Truancy

[I decided to share the short story I mentioned in last week’s column. A disclaimer: this is a work of fiction and should be read as such. It contains adult language and drug references.]

Fall 2003.

I’d always liked the sky in this part of the state.

I was coasting down the interstate with a full tank on my way back to school. Back to the tedious academics and social calisthenics. My eyes were on the clouds, framed perfectly by my dusty windshield. I had always admired the way the sky looked in this part of the state; up here in the corner of the North Country, along this flat stretch of I-87. It seemed reasonable to say that the sky was the same everywhere. Blue was blue. Same clouds. Same sun. Same atmosphere. Perhaps, it was because lately the ground had nothing to offer me that I admired the sky so much. Nothing caught my interest like that perfect, unobstructed blue and white cascading across the horizon. Those cottony summer cumulus, lazy and meandering, I could deal with. But the hastened pace of those icy, low autumn clouds was too much. A worn and haggard gait that hid their innate sense of urgency. I raced passed my exit at ninety determined not to lose them.

*     *     *

I followed them to Boston, chasing east until my path became a tired knot of urban clutter. Maybe, it was an unconscious decision to come here. Maybe, it was divine intervention. More likely it was because absolutely nothing existed between Albany and Boston. It was times like this when I wished I believed in Fate, but things like that always seemed to go the way of Santa Claus and sea monkeys.

I wanted to see an old friend. Rose. The caricature of prep-school hippies. The parody of waspy party-girls. (They do exist!) I met her my first year — this was before she transferred out to Tufts — in some painful freshman seminar class. She was the most attractive girl in the room so I sat next to her. Played it cool. We enjoyed an awkward and brief sexual relationship until I became aware of her unique interpretation of fidelity. Since then, we had been passively involved in each other’s lives. A chance phone call. A sporadic e-mail. A hollow friendship that seemed to suit us well.

I entered Rose’s apartment fully knowing what to expect — more than anyone our age deserved. High ceilings, finished floors, endless views. Ivory walls scattered with insincere objets d’art, perfectly matching her precious designer car that sat curbside.

“So you left school? Just like that?” She gave me an unimpressed frown.

Yes, I had considered how this might affect me in the long run. I had decided that I needed to deal with my laissez-faire approach to life. I needed to do something.

For as long as I could remember, I had coasted along without worries. It was a cushy existence that had lately become troubling. I needed to challenge myself. To live. To escape from this consensually prolonged childhood before it killed me. And as far as I was concerned, going back to school did not fit into this decision.

“So what are you going to do? Hang out? Play the part of the spoiled rich kid who can’t cope? Write the great American novel? Share your uniquely clever view of life as a twenty-first century upper-middle-class white kid?”

I squirmed in my chair and choked down my vague literary ambitions. Her patronizing encouragement was the last thing I needed right now. She couldn’t possibly begin to understand this. Her pristine, silver spoon lifestyle had afforded her enough idle diversions to ward off demons like self-awareness and introspection.

“Well, it sounds like quite the existential crisis you got yourself there, hon. You know I’ve been reading a lot of Sârtre lately and…”

Of course, she had. And she loved it. I nodded and smiled as she threw up some lecture from last semester that she went to “still drunk.”

In the living room, Rose settled herself at the coffee table and deftly railed three lines. She always managed to make this look incredibly sexy. The way she brushed her bright dandelion hair out of her face as she leaned toward the table, steadying her head. Those piercing blue eyes confessing her guilty anticipation. Somehow her looks justified her actions — a superficial veneer denying her darker truths. A girl who laughed when recounting the time she had her nose cauterized in the ER at three a.m.

Her head kicked back and she sighed. I looked at the alcoholic, the nymphomaniac, the addict staring back at me behind eyeliner and antidepressants. My guilty pleasure. My ambivalent indulgence. I always regarded her with both pity and envy. That’s why I came here. As the coke surged through her bloodstream, I looked into the frenzied eyes behind her custom-colored contact lenses.

“I got a whole eight-ball here. You want a bump?”

