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Kaline Klattermaster's Tree Houseby Haven Kimmel
Do Not Walk On Grass!
On the last day of summer before third grade, Kaline Klattermaster, who was small for his age, sat on the top step of his front porch and looked around Hoppadoppalous Court. He made a grand waving gesture, since there was no one to see him do it. All of this, as far as the eye could see, had once been the domain of the noble warrior. OR, or maybe AND, it had once been so thick with trees that a squirrel could travel for miles from branch to branch without touching the ground. And there he was, the noble warrior heading down the road on a very friendly white horse — well, it was pony-sized and NOT scary, and the warrior was bringing Kaline gifts of feathers and...the other stuff they brought, like corn and beads! And there were squirrels, swinging from tree to tree, and they looked slightly like monkeys!
A car drove past and it was a loud car, and the warrior and the squirrels disappeared. TOO BADLY. Kaline squinted. And THEN sometime much later but he didn't know HOW MUCH later, all of this land, as far as Kaline's other eye could see, had been farmland, thousands of acres. And then TIME PASSED and all of the farms were sold, and these houses were built, including Kaline's own — EXCEPT for the house next door, the home of a certain someone. Kaline looked up and down the street, which was straight as a stick, at each square house on each square of land. He remembered for certain that all of his neighbors had acre of grass, or perhaps, or even ths.
He was getting better with fractions. For instance, he understood that the slashy line in the middle went this way: — . Kaline hummed, scratched the top of his head, waved his arms above his head as if he were at a baseball game. HISTORY, however, was still a huge problem and who knew what was going to happen in the third grade. His parents had made a HUGE mistake by starting him in school a year early because of where his birthday fell, and also because he had been a WHIZ KID in day care. AHEM. It turned out that being the smartest BABY didn't matter all that much, did it? At the end of second grade he was asked what year our country had been founded and in his mind he saw the warriors, the trees, the flying squirrels, and he wrote: 1927. He looked at it. He changed it to 1289. Then suddenly he was overcome with the idea that there might be a year that began with "5," like "in the year 562," and he had to put his head down on his desk and pretend to snore.
Every house was the same EXCEPT for the one next door, which belonged to Kaline's life-long neighbor and certain someone, Mr. Osiris Putnaminski and his white terrier, Maestro. Mr. P.'s house was GIGANTIC and probably HAUNTED. A brick monstrosity is what his neighbor on the other side, Mrs. Jalopoly, called it. It was very old, built in 1827 or in 718, and Mr. P. still had FIVE acres of land, at least. He had his big yard, his flowering plants, and then at the back, beyond his garden, WOODS. They were his very own. He could swing from tree to tree there, should he desire.
Kaline tried marching without standing up. That worked. He tried to remember the words of "The Star-Spankled Banger," and he sang some of those. Could he wish Mr. P. out of his house with just the force of his mind? He tried, but the front door stayed closed. Eventually, Kaline knew, Mr. P. would emerge, a cane in one hand and a leash in the other, and he would walk the trotting white dog up and down the block. Mr. Putnaminski was a light-brown-skinned man with a beard and WHITE HAIR, which he wore in a PONYTAIL. Mrs. Jalopoly said it was scandalous, she said that between Mr. P.'s hair and beard and the belly he wore out in front of him he looked like a CRAZY SANTA CLAUS.
In addition to the house, the land, the woods, the dog, the ponytail, Mr. P. was in possession of an old car that moved through the neighborhood like a wild cat, but slooow, like a very old panther. He was retired from his former life as the owner of beauty schools, and he had a hobby that Kaline sometimes heard whispers of but he didn't know what it was, and as he looked down at his square of yard, which was bordered with yellow signs his father had planted that said: DO NOT WALK ON GRASS! DO NOT WALK ON GRASS! Kaline thought about his wishes in their order of wishedness:
"So, Mr. Putnaminski," Kaline said, waving his hand at his neighbor's house. He was trying to look like a detective, so what that hand was doing swinging around like a conductor at an orchestra Kaline COULD NOT SAY. "You're a man of the world. When was the last time YOU saw my dad? And where have YOU been for the last two days? Or four? Do you know the last thing my dad said to me? 'Eat your green beans.' Last words. What do you make of that?"
