We Have a TASTY SNEAK PEEK of King Dork Approximately Even Though it Isn't Out Until December!
By now, you have either a) read King Dork and are in hot-pantsed love with Frank Portman, b) read our interview with Frank Portman and come down with a burning desire to eat one of his hilarious books, or c) read John Green's fawning praise of King Dork and have ridden a horse here post haste to see what all the excitement is about.
YOU HAVE COME TO THE RIGHT PLACE!
Because we are frighteningly literate and strong of eyebrow, we have procured a VERY SPECIAL SNEAK PEEK at the loonnnggggg-awaited sequel to King Dork, the VURY APTLY TITLED King Dork Approximately, which comes out on December 9 and is available for your holiday stocking.
WITHOUT FURTHER ADO (OKAY, SOME TRUMPETS WOULD BE NICE), YOUR HIGH SCHOOL LIFE BREATHED TO LIFE IN THE CHARACTER OF TOM HENDERSON...
Excerpt copyright © 2014 by Frank Portman. Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
I was doing the thing where you look in the mirror and try to decide if you recognize the face staring back at you. And I did recognize it. The bruises were coming along nicely, little rings of black, purple, and yellow, as if some evil hippie scientist had figured out a way to tie-dye random areas of my entire body with dark, foreboding colors, as a grim warning, perhaps, to any who dared question the sacred doctrines of recycling, organic dishwashing liquid, and the Doors. A centipede snaked across my forehead just under the hairline, the transparent legs of which, doctors had told me, would soon dissolve, leaving a legless centipede of scar tissue that would itself eventually fade to almost face color. At the moment, though, it was like a third, off-center eyebrow of fishing line. My hair, as I’ve already explained, was too short to cover the centipede in front, which was unfortunate, but looking on the bright side, I supposed it would allow me to test the conventional wisdom that chicks dig scars. I couldn’t resist stroking it. “We shall see, my little centipede,” I whispered. “We shall see.”
If I held my head at just the right angle and blurred my eyes up a bit, it didn’t look all that bad. Bruised as it was, I could work with it.
So I started to do the thing where you think of all the women you’ve had and pretend you are the Lord and Master of the Universe, making grandeur-deluded Mussolini eyes with an Angus Young lip curl and a slight head-bang, left hand idly positioned with the fingers draped over an invisible, floating guitar neck while the right index finger makes a series of rhythmic stabs, in time to which you growl tunelessly, under your breath, something like “I’m a live wire, live wire, I’m a live wire . . . .”
Don’t try to tell me you’ve never done this. Be honest, you were probably doing it just now. Also, don’t try to tell me that when you were doing it you didn’t at some point become conscious of a threatening presence behind you and slightly to your right. Everyone gets caught practicing eventually, is what I mean, especially when you live in a house full of annoying family members, like you probably do. In my case, the figure standing in the bathroom door that I should have remembered to close and lock happened to be my reliably inconvenient younger sister, Amanda.
Her thoughts were clearly visible on her face, as though written there in Magic Marker. “Ah,” they ran. “And another piece of the puzzle falls into place.”
But what she said, with her voice, in a withering, partially italicized tone, was:
“Hey, Live Wire. It’s your other half on the phone.”
She was holding the telephone like a TV remote control, pointing it at me as though deciding whether to switch the channel.
“How much did you see?” I asked.
“All of it, Live Wire,” she said. Then, after a pause, she repeated “All of it” and walked away shaking her head in an exaggerated manner, as she did in response to pretty much everything. Fortunately, she’s family, so what she thinks doesn’t matter.
Now, “other half” is a euphemism for “mate” or “spouse” or any other person with whom you have what they used to call “sexual relations” on a regular basis. It’s meant as sweet-natured ridicule, implying that once two people have begun, you know, ramoning, they no longer have individual identities. It’s kind of sad and beautiful when you pause to think about it—one of the English language’s more
lyrical insults, if “lyrical” means what I think it does. And an optimist might have assumed, knowing this history, that the voice on the other end of the telephone would be a female one.
