A Slow-Motion Suicide

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Chapter 10

Entrenched behind his bedroom door, Robbie sat on his bed and idly banged out chords on his guitar. He always thought better, more freely, when he played guitar. Today, as with every day that week and the week before that, he was thinking about his essay.

Mr. Klein had given him some examples of essays to look over, and there had been a wide variety of styles, ranging from the highly formal and polished to ones more informal and loosely structured. Robbie decided that, if he wanted to write about the truth, he needed to first find out just exactly what that truth might be. His essay would be an exposé, a journalistic tour de force that would show everyone what he saw and what he knew.

He needed to do his research. Dig up the dirt, like a real reporter. The essay could even be in the form of a newspaper article. The concept appealed to him. Middleton, U.S.A., he thought, strumming his guitar, a Look into the Heart of the Original All-American Town. That sounded good.

It occurred to him that he would never be any good at the guitar. It was not his gift in life. His fingers moved slowly, clumsily, and he had to force them into an approximation of the correct chord positions through sheer force of will. But maybe his gift could be a mastery of the written word. This essay, it could be more than simply a way of escape. It could be his justification. A proof of his worth.

And he knew exactly where to start.

Carefully, he put away his guitar and got out a piece of notebook paper. At the top of the page, in a neat hand, he wrote: “Subject One—Simon Dell.”

It was a little over two weeks later that Robbie found himself sitting on the edge of a leather-bound chair in the mayor’s office, nervously kicking his sneakers against the chair legs. He had written to Mayor Dell, asking him what it was like being a mayor, and the mayor had very generously offered to meet the boy after school let out to show him around the town hall.

“So,” said the mayor, looking very tall and large behind his desk, “what’s your name again, son?”

“Robert,” Robbie replied. He wondered if the mayor would remember him from English class but suspected he would not.

“Well, Robert. Your letter said you’re very much interested in the workings of our town’s government.”

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s wonderful. So many of the youth these days, they couldn’t care less about civic engagement. And apathy is the greatest assurance of tyranny that I know.”

“Yes, sir.”

The mayor stood up and walked around to the front of his desk. “Robert, elected officials get a bad rap, and I won’t deny that there are some bad apples in the bunch. Are in any line of work. But, Robert, elected officials perform an essential function in a democracy. At their finest, they truly are the voice of the people.”

“Yes, sir.”

They made some more small talk. Mayor Dell asked if the boy had already written his wish list for Santa Claus, considering it was getting dangerously close to Christmas. Robbie, who had not believed in Santa Claus since third grade, diplomatically said that he hadn’t. The mayor then segued into topics related to the town’s governance, discussing the number of aldermen elected to the board, the different departments that could be found at the town hall, why and how to register your pet dog. Robbie dutifully took notes and occasionally nodded in a compliant sort of way.

After about a half hour, the mayor’s secretary popped in from the outer office to tell Mayor Dell that he was due for a meeting with an architectural firm in five minutes in the conference room. The mayor smiled at her, then smiled at Robbie, though perhaps not quite so brightly. Dell told the boy that he would return shortly and asked the secretary to keep an eye on the office until his return.

“And what’s your name, young man?” she asked Robbie, in saccharin tones, as soon as the mayor was gone.

Robbie fidgeted in his seat a bit and regarded the woman dubiously. She was a pretty brunette woman just entering middle age, but her smile was too wide, and her mouth contained entirely too many teeth. Robbie didn’t think he could like a person with that many teeth.

“My name’s Robert,” he mumbled in reply.

“What a lovely name. My name is Tracy, and I think that—” She broke off as the phone in the outer room range, and she smiled even wider. “I’m sorry, sweetie, I need to go grab that. Be right back.”

As soon as she had returned to her desk and answered the phone, Robbie hopped out of his chair and attacked the mayor’s desk. Quietly and efficiently he rummaged through all the unlocked drawers and rifled through each file and compartment. For the most part, he found junk. There were very boring, very legal-looking papers; countless memoranda and reports; stacks of business cards; and enough pens and pencils to keep Middleton Middle School fully supplied until well into the next century.

But in the bottom drawer, under some heavy file folders, there was something else, something much more interesting. In the bottom drawer of Mayor Dell’s desk, Robbie found a box of extra-large condoms.

Robbie dumped the contents of the box out onto the desk. Only two condoms remained out of the entire batch. Robbie fought back the urge to giggle. He, Robert Banks, had single-handedly uncovered a potential scandal. How could the mayor—the mayor, of all people—be so stupid? Because why would a married man need to have condoms at his office? Why would he need to hide them away in a drawer? He wouldn’t, unless he was having an affair.

Maybe the condoms were for the pretty secretary who was supposed to be keeping an eye on Robbie even now. Maybe they were for the interns. Mayor Dell hadn’t introduced Robbie to any interns, and Robbie hadn’t met any at town hall so far, but Robbie figured there must be at least one or two working for the town.

From the outer office, Robbie listened as Tracy began saying goodbyes to her caller. He put the condoms back in the box and the box back in the desk.

Mayor Dell returned in half an hour to find Robbie innocently doodling in the margins of his notes, swinging his legs back and forth, the backs of his sneakers kicking the chair legs. He beamed down at the boy, in his overly hearty, avuncular sort of way, and asked Robbie if he had gotten too terribly bored while the mayor had been gone.

“Oh, no, sir,” said Robbie, smiling back. “I kept myself amused pretty well.”

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