Penelope Crumb Never Forgets
An Excerpt From
Penelope Crumb Never Forgets
Besides Miss Stunkel’s art class, there’s only one other thing I like about fourth grade. Field trips. Miss Stunkel calls them Outings for Educational Purposes, but I don’t care what they are called as long as we get to be out of school and don’t have to learn about decimal points.

The Educational Purpose for today’s field trip is to learn about the history of Portwaller and not to goof off or act like chuckleheads. Which is what Miss Stunkel tells us a hundred times from the front of the bus. She stands up for the whole trip, stroking her Friday lizard pin with its ruby eyes and waiting for one of us to give her the chance to holler. Because that is what she likes to do most of all.

While she’s doing all that standing, I notice that her feet aren’t behind the yellow line, even though there’s a sign above the bus driver’s head that says FOR SAFETY, KEEP BEHIND THE YELLOW LINE WHEN BUS IS IN MOTION.

“Why doesn’t Miss Stunkel sit down?” I say to my best friend, Patsy Cline Roberta Watson. “Mr. Drather should remind her. Maybe I should remind Mr. Drather.”

Patsy Cline tells me to be quiet and that Mr. Drather doesn’t have time to monitor the yellow line while he’s concentrating on driving the bus. “You’ll get in trouble. Remember what happened the last time,” she says.

She means when we were on our last Outing for Educational Purposes at Fort McHenry. I was taking the steps at the fort two at a time even though they were big ones, and Miss Stunkel yelled, “Penelope Crumb, the railings are there for a reason! I’m not going to tell you again!” Even though 1) she didn’t need to yell and 2) she shouldn’t have said “again,” because that was really the first time she told me. But if I held on to the railings, I would be stuck behind slow people like Vera Bogg, who doesn’t know how to have fun on stairs, so I pretended I didn’t hear Miss Stunkel. I’m an excellent pretender.

“That’s exactly what I mean,” I say to Patsy Cline. “It’s not my fault Miss Stunkel tried to catch up with me and fell down the stairs and sprained her knee.”

Patsy Cline shakes her head at me. “You and Miss Stunkel are just like candy corn and corn chowder. You’re both corn, but together you don’t go down so easy.”

“I’m just trying to look out for her safety,” I say.

Patsy gives me a look that says, You’re Going to Get Another Note Sent Home.

Good gravy. So I don’t say anything to Mr. Drather, because if Miss Stunkel doesn’t know that there are seats on the bus for a reason, then I guess I’m not going to be the one to tell her.

Mr. Drather steers the bus into the parking lot behind the museum and turns off the engine. There’s a lot of commotion when everybody stands up because we’re tired of being cooped up in a school bus and are ready to look at all kinds of dead people’s stuff. Which is what museums are full of.

I grab my red toolbox and nudge Patsy Cline toward the aisle.

Miss Stunkel says, “Everyone freeze!”

The bus gets quiet right away. Patsy Cline always follows directions, so she stops like she’s been blasted with an ice machine, with one foot in the air. But her other foot doesn’t freeze so well, because it’s getting all wobbly, and I’m afraid she might go right down, so I grab on to her arm and pull. (Because that’s what best friends do.)

Except that I guess I must have bigger muscles than I think, because Patsy comes tumbling right into me. And when she does, she knocks me backward against the window. When that happens, I let go of my toolbox, and it hits the edge of the seat and falls to the floor.

I don’t know what the floor of the bus is made out of, but when the metal from my toolbox hits it, there’s an awful sound. For some reason, Miss Stunkel looks right at me and Patsy Cline. I put a look on my face that says, I Heard It Too, But I Don’t Know Where It Came From. But that doesn’t work, because Miss Stunkel gives me a look that says, Who Do You Think You’re Fooling, Girlie?

Then Miss Stunkel clears her throat and says, “The Portwaller History Museum is a place of business, and I’m counting on each one of you to be on your best behavior.” She pulls out her hand from the pocket of her corduroy jumper and holds up a finger in a warning.

I know that finger. I’ve seen it up close. It’s scrawny except for the knuckles, kind of like a chicken leg that’s been boiled, chewed on, and then dipped in orange nail polish.

“Because if you aren’t on your best behavior,” she says, still looking at me and Patsy Cline, “you will have the pleasure of spending the rest of the day on the bus.”

Miss Stunkel is really good at making field trips seem like no fun at all.

Patsy Cline is still frozen even after Miss Stunkel finally tells us we can get off the bus. “It’s okay, you can unfreeze now,” I say to her. But she doesn’t move. “What’s the matter?”

“What did you pull me for?” she says. And her words have rocks in them.

“I thought you were going to fall.”

“You made me fall,” she says. “And we got into trouble.”

