Saturday, January 21, 2012

Monday, January 16, 2012


Finally they reached Manhattan, and then the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and then a spot outside some Port Authority restrooms, where Ms. Egami asked if anyone had to go and Scott raised his hand so energetically he heard his back crack.

He rushed into a narrow stall and was punched in the nose by the smell. The toilet showed signs of having been visited by either a very large man or a very small horse, but Scott didn’t feel he had the time to be picky. He spun out enough toilet paper to vandalize a house and carefully cleaned the seat.

Dizzy, he nearly dropped his backpack to the floor, then got a closer look at the floor. Instead he looped it over a hook on the stall door and then a great vinegar wave crashed over him and his knees gave and he gripped the seat and sputtered his breakfast into the bowl.

 A minute later he flushed and turned.

Afterward, he’d realize he didn’t think about it at all—when he saw the hand appear over the top of the door and reach for his bag, Scott lunged forward and seized it at the wrist. The tiny wrist, attached to the tiny hand on an arm like a doll’s. A real ugly doll made from dried fruit and old footballs.

The hand squirmed. Scott looked down beneath the stall door for the thief’s feet. There were no feet. Scott considered his options, and so did the thief.

“Well now, son,” said the thief in a voice that was both high and coarse, like a kazoo. There was something a little foreign about it too. Australian, maybe, or Irish? “It seems you’ve got me. So wha’ d’yeh suppose you’ll do with me?”

 Still holding the tiny wrist, Scott unlatched the door and opened it just enough to poke his head around. It was a tiny man, this man who was trying to take Scott’s bag. He couldn’t have been more than two feet tall, with a miniature red tracksuit and his arm hooked over the top of the stall door. His tiny old-man face was pug nosed and underbitten like some overbred kind of dog, and it seemed puckered with sadness. Not to mention oddly familiar. If it wasn’t for this familiarity, and for the feel of the man’s arm in his hand, Scott would have mistaken him for another aura. 

“Yeh don’ happen to have somethin’ to eat, do yeh, lad?” the little man asked. “I’d be in your debt. ’Tis always a blessing to have one o’ the Good Folk in your debt.”

Scott glanced around the restroom. Men and boys were coming and going, but none were paying any attention to what he considered to be a fairly unusual tiny-man-hanging-on-a-toilet-door situation. That’s New Yorkers for you, he supposed.

“Except when it’s not a blessing, yeh know,” the thief continued. “Speakin’ fair, the blessings o’ the Good Folk can be worse than the curses.”

“You could have just asked in the first place,” Scott muttered. “You didn’t have to try and steal my bag.”

“Asking is begging. Pitiful. Want to punch myself in the eye for even tryin’ it. Stealin’ is good, honest work,” said the thief, puffing out his chest.

“Well, not honest, strictly speaking,” he admitted, after a moment. “Or actually good.”

They were interrupted by Denton Peters, who barged through the men’s room door, shouting Scott’s name like it was a swear word.

“I’m right here,” said Scott.

“Ms. Egami wants to know what’s taking so long,” said Denton. “You got the squirts? Should I tell her you have a bad case of the squirts?”

“No! I’m just . . . this guy was trying to steal my backpack.”

“Yeah? And you’re scared he’s gonna come back?”

Scott gaped at Denton.

“Need yeh to let me go now, son,” the thief said to Scott.

“Are you telling me you can’t see the . . . little . . . guy hanging here?” Scott asked Denton.

Denton frowned in the little man’s general direction, and then Scott thought he saw a flash of recognition on the boy’s face. He’d seen something. Denton Peters squinted, titled his head, crossed his eyes like he was trying to cope with an optical illusion.

“I can . . . sorta see,” he whispered.

“Just sorta?”

“He’s like a mirage.”

What Denton Peters saw next was a sort of prismatic blur, and then Scott jerked back his arm, yelping with pain. Scott pushed past him and scowled into the distance.

Denton followed his gaze to the men’s room door.

“Uh . . . what just happened?”