But if nearly fifteen years of walking around on this godforsaken hellhole of a planet in the midst of its godforsaken hellhole of a society has taught me anything, it’s that this kind of optimism is rarely warranted. My godforsaken hellhole of a sister’s mocking, italicized tone said it all, transforming a gentle romantic put-down into nothing more than yet another tedious gay joke, the kind of thing that the normal people of the world, even up to and including your own sister, never ever ever ever seem to tire of. In other words, I was not at all surprised that the voice coming out of the telephone was not that of a female but rather that of a dude. Well, technically, anyway.
“Satan?” it said.
FOR IT WAS HE
“Mussolini, actually,” I replied, marveling at the voice’s keen powers of observation and deduction. All it had needed to hear was Amanda’s mocking “Live Wire” to know what she had discovered me doing in the mirror.
“Better stick to Satan,” said the voice.
“But I thought you were Satan,” I said.
“We can all be Satan,” it said, and I could see its point, which was actually pretty beautiful. The rock and roll Satan face was just the rock and roll Mussolini face with the addition of a flicking tongue. I could do that.
“Did you get the letter?” said the voice.
Letter? What letter? And who, or what, was this mysterious voice?
Okay, you know what? I’m already tired of this “for it was he” gimmick, “the voice” and everything. You and I both know it was Sam Hellerman on the phone. Who else would have been calling me to talk about Satan and Mussolini and whether I’d received some letter? He was pretty much the only person I knew.
“What are you talking about, Hellerman?” I said. For it was he. “What letter?”
It was hard to interpret the silence that followed.
“Meet me in front of Linda’s in forty-five minutes to an hour,” he finally said.
“Will you be the one wearing a yellow carnation?” I said, because the conversation sounded a bit like we were being spies, and that’s a joke I sometimes make when proceedings have taken a spylike turn. It’s from a movie, probably, though I couldn’t tell you which one. One of those old black-and-white ones where the guys’ pants come up to their chest and Humphrey Bogart has to stand on a box just out of frame to kiss the tall ladies.
“And bring the stuff,” said Sam Hellerman, ignoring my brilliant carnation gag. Okay, Agent X-T9. I decided to give the carnation joke one more try sometime soon and then, if it didn’t get a laugh, retire it for good. Why no one thinks it’s funny is beyond me. I had planned to say something along the lines of “Just tell me what f*cking letter . . . .” But he had hung up.
“Christ, what an idiot,” I said under my breath. I was referring to myself. Sam Hellerman, as I’ve often remarked, is, despite considerable flaws, a genius. I’m just the one who always falls for it, whatever scheme he’s working on, in which I am occasionally the target but more often a mere pawn in some grand plan beyond my understanding. He’s that kind of guy.
THE IRON FIST OF THE SANTA CARLA COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT
Sam Hellerman, Sam Hellerman . . . Sam Hellerman. I believe I’ve already said all that needs to be said about Sam Hellerman. Our association began long, long ago, in the mists of elementary school. The state, having determined that its interests would best be served by turning the lives of its citizens into a living nightmare at as early an age as possible, had entrusted the day-to-day soul-crushing process to the local Santa Carla County School District. And the District found that its iron fist could most efficiently grind the aforementioned souls into a fine, terrified, inert paste if the bodies they animated were clearly marked and organized in a rigid, alphabetically ordered grid, like books, or socket sets, or fireworks. This system placed me—Henderson, Tom—always and everywhere either to the right or directly behind Hellerman, Sam. When the District’s iron fist wanted to torture one of us, it had only to flip through the letters till its murderous index finger alighted on “H.” And there we were. Teachers, parents, and their minions (the psychotic normal students who occupied the rest of the alphabetical grid) would obediently spring to action to take care of whatever was left.
