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Chapter 7 January 2, 1995

At five o’clock that morning Philly woke-up without needing an alarm clock. Beep… Beep…Beep… He was so thrilled he had barely slept the night before. After first peeing and brushing his teeth, he grabbed an old margarine tub his mom kept for storage from the kitchen and filled it with hot water and a touch of Dawn dish soap. Taking the soap and water mixture with him into his bedroom, there he dressed himself, finishing the act by putting his father’s old Nikes on his feet.

Outside waiting for him on the back patio was his new bike, a blue Stingray. To Philly it was the most beautiful thing in the world. He loved how it was shiny blue, except for the handles, seat, and tires, those parts were black. Beep… Beep…Beep…. And he loved how the part of the handles you don’t grab and the inside of the wheels were metal (he did not know the word, chrome).

All those shiny things with the black made the bike look so pretty. It didn’t bother Philly that ‘pretty’ sounded like it was a girl word. He had already proven that he was a man. Besides, in that moment, he could not think of a man word to work. Other than maybe: Perfect. Yea, Perfect was a good word, but the bike was both: It was pretty, it was perfect, and best of all, it was all his. He just had to keep quiet, but in his head he kept hearing, Beep… Beep…Beep.

Though it was not dirty, Philly took his time washing the bike with his soapy water, and afterwards he rinsed the soap off with clean water. By the time he was finished, he figured it was nearing time to leave for school. Before he left though, he first rinsed out the margarine tub, and put it back where he found it. Just like he had been taught he then wrung out the old t-shirt he used to wipe his bike really-really good to get all the wet out before putting it in the dirty clothes basket.

He had made the trip to school half a dozen times since he got his new bike, but never while wearing his book sack. The good thing was he knew where to ride to keep his tires on the concrete and out of the morning dew.

Philly left his house at 5:30 AM, making sure to lock up his house behind him. He did all of this without his mom waking up. Most of the ride to school, he managed to ignore the constant Beep… Beep…Beep.

Philly was sure of all the bikes on the rack old and new it was simply the best. He hated that he had no lock for it. He thought maybe this could have been one of the medium sized things he asked Big Ern for Christmas, but figured a lock was more of a small thing than a medium thing.

The two medium sized things he asked for and got for Christmas were perfect. The lock would have been a waste of a gift, really. Maybe if he could just stand there and keep an eye on the bike until the morning bell rang. Once it rang, all the kids would be in class, so it would be safe from them.

Unfortunately, the school gate would be left opened all day, and the bike would be up for grabs by strangers. He needed to secure it. But how?

The morning school bell rang. It was time to get to class. Not a second later he heard Mr. Nelson shouting his name. Mr. Nelson was his favorite teacher ever, and was yelling for him to get into class. He didn’t want to upset Mr. Nelson, but hated to leave the bike unsecured. Just then Philly had an idea. Thinking quick, Philly sat down on the cement. Never losing sight of his bike, Philly’s hands worked hurriedly at his feet. In his head he heard, Beep… Beep…Beep.

The plan was simple. Philly would untie the laces of his dad’s old Nikes, pull the strings out of them, and use them to tie his bike to the rack. The fact he would be walking around school the rest of the day without shoe laces hadn’t occurred to Philly. Had it, it likely would not have mattered anyway. The safety of the bike was that important. He had worked too hard for it. He had taken a few beatings for the medium sized things, sure. But Philly had done much more to earn this bike. Thinking about what he had done made him say the sound out loud, “Beep… Beep…Beep…”

He got rid of the sound by thinking about how Big Ern got it for him just like he said he would. Nothing in this world is as important as a man’s word. Big Ern had taught him that too.

Maybe he could ask Big Ern for a lock after school today. If Big Ern wanted to beat him first that would be ok, Philly thought. He preferred a beating to those other things. Thinking that Big Ern would buy him a lock without at least beating him first never crossed the boy’s mind.

