Wherein it is discovered there is more to life than collecting Hot Wheels.
I spent the first ten years of my life collecting Hot Wheels with my best friend Alda Lupino, a.k.a, Wheels, on account of her wheelchair.
We had come up with a new hobby over the summer: knicking. It wasn’t really stealing, it was just little things, like a pencil stub, or a rubberband. Wheels could roll up on someone and get them started talking while I knicked their empty soda can or something. The trick was to not be caught, to not be seen, then to watch and wait for the person to notice the thing was missing. Sometimes we put it back, just to watch them get confused all over again.
The only one who ever caught us was her cousin Joey. He was in Mr. Moller’s 5thgrade class too. At least, he was there most of the time. Joey was late, or absent, a lot. He wasn’t sick, but I think maybe his mother was.
Anyway, Joey was used to the chair so it didn’t work on him. When he caught on what we were doing, he started doing it too. Only, Joey thought it was funnier to straighten things up, when somebody’s desk was a mess. Mr. Moller’s desk was always a mess.
One time, Alda asked for Mr. Moller’s help with something, he got up to help her, I dropped some papers to distract the class, and Joey fixed the bookends, and put his pencil back in the pencil cup. I had to admit it was almost as much fun as actually knicking something from the desk.
Before Halloween, we had knicked something from everyone in class, including Mr. Moller. As the year went by, school got harder, but more interesting. I was doing pretty well, and looking like the ‘air apparent’. That’s what they called the top student in 5thgrade at Wendell Perkins Elementary. Whoever was top of the class at the end of 5thgrade was automatically made School President in 6thgrade. I wasn’t sure exactly what it meant, but I knew that Josie Watkins, the 6thgrade girl who was current School President got to use the microphone at school assemblies. I figured that was worth something.
When the new semester started in January, we got a new Yard Duty. That’s what we called the parent who stood around on the playground to keep kids from doing stupid stuff. Her name was Spenser. If you talked to her, you had to call her Ms. Spenser, but no one ever talked to the Yard Duty, unless she yelled at you first. Most Yard Duties where always mad, and you just knew they didn’t want to be there. Ms. Spenser was different. For one thing, she was skinny. And she was pretty, in a way I had never seen anyone be pretty except on TV. When I first saw her she was wearing this big, fluffy coat, black pants that fit real tight, and cowboy boots. Her hair had that streaky look, like part blonde and part not blonde. And these big bug-eye sunglasses. The 6thgrade boys watched her a LOT. And so did Joey. She watched me, making it hard to knick stuff on the playground. So Wheels and I had to get more and more creative. We took turns distracting her, or blocking her view.
Then one day in May, the Yard Duty yells at me during morning break. “Katie! You! Come over here!” I thought, ‘What?!? I haven’t even been near anybody’s stuff today.’ Anyway, I went over to where she was standing at the edge of the blacktop.
We just stood there for a moment, watching a game of kickball on the field. “Katie,” she said, and paused. I looked up at her but couldn’t make out her expression because of the sunglasses. She says, “Katie, you got a problem.” About now I realize she has some kind of accent. She reminded me of Natasha from Rocky & Bullwinkle. Not exactly, but like that.
I figure she knows about my hobby so I say, “Yeah, I know, but it’s not a big deal.”
“Oh it’s big deal now, little sister.”
“What? What kind of problem?”
“Mr. Linton has pictures of you stealing Jason’s shoelaces at PE yesterday.”
Oh that. I sorta froze. I felt sick to my stomach. Shoelaces aren’t that big a deal. And I stuffed them in his lunch bag the next day. But Mr. Linton, the principal, might not see it that way. In fact, I was sure he wouldn’t.
“What shoe laces?” I tried.
“Don’t be stupid, Katie. He knows. He knows all about you. And now he’s got proof. You know that camera he carries around all the time? Taking pictures for the yearbook?” I nodded. Everyone knew about Mr. Linton and his slick little camera he kept in his shirt pocket. “You know? I saw him zoom right in on you. He’s got you.”
