Archive for March 10th, 2009


Fate Pays The Rent (Tenth Installment)

Chapter 3

Chandler Elementary School had been erected in the mid-1950’s to accommodate the Baby Boomers. New desks and books had been brought in as the old ones wore out and a series of additions had been made to the building so it came to resemble a centipede. The one part of the school that hadn’t been materially altered was the kitchen. The peeling Formica on the countertops was now cracked laminate. Dim fluorescent tubes had replaced the dim incandescent bulbs. A food-spattered copy of the USDA sanitation guidelines, with critical comments penciled in the margins, hung beside the pass-through. The cafeteria ladies, their aprons permanently stained but freshly-washed for today’s visitors, might have been the ones who at a different school baked the rolls with which Clement had been assaulted.
Jeff and Clement were outside the principal’s office. “Doesn’t it seem like they should have bigger chairs for older people to sit in?”
“Maybe they don’t think very many people our age will be sitting outside here.”
Jeff wiggled around and crossed his ankle and his knee. “I don’t remember them being this uncomfortable. Do you?”
“I have no idea. I wasn’t here much.”
“Really? You never went to the principal’s office?”
Clement turned and looked Jeff full in the face. “What do you think?”
“You might have been. Maybe you went over to the dark side now and then and ended up here.”
“The only time I was ever in the principal’s office was when I’d been hit in the head with a roll. The first few times it happened, a teacher dragged me down here and we all ‘tried’ to figure out who did it. Nobody wanted to turn snitch on a friend, nobody else wanted to get hit, and nobody cared all that much about me getting hit so I quit making a fuss about it and so did the teachers.”
“You know, some people get sent down here for just having fun.”
“I wasn’t one of them. Did Mari have fun last night?”
“With her girlfriends? Oh yeah. They always have a good time. She got home about 7 o’clock this morning and barely had time to take a shower and have a cup of coffee before she left for work.”
“That’s good.”
“Something weird though.”
“When she got home, she didn’t really wanna talk much.”
“Maybe she had a headache from last night.”
“That’s kinda what I thought. All the other times though even if she was gulping down a half-dozen aspirin she was telling me stories in between. This morning she had nothing to tell me.”
“Maybe nobody did anything.”
“No, I think people did things. I think people did things she doesn’t want to talk about. I think her ex was there.”
Clement felt his shoulders rise. “Why would you say that?”
Jeff reached into his pocket and took out a small piece of paper. “I found this on the dresser beside the earrings she wore last night. It looks like the stuff on that paper you found in his office except it’s numbers instead of letters. I don’t know how else she would have gotten it if she didn’t see him.” He handed the paper to Clement who put it in his own pocket just as the office door opened and the principal stepped out.
“Passing notes already, gentlemen?”
Clement looked down but Jeff was bouncing forward with his hand out, “Will you give me detention if I am?”
“I’m Mrs. Lamb. You two can call me Mrs. Lamb. You seem very comfortable here. Did you spend a lot of time in the principal’s office?”
“Only enough to get a chair with my name on it. My name is Jeff Matthews in case you want to have the painter standing by for a new one.”
“And this is?”
“This is Clement Powell. He’s spent a lot less time in the principal’s office. He was only really down there when he got hit in the head with a roll.” Clement elbowed Jeff in the ribs but it was too late.
“Mr. Powell, did you also have Jell-O fights in your cafeteria?”
“I never started any.”
“I’ve never met anyone who did admit to starting one so I wouldn’t expect you to be the first.”
“Nah, Clement would tell you; he’s very honest.”
“I wasn’t meaning to put you on the spot, Mr. Powell. I only wanted to point out that if you’re familiar with Jell-O fights and flying dinner rolls you’re going to feel a lot more at ease in our lunchroom than Mr. Matthews here. Some people have a hard time getting used to keeping one eye on the back of their head.”
Jeff watched until the principal had her gone back to her desk for their name tags then he punched Clement hard in the arm. “In case you were going to laugh,” he whispered.
