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Excerpt: 'Knucklehead'

cover of Jon Scieszka's 'Knucklehead'

Chapter 33: Car Trip

Of all the Scieszka brother memories, I believe it was a family car trip that gave us our finest moment of brotherhood. We were driving cross-country from Michigan to Florida, all of us, including the family cat (a guy cat, naturally), in the family station wagon. Somewhere mid-trip we stopped at one of those Stuckey's rest-stop restaurants to eat and load up on Stuckey's candy.

We ate lunch, ran around like maniacs in the warm sun, then packed back into the station wagon—Mom and Dad up front, Jim, Jon, Tom, Gregg, Brian, Jeff, and the cat in back. Somebody dropped his Stuckey's Pecan Log Roll on the floor. The cat found it and must have scarfed every bit of it, because two minutes later we heard that awful ack ack ack sound of a cat getting ready to barf.

The cat puked up the pecan nut log. Jeff, the youngest and smallest (and closest to the floor) was the first to go. He got one look and whiff of the pecan-nut cat yack and blew his own sticky lunch all over the cat. The puke-covered cat jumped on Brian. Brian barfed on Gregg. Gregg upchucked on Tom. Tom burped a bit of Stuckey lunch back on Gregg. Jim and I rolled down the windows and hung out as far as we could, yelling in group-puke horror.

Dad didn't know what had hit the back of the car. No time to ask questions. He just pulled off to the side of the road. All of the brothers—Jim, Jon, Tom, Gregg, Brian, and Jeff—spilled out of the puke wagon and fell in the grass, gagging and yelling and laughing until we couldn't laugh anymore.

What does it all mean? What essential guy wisdom did I learn from this?

Stick with your brothers. Stick up for your brothers. And if you ever drop a pecan nut log in a car with your five brothers and the cat . . . you will probably stick to your brothers.

Chapter 36: What's So Funny, Mr. Scieszka?

The voice flew across the room and nailed me to the back of my seat.

"What's so funny, Mr. Scieszka?"

The voice belonged to Sister Margaret Mary. And it had just flown across our fifth-grade religion class at St. Luke's Elementary School to find me in what I had thought was the safety of the back row.

"What's so funny?" I repeated, trying desperately to stop laughing.

I knew the correct answer to this question was, "Nothing, Sister."

"I'm sorry, Sister," was also a very good reply.

And nine times out of ten, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I would have used one of those answers. But that day in fifth-grade religion class, something happened. That day I reached a life-choice fork in the road.

My friend and back-row pal, Tim K. had just told me the funniest joke I had ever heard. The fact that he had told it while Sister Margaret Mary was droning on about our future place in heaven or hell only made it funnier.

Now I was called out.

I saw two life paths laid out clearly before me. Down the one path of the quick apology lay a good grade for religion class, a spot in heaven, maybe even sainthood if things worked out later in life. Down the other path lay the chance of a very big laugh . . . though mixed with punishment, maybe a note to my parents, quite possibly one mad God and forever in hell.

A good grade in religion class is always a good thing in Catholic school. I knew that. But I also knew this was a really funny joke. I was torn between going for the A and heaven, and going for the laugh with a chance of hell. Both were right in front of me.

So when Sister Margaret Mary asked her next question, "Would you like to share it with the rest of the class?" I chose my life's path.

"Well, there's this guy who wants to be a bell ringer," I begin. "But he doesn't have any arms."

Sister Margaret Mary's eyes pop open wider than I have ever seen them. The whole class turns to look at me and the train wreck about to happen. Even my pal Tim K. is shaking his head. Nobody in the history of St. Luke's Elementary School has ever chosen to "share it with the rest of the class." But I feel it. I have to do it. It is my path.

"The priest who is looking for a good bell ringer says, 'You can't ring the bells. You don't have any arms.'"

The faces of my fellow fifth-graders are looking a bit wavy and blurry. "'I don't need arms,' says the bell-ringing guy. 'Watch this.' And he runs up the bell tower and starts bouncing his face off the bells and making beautiful music."

Half of the class laughs. I'm not sure if it's out of nervousness or pity. But it's a lot of laughs.

Sister Margaret Mary's eyes open impossibly wider.

Light floods the classroom. I can't really see anybody now. I can only feel the punch line building. I head toward the light.

"So the bell-ringing guy goes to finish his song with one last smack of his face, but this time he misses the bell and falls right out of the tower. He lands on the ground and is knocked out. A whole crowd gathers around him."

The whole fifth-grade religion class has gathered around me. It is a feeling of unbelievable power mixed with terror for a low-profile fifth-grader like myself.

"'Who is this guy?' the villagers ask."

I feel the whole world pause for just a single beat, like it always does before a good punch line.

"'I don't know his name,' says the priest. 'But his face rings a bell.'"

I don't remember the grade I got in fifth-grade religion class. But I do remember the laugh I got. It was huge. It was the whole class (except Sister Margaret Mary). It was out-of-control hysterical. It was glorious. And it set me on my lifelong path of answering that classic question, "What's so funny, Mr. Scieszka?"

Excerpted from Knucklehead by Jon Scieszka. Copyright © 2008 by Jon Scieszka. Excerpted by permission of Viking Juvenile. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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