driver of the bus, a middle-aged man in full Mr. Rogers cardigan and khakis
regalia, dashes over with a look of awestruck terror-fearful of a lawsuit,
yet secretly thrilled by the job security of another rider for his specially
"Are you all right?" His radio is poised, ready to call 911.
"I'm okay. My fault." Gradually I rise and check to ascertain whether
all my limbs are still attached and look around to make sure I'm not seeing
double. Only I'm seeing spots. Eighty-two white spots bouncing across
the blacktop and into the gully, almost fifty bucks' worth of golf balls.
Do I chase after them? No. I'll miss the last class and won't be allowed
to play in the soccer game.
After adjusting the handlebars I remount my bike. The bus driver slowly
follows me into the school parking lot. Part of me wishes he would just
gun it and finish me off like a lame horse. The sunny September afternoon
only serves to make the dark gray cinder-block building appear even more
flat and gruesome than usual, if that's possible.
Aside from this particular architectural monstrosity the town is okay
looking -- stately old buildings like the courthouse and the public library
with pitched roofs, a couple of white pillars out front, and stone carvings
of people in togas with some leaves stuck in their hair. But Patrick Henry
High School was built much later. Before that the district wasn't big
enough to have its own public school. And when the Town Council finally
did get around to building one they apparently hired an escaped mental
patient who thought it would be a terrific idea to combine the steel and
glass construction of a smelting plant with the concrete block design
of a maximum-security prison. Walking through the metal doors, you basically
expect someone in a warden's uniform to throw a pile of license plates,
a brush, and a can of black paint your way and bark start stenciling.
The institution certainly brings to mind the three R's -- ropes, revolvers,
and razor blades.
When I enter the building a bell alerts me that the next period starts
in exactly two minutes. There's barely enough time to stop at my locker.
As I grab my social studies notebook another bell heralds the start of
the final class of the day.
It's not as if social studies is any great party I don't want to miss
out on. But Mr. Graves, my teacher, also happens to be the soccer coach.
And if he discovers that I wasn't in the brig all day he won't let me
play. The other slow self-starters are busy trying to blend into the laminated
Mercator projection world map covering most of the back wall. There's
one chair left in the last row in front of New Zealand.
On his pudgy round face Mr. Graves wears square-shaped glasses with black
plastic frames that double as bulletproof shields. They make his pupils
appear to be contracting and expanding as he shifts his eyeballs from
left to right, and so behind his back the kids call him Old Fish Eyes.
He's chalked a list of the original thirteen colonies on the blackboard
along with the names of the companies or individuals that founded them,
in what year, when they received a charter, and their status in 1775.
He could have distributed photocopies of this list. But no, he's worried
that life is too cushy for us, what with EraserMate pens and word processors.
Back when he was in school kids probably had to hunt pterodactyls in order
to make ink out of the blood.
With all the best intentions I carefully scribe Hallie Palmer, Grade 11
S.S. at the top of a clean white page with delicate aquamarine lines horizontally
traversing it. However, the paper presents an opportunity to perform a
few calculations of my own. With approximately twenty-one hundred dollars
in the bank and the birthday money from my folks, if everything goes exactly
according to plan, then a used car should be within reach in two more
weeks. Though if I'd taken Cheap Old Mr. Exner's offer of forty-one bucks
for the stupid golf balls rather than insisted on waiting to shop them
to Mr. Burke down at the hardware store, I wouldn't have wasted an entire
Leaning my head back against the Tasman Sea on the smooth vinyl map, I
nod off. The school may teach a lot about history, but somehow they missed
the advent of the window shade. It's about a hundred degrees near the
outside wall. And I'd been up most of the night before handicapping tomorrow's
horse races. A couple other kids are also slowly losing consciousness,
as if fairy dust has been sprinkled, and eyelids simultaneously droop
to Mr. Graves's hypnotic buzz: Pine-forested Georgia, with the harbor
of Savannah nourishing its chief settlement, was formally founded in 1733.
