Sample Chapter



Lola Zola never thought she would have to support the family. Not that the Zola family was humongous. It was just a pimple in the global population eruption that had once brought hordes of hopeful job seekers to the city of Mirage.

Lola’s family consisted of Lola, her parents, and the tuxedo cat with the pink nose and missing tail. Poor Bowzer. Lola’s shy tiger lost his tail when he plopped on a desert gopher hole and assumed no one was home. Lola could cope with Bowzer’s furry loss, but her parents’ latest crisis made her feel unsettled—like a tumbleweed bouncing around in a sandstorm.

“We got laid off today,” said her mother, scanning the Daily Mirage, the town’s newspaper, for burrito coupons. Even in the best of times, the Zola family clipped coupons to save pennies. Diane Zola, a beanpole with a thousand bobby pins hidden in her French roll hairdo, loved a bargain—and Mexican food, especially the red-hot chili peppers that made her eyes flood. It didn’t matter that it was ninety-five degrees in the shade or that everyone else in the city of burning asphalt was sweating BB bullets and sniffing their pits for signs of creeping BO. Lola’s mom believed peppers made life more peppery. Figure that one out.

“Laid off?” said Lola, removing her index finger from the peanut butter jar.

Lola loved peanut butter, especially the crunchy kind that clung to the back of her throat and looked disgusting when she stuck her tongue out at one particular sixth-grade nut nicknamed “Up-Chuck Buck,” “Slime Bucket,” or just plain “Bucket of Slime.” Slime Bucket and Lola Zola were both running for sixth-grade class president and the campaign had taken a twisted turn. Buck claimed Lola would ignore half the voting population—oysbay, Pig Latin for boys.

Somehow word had gotten out that Lola, together with her best friend Melanie Papadakis, had formed the “Boys Are Weird” club in second grade. Ancient history. Yawn.

In an effort to reform her image with her fellow sixth graders, Lola had volunteered to teach her peers, boys included, how to make peanut butter taffy balls with chocolate chunks.

Besides her peanut butter passion, Lola drooled over ecologically correct nature hair bows she wore to manage her frizzy ferns. Her favorite bow sported giraffes grazing on the African plains. Michael Zola had given the bow to his daughter for Secretary’s Day. Not that Lola wanted to be a secretary, more like an anthropologist or a beekeeper or a president of a country, but Lola’s father liked to celebrate holidays, especially ones they made up together, such as Bowling Day and Take-Your-Cat-to-Work Day.

Today, however, was not a holiday. No one celebrated Laid-Off Day.

Forgetting about her sticky finger, Lola scratched her head and said, “You were fired?”

“Not fired,” snapped Lola’s mom. Bowzer recoiled. A spring popped out of the couch. Nothing was right. “Laid off,” said Diane Zola. “There’s a difference.”

Difference? Kind of like the difference between a pancake and a flapjack. One was flat and round, and the other was round and flat. Lola’s mom swallowed her tears.

“Okaaaaaay,” said Lola. “You weren’t fired, but you lost your jobs. Will someone please tell me what happened?”

From inside her parents’ bedroom came her father’s booming voice, “Don’t worry, pumpkin, everything will be fine.”

“Fine, seriously?” shouted Lola. “No one sounds fine around here.” Bowzer meowed in agreement. Lola had once tried to teach the cat to say “Uh huh,” but Bowzer preferred to speak in Mew or cat language.

“If only I had gone to college,” Diane Zola mumbled to Bowzer, now a limp lump in her lap. “I might have made something of myself. I could have been an astronaut.”

Or a brain surgeon or a computer wizard or just about anything except what Mrs. Chili Pepper was—the daughter of grocery store clerks who ended up working as bookkeeper for a once-successful auto plant. When Diane Zola got her job years ago, gas was a lot cheaper and gas guzzler cars were in demand. Who knew the whole world would turn upside down with soaring oil prices?

Michael Zola, the son of an Italian plumber and a great-grandson of a Native American medicine man, had always been proud of his roots. He took pride in everything he was and did, including installing seat belts and blessing the tires—before he got laid off.

