Below is the second chapter in the Tin Cup Clan’s first mystery. I’m gonna post a chapter about once a week in hopes of needed feedback from the reader. A very good friend Herb Thiel has very graciously spent valuable time editing this work and he has saved me a great deal of embarrassment. You should check his blog out, (The Haps With Herb.) This guy possesses an incredible amount of common sense, and his posts are spot on. Do yourself a kindness and visit.
The following chapter finds our boys in the school cafeteria, and for the first time, we meet Mikey’s sworn enemy, Mark, the school bully. The school cafeteria resembles the United Nations in many ways, albeit at a grade school level. Unspoken guidelines and carved-in-stone protocols were strictly enforced. As you read, see if you can recall what those rules were.
The good, the bad, and the bully
The bus finally rattles into the school parking lot and comes to a stop with a groan and a jerk. The jocks in the rear are first to stand and slither to the front. There is a strict order when getting off the bus as well, so we stand eyes to the floor and wait our turn.
Jumping into the aisle at the wrong time might find you gettin’ knocked back to your seat flat on your back. The resultin’ laughter and finger-pointing were sure to follow you around the rest of the day.
As they make their processional, Patrick, the head of the football team, blurts out, “Does anybody smell smoke? I smell smoke.” Big David doesn’t lift his eyes, no point in it. A loud round of laughter goes through the group.
Once the bullies had passed, the big lug just looked up with that simple smile, just as he always does. Lookin’ over at us, he shrugs his shoulders and remarks, “Don’t bother me none.”
Chucky shook his head in disgust. When are you gonna do somethin’ about that jerk, David?”
“Ahh, he don’t mean nothin’ by it. besides, he’s just tryin’ to look good fer the girls. I’m already purdy enough as it is. Reckon I got no reason to impress nobody else.” He nudged Chucky a bit, proud of his comment.
Finally, time for us to get off; Chucky caught Stick starin’ at one of the cheerleaders as she walked by. He threw Stick a smack to the back of the head. Let’s go, dipstick.”
“Hey, that hurt dude.”
“It’ll hurt a lot more if Patrick catches you doin’ that, now let’s go.” We walked down the bus steps and made our way through the crowd to the lunchroom.
As soon as we open the door, the smell of cinnamon soaks into my nose. I yelled to the other guys. Cool! cinnamon toast! I loves me some cinnamon toast.’ Specially if it’s got lots a sugar.”
“I hate it,” snaps Stick, “Burns my throat. you can have mine.” Then, realizin’ what he had just said, “No, wait, if they got raisin-bran, I keep the toast. I hate raisin-bran even more than cinnamon, looks like I got a bowl full of dead bugs or mouse turds.”
While we were gettin’ our trays, Chucky nudged my shoulder, “Looks like you’re eatin’ two cereals man. Look, Raisin Bran.”
“Great,” I snorted in disgust, “Looks like it’s gonna be one heck of a day.”
On each tray, the lunch lady placed a small box of cereal (the kind that you split down the side, making the box a leaky and hard-to-use bowl). They make a mess, and you cain’t ever seem to get all the cereal outta the corners, followed by a slice of warm, buttery cinnamon toast.
When you get to the end of the line, you gotta get past Mrs. Tuttle. he controls the milk, the juice, the ice cream, the weather, well, everything. Of course, you only got juice or two milks if you were one of the rich kids; orange juice and extra milks cost an extra fifteen cents, so none of us ever got any.
Now let’s talk for a bit about the queen of the lunchroom.
Nobody knows for sure how old she is, but she’s old, ancient old. When the good Lord made the earth, she was there, lookin’ over his shoulder, her tall, blue, bee-hive hairdo blowin’ in the breeze. her gaze makin’ sure He didn’t get any extra milks or juice. On the sixth day, I’m certain the Lord turned to her and asked, “Whatcha think about this, Mrs. Tuttle?”
“Well…” she replied. It’s OK, I reckon…You can take tomorrow off.”
But that’s jest my opinion.
Her narrow eyes hide behind a pair of black “cat’s-eye” glasses. her hand-drawn, bright red, pencil-thin lips rarely spoke a word and never ever, I mean, ever, smiled. She sits on an old wooden chair like a queen on her throne.
She possesses absolute power over anything and anyone within the lunchroom walls. She don’t care who you are, ballplayer, cheerleader, nerd, rich or poor; it don’t matter to her.
