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“Keep it down,” my father yelled at me from another room.
I was shocked.
My father was being really, really crabby. Normally, my father is, if anything, a goofball, the type of dad who balances a round cushion on his head while dancing around the room singing “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” for no reason at all. When he gets angry, it’s usually because of something particular. Then he confronts you with it in person, you get punished if that’s required, and it’s over and he’s back to being his normal goofball self. Oh, sometimes he gets a little overly-serious about some issue, but that’s Dad being a newspaper editor.
So I was surprised when he yelled at me for singing along to an MP3 in my room. Sure, I may have hit some remarkable high notes that went through our house’s walls like a hot skewer going through a marshmallow. But normally my father would have joined in instead of yelling at me. Worse, he was staying mad. When I went into the study where he was working on something on his computer, he didn’t look up and didn’t say hello. He was being crabby.
The next morning at breakfast, he was a big bowl full of crabs again. He stood by the counter reading the paper – not The Gaz, but the big city paper we had delivered – and only talked to us to get us to eat more neatly, which is usually my mother’s job. It was as if he were looking for ways to crab us out.
That afternoon, he drove me to the dentist. In silence. As we pulled into the parking lot, I asked him “What’s wrong?”
He still didn’t look at me. “Nothing’s wrong,” he said, but he must have sounded unconvincing even to himself. “I’m having a little trouble with the paper.”
“What kind of trouble? Can I help?”
“No,” he answered, almost smiling. “It’s nothing to worry about. It’s just that advertising is down.”
“Competition. The Boynton County Register is eating into The Gaz a little bit. It’s just part of business.”
“The Register? Why would anyone advertise there?”
“They cover a lot more territory. Of course, they don’t cover it as well, but advertisers like having their message delivered all over the tri-county area.”
“What are you going to do?”
“There’s not much to do. We’ll do fine,” he said, trying to look unconcerned. But I had a full day of his crabbiness behind me to tell me that he was worried.
After the dentist, I met up with Ari. He was putting decals on his skateboard. “Aren’t they cool?” he asked. I agreed, although I thought what would really make him look cool on a skateboard was not falling off of it every time he got on it.
“So, were you kidding about the lottery?”
“That is so cool.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Can we, like, go buy something?”
“No, Ari,” I said, getting a little crabby myself. “I told you, no one can know about this.” A sudden suspicion came over me. “Did you tell anyone?”
“No!” he insisted convincingly. “Hey, Mimi,” he said, waving to her as she zoomed up on her bike.
“Hey, rich boy,” she said.
“Mimi! Don’t tease me. That has to stay really secret.”
“Ok,” she said. “I won’t ever call you that again.” And she didn’t.
“Hey,” I said, “I have to show you something.” I took the new Terwilliger Spoon out of its velvet sack.
“Wow,” Ari and Mimi said together.
Ari broke the silence. “How much…?” he asked.
“You’re looking at three thousand dollars worth of spoon.”
“That’s a lot of spoon,” Mimi said. She cocked her head to the side to get a new look at it. “It’s kind of ugly.”
She was right. Too many curlicues for my taste.
“So, how are we going to give it to Amanda?” Ari asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Maybe after school you could go up to her…”
“Go up to her?” he said with fear written across his face in big red letters.
“No,” said Mimi with certainty, “I think we ought to go for drama here.” Ari put down the rag he was using to wipe the dirt off his skateboard. “She’ll like that better. Don’t just give it to her. Make it reappear mysteriously, and let her know that you’re the one that made it happen.”
“Interesting,” I said. “What’s your plan?”
* * *
“So,” said Ari to Amanda, one foot nervously rolling his skateboard backwards and forwards. In my head I was yelling, “Get your foot off the skateboard!” I knew what would happen.
“So what?” replied Amanda, not particularly warmly.
“So, I was just wondering if your father has a special place for the Terwilliger Spoon.”
Amanda looked at him as if he were from another planet. I couldn’t blame her. Although Ari was following our script, he was so awkward and phony about it that he did seem a bit like an alien trying to pass for human. “Why do you care?” she asked in return.
“Just idly wondering. No real reason. Just wondering. Wondering, wondering …”
Lydia, standing next to Amanda, said to her, “Come on, let’s go.”
“He keeps it on the mantel in the drawing room, if you really want to know” Amanda said.
“Mantel, mantel. Very mantle. Yes, drawing roomly mantel. Very mantel-y.” Ari’s circuits obviously were melting down. Fortunately, Lydia stepped in and pulled Amanda away as she stared at my gibbering friend.
