Toast for Dinner,
I Am Not a Unicorn,
You Can't Be Friends with a Thermos,
Another Reason Why Sisters Are Worse than Wedgies,
Not the Closet!,
As Louie's Closet Turns,
What's the Deal with Gym?,
Why Dads Are Sometimes Worse than Wedgies,
The Rotten Egg,
Never Trust a Girl,
Baa, Baa, Barf Sheep, Three Bags Full,
The Ultimate Battle of Doom,
The Barf Sister,
And Then There Was Barf,
With a Barf-Barf Here and a Barf-Barf There,
That's All, Folks!,
I step into my closet, which is twice the size of my bedroom, and flick the special switch my dad installed. Footlights glow in the corners of the room and along the edge of the built-in stage. My arms tingle.
"Laaadies and gennntlemen!" the announcer's voice booms inside my head. "Put your hands together for the next act in the fifth-grade talent show ... Looooouie Burrrrr-ger!"
I jog onto the stage, grab the microphone, and toss it from my left hand to my right.
"Thank you. Thank you," I say. "It's great to be here in the Barker Elementary gym, but don't ask me to do any pull-ups. I had to do pull-ups for the President's Challenge fitness test, and I sprained my armpit. I guess I'll never be president."
I pause for a minute to let the crowd laugh. Today the crowd is made up of shoes, T-shirts, and posters of my favorite comedians, especially my idol, Lou Lafferman.
I'm about to deliver my bit about school cafeterias when I hear a knock at the door, and my dad bursts in. Instantly I feel naked with nothing but a microphone stand to hide behind. I dive off the stage, land in my beanbag chair, and grab a Nutso magazine.
Dad raises an eyebrow. My magazine is upside down. I toss it on the floor and fold my arms across my chest. "You're supposed to wait until I say come in."
"Sorry. I forgot." He steps back outside and knocks again.
I roll my eyes. "Come in."
Dad slips inside, sits on the floor, and smiles at me. "I'm glad you're using the stage. Are you ready to show me your act?"
"Not yet." I squirm. "It's not finished."
Seriously. I've only been working on it for two years. You can't rush comedy.
My dad nods slowly, and I blush. There's one problem with my dream of becoming a world-famous comedian. I'm too chicken to show anyone my act. What's the deal with stage fright? It's not like the stage is going to bite me or give me a wedgie. It would make more sense to have audience fright.
Actually, I have that, too.
I slump off the beanbag and onto the floor. "Sorry you wasted your time building the stage."
Dad made me the coolest stage any kid has ever had in his closet: shiny black, with neon silhouettes of laughing people painted around the sides. There's a silver curtain for the backdrop, too, exactly like the one on Lou Lafferman's Laff Nite. It took us three whole days to make, and I didn't even have to ask for it. Dad heard me mention how cool it would be to have a stage like Lou's, how it would make me feel like a real comedian, and boom, next thing you know, we're building a stage.
Dad squeezes my shoulder. "I'm glad we built it. I bet now that you have the stage, you'll be ready to perform for an audience in no time. Maybe if my parents had pushed me when I was your age, I would already be a successful artist, instead of a forty-year-old beginner."
When he says that, he stares right into my eyes. A funny feeling burbles in the pit of my stomach, and I imagine my grandparents pushing my father off the roof of their house with one of his sculptures. It doesn't sound so great to me. My dad's a junk artist, by the way. That's a real thing. You can Google it.
"Sometimes kids need a push," he continues.
"Sometimes they need a forty-two-inch flat-screen TV in their bedroom."
My dad laughs, then nods his head as if he's decided something. "You're funny, Louie. You should do your act in the school talent show."
The mention of the show turns my intestines to Jell-O. "Uh, the show was canceled this year," I say.
"Nice try." Dad gives me a noogie. "But it was printed in black and white on the calendar that came with your class list last week. The show is next month, plenty of time for you to finish your act. It'll be good for you."
I picture myself standing in the spotlight, telling my jokes while Ryan Rakefield shouts from the back of the room, "You're so funny I forgot to laugh!" It's the same way he heckled me in third grade when I told knock-knock jokes for show-and-tell.
"Too many people," I say.