*     *     *

We drank the Freedom Trail.

Boston Common to Faneuil Hall — strolling along the narrow sidewalks, keeping our toes on the red cobblestones, furtively swigging our vodka and juice amidst the early evening pedestrian traffic. At Quincy Market, we ate Pad Thai outdoors while sitting near a group of Harvard kids — the dull banter of high-end culture and low-grade wit.

Thank god for the street opera singer. Dinner and a show. We sat attentively as the young girl’s smooth voice bounced “Habanera” off the nearby buildings.

As we ate, Rose told me of another friend of hers who was afflicted with what she now called my “Holden Caulfield Syndrome.”

Rose had mastered the art of being a patronizing bitch.

She frowned, then went on to reveal that the school had locked her friend in a mental ward when they caught up with him. “You know? Like in that Ken Kesey book.”

She would cite the book and not the movie. Our relationship had always been wrought with intellectual tension. It was like foreplay. We had always delighted in outwitting each other. But at times like this, it was irritating.

(Truth was, I’ve never read the novel, and only seen the movie once.) I shifted course, asking how the school had caught up with her friend.

“Truant officers.” She said this it were general knowledge.

I laughed and sipped my vodka.

“You better watch out. Any of these people around us could be a truant officer working for your school.”

Yes. It all made sense now. Why else would colleges have alumni associations? Sleeper agents, who were activated when needed. Just like The Manchurian Candidate. The mad left-wing conspiracy of American liberal arts colleges, hell-bent on world domination.

Rose stared at me unenthused. “Yeah, something like that.”

She absently took out her phone and checked her voicemail while she continued her story.

“Well, I’m sure you know it’s common for elementary and high schools, but some colleges do it, too. They contract retired cops or federal agents to handle cases of truancy. The schools do it to prevent students from leaving school too soon. Milk ‘em for all they got, right?”

She stood up. “Time to powder my nose,” she smirked, trotting off toward the bathroom.

I continued to eat my Pad Thai with a plastic fork, wishing for a pair of chopsticks. (I had learned from Rose, earlier in the meal, that Thai cuisine did not employ chopsticks. But in my Western ignorance, I firmly believed that anything Asian should be eaten with chopsticks and drunk with tea.)

I suddenly got the cold feeling of eyes on me. I looked up from my food. There, in Rose’s chair, sat an older gentleman in a beat-up cowboy hat. He had a haggard look to him — almost deliberate in its dead-on Eastwood accuracy. A toothpick dangled effortlessly between his lips. He moved it about his lips with deft precision.

“Are you enjoying yourself, son?”

I nodded. This is why I hated big cities. Too many wackos. At least in my hometown I knew all the kooks. But here everyone was a potential Section 8.

“The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a truant as ‘one who shirks duty; especially one who stays out of school without permission.’ It defines a truant officer as ‘one employed by a school to investigate the continued absences of pupils.’ ”

Rose must have paid this guy to screw with me. Well, bring it on old man.

What are you going to do about it?

He flashed me his badge.

“Name’s Faber. Special Agent Eberhard Faber.”

When I was a child and did not want to go to school, my mother would warn me of how important attendance was by telling me about the truant officers. “They’ll come right to the house in their car and take you back to school themselves. They mean business.” I thought she was just bullshitting me like when she told me that if I ever swore in front of a dragonfly — or a “sewing needle,” as she called them, it would sew my mouth shut. Now, I was sitting face to face with a real, live truant officer. I wanted to swear, but I knew better. All I could do was laugh.

His toothpick drooped in disappointment. “Look, son… we can do this the easy way or the hard way.”

He set a pair of handcuffs in front of me.

What the fuck?

I stood up. This was getting strange.

Agent Faber slammed his fist on the table. My juice bottle rattled and spilled on the ground. I frowned. I had one good sip left.

“Listen, you little punk. I’m not some piss-ant campus safety goon. This is the big leagues. Laugh all you want, but truancy is a serious offense, and it happens to be something I take very personally. You see this badge?”

