s soon as I got to the house, I knew Mookie was back. First, I saw his bicycle propped against the bushes on the side. Then I caught a whiff of something cooking.
He looked up when I came around the corner.
“Hey there,” he said.
“Hey.” I went straight on over to Willy and gave him the bacon I'd brought.
“I'm glad you brought that,” Mookie said. “'Cause he's been eyeing my Hoover gravy like he was gonna eat it all and then me, too.”
I squinted into the pan Mookie held over a small fire in a ring of rocks. A pale gray liquid bubbled and smoked in the pan.
that?” I said.
“Hoover gravy,” Mookie said. “Want some?”
I watched him dip a slice of bread into the watery liquid and eat it. Yuck.
“Where's Toby?” Mookie said.
“Doing his homework with my mom.”
“Ain't you got homework?”
I sat on the steps and pulled Willy into my lap. “A little.” I picked some burrs out of Willy's fur. “But I don't need help like Toby. He's not very smart.”
Mookie sopped another piece of bread in the watery gravy. “Smart ain't got a thing to do with school,” he said. “I never went past sixth grade, myself.” He ate the soggy bread, then added, “And I'm pretty smart.”
He licked his fingers. “Besides,” he said, “if you ask me, school's about as useful as a trapdoor on a canoe.”
“You can't get a job if you don't go to school,” I said.
“I work every day of my life,” he said.
“Like where?” I said.
“Everywhere,” he repeated.
I frowned down at Willy and ran my finger over the velvety fur on his nose. Mookie was crazy. Why was I even talking to him?
“Then how come you live like a bum?” I said. I felt my face burn. I shouldn't have said that.
But Mookie just laughed. “I said I worked. I didn't say I got paid.”
“You work for free?”
“Sometimes.” He took the pan off the fire and scooped dirt over the flames.
“How come?” I said.
He tied the end of the bread bag in a knot, then leaned back against his rolled-up sleeping bag.
“Why not?” he said.
“What kind of work do you do?”
“Whatever I come across that needs to be done,” he said. “Might be fixing a roof. Might be painting. Might be digging ditches.” He wiggled his three-fingered hand at me. “Might even be fixing tractor engines,” he added.
“Sometimes yes. Sometimes no.” He took a toothpick out of his shirt pocket and stuck it in the corner of his mouth.
“But why would you do that stuff for free?”
“'Cause sometimes people need stuff done more than I need money,” he said.
That sounded crazy, but I didn't say so. It looked to me like he could use some money.
Mookie took his baseball hat off and scratched his fuzzy gray hair. “Besides,” he said, “I got a motto. You wanna hear it?”
“Sometimes the trail you leave behind you is more important than the path ahead of you.” He put his hat back on. “You got a motto?” he said.
I shook my head. “Nope.”
He stuck his finger in the gravy. “Okay, little fella,” he said to Willy. “It's cool enough for you now.” He slid the pan toward the steps, and Willy ran down and lapped up the gravy. Clumps of gooey flour stuck to the bottom of the pan, and he licked them, too.
Then Mookie took me by surprise when he said, “Ain't your mama found you a new place to live yet?”
“Not yet,” I said. “But she's working on it.”
“You know, I saw the strangest thing today,” Mookie said. “I saw a little ole sign with a dog looked just like yours.”
I swear, when he said that, my heart sank right straight down to my feet.
Mookie nodded. “Yep.”
I couldn't even look at Mookie.
“And you know what was even stranger?” he said.
I swallowed hard and made myself say, “What?”
“That dog's name was Willy, too.” Mookie grinned at me, flashing that gold tooth of his. “Ain't that something?”
I looked down at Willy, still licking the pan. “Yessir,” I said, surprised at how my voice came out so low and shaky.
Mookie switched the toothpick over to the other side of his mouth and chewed on it.
