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Tricia Springstubb

What Happened on Fox Street

Text copyright © 2010

Illustrations copyright © 2010 by Heather Ross.

For Kelly, our family’s newest reader

Map

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The Thinker, Part 1

FOX STREET WAS A DEAD END. In Mo Wren’s opinion, this was only one of many wonderful, distinguishing things about it.

It was a short street, five houses on either side, smooshed close together but in a nice way, like friendly people in a crowded elevator. A piano player lived here, and a teacher, not to mention a man who fixed things, a woman who worked in a funeral home, and the two best burrito makers in the city. If you thought about it-and Mo did a lot of thinking-just about your every need could be satisfied on Fox Street.

There was even a mean, spooky old lady, if ringing doorbells then running away, or leaving dead mice in mailboxes, was your idea of fun.

Paradise Avenue bordered one end, and the ravine the other. Mo Wren’s house was in the middle, where a heart would be, had Fox Street been a person. Sparrows nested under the eaves. This summer a crop of maple trees had sprouted in the gutters. Nature loved that little house as much as Mo did.

She personally had drawn every breath of her life here, having been born a week early and in a great headlong rush, in the very kitchen where she now stood, ten years later, on a boiling June day, fixing her father’s lunch. Mr. Wren had a softball game this afternoon, which meant he was in an excellent mood, for a change. He sat reading the sports pages, his dark, curly hair peeking out from under his cap. Mo’s father was handsome as a movie star, everyone on Fox Street agreed.

“Want chips, Daddy?”

“You’re a mind reader.”

“I knew you were going to say that.”

Fist bumps! She set his sandwich in front of him and sat down. The wooden table was inscribed with dark hieroglyphicish slashes and crescents. Mo’s mother had been an absentminded person, prone to forgetting things like setting a hot pad beneath a skillet or casserole dish. She’d always played music while she cooked, and when Mr. Wren came home they’d kiss for a while, then dance. Back then Mo’s feet could fit right on top of her father’s, and they’d all whirl around till a pot started boiling over.

“You’re not eating?” Mr. Wren asked.

Mo shifted in her chair, unsticking her thighs. It was fiery hot in the little kitchen, hotter even than outside, where the Cleveland cicadas buzzed like rattlesnakes that had learned to climb trees.

“Mercedes is coming,” Mo reminded her father. “I’ll be eating at Da’s.”

Mr. Wren pushed back his cap. “Mercedes! My third-favorite kid in the world.”

Mercedes Walcott was Mo’s best friend. She lived down south in Cincinnati but spent every summer across the street with her grandmother. Mo counted the days till her friend arrived. Deeply as Mo loved Fox Street, she was forced to admit it lacked two things:

1. Foxes.

2. Girls.

Three things, if you counted her mother. But Mo tried not to do that.

“This calls for a toast!” Mr. Wren pulled two cans of pop from the refrigerator just as the phone rang. He swore under his breath. “That better not be work.”

But it was.

“You gotta be kidding me, Jake! Not again! Public Square?” He yanked off his cap and threw it on the table. “Man, I feel the pain. But no way can I come in. I got serious car trouble. Not to mention a…a root canal appointment in half an hour. And-what?”

He broke off, scowling. With one finger, Mo carefully traced a scorched squiggle.

“You trying to say something’s wrong with my record?”

Mo traced the squiggle faster. Mr. Wren had been out of work a long time before he landed this job at the water department.

“Yeah yeah yeah, I get it,” he said at last. “I’ll be there soon as I can get away.”

He hung up and mashed his cap back onto his head.

“Forty-two-inch main just blew-that’s the second bleepin’ time this year. Public Square’s a river. Nobody within a mile’s got any pressure.” He took a swig of pop. “It’s all hands on deck.”

“Wow. You better get your uniform on, Daddy.”

He set the can down and clasped his hands around an invisible bat. The only uniform Mr. Wren had ever wanted to wear was a shortstop’s for a major league team. Slice-he took a hard cut at an invisible curveball. His runner-up dream was owning his own sports bar. It would be a nice neighborhood place, where families could enjoy a great burger together, and teams could hoist a few after their games. Sometimes he and Mo sat around dreaming up names for it. Home Plate. Time Out. Triple S (for ShortStop Spot). The only thing standing between him and it was scraping together enough for the down payment.

“You and the other guys will be heroes,” Mo told him.

“Mud-covered rats, you mean?” He drained the pop. “Mojo, work is the world’s most necessary evil.”

He tossed the can in the garbage, then pulled a handful of scratched-off lottery tickets from his pocket and threw them away, too. “Sorry. This means you’ve got to watch Decimal Point the rest of the day.”

“I don’t mind.”

He crooked a finger under her chin. Two lines arched up between his eyes and disappeared into his forehead, forming a tree with no leaves. Mo hated how those lines had dug in deeper every time she looked.

“You’re my dependabillibuddy.” His arms went around her. Nothing bad could ever happen with those strong arms circling you. “We open the Home Team, you’re my manager. Deal?”

He started for the stairs.

“But Daddy?”

He turned around.

“That can’t really be true, can it?” she asked. “I mean, ‘necessary’ and ‘evil’ can’t ever go together, can they?”

When he smiled, his eyes were dark stars.

“What’d I tell you about thinking too much? You’re going to get yourself in big trouble one of these days.”

Mo retrieved her father’s can from the trash and put it in the recycling. She knotted the top of the trash bag, put her untouched pop back in the fridge, then offered the last crumbs of her father’s sandwich to two big ants foraging on the kitchen floor.

He was always telling her she thought too much. Which made Mo uneasy for three reasons:

1. She couldn’t help it.

2. She thought he could be wrong, not only about this but other things, too.

3. Maybe reason number two proved he was right.

Starchbutt

YOU CAME TO THE END of Fox Street and kaboom, the world fell away. The pavement gave out and all you saw was a guardrail and the tops of trees. The guardrail was dented from drivers turning the wrong way out of the Tip Top Club, up on Paradise Avenue, and only realizing their mistake at the next-to-last minute, when they slammed on their brakes just in time to keep from sailing out over the edge and down into the ravine below.

When Mo stepped out of her house, the summer air was tangy and sweet, a mix of city smells from up on Paradise and country perfume from down in that Green Kingdom. Mo lugged the garbage bag back to the garage. The Wrens shared a driveway with Mrs. Steinbott, and Mo could hear the neighbor’s radio, tuned to a talk show whose every caller shouted and sputtered in fury over one thing or another. Starchbutt stayed tuned to that station twenty-four seven.

Every Saturday she boiled her sponges and hung them out to dry on her little line. In today’s heat the sponges had already grown stiff as boards. Taur Baggott, one of the way-too-numerous Baggott boys, claimed he’d once watched Mrs. Steinbott trap a cat digging in her rosebushes, and the poor thing was never seen again. Boiled, most likely. Her basement was probably piled with bleached bones.