Summertime and the livin' ain't easy
School's finally out, and eleven-year-old Mitch Valentine is ready to get started on his extensive list of things to do with his best friend - until his mom ruins everything with a surprise announcement. The family is going to take a long trip halfway across the country, to stay with her family down South. Mitch's reluctant summer visit to sweltering farm country tests him in all sorts of ways, starting with his sense of humor. Pitkin, Louisiana, turns out to be a place filled with challenges and dangers, from rope burns to raging bulls.
In this vivid and funny first novel, Mitch discovers that it's his own bad decisions that can make for the biggest challenges and dangers of all.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|File size:||269 KB|
|Age Range:||10 - 14 Years|
About the Author
Lance Marcum is a sixth-grade teacher and lives in Fair Oaks, California. The Cottonmouth Club is his first novel.
Lance Marcum is a sixth-grade teacher and lives in Fair Oaks, California. He is the author of The Cottonmouth Club.
Read an Excerpt
The Cottonmouth Club
By Lance Marcum
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2005 Lance Marcum
All rights reserved.
Einstein was right — time does stand still under certain conditions. Such as approaching the speed of light, or trying to endure the last hour of the last day of school.
The clock high on the wall behind the Barker's desk showed two o'clock, exactly sixty minutes from dismissal. She glanced up at it, tapped our report cards into a neat stack for the umpteenth time that day, then slowly stood and cleared her throat.
The books had been collected and the desks emptied, so we all knew what was coming: it was her last chance to praise the girls and put down the guys.
"Boys and girls," she began, "you know I've done my best to teach you all of the skills you'll need to be successful in seventh grade." Several girls nodded in support, determined to play the role of teacher's pet until the very end.
The Barker paused to remove and polish her thick bifocals, her watery gaze settling in my general direction. "But frankly, I don't think I've gotten through to all of you in that regard."
I sat up a little straighter as my defensive radar went into Yellow Alert.
"Many of us have tried our best this year, and for that I'm grateful," she continued, smiling at the girls in front, "but some of us still haven't applied ourselves." She looked directly at me. "Have we, Mr. Valentine?"
Please, God, I thought. Not again, not now.
I slumped back down into my seat and stared past her at the clock; it still showed two.
"I know some of you are much brighter than your work has shown this year," she persisted, waddling toward the back of the room, "and I want you to know that I'm personally disappointed by your lack of effort." She sniffed. "Quite disappointed."
She stopped right next to me. I tried not to stare at the lumpy outline of the heavyweight girdle under her old-lady floral dress. I couldn't avoid her old-lady smell.
"We call this phenomenon the Underachiever Syndome." She paused again, this time for dramatic effect. "Don't we, Mr. Valentine?"
I resisted the impulse to smart off and mumbled instead, "I guess so, Mrs. Barker." No point in spending my last hour of elementary school in the principal's office. I really wasn't in the mood to count the holes in his ceiling tiles again.
But like the bulldog she resembled, she just wouldn't let go. "You guess so. I see. Guessing is not knowing, is it, Mr. Valentine?" I couldn't help myself. "I guess not, Mrs. Barker."
A chorus of snickers and giggles broke out behind her. She whirled around with amazing speed for a woman her size and fixed the perpetrators with a textbook glare.
I looked back at the clock.
Why isn't it moving?
A solitary fly droned around my head, somehow shielded from the time-dilation effect surrounding Room 12. I tracked it for a second, then snatched it out of the air; I had great reflexes.
The Barker had great peripheral vision. "Is there something else you'd care to add to this discussion, Mr. Valentine?" Every head in the room swiveled back in my direction.
My hand was still up, the fly buzzing furiously in my fist. I said the first thing that came to mind. "I think there's something wrong with the clock."
At that precise moment the minute hand moved with a loud tick.
"I think not, Mr. Valentine," she said, flashing a smug grin, "and apparently, neither do you."
I didn't need the oohs from the peanut gallery to know that this was getting way too personal.
Be cool, don't blow it now. Fifty- nine more minutes and this horror show is over, I'll be rid of the evil Dr. Barkenstein forever. Hang in there, less than an hour until summer vacation.
Summer and vacation, my two favorite words, especially when they're used together. And the summer of 1963 was going to be the best ever. I had big plans for this one. Major-league plans.