Kaline scratched under his arms. In all the square yards around him no one appeared or moved or came out to offer him a surprise blackberry pie, so he gave up and stood up and brushed the dust off his pants. He opened the front door of his white house and slipped out of his shoes. Squinting through the dark living room, where the air conditioner was turned up so high the tempera-ture was hovering around THREE, Kaline could see his mother sitting at the kitchen table, looking at the phone book and not moving. There was her usual cup of coffee but she wasn't drinking it, and he thought maybe now was not the BEST TIME to suggest she make a pie, buy him a swimming pool, change her mind about video games, let him grow his hair out like Shaggy on Scooby-Doo, home-school him.
Kaline wondered: why was his mother just sitting like that? If his dad were here she would be up to something, and he would have to sigh and say "Estelle, Estelle," meaning why was she so scatter-minded and dancing around the kitchen, why did she glue sequins and rhinestones to the frames of all of her eyeglasses, and why did she always have to ride her bicycle everywhere? A bicycle that was called by the name of 1977 Schwinn. Kaline had known its name since he was little. One Nine Seven Seven Schwinn was another way of saying it only his dad did not agree. Why did she take up candle-making and leave wax all over the kitchen, hmmm? Why learn the bongo drums? How did that help anyone, Kaline's father would have asked, and why weren't the drums put away neatly? Why the strange hats worn with the One Nine Seven Seven bicycle? Where were Estelle's shoes and why did they NOT MATCH, was another question often spoken out loud.
Kaline stared at his mother for one minute, or maybe an hour, but she didn't look up at him, so he went into his room, where his new backpack was already filled with school supplies, and next to it sat a grocery bag filled with paper towels and old socks for the dry-erase board and germ-killing hand goo. At the Super Humongnous Department Store, which seemed to Kaline the size of a small CITY, his mother had looked at the list of things he needed for the year, then sighed and said, "Soon they'll be asking us to buy shoes for the teachers," which Kaline didn't understand but for some reason found HILARIOUS. For the next twenty minutes or maybe it was eighty, he ran up and down the shoe aisle saying, "What about THESE? What if we provided these shoes for Mrs. Leetlemeyer? Or THESE? Can you picture these on Coach Joe, I ask you?" At one point Kaline had so exhausted himself with hilarity he had to lie down on the floor and his mother said, "Don't think I won't run over you with this cart," and he had started laughing again, and his mother had to stand him up MANUALLY and straighten his clothes. She said people were staring but they weren't, because everyone was taken up with a toddler in house slippers who was screaming so hard she was causing the other shoppers physical pain in their ears, including Kaline's ears. That had been two days ago, and where was his dad then? Was it that night with the green beans, or another?
Kaline took a running leap and jumped on his bed, causing it to crash against the wall. This happened every day. He waited for his mother to yell at him but she didn't. He picked up the stuffed husky dog he slept with at night, Banjo, and held him tight. For sure Kaline loved Banjo, even though his dad had said Banjo "wasn't real." This "real" statement had caused Kaline to stare at his dad with disbelief. Could his father not see that Banjo COULD NOT GET ANY REALER? The dog was right there.
Kaline held him tight — he could tell Banjo had that feeling again, the one that was like Empty — because Banjo really wanted a friend; he always had. But Kaline's dad didn't want other dogs in the house (too messy and noisy) and no other dogs had ever invited Banjo over to their doghouses to play, so he spent the whole day alone.
Kaline pretended to fall asleep, but fortunately was awakened by his pretend snoring. What a lousy way to spend the last day of summer THAT would have been!Text copyright © 2008 by Haven Kimmel
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