I don’t know why we ended up remaining in our assigned positions even after school, at home, onstage, pretty much everywhere. It was the path of least resistance, perhaps. And it was only natural to band together with whoever was closest
at hand once the inevitable assaults began. But eventually, over time, one way or another, we got used to standing next to each other, which is pretty much the living definition of friendship.
In a way, I should be grateful to the state’s iron fist, even though I am its sworn enemy, because I doubt I’d have been able to make a friend on my own. And then I wouldn’t have had anyone to be in a band with once I discovered rock and roll.
Oh, you haven’t heard our band? Encyclopedia Satanica? Well, that’s what it was called at the time I’m describing—that is, at the beginning of Sam Hellerman’s phone call about the letter. You should have seen the logo: so squashed-together and spiky that it was completely illegible. No way anyone was going to be able to read that thing. And it was really more of a sinister cult than a band. By the end of every show all audience members, especially the ladies, were thoroughly brainwashed and eager to do our bidding like sexy robot zombies. (That’s why we’d been putting more effort into rehearsing our faces lately. I mean, obviously.) Now, that, my friends, was a great band. I miss it.
One of our best band names ever, too. And looking back, I’d have to say, upon careful consideration, that it was almost definitely a mistake to change it to I Hate This Jar, based on a jar my mom was having trouble opening when I walked past the kitchen just after Sam Hellerman told me to bring the stuff and hung up on me.
“I hate this jar,” said my mom, like I said, holding the jar in question in both hands and banging its lid against the counter edge.
“Good band name,” I said almost involuntarily, sealing
Encyclopedia Satanica’s fate before I could stop myself. It’s just a reflex, but once it kicks in there’s no going back. The Tomster on guitar and vox, the Samster on bass and never looking back, the Shinefieldster on the drumster. First album—
This train of thought was stopped in its tracks when another train crashed into it and derailed it, scattering the first train’s cars and passengers in a bloody, tangled, screeching mess all over the thought countryside. Because my mom was really bashing the hell out of the jar in question, and it was weird. I mean, it just didn’t seem plausible that a human being, even my mom, could hate a jar quite that much. Though that weirdness was part of why the event warranted being memorialized in band name form for at least a few hours, it still didn’t compute, and the way I’m wired, I tend to take note of things that don’t compute and worry about them helplessly in that quiet, detached, brooding way I have.
Now, I don’t know how well you know my mom, but even though I technically, and even literally, love her, I’d be the first to admit she has her quirks. A lot of them are charming, and even some of the less charming ones are mostly forgivable because she’s pretty. She dresses like the costume room of a community theater exploded and landed on her. She professes to believe the most preposterous new age nonsense even though it is clear that in reality she doesn’t believe in anything at all. She likes the Doors, and I’m not even exaggerating all that much. Also, she is unpredictable. And I don’t mean just unpredictable as in, she’ll get up and make a two-foot-high stack of pancakes in the middle of the night, or start tap-dancing on an airplane, or put a skillet on her head and sing “You Are My Sunshine” in a cartoon mouse voice when you least expect it; she’s done all of those things, though honestly she hasn’t done anything that . . . what’s the word here . . . “exuberant”? She hasn’t done anything that exuberant in a long, long time.
No, by unpredictable I mean that even though her usual mode is subdued, distant, and silent, she can go from catatonic to berserk in a matter of seconds, well before it’s possible for people within her blast radius to know what hit them. This behavior got a lot more noticeable after my dad died, I think, though it’s hard to tell for certain because I was only eight and I’m pretty sure my “we’re a happy family” memories of that time are well padded with fake content that my mind invented and placed there in order to underscore how bad things got afterward. What I’m saying is that if there’s anyone you might expect to overreact to a jar, it’d be my mom. But even for her, this seemed excessive.
