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“Why are you following me?” I asked the space alien behind me.
“Huh?” he asked, if “Huh” can really count as a question.
“You’ve been following me. I want to know why.” I sounded brave but my knees were weak. Fortunately, it was a sunny day on a busy street or I wouldn’t have had the nerve to confront the guy with the antennas.
Of course, it helped that he was no alien. The antennas were pencils, one behind each ear.
“I haven’t been following you,” he said.
“Then how come every time I turn around, I see you scurrying out of the way?”
“I’m not scurrying…”
“Aha! Then you admit that you’ve been following me!”
“No. How do you get that?”
“Because you said you weren’t scurrying, but didn’t deny that you were following me.”
“That’s because you cut me off with your ‘Aha!’ If you’d let me finish, I would have denied the whole thing.” He looked like he’d just graduated high school. In fact, I thought I recognized him from around town.
“So, you deny that you’ve been following me.”
“Yes, that’s what I’ve been denying for the past ten minutes.”
“Really?” I was beginning to feel pretty stupid. “Because I was pretty sure it was you that’s been following me. Someone has been. At least I think so.”
“Yeah, well, it was me.”
“So why were you denying it before?”
“Wouldn’t you? I mean, that’s part of following someone around. When they catch you, you deny it.”
“But you’re admitting it now.”
“Yeah,” he said, pulling one of the pencils from behind his ear. “I mean, you’ve caught me at it. I’m not going to be able to follow you any more. So, I might as well admit it.”
“Wow! I really did catch you!”
“Yes,” he said, “But it’s a little embarrassing. Would you mind not telling anyone you caught me at it? After all, I admitted it when I could have kept on denying it.”
“Well, I guess that’s fair. But you have to tell me why you’re following me.”
“Sure. I was going to anyway.”
I waited. I was holding my bike up. We were about a block from the bank. “So?”
“Ok,” he said, pulling a pad from his back pocket. “I work for The Register.”
“No!” I didn’t like where this was going.
“Actually I work for Mr. Dunn.”
It was getting worse. “What’s he interested in me for?” Because my father owned the town’s other newspaper? Because Mr. Dunn had figured out that I was the Fordgythe Institute? Because he knew I had $100,000,000 in the bank?
“Because you did something funny with the Terwilliger Spoon.”
I was so relieved that I practically laughed in his face. “Who are you?” I asked.
Now I knew how I knew him. He was on the football team last year. I didn’t care about football, but you don’t forget a guy who’s named “Jerkowicz.” I had felt sorry for him from the moment I’d first heard his name. “Hi, Matt. I’m Jake.”
“I know,” he said.
“Oh, yeah, of course. So, this is about the Terwilliger Spoon?”
“Yeah. Old man Mr. Dunn thinks you had something to do with it going missing. He asked me to check up on you.” He held his pencil on a blank sheet on his pad, ready to record whatever I said.
“We found the spoon. We were doing a favor for Amanda. And now her father treats me like a criminal? That’s nice.”
“They’re all very confused about what went on with that spoon. It was gone. It was back. It was back again.”
“Yeah, I can see that that’s pretty confusing. But I’ve got nothing else to say. Besides, I have to go do my chores.”
Matt closed his notebook. “Ok, well, thanks. I’ll tell Mr. Dunn that.”
“Are you done following me?”
“Yeah, I guess so. No offense.” He started to turn away.
“Hey, Matt,” I called. “Do you have a minute?”
It didn’t take more than a sundae at The Soda Squirt to find out a few interesting facts from Matt. First, Mr. Dunn was constantly making phone calls to the editor of The Register. Every little detail had to be approved by Mr. Dunn. And then there were all the bad ideas he came up with that the editor would have to find a way to ignore. Matt’s favorite was Mr. Dunn’s brilliant idea that the paper ought to highlight in yellow the key phrases in each article so readers could skim. When the editor had argued that that they might as well just reduce each article to three or four sentences, Mr. Dunn had actually thought it was a good idea.