Dad nods his head sympathetically, and I sigh in relief. Then he says, "Start smaller. Do your act for me."
Even one person feels like too many. My dad might not laugh. A shoes, T-shirts, and baseball-cap crowd is much safer. "My throat's dry."
"I understand. Maybe another time." Dad gets up and puts his hand on the doorknob. "Tomorrow's a big day. You nervous?"
Tomorrow is the first day of fifth grade. I should be nervous, since Ryan Rakefield is in my class. Again. But I actually feel excited about school this year because my best friend is finally in my class, too. Nick Yamashita. First time ever!
"Nah," I say. "Not with Nick in my class."
"I've got a big day tomorrow, too."
"You do?" I turn my head to look up at him. He has a lot more hair in his nostrils than I remembered. I bet it keeps his boogers warm.
"I'm meeting with a gallery owner."
"But Mom said it would be years before you start to sell your work."
My dad tilts his head and gives me a curious look. "She did?"
"Uh ..." I scratch my head. I think that was supposed to be a secret.
Eight weeks ago my dad was a vice president of strategic marketing. Then his company decided they didn't need so many vice presidents. They gave him a pile of money, though, so Dad decided to try his dream of being an artist, and Mom decided to go back to work. She also gave Ariella, Ruby, and me a million talks about saving money, helping around the house, and being patient and supportive.
"No. Wait. I'm confused," I say to my dad. "I think she said days."
Dad rubs his left temple. I don't think he believes me, and I worry that what I said to him was the junk artist version of You're so funny I forgot to laugh. I want to take it back.
"Uh, Dad," I say before I can stop myself, "maybe I could do my act for you tomorrow. After school."
"You're on!" My dad's happiness almost cancels out the cold, clammy feeling spreading down my neck. He snaps his fingers. "Let's make a pact. I'll take the art world by storm, and you'll become a comedy showstopper."
My dad does jazz hands and Groucho Marx eyebrows as if to say Whaddaya think?
I'm not sure. I want to be a comedian more than anything in the world, but what if ... what if I'm not funny?
"Don't leave me hanging, Louie!" My dad clutches at his chest. "Let's help each other out tomorrow. The Burger men have to stick together."
"Okay," I say. "I'll try." I put out my hand, and my dad grabs it and shakes.
I hope I can live up to my end of the bargain.
The Barftastic Life of Louie Burger
A Comedy Sketchbook
By Louie Burger (obviously)
The Scientific Evidence That Proves I Am a Comedian
Exhibit A: I'm funny looking. I have curly orange hair. I'm skinnier than a jump rope and my ears stick out a mile. I'm also completely uncoordinated. Need I say more?
Exhibit B: I play the accordion.
Exhibit C: I'm strangely connected to many famous comedians. My initials are the same as Lucille Ball's. My birthday is the same as Charlie Chaplin's. And I'm from the same town as Bill Murray. Also, I have the same first name as Lou Lafferman, the greatest comedian in the history of comedians.
Exhibit D: I already have my own catchphrase: barftastic! It means amazing times fantastic plus unbelievable. Squared.CHAPTER 2
TOAST FOR DINNER
When we sit down for dinner, Dad pulls a bottle of sparkling apple cider out from under his seat. "I propose a toast!" he says.
Barftastic! Sparkling apple cider is one step away from soda. My mom doesn't usually let us have fizzy drinks.
Dad stands up, unscrews the cap, fills five wineglasses, and hands them out.
My mother laughs. "David, what is this about?"
"Tomorrow is a big day in the Burger household." Dad raises a glass. "To Mom's return to teaching high school gym."
We all take sips from our glasses, and bubbles fizz up my nose.
"To Ruby's first day of first grade." We start to take another sip, but Ruby interrupts us.
"Also, to my first day of changing my middle name to Butterflyunicornjokergirl and to my first day of greenish brown as my favorite color."
"To greenish brown." My dad nods as though Ruby said something normal. He claims Ruby marches to the beat of a different drummer, but if you ask me, she marches to the beat of a baked potato.
"This is so weird." Ari wrinkles her nose at the cider. She doesn't march to any beat. She stands on the sidelines and criticizes the drummer.