I looked down at the ground and traced circles in the
dirt with the toe of my shoe. I never thought I'd say it, but I wished I was back in our ratty old car, snuggled up in the backseat, hugging my pillow.
“I better go,” I said, giving Willy a quick pat on the head. “Bye now.”
I felt Mookie's eyes on me as I walked toward the side of the house. Just as I was about to round the corner, he called out, “Hey, Georgina â¦”
“I got another motto,” he said. “You wanna hear it?” He didn't even wait for me to answer.
“Sometimes,” he said, “the more you stir it, the worse it stinks.”
I turned and hurried up the path to the road.
When I got back to the car, I took out my purple notebook. I slouched down and propped my feet up on the dashboard. I opened to
How to Steal a Dog.
I stared out the window, tapping the pencil against my teeth. I looked down at the paper and wrote:
I looked out the window again, then back at the paper.
I drew a box under the word
. Inside the box I wrote:
Sometimes, the more you stir it, the worse it stinks.
Then I closed my notebook, climbed into the backseat, hugged my pillow, and waited for Mama and Toby.
knew my day was going to be bad when Kirby Price called me a dirt bag in gym and everybody laughed. (Even Luanne. I saw her.) And then it got worse. When Mama got off work that night, the car wouldn't start. She turned the key and there was just one little click and then nothing.
“Well, that's just great,” she said, pounding her fist on the steering wheel.
Me and Toby looked at each other, but we both knew better than to say anything.
She turned the key again. Click.
She flopped back against the seat and said a cuss word.
Toby giggled and I poked him to be quiet.
“My life just goes from bad to worse,” Mama said.
Then she sat there staring out the window at the Chinese restaurant across the street. A family came out. A
family. A mom, a dad, two kids. They broke open their fortune cookies and read their fortunes out loud while they walked to their car. They all smiled and
laughed and acted like they had the best life in the world. When they drove by us, they were still laughing. They didn't even look at us sitting in our car that wouldn't start. I wished I was one of those kids, eating my fortune cookie and laughing with my family.
Mama turned the key again. Click.
I stared out the window, praying that old car would start. And then I couldn't hardly believe my eyes. There was Mookie, pedaling his bike up the road toward us.
I ducked down real quick and motioned for Toby to get down, too. Naturally, he had to go, “What?” and sit there looking stupid. I grabbed his T-shirt and yanked him down.
Then I peeked out the window. Mookie had gone on past us and disappeared around the corner.
Mama turned the key again. Click.
I finally got up the courage to say, “What're we gonna do now?”
I held my breath, hoping she wasn't going to yell at me, 'cause I didn't need that after that dirt bag stuff at school.
Mama shook her head and let out a big whoosh of a sigh that blew her hair up off her forehead.
She turned the key again. Click.
“I guess we're sleeping here tonight,” she said.
I looked around us at all the places where there were people who would see us. The Chinese restaurant. The Quiki Mart. The Chevron gas station.
“What if somebody sees us?” I said.
“Y'all go on over there to the gas station and wash up,” Mama said. “I'm going in the Quiki Mart and get us something to eat.”
I watched her run across the street, her jeans dragging on the ground.
“What if somebody sees us?” I hollered out the window. But Mama didn't even turn around.
The next morning Mama walked over to the coffee shop to get her friend Patsy to drive me and Toby to school. I like to died when I saw Patsy pull up beside our car, roll down her window, and say, “Come on, y'all.”
She had a big poofy hairdo that stuck way up on top of her head and ugly sparkly earrings and a cigarette hanging out of her big red lips. Her car was rustier than ours, with bumper stickers all over the back. MY OTHER CAR'S A BROOM. HONK IF YOU LOVE JESUS. Stuff like that.
I climbed in the backseat and slouched down as low as I could.
Please don't let anybody see me
, I prayed.
Especially Kirby Price
Just before we got to school, Patsy said, “Look at that!”
Me and Toby looked where she was pointing.
