Saturday, March 12, 2005


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #1: Boy Detective
A Matter of Principal

If you've ever spent an afternoon with a riddle book, you may have noticed that your mind starts to work a certain way, starts to get into the groove of riddling and it becomes a little bit easier. Well, it does for me anyway.

It's the same thing with reading mystery stories. Steep yourself in them enough and your mind will start working in that groove. Trying to anticipate twists and turns, trying to figure out what information has been left out, trying to get into the heads of others.

I couldn't have explained it in those terms then, but even though we knew this case was open-and-shut, we still promised Melinda we'd investigate what I was already thinking of as The Case of the Stolen Stuffed Dog (not that she asked us to. Moreover, neither of us quite had the nerve to ask for our 50 cents per day fee. What if she'd said no?).

As soon as one of the bigger girls who'd been comforting her walked her home, I turned to Shawn.

"If Bruce really took that dog, Mr. Terry is gonna cream him on Monday. He'll probably get suspended," I said, with a certain undisguised enthusiasm.

This made Shawn come over all thoughtful. "Yeah. And he's been in trouble a lot. Kinda stupid to take the dog. That just makes it worse."

"Well, no duh," I said. "He IS an idiot."

"Yeah, but...maybe he got rid of it," Shawn said, suddenly looking around the schoolyard.

So we retraced his steps, from where the back of Cecil's bus would have been all the way across the schoolyard, on into the bushes that separated the school from the ball field behind it. Heavens, but we found a lot of crap in those bushes. Alas, no dog. Then we looked in all the trash barrels around the school, and even in the Dumpster in back. Nothing.

It was getting late and our friends were well into the game out on the field, so we decided to give up and go play.

Monday, though, was a whole different ball game.

We knew something was up right away when we students got off the two buses and saw Mr. Terry, the school principal, waiting at the door with a tight, thin-lipped expression.

"Sixth graders, put your things away then go straight to your classroom!" he shouted. Shawn and I shared a locker, where we threw our books and shucked our coats. I carefully set my book bag on a top shelf, since it contained the Mobile Crime Lab (Did you think I actually wore it to class? How big a goof do you think I am? No, don't answer).

Once in class, we got an earful from Mr. Terry about the MS Readathon and school spirit and how we should look up to classmates who excel in such things and make the school look good. People shouldn't be teasing them and making fun of them. And they especially shouldn't take things that don't belong to them. For most of the speech, he was looking at Melinda, but at this last part, he suddenly arrowed a look at Bruce Peavey, and I knew he was in for it.

Mr. Terry wasn't too bad as principals go. He was generally decent to the kids, but he could be a little too involved with stuff the kids were doing and instead of letting us sort things out (or in this case, giving a certain detective agency a chance to solve the crime), he had a tendency to step in and try to "solve" things. Sometimes this led to some questionable policies, as when he insisted that everyone who took home economics (which boiled down to learning how to cook) be partnered up boy-girl, instead of letting students pair off for projects with their best friends, which were invariably people of the same gender. Enforcing coed home ec gave the class stability, he said. And I suppose that in general it did keep boys from throwing dough at each other or lighting their farts over the gas stove burners, but it was a bit of a goofy (and sexist) policy.

Mr. Terry wasn't quite done with talking to our class. He announced he was going to change the seating chart on the bus. Yes, each bus had an assigned seating system, another one of his policies, but at least we had some say in where we sat (For example, Shawn and I sat together on our bus). Mr. Terry announced that Melinda was going to be moved from Bus #4 (unlike us kids, he referred to the buses by the numbers painted on the fender, not by the driver) to Bus #6, Hayward's bus, which Shawn and I rode. But since the buses were full, he needed a volunteer to switch places with Melinda and ride Cecil's bus.

Almost instantly, Shawn's hand shot up. "I'll do it." He said. My jaw dropped in surprise, but Mr. Terry nodded and that was that.

"What'd you do that for?" I hissed.

He looked at me. "I can keep an eye on Bruce and his sister, maybe listen in on them. I can interview other kids who maybe saw what they did with the dog."

I'm sure I had a pained expression. "Yeah, but Mr. Terry's probably gonna make him give it back anyway. And now you're gonna have to ride Cecil's bus for the rest of the year." Then an even worse horror dawned on me. "And I'LL have to sit with Melinda!!!"

Shawn made a kind of uh-oh-didn't-think-that-one-through face. Then he shrugged. "Oh well. It's only another month or so till the year ends."

While I was mulling this over, Mr. Terry pointed at Bruce and said, "In my office." And off they went. I waited what seemed like a reasonable interval (about 60 seconds) after they left the room, then raised my hand and asked to go to the bathroom.

