Whitman Jones had just turned nine. That was good. But he was going to a new school in a new town, and that was bad. In his old school he knew everyon—they had been in classes with him for years. In this new school he didn’t know one single person. Not only that, the first day didn’t go well at all.
“WHITMAN Jones!” the teacher called out. “Whitman, why that’s an unusual name!”
“You can call me Whit,” Whitman said, hoping to be helpful. “Alright, WHIT, I’ll do that, thank you,” said the teacher. His classmates made funny noises. There didn’t seem to be any way to explain that Whitman was named after his grandfather.
At recess a very tall boy in Whitman’s class came over to him. His name was Eric Smith. He really was tall. And kind of chunky. He moved slowly and sometimes bumped into things. He had very red hair. Whitman had never seen such large freckles, either. Eric said, “WHIT!” “No, wait, WHAT!” and laughed. Then he said “WHIT, WHAT, WHATEVER! He laughed again and Whitman knew it wasn’t a nice laugh. He looked down. “Hey WHATEVER! Where did you get those clothes?” He plucked at Whitman’s shirt—that was kind of scary. “Bet you got ‘em at WALmart! Sure! WHATEVER wears WHATEVER from WALMART!” He laughed again. Whitman didn’t know what to do but luckily the bell rang and recess was over.
After that he tried to avoid Eric, didn’t look at him, didn’t raise his hand if Eric had already raised his. He spent the beginning of lunch in the boys’ bathroom so Eric wouldn’t still be in line or looking for a seat. Once in a while Eric would shout “WHATEVER!” across the schoolyard at recess.
Whitman tried to concentrate on his lessons. He practiced his spelling and some arithmetic in his head as he walked home. One day he saw a piece of paper on a telephone pole. It had a picture of something. When he got close, he saw it was a picture of a cat. “LOST CAT!” said the paper. It said the cat was orange and was called “Marmalade.” It gave an address. The paper made Whitman sad. He wouldn’t want to lose a cat or a dog if he had one. He thought that some kid must be pretty unhappy.
The next day on his way home, Whitman heard something. It was a very small sound and he had trouble figuring out what direction it came from. Then he saw a cardboard box on the street next to the curb. The sound was coming from there. He went over and looked in the side of the box. Shivering from the cold was a small cat. “Meow,” it said hopefully.
“Meow, yourself!” said Whitman. “You must be freezing in there! Come on, let me pick you up.” The cat was shivering but not so much that he couldn’t dig his claws into Whitman’s jacket. “Okay, okay, it’s going to be okay, let’s get you home.” This cat was orange and it was obviously lost, so it must be the cat that he had read about. He didn’t remember the address though, so he had to go back and find the telephone pole with the paper. “Okay, see? I’ll just take you home and you’ll be fine.” “Meow,” said the cat, and dug his claws in a bit more. “Ouch!” said Whitman. “Take it easy!”
The address wasn’t far, but of course Whitman didn’t know if anyone would be home. He rang the bell. And waited. He rang again. And waited. Then he thought he could see someone coming.
When the door opened he had a real scare. It was Eric, the nasty guy from school who had made fun of him. Eric said, “WHATEVER! Get off of my porch!” And then he saw the cat. “That’s MARMALADE,” he almost shouted. Whitman held out the cat at arm’s length. “Here, he’s yours!” Eric grabbed the cat and tucked him under his chin and for a moment closed his eyes and rocked with the cat in his arms. Then, as Whitman turned, ready to run in case Eric came after him, Eric said, “Wait a minute, let me tell my mom.” He went inside but left the door half open.
“Mom!” he yelled, “Marmalade is back! Somebody from school brought him. Can we have some cookies?” He hardly waited for the answer. “Come on,” he said to Whitman, “It’s cold out there.” Still carrying the cat, he led Whitman to the kitchen. The cookies were still cooling from the oven and they smelled really good. “Want some milk?” He asked. Whitman nodded. “Sit,” said Eric. He got a paper towel for each of them and brought the cookies over. Then he poured a glass of milk for each of them and a bowl for Marmalade.
When they had eaten at least two cookies each, Eric said, “Thanks for bringing Marmalade back, she’s never been outside, I guess she got lost.” Then he said, “I was sick all last year. My Grandma got Marmalade when she was a kitten. Marmalade used to lie on my chest and purr. It helped a lot.” That helped Whitman understood something about Eric—why he was so big and pudgy and awkward, and he said, “Wow, that must have been some year! Are you okay, now?” “Yeah, I’m pretty okay now,” said Eric.
And then Eric looked down and said, “I’m sorry I made fun of your name.” Whitman could see that Eric really was sorry. And so he said, “Whatever!!!” And Eric looked at him as though he had gotten two gifts in one, his cat back and a new friend, too. And they laughed at Whitman's joke. Whitman said, “It’s so weird that we both have unusual first names, Whitman and Eric, but our last names are so common, Jones and Smith.” “You’re right!” said Eric. And then they ate some more cookies and had more milk. And Marmalade had more milk, too, but no cookies.