I rounded the corner where the hallway juts off from the kitchen’s mini-hallway, mainly to replace the phone in its little saddle thing before getting the hell out of there, because things were seeming like they could get pretty tense and uncomfortable at any moment. Quick as a striking cobra, Amanda’s arm shot out and took possession of the phone, hardly allowing any plastic-on-plastic contact at all. She had, as usual, been silently shadowing me, waiting for her first phone-snatching opportunity. She likes to keep control of the phone as much as she can, carrying it around as she used to carry her dolls when she was younger, so much so that I tend to think of them, the phone and Amanda, as a single unit, the Amanda-phone. For all I know, she dresses it in little outfits and rocks it and pretends to feed it when no one’s looking. The purpose of this—the carrying, if not the dressing and feeding—is to discourage others from using it, to be sure, but it’s also to monitor who is talking to whom. She fields all calls that come in, sighing heavily and saying “Hold, please” when it’s not for her, and handing the phone off to the appropriate person like some hostile secretary.
I was just shooting Amanda a puzzled look concerning the jar when I heard the voice of Little Big Tom, husband to my mom and fake dad to Amanda and me. And all became, well, not clear, but about as clear as anything ever gets around here.
“If you don’t tell me what it is,” he was saying, “how am I supposed to know how to respond?” His customary placid voice twisted into a slight whine on the word “respond.”
As though in answer to my puzzled look, but really, in fact, just to be a dick, Amanda cupped her hand at her mouth and stage-whispered:
“If she doesn’t tell him what it is, how is he supposed to know how to respond?” She shook her head in mock concern, but underneath it all she was practically beaming. She is not a fan of Little Big Tom, and she loves it when my mom argues with him, even a little, about anything. My hospitalization had brought us all closer together for a brief time but as far as Amanda was concerned the truce was over, and hostilities resumed almost as soon as I returned home. In a way I couldn’t blame her. Little Big Tom is not a bad guy, but he can be hard to take, even at his best. I find it difficult not to feel sorry for him, even though I’m not above mocking him with sympathetic regret. We all do it, even my mom. But Amanda seems immune to sentimentality when it comes to family matters. “Sympathy is for the weak,” her steely eyes seem to say. Well, I mean, with regard to her eyes: they’re as steely as brown eyes ever get.
IT’S NOT EASY BEING A TWELVE-YEAR-OLD GIRL
So my mom and my diminutive stepfather were having a special Moment, and Amanda, the phone-baby, and I had barged in on it just as my mom was spicing things up by taking her frustration out on a defenseless jar. This would have been an excellent time for me to exit stage left, sans sister-phone, but Amanda’s whisper had given us away.
“Hey, sport,” said Little Big Tom. “Taking care of business?”
He spoke in a much jauntier manner than you’d expect from someone who was in the middle of playing Try to Guess What I’m Mad About. (This game is played all the time around here. No one, including me, ever seems to learn that the only winning move is to turn around and leave.)
I have to say, it’s quite impressive how Little Big Tom can manage to have two entirely separate conversations at the same time, especially conversations with two such wildly different moods. If you’ve ever met him, you’ll know that the key to Little Big Tom is body language. He throws his whole self into conversation, as though he’s worried that words are not enough. Which is pretty astute, because what he says, in words, can be the most contentless blather, usually something along the lines of “Everything happens for a reason” or “Hang on to your dreams.” His body, on the other hand, puts so much into getting the otherwise forgettable message across that it can leave you in a state of stunned bafflement that will stick with you for years to come. He would have been great in silent films, especially a silent film about a man who was split into two halves, such that his left side could have an argument with his wife while the other side could simultaneously make a sandwich one-handed and encourage the little children to do more, strive more, and be more. It’s a bit like juggling, I suppose.
