CHAPTER 21

Three more state-police cars came, and also a number of citizens from town. The cops tried to shoo them away, with greater or lesser degrees of success. Mr. Frankel, owner and proprietor of Frankel’s Jewelry Store amp; Camera Shop, drove up in his new Pontiac Firebird and jawed for quite a while with Jerry Kesserling. He pushed his horn-rimmed glasses up on his nose constantly as he talked. Jerry was trying to get rid of him, but Mr. Frankel wasn’t having any of it. He was also Placerville’s second selectman and a crony of Norman Jones, Ted’s father.

“My mother got me a ring in his store,” Sarah Pasterne said, looking at Ted from the corner of her eye. “It greened my finger the first day.”

“My mother says he’s a gyp,” Tanis said.

“Hey!” Pig Pen gulped. “There’s my mother!”

We all looked. Sure enough, there was Mrs. Dano talking with one of the state troopers, her slip hanging a quarter of an inch below the hem of her dress. She was one of those ladies who do fifty percent of their talking with their hands. They fluttered and whipped like flags, and it made me think of autumn Saturdays on the gridiron, somehow: holding… clipping… illegal tackle. I guess in this case you’d have to say it was illegal holding.

We all knew her by sight as well as by reputation; she headed up a lot of PTA functions and was a member in good standing of the Mothers Club. Go out to a baked-bean supper to benefit the class trip, or to the Sadie Hawkins dance in the gym, or to the senior outing, and you’d be apt to find Mrs. Dano at the door, ready with the old glad hand, grinning like there was no tomorrow, and collecting bits of information the way frogs catch flies.

Pig Pen shifted nervously in his seat, as if he might have to go to the bathroom.

“Hey, Pen, your mudda’s callin’,” Jack Goldman intoned from the back of the room.

“Let her call,” Pig Pen muttered.

The Pen had an older sister, Lilly Dano, who was a senior when we were all freshmen. She had a face that looked a lot like Pig Pen’s, which made her nobody’s candidate for Teen Queen. A hook-nosed junior named LaFollet St. Armand began squiring her about, and then knocked her up higher than a kite. LaFollet joined the Marines, where they presumably taught him the difference between his rifle and his gun-which was for shooting and which was for fun. Mrs. Dano appeared at no PTA functions for the next two months. Lilly was packed off to an aunt in Boxford, Massachusetts. Shortly after that, Mrs. Dano returned to the same old stand, grinning harder than ever. It’s a small-town classic, friends.

“She must be really worried about you,” Carol Granger said.

“Who cares?” Pig Pen asked indifferently. Sylvia Ragan smiled at him. Pig Pen blushed.

Nobody said anything for a while. We watched the townspeople mill around beyond the bright yellow crash barricades that were going up. I saw some other mums and dads among them. I didn’t see Sandra’s mother and father, and I didn’t see big Joe McKennedy. Hey, I didn’t really expect he’d show up, anyway. Circuses have never been our style.

A newsmobile from WGAN-TV pulled up. One of the guys got out, patting his process neatly into place, and jawed with a cop. The cop pointed across the road. The guy with the process went back to the newsmobile, and two more guys got out and started unloading camera equipment.

“Anybody here got a transistor radio?” I asked.

Three of them raised hands. Corky’s was the biggest, a Sony twelve transistor that he carried in his briefcase. It got six bands, including TV, shortwave, and CB. He put it on his desk and turned it on. We were just in time for the ten-o’clock report:

“Topping the headlines, a Placerville High School senior, Charles Everett Decker…”

“Everett!” Somebody snickered.

“Shut up,” Ted said curtly.

Pat Fitzgerald stuck out his tongue.

“… apparently went berserk early this morning and is now holding twenty-four classmates hostage in a classroom of that high school. One person, Peter Vance, thirty-seven, a history teacher at Placerville, is known dead. Another teacher, Mrs. Jean Underwood, also thirty-seven, is feared dead. Decker has commandeered the intercom system and has communicated twice with school authorities. The list of hostages is as follows…”

He read down the class list as I had given it to Tom Denver. “I’m on the radio!” Nancy Caskin exclaimed when they reached her name. She blinked and smiled tentatively. Melvin Thomas whistled. Nancy colored and told him to shut up.

