It seemed impossible, no, it was impossible that the squat, balding man, with untrimmed, weedy, nose hair had found Mr. Jackson. But unbelievably, as he stood watch at the school playground, that eggshell of a man named Sherman waddled toward him.
“Teacher Jackson,” said a little dark-haired girl as she tugged on his slacks, “I let Tommy play with my hula hoop. That deserves a gold star.”
“Not now. I’m busy.”
“But I helped him, Teacher Jackson. And my mom says people who help others are like Jesus and Jesus had a gold star so I deserve a gold star.”
“Well, right now I don’t have any stars to give you.”
Sherman was trying to pass between the pendulums of children on the swing set but couldn’t time his steps properly. Why the idiot didn’t just walk around…
“Can you give me one of Tommy’s gold stars then?”
“What? No. Listen. Teacher Jackson is busy right now, and can’t be bothered.” Sawdust splattered everywhere as a child swung backward and struck Sherman, sprawling him into the wood chips. “If you speak to me again, I will be forced to remove one of your gold stars.”
“But Teacher Jackson, that’s not—”
“Uh! Uh! Gold star, remember?”
Returning to his feet, Sherman staggered forward, blinking and shaking his face like Wile E. Coyote after an anvil flattened his head. Squeals of giggles applauded his performance from behind.
“Now scram, Tina, and go play kickball or something.”
“My name’s Annabel.”
“Hey! Gold star, remember?”
The little girl opened her mouth to retort but then closed it. The stuffed zebra was only four gold stars away, and she had been praying every night before she went to sleep that she would earn it soon. She did not intend to waste all that praying; she hurried off.
“Sherman!” hissed Mr. Jackson when the dumpy man drew near. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Still a bit dazed, Sherman worked his mouth as if he were trying to scrape a hair from his tongue. “I could ask you the same thing.”
“I work here,” snapped Mr. Jackson. “Speaking of which, how the hell did you—”
“Hold the telephone, Mr. Double-O-Seven. I’ll be the one asking the questions here.”
“Sherman, what on earth are you talking about?”
The frumpy man—his monogrammed bowling shirt still powdered with wood shavings—squinted his eyes and snarled his lips as he stared at Mr. Jackson with the terrifying violence of a provoked tiger.
Or at least Sherman intended it that way. He really appeared like he was trying to quiet a boisterous fart.
“You know what, Sherman?”
“That’s right. What do I know?”
Everything inside Mr. Jackson politely urged him to reach forward and strangle Sherman, to watch his plump face turn blue and pucker in surprise as he calmly, happily, restrained all sound from ever leaving the man again.
“Why don’t we go over there,” said Mr. Jackson, motioning to a shaded spot near the brick corner of a classroom. Sherman peered at it, then back to the playground, then back to their destination, then to something under his fingernail. Finally, he faced Mr. Jackson, an air of dignity as pungent as the man’s own, spoiled-fish body odor and nodded once. Apparently the new area would suffice.
The two hunkered against the wall, the pleasant autumn day no longer welcomed.
“Now, what is it you seem to know?” asked Mr. Jackson.
“Let’s just say…I know my onions.”
Mr. Jackson sensed an ulcer begin to eat at the lining of his stomach. “Sherman. Please, for the love of God, tell me what the hell you’re talking about.”
Sherman licked his lips and gave his best impression of a suave, secret agent moments before he disclosed the location of the bomb. But once again, Sherman just looked like he was trying to suppress his flatulence.
“I figured out how you were going to get the money and then frame me for taking it.”
“What? Keep your voice down,” hissed Mr. Jackson. “What do you mean?”
“I had been copying down the invoices each night as I closed up the bowling alley and stored them in my locker just as you said, when I started to wonder why you had me copy them all down anyway. What would it matter if we knew how much money was in the safe right before we steal from it? And then I realized. They’ll have my fingerprints all over that pen I’ve been copying the invoices with. You were trying to set me up.”
“Sherman, what are you talking about? I would never do that.” He would. “You’re my pal, my friend.” He wasn’t. “I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize your share of the money.” He had. But fingerprints? This lunatic thought he was trying to frame Sherman with fingerprints on a pen? If Mr. Jackson had known Sherman’s incompetence reached this low….
“Then explain to me why I’ve been using the same pen every time I copy down those numbers.”
“I don’t know, Sherman. Because you like the color?”
“I do like blue…Hey! You must have known that and put the pen there on purpose!”
“Sherman, that was a joke. I didn’t put the pen there. You can use any pen you’d like. Hell, use a pencil.”
“Oh, I bet you’d like that, wouldn’t you? Get even more fingerprints from the lead on the paper.”
“Betrayal! Betrayal!” yelled Sherman, waving his arms above his head.
Mr. Jackson’s whole body tensed, and he flung his hand to constrain the man’s lips but Sherman immediately started to lick Mr. Jackson’s palm.
Some of the teachers on the other side of playground glanced toward the commotion, but Mr. Jackson raised a shaky and slightly slobbered-on hand, and they lost interest.
“What the hell has gotten into you?” hissed Mr. Jackson as he wiped his hand on his new Dockers (thank goodness he had only paid half-price for them).
“Not only have I felt betrayal,” said Sherman, “but I’ve tasted it now, too. And it tastes like peanut butter. And chalk.”