“Mr. Matthews! I used to be a teacher which means I have two eyes on the back of my head. This is a school and we do not hit our friends in school.” Jeff rolled his eyes and this time Clement did laugh. “Here are your name tags. Feel free to line up with the children for lunch but please do not take seconds until everyone has had their firsts.”
“Do we have to eat lunch at the tables with them?” Clement asked.
“The children enjoy having grown-ups at their tables so they can show off their good manners. Positive interactions with adults outside their family unit boost their self-esteem and promote appropriate socialization.”
“Then I’ll sit at the table but the first buttered roll I see coming through the air- whether it hits me or not- I’m out of there. Agreed?”
“Mr. Powell, if anyone hit you with a buttered roll I would personally track down the student that did it and see to it that they were reprimanded and punished.”
“Yeah, I know. It never turns out to be that easy but thanks for saying it anyway.”
They could hear the rumbling as soon as they started down the hall in the direction of the cafeteria. Even though it grew louder with each step they were unprepared for the full volume to hit them when the doors opened. The tables, hinged in the middle with four attached stools on either side that folded down, had been arranged in ranks with scarcely enough room to walk between them. Five-hundred children were arranged at tables for eight and they jostled and shouted to be seated and to make themselves heard beneath the cavernous ceiling. Jeff and Clement joined the line snaking from the door to the counter but Mrs. Lamb excused herself to go to the teachers’ lounge. Clement pulled the paper out of his pocket and tried to read it but the noise and the crush of bodies made it impossible to think. He felt a small shoe connect with his calf.
“Hurry it up, mister. There isn’t gonna be anything left.”
“They have to make sure everybody gets firsts before anyone gets seconds. We’ll get some.”
“Yeah, we’ll get something but I wanna make sure I get sloppy Joes.”
“What else are we having?”
“How come you don’t know what we’re having? Geez, I’m only in first grade and I know what we’re having. My mom reads me the menu every morning while I’m eating breakfast.”
“Well, I don’t live with my mom and I don’t always have breakfast.”
“What do you mean you don’t eat breakfast?” Clement felt the boy’s small fingers jab him in the ribs. “Come on, move up! Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. If you don’t eat breakfast then you’re running your car with no fuel or oil in it.”
Clement seized the boy’s wrist and was careful not to twist it as he turned around and thrust it towards its owner. “I know all about breakfast. What I wanna know is can you tell me what else we’re having for lunch besides sloppy Joes.”
The boy stared at Clement’s chest. “What’s that thing say?”
Clement looked down at his name tag. “It says my name is Clement Powell and I work for the Rockin’ Rooster Food Company”
The boy looked at the ceiling thinking. “You the guys that sell those chicken things?”
“Chicken strips? Yes. Do you like them?”
The child pantomimed making himself vomit. “Them are nasty. If we’re having those today, you wanna for sure get the sloppy Joes.”
“What makes them nasty?”
“I don’t know. I don’t cook ‘em. All I know is when we have those chicken things we eat a whole lot of vegetables. The vegetables aren’t good either. The peas are like little rocks, the green beans are kind of like slugs, and the carrots are so hard you can’t chew ‘em.”
“What about the rolls?”
“Oh the rolls are great. The rolls are awesome. See that hole up there?” He pointed to a mark on the wall about six inches from the ceiling. “My brother did that with a roll.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“How far away was he when he threw it?” Clement took a step sideways to keep up with the line.
“He didn’t throw it. You couldn’t throw it and hit the wall that hard and that high up.”
“So, what did he do?”
With his eyes still on the line ahead, the boy gestured Clement to bend down. “He launched it.”
“With a slingshot?” Clement whispered.
“No. He built it himself. None of the teachers know he’s the one that did that and we’re not gonna tell them. Right?” He winked at Clement and Clement, more than a little surprised at himself, nodded. He pulled the piece of paper out of his pocket and showed it to the kid.
“You know what this means?”
