Monday, February 3, 2014

James Treadwell

No Child Left Behind
By James Treadwell

School is about so much more than just teaching and learning. 

It's about flicking the lights on and off while you're standing by the door waiting to go to your next class as if you've just discovered light switches. It's about making an NBA moment out of every crumpled piece of paper you throw away. It's about flicking water on the back of people's necks while making fake sneezing sounds. It's about jumping up to hit the top of every door frame as you pass beneath it. It's about giggling absurdly when a teacher uses the word "balls". It's about delighting in anything that can be stuck to the ceiling. It's about going to all six school dances and successfully not dancing at all six of them. It's about buying five big cookies at lunch and throwing away the apple, granola bar, and ham sandwich you had packed. It's about a 45 minute lesson being reduced to 10 because there's a bee in the room. It's about shielding your eyes during a test to give the illusion of deep concentration while you not-so-stealthily look at someone else's paper. It's about loudly squeaking your sneakers with every step when you discover they're wet and with a little extra effort you can make them squeak with every step. It's about needing to use the bathroom eight times over the course of seven hours, but only Mondays through Fridays. It's about applauding extra, obnoxiously long at an assembly to try to be the last one clapping. It's about screaming "IT'S SNOWING!" and madly dashing to the window like a miracle has just occurred outside. It's about peeing on the seat just because you can. It's about trying to convince every sub that the teacher usually lets you do a bunch of stuff that the teacher would never ever actually let you do. It's about sitting eight feet from a pencil sharpener and claiming you can't do the work because your pencil's broken. It's about compulsively making shadow animals and peace signs on the screen during a presentation if you're within arms reach of the projector. It's about going to the nurse for unknown, undiagnosable, and entirely undetectable ailments. It's about knowing, to the second, what time every class ends, but remaining clueless as to the start time of any of them. It's about fighting to get the sports page or comics section of the newspaper when you're putting paper down on your table in art class. It's about swearing on your Grandpappy's grave that you turned the paper in when truthfully you did no such thing, but it might buy you some time. It's about launching out of your seat to be the first to the light switch when the teacher needs them off for a movie. It's about incessantly pleading to go outside during class because "it's soooo nice out", then proceeding to go home and sit inside the rest of the day no matter how nice it is outside. It's about tipping back in your chair despite the number of near misses, times you've been told not to, or concussions you've sustained. It's about single-handedly blasting a hole in the ozone layer by deploying absurd amounts of AXE™ body spray in the locker room after P.E. It's about fashioning projectile weaponry using rubber bands and tightly folded pieces of paper. It's about mastering the art of gum concealment within one's oral cavity. It's about being a teacher and frittering away your planning period making lists of ways students fritter away the periods.

School sure is about an awful lot of things. The best we can do is try to squeeze in some teaching and learning somewhere...

