Authors: Constance C. Greene
Mrs. Beeble had taught Louis how to play poker. They used pink and white candy mints for poker chips. Whoever won got to eat all the chips. Mrs. Beeble had a terrible sweet tooth. Even sweeter than Louis', which was going some. Also, she was a superior poker player.
“You'll have to get up pretty early in the morning to beat Bertha Beeble at poker,” she'd told him when they first started to play.
That had been two years ago when Louis was only eight. He'd taken her at her word and set his alarm clock. The sun wasn't even up when the clock went off and Louis hopped out of bed to check Mrs. Beeble's house. The windows were dark. He'd been up pretty early in the morning but Mrs. Beeble still won.
The best thing about playing poker, Louis thought, was arranging the cards. He liked fixing his in a little fan shape. He especially liked getting all one color. All hearts was best of all.
The door opened even before he knocked. Mrs. Beeble was nearsighted without her glasses, which she always misplaced. She squinted at him.
“It's Louis, is it?” she said. “Your head is so big in that contraption I didn't know you. Come on in and take that thing off. All that pressure, it's enough to addle the brains.”
They sat down at the kitchen table. Louis kept his helmet on.
“You got time for a hand or two?” Mrs. Beeble asked, shuffling the cards in a professional way that Louis would never master.
He nodded and Mrs. Beeble dealt with the speed of light. She arranged her cards the same way. Louis took much longer, especially when the cards were new and slippery, as they were today.
“I have very few extravagances,” Mrs. Beeble had told Louis on numerous occasions, “except that I cannot stand old, limp playing cards. I treat myself to a new pack any time I feel like. I don't crave a mink coat or a diamond ring. My little luxury is a new deck when I want.”
Louis dropped his cards twice before he got them organized. He was sorry to see he had only two hearts, and all the rest were black. Mrs. Beeble wore the crafty expression that meant she had a good hand.
“I bet two pinks,” she said.
“How about three whites?” Louis put the mints in the center of the table.
“I'll raise you one pink,” Mrs. Beeble said, leaning in his direction.
Louis hid his cards against his chest. You had to watch Mrs. Beeble. She had a tendency to cheat. She was very competitive, she had told Louis. Which meant she liked to win even more than he did. Carefully, Louis took a look at his hand.
“I'll raise you one,” he said, guarding his cards.
“You don't have to play 'em so close to the vest,” Mrs. Beeble said in a huff. “I wasn't looking.”
Mrs. Beeble won that hand and the next. She gobbled up all the pink mints. She would.
“Is there any particular reason you keep that thing on inside the house?” Mrs. Beeble asked.
Louis gathered up his hand. He could see a whole mess of red cards even before he got them in order. That was a good sign.
“It's my ears,” he said when he'd finally got things set to his liking. “I'm sick and tired of being called names. They tease me.” Louis started to shout. “Ernie calls me Dumbo and lots of other things. So I'm wearing my football helmet so they can't see my ears.” He felt like throwing his cards against the wall but something told him Mrs. Beeble wouldn't approve.
“You're among friends,” she said. “Your ears look all right to me. I subscribe to the theory that a man with good-sized ears is a man with character. It's like being bald. Give me a bald man with good-sized ears any day in the week. I bet two pinks,” Mrs. Beeble said.
Louis had to think for a minute. He didn't like to talk and play poker at the same time. It was confusing.
“Besides,” Mrs. Beeble said, “you ever hear of Clark Gable?”
“Yeah,” Louis said glumly, “he always got the girl.”
“Nothing wrong with that, is there? What's your bet?” She leaned towards him.
“I bet three whites,” Louis said.
He won that hand and the next one.
“Time to quit,” Mrs. Beeble said briskly. “Got to start my supper.” Louis had noticed she often had to start her supper or do some crocheting or make a telephone call just as he started to win.
“I'll tell you one thing, though, and that's that that helmet won't get rid of the problem,” she said, filling a huge pot with water. “They'll still be there when you take it off. I'll put on my thinking cap and come up with something better.”
“What're you having for supper?” Louis asked.
