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...


It's a good thing you didn't throw that Swiss Army Knife - I have a feeling it's going to come in handy!
This is the point in the story where I feel compelled to shout, "Run away! Run away!" in montypythonesque fashion.
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