“The plant doesn’t need us anymore. They’re shutting it down. Almost one thousand people out on the street,” said Lola’s mother, picking up the keys to her new cherry-red Mustang and fiddling with the eight-ball fortune-telling key chain. “Will I get my job back soon?” She shook her head as she read the message on the eight-ball. “Try again later.”

Lola pushed the peanut butter jar aside. “I can’t believe it! You’ve worked in that car cave since I was a hiccup in your belly. They can’t do that to you. It’s not fair!”

Her father emerged from the hallway to take a seat next to his wife. The purple velveteen couch, purchased for $75 at a flea market, sank under their weight. “I don’t want you worrying, Lola. We’ll be OK.” Together, the Zolas stared at Bowzer’s missing tail.

Lola hated to see her father, usually such an optimist, sitting sadly on the couch. It wasn’t like him to mourn. In fact, when the gopher bit off Bowzer’s tail, her father—always looking on the bright side—insisted, “Don’t worry, Lola, your tuxedo kitty will grow another tail.”

Lola was still waiting for the Rump God to act.

Her father wiped the sweat from his brow. “They said they couldn’t afford to pay our salaries anymore. The plant wasn’t making enough profit.”

“Why not?” asked Lola.

“I don’t want to talk about it, doll,” said her mother.

Gee whiz, no one wanted to talk about anything anymore. Lola might as well have lived in a library. At least people whispered there.

“If the union had agreed to take wage cuts, we’d still be working,” complained Diane Zola.

“Diane,” said Lola’s father, “the bosses had backed us into a corner—offering barely a living wage.”

“Well, something is better than nothing,” insisted Lola’s mother, her face growing redder with each sentence. She fanned herself with a newspaper to keep cool. Bowzer swatted the moving paper. Bam. Bam.

Chirp. Chirp.

Did I hear my parrot phone, wondered Lola. The wild bird phone was ringing or rather chirping. Lola hated to take phone calls in the middle of a family crisis, but it might be Melanie, her next-door neighbor, with an urgent message about lonely fresh-baked peanut butter cookies.

Lola picked up the red and yellow plastic parrot perched atop the kitchen counter. Into the back of the parrot’s head, she answered, “Zola Central.”

A gruff voice met her on the other end. “Got the science homework?”

“Wrong number,” Lola shot back, knowing full well Charles Wembly III, aka Slime Bucket or just plain Buck, was at it again—making up excuses to sniff for Zola dirt he could use against her at the next opportunity. She could hear him chewing Jujubes on the other end of the line. Maybe one would get stuck in his molar and glue his jaw shut.

Oh, why did Buck have to call now, during her parents’ hiss-a-thon? Lola, her imagination in high gear, could hear him spreading rumors the following day on the playground.

“Poor Lola,” he’d say to the gathering handball crowd, “her parents hate each other’s guts. It’s splitsville and Lola can’t decide who to live with—her mom, her dad, or her cat. Who knows if she’ll even be here to serve out her term as class president, should the class be dumb enough to elect her.”

Lola’s daytime nightmare was cut short by the sound of bickering.

“Michael, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Lola’s mother from the living room.

“I’m talking about fat-cat car executives with country-club salaries and corporate jets,” said Lola’s father. “The least they could do is share their million-dollar bonuses with their workers.”

Not wanting Enemy Number One, Bucket of Slime, to hear the fireworks, Lola covered the phone with her hand, smearing peanut butter all over the plastic parrot’s head.

“Knock it off, Lola Zola,” said Buck. “You know it’s me. What’s the eyeball assignment?”

Lola and Buck both participated in a gifted science program. They had been examining real cow eyeballs in class. At first the thought of handling the cow’s eyes made Lola want to barf, but when Buck’s mom, Mrs. Wembly, arrived in her lace dress, straight from the butcher with an eyeball in a baggie, Lola’s curiosity was peaked.