“Geez, what do you want from me? I’m only in first grade.” A sly look came into his face. “My brother might. After all he did build that launcher and he’s in sixth grade.”
“Introduce us?”
“For what?”
“I mean-“ the boy rubbed the fingers and thumb of one hand together. “And not money. There’s something else I want.” He licked his lips.
Clement nodded again. Taking the boy by the wrist, he led him past the others standing in line- the shoving students, the Lunch Buddy volunteers, and Jeff to whom a fourth-grade girl was relating the birth of her kittens. As he reached the front of the line, he picked up two trays and two sets of silverware. He placed the trays on the rack and neatly arranged the silverware on them.
The cafeteria lady finished scooping peas onto a tall boy’s plate and looked at Clement. “What are you doing cutting in line? Get back where you were.”
Clement bit his top lip and looked down at the little boy. “No. I don’t have to go back there. I’m a visitor and visitors get served first.” The little boy wriggled his wrist around and squeezed Clement’s hand.
“What about him? He’s not a visitor.”
“This is Wilmot~. He’s my guest.”
“His name isn’t Wilmot and he’s nobody’s guest. He’s a snot-nosed little kid whose brother damages school property.”
Clement looked down at the kid again. The kid gave his head a barely perceptible shake. “I’m not sure who you’re talking about but this boy’s name is Wilmot and he is my guest for lunch. Now then, as a visitor I go to the head of the line and, because Wilmot is my guest, he comes with me. We would like two plates of the sloppy Joes.” Wilmot gave his hand another squeeze. He looked at the kid and he was licking his lips.
“Hey! You’re one of those chicken strip guys. How come you don’t want the chicken strips?”
“I’ve heard they’re nasty.”
“Nah. Me and the other cooks like them.”
“That’s right,” said a woman bringing up an enormous pot of peas.
“Why is that?”
“Because,” said the woman with the pot, “whenever we serve those chicken strips the kids gobble down vegetables like they were going outta style.” The cooks laughed.
“Right. Two plates with sloppy Joes and the corn.”
The first cook sloshed servings of sloppy Joes onto the two plates then handed them to her right where the second woman dolloped each with a spoonful of creamed corn. Clement could see the two mostly liquid foods beginning their fight for possession of the plate and his stomach clenched but he placed one dish on Wilmot’s tray and the second on his own. “And three rolls, please.”
“You got hamburger buns under the Joes.”
“Yes, but I see dinner rolls there and I’d like three of them.”
The cook with the corn snatched three rolls from the pan behind her and dropped them onto his tray. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Wilmot.”
“Tomorrow, he’ll be the guest of Mrs. Lamb.” Wilmot squeezed Clement’s hand hard and Clement half expected another kick to his calf. Instead the boy released his hand, the two removed their trays from the rack, selected their cartons of chocolate milk and merged with the flow of children seeking tables.
“What did you get three rolls for?”
“I assumed your brother would like one. We’re meeting him, right? I filled my part of the bargain.”
“Yeah. That was good thinking with the corn.”
“It was the only vegetable you hadn’t talked about.”
“Thanks for taking me with you. I was just hoping that if you managed to get some sloppy Joe then you’d share it with me.”
“Enough gratitude. Let’s see your brother.”
“My name isn’t Wilmot,” the kid said as they pushed through the crowd to a table in the back row.
“It’s Nick. My brother is Jack. He’s really smart. Not just to me because I’m a first-grader. You’ll see.”
Jack frowned when he saw his brother approaching the table. The frown deepened when he saw Clement. “Mom said you’re not supposed to be bugging me at lunch. And who is this?”
Nick set his tray on the table and climbed onto a stool across from his brother. “His name’s Clement. He needs your help figuring something out.”
“I brought you this.” Clement placed the roll on Jack’s tray, put his own on the table beside Nick’s and sat down. “People grow a lot at your age. I thought you might be hungry.”
Jack slid the papers he’d been examining under his tray and slipped the pencil into his back pocket. “If you know how old I am then you know I’m only in the sixth grade and there’s not much I’m gonna be able to help a grown-up figure out.”
