his head. He was completely free of marks. Even his hands were clean
“What’s for lunch?” Bill asked.
“Hard-boiled eggs and buns, and cheese sandwiches,” I said. “Two eggs each and one extra.” I had helped Dad boil the eggs last night. “And apples. We’ll have to remember to add one for Grandma.”
Dad turned to go back to the kitchen. “And I was wondering if, maybe, someone would like to try a cold chicken drumstick,” he said.
Excerpted from The Way To Schenectady by Richard Scrimger Copyright © 1998 by Richard Scrimger Excerpted by permission of Tundra Books. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher