Nicky rode to school the next morning in the back seat with Eugene, happy that he had made some friends after only two days of school. He had a friend in each of his morning classes and had someone to eat lunch with. After an hour of table football, Nicky accompanied Butch to the dreaded gym. Nicky had nearly forgotten his gym suit that morning, and he shuddered at what Mr. Walton would have done if he had. He dressed quickly in order to be standing at number fourteen by two minutes after the bell. Walton marked the deadline with a shrill blast into his whistle.
"We begin with exercises," he paced in front of the lines of students, "and we won't finish until you do them right. Larry, come up here and demonstrate some jumping jacks."
Harris, apparently back in Walton's good graces since doing fifty pushups, left his position to stand facing the class. He stood with his ankles together and arms hanging at his sides. At the first count he jumped so his legs spread apart and his hands clapped above his head, and on the second count returned to his original position.
"All right," said Walton, motioning Larry Harris back to his place. "Jumping jacks. Begin. One! Two! One! Two! Let's hear your hands clapping. One! Two! One! Two!"
The jumping jacks seemed to go forever. Then came pushups, situps, toe touches, and squat thrusts. Nicky felt like he was in boot camp. He was exhausted by the time the exercises were finally finished.
"Now we're going to have a jock check," Walton announced.
He made each student pull a strap from under his shorts to prove he was wearing a supporter. Butch was not.
"Didn't you hear me when I gave the rules the other day?" Walton barked.
Butch shook his head. Actually he hadn't even been there, Nicky chuckled to himself.
"I want twenty!" Walton demanded. "Maybe that will make you listen better."
Butch did the pushups while Walton stood by and harassed him. "Keep your stomach up. Touch your nose to the floor. Come on, you do pushups like a sissy. Keep you feet together. My mother does better pushups than that."
Butch struggled through the last pushups and verbal abuse. When he finished, he sat crosslegged on his number. Walton glared at him for several seconds and, not finding further reason to punish him, continued with the class.
He took the students outside where he gave them a preliminary test of their football skills. Unlike table football, Nicky had never been able to play real football. He shanked his punt, but didn't feel too bad because Butch did too. The passing test was much worse.
"I've never seen a more miserable pass," Walton chided after he had thrown the ball end over end for a mere fifteen yards. "You better improve or I'll have to flunk you."
Later, Nicky felt relieved as he went to history class. No more gym until next Tuesday!
Mr. Fulcroft rapped on the podium with his pointer, but didn't receive immediate silence like a conductor would get from an orchestra. When he had the attention of the class, he completed his summary of the explorers.
"How many of you found that interesting?" he asked. "Raise your hands." He raised his, almost poking the pointer into the ceiling.
Nicky had been interested, but had no desire to raise his hand when nobody else did.
Fulcroft nodded as he lowered his arm. "How many watched the lunar landings last spring?" he inquired, raising it again.
Many of the students, including Nicky, raised hands.
"Was that interesting?" the teacher asked. Recognizing nods from several of the students, he continued. "How come? I thought history bored you. The astronauts are no different from these explorers. Who watches Star Trek in here?"
Nicky saw a number of his classmates watched the show, although he never had.
"Captain Kirk's an explorer and he's not boring," Fulcroft waved the pointer more as he got more excited. "The reason you think the guys on this sheet are boring is because you haven't put yourself in their place. That's going to be your project. I'm going to assign everyone an explorer, and you're going to have to write a journal as if you're that explorer. Just like the Captain's log on Star Trek."
He handed each student a card with an explorer's name on it. Nicky got Drake.
"Tomorrow, class will meet in the library," Fulcroft announced. "You'll begin research, but don't fill your journals with a bunch of facts. Be imaginative. Make up some stories."
The bell rang and Nicky stepped across the hall to the Spanish room, having decided not to wait for Butch between classes. He wanted to try making friends with a Spanish classmate instead, especially since he didn't think Butch would come until near the bell anyway.
He sat next to a dark curly-haired lad named Pete Warbler, whom he had seen in his neighborhood. He felt nervous, but not as bad as on the first day. After all, he told himself, I've made a couple of friends already.
"Hi," he worked up the courage to say.
