It’s a roulette wheel, but anybody who says the game is rigged is whining. No matter how many numbers there are, the principle of that little white jittering ball never changes. Don’t say it’s crazy. It’s all so cool and sane.
And all that weirdness isn’t just going on outside. It’s in you too, right now, growing in the dark like magic mushrooms. Call it the Thing in the Cellar. Call it the Blow Lunch Factor. Call it the Loony Tunes File. I think of it as my private dinosaur, huge, slimy, and mindless, stumbling around in the stinking swamp of my subconscious, never finding a tarpit big enough to hold it.
But that’s me, and I started to tell you about them, those bright college-bound students that, metaphorically speaking, walked down to the store to get milk and ended up in the middle of an armed robbery. I’m a documented case, routine grist for the newspaper mill. A thousand newsboys hawked me on a thousand street corners. I had fifty seconds on Chancellor-Brinkley and a column and a half in Time.
And I stand here before you (metaphorically speaking, again) and tell you I’m perfectly sane. I do have one slightly crooked wheel upstairs, but everything else is ticking along just four-o, thank you very much.
So, them.How do you understand them? We have to discuss that, don’t we?
“Do you have an office pass, Mr. Decker?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I said, and took the pistol out of my belt. I wasn’t even sure it was loaded until it went off. I shot her in the head. Mrs. Underwood never knew what hit her, I’m sure. She fell sideways onto her desk and then rolled onto the floor, and that expectant expression never left her face.
I’m the sane one: I’m the croupier, I’m the guy who spins the ball against the spin of the wheel. The guy who lays his money on odd/even, the girl who lays her money on black/red . . . what about them?
There isn’t any division of time to express the marrow of our lives, the time between the explosion of lead from the muzzle and the meat impact, between the impact and the darkness. There’s only barren instant replay that shows nothing new.
I shot her; she fell; and there was an indescribable moment of silence, an infinite duration of time, and we all stepped back, watching the ball go around and around, ticking, bouncing, lighting for an instant, going on, heads and tails, red and black, odd and even.
I think that moment ended. I really do. But sometimes, in the dark, I think that hideous random moment is still going on, that the wheel is even yet in spin, and I dreamed all the rest.
What must it be like for a suicide coming down from a high ledge? I’m sure it must be a very sane feeling. That’s probably why they scream all the way down.
If someone had screamed something melodramatic at that precise moment, some-thing like Oh, my God, he’s going to kill us all! it would have been over right there. They would have bolted like sheep, and somebody aggressive like Dick Keene would have belted me over the head with his algebra book, thereby earning a key to the city and the Good Citizenship Award.
But nobody said a word. They sat in utter stunned silence, looking at me atten-tively, as if I had just announced that I was going to tell them how they could all get passes to the Placerville Drive-In this Friday night.
I shut the classroom door, crossed the room, and sat behind the big desk. My legs weren’t so good. I was almost to the point of sit down or fall down. I had to push Mrs. Underwood’s feet out of the way to get my own feet into the kneehole. I put the pistol down on her green blotter, shut her algebra book, and put it with the others that were stacked neatly on the desk’s corner.
That was when Irma Bates broke the silence with a high, gobbling scream that sounded like a young tom turkey getting its neck wrung on the day before Thanks-giving. But it was too late; everyone had taken that endless moment to consider the facts of life and death. Nobody picked up on her scream, and she stopped, as if ashamed at screaming while school was in session, no matter how great the prov-ocation.
Somebody cleared his throat. Somebody in the back of the room said “Hum!” in a mildly judicial tone.
And John “Pig Pen” Dano slithered quietly out of his seat and slumped to the floor in a dead faint.
They looked up at me from the trough of shock.
“This,” I said pleasantly, “is known as getting it on.”
Footsteps pounded down the hall, and somebody asked somebody else if some-thing had exploded in the chemistry lab. While somebody else was saying he didn’t know, the fire alarm went off stridently. Half the kids in the class started to get up automatically.
“That’s all right,” I said. “It’s just my locker. On fire. I set it on fire, that is. Sit down.”
The ones that had started to get up sat down obediently. I looked for Sandra Cross. She was in the third row, fourth seat, and she did not seem afraid. She looked like what she was. An intensely exciting Good Girl.
Lines of students were filing out onto the grass; I could see them through the windows. The squirrel was gone, though. Squirrels make lousy innocent bystand-ers.
The door was snatched open, and I picked up the gun. Mr. Vance poked his head in. “Fire alarm,” he said. “Everybody . . . Where’s Mrs. Underwood?”
“Get out,” I said.
He stared at me. He was a very porky man, and his hair was neatly crew cut. It looked as if some
landscape artist had trimmed it carefully with hedge clippers. “What? What did you say?”
“Out.” I shot at him and missed. The bullet whined off the upper edge of the door, chipping wood splinters.
“Jesus,” somebody in the front row said mildly.
Mr. Vance didn’t know what was happening. I don’t think any of them did. It all reminded me of an article I read about the last big earthquake in California. It was about a woman who was wandering from room to room while her house was being shaken to pieces all around her, yelling to her husband to please unplug the fan.
Mr. Vance decided to go back to the beginning. “There’s a fire in the building. Please-”
“Charlie’s got a gun, Mr. Vance, ” Mike Gavin said in a discussing-the-weather tone. “I think you better-”
The second bullet caught him in the throat. His flesh spread liquidly like water spreads when you throw a rock in it. He walked backward into the hall, scratching at his throat, and fell over.
Irma Bates screamed again, but again she had no takers. If it had been Carol Granger, there would have been imitators galore, but who wanted to be in concert with poor old Irma Bates? She didn’t even have a boyfriend. Besides, everyone was too busy peeking at Mr. Vance, whose scratching motions were slowing down.
“Ted,” I said to Ted Jones, who sat closest to the door. “Shut that and lock it.-
“What do you think you’re doing?” Ted asked. He was looking at me with a kind of scared and scornful distaste.
“I don’t know all the details just yet,” I said. “But shut the door and lock it, okay?”
Down the hall someone was yelling: “It’s in a locker! It’s in a Vance’s had a heart attack! Get some water! Get . . . ”
Ted Jones got up, shut the door, and locked it. He was a tall boy wearing wash–faded Levi’s and an army shirt with flap pockets. He looked very fine. I had always admired Ted, although he was never part of the circle I traveled in. He drove last year’s Mustang, which his father had given him, and didn’t get any parking tick-ets, either. He combed his hair in an out-of-fashion DA, and I bet his was the face that Irma Bates called up in her mind when she sneaked a cucumber out of the refrigerator in the wee hours of the night. With an all-American name like Ted Jones he couldn’t very well miss, either. His father was vice-president of the Pla-cerville Bank and Trust.
“Now what?” Hannon Jackson asked. He sounded bewildered.
“Um.” I put the pistol down on the blotter again. “Well, somebody try and bring Pig Pen around. He’ll get his shirt dirty. Dirtier, I mean.”
Sarah Pasterne started to giggle hysterically and clapped her hand over her mouth. George Yannick, who sat close to Pig Pen, squatted down beside him and began to pat his cheeks. Pig Pen moaned, opened his eyes, rolled them, and said, “He shot Book Bags.”