Thursday, March 31, 2005


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #2: Baby-Shitter

I've always had a really good memory, at least as far as it goes on matters of general trivia, lines from movies, key appearances of super-heroes in various comics, and events from my own childhood.

So it's always shocking--in a good way--when my parents visit, because one of them nearly always remembers something I did long ago that I completely forgot (or, more likely, repressed). For example, here I was, all set to tell you about the second job I ever had, which by my reckoning was the summer (the first of three) I spent working for my uncle as a garbage man.

But last night, out of the blue, my mom says, "Remember the one and only time you worked as a baby-sitter? I'll never forget that panicked phone call!" And then she collapsed laughing. My mom's one of those slow-leak laughers, where the air comes out of her in this loud hiss, followed by a whoop as she drags the air back in and starts all over again.

And while she was in the grip of hysterics, the whole event came flooding back:

It late 1980. We had just that summer moved back east after a few years of living in the Midwest. I was 12 or 13, so that would have been, what, 8th grade? Sounds right.

It was one of those murky, drippy fall Saturdays. Too cold and drizzly to go out and do anything, so I was sitting inside reading when the phone rang. It was Janine, a girl whose family we had met when we first got here. I didn't really know her that well, but our parents were friendly. Anyway, she was calling because a family for whom she had once done some baby-sitting needed someone to watch their kids--tonight--but she already had a commitment. Would I be willing to do it? It paid 5 whole dollars.

Well, that was 5 dollars more than I was likely to be paid for sitting around reading books, so I said sure (The parent in me blanches at how quickly this was all arranged. For all Janine knew, I could been a serial killer in training. But never mind.)

"Great," Janine said, sounding a little relieved. "I knew you'd be perfect for it."

Which of course was the wrong thing to say, because it instantly made me suspicious.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Oh nothing!" she said immediately. "I just mean you already like living...where you live and this place is kinda like that."

(What Janine meant was, my family had moved into a 200-year-old farmhouse that had something...going on. It's a long story, and a good one, but not one I want to waste in a parenthetical. Suffice it to say, the house we had moved into had a not-undeserved reputation for weird things happening. We were, in short, the unsuspecting, out-of-town family that bought the local haunted house.)

I pressed Janine for an explanation and she finally had to admit that this family (I have completely forgotten their names) lived out in the boonies, at the end of a long dirt road, in what turned out to be a rather elegant, but old and somewhat creepy house, nestled in the thick of an orchard of dying apple trees. "There's nobody around for miles and the phone only works half the time and I babysat for them once but was so scared of being out there alone I said I'd never do it again," she blurted, not meaning, I'm sure, to over-sell it as much as she had.

So basically, she was palming the family off on me. But at least she was finally being honest about it.

Thing is, it really was the perfect way to pitch it to me. I actually liked hanging out in old houses. LOVED it, in fact. In my boy-detective days, my friend Shawn and I had spent many after-school and weekend hours exploring the dozens of abandoned houses on the outskirts of the midwestern town where we lived. And those were some seriously eerie, abandoned places. So once again, I agreed. Janine called the family back, told them about me, gave them my number. Then the mom herself called. We had a quick chat, the main point of which seemed to focus less on my ability to supervise children and more about my willingness to come and stay at their house after dark. My own mother agreed to drive me out to the place where I'd be baby-sitting from 6 to 9 PM. I got some basic directions, then hung up.

"So," said my mom, when I got off the phone. "What are their names?"

"Who?" I asked.

"The children you'll be watching?!?"


My mom delighted in asking questions she knew I had been too stupid to get the answers to. "Did you even ask how many kids they have? How old they are? Anything?"

Well, it WAS my first baby-sitting job. Clearly I had a lot to learn.

I was too embarrassed to call the family back (also, I had neglected to get their, um, phone number). So I called Janine back. She not only gave me the phone number, but also informed me that the family had two kids, a girl of around 4 and a boy who was still a toddler, a little over a year old. I need to name them something, so let's just call them Sally and Pig-Pen.

Now, a tiny splinter of apprehension was working its way deeper into my mind. I turned to my mom and dutifully supplied the answers, but then asked. "Um, so...Pig-Pen's like, a year and something old. Does that mean he's still in diapers?"

My mom smirked. "Probably. Boys take a long time to potty train. And even when they're older, they still have accidents. Why, when you were 4, you had these footed pajamas I made for you--"

"NEVER MIND!" I cried, trying to steer the conversation back. "So, what if I have to change the kid? I don't know how to fix a diaper and wipe him all up and stuff. And what if he pees on me while I do it?"

If crapping in the footed jammies was my embarrassing story, my brother's was the time he whizzed in the doctor's face during a well-baby exam. And the doctor was clear across the room! I had always thought it was a funny story. But now I wasn't laughing. I was hoping my mom would do something helpful, like produce a life-sized baby doll and a pack of diapers and give me an on-the-spot demonstration.

But instead, all she said was, "Worrying about it will only make it happen." Oh great. The one time I need my mom to be supportive and she turns into a human fortune cookie.

Eventually, she did give me a few pointers, but she was forced to admit that the last diaper she had changed was one of mine, and it was a prehistoric cloth-and-safety-pin deal. We knew from watching commercials that diaper technology had advanced considerably in 10 years, so she ended up making me feel that if anything happened, the diaper would practically change itself.

It was getting dark already when we started the 20-minute drive to the house. And in the gathering gloom and mist the place did seem kind of creepy, standing in shadow there amongst the skeleton trees. It was nowhere near as old as the house we lived in. This place was only about a century old, made of brick with wide front windows that let you get a good view of those gnarled and twisted trees.

The family was very nice. I don't mean to suggest they weren't, or to lead the reader into supposing I was walking right into some kind of Addams' Family situation. The couple were completely normal, just going out for your basic night at the movies. Sally and Pig-Pen had just eaten so, yay, no messing around with bibs or spit-up or whatever else a 4-year-old and 14-month-old might do while they ate.

I did have to help with baths, and that was...odd. I don't mean bathing them was odd, I just mean it felt foreign trying to interact with these little beezers. For those of you who missed it the first time around, this was my first baby-sitting job. What's more, I was the youngest in my own family. I did have some cousins who were littler, but I saw them seldom, and when I did, I related to them much the way one relates to a dog. I would talk to them in a high sing-songy voice. I threw toys for them to fetch (only afterwards realizing that sometimes they were not yet capable of independent movement. Except for their bowels, of course) and if I wanted to get their attention, I would slap my thighs and cry, "Hey baby! Here baby! C'mere! Come on! CA-MEEEEEER! Good baby! That's a good boy/girl!" So it was fair to say I did not have an instinctive grasp of how to handle little kids. Or relate to them. But hey, it was 5 bucks. Do you know what 5 bucks could buy in 1980? No, I don't remember either...

I didn't really have to bathe the kids, thank God, because I remember all this food from dinner ended up in the tub (in my mind's eye, I can still see one limp and lonely green bean spiraling down the drain), and that totally grossed me out. My job really started when I lamely helped get them into their evening attire. Of course, it wasn't till after I had stuffed Pig-Pen into his pajamas--yes, they probably WERE footed pajamas, now you mention it--that his mom pointed out that he needed his diaper first.

Uh-oh, I thought.

So I found the diaper (which was sitting on the edge of the sink) and put it on him. I recall that it had some amazingly adhesive tape, which I got stuck first on Pig-Pen's jammies, then on his own meaty thigh, before finally getting the diaper more or less positioned correctly. It was on backwards, actually, but it was in the right place (i.e. covering wind and water) so I called it good and buttoned him up before the mom could inspect my work.

Then it was a breeze. The dad put Sally to bed, the mom put Pig-Pen in his crib. Within 10 minutes, after showing me a few other things, such as the phone and the emergency numbers, they left for their movie. It was 6:30. I was master of the house.

I sat in the living room, a cavernous place with high ceilings and an enormous fireplace. The chimney had been sealed, so the family had put their TV on the stone hearth. I settled in to watch whatever was on and that was that.

For about 15 minutes. Then I started hearing this tapping on the window.

It was full dark outside and so the large front windows were just sheets of blackness. And with the lights blazing inside the living room, there was no way to see what was going on outside. Meanwhile...tap tap tap. All I could think about was that 70s TV version of Salem's Lot, the one with David Soul and, unless I'm mistaken, Lance Kerwin. And there was a scene where some hapless boy is turned into a vampire and he shows up at Lance Kerwin's window one night, scratching with his unholy fingertips and hissing, "Open the window!"


Yep, that's what I thought about.

But before I could psyche myself out, I bravely went to the window and peered out. Nothing. No face. No vampire child. I took a deep breath and shut off the lamp near me.

And instantly, I could see the source of the noise: Nothing more than one of the dead branches of the apple tree nearest the house. Whew. I snapped the light back on and turned around...and yelped when I saw little Sally standing right there.

"Oh! You startled me!" I said, trying not to sound like she had really startled me.

And that's when she sank her fangs into me...

No, I'm kidding. She was a sweet little girl who I have virtually no recollection of. Except what she said next, which filled me with far more horror than the thought of being in a creepy old house in the middle of nowhere. And what she said was:

"Pig-Pen went poo-poo."

Ohhhhh, Gaaaawwwwwwwd...


Wednesday, March 30, 2005


In Which I Sing A Song of Jimmy...

Jimmy is dead.

My parents nursed him along for years, doted on him, took him everywhere they went.

This year, he just couldn't make the trip with them.

His whole damn body was falling apart, nothing was working right. I think everyone knew it was the end.

Poor Jimmy. He was only 28.

Here he is, in better days:


We bought Jimmy brand new in 1977. He cost something like $7,000, a princely sum back then, even for such a massive and adventuresome vehicle. It was the first 4-wheel drive we ever had (you had to get out and lock the hubs first). He was great for road trips because he was so big. And we had a state-of-the-art 8-track tape deck installed in it, so we were riding in style.

My dad was less interested in style, though, and ALL about making time on our family vacations. He once welded together a reserve gas tank that he bolted to Jimmy's back bumper and had rigged a siphon thingy that allowed him to tap the reserve with the mere flick of a switch. We drove across the desert that way on a trip to the Grand Canyon and didn't stop once for over 7 hours (we kept a lot of empty Coke bottles handy, if you know what I mean. I have no idea what my mom did. Maybe she had really great aim. I don't really think about it, so stop asking). Of course, at the time we thought nothing of strapping a 20-gallon black metal tank of gasoline onto the back of Jimmy and driving across the 120-degree desert. Looking back, I marvel that Jimmy didn't turn into one giant Molotov cocktail out there on the highway and turn us into matchsticks. But you never thought about dangers like that because Jimmy seemed so strong and immense on the road.