Scott unhooked his backpack. “Your mirage bit my hand.”

Oh Huck! seemed like kind of a lousy musical, but Scott supposed he might have been in the wrong mood. 

His migraine vanished shortly after leaving the bus terminal, but on the way to the theater Denton staunchly denied having seen anything unusual in the men’s room apart from the new kid hiding from imaginary elves. Denton had by this time already forgotten Scott’s name, however, and most of the other kids didn’t know who he was talking about, and Scott had hidden behind Carla Owens until it all blew over.

Scott was quiet as they returned to the bus terminal through the toy store dazzle of Times Square.

“I just don’t think they should have made the raft a separate character,” said Emily.

“Riff-Raft?” said Erno. “But she’s the narrator. She told you what was going on.”

“Mark Twain didn’t need a talking raft in the book. Or a rapping scarecrow.”

“Scott, tell my sister that everything doesn’t have to be exactly like the precious book.”

Scott started. “What?”

“You’re still upset,” Emily told him. “About Denton teasing you.”

“No. No, I’m fine.”

“Forget about it,” said Erno. “Everyone else has.”

The thing is, they probably had. Scott was nothing if not forgettable.

Back at the Port Authority there was some sort of situation. Two flashing police cruisers were up on the sidewalk in front of the entrance, grille to grille. A crowd had formed, and three uniformed officers attempted to push back these people with outstretched arms and patently false claims that there was nothing to see. Another officer, on horseback, paced the street. And in the center of it all, two more policemen squared off against each other like big dogs.

“Let’s not do this here, man,” one of these officers was saying in soothing tones. “We can talk about it at the station.”

The other man took a step back, took a step forward, his boyish face tangled with fear and anger. “We’ll go back to the station when you admit I’ve apprehended a suspect!” he said, pointing to the backseat of one of the cop cars. “This is not cool, guys! I know I’m the rookie and all, but—”

“Not in front of the juveniles,” said the first officer, glancing at Scott’s class.

“We’re not juveniles,” Erno muttered.

“It just means kids,” said Emily. “Nothing bad.”

An electronic red news crawl on an adjoining building declared the dow down and reggie dwight punches queen and then police disruption at port authority bus terminal. It flashed like a marquee for the weird bit of drama playing out in front of them.

Scott craned his neck to look at the rookie’s car. There was someone in the backseat, but the suspect was very small. Smaller than a toddler. He wondered. . . . 

If Scott Doe had a talent, it was his ability to walk about unnoticed. When not actually calling attention to himself in bus station bathrooms or by defending his indefensible given name, he was one of those kids who could practically disappear in a crowded room. Inconspicuous. Unremarkable. It had always been that way.

So now when Scott shuffled away from his class and approached the police car, Ms. Egami did not notice. Even Erno and Emily didn’t notice, transfixed as they were by the police and the strobing lights. Scott stepped up to the cruiser on the street side, away from the cops, and looked in the rear window.

It was the little man again. He was slumped in the backseat, his round fists ringed by silver handcuffs like tiny planets. He could have just slipped them free if he wanted to. Apparently he didn’t want to.

“Look, Pete . . . ,” the cop was telling the rookie. “We need to get you some help. There is no one in back of your squad car. There is nothing but a pair of empty cuffs.”

“Fight!” Denton Peters suggested from the sideline, and Ms. Egami tried to shush him. “Shoot something!”

The window was open a crack. The little man sniffed and looked up at Scott.

“Oh. ’S you. Come to gloat?”

“I can see you,” Scott said quietly into the gap, “and that policeman can see you, but nobody else can.”

“You’re a regular Sherlock Holmes, yeh are. Quick now an’ offer your services to those coppers! They could use a brilliant mind like yours.”

“Why can I see you? Am I crazy?” Scott asked, worried suddenly that his headaches were the sign of something else, something festering in his brain.

The little man studied him for a second. “Set me free, and I’ll explain everythin’.”

