“Why do you have to miss practice today?” I asked Merlin after school. “Don’t you know how important our game against the Tigers is?”
“Yes, I know,” Merlin answered. “But I can’t help it. I can’t stay for practice. I have an appointment. I told the coach, and he said it was OK. I have to go now, or I’ll be late.”
“Merlin always has an appointment on Thursdays,” Bob complained as we changed into our basketball uniforms.
“Well, it isn’t going to be much of a practice without him,” I grumbled.
And it wasn’t. Merlin is the best player on our team. He can sink a basket better than the rest of us, and he never double dribbles when he runs down the court.
“You boys were clumsy today,” the coach told us after practice. “You have to get on the ball if you expect to beat the Tigers.”
I’ll bet he wishes Merlin had been here, I thought. Practice always goes better when Merlin plays with us.
“Maybe Merlin has a job. Or maybe Merlin’s sick and goes to the doctor every Thursday,” Bob said as we were eating a snack at my house.
“Bob,” I said, wiping cookie crumbs from my mouth, “I have a brilliant idea. We don’t have a practice next Thursday, so why don’t we follow Merlin and see where his appointment is?”
“But that’d be spying!”
“Well, it’s the only way we’re going to find out, isn’t it? Merlin’s sure not going to tell us.”
When Thursday finally came, Bob and I stood by the corner of the school building and watched Merlin get on his bike. We waited until he was a half-block away, then jumped on our bikes and followed him.
“Don’t go too fast,” Bob warned, “or he’ll see us.”
I felt like a detective following a criminal instead of a friend.
Bob and I shadowed Merlin for ten blocks, six of them uphill. “No wonder Merlin is in such good shape,” I told Bob, panting as we pedaled our bikes up yet another hill.
“Maybe this is all he does on Thursdays,” Bob said, puffing just as hard as I was.
Merlin finally stopped in front of the Westchester Nursing Home. He parked his bike and went in.
“I’m not going in there!” Bob told me.
“All right, all right!” I said irritably. I wasn’t mad at Bob, and I wasn’t mad at Merlin. I was mad at myself for spying on Merlin in the first place.
“What do you suppose he does in there?” Bob asked.
“Maybe his grandparents live there.”
“No. They all live in Texas. I know, because I heard his mother talking about them once.”
“Well, we might as well go home,” I said, starting to get on my bike.
“Wait!” Bob said in a loud whisper. “There’s Merlin!”
We hid behind a hedge as Merlin came out of the building and pushed a man in a wheelchair over to the shade of a large oak tree. The man gave Merlin a book, and Merlin sat down on the grass and began to read aloud.
Bob and I couldn’t hear what Merlin was reading, but the old man seemed to relax in his chair. Every now and then the man would smile. When he smiled, he looked a lot younger. After about twenty minutes, Merlin closed the book and stood up.
“We’d better get out of here,” I whispered.
“Too late,” Bob said. “He’s spotted us.”
“What are you guys doing here?” Merlin asked, coming over to the hedge we’d been hiding behind.
“Well … we …”
“We were just curious about where you go every Thursday,” I finally managed to splutter.
Merlin hesitated, then said, “I never told you guys because I thought you might think it was sissy.”
“After that bike ride, no one would dare think you were a sissy,” I said. “My legs are still sore.”
“Going downhill will be easier.” Merlin laughed. “Come and meet my friend.”
Mr. Allen told us about playing center on his grade school basketball team the year it won first place in the city and about some other neat things he did when he was a kid. Bob and I really liked him.
It’s been three weeks since we first went to the nursing home. Our team beat the Tigers by twelve points, and the coach said the team is really shaping up. We never practice on Thursdays anymore because all the team members now have very important appointments.
Today, I’m going to be very careful riding up the hills. I’m taking flowers to my friend at the Westchester Nursing Home. Her name is Mrs. Olivia Martinez.