I hugged the warm loaf of bread, liking the crunching sound of the foil as well as the aroma as I pressed my nose and inhaled as much as I could. Up the far end of the street I could see Dean delivering the evening paper. He looked my way and saw me, then waved back. “Hey, Fran!” he yelled, and I skipped down the street to meet him.
“Hi, Dean.” I fell in step with him. He pitched a newspaper right smack in the middle of the Simmons’ front stoop. “Hey, that’s pretty good!”
Dean smiled and shrugged. “That’s because I practice pitching a lot. My dad spends every Saturday coaching me. Like every weekend we play catch or one-on-one.”
“Well, you’re lucky. I only get a lot of advice, mostly from my mom.” He looked at me as if I had meant it to be funny so I smiled pretending I had.
“No, Fran, you’re luck-lucky.” I’d almost forgotten he stuttered until then.
“Why am I lucky? You’re not the one who has to listen to my mom lecturing me all the time.”
“Because.” He stopped, folded a paper and shoved it into a newspaper box. “It’s just my-my dad and me.”
I suddenly felt kind of sad, for I’d heard rumors Dean lived alone with his dad, but I hadn’t thought much about it. “Gosh, that must be tough, not having a mother.”
Dean squinted as he looked at me, and I could see in his eyes that it hurt him to talk about this. I wished I could have somehow shared my mom with him, which made me want to wrap my arms around her and give her the biggest hug ever.
I thought it best to change the subject altogether. “You know, you’re awfully good at basketball. I watched part of the game the other day.”
“I’m all right. I know I’ll never be a st-star, but I’m good enough to play on the team.”
“I wish I were as good.” I didn’t mean to sound all sorry for myself because I had been feeling pretty good about the way things had gone, after all, today.
“That’s just it—you-you are, Fran. S-s-some of the other guys think so, too. You just let Marcy bully you.
You don’t have to take that, you know. She might be athletic, and Ursala, too, but two people don’t make a team. I don’t want to be like Steve or Chase. It’s okay by me if they want to be superstars. I don’t mind being just a team player.”
“It doesn’t seem fair that others can’t just leave you alone.” I was thinking about him and me, too. “You know, let you do your best and leave it at that.”
“That’s what I was trying to say. You just got to do it. If you can’t ignore Marcy; stand up to her.”
I looked at him, not really mad or anything. “Everyone’s got advice to give, huh?”
He laughed. “Yeah. Like my dad says, ‘Take mine; it’s free.’”
“Do you deliver papers the same time every day?” We were getting close to my house, and I wanted to share my good news. “I’ll probably see you almost everyday.”
“Just about. It’s a pretty large paper route. You thinking about getting a route of your own?”
“No, I got a job walking the Wessenfelds’ dogs.” I pointed at their house, and the Three Musketeers were lined up at the fence, watching us, as if they were at the movies and we were actors on the screen.
“Boy! That’ll be a sight to see! I can’t wait!” Dean slapped a newspaper into the next box. “Fran s-s-streaking down the street.”
That was kind of funny, but I wanted him to know I could handle the dogs. “They’re not that bad. Mr. Wessenfeld said they’re really good on leashes. How far does your route go?”
“Over to Main and Camellia.”
“Yes, I guess I will see you when I’m out with the dogs.”
“Yeah, that’d be all right.” We came to my house, and Dean handed me a newspaper, sort of hanging onto to it for a minute until he had finished speaking. “Maybe you could come over to my house on the weekend, and we could shoot some baskets. I’ll show you some things I know that might help you.”
“Thanks.” I waved good-bye, wrapping the newspaper around the loaf of bread and went in the back door to the living room.
