Sam could tell right away that something was up with Stewart. Nothing ever bothered Stewart. Not bugs, or snakes, or even Mrs. Levitt, but today something had him upside-down for sure. Stewart was the kid who knew the dirtiest jokes. He had all the best things to say and this one time he hocked a loogie that reached clear to the ground, sucked it back and blew it out his nose as a bubble. Everyone knew he was the coolest. Sam watched in interest as Stewart stopped at a shrub and peered behind it. A few feet on he shoved his head under a bench.
“What are you looking for?” called Sam.
Stewart bolted upright with a yelp.
“You okay?” asked Sam, catching up to him.
“Sure, fine,” he said after a brief hesitation, and with a nervous glance around added, “have you seen a small man with a large beard?”
“Shh!” hissed Stewart. “Don’t ever laugh at him!”
“Who?” Sam asked.
“The little man,” Stewart whispered. Sam leaned in eagerly. This was going to be a good one. “I… well, I asked him about the weather… you know, down there,” said Stewart, cringing.
Sam was bent over double already, howls of laughter ricocheting off buildings.
“It’s not funny!” insisted Stewart. “He didn’t think it was funny, that’s for sure. He turned right around and lifted his finger at my face, and he said…” Stewart hesitated.
“Come on,” Sam coaxed, “what’d he say?”
“He said, ‘you think I’ve never heard that one before?’ His voice was weird and his eyes…” Stewart shuddered. “His eyes were crazy. He told me I don’t have an original bone in my body, and I should… take care with my words.”
“Is that it?” Sam scoffed. This was probably the worst joke he’d ever ever heard Stewart tell.
“No,” said Stewart, and he looked like he was standing at a funeral. “I ran into Katie. You know Katie.”
“She’s so… energetic,” Stewart said carefully.
Sam snorted at the understatement. That girl Katie was in constant movement, and never in the same direction from one moment to the next. Stewart called her the wind-up toy behind her back.
“She was everywhere,” scowled Stewart, “like she does, you know? I asked her if she had… you know… in her pants.”
Sam frowned. “Huh?”
Stewart cringed. “The little black bug, you know,” he hinted.
“Ants?” Sam guessed.
Stewart nodded glumly. “Next thing I know she’s screaming and running home,” he said, “and all of these… ants are left behind, where she’d stepped, like little puddles.”
Sam wasn’t able to say anything for a bit. This was the BEST joke Stewart had ever told. Sam knew it was all made up, but the image of Katie shrieking into the distance while she left behind a trail of buggy footprints was priceless. Wiping tears away with his sleeve, Sam patted Stewart on the shoulder.
“Thanks,” Sam sighed, “I needed that.”
“You don’t get it!” Stewart shouted, “I have a real problem here!”
“What, with Katie?” snorted Sam. He’d have to get the real story out of Katie later.
“Not just her,” admitted Stewart. “See, we were all laughing at her; Joey, Brad and me, but Katie’s friend, Angela was standing there, too, and she didn’t think it was so funny. She got to pouting, and I told her that if she stuck her lower lip out any further a bird would come and…” he shuddered. “This is the worst day of my life. I have to find that man.”
“Come on Stewart,” Sam laughed, “this is getting silly.”
Stewart wasn’t paying attention. His eyes were focused on something distant. He shook his head sadly.
“I didn’t feel like playing much after the bird and Angela,” he continued, “so I said I was going home, but Joey followed after me, making fun.”
Sam could envision the whole thing. Stewart dragging his toes in the dust with a look on his mug close to what he was wearing now and Joey dancing after him making rubbery faces and rude noises with his armpit. Joey had talents hidden under those arms that rivaled Stewart’s status as the coolest kid in school. Some days it was an even draw.
“I didn’t mean it,” Stewart said, focusing on Sam. “I was starting to believe but I didn’t really think… I told him that if he kept making that face it’d get stuck that way.”
Sam laughed so vigorously he ended up on the ground.
“Why do you think this is funny?” complained Stewart, slumping onto the bench. “Didn’t you see Jimmy running by? He came this way.”
“What’d you do to Jimmy?” Sam asked eagerly.
Stewart started to tremble. “I should have known better after what happened to Joey,” he said. “I did know better. But I got so mad, and I wasn’t paying attention, and…” his shoulders slumped and he studied his hands. “Olaf and Jimmy were playing in the park,” he said, nodding toward the 4th street park, only a couple of blocks away. “Jimmy was saying that me and Jenny… you know how Jimmy is.”
Sam sure did. Jimmy knew every ounce of gossip, true or otherwise, and was happy to share with embellishments.
“I heard that one,” nodded Sam. “I didn’t believe any of it. I said it wasn’t true,” he lied. Actually, he’d said that sounded about right when Jimmy’d told him his theory, and when Clark overheard them that pretty much sealed it up as bona fide fact.
“It isn’t true,” snapped Stewart, and then his face fell. “I sorta said that phrase, you know, about people who say things that aren’t, well…”
“It rhymes with ‘higher, higher, plants on wire,’” coaxed Stewart.
“Liar liar, pants on fire?” offered Sam.
Stewart cowered as if he expected Sam to explode.
“Oh come on,” Sam groaned. “Jimmy’s pants did not catch fire.”
Stewart had a look on his face that Sam had seen once when he walked by while Stewart was waiting outside the vice-principal’s office after the fire cracker in the toilet incident.
“It was horrible,” Stewart mumbled.
Sam ended up back on the ground, awakening fresh rounds of laughter every time he pictured Jimmy running by with his lower half ablaze. He stretched back where he lay, finally, and sighed in satisfaction. Stewart really was the coolest.
“Wanna hit the arcade?” Sam asked after a bit.
Stewart jumped to his feet, his cheeks flushed. “Don’t you pay attention to anything?” he shouted. “I’m in real trouble here! I swear, Sam, sometimes I think if your head wasn’t attached it would fall off!”
There was a silent moment as the boys gazed at each other. Sam thought he felt a little light-headed.Special thanks to Joyce Walton for her help researching childhood sayings! Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure. Thanks!