“Spaghetti. With my super duper Bertha Beeble sauce,” she said. Mrs. Beeble had spaghetti about five nights a week. The other times she ate a soft-boiled egg and a dish of cottage cheese.
“I fight the battle of the flesh constantly,” she told Louis. “I can't afford to let down my defenses for one second.”
“I almost forgot,” Louis said. “My mother says can she please borrow an onion?”
Mrs. Beeble burrowed around in a tired-looking paper sack and came up with an onion with a long, pointy tail growing out of one end.
“This one is a little long in the tooth,” she said, “but it'll have to do.”
Louis said goodbye and started home. He wondered if Mrs. Beeble minded eating supper alone every night. He didn't think he'd like it. Except then he could chew with his mouth open, put his elbows on the table, and burp as much as he wanted. Maybe eating alone was fun. Once in a while.
Onions with teeth? He'd have to think about it a while to get used to the idea.
It was the end of September when Miss Carmichael told her fifth grade they could take their names off the fronts of their desks.
“I've got you all committed to memory,” she said. “I know who you all are now.”
Louis tore his name paper into tiny shreds and stuffed them into his lunch bag. That was a relief. He felt safer, more himself, without his name written on yellow paper in big black letters for the whole world to see.
Calvin Leffert, who was the biggest kid in the whole school, almost as big as a small man, wiped his nose on his sleeve and said in a loud voice, “She doesn't know who
am. Nobody knows who I am. My mother nor my father nor nobody.”
“Calvin, that's enough,” Miss Carmichael said. She was always telling Calvin that. For once, Louis had to agree with Calvin. Nobody knew who he, Louis, was, either.
Miss Carmichael clasped her hands in front of her purple dress. Her fingernails matched her dress. So did her lipstick. Miss Carmichael was nobody's fool, Louis thought.
“I'd like each of you to write a story or a poem or draw a picture,” she said. “We're going to have a school newspaper and we'd like each and every one of you to participate. Mr. Anderson will choose the best entries from each grade and they'll be published in the first issue.”
Mr. Anderson was the principal. He had big flat feet and a tiny mustache and looked like Adolf Hitler. The first day of school Louis had raised his arm and said “Achtung” under his breath to Mr. Anderson. He didn't know what made him do it. He couldn't stop himself. Fortunately, Mr. Anderson only frowned and said, “Move along, please.”
The kids groaned and said “What a gross out” to Miss Carmichael's suggestion. Amy Adams, who sat in front of Louis, waved a bunch of papers in the air.
“These are poems I wrote,” Amy said. She reminded Louis of cousin Marge. There was something about the way she pursed her mouth and smiled. Louis concentrated on hypnotizing Amy. He pointed both hands with the fingers stuck straight out at Amy's back. “Sleep, sleep,” he said in a singsong voice under his breath. Amy went right on talking about how she had a lot more poems at home she could bring in.
Louis ate lunch with Matthew and another boy named John. Sometimes they traded sandwiches. Today John had a cucumber sandwich with mayonnaise and Matthew had cream cheese and walnuts so Louis stuck with his egg salad. Louis thought anybody who ate cucumber with mayonnaise or cream cheese and walnuts was crazy.
“I caught a chipmunk in my Havaheart trap last night,” Matthew said. “I used an old doughnut for bait.”
“I didn't know chipmunks liked old doughnuts,” Louis said, chewing on a piece of celery.
“They don't,” Matthew said.
“My mother made me pick sticks up off the lawn after school,” John said. His mother was always making him pick up his room or his books or sticks off the lawn. Louis didn't like to go to John's house much. His mother made him take off his shoes before he came inside.
“Tell your little friend to take off his shoes, too,” John's mother said when Louis came to the door. She stood and watched while Louis took off his shoes. His sock had a big hole in the toe. John's mother shook her head and said “tsk-tsk” the way people did in the funny papers. Louis had never heard anyone say “tsk-tsk” out loud before. It didn't make him like John's mother any better.
From then on, whenever John asked Louis over to play, Louis said, “Come to my house instead.” John usually did.
Louis looked in his lunch bag. It was empty except for some celery leaves and the pieces of his name paper. He threw it in the trash can.