When the ten-minute bell clangs like a fire alarm from out of the speaker
above the round Seth Thomas wall clock, all the covert dozers, myself
included, are jarred awake. The gaze of the entire class automatically
drifts upward in the direction of the clock, which briefly shivers from
the vibration, the second hand practically moving backward until the clattering
subsides. Mr. Graves continues like an icebreaker crushing through the
North Atlantic, but to no avail. It's Friday afternoon of homecoming weekend
and the room is whirring with the sound of closing notebooks, giggling
girls, crumpling papers, and the rasps of metal chairs scraping across
the floor. For Mr. Graves to go on is like trying to halt sailors heading
down the gangplank for a long-awaited shore leave. A boy in the second
row hurls a softball-sized rubber band ball directly above Mr. Graves's
head. It goes thwack just inches away from the top of his skull and bounces
back into the fast hands of another student. Mr. Graves turns quickly
(at least quickly for him) in an attempt to catch the perpetrator in the
act. As he scans the classroom we all work hard at looking angelically
The end-of-class bell finally rings. As I follow the chattering crowd
toward the hallway and freedom, I hear Mr. Graves intone "Hallie Palmer"
as if he's about to begin the Reading of the Will. Pausing in front of
his nicked-up wooden desk, I automatically scan the work surface to determine
if he's in possession of any incriminating documents-referrals, bad test
papers, unsigned permission slips. But there's nothing. Maybe I'm just
getting busted for the catnap. Mr. Graves is so affectless that he never
gives himself away. In fact, he'd make an excellent draw-poker player.
You wouldn't be able to tell if he was bluffing, had a royal flush, or
if he'd passed away from acute angina at some point during the hand. However,
my own heart sinks when he opens with "I didn't see you at the pep rally
"Oh, yeah," I say, "I went to the library to catch up on-"
"The office sends me a copy of the absentee list every afternoon," he
interrupts. "Do you think you can fool me by showing up for the last class
of the day with torn clothes, fresh scrapes on your hands, and a sunburn?"
he says as passionately as if he's reading aloud from a VCR manual. "You're
off the team."
There's no point arguing. In his three centuries of teaching, Old Fish
Eyes has heard it all -- alien abductions, teen amnesia, seeing the Virgin
Mary in your Bunsen burner during a chemistry lab and having her tell
you to rush to the mall.
I nod my head and walk toward the door. I'm a firm believer in the convicts'
code: Don't do the crime if you can't do the time.
"I'm sorry," he adds, with not a hint of remorse. "You're a good halfback.
But if you're hurt on the field your parents' lawyer will sue the school
district. And if you're not here for at least half the day, then the insurance
company won't accept the liability."
And that's when I make my decision. They can't throw me off the team.
Because I quit! And not only do I quit soccer, but I quit school, too.
I'm outta here!
Count Me Out
The first benefit of being a dropout is more satisfying than holding a
trio of deuces in a game of low-ball poker. I'll no longer have to navigate
the porn auditions in the hallways after school-couples leaning against
institutional green lockers making out as if they might die over the weekend
while playing Quake III on their computers and never cop another feel
again as long as they live. Aside from the sex-starved, the only other
kids left are those staying for sports, band, student government, or detention.
The bell rings to announce that if your butt is assigned to detention
then that's where it had better be or else you've just upgraded yourself
to in-school suspension. I automatically glance up at the aluminum framed
clock bolted to the ceiling in the middle of the hallway. The entire student
body is robotic in that we all involuntarily search for the nearest timepiece
as soon as we hear a bell, even if it's just an oven timer at home.
Out of the corner of my eye I catch someone peering around the corner
at the far end of the hallway. For a split second I think it might be
Craig Larkin and my stomach does an involuntary flip. Another look, however,
reveals a skinny ferretlike boy who is the complete opposite of Craig.
Creeping in my direction is fifteen-year-old Brandt Shaeffer. He skipped
first grade after a teacher discovered him doing long division during
the shoe-tying part of the program and so now he's in eleventh grade even
though he's a year younger than everyone else. It makes a person wonder
how such a stupid older sister like Sheryl could possibly have a smart
younger brother like Brandt. I guess genes are a lot like poker and sometimes
it's just the luck of the draw.