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Richard Zwicker

Day of the Endorphin
Richard Zwicker

I was working in my low rent office on a bank embezzlement case, wading through employee files when, not surprisingly, I found myself thinking about money. I wanted it, I needed it, and there was no way I’d ever get much of it. That made me sad because in this case, two out of three was bad. If only we didn’t need money, but then we wouldn’t need banks, and I wouldn’t have a case. But I wouldn’t need a case, because I wouldn’t need money. Such were my musings when I heard an ominous click. Mayor Davidson’s pretty-boy face filled my vidscreen as he flashed his pearly whites, the dental equivalent of white picket fences. I turned off the volume, which returned automatically.
            “My fellow citizens,” Davidson intoned. “We live in one of the richest countries in the world. Millions of people from every continent would sacrifice everything to change places with us. Yet, I look around, and I see harried, unhappy men and women. When you elected me, I ran on a platform of change.” 
            I tried to remember the last politician that hadn’t run on that. Even incumbents ran on change. 
            “I am a man of my word,” he continued, “but words are cheap unless accompanied by deeds. For that reason tonight and for the next three weeks I will be spraying our city with a miracle we call ENDO-B. ENDO-B will exponentially increase our bodies’ production of endorphins, making us happier and allowing us to appreciate the riches we have.”
            “What the hell…” I muttered. 
            “Exhaustive tests have confirmed the safety of ENDO-B. Tomorrow morning you will feel its effects: increased energy, enthusiasm, and general good will. For three weeks an invisible electro-magnetic force field on the perimeter of the city, which you won’t even notice, will hold in the augmented air. I have taken this step because you demanded action. In three weeks you will vote whether or not to continue the experiment. Thank you for your support. Happy days and nights will be here again.”
            I rushed into reception to talk to Kristen, my assistant. Her stylish, closely coiffed head was turned to her vidscreen.    
            “Did you hear that?” I asked, thinking maybe government was getting out of control. 
            “I think it’s wonderful,” she smiled winningly. “We wanted action, and we’re getting it.”
            “The question is what ‘it’ is.”
            “That’s not a question,” she said, flicking off the vidscreen. “He said we’re getting more endorphins. That might not be so bad. My boyfriend jogs five miles a day to get those.”
            “What if everyone suddenly becomes so happy they stop committing crimes? What will I pay our bills with?
            She shrugged. “It’ll be the same for everyone. We’ll work it out.”   
            I nodded. Kristen possessed a positive, bouncy personality already. A few more endorphins might make her unbearable.      As I wasn’t getting anywhere with the embezzlement case, I exercised my constitutional right of sending Davidson a vidmail. I ranted about the liberties he was taking with his constituents and warned that even if this did work, his political enemies would excoriate him for subjecting everyone to a drug. Before signing it “Tom Larkin, P.I.”, I added there was more to life than being happy. I wasn’t sure that was true, but saying it made me a little less unhappy. 


            I woke up the next morning as I always did, with my alarm clock launching a flying drop kick to my head, literally. Yelping, I grabbed its sprouted booted leg, twisted it to the floor, and held it down for the mandatory ten-count. Kristen thinks I should get a less invasive wake-up method, but it’s the only thing that reliably gets me out of bed. To date, the only problem occurred one night when my back was bothering me and rather than turning over the mattress, I lay with my head at the foot of the bed. I slept like a rock, but in the morning the alarm clock kicked me in the nuts.
            This morning, after replacing the alarm clock on my nightstand, I realized something was different. Though the darkness outside my window promised a gray, cloudy day, I felt the sun rising in my soul. I felt like Helios holding back the horses of the sun chariot. I leapt on top of my mattress and belted out, “I feeeeeeeel good!”
            I banged my head on the ceiling. And I still felt good.
            I jumped into the shower, reveling in the transforming powers of each drop. I was cleaner, purer, closer to God, yet I didn’t feel the need to confess. For the first time in years I could remember whether or not I’d used my hair conditioner. 
            After drying, I found myself too exhilarated to eat my shredded wheat. I did something else I normally wouldn’t have done this early in the morning: called Kristen.
            “Kristen, do you feel it?”
            “Oh Tom, I do,” she gushed. “I made a pot of coffee, and then I thought, what do I need this for?”
            “I know exactly what you mean. I stood in the shower and the water rained down on me, and I wanted to take a shower with you. I wanted to take a shower with Mayor Davidson.”
            “That’s disturbing.”
            “It should be, but it isn’t!” 
            “Where’s it going to end?”
            I sighed, visions of sugarplums dancing in my head. “Maybe it won’t.”
            The before and after ENDO-B contrast continued on the subway. Normally, my commute featured all the joy of a cattle car on route to a slaughterhouse. Today, complete strangers hugged me as if I were a major character in a 19th century Russian novel. I must have told ten people, “Let’s do dinner sometime.” I cried at the emotional depth I detected in the computer-generated voice announcing the next stops.  
            As I entered my office, Kristen and I beamed smiles that could have lit the darkness of the most misguided soul.
            “Kristen,” I said, unbuttoning my jacket. “Today is the day I solve the Cushing Bank embezzlement case.
            “Correction. Today is the day it solves itself.” She pointed to a dumpy-looking man in a damp raincoat, sitting in reception. “That’s Bob Gingrass, CEO of Lafayette Savings and Loan.”
            Gingrass stood up and offered his hand, which I took heartily. “Mr. Larkin, I turned myself into the police an hour ago, but they told me to go home and just pay the money back when I could. When I learned you were on the case and it might be hours before you heard the news, I came right over.” 
            “Well, that’s what I call ‘going beyond the call of duty,’ Mr. Gingrass. Can I call you Bob?”
            “I insist.”  And we smothered each other with good vibes. 
            My other open case ended in a similar fashion. I’d collected enough evidence on a cheating husband to start my own skin zine, but the wife dropped the case. Her husband had confessed to everything and promised not to do it again. When it was discovered that the lover had no one else in her life, the wife suggested perhaps an arrangement could be made on alternate Thursdays. 
            This ritual of criminals turning themselves in and being forgiven repeated itself ad nauseam, sending the mayor’s popularity through the roof. Before the spraying, his approval rating hovered around thirty-five percent. ENDO-B forced pollsters to create different questions. Eighteen percent of the city now wanted him to marry their daughters, and five percent their sons. I was happy, but if this continued, the only thing left for me to investigate would be my navel.
Before it came to that, however, I got an unexpected call from Mayor Davidson himself. Someone had kidnapped his 19-year-old son.   

