“Yeah,” Corky said.
“Okay. Here we go. Irma Bates?”
“I want to go home! ” Irma screamed defiantly.
“She’s here,” I said. “Susan Brooks?”
I went through the rest of the roll. There were twenty-five names, and the only absentee was Peter Franklin.
“Has Peter Franklin been shot?” Mr. Denver asked quietly.
“He’s got the measles,” Don Lordi said. This brought on another attack of the giggles. Ted Jones frowned deeply.
“Will you let them go?”
“Not right now,” I said.
“Why?” There was dreadful concern, a dreadful heaviness in his voice, and for a second I almost caught myself feeling sorry for him. I crushed that quickly. It’s like being in a big poker game. Here is this guy who has been winning big all night, he’s got a pile of chips that’s a mile-high, and all at once he starts to lose. Not a little bit, but a lot, and you want to feel bad for him and his falling empire. But you cram that back and bust him, or you take it in the eye.
So I said, “We haven’t finished getting it on down here yet.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means stick it,” I said. Carol Granger’s eyes got round.
“Call me Charlie. All my friends call me Charlie.”
I held my hand up in front of the class and crossed the fingers in pairs. “If you don’t call me Charlie, I’m going to shoot somebody.”
“That’s better.” In the back row, Mike Gavin and Dick Keene were covering grins. Some of the others weren’t bothering to cover them. “You call me Charlie, and I’ll call you Tom. That okay, Tom?”
Long, long pause.
“When will you let them go, Charlie? They haven’t hurt you.”
Outside, one of the town’s three black-and-whites and a blue state-police cruiser had arrived. They parked across the road from the high school, and Jerry Kesser-ling, the chief since Warren Talbot had retired into the local Methodist cemetery in 1975, began directing traffic onto the Oak Hill Pond road.
“Did you hear me, Charlie?”
“Yes. But I can’t tell you. I don’t know. There are more cops coming, I guess.”
“Mr. Wolfe called them,” Mr. Denver said. “I imagine there will be a great deal more when they fully appreciate what’s going on. They’ll have tear gas and Mace, Dec . . . Charlie. Why make it hard on yourself and your classmates?”
“You get your skinny cracked ass out there and tell them that the minute anyone shoots tear gas or anything else in here, I am going to make them sorry. You tell them to remember who’s driving.”
“Why? Why are you doing this?” He sounded angry and impotent and fright-ened. He sounded like a man who has just discovered there is no place left to pass the buck.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but it sure beats panty raids, Tom. And I don’t think it actually concerns you. All I want you to do is trot back out there and tell them what I said. Will you do that, Tom?”
“I have no choice, do I?”
“No, that’s right. You don’t. And there’s something else, Tom.”
“What?” He asked it very hesitantly.
“I don’t like you very much, Tom, as you have probably realized, but up to now you haven’t had to give much of a rip how I felt. But I’m out of your filing cabinet now, Tom. Have you got it? I’m not just a record you can lock up at three in the afternoon. Have you got it?” My voice was rising into a scream.
“HAVE YOU GOT THAT, TOM? HAVE YOU INTERNALIZED THAT PARTICULAR FACT OF
“Yes, Charlie,” he said in a deadly voice. “I have it.”
“No you don’t, Tom. But you will. Before the day’s over, we are going to un-derstand all about the difference between people and pieces of paper in a file, and the difference between doing your job and getting jobbed. What do you think of that, Tommy, my man?”
“I think you’re a sick boy, Decker.”
“No, you think I’m a sick boy, Charlie. Isn’t that what you meant to say, Tom?”
“I think you’re a sick boy, Charlie.” The mechanical, embarrassed rote of a seven-year-old.