His size translated into great comfort for us. When we drove through the night (which was often) my brother could stretch out on the bench seat in back, and there was enough space that I could sleep on the floor between the front and back seats (which was great fun, up until my dad would have to stop suddenly and my big fat brother would roll off the seat and squash me). We also had the "way back" which was, well, the very back of the vehicle, where we stowed all our luggage. But my mom was a master packer and always loaded the way back so that our suitcases and sleeping bags made a soft, flat space where we could lay and look out the back window, waving at drivers, or using the universal pull-the-cord sign to try to get truckers to honk. Many did. We also had a CB radio (of course. This WAS the 70s), and many times, after a trucker would honk, we'd hear the CB crackle: "Breaker 1-9 for the westbound red Jimmy. Is that a giant tank of gas-o-leen on yer tail, come back?"

Over 17 years, we took Jimmy to 44 states. When I became engaged to Her Lovely Self, it was decided that her parents and mine should meet over Thanksgiving. My dad was delighted because it meant taking Jimmy to one of the few states it hadn't yet visited.

At this juncture, it's probably worth noting that Her Lovely Self's dad made a good living working for an airline and her family lived in a very nice middle class neighborhood not far from Detroit. Big houses, well-manicured lawns, and a Mercedes in every driveway.

So when those in-laws met the, er, out-laws, it was an EVENT from the moment the Jimmy rolled into town. That alone caused quite a stir. By this point (and this was over 10 years ago), Jimmy's paneling had rusted through on one side. Plus the muffler was gone. And by that time my dad had taken to gluing the manifold to the engine with furnace cement, which worked great...until the cement burned away. So coming into that neighborhood, it was loud in pretty much every way a 1970s era proto-SUV with 457,000 miles could be. When my parents puttered into the driveway and parked next to the Mercedes--where I like to imagine my open-mouthed future in-laws were standing--my dad unhooked the bungee cord that was holding the driver's side door on, leaped out and, holding the loose door in one mighty hand, announced, "By Gorry, you didn't know your daughter was marrying into the Clampetts, didja?!?" My in-laws didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Jimmy made several more trips in his old age. The highlight of his golden years was when he carried my parents south the day my son was born. It was the longest road trip he'd been on since the historic in-law/out-law meeting. By this time, he had passed the legendary 500,000 mile mark and was feeling his age. It was a rare thing for my dad to get Jimmy up above 50 MPH. But on that trip, everyone was highly motivated to get to the hospital as fast as possible. Not only did my dad actually drive through cities, on an interstate, but he averaged 80 MPH and got to our place in less than 6 hours--a fucking land-speed record for him. For Jimmy too.

Poor Jimmy was never quite the same after that and he spent his final years hauling firewood and tearing up back fields, a great horse put to pasture. So I shouldn't have been too surprised recently, when my dad called to announce plans for their latest visit, and mentioned in passing that they had decided at the last minute to rent an SUV for the drive.

"Jimmy's not coming?" I asked, a little stunned. "He's that bad off?"

"Ayuh," says my dad. "Cawse, I've always said the only thing wrong with that Jimmy is the oil cap. You screw a new car under that cap and it'd be just fine, by Gorry." It's an old joke, but I was a little sad to hear it for the last time.

Of course, when my parents arrived in the strange new (and decidedly small) SUV, my kids didn't even notice. And it would be hard to explain to them the fondness we all had for that great old Jimmy, with its death-trap gas tank and its floor where kids could sleep with no seatbelts. It's harder still to imagine my parents buying a new car, although they'll have to when they get home.

Tonight, when I was coming to the computer to post this entry, my dad was online already, clicking slowly, laboriously through the strange, alien world of the Web. He was looking at online car dealers, something I had suggested. But he wasn't looking at the sites I had pointed him to.

"What is this?" I asked, looking over his shoulder. It was a site for classic and restored cars. And Dad was scrolling through the 1970s model GMC trucks. He pointed to one of the Jimmy listings.

"Do you think I could get away with putting a reserve tank on one of these?" he asked.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Tuesday, March 29, 2005


In which THIS is overheard...

Yes, I know you're all sick of the photos (except YOU. And maybe YOU. You know who you are), but I can't help myself...

My parents and the kids were watching a little image slideshow today in which I included a few shots from past Easters. It was all oohs and ahhs, right up until this image popped up. It's The Brownie wearing her first Easter dress, as well as this expression:

auto 012

"What is THAT look for?" asks my mom in mock horror.

"Oh," says The Brownie offhandedly. "That's the face that gets Daddy to do things."

"Well," says my mom, as the image gave way to one taken yesterday. "Then what's THAT one?"

misc 125

Without a pause, The Brownie replies, "That's how I look when I'm sick of him."

I was the only person in the room who didn't know whether to laugh or not.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Monday, March 28, 2005


In which we interrupt this program...

Well, during the ritual unloading, my parents had a few things for me. Because the car is so crammed with stuff for the kids, anything they bring for me is usually thin enough to be slid in between stuff, so that means errant bits of mail with my name on that still gets delivered to them. But occasionally they bring local newspapers featuring stuff they know would interest me. This time they brought a Sunday paper from just a little over a week ago, and it stopped me in my tracks.

A short while back, in this entry, I made this little digression about TV reception in the place where I grew up and, later, spent summers. I said:

...the only station we could pick up on the portable black and white TV was an ABC affiliate that seemed to show only weather reports and a locally produced children's show, both of which were hosted by the same person.

That wasn't just me making a joke of local TV. It was true. The person was Gus Bernier, but for years I only knew him as Uncle Gus. Until I wrote that passage above, I hadn't thought about Uncle Gus in probably 30 years. And likely would not have again, except for the Sunday paper my parents brought, which announced his peaceful death in Hawaii at the age of 85. But he deserves to be remembered. I owe him a lot.

Gus was indeed the weatherman from WMUR-TV, Manchester, New Hampshire (Channel 9), but he also hosted an afternoon kids' show, which mostly featured him playing Simon Says and other games with kids who sat on waiting lists for over a year before they actually got to sit in the classroom-like set where he hosted the show.

(If this sounds pretty quirky, well WMUR was a quirky place, doing remote interviews with museum-quality equipment, having anchors suffer heart attacks on the air. There's a great story about the station here.)

I was a little, little kid when I first started watching him, and for a long time when I was older I wasn't even sure he was real: this guy who sat around in some kind of feathery alpiner's cap talking to a classroom full of kids, occasionally being interrupted by cartoons.

In fact, here he is, cap and all:


Of course, the cartoons were the reason you watched, at least the reason I did. We had a lousy black and white TV and no external aerial antenna. We couldn't pick up the magical Boston UHF stations like Channel 56 and Channel 38, which ran Batman and Mighty Mouse and Speed Racer and all the shows we could only watch when we went to visit my cousins in Southie. No, for us, the only game in town was Uncle Gus, who ran classic Popeye shorts (the Fleischer Studio stuff, not the later stuff where Bluto morphed into Brutus) and some fairly exciting cartoons featuring Dick Tracy, my introduction to the character.

I have this fuzzy memory that we tried to get onto the show--

Hang on, let me check with my mom...

(how cool that I can simply yell "MAAAAAA!" and find out. Haven't done that in almost as long as I haven't seen Uncle Gus)

Okay, Mom has fact-checked me and explains that we may have looked briefly into getting on the show, but at the time the waiting list was 18 months long and she said forget it. However, she did remind me that my good friend Mike was on the show, and that I do remember. I also remember that my brother practically ulcerated to be on the show. He thought he could beat Uncle Gus in the take-no-prisoners Simon Says games the guy ran on his show. I wouldn't have bet on my brother, though.

For all the time I watched the Uncle Gus show, I never realized he was Gus Bernier, the WMUR weatherman who appeared on the early news. I didn't like watching the news. I was scared of the ads (one was for a local hardware chain whose mascot was an elephant, and the ad they ran showed a primitive outline of an elephant, along with a scary trumpeting sound, which literally gave me nightmares). But when I did watch, it was always towards the end of the broadcast, when Gus did the weather. Nice enough guy, friendly, jovial, your prototype "funny weather guy." He looked familiar, but I always thought he and Uncle Gus were two different people.

Even on the night of the special bulletin.

It was Christmas Eve, the early news was over and some ABC show was on. My brother and I were alternately watching and goofing off when suddenly the image on screen cut to one of those old-fashioned "SPECIAL BULLETIN" text cards, with the helpful but urgent voiceover that informed you--in case you missed it--that this was a SPECIAL BULLETIN from the WMUR-TV studios.

Back then, special bulletins and programming interruptions were so rare, I'm pretty sure this was the only one I can remember until the Iran hostage crisis, years later. Even my parents dropped what they were doing and came into the room.

On screen came the anchor for the early news (can't remember his name). Looking very serious. He informed the viewing public that Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth was reporting a strange phenomenon, which weatherman Gus Bernier had also seen in reviewing RADAR data from the National Weather Service (or something like that. It all sounded very serious and very official).

And then, there was Gus. Looking not as jovial as usual, but not grave either, a kindly uncle delivering news that might or might not be bad. He didn't crack smile at all when he showed viewers a dot on a grainy RADAR image which he kept calling an unidentified flying object (UFOs were huge in the 70s). Then he went to the weather map and traced the path of the UFO. It was heading south-southeast across Canada and appeared to be heading straight for The Granite State. No indication from Pease Air Force Base as to the nature of this UFO, but he promised to update viewers throughout the night as the situation developed.

And with that, they resumed the show, already in progress.

That was it. Never once was there a coy smile, a wink to parents, the obvious hamming up of the info. Never said the words "north pole" or "sleigh-like object." Gus knew how kids would react, and he totally played it straight.

And he was right. My brother and I realized that here, FINALLY, was hard evidence of the existence of Santa Claus. The hair on the back of my neck is rising just remembering. We screamed and jumped and hooted and begged to stay up for later updates, but of course my parents sent us to bed.

Over the years, I've forgotten the Uncle Gus show, and I feel a little sad that I actually remembered the man just a few weeks before he died. It would have nice to contact him somehow, and tell him that I still love Popeye cartoons. That I still remember that Christmas Eve when the oddly familiar weatherman interrupted TV to give kids the thrill of the night. Indeed, I've trotted out the story many times to my own children as proof when they question the existence of Santa.

