Nicky Delgado, Chapter 5

Fortunately, the fight between Nicky's parents turned out to be nothing more than a squabble over what supper was going to be. She had planned to have leftover casserole, but he wanted hamburgers. She complained about wasting good food, but gave into his demand to avoid further argument.

On Sunday morning Linda Delgado took her son and daughter to mass at a Catholic church located within walking distance. Nicky listened to the priest compare God to a father. Nicky didn't like God. His own father was bad enough, but to have a father like God who saw everything he did was unbearable.

He took a walk around the block after burgers for lunch. Some fellows from school, including Pete Warbler and Ed Paskei, were playing basketball in a driveway around the corner. Nicky watched for about a minute, wishing he could play sports, before walking on.

On the other side of the block, he was greeted by a large shaggy dog. The animal nearly knocked him over as it nuzzled his hand with a moist black nose and licked his arm almost to the elbow.

"Beowulf!" a boy's voice called. "Get away from him!"

Nicky saw a quartet of boys playing with a plastic football in a space between two houses.

"It's all right," Nicky called to the boy walking towards him. "Can I play with him?"

"Sure," the boy shrugged and returned to his friends.

Nicky ran onto the grass, but Beowulf tripped him and he rolled with the canine on the lawn. His face became buried in a mass of shaggy hair, but just as he was about to run out of air Beowulf jumped away. The dog leaned backward, with front legs stretched out and tail wagging like a metronome, and yelped for Nicky to follow him.

Nicky gave chase, but the dog never let him get closer than a few inches before running somewhere else in the yard. Finally Nicky sat down exhausted whereupon Beowulf plopped himself alongside, putting his head in Nicky's lap.

Nicky stroked his new friend behind the ears and watched the boys toss the football. After a short time they asked him to play quarterback for them.

"I can't throw," Nicky returned, causing Beowulf to perk up his head.

"Yes you can," a boy argued. "You're big."

Nicky decided to try it. Beowulf remained sprawled on the ground as he got up to join the game. The boys divided themselves into two teams with Nicky passing the ball for both sides. Unlike Mr. Walton, the boys didn't complain about how he threw the ball. He had so much fun that he forgot to ask them their names before he went home.

The temperature plummeted thirty degrees overnight. Nicky didn't remember arranging for the Simpsons to pick him up in the driveway so he waited at the corner on Monday morning. He shivered despite wearing his heaviest jacket. He wondered how he was going to make it through the winter. When the car finally arrived, he noticed the others didn't have jackets; just sweaters.

"Isn't the heater on?" Nicky thought the car was cold too.

Brian laughed.

"We don't need the heater until it's cold enough to see your breath," said Butch.

Eugene tried to be assuring. "I thought I was going to freeze when we moved here from Philadelphia, but it's not too bad. The people here talk about the cold just to brag."

Nicky wasn't convinced. He was going to hate winter except for one thing.

"What's snow like?"

"You've never seen snow?" Butch was incredulous.

Nicky shook his head.

"What a bummer to never have been in a snowball fight. Last year I nailed Marshall square in the face. It was great."

"He must have been mad."

"He was," Eugene put in. "He made a snowman out of Butch."

"What does snow feel like?" Nicky still hadn't heard a description.

"Have you ever held ice in your hand?" said Butch. "It feels like that."

That answer made sense to Nicky, although pictures of snow on television had given him the impression that it might feel like cotton.

"There are different kinds of snow," Eugene explained. "Fresh snow can be wet or dry depending on the temperature. Either way it gets crusty after it lies on the ground for a while."

They arrived at school, going to homeroom first. In English, Mrs. Kesselring was even more irritable than usual. She started shouting as soon as she looked over the assignments she collected from the class.

"Mutt! I want to know why there isn't a paper from you in here."

"I handed one in," Brian asserted. "How could you lose it already?"

Kesselring's face turned livid. "I'm not buying it, Mutt. What kind of an idiot do you think I am? I want to know why you didn't do your homework."

"I didn't have time," Brian shrugged.

"I want to know how you got in this class. I'm supposed to have the good students in this hour."

"There must have been a mistake."