I also learned that Mr. Dunn was obsessed with the upcoming debate. He had most of the staff of The Register researching his side of the argument. In fact, Matt said that Mr. Dunn was even thinking that he might run for governor if this debate went well. He had hired a professional media coach, someone who teaches you how to be effective on television. Worst, Mr. Dunn had a full-size photograph of my father in his office, and of course it was a photo of him from the Pancake Breakfast with the syrup running into his collar. Mr. Dunn was practicing his debating techniques looking straight into the photograph’s eyes. “I will destroy him,” he said whenever anyone came into his office. “Destroy him!”
My father didn’t have that kind of focus. Or obsession.
It was scary.
But not as scary as the thought that if I had had time recently to drop off stacks of cash from the Fordgythe Foundation, Matt would have found me out. But things had been pretty hectic what with school ending and the debate coming up, so it had been a week since my last donation.
But now that Matt wouldn’t be following me, I could saddle up my bike.
There were eight high school seniors who I knew were going to have trouble affording college. They each got $10,000, neatly tied with my mother’s pretty yarn.
The local hospital got $20,000 to refurnish the entire maternity ward. I’d read in The Gaz that they didn’t even have enough beds for moms.
Mr. Grubach, who had been teaching art at our school for the past hundred years, was retiring. He was the only person who could tell what my drawings were supposed to look like. Everyone else would ask me if I was drawing a rumpled bed or a pile of leaves, but Mr. Grubach would come up to me and say: “Nice horse, Jake.” The Fordgythe Foundation gave him $10,000 for a trip to Italy and France to see those artworks he was always telling us about.
I was careful making the deliveries. I was sure nobody with antennas coming out of his head was watching me.
My father was practicing again when I came back. He had piles of papers in front of him and was scribbling notes on yellow pads of paper. Unlike Mr. Dunn, he wasn’t having his employees come up with good one-liners and clever ways of making my father look bad. But my father believed that the truth always wins. That’s why he’s a journalist.
I guess I don’t believe that the truth always wins. Well-told lies win all too often. That’s why we have commercials.
I wished there was something I could do for my father. He was more convinced than I was that the lottery was a bad idea. Just because the lottery made me rich didn’t mean that the state ought to have a lottery in the first place. I was just lucky. Still, I didn’t think a lottery was such a terrible thing. If I had to vote, I’d vote against having one because I think my father’s reasoning is right. But I didn’t think it was as big a deal as he did.
Nevertheless, I sure wanted my dad to win. In fact, I’ll do what my father would do: List the reasons.
First, I thought he was right.
Second, I didn’t like Mr. Dunn, even though he had been nice to Ari.
Third, I didn’t want Mr. Dunn to be able to use winning the debate to help him become governor of the state.
Fourth, Dad’s my father.
You could take away reasons 1-3 and #4 would have been enough.
But I couldn’t figure out anything I could do to help him. So, I asked my mother.
“That’s very nice of you, Jake,” she said, “But I think he has to do this on his own.”
“I heard you helping him rehearse the other night.”
“Yes, well, that didn’t go too well. He’s so nervous about this that he won’t listen to criticism…I mean the sort of helpful criticism that would help him do better.”
“Yeah, I could tell,” I said. “Maybe he’d rehearse better with me.”
“Well, you can try, but I wouldn’t count on it.”
Dad didn’t go for it. He didn’t want anyone helping him rehearse.
I did have one idea, though. It meant placing a call to Ms. Minden. Julia.
“Sounds great,” Julia said. “I’ll get to work on it right away.”
That Friday, Ari and I made a trip into the city. Video games were turning out to be the one treat I could buy for myself without arousing anyone’s suspicion, because I kept them at Ari’s whose house was such a mess that his parents would never notice the sudden increase in the number of video games in his room. But we were afraid that the creepy guy who runs the Game Dungeon in town would start wondering how we could afford to buy every new game that came out. So, after school we hopped onto the train to find a game store in the city.
