Authors: E.L. Konigsburg
edwards, judith viorst,
phyllis lewis/lesley kirkwood,
jane condon/dan selhorst,
doctors: steven buskirk, louis russo;
N THE LATE AFTERNOON ON
the second friday in September, Amedeo Kaplan stepped down from the school bus into a cloud of winged insects. He waved his hand in front of his face only to find that the flies silently landed on the back of his hand and stayed there. They didn't budge, and they didn't bite. They were as lazy as the afternoon. Amedeo looked closely. They were not lazy. They were preoccupied. They were coupling, mating on the wing, and when they landed, they stayed connected, end to end. They were shameless. He waved his hands and shook his arms, but nothing could interrupt them.
He stopped, unhooked his backpack, and laid it on the sidewalk. Fascinated by their silence and persistence, he knelt down to watch them. Close examination revealed an elongated body covered with black wings; end to end, they were no longer than half an inch. The heads were red, the size of a pin. There was a longer one and a
shorter one, and from what he remembered of nature studies, their size determined their sexâor vice versa.
The flies covered his arms like body hair. He started scraping them off and was startled to hear a voice behind him say, “Lovebugs.”
He turned around and recognized William Wilcox.
William (!) Wilcox (!).
For the first time in his life Amedeo was dealing with being the new kid in school, the new kid in town, and finding out that neither made him special. Quite the opposite. Being new was generic at Lancaster Middle School. The school itself didn't start until sixth grade, so every single one of his fellow sixth graders was a new kid in school, and being new was also common because St. Malo was home to a lot of navy families, so for some of the kids at Lancaster Middle School, this was the third time they were the new kid in town. The navy seemed to move families to any town that had water nearbyâa river, a lake, a pond, or even high humidityâso coming from a famous port city like New York added nothing to his interest quotient.
Amedeo was beginning to think that he had been conscripted into AA. Aloners Anonymous. No one at Lancaster Middle School knew or cared that he was new, that he was from New York, that he was Amedeo Kaplan.
But now William (!) Wilcox (!) had noticed him.
William Wilcox was anything but anonymous. He was not so much alone as aloof. In a school as variegated as an argyle sock, William Wilcox was not part of the pattern. Blond though he was, he was a dark thread on the edge. He was all edges. He had a self-assurance that inspired awe or fear or both.
Everyone seemed to know who William Wilcox was and that he had a story.
Sometime after William Wilcox's father died, his mother got into the business of managing estate sales. She took charge of selling off the contents of houses of people who had died or who were moving or downsizing or had some other need to dispossess themselves of the things they owned. She was paid a commission on every item that was sold. It was a good business for someone like Mrs. Wilcox, who had no money to invest in inventory but who had the time and the talent to learn a trade. Mrs. Wilcox was fortunate that two antique dealers, Bertram Grover and Ray Porterfield, took her under their wings and started her on a career path.
From the start, William worked side by side with his mother.
In their first major estate sale, the Birchfields', Mrs. Wilcox found a four-panel silk screen wrapped in an old blanket in the back of a bedroom closet. It was slightly faded but had no tears or stains, and she could tell immediately that it had been had painted a very long time ago. She priced the screen reasonably at one hundred twenty-five dollars but could not interest anyone in buying it. Her instincts told her it was something fine, so when she was finishing the sale and still couldn't find a buyer, she deducted the full price from her sales commission and took the screen home, put it up in front of the sofa in their living room, and studied it. Each of the four panels told part of the story of how women washed and wove silk. The more she studied and researched, the more she became convinced that the screen was not only very fine but rare.
On the weekend following the Birchfield sale, she and William packed the screen into the family station wagon and tried selling it to antique shops all over St. Malo. When she could not interest anyone in buying it, she and William took to the road, and on several consecutive weekends, they stopped at antique shops in towns along the interstate, both to the north and south of St. Malo.
They could not find a buyer.
Without his mother's knowing, William took photos of the screen and secretly carried them with him when his
sixth-grade class took a spring trip to Washington, D.C. As his classmates were touring the National Air and Space Museum, William stole away to the Freer Gallery of Art, part of the Smithsonian that specializes in Asian art and antiquities.
Once there, William approached the receptionist's desk and asked to see the curator in charge of ancient Chinese art. The woman behind the desk asked, “Now, what business would you be having with the curator of Chinese art?” When William realized that the woman was not taking him seriously, he took out the photographs he had of the screen and lined them up at the edge of the desk so that they faced her. William could tell that the woman had no idea what she was seeing, let alone the value of it. She tried stalling him by saying that the curatorial staff was quite busy. William knew that he did not have much time before his sixth-grade class would miss him. He coolly assessed the situation: He was a sixth grader with no credentials, little time, and an enormous need. He squared his shoulders and thickened his Southern accent to heavy sweet cream and said, “Back to home, we have a expression, ma'am.”
“What's that?” she asked.
“Why, back to home we always say that there's some folk who don't know that they're through the swinging doors of
opportunity until they've got swat on their backside.”
It may have been because he returned each of her cold stares with cool dignity, or it may simply have been the quiet assurance in his voice coupled with his courtly manners that made it happen, but the receptionist picked up the phone and called the curator, a Mrs. Fortinbras.
William showed Mrs. Fortinbras the photographs, and Mrs. Fortinbras was not at all dismissive. She said that the photographsâcrude as they wereâmade it difficult to tell enough about the screen. But they did show that it might be
She suggested that William bring the screen itself to Washington so that she could arrange to have it examined by her staff.
When school was out for the summer, William convinced his mother to pack up the screen again and drive to Washington, D.C., and have Mrs. Fortinbras and her staff at the Freer give it a good look.
And they did take it there.
And Mrs. Fortinbras and her staff did examine it.
And Mrs. Fortinbras and her staff did recommend that the museum buy it.
And the museum did buy it.
For twenty thousand dollars.
When they got back to St. Malo, William called the
printed William's story along with the pictures he had taken. The article appeared below the fold on the first page of the second section.
William was now standing above Amedeo as he crouched over his backpack. Taking a minute to catch his breath, Amedeo examined the lovebugs on the back of his hand and asked, “Do they bite?” He had already witnessed that they did not.
“They're harmless,” William said. “They don't sting or bite.”
“Are they a Florida thing?”
“I haven't ever seen them before.”
“They swarm twice a year. Spring and fall.”
Amedeo pointed to one pair that had just landed on his arm. “Is that all they do?”
“From about ten in the morning until dusk.” William raised his shoulder slowly and tilted his head slightlyâlike a conversational semicolonâbefore continuing. “The females live only two or three days. They die after their mating flight.”
Amedeo laughed. “Way to go!”