My thoughts must have taken on a telepathic quality, because the Barker suddenly shifted gears. "And what are our plans for the summer? Would anyone like to share?" A dozen hands immediately shot up.
Morons, all of them. Like she really cares.
Jake leaned over and whispered, "A quarter says she calls on Beth Ann."
I shook my head. Dumb bet. She always calls on her first.
"Let's start with you, Beth Ann."
Jake and I traded smirks.
"Well, the first thing we're going to do is ..."
I tuned Beth out and turned my attention back to the fly still trapped in my hand. I knew how it felt, so I let it go. It strafed my face twice in revenge before banking sharply out the doorway to freedom.
Through the windows of Mr. Delaney's room in the next wing I could see his third-graders celebrating the end of the year with punch and cookies.
Great, they get a party, we get a Barkathon.
Mr. D. noticed me watching and raised his Dixie cup in a silent toast. I nodded and smiled halfheartedly.
He was pretty cool, for an adult. I'd gotten to know him a little during the year, since my brother Charley was in his class. He was always cracking corny jokes, and I heard he never lost his temper, not even on Fiesta Day three years back when Carl "the Gas Man" Newell nearly killed the class hamster after eating six bean burritos for lunch. I would have loved to have been there for that.
Word was that he'd occupied the seat closest to the door since kindergarten, his digestive problems guaranteeing him a permanent position near the room's largest source of fresh air. Unfortunately, that meant he sat right next to me.
In fact, the whole back row was made up of boys. The Barker had started out the year with everyone except for the Gas Man seated alphabetically, but that hadn't lasted long. Every time a boy did something she didn't like, he got moved to the back. The front half of the room was mostly girls by Thanksgiving.
To my left was Jake Lister. He'd been moved to the middle of the back row on the first day of school, when we'd all been asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. "Anything but a sixth-grade teacher," he'd said, obviously trying for a laugh. The Barker didn't share his sense of humor.
Next to Jake was Arnold K. None of us could pronounce his last name, which sounded Transylvanian and had fourteen letters in it, all consonants. We weren't sure why he was in the back; probably because Barkula couldn't pronounce his name either.
Booger McDonald sat at the end of the last row next to the trash can, the farthest possible distance from the Barker's desk. I leaned back just in time to catch him dropping his index finger from nostril to mouth again. Apparently he needed constant snacks to tide him over between meals.
I became vaguely aware of Charlotte rambling on about her summer plans, which more than likely involved horses. We'd sort of been friends for a while, until I'd started calling her Mrs. Ed, after the talking horse on TV. Some people just can't take a joke.
I checked the time again. 2:28. Half an eternity to go.
To the left of the clock was a puke-green Civil Air Defense poster showing us what to do in case of a nuclear attack. Back in the fall, when everyone had been afraid that the Russians were starting World War III, we'd had to practice getting under our desks for protection. Like that would have done any good against nukes.
On the bulletin board behind the Barker's desk were Life magazine photographs of the seven Mercury astronauts, America's first space pilots, along with the names of their capsules and dates of their flights. For the millionth time I studied their clean-cut faces. All of them but Deke Slayton looked like the heroes they were, handsome in an all-American sort of way. Deke wasn't Quasimodo with a flattop or anything, but his nose seemed a little too big for his face and his ears kind of stuck out. He reminded me a little of my father. Dad's curly dark hair made for a lousy crew cut, so he kept it military-short on the sides and long enough on top to comb, but other than that, they looked like they could have been cousins.
My favorite was Gordon Cooper, the last one to go up. A few weeks back he'd had to land his Faith 7 capsule on manual control when his autopilot went out during reentry. My dad said that Gordo "did one of the best pieces of flying" he'd ever heard of, and Dad should've known; he was an Air Force fighter pilot, which was the reason I'd gotten in trouble with the Barker in the first place. I know it sounds like a lame excuse, but it's true.
Dad took school very seriously when it came to Charley and me. "Boys," he would say, "we all have jobs to do. Mine is to serve the United States of America. Your job is to go to school and do good work." He was constantly telling us the same thing Gus Grissom told the people who were building his space capsule at McDonnell Douglas: "Do good work."
And the thing is, up until sixth grade I had. School had always been easy for me, so even though I was starting all over again at a new one, I'd begun the year with a reasonably good attitude.
