THE PERKS OF BEING A BARFBURGER
I hike my backpack high on my shoulders and take one last bite of the caramel apple my dad let me eat for breakfast. It’s a Monday morning in the middle of October and the leaves are starting to change colors, but it’s not cold yet. I step outside without a coat. My sweatshirt is enough. Besides, it’s a Lou Lafferman sweatshirt. I don’t want my coat to cover it. In case no one at school watched Lou Lafferman’s Laff Night on Friday night and noticed a certain viewer video with a certain orange-haired kid. Or in case no one watched the local news and saw a story about a certain kid who got to be on TV. If they don’t see my sweatshirt, people might not realize there is someone sort of famous in their class. Me.
“What do you want to be for Halloween?” I ask Nick as I meet him on my driveway and we start our walk to Barker Elementary School.
“I don’t know.” Nick jumps in a pile of leaves left at the edge of our neighbors’ lawn, then he pushes the leaves back together and catches up with me. “We’re going to trick-or-treat with Thermos, right?”
“Barf course,” I say. Making up new words by adding barf is part of my comedy shtick. Shtick is like a comedy routine. After I got the stomach flu a couple weeks ago, I thought about changing my shtick, but I decided barf is a classic. You don’t mess with a classic. “I wonder what Thermos will be.”
Nick has been my best friend since forever, and Thermos is a newie but a goodie. We are a great trio. Suddenly it hits me. “We should do a three-way costume!” I’ve never done matching costumes before.
“I’m going to be a unicorn,” my little sister, Ruby, chimes in. Nick and I have to walk our younger siblings to school, but mostly we ignore them. “My unicorn name will be Cornelia Rubicornica.”
I stop walking and drop my jaw in fake surprise. Ruby is wearing a homemade unicorn T-shirt and a pair of gym shoes my dad let her decorate with googly eyes and cardboard unicorn horns. Her brain is probably shaped like a unicorn because she spends so much time thinking about them.
“I never would have guessed you’d be a unicorn.” I smack my palm against my forehead. “Are you sure you’re not going to be a banana?”
“I’m going to be a banana!” Henry, Nick’s younger brother, jumps up and down as he walks beside us. “We already ordered my costume from the Internet store!”
“You should be a banana unicorn,” Ruby says. “I’ll make you a horn and your name can be Banoonicorn.”
Henry’s eyes go wide. “Thank you.”
“Original,” I say, and Nick and I smile at each other. Little kids can be built-in entertainment when they aren’t barfnoying you to death.
We reach the corner and the crossing guard holds up his stop sign for us to cross the street to our school.
“We could be the three dimensions for Halloween,” I suggest to Nick. “Length, width, and height. Or we could all be C-3PO, from Star Wars. We’ll wear the letters PO on our chests and when people ask us what we are we’ll answer: ‘What do you see? Three POs. We’re See-3-POs.’”
Nick and I walk over to the fifth-grade blacktop as Ruby and Henry join the first graders. Each grade gathers in a different section of the playground before the morning bell rings.
“Those are good ideas.” Nick wrinkles one side of his nose. “I’m just not sure everyone will get them. Maybe we should keep brainstorming.”
“Sure,” I tell him. “I’ll keep a list.”
As we get closer to the fifth graders, I notice at least twenty-five kids huddled around the tetherball pole. Almost as many kids as the time I pretended to be a ninja delivering a roundhouse kick to my mortal enemy Melonhead and my ankle got completely tangled in the tetherball string. I had to stand on one foot for about fifteen minutes until JoAnne, the school custodian, arrived to cut me down and walk me to the nurse’s office with the tetherball bouncing along behind my ankle like an old-timey prisoner’s ball and chain.
Um, I take it back. That didn’t actually happen. Really.
It’s weird to see so many people, from all three of the fifth-grade classes, standing around the pole, because they haven’t even replaced the tetherball yet. What are they watching? Is it a pole-staring contest? When the kids see Nick and me, I worry they are angry about the missing ball, but a bunch of them smile and wave Nick over.
Even though Nick and I are best friends, he’s got a lot of other friends besides me. The only friend I have besides him is Thermos.
“Come on!” a kid named Grant shouts. A girl named Ava wiggles her fingers in our direction.
“Uh, I think Ava waved at you,” I say.
“Really?” Nick smiles funny, but then he looks at the ground and doesn’t wave back.
“Come on,” Grant calls again.
“Go ahead,” I tell Nick. “I’ve got a joke book in my backpack to keep me company.”
Nick raises an eyebrow. “You should come, too. We could all hang out together.”