Her scepter is a worn black pen held tight in her gnarled hand. Below that gnarled hand sits an old ledger. That ledger contains the complete life history of every student that’s ever gone to this school. I swear she’s gotta have my Papaw’s name in there somewhere. Nothing, and I mean nothing, gets past her. The free lunch program allows us one milk, a second cost ten cents. he makes sure we get only what we are entitled to before looking up our name and scratching it down in that worn ol’ book.
The milk and juice cooler sits to her left, and to her right sits the ice cream freezer. Access to either one is granted with the wave of her hand, and denial by a single finger sayin’, “No.”
Once we passed inspection and our names were scratched down for all eternity, Chucky went off to find us a lonely corner so’s we could eat in peace.
Big David made sure we all stopped and bowed our heads as he asked the blessing.
I reached over to Stick’s tray, grabbing my extra cereal and milk.
“Wait, Wait, Wait, dude! said ‘cereal,’ not cereal and milk.”
“Aww, come on, dude,” I pleaded, “Everybody knows cereal comes with milk.”
“No way man! That milk belongs to yours truly.” He snapped the carton from my hand and gave the edge a quick lick to mark it as his own.
“You’re just nasty,” I sneered. How am I supposed to eat cereal without milk?”
“You got milk,” he said, “Use it.”
“But there’s not enough.”
“Not my problem, Tonto.” He took a big gulp of milk and whipped the mustache off his lip. A big, “Aah,” followed, just to rub it in.
David gave a deep snicker as he bit into his toast. He looked up, bread hanging from his gaping mouth. You guys are crazy,” he said, “Just plain ol’ crazy.”
Chucky shushed everybody, “Don’t look now, but Mark just walked in.”
We all stopped what we were doing and turned around.
“Hey, I said don’t look, not turn around and stare.”
There he was, my mortal enemy, my worst nightmare, my one, and only nemesis. An absolute giant by fifth grade standards, or any standard as far as we were concerned. At least 150 pounds of muscle and mean. His blonde hair was cut in a flat top so level you could build a house on it. He wore a varsity jacket even though he was only in fifth grade. We don’t know where he got it, and it didn’t matter. Besides, nobody was brave enough to ask him anyways.
As usual, his cronies surrounded him like he was the President. A pitiful lot, all of ’em, clambering around, bending to his every whim. He took whatever place in line that he wanted, pushin’ the less fortunate aside, slowin’ down only when he came to the Tuttle. He had to stop there.
Other kids vacated wherever he and his posse decided to sit. Stayin’ put was tantamount to suicide. The best one could hope for was losin’ part of your meal. The worst, well, made even the biggest kid shudder.
David still had the toast hanging from his mouth. Whatcha gonna do about him, friend?”
“Stay away,” I replied. If I do what he wants, and Papaw finds out, the ol’ man’s gonna kill me, maybe even worse. Like the ol’ sayin’ goes, ‘there’s worst things in life than dyin’.’ If I don’t get it for him, then he’s the one that’ll kill me; either way, I’m a dead man walkin’.”
“I’d get it if I were you,” said Stick. Your ol’ man ain’t gonna miss that much anyways, and besides, you wouldn’t be scared if you was gettin’ it for one of us now, would ya?”
“That’s different, Stick, none of you guys would ask me. And even if you did, do you think I’m afraid of a beanpole like you?”
David snorted, and half choked on cinnamon. ” Looks like he told you what fer.”
Stick smirked and made a face.
After a few more minutes of small talk, the bell rang. I swallowed what was left of my now soggy cereal and stuffed the other box in my coat pocket. It was time to take my tray to the wash window.
The washroom is a clamor of activity and the gossip center of the lunchroom. The loud clinkin’ of cups and trays bounced about the small space. Steam spewed from shiny steel washers as baskets of clean trays slid along the rollers. Students with bright white aprons and paper hats were busy scrapin’ food from trays before loadin’ them in baskets and shovin’ them into the monster’s mouth. Others waited at the far end, grabbin’ the hot baskets as they emerged, then stackin’ them clean and steamin’ in neat stacks, ready for the lunch crowd.
“When’s your turn?”
“What?” The question startled me.
“The warsh room. When’s your turn?”
I looked back; there was big David, dumping his tray of bread crust.