The Barker took care of that the first day. Like teachers everywhere, she made us write an essay about how we'd spent our summer vacation. When it was my turn to read, I told the class about our move from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, about stopping off at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert to watch them test the latest jets, and about hanging around the flight line at Norton Air Force Base south of town, watching Dad train young pilots in the art of touch-and-go landings in T-33s. Most of the kids, especially the guys, were fairly impressed.
But not the Barker. "So you're an Army brat," she said.
I thought at first that she was trying to be funny — then I noticed she wasn't smiling. "Air Force," I corrected. I wasn't smiling either. If there was one thing I really hated, it was the term "Army brat."
I sat there doing a slow burn, debating whether or not to defend myself. Then Mom's voice echoed in my brain: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." I didn't say a word.
At dinner that night I told Dad what the Barker had said. He scowled for a second, then said, "Son, she's a civilian. You'll just have to deal with it. Do good work and I'm sure you'll win her over."
So I did what Dad said, but she never did come round. I guess that's why I just quit trying and started working only hard enough to keep her off my back. Besides, I'd already learned half the stuff she taught, and the stories in the literature anthology were boring, so I ended up spending most of my time in class drawing or daydreaming.
I'd been absent for a few days after Halloween and had come back to school on crutches to find out I'd been moved to the back, too. That was okay with me; the farther away, the better.
I never did figure out what the Barker had against military kids. My dad said that maybe when she was younger, she'd been dumped by some guy in uniform. A Civil War uniform, no doubt.
Mary Lynn Strickland's shrill voice penetrated my consciousness. "— and then we're going to Disneyland, and then we're going to Knott's Berry Farm, and then we're going to visit my cousins in Idaho for two weeks, and then —"
The clock ticked. I looked up at it.
So did the Barker. It was 2:59.
"Thank you, Mary Lynn, I'm sure you're going to have a wonderful summer." She picked up the stack of envelopes. "My, my, how time flies. I'm sorry, boys and girls, but it appears there won't be time to pass out report cards."
Most of the girls went pale. The boys all cheered.
"So you'll all have to stay after school."
Every chin in the room dropped but mine.
I raised my hand into the stunned silence.
"Yes, Mr. Valentine?" I stood up.
Thirty seconds and counting.
"Wouldn't you like to know what my plans are for the summer, Mrs. Barker?"
She hesitated. We made eye contact for what I hoped was the last time.
"All right. What will you be doing this summer, Mr. Valentine?" Ten seconds. Commence countdown.
"I'll be building a portable atomic bomb."
This time I paused for dramatic effect.
"I'll be testing it in your neighborhood."
"And by the way, Edna, my name is Mitch."
I was out the door before the bell even stopped ringing.
I was opening the combination lock to my ten-speed when I heard Tick shout my name behind me.
I finished setting the numbers to my birthday and looked up. Weaving his way toward me through a wave of noisy parolees was a skinny redhead wearing hornrim glasses and a mile-wide smile. Thomas Kelly Murphy to his parents, T.K. to his friends, and Tick to his best friend, me.
Tick and I had hit it off the first time we'd met, which had been late the past summer at the Officers' Club pool. I'd been waiting in line at the diving board when a high-pitched voice behind me said, "Betcha an ice cream sandwich I can do any dive you can."
I turned around and saw a scrawny, freckle-faced kid with a carrot-orange crew cut and matching swim trunks at least two sizes too big. He didn't look like he could even jump off the board, much less dive. "You're on," I said. I was a pretty good diver. I could do front flips, backflips, twists, even gainers when I could work up the nerve. I did my best dive, a flip with a half twist, ending up in a can opener. I quickly swam to the side and held on to the ladder.
"Nice dive," he said, stepping up to the end of the board, his toes just over the edge. "I give it a nine point five." He paced off three precise steps back, then paused and took a few slow, deep breaths, his eyes closed in concentration while he shook his arms and fingers to loosen up. He looked like he knew what he was doing.
Great, I've been hustled by Opie Taylor.
He stood perfectly still for a few more seconds, then began his approach. He pressed down hard on the end of the board and launched himself with an amazing spring for someone so light, absolutely soaring into the air. Then suddenly he became a flurry of arms and legs gyrating wildly in what seemed like every direction at once. Flips, twists, you name it, he did them all at the same time, then landed face-first with a tremendous splash. It was just about the funniest thing I'd ever seen.
