CHAPTER 6

Al Lathrop was still thumbing through his textbook samples and pretending he was too busy to talk to me when the intercom on Miss Marble’s desk buzzed, and she smiled at me as if we had a great and sexy secret. “You can go in now, Charlie.”

I got up. “Sell those textbooks, Al.”

He gave me a quick, nervous, insincere smile. “I sure will, uh, Charlie.”

I went through the slatted gate, past the big safe set into the wall on the right and Miss Marble’s cluttered desk on the left. Straight ahead was a door with a frosted glass pane. THOMAS DENVER PRINCIPAL was lettered on the glass. I walked in.

Mr. Denver was looking at The Bugle, the school rag. He was a tall, cadaverous man whg looked something like John Carradine. He was bald and skinny. His hands were long and full of knuckles. His tie was pulled down, and the top button of his shirt was undone. The skin on his throat looked grizzled and irritated from overshaving.

“Sit down, Charlie.”

I sat down and folded my hands. I’m a great old hand-folder. It’s a trick I picked up from my father. Through the window behind Mr. Denver I could see the lawn, but not the fearless way it grew right up to the building. I was too high, and it was too bad. It might have helped, like a night-light when you are small.

Mr. Denver put The Bugle down and leaned back in his chair. “Kind of hard to see that way, isn’t it?” He grunted. Mr. Denver was a crackerjack grunter. If there was a National Grunting Bee, I would put all my money on Mr. Denver. I brushed my hair away from my eyes.

There was a picture of Mr. Denver’s family on his desk, which was even more cluttered than Miss Marble’s. The family looked well-fed and well-adjusted. His wife was sort of porky, but the two kids were as cute as buttons and didn’t look a bit like John Carradine. Two little girls, both blond.

“Don Grace has finished his report, and I’ve had it since last Thursday, considering his conclusions and his recommendations as carefully as I can. We all appreciate the seriousness of this matter, and I’ve taken the liberty of discussing the whole thing with John Carlson, also.”

“How is he?” I asked.

“Pretty well. He’ll be back in a month, I should think.”

“Well, that’s something.”

“It is?” He blinked at me very quickly, the way lizards do.

“I didn’t kill him. That’s something.”

“Yes.” Mr. Denver looked at me steadily. “Do you wish you had?”

“No.”

He leaned forward, drew his chair up to his desk, looked at me, shook his head, and began, “I’m very puzzled when I have to speak the way I’m about to speak to you, Charlie. Puzzled and sad. I’ve been in the kid business since 1947, and I still can’t understand these things. I feel what I have to say to you is right and necessary, but it also makes me unhappy. Because I still can’t understand why a thing like this happens. In 1959 we had a very bright boy here who beat a junior-high-school girl quite badly with a baseball bat. Eventually we had to send him to South Portland Correctional Institute. All he could say was that she wouldn’t go out with him. Then he would smile.” Mr. Denver shook his head.

“Don’t bother.”

“What?”

“Don’t bother trying to understand. Don’t lose any sleep over it.”

“But why, Charlie? Why did you do that? My God, he was on an operating table for nearly four hours-”

“Why is Mr. Grace’s question,” I said. “He’s the school shrink. You, you only ask it because it makes a nice lead-in to your sermon. I don’t want to listen to any more sermons. They don’t mean shit to me. It’s over. He was going to live or die. He lived. I’m glad. You do what you have to do. What you and Mr. Grace decided to do. But don’t you try to understand me.”

“Charlie, understanding is part of my job.”

“But helping you do your job isn’t part of mine,” I said. “So let me tell you one thing. To sort of help open the lines of communication, okay?”

“Okay…”

I held my hands tightly in my lap. They were trembling. “I’m sick of you and Mr. Grace and all the rest of you. You used to make me afraid and you still make me afraid but now you make me tired too, and I’ve decided I don’t have to put up with that. The way I am, I can’t put up with that. What you think doesn’t mean anything to me. You’re not qualified to deal with me. So just stand back. I’m warning you. You’re not qualified.”

My voice had risen to a trembling near-shout.

Mr. Denver sighed.

“So you may think, Charlie. But the laws of the state say otherwise. After having read Mr. Grace’s report, I think I agree with him that you don’t understand yourself or the consequences of what you did in Mr. Carlson’s classroom. You are disturbed, Charlie.”

You are disturbed, Charlie.

The Cherokees used to slit their noses… so everyone in the tribe could see what part of them got them in trouble.

The words echoed greenly in my head, as if at great depths. They were shark words at deep fathoms, jaws words come to gobble me. Words with teeth and eyes.

This is where I started to get it on. I knew it, because the same thing that happened just before I gave Mr. Carlson the business was happening now. My hands stopped shaking. My stomach flutters subsided, and my whole middle felt cool and calm. I felt detached, not only from Mr. Denver and his overshaved neck, but from myself. I could almost float.

Mr. Denver had gone on, something about proper counseling and psychiatric help, but I interrupted him. “Mr. Man, you can go straight to hell.”

He stopped and put down the paper he had been looking at so he wouldn’t have to look at me. Something from my file, no doubt. The almighty file. The Great American File.

What?” he said.

