Chapter Excerpt

"Hachoooo"-phhhhht! 1

Remember me? My name is Keats. I was this year's spelling bee champion for our elementary school. I was the first fourth grader to ever win. Usually fifth graders win because they have had an extra year of spelling practice and are more mature and calm under pressure. My win made the front page of the newspaper. There was a picture of me holding my trophy, with my smiling classmates surrounding and congratulating me with pats on my shoulder. It was a posed photograph, kind of like the pictures of the movie stars in the Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair, except nobody had their shirt unbuttoned or puffy lip injections. The photographer stood on top of a desk, so the picture looks like it was taken from the sky. His pants were unzipped. We were all giggling in the picture because Craig said, "X-Y-Z-P-D-Q." My uncle Max says it all the time. It means "Examine your zipper pretty darn quick." Dad always says, "Your cows are getting out," when my zipper is down.

Somebody made bunny ears behind my head in the newspaper photo, but I didn't care. Uncle Max says, "Any publicity is good publicity!" He has a newspaper clipping on his refrigerator with his name in the police blotter from the time he got a speeding ticket on Main Street. "Forty-five in a thirty-five." I don't know what that means, but Uncle Max says it with a bragging smile like it's a big achievement.

Now that I've won the spelling bee, the teachers at school wave to me and say hello like I'm a celebrity. My best friend, Sarah, says that she's surprised that I haven't been asked to be a host of the Miss America pageant. I think she was kidding. Sarah is my best friend and she teases me. She says it's to "keep me down with the real people." She's worried that my winning the spelling bee will go to my head and I will be full of myself like my big sister Lulu.

Lulu is in the eighth grade and is good at everything. Dad says that she's "high strung" because she is always worried about rules and homework deadlines. She's the eighth-grade class president, and instead of trying to get a snack machine in the cafeteria or a new tree planted in the quad, she attends school board meetings and tries to convince the superintendent to "make the curriculum more challenging." Those are her words, not mine. Teachers used to call me Lulu's little brother, but that changed after I won the spelling bee. Now they just call me Keats. I wish they'd call me Champ.

My other older sister is India. She's the exact opposite of Lulu. Dad calls India "mellow" because she never worries about grades or rules. She only worries about hemlines and stitching because she wants to be a clothing designer when she grows up. India is in the fifth grade and is always giving fashion advice to the teachers. Mrs. House, my fourth-grade teacher, used to wear white blouses and long skirts, but she cut her hair and started wearing tight black clothes after India told her that the "peasant look" was over. India didn't say it in a mean way. She never says anything in a mean way. Mom calls her "tactful." Tactful means you can tell the truth without hurting people's feelings. Like when I pointed out Dad's bald spots by telling him they were cute. It didn't hurt his feelings, but it let him know that he had bald spots.

My little sister, Belly, isn't very tactful. She once pointed to a large man at the grocery store who had a long beard and said loud enough for him to hear, "MOM, HAGRID!" Hagrid is the giant, hairy guy in the Harry Potter movies. Mom pushed the cart down the aisle so fast that Belly, who was riding in the seat, dropped DecapiTina, her headless doll, on the white tile floor. Poor DecapiTina. DecapiTina wasn't always headless. She used to be a really pretty doll. Now she's just a dirty old doll body, but Belly refuses to throw her away. She says that she'd still love Mom and Dad if they didn't have heads. I guess she has a point.

Dad laughed when Mom told him the Hagrid story, even though she was trying to get his sympathy and probably a hug. Dad works in an office and wears suits. His job starts each day with two cups of coffee. Mom only drinks one cup each morning, and then she brushes her teeth and eats an Altoid. She says that she has to have fresh breath because she's always talking to people at the art museum where she works. She hangs the paintings and photographs on the walls, and then she takes me to see them to get my opinion. She says I'm good with lines and space and that I will probably grow up to be an architect and that she wants me to build her a modern house. But I want to be a concierge so I can tell people where to eat and what movies to see. T.G.I. Friday's and anything with Johnny Depp in it.