“… and George Yannick. Frank Philbrick, head of the Maine State Police, has asked that all friends and family stay away from the scene. Decker is presumed dangerous, and Philbrick emphasized that nobody knows at this time what might set him off. ‘We have to assume that the boy is still on a hair trigger,’ Philbrick said.”

“Want to pull my trigger?” I asked Sylvia.

“Is your safety on?” she asked right back, and the class roared. Anne Lasky laughed with her hands over her mouth, blushing a deep bright red. Ted Jones, our practicing party poop, scowled.

“… Grace, Placerville’s psychiatrist and guidance counselor, talked to Decker over the intercom system only minutes ago. Grace told reporters that Decker threatened to kill someone in the classroom if Grace did not leave the upstairs office immediately.”

“Liar!” Grace Stanner said musically. Irma jumped a little.

“Who does he think he is?” Melvin asked angrily. “Does he think he can get away with that shit?”

“… also said that he considers Decker to be a schizophrenic personality, possibly past the point of anything other than borderline rationality. Grace concluded his hurried remarks by saying: ‘At this point, Charles Decker might conceivably do anything.’ Police from the surrounding towns of…”

“Whatta crocka shit!” Sylvia blared. “I’m gonna tell those guys what really went down with that guy when we get outta here! I’m gonna-”

“Shut up and listen!” Dick Keene snapped at her.

“… and Lewiston have been summoned to the scene. At this moment, according to Captain Philbrick, the situation is at an impasse. Decker has sworn to kill if tear gas is used, and with the lives of twenty-four children at stake…”

Children,” Pig Pen said suddenly. “Children this and children that. They stabbed you in the back, Charlie. Already. Children. Ha. Shit. What do they think is happening? I-”

“He’s saying something about-” Corky began.

“Never mind. Turn it off,” I said. “This sounds more interesting.” I fixed the Pen with my best steely gaze. “What seems to be on yore mind, pal?”

Pig Pen jerked his thumb at Irma. “She thinks she’s got it bad,” he said. “Her. Heh.” He laughed a sudden, erratic laugh. For no particular reason I could make out, he removed a pencil from his breast pocket and looked at it. It was a purple pencil.

“Be-Bop pencil,” Pig Pen said. “Cheapest pencils on the face of the earth, that’s what I think. Can’t sharpen ’em at all. Lead breaks. Every September since I started first grade Ma comes home from the Mammoth Mart with two hundred Be-Bop pencils in a plastic box. And I use ’em, Jesus.”

He snapped his purple pencil between his thumbs and stared at it. To tell the truth, I did think it looked like a pretty cheap pencil. I’ve always used the Eberhard Faber myself.

“Ma,” Pig Pen said. “That’s Ma for you. Two hundred Be-Bop pencils in a plastic box. You know what her big thing is? Besides all those shitty suppers where they give you a big plate of Hamburger Helper and a paper cup of orange Jell-O full of grated carrots? Huh? She enters contests. That’s her hobby. Hundreds of contests. All the time. She subscribes to all the women’s magazines and enters the sweepstakes. Why she likes Rinso for all her dainty things in twenty-five words or less. My sister had a kitten once, and Ma wouldn’t even let her keep it.”

“She the one who got pregnant?” Corky asked.

“Wouldn’t even let her keep it,” Pig Pen said. “Drownded it in the bathtub when no one would take it. Lilly begged her to at least take it to the vet so it could have gas, and Ma said four bucks for gas was too much to spend on a worthless kitten.”

“Oh, poor thing,” Susan Brooks said.

“I swear to God, she did it right in the bathtub. All those goddamn pencils. Will she buy me a new shirt? Huh? Maybe for my birthday. I say, ’ma, you should hear what the kids call me. Ma, for Lord’s sake. I don’t even get an allowance, she says she needs it for postage so she can enter her contests. A new shirt for my birthday and a shitload of Be-Bop pencils in a plastic box to take back to school. I tried to get a paper route once, and she put a stop to that. She said there were women of loose virtue who laid in wait for young boys after their husbands went to work.”