Ok, now I was beginning to choke. School President. I had been telling myself it was no big deal, that I really didn’t care about it. But now…oh yeah…I knew I’d been lying to myself. A rock had somehow gotten into my stomach. A big one. I felt my face heat up.
“Don’t panic. There’s a way out.” She leaned over, lowered the sunglasses, and looked me straight in the eye. “You must get that camera.”
I stared at her. I had no idea eyes could be so yellow. I didn’t know then that they made contact lenses in colors, I though she had naturally lemon yellow eyes. She must have realized I was looking at them, because she slipped the glasses up again and went back to watching kickball.
“The camera, Katie. Get it from Mr. Linton’s office. Today. He’s leaving early, something about his car. Sneak in there and get that camera. It’s your only hope.”
The bell rang. I turned and headed back to class.
She was right. I told Wheels during science. “How?” she asked. “We can’t just walk in to Mr. Linton’s office…” Joey came over to borrow a compass, and I told him too. “Oh man, Josie Watkins is in there today helping Mrs. Cartwright…” That was another thing about being School President. That’s who Mrs. Cartwright used to help her decorate her office and stuff.
“Wait a minute,” Joey put the compass down. “Mr. Linton wasn’t here yesterday. He was at a meeting at the school district. I was in the office when he left, I heard him tell Mrs. Cartwright he’d be back at bus time. And he drove up while we were lining up for the bus after school. He couldn’t have taken any pictures. So…what’s the Yard Duty on about?”
Wheels figured Mr. Linton had taken HER picture doing something wrong. Joey had another idea. He reckoned that he caught her at her other job. “She’s a dancer. Steve Barker says she dances nekkid over at that Showgirls place. I’ll bet he got pictures of her dancing and she wants ‘em back. And she’s using YOU to get them!”
I had to think about that for a while. I knew the Showgirls place he was talking about. And I heard that women danced nekkid in there. She sure was pretty enough…
At lunch, I walked right up to her in the lunchroom and said, “We gotta talk.” Outside, we walked to the edge of the blacktop again. “You have a plan?” she said.
I said, “Yeah, I got a plan. I plan on not taking that camera. Mr. Linton wasn’t even here yesterday. He can’t have taken pictures of me.” I watched her.
This time it was her face turning red. “No, you MUST get that camera!” Her voice got really tight, and her cheek was getting wet where the sunglasses rested there. I looked away. “No can do, ma’am. I’m gonna be School President next year. Why would I risk that stealing a camera?”
“You don’t understand. That camera…” Yeah, I think maybe I do understand. And I felt sorry for her. She knew about the shoelaces, and I had a feeling she knew a lot more. But she had never ratted us out. I was starting to feel sick again.
“So…what’s on the camera, really? Did he take pictures of you dancing nekkid?”
She turned on me so fast I thought she was going to hit me. “WHAT!?”
“Everyone knows you dance nekkid at that Showgirls place. I reckon he went in there and took pictures. Is that it? And you want ME to steal it for you…”
“FIRST of all,’ she hissed at me. She was spitting mad, but didn’t want to yell and draw attention. “I do NOT dance “nekkid” at that place! WHO told you that?!?!”
I took a couple steps back. Boy did I goof!
“I am a dance TEACHER! And what’s on that camera is none of your business, you just get it, TODAY! Or you and your little ratpack will be getting pink slips and find yourselves in detention for the rest of the year!”
All things considered, I didn’t see that we had a choice. “Ok…but I’m going to need some help from you.”
Well, that was that. I found Joey and Wheels waiting near the water fountain. They could tell things had gone sideways. “Look, guys, we got a problem.” I told them everything she said. Joey was confused. All the 6thgrade boys knew she was a dancer at that place. “Look, she says she teaches dance. It doesn’t matter. I don’t know what’s on that camera, but if we don’t get it for her, she’s gonna rat us out and we’re done for. And there goes School President.”
