There were several hysterical laughs this time. They went off around the room like popping corn. Mrs.
Underwood had two plastic briefcases with tartan patterns on them, which she carried into each class.
She had also been known as Two-Gun Sue.
Pig Pen settled shakily into his seat, rolled his eyes again, and began to cry.
Somebody pounded up to the door, rattled the knob, and yelled, “Hey! Hey in there!” It looked like Mr.
Johnson, who had been talking about the Hessians. 1 picked up the pistol and put a bullet through the chicken-wired glass. It made a neat little hole beside Mr. Johnson’s head, and Mr. Johnson went out of sight like a crash-diving submarine. The class (with the possible exception of Ted) watched all the action with close interest, as if they had stumbled into a pretty good movie by accident.
“Somebody in there’s got a gun!” Mr. Johnson yelled. There was a faint bump-ing sound as he crawled away. The fire alarm buzzed hoarsely on and on.
“Now what?” Harmon Jackson asked again. He was a small boy, usually with a big cockeyed grin on his face, but now he looked helpless, all at sea.
I couldn’t think of an answer to that, so I let it pass. Outside, kids were milling restlessly around on the lawn, talking and pointing at Room 16 as the grapevine passed the word among them. After a little bit, some teachers-the men teachers–began shooing them back toward the gymnasium end of the building.
In town the fire whistle on the Municipal Building began to scream, rising and falling in hysterical cycles.
“It’s like the end of the world,” Sandra Cross said softly.
I had no answer for that, either.
No one said anything for maybe five minutes-not until the fire engines got to the high school. They looked at me, and I looked at them. Maybe they still could have bolted, and they’re still asking me why they didn’t. Why didn’t they cut and run, Charlie? What did you do to them? Some of them ask that almost fearfully, as if I had the evil eye. I don’t answer them. I don’t answer any questions about what happened that morning in Room 16. But if I told them anything, it would be that they’ve forgotten what it is to be a kid, to live cheek-by-jowl with violence, with the commonplace fistfights in the gym, brawls at the PAL hops in Lewiston, beat-ings on television, murders in the movies. Most of us had seen a little girl puke pea soup all over a priest right down at our local drive-in. Old Book Bags wasn’t much shakes by comparison.
I’m not taking on any of those things, hey, I’m in no shape for crusades these days. I’m just telling you that American kids labor under a huge life of violence, both real and make-believe. Besides, I was kind of interesting: Hey, Charlie Decker went apeshit today, didja hear? No! Did he? Yeah. Yeah. I was there. It was just like Bonnie and Clyde, except Charlie’s got zitzes and there wasn’t any popcorn.
I know they thought they’d be all right. That’s part of it. What I wonder about is this: Were they hoping I’d get somebody else?
Another shrieking sound had joined the fire siren, this one getting closer real fast. Not the cops. It was that hysterical yodeling note that is all the latest rage in ambulances and paramedic vehicles these days.
I’ve always thought the day will come when all the disaster vehicles will get smart and stop scaring the almighty shit out of everyone they’re coming to save. When there’s a fire or an accident or a natural disaster like me, the red vehicles will rush to the scene accompanied by the amplified sound of the Darktown Strutters playing “Banjo Rag.” Someday. Oh, boy.
Seeing as how it was the school, the town fire department went whole hog. The fire chief came first, gunning into the big semicircular school driveway in his blue bubble-topped Ford Pinto. Behind him was a hook-and-ladder trailing firemen like battle banners. There were two pumpers behind that.
“You going to let them in?” Jack Goldman asked.
“The fire’s out there,” I said. “Not in here.”
“Did you shut ya locka door?” Sylvia Ragan asked. She was a big blond girl with great soft cardiganed breasts and gently rotting teeth.
“Prolly out already, then.”
Mike Gavin looked at the scurrying firemen and snickered. “Two of ’em just ran into each other,” he said. “Holy moly.”
The two downed firemen untangled themselves, and the whole group was pre-paring to charge into the inferno when two suit-coated figures ran over to them. One was Mr. Johnson, the Human Submarine, and the other was Mr. Grace. They were talking hard and fast to the fire chief.
Great rolls of hose with shiny nozzles were being unreeled from the pumpers and dragged toward the front doors. The fire chief turned around and yelled, “Hold it! ” They stood irresolutely on the lawn, their nozzles gripped and held out before them like comic brass phalluses.
The fire chief was still in conference with Mr. Johnson and Mr. Grace. Mr. Johnson pointed at Room 16. Thomas Denver, the Principal with the Amazing Overshaved Neck, ran over and joined the discussion. It was starting to look like a pitcher’s mound conference in the last half of the ninth.
“I want to go home!” Irma Bates said wildly.
“Blow it out,” I said.
The fire chief had started to gesture toward his knights again, and Mr. Grace shook his head angrily and put a hand on his shoulder. He turned to Denver and said something to him. Denver nodded and ran toward the main doors.
The chief was nodding reluctantly. He went back to his car, rummaged in the back seat, and came up with a really nice Radio Shack battery-powered bullhorn. I bet they had some real tussles back at the fire station about who got to use that. Today the chief was obviously pulling rank. He pointed it at the milling students.
“Please move away from the building. I repeat. Will you please move away from the building. Move up to the shoulder of the highway. Move up to the shoulder of the highway. We will have buses here to pick you up shortly. School is canceled for-‘
Short, bewildered whoop.
‘ . . . for the remainder of the day. Now, please move away from the build-ing.”
A bunch of teachers-both men and women this time-started herding them up toward the road. They were craning and babbling. I looked for Joe McKennedy but didn’t see him anywhere.
“Is it all right to do homework?” Melvin Thomas asked tremblingly. There was a general laugh. They seemed surprised to hear it.
“Go ahead.” I thought for a moment and added: “If you want to smoke, go ahead and do it. ”
A couple of them grabbed for their pockets. Sylvia Ragan, doing her lady-of–the-manor bit, fished a battered pack of Camels delicately out of her purse and lit up with leisurely elegance. She blew out a plume of smoke and dropped her match on the floor. She stretched out her legs, not bothering overmuch with the nuisance of her skirt. She looked comfy.
There had to be more, though. I was getting along pretty well, but there had to be a thousand things I wasn’t thinking of. Not that it mattered.
“If you’ve got a friend you want to sit next to, go ahead and change around. But don’t try to rush at me or run out the door, please.”
A couple of kids changed next to their buddies, walking quickly and softly, but most of them just sat quiet. Melvin Thomas had opened his algebra book but couldn’t seem to concentrate on it. He was staring at me glassily.
There was a faint metallic chink! from the upper corner of the room. Somebody had just opened the intercom system.
“Hello,” Denver said. “Hello, Room 16.”
“Hello,” I said.
Long pause. Finally: “What’s going on down there, Decker?”
I thought it over. “I guess I’m going berserk,” I said.
An even longer pause. Then, almost rhetorically: “What have you done?”
I motioned at Ted Jones. He nodded back at me politely. “Mr. Denver?”
“Ted Jones, Mr. Denver. Charlie has a gun. He’s holding us hostage. He’s killed Mrs. Underwood. And I think he killed Mr. Vance, too.”
“I’m pretty sure I did,” I said.
“Oh,” Mr. Denver said.
Sarah Pasterne giggled again.
“I’m here,” Ted told him. He sounded very competent, Ted did, but at the same time distant. Like a first lieutenant who has been to college. You had to admire him.
“Who is in the classroom besides you and Decker?”
“Just a sec,” I said. “I’ll call the roll. Hold on.”
I got Mrs. Underwood’s green attendance book and opened it up. “Period two, right?”