“Can’t I even have dessert?” called Caroline Tate through her bedroom door.
“If you’d just try a bite of your dinner, Caroline. You wouldn’t have to eat all of it,” her mother called back.
“Just a bite,” called her brother, “of this delicious, gray, cold squishy eggplant!”
“I wasn’t talking to you, Beastly!”
Caroline’s brother was named James Priestly Tate. Most people called him J.P. Caroline called him Beastly, and she really thought he was: beastly beastly beastly. J.P. was thirteen, and even her mother admitted that thirteen was a beastly age.
Eleven felt pretty beastly too, Caroline decided, when you were sent to your room at half-past eight on a Friday night, just because you wouldn’t taste your dinner.
Her mother opened her bedroom door and poked her head inside.
“Caroline, if you’d just try one bite. It’s the principle of the thing.”
“I hate it. I hate the way it looks, and I hate the way it smells. It’s too horrible to talk about. Horrible horrible horrible. Anyway, Mom, psychologists all say that you should never force children to eat. Especially eggplant.”
Her mother sighed. “Well, maybe psychologists can all afford steak every night. I, however, had to pay the dentist’s bill out of this week’s paycheck. And eggplant was on sale at the supermarket.”
Caroline made a face. Red Jell-O wasn’t worth eating eggplant for. Green Jell-O, maybe. But not red.
“Tell Beastly he can have mine. And I hope he chokes.”
Her mother sighed again. “Well, good night then, Caroline. Be sure to brush your teeth.”
The door closed. Caroline flopped on her bed and groaned. Eight-thirty on a Friday night, and she couldn’t even watch television. Usually she was allowed to stay up until ten, if it wasn’t a school night—?sometimes even later, if there was an especially good movie on TV.
Well, at least tomorrow was Saturday, and Saturdays were always interesting. There was so much to do. Caroline reached for the calendar on her desk; she always listed her plans on the calendar.
At the top of the space under Saturday’s date she had written: HW. She wrote that in every Saturday’s space; it meant Housework. Her mother worked all week at the bank, so on Saturday mornings Caroline and J.P. helped her clean the apartment. It wasn’t so bad. It was a small apartment. Beastly J.P. always ran the vacuum cleaner, because he liked machinery. And he was responsible for household repairs. Even Caroline had to admit that Beastly was something of a genius when it came to taking apart toasters and faucets and mixers.
Her mother cleaned the oven, which no one else wanted to do because the oven-cleaning stuff smelled terrible and stung your hands. Joanna Tate also did the marketing, which was why they sometimes had things like eggplant for dinner. Caroline and J.P. weren’t allowed to do the marketing, because they would buy frozen pizza and chocolate eclairs, which cost too much and also, their mother said, weren’t healthy.
Caroline always did the laundry. No one else liked doing the laundry, but Caroline loved it. Every Saturday morning she loaded all the dirty clothes into pillowcases, put them into the shopping cart, and went off to the laundromat on the corner with a pocketful of quarters.
The laundromat smelled of bleach, and a gray and white cat lived there. Interesting people came into the place. An old woman who had once been an opera singer came in sometimes on Saturday mornings, and sang arias while her wash was in the machine. Once a pair of grown-up identical twin men came in, wearing matching clothes; when they folded their clean laundry, Caroline could see that all of their clothes matched, even their pajamas and undershorts.
It took an hour and a half to get the laundry done, and you couldn’t leave while it was in the machines, because someone might steal it. Laundry theft was one of the hazards of living in New York City. Caroline’s father, who lived in Des Moines, said it would never happen there—?but how the heck would he know, Caroline wondered, when he and his wife had a washer and dryer right in their dumb split-level house, and never set foot in a laundromat at all?
Next on her calendar, under HW, it said MNH. That stood for the Museum of Natural History. Caroline went there every Saturday, as regularly as she went to the laundromat; it was her favorite place in the whole city. Her mother had given her a membership in the Museum of Natural History for her birthday several years ago and had renewed it every year. So Caroline had a special membership card, which she carried in her wallet, and when she showed it to the guard at the entrance, she didn’t have to pay an admission fee. She got all of their special mailings for members, telling her of each new exhibit. And when she had enough money, which was not often, she could eat lunch in the special members’ cafeteria. J.P. had thought it was a dumb birthday present. But it wasn’t. It was the best birthday present Caroline had ever had. She had made friends with every single guard in the Museum of Natural History; they all knew her name and said, “Good morning, Caroline,” when she came in. Mr. Erwitt, who had an office just inside the front door, called her “Unofficial Assistant Curator of Dinosaurs” and said she should apply for a job there when she got older. And upstairs, Gregor Keretsky, a world-renowned vertebrate paleontologist, was her very best adult friend.
Stacy Baurichter was her best eleven-year-old friend, and Call Stacy was written on her calendar as well. Stacy was in Caroline’s class at the Burke-Thaxter School. Sometimes they saw each other on weekends, but not often, because Stacy lived on the other side of the city and you had to change buses twice.
Stacy Baurichter wanted to be an investigative reporter when she grew up. Caroline intended to be a vertebrate paleontologist, specializing in dinosaurs of the Mesozoic Era, but she was interested in investigative reporting, and sometimes she and Stacy worked on projects together.
Right now they were doing investigative studies of their apartment buildings. Caroline’s investigation was easier than Stacy’s for a couple of reasons. One, Caroline’s building was smaller. It was a tall, thin house with five floors. Caroline’s family lived on the third floor. So she was investigating the other four floors and making notes about the people who lived there....