Entering Davidson’s office I checked out the so-called ENDO-B inner circle. Davidson, dressed casually in jeans and a button shirt pushed out slightly by a round belly, sat at the head of a rectangular table. His smile added lines around his eyes, making him look older than on the vids. Lila Frobisch, the chief of staff, sat stolidly to his left. Middle-aged like myself, she imprisoned her faded blonde hair in a bun. A twinkle in her eyes contrasted with a hardened manner I’d heard could wither an off-color joke at a hundred feet. Across from her sat Tyler Kurtz, the inventor, in a gray suit and red tie. He nodded affably to me, his lower mouth and jaw jutting out, giving his face the appearance of an upside-down soup ladle. 
            “Detective Larkin, how are you today?” Davidson asked, standing to shake my hand.
            “Right as rain,” I said, my tolerance of cliches at unprecedented levels.
            “I’m sorry to throw cold water in your face, but I got a vid-call this morning demanding I transfer a million dollars into a Granada account by April 21st or I’ll never see my son again.”
            “April 21st?” It was about two and a half weeks away. “Why does that date ring a bell?”
            “It’s the day we vote on the ENDO-B experiment,” Lila said.
            “Right.” I pushed images of romping puppies out of my head to make room for the mayor’s problem. “The kidnapper might think it’ll be easier to get a ransom out of you while you’re still feeling good. When did you first notice him missing?”
            Davidson winced. “Not until I heard from the kidnapper.  Tanner lives in a dorm at the city college. His professors told me he’s been absent all week.” Today was Thursday. 
            “Does he usually miss classes?”
            “No, I’ve often told him how much each one costs me.”
            “So he might have been kidnapped on Monday, or over the weekend.” Davidson had announced his mass spraying on Monday. “If the kidnapper was hoping to take advantage of ENDO-B, he knew about it before you announced it. Who had prior knowledge of the dates, besides you?”
            “You’re looking at them.”
            “I see.” I folded my arms. 
            “Mr. Larkin,” Lila said, “If we’d had anything to do with Tanner’s disappearance, we would have confessed by now. Surely, you’ve noticed that effect of the drug.”
            I turned to the inventor, who throughout the meeting had looked as earnest as a defecating cocker spaniel. “Is it possible to conceal a major crime under the effects of ENDO-B?”
            Kurtz sat up abruptly, as if wrenched from a faraway place and tossed into the center of a Roman arena. “It’s hard to say. This is the first time it’s been widely dispensed.”
            “But it’s been thoroughly tested,” I said. 
            “Not only that,” Davidson added, “but Mr. Kurtz provided a mountain of data on the drug.”
            I turned doubtfully at Kurtz. “How long have you been working in the pharmaceutical field?” He looked at me as if I’d asked him for the hypotenuse of the Bermuda Triangle. “With drugs,” I added.
            “Oh, some time. I hesitate to assign an actual number.” And true to his word, he did hesitate. 
            “Did any of you have anything to do with the kidnapping of Tanner Davidson?” I asked pointedly.
All three denied involvement.
            “OK,” I said. “Did Tanner crave attention?”
            Davidson shook his head. “He liked the freedom of living away from home.” 
            He also lived in the city, susceptible to the drug’s truth-telling powers. Still, he wouldn’t be the first rich kid to stage his own kidnapping.   
            “Mayor Davidson, I’ll take the case,” I said finally. “I have to say, however, I’m surprised you chose me. I recently sent you a negative vidmail.”
            Davidson leaned forward. “That’s why I chose you, Mr. Larkin. You speak your mind. ENDO-B has turned most of us into laid back weenies. I need someone who can cut through the touchy-feely haze and find my son.”  
            “Why don’t you just stop the ENDO-B early?”
            He looked at me as if I suggested we play catch the toaster oven in the swimming pool. “And ruin my approval rating?”
            After the meeting I spoke candidly with Davidson and Lila. “If Tyler Kurtz invented ENDO-B, I’m the illegitimate child of my dentist and the tooth fairy,” I said, remembering the line from my pre-ENDO-B days. “Where did you find him?
            Davidson smiled weakly. “Kurtz came to me, guaranteeing he had a drug that could make everybody happy. I was worried about my approval rating, so I let him work with my scientists. There was a clumsy leak, and I was about to fire everyone, when I noticed…everyone was happy.”
            “We had our doubts about Kurtz,” Lila continued. “He works as a custodian at Kennedy High School. His boss and co-workers confirmed he’s really into science, but they weren’t sure he knew what he was talking about. They also said he never lies, even without ENDO-B.”
            “He seems sincere,” I said. 
            “And he insists he invented ENDO-B. If he didn’t, why would the real inventor let him take credit for it?” Davidson asked.
            That was what I wanted to find out. I asked Davidson if he could get permission to tap Kurtz’s phone. He nodded, saying he had a judge in each pocket.
            In the meantime I visited Tanner’s college roommate. He didn’t seem concerned about Tanner, and I had a tough time wresting him from his digital Ouija board. He said Tanner went to church Sunday morning and never returned, but he couldn’t imagine his captors hurting him. He also confirmed that Tanner got along with his father and would never fake a kidnapping. I let him get back to his board. 


