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Authors: Constance C. Greene

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BOOK: The Ears of Louis
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A window in the house opened and a fat lady leaned out.

“Don't you go giving things away now, Poppa,” she called. “We're out to make some money, not to play Santa Claus.”

“Yes, Agnes,” the old man shouted. He busied himself with rearranging items. When the window slammed down, he said to Louis, “That Agnes, she's a tiger. She sleeps with her eyes open.”

Louis imagined the fat woman stretched out on a bed, hands clasped on her chest, staring up at the ceiling all night long. She must be awful tired when it was time to get up.

“Try hefting these,” the old man said, pointing to a set of junior bar bells lying on the ground. “Guaranteed to make you the strongest kid on the block.”

Louis tried to pick up the bar bells. He got them as far as his knees. They were heavy, junior or not.

“A little effort every day and first thing you know you'll have them up in the air,” the old man gave encouragement.

“How much are they?” Louis asked.

“How much you got?” he said.

“My allowance,” Louis said. If he bought the bar bells, he wouldn't have enough for a roll of Scotch tape. On the other hand, if his muscles got bigger, he could knock their blocks off and he wouldn't need the Scotch tape. He took the quarter out of his pocket.

“Agnes will have a conniption when she finds out I let 'em go that cheap,” the old man said, pocketing the quarter. “They're yours.”

Louis tried lifting them again. No luck.

“How am I going to get them home?” he said.

“Good thought. Good thought. You got your head on all right, sonny.” The old man pondered. “I could let you have the loan of that.” He pointed to a battered red wagon. Louis had its twin at home. “If you promise to bring it back.”

Louis promised and together he and the old man loaded the bar bells into the wagon.

“Wooo-eee,” the old man said when they'd finished. “Time was when I could've tossed those things in the air like they was made of spun sugar. I'm out of shape. In my prime, Charles Atlas had to watch out.”

“Who's Charles Atlas?” Louis asked.

“Only the strongest man in the world,” the old man said. “He had muscles like iron bands, like it says in the poem. Nobody messed around with old Charlie. Not if they was smart, they didn't.”

When Louis got home with his prize, he pulled the wagon right up to the kitchen door. He eased it through and into the dining room, then to the foot of the stairs.

“What's that?” his father asked.

“I bought it at a garage sale for a quarter,”. Louis said. “It's to make your muscles big like Charles Atlas and then you can punch people who make fun of you.”

Instead of saying “You shouldn't spend your money on junk,” the way he usually did after one of Louis' purchases, his father examined the bar bells.

“I can get them up to my knees,” Louis said. “But if I practice I'll get better every day.”

“I wouldn't be surprised,” his father said. He carried them upstairs and put them on the floor by Louis' bed. When he'd left, Louis untied his amulet and took it over to the window to examine it more carefully.

The face was very long and thin, the ears very large. Larger even than mine, Louis thought. The crown on the head made them look worse. Louis wondered how he'd look wearing a crown. Like some kind of a nut, he decided. He ran his fingers over the amulet. Things had been no better or no worse since Mrs. Beeble had given it to him. On the other hand, he had the bar bells. He might be on his way to becoming another Charles Atlas.

If that was so, skinny Ernie and others had better watch their step. Louis took his cigar box out from under the mattress. He planned to choose something from it to give to Mrs. Beeble in return for her present to him.

The plastic bag full of bird feathers was one of his favorites but somehow he didn't think Mrs. Beeble would like it. He had a really good collection of foreign coins his grandparents added to from time to time. But what good would they be to Mrs. Beeble if she never left the country?

Maybe a paperback book would be a good idea. Every time the school librarian threw out the beat-up ones, Louis retrieved them from the waste basket and brought them home. He was thinking of having a garage sale of his own one of these days.

There was nothing in the cigar box that was right for Mrs. Beeble. He'd have to keep looking for just the right thing.

He got his stack of mail order catalogues left over from last Christmas out from under his bed. Everything was too expensive. Maybe when he returned the wagon to the old man he'd find something at the garage sale that he'd missed today.