Thanks, Uncle Gus. Simon says...wave goodbye.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Sunday, March 27, 2005


In Which Chaos Reigns...

My dad plans trips like a World War II O.S.S. operative. He acts like every city of larger than 1,000 people is Berlin and every interstate clogged with Panzers. He puts the "ack" in "back way" and looks for every scenic route, local road--or dirt road, if he can find it--to get where he's going.

Which means that a trip that you or I could do in a half-day takes him and my mother almost two days.

Granted, I guess all the crap they hauled here really bit into their ability to get above 45 MPH.

When my parents arrive, it is not possible to exaggerate the level of excitement that vibrates off my screaming kids. The dog barks, pictures rattle on the walls, the very foundation thrums and cracks.

And the rituals begin.

Ritual #1: The Unloading

We have to do the unloading dance. For my son, this involves doing laps around the vehicle. The Brownie stands in place and does a cute little boogie.

unloading dance

Then, there is the opening of Every Door

Unloading 1

Then we root through all the items in the car like it's a yard sale, only on wheels and everything's free.


Later, because it makes Grandma and Papa happy, we wash all the chocolate and dirt off of faces and put our Easter outfits on and pose for three quick pictures, of which only one will turn out halfway decent.


Then it's on to the next ritual, which I am just too drag-ass tired to relate right now.

As I type, my mom is telling the kids a bedtime story (right now she's at the part where a desperate Young Daddy finds the zipper on his footed pajamas stuck, and my son screams, in a voice mixed with hiccups because he's been laughing so hard, "Then Young Daddy POOPED DOWN HIS LEG!! TELL IT GRANDMA!!!"). My dad is asleep on the sofa, his belly distended and gurgling (Her Lovely Self wastes no time stuffing him with food and praise. She has big plans for the guest room come 8 AM tomorrow, methinks).

If you happen to be out tonight and look in a certain direction, you may see a bright glow on the horizon. That would be my home, every window burning with a special light and warmth, all generated by the simple blissful moment that only comes from having the full complement of my family under one roof. I am so happy and lucky to be at the center of that blissful moment that I can't even write about it anymore. So I won't.

Not for another 24 hours anyway...

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Friday, March 25, 2005


In Which My Family Does Not Fail to Improve Itself Genetically...

Lovely Selves
Stayed home today to try and get a few things in order before the Grandparents get here. Naturally, as soon as Her Lovely Self left to run some errands, my son and I ended up on the computer, playing around with the scanner and importing images.

He was captivated by these two. The top one being his sister (who in this image had applied chalk as makeup), the bottom one being his mother. He just kept looking back and forth at them on the screen. I showed him how to stack them in one file and there we are.

I'm getting a little sick of calling my daughter "my daughter," so I think I'm going to have to start calling her The Brownie.

When she was just a wee baby--in fact, this was the first time we discovered she could crawl--we were at a picnic with some friends. The friends brought a whole plate of brownies, which were in a picnic basket. Under a blanket. Wrapped in plastic on a plate.

Somehow, without anyone seeing her, my daughter wriggled over to the basket, got a hand in past the blanket, under the wrap and found the brownies. By the time we realized what she was doing she had mashed three brownies--three BIG brownies with frosting--into her toothless mouth.

We were a little freaked. She had only recently started on solid food, so she was really too young to be eating brownies. We anticpated a stomachache, a sugar-high to end all sugar-highs (she WAS a little amped up afterwards), some kind of reaction. But nothing bad ever happened.

Well, not counting the apocalyptic diaper she filled the next morning.

Ever since, The Brownie has had a sweet tooth to rival mine. She once consumed half of a birthday cake in one sitting (again, before we knew what happened). And this week, when a box of Easter goodies arrived (sent by my parents. Who will be here in a matter of hours. What the f--? Then it dawned on me: the truck was probably too packed with OTHER goodies), I found myself wondering aloud where all the jelly beans had gone. Take a wild guess...

But brownies still remain The Brownie's soul food, which I think is kind of funny.

See, Her Lovely Self hates brownies. Pretty much can't stand them. And come to that, HLS isn't all that big on sweets in general. So I guess The Brownie didn't pick up her sweet tooth from Mom.

But looking at these pictures, it's pretty clear The Brownie got everything else from her.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Thursday, March 24, 2005


In Which we are about to have a Grand old time...

As I write this, my parents are getting ready to drive from the wilds of New Hampshire to the Magazine Mansion. My son and daughter are beyond excited. They can hardly contain themselves. In fact, they can't contain themselves. They are driving Her Lovely Self up the wall and through the ceiling. But it's always been like this: Tell them Papa and Grandma are driving in from the wilderness and it's as though we just announced the Second Coming. Only the Heavenly Host are bringing free French fries and presents for No Reason.

It's a bit of a cliche, I know, but the man and woman who raised me and the man and woman who regularly drive cross-country to see their grandchildren have absolutely NOTHING in common...except that they happen to be the same people. I seem to recall my parents being pretty strict and unforgiving, especially as regards matters of sass and childish exploits such as, oh, buttering the dog or setting the swimming pool on fire. The same behavior in my kids is regarded with benevolent laughter and predictions of genius ("Look at how he applied the butter to the dog's rear-end. All the strokes flow the same way! He's like Da Vinci!")

I can't blame them. Not because my kids are perfect (good God!) but because this fits with my sense of how grandparents should be. When we're kids we should all be lucky enough to have adults in our lives who think we're fucking brilliant, who dote on us, who hide tiny dolls and Hot Wheels cars under our pillows every night, and who apparently never tire of telling the story of How Daddy Crapped In His Footed Pajamas When He Was 4 (always a crowd-pleaser).

Today, I got the traditional pre-arrival talk from Her Lovely Self about how this time we were going to Curb My Parents' Worst Excesses. No more toys hidden under pillows or in dinner napkins. No more cash payments for bringing someone a drink of water. The list goes on, and it's rather a long one.

What's amusing is that this talk comes from the same woman who worships the ground my parents walk on. Before I shambled into her life, my wife dated a couple of serious, near-thing boyfriends, both of whom had nightmare mothers who thought nobody--certainly not Her Lovely Self--was good enough for their boy.

My mom does not suffer from this affliction. Quite the opposite.

Oh, I know she's proud of me and all, but that still doesn't stop her from occasionally wondering aloud how I managed to coerce my wife into being my wife. Nor announcing archly how the men in our family have never failed to improve themselves genetically with each succeeding marriage. Not to put too fine a point on it, my mom is good for my wife's self-esteem (less so for mine).

She may adore my mom, but Her lovely Self is the high priestess who lights the incense at the holy altar of the sacred temple of Dad. She bakes fresh apple pie for him. She stocks his favorite ice cream (Breyer's Vanilla Bean) and his favorite soft drink (do you have any idea how hard it is to find a case of Tab this side of 1978?). She essentially butters him like my son butters the dog.

There were no daughters in our family, so my dad has absolutely no resistance to my wife's sincere but virulent strain of charm. And in five extended visits over the past 7 years at two different houses, she has charmed my dad into remodeling two bathrooms (one with vaulted ceiling and Jacuzzi), laying down 2,000 square feet of new oak flooring, building a massive jungle gym--including swings and a climbing wall--from scratch, upgrading heating and electrical systems to industrial standards, and building a home office out of a part of the basement (okay, that last one was for me. BUT I HELPED! And I bought the old man the first La-Z-Boy recliner of his life as a thank-you gift. C'mon, that's as good as pie. ISN'T IT? WELL?!?).

So, despite my assuring him that it is actually okay to visit and not do anything resembling labor, still he comes with a truckload of tools and putters around the house every morning. He wants to do this. And now my daughter is old enough to supervise his work, which gives both her and the old man enormous pleasure. Last fall, when he was putting down the new hardwood floor in the kitchen, my little girl was agog. "Papa built a whole new house!" she kept exclaiming (revealing a penchant for hyperbole that could not possibly be inherited). She sat for hours, watching him nail down floorboards, talking to him in a voice of praise normally reserved for the dog, telling him he was the Bestest, Smartest Papa Ever. And then, just when you or I would be slipping into diabetic coma from such obvious saccharine manipulation, she would take her game to whole other level. She would come over and wrap her little arms around my dad's grizzled neck and deliver a big wet kiss on his cheek and say, "That's a smackeroni and squeeze for you!" I think she's angling to have him build her a life-sized doll house in the back yard.

So it's going to be a couple of weeks of excessive spoiling and mutual flattery. For my family, anyway.

And what do I get out of these visits, you ask?

Why, hopefully the same thing you'll get over the next few weeks: a few good laughs and a few great stories.

More as it happens...

From Somewhere on the Masthead


Wednesday, March 23, 2005


In Which I Reject Rejection...

Dear Writer:

Thanks very much for sending your recent submission to the Really Big Magazine.

Unfortunately, the piece does not meet our editorial needs at this time, or for some reason duplicates material we already have on hand.

We appreciate your letting us see it, and wish you luck placing it elsewhere.


The Editors

PS: If you're just going to throw this letter out, then by all means do so and don't let me stop you. If, however, you want to know why the story or idea you sent us was really rejected, read on. Just bear in mind that you may not like what you hear. Then again you might.

What you've just received is the standard form rejection letter. The actual language varies from magazine to magazine, but this one pretty much rounds the bases. It's also completely meaningless and almost--but not quite--worthless. It means that we got what you sent, and we're sending it back. That's it. That's all. It does not necessarily mean that we hated it. In fact, it may simply mean that we didn't have time to read it, but the slush pile of unsolicited stories and ideas was cascading out of the box and it was time to clean it out.

Of course, in your particular case, and assuming we did read your submission, this letter may just confirm your worst suspicions: that you suck.

There, I said it: you suck as a writer, you'll probably never make it as a writer and your submission to us was so putrescently awful that all you're getting is a form letter. Don't bother buoying yourself up by trying to read into the letter, telling yourself "Hey they addressed me as 'Dear Writer'! I'm a writer! They said so!" or concluding that you can re-send the same story in six months because we said the piece didn't suit us "at this time." When we say "at this time" we mean "for as long as homo sapiens are the dominant species on the planet." Trying to derive some positive meaning out of a form rejection letter isn't a sign that you're an optimist. It's just another sign that you suck.

I can say this because downstairs in my office, I have a box--and I mean a box so large and heavy that the movers had to carry it down there--filled with rejection letters, all addressed to me (well, addressed to "Dear Writer" but you know what I mean). I can say this because I suck, so I know what I'm talking about. I am such an awful writer that I once received a personal reply--a brief note scribbled at the bottom of the form rejection letter--essentially begging me not to send them any more ideas. That, my friend, is pure-D suck-ass suckage.