            That night I sat in my apartment watching an old Kyle Wallicker movie, getting in touch with my feminine self, when I heard three knocks on my door. Who could that be, I wondered. I’d already given copies of my key to all my neighbors. I opened the door and saw a tall, thin man wearing an oxygen mask. He leveled a revolver at my face. 
            “Do what I say and you won’t get hurt,” he commanded.
            I stood dumbfounded, as if someone had said to me, “Tomorrow is NOT the first day of the rest of your life.” I offered the assailant what, at the time, I thought my most precious gift, a look of pity. He didn’t place the same value on it, however, instead placing his fist into my solar plexus. I doubled over.
            “You’re misguided,” I gasped.
            “No, that’s where I meant to hit you.” He stared blankly at me in his oxygen mask. “Do you have anything valuable in here?”
            I looked around. “Your best bet is the vidscreen. I got it on sale, but you could probably get five hundred bucks for it. It’s 130 inches, 3-D.”
            He stuck his head in the living room. “It looks pretty awkward to carry.”
            I waved my hand dismissively. “I’ll help you.”
            We carried it out to his car, a late model blue Vivron.  Out of habit I looked for the license plate, but he’d taken that off, not that I was going to report him. I had two smaller vidscreens, plus my e-reader. If I didn’t feel like reading, I could always look out my window and hum, “What a wonderful world.” That turned out hard to do, however, because before I could get to the chorus, I kept getting interrupted. The next four nights, oxygen-masked thieves robbed me. On Wednesday two thieves came at the same time. I told one to come back in an hour. 
            By week’s end I was pretty much cleaned out of “rob-able” items. Nobody wants second-hand furniture anymore. I told one heavy-set man I could sign over my lease, but he rightly noted that could be traced.
            Sitting in my purged apartment, I felt anxiety about the possible end of ENDO-B. Though tired of getting robbed, I no longer had to worry about money. Strangers, deeming me insufficiently cheerful, pressed bills into my hand.  Panhandlers stopped me on the streets and said, “Hey, I can spare some change for a cup of coffee. Why don’t you go get one?” The world was upside-down and I wasn’t sure I wanted it righted.        
            A talk with Davidson’s scientists revealed only that they shared my low opinion of Kurtz’s scientific ability. As for the phone tap, no one called Kurtz except telemarketers. Several times I nearly broke in and said, “I’ll buy that satellite dish!” before I remembered I was working a case.
Trying to force the issue, we told Kurtz we’d pay the ransom in full the day of the deadline. I hoped Kurtz would relay that information to someone. 
            He didn’t.
            I next had Davidson tell Kurtz to be ready to double his production of the drug, in case the public decided to continue the experiment.
            That night Kurtz left a message on a cell we traced to someone named Jock Strap. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when we found out that was a fake name. An hour later, Kurtz received a real call. 
            “Why did you call me?” a crusty voice asked.
            “Mayor Davidson told me I may need to increase production of ENDO-B and I’m not sure I can do it by myself.” 
            “Let me worry about that. Any other problems?”
            “No. I’m working on another drug that makes people smarter.” 
            “Good luck with that,” the voice said drily. 
            The wire got me the caller’s number and address. He lived in Four Towers, outside the city. His real name was Justin Nabors. I told Davidson I would approach him myself. The wonder drug had me believing I could make a citizen’s arrest of the sun. Along with my revolver I carried a secret weapon: a window spray gun filled with ENDO-B.