While Philly’s hands worked at his feet, Mr. Nelson’s voice grew louder. “Philly. C’mon, that was the bell it’s time for class.” It was louder because it was closer, and it was louder because it was madder. Philly did not want to be yelled at by Mr. Nelson the way he had yelled at Tommy, Sam, and Matthew. “Phillip. Come. On.” Mr. Nelson was practically on top of him. Philly’s nerves were getting bad. Beep… Beep…Beep.

Though Philly’s hands had been working at his shoes, he never took his eyes from his bike. So instead of untying the shoes, Philly had only succeeded knotting the shoe strings tighter. He knew he would never be able to pull the laces out of the shoes now. Philly pulled the big shoes off his feet. The plan had changed just slightly. He’d still use the laces to tie the bike to the rack, but the laces would still be inside of the shoes. Walking around the school in his sock feet was a fair price to pay. Just as Philly removed the shoes though Mr. Nelson shadow was cast over him. “Do you want me to get Mr. Jackson? If not, you better get your butt in class.” He said.

“Put your shoes on, Philly. Let’s go.” Mark said. Philly looked up at Mr. Nelson and back at the unsecured bike, then he looked down at his knotted shoes, and back to Mr. Nelson. Finally, he looked back at his bike. Mark hadn’t put it together yet. He started what he thought was the obvious problem. “Sure got those shoes nice and knotty huh, Philly?”

Philly looked down at the oversized Nike’s and shrugged his right shoulder slightly acknowledging that they were tied too tightly for him to do anything with. He had been able to stop himself from saying it aloud, but kept hearing that annoying sound, Beep… Beep…Beep.

“Hand em here why don’t you. I think I can get em loose,” Mr. Nelson said. Philly stood and did as he was asked. “Damn. These things are sure pulled tight.” And they were. They were pulled extremely tight. Given this and the fact that Mark’s class would be starting about now without its teacher, he should have just cut the strings at the knot. After cutting the knot and freeing the string ,he could tie the two cut ends of the strings together. Then they’d be good as new, right? Sure they would be for anyone else, but not for Philly.

These shoes were only pair of Nikes that Philly ever wore. Not to mention, they were Philly’s dead dad’s shoes. It was almost as if they were an heirloom. The significance of this was not lost on Mark. The notion that the shoes would be the same cut lace or not was not a factor. If the lace could be untied without cutting it, Mark would do his best to do so. Mark worked meticulously at the knots until he unknotted them.

He handed the shoes back to Philly who was now just mouthing the beep noise. Instead of sitting back down to put the shoes on his feet, Philly began to pull the strings free from the shoes while walking towards the blue Stingray. Mark finally put it together. The bike had no lock. Philly planned to use the shoe strings to secure it to the rack. This is why Philly had stood by it all morning. He feared someone might take it. Thinking fast, he said, “Go ahead and put on your shoes, Philly. I got something that’ll hold much better than them shoe stings”

Mr. Nelson removed the black and brown woven leather belt he was wearing and showed it to Philly. “See?” he held it up to him, “It’s made of strong braided leather strips.” He pulled the belt at both ends to evidence its strength. Philly nodded. The three beeps he had been making were again audible, but barely.

Mr. Nelson continued, “While most belts have just one long piece of leather, and pre-cut holes, your ole teacher, Mr. Nelson, wears an extra durable belt of,” he slid his thumb across the weaves and counted the individual strips in his head, “ten thick pieces of leather, all woven together, making it ten times stronger than a belt with a single piece of leather, and a million times stronger than your shoe strings.”

He handed the belt to Philly for inspection. “Now,” Mr. Nelson said, “the brown and black two-tone was style choice, which I admit has little to do with our objective today.” He looked at Philly to see if Philly got the joke. It didn’t look like he did. It was a rare miss with Philly who usually caught on to the fact that Mr. Nelson was joking. Now whether Philly ever understood the jokes was another story.

“As I was saying, the braided strips allow you to put a hole wherever you desire it.” Philly ran the belt through the buckle pushing three holes in different places along its length. Each time he punched through the braided leather, he said to himself, “Beep… Beep…Beep.”