But it is possible to suck, and to succeed. I am living proof. How did I do it? I learned to own my own special brand of awfulness. I dug it. I embraced it, took full responsibility for it. And then I went into complete denial about it.

In the same box with the rejection letters is a small envelope filled with stubs of paychecks made out to me from places like Time Inc., ABC, Reader's Digest, Conde Nast, Gruner & Jahr, Wenner Media and more. I fooled them all (actually, the secret is to fool just one of them. Then you build on that). In fact, I did such a good job pretending I didn't suck that somehow I convinced someone who really doesn't suck to let me run 25 percent of editorial operations for her magazine. Part of my job now includes signing these rejection letters. But it also includes paying out tens of thousands of dollars in freelance writing fees per week to people who used to get these letters. Now, they get a check instead.

Yes, those checks go out to writers who suck too. These are people who started out considering themselves awful, unemployable, unpublishable. This is important. In fact, this formative situation is kind of critical if you want to write for me. Because if you didn't start out thinking you sucked, then you probably didn't have the right kind of engine to motivate you to get better.

People who start out thinking they're great writers--whether they actually are or not--are generally not the kind of people I want writing for me. I've dealt with too many of those writers, and to a man they have been nothing but trouble. This one won't work with an editor or an editorial team; that one scoffs at deadlines; this one needs his rocking chair from home in his office; that one needs to get loaded at lunch. I'm not running a gifted program. You've heard smarter people than I tell you how little talent counts compared to hard work and perseverance. I'd like to add that's it's also important to suck too. Those are the people who push to improve, to rise up. Those are the people who develop a skill to screw on top of whatever talent they have. Those are the people I want on my team, dammit.

So, are you going to pitch this letter and wallow in the fact that you suck?

Or are you going to stick this on your wall as a reminder to send me something else? And something else. And something else, until I stop sending rejection letters and start emailing you. Or calling you. Or even paying you money.

Then again, you might just suck so badly that I would be compelled to write a personal note on your next rejection letter, begging you not to submit to me again. And yes, that would really and truly suck.

But at least then you'd have a great story to tell. A great story that someone else might buy.

We'll talk more about this when I send out your next rejection letter.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Monday, March 21, 2005


In Which A New Urban Legend Passes Into Being...

Long time readers know what a fan I am of urban legends, and my own humble contribution to the genre.

Well, I believe I witnessed a new one being born. Came to work the other day and heard one of my editors laughing hysterically. He had been on the phone with his dad, who related an amazing accomplishment of his over the weekend. I have confirmed, short of actually being in the dad's house when it happened, that this is a true story.

The dad is a great fan of spicy food. Well, apparently he over-indulged at a local Tex-Mex restaurant a couple evenings ago, to the extent that when he got home he had to make an extended visit to the bathroom. Suffice it to say, he was in there long enough to royally stink up the joint. Finally, he finishes his business, flushes, opens the bathroom door and heads down the stairs...when he hears an ear-splitting beeping from the upstairs hallway.

Apparently, his shit stank so badly he accidentally set off the smoke alarm!

Naturally, he was so proud of himself, he called his son to share this accomplishment (wouldn't you?). So we're both ROTFL now.

But later, I found myself wondering how this could have happened. Could a smoke detector really double as a stink detector? So the reporter in me started searching Web sites.

This might surprise you, but the whole issue of smoke alarms detecting flatulence and fecal gas is largely unaddressed in most of the FAQ files I searched. This strikes me as a gaping hole in the essential information that detector manufacturers and fire-safety advocates provide to the general public.

I did, however, learn that general-use household smoke detectors do not detect, um, natural gas (I would assume flatulence would be lumped in here too). But I also learned that you're not supposed to position a smoke detector anywhere near a bathroom.

A-ha! I thought.

Well, no. Turns out the reason you're not supposed to do this (so the manufacturer claims) is that hot steam from the sink or shower--but not, apparently, your ass--can trigger the alarm.

So I called the consumer service office for the largest smoke detector maker in the country. The person who took my call had a good sense of humor about my question, and promised to check with their engineers and get back to me, but somehow I think this is one press request that will get lost in the paperwork. Which is too bad. This could be an interesting new selling point for their product. Just think of all the fraternities, bachelors and 8 year old boys who would be begging to have one of these in their rooms!

Then I called a local fire department whose staff conducts home safety lectures at schools and such. Surely if anyone would have experimented with this hidden functionality in smoke alarms, it would be fire fighters. I was halfway through my question when the guy who answered hung up on me. But at least he was chuckling when he did.

You might think I'd be stymied at this point, but I had the great good foresight to marry a woman who spent 5 years as an environmental reporter, an environmental reporter who specialized in clean-air issues. And she turned out to be a veritable font of information on this topic, even going so far as to offer enough information to explain how this situation might have come to, uh, pass. But here I must assure you it was completely in spite of herself that my wife weighed in on the topic at all.

Basically, the working theory boils down to this (and any chemical engineering types, any scientifically minded people, in short anyone smarter than me--and that's pretty much ALL of you--should feel free to weigh in here, if need arises):

Most standard, battery-powered smoke detectors are devices that detect not smoke per se, but air particles that indicate the presence of smoke or fire.

Intestinal gas, particularly Tex-Mex fueled intestinal gas, contains any number of particles including microscopic amounts of fecal matter (yikes!) and sulfur. If it didn't, it wouldn't stink.

Sulfur is a combustion byproduct, and, according to my sources, one of the particles that may well be picked up by a smoke detector. Makes sense, right?

Except my friend's dad would have had to produce a shitload of sulfur for the detector to pick it up.

Oh wait, I guess that's exactly what he did.

Another theory is that the dad's detector is old, and may well be contaminated with dust or other particles. Dust build-up is a common reason for smoke detectors to malfunction and the older the units get, the more likely they are to go off for no reason. So this all could have been just one freak coincidence.

But I prefer to think the dad stank the detector out.

Does anyone else have a story like this? I'd really like to know. If one of you finds something like this online or in your personal memory, I beg you--in the interests of science and the greater good!--to mention it in comments or forward it to me. I searched around and couldn't find any mention of this happening, either as a true story or as an urban legend.

If that's true, then you saw it here first. Remember that when you start spreading the story around (and I heartily encourage you to do so).

If wants to validate this one or, er, blow holes through it, just email me, boys. I'll put you in touch with the dad himself. I'm sure he'll be only too proud to confirm the story. After all, by now the guy must think he's pretty hot shit.

I know I do.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Thursday, March 17, 2005


In Which the Alternate Endings Are Not All Happy...

Whoa. Well, that one sailed on me. When I set out to start a series of random anecdotes about odd jobs I've had (defined as anything I did for money. Well, anything legal), I thought they might be one or two-entry deals at most. But eight chapters?

And how 'bout that last ID card, huh? Now there's a face that Bell's Palsy could only improve. I was hesitant to post it, but ah, what the hell? Of course, now I have visions of Shane, my own personal investigator, armed with a 100-mile radius map of the Kansas City area, hundreds of print-outs of my ID, and big plans for his summer vacation.

So, I've told this story a time or two, and whenever I do, there are usually two questions, and of course they've been asked here by a few readers.

The first one is the obvious one: How much of that really happened?

The second one is: So what happened to everyone? That one's a little harder for me to answer.

First, it happened. Telling it in the form of a boy's detective story makes it feel fictional of course, and that being the case, I suppose I should have told it in a little more straightforward manner. In the very first account of this story, I did. Right after we cracked the case (I love that phrase!), I sat down at my parents' old typewriter and did up a case file (you can see it in the Chapter 2 post), included all my interview notes, the diagram of the depot and more. Shawn even got his mom's ancient Polaroid Land Camera and went to Melinda's to take a picture of the dog.

The main case file is a model of brevity, just a page long (and no doubt some of you are wishing I had posted that instead). It pretty much tells the whole story in about four lines:

"...stuffed dog stolen on "Cecil's bus" Bus #4..."

"...old bus broke down and was put at depot. When D.I. investigators realized this, we proceeded to the depot and recovered the dog..."

"...Bruce and sister obstructed investigation..."

"...Mr. Jack Lacey rended [sic] assistance..."

It really doesn't get more detailed. But at the time I didn't think it needed to be (also I was probably afraid my mother would see it and I'd be in deep doo-doo). No one else seemed to care, but Shawn and I would regularly relive the case, and when I moved away a year and change later, I wrote a longer account of it, which I gave to him before I left. As Shawn wrote to me once, years later, "What makes it feel like a detective story at all is the stroke of luck and coincidence that led to the buses being switched and us--okay, you--realizing it when no one else did. Take that out of the anecdote, and you got nothing, really, just a couple kids running around with an Army belt full of stuff."

Of course that's not to say that 25 years haven't warped my memory in favor of self-mythology. And of course there are moments that required some noodling. Most of the conversations with adults, for example, had to be entirely reconstructed. When you're a kid, you tend to remember the gist of what adults tell you more than their actual words. And I didn't think I needed to reproduce all five of the interviews we conducted, especially my transcript of Mr. Hayward's long explanation of the bus-leasing policies of the school district (if I'd included that, Sharfa, you really WOULD rather have had me write about paint drying).

And okay, yes: I might have made Fred the dog a little meaner than he actually was. I really was scared of big dogs back then, and he certainly was an excitable, yappy type, so hopefully you'll forgive me for that. Also, the more I think back on it, I'm not entirely convinced that Jack didn't realize we were in the bus. It would have been just like him to drive a ways down the road with us trapped in the back, just to teach us a lesson (and it worked. We never EVER went hunting for stuffed animals in buses on the backs of tow trucks again).

But otherwise, them's the facts. I went through a period of being annoyed when people questioned the truth (there was a reason for that, which I'll get to), but now I take it as a compliment to whatever meager narrative powers I possess. I've never been good at fiction, so for someone to think I might spin this out of whole cloth is actually quite flattering.

Right, so: what happened to everyone?

Bruce and Dee Dee moved away early the next school year. They ran away from home a few years later and embarked on a cross-state crime spree that ended in a hail of bullets. Truman Capote based his book on hell, I dunno what happened to them. But if Bruce is reading this, I just want him to know there's no hard feelings, and I truly appreciate that he would spend so much of his valuable time perusing my blog. I know most maximum-security facilities only give you so many hours of Internet time per month at the prison library, so it means a lot. Thanks. No really, thanks. DINK.