There was Mookie, pedaling along the side of the road on that rusty ole bike of his, the little American flag waving in the breeze.
“I've seen that man all over town,” Patsy said. “He sure looks happy, don't he?”
I slouched back down in the seat and turned my face away from the window. I sure wished Mookie would get on out of Darby instead of hanging around like he was.
“Imagine being that happy when all you got in the whole world is a beat-up old bicycle,” Patsy said.
When we passed him, she waved out the window and hollered, “Hey.”
Mookie tipped his hat.
After school, me and Toby had to walk back to the car. It took forever and Toby kept griping and hollering, “Wait up, Georgina.”
Then he kept asking, “When are we gonna take Willy back to Carmella's?”
I pretended like I didn't hear him. Finally he grabbed my backpack and yanked.
, when are we gonna take Willy back to Carmella's?”
I whirled around to face him. “I don't know, Toby, okay?”
I started off up the sidewalk again. Toby trotted along beside me.
“She's looking for him, Georgina,” he said.
“I bet Willy wants to go home.”
“Maybe Carmella has some money now. Maybe Gertie gave her some.”
I stopped. “Look, Toby,” I said. “I've got to figure this thing out. We went to all this trouble to steal that dog, so we might as well get some money out of it, right?”
Toby shrugged. “I guess.”
“What do you mean, you guess?” I said. “That's the whole reason we got ourselves into this mess in the first place.”
I started walking again, but Toby grabbed my arm.
“What mess, Georgina?” he said. “Are we in trouble?”
“No, we're not in trouble.”
“Then what mess?”
“Look, Toby,” I said. “Carmella may not even get any money. If we take Willy back now, we probably won't get anything. But if we wait much longer, well, I don't know â¦”
“What'll happen if we wait much longer?” Toby said. “Georgina, is Carmella gonna call the police?”
“But what if she does?”
“So, we might get arrested. We're kidnappers,” Toby said.
“We are not.”
nappers, then.” Toby's face was puckering up like he was gonna cry. “What if we have to go to jail?” he said.
“Shut up, Toby. There's no such thing as dognappers.” I hated it when Toby started thinking up stuff I should've thought of. Maybe we
dognappers. Maybe we
go to jail.
I pictured Willy's face on a milk carton. His head cocked and his ears perked up. “Have you seen me?” it would say underneath. And Carmella would be sitting there at the kitchen table with her Cheerios, looking at Willy and crying her eyes out.
“And what about Willy?” Toby interrupted my thoughts. “Think about him,” he said. “I bet he's sadder than anything.”
“Shut up, Toby,” I said. I sure didn't need Toby heaping more bad feelings on top of me like that.
Neither one of us said another word as we made our way along Jackson Road toward the car. Toby kept on finding things on the ground and saying, “Hey, look what I found.” A quarter. A cigarette lighter. A pencil.
Then, right before we got to the car, we came to one of those LOST DOG signs with Willy's cute little face smiling out at us. I shut my eyes until we were all the way past it, but I could still feel him looking at me.
When we finally saw the car, Toby darted ahead.
“Hey, look at that,” he said, pointing to the ground.
I looked down at a shiny quarter nestled in the sandy roadside next to our car. And then I noticed something else. Tracks in the sand.
But Toby didn't seem to notice. He just grabbed that quarter like it was made out of gold.
I shuffled my feet in the sand, making those tire tracks disappear, then I unlocked the door and climbed in the backseat.
Me and Toby stayed in the car all afternoon, eating graham crackers with jelly and playing Crazy Eights. Toby kept asking me when we were gonna take Willy back to Carmella, but I didn't even answer him. I knew that was making him mad as all get-out, but too bad. I didn't want to talk about Willy and Carmella. I didn't even want to
about Willy and Carmella. I had this bad, bad feeling that I'd gotten myself into a mess. And it seemed like everything I did stirred that mess up moreâstirred it up so much it was starting to stink.