Read A Farewell to Legs Online

Authors: JEFFREY COHEN

Tags: #Detective, #funny, #new jersey, #writer, #groucho marx, #aaron tucker, #autism, #stink bomb, #lobbyist, #freelance, #washington, #dc, #jewish, #stinkbomb, #high school, #elementary school

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BOOK: A Farewell to Legs
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So, I was attempting to find a six-letter word for
“dummies,” and failing miserably, when the phone rang. Our newly
installed Caller ID box informed me that the incoming call was from
the Buzbee School main office, and at 8:30 a.m., that is never good
news.

I’m used to getting calls from the school. Ethan
suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, a neurological disorder like a
high-functioning form of autism, which manifests itself in many
ways, almost all of them socially unacceptable, or at least odd.
The school calls often, if just to let me know when he’s having a
rough day. A paraprofessional named Wilma Coogan follows him around
all day, and will frequently call me with a question, or when a
situation arises she hasn’t seen before. So I breathed a long sigh
to gird myself for what was clearly going to be a rough day.

“Hi, Aaron, it’s Anne Mignano.” Uh-oh. The principal
herself. Now I was
really
in trouble.

“Who did he set on fire, Anne?”

“Don’t worry,” Anne said. “Ethan’s fine.”

That stumped me. If Ethan was fine, what did Anne
want to talk about? “Is Leah okay?”

“Yes. In fact, this doesn’t have anything to do with
either one of your children.”

Well, that made sense. If it doesn’t have anything
to do with my kids, clearly the principal should get on the phone
to me immediately. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“Can you come over here for a few minutes?” she
said. “I have something I need to ask you about.” I was surprised,
but didn’t say anything to indicate it. It was a short walk to
school.

Five minutes later, having given up on “_od__s,” I
found myself seated in a chair in front of Anne Mignano’s desk. And
our principal, who takes great pains to be unflappable, looked very
flapped. Not that the casual observer could tell, but I was an old
hand: Anne’s dark blond hair was just a bit mussed. Her left hand
was playing with a paper clip on a desk that rarely, if ever, saw a
paper clip out of place. And she was leaning forward in her chair
just a little more than she should, giving me the intimation of
urgency.

“Is something wrong, Mrs. Mignano?”

“No, not really,” she said, her voice brittle.
“Well, maybe. It’s something I need some help with.”

Whoa. If Anne Mignano, who can stare down five
hundred seven-to-twelve year-olds on a rainy day with no movie, is
admitting she needs help, there must be a catastrophe of biblical
proportions on the way. I gave passing thought to whether Home
Depot carries Do-It-Yourself Ark kits.

“You know I’ll do what I can.”

“Good.” She stood, and closed her office door. There
was so much silence in the room, Harpo Marx and Marcel Marceau
would have screamed to break the tension. Anne sat back down, and
leaned forward again. “I need you to investigate something for
me.”

“Anne, you know I’m not. . .”

“This has to be done discreetly, Aaron, and can’t be
seen as an official inquiry. I need someone who knows how to ask
questions without giving away too much information, or drawing
attention to himself.”

It occurred to me that a guy who practically dares
murderers to a duel usually draws some attention, but I held my
tongue. Turned out my tongue was slippery and disgusting, so I let
go.

“What is it that needs investigation?” I asked.

“You understand, then, that what I’m about to tell
you can’t leave this room?”

“Anne, stop talking like The Spy Who Came in from
the Cloakroom. You know you can trust me—now, what are you trusting
me
with
?”

She searched my eyes for a few seconds, then drew in
a breath. “Aaron. We have had a problem with stink bombs.”

Surely, I’d heard her wrong. Maybe she meant “sink
bombs.” Perhaps a sink in the boy’s room had blown up, and she
wanted me to find out who the culprit might be. Or Anne might have
said she had a problem with Simba, which would mean a vicious tiger
loose in the halls of the school.

“Stink bombs?”

“Yes.”

Okay, so I’d heard right. “Stink bombs.” You can
never be too sure.