By all accounts, Melinda blossomed and went on to become one of the hotties in her high school class, (hey, just like me!). Like a lot of my classmates who grew up in that small farming community on the prairie, she got married right after graduation, skipping college and going straight into life as a grown-up. Last I heard, she was still married, had at least one kid, and was teaching Bible school, just like her charmless mother.

Lacey's Garage is still in business (Shane races for an online directory!), and Jack still runs the place, or at least he did, last time I visited. The old Coke machine is long gone (I hope he got a fortune for it from an antique dealer), but kids still hang out on the curb there every day after school.

Mr. Terry became the superintendent of the school district, which really bit into his ability to interfere with kids' daily lives. But last time I visited, the buses still had assigned seating, so his legacy is secure.

Mr. Cecil gave up bus-driving and ended up taking over the town hardware store. The year he did, our little town was the victim of a daring nighttime robbery that involved crooks blowing a hole in the town office wall in order to get into the hardware store, which shared a common wall with the office building. The thieves stole thousands in merchandise, as well as Cecil's cash vault. The store went under not too much later. I always felt bad for Mr. Cecil, and even worse that I had left town before I got a chance to try and solve that case (they never did find the crooks).

No idea what happened to Mr. Hayward. He was still driving the bus the last time I visited, but he was talking about retiring. Of course, he often talked about it when he drove us to and from school, so for all I know he could still be doing his purgatorial job.

You know what happened to me. I never did become a detective, never got into any car chases, never rescued any beautiful girls from locked trunks (except that one time...). My one brief moment of lucid deduction aside, I came to realize that I was no intuitive whiz, and not particularly skilled at putting two and two together. And forget running a methodical investigation or coming up with great problem-solving schemes--that was Shawn's gift.

But I did enjoy the process of tracking down information, pulling it all together. I liked talking to people, feeling empowered to ask them questions. So it was only natural--inevitable, really--that I would end up in a job where that's pretty much what I do.

And Shawn...

After I moved back east at the end of the next year, Shawn and I kept in touch. His mom remarried and had yet another kid, but at least she stayed home more and he didn't have to be a surrogate parent to his siblings as much. This newfound freedom meant he was able to spend two or three summers with my family, and came for Christmas my junior year of high school (where we shared one more adventure. It wouldn't make a good detective story, but it would make one hell of a ghost story. One of these days...).

We wrote to each other regularly and called each other about once every other month. The last time I spoke to him was towards the end of my freshman year of college. He had a lot to say then. He could be a moody kid, and as he'd gotten older, he was more prone to bouts of depression. Sometimes months would go by and I wouldn't hear from him and during those times I'd worry. But this time when we talked, it was good news. He was in therapy now, and coming to grips with a lot of issues. The big one was the fact that he never knew his father, who had walked out when Shawn was an infant. But he was making plans to meet the guy for the first time. I shared some issues related to my own dad. It was a really good talk.

During that call, Shawn brought up our one and only detective case. "Did we really do that?" he asked. "Sometimes I feel like it was all a dream. Well, if it was, it was a good dream. That was just the best time." I agreed. We rang off promising to talk at Christmas, but he never called and neither did I.

I don't know what happened over the next six months, but I do know his meeting with his father did not go well. I'm sure that wasn't the whole reason, but not too long after, Shawn slipped into a serious depression. Some time in the new year, Shawn snuck out of the place where he was under suicide watch and drove his car to a secluded spot. Methodical to the last, he had picked out this spot in advance and had everything with him that he needed. He ran a hose from his exhaust pipe into the car, popped a couple of sleeping pills, put on his headphones, started the car and fell asleep listening to his favorite music. The police found his body the next morning. They said it was an open-and-shut case, no mystery to solve.

But there was, and I'll always regret that I never tried to unravel it sooner.

I stopped telling people about our detective adventure after that. Too many kept asking whether it had really happened, and the only answer I could give at the time was: If I wanted to make up a detective story, it wouldn't be about a stupid stuffed dog. It would be a story about a guy who realizes his best childhood pal is in danger, 1,000 miles away. The clues have been there for years, unnoticed, but the guy finally puts it all together and races to his friend's aid. The pals are reunited before something awful happens and the suffering friend realizes that he is loved and valued and somehow finds the path to eventual recovery and the happy ending he so richly deserves.

But that's the kind of story that, once you started writing, you couldn't stop. You'd want to keep writing it until it somehow became true. And that would never happen.

So, finally, I thought this tale deserved a more thorough telling than the one-page report I did at 11, than the longhand account I wrote at 12. It's not much, it's maybe even a little pathetic, but it's the best way I can think of to remember that remarkable boy, as he was then, his life already more than half-over. I didn't know that at the time, of course. All I knew was that I never had so much fun as when I got hang around with Shawn.

And though I never said it, I always felt lucky that he had picked me to be his friend.

From Somewhere on the masthead

Wednesday, March 16, 2005


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

The Boy Detective (in spite of himself)
Job #1: Boy Detective

The Last Mystery

Of course, as always happens in life, when you do something you think is pretty cool and a big deal, no one else seems to think so. Most just go right on with their lives. The few who do take notice tend to do so for the wrong reasons. Or they notice the wrong things and are impressed--for better or worse--with minutia.

Take my mom, for instance, who was--I thought--unnecessarily obsessed with the fact that I had lost my book bag (and thought it suspicious that I had not also lost my books. Dang, Ma, who's the detective in this family, anyway?). I couldn't tell her what really happened, so I told her the first thing I could think of, and it was about as close to the truth as I could get: I said I had left it on the bus. (On the bus, on the barbed wire fence surrounding the bus, it all comes down to the same thing, right?)

Melinda was impressed when I gave her the details of the case, but that was less than ideal. For one thing, after I told her what Shawn and I had done to get the dog, she apparently developed some kind of crush, first on me, then on Shawn, which was mortifying for both of us, and made us less likely to tell our adventure to anyone, lest they think we did it because we liked Melinda. There are just some things an 11-year-old guy would rather not have to live down.

Of course we had made an impression on Bruce and Dee Dee. From that day forward, right up until they were shipped off to reform school or wherever it is they went some time during the next school year, they had it out for us. They began by muttering repeated threats to Shawn on the bus ride to school the next day. Later, at my locker, Bruce got in real close, close enough that I could see his bloodshot eyes, red-rimmed from rubbing baby powder out of them.

"You're dead," he rasped in his raspy, had-too-much-baby-powder-to-eat voice. "Your ass is grass and I'm gonna be the mower," he added, employing a favorite, if unoriginal, catch-phrase of the day.

Eventually, tens of thousands of years from now, my descendents will finally be free of the Smartass Gene that has plagued my ancestral line, and no doubt led to early deaths for so many of us. But on that day and many days since, it was full in force. And since I was in school and therefore safe, I couldn't resist waggling my finger around my nostril area and saying, "Still got some powder there, Bruce. Don't you ever wash?"

Bruce glared and was debating whether or not to start the ass-mowing there and then, but he was interrupted by someone clearing his throat behind us and we both turned to see Mr. Terry, gesturing to Bruce. With a last sullen glare, Bruce left my side and walked into the principal's office. Melinda was just coming out of the office and skirted well around him. Then she saw me, smiled (oh, great!) and hurried into class.

Bruce was back in class by the middle of our first lesson, and shot me and Shawn a venomous look, a fine way to show your gratitude to two kids that kept you from getting suspended, I thought. Shawn did too. "You're welcome," he muttered, then shook his head at me and we went back to our books.

It was just before lunch that Mr. Terry appeared at the classroom door and called me and Shawn out of the room. We followed him silently to his office where he closed the door. He didn't offer us a seat.

"So, boys. Anything you want to tell me?"

Shawn's mom had been a teacher and my friend tended to be excruciatingly honest and forthright with authority figures, so I was afraid he was going to tell Mr. Terry everything. It's not that I was any less respectful, but I also knew we had done some pretty dumb stuff yesterday and I didn't want to end up being the one suspended.

Shawn spoke first and I was thrilled when he said, "Nossir." Mr. Terry looked at me and I shook my head.

"Well," he said, smiling a tight smile. "I hear you two detectives found Melinda's dog for her."

We let our guard down and smiled at that. I nodded.

The principal looked right at me. "Care to tell me where?"

I swallowed hard. "Down at the motor depot." Picking my words carefully, I explained how we realized that Mr. Cecil was driving a new bus and how we thought the dog might still be on the old bus.

Mr. Terry looked back and forth between us. "Well," he said. "The depot was apparently where all the action was yesterday. Mr. Vaughan called to complain about students running around down there, playing around on top of some old buses after the gates were locked. That's trespassing. Bruce and his sister told me they went down there to look for the stuffed toy too, and they had to be chased away because they were pushing on the front gate and agitating the guard dog. I think there was more to it, but all they would tell me was that I should ask you boys what you were up to down there. And speaking of the guard dog, Mr. Vaughan says someone tried to poison that dog. He was very ill last night." At this, Shawn gasped. We found out later that poor Fred, who apparently followed a special diet, got the screaming shits from that nasty cheap, stinky dog food we fed him. Oops. Good thing we didn't give him the second can, I thought.

Mr. Terry was looking increasingly thin-lipped and I began to get the worst feeling that the other shoe was about to drop. In fact, I became absolutely convinced that at any moment he would say, "And how do you explain this?" and produce my book bag--my book bag with my name written on the inside--announcing that it had been retrieved from the top of the fence.

But before the principal could say anything else, Shawn rose to the occasion. "We just went down to the depot to ask about the dog. It was locked so we couldn't get in. But then we saw Jack Lacey there with his tow truck. The bus was on the back and, uh, we looked real quick before he took it away. And we found it." Shawn looked at me nervously. I smiled and nodded. Hey, it was true. Sort of.

"Really?" said Mr. Terry, now smiling. He reached for the phone, and I felt my fillings turn to water in my mouth. He had us. "Let's just call and ask Mr. Lacey about that." He grabbed a phone book from his desk and looked up the number.

I thought Shawn would crack then (later he said the same thing about me). We must have looked pretty sick, standing there as Mr. Terry called the garage. Jack was our friend, but he was also a grown-up, and we knew that when grown-ups interacted with each other, whatever allegiances they had to kids were secondary.

So it was a pretty awful moment, standing there while Jack answered and Mr. Terry, in his jocular ho-ho-I've-got-them-by-the-short-hairs-if-they-had-any tone, explained that he had two boys--sorry, two young detectives--here in his office, and--

Suddenly, we heard a faint buzzing reply from the receiver. Jack had interrupted the principal.