Mr. Jackson took a deep breath. “Sherman, just relax. I haven’t betrayed you. Just tell me what would make everything fine again and we’ll see if we can’t make that happen.”
“I want to use a new pen.”
“Then use a new pen.”
“And I want it to have black ink, not blue.”
“Wonderful. I’ll get you a new black pen. I have one in—”
“No! I’ll get the black pen this time.”
“Even better. Now, is that all? Because you’re not supposed to be on school property.” It was pure luck that Sister Jeanine didn’t patrol recess today. Sirens would have blared the moment she saw Sherman step onto the asphalt.
“One more thing,” said Sherman, and he ran his hand over his head, his pathetic collection of hairs doing nothing to organize. “I want a bigger pie for the slice.”
“You mean, you want a bigger slice of the pie?”
“You don’t tell me what I want!” shouted Sherman.
“Easy now,” said Mr. Jackson, quickly checking to see if any of the teachers had looked over again. None had. “We already decided on how much we’re each getting, remember?”
“Well, now I’m deciding that it should be different. I’m the one who works at the bowling alley, and I’m the one who’s going to steal it.”
“But I’m the one who came up with the plan.”
“But if I don’t like things, then you’re not allowed to like them either.”
“Okay, Sherman. What were you thinking?” After this was all over, Mr. Jackson promised himself he would give Sherman a solid kick in the shin.
“I want to split it seventy-thirty.”
Mr. Jackson paused. “Did you want the seventy or the thirty?”
“What do you think?” snapped Sherman.
Mr. Jackson honestly wasn’t sure. The previous agreement had Sherman receiving forty percent.
“You want…the thirty?”
“Of course I do! You think I didn’t realize you were trying to stick me again by giving me all that money? The I.R.S. would get suspicious if I declared my gross income and it’s shot up without explanation. I’m not stupid, you know.”
Mr. Jackson blinked slowly a number of times. His lips waited half open, not sure if they should form a laugh, an insult, or some prayer of divine thanks. Instead they replied, “If that’s truly how you feel, Sherman, I will be happy to take seventy percent.”
“Good,” stated the plump bowling alley employee, content as a turkey fed the day before Thanksgiving.
“Sherman. How did you find me here?”
“You have a bumper sticker with the school’s name on it so I just drove here on my lunch break.”
The bumper sticker. Maybe Sherman wasn’t as stupid as Mr. Jackson presumed. But upon review of the last thirty seconds of conversation, he immediately retracted the thought.
“Well, you better leave, Sherman. We don’t want people getting suspicious because they’ve seen us together.”
“Good point,” said Sherman nodding. He withdrew a pair of sunglasses from his chest pocket. It appeared as though his prior tumble on the playground had mangled them, because the right lens only covered half of his eye. But if they were anything other than normal, Sherman didn’t notice as he strode across the playground with a swagger that seemed to imply he had just learned how to walk.
Mr. Jackson sighed and mumbled, “Once we steal this money, I’ll never have to see that moron again.” He rubbed at the back of his neck.
“Stealing’s not good, Teacher Jackson,” said a little voice from around the corner. Something hard caught in Mr. Jackson’s throat, and he felt as though a grappling hook suddenly used his stomach for leverage. Proudly, the little dark haired girl from earlier marched into view, her lips pursed in a disapproving pout.
“My mom says people who steal don’t go to heaven where you get to sleep on clouds and eat ice cream.”
“How long have you been there?” stuttered Mr. Jackson. They should have never stood so close to the corner. Anyone could have been listening on the other side, but of course stupid Sherman had to—
“I heard you talking with that man. You said you were going to steal money.”
“No, I didn’t say that.”
“Yes you did. I heard you say it a lot.”
“OK. Well…maybe I did. But I was just joking.”
“So then you lied to me? My mom says lying is for evil, bad people who want to live with Satan for eternity.”
“What? No. I don’t—”
“And you talked about how you were stealing it from the bowling alley, and you were getting seventy and he was getting thirty, and how he likes black pens not blue ones.”
“Listen, Jenny, everything you just heard was—”
“My name’s Annabel! And his name’s Sherman. And yours is Teacher Jackson. And the bowling alley is named AMT Lanes. I read it on the back of his shirt. My mom sometimes takes me there, but sometimes the heathens—”
“Listen, Annabel, how about we keep this our little secret then, OK?” Mr. Jackson could feel sweat oozing down his spine and the cool autumn air became tepid with discomfort.
“My mom says secrets is the language of Satan and we shouldn’t speak like him.” She paused and solemnly whispered, “He’s bad.”
“Well, what if we don’t call it a secret then?”
The little girl looked away to consider this, somewhat puzzled. “Yeah?”
“What if—what if you just do me a favor by not telling anyone what you heard? Do you know what ‘favor’ means?”
“I think so,” said the little girl, scrunching her eyebrows.
“Could you tell Mr. Jackson what a favor is, then?”
Annabel paused and twirled a lock of her dark hair around her finger. “It means lots of gold stars. Remember?”
Jake Teeny graduated from Santa Clara University with a dual degree in psychology and philosophy, and currently attends Ohio State University for a doctorate in social psychology. While not doing research and schoolwork, Jake likes to box, play the piano, and list things in groups of three. An index of his other publications as well as his weekly blog, "Psychophilosophy Tips for Everyday Life," can be found at www.jaketeeny.com.