A Middle Grade Novel by Erin Fry
An energizing and ultimately uplifting tale of the power to change.”—Kirkus
“This compelling read could be an up-to-date twin to Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat for Sarah Burns.”—Booklist
“Fry has a great ear for middle school dialogue, and her light, humorous touch will ensure that readers keep turning the pages until the uplifting conclusion.” —School Library Journal
Click here to order.
Chapter 1: Belly Button Stains, Baseball, and 9-1-1
There’s something about a belly button sweat stain that’s just really gross. Like even worse than an armpit stain. I yank the front of my T-shirt away from the pudgy mound that is my stomach. I flap it a few times, hoping some air down there will make that little circle of sweat go away. No such luck. When I drop my shirt again, it immediately gloms onto that moist ring on my stomach.
I shrug. It’s only Dad and me in the house, anyway. Like he’s really going to care if my navel has perspiration issues.
It’s a hot Saturday afternoon in August, a few weeks before I start eighth grade. Our wimpy window air conditioner is chugging away, barely pushing little puffs of cold air into our tiny family room. I’ve closed the blinds already, trying to block as much California sun as possible. We have an old fan from Dad’s college days on full blast, but it’s making more noise than cool air.
“You seen the remote?” I call out. I hunt around in the couch cushions. Between the air conditioner and the fan, I need to crank up the volume on the TV if we hope to hear any of Vin Scully’s voice.
“Look on top of the stereo!” Dad yells.
This means I have to stand up. Crap. With the room temperature at pretty much ungodly hot and my body resembling that of a walrus, pushing up off the couch requires a lot of grunting and more belly button sweat.
Ah, but there it is. The remote. That wonderful invention connecting us to the world and, more importantly, to baseball.
I flop back onto our couch and slosh a handful of fries through my shrinking puddle of ketchup. En route to my mouth, a big wallop of red lands on my T-shirt.
“Aw, man.” I slap at the stain with a napkin. Thank God Dad said he’d take me back-to-school shopping soon. Most of my T-shirts are stained, faded, or too snug.
“You coming or what?” I call; but with a mouthful of fries, it comes out sounding like “Joo cubbing oh whuh?” “Hang on, Bennett!” Dad hollers from the kitchen. “TV’s not going anywhere!”
Dad was called in to work early this morning and wasn’t home by game time. I had to set the DVR to record the Dodgers game. Even though the game started about an hour and a half ago, we’ll fast-forward through commercials and probably catch up by the ninth inning. With Dad finally home from work, it’s time to chill with the Dodgers and our “game” food: burgers and fries.
Dad huffs into the room, looking more tired than usual. He drops into his faded blue easy chair with a loud humph. He leans back and exhales, rubbing his temples with his thumbs.
He’s been working a lot of overtime in the past few weeks. As a project manager for a construction company, he has to make sure all the guys on the job show up and do what they’re supposed to. Today a crew that was digging trenches to lay some pipe hit a gas line, and the whole site was shut down. Sometimes Dad’s job sucks. And lately it seems to really wipe him out.
Dad carefully stretches his left leg out in front of him and winces. He slowly rotates his swollen foot as if it’s asleep.
“Leg bugging you?” I ask.
Dad grunts and leans over to grab his paper sack of fries. “I think it’s the diabetes.” He shakes his head. “Kept me awake all last night. Every time I moved, it was like someone poking my foot with a thousand pins.” He leans back and sets his sock-clad feet on the coffee table. “Leg’s kind of numb today.”
His legs constantly go numb. Especially if he’s been standing or walking a lot. But then, my dad’s a big guy, and those legs are carrying a lot of weight.
I hit the button on the remote to unfreeze Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw. He throws back his arm and, like poetry in motion, lets the ball fly in a perfect line toward the plate.
Ball. Inside. Crap.
I couldn’t hit a baseball to save my life. It would take me the better part of an afternoon to huff around the bases, even if I could. But I love this sport. I have this dream of becoming a professional umpire someday. They have fat umpires, don’t they?
My burger and fries are gone by the bottom of the second—as is any hope of a Dodgers lead. That idiot, dumb-bum Lowe, has pitched a six-run second inning that has Rockies fans celebrating at Coors Field.
In the bottom of the fourth inning, I let Dad fast- forward through the beer and car commercials while I gather our greasy trash and dump it in the kitchen. I grab a can of Coke from the fridge and swipe it across my forehead as I head back toward the living room. The cool aluminum feels really good. My butt hits the couch just as Dad unpauses the game.
Top of the fifth. Billingsley now pitching for the Dodgers.
“Kershaw’s out, huh? Where’s his curveball lately?” I ask Dad.
“Missing in action. Along with Matt Kemp’s swing, I guess.” Dad shakes his head. This is a sore subject with him.
“We’re still in the running for the play-offs, though.”
“Yeah, there’s that.” He closes his eyes for a second. “Man, I’m tired today.” He rubs his temples again.
“You want some Tylenol or something?”
“No, just tired. These Dodgers aren’t helping any, either.”
The next few innings we don’t talk much. That’s kind of how it is at our house. If the Dodgers are having a really crappy game, Dad might gripe, but he usually doesn’t raise his voice.
At the top of the sixth, the Dodgers have made up four of their six-run deficit. Dad’s dozing on his throne, his head bobbing forward and then comically snapping back up with a snort. I can’t help but smile at his double- chinned, Saturday afternoon bliss. These are definitely some of my favorite times: these lazy, baseball-watching afternoons. Baseball got my dad and me through my mom’s death. It might sound like a dopey Hallmark commercial or something, but it’s true. When baseball’s on, we’re both just good, you know?
My cell phone hums: P. G. I sigh. This can’t be good.
“Yo,” I say.
“You seen the game?”
P. G. is my closest friend, even though he’s a die-hard Giants fan. The fact that he’s calling leads me to believe that things aren’t going to end well for my Dodgers. P. G. likes to rub it in when the Men in Blue suck.
“Watching it now, man.”
“Ah, good,” he says. “Call me when it’s over.” Click.
That’s P. G. Man of few words. I drop my phone in my shorts pocket, lean back, and kick my feet up on the coffee table. I notice that there’s still a sweaty ring around my belly button. Seriously?
I’m reaching for the remote to fast-forward us into the seventh inning when it hits me that my dad’s snoring has stopped. In fact, looking over at him, it seems as if his breathing may have stopped, too.
My dad has this condition called sleep apnea. It causes him to stop breathing in his sleep pretty much every night. Still, I pause the game and quickly get up to switch off the fan and the air conditioner.
“Dad?” My voice is loud in the now-quiet room. “Dad! Wake up, man; it’s almost the seventh-inning stretch! We gotta sing, right?”
His eyes pop open. Wide-eyed, he snorts a few times and blinks, like he’s trying to focus.
“Ben . . .” His lips seem to have trouble moving. With the palm of his right hand, he pushes against his temple and squeezes his eyes shut. “My h-head. Call. Some. One.”
I freeze halfway between the TV and my dad. My mind starts ping-ponging all over the place.
Aunt Molly—my dad’s sister in Vegas? She’s a four- hour drive from Los Angeles, assuming there’s no traffic—and it’s Saturday, so no way is that gonna happen. My dad’s parents died before I even got a chance to know them. And my mom’s mom, Grandma Jean? She’s been in a nursing home for two years now, ever since she forgot to turn off a burner on the stove and nearly burned down her house. Every time I see her, she thinks I’m some paperboy named Willy who delivered newspapers to her house in, like, 1950. Who exactly am I supposed to call?
Then I get it. He means, call an ambulance.