Terry listened, then smiled. "Yes, the dog. It's a prize we--uh-huh. Yes, and they're saying--uh-huh. Uh-huh..." Slowly his face fell. "So, excuse me Mr. Lacey--Jack--they were with you the whole time? But Mr. Vaughan said--uh-huh. No, I'm NOT accusing anyone. No, I know they're good boys, and--well, Jack if you vouch for them. Of course. Of course, I'll let you get back to work. Thanks a bunch," he said glumly and hung up the phone heavily.

I couldn't help but smile. Did I ever mention what a good guy Jack was? I silently vowed never to steal Cokes from his machine again.

"Well," Mr. Terry said finally, harrumphing in that manner that all school administrators do when they know you've done something wrong but they can't quite pin it on you. "Whatever happened yesterday, it sounds as though you boys were acting in the best interests of a fellow classmate and, I suppose, the school."

Mr. Terry held up a finger suddenly. "But! I'm giving you boys fair warning that you are not to play detective during school hours or on school district property. Do you understand?"

I tried not to make a face, but I don't think I did a very good job. It seemed like a completely unfair and arbitrary demand to make. Like he couldn't nail us for doing something wrong, but he was going to impose a quasi-punishment anyway.

Still, what could we do? We nodded and mm-hmmed and he told us to go to lunch.

And that was pretty much that.


A couple days later, as we were leaving school and getting stuff out of our locker, Shawn noticed an envelope stuck in the vent at the top of the locker door. He opened it. There was no note inside. Just a single, slightly rumpled dollar bill.

"Our fee!" Shawn whooped. "Fifty cents for each of us!" Of course, I maintained that we had worked two days on the case--Friday and Monday--so that meant we ought to get another 50 cents apiece, but Shawn pointed out that our sign on the old mail truck said 50 cents a day--not per person--and that therefore we had been paid in full.

Not including the cost of the dog food, I thought. And our ruined book bags. And all the stuff in the Mobile Crime Lab, like my fingerprint kit.

But even I couldn't complain for long, not once we broke the dollar at the grocery in town and each had quarters jangling in our pockets. I still maintain it was the hardest 50 cents I ever earned, but all in all we were pretty pleased with ourselves.

There was just one thing.

We had no idea who paid us.

It wasn't Melinda. I found that out when I thanked her for the money on the bus home and she gave me a mystified look. When I reported this to Shawn, he was all intrigued.

"Maybe it was Mr. Terry. You know, as the principal, he couldn't admit to paying us, so he did it on the sly," he suggested.

"Nah," I said. "Not his style."

"Well, who was it? It sure wasn't Bruce and Dee Dee."

"Well no," I allowed. "But who then?"

Some detectives, huh? I confess, we never figured that last mystery out.

But if you have any ideas, I'm all ears.



Tuesday, March 15, 2005


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

From the Crime Files of Detectives, Inc.
Job #1: Boy Detective

Bruce Takes A Powder

Despite all of my dreams and fantasies about what life as a detective would be like, the harsh reality was that I would have been singularly unprepared for all the physical action I had envisioned. I was not Batman. I wasn't even Robin. If I had stumbled upon a gang of counterfeiters, they'd have stuffed me in a sack and tossed me down a well without me inflicting so much as a scuff on their shoes.

I was not a fighter. Hated violence of every kind. When my father was in one of his erratic moods and stormed around the house smacking anyone luckless enough to be in his way, I headed for the back door, and hid out in the woods behind the field until my brother came looking for me. When someone picked on me at school, I tried to talk my way out of it. Not so much because I had enough intimidation at home, but because I knew how the encounter would go, had known since second grade, when Adam Schwartz slapped me in the face and my glasses went flying. Without them, I was as good as blind, absolutely useless in a fight. So I tried reasoning with my would-be opponent instead.

That never worked with Bruce. Talking only seemed to encourage him to pound on you. Since he had in the past twice pinned me to the ground (and had both times administered the final humiliation of daubing my glasses with spit), he regarded me as easy prey. And as he ran at me outside the motor depot that day, screaming at me to give up the stuffed dog Shawn and I had worked so hard to recover, I was forced to concede that I WAS easy prey. When it came to fighting, my opponents were always much more eager to deal out pain than I was. I worried too much about the consequences. I never felt the rage and fury my opponents seemed to feel in the moment. All I ever seemed to feel was fear.

I was a little too preoccupied to think about it then, but later I realized how stupid it was of us not to have figured Bruce into our plans that day. Assuming he really had left the dog on the bus, and given the principal's ultimatum to return the dog by first bell the next morning, it only made sense that he would come down to the motor depot. I don't think that he realized the full truth--that he was riding a different bus Monday than the one he had ridden on Friday when he stuffed the dog down the seat. But he must have thought that perhaps the bus has been cleaned out over the weekend and he might find it in the depot's trash. Or that maybe Brian Vaughan or some other district mechanic might have found it and set it on a desk somewhere in the repair hut. And anyway, since he really didn't take the dog, where else was he going to look for it?

Bruce kept on running at us, his face a mask of determination. Shawn, always so much braver than I (but really no stronger nor more eager to mix it up with Bruce) stood between us and yelled, "We found it! We're taking it back to Melinda!"

"No you ain't!" squealed Dee Dee, hustling along behind Bruce, leaving their friends to stand by the gate. Dee Dee looks all sweet and innocent in her class picture, but she was a holy terror. She was much taller than Bruce--she was two years older than all of us--and had a ropy muscularity that made her both strong and agile in a fight. And in the few girl-fights that had occurred at our school, Dee Dee was always responsible for the bloodiest ones. In a way, we almost feared her more than Bruce. Almost.

I backed up, hating myself as I did. There's a little part of you that dies inside when you feel yourself giving way to the threat of intimidation, and I felt that inner death now. My heart was beating in my ears and my mouth felt like it was full of pennies as my body decided whether to stand or run. I suppose the smart thing would have been to just give it up. The end result would be that same: Melinda would still get her dog back. It would just happen tomorrow. And Bruce and the principal would be the ones responsible, not us. I tried to imagine going to Melinda's tonight and telling her we found the dog but that Bruce took it from us, and that made me feel even worse.

Of course, it took far less time to feel and think these things than it took to write them, and it took Bruce almost no time to close the distance between us. Shawn stuck out a skinny arm and blocked him.

"You gimme that or you're gonna wish you had!" he hollered at me as he twisted around Shawn.

I wanted to say something. How unfair he was being, how we had just done him a big favor by finding this dog, how he'd be out on his suspended ass if it weren't for us (let's face it, Jack would have dragged the bus halfway to Kansas City by now, and the dog would be gone forever). How we weren't even getting paid for this!

But the words wouldn't come. All I could manage was a squeaky, "No."

And then Bruce got free and lunged at the dog in my hand. I backpedaled, my arm upraised behind me, keeping the dog away. Later Shawn told me that he tried to grab Bruce from behind, but by then Dee Dee had arrived and she got Shawn in a very unladylike headlock.

Bruce kept coming. He snorted like a bull and gave me a hard push in the chest. I was still moving backwards, so I stumbled and went down, the dog flying from my hand. I landed hard on one side and when I hit the ground, I heard a sickening crunch.

The noise was loud enough that even Bruce hesitated, thinking maybe he had gone too far, broken my leg or something. I rolled over, saw what really happened, and felt the blood drain from my face.

I was still wearing the Mobile Crime Lab and had landed on my right side, on the bulky pouch that contained my treasured fingerprint kit. When I hit the ground, the pouch burst open. And so, I could see, had my plastic bottles of fingerprint dust. The bottle of black graphite, which I used to pick up prints on light surfaces, was completely broken and the pouch was filled with the fine dust. My brushes and the roll of fingerprint tape were covered. The bottle of talcum powder that I used for dusting on dark surface was also cracked. The lid had popped clean off and a little bit of the talcum was seeping out.

My fingerprint kit.

My whole life, I've always had a problem showing anger. As a kid, I'd seen enough indiscriminate rage in my own house that I saw anger as something to avoid. It took a lot to piss me off, then and now. But in that moment, all the fear I was feeling, all the unfairness and uncertainty drained away. And in its place came a startling and unexpected sensation. I was furious.

"You. Broke. MY. FINGERPRINT. KIT!!!" I howled.

Bruce, in these few seconds, had scooped up the dog, and I bet afterwards he wished he had run. But no, seeing me on the ground again made him realize he had to administer his signature, his coup de grace. And as I was looking down at my broken kit, he stepped closer, opened his mouth and licked two fingers, preparing to daub my glasses the moment I looked up.

So he still had his mouth open when I howled and turned and threw the open bottle of talcum powder right in his face.

Then it was his turn to howl.

Talcum powder is some nasty shit, let me tell you. Years later, when my son was just born, a well-meaning friend gave us a gift basket containing some, but I insisted on getting rid of it, telling my wife all the respiratory problems I had read it could lead to. And as I went to put it in the trash, I bumped something, squeezed the container and caught a squirt of it right in my eyes. The pain was intense. I couldn't see.

And my first thought was, So this is how Bruce felt.

He dropped the dog and doubled over sneezing, coughing, rubbing his eyes. It was in his mouth, up his nose, and he must have snorted some of it because he making these wonderful gagging noises and crying, "Ha-a-a-ggg-help me Dee Dee! Ha-a-a-ggg! I can't see! Ha-a-a-ggg me!"

I'll say this for them: they were really devoted to each other. Dee Dee let Shawn go instantly and ran to Bruce. I jumped up, grabbed the dog and did a little hop around her. Dee Dee gave me a hate-filled look that I can still see, but was too worried about Bruce to do more than make a half-hearted snatch at me. Shawn--carrying the book bag with our stuff, God bless him--took off towards town and I followed him as fast as I could. Bruce and Dee Dee's friends were still standing by the gate, pointing and laughing at the spectacle.

I couldn't believe it. We got away. No shit-kicking involved. I was positively jubilant.

After that, I was expecting a hero's welcome at Melinda's house, which we reached at a dead run in about 4 minutes. Shawn rang the bell and her mom came to the door. Melinda's dad was the pastor at one of the local churches and her mom, a stern woman, taught Bible school. She eyed us balefully. And I supposed we looked a sight, especially me. In the tussle, the Mobile Crime Lab had gotten turned so that the pouch containing the fingerprint kit was now settled on the small of my back. But the pouch was torn and graphite dust was sprinkling out of it, so to Melinda's mom it must have looked like I was shitting a fine black powder on her porch.

