Bundled in his new winter coat and stocking cap, Nicky still shivered as he stood at the corner near his house. He shoved his mittened hands deeper into his pockets and stamped his booted feet on the pavement behind the spot he had placed his textbooks. He blew out his breath and watched the vapor dissipate in the chill air. Although he could see his breath almost every morning now, the phenomenon still fascinated him. Just wait until five below when the snot freezes in your nose, he remembered Butch telling him. He wondered what that felt like, but had no desire for the temperature to go subzero for him to find out.
This Monday morning was the long awaited day that meant he was no longer grounded. There isn't much I can do in weather like this, he thought. At least I can go other places within the house besides my room. The final weekend had been the most dull. He could fill only so many hours of the day shooting and kicking paper wads. Homework gave him something to do, but he didn't consider that to be exciting. Even his Spanish translation assignment had been onerous.
He didn't know which was worse; walking to school in the cold or waiting for Butch to pick him up. Nicky could've waited inside the house for his ride, of course, but keeping Butch out of his father's sight had seemed like a good idea the Friday before. That was when his friend had talked him into getting driven to school after he was no longer grounded. If he had known that the thermometer was going to register only twenty degrees, he would've decided against waiting at the corner.
The Impala finally arrived. Nicky picked up his books and climbed into the back seat. Thankfully the car was heated.
"Cold, Nicky?" Eugene looked back from the passenger side of the front seat.
"Shouldn't I be?" Nicky still shivered. "It's only twenty degrees."
He leaned forward to see what warm clothes his twin friends had. Winter coats, not as thick as his. No boots. Eugene had a headband, but Butch didn't have any hat he could spot. Nicky wondered. What did these guys consider to be cold?
"This is nothing," Butch remarked, keeping his eye on the road in front of him. "Just wait until there's a minus sign in front of the twenty."
Minus twenty! Nicky tried to console himself. That can't feel any worse than this. After all, cold is cold.
"I can't wait until the lakes freeze over," Butch continued. "It's going to be fun taking this car out on the ice."
He must be pulling my leg, Nicky thought. He had never heard of driving a car on a frozen lake. "Aren't you afraid of falling through?" he queried.
"Are you kidding?" said Butch. "Nothing's going to break through three-foot ice."
"Three feet?" Nicky was amazed to learn that fact about the same lakes he had been swimming in only three months before.
"Oh, yes. By February, easy."
"I wouldn't go on the ice until the new year though," Eugene advised. "You can't be sure it's safe before then."
Nicky felt more convinced than ever he would never survive the winter. His friends talked as if it were nothing, but they had resistance to cold in their blood. He had generations of Cuban ancestry working against him.
He settled back in his seat for the remainder of the ride. Slowly, a strange feeling came over him. Something was different. Nicky couldn't figure out what it was until he realized that he had the back seat to himself. No Brian Muttilege. Nicky had grown used to him being absent from school, but this was the first time he ridden in Butch's car after Brian left school. He had to admit to himself that he didn't miss Mutt very much.
Homeroom was mundane as usual. The doddering Mr. Roscoe handed out forms that the students needed to take home for their parents to order school pictures. Then he mumbled some story about getting lost in the woods on a hunting trip. Mercifully, the principal made an interruption over the intercom.
"Good morning school! I'm on the horn here to raise everyone's spirits after what happened at Friday night's football game. Nobody likes losing the conference championship, but you have to admit it was funny watching those players wallow in the mud like pigs, ha, ha. By the way, if you see members of our team carrying footballs around school this week, it's because Coach Walton's hoping that will teach them not to fumble so much. Most of you can be glad not to be one of them. Well, that's all folks. Bye!"
Nicky kept on the lookout on the way to English class, but didn't see anyone carrying a football. He hoped Mr. Walton wouldn't still be mad about losing the football game when he had gym class the next day.
He looked forward to listening to the first day's worth of speeches in first hour. Since Mrs. Kesselring had assigned the class to speak in reverse alphabetical order, the Simpson twins would be giving their speeches. Nicky didn't have to do his for at least another week, but already dreaded it. He didn't want to speak in front of the class. He still wasn't used to talking in front of his history classmates. He finally thought of something he liked about algebra, which was he never had to get up in front of the class. Mr. Much always asked for volunteers to solve problems on the board, and Nicky never volunteered.
He found Eugene stooped over his desk doing a last minute check of his note cards. Butch sat, arms crossed, behind his empty desk.
"Where are your notes?" Nicky asked him.
"I don't need notes," Butch grinned without showing his teeth.