The manny says I would be a great concierge. He's always letting me do things for him like call in for his telephone messages and shine his shoes. The manny is our male nanny. We had a lot of nannies before him, but they were all women. Sarah thinks that if a male nanny is called a manny, then a woman nanny should be called a wanny. Sarah has an odd sense of humor. This spring she told our teacher, Mrs. House, that she was going to give up cigarettes and booze for lent, but not coffee. Mrs. House laughed but looked like Sarah's joke made her uncomfortable, like she might call Sarah's mother and ask to meet with her.

The manny is so much fun. Even Lulu thinks so. She didn't use to. She even tried to get him fired by keeping a list of things that he did that she thought were inappropriate. Like "hickey checks" when he picked her up from school dances. Lulu called her list "The Manny Files." We had a family court about it to decide if the manny should stay. I stuck up for the manny and convinced Mom and Dad that Lulu was power hungry and that she was the only one who didn't like the manny. Lulu likes him now. She figured out that he gives good advice about romance.

"Always have a boyfriend around holidays so that you get gifts."

"Always look your very best, even if you're just running out to get the mail, because you never know where you're going to find true love."

"Never sneeze on a date."

That last one is especially for India, because when she sneezes, she accidentally passes gas. It sounds like this: "Hachooo"-phhht, like her whole body is exploding. Then she gets really red faced. Uncle Max calls it a "snoot" because it's both a sneeze and a toot.

My uncle Max thinks the manny's fun too. Uncle Max is my mom's brother. He's a painter, and he likes art just as much as my mom does. Mom and Uncle Max inherited their artistic ability from my grandma. She used to live with us and liked to look at art books with me. Grandma died last summer, but some of her ashes are still blowing around in our yard. We scattered them in the garden that we planted for her. I found some of the ashes next to a lilac bush and put them in between the pages of her favorite Andrew Wyeth art book, which I keep in my top drawer with my underwear. Grandma would get a kick out of being put in my underwear drawer. Grandma got a kick out of a lot of things.

Uncle Max and the manny are roommates, and they're always laughing and hugging. Lulu gets mad at them because she thinks that PDAs are disgusting. "PDA" means "public display of affection." The manny and Uncle Max love teasing Lulu. The madder Lulu gets, the more PDAs they do.

Copyright © 2008 by Christian Burch

Pidizzle 2

The spelling bee was at the beginning of the school year. Now -- woo-hoo! -- it's the last week of school and, more importantly, the week before my birthday. Mom and Dad say they have a big surprise for me for my birthday. On India's birthday they told her they had a big surprise for her, too. It was her very own sewing machine. She screamed and jumped up and down like a contestant on The Price Is Right when she opened it. When I was sick and stayed home from school, the manny and I watched The Price Is Right. Now when the manny calls me for dinner, he yells, "Keats Dalinger, come on down!" and I run into the kitchen screaming and guessing how much the Mrs. Butterworth's syrup costs ($3.25).

India used the sewing machine to make us all scarves for Christmas. They were pretty, but they weren't very warm because they were only made out of old T-shirts. Lulu only wore her scarf once because she was afraid the material might have come from the yellow armpit part of one of Dad's old T-shirts. Dad sweats a lot. Mom wears her scarf all the time. Sometimes she wears it wrapped around her head with her sunglasses on like she's Jackie O. Jackie O. was married to President John F. Kennedy, but she wasn't called Jackie O. then. She was the First Lady and is famous for wearing hats made out of pillboxes. It sounds strange to me, but I once saw a girl with a dress made out of credit cards in a magazine, so I guess anything is possible in fashion. After President Kennedy was assassinated, Jackie married a guy whose last name was Onassis; that's why they call her Jackie O. If people called me by my Jackie O. name, it would be Keats D. because my last name is Dalinger, but that sounds too much like a rapper.