"Melinda is just sitting down to her supper. She can't come out to play," her mom coolly informed us, when we asked to see her. She started to close the door when Shawn spoke up.

"But--but we found her dog for her! We wanted to give it back."

Now, this will change her tune, I thought. But all she did was open the door a little wider and stick out her hand. I looked down at the dog, gave him a little shake to get some of the dirt and talcum powder off him, and somewhat reluctantly handed him over. Melinda's mother took it as one might take, perhaps, a turd with a festive bow wrapped around it. Then she closed the door in our faces.

I looked at Shawn in rank disbelief. "You gotta be kidding!" I exclaimed, still a little keyed up from our almost-a-fight. He shrugged. What else could we do? We turned to go.

As we started down the steps, the door flew open again and there was Melinda, clutching her prize to her skinny chest, smiling about as widely as she is in her picture. Not pretty, exactly, but certainly radiant. We were used to her being a whiny crybaby, but at that moment she was bubbling with thanks and praise, wanting to know how we had found it. But her mother was calling her back to the supper table.

"I'll tell you all about it on the bus tomorrow," I said, tromping on Shawn's foot as I did, a reminder that his impulsiveness meant I was going to have to sit next to Melinda on the bus for the rest of the school year. But the truth is, I really didn't mind so much. Not because I liked Melinda more now, but because it all seemed to have paid off. So we headed off the porch and back down the street, Melinda's cries of thanks still ringing in our ears.

It was only after her door closed that Shawn snapped his fingers and said, "Dang! We forgot to ask her for our 50 cents a day!"

I'd love to leave the story there. Two good pals walking down a darkening sidewalk near the end of a warm spring day, a day in which they have for the first and, as it would turn out, only time, fulfilled perhaps the greatest aspiration their young minds could conceive.

Ending it now would spare them one more twinge of the slight pain they always felt when they parted at a particular corner (Shawn to go off to the brothers and sister he so loved in a house he so hated, me to go home vaguely worrying what kind of mood my father would be in, and whether or not I'd have to spend another evening hiding from him in the woods).

Ending it now would spare them the retaliation of Bruce and Dee Dee, which would come again and again.

Ending it now would preempt an awful moment in the principal's office the next day, and the discovery of a new mystery that would never be solved...


Monday, March 14, 2005


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

From the Crime Files of Detectives, Inc.
Job #1: Boy Detective

Trouble in Tow

Years ago, I read an interview with a writer who scripted some of the old movie serials that were a staple of Saturday afternoons for millions of American kids. A major part of those 15-minute cliffhangers was the, um, cliffhanger part, the great danger that would conveniently befall the hero about 14 minutes and 55 seconds after having escaped the previous episode's danger, just before his whole world faded to black and you saw words like
"NEXT WEEK: Plunge into Peril! or...The Plumber's Revenge!"

Anyway, the writer was asked how he always managed to come up with fresh new trouble for the hero week in and week out. And his reply was something like this: "Getting into trouble is easy. My main characters were always, at heart, snoops and busybodies, people who couldn't leave well enough alone. Once you start sticking your nose where it doesn't belong, once you step off the path, you quickly end up in places you shouldn't be, doing things you have no business doing. And that's when trouble finds you. You try to get yourself out of one jam, but to do it you end up falling even deeper into the hole you've dug. Chaos and adversity have ways of feeding on themselves, requiring ever more ingenious or desperate measures to escape them until eventually you get clear, get back to the path. What you call 'trouble' I call 'consequence.'"

Of course, what they should have asked the guy was, "How did you figure out how to get your characters out of the jams you got them into?" Because that's the answer I could have used, back in real life.

I'm sure your average 11-year-old today would think nothing of being stuck on a bus on the back of a tow truck, heading down a road to Kansas City. It would probably seem like fun, a bit of a lark.

Not to me. Or to Shawn. We were paralyzed with horror for a moment. No one knew where we were. What's more, I had lived in really small towns my entire life. I had been to Kansas City once--my dad took me to watch the Royals play my beloved Red Sox (the Sox lost, of course), and at the time I remembered wondering what would happen if I got lost in the crush of this huge city (imagine my reaction if I'd been stuck on a bus to New York! I probably would have burst into flames from the panic). The idea of being shanghaied there now, even with my best friend along, filled me with a certain dread.

"Whaddawedo? Whaddawedo?" we asked each other. We were on the main road out of town, heading over a second set of railroad tracks, an old spur line that led to an abandoned granary. The tow truck had to go really slowly over the tracks and if we'd been daring, we could have popped open the emergency door in back and jumped out. But we weren't daring. Or even really using our heads, because we chose that moment to clamber up the inclined aisle to the front, where we waved and yelled to try and get the driver's attention. Still clutching Melinda's stuffed dog, I sat in the driver's seat of the bus and stuck my free hand out the window and waved. The tow truck continued on, the driver an unmoving shadow form in the cab ahead of us.

"I don't think he saw us," I said, as we accelerated away from the tracks and even further away from town. I looked down then, and saw the steering wheel.

"The horn!" I yelled, and mashed the button down triumphantly.

Nothing happened. They had disconnected the battery.

Shawn was looking around now. "We have to get his attention before we get to the highway. Look for something we can throw at him." As he said this he looked around on the floor for rocks, pebbles, anything, but of course there was nothing, unless we wanted to start throwing our shoes at the truck.

And then I remembered the Mobile Crime Lab. And the police whistle I kept there.

I grabbed it between my teeth and leaned out the window, blowing for all I was worth. It sounded ear-splittingly loud to us there on the bus, but in fact it barely competed with the rattling and grumbling of the tow truck engine. The driver didn't seem to be turning his head or looking around for the source of any unusual sound, such as a kid stuck on a bus whistling himself blue. It wasn't working.

I pulled my head in and started rooting through the Mobile Crime Lab for anything we could throw. I had handcuffs! I leaned out and whipped them at the tow truck. But they were a toy, made of plastic and they fell to the dirt road almost immediately. I winged out the Sucrets box containing my first-aid kit. It was a metal box and had good heft, but it was hard throwing at that angle and it barely brushed one of the mud flaps of the truck's rear tire before it hit the ground and disappeared under us.

I still had my Swiss Army knife, but I couldn't bring myself to throw that. Yet.

Then I found my yo-yo. I had stuck it in an empty pouch, just because I couldn't stand to have an empty pouch on the Mobile Crime Lab. I grabbed it and got ready to fling it like a rock when Shawn grabbed my hand.

"Not like that!" he said. He took it from me and unspooled the string, then dangled it out the window and began whirling it around and around like a sling. Faster and faster it went. Finally, he let it fly and it flew true, arcing toward the tow truck...

...and nothing happened. No noise, no clanging. It must have gone clean over the truck and landed on the other side of the road.

"What's left?" he asked, ducking back in.

I felt around in the pouches and began turning things out. Except for the knife, all I really had was lightweight stuff, like the tweezers, the fingerprint kit, the rolled-up garbage bag...

Shawn's eyes lit up as he snatched the black plastic bag and began shaking it open. He leaned out the driver's window and held the bag with both hands. Even at 35 miles an hour, there was plenty of air to fill that bag and it waved in the breeze like a giant black wind sock. I leaned out another window and kept blowing my whistle. A few seconds later, we heard the sudden whir of a downshifting engine and the tow truck quickly veered to the side of the road. "Yeah!" we shouted in unison, slapping each other five (it was a low five, of course, the high-five having not yet been invented).

And then the tow truck door opened and our pal Jack Lacey stepped out, our second stroke of luck. Although he probably didn't see it that way.

"What in--? What are you guys doing in there? It's against the law. You could have been hurt. If the sheriff had seen you, I'd be getting a ticket," he babbled as we got off the bus. He wasn't angry--I never saw Jack get angry at a kid--but he was definitely concerned.

Well, the events since we had first heard Melinda crying last Friday were just bursting to tell themselves to someone, and all at once Shawn and I were talking over each other in our haste to get it all out.

Jack stood there in the late afternoon sun on the edge of the road, his feed cap tilted up on his forehead, his face a study in bemused amazement as he soaked in our gabble.

"Well, I swan," he said, when we were finished. "You guys have had you a time, haintcha?" He looked at my hand. "And that there's the dog. Well..." he blew out a low whistle. "Well, you did a good thing, I guess." Suddenly, he looked at his watch. "I'd give you a ride back into town to return it, but I gotta get this bus up to KC and still come back tonight so's I can open up the garage in the morning."

"That's okay," said Shawn. "We can walk. And we have to stop back at the depot and get our books and stuff." Yikes. I was glad he remembered; in the excitement I had completely forgotten that we left it all by the fence.

Jack honked and waved as he pulled back onto the road and we headed back into town. Part of me wanted to go straight up to Melinda's and return the dog, but the depot was on the way. So we walked. And it was good that we did because along the way we retrieved my yo-yo, and the sad remains of the Sucrets box (mashed flat under the wheels of the bus, as it turned out). We never did recover the toy handcuffs.

In a short while, we were back to the rear access road of the depot, so we walked around the back way to the side of the fence where we left our stuff. The whole time, we were talking about what we'd done and how cool it would be to return the dog and maybe, at that point, remind Melinda that we were detectives for hire. I toyed briefly with the idea of holding onto the dog til morning, and then turning it over to Mr. Terry, the principal. I thought he might like to do the honors, with me and Shawn close by. Nothing fancy, just a small ceremony in the school gym. With the entire student body watching.

Our books and stuff were just where we left them. And so was my poor book bag, hung up on the barbed wire at the top of the fence (it's probably still there, for all I know). So we loaded all of our stuff into Shawn's bag, which was torn and missing its drawstring, but still serviceable. The whole time we did this, I could hear Fred barking on the other side of the fence.

"He's probably mad you got away," I said.

Shawn smiled thinly, not yet ready to laugh about his close call on the old bus. "Nah. He probably just wants the other can of food you left by the gate. We'll head back that way and toss it over for him." I knew Shawn loved animals, but I was amazed at how forgiving he was to a dog that had only a short while ago looked at him as a kind of dog food.

Then we rounded the corner towards the front of the lot and stopped dead in our tracks. We saw why Fred was barking, and it was trouble.

Or, as that old writer of Saturday-morning cliffhangers would have put it, it was just one more consequence we'd have to face for the choices we'd made that day.

Bruce Peavey and his big sister Dee Dee and two of their friends were standing at the gate.