"To Ari's first day of middle school." Dad raises his glass. "We know you'll do great."
I gulp the rest of my cider and ask for a refill.
"To my new career," Dad says, passing me the bottle. When he finishes he holds his glass high. "To tomorrow's meeting at Trash Gallery!"
"Think of it as a trial run," Mom says. "The outcome doesn't matter."
Dad looks at my mom with a funny smile on his face, then he presses his lips together and shakes his head. "Thank you," he tells her, but his voice sounds annoyed.
"What's it Louie's first of?" Ruby asks, totally unaware that her question isn't grammatically correct.
"The first day of fifth grade is barely a first," Ari says. "It's the same as the first day of second, third, and fourth grade."
I stick my tongue out at her. She'd have something bad to say even if it were my first day of being a superhero.
"Tomorrow is the world premiere of the comic stylings of Louie Burger. Louie is going to do his act for me!" My dad's words are for all of us, but he only looks at my mother as he speaks. "I'm going to do everything I can to support Louie's dream. To Louie's first performance!"
"To Louie!" Mom clinks her glass with Ruby and Ari.
"I want to watch from the front row of seats," Ruby says. "Can I?"
"Sorry," I tell her. "The show's sold out."
"Don't worry if your act doesn't go perfectly," Mom tells me as she sets her glass back down. "It's your first time. The very attempt already makes you a success in my eyes."
I want to remind her what Lou says about failure: If at first you don't succeed, fail so spectacularly that everyone will think it's what you meant to do in the first place. But my dad cuts me off.
"Louie's going to be great! In fact he's thinking about doing the fifth-grade talent show."
"I am?" I take another sip of cider, but the bubbles taste flat.
My mother looks back and forth between me and my father. "You don't have to do it if you don't feel ready, Louie."
"He'll be ready if we show him we believe in him," Dad replies.
"I don't think the talent show is a good idea." Ari shakes her head. "No one does comedy."
My mouth tastes sour from my last sip of cider. I wish we'd never toasted anything.
"That's not true, Ari," says my dad. "Two boys did Abbott and Costello's Who's on First! routine last year."
"Let me rephrase," says Ari. "People don't do their own lame jokes. People only do real comedy."
By real comedians. The kind who aren't afraid of audiences. Everyone at the table looks at me, and I shrink down in my chair.
"You are pushing him too hard," Mom tells my dad.
"I'm encouraging him. You are discouraging him."
My mother turns to me. "I'm sorry if it seems that way, hon. I don't mean to discourage you. Do you want to do the show?"
Ruby puts her hands over her ears. My dad folds his arms across his chest. Ari rolls her eyes.
I glance back and forth between my mom and my dad. "I'm not sure."
The room goes silent, and my mom gives my dad a look that says See?
Dad turns his fork over and over again in his hand. "What about our pact?"
"I thought that was about doing the act for you."
"Oh." He puts the fork down. "I guess I got ahead of you. But comedy is meant to be shared. You need to believe in yourself."
Dad sits back down in his seat and serves himself some salad.
"You don't need to decide tonight, Louie." My mother serves herself salad, too, then passes the bowl to Ari. "Give yourself time. Maybe in a month you'll feel excited about being in the show."
"Maybe you'll be famous by then," says Ruby.
"Well, I still don't think you should make him do the talent show," says Ari, as she passes me the salad. I put seven cucumber circles on my plate, the only part of salad that I like. I can't decide if I should thank Ari or stick my tongue out at her again. It sounds like she's sticking up for me, but her words are an insult in disguise.
"What if I still don't want to?" I ask.
"Then you don't have to," my mother says. "We won't make you."
I look at my dad, but he doesn't say anything.
* * *
After dinner I head straight to my closet and step onto my stage. I can almost hear the applause and feel the warmth of the spotlights on my forehead. My shoulders relax and I smile.
"What's the deal with parents?" I begin. "They're always pushing their kids. First they push them in a stroller, then they push them on a swing, then they push them to accomplish their dreams. If I ever pushed someone at school I'd get in trouble! 'Hey, Ryan, I think I should push you to be a little nicer.'" I pantomime shoving Ryan to the floor. "'And Principal Newton, I'd like to push you to buy a laptop for every student.'"