"Hi," Pete replied dully.
An uncomfortable silence followed. Nicky wished he could think of something to say. Then Pete's friend, Ed Paskei, arrived; and they talked about baseball. Left out of the conversation, Nicky pretended to look in his Spanish book. The bell rang and Miss Wainwright called the class to attention.
"Do you know that Spanish Club starts a week from today?" she asked. "We'll meet Thursdays right after school in this room. Can I have a show of hands from those who are thinking about coming?"
Six students, including Pete and Ed, raised hands. Nicky held back because he didn't think it would be fun without friends.
"I'm glad for anyone intending to come," said Wainwright, motioning the students to lower their hands. "Let me encourage everyone else to come too. In here I teach you how to talk in Spanish, but in the club we look into the cultures of the countries where people speak Spanish. We do fun things too, like make food and throw a Christmas party."
The lesson followed. After reviewing the previous day's material, the teacher gave instruction on how to count in Spanish and tell time. Afterwards, she stopped Nicky on his way out the door.
"Nicky, I'm surprised you're not coming to Spanish Club. I was sure you would be interested."
"I am," said Nicky, looking at the floor. "I just don't think I can make it."
"That's too bad, but you're welcome anytime if you change your mind. Okay?"
Nicky nodded and crossed the hall to meet Butch.
"Do you have to pretend to be an explorer?" he asked.
"Yep," Butch replied. "Magellan. Which one did you get?"
"Aw, you got a fun one. He was a pirate."
They joined together with Eugene and Brian before going out to the car. Eugene hopped through the window into the passenger front, to Nicky's dismay because it meant he had to share the back with Brian.
"Smoke?" Muttilege asked him after lighting up.
Trying not to feel so tense, Nicky shook his head.
"You're smart like Butch and Eugene," Brian leaned back. "My brother got me started before I knew how expensive it is."
Nicky's insides calmed for first time in the company of Brian Muttilege. He's not going to make me do something I don't want to do, Nicky realized.
"Did your brother really get expelled?"
Brian answered. "He says he quit, but they really kicked him out for being high all the time."
"Is he a hippie?"
"He's got the long hair, but he's not into peace and flowers. He actually wants to go to Vietnam so he can kill people."
Yikes! Nicky's heartbeat jumped. Brian was tame compared to his brother. Nicky hoped to never run into Rocky Muttilege.
He had Butch leave him off at the corner again. Why do these guys pay attention to me? He pondered on the way to his house. They don't have any reason to like me.
He enjoyed finding his mother back in good spirits. He told her about the classes he liked and some things about his newfound friends. Not until after supper did the gloomy prospect of his father's return the next day enter his mind. Trying to forget it, he sat in front of the television to watch Star Trek.
* * * * *
The next day as they rode to school, Butch and Eugene announced their intention to go out for pizza at lunch. Brian cursed about not being able to go because of detention.
"Going with us, Nicky?" Butch asked.
Nicky wanted to, but didn't have any money. I don't want to tell them that, he thought.
"I've already got a lunch," he said, holding up his paper sack.
"Butch, why don't we go to a drive-in instead?" Eugene suggested. "We can get burgers and Nicky can still eat his lunch."
Much to Nicky's amazement, Butch agreed. They changed their lunch plan for me, Nicky told himself. Why are they so nice to me? Although he couldn't figure it out, he felt good all morning.
In biology, Mr. Much accepted his first wastebasketball challenge from a tall student named Norman Stalke.
"We'll play Pig," said Much, setting the trash can on top of his desk. "You go first."
Norman canned a fifteen-footer with the paper wad.
"Good shot," Much acknowledged. "Are you going out for the team?"
Norman nodded. Much made the same shot. Norman's next shot missed, giving the teacher control. He eliminated his challenger in three turns with a shot behind the back, another deflected off the ceiling, and the last one from a position prone on the floor.
"You lose, Norm," he gloated. "See me after class for your double homework assignment." He tapped his foot. "Any other takers?"
Butch raised his hand.
"You must be joking," Much snided.
Butch held up his paper triangle. "Do you play table football?"
"No," Much's shoulders flinched. "I play only this game."