Bruce was giving the chain-link gate a furious shake, which made Fred bark even louder. Then Bruce turned and saw us. Saw me. Saw what I had in my hand.

"GIMME THAT DOG!!" he yelled, and launched himself at me...


Sunday, March 13, 2005


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

From the Personnel Files of Detectives, Inc.
Job #1: Boy Detective

Dogs Distracted and Discovered

I fell over backwards in the dust and stared at the growling, slavering dog as he bounced off the chain link fence a couple of times, like he just couldn't wait to sink his teeth into my stringy shanks. He was a Doberman--a lot of folks had them, it seemed. I remember them being very popular in the 70s, probably because of those movies. But I hated them. The dogs, not the movies. Well, yeah, the movies too.

Okay, I didn't hate Dobermans. I was scared of them.

And this one had just proved why. Very sneaky and fast. Hadn't even heard him coming from the wooden side of the fence, where we couldn't see him. And now here he was with his muzzle peeled back, showing those big fricking teeth, all of which seemed to have my name on them. Even though the chain-link gate separated us, I was still nervous (can ya tell?). We backed away from the fence and he calmed down.

"That's Fred. He's not a real guard dog. He just looks scary," said Shawn, who loved dogs of all kinds. "He's Brian Vaughan's dog." Brian worked at the depot. Apparently so did Fred.

"Well, we're not going in now," I said. I felt like a wimp, but this wasn't fun any more. "Let's go home."

Shawn made a face when I said that. I remembered how much he hated going home, and I'm sure he was thinking about that and about how close we were. "Wait," he said. "How many nickels do we have left?"

I fished the Mobile Crime Lab out of my book bag and reflexively snapped it around my waist. I rummaged around in a pouch and came up with a handful of nickels, about 65 cents. Shawn held out his palm and I dropped them in. "I'll be right back. You watch and see if Brian or anyone else is still working in there. If they are, tell em you left something on the bus and see if you can get in." And then he ran off towards town. Shawn was the tallest kid in our class, had very long legs, and could run like anything.

I turned back to the fence. Fred had already lost interest and was trotting back towards the hut. I paced off the length of the fence there in the front, and as I got to the part where it changed from chain link to wood, I found a loose board near the bottom. I peered around to see where Fred was, then kicked at the board with my tennis shoe. It gave a little and I thought it could be pulled open enough that we could get through. From that spot, it was straight dash to the three buses. It would be a cinch, if not for the dog.

As I waited, I thought I could hear a faint clanking around from the maintenance hut on the far side of the yard. I thought about banging on the fence, but the hut was too far away, and my noise would only attract Fred.

Presently, Shawn returned, carrying two cans. I smiled.

"Strongheart dog food," he said. "Twenty-nine cents each. The cheapest the grocery had." I showed Shawn the loose board. He handed me the cans and gave me his most serious look. "I know you're scared of that dog--"

"I am NOT!"

"--so I'll go in. You go down by the gate and hold the can up to the fence. Let him eat it through the fence. While you're doing that, I'll sneak in here and go look in the bus. When I'm ready to come back, I'll wave and you can feed him the second can."

I was feeling less smug about my big deduction now. Shawn was the real brains of the outfit. He came up with these great plans, and all I could do was take notes and hold cans of dog food.

"You're so smart," I said, not even really meaning to utter the words, but being so overcome with admiration I couldn't help myself. Shawn, who was never good at taking compliments, reddened, then pointed at the cans. "Come on. Open em up."

I got out my Swiss Army knife--man, the Mobile Crime Lab sure was coming in handy!--and used the can opener. It was my first knife and I still felt awkward using it, so it took me an agonizing couple of minutes to seesaw my way around the tops of the cans. Which I regretted doing almost immediately as this smell like rotting carcasses wafted up from the lids.

"Yucka doodle!" I exclaimed. "This stinks."

Fred thought so too. He was back at the fence in a trice. I waggled one of the cans and led him over to the chain link gate. He growled a little at me, but his stubby tail was wriggling. He was no trained guard dog, that was for sure, and this cheap-ass stinky dog food was just too good to pass up. So I hunkered down and held the can up to the fence while he stuck his pink tongue through and began lapping at the food.

A few moments later, I saw Shawn on the other side running flat-out for the bus. He was running on the tips of his toes and barely made a sound. My heart was in my mouth the whole time, but in less time than it takes to type this he was inside the bus. For a second, I was elated. It had worked.

My glee faded fast. Now that Shawn had taken the real risk, I felt both ashamed of myself and a tad emboldened. If he could do it, why couldn't I?

But Fred had already sucked all the food out of the first can and was sniffing around at the second can tucked behind me. I had thought about winging that can over the fence and away from the buses. He'd chase it, and while he emptied that can I could slip in. Except...what then? How would we get out?

So I waited with the second can. The minutes ticked by with glacial slowness. Fred paced back and forth, licking his chops.

Finally the bus door opened. Shawn leaned out to wave...

...and hearing the squeak of the bus door, Fred turned in his direction. With a low growl, he bolted straight for Shawn. I called and waved the second can but it was too late.

(This would be a good spot to end and start a new chapter. If this was a book, I mean.)

(But since it's not, and it's a Sunday night, and since this has already gone way longer than I meant it to--and probably you wanted it to--we'll just keep going.)

(Feeling any suspense at all? Any?)

Now, if this were a kid's mystery story, this would be the inspirational moment where I would overcome my fear of the dog and slip in under the loose board and yell and holler and lead the dog away from the bus and save my best friend.

But there was no fucking way I was going in there.

All I could do was hop around on the other side of that fence and make pained faces--interspersed with dry-mouthed attempts to whistle for the damn dog.

Shawn ducked back inside the bus like a shot and I saw the door close. But for some reason it wasn't staying shut. Indeed, as soon as Fred reached the bus, he leapt up and pushed on the door with his front paws and it fell right open. The dog bolted inside and I could faintly hear my friend cry, "Whooooaaaahh!"

My face felt numb. I was sure that was the end of Shawn. There was quite a commotion inside. I could see dark forms moving around and the bus even shook a little.

And suddenly I saw the emergency door swing open at the back and Shawn was clambering up onto the roof of the bus! Fred leapt out the back onto the ground, barking now. Shawn looked a little disheveled, but he waved. I was never so relieved to see anyone in my life. I didn't even care that he didn't seem to be holding anything that looked like a stuffed dog.

He stood on the roof of the bus, panting. The he stood up straight. Something over by the maintenance hut had caught his attention. He turned and pointed.

I cupped my hands and yelled. "WHAT IS IT?"

"Bring the book bags and meet me over this side," he cried. Now he was pointing to the two dilapidated buses next to the one he was on. The very last of these buses was parked right next to the fence on that side. I grabbed the bags and ran around the corner.

There was a slope on this side of the motor depot and the fence--all wood on this side--was much taller. I called out that I was there and heard a strange metal "ba-bonk" sound several times and I realized Shawn was jumping from one bus roof to the next, something I didn't think I would have the balls to do (I hated heights, as well as Dobermans). In a moment, he peered over the barbed wire at the top of the fence. He seemed impossibly high above me.

"Empty our book bags," he said. "Hurry."

Our book bags were just that: canvas bags with drawstring tops. I dumped them both out and tossed them up one at a time. It took a couple tries but I finally got them up to him. He pulled the drawstring tight on his and looped the string once around the barbed wire, knotted it and let it fall on my side of the fence so that the bag was dangling above me. My bag was made of a little thicker material and had a waterproof rubber lining inside, so he laid this one over the barbed wire and, ever so slowly, eased himself onto the bag. Then he swung down and grabbed his dangling bookbag. There was a sproinging sound as the barbed wire tightened from his weight, and a slight ripping sound, but he was already swinging freely, about two feet above my head.

"I'll catch you," I said, and raised my arms. He let go and I steadied him as he slid the rest of the way down the wall. At the last second, the bag tore free in his hands and then he was on the ground.

"Thanks," he said, and I saw he was shaking a little.

"You okay?" I asked. He nodded, catching his breath. "But no dog, huh?" I asked. Hey, I never said I was Mr. Sensitive.

"No," he said, suddenly invigorated. "That wasn't the bus, just another lookalike. But once I was on the roof, I saw something over behind the hut. Come on!" We left his ripped bag and the contents of both our book bags there and ran.

Of course, real detectives would have completely cased the whole place before doing what we did. And had we done that, we'd have saved ourselves quite a bit of effort (not to mention 58 cents for the dog food). We also would have discovered an interesting sight around to the back of the depot, where there was a short access road that led to a garage door mounted in the back of the service hut.

For there, on our side of the fence, hooked to the back of a tow truck, was a bus with a #4 on the fender.

We were too excited to kick ourselves for all the trouble we had gone to. No one was around and the hut seemed shut tight so we ran right for the bus. We both pushed and finally the door folded open.

"In the back," I said, remembering that Bruce and his sister had been close enough to the exit door to open it and jump out. We stopped about 6 seats back from the tail of the bus and started looking, me on one side, Shawn on the other.

The sun was low in the sky now and in the shadow of the hut the interior of the bus was dark (and it was then I made a mental note to ask my parents for a mini-flashlight for my birthday. Who has a Mobile Crime Lab with no flashlight? Tweezers? Bubble gum? Yo-yos? Check, check and check. Flashlight? Duhhh...) We both had to feel along the seats and on the floor, not trusting our eyes in the dim light. Petrified gum, used Kleenex, bits of detritus I had convinced myself were dried boogers--we felt all of it as we wedged our hands down under the seat cushions.

In the second-to-last seat, I jammed my hand down behind the cushion and hit something soft. I felt it pop out through the back. I leaned over the back of the seat and there on the floor was the dog.

"I GOT IT!" I yelled, diving over the back. I hit the floor, skinned my elbow on a metal seat edge and came up triumphantly holding that stuffed dog. He was a little brown dog with what looked like some kinda red chunk of meat in his mouth (I was informed later this was a heart). Maybe not so cute up close, but right then he looked pretty good to me. Shawn let out a yell and we jumped up and down like idiots for a second.

Then we heard the clunk of a door and the start of an engine. We turned and looked way down through the front window and could see someone behind the wheel of the tow truck. Suddenly the whole bus lurched and since we were already on an angle, we tumbled over easily.

Still clutching the dog in one hand, I hauled myself up as the tow truck pulled us forward to the main road. Shawn popped up and looked out the window as the last of the depot fence flashed past.

"Oh my gosh!" he said. "We're going to Kansas City!"


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