He broke the surface grinning. "Well, whadya think? Pretty good, huh?" "I think you better pay up. My name's Mitch, what's yours?" T. K. Murphy and I quickly discovered that we had more things in common than Siamese twins. He liked everything I liked; I hated the same things he did. We were best friends before we even finished our ice creams.
His dad was a cargo pilot, and had just been transferred to Norton from MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, so T.K. had a million questions about San Bernardino. It turned out that he'd just moved into my neighborhood, only three streets away, so we'd both be going to the same school, though he was a year behind me.
When my mom arrived to pick me up, the first thing I said was, "Mom, this is T.K. Can he spend the night?" "Sure. Where's Charley?" I had completely forgotten about Charley.
Fortunately I quickly spotted him in the shallow end with a bunch of other little kids. We gathered him up and went to find T.K.'s mom.
Mrs. Murphy said it was okay for him to stay over, and after Mom gave her directions so she could bring his stuff by later, we all piled into the car and headed home.
T.K. became Tick that night at dinner. I'd asked Mom to fix Southern fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy, my favorite meal. T.K. practically inhaled his first two helpings, and quit eating only when we finally ran out of food.
He was sopping up the last molecules of gravy off his plate with a pinch of roll when Mom said, "T.K., for someone no bigger than a tick, you sure do have an appetite."
"T.K., Tick. Perfect," I said, more to myself than anyone else.
Charley piped up. "Would you be ticked if we called you that?" He didn't miss much.
T.K. broke into a stupid little grin, so to me and my family he was Tick from then on.
"Mitch! Check it out!" Tick announced in his deejay voice as soon as he reached the bike racks. "It's over! It's three-oh- one in the sunny p.m. and it's summertime, summertime, sum-sum- summertime!"
"And the livin' is easy," I sang back.
He quickly unlocked the bike next to mine and said in a terrible John Wayne drawl, "C'mon, Pilgrim, time t' be moseyin' on along."
"Just a sec, we gotta wait for Charley."
To tell the truth, I would just as soon not have had to wait for my kid brother. I'd been keeping a wary eye on the Barker's door, half expecting to see her come flying out on her broom after me, and the longer I hung around the more nervous I was getting.
Tick noticed. "What's the matter? You miss Woof-woman already?"
"Like I miss polio." I explained what had happened.
"Holy underwear, Batman, that's great! I wish I could've seen the look on her face."
"You'll get your chance next year."
"Thanks for reminding me."
Just then Charley rounded the corner of the primary wing, clutching his lunch box in one hand and a fistful of papers in the other. I was actually glad to see him.
"Mitch, look!" he said when he got within earshot. "All A's! I'm rich!" We got a dollar for each A.
Excerpted from The Cottonmouth Club by Lance Marcum. Copyright © 2005 Lance Marcum. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 - Countdown,
2 - Tick Talk,
3 - Doomsday,
4 - Automatic Pilot,
5 - The First Supper,
6 - Bug Off!,
7 - Hamburger Heaven,
8 - Diamond in the Rough,
9 - Out on a Limb,
10 - A Close Shave,
11 - Creek Lessons,
12 - Scavenger Hunt,
13 - Night Games,
14 - The Aunt Farm,
15 - Shot in the Dark,
16 - Demolition Derby,
17 - Monster Birthday,
18 - The Alligator People,
19 - Altitude Sickness,
20 - War Maneuvers,
21 - Cottonmouth,
22 - Up the Creek,
23 - Debriefing,
24 - Over and Out,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Mr. Marcum is a substitute teacher and was in my class today. He exclaimed hiw he made this book and how long it took him. He also read a lot of tge book to us and it was great. Its a very interesting book. Its entertained everyone. Iown one of his other books on an actual copy and its amazing. He is a great and inspiring author.
I really enjoyed reading this book. So did my two sons, ages 14 and 11. It is fun, exciting and a rare treat. I look forward to Lance Marcum's next book. He better write another one......
It's not just kids that will enjoy this book. Mitch will make you laugh out loud! If you weren't a Mitch as a kid, you certainly knew one. I enjoyed every page! (It may not be out yet, but I was forturnate to read the manuscript in it's entirety.) Don't miss this one!