"You bet there was! I'm going to get you transferred to the dumb class."

Butch snickered and Kesselring turned on him. "As for you, Butch Simpson, I can see you get into the upper classes by copying from Eugene."

"I didn't copy from Eugene," Butch denied.

"Why does everyone in this class think I'm stupid?" Kesselring was so exasperated that she turned a full circle in place. "Butch, your paper has the same indentation as Eugene's"

"Maybe he copied from me."

"Eugene's too smart to copy from someone who doesn't know what an adjective is, and I'm too smart to be fooled by you, so you better shape up. This is your last warning."

The teacher stared at Butch, waiting for a remark. When none came, she strutted to the front of the classroom, basking in her victory over Butch, and began a lesson on linking verbs.

The next hour, Mr. Much received a challenge for a game of Pig from Wanda Tyler. Wanda was a short black-haired girl with dimples, whom except for shorter hair Nicky thought resembled his sister. She took a two-letter-to-none lead over Much with a pair of blind over the shoulder shots.

"Don't you ever miss?" Much complained after she made the shot for a third time.

He took the same stance Wanda had with back to the basket, shifting his feet nervously. He fingered the paper wad in one hand while running the other hand through his hair. Taking a deep breath first, he attempted the shot. He turned around in time to see it go in and released the air in his lungs with one great exhale.

He grimaced as Wanda tried the shot again, but this time it bounced off the rim. She retrieved the wad and gave it to him. He looked at the basket, stroking his chin, and contemplated his shot.

"I bet you can't make the easy stuff," he ventured.

He performed a series of short range shots, but Wanda made them all.

"Let's try opposite hand," the teacher announced a change in strategy.

That worked. Her shot went wild. Much, smiling, exploited her weakness and won the game in two more turns.

"Whew! You were tough," he told her, wiping his brow. "I won't even give you double homework."

The class applauded as Wanda returned to her seat.

"That may have been close, but I still won," Much reminded his students. "I always win."

Later, before algebra, Eugene talked to Nicky. "I saw a notice on the bulletin board about Spanish Club. Are you going to that?"

"I want to but I don't have any friends in Spanish," said Nicky.

"I'll go with you," Eugene offered. "Do you think I can?"

"I'll ask Miss Wainwright."

Brian Muttilege, finished serving detentions, joined Nicky and the Simpsons for lunch. After they ate, the others taught Nicky another game; craps. Brian had a large bag of peanuts which they divided to use for betting. To avoid making too much noise, they rolled the dice on a padding of spiral notebooks. Nicky enjoyed the game because it appeared to be based on luck more than anything else. He managed to break even, while Brian displayed an uncanny ability to roll sevens and elevens on first shakes.

"What do you think you're doing?"

Nicky recognized the voice of Mrs. Kesselring, who doubled as the lunchroom supervisor.

"Playing a game," replied Butch.

"You can't use dice," said Kesselring. "There's a rule against gambling in this school."

"We're only playing for peanuts," Butch reasoned.

"I'm not going to argue with you. Give me those dice." Kesselring held out her flabby arm.

Butch shoved the dice across the table towards her, and she walked off with them.

"I'll see you guys later," Brian excused himself, taking a handful of his peanuts. He headed towards the southeast doors where students were allowed to smoke.

"What a stupid rule," said Butch. "They let you smoke, but you can't roll dice or play cards."

Nicky nodded in agreement. He was used to stupid rules though. Butch made a paper football, and they played that game for the rest of the lunch hour.

Nicky went to the library for fourth hour and was surprised when Butch accompanied him.

"My guy was the first dude to sail around the world, and yours was the second," said Butch. "We can work together."

"I don't know," Nicky hedged. "I want to work on my paper on my own."

"Here, let me show you what I've already got," Butch handed him some sheets of paper.

This ocean's never going to end! Nicky read. We ran out of food several days ago. The bread was moldy and full of worms, but we were so hungry we ate it anyway. Now some guys are fishing, but they haven't caught anything. The doctor says we can eat the leather from our shoes. Yech! I've been wearing these things since we left Spain, and I can't stand the smell of them.