As was inevitable, the skateboard slipped from under Ari’s foot, bounced off the wall, and skittered to a stop at the bottom of the hill. Fortunately, it hadn’t actually run anyone over. This time.
“Good job,” I said to Ari after the two girls had left.
“Mantle-y,” he replied.
Thus concluded Phase One of Mimi’s plan, also known as The Easy Phase.
* * *
Phase Two promised to bring much more adventure. Somehow, we had to sneak the spoon back into the Dunn Mansion.
Mimi had worked out the details. That’s why I was now drinking more water than I could possible hold, waiting for Amanda to enter the cafeteria. At last, water burbling out of my mouth back into the water bubbler as quickly as it was burbling in, Amanda and Lydia approached. I casually followed them into the cafeteria and sat down next to them.
“Mind if I sit here,” I said, already sitting.
“Well…” began Lydia.
“It’s a free country,” finished Amanda. Charming girls.
I put my book bag next to Amanda’s. And waited.
We were half way through the green Jell-O with mystery fruit before Mimi sauntered up. Lydia had left for her next class. “Amanda, can I talk with you for a minute?” Mimi asked.
Amanda looked surprised. Then annoyed. “I’m eating,” she replied, gently nibbling around the Jell-O edges of what once might have been a grape.
“It’s important. It’d be a personal favor.”
You could almost hear Amanda’s inner voice thinking, “Aha! She’ll owe me a favor in return … something I can use against her whenever I want!” “Well, ok,” she said out loud. “Go ahead.”
“Not here. It’s personal. Could you just step over to this empty table?”
While they were chatting, I managed to “accidentally” knock both my bag and Amanda’s onto the floor. While scrabbling under the table to retrieve both bags, I replaced Amanda’s social studies book with my own. We were done with social studies for the day and I hoped she wouldn’t notice the switch before she got home.
I was just bringing the bags back up to the table when Amanda came back.
“What are you doing?” she demanded.
“Our bags fell off. Just picking them up. Sorry.”
Amanda looked darts at me, took one more spoon of green Jell-O, and left for English class.
When she was safely gone, Mimi came over. “You do it?” she asked.
“Yup. What did you two gals talk about?”
“It had to be something.”
“Just girl talk.”
“Girl talk? I didn’t know there still was something called girl talk.”
“If you must know, I asked her advice. I figured it would appeal to her vanity.”
“Advice on what.”
“Something. What was it?
“Well,” Mimi said, flushing, “If you really have to know, I asked her if she was interested in you. You know, if that’s why she was sitting next to you. I acted jealous.”
“Absolutely. And she fell for it.”
“She didn’t suspect a thing.”
I picked up my book bag – the one with Amanda’s book in it – and started to go to my next class. But I turned and asked Mimi one more question: “What did she say about being interested in me?”
The answer apparently involved Mimi dumping the last of the green Jell-o into my hair.
* * *
On a normal Saturday, I’d be in my worst jeans, which are, of course, the ones I like best – ripped knees, a patch where the back pocket used to be, cuffs torn up and greasy from getting caught in my bike chain. Not this Saturday, though. No, I was dressed better than I dress for school. I even combed my hair with water so that it would stay in place for more than 12 minutes. Today was special. Today, I was going to the Palace of the Dunns.
At 12:30, Ari pulled up to our house. He was not only dressed neatly, he actually had buttoned his top button, making him look like he had escaped from a 1950s sitcom. He was fidgeting, scratching at his arms then his ribs, then his arms again. Meanwhile, he had a dumb grin stuck on his face.
“Let’s go,” I said, and we rode off to the Dunns’ house.
You could see the house towering over Chestnut Hill as you rode up. First you saw the twin towers, covered with ivy. Then you saw the main part of the house, three stories, old brick, stained glass windows. Then at last you saw the tall iron gate with the steel muskrats atop every post. We announced ourselves at the gate to a man twice my father’s age and with twice my father’s hair. “You are expected,” he said after looking at a list on a clipboard. The gate swung open and we bicycled in.
As we walked up the steps, the door opened as if by magic. The front hall was the size of a small circus tent, with wood and stained glass everywhere. A stairway wide enough for three horses swept through the center. The hall was colder than outside and smelled like my grandmother’s linen closet. Behind the door was a tall man who introduced himself as Mr. Paul and offered us lemonade. I said yes at the same time as Ari said no. Ari switched to yes.