“Eyeball a ball and explain the diff,” said Lola, speaking in shorthand.

“Eye what? What diff?” asked Buck.

Sometimes Lola wondered if Slime was really gifted, or if his father had bribed the teacher.

“The difference between a cow’s eye and a human eye,” explained Lola. She heard a door slam at the other end of the house. Through the kitchen archway, she could see Bowzer hiding under the wing chair. Marital tension made Lola’s kitty cower. Lola gripped the receiver harder, covering the parrot’s head with her sweaty palm.

“I’ve got to go, Buck,” she said.

“Wait, whose eyeball are you going to study?”

Staring at her reflection on the metal refrigerator door, Lola figured her eyeballs would do fine. Lola squinted, first making her eyes tiny, then mile-high vampire eyes.

Another door slammed. She could hear footsteps.

“How are we going to find jobs now? We were barely hanging on before,” hollered Lola’s mother.

“Diane,” said Lola’s father, raising his usually gentle voice. “I take that as an insult. You know I’ve always provided for this family.”

“Who’s screaming?” asked Buck, still on the other end of the phone.

“No one,” lied Lola. “It’s the radio, hate radio. You know the kind where the announcer hollers names like, like…” Lola glanced at Bowzer licking his fur and said, “…like hairball.”

“Michael,” shouted Diane Zola, “face reality, for once. Half the people in Mirage are losing their jobs and their homes.”

“Isn’t that your mother shouting?” asked Buck.

“Gotta go, gotta go, Buck-a-doe-doe-doe,” said Lola, slamming down the parrot phone. She turned to find her mom pouting in the living room. When Diane Zola was in a good mood, she pruned roses, barefoot in her garden so the soil could tickle her toes. When she was in a bad mood, she became a prune.

“It’s the union’s fault the plant is moving to Mexico,” said Mrs. Zola. Lola’s mom disliked unions. Astronauts didn’t belong to unions. Neither did brain surgeons or computer wizards. According to Diane Zola, only workers on the bottom belong to unions, and she wanted to be on top.

Lola’s father, on the other peanut-butter hand, said there was only one way to reach the top—join a union, fight for your rights, make some noise. Then the fat cats will respect you—and maybe one day the workers will own the factory too.

“The union doesn’t have anything to do with the layoffs,” said Michael Zola. “The bosses made too many mistakes and now they’re complaining they don’t have the money to pay us. They should have invested in monorails.”

“Is the company going out of business?” asked Lola.

“No, just moving to Mexico where labor is cheaper,” said her father. “What we need is an international labor movement, so that mistreated workers in Mirage can stand in solidarity with mistreated workers in Mexico.”

“One of these days I’m going to Mexico,” said Lola’s mom, “where I’ll pick a beautiful bouquet of chili peppers.” Whenever Lola’s mother got upset, she threatened to escape to Mexico, a few hours and a zillion tumbleweeds away by car. The farthest she ever got was the town library, where she checked out the same movie—Tourists and Tamales—and pretended she was the galloping tortilla gourmet south of the border.

“The bosses have every right…” began her mother.

“To take away our jobs?” interrupted her father.

Lola was convinced her parents would divorce if they didn’t love each other so much. They spent half of every weekend smooching on the couch, the other half arguing about politics and the car plant. Lola thanked the Smooch God for keeping them together.

“We can always apply for unemployment—food stamps too,” said Lola’s dad.

“I don’t like taking charity,” said Lola’s mom.

“It’s not charity,” argued Michael Zola. “We’ve paid our taxes—and we deserve help with the bills.”

If only Lola could put her parents on Pause. Someone ought to invent a button for that.

Lola’s father walked outside to water the cactus that never needed watering. Her mother watched a two-hour television special on Landfill Nation—a homeless encampment that lacked clean water and sewer lines.

The parrot phone stopped chirping for the night and silence fell over the Zola household. Her parents were too sad to argue, too mad to smooch. All Lola could hear was her own voice whispering to Bowzer.

“How will we ever survive?”

*** *** ***

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