Uncle Potluck said when he talked to the moon, the moon talked back.
Mama laughed. “Same old Potluck,” she said, but he’d already grabbed his hat. Already looked at Mattie, eyebrows up, saying, “It’s hound dog true.” Already opened the door to the night.
Out they went, out past the bean tepees and tomato cages and the stone rabbit standing guard, Mattie matching Uncle Potluck’s steps in the garden dirt. Out they went beyond the tangle of pumpkin vines and the backyard house Miss Sweet was renting.
“Few more days, you’ll know this place by heart,” Uncle Potluck said. “Won’t need me showing you the way.”
Mattie was not so sure. It was dark out here, without streetlights and golden arches and headlights graying up the sky. Uncle Potluck had grown up in this yard. Mama, too. Likely it would take till Mattie grew up before she could path her way through the night.
Up they went, up the rise to the edge of the woods, to the flat rock ledge by the apple tree. Uncle Potluck looked up and Mattie looked up, up to where the moon ought to be. Uncle Potluck whispered, “She’s hiding behind the skirts of Mama Night, you know?”
Uncle Potluck leaped up on that rock. Put his hat to his heart. “Miss Moon,” he called. “Miss Moon, come on out, sweetheart.”
Uncle Potluck waited and Mattie waited till a breeze came by, thinning the clouds.
“You’ve got to trust the moon, if you want the moon to trust you,” he said, handing Mattie his hat.
He wanted her to talk, Mattie knew. Wanted her to introduce herself, say something fine, but Mattie could not find a word in that dark.
She put on Uncle Potluck’s hat, let it fall down over her eyes.
The stick man has bolts of cartoon electricity shooting out of him. Attention! Avertissement! it says over his head. Atención! Achtung! Do not use ladder in electrical storms. May cause severe injury or death.
Mattie is glad she is not in an electrical storm. She does not want little bolts of lightning to shoot out of her. Of course, she’s just standing at the bottom of the ladder, holding it two-hand steady, eyes level with the warning labels pasted to its metal sides.
It’s Uncle Potluck up top, like the stick man, so probably Uncle Potluck would get the death. Mattie’d only get severe injury, she figures, and for a minute she thinks about what kind of injury that might be. Lightning could split a tree, she knew. Maybe it would split her. Take a leg off or something. Or maybe she’d singe all over, like a shirt ironed too hot. Either way, it is good they are inside, she tells herself.
It is good that they are here, inside Mitchell P. Anderson Elementary School, inside Ms. Morgan’s fifth grade classroom, inside the room that Uncle Potluck says will be hers once school starts.
It is good, she tells herself again.
And she keeps it good by focusing on the stick man, not wandering her eyes to the rows of desks or the coat closet doors or the blackboard up front. She reminds herself there is a whole week before this new school starts and she doesn’t have to think about any of that yet.
She can just help Uncle Potluck fulfill his Janitorial Oath.
She can steady the ladder.
She can think about severe injury and death.
“Mattie Mae,” says Uncle Potluck. “I am entrusting you with this distinguished veteran.” Mattie loosens one hand from the ladder and reaches for the light bulb Uncle Potluck hands down. It is not a regular bulb—not the round kind that might ping on above a stick man if he got an idea. It is the long, skinny, lightsaber kind. The kind that sat in the ceilings of every school Mattie ever went to. Which is three. Four, counting this one. Four schools.
The bulb is ash gray. Uncle Potluck puts his hat to his heart and bows his head. “Gave its life in service of the illumination of youth,” he says.
Mattie smiles. Bows her head like Uncle Potluck. “Thank you, bulb,” she says. It’s only Uncle Potluck around, so she doesn’t mind saying it out loud.
“Put that in the box, Mattie. We’ll take it back to Authorized Personnel and give it a proper burial.” Mattie nods and lets go of the ladder. It doesn’t wobble. Uncle Potluck doesn’t need steadying, really. He’s been performing the Custodial Arts since before Mattie was even born.
Up at the front of the room, a skinny box rests against Ms. Morgan’s desk. Mattie sets the veteran down and slow-careful pulls a fresh bulb from that box, a bulb so white it matches the chalk on the blackboard ledge.
This is probably where she’ll have to stand.
It’s always up front that teachers make you stand.
Every time Mattie has been new at a school, the teacher made her stand in front of the blackboard and say her name. Except last time, fourth grade. That was Mrs. D’Angelo’s class. Mrs. D’Angelo had a whiteboard instead. Told Mattie to stand in front of that while she wrote Mattie’s name fat and loopy in blue marker on that whiteboard.
“I’m Mattie Breen,” Mattie had said.
“I’m Mattie Breen.” Came out quieter, though.
Tell us something about yourself.
And just like every other transfer day, Mattie got tangled in her own head, trying to figure out what would be good to say. What she could say that would be smart or funny or interesting enough to make people forget they already had friends and places to sit at lunch and people to be with at recess.
Mattie’d had her notebook with her—the first one, the yellow one—and she’d held it to her chest like armor. Tucked her chin behind it. Felt her breath bouncing hot back.
Shoes shuffled under chairs.
Shy, someone whispered.
Stuck up got whispered back.
Just the day before, Mattie had seen a TV show about Buddhist monks, how they could breathe so deep and slow they seemed to stop time, to stop their own hearts from beating. Mattie tried that then. Breathed slow and deep, trying to stop her face from redding up.
It did not work.