I hope my birthday surprise is a lock on my door. Every day when I come home from school, I discover Belly has stolen things from my room. Crayons. Books. Cuff links. I once came home and she had taken all of my GQ magazines that Uncle Max had given me after he was done reading them. Belly tore the mouths out of the cover models so that she could stick her lips through the holes and make the pictures talk. She made them say things like, "Oooh, sexy. Kiss her on the lips," and then she wagged her tongue around. Mom saw her do it and decided it would be better if Belly only watched television in the mornings from now on.

Belly talks more than she used to since she turned four. A lot more. And she's really loud. The manny says Belly has a foghorn voice. When she wakes up in the morning, she doesn't get herself out of bed. She likes for Mom to come get her. Belly yells, "MAAAAAAWM! HER NEEDS YOUR HELP!" at the top of her lungs. She also refers to herself as "her" instead of "I" or "me." It drives Lulu nuts. She's always trying to correct her because she says that grammar is the key to getting ahead. I don't know what she thinks Belly needs to get ahead in. She pretty much runs our house.

Belly is so loud that she sounds like that guy on television who builds houses for underprivileged families or families with disabled kids. Except he has a megaphone. Mom watches that show on Sunday nights while Dad cooks dinner. Sundays are his day to cook. His specialty is grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. He makes the soup out of a can, but he pretends that it's homemade and hides the empty cans deep inside the trash can underneath paper towels. We pretend that we don't know.

Mom watches the home makeover show and cries. Once there were kids on the show whose bones were really fragile. They called them the "glass children." It was scary because the yeller guy jumped over the "glass children" when he was playing around with them in their new, safe padded room. Mom screamed out loud when he did it and said that he should be given a sedative before he broke one of the children. Lulu says that Belly will probably jump around and scream like that when she's an adult. Dad says that Belly has "Courtney Love tendencies." I don't know who Courtney Love is, but Dad usually says it when Belly's walking around with her dress lifted up or throwing a tantrum on the living-room floor.

The manny watches the show too and points out when Lulu's crying. He doesn't do it so that she knows he's doing it. He taps me on the leg and then points to Lulu when she's wiping her tears away. She started watching the show with a blanket around her head so that we couldn't see her face. But we can still hear her sniffling. Lulu doesn't like people to see her be emotional. She says that she doesn't want the attention. I don't believe her. She also pretends to be embarrassed when the manny teases her, but I can tell she likes it by the way she sings, "Don't...stop!" It sounds more like, "Don't stop."

Lulu treats the manny like he's her personal assistant and stylist. She asks him to do things for her like she's a celebrity. Make her hair appointments, get her a bottle of water, pick the green M&M's out of her movie snack.

One time when we went to the grocery store, Lulu even asked him to carry an umbrella over her head because she had seen someone carrying one over P. Diddy in a magazine. Except I don't think his name is P. Diddy anymore. He changes it all the time, like he's running from the law. Puff Daddy. Puffy. Pidizzle.

The manny thought that Lulu had gone too far with her umbrella request. Instead of carrying the umbrella over Lulu, he took it and began singing and dancing. "I'm singing in the rain, and Lulu is ashamed. What a glorious feeling. Lulu Dalinger's her name." He sang it really loudly, so that people were laughing and pointing.

Lulu screeched, "Don't say my name!" and ran into the store to get away from him. When she reached the automatic doors where the shopping baskets were, she tripped on a mop and skidded across the wet floor on her stomach like the penguins from the movie where they walk back and forth to the ocean. I laughed so hard that I nearly wet my pants. Lulu laughed too. Especially when the manny started twirling the umbrella and singing, "Under my umbrella. Ella. Ella. Ella."

Lulu's fun when she doesn't take herself so seriously, or at least that's what Mom says.

Copyright © 2008 by Christian Burch


Excerpted from Hit the Road, Manny: A Manny Files Novel by Christian Burch
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