Every day at three o'clock Mrs. Markham waited for her son, Willie, to come out of school. They walked home together. If asked why she did it, Mrs. Markham would say, "Parents need to watch their children."
As they left the schoolyard, Mrs. Markham inevitably asked, "How was school?"
Willie would begin to talk, then stop. He was never sure his mother was listening. She seemed preoccupied with her own thoughts. She had been like that ever since his dad had abandoned them six months ago. No one knew where he'd gone. Willie had the feeling that his mother was lost too. It made him feel lonely.
One Monday afternoon, as they approached the apartment building where they lived, she suddenly tugged at him. "Don't look that way," she said.
"At that man over there."
Willie stole a look over his shoulder. A man, whom Willie had never seen before, was sitting on a red plastic milk crate near the curb. His matted, streaky gray hair hung like a ragged curtain over his dirty face. His shoes were torn. Rough hands lay upon his knees. One hand was palm up. No one seemed to pay him any mind. Willie was certain he had never seen a man so utterly alone. It was as if he were some spat-out piece of chewing gum on the pavement.
"What's the matter with him?" Willie asked his mother in a hushed voice.
Keeping her eyes straight ahead, Mrs. Markham said, "He's sick." She pulled Willie around. "Don't stare. It's rude."
"What kind of sick?"
As Mrs. Markham searched for an answer, she began to walk faster. "He's unhappy," she said.
"What's he doing?"
"Come on, Willie, you know perfectly well. He's begging."
"Do you think anyone gave him anything?"
"I don't know. Now, come on, don't look."
"Why don't you give him something?"
"We have nothing to spare."
When they got home, Mrs. Markham removed a white cardboard box from the refrigerator. It contained pound cake. Using her thumb as a measure, she carefully cut a half-inch piece of cake and gave it to Willie on a clean plate. The plate lay on a plastic mat decorated with images of roses with diamondlike dewdrops. She also gave him a glass of milk and a folded napkin. She moved slowly.
Willie said, "Can I have a bigger piece of cake?"
Mrs. Markham picked up the cake box and ran a manicured pink fingernail along the nutrition information panel. "A half-inch piece is a portion, and a portion contains the following health requirements. Do you want to hear them?"
"It's on the box, so you can believe what it says. Scientists study people, then write these things. If you're smart enough you could become a scientist. Like this." Mrs. Markham tapped the box. "It pays well."
Willie ate his cake and drank the milk. When he was done he took care to wipe the crumbs off his face as well as to blot his milk mustache with the napkin. His mother liked him to be neat.
His mother said, "Now go on and do your homework. Carefully. You're in sixth grade. It's important."
Willie gathered up his books that lay on the empty third chair. At the kitchen entrance he paused and looked back at his mother. She was staring sadly at the cake box, but he didn't think she was seeing it. Her unhappiness made him think of the man on the street.
"What KIND of unhappiness do you think he has?" he suddenly asked.
Mrs. Markham looked puzzled.
"The begging man. The one on the street."
"Oh, could be anything," his mother said, vaguely. "A person can be unhappy for many reasons." She turned to stare out the window as if an answer might be there.
"Is unhappiness a sickness you can cure?"
"I wish you wouldn't ask such questions."
After a moment she said, "Questions that have no answers shouldn't be asked."
"Can I go out?"
Willie turned to go again.
"Money," Mrs. Markham suddenly said. "Money will cure a lot of unhappiness. That's why that man was begging. A salesman once said to me, 'Maybe you can't buy happiness, but you can rent a lot of it.' You should remember that."
"How much money do we have?"
"Is that why you're unhappy?"
"Willie, do your homework."
Willie started to ask another question, but decided he would not get an answer. He left the kitchen.
Excerpted from What Do Fish Have to Do With Anything? by Avi. Copyright © 2004 by Avi. Excerpted by permission of Candlewick, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.