“I'm going to see if I can get a game with the big guys,” he said, putting on his helmet.
“They won't let you play,” Matthew said. “Not those guys. They're tough customers. You might get your head beat in.”
The same thought had occurred to Louis but he went out to the playground anyway. The sixth graders played there every day at recess.
Louis sat on the sidelines, watching and waiting.
“Forty-two, sixty-three, hike,” they hollered, milling around, not doing much of anything. Louis got down on one knee and rested both fists on the ground, the way he'd seen the pros do in newspaper pictures. It was a very tiring position, he discovered. No one paid any attention to him but no one called him names, either.
Louis hoped someone would get hurt or something. Then he could come in as a substitute. When the bell rang, no one had a sprained ankle or even a cut on the cheek. It was discouraging.
Miss Carmichael sent him to the washroom to clean up. He walked past Mr. Anderson's office and saw Mr. Anderson talking on the telephone, smiling at his fingernails. It was the first time Louis had seen him smile. He wondered if whoever was on the other end of the phone was telling a joke.
Louis peeked through the window of the first grade and saw Tom leaning on his elbow, sucking his thumb. He couldn't tell whether Tom was awake or asleep. Louis washed his hands and face without soap. He scrubbed himself vigorously with a harsh paper towel. He looked at himself in the mirror and filled his cheeks with air so his face was almost as round as Matthew's. Maybe that way, his ears wouldn't seem so big. But his ears looked just as big as before.
On the way back to his room, Louis was stopped by a sixth grader.
“I'm conducting a survey,” he said, “and you're just the guy I want to see. As the anchor man on this survey, I'm reporting my findings after a thorough investigation. The gist of it is, do people with big ears hear better than people with small ears?” The big kid took out a pencil and a pad and looked at Louis, waiting.
Louis looked at his shoes. He thought about butting his head into the big kid's stomach and then running away. He decided against it.
“Hey, man on the street, does a kid like you hear more things than a kid with ordinary size ears?” The sixth grader was getting impatient.
Louis cracked his knuckles. The buzzing in his head was so loud the cracking noise sounded faint and far away. He wished he could give the kid a couple of karate chops. Just enough to knock him out, not kill him.
“I've gotta go to the boy's room,” Louis said. He turned and walked back to the washroom, put his head under the cold water faucet and turned it on. When his hair was wet and his cheeks cool, he carefully dried himself off. Then he opened the door and looked out. The sixth grader had gone.
“I was about to send out the police,” Miss Carmichael said. She and Louis looked at each other.
“We're on our blue book, page ten,” Miss Carmichael said, and turned to the blackboard. “Please pay attention.”
Maybe Miss Carmichael
know who he was, after all.
The next day Louis had just got home from school, thrown his books on the table and was leaning into the refrigerator to see what was good to eat when the telephone rang.
“Bertha Beeble here,” a voice said. “May I speak to Louis, please?”
Louis was delighted. He never got telephone calls, except for Matthew telling him what he'd caught in his Havaheart trap.
“Louis here,” he said in a squeaky voice.
“I've got a present for you,” Mrs. Beeble said. “I think you might like it. When you get a chance, come on over.”
Louis was halfway across the lawn before he remembered he'd forgotten to shut the refrigerator door. He raced back, slammed it closed, then raced again to Mrs. Beeble's. By the time he got there, he was so out of breath he couldn't speak.
“Step into the parlor,” Mrs. Beeble said. Only once before, on New Year's Day, Louis had been invited to step into Mrs. Beeble's parlor and that was to drink eggnog.
“I got it in an antique shop,” Mrs. Beeble said, handing him a small box. “Open it, quick.”
“Gee,” Louis said, staring at the lumpy piece of gray metal lying on a somewhat dingy wad of cotton. He didn't know what else to say so he said “Gee” again. “Thanks.”
“Aha!” Mrs. Beeble snatched up the present and swung it back and forth. “You don't know what it is, do you? It's an amulet, a talisman with a face engraved upon it. Look,” she said, taking it over to the window, “see?” Louis could make out a man's head wearing a crown and a pair of ears that stuck out on either side of his long, narrow head.