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excerpt from Funny Man

Late Saturday afternoon, at Taste of Italy, Derrick felt sweat running down his face. Joe had shown him how to bus tables. "Be efficient," he'd ordered. But then, Joe had even cracked a few jokes. He wasn't such a bad guy, Derrick decided.

Now, Derrick was getting ready for the dinner hour. Garlic and sausage smells drifted through the restaurant.

Grabbing a clean cloth and spray cleaner, he wiped tables. Then he began to set them. In the kitchen, Craig chopped vegetables. Joe worked on sauces.

The fan was running overhead. But heat from the kitchen drifted into the dining room.

"Can't run the air conditioner," Joe said, when Derrick walked in the kitchen to complain. He mopped his face. "Gotta save money. It'll cool down later." He kept stirring a huge pot of simmering red sauce. With a sigh, Derrick walked back into the dining room.

"Yo! Derrick!" Familiar voices called to Derrick. Derrick looked up. He stopped rolling silverware up in napkins.

A grin spread across his face. "Hey! Shaun! Rod!" he answered. Buddies to talk with. He needed a break.

"'Ssup?" Shaun asked. The two boys walked over. They all bumped fists.

"Aw, just workin'," Derrick said. He gestured to the empty tables. "Gettin' ready."

"Ready for what?" Rod asked, looking around. "There's no one here."

"Yeah, people'll come," Derrick said. "We hope they'll find this new place."

"Uh-huh," Shaun said. "You don't look like you're working too hard," he joked.

"Oh, no?" Derrick asked. He unfolded a napkin. He plopped it on his head.

"Allow me!" he teased, bowing low, sweeping his arm through the air. "Your table, sir!"

Shaun and Rod busted up laughing. Derrick joined in their laughter.

The doors to the kitchen swung open.

"What's going on in here?" Joe barked. Under his chef's hat, his red face matched his red apron. He put his hands on his hips.

Derrick flinched. Uh-oh. He was dust, now. He whipped the napkin off his head.

"Ah, nothing," he said quickly.

"I don't know who you guys are," Joe said. "But you're bothering my bus boy. Now get out."

"Sorry!" Rod squeaked. Shaun and Rod hustled out the door.

"And you –" Joe began. "What do you think you're doing? This is a place of business. Not a comedy act."

"I – I'm sorry," Derrick mumbled. He grabbed some silverware.

"What happened?" Craig asked from the doorway.

"Uh --nothing," Derrick said. "Just – ah – some of my buddies came in."

Joe frowned at Derrick. "This better not happen again," he warned.

"Uh, sure, no problem," Derrick stammered. "Sorry!"

Craig shook his head and disappeared into the kitchen.

"I got bills to pay," Joe reminded him. "I need your help, not your jokes, to keep customers."

"Uh, sure," Derrick said. Joe walked back into the kitchen.

Derrick's face felt warm. Now, he felt kinda bad. But, the restaurant being empty wasn't his problem, was it? He began rolling up silverware again.

Then Derrick shook his head. But, it was his problem, he admitted. If there wasn't enough business, he'd have no job. Derrick's shoulders slumped. He kept rolling silverware, glancing up at the door. Maybe customers would come in.

Derrick was almost happy when Monday arrived. At least his nagging parents couldn't follow him to school. All weekend, they'd been hassling him. English grade – job – responsibility – grow up.

It was like a boring song, over and over, Derrick thought. He almost told Mom and Dad the rap verses he'd made up. "If you can't get no job/ You are just a slob. If you can't pass your English/ You just gonna be finish." He half-smiled. That would have really pushed them over the edge, though. So, he'd kept quiet.

"All right, class," Mrs. Dowling called out at the beginning of English class. "Get out your notebooks. I have the topic of your next paper assignment for you."

"How to raise baby dragons," Derrick whispered to Shaun.

"Haw, haw, haw!" Shaun couldn't hold back his laughter. Around the class, kids started to laugh, too.

Dowling the Dragon stopped. She stared at Derrick. "I have no idea what is so funny about a paper," she said. "But you'd better pay attention."

Derrick stifled a groan.

"Now," Mrs. Dowling went on. "You are going to write an essay. It will be your opinion of some part of the health care system. Doctors, hospitals, high costs, patient privacy. Anything in the health industry."

"Health care?" Derrick blurted out. "Sick!" he joked.

Everyone began hooting and howling.

"Fine, Derrick," Dowling the Dragon snarled. "Perhaps detention can make you more serious?"

"Uh, no, Ma'am," Derrick said quickly. "Sorry. It just popped out."

Mrs. Dowling sighed. She tapped the dry erase marker on the white board. "I'll be giving you some articles to read about health care. Then you formulate your viewpoint with facts to support your opinion."

Facts, Derrick sighed. Support. This wasn't going to be easy. As if English ever was.

Dowling the Dragon was still blabbing. "Write with a strong sense of personal voice. Write it like a letter to the editor of the newspaper."

Ugh, thought Derrick. Personal voice. That meant write it as if he really cared. Sick.

Dowling stared right at Derrick. Could she read his mind? he wondered.

"This paper will be worth 25% of your quarter grade," she warned. "For some of you –"

She paused. She was still looking at Derrick. He shrank down in his chair.

"—This could make the difference for your grade. For passing with a C – or not!"

Great, Derrick told himself. Grabbing a pencil, he copied down the dates she wrote on the board.

After class, Mrs. Dowling stepped in front of him. "Derrick," she said. Her gaze locked with his. "You need at least a B on this essay. If you don't – you'll get a D in English."

"A D!" Derrick exclaimed. "But football –"

"I know, Derrick," Mrs. Dowling said firmly. "And that's why I wanted to give you this warning."

"Uh, thanks," Derrick muttered.

"You have a lot of ability, Derrick," she said. She shook her head. "Find a way to use it for English."

"Yeah," Derrick said. He shouldered his backpack. "Uh, see ya," he said.

Later, at the end of football practice, Coach Harris called everyone in off the field. The team dropped to the grass. Derrick wiped his sweaty forehead with his shirt sleeve.

"Not a bad practice," Coach summarized.

"Not a good one, either," Derrick blurted out.

Some guys grinned. A couple of them laughed. Rod elbowed him.

"Tell you what, Farley," Coach Harris retorted. "If you were as quick with your feet as you are with your mouth, we wouldn't have that problem."

Derrick felt the blood rush to his forehead. Even Coach Harris was on his case. When was he going to be able to have any fun again? A crummy job? An English paper on health care?

He really did feel sick.

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