I walk in the opposite direction so as to dump all my notebooks into the
oversized garbage pail by the stairwell, only Brandt darts in front of
me, hunched over his enormous pile of books like a nervous chipmunk sneaking
off with an overly large nut that he fears will be expropriated by a flying
"Hi, Hallie," he croaks in that ever-shifting contralto voice which sounds
as if permanent orange juice mucus is lodged in his throat.
"Hi, Branch," I reply. This is what everyone calls him since he's tall
and reed thin and runs on the cross-country team when the wind isn't strong
enough to blow him over.
"What's new in your galaxy?" he asks.
"I've been kicked off the soccer team and I'm dropping out of school,"
Obviously he thinks I'm joking or the comment doesn't even register. Most
likely the latter, since it appears as if something heavy is on his mind,
like he's just discovered that Einstein may have taken a wrong turn somewhere
with that relativity stuff.
It's worth noting that Branch is drawn to me because I am also good in
math. Only while he was the darling of the elementary school for his problem-solving
prowess I was simultaneously being accused of cheating for getting the
answers without showing my work. Brandt used his innate ability with numbers
to analyze the universe, like with his science project on the Big Bang
Theory that blew up half the classroom. I, on the other hand, became an
enthusiast of probability theory, starting with crazy eights in kindergarten
and working my way up to seven-card stud by the end of sixth grade. This
was with the help of a private tutorial from Mr. Simmons, the elementary
school janitor, who harbored no ethical dilemma when it came to taking
lunch money off an eight-year-old.
Anyway, Brandt's always had this twisted notion that because we're both
freaks we should stick together, or worse, that there exists a cosmic
force in the universe that has destined us for each other.
"Ahem." He rearranges the phlegm in his throat. "I was wondering if you
wanted to go to the homecoming dance."
Perfect opportunity for total high school cruelty. I think, Yeah, Branch,
I'd love to go to the homecoming dance. Only not with you. Ha ha!
"Thanks, Branch, but I have to baby-sit my little brothers and sisters."
"Oh, okay, well then maybe-"
I'm rescued by the sight of Jane coming down the stairs. "Oh, there she
is!" I say as if I've been eagerly waiting for Jane and fly over to my
best friend, who is rushing toward the front door, outfitted in her customary
running shorts, T-shirt, and softball spikes.
"I didn't want to intrude," Jane says sarcastically as I follow her outside.
The Branch Crush has become a running joke. "You two make such a cute
"Cut it out," I say and playfully push her on the shoulder.
She eyes the bacon rasher scrapes on my hands and knees and says, "Looks
like social studies was interactive today."
We walk to the curb where my other friend Gwen is busy unloading a box
of crepe paper and a big heap of pastel-colored tissues folded and then
tied with green twist-ties to look like flowers.
"Oh, Hallie!" exclaims the clothing-conscious Gwen upon seeing my torn
and bloodstained attire.
"What are you doing with all this junk?" I change the subject.
"Decorating the junior class float for the homecoming parade," says Jane.
"Why don't you help us? We'll be in the parking lot right next to the
football players." She gives me a knowing nudge, since my heartthrob Craig
Larkin will of course be practicing with the team.
"I'd love to, but I have this incredible allergy to crepe paper."
"Then meet us at the pizza parlor later," says Gwen. "We'll save you some
ribbons for your hair." She starts wrapping my head mummy-style with a
bright pink streamer and I quickly ride off.
Saturday morning I awaken to the aroma of frying bacon and my fourteen-year-old
sister Louise's annoying red and black pom-poms scraping against my face.
It's definitely a game day.
"The superintendent called and Hallie's going to end up in R-E-F-O-R-M
S-C-H-O-O-L." Louise spells out the final words in cheerleader style as
if it's the name of the home team.
"Umm," I say sleepily and turn over.