“We didn’t get into trouble.” Getting into trouble with Miss Stunkel is a lot worse than just seeing her finger. And then I remember that Patsy Cline doesn’t ever get into trouble, with Miss Stunkel or anybody else, so she wouldn’t know what real trouble looks like. I tell her I’m sorry for pulling on her arm, but she just says “humph” and then nothing else.

We’re the last ones into the museum. The Portwaller History Museum has got high ceilings with paintings on them, swirly things that turn into flowers that turn back into swirly things again. I could stare at them all day. And I would, too, except after a while, I get a crick in my neck, and when I finally look down again, I’m a little dizzy. My legs move sideways when they’re supposed to go frontways, and before I can get control over them, I walk smack into Vera Bogg. Her bony elbow gets me right in the stomach.

Vera, who is always dressed head to toenail in pink, the kind of pink that makes me feel like a raw hot dog and also a baby pig with a temperature, moans and grabs her leg like she’s hurt, even though I don’t see how she could be. I tell her I’m sorry anyway and explain about the swirls.

Patsy Cline says, “You should watch where you’re going.” And at first I think she’s talking to Vera, but then she pats Vera on the shoulder and asks her if she’s okay. That’s when I know she was talking to me.

Well, then.

After Vera limps away, I bring my shoulder over to Patsy, because if she’s giving out shoulder pats, then I should get one, too. Seeing how I’m her best friend and all.

But I don’t get one.

Instead, Patsy turns away from me and joins everybody else from our class hovering over a glass display case.

I squeeze in beside her and have a look. The first thing I see is a comb with one gray hair sticking in it that belonged to Maynard C. Portwaller. He’s the dead guy who discovered our town and decided to name it after himself. Portwaller. That’s what the card beside the comb says.

I shift my toolbox to my other hand and press my face against the glass display case. I stare at the only thing left of Maynard C. Portwaller. “Did you know that hair keeps growing, even after you’re dead?”

Everyone moans and grunts like I’ve said something gross. And then Miss Stunkel says, “That’s quiteenough, Penelope,” making a big deal out of the quite. She doesn’t like me talking about dead things. But I’m not very good at not talking about them. I guess it’s because I have a dad who is Graveyard Dead and a grandpa who I thought was Graveyard Dead but turned out not to be.

And how am I supposed to not talk about dead things when there’s a whole lot of dead-people stuff staring me right in the face? This is what I decide to ask Miss Stunkel after we’re done looking at the gray hair from Maynard C. Portwaller (who also happens to be . . .).

But Miss Stunkel says, “Don’t push me, Penelope Crumb.”

And I say, “I would never do that, Miss Stunkel. You might fall down and sprain your knee.”

Then Miss Stunkel gives me a look like she would very much like to push me. Right off a cliff.

Between Miss Stunkel and Patsy Cline, so far this Outing for Educational Purposes isn’t going so good. I might as well be learning about decimal points.

The first mayor of Portwaller, Charles Luckett,” says Miss Stunkel, pointing to a painting of a man with a tall brown hat and round, wire-framed glasses. I get real close to have a look at his nose. This is something I like to do because I, Penelope Crumb, have a very big nose that I got from my grandpa Felix.

Mayor Luckett’s nose isn’t a big one. It’s short and flat, and small for his head. Sort of like his nose stayed behind in fourth grade while the rest of his face grew up and went to college. But his nose is the only small thing about him. If Mister Leonardo da Vinci (who is my all-time favorite dead artist) were here, he’d surely say, “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such hardworking buttons on a shirt. The fine mayor looks to be the kind of man who is very fond of strawberry tarts.”

I wonder if Mayor Luckett was proud of his big belly or if he thought the painter should have made him look a little skinnier. When I grow up and am a real famous artist person, I’m going to draw people just as they are: big bellies, big noses, and all.

A small wooden shelf sits right beside the painting of Mayor Luckett, and on that shelf, perched on a velvet cushion, are a pair of glasses that look just like the ones in the painting.

“These can’t be his real, actual glasses,” says Angus Meeker.

“Why not?” I say.

“Because he would have been wearing his real, actual glasses when he died.”

Angus doesn’t know anything about dead people. “Not if he died in his sleep,” I say. “Therefore, he wouldn’t.” (Therefore is a new word I learned from my grandpa Felix. He’s always teaching me new things.)

Miss Stunkel gives me a look that says, I’ve Heard Enough Out of You, Penelope Crumb. Therefore, Be Quiet. Then she says to the whole class that indeed they are Mayor Luckett’s actual glasses and that they were loaned to the museum by his family.

“Will his family ever get his glasses back?” I ask.

“They still belong to the mayor’s family,” Miss Stunkel says. “The glasses just live at the museum now because the family wanted the citizens of Portwaller to be able to see them anytime they wish.”


Penelope Crumb Never Forgets

Penelope Crumb Never Forgets


Illustrator: Valeria Docampo