It was good to spend some time with Ari alone. I’d been hanging out more with Mimi for the past few weeks, not quite on purpose but not quite by accident either. Ari could be sort of annoying even if he was one of my two best friends.
But something amazing happened on the train ride back: Ari was normal.
The car was crowded with commuters leaving work a little early on Friday afternoon. We found two seats facing each other and were about to sit when Halley came down the aisle. I hadn’t seen her since the day we spent at the old age center. Ari and I both like Halley a lot. She’s always friendly and almost always cheerful. I said hello, but Ari stood up from his seat and offered it to her. He didn’t even seem to have thought about it.
Now, this might sound like plain old sexism: the gallant young knight offering the damsel his seat. But it wasn’t. Halley has a problem with her spine and has difficulty standing for more than a few minutes. That’s why Amanda’s handing her stuff for Halley to carry at the Senior Center was especially thoughtless. Anyway, by offering Halley his seat, Ari was simply doing the right thing.
He stood for the entire trip – I offered to swap positions with him halfway through, but he refused – having a conversation with Halley that wasn’t awkward, self-centered or dumb.
Our little Ari was growing up.
When we got to his house with our bundle of video games, I asked him straight out: “Ari, how come you weren’t a dork with Halley?”
“Why would I be a dork?”
“Because you always are. You get nervous, you say completely obvious things, you ride your bike into the bushes…”
“Ok ok,” he said, embarrassed. “I used to do that. And it was a pretty good technique. It really worked.”
“I’m shy,” he explained, popping a new game into the console. “Maybe you’ve noticed.”
“Once or twice.”
“I don’t make friends easily. That’s why you’re like my only friend.”
“She’s more your friend than my friend.”
“That’s not true.” I knew that it was.
“If you weren’t my friend, she’d never have starting be friends with me.”
“That’s not true.” I knew that it was.
“So, being a dork gave me a reason why I have trouble with people.”
“Really? I thought being a dork was why you have trouble with people.” I know it sounds like we were saying the same thing, but we understood that we weren’t: Dorkiness was Ari’s solution to his problem with people, not the cause of it.
“So, how did this come about?” I asked. “Did you just wake up one day and say: ‘I am not a dork’?”
“Actually, it was sort of like that. Let me tell you…”
It seems that for the past 130 years, Ari had had a crush on Mimi. (That covers his entire life plus several past lives.) Even when he was chasing Amanda, his heart still belonged to Mimi. I was a dope not to see it.
So, last week, while walking home from school with Mimi, he wondered why he was able to talk comfortably with her whereas when he saw Amanda, he pretty much just leaped into whatever solid object was nearby. But that’s not what he asked Mimi. Instead he said: “I haven’t seen much of you and Jake recently.”
“End of school. Busy. You know.” Ari knew Mimi was lying. Mimi and I had definitely been avoiding him.
Ari decided that it was time to let Mimi know how he felt. So, he went home and did the most dorkish thing he could think of. Of course, he didn’t think it was dorkish. It just naturally was. He baked her a giant cookie in the shape of a heart. And, being Ari, he decided that if one recipe was good, two recipes would be even better, so he picked the best ingredients from his mother’s chocolate chip cookies and her peanut butter oatmeal cookies. And, what the heck, he dumped in the best ingredients in cheesecake because everyone likes cheesecake. Then he spelled out “Mimi Your Special” in licorice candies. (Too bad his cake didn’t come with a spellchecker.)
He baked it. He cut off the burned parts. He ate most of the burned parts. He put it in a pizza box that had only a few large grease stains in it. He carried it to Mimi’s house and left it on her stoop. Where the sprinkler soaked it. And squirrels ran across it. And Mimi slipped on it when she came out the door. Bam, off her stoop and down on the ground.
“That’s from me,” Ari said as he helped Mimi up. Her face went from scrunched-up annoyance to wide-open smile.
Mimi being Mimi said, “Oh, that’s so nice of you, Ari” even before she opened the box.