“Someone threw a stink bomb into the girls’ locker
room during soccer practice on Friday. It was the third one this
month— there was one in the boy’s bathroom on the second floor and
one in the gymnasium. I’m surprised you haven’t heard about it.”
Anne seemed disappointed, already, in my investigative abilities.
“We spent the whole weekend fumigating in there, and the other two
still haven’t been entirely eradicated.”

“So you want me to. . . what? Go around
sniffing kids to see who smells bad?”

She smiled, but not sincerely. And Anne isn’t as
good at insincerity as a real politician. “I know it doesn’t sound
like much,” she said.

“It doesn’t sound like much? We have schools in this
state where kids walk in every morning through metal detectors, and
we’re getting all bent out of shape over a few stink bombs?”

“I’m afraid so,” she said softly. “One of the boys
in the bathroom when the bomb went off has a mother on the Board of
Education. A girl in the locker room’s father is on the Board of
Assessors, and, well, the science teacher was quite angry himself.”
I knew Mr. Marlton—he wore a lab coat wherever he went and was last
pleased with something around the time Madame Curie discovered
radium.

“. . . And they’re putting pressure on you
to bring the culprit, or culprits, to justice? Is that it?”

In Midland Heights, where New Age parents keep their
kids away from red meat and the lack of organic tomatoes at the
supermarket is a major scandal, three unanswered stink bombs could
be enough to put a principal’s job on the line, if—as seemed to be
the case here—the wrong people’s children were somehow involved.
Put enough children with enough connections in the line of fire,
and anything could happen. Word had it that a former health
inspector was once fired for getting annoyed by a resident’s
constant calls about spiders in her neighbor’s apartment because he
told her to “teach them to tap dance and get them on Letterman.”
Anne could investigate, but her hands were tied. An independent
observer (like a freelance writer, for example) could, in theory,
use methods that weren’t exactly in the Marquis of Queensberry's
rulebook, and if I were caught or killed, the principal could
disavow all knowledge of my actions. Clever.

“Something like that,” she said. “Can you help?
Will
you help?”

“How much time do I have?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I mean, I don’t seriously believe the
board would act against an administrator on something like this,
but. . .” Anne let her voice trail off.

“I assume I’m not on the school’s payroll,” I
said.

“No. I’m asking for a favor,” said Anne.

“That’s my going rate,” I said. “Tell me what you
know.”

Chapter
Eight

I
t turned out the
six-letter word for “dummies”—the crossword puzzle item that had so
stymied me—was “dodoes.” That crazy, whimsical
New York
Times
.

I spent the rest of that morning on the two phone
calls for the
Star-Ledger
story and trying to absorb my
other two current assignments. For one, I was being asked to find
out who killed a relatively major political figure, and write about
it because I knew him and his now-widow in high school. I had just
about no experience doing such things, but was being paid $10,000
for my on-the-job training.

On the other hand, I had plenty of experience in
finding out which little kid has been mischievous, because I have
been a parent for twelve years. So discovering who had chucked the
stink bombs into various rooms in the Buzbee School was
considerably better suited to my talents. Of course, for this I was
being paid nothing. The fact that I’d been asked to do it at all
(or that
anyone
had been asked) was the hardest part to
believe.

I decided to start on the paying job first, and put
in a call to my friend Mitch Davis, who works for
USA Today
in the Washington, D.C. area. But Mitch was out, so I settled for
his voice mail, and sat down to ponder.

Pondering is what I’m best at in the morning. Before
two in the afternoon, I’m useless as a writer unless there’s a
deadline to meet. So I thought, and I put music on (since I’m not
allowed to play what I like while the kids are home), and I had a
Healthy Choice frozen lunch while watching a rerun of
Hill
Street Blues
on Bravo. Then, I reread the scene I’d written
yesterday on my latest screenplay.

Screenwriting isn’t the kind of thing you do because
you want to—it’s the kind of thing you do because if you don’t, the
story will leak out through your ears. I’ve been writing
screenplays for upwards of 20 years in the increasingly vain hope
that some maniac producer will read one, decide I’m worth throwing
some money at, and eventually make a movie. So far, I’ve been given
money exactly three times for options—a kind of rental agreement
producers use to keep you from selling your script to someone else
for a year or so—and come close to snagging a couple of other
options. I’ve made so much money screenwriting that we were
actually able to send Ethan to a day camp for kids with
neurological problems last summer. Prorated over time, my
screen-writing wages are just a couple of cents an hour below what
slaves generally get.