“Oh, my Gawwd!” Sylvia bellowed.

“And contests. And PTA suppers. And chaperoning dances. Grabbing on to everybody. Sucking up to them and grinning.”

He looked at me and smiled the oddest smile I had seen all day. And that was going some.

“You know what she said when Lilly had to go away? She said I’d have to sell my car. That old Dodge my uncle gave me when I got my driver’s license. I said I wouldn’t. I said Uncle Fred gave it to me and I was going to keep it. She said if I wouldn’t sell it, she would. She’d signed all the papers, and legally it was hers. She said I wasn’t going to get any girl pregnant in the back seat. Me. Get a girl pregnant in the back seat. That’s what she said.”

He brandished a broken pencil half. The lead poked out of the wood like a black bone. “Me. Hah. The last date I had was for the eighth-grade class picnic. I told Ma I wouldn’t sell the Dodge. She said I would. I ended up selling it. I knew I would. I can’t fight her. She always knows what to say. You start giving her a reason why you can’t sell your car, and she says: ‘Then how come you stay in the bathroom so long?’ Right off the wall. You’re talking about the car, and she’s talking about the bathroom. Like you’re doing something dirty in there. She grinds you.” He stared out the window. Mrs. Dano was no longer in sight. “She grinds and grinds and grinds, and she always beats you. Be-Bop pencils that break every time you try to sharpen them. That’s how she beats you. That’s how she grinds you down. And she’s so mean and stupid, she drownded the kitty, just a little kitty, and she’s so stupid that you know everybody laughs at her behind her back. So what does that make me? Littler and stupider. After a while you feel just like a little kitty that crawled into a plastic box full of Be-Bop pencils and got brought home by mistake.” The room was dead quiet. Pig Pen had center stage. I don’t think he knew it. He looked grubby and pissed off, fists clenched around his broken pencil halves. Outside, a cop had driven a police cruiser onto the lawn. He parked it parallel to the school, and a few more cops ran down behind it, presumably to do secret things. They had riot guns in their hands. “I don’t think I’d mind if she snuffed it,” Pig Pen said, grinning a small, horrified grin. “I wish I had your stick, Charlie. If I had your stick, I think I’d kill her myself.”

“You’re crazy, too,” Ted said worriedly. “God, you’re all going crazy right along with him.”

“Don’t be such a creep, Ted.” It was Carol Granger. In a way, it was surprising not to find her on Ted’s side. I knew he had taken her out a few times before she started with her current steady, and bright establishment types usually stick together. Still, it had been she who had dropped him. To make a very clumsy analogy, I was beginning to suspect that Ted was to my classmates what Eisenhower must always have been to the dedicated liberals of the fifties-you had to like him, that style, that grin, that record, those good intentions, but there was something exasperating and a tiny bit slimy about him. You can see I’m fixated on Ted…

Why not? I’m still trying to figure him out. Sometimes it seems that everything that happened on that long morning is just something I imagined, or some half-baked writer’s fantasy. But it did happen. And sometimes, now, it seems to me that Ted was at the center of it all, not me. It seems that Ted goaded them all into people they were not… or into the people they really were. All I know for sure is that Carol was looking at him defiantly, not like a demure valedictorian-to-be due to speak on the problems of the black race. She looked angry and a wee bit cruel.

When I think about the Eisenhower administration, I think about the U-2 incident. When I think about that funny morning, I think about the sweat patches that were slowly spreading under the arms of Ted’s khaki shirt.

“When they drag him off, they won’t find anything but nut cases,” Ted was saying. He looked mistrustfully at Pig Pen, who was glaring sweatily at the halves of his Be-Bop pencil as if they were the only things left in the world. His neck was grimy, but what the hell. Nobody was talking about his neck.

“They grind you down,” he whispered. He threw the pencil halves on the floor. He looked at them, then looked up at me. His face was strange and grief-stunned. It made me uncomfortable. “They’ll grind you down, too, Charlie. Wait and see if they don’t.”