As Mr. Paul’s footsteps echoed behind him, we heard the soft shuffle of slippers. Who was approaching but Mr. Dunn himself, dressed in a dark blue business suit, white shirt, yellow tie with blue stripes, and worn-out leather slippers. He had a copy of The Register folded under one arm with a copy of The Gaz sticking out from inside of it. “Who have we here?” he asked in a courteous voice. “Friends of Amanda’s?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. I don’t usually call people “sir,” but I had a sense that Mr. Dunn would like it. “I’m Jake and this is Ari.”
Mr. Dunn shook our hands. “Mr. Paul has let you in and is fetching Amanda?”
“Lemonade,” Ari said.
“Ah, yes, lemonade. And Amanda. And do you have last names?”
“Richter,” I said. If I’d made up a name to protect my identity, I was sure that Ari would have corrected me.
“Jake Richter,” Mr. Dunn said thoughtfully. He straightened the papers under his arm so that The Gaz no longer stuck out. I couldn’t tell whether that was because he recognized me as the son of the editor of his competitor or because he saw me staring at the papers. “And you, my boy?” he asked Ari.
“Ari,” he said again.
“And your last name?”
Ari said nothing for a suspiciously long time. “Marshall,” I said.
“Mr. Marshall, you might want to study a bit harder,” Mr. Dunn said in what was apparently supposed to be a joke. “Next time, we’ll have a pop quiz.”
“Pop,” Ari said.
Then it became clear why Ari had been left speechless: Amanda had entered from the library, a blaze of red and orange in a house of brown and black. “Ah, there she is. Enjoy this glorious afternoon,” Mr. Dunn said.
Amanda was carrying my social studies book, the one I’d switched with hers in the cafeteria on Friday. Ari looked at her like a bird that’s just been shot out of a tree. But before he hit ground he saw another person enter from the library: Roger. The football player. Roger. The boyfriend. You could practically see Ari shrink inside his clothes.
As Roger was looking us up and down, no doubt figuring how many yards he could throw us, Mr. Paul came back with four glasses and a pitcher on a silver tray. “Shall I serve the lemonade on the veranda, Amanda?” Although I was tempted to reply, “How about in the hall, Mr. Paul?” I was a good boy and held myself back. Amanda was surprised that we were staying longer than it took just to drop off the book, but she had been brought up to be polite enough not to object as we walked to a porch full of tropical flowers and the tinkle of falling water. Not exactly my taste, but not half bad.
“This is an amazing house,” I said.
“It’s a total pain to live in,” said Amanda. “You can’t leave your stuff around, and if you should happen to get lipstick on the crystal mirrors in the ballroom, well, you have to spend all afternoon cleaning it off. And the heater in the pool breaks.” Poor, poor Amanda.
If I could spend my money openly and decided to build a house, I would use Amanda’s mansion as a guide to my architect. I’d take him on a tour and point out the various features: “Not like this. And not like this. And definitely not like this.”
Ari was gulping his lemonade down, as if being in the presence of Amanda was like getting too close to the sun and had dried out his body. I motioned to him to slow down. Our plan required us to spend a few minutes in the house. “Would you mind if I used your bathroom?” I asked. Amanda rolled her eyes. “It’s that way,” she said, pointing in the direction away from the library with its mantel-y mantel.
I left Ari sitting at the table as Roger smirked and Amanda put her tanned legs up on the chair opposite her. I was worried that this might be too much for my friend, but I had no choice. The Plan required it.
The bathroom was about the size of my bedroom. After standing there for a moment, inspecting the lion-headed faucet and the framed photograph of Mr. Dunn shaking hands with the president of either some large corporation or some small country, I left the bathroom and purposefully went wrong. After a few minutes of wandering, I made my way into the library and, slipping my Terwilliger Spoon out of its velvet sack, placed it onto the mantel of the library in the stand that had been created especially for it. It looked perfect, the silver shining like a spark of fire in its mahogany frame. Mission accomplished.
“May I help you?” came the voice behind me. I whirled around. Mr. Paul had just entered.
“No, I’m just trying to find my way back to the veranda. And Amanda,” I said. “Which way is the hall, Mr. Paul?” I’d resisted the first time, but couldn’t help myself the second.
“To your left, go straight, turn right at the potting room, and the veranda is right there.” After I thanked him, he said, “Don’t break the rake, Jake.”
Maybe he was ok.
When I rejoined the awkward little party, Amanda was putting some type of oil on her legs. Roger was spitting ice cubes at a garden gnome. Ari was breathing heavily, as if trying to inhale Amanda through his nose. I nodded at Ari, our signal that all had gone well and said, “Well, we should be going. Let’s exchange books and we’ll be on our way.” Amanda slid my book over to me and I gave her hers. This was Ari’s cue.