Quick layout note: Our school was one of your basic, one-story municipal buildings, not much more than a long corridor of classrooms, with a cafeteria at one end and a gymnasium at the other. In the middle, there was a kind of core atrium area where the school secretary sat behind an open desk. Behind her was the principal's office and the teacher's lounge. The bathrooms were on either side of her desk. And the boys' room was on the side closest to the principal's office.

I thought maybe I could overhear what was going on by listening through the air vent in the boys' room, which probably wouldn't have worked (what kind of sick engineer would design a school so that the principal's office had a direct ventilation connection to the boys' bathroom?). But I wouldn't find out one way or the other because when I stepped out into the hall, here came Mr. Terry, storming down the hall to the entrance where the buses dropped us off. Mr. Cecil and Mr. Hayward hadn't left yet--they sometimes sat in the cafeteria and split a Thermos of coffee. Mr. Terry blew right by them and on outside. You might think it odd that he wouldn't speak to the drivers or ask them any questions about what had happened, but that's because the bus drivers were more than a little cool towards Mr. Terry. They didn't like the way he imposed his little seating chart on their buses, and he knew it, so they tended to ignore each other. In the distance, I watched him climb aboard Cecil's bus. I knew I couldn't stay in the hall forever, so I headed to the bathroom.

On the way past the secretary's desk, I saw Bruce and his sister Dee Dee (who had evidently been pulled out of her class) sitting in two plastic chairs outside the principal's office.

"What are you looking at, four eyes?" Dee Dee demanded in her high, squeaky voice. I ignored her and looked at Bruce, who looked good and worried.

"You told him you left the dog on the bus," I said, suddenly understanding Mr. Terry's trip outside.

Bruce wrinkled his nose at me. "I DID leave it. I told him I just stuffed it down the seat before we got off. I was just funnin' with Melinda, pretending I took it. Now he's gonna suspend me if he don't find it."

"Doesn't find it," the secretary corrected, then gave me the don't-you-have-somewhere-to-be look, so I moved on to the bathroom.

I took as long as an 11-year-old boy can possibly take to use the bathroom, long enough for Mr. Terry to come back, and long enough to hear Bruce make an aggrieved howl and Dee Dee to start in on some seriously squeaky bitching, which made it clear that the principal hadn't found anything on the bus.

"I don't want excuses. You took something that wasn't yours and I expect you to return it to me by this time tomorrow morning. Otherwise, you're out of here! Both of you!" he bellowed.

After that morning of excitement, the rest of the day was pretty uneventful. I couldn't help but notice how despondent Bruce was. He was a young asshole, to be sure, and I wouldn't have put it past him to steal Melinda's stuffed dog. But I couldn't shake the idea that maybe he was telling the truth. Bruce had been in enough trouble over the school year, and I had observed that when he was caught, he generally fessed up to what he had done (like the time he put chalk in our teacher's coffee). Indeed, he seemed to take a certain pride in his antics.

Okay, so...if he didn't take the dog, then where is it? I thought. Mr. Terry didn't find it on the bus.

I thought about the possibilities all the way home that afternoon, which helped take my mind off the fact that I was now sharing a seat with Melinda, who looked as mournful about the whole thing as I felt. As we rumbled down the road, I could see Cecil's bus behind us. Shawn was back there too, but of course I couldn't see him.

I thought back to the previous Friday. Mr. Cecil would have taken the bus back to the motor depot, parked it behind the gate, locked up, and left for the weekend. Would he have found the dog? I didn't think so, but if he did he probably would have left it on the bus. I remembered the time Shawn had left his scarf behind one winter day, and it was still lying in our assigned seat when we got on the bus the next morning. Still, I'd have to talk to Mr. Cecil about it when we got back to town.

By now our bus had reached a long, straight stretch of road. It was a warm afternoon, and I guess Mr. Cecil was feeling a little spring fever, because all of a sudden he accelerated up behind us and when he was sure the lane was clear he passed our bus. We kids all waved and yelled. The drivers beeped at each other. I caught a glimpse of Shawn giving me a quick salute, and with a throaty roar, Cecil's bus zoomed by and pulled into the lane ahead of us.

And that's when it hit me.

As soon as we pulled to the curb near the old school, I practically shoved kids out of the way to be the first off the bus. Most of the kids were already off Cecil's bus and I wanted to catch the driver before he left. In my haste, I ran right by Shawn, who reached out a lanky arm and snagged me.

"What is it?" he asked.

"I gotta ask Mr. Cecil something," I said. "But I think I know where that dog is!"

Now if this were a real kid's mystery story, this would be the part in the book where you'd see the words



Cecil got a new bus! The other bus was spewing and sputtering and breaking down. It wouldn't have been able to pass Hayward's bus -- but his new, efficient, streamlined bus could zoom down the road!

The dog was still on the old bus.

Am I right???
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