“If you want it today to lock up your bike, you can,” Mr. Nelson said. “Just please bring it back to me when it’s time to leave.” Philly nodded and started straight for his bike belt in hand. “But not until you put your shoes back on first.” Philly sat down and put on his dad’s old oversized Nikes. “Finish up here quick as you can. I am going to get to class. I am sure it’s damn near torn to pieces by now.”

* * *

GW made it back to her desk, and Philly sallied into class right around the same time. Shortly before Mark began his lesson, Mrs. Sampson popped her head in the door, and nodded at him indicating she needed to speak with him about something important. “Ok. Pop Quiz time,” Mr. Nelson said aloud, cupping his ear with his hand to take in the students’ groans.

Mark’s teaching methods were odd, but the students were used to them by now. In the beginning of the school year he would always hear complaints like, ‘Fourth graders don’t have pop quizzes.’ To this he’d reply, “Yes they do. Look, they are having one now.” Mark looked forward to making these witty retorts when the students complained, and had recycled this one for at least the last decade, if not longer.

Perhaps his favorite come-back had happened this year after a complaint made by David Sanderson. After a pop quiz announcement, a frustrated David had said, “My sister is in tenth grade. That’s high school! And she never had a pop quiz.” Mark replied sharply, “C’mon Dave, I taught your sister.” All the students Ooooooo’d at this - for they knew if Mr. Nelson had taught Dave’s sister then she certainly had pop quizzes.

With unorthodox teaching methods comes arbitrary rules, and one of Mr. Nelson’s was a student could not ask if an assignment was for a grade. “Everything is for a grade,” he’d say, “and, just for asking – this is worth a hundred points.” Better still, the students knew better than to ask if the homework he’d assign needed to be turned in or if he was going to take off for spelling errors. “Well, since you asked,” was Mark’s pocket reply.

“Take out a sheet of loose leaf paper.” Mr. Nelson instructed the class as he walked toward the door to hear what Mrs. Sampson needed to tell him. “In the top right hand corner, write you name, date, and for the subject write President Quiz No. 1,” He said. “Now fold the page like a hotdog. Number the page 1 through 21 on the left side, and number it 22 through 42 along the center crease. List as many of the United States presidents you know. The order does not matter. Since I am a nice guy, I will give you a freebee, William Jefferson Clinton.”

He finished the quiz instruction just as he made it close enough to Mrs. Sampson for them to whisper to one another. “By the way, a million thank yous for putting Gertie in charge while I was making my way back from Early Duty,” he told her. She smiled, but it was not in her normal welcoming way. “What’s up?” he asked.

“Ms. Green hadn’t made it to her classroom this morning,” she whispered. “No call. No show.” This was the teacher’s lingo meaning: Ms. Green did not call anyone with the school administration this morning to say that she was not coming in and a substitute teacher had not been scheduled by her or anyone. “Mr. Jackson has called her house a half a dozen times, but every time he does so the phone line is busy.”

Mark’s face whitened. “When is the last time you spoke with her?” he asked.

“Two weeks ago, before the break. You?”

“Ditto, but when was the last time you tried? Did you talk with her at all during the holiday?”

“No.” Mrs. Sampson said, noticing how pale Mark had just turned. “Did you?”

“Yes, a few times. I tried, I think, twice on Christmas day, but got a busy tone. And tried again on New Year’s Day and got a busy tone again. I thought nothing of it. Her family all lives out of town. So it made sense for her to be tied up on the phone on Christmas day. I just figured it was the same thing for New Year’s.”

“I had Mr. Jackson telephone my husband, Alan. He will be here shortly to sub Ms. Green’s class.”