8

Louis took the wagon back after lunch on Sunday. The old man and Agnes hadn't bothered to take the signs down and it had rained during the night. The pieces of cardboard they'd used were shriveled up so the letters were blurred and hard to read.

“Hey there, sonny.” The old man stood in the same spot. The card tables seemed to hold the same items. The plastic owl, World's Fair mugs, and pipe were still there. Only the spotted ties were gone.

“Those ties had a bit of life in 'em,” the old man said, opening his sweater to show Louis. He wore the red and blue one. “I knew I could trust you. Agnes, now, she hears all this stuff about kids nowadays. She figured we could kiss that wagon goodbye. I knew you'd be back. What can I do for you today?”

“I'm looking for a present for Mrs. Beeble,” Louis said. “She gave me this,” and, to his own surprise, he pulled out his amulet.

“Handsome, a beautiful piece of work,” the old man said.

A window in the house opened and the fat lady called, “Poppa! You know what I told you. You stop giving things away. I'm going down for a nap now, Poppa. Didn't hardly close my eyes all last night.” The window closed sharply.

“Didn't I tell you she sleeps with her eyes open?” the old man said. “Not many left like Agnes.”

Louis thought that was probably a very good thing.

“How'd you do with the bar bells?” He felt Louis' muscle. “Keep after it, sonny. Perseverance pays off.” He put his hand in his pocket and came up with a collection of things Matthew would've liked for his hiding place. A ring with a blue stone, three dice, a key ring and four pennies.

“I spent all my money yesterday,” Louis said.

“The story of my life.” The old man sighed. “I'm going to let you in on a secret. This here is not a genuine sapphire. On account of that, I can let you have it for nothing.” He handed the ring to Louis, who wondered what Agnes would say. If she ever found out.

“I could pay you next week when I get my allowance,” Louis offered.

“Don't mention it. I like giving things to deserving people. When the present fits the person, like those bar bells, it makes me feel good.” The old man shook hands with Louis. “I hope Mrs. Beeble and that ring are compatible. Stop by some time and let me know.”

“O.K.,” Louis said. “Thanks a lot.” He started out with a springy step. He felt good.

“Hey Elephant Ears, we know you! Come out from under your disguise!” The voices rang in Louis' head. He didn't know who was calling him. He didn't stop to find out. Instead, he walked faster, faster until he had a pain in his side and his heart was pounding. Whoever it was didn't catch up. Louis made up his mind. He'd keep working at those bar bells and his muscles, combined with his good luck charm, would make him invincible. Then when Ernie and the boy with the little eyes called him names, he'd turn around and punch them in the face. Wham! Pow!

Louis rang Mrs. Beeble's door bell and when she answered, he handed her the ring. “It's for you,” he said. “I was digging in my back yard for worms and I found a chest full of treasure. Probably pirates buried it there a long time ago.”

Mrs. Beeble didn't flick an eye. “It's lovely,” she said. “You were nice to think of me. I'll cherish it always.”

Louis didn't know why he got carried away and told stories like that. It didn't happen often but when it did, he really told a big one. A tall tale, his father called it. Then he usually had to go and spoil it by telling the truth.

“I found a garage sale down the street,” he said, “and the old man who was running it gave it to me. For free. That's because I spent my allowance on a pair of bar bells yesterday and I didn't have anything left.”

“Of the two stories,” Mrs. Beeble said, turning the ring to catch the light, “I prefer the first. At any event, I'm glad you thought of me. I'd ask you in for a hand or two but I'm expecting company.” She wore a big white apron and had a sort of plastic cap on her head.

“I'm making steak and kidney pie. My niece and her husband are coming. I'd never think of making steak and kidney pie for myself. It's not much fun to cook just for one person,” Mrs. Beeble said. She looked gay and happy. Her cheeks were pink and her eyes sparkled.

Louis backed off from the idea of steak and kidney pie.

“I'll see you,” he said. Mrs. Beeble waved and closed the door.

As Louis cut across the yard, a car pulled up and a lady and man got out. They must be Mrs. Beeble's niece and her husband. They looked kind of dried up and sour, Louis thought. Still, he was glad Mrs. Beeble wouldn't be eating alone.