After algebra, Nicky accompanied Eugene to Butch's Chevy. They waited there for Butch, leaning against the car for several minutes. When he came, Nicky's blood raced at the sight of the girl with him. Her face, with round cheeks and a cute little nose, sported a robust tan. Her bleached-blonde hair piled in curls around her shoulders. She wore a cheerleader's uniform, revealing a pair of well-conditioned legs.
"Holy cow!" Eugene gave Nicky a nudge. "That's Laura Tishbight. She goes out with Larry Harris."
Butch's voice became audible as they approached. "See, here it is," he indicated the Impala with a broad motion of his arm.
"You weren't lying when you said you have your own car," she bubbled.
"I can give you a ride," Butch offered.
She readily accepted, and by this time they had reached the car. Butch introduced her to Eugene and Nicky. Eugene managed a polite "hello"; but Nicky, feeling like his heart was stuck in his throat, looked away.
"You have to crawl in the driver's side," said Butch, opening the door for the girl.
Her skirt flew up as she climbed in, giving the three adolescent males a view of her cheerleader-pantied bottom. Butch gave Eugene and Nicky an expression as if he were gasping for air. Nicky felt short of breath himself.
Butch followed her in, and Nicky joined Eugene in the back seat.
"It's a bit noisy," Butch warned before turning the ignition.
"This is so cool!" she exclaimed as Butch revved the engine. Her smile revealed two rows of impeccably white teeth. "You're the only guy in our grade with his own car." She seemed to bounce around the front seat like a pinball.
In the back, Eugene gave Nicky the gesture of sticking his finger down his throat. Butch pulled into the street.
"It must be great not having to ask your parents for the car," she kept wiggling.
"I can go wherever I want whenever I want," Butch bragged.
This kind of exchange self-perpetuated for the entire lunch hour. Laura crooned, encouraging Butch to show off more for reward of more crooning. Eugene forced in a sentence from time to time, but Nicky didn't dare say anything. They went to the drive-in and then back to school.
"Here we are," announced Butch upon finding a spot in the parking lot. He rested his hands on top of the steering wheel.
"That was so fun," she said with a swirl of hair which made Nicky swoon. "Are you coming to the game tonight, Butch?"
Butch shrugged. "I wasn't planning to."
"You must," the girl jumped up and down. "You can watch me lead cheers, and show my friends your car."
"Okay," Butch assented.
They both climbed out the driver's door and went into the school together, virtually ignoring Eugene and Nicky. Eugene sat up in the back seat, where he had been slouching with a hand clutched over his heart and his tongue rolling out of his mouth.
"Butch has gone wacko," he said. "The poor guy's getting too much estrogen."
"Do you blame him?" Nicky shrugged.
"Normally not, but he always goes to the races on Friday night. I didn't think anything could keep Butch away from the races."
With no Butch to spend his free hour with, Nicky spent it in the library reading about Francis Drake. He spent fifth hour there also with his history class. He caught Bill Hosin and Holly Bunting kissing behind a bookcase, but he was more embarrassed than they. Nicky was still amazed that Hosin had a girlfriend. He himself thought a girl would never like him, so he didn't even bother to talk to females.
After school, in the car, Nicky got the front seat with Butch. No sooner than Butch had started the vehicule, Larry Harris appeared in the driver's window.
"I don't like you hanging around my girlfriend," he said through clenched teeth, resting his muscular forearms across the sill.
"She does," Butch didn't blink.
"You have a mighty smart mouth sitting in there," Larry fumed. "Come out here and say that."
"No thanks," Butch shifted into reverse. He released his foot from the brake, and the car started rolling backward.
"Don't be a pussy," Larry yelled, pounding on the roof of the car. "Come out here and fight."
Butch hit the accelerator, and Larry howled. Nicky saw him hopping in front of the car on one foot and holding the other.
"You die, bastard!" Harris shouted as Butch drove away.
Brian nearly choked laughing. "You're in huge trouble, Butch," he said when he could speak. "Do you want me have Rock help you?"
"I don't need your brother," Butch said calmly. "I can handle Larry Harris."
"Aren't you afraid of him?" Nicky asked. He was.
"Nah. Marshall's tougher than him."