There was an uncomfortable silence in the room. I was holding on to the pistol very tightly. Without thinking about it much, I took out the box of shells and put three of them in, filling the magazine again. The handgrip was sweaty. I suddenly realized I had been holding it by the barrel, pointing it at myself, not looking at them. No one had made a break. Ted was sort of hunched over his desk, hands gripping the edge, but he hadn’t moved, except in his head. I suddenly thought that touching his skin would be like touching an alligator handbag. I wondered if Carol had ever kissed him, touched him. Probably had. The thought made me want to puke.

Susan Brooks suddenly burst into tears.

Nobody looked at her. I looked at them, and they looked at me. I had been holding the pistol by the barrel. They knew it. They had seen it.

I moved my feet, and one of them kicked Mrs. Underwood. I looked down at her. She had been wearing a casual tartan coat over a brown cashmere sweater. She was beginning to stiffen. Her skin probably felt like an alligator handbag. Rigor, you know. I had left a footmark on her sweater at some point in time. For some reason, that made me think of a picture I had once seen of Ernest Hemingway, standing with one foot on a dead lion and a rifle in his hand and half a dozen grinning black bearers in the background. I suddenly needed to scream. I had taken her life, I had snuffed her, put a bullet in her head and spilled out algebra.

Susan Brooks had put her head down on her desk, the way they used to make us do in kindergarten when it was nap time. She was wearing a powder-blue scarf in her hair. It looked very pretty. My stomach hurt.

“DECKER!”

I cried out and jerked the pistol around toward the windows. It was a state trooper with a battery-powered bullhorn. Up on the hill, the newsmen were grinding away with their cameras. Just grinding away-Pig Pen hadn’t been so far wrong, at that.

“COME OUT, DECKER, WITH YOUR HANDS UP!”

“Let me be,” I said.

My hands had begun to tremble. My stomach really did hurt. I’ve always had a lousy stomach. Sometimes I’d get the dry heaves before I went to school in the morning, or when I was taking a girl out for the first time. Once, Joe and I took a couple of girls down to Harrison State Park. It was July, warm and very beautiful. The sky had a dim, very high haze. The girl I was with was named Annmarie. She spelled it all one name. She was very pretty. She wore dark green corduroy shorts and a silk pullover blouse. She had a beach bag. We were going down Route 1 toward Bath, the radio on and playing good rock ‘n’ roll. Brian Wilson, I remember that, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. And Joe was driving his old blue Mercury-he used to call it De Blue Frawwwg and then grin his Joe McKennedy grin. All the vents were open. I got sick to my stomach. It was very bad. Joe was talking to his girl. They were talking about surfing, which was certainly compatible with the Beach Boys on the radio. She was a fine-looking girl. Her name was Rosalynn. She was Annmarie’s sister. I opened my mouth to say I felt sick, and puked all over the floor. Some of it got on Annmarie’s leg, and the look on her face, you couldn’t imagine it. Or maybe you could. They all tried to make light of it, brush it off. I let all my guys puke on me on the first date, ha-ha. I couldn’t go in swimming that day. My stomach felt too bad. Annmarie sat on the blanket next to me most of the time and got a burn. The girls had packed a picnic lunch. I drank a soda, but I couldn’t eat any of the sandwiches. I was thinking about Joe’s blue Mere, standing in the sun all day, and how it was going to smell going home. The late Lenny Bruce once said you can’t get snot off a suede jacket, and to that I would add one of the other great home truths: you can’t get the smell of vomit out of a blue Mercury’s upholstery. It’s there for weeks, for months, maybe years. And it smelled just about like I thought it would. Everybody just pretended it wasn’t there. But it was.

“COME ON OUT, DECKER. WE’RE THROUGH FOOLING AROUND WITH YOU!”

“Stop it! Shut up!” Of course they couldn’t hear me. They didn’t want to. This was their game.

“Don’t like it so well when you can’t talk back, do you?” Ted Jones said. “When you can’t play any of your smart games.”

“Leave me alone.” I sounded suspiciously like I was whining.