9

On Monday the impossible happened.

Louis was stationed on the sidelines, watching the big kids mill around, trying to get a game organized.

“Where's Steve? Where's Eddie?” they called.

“Flu. They've got the flu.”

“Oh boy, it's not worth it, to have a game with nobody here. We better wait 'til tomorrow. Maybe they'll be back by then.”

“Why can't we play with subs?” the boy who seemed to be captain of the team asked. “That's what the pros do. They have subs so if somebody gets hurt, like he racks up his knee or something, the game doesn't get put off, it goes on.”

The sixth graders stood with their hands on their hips and looked over the horizon for subs. Louis resumed his position on one knee with both fists supporting him. He hoped they'd notice him before he got tired.

“How about that little guy? Hey, kid, want to get in the game?”

Considering he'd been waiting and dreaming and hoping for just this minute ever since school started, Louis did a pretty good job of pretending he didn't know who they were talking to.

He got up from the ground and trotted over to the group.

“You mean me?” he said nonchalantly.

“I don't know,” the captain said. “He's pretty small. He might get hurt and we'd catch it from Mr. Anderson. He probably wouldn't let us play at all if this little kid got racked up.”

Louis put his hands on his hips. “Don't worry about me,” he said. “I can take care of myself.”

“Listen, we better get going if we're going to play at all. It's almost time for the bell,” somebody said.

“Right. Get over there, kid. That's the goal line. If you get hold of the ball, you have to take it over that line and touch ground with it,” the captain explained to Louis.

Louis never touched the ball. He ran back and forth, shouting “Throw it here, over here!” and he got in the huddle. He felt eight feet tall. Just before the bell rang and the game was over for the day, someone kicked a field goal. The ball went slightly astray and got Louis in the stomach.

“You O.K.?” they asked him.

Louis felt a little sick. That kid was no slouch when it came to kicking a field goal, even if his aim wasn't all that hot.

“Sure, I'm fine,” he said.

“Time to go, guys. I just heard the bell. You know Mr. Anderson if we're late.” They all trotted off the field, Louis following. He really didn't feel so good.

He took off his helmet and made it to the boys' room just in time. It was a good thing his mother had given him a bologna sandwich for lunch and that Matthew was absent that day. Louis hated bologna and so did John, so he'd thrown most of it away.

Louis threw up in the toilet. Usually when he threw up, his mother held his head. He sort of missed her. On the other hand, maybe they wouldn't have let his mother into the boys' room. He stayed until he was sure it was all over, then he went to his classroom.

Miss Carmichael gave him a fishy look.

“Louis,” she said, “you've got to learn to come in from whatever it is you do after lunch when you hear the bell. We can't have our students in the fifth grade act as if they're still in the fourth grade. Get to your work now.”

Louis didn't trust himself to speak because that would mean opening his mouth and he wasn't absolutely sure that would be a good idea. He sat down and began to copy his arithmetic. Amy Adams turned around and stuck out her tongue at him.

Louis contemplated the back of Amy's neck. He leaned over his desk and opened his mouth just a little. Nothing came out. He was glad and sorry at the same time. If he'd thrown up in class, it would've been embarrassing. On the other hand, if he could've nailed Amy, that would have made his day perfect.

10

“Oh, it was something!” Louis shouted, bursting into the kitchen after school. “I played football with the big kids and I almost made a touchdown and I ran about a million yards and they asked me to play with them again.”

“Nononononono,” sang Louis' baby sister, sitting in her high chair and shampooing her hair with applesauce.

“Boy, you get away with murder,” Louis said to her. “I'd like to see what'd happen to me if I rubbed applesauce in my hair. Probably I couldn't watch TV for a week. Make that two weeks I couldn't watch it.”

“Nonononono,” she said, rubbing away with great enthusiasm.

“Oh, Lord,” Louis' mother said, coming up out of the cellar. She mopped the baby, the walls, and the high chair.

BOOK: The Ears of Louis
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