Around me, posters of famous comedians line the walls of my closet. I wonder if any of their parents had to push them. Probably not. I study each of my idols, and my eyes stop on the poster of Lou Lafferman standing in the spotlight with a circle of silver curtain glittering behind him. He's in the middle of a joke and his mouth is pulled down in an exaggerated frown. He looks the way I feel when I perform in my closet: in the zone. It's the way I can never imagine feeling in front of a real live audience.
"What do you think?" I ask Lou. I'm not crazy, by the way. I know he can't answer me. "If I do the talent show, will I kill or will I bomb?"
Also, by the way, in the world of comedy, killing is great but bombing stinks like the tuna sandwich you accidentally left in your lunch box over the entire summer vacation.
Lou's face stays in that funny frown, which I guess you could interpret either way. I sigh, turn off my microphone, and get ready for bed.
Barfcredible (adj.): so good it makes you want to barf.
Barfnoying (adj.): really, really, really annoying. Ruby is barfnoying.
Barf-o-matic (n.): a machine I will invent someday that makes barfing sounds and shoots fake barf.
Barfomework (n.): boring pointless homework, meaning all homework.
Barforing (adj.): so boring it makes you want to barf.
Barforrible (adj.): so bad it makes you want to barf.
Barfshake (v.): to do the Barf Brothers' secret handshake. Only two people in the entire world know how to barfshake.
Barftastic (adj.): amazing times fantastic plus unbelievable. Squared.
Barftrocious (adj.): think of the worst thing you can imagine, and then add barf.CHAPTER 3
I AM NOT A UNICORN
"Louie! Ruby! Time for school! Hurry up! I have to leave soon, too, remember? I'm going downtown today!"
My dad's shouts are muffled through the closet door. I stop practicing my act and check the clock. Whoa! I don't even have time to brush my teeth. It'll be okay, though. I had Cocoa Puffs for breakfast—my breath smells nice and chocolaty. Normally, we are not allowed to have sugary cereals on weekdays, but Mom had to leave so early this morning, she wasn't here to enforce her rule.
"Ruby! Louie!" Dad shouts again. "Five minutes!"
I grab my school supplies and shove them into my backpack. Then I stare at my comedy journal, wondering if I should bring it to school, too. I'm about to throw the notebook into my backpack, when I notice there is something wrong with it.
On the cover, where it used to say The Barftastic Life of Louie Burger, it says this instead:
The Barftastic Life of Louie Burger
A Comedy Sketchbook
By Louie Burger (obviously)
and Ruby's unacorn Book
I have a feeling that's not the worst of it, so I peek inside.
best Unicrn Names
2. majik Star
That's plain wrong. Sometimes I wish Ruby would move to an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and that after that boats and airplanes would be uninvented.
First, Louie is not a good unicorn name. Second, it's my notebook. Last, it was in a secret hiding place inside an old Parcheesi box. Ruby doesn't play Parcheesi. Last, part two, did I spell like that when I was in first grade?
"Five minutes are up! Nick and Henry are here!"
I race to the front door and see Nick and his little brother having a backpack war at the edge of our driveway. That's a game Nick and I invented. Nick swings his backpack at Henry in his signature move, the reverse double-strap swing- back.
"Bye, Dad," I say, flinging the front door open. I can't wait to see Nick. I haven't seen him for five whole weeks. At the end of July, my family set out on a month long RV trip while Nick was being forced to attend sports camp and then, in August, Nick and his family went to visit his grandpa in Japan.
In kindergarten, first, second, third, and fourth grades Nick and I were mostly at-home friends. Sure we'd see each other at recess, but we never got to be alone. The problem is, everyone likes Nick, and there were always lots of kids in his class who'd follow him outside. But this year, since I'll be in class with him, everyone will know he's my best friend. It's going to be the best fifth grade ever!
I'm halfway out the door to meet Nick when my dad puts a hand on my shoulder. "Hold on a minute."
Excerpted from The Barftastic Life of Louie Burger by Jenny Meyerhoff. Copyright © 2013 Jenny Meyerhoff. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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