Joey was all for direct assault. “The three of us just go in there, talking all at once, and push past the counter and stand in front of her desk. Then I’ll just go in there…”
“No Joey, you know that’s not going to work.”
“Wheels is right, Joey. Even if Josie wasn’t there, Mrs. Cartwright keeps a pretty sharp eye. Besides, I’ve got a plan.”
The bell rang and we all headed back to class. We had just gotten our Social Studies books out when the Yard Duty came into the classroom and went right up to Mr. Moller. They talked for a few minutes. I edged closer to hear.
“I see,” said Mr. Moller. “You’re sure she said all three of them? And their books? Even the Lupino girl?”
“That’s what she said. And she gave me their names.” Mr. Moller seemed skeptical. The Yard Duty just shrugged and said “ADA.” I had no idea what that was, but Mr. Moller sure did. Minutes later we were all heading towards the office, carrying our books.
“What did you tell Mr. Moller?”
“Does it matter? Just get the camera.”
“Wait.” Joey stopped dead. He just stood there. “You don’t need the whole camera.”
Wheels got it first. “You just need the film.”
That was good, and that was bad. I didn’t like the idea of taking something as valuable as a camera. But it was bad because it messed with my timeline. I could cruise in and knick the camera in a moment. How long would it take me to figure out how to get the film out?
“Don’t worry about that. Just get me the camera, I’ll take care of figuring out the film.”
Mr. Linton’s office had two doors. One opened to the rest of the office, one opened to the outside, facing the parking lot. That wall had high windows to let in light and air. They were open. The Yard Duty walked around and stood by that door and lit up a cigarette.
Wheels led the rest of us into the office, and she asked to speak to Mr. Linton right away, assuming he was gone already. Alda had a way of talking to adults. Maybe it was the chair, but they always took her seriously.
Mr. Linton’s office door was open, and he was there. He could see us and said, “Alda, come in. What’s on your mind?” Cool as a popsicle she rolls right in, and we followed. Wheels started in talking about some difficulties she had with her chair in the classroom. I didn’t really listen, I was positioning myself near that back door. Right on queue Joey’s books slipped out of his hands, papers flew all over the floor.
“Oh no! Joey!” Alda whirled her chair in place so slick and was almost falling out of it trying to help Joey.
Mr. Linton jumped out of his seat, afraid she was going to fall. “Joey, why do you have all your books with you?” He was reaching everywhere for loose papers. Joey looked at me and I nodded. He started coughing really hard to cover the sound as I grabbed the doorknob and opened the back door just enough so the Yard Duty could slip some tape onto the latch.
“I’m sorry about the smoke. Sometimes the teachers stand out there for their breaks.” The door closed and Joey recovered. But Mr. Linton stood up and stepped to the back door and opening it, spotted the Yard Duty. “Ms. Spenser, I must ask you to put that out. Or go to the end of the blacktop with it.” Then he checked his watch and said, “I’m sorry, Alda, we’ll have to finish this tomorrow, I have to be going,” he stepped out to the office, “Mrs. Cartwright, please set aside some time tomorrow for Alda.”
Meanwhile, I had spotted the camera on his desk. It was in my pocket before he turned around.
“Ok, Mr. Linton, we’ll see you tomorrow…”
And just like that, we had the camera. I handed it over to the Yard Duty. She pushed a couple of buttons trying to open it. Then something popped out of the side. She pulled it out. “Got it.” She almost dropped the camera handing it back to me. “Put it back now, before it is missed.”
I looked around the corner of the building. Mr. Linton’s car was just leaving the lot. “Ok, Joey, go.”
Joey headed back to the office, while I walked down to Mr. Linton’s back door. The tape had done the trick. I opened the door just as I heard Joey telling Mrs. Cartwright he felt kind of sick. Josie didn’t move, but she was watching Joey. I got in, dropped the camera back on the desk and got out. The Yard Duty got the tape. Done. Joey had a miraculous recovery, and a moment later we were all heading back down the hall. The Yard Duty was laughing and crying at the same time.
That was a lot more fun than collecting Hot Wheels.