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Underdog by Marilyn Sachs
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Orphaned eleven-year-old Izzy is shipped off to San Francisco, to stay with an uncle and his wife who plan to send her to boarding school. Izzy’s memory about her past is dim. Why did her father hate her uncle so much? How did her mother die? And what happened to the little dog, Gus, she had once loved? Izzy is determined to find the answers. Children’s/Young Adult Fiction by Marilyn Sachs; originally published by Doubleday (Young Readers)

Belgrave House; September 1985
ISBN 9781610847148
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Title: Underdog
Author: Marilyn Sachs

“Your father,” Sandy said, helping herself to a piece of pepperoni pizza, “was the finest man in the world.” She had tears in her eyes as she laid the piece on her plate and began folding it inward. “Nobody cared the way he did. He was always on the side of the underdog.”

She looked at me across the table before she raised the piece to her mouth. “You can be proud of him, Izzy. There are very few girls who ever had a father like yours.”

I watched her as she chewed on the pizza, and I nodded and tried not to look anxious. I had been staying with Sandy ever since my father died over a week ago, but she still had not said what I was waiting to hear.

Sandy was the first one I called when I woke up that morning and didn’t find him home. It was Saturday and the house was very quiet. My father never slept late, even on the weekends. I always heard him before I got out of bed and I usually jumped up and got dressed quickly. I never wanted him to think I was lazy. I hadn’t seen him the night before but that didn’t make me suspicious. He often stayed out late and I went to sleep when I was tired. Now that I was eleven, I didn’t need Mrs. Evans to babysit unless my father didn’t expect to be home all night.

It’s not a good feeling waking up alone in the morning even for somebody like me. I called Sandy. She said, “Oh, Izzy darling, oh, Izzy!”

“Dad’s not home,” I told her. “Maybe he went out already but I don’t think he’s been home all night.”

“Oh, Izzy!” Sandy said. “I can’t believe it. You mean nobody’s told you?”

She came right over and took me back with her. My father had died in a car crash. He was on his way to court and Sandy said it still wasn’t clear who had been speeding or who had lost control but he had been in a coma all night at the hospital and she had been with him, waiting, hoping, until the very end. She had just come through the door of her apartment, as a matter of fact, when she heard the phone ringing. “Oh, Izzy,” she said, “he never regained consciousness. Once I thought his eyes fluttered. He made a little face as if he was in pain but the doctor said he didn’t feel a thing.”

She cried a lot that week even though she and my father had been divorced over three years ago and he had been married to and divorced from Karen in the meantime. I didn’t much like Karen but I loved Sandy and she loved me. I could talk to her on the telephone whenever I liked and stay over at her house when my father was away on business. She always said she felt as if she were my real mother and I believed her. Now, as we sat in the restaurant eating our pepperoni pizza, I waited for her to say it again.

“Have some more pizza, Izzy,” she said. “You’re not eating anything.”

How beautiful Sandy was with her long black hair and large gray eyes! She put out her hand and pressed mine. Her fingernails were broken and caked with the dyes she used on her candles. That morning, she had made five dozen red, orange, and green tulip candles that she hoped to sell before Easter. As long as I could remember, Sandy smelled of candles, and when I leaned against her or she kissed me the fragrance of wax was always in her hair.

“Poor Izzy,” Sandy said, her eyes filling with tears. “What will you do now?”

For the first time since my father died, I felt frightened. All along I had believed that Sandy wanted me. If she really loved me as she always said she did, if she really felt toward me as a mother, wouldn’t she ask me to come and live with her now? I wouldn’t bother her, she knew that. I was used to taking care of myself. I could help her make her candles, and I could take the laundries to the laundromat and wait there if Sandy needed some time to herself. I wouldn’t bother her. I was good at not bothering people. Even my father always said so. And I could go with Sandy on weekends to the street fairs and sit there and sell her candles if she wanted to take a walk or go have a cup of coffee somewhere. I could be useful to Sandy.

“I’m going back to school,” Sandy said.

“School?” I repeated.

“Uh-huh,” Sandy said. “Candles are dead. I can’t live on candles anymore. Nobody buys candles.”

I thought of Sandy’s wonderful, bright, messy apartment with candles everywhere—spiraled candles, square candles, big ones, little ones. Candles shaped like hearts and pineapples and candles speckled with gold or striped red, white, and blue. It wouldn’t be Sandy without her candles.

“Computers,” Sandy said. “That’s where all the action is now. I’m going into computers. I want to change my lifestyle.”

“No!” I cried. “Don’t change your life-style. Please, Sandy! I love your candles. I love you. I want to come and live with you. I can help you with the candles. I can do the laundries. I can shop ...”

Sandy burst into tears. “Oh, Izzy,” she cried, “oh, Izzy, darling Izzy!” She put her head down on the table and began crying so hard, her shoulders shook all over the place. So I got up, came around to her side of the booth and tried to comfort her. She put her arms around me—her hair smelled of wax—and began kissing me and kissing me. Her tears ran down my cheeks as well as her own. She said she would always love me and whatever happened I could always count on her to be there when I needed her, but that it was absolutely impossible for me to come and live with her.

I went to see Karen the next day. Jeremy, my little half-brother, was getting a new tooth and Karen complained about it the same way she had complained about every single tooth of Jeremy’s as it arrived. She also complained about her back, the price of grapefruits, and the weather. Then she went to work on Sandy.