I sat awhile in my dad’s chair, wondering if I couldn’t make things better for myself at school, too, with Marcy and Sue, and maybe patch up the holes in the friendship with Annie. How much worse could it be than what I’d gone through today? I was probably as scared as I ever remember being in my whole life, yet I managed to get through it. I mean, I went into enemy territory and came out with a loaf of bread, a job, and some mighty unexpected friends, like the Wessenfelds and the Three Musketeers. Even better, I had a new source of paperback books that the local branch library seems to be so short of every week. Dean made it sound easy enough to stand up for myself, and I felt that I could make myself do anything I had a mind to do.
Well, it looked as if the only way I could find out if there was anything to this magic streak of mine was to give Marcy a call. I put the bread on my lap, sniffing that wonderful aroma as I dialed Marcy’s number from the downstairs telephone. “Uh, Marcy? This is Fran.”
I expected her to slam the phone down in my ear, but she didn’t, just breathed real hard and waited for me to continue. “I didn’t think it was right that Mrs. Hammershaw made you guys write that essay.”
“You can spare me your sympathy, Franny. I don’t want it.”
“You know Marcy,” I shot back, “you didn’t have any real good reasons for not liking me. If that’s really important.”
I figured I had her attention and could keep her listening for another minute. “You don’t have to like me, but I think it hurts our team when we can’t get along. I think we lost that last game because we couldn’t concentrate on the plays, like Miss Ford said. And we both know we can’t afford to lose anymore games.”
“So you’re not going to come to anymore games, Fran?” It sounded like Marcy started out wanting to be sarcastic, and then changed her mind. “Of course, I didn’t mean that.” But then she added, “I wouldn’t want you to tell anyone I said that.”
This was getting me nowhere, faster than I wanted to go. “You think you can win the game by yourself, Marcy? You’re good, but not that good, and most of the other girls think so, too. At least six people told me they wished you would stop trying so hard to do it all yourself. The idea is to be the best team, not the best player.”
“I don’t believe that six people would even talk to you, Franny Fruitcake!” she snarled, about to hang up, I’m sure.
“Wait, Marcy! You know it’s true! Only Ursala, Annie, and Sue talked to you after our last game. And half the team told Miss Ford that they didn’t really care if we made the play-offs or not. Just ask Miss Ford.” I listened to Marcy’s angry breathing even out then felt it safe to go on.
“Look, Marcy, we have two more practices before the next big game. I don’t want to be your best friend or anything, but I don’t like us being mean to one another, either. I’m going to be there, and I’m going to sign up for basketball, too.” The funny thing was I hadn’t felt all that brave until I said aloud what I meant to do. I guess I might have come right out and said, “Let’s make a deal,” but I couldn’t quite do that.
She heaved a sigh, and I thought I was in for a rash of irritation. “We’re stuck with one another, then, huh, Fran?”
I waited for the nasty aside that didn’t come, so I spoke up. “Yeah, we’re stuck with one another.”
“We get on each other’s nerves, you know?” She was tapping on something, and the little ticking sounds echoed in the receiver.
“Yeah, like a bad habit.” I thought about what I had said and hurried to add, “But, hey, we could break a bad habit, you know?”
“Yeah, maybe. I’ve got to go, Fran.”
“See you tonight at practice, Marcy.” She hadn’t hung up mad, at least she hadn’t sounded as if she was mad, and I thought maybe she would think it over.
I felt pretty certain that Marcy and I were going to find a way to get along. But just what would I do if things continued on the same way? I drummed my fingers on the table, thinking.
Well, for one thing, I concluded, I wasn’t the same, so what would happen wouldn’t be the same either. I had made my mind up about playing on the volleyball and basketball team, doing my best, and being a good team player, and right now, I felt really good about myself.
I slipped the newspaper on the seat of my dad’s easy chair as I made my way into the kitchen where my mom was fixing dinner. I dropped the bread on the kitchen counter by the sink, then gave Mom a big bear hug and smacked a kiss on her cheek.
“Whatever was that for?” she asked, obviously surprised.
“Oh, because.” I scraped carrot peelings into the garbage and searched through the drawer for a black tie to twist around the top of the liner, making tracks for the back door. She just smiled when I told her about my job walking the dogs and how Mr. Wessenfeld wanted to trade books with me.