After Nancy Ziegler and Lisa Webner, the two girls following the Simpsons in the alphabet, Eugene gave his speech on the National Aeronautics and Space Agency. He opened with a review of the successes of the past fifteen years, from the launch of Explorer I in 1957 to the ongoing landings on the moon. Then he talked about two principle advantages of space exploration; the accumulation of scientific knowledge and the development of new technologies which could also be applied on Earth. In conclusion, he summarized the space program's plans for the future.
"That was a well organized presentation, Eugene," Kesselring commented after he finished. "I could clearly make out your major points. You could have enhanced your speech with some visual aids, however."
She handed him a slip of paper containing his grade as he returned to his desk. "Butch Simpson," she called. "You're next."
Butch strolled to the front emptyhanded, returning Kesselring's piercing gaze with a confident smile. Taking a piece of chalk, he etched a large rectangle with rounded edges on the board and turned to face the class.
"This is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the site of the greatest spectacle in racing," he began.
He went on to explain that the Indianapolis 500 was held there every year on Memorial Day weekend. Then he talked about what the cars were like and some of the latest developments in aerodynamics. He noted that the cars ran faster every year, increasing in speed from about a hundred miles per hour to over two hundred in sixty years of racing.
Butch paced around the front of the room as he spoke, waving an arm whenever he said something that particularly excited him. He sprinkled his narrative with interesting stories such as the winning driver of the first 500 inventing the rearview mirror, and A.J. Foyt weaving through a crash to win for his third time.
"Although four drivers have won three Indys, nobody has ever won three in a row," he waved his arm. "Al Unser had the chance this year, but the closest anyone came was Billy Vukovich."
He told the tragic story of Vukovich's fatal crash while leading a third race after back to back victories in the fifties.
"Times up," Kesselring interrupted him while he described a typical pitstop.
"And in conclusion," Butch drew in his breath. "Next year I'm going to the sucker!"
He hurried to his desk and sat to hear the teacher's critique.
"Excellent delivery. You displayed enthusiasm for your topic and made it interesting for the audience. Unfortunately, although you obviously did considerable research, you didn't organize the material very well."
The bell rang, and Butch picked up his grade on the way out.
"I got a 'C'," he showed the slip of paper to Nicky and Eugene in the hall. "Not bad for winging it."
Mr. Much arrived with his usual lateness to the biology classroom. For the untold time he bragged about how invincible he was in wastepaper shooting and urged someone to challenge him.
Butch leaned over and whispered to Nicky. "I wish someone would beat this guy and shut his yap."
Nicky resisted his desire to inform Butch he was ready to take on Mr. Much. He planned to do it on Friday, provided he didn't chicken out, so he'd have the whole weekend to do his double homework if he lost.
At his locker after Much's two classes, Eugene told him to put his coat on. "We're going to our house," his friend explained. "You know. To celebrate that you're no longer grounded."
Nicky thought that to be a nice surprise. He hadn't been to Butch and Eugene's house since the first weekend he knew them. He put on his winter clothes and reached for his lunch.
"You won't need that," Eugene told him. "We're going to have pizza."
Pizza. Nicky's mouth watered. He hadn't had pizza since the trip to Chicago. He closed his locker.
"What do I do with it?" he asked, not wanting to waste the food in his lunch.
"Eat it for a snack after school," Eugene suggested.
Good idea, Nicky smiled inside. He was always hungry at the end of the day.
Hoping for warmer weather, he was disappointed when he stepped outside with his friends to a blast of nippy air on his face. He was about to pull his stocking cap over his cheeks when he felt a sharp sensation below his right eye. He rubbed the spot and quickly covered his face. Then he saw white flakes for the first time.
The flurry stopped before they reached the car, and renewed itself as Butch backed out of the parking space. Now sure of nobody else coming along, Nicky wondered how significant Marcia Langdon's absence was. Had Butch gone through another girlfriend?
"I hope we get enough snow to cover my license plates," said Butch. "They expire after tomorrow."
"We won't get snow that lasts long enough," Eugene reminded him. "Not at this time of the year."
"I suppose you're right," Butch agreed. "I might have to buy myself real ones."
Nicky took careful note of the route after Butch drove off the school grounds. They traveled away from his house and through a busy intersection past the fast food restaurant where they had eaten lunch with Laura Tishbight. Butch careened a right turn by a park and later a left to the curving street Nicky remembered to be the one the Simpsons lived on.
Butch pulled the car into the empty driveway. Nicky thought the snow had stopped again until he felt tiny pellets of moisture striking his skin on his way into the house.
They left their shoes inside the front door and walked through the living room to the kitchen. There Nicky saw a cupboard top laden with vegetables; pickles in jars, dry shucks of corn, stacks of beans, onions, carrots, and a few pumpkins. Benjamin obviously had a bumper crop.
"I'll get the pizza," said Butch as Eugene set the oven to preheat.