What's worse is the crew thinks we officers have a stash of food someplace. Maybe Magellan does but I sure don't. I'm faced with eating my shoes like everyone else. Still, I think the men are plotting to ransack my cabin.

Nicky stopped reading. "Where did you read this stuff?" he asked.

"I made it up," Butch smiled.

"How can you do that?"

Butch took his paper back. "Mr. Fulcroft said to write some sort of diary. The history book says they ate leather, so I'm imagining what that was like. They had scurvy too. I need to find out more about that so I can make up another gross story."

He disappeared among the shelves to look for a book. Later, Nicky let him look at his paper.

"This is as boring as a history book," Butch rolled his lower lip. "You should put a pirate story in here. Have some guys walk the gangplank with their arms gashed open or something so the sharks eat them."

"Do you think that really happened?"

"Maybe. Just pretend you're one of Drake's crew."

Nicky liked Butch's idea. It made the assignment more fun. Before, he had been copying things from several books, but like Butch said, his paper still sounded like a history book. He started to think of a pirate movie he had once seen.

Mr. Fulcroft came into the library near the end of the hour, flapping his pointer as he talked with the librarian.

"I have an idea," Butch told Nicky, looking at Fulcroft with a big grin on his face. "I wonder what would happen if Fulcroft lost his pointer."

He didn't say anything more, for which Nicky was glad. If Butch was planning to steal Mr. Fulcroft's pointer, he didn't want to know about it. The bell rang and Butch left for his next class. Nicky spent the next hour beginning a rewrite of his history paper.

After Spanish class, he asked Miss Wainwright if Eugene could come to Spanish Club.

"He used to take Spanish," Nicky reasoned.

"Of course he can come!" Wainwright need no convincing. "I'm glad to have both of you come."

Nicky told Eugene in the car on the way home, so they planned to stay after school on Thursday for Spanish Club. Nicky hoped his mother would let him without making him ask his father for permission.

She asked for him as they ate hamburgers. Mark didn't care one way or the other, so Nicky was happy as he sat in front of the television to watch Star Trek. However, with fifteen minutes to go in the show, his father flicked off the set.

"You know the rule," he said sternly. "No more than half an hour of TV a day."

"But Dad," Nicky complained. "This show's an hour long."

"Then you shouldn't be watching it."

Nicky boiled with anger inside, but he didn't dare show it. He wanted to watch Star Trek. He liked seeing what the future might be like.

"Can I watch it every other day?"

"Enough whining!" his father shouted. "Go to your room, and no TV for the rest of the week." He continued yelling as Nicky retreated up the stairs. "I don't want to hear anything more out of you or you'll be grounded."

Upon reaching his room, Nicky shoved his homework off the dresser into a scattered pile on the floor. Then he rolled himself in his bedsheets and cried. Why did his father hate him so much? He didn't want to hate him back, but couldn't help it. Someday I'll get even, he promised himself.

As the tears subsided, he peered across the room to catch a distorted view of the trash can. He crawled out of the covers to get a sheet of paper, which he crinkled into a ball. Wiping the remaining water from his eyes first, he began to practice shooting.

The following afternoon Mr. Walton, the football coach, stormed into gym class like a raged bull. He singled Butch out for a jock check, who dutifully pulled the supporter strap from beneath his shorts.

"I want fifty pushups anyway!" Walton howled.

Butch put his hands on his hips as if to protest, but then dropped to the floor. Walton took a stance by his head and watched the first dozen or so pushups.

"I can't hear you counting," the teacher stooped to bark into Butch's ear. "None of these count until I hear you."

"One. Two. Three."

"Put your feet together," Walton demanded, kicking at Butch's ankle.

Butch pulled his legs together and continued. "Four. Five. Six." He maintained the same pace, but no longer touched his nose to the floor. "Seven. Eight. Nine."

"Those aren't pushups," Walton bawled. "The last three don't count."

"Yeh, and keep your stomach up," put in Larry Harris, whom Nicky noticed to be walking freely on the foot Butch had run over.