Clement reached for the papers. “May I?”
“You gonna build that thing?”
“Maybe. Maybe someday when I’ve got the money and I don’t have to spend all day in school.”
“You oughta help him, Jack. He’s okay. He got me and him both sloppy Joes and he stood up to Karen and Lydia.”
“If you drew those, Jack, then I think you know enough to help me. I wanna show you a piece of paper. If you understand it and you can tell me what it is, that’s great. If not, you got a roll and your brother got sloppy Joes like he wanted and that’s okay too.”
“Please look, Jack.”
Jack nodded and held out his hand. Clement took the paper from his jacket pocket, smoothed it onto the table and handed it to Jack. Jack looked at it, pulled a sheet from his own stack of paper and took out his pencil. He began writing down numbers, adding them, crossing them out, writing down, adding and crossing out others. He stopped writing and smiled at Clement. “Who did this? Where did you get it?”
“Because they’re smart. They know numbers.”
“What do you mean? How do they know numbers?”
“I’ll tell you if you tell me where you got this and who did it.”
“I don’t believe I’m having this conversation. What does your mother feed you boys for breakfast? Your brother shakes me down for sloppy Joes to even get to meet you and now you want information from me before you’ll give me any.” He rose halfway from the stool and looked around for Jeff. He was sitting toward the front on the left-hand side at a table filled with little girls; They were giggling and talking all at once and he seemed to be making a flower with his napkin. Clement leaned forward and said, “I need you to tell me first, Jack, because I don’t want someone to get into trouble. You understand that, right?”
“Yeah.” Jack studied the two papers again. “There are people who know numbers and people who know math. People who know math can figure things out fast. Sometimes they’re just like a computer they’re so fast. Other people aren’t so fast at doing the work but they know numbers. The person who did this might also know math but they for sure know numbers.”
“Why do you say that?”
“This note here says, ‘9 is wasteful not weird’.”
“I saw that. What does it mean?”
“It means they were looking for a number that could be classified as weird. There’s all kinds of numbers. My teacher was talking about adjectives one day and she gave us a list of them to study. I don’t like words but I do like numbers. I spend a lot of time in the hall for bothering people and my mom gets mad at me. I decide I don’t wanna get in trouble so much so I start taking these adjectives and putting the word ‘number’ behind them and looking the whole thing up. Some combinations work like ‘generous’, ‘weird’, ‘efficient’, sublime, ‘friendly’, and ‘wasteful’.”
“A weird number is one where if you add up the divisors the total is greater than the number itself. But you’re not putting the number itself in there. Like twelve. Twelve looks like a weird number. Sixteen. See?” He ran his pencil along the line of figures and Clement nodded. “But to find out if it’s truly weird you have to add up the divisors in different combinations to see if they equal the number. If any of them do- 2+4+6=12 –then it’s not a weird number.”
“Yeah. What about ‘wasteful’?”
“It’s just like it sounds. You’ve got extra numbers. Here’s nine. Nine is a one digit number, right?”
“Nine is three times three or three squared, right?”
“So you’ve got an extra number. Nine is only one digit but three squared has two digits because you have a three and a two.”
Clement turned the paper around so all the numbers were facing him. “Why would someone do this? Why would they want to know whether or not nine was weird or wasteful?”
“Beats me. Maybe they’re working on something or maybe they just like numbers. So, who did this?”
“The girlfriend of a friend of mine, I think. He found it next to a pair of her earrings.”
“Keep an eye on her.”
“She’s smart and if she’s working on something you might wanna be around when she gets done with it. It might be worth a whole lot of money. Leave your tray, Nick. He’ll take it back. Won’t you?” He looked at Clement who nodded. “I gotta get to recess and Nick’s gotta get to class.” He folded the larger sheet of paper in half, laid Clement’s paper on top and slid them across the table. “You can keep these. Thanks for the roll. I’ll use it wisely.” He winked at Clement, Nick waved, and both boys were lost to him in the crowd.