Excerpt from Today, Oh Boy – in the Principal’s Office

photograph by Joseph Szabo

A loud electronic crackling.  The red light of the intercom has flashed on. Never a good sign.  Every class has one, a rectangular speaker box mounted somewhere on the wall.  Another crackle. 

Speakerbox: (crackle) Miss Turlock, Principal Pushcart. Is Alex Jensen in your class?

Miss Turlock: (looking up at the intercom, addressing it as if a person) No sir. It was my understanding that he was there with you.

Speakerbox: Who told you that?

Miss Turlock: Althea Anderson.

Speakerbox: By any chance is Rusty Boykin in your class?

Miss Turlock (still looking up, still addressing the intercom): Yes sir. He’s sitting right here working on a drawing.

Speakerbox: Send him to me. Stat!

Miss Turlock: Yes sir.

Speakerbox: (crackle)

All pencils, brushes, kneading hands have halted. Rusty’s on his feet, a look of panic stamped on his freckled face. James Hopper glances at Althea, who is frowning. Rusty casts a rueful glance at his crude rendering of the digestive tract lying next to his open Biology II notebook with its hurried, smudged, barely decipherable and misspelled anatomical terms. Then he looks up and encounters Miss Turlock’s sympathetic, blunt, open features. 

“Run along, Rusty. You can leave your things here for now. “

“Okay,” he says, oblivious to the students’ staring faces, oblivious to the clay torsos, oblivious to the smell of paint, oblivious to the splattered tile, oblivious to the silence.  He’s pushing open the door and stepping into the cool autumn air, oblivious to the yellow disc of morning sun suspended above distant loblolly pines. He’s deep, deep, deep inside the auditory darkness of a cave of dread where an echoing voice catalogs his various crimes and misdemeanors: smoking marijuana; drinking beer; mocking (though behind their backs) administrators, teachers, students, the Mighty Green Wave, Congressmen, Senators, Vice Presidents, Presidents, television shows, movies, Judeo-Christian Deities; purchasing and hiding Playboy magazines as visual aids in acts of self-pollution; masterminding a high stakes scheme to run away from home; receiving stolen goods in accordance with the above-mentioned scheme; not living up to his potential . . .

As an elementary student, if he had been called to the office, Rusty might have feared that someone in his family had died or that he was being summoned to receive an award, but his name in conjunction with the initials AJ can only mean trouble. He’s forgotten his signature walk, the freak flag flop, and leans forward, head down, oblivious to the pebbly paving beneath his high-top Converse All-Stars.  In the thin cavity of his chest, his heart pounds like timpani as he reaches for the cold handle of the main building’s outer double doors. The hall is virtually void, the only sound clacking heels, out of sight, dopplering into the distance.  His hand shaking, he grips the handle of the glass doors of the administrative offices, pulling outward. 

In the bright florescent light of the outer administrative office, he recognizes immediately that the employees are in an everyday mode. No one has died. No uniformed policeman with badge, billyclub, and handcuffs glowers in a corner waiting for him. Rusty clears his dry throat and approaches Miss Cartwright sitting at a desk next to Principal Pushcart’s door. As he nears her desk, a tiny pink bubble puffs out from her lips, then pops.

 “Mizz Cartwright,” he says, his voice unsteady, “I think Principal Pushcart wants to see me.”

“Now that’s an interesting shirt,” she says coyly, snapping the gum. “Where’d you get that?”  She’s dressed in a yellow alpaca V-neck sweater and a kelly green skirt, the official school colors.                 

Rusty had forgotten all about his shirt, a new acquisition, part of a service station uniform with the name “Buddy” stitched in an oval on its breast. It’s sure to exacerbate whatever vitriol’s brewing in Pushcart. Rusty realizes he’s left his Mr. Zig Zag denim jacket back in the art room, which is probably a good thing.

 “Uh, I got it from Buddy.”