She looked real pleased when she spied the loaf of bread. “Did you remember…?”
“Yes, I remembered to say ‘thank you.’” I slid the shiny, foiled loaf along counter, then gave it a shove into her cupped hands. “And I know I still have to change my clothes, practice the piano and the trumpet, and do my homework. Are we having anything good for dinner?”
“Since you’re feeling so sassy, how about clam chowder?”
I grabbed my throat and pretended to choke to death because she knew I hated clam chowder even more than spinach. “If I don’t do all those things, what’ll we have?” That made her laugh, and I knew I’d scored a “gotcha.”
“We’re having your favorite tonight, Frances, steak and potatoes.” I gave a loud whoop for joy, but then she added, “And broccoli.”
Well, I guess you can’t have everything 100-percent perfect. “Peaches for dessert?” I asked hopefully.
She nodded, pointing to Mrs. Wessenfeld’s loaf of bread. “It’ll still be warm and delicious, too.”
“Yeah. You know what, Mom?” I snitched a cookie, knowing she’d let it go this time. “I called Marcy, and I think we’ve made a deal to get along. I bet you see a big difference at our next game.”
Mom looked sort of surprised; more like stunned. I smiled at her as I swiped the last cookie on the plate and headed for my room. I had in mind that I’d go over to Dean’s house late Sunday afternoon and shoot some baskets, then leash up the Three Musketeers to get them used to me walking them. That way, it wouldn’t be too hard to get into a new routine on Monday.
I had just about completed the last question at the end of the chapter review of “Water and Our Environment” when Annie called. “Hi, Fran. I didn’t copy down the science assignment. Did you?”
I had a funny feeling that she hadn’t really forgotten to do it at all. Her mom never let her use the telephone until after all her homework was done. “Yeah, it’s chapter eleven review questions on page fifty-eight.”
“Oh, great, that’s what I thought.” There was this pause long enough for a television commercial.
“Uh, Fran, I really am sorry about what happened. I don’t want you to be mad about it.”
Mad? Who me? I wanted to say but didn’t. “Aw, it’s all right, I guess.”
“You’re going to practice tonight, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, are you?” I know she is, because she never misses a practice session or a game.
“My mom can take me, but I need a ride home. Do you think your mom can bring me home?”
Boy, did I want to say something, like why didn’t she ask Marcy or Sue for a ride home, but suddenly I thought maybe Annie was trying to be my friend again. Why not? She had to write that stupid paper, and I could see that things were pretty even now between us.
“Hang on a minute and I’ll ask.” I knew my mom would say yes, which she does. “It’s okay, Annie.”
“Great! Well, I guess I better go. We’ll really have to work on our serves tonight, won’t we?”
“Yeah, but I think our team can get it together. We’re all really pretty good, as a team.”
“Yeah, Fran, you can say that again. Well, ‘bye.”
I didn’t have to say it again, because Miss Ford told us after practice that we looked terrific and she thought we could make the play-offs with no sweat.
I don’t know about the “no sweat” part, but we turned out to be a winning a team, after all. Marcy came over to me after the game, as everyone was leaving, and made it a point to shake hands with me, adding in an undertone, “Good game, Fran. We’re the best girls’ team around.” I couldn’t have agreed more.
Annie and I got back to being friends, but we saw each other mostly at school, not so much on the weekends, anymore. Which was all right, because I got so busy with my new job walking the Three Musketeers and shooting baskets Sunday afternoon with Dean and his dad that I didn’t have a whole lot of time for doing the things Annie liked to do with Marcy, Sue, and Ursala. Pattie and Carol came over sometimes, and then all of us would go over to the schoolyard or Dean’s house.
Fourteen girls tried out for seventh-grade girls’ basketball, which made our coach, Miss Ford, very happy. Maybe—no, more than maybe—we had another winning team.