What all this means is: don’t expect rationality
when discussing the “art” of writing for the movies. It comes from
a deep, abiding love for the form that began roughly at age three,
when my parents took me to see
Pinocchio
, and was cemented
into place when I realized someone actually
wrote
this
stuff, around the time I first saw
North by Northwest
. Cary
Grant could be charming as all get-out, but without Ernest Lehman
to tell him what to say, he’d never have made it out of that
auction in Chicago alive. If you haven’t seen it, go rent the DVD.
NOW!

I read over the previous day’s work, and it was
actually better than I’d expected. After the Madlyn Beckwirth mess,
I’d tossed the romantic comedy I’d been laboring with, and started
a murder mystery. That was easier, since the true story was so
bizarre, I only had to change some details and move a few
characters around to avoid being sued. The writing was going
well.

Today’s task involved a tricky scene that included a
lot of exposition. The problem with exposition, or plot points, in
a script is that the last thing you want an audience to feel is
that they’re being told, and not
shown
, a story. You don’t
want your characters explaining everything in dialogue. The best
way to convey the story point is in a visual, but that’s not always
possible. So, you have to hide your exposition in jokes or create a
diversion, a task for the characters to perform while they’re
talking. An interesting setting or a subplot for the scene can
disguise exposition, too, but it all has to be worked out ahead of
time. And in this case, I was having trouble coming up with the
proper diversion.

I’d settled on one—having the characters perform a
piece of home improvement while discussing the plot—and started
writing when, true to form, Ethan pushed the front door open and
stomped into the house. My son doesn’t walk, he stomps. It does-n’t
mean anything—it’s not indicative of his mood. Asperger’s kids
aren’t as in touch with their bodies as the rest of us, and Ethan
is probably unaware that he’s making enough noise to be heard three
blocks away.

Sure enough, all the stomping hadn’t meant a
thing—Ethan breezed in the door with a sunny, “hi, Dad,” and
immediately set out to do his homework, which he announced was “the
easiest thing since they started giving out homework.” For math
class, he had to write a poem about his favorite number. When I was
in school, you had to do
math
for math, but that was a long
time ago.

It was just as well that this was Ethan’s assignment
and not mine, anyway. I can’t compose a decent rhyme about
anything, let alone my favorite number. My few pitiful attempts at
song-writing in college were enough to convince me to stick to
prose.

Ethan, however, is blessed with a mind that can toss
off complex, interesting metaphors as easily as. . . um,
something easy. Okay, if I’d finished that simile, you’d get the
idea.

He had just about finished his “Ode to Thirteen”
when Leah pushed the door open and dragged her tiny, weary self
into the living room, then flopped down on the bottom stair. My
daughter, who wants to be an actress, has yet to master the art of
subtlety.

“How was your day, Squishy-Face?” I asked. It’s best
to start with an endearing nickname. It sets up a good barometer
for the child’s mood. And with children, mood is everything.

“Good.” Okay, at least I knew
something
. Of
course, Leah always says her day was “good,” even when something
truly horrific—like a substitute teacher—has befallen her. Once, on
a day when her beloved Mrs. Antonioni was absent, Leah actually had
to spend five minutes in detention, something she considers an
unpardonable shame that will tarnish her life until that fateful
day one of her great-grandchildren ferrets out the truth. And the
whole class had been detained—Leah hadn’t been singled out.

“Anything happen that I need to know about?” She
shook her head, and started to dig through her backpack, which was
hanging on the lowest protrusion of our cast-iron banister. She
sighed, evidently with great meaning.

“What’s the matter, Puss?” She knows I almost never
call her “Leah” unless I’m annoyed with her, which I am roughly
every three months. But she didn’t answer, got out her math book,
and headed toward the kitchen, so as to stay out of Ethan’s way.
The two of them doing homework in the same room is not a pretty
picture.

BOOK: A Farewell to Legs
5.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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