He, of course, didn’t take it. He sat there like a dog with its head out the window of a car, his tongue flapping in the breeze. “We’ll be on our way,” I said again, pointedly. More silence. “There’s just one more thing,” I said, stealing Ari’s line, hoping to jump start him. “Isn’t there just one more thing, Ari?” Ari was supposed to say, “If you check your library, you’ll find the Terwilliger Spoon.” Instead Ari said, “One more thing? What?”
Amanda interrupted our stumbling little script. “Oh,” she said, “by the way, we found that stupid Terwilliger Spoon thing.”
“Yes, I know,” Amanda said, looking at him as if he were an idiot, which, technically speaking, he was being. “We found it last week behind a couch in the home theatre. It was just a little scratched and dusty, but Mr. Paul’s been fixing it up.”
And what exactly would Mr. Paul – and Amanda – and Amanda’s father! – say when they found a second Terwilliger Spoon proudly displayed in their library? We had to grab the spoon before anyone noticed.
Ari, having gotten started on his scripted speech, was continuing to give it. “You see,” he said, “We recovered your spoon …”
“Ari,” I said sharply, “I know you’re excited that Amanda’s family found the spoon. Very excited. But there’s no need to go on about it.”
“But…” said Ari.
“No buts. We really should be going. Must be going. Must must.” Then I had an idea. “Say, when do you think Mr. Paul will be finished fixing up that old spoon. We’d love to see it. Heard so much about it and all.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Amanda, without really thinking. “I think he was working on it this morning.”
“Ooh,” I said, clutching my stomach. “Stomach ache! Can I borrow your bathroom again.”
Amanda rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”
I headed down the hall to the library but made a sharp left when I saw Mr. Paul approaching from the opposite direction. I was now in unexplored territory. At the end of the long corridor was some type of big room with ceilings high enough to let you raise a family of falcons. My chances of being discovered were much greater in a room that large and open, so I ducked up a small stairway to my left. Although it wasn’t disguised or camouflaged, the stairs were so dark that they might as well have been hidden. I walked up carefully, trying to keep my feet on the edge of each step because I read in a spy book that that’s how you keep stairs from creaking. The spy book was wrong. But I made it to the top undiscovered.
And there was Mr. Dunn’s private study. I knew it was Mr. Dunn’s because there were pictures of him on every wall: photos with the mayor, our senator, and with three former presidents, an oil painting of him standing like a king with one hand on a globe, and photos from newspaper stories about his successes. I knew it was private because there was only one chair in it, a green leather one the size of a throne behind the desk. What surprised me was that, based on the Web page open on his computer screen, Mr. Dunn was looking into buying a dune buggy. This was a house of surprises.
I crept out of the room as quietly as I could and came back down the dark stairway. By my reckoning, if I took a series of right turns, I should have ended up back in the library. But my reckoning isn’t very good when it comes to directions. In fact, I once got lost in my own house, although my parents had switched some pictures around so maybe it’s not as bad as it sounds. No, it is as bad as it sounds.
After a series of right turns down big corridors, I found myself not in the library but at a door to the greenhouse…a large, glass-lined dead end. I turned around and saw what could only be Mr. Paul’s workroom. The door was open and the light was off. It was a small room, but bigger than Mr. Dunn’s private office. Mr. Paul apparently was quite the handyman, for the walls were lined with tools for working with wood, for fixing electronics, for shaping metal and for fiddling with small mechanisms like watches. And there, in the middle of the worktable at the center of the room was the Terwilliger Spoon, as shiny and Terwilliger-y as ever.
I heard footsteps.
I moved in one step and pretended to be looking around for the exit even though it was right behind me.
The footsteps turned a corner and got softer and softer.
Afraid that I might be found at any moment, without thinking I swiped the Spoon and left.
With it safe in my pocket, I made my way back to the veranda where Ari was rocking back and forth on his feet, like a tuning fork. He was apparently trying to have a relaxed conversation with Amanda. “Hey,” I said, “We’d better be going.”
“Going. Got to going. Going,” said Ari.
Amanda barely looked up as she said, “Really? So soon? Well, bye bye. Mr. Paul will see you out.”
And so we left that house of many corridors and too many spoons. When we were back on the street, at the end of the long path from their house and safely out of view, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the Terwilliger Spoon triumphantly. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I got it.”
“Me too,” said Ari, pulling the Terwilliger Spoon out of his pocket too. “I snuck into the library.”
I looked at Ari. Ari looked at me. Without thinking about it – I was tired of thinking about it – we both put our spoons into the Dunn’s mailbox.
“Let them figure it out,” I said and we biked away.