He stuck it in my face to examine. Shiny and pointed. In the center was a seal — a book with a torch on it, and the phrase, Adsum necessarius.

“You see that? Adsum necessarius. ‘Attendance is necessary.’ You may wonder what difference it makes. Who really cares if you don’t go to school? Well, I’ll tell you who cares, Mister. I do. Me. And a little lady called Liberty. Remember that, sonny-boy.”

He took a sip of the coffee that had just conveniently, inexplicably been delivered to him.

“You see school keeps kids off the streets and out of trouble. Sure, time was when a boy graduated from high school, he enlisted. Put in his time for Uncle Sam. Gave him some character. Some structure. That’s when men were men. Women, too. This whole country’s gone soft, if you ask me. Mommy and daddy don’t want you to join the Army. So what do we do instead? We make damn sure you stay in school until you get all the hoochie coochies out of your system. Until you can function as an upright, law-abiding member of society.”

Hoochie coochies?

My head searched through his tirade of tired cliché’s for any hint of logic while my eyes scanned the square for Rose.

Faber continued to ramble.

I saw Rose on the steps leading into Quincy Market. One of the Harvard guys who had been sitting next to us was giving her his number. My attempts to grab her attention were ignored. She smiled and waved, ignorant to the look of distress that had by now clearly washed over my face.

No knowing what else to do, I sprung from my chair and dashed across the square toward Rose, snagging her by the arm, and pulling her inside the food court. I pushed our way through the dense mass of overweight sightseers and stuffed shirt preppies, darting left and right, Rose in hand.

I was not sure why I had chosen to take her with me. I could have easily bolted back to my car alone. But I’d seen enough action movies to know that I needed a sexy female and some sort of comic foil. Rose was both.

We emerged at the other end of the building and kept running. Looking back, I saw Faber still inside, pushing through the crowd.

“I was talking to that guy, you know?”

The night was still young. Lord knew she wouldn’t go to bed alone. Besides, he had seen us eating together. I wondered how he knew we weren’t a couple?

“He thought you were gay.”

I had enough to worry about right now. With my hand still tight around her arm, I pulled her across the street.

I paused at a bus stop to get my bearings. I explained my encounter with Faber.

“No shit?” She lit a cigarette and gulped back the last of her vodka. “Well, I told you so.”

We ducked onto the idling bus, and took our seats in the back just as it lurched forward.

I had to make it back to my car at Rose’s apartment. I could lose him on the highway.

“You really need to relax, babe. It was probably just some homeless guy who overheard our conversation.”

No. She hadn’t seen the badge. Or the handcuffs. She didn’t know about Adsum necessarius. She didn’t see the toothpick. This guy was for real. I was sure as hell not going to end up in a hospital. I needed to get out of here. The bus jerked back as it made the next stop. I turned to face her.

As I continued to vent, I saw her face drop. “Shit. Is that him?” I turned. There, at the head of the bus, was Faber. He was speaking to the driver — an anxious Hispanic man, who looked back at me and shook his head.

This was why I hated coke. Shit like this never happened with weed.

Rose nudged me. She inched toward the emergency exit and unlatched the door. A siren rang as she pulled me off the bus. I landed on my hands and took off running to catch up with her.

“Look, I don’t care what your problem is, but if that guy’s a cop, I’m not about to sit there with the better part of an eight ball on me.”

How selfless of her.

Over my shoulder, I saw Faber leap out the emergency exit. He was a tenacious bastard.

I followed Rose down a desolate side street. “It’s a shortcut back to my apartment,” she said.

About halfway down, the street opened up into a gaping canyon full of construction equipment. Industrial strength lighting shone obscenely from within the crevasse that sank beneath what used to be a street.

“Goddamn Big Dig!” Rose lamented as she kicked over a road cone.

Catching my breath, I admired the impasse before us. Layers of historical sediment lined the walls. I wondered what it was they were looking for down there. I envisioned the Boston mayor’s office littered with volumes of leather-bound books. Specialists and scholars pouring over ancient Colonial texts, looking for clues. Faded maps on parchment, clinging to the walls, dotted lines with big red X’s. A mad obsession with a long-lost Revolutionary treasure. Paul Revere’s fife. Ben Franklin’s spectacles. A frantic undertaking, which had left the city in ruins.