“They’ll wearya out,” Pig Pen said. It was the voice of doom. I tried to think about the squirrel, and about the way the lawn grew right up to the building, no fucking around. I couldn’t do it. My mind was jackstraws in the wind. The beach that day had been bright and hot. Everybody had a transistor radio, all of them tuned to different stations. Joe and Rosalynn had body-surfed in glass-green waves.

“YOU’ve GOT FIVE MINUTES, DECKER!”

“Go on out,” Ted urged. He was gripping the edge of his desk again. “Go out while you’ve got a chance.”

Sylvia whirled on him. “What have you got to be? Some kind of hero? Why? Why? Shit, that’s all you’ll be, Ted Jones. I’ll tell them-”

“Don’t tell me what-”

“… wearya down, Charlie, grind ya, wait and-”

“DECKER!”

“Go on out, Charlie…”

“… please, can’t you see you’re upsetting him-”

“DECKER!”

“… PTA suppers and all that lousy…”

“… cracking up if you’d just let him DECKER! alone grindya wearya down you go Charlie you can’t DON’T WANT TO BE FORCED TO SHOOT until you’re ready leave him be Ted if you know what all of you shut up good for you COMEOUT…”

I swung the pistol up at the windows, holding it in both hands, and pulled the trigger four times. The reports slammed around the room like bowling balls. Window glass blew out in great crackling fistfuls. The troopers dived down out of sight. The cameramen hit the gravel. The clot of spectators broke and ran in all directions. Broken glass shone and twinkled on the green grass outside like diamonds on show-window velvet, brighter gems than any in Mr. Frankel’s store.

There was no answering fire. They were bluffing. I knew that; it was my stomach, my goddamn stomach. What else could they do but bluff?

Ted Jones was not bluffing. He was halfway to the desk before I could bring the pistol around on him. He froze, and I knew he thought I was going to shoot him. He was looking right past me into darkness.

“Sit down,” I said.

He didn’t move. Every muscle seemed paralyzed.

“Sit down.”

He began to tremble. It seemed to begin in his legs and spread up his trunk and arms and neck. It reached his mouth, which began to gibber silently. It climbed to his right cheek, which began to twitch. His eyes stayed steady. I have to give him that, and with admiration. One of the few things my father says when he’s had a few that I agree with is that kids don’t have much balls in this generation. Some of them are trying to start the revolution by bombing U.S. government washrooms, but none of them are throwing Molotov cocktails at the Pentagon. But Ted’s eyes, even full of darkness, stayed steady.

“Sit down,” I repeated.

He went and sat down.

Nobody in the room had cried out. Several of them had put their hands over their ears. Now they took them away carefully, sampling the noise level of the air, testing it. I looked for my stomach. It was there. I was in control again.

The man with the bullhorn was shouting, but this time he wasn’t shouting at me. He was telling the people who had been watching from across the road to get out of the area and be snappy about it. They were doing it. Many of them ran hunched over, like Richard Widmark in a World War II epic.

A quiet little breeze riffled in through the two broken windows. It caught a paper on Harmon Jackson’s desk and fluttered it into the aisle. He leaned over and picked it up.

Sandra Cross said, “Tell something else, Charlie.”

I felt a weird smile stretch my lips. I wanted to sing the chorus from that folk song, the one about beautiful, beautiful blue eyes, but I couldn’t remember the words and probably wouldn’t have dared, anyway. I sing like a duck. So I only looked at her and smiled my weird smile. She blushed a little but didn’t drop her eyes. I thought of her married to some slob with five two-button suits and fancy pastel toilet paper in the bathroom. It hurt me with its inevitability. They all find out sooner or later how unchic it is to pop your buttons at the Sadie Hawkins dance, or to crawl into the trunk so you can get into the drive-in for free. They stop eating pizza and plugging dimes into the juke down at Fat Sammy’s. They stop kissing boys in the blueberry patch. And they always seem to end up looking like the Barbie doll cutouts in Jack and Jill magazine. Fold in at Slot A, Slot B, and Slot C. Watch Her Grow Old Before Your Very Eyes. For a second I thought I might actually turn on the waterworks, but I avoided that indignity by wondering if she was wearing white panties today.

It was 10:20. I said:

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