It sounds like a reasonable suggestion, but if I go hang out with Nick and the other kids, I might misunderstand when one of them starts talking about the Bears. Then I might do my grizzlies-eating-cafeteria-food impression, but no one will get it because they will be thinking about football players, not wild animals, and Nick will have to explain what I’m doing and everyone will say, “Oh, funny,” but they won’t mean it.
“Louie!” Grant calls my name. “Come here! We’ve been waiting for you.”
I glance over my shoulder to see if Grant is talking to some other Louie standing right behind me. I can’t remember anyone beckoning me before. I check to see if Ryan Rakefield is standing with them, because if he is, then I’ll know it’s a trick, but he’s nowhere in sight. He must not be at school yet.
“Come on,” another kid shouts, and Nick grabs my arm and drags me with him because I’m kind of in shock.
“Cool shirt,” Grant says when we get to the tetherball pole. “Did Lou Lafferman give that to you?”
I shake my head. “I had it from before. Lou is my favorite comedian. I tape his show every night.”
“Lucky!” says a girl from Mrs. Wolf’s class. “I’m not allowed to watch it until I’m twelve.”
“Me neither,” says Grant. “But I saw the video of you on the Internet. My parents let me watch it after they heard about you on the news.”
My head is spinning trying to keep up with the different kids talking to me. They are circled around me, and Nick is right next to me, but I’m the one everyone is talking to. A girl from my third-grade reading group tells me that she’s played my video twenty-seven times. She asks me to autograph her backpack. I wrap my arm across my stomach and pinch my waist. It hurts, so I know I must be awake.
Whenever I read about people pinching themselves to see if they are dreaming, I always think that sounds fake. I mean, come on, who doesn’t know if they are dreaming? But today, for the very first time, I understand. Nothing like this has ever happened in my life before. Everyone is talking to me, and looking at me, surrounding me, but it’s not to make fun of me or laugh at something I did. It’s because they think I’m cool. They think I’m S.W.A.G.: Someone Worth Acknowledging and Greeting. It’s unbarflievable.
I feel light-headed, not like I’m going to faint, but like I’m going to float away in a cloud. Visions of being carried through the hallways on the shoulders of my classmates fill my head.
“So what do you think?” Grant asks me.
“About what?” I was so busy being happy, I forgot to pay attention to what everyone was saying.
“About lunch.” Grant nods enthusiastically.
I look at Nick and raise my eyebrows, hoping he’ll know what’s so great about lunch, but he shrugs at me, so I say, “I think lunch is one of the three best meals of the day.”
Grant laughs, but I barely hear him, because from across the playground a different voice coats my skin with ice. “Don’t stand too close! Barfburger might hurl on you!”
I look up and see Ryan Rakefield walking over with Thermos and a bunch of other fifth graders from bus 54. Ryan shouts, “I can smell him from here.”
I cringe and look at Grant, ready for him to hold his nose, take a giant step backward, and call me Barfburger. A couple of kids look at me suspiciously, but Grant says, “So, do you actually know Lou now? Could you call him on the phone?”
I shake my head. I can’t speak and my heart is pounding. I’m sure the teasing is going to start any second. Ryan and Thermos elbow their way to the center of the crowd. Ryan sneers at me. “I could have been on that show if I wanted, but no one watches Lou Lafferman anymore. My parents say that The Bobby Duffy Show is way funnier.”
“I watch Lou.” Thermos dribbles her basketball hard as she talks, then swings her right leg over the ball as it bounces. She’s got moves coming out of her ears, but the boys still won’t let her play with them at recess.
“Me, too,” says Nick. “I love Lou. He’s going to be in a movie soon, Snow White and the Seven Dorks. He’s playing Snow White.”
“I hope my parents let me see it,” Grant says as the first bell rings.
Most of the kids by the tetherball pole wander away to pick up their backpacks from where they dropped them when they got to school. I never put mine down, so I head straight to Mrs. Adler’s line-up spot. Ryan passes by me and bumps me hard on my shoulder. My backpack slides down my arm and I trip and fall into Jamal.
“Watch it, barfbag!” Ryan says, even though he bumped me. He runs the rest of the way to the line without looking back.
“Are you okay?” Thermos asks.
“I’m fine.” I stand up, and Jamal hands me my backpack. I reach my hand out slowly, waiting for the trick. Is he going to pull it away? Throw it over my head? But when I’m holding on to the strap Jamal simply lets go and walks away.
“Actually,” I tell Thermos, “I’m better than fine.”
More than twenty kids just talked to me like I was a regular student. I hold my head high and walk into school, down the fifth-grade hall, and over to my locker. Except for the day when the video of me barfing on stage at the fifth-grade talent show aired on national television, today is the most barftastic day of my life.
Text copyright © 2014 by Jenny Meyerhoff