So Little Big Tom’s right shoulder was slumped in a defeated way, and his eyes looked to my mother with pleading frustration. At the same time, he looked at me with his head cocked, his index finger in the air, and the rest of his face in that frozen half-frown it sometimes assumes when he’s waiting for an answer. If you respond the way he likes, the head descends, the frown smiles on one side, the finger comes down and points as though hitting a little target hovering in front of him, and he winks and says something like “That’s the stuff.” And he may shoot you with finger guns. He was waiting to learn whether I was, in fact, taking care of business at that particular moment.
The scene before me was distracting, but I did my best.
“You got it . . . chief,” I said, deadpan, haltingly, unable, despite Herculean efforts, if those are the kind of efforts I mean, to keep the irony out of my voice. And my halfhearted finger gun wound up looking a good deal more sarcastic than I’d intended as well. I’m not capable of sincerity when it comes to things like finger guns and saying “chief.” People should just know that about me.
But it was good enough for Little Big Tom, or at least, it was good enough for the half of Little Big Tom that was talking to me. The head and index finger came down while the mouth corner went up, and yes, there was some quite exultant finger gunning too, even as he reached to put his arms around a stiffened, uncooperative Carol Henderson and nod sympathetically into her cheek.
“Nicely done,” he said, to me, evidently pleased with the confirmation that business was being taken care of. “Good stuff.”
My mom disengaged from her half of Little Big Tom and put the jar down. She picked up the three-quarters of a cigarette that had been balanced on the edge of the counter, tipped the ash in the sink, and took a deep drag on it.
“How are you feeling, baby?” she said, placing the back of her non-cigarette-holding hand on my forehead with surprising tenderness and motherliness and considerately turning her head almost all the way around so that her exhaled cloud of cigarette smoke landed somewhere other than in my face. Which I appreciated, even though, technically, that hand-to-forehead procedure is meant to determine whether someone is feverish, and there not being any chance at all of my having a fever, it of course served no practical purpose. But as an empty, vague demonstration of concern and affection I still ranked it highly. It didn’t happen too often. But it hadn’t been all that long since I was in the hospital, and everyone was still making an effort to be nice to me. Well, everyone except Amanda, who said, just before scampering off with the phone-baby:
“Don’t worry about him. He’s a live wire and he’s going to set the world on fire.”
I could almost see the gears turning in both of my parents’ heads, their argument temporarily forgotten as they tried to work out whether to worry that I was going to set something on fire right there. I’m sure they wouldn’t have put it past me. In their world, any person who was not that interested in sports was capable of anything, arson being the least of it. But then they seemed to realize I was just being mocked, in a sisterly sort of way.
“She heard me singing a song,” I said, just to make sure they got it. I explained that “setting the town on fire” was merely a metaphor for making things happen, helping your fellow man, and making the world a better place. I gave them the look that says “It’s really a very positive message.” Laying it on thick, I know, but the last thing I needed was to be put on pyromaniac watch.
Then, anticipating the next thing Little Big Tom was going to say, I added: “And plus, I’d rather not ‘lay it on you’ right now . . . chief. Still working on it.” Of course it was AC/DC, not one of my own songs, as I implied, and it had been “finished” over twenty-five years ago. And if I knew Bon Scott, he’d have set a hundred towns on fire, quite literally, and Little Big Tom as well, without blinking. But there was just no way I was going to stand there singing “Live Wire” in front of my mom and Little Big Tom and try to defend it beyond a reasonable doubt. They’d put some kind of watch on me then, no question.
To my slight amazement, they bought it.
“The integrity of the artist,” Little Big Tom was saying, nodding sagely, while resuming the marital strife process by glancing at my mom with a bitter but kindly “the f*ck?” look on his face. “Very cool. Very, very cool. Any time you’re ready, maestro. I’ll be all ears.” He wiggled his fingers at his ears, then said, “Go easy on your sister, chief. It’s not easy being a twelve-year-old girl.”