Probably because I’m not a Buddhist, she thought. And that’s what she said.
“I’m not a Buddhist.”
That was enough for Mrs. D’Angelo to tell her she could sit down.
Mattie did sit down.
Sat holding her yellow notebook at a table Mrs. D’Angelo had pushed an extra chair up to.
Sat in the place Mrs. D’Angelo said was for now.
Sat with four other kids—one of them that girl Star, though Mattie didn’t know that yet. All Mattie knew was that she had said, Not a Buddhist.
Not exactly the kind of introduction that would have people rushing to make friends.
Not that she knew how to make friends, really.
She could be friendly, of course. After the newness of a place wore off, she’d been friendly. By then it was usually too late for true, tell-your-secrets-to friends, even the nicest people calling her that shy girl instead of Mattie.
Not a Buddhist.
Not a Buddhist. Not a Buddhist. Not a Buddhist.
Took a whole half of that morning before she could concentrate on anything else.
When finally she did settle, Mattie caught a glimpse of the whiteboard. There was her name sitting bold and friendly among the times tables and the spelling words. Like she was a lesson. Like Mattie Breen being bold-friendly was just as true as five times five being twenty-five or weird being spelled the way it was.
I’m Mattie Breen, she thought.
She sat straighter.
I’m bold and friendly, she thought. Fact-true, like it says on the board.
That’s when Mrs. D’Angelo started in on science. Started writing Survivalon the board. Writing of the. Finding no room left on that big whiteboard for fittest.
“Forgive me, Mattie,” she said, smiling.
And then Mattie Breen got erased.
Uncle Potluck slides the new bulb into its socket and slips the gray cover into its place among the ceiling tiles. Mattie has to move so he can step down the ladder, but she’s close enough to hear the hooting sound he makes on the third step.
It’s his traitorous knee that makes him hoot, the tiny sting of it when he’s taking stairs or kneeling or getting up from having sat still for a movie. He’s got surgery planned for a few months from now, come Christmas vacation. That’s why this move was back to Uncle Potluck’s, to the house where he and Mama and their brothers grew up.
“I’ve planned it all out,” Mama told Mattie. “Potluck will need some help around Christmas. By then I’ll have some vacation time, and you’ll be all settled in and comfortable at school.” Mama’s first two fingers fluttered on her thumb, like the piccolo player Mattie had seen once. Except when the piccolo man did it, he was making music. When Mama’s fingers moved that way it meant she was making plans, her fingers moving as fast as the thoughts in her head. “It was time for a new job, anyway. My old boss was getting grouchy and there was talk of layoffs. And when the going gets tough . . .”
Mama had waited then, like she always did. Waited for Mattie to say, “. . . the tough get going,” which Mattie always said and Mama always took to mean that Mattie was fine with moving again, whether she was or not. This time, though, Mattie had been happy, since moving meant being with Uncle Potluck.
“Mattie?” Uncle Potluck clatters the ladder flat. Puts it to his shoulder. “Will you carry the decedent?”—by which he means for her to get the box with the old light bulb in it.
Down the main hallway of Mitchell P. Anderson Elementary they go. Uncle Potluck first, Mattie following. You can’t tell he’s got a traitorous knee when he’s walking. He just walks, steady and strong, past the drinking fountain and the restrooms and the gymnasium/stage/cafeteria. At the administrative office, he stops long enough to salute the gold-framed picture of Principal Bonnet that hangs outside the door, and then they are off again, rounding the corner and heading to the end of the hall, past the art room, past the music room, to a pair of orange doors marked AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL. That’s where Uncle Potluck keeps his office.
It is a neat office, with a desk tucked snug under the hot-water pipe and walls covered in pegboard. Uncle Potluck hangs his tools on those walls. He’s drawn white lines around them, too—like the ones they draw around dead bodies on TV shows, except dead-body lines are about mysteries and Uncle Potluck’s lines are about things being for sure where they belong. Broom in the broom spot. Wrench in the wrench spot. There’s even an outline for Uncle Potluck’s hat—though mostly that spot stays empty.
Things that don’t belong on the walls have shelf spots or drawer spots, all of them labeled neat.
Uncle Potluck’s chair has a label, too. DIRECTOR OF CUSTODIAL ARTS it says on the back. Neat and square.
Mama is neat, too, Mattie thinks. But Mama’s neat is about getting rid of things. Every time she and Mattie moved, things got left behind. Toasters and TV trays and Mattie’s old dollhouse, all left by the driveway, a FREE sign propped against them. Mama never owns more than can fit in a pickup truck.
When Mattie was real little, she would buckle herself into the truck before any boxes got packed, afraid maybe there wouldn’t be room for her. Used to think that was what had happened to her father, that he hadn’t fit in the truck and Mama had driven off. Really, he was just too young to get married, so he drove off himself.
Mattie pushes the DIRECTOR OF CUSTODIAL ARTS chair up to the desk, so Uncle Potluck can maneuver the ladder. Watches him hang it firm in the ladder spot. Sees a spot marked RECYCLING and sets the bulb box there, which is exactly where it goes.
“Mattie Mae,” Uncle Potluck says. “I have a mind to declare you too talented for this here school and take you on as an apprentice.” And it feels like Uncle Potluck has drawn a fat white belonging-line around her.
MATTIE MAE BREEN
Excerpted from Hound Dog True by Linda Urban Copyright © 2011 by Linda Urban. Excerpted by permission.
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