He stepped through a door to descend to the basement, and Nicky followed. With Butch's flick of a switch, a solitary bulb illuminated the lower level. With the light, Marshall's punching bag and sparring bag completed a triangle of fixtures hanging from the ceiling in the center. Butch and Nicky stepped around a threadbare rug littered with barbells and weights to get at a pair of freezers in a darkened corner. Ignoring the chest freezer, Butch opened the other, upright one and dodged the several packages of frozen vegetables which tumbled out from the inside. More things fell out as he rummaged and extracted a frozen pizza. Handing the pizza to Nicky, he stuffed the dislodged vegetables back inside and quicky shut the door before they could fall out again.
Back upstairs, Eugene added a can of mushrooms and more cheese to the pizza before thrusting it into the oven. Butch acquired a box of twinkies and jug of cola and settled himself at the table. Eugene and Nicky joined him to begin eating.
Fifteen minutes later they devoured the pizza. Then Butch suggested they play poker.
Nicky checked the time on the oven clock and questioned. "Shouldn't we get back to school?" He and Butch had fourth hour off, but Eugene had a class.
"My astronomy class is on a field trip to the planetarium," said Eugene. "I didn't have to go because it includes the noon hour."
"You didn't want to go to the planetarium?" Nicky wouldn't have missed a trip like that.
"My dad just took me two weeks ago. I don't need to go again so soon."
Butch had already left to get some cards. Eugene threw the empty twinkie box and cola jug into the garbage and took the pizza tray to the sink.
"Do you want to start going to Spanish Club again, Nicky?" he asked as he rinsed the tray.
Nicky had meant to ask Eugene about that earlier but forgot. "Definitely," he smiled. He enjoyed not being grounded any more.
Butch returned with a deck and play money. "We should be able to play in peace here," he muttered. "I don't think Field Marshal Kesselring will bother us."
They played for an hour and then returned to school. Nicky went to his fifth hour history class. Mr. Fulcroft tapped his pointer on the side of his podium for order.
"I bet you wondered all weekend what our next unit's going to be about," he stared over his spectacles. "Well, maybe not."
He stepped over to his desk to retrieve a stack of note cards to pass out to the class. Nicky looked at his. It read 'War of 1812'.
"We're going to quickly cover the years between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars before the end of the trimester," announced Fulcroft from behind the podium. "Each of you has a topic from that period of history written on your card. What I want you to do is to educate your classmates about your topic. You can do that any way you want, except it has to be fun and fit on one sheet of paper."
He picked up a booklet from his desk and raised it for everyone to see. It had burgundy covers and was held together by a long plastic clasp.
"I'll collect your pages into a booklet and hand out a copy to everyone. One of my classes did this one last year. You can look at it for ideas."
He set his pointer on the podium so he could flip through the pages. "Remember, whatever you do has to be fun. Here's a comic strip. This person did a crossword. You can do any sort of puzzle or game as long as it teaches something."
Oh no, thought Nicky. He wasn't very successful at making up games.
Fulcroft snapped the booklet shut. "This assignment is due a week from tomorrow."
* * * * *
"Come on, sissies," Walton balled at his class. "I'm not hearing enough grunts out there."
Nicky tried desperately to extract himself out of a headlock. He thought he hated football, but wrestling had to be the worst thing in the world. He loathed the feeling of his hair getting rubbed around his head and the hot sensations pulsing in his face.
Walton blew his whistle and Nicky's opponent released him from the headlock. For several weeks the class had been learning wrestling basics, and today Walton was running his students through drills. They were grouped in pairs on two wrestling mats on the gymnasium floor.
"All right. Switch," Walton commanded. "We'll do this one more time."
Nicky's partner dropped to hands and knees. Nicky crouched over him, right arm around his waist and left hand on his left elbow.
The whistle blew. Nicky lost hold of his squirming adversary as he escaped to a standing position. Moments later, Walton blew the whistle from a spot near Larry Harris.
"That's enough for today," he said. "Wrestling matches will begin next time." Then he gave Butch a menacing stare. "Simpson, since you've got such a fat head, I'm moving you up to the heavyweight division. Mr. Harris here has requested to wrestle you first. I've decided there would be no better way for him to redeem himself."
He dismissed the class. Nicky approached Butch, but then held back as Larry Harris beat him there.
"I've been waiting a long time to get you, asshole," Larry growled. "When I get through with you, you're gonna look like such a pretzel they'll have to ship you to Nabisco."
He picked up a football from the side of the mat and carried it with him into the locker room. Nicky had moments when he wished to be in Butch's shoes, but this wasn't one of them.
"I'm glad I'm not you," he stepped up to his friend.