  “Good ol’ Buddy,” she says smiling. “Mr. Pushcart and Mrs. Laban are expecting you.”

  She gets up and cracks open the door. “Mr. Boykin is here,” she says into the crack.

  The muffled bark of a drill sergeant.

  “Go on in,” she says.

The door creaks open squeakily like a coffin lid in a Christopher Lee movie. Sitting, leaning forward with his palms down on the surface of his desk, Principal Pushcart looks as if he might be on the verge of doing a hundred or so push-ups. Sitting across from him, looking over her shoulder, a frowning Mrs. Laban pumps her crossed leg like crazy.

“Yes, sir?”  

“Have a seat, son.”

There is an empty chair next to Mrs. Laban, a wooden chair, upholstered in some sort of dark green leather-like synthetic something-or-other, the kind of fabric (maybe fabric) that sticks to the back of your thighs when you’re wearing shorts in the summer. Principal Pushcart removes his right palm from the desk like some gangster in an old movie and positions it palm-up, sweeping it in a downward motion towards the chair as he nods his head in mock gentility. Across his pink scalp strands of brownish gray flimsily stretch to feebly hide his encroaching baldness. Rusty, dropping into the chair, sighs audibly in tune with the upholstery, which also sighs.

 “Now, Blanton,” he says, using Rusty’s baptismal nomenclature. “I want you to promise to tell me the truth.” The intonation isn’t all that unfriendly.

 “Yes sir,” Rusty says automatically. He’s a terribly inept liar anyway. 

 “You know,” Pushcart says, “that AJ was dismissed from homeroom to come to my office.”

 This is an easy one. “Yes sir, I was in homeroom this morning.”

 “Tell me. What did you think of the events of this morning?”

 “Think, sir? I’m not sure I thought anything.”

 “You didn’t think it was funny?”

 “I wasn’t paying all that much attention. I was sort of preoccupied. I have this really big Anatomy test today.” He looks over at Mrs. Laban for encouragement, but her features have hardened into a Madame Tussaud’s mask of unalterable unhappiness: Lucretia Borgia displeased with the consistency of her soft-boiled egg.

“Did you know that AJ hadn’t come to the office?”

 “No, sir.  Not till the announcement over the intercom.”

  “Any idea where he’s at?”

Rusty successfully stifles the impulse to say, “Behind the preposition.”

  “I dunno,” he says instead.  “Home, I’d guess. His daddy’s office maybe. I dunno.”

  Pushcart can see the little son-of-a-bitch is telling the truth. “Son,” he says, “are you aware that you’re out of dress code?”

  “It wouldn’t surprise me. I guess my hair might be.”

  “Where’s your pride, son?”

Rusty doesn’t begin to know how to answer this.  A trick question?  Of course, he possesses pride, that doom-laden quality that they talk about in English class every year, the moral failing that forces Antigone to break the burial edict, Ahab to pursue the great white whale, Macbeth to go all Charlie Manson on his kinsman Duncan.  

“I dunno, sir,” he says. “Yes and no. You know Alexander Pope called pride ‘the never-failing vice of fools.”’

As soon as the words are out of his mouth, he wants them back.  

“What!?”

“Nothing.”

“What did you say?”

“I meant sometimes pride can be a bad thing, so I was hesitant to admit I had some.”

“Well, Mr. Philosopher, I’m sending you home to get a haircut and to change that shirt. The dress code is rules, son. Not suggestions. Rules. When you look presentable, you come back here to report to me before you resume your education here at Summerville High. Consider it a suspension. Zeroes on all work missed.”  

“Yes, sir,” Rusty says. 

“I suggest you hurry.”

“Yes sir.”

 When he’s out the door, Paul looks over at Eula Lynne and asks, “What period is his anatomy test?”

 “Fourth.”

 “Well, then,” he chuckles. “I wish him God’s speed.”

“That secretary of yours is almost as bad as the kids. Out there chewing gum.  I don’t know about that, Paul.  It sets a bad example. . . ”

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