The Sampsons lived across the street from Baxton Elementary. Mark thought this was great quick thinking by the in-comp-ra-bull, and had no doubt Alan would be presenting to Ms. Green’s class in the next few minutes. The busy signal on Julie’s line bothered him. It reminded him of something. Every time he called her it was –

“Beep… Beep…Beep…”

Mark heard Philly saying to himself again at his desk. He couldn’t help but think that thing Philly had been doing all morning sounded just like a busy tone. He couldn’t help to think that something was wrong. He couldn’t help to think, Where the hell is Ms. Green?

It took a lot of effort but Philly made himself stop thinking about his bike for a few minutes to take his quiz. He was proud of himself, but this pride was short lived. Besides the ones that Mr. Nelson gave the class for free, William, Jefferson, and Clinton, Philly only knew a couple other presidents. So after he listed what presidents he knew, he turned over his loose leaf and started to draw pictures on the back of his quiz. He started with his bike. The bike was perfect. He really wished he had a blue Crayola crayon. He did not realize he was once again making the beeping sounds out loud.

“Ok. Time is up,” Mr. Nelson said to the class. “Everybody count how many you have.” Philly counted and wrote a big number seven at the top of his sheet to acknowledge he had listed seven presidents. “Let’s see who got the most listed,” Mr. Nelson said. “Raise your hand if you got at least twenty.” No hands went up. “Ok. No one with twenty? How about ten?” Still no hands rose. “Ok. Ok. Ok. Let me see five!” Three hands darted up. “More than five?” Mr. Nelson asked. All three hands students’ hands, including Philly’s stayed up.

“And then there were three. Let’s see. Let’s see. Who do we got here?” The classroom students lit up with excitement, because Mr. Nelson had started with his boxing announcer voice.

“In this corner, the challenger, we got Mr. Dave ‘My Sister Ain’t Never Took a Pop Quiz In Her Whole Life’ Sand-errr-son.”

The classroom students ohh’d and ahh’d fake applause as per their role in this boxing bit. “And over in this corner, we got, the Champion, Ms. Gertie, but you know her better as Geee Double Youuuu, Miiiiiic –Lintock.”

More ohhs and ahhs from the students followed GW’s introduction. “And finally, standing six foot seven, two-hundred and sixty pounds of lean muscle, fighting out of No-Where-Ville USA, we got, Mr. Metallic Blue Stingray, himself, Phiiiiiiil-leeey Suuuuchie.”

The last of the ohhs and ahhs were given by the students. Now they were waiting with batted breath for their favorite part. Waiting for someone to drop out from the running so they can do the Frazier chant.

All the ‘boxers’ smiled at their nicknames. Philly’s smile was the brightest. “Ok. Now I gave you Clinton,” Mr. Nelson reminded the three boxers. “So if you only have five names because you listed President Clinton, put your hand down.”

Dave’s hand lowered.

“Down Goes Frazier! Down Goes Frazier! Down Goes Frazier!” the entire classroom of students all said together in unison.

“Ok. Two left,” Mr. Nelson said. “Who will it be the Champion or the Challenger? If you have more than six you can leave your hand up.”

GW’s hand lowered.

“Down Goes Frazier! Down Goes Frazier! Down Goes Frazier!” the class chanted, followed by Mr. Nelson adding his Howard Cosell bit, “The Heavyweight Champion is taking the mandatory eight count, and Foreman is as posed as can be in a neutral corner.”

Philly’s smile was bright as ever. It was the first time he had ever won the pop quiz challenge. “Bring me your test sheet and get you a Tootsie Pop from the candy jar,” Mr. Nelson told him. Philly did.

Mr. Nelson was barely able to hide his shudder upon reviewing the quiz answers and seeing the pictures drawn on the back. Nevertheless, he nodded at the sheet as if to evidence that seven answers were listed and were all correct before he handed it back to Philly.

“Looks like we don’t have time to start on a new lesson before the recess bell rings,” Mr. Nelson told the class. “For the next uh,” he checked his watch, “five to seven minutes, ya’ll just turn your quiz sheets over and draw a picture of what you did over the Winter Break. When the bell rings, put your answer sheet in the basket on your way out.”