Butch pursed his lip. "Walton's been planning this for some time."
"What are you going to do?"
"I don't know," Butch shrugged. "I'll think of something."
Nicky showered and went to history class where Mr. Fulcroft showed the third part of a John Wayne motion picture about the Alamo. Then he took a test in Spanish class. After the final bell rang, he remained in his desk to wait for Eugene to come for Spanish Club.
"Oh, Nicky," Miss Wainwright walked by. "Are you able to stay tonight?"
"Yes, I'm not grounded anymore," Nicky said happily.
"I see," Wainwright trilled. "You weren't coming because you were grounded."
Nicky nodded in embarrassment. He hadn't meant to tell her that.
"Well, welcome back," she patted him on the shoulder and left to write something on the chalkboard.
Eugene arrived. "Hi, Nicky. Do you know what we're going to be doing in here?"
Nicky shook his head, thinking he should've asked Miss Wainwright.
"Hey, Ed," Eugene turned around to speak to Paskei. "What's going on in here today?"
"We're going to play Spanish games."
"Simpson," Ed's friend Pete Warbler broke in. "My sister told me she's going out with your brother tomorrow night. How did he pull that off?"
"That's news to me," said Eugene. "Isn't your sister a junior?"
Miss Wainwright interrupted before Pete could answer. "All right, everyone take a seat so we can start our first game. We're going to play Bingo, except I'll call out the letters and numbers in espanol. Everybody should be able to understand what's going on, including my first year students."
She passed out Bingo cards, allowing everyone to take as many as they wanted. "You need to know one more phrase," she pointed to two words she had written on the board. "'Lo tengo,'" she read. "You shout that instead of 'Bingo' when you win. Literally, it means 'I have it.'"
She called the first game, and the winner of each game did the next game. Nicky had one victory, but didn't have to draw numbers for another game because he won the last one. Then the teacher explained the rules for a card game using the Spanish deck with the suits of coins, wooden clubs, swords, and vases.
"Miss Wainwright's going to get a detention," Eugene whispered to Nicky.
"She's playing cards in school."
Nicky frowned until Eugene's smile indicated that he wasn't being serious. They didn't play a card game anyhow, because Wainwright had only one deck.
"You can play the game at home with a regular deck of cards if you use the jacks for elevens, the queens for twelves, and throw out the kings."
They found Butch waiting with the car afterwards. Eugene allowed Nicky to sit in the front seat.
Butch leaned over the steering wheel. "Did you notice my new license plates?" he inquired. "I just got them."
"From the junk yard?" Nicky wondered.
"No. These are legit," said Butch. "I bought them with the money I earned for helping my dad insulate the attic. Boy, was that a fun job."
He shifted the car into gear and accelerated to speed. As he drove, Nicky worked up the nerve to tell him something.
"I'm challenging Mr. Much tomorrow," he said before he changed his mind. He had decided to tell his friend so he couldn't chicken out.
"Shooting wastebaskets?" Butch's face lit up. "Do you think you can beat him?"
"I practiced almost every day while I was grounded."
"I can't wait until tomorrow," Butch anticipated.
Eugene spoke. "If Nicky wins, Butch, we should go to his house tomorrow night to help him celebrate."
Nicky opened his mouth to protest, but Butch talked first. "I can't. I've got a hot date with Peggy Warbler."
"Oh, yes," Eugene hit his own forehead. "Pete told me you were going out with her. He was wondering how you arranged that."
"And I bet you're wondering too, Eugene," Butch teased.
"I am," Eugene admitted.
"Simple. She's in drama, right?"
"If you say so."
"I asked her how I can get into the school play."
"You want to be in a play?"
"Not really, but I had to get a conversation started somehow."
"Of course," Eugene rolled his eyes.
"Once you get talking with a girl, you've got a chance," Butch told his brother. "You should try it sometime."
Nicky wished he could try it, but what would he talk about? To him, meeting a girl was still one of the great mysteries of the universe.
He ate dinner soon after he got home. Then, remembering that Mrs. Kesselring wanted her students to use visual aids in their speeches, he asked his mother where he could get a large sheet of paper on which to draw a map of Berlin.
"I don't know," she put her hand under her chin as she mulled. "Let me ask your father."
Nicky wished she wouldn't, but followed her into the living room where his father was reading the newspaper.
"Mark, excuse me. Nicky needs a big sheet of paper for a school project."
He looked up from his paper without the scowl Nicky expected. "How big a sheet do you need, son?"
Nicky pointed at the paper. "About that size."
"I'll try to remember to bring one from work tomorrow."
Nicky headed upstairs, thinking his dad could actually be nice. Then he turned his thoughts to one last practice before the next day's wastebasket shootout.
Read Chapter 15.
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