“Oh, I dunno, pretty soon I reckon. Burton ain’t told me when yet. A solid week cleanin’ every dirty dish in the building. I cain’t wait, whoop, whoop.”
A big hand landed solidly on my back and hurt a bit.
“Look on the bright side friend; at least ye git to stay away from ol’ Mark fer a few days.” He shrugged his shoulders and turned to walk out. I swear I saw some teeth behind that lazy smile.
By the time David and I made it to class, Chucky and Stick were already in their seats. One thing about David, he don’t hurry much. The bell rang the very second we slid through the door.
“Well, well, well. Saved by the bell once again, huh gentlemen?” It was Burton, “I swear you two cut it closer every day. I m gonna get you boys, sooner or later, just wait and see, I’m gonna get ya. Now get in your seats, can’t wait around all day now, can we?”
Mr. Burton is our fifth-grade teacher. He ain’t too bad as far as teachers go. Ma told me the two of them went to school together. even so, he still looks a heap older than Ma does. His curly brown hair and thick mustache seem to have a great deal of grey in ’em. He even blames that on us, says we’re to blame for every hair. I had hoped, see’n how he knew my Ma and all, that this year would be just a little easier. But it don’t appear to be workin’ out that way. I swear. I think he’s tryin’ to make it harder on me just because he used to be a little sweet on her.
His classroom is odd, really odd. It’s set up all backward. He’s got the desk sittin’ at the rear of the room. Now, you wanna talk about messing with yer head. He says this way he can keep an eye on everything we’re doing. It’s kinda creepy is what it is, you can feel him staring at the back of your head. It’s worse than having your Ma lookin’ over your shoulder while you’re takin’ a bath.
The chalkboard is still at the front; he keeps a tall stool sittin’ to the left side, just between the chalkboard and the door. That’s where he stays most of the time. He laughs a lot, and most days, he’s in a good mood. But, if someone ain’t done their homework, or somebody gets caught talkin’, then he gets quiet, and that’s when you know he’s mad.
This cat has the deadliest aim with a piece of chalk that you’ve ever seen. To make matters worse, his aim comes accompanied by a hair-trigger. The slightest whisper or chuckle has found many an unfortunate soul dead in the cross-hairs of an expertly placed throw.
He always aims for the head. I’ve never been hit, but Chucky and Stick seem to make a habit of it. Believe it or not, the chalk’s just a warning shot. They’s something far worse waitin’ for any doomed soul that don’t heed the chalk toss.
In his desk, hidden in the top center drawer, is where he keeps it. It’s legendary amongst kids of all ages, a literal “Excalibur” of discipline. A piece of oak about a foot and a half long and six inches wide. Along the business end of the board are carefully drilled holes, and for some un-Godly reason, signatures cover the entire length. He even went so far as to give the evil thing a name, “Ol’ Painless.”
He loves Ol’ Painless. He talks about her constantly. Sometimes I believe he expects her to answer. He even opens the desk drawer from time to time to have a make-believe conversation. The sight sends chills up our spines. Her reputation floats over the classroom like a storm cloud. Gettin’ hit by the chalk is just the thunder before the strike. And, like thunder, the clap sends all within earshot runnin’ for cover.
He only goes back to his desk after he’s taken rollcall, laid out the lesson plans, and performed whatever manner of small-talk he felt necessary. That small talk invariably turns to football or basketball or some other useless nonsense.
Most of it’s back of the bus talk, so we pass the time makin’ faces, passin’ notes, or just tryin’ to get the other caught and in some manner of trouble.
But, after a few minutes, he makes his way back to his desk and sits there, scannin’ the room for the slightest infraction. That’s why it’s so hard to cheat, pass notes, throw anything, or just be normal; you get the picture.
Mark sits at the back of the room, right smack next to Mr. Burton’s desk. I’m sure it’s on purpose; they whisper back and forth like school kids, ’bout sports mostly, I reckon. Most times, I can’t make out the whispers and chuckles.
Aside from the gossip, and given mine and Mark’s history, I’m sure Burton put him in that particular spot for the sole purpose of staring a hole through the back of my head. Whatever the reason, there he was, and I can feel him givin’ me the stink-eye.
So…there it is what do you think? If you liked it, then hit a button or two. If there was something missing, please let me know. Comments with any and all advice are greatly appreciated.
As always, We understand time is precious, and we are honored you chose to spend a bit of it with us. Thank You and God Bless you.
The Tin Cup Clan