Along one edge, was a shaky stretch of scaffolding spanning the gap. I began to move toward it.

“Are you nuts?” she asked.

I could hear footsteps approaching,

“It’s time to go home, son.” Faber stepped under a streetlight about fifteen yards away. I had to give this guy credit; he certainly knew how to make an entrance. He wasn’t even out of breath.

He approached slowly. He had us cornered — him on one side, the hole on the other.

Rose stepped closer to me. She hugged my arm, and buried her face in my shoulder. I felt her hand slip between us and deposit the eight ball into my coat pocket. She looked at me like she had no other choice.

I should have pushed her into that fucking hole.

Instead, I rolled over a Jersey barrier, pulling her with me. On the other side of the construction site, I saw the intersection of Rose’s street. We raced across makeshift bridge. The boards bowed perilously under our feet. Rose gripped my hand tightly — in a fleeting moment authenticity, she was afraid.

Once across, I gave the scaffolding a hard shove. It slowly tipped sideways and sank into the hole as we disappeared down the alley.

The entrance to Rose’s apartment greeted us with a heady glare of blue lights and inquisitive onlookers. Another truant officer and two local cops stood in a circle questioning Rose’s landlord. Apparently, Faber sent for reinforcements. We hurried into the park across the street. Inside, Rose sat on the corner of a picnic table and lit aother cigarette. She pulled me against her and kissed me hard on the mouth.

“This is crazy. I’m so turned on right now. If you weren’t such a bad lay, I’d totally fuck you right here on this table.”

I really should have pushed her in that fucking hole.

As I held onto her, I slipped the eight ball back into her pocket.

I took the cigarette out of her mouth and practically smoked it down in one nervous breath. My life had turned into a goddamned Harrison Ford movie. I sighed as the nicotine rushed to my head.

“I bet he’s a good lay.” Rose rifled through her purse for another cigarette.

My car was around the corner — also under heavy surveillance. I looked at my situation: I was trapped in Boston. My only company was a horny blonde with a coke habit and an eight ball. This night had potential if a crazed, toothpick-molesting truant officer wasn’t trying to arrest me. I couldn’t go home. And if I went back to school, I’d be institutionalized. I was a fugitive.

Suddenly, it dawned on me. Canada.

I was certain that if I made it across the border I would be a free man. I could hide out there until all this blew over. Maybe, I’d have to live the rest of my life in exile. Rose, too. She was an accessory now. Aiding and abetting truancy. We could live together in seclusion under assumed names. Jim and Donna Hapsburg. Rutherford and Holly Simmons. Something like that.

“No, dear, I couldn’t possibly. I have plans. But you go have fun.”

I was better off without her.

“Call me sometime and tell me how all this worked out for you, okay?”

The fluorescent white streetlamp illuminated her frantic blue eyes. She kissed me again and exhaled seductively. “This was fun.”

I gave an awkward smile and took off for the nearest T stop.

I barely caught the late train out of town to Manhattan, crashing discretely in one of the cars, choosing to sit facing backwards, letting the forward motion of the train pull me as I watched the Boston skyline fade away.

*     *     *

The next day bore no sign of Faber. I had lost him. The early morning sun warmed the inside of the train car as it sped north from Manhattan — through the Bronx, Yonkers, Croton-Harmon, Poughkeepsie, further north still, to my eventual terminus in Montreal.

For the first time since this fiasco began, I was able to relax. I watched the Hudson coast along beside me. Above, the early morning sky caught my attention — stoic white clouds intermittently punctuated by striking patches of blue.

How did I end up here again?

Closing my eyes, I dozed to the shaky rhythm of the trip. I was halfway there. My phone rang in my pocket, stirring me from my almost sleep. Someone had sent me a text message. Taking out my phone, my blood went cold as I read he words, Adsum necessarius.

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