Chapter OneWhen he was fourteen, Bernie Federman fell in love. And he never fell out. Except once, almost. But that was four years and a lifetime later. By that time Winifred (she was calling herself Wini) had become somebody he hardly knew anymore. An ordinary girl.
When he was thirteen, Bernie Federman moved with his parents from Clinton to Pittstown, only half a thumb away according to the map of the great Garden State, but an alien country to Bernie's heart. At Pittstown Middle, two thousand strong, he knew not one person. From the first day, he was a back-row boy, wedged between the makeup girls and the gangsters. Or, in his honors classes, between the brains and the worker bees, when he himself was neither one. Every weekday morning he would have to endure his mother's sad puppy-dog eyes as she handed him his mayonnaise sandwiches-all he could manage to swallow-in a neatly folded paper bag, and watched him trudge out to the bus like he was going to the dentist for a tooth extraction. "It'll get better, hon," she'd say every morning. "Wait and see."
His mother was strong and gentle and funny. She made Bernie laugh, even when he didn't feel like it. Like a best friend, she believed in him. But was she right? If he waited, would things really get better?
* * *
When he was thirteen, Bernie Federman had no idea who he was. Was he the clone of Magnus Morris, his maternal great-great-grandfather, the famous inventor (a brain) who made and lost a million dollars before the age of twenty-three? His mother said he was. Or was he simply the son of a man who worked in a tire shop from six a.m. until six p.m., and was snoring in his La-Z-Boy halfway through Wheel of Fortune?
* * *
In the eighth grade other kids seemed to know who they were. They were "into" things. Skateboarding, soccer, Xbox, iPods. Clubs. Eighth grade seemed to be a time for joining clubs. Bernie was a reader and a pretty good chess player, but Pittstown Middle didn't have a Readers' Club or a Chess Club. Playing chess meant you were a nerd, but there wasn't a Nerds' Club either.
He almost decided to start one. His English teacher, Mrs. Nelson, mentioned one day after announcements that anybody could start a club. All you needed was a constitution and a teacher to agree to be the club's adviser. A rash of clubs popped up-the Harry Club (a sort of readers' club, though the only thing the members read was Harry Potter); the (all girl) Fashionistas; Three Sheets to the Wind, a sailing club that had to change its name when the adviser said it had "an unfortunate connotation." Everybody funneled into one club or another, all except for the International Club, which had one lone member: Winifred Owens.
Winifred was a front-row girl, one of those with a popup arm. No matter the question, Winifred had the full and complete answer. Bernie could tell that she was about as popular at Pittstown Middle as the cafeteria meat loaf, except of course with teachers like Mrs. Nelson.
"What a fine idea, Winifred!" exclaimed Mrs. Nelson when Winifred proposed the International Club. "Let's see a show of hands. Who would like to join Winifred's club?"
The result was predictable. But Winifred never gave up, not when she suggested the Journaling Club, the Renaissance Comedy Club, or the Live Poets' Society. And nobody, not one kid, signed up.
Then one day Winifred Owens came to school wearing what looked like an olive on her head, a green knit hat with a bright red pom-pom. That was bad enough. But when she proposed the Green Hat Club, even Mrs. Nelson lost her patience.
"Now, Winifred," Mrs. Nelson said, "of what possible social significance is a Green Hat Club?"
That was when Winifred lost her cool. With a face red as her pom-pom, Winifred stood up and rattled off all the names of the other newly formed clubs-the Jim Carrey Club, Bling Bling on Mondays, the PBJs (members had to have names that began with one of those revered three letters). She saved for last the Fashionistas, all six members of which had worn shocking-pink boas that day and sat in a bunch like a chummy family of flamingos.
"Social significance, Mrs. Nelson? Social significance?" By that time, Winifred was on the verge of tears and her voice shook dangerously. "Popularity, Mrs. Nelson. That's what clubs are all about. Don't you know that?"
Then Winifred nodded her head very firmly, just once, and sat down.
She stopped raising her hand in class. And every day, she came to school wearing her green hat with the bright red pom-pom. After a while the kids stopped laughing at her, poking fun, playing catch with her hat, or whinnying like horses (Whhhhinifred! Snort Snort!) whenever she appeared in the cafeteria. After a while it was as if Winifred Owens had become invisible.
Which is exactly how Bernie Federman felt.
It took him a couple of weeks after the Winifred-Mrs. Nelson confrontation to find the right hat, the almost right shade of green, though he couldn't find one with a pompom. The hat he finally found, on a 99-cent-sale table at Kmart, could have won, hands down, an ugly-hat contest. It was more puke green than olive green and had a long green tail. The minute he stuck it on his head, Bernie Federman knew something about himself that he hadn't known before. He had a big heart, so big it wasn't afraid to stick up for the most unpopular girl at Pittstown Middle.
* * *
The next day, carrying his bag of mayonnaise sandwiches, Bernie walked straight to the cafeteria table where Winifred was sitting alone as usual. "Mind if I eat my lunch here?" he said.
Winifred didn't look up from her book. "No," she said. But when he sat down and opened his lunch bag, she stopped reading and glanced at him. "Why are you wearing that stupid hat?"
"Why are you?" he asked.
"There's nothing on that sandwich," she said. "It's just bread."
He shrugged. He chewed.
"It's not really a club," she said after a while.
"The Green Hat Club. It's not really a club."
"We could write a constitution," Bernie said.
Without comment, Winifred took out her green three-subject spiral notebook and flipped it open. She read aloud the words as she wrote them: "We the members of the infamous Green Hat Club-"
"-in order to form a more perfect union," added Bernie, who had once memorized the entire Bill of Rights for fun-
"-do hereby demand," said Winifred, "freedom from tyranny and bad taste, unlimited library book checkouts, and a special holiday for Green Hat members who are also on the Honor Roll."
"Two holidays for members on the Honor Roll," said Bernie, who knew Winifred would agree.
They met every day at the cafeteria table that now was Bernie's as well as Winifred's. For the first time since his uneventful arrival to the eighth grade, Bernie Federman became visible. Laughable, teasable. Then, finally, gladly, invisible again.
By that time, he and Winifred were trading favorite books, playing chess, doing anagrams, and talking for hours on the phone or online. Bernie had a best friend. He could eat something besides mayonnaise sandwiches and keep it down. His grades went up, way up. Bernie Federman was happy.