            As I drove out of the city, beyond ENDO-B’s cloud of good will, I felt my natural sarcasm reasserting itself. Stuck behind a slow moving Monarch, I yelled, “Hey, what do you think you are, the king of the road or something?” A political ad about extending term limits for senators came on my radio. I clicked it off, saying, “Extend this, buddy.” I felt the urge to take a hit of my spray gun, but I figured for this job, I needed a clear head and an under-achieving pituitary gland.
            Another thing wearing off was my confidence. What was I thinking, going after this guy by myself? I called Davidson and asked for backup. 
            My smart car led me to a quiet housing development off the main road. Nabors lived in an innocent-looking ranch house, a late model Sedna in his driveway. The flickering light of his widescreen provided the only interior light. The intelligent thing would have been to wait, but with ENDO-B controlling the city, Davidson might have trouble rousing a squad car. I walked to the door and pressed the bell. A bright light blinded me, followed by the uniform barks of a mechanical dog. 
            “What do you want?” a familiar crusty voice asked, not improved by electrical amplification.
            “I’d like to talk to Justin Nabors.”
            The mechanical dog gave it a rest and the door opened by itself. Before I could advance, Nabors appeared, a crowbar dangling from his right hand. 
            Wearing a bushy gray beard, long thinning hair, and an ear-to-ear scowl, Nabors looked more like the inventor of hemorrhoids than ENDO-B. 
            I motioned to the crowbar. “Changing a tire?”
            “I was thinking about it. You’re not selling anything, are you?”
            He had a couple of inches on my six-foot frame, and his wiry biceps stuck out of his short sleeves. My alarm clock wouldn’t have a chance against him. I couldn’t back down now though. “No, I’d like to ask you about Tanner Davidson.”
            He stared back stone-faced. “Never heard of him.”
            “Really?  What about Tyler Kurtz?”
            I nodded. “So am I, because a couple of hours ago he made a call we traced to this house.”
            “Oh, that Tyler Kurtz,” he said, his facial muscles loosening while his grip tightened around the crowbar. Before he could raise it, however, I pulled out my ENDO-B and blasted him in the face. He dropped the crowbar and staggered. I pressed the trigger for a second blast, but he blocked it with his catcher’s mitt of a hand, then clamped onto the nozzle. We struggled, his weight pushing me against the wall. I lurched under his arms, firing the ENDO-B scattershot, sometimes nailing him, other times splattering me. Our skirmish slowly evolved from a violent clash to a deliberate tango. Eventually, we had our arms around each other like the winning participants of a dance marathon. 
            “I kidnapped him. He’s in the basement,” Nabors confessed, his crusty voice now lubricated with remorse.
            “Why did you do it, Justin?”
            Nabors thought for a moment, then said, “Because I love money!”
            “Me too!” I effused. 
            “I took advantage of the mayor’s progressive agenda. To protect myself, I hired Tyler Kurtz and made him think he had invented ENDO-B.”
            I gave him an affectionate squeeze. “It’s OK.”
            Without letting go of each other, we promenaded into the house. Nabors fished a key from his pants pocket and unlocked the basement door. A weary but alive Tanner Davidson came up the stairs. Two uniformed cops rolled into the driveway, too late for the capture but useful nonetheless. With my hands locked around Nabors, I was unable to drive my car back into the city.  One of the cops drove while we sat in the back seat. Nabors went into confessional mode, telling us how he’d been brought up by blissed-out hippies who’d sent him to a laid back school with no rules. He hated every minute of it. Another of his motives in developing ENDO-B was to show everyone that being loosey-goosy all the time wasn’t the answer. I vaguely remember saying, “I feel your pain,” and when I think back on that endless narrative, I still feel it.