For the next five to seven minutes, Mr. Nelson sat at his desk contemplating the mornings’ events and watched Philly work on his drawing while sucking the Tootsie Pop. Slurp. . .Slurp. . .Slurp. Mr. Nelson had no doubt this sucking sound was the same cadence as a busy signal. The same sound the boy had been making earlier. The same sound that Julie Green’s phone had been making for the past two weeks.

By the time the bell rang, Mr. Nelson figured out what he wanted to do. By this time, Philly had already started to shade in the seat of the bike he drew with his pencil. “Guys,” Mr. Nelson addressed the class, “instead of turning in your drawing, leave it on your desk. I’ll grab the crayons and markers from the supply closet and let you finish it after recess.”

Philly got up from his desk and made his way to the playground. For the entire fifteen minutes he stood staring at his bike while chomping down on his Tootsie Pop. Crunch… Crunch…Crunch. He did not realize it sounded like a busy tone.

With Philly’s quiz sheet in hand, Mr. Nelson walked across the hall to Mrs. Sampson’s classroom. Not surprisingly, Mr. Alan Sampson was in there as well visiting his wife. “Hope I’m not interrupting anything?” Mr. Nelson announced as he was walking in. They each said he wasn’t.

Anticipating his next question, Mrs. Sampson told him, “We still haven’t heard anything from Ms. Green.”

“I tried a few more times before I walked over. The line is still busy,” Alan said.

“I was afraid of that,” Mr. Nelson said while looking down at the test sheet in his hand.

“What’s that you got there in your hand, son?” Alan asked.

“Hopefully nothing more than a misunderstanding,” Mr. Nelson said. “But I had wanted Mrs. Sampson to take a look at it. Having you here is all the better Mr. Sampson. Another set of eyes on this thing may be warranted. Can you both to take a look?”

Mrs. Sampson read the look in Mark’s eyes. “It’s about Ms. Green. Isn’t it?” she asked.

“I think it is, but I hope not,” Mark said. He handed the quiz paper to the Sampsons “When starting a new unit, I always quiz the students first to see what all they know. This is so I don’t spend time reviewing when I could be using that time for teaching.” The look Mark got from both the Sampsons told him to get to the point. They both taught so they didn’t need the superfluous set up. He continued. “The students were tasked with naming as many presidents they could,” Mark told them. “You are holding Phillip Suchie’s answer sheet.”

Mrs. Sampson’s worked through the list. After reading the first three, she smiled a bit. She had been in the classroom when Mr. Nelson had given them William Jefferson Clinton as an answer. Philly had written it as three different names and got Jefferson out of his mistake for free. He had missed with William though. Numbers four and five were Washington and Lincoln. Philly wrote Ben Franklin for number six. Of course he wasn’t a president, but Mrs. Sampson thought it was an easy mistake. Number seven was the problem.

Alan saw it immediately. “Does number seven read, Hitler?” he asked.

“That’s what I read it as too,” Mrs. Sampson said.

“Me too,” admitted Mark. “But I wanted to make sure I wasn’t the only one who saw it.”

“Well what else could it be if not Hitler,” asked Alan. “What are the other presidents that start with an H? Maybe it’s one of those. Let’s see there is Hoover, and Hayes.”

“Plus Harding,” added Mrs. Sampson

“-and two Harrisons,” finished Mark.

The Sampsons agreed with Mark that none of those names were written. Maybe Hoover, they thought because clearly there was an H and an ER at the end.

“I want to give him the benefit of the doubt too,” Mark said. “There is certainly an ER written at the end of the word. Well, besides Hoover, the only presidents’ names that end with an ER are Eisenhower and Carter. Eisenhower is too long, and I don’t see Carter written there no matter how hard I try.”

Neither did the Sampsons. As much as they wanted to read Hoover, the only thing anyone could read was, Hitler.

“If you are still concerned you cannot read his penmanship,” Mark told them. “Turn it over and look at what he drew on the back.”

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