Authors: Mary Quattlebaum
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JACKSON JONES AND MISSION GREENTOP
GROVER G. GRAHAM AND ME,
THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM—1963
Christopher Paul Curtis
JUNEBUG AND THE REVEREND,
JUNEBUG IN TROUBLE,
THE ELEVATOR FAMILY,
THE BOY WHO LOST HIS FACE,
my partner in the garden
very success story has a beginning. But I wonder if those great folks
when they had taken the first step down that road. Like there was a sign:
For example, George Washington. He chopped down that cherry tree and owned right up to it. Did he say to himself: “Here’s the beginning of my success story, so I better not blow it by lying”? Or did he try to fix that tree? And squeak out real fast to his daddy: “I-chopped-down-the-tree-with-my-little-hatchet-but-it-was-looking-
To puzzle out the answer I’ve read my share of books on good-doing folks. And believe
me, there are lots. Athletes, presidents, artists. Black, white, yellow. All inspiring.
And I figure, the writers left out a lot.
Such as when the GREAT ONES were bad in school. And wasted money on video games. And smacked kid sisters.
For once, I would like to read a story about a real guy who was not always so GREAT.
So I decided to write about myself. Not that I’m GREAT (yet, anyway). But I was pretty successful last summer.
And let me tell you, getting there was not so great.
The story begins on my tenth birthday.
Jackson-Jones-Born-into-This-World Day. I was moving from nine to almost grown. Double digits. The Big 1–0. The Man (that’s me) is TEN.
My best friend, Reuben, was impressed. He’s nine and counting. One hundred and thirty-two days till he’s ten.
“What ya going to get for your birthday?” he asked. He sketched the star on Captain Nemo’s helmet. I was sprawled on his bed.
I shrugged, acting cool. Like saying, “Oh, is it my
?” Acting like I didn’t know Mama was rattling my favorite Red Velvet
cake into the oven. HOPEFULLY wrapping a new basketball.
That’s what I wanted, a basketball.
The one I had was so old, it didn’t bounce anymore. Just sort of
Thuck. Thuck. Thuck.
the way to dribble.
“What you need is a basketball,” said Reuben, honing in on my thoughts, “to replace that orange Frisbee you call a ball.” He pencil-shaded Nemo’s star a precise gray. “Remind me to ask for paints for my birthday,” he added, “so I can give Nemo some color.”
Captain Nemo Comics by Jackson Jones and Reuben Casey is our life’s work. I write. He draws. We’re the perfect team. We’ve taken Captain Nemo to Planet Huzarconi, which is ringed with deadly gases. He’s fought the six-headed Cerebral and the no-armed Flawt. And we’ve got about 293 Nemo adventures left to do. I figure Reuben and I will be the perfect team until we’re old, old men.
Reuben carefully drew a bubble from Captain Nemo’s mouth.
I dug into my pocket, unfolded a piece of
paper, and read: “Begone, evil wizard, lest I smite you.”
in the bubble. Stopped.
“Do people say ‘Begone’?”
“Of course not,” I said. “Begone’ is hero talk.”
Reuben said “Begone” to himself three times.
Did I say we were the perfect team? Excuse me, I meant to say
slightly less than
perfect. What holds us back from one hundred percent perfection is this: Reuben is soooo careful. And slow.
Mama says Reuben is the careful tortoise and I am the impatient hare in that story where the turtle wins the race and the rabbit looks like a fool.
That story makes no sense. I can beat Reuben at any race. But sometimes I slow down so he almost wins. When I tell this to Mama, she just says, “Maybe that rabbit’s so bent on winning, he can’t see there’s no race.” I think Mama’s explanation twists the story—but still makes no sense.
Reuben was still muttering “Begone” when the phone rang.
His grandma, Miz Lady, answered it.
“I’m not sure Jackson wants a tenth birthday,” she said, loud so I’d hear. “He’s acting mighty cool.”
I grinned. Miz Lady was acting cool herself. She knew inside I was balloons and basketballs.
“Your mama says your birthday is ready, Mister Cool.” She flapped her hands at me and Reuben. “I’ll be along as soon as I find your present.” She peered into a closet. “Now, where did I
“It’s under your bed,” Reuben whispered loudly.
“UNDER YOUR BED.” Reuben let out the loudest whisper I’d ever heard. Miz Lady’s hearing is not too good. That’s why she hollers so much. She thinks other folks’ ears are just as bad.
I slouched out the door, moving slooooww. Letting some of Reuben’s turtle rub off on me. I wanted this birthday to last a looong time.
“Ten,” said Reuben, naturally walking slow. “All right.”
Walking slooowwly, I had lots of time to think. My first thought: Apartments are the perfect way to live. Reuben and Miz Lady are down the hall in Apartment 316. I knew that in 506 Juana Rivera was sneaking away from her kid sister, Gaby, and her tagalong brother, Ro. And Abraham was slinking out of 219 as his mother hollered, “Remember, sweetie, just a teensy piece of cake.” Even our mailman lived in Apartment 102 and sometimes delivered the mail right into my hand.
Everyone was coming to Apartment 302. Coming for my tenth birthday.
Except Mailbags Mosely, on account of being in college at night. But this morning he had clapped a Chicago Bulls starters cap on my head and grinned a happy birthday. Yeah. Now all I needed was the basketball.
I was walking so slowly, I was almost stopped.
Cake smell, smooth and chocolate, tried to hurry my steps.
Reuben and I moved like two snails. Like two snails going backward.
Till I couldn’t stand such slowness any longer. I jumped for Apartment 302, flung open the door.
Balloons. A cake stuck with candles till it looked like a porcupine. I shifted my eyes casually over the present pile. No basketball shape wrapped in blue paper.
But there was an envelope with my name in Mama’s writing.
Money! Cartoon dollar signs flipped in my head. Mama was giving me money to buy just what I wanted.
After ten years of “Jackson, you know we don’t have the money for that.”
After ten years of “We don’t have a coupon for that kind of cereal. Put it back.”
After ten years of “You’d think dollars were toilet paper, they go that fast.”
Mama was giving me money for my birthday. I felt truly grown up.
Juana waved from the kitchen. Abraham
eyeballed the cake. Miz Lady flapped her present like a fan.
Mama arranged all her plants around the cake, like invited guests. She fussed with their leaves.
Mama says talking to plants makes them grow. They can
when you’re kind, she says. It sounds cuckoo, I know. But her African violets are fuzzier, her philodendron is wider, and her ivy clambers about like a jungle. I’ve about given up being embarrassed.
See, Mama grew up in the country and never got over it. “Sheer heaven,” she always sighs. “Miles of green grass, roses, cows, my own horse. The city is no place for a boy.”