“In hell. Judge not, lest ye be judged. Any insanity in your family, Mr. Denver?”

“I’ll discuss this with you, Charlie,” he said tightly. “I won’t engage in-”

“… immoral sex practices,” I finished for him. “Just you and me, okay? First one to jack off wins the Putnam Good Fellowship Award. Fill yore hand, pardner. Get Mr. Grace in here, that’s even better. We’ll have a circle jerk.”

“Wh-“

“Don’t you get the message? You have to pull it out sometime, right? You owe it to yourself, right? Everybody has to get it on, everybody has to have someone to jack off on. You’ve already set yourself up as Judge of What’s Right for Me. Devils. Demon possession. Why did I hit dat girl wit dat ball bat, Lawd, Lawd? De debbil made me do it, and I’m so saw-ry. Why don’t you admit it? You get a kick out of peddling my flesh. I’m the best thing that’s happened to you since 1959.”

He was gawping at me openly. I had him by the short hair, knew it, was savagely proud of it. On the one hand, he wanted to humor me, go along with me, because after all, isn’t that what you do with disturbed people? On the other hand, he was in the kid business, just like he told me, and Rule One in the kid business is: Don’t Let ’em Give You No Lip-be fast with the command and the snappy comeback.

“Charlie-”

“Don’t bother. I’m trying to tell you I’m tired of being masturbated on. Be a man, for God’s sake, Mr. Denver. And if you can’t be a man, at least pull up your pants and be a principal.”

“Shut up,” he grunted. His face had gone bright red. “You’re just pretty damn lucky you live in a progressive state and go to a progressive school, young man. You know where you’d be otherwise? Peddling your papers in a reformatory somewhere, serving a term for criminal assault. I’m not sure you don’t belong there anyway. You-”

“Thank you,” I said.

He stared at me, his angry blue eyes fixed on mine.

“For treating me like a human being even if I had to piss you off to do it. That’s real progress.” I crossed my legs, being nonchalant. “Want to talk about the panty raids you made the scene at while you were at Big U learning the kid business?”

“Your mouth is filthy,” he said deliberately. “And so is your mind.”

“Fuck you,” I said, and laughed at him.

He went an even deeper shade of scarlet and stood up. He reached slowly over the desk, slowly, slowly, as if he needed oiling, and bunched the shoulder of my shirt in his hand. “You show some respect,” he said. He had really blown his cool and was not even bothering to use that really first-class grunt. “You rotten little punk, you show me some respect.”

“I could show you my ass and you’d kiss it,” I said. “Go on and tell me about the panty raids. You’ll feel better. Throw us your panties! Throw us your panties!”

He let go of me, holding his hand away from his body as if a rabid dog had just pooped on it. “Get out,” he said hoarsely. “Get your books, turn them in here, and then get out. Your expulsion and transfer to Greenmantle Academy is effective as of Monday. I’ll talk to your parents on the telephone. Now get out. I don’t want to have to look at you.”

I got up, unbuttoned the two bottom buttons on my shirt, pulled the tail out on one side, and unzipped my fly. Before he could move, I tore open the door and staggered into the outer office. Miss Marble and Al Lathrop were conferring at her desk, and they both looked up and winced when they saw me. They had obviously both been playing the great American parlor game of We Don’t Really Hear Them, Do We?

“You better get to him,” I panted. “We were sitting there talking about panty raids and he just jumped over his desk and tried to rape me.”

I’d pushed him over the edge, no mean feat, considering he’d been in the kid business for twenty-nine years and was probably only ten away from getting his gold key to the downstairs crapper. He lunged at me through the door; I danced away from him and he stood there looking furious, silly, and guilty all at once.

“Get somebody to take care of him,” I said. “He’ll be sweeter after he gets it out of his system.” I looked at Mr. Denver, winked, and whispered, “Throw us your panties, right?”

Then I pushed out through the slatted rail and walked slowly out the office door, buttoning my shirt and tucking it in, zipping my fly. There was plenty of time for him to say something, but he didn’t say a word.

That’s when it really got rolling, because all at once I knew he couldn’t say a word. He was great at announcing the day’s hot lunch over the intercom, but this was a different thing joyously different. I had confronted him with exactly what he said was wrong with me, and he hadn’t been able to cope with that. Maybe he expected us to smile and shake hands and conclude my seven-and-one-half-semester stay at Placerville High with a literary critique of The Bugle. But in spite of everything, Mr. Carlson and all the rest, he hadn’t really expected any irrational act. Those things were all meant for the closet, rolled up beside those nasty magazines you never show your wife. He was standing back there, vocal cords frozen, not a word left in his mind to say. None of his instructors in Dealing with the Disturbed Child, EdB-211, had ever told him he might someday have to deal with a student who would attack him on a personal level.

And pretty quick he was going to be mad. That made him dangerous. Who knew better than me? I was going to have to protect myself. I was ready, and had been ever since I decided that people might-just might, mind you-be following me around and checking up.

I gave him every chance.

I waited for him to charge out and grab me, all the way to the staircase. I didn’t want salvation. I was either past that point or never reached it. All I wanted was recognition… or maybe for someone to draw a yellow plague circle around my feet.

He didn’t come out.

And when he didn’t, I went ahead and got it on.

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