“Why they called her from the office before they called me, I’d like to know,” she said.

“Nobody called me,” I murmured.

“Okay, it was impossible for me to get over to the hospital. Jeremy was feverish and I couldn’t get a sitter but if Mark wanted to see anybody before he died it would have been me. Even if we were divorced, we were still good friends and, you know, Izzy, he was a devoted father and always came to see Jeremy whenever he had any free time.”

“Well, he never regained consciousness,” I told her.

“Oh sure,” Karen said, “you always stick up for Sandy.”

She was glaring at me and I got that kind of silly, helpless smile on my face when somebody is acting stupid and you know it and she knows it and you feel sorry for her and sorry for yourself but there’s no way to make things better.

Luckily, Jeremy started yelling and we both hurried into his bedroom where he was standing up in his crib, screaming and shaking the bars. A big, husky kid with fat red cheeks and pale hair just like Karen’s. I never felt much of anything about Jeremy. I didn’t love him and I didn’t hate him. I certainly wasn’t jealous of him. My father never gave him any more attention than he gave me and the poor kid and his mother were out of our house almost as soon as he was born.

“Hey, Jersey, Jersey, Jersey!” I cooed at him and he stopped yelling and began grinning and holding out his arms. I picked him up and the smell from inside his diapers nearly knocked me over. But I hobbled him up and down before Karen took him from me and laid him down to change his diapers.

“Boo, boo, boo!” I crooned at him and he giggled away and kicked his feet.

“You really have a way with him,” Karen said, inspecting the contents of his diapers.

“Boo, boo, boo!” I continued.

Naturally, I wanted Karen to think I had a way with him. I wanted her to tell me I could come and live with her and Jeremy. If Sandy didn’t want me, Karen and Jeremy were the only other possibilities I could think of.

“But isn’t it amazing how he always knows you?” Karen said. “Ever since he was a tiny infant he’s known who was who and when Mark used to come over ... oh ... oh!” Karen began crying and I patted her on the shoulder and murmured something comforting.

After a while we moved into the living room and Karen sat Jeremy down on the carpet and gave him some plastic rings to chew on. Then she started complaining about the way my father hadn’t had a proper funeral.

“Nobody asked me what I thought,” she said.

“Well, I guess he must have told everybody that he didn’t want a funeral. Sandy says there’s going to be a memorial service as soon as the other lawyers can arrange it.”

I could see she was getting irritated again so I slipped down on the floor and began playing with the baby. When I looked up at her, Karen almost smiled at me.

“I guess you’re all settled in at Sandy’s,” she said suddenly. “I guess you don’t need anything.”

It wasn’t really a question but I made sure to answer it.

“Well, no,” I told her. “I’m not really settled in. It’s only for a while until ... I mean, Sandy’s going back to school so I can’t stay with her.”

I could see the almost smile fading and I quickly put my hands over my eyes and said, “Boo, boo!” to Jeremy. He laughed and laughed and when I looked up at Karen again, she was frowning.

“That Sandy has got to be the most selfish person in the whole world,” she said to me.

“Boo!” I said to the baby.

“She never thinks of anybody but herself. I don’t know why Mark ever married her. I guess he was sorry for her. You know him—he was sorry for everybody.”


But then she stopped complaining and started talking to me. So I sat back up on the chair and listened to her.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t.”

I knew what she meant so I asked her, “Why not? I wouldn’t be any trouble. I’d help you with Jeremy and I could do the cooking.”

“You don’t know how to cook,” she said, looking at me as if she was thinking it over. “Mrs. Evans does the cooking.”

“Not always,” I said quickly. “Not on weekends. She doesn’t come in on weekends so I could do it. And I don’t eat much and I’m not picky. Even Dad always said I’d eat anything that stayed still on my plate. And Mrs. Evans said I help her a lot and that I’m much neater than most kids my age.”

“I know,” Karen said mournfully. “You do. You’re very neat and you don’t get into trouble. You’re a good child. I know that, Izzy.”

My mouth stopped right where it was. Karen had never said anything really nice about me before. This was the first time. I began smiling. She almost smiled back at me.

I could feel the panic easing. Maybe I’d even grow to like her one of these days. “Boo!” I said to the baby.

“I’m sorry,” Karen said again, “but I can’t take you.”

I must have looked as if I was going to fall apart because suddenly she turned her eyes away from me and went on talking very quickly. “I can’t do it, Izzy, because ... I know you’re going to find this hard to believe but I’m getting married again.”


“I was just getting around to telling your father before the accident—well—it’s a neighbor, Jim Franklin. He’s got two little girls. One is Jeremy’s age and the other is about three. His wife died about a year ago. I didn’t know her because he moved here after she died. He’s been frantic taking care of the kids and working, so I’ve tried to help out. He’s a good man, an accountant—nothing like your father. Nobody’s like your father. But he’s a kind man and I’m tired of being alone.”

“I can help with the kids,” I said. “You know I’m good with kids. You always said so yourself.”

She gave me a quick pat on my head and said, without looking at me, ‘Tm sorry, Izzy. I’m really sorry.”

After a while she began complaining about Sandy again, how Sandy should be the one to take me because I always loved her the best. I interrupted her. I was so frightened now I could feel it up behind my ears. “So what will happen to me?” I asked her. “Where will I go?”

“I guess to your uncle in San Francisco,” she told me.

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