            The three weeks passed, and as promised, Mayor Davidson held the special referendum vote on ENDO-B. Despite his popularity, however, he decided he’d had enough of the drug, so he leaked that scientists had detected several side effects. These included loss of eyebrows, body odor replicating the scent of dirty motor oil, and erections lasting up to three years. I doubt any of these were true and he probably had to travel outside the city limits to come up with them. The scare tactics worked, as the ENDO-B experiment was voted down handily. 
            There remained the question of what to do about all the stolen property, as Nabors had been behind only a fraction of the robberies. The discredited Kurtz suggested we spray the entire world until everything was returned. The mayor, his patience gone, suggested Kurtz go screw himself. The loss of our material possessions ended up being the hangover of Davidson’s grand experiment. Some of us were lucky enough to get through it with hefty checks from insurance companies.
            As for Nabors, he ended up getting a ten-year sentence at the city jail, no doubt wishing he’d never heard of ENDO-B, but on the other hand, wishing someone would smuggle in a decade’s supply for his cellmates.
            A few days after the trial, I walked into the office and noticed a sparkle on Kristen’s finger. “Is that an engagement ring?”
            “Yes!” She beamed. “In two months Tommy’s going to make an honest woman out of me.”
            Her smile faded when she noticed my face. “Is that a black eye?”
            I waved my hand dismissively. “Damned alarm clock.”
            “I told you to get rid of that thing. What a crazy idea, starting every day with a conflict.”

            I put my hand on her shoulder. “Kristen, I don’t expect you to understand this because you’re naturally positive. It gets you results, and I admire that. But everything I am, I owe to conflict.” Not only that, but with short cuts like ENDO-B, you could end up in the arms of someone who called himself Jock Strap.