"Our uncle," Eugene broke in. "Butch is good at running away from him."
Soon they reached Nicky's corner.
"Do you want to be picked up for the game?" Butch asked Nicky before he climbed out.
"I can't go."
Eugene saved Nicky from having to answer. "How about coming over to our house this weekend?" he suggested.
"I don't think my dad will let me."
"Well, ask him and give us a call." Eugene scribbled a phone number on a piece of paper and gave it to Nicky.
Nicky walked home thinking about how he would get his father to let him visit the Simpsons. He decided he'd better clean his room and get any other chores out of the way so his father wouldn't have any reason to make him stay home. In any case, he wouldn't dare ask his father unless he was in a good mood.
He gave his mother a quick greeting on his way to his room. It wasn't all that messy; he didn't have many things besides clothes. He remade the bed to get the wrinkles out of it. He took the rug outside to shake it, and swept the hardwood floor. He stowed his butterfly collection, which had been spread over his dresser, in the closet.
Emily came in. "You have your room looking pretty clean," she commented, fingering one of her pigtails.
"My friends want me to go to their house this weekend," Nicky told her. "I don't want a dirty room when I ask Dad."
"Harvey asked me to the football game tonight, but I had to turn him down. I'm afraid to ask Dad."
"How about girl friends?" Nicky asked hopefully. He wanted his sister to have friends too.
"The girls always talk about boys, makeup, and doing their hair. I never have anything to say."
Their mother poked her head through the opening in the door. "Dad just called from the airport. I need you, Emily, to help fix dinner."
Emily followed her out. Supper was going to be later than usual that night, postponed until Mark Delgado arrived home from his business trip. Nicky knew the family was doomed to eating hamburger again.
While he cleaned his window, he saw a squirrel scurrying in a nearby tree. He paused to watch the creature, fascinated. It darted from branch to branch, stopping once in a while to sniff the air, and eventually circled the trunk down to the ground.
Nicky fought off the urge to watch Star Trek, figuring he had a better chance of going to Butch and Eugene's if he straightened up the garage instead. He was hanging rakes on the wall when the garage door opened, revealing his father's white Oldsmobile in the driveway. Nicky considered himself fortunate to be caught working. He moved to the side of the garage to let his father drive the car in, but that didn't happen. His father shut the car off, and reached into the back seat for his brief case before getting out.
"You're doing a good job in there," he told Nicky as he walked past the front of the car. "I'll move the car in after supper so you can finish." He disappeared from the garage entrance to enter the house through the front door.
Good, Nicky thought. He's in a good mood. He became more nervous as he realized he was actually going to go through with asking his father the question that night.
Shortly after, his mother called him to the dinner table where Nicky found out the reason for his father's pleasant demeanor. He had closed a deal after six months of haggling, and the boss had mentioned a possible bonus.
"If I get that, you can get a new toaster, Linda," he promised.
He talked the whole meal about work. Nicky didn't understand much of it, and he didn't suppose his mother did either, but she listened intently to so much unusual pleasant talk from her husband.
Mark drove the car into the garage after supper before settling into his favorite armchair with the newspaper. Nicky forced himself to make his request, knowing there wouldn't be any better time to do so.
"What?" His father didn't appreciate an interruption during his reading.
Nicky cringed. Having started, he knew he had to continue. "Some friends want me to visit them this weekend."
"The ones I made at school this week."
His father looked up from the paper with a furrow in his brow. Nicky took it as a good sign. At least he wasn't yelling at him yet.
"You have to do your work first."
Nicky tried to keep from feeling too hopeful. "I cleaned my room, and I'll do all my homework tonight."
"The grass needs cutting."
"If I do that in the morning, can I go to my friends' house after lunch?"
"I don't want to drive you," his father poked his face back into the newspaper. "I've been gone all week and would like to relax."
"They'll pick me up," Nicky became nervous again as his father's resistance continued.
"Yes, have them come here," he finally agreed, snapping the newspaper to a new page. "I want to make sure you're not hanging out with a bunch of hooligans."
Nicky restrained an urge to jump for joy. After a pass through the kitchen to tell Emily the good news, he skipped upstairs to do his homework.
Read Chapter 4.
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