Thank the good Lord he didn’t try to do some kind of hand gesture to illustrate “twelve-year-old girl.” But I had to suppress a laugh anyway, because the earnest, solemn way he said it made it sound as though he were speaking from experience, and also because I was on edge. A few minutes of Little Big Tom’s relentless jocularity, shot through with a rich vein of marital disharmony, can fray a person’s nerves to the point where he’s likely to shoot off an involuntary giggle or two at the least appropriate moments. Even my mom broke character and gave him a look, but she remained pointedly silent when he added, rather unwisely, it seemed to me, in her direction: “Am I right, honey?”
So now they were both “the f*ck?”–ing each other. With their faces, I mean.
Evidently, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know what the argument was about, but whatever it was, it must have been pretty serious. No matter how annoyed I am with Little Big Tom, he desires acknowledgment so fervently, and is satisfied with so little, that it is nearly impossible to resist throwing him some sort of bone in the end, even if it’s only a grudging “You betcha” or a fraction of a second’s worth of ambivalent eye contact. My mom wasn’t giving him anything, though. A tough cookie, I think the phrase goes.
“Don’t forget your medicine,” she finally said, to me, and left the kitchen without another word or glance at either of us. As I said, when it comes to the T. T. G. W. I. M. A. game, the first person to leave the room wins, and she almost never loses. Nerves of steel, that’s what it takes.
Little Big Tom did this lip-pursed “it is what it is” thing with his face, picked up the olive jar, placed it, with resigned precision, in the cupboard on top of a tomato sauce can, and sighed heavily.
“Rock and roll,” he said, the words infused with extraordinary sadness.
Now, in order to explain the next thing that happened, I have to make sure you understand something. When Little Big Tom first started hanging out with my mom and spending time around here, I was a little kid, and he, though tiny for a grown man, was still quite a bit taller than me. I guess he wasn’t all that used to being taller than someone, and got a little drunk with power over it, because he rather recklessly decided he wanted to be called Big Tom, to distinguish himself from me, whom he called Little Tom, or sometimes Little Dude or Little Guy. It was annoying, but as it was an accurate reflection of our relative sizes, perfectly legal according to the United Nations or the Marquess of Queensberry or whoever it is that administers the rules of who can call whom what and what they can hit each other with.
Soon, however, I started to grow up, as people do, and it wasn’t too long before I was not all that much shorter than him. That’s when I started to call him, in my head, though never to his face, of course, Little Big Tom, because it was funny and there was nothing the UN or the Marquess of Queensberry could do about it. Now I’m just slightly taller than him, and though he may be a bit wider than me in the middle, there is pretty much no other sense in which he is big compared to me. I could call him Little Dude, but I don’t because, as annoying as he is, I wouldn’t want to hurt his feelings that bad, except behind his back. But that’s why, by unspoken agreement, we’ve been saying “chief” and “sport” more often lately, so the subject of our relative heights won’t come up, even though everyone’s probably thinking it, most especially him.
So you know the thing where the dad-type figure will rumple the hair of the kid-type figure as though to say “You’re a good kid and I was your age once, so run along now”? I’m way too old for that, but Little Big Tom still likes to do it, especially when he needs cheering up, and it was plain he wanted to do it now. In fact, he was all but begging for it, making the well-known “it would mean a great deal to me to rumple your hair if you could find it in your heart to allow me that one simple pleasure” face with imploring eyes. Well, my nerves must be made of something other than steel, because I just didn’t have the heart to refuse, and win, by leaving the room.
Performing this operation these days involves his drawing himself up as tall as he can without too obviously standing on his toes, while I slouch and lower my head, like he’s the queen and I’m bowing in preparation for being knighted.
I’ll tell you what: it’s not easy being anyone.
NO IT IS NOT EASY BEING ANYONE. ARE YOU IN LOVE WITH TOM AND ARE YOU HOISTING YOUR CHAPS IN ANTICIPATION OF DECEMBER 8 WHEN YOU CAN GET YOUR HANDS ON KING DORK APPROXIMATELY? THREE CHEERS FOR FRANK PORTMAN!!!