At that moment the twins, Darlene and Davy, still in their flannel footsy
pajamas with the trap doors, come twirling helter-skelter into our bedroom
like uncontainable wildfire-six years old and a blur of bright red hair
with orange freckles in flame-red pajamas.
"Mom and Dad want everyone downstairs right now," Davy exclaims breathlessly.
"They have thomething important to tell uth," Darlene lisps with excitement.
"I'll bet we're getting a puppy," concludes Davy.
A puppy. Yeah, right. Dream on. With nine people in this house there isn't
room for a frigging fishbowl. "I wouldn't get too excited," I say. "Last
time they called a meeting it was to announce that showers were being
limited to three minutes and that if we didn't stop using the telephone
so much Dad would install a pay phone."
In the kitchen we all take our places around the long wooden table, Dad
sitting at one end, underneath the black metal plaque with grace etched
onto it in gold letters, just in case anyone needs a prompter, and Mom
at the opposite end, next to Francie, the baby, who is perched in her
high chair with a fresh rope of snot dangling from her nose. Francie is
almost three and so technically she's no longer a baby. But that's all
anyone ever calls her, The Baby. If you have six older brothers and sisters
I suppose that's all you'll ever be, even when you're fifty-five. Personally,
I like my position as number two, since it's easy to vanish. Dad is working
all of that jock stuff out of his system with firstborn Eric, and Mom
is always busy propelling a youngster through potty training.
On the weekends breakfast is usually okay -- scrambled eggs and bacon
or pancakes. During the week it's crappy generic cereal with milk or instant
oatmeal. Only by Wednesday the milk has usually run out and so we drink
powdered cow, which tastes like watered-down baking soda. Usually I just
skip breakfast at home and buy chocolate donuts on the way to school.
When we all finish eating -- total chewing time about two minutes -- Dad
clears his throat and yells at Teddy to either eat his bacon strips or
leave them on the plate, but to stop pretending they're worms and twisting
them around the rungs of his fork.
Then Dad swipes at his mouth with a crumpled napkin and cheerily announces,
"Your mother and I have some exciting news." I can deduce by my mom's
nervous laughter that this is not "exciting" in the sense that we're all
going to Disneyland or moving into a desperately needed larger house.
"You're going to have a new little brother or sister," he says as if we
can now begin the applause.
Davy and Darlene screech with delight and enthusiastically wriggle in
their seats. And why not? It's someone brand-new for them to torture,
the same way Eric and Louise and I used to hold their heads over the toilet
bowl and flush it again and again while Mom and Dad were out bowling.
Teddy looks blankly from Mom to Dad as if to say, "If you want to go to
the store and buy another baby, what's that got to do with my baseball
cards?" Teddy is ten, towheaded, skinny as a straw, and his only concern
in life is to meet a Cleveland Indians baseball player and become the
team water boy. I've helpfully suggested that he concentrate more on the
mascot end of things.
Across the table square-shouldered Eric is hunched over his plate and
certainly doesn't appear to be overly "excited." In fact, I know he's
running the numbers to determine if there's any chance he'll have to triple
up on a room. There isn't. But Eric has never been what one would call
the Human Abacus, even when it comes to one-digit equations. We'd all
better pray nothing happens to his right arm that would prevent him from
making those long accurate passes out on the football field. When Eric
finally does succeed in combining the birthrate with the existing architecture
a look of great relief washes over his face like the sun emerging from
behind the clouds, followed by a smile. "Congratulations," he says. "That's
terrific, Mom." He kisses her on the cheek and excuses himself in order
to get to the Astroturf. What a suck-up.
Eric truly has nothing to worry about. The baby probably arrives next
April or May. By then he'll have a football scholarship to Indiana University
and by the middle of August be out of here for good in order to start
practice. The Hoosier coach has been covering his every move like an old
lady playing ten bingo cards. Eric's got it made in the shade of the stadium
and the electronic scoreboard.