"Shut up, Harris," Walton lashed. "I'm taking care of this." Then he saw that Butch had stopped to catch his breath. "No resting! You owe me forty-four more pushups."

Butch let himself drop flat, infuriating Mr. Walton.

"Get up! Or would you rather take the pin test?"

Butch rolled on his back and replied, "Okay."

Walton stood silent for a moment. Then he retrieved a bowling pin from the equipment room and set it by Butch's feet.

"Put your hands behind your head," he commanded. Butch obeyed. "Now raise your feet over the pin."

Walton continued as Butch strained to keep his feet up. "The pin test is a test of wills; mine against yours. You will hold your feet over the pin until I say you can put them down. If you so much as touch the pin, I'll make you keep them up even longer."

Butch's face soon turned red. He grunted and snorted as he struggled to keep his shaky legs raised above the pin. Nicky's stomach felt wrenched like a wrung dishcloth.

"As you can see," said Walton, panning the gymnasium full of students with a menacing glare. "The pin test is something you want to avoid." He returned his attention to Butch. "This is a battle of wills, Simpson, and I intend to break yours. I've seen the pin test make the toughest guys cry."

Butch dropped his feet into the pin and sent it spinning into the bleachers with a scissors kick. He scrambled to his feet and stood toe to toe with his tormentor.

"Stick your pin test."

Walton's hand balled into a fist, and he almost took the bait to slug Butch. Instead, his shout echoed through the rafters. "Get out of my gym!"

Butch walked, head erect, out the nearest door. Walton paced in front of the class with both hands clasped behind his back.

"Mr. Simpson thinks he's really something, but I'm going to make sure he regrets this," his teeth showed as he ranted. "Time for exercises. If you don't like them, thank Butch."

Walton worked the class for the rest of the hour. The gruelling series of jumping jacks, pushups, situps, toe touches, and squat thrusts left every muscle in Nicky's body screaming for mercy. Walton even threw in a double portion of the murderous fingertip pushups. He kept the class right to the bell, causing Nicky to be late for history by the time he showered and changed. Fortunately, class still met in the library and Mr. Fulcroft didn't notice.

Nicky sat stiffly through the last two hours of school. The scene in the gym replayed through his mind. He saw the snarling lips of Mr. Walton, and the muscles stretched in his neck. The teacher's shouts still rang in his ears, filling him with dread. He remembered Butch's defiance; the kicking of the pin, the face to face confrontation, and the proud exit.

He walked silently out of school with his friends, still shaken.

"I hear you got thrown out of gym today," Brian elbowed Butch.

Butch shrugged. "Walton got really pissed when he wasn't able to scare me."

Questions raced through Nicky's head. How could Butch not be afraid of Mr. Walton? Didn't he know that the teacher could kill him with exercises and pin tests for the rest of the year? What if Walton had punched Butch? What would keep him from flunking Butch?

"He scares everybody else," said Eugene.

"I don't know why," said Butch. "All he can do is yell. Big deal. I'd love it if he laid a hand on me, because then Marshall would pound the crap out of him."

"He can flunk you," Eugene said what Nicky was thinking.

"I doubt Dad cares whether or not I pass gym class," Butch snorted. "It's the real classes he's concerned about."

The car came into view. Its hood stood wide open.

"What the hell?" Butch ran in for a closer look. "Someone's been pulling wires," he spoke, still peering into the engine, as the others approached.

"The air's been let out of the tires," Eugene observed. Nicky saw both tires deflated on the driver's side.

"Over here too," Brian said from the other side.

"Larry Harris must have done this," Butch whirled about.

His jaw quivered and his eyes narrowed. Nicky had never seen him so upset. Butch lost whatever remained of his temper after peering into the passenger compartment. He stomped around, unleashing a tirade of obscenities. Looking himself, Nicky saw foam bursting from slashes in the seats. He felt a hand on his shoulder.

It was Eugene. "You may as well walk home, Nicky."

Nicky agreed. He didn't have much stomach for sticking around while Butch raved like a lunatic. I won't be much help anyway, he reasoned. His steps weighed heavily. He had already endured too much conflict for one day, and the situation at home offered no better.

Read Chapter 6.

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