11: The Principal’s Office

It can’t be true, I tell myself as I rush to the bathroom. But one glance in the mirror confirms that it is true. I, Al Becerra, am now trapped inside the body of a sixteen-year-old kid. A guitar-playing, leather-wearing, greasy-haired punk of a teenage kid, named Raymond.

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How long have I been here? My head is spinning as I wander into the living room, where Ma – I mean, Mrs. Garrett, is seated on the sofa. Raymond’s life and memories are a vivid swirl of color and sound in my mind, while memories of my own life are as faded as the ancient, black-and-white television Mrs. Garrett is watching. I was old once. An elderly man, playing chess in a retirement home. I was married before that, and had kids of my own, who were all grown up. But that all feels like it had happened centuries ago. Was it even real?

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“Aren’t you up rather late, darling?” Raymond’s mother twists around to look at me.

“I-I was just practicing,” I hold up my guitar, which I’m still clutching. “For the big show this Friday night.”

“Okay, well, I hope you got your homework done.” Ma – Raymond’s Ma, I correct myself – gives me a little smile, then turns back to the TV. It occurs to me how tired I am. I can’t shake the feeling that I’m forgetting something. Something important. But for now, I head to my room – Raymond’s room, crawl into the messy bed, and go to sleep.

When I wake the next morning, my little wind-up alarm clock shows that it’s already eight o’clock. “Shoot!” I leap out of bed and pull on the same rumpled clothes I’d left in a heap the night before. Ma has already left for work, and I hadn’t set my alarm clock. Maybe that’s the important thing I’d been forgetting.

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The school bus is long gone, so I half-walk, half-run to school, arriving just as the last bell is ringing. My sneakers squeak against the polished floors as I race through the hallway, then slip into my first-period math class. Mr. Hanks is writing a math problem on the blackboard and doesn’t even turn around as I sink into one of the back seats.

“You’re late,” Eddie Yarrow is smirking next to me.

“Aw, shut yer yap,” I whisper back, then pull out a pencil and paper.

Just as I’m beginning to relax, a nasally, female voice comes through the crackly loudspeaker. “Raymond Garrett, please report to the principal’s office.” Raymond Garrett – that’s me! My face burns as everyone, including Mr. Hanks, turns around to look at me, mouths forming surprised Os. The principal’s office?

I rack my brain as I walk toward the office, trying to think of something awful I’d done, but the only thing I could think of was being late for school today. Mostly, I’m a keep-your-nose-clean kind of guy, you see? People only think I’m a troublemaker on account of my clothes and hair. Which is kind of dumb, when you think about it.

The secretary waves me into Principal O’Reilly’s office, which is full of uncomfortable furniture and about a million books. As I take a seat on a hard wooden chair, I let out a sneeze. Probably on account of the dust on all those books.

The first thing Principal O’Reilly says is, “No need to worry, young man. You’re not in trouble.” I don’t even notice I’m holding my breath until he says that, then I let it out in a rush. It turns out that the principal heard of my outstanding scores in math.

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“Of course I have outstanding scores,” I blurt out. “I used to be a video game developer.”

I wince the moment I say it. Why did I say that? And what the blazes was a video game developer? Principal O’Reilly leans forward, squinting at me, maybe trying to figure out if I should be locked up the loony bin. And maybe I should be locked up, because all of a sudden, my minds starts flashing with images of colorful, cartoon-like creatures on a screen like a TV. Exploding spaceships. Scaly monsters. Hulking soldiers shooting at each other with enormous guns. Video games, says an impatient voice in my mind.

I’m only half aware that Principal O’Reilly has started talking again. I blink away the crazy thoughts that don’t make any sense, and try to focus on what he’s telling me.

“Sir…are you saying that you want me to tutor this other student? In math?” I ask.

“Yes. Here is the address. She will be expecting you starting today after school.”

I want to say, “Are you sure about this? You know, most kids don’t think too fondly of us greasers.” But instead, I just take the slip of paper and shove it into my jeans pocket.

After school, I hang out with the gang at Roxanne’s for a little while, goofing around and planning our upcoming gig. Then I remember the tutoring job and hightail it outta there. As I follow the address on the slip of paper, I realize that I didn’t hear Principal O’Reilly say the name of the student I’d be helping with math. Only that it was a she.

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I ring the doorbell at the girl’s house, then yank my comb from my back pocket and smooth it through my hair. Maybe whoever it was would look down her nose at me, anyway, but at least I could look presentable. Then the door swings open, and there she is. The girl I’ve been assigned to tutor. The prettiest girl in town. Donna Wagner.

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