Louise and I lock eyes across the table. If this is anything like Francie's
arrival then we're going to get stuck making lunches, doing laundry, cleaning
the house, and baby-sitting the twin terrors. And if it's a girl they'll
move Darlene in with us. Sixteen is too old to be sleeping in Furby-infested
bunk beds. Thank God I'll be long gone to Nevada by then. Dad catches
our exchanged glances of horror and says in a gruff manner indicating
that it would not be a good idea to be anything but very, very pleased,
"Aren't you girls thrilled for your mother?"
"Of course," Louise manages to say with forced cheer.
Not able to make myself play the game, I bob my head while gulping down
some watery orange juice made from concentrate. Mom purposely waters down
all our juice to "stretch it." Likewise she mixes crushed oats into the
ground chuck to make that go further. At this rate, make that birthrate,
she's going to be mixing vats of wood pulp into our food after the new
baby is born.
"Okay, everyone get ready for the big game." Dad claps his hands as if
he's already applauding one of Eric's miraculous passes. Mom scrapes Francie's
face with a spoon and then shoves the twice-eaten gruel back into her
"Hallie, remain at the table, please," Dad says and then clears his throat,
which he automatically does before ripping into any of us kids.
The twins instantly and simultaneously begin to chant, "Hallie's a turnip!"
"Shut up, you little twerps!" I swat Davy on the backside with my spoon
as he escapes by climbing underneath the table and between the chair legs.
"It's not turnip, dear, it's truant," Mom patiently corrects as they exit.
"Mr. Collier from your school came over to the house yesterday," Dad sternly
"Honey, what's the matter?" Mom interrupts him. "Why won't you attend
school? Why won't you tell us what's wrong? They've tested you for dyslexia,
attention deficit disorder, and even hearing loss."
"What?" I ask, unable to help myself. But the joke flies right over her
"For hearing loss," she repeats in a louder and more modulated voice.
"They've tested you for everything and the bottom line is that you're
not a stupid girl, Hallie. Do you think you need glasses? Is something
at school bothering you?"
Yeah, something there is bothering me all right. Basically everything.
"Listen, I was in school all day," I lie. "I just missed homeroom and
was accidentally marked absent." It's a pathetic story. Last year I concocted
phenomenal excuses involving microtwisters and even saving the entire
town from an attack by killer bees. Life has reached an all-time low.
I've lost my will to con.
"Don't lie to me, young lady!" Dad's face turns dark red as he pushes
back his chair from the head of the table and says the word lady as if
he means anything but. Ever since Francie was born he no longer has the
stamina to smack us, thank God. Younger brothers and sisters have no idea
the shit their older siblings endure while wearing down youthful energetic
parents. By the time this new baby is a teenager it can just yank out
Dad's oxygen tube or hide his hearing aid whenever he gets annoying.
But now Dad just shakes his head and paces the kitchen floor, occasionally
striking the countertop with the palm of his hand in order to make me
jump. To remind me that he can whack kids, that it's in his contract.
And as soon as he gets a decent night's sleep, he just might do it, too.
Dad is tall, clean-shaven, and broad-shouldered and you can tell that
he played ball in high school and college. Whatever kind of ball -- he
played it. He's even got the bad knees to prove it. In the springtime
he walks as if leaning into a strong wind. And you never want to ask him
for money when it rains.
"First, you're grounded until I receive a report card that demonstrates
to me that you've caught up on your schoolwork."
So much for the final three weeks of the racetrack.
"And second, your mother and I aren't giving you the money to put toward
a car. If your school reports are good, then we'll revisit the finances
this summer." Revisit the finances is Dad's favorite expression after
Who's going to pay for that?
"What?" The money toward the car was my birthday present. It didn't have
to do with good grades or bad behavior. "But Dad! The summer is nine months
away! The summer just ended! And what about Eric? He got a car when he
"Your brother Eric goes to school, plays three sports a year, and works
part-time at the Star-Mart." Dad ticks these items off on his right hand
as if I might need a visual aid. "Eric is using that car to make something
of himself, to get ahead in this world."