Scott looked again at the handcuffs, so large against the man’s wrists that they looked like a practical joke. “Why can’t you—”

“It’s complicated.”

“Were you stealing again? Is that what happened?”

“What else am I to do? Work for a livin’? Make shoes?”

Scott breathed, and tested the door. He expected a police car to be locked, but it wasn’t.

“Hey,” one of the police officers said just then. “Hey, your door is open.”

Scott ducked down, and the little man scootched to the edge of the car seat, rattling his handcuffs.


Scott pulled them off, easy as anything. And that’s when the little man leaped up onto his shoulder, ran down the length of his back, and was away.

“Hey!” said Scott. “Come back!”

The small red tracksuit slipped into the street, dodging traffic. Then the clop of hooves, and the mounted policeman was towering over Scott, her horse snorting thick, furious clouds.

 The officer was shouting. Scott cowered. It might have gone badly for him had the horse not chosen just then to turn into a unicorn, and throw its rider, and turn back into a horse again.

The policewoman landed on the pavement, hard. Scott ducked and dashed back to meet his class as the other officers rushed to her aid.

“There you are,” said Erno when Scott turned up beside him, panting. “Did you see that horse rear back like that?”

Scott goggled—at the flashing squad cars, the Keystone cops, the plain brown horse mincing about. Just a horse.

“I’m having kind of a weird day,” said Scott.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

It's Like Looking In a Dead Pottery Mirror

Tucson artist Vicki Lazaro made a raku ware calavera mask of me in exchange for a visit to her son's school.  I do not, to be clear, usually make out this well on school visits.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

An Open Letter to the Mother Who Thinks One of My Monster Poems is Inappropriate for Children

(I received an email from the mother in question a few days ago.  She was kind enough to tell me she and her 8-year-old liked my book Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, but that the whole family was shocked and disappointed by the opening line from the mummy poem.  The opening lines are: "There's a place in France where the naked ladies dance./ But when King Tut died, he wore bandages for pants."  What follows is my response to her email.)

Letters like yours are always distressing.  It's never been my intention to offend parents or introduce children to any material I believe is inappropriate to their age.  Of course there will always be spirited disagreement about just what is appropriate for children and what is not, and so here we are.

Why did I include the bit about the naked ladies in my poem?  It was my intent with the mummy poem to craft something that would be understood to be read to a particular tune, in much the same way as the Phantom poems are in the same volume.  When we take a cartoonish view of ancient Egypt we often think of a song that's familiar to nearly all Americans, even if most of us are unfamiliar with its actual title and history: "The Streets of Cairo, or The Poor Little Country Maid."

Of course, children everywhere have been singing this song to one another for decades with the schoolyard lyrics, "There's a place in France where the naked ladies dance, there's a hole in the wall where the boys can see it all," etc.  I can't know if your son was familiar with this, of course.  Maybe you weren't either, though I certainly knew it thirty years ago, when I was eight.  My wife tells me that she sang it as a little girl as well.

Regardless, my early drafts of the mummy poem didn't contain that line about the naked ladies.  But I discovered that readers were not intuitively realizing that they should be reading it to the "Streets of Cairo" tune, so I rewrote it with that first line from the playground standard.

I respectfully disagree that the line is inappropriate for school-aged kids, but I don't expect to change your mind.  I take no pleasure, anyway, from learning that it bothered your son.  But I hope you understand that I had an editor on this book, and that editor had a boss, and that boss had a boss.  Likewise the publisher had a sales and marketing team that shared the book with hundreds of teachers and librarians before its publication.  The poem was published as is because none of these people voiced any objections.  Indeed, the book has been available for over five years, and this is the first objection to it I've received.

None of this means you're wrong, of course.  You're certainly not wrong about the care and raising of your own son.  But I want you to understand that there was nothing careless or cavalier about the years-long process of writing and producing Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich.  I hope you'll continue to enjoy it with your son, and to paperclip together the pages of the mummy poem until you return it to your library.

Best Wishes,


Monday, January 9, 2012

Thursday, January 5, 2012