“You’ve got some getting it on to do yourself, Tom. Now, get out there and tell them what I said. ”
Denver cleared his throat as if he had something else to say, and then the inter-com clicked off. A little murmur went through the class. I looked them over very carefully. Their eyes were so cool and somehow detached (shock can do that: you’re ejected like a fighter pilot from a humdrum dream of life to a grinding, overloaded slice of the real meat, and your brain refuses to make the adjustment; you can only
free-fall and hope that sooner or later your chute will open), and a ghost of grammar school came back to me: Teacher, teacher, ring the bell, My lessons all to you I’ll tell, And when my day at school is through, I’ll know more than aught I knew.
I wondered what they were learning today; what I was learning. The yellow school buses had begun to appear, and our classmates were going home to enjoy the festivities on living-room TVs and pocket transistor radios; but in Room 16, education went on.
I rapped the butt of the pistol sharply on the desk. The murmur died. They were watching me as closely as I was watching them. Judge and jury, or jury and de-fendant? I wanted to cackle.
“Well,” I said, “the shit has surely hit the fan. I think we need to talk a little. ”
“Private?” George Yannick asked. “Just you and us?” He had an intelligent, perky face, and he didn’t look frightened.
“You better turn off that intercom, then. ”
“You big-mouth son of a bitch,” Ted Jones said distinctly. George looked at him, wounded.
There was an uncomfortable silence while I got up and pushed the little lever below the speaker from TALK-LISTEN to LISTEN.
I went back and sat down again. I nodded at Ted. “I was thinking of it any-way,” I lied. “You shouldn’t take on so.”
Ted didn’t say anything, but he offered me a strange little grin that made me think he might have been wondering about how I might taste.
“Okay,” I said to the class at large. “I may be crazy, but I’m not going to shoot anyone for discussing this thing with me. Believe it. Don’t be afraid to shoot off your mouths. As long as we don’t all talk at once.”
That didn’t look as if it was going to be a problem. “To take the bull by the horns, is there anyone here who really thinks I’m going to just up and murder them?”
A few of them looked uneasy, but nobody said anything.
“Okay. Because I’m not. We’re just going to sit around and bug the hell out of everybody. ”
“Yeah, you sure bugged the hell out of Mrs. Underwood,” Ted said. He was still smiling his strange smile.
“I had to. I know that’s hard to understand, but . . . I had to. It came down to that. And Mr. Vance. But I want everyone here to take it easy. No one is going to shoot the place up, so you don’t have to worry. ”
Carol Granger raised her hand timidly. I nodded at her. She was smart, smart as a whip. Class president, and a cinch to speak a piece as valedictorian in June -“Our Responsibilities to the Black Race”
or maybe “Hopes for the Future. ” She was already signed up for one of those big-league women’s colleges where people always wonder how many virgins there are. But I didn’t hold it against her.
“When can we go, Charlie?”
I sighed and shrugged my shoulders. “We’ll just have to wait and see what hap-pens.”
“But my mother will be worried to death!”
“Why?” Sylvia Ragan asked. “She knows where you are, doesn’t she?”
General laugh. Except for Ted Jones. He wasn’t laughing, and I was going to have to watch that boy. He was still smiling his small, savage smile. He wanted badly to blow everything out of the water-obvious enough. But why? Insanity Prevention Merit Badge? Not enough. Adulation of the community in general–the boy who stood on the burning deck with his finger in the dike? It didn’t seem his style.
Handsome low profile was Ted’s style. He was the only guy I knew who had quit the football team after three Saturdays of glory in his junior year. The guy who wrote sports for the local rag had called him the best running back Placerville High School had ever produced. But he had quit, suddenly and with no explana-tion. Amazing enough. What was more amazing was the fact that his popularity quotient hadn’t lost a point. If anything, Ted became more the local BMOC than ever. Joe McKennedy, who had suffered through four years and one broken nose at left tackle, told me that the only thing Ted would say when the agonized coach demanded an explanation was that football seemed to be a pretty stupid game, and he (Ted) thought that he could find a better way to spend his time. You can see why I respected him, but I was damned if I knew why he wanted me in such a personal way. A little thought on the matter might have helped, but things were going awful fast.