The translation here is of course that I would use a car to drive to the
racetrack, pool hall, and Indian casino, and thus it would only serve
as a motorized accessory to my inevitable downfall. My face quivers with
approaching tears, but I refuse to give them the satisfaction. Last year
I'd read this book The Light in the Forest about a white boy raised
by Leni-Lenape Indians from the time he was four years old and I'd decided
to also stand pain stoically like an Indian, and a good poker player,
and to never show my emotions.
"What if I pay for the car myself?" I ask to gauge exactly how bad the
Dad looks at Mom, who is loading breakfast plates into the dishwasher,
but she only gives the I agree with whatever you decide maternal shrug.
Mom is fortunate that with her perfect complexion, wavy light brown hair,
and hazel eyes she looks attractive without any makeup, because I don't
know that she's going to find time to put any on ever again. As it is
she's doing four barrels of wash and two truckloads of dishes per day.
Once when I saw her wedding photos it was like, Who is that?
"Pay for it yourself? I suppose that's fine," Dad says. "So long as you
can cover the running costs. And earning the money better not interfere
with your schoolwork."
Obviously it upsets Mom that at least one of her children isn't going
to attend college. Just wait until she discovers she's given birth to
a high school dropout. In her maternal playbook truancy is just one pearl
away from shoplifting on the add-a-bead necklace of life. From there it's
off to mend fences at the women's prison farm outside of Lima, Ohio. I
wish I were at the women's prison farm. Anywhere would be better than
this house. In fact, solitary confinement would be a treat.
Excerpted from Beginner's Luck by Laura Pedersen
Copyrightę 2003 by Laura Pedersen. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine
Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of
this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing
from the publisher.
could be no doubt left in anyones mind that my life had all the
makings of a country-and-western song.
of seven children (with another on the way), Hallie Palmer has one dream:
to make it to Vegas. Normally blessed with an uncanny gift for winning
at games of chance, shes just hit a losing streak. Shes been
kicked out of the casino she frequents during school hours, lost all her
money for a car on a bad bet at the track, and has been grounded by her
parents. Hallie decides the time as come to cut her losses.
an ad in the local paper, she lands a job as yard person at the elegant
home of the sixty-ish Mrs. Olivia Stockton, a wonderfully eccentric rebel
who scribes acclaimed poetry along with the occasional soft-core porn
story. Under the same wild roof is Olivias son, Bernard, an antiques
dealer and gourmet cook who turns out mouthwatering cuisine and scathing
witticisms, and Gil, Bernards lover, whose down-to-earth sensibilities
provide a perfect foil to the Stocktons outrageous joie de vivre.
Here, in this anything-goes household, Hallie has found a new family.
And shes about to receive the education of her life.
From a wonderful
new voice in fiction comes the freshest and funniest novel to barrel down
the pike since Fried
Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. In Beginners
Luck, Laura Pedersen introduces us to the endearing oddballs and eccentrics
of Cosgrove County, Ohio, who burst to life and steal our heartsand
none more so than Hallie Palmer, sixteen, savvy, and wise beyond her years,
a young woman who knows life is a gamble . . . and sometimes you have
to bet the house.
Pedersen was the youngest columnist for the The New York Times, where
she still writes regularly, and is host of the TV show Laura Pedersen's
Your Money and Your Life on Oxygen. Prior to that Laura was the youngest
person to have a seat on the floor of the American Stock Exchange and
wrote her first book, Play Money, about that experience. Laura
has a finance degree from New York University's Stern School of Business.
In 1994 President
Clinton honored her as one of Ten Outstanding Young Americans. She has
appeared on shows such as CNN, Oprah, Good Morning America, Primetime
Live, and David Letterman. She has also performed stand-up comedy at "The
Improv," among other clubs, and writes material for several well-known
comedians. Laura's first novel, Going Away Party, won the Three Oaks Prize
for Fiction and was published by Storyline Press in April 2001. Her short
stories and humorous essays have won numerous awards and been published
in literary journals and magazines.
in New York City, teaches reading at the Booker T. Washington Learning
Center in East Harlem, and is a member of the national literary association
P.E.N. (poets, essayists and novelists).