The cookie inside had crumbled. The licorice pieces were now in a code that no human would ever decipher. “Well, it’s the thought,” she said as she carefully didn’t eat any of the sopping wet, squished, squirrel-nibbled cookie. She smiled at him. “What was the thought, anyway?”
Ari knew he was not going to be able to get the words out. After all, that’s why he baked the cookie. The cookie would do the speaking for him. Except the cookie not only had no words on it any more, it had attacked Mimi. Without his cookie to tell Mimi how he felt, he knew he would stand there, stammer something stupid, and then run away.
Instead, he said, “I’ve always liked you, Mimi.”
“Me, too, Ari. That’s nice of you to say.”
“You know what I mean, though, don’t you?”
Mimi looked at him. At first she smiled as if she were about to make a joke. Then she thought about what it meant to have him say such words to her. Her smile deepened. “Yes, Ari, I do. I’ve known for a long time.”
“But you never said anything,” Ari said.
“Neither did you.”
“But do you like me? I mean the way I like you.”
“I don’t know,” Mimi said. “It was easier avoiding that question when you were being the dopey guy you usually are. You know, the guy who leaves a pizza on my front step so that I slip on it and scrape my calf.”
“It was actually a cookie that said ‘You’re Special.’”
“Aw, that’s sweet. But it’s a lot harder answering the question to the Ari who’s speaking to me like a real human being about what he feels.”
“That’s ok. You don’t have to answer,” he said.
“I want to. I just don’t know. I feel like I have to get to know this Ari.” Mimi has a wonderful smile, you know.
As they went through the gate to the sidewalk, Mimi asked Ari the obvious question: “What happened to you?”
“You smiled at me.”
“That’s awfully romantic, but…”
“No,” he said, “I don’t mean that you smiled and suddenly the roses bloomed and the rain stopped. I mean I tripped you on your steps, but as soon as you realized that it was me, you smiled. And, I don’t know, I felt like I had always been two people but hadn’t known it. One person is the awkward, geeky Ari who can never say the right thing, the one who would bake you a cookie because he knows he won’t be able to say what he wants to say. The other person is the person you’ve known all your life. And that’s the one you smiled at.”
“That’s really cool.”
“Yeah. The thing is, though, that I think I’m probably still a dork.”
“Probably,” Mimi said as she kissed him on the cheek in a way that Ari spent the next three days trying to figure out.
Ari was just finishing telling me this when I heard my father come in. Since I didn’t know what to say either – Mimi and Ari seemed like a pretty unlikely match, even if this was a New and Not-So-Dorky Ari – I went downstairs and greeted him. He was carrying a copy of the latest The Gaz. I took it upstairs where Ari and I found three interesting things about it.
First, just about all the local advertisers had a coupon promising that for everything you bought there, the Fordgythe Foundation would donate 10% to a local charity, up to a total of a million dollars. You didn’t get a discount, but you knew that you were helping someone else. I thought lots of people would prefer that to the Register’s offer. Julia had done a great job getting the advertisers to agree.
Second, the lead story on the front page was headlined “Who Is Fordgythe?” The story listed about half of the donations we had made. Although it didn’t get very far in pinpointing who was behind the foundation, it did point out that the foundation wasn’t legally registered in the state, or in any other state for that matter. No street address, no names listed, no web page. It made the Fordgythe Foundation sound fishy, although the article pointed out that all the donations it could find were to good causes.
Third, my father’s editorial this week was about why we should be careful about accepting money from a foundation about which we know nothing. It could be embarrassing. In fact, the editorial said that The Gaz would no longer accept ads that feature coupons from the Fordgythe Foundation. My father apologized for letting them go into this issue. “Our guess is that there is a single person behind this Foundation,” the editorial said. “Its pattern of donations and its way of behaving are too quirky for a Foundation run by a committee. If so, and if the Fordgythe Foundation really has the best interests of our town at heart,” the editorial concluded, “let it uncloak itself to remove the suspicion that its secrecy is motivated by shame and its donations are motivated by guilt.”
Ulp. Dad was coming after me pretty hard. And he didn’t even know it.