"The universe within is reborn amid chaos." Qwai Ching Paine spoke, then waited politely for Charlotte Carolina.
It didn't require the heightened perceptions of a monkey-fu student to see what was going on in her mind as she looked up, scowled, and struggled toward a response. Oh Lord. Some schizoid street person wants to ruin my lunch hour. What am I going to do? Do I tell him to buzz off? Ignore him?
Qwai smiled. "When life plays new song, wise woman learns to dance."
"What?" Charlotte grimaced. Then realizing she'd just opened a conversational door for some Hare Krishna or something to wedge his sandal into, she looked down and tried desperately to pretend total absorption in her copy of the Post, "I'm sorry," she said, eyes averted. "I'm very busy."
"The son rises," Qwai informed her.
She glanced at him, uncomfortably. Then she rose and fumbled to fold up her uncooperating copy of the Post. "Um, I'm sorry," she said, kicking herself inwardly for her weak-kneed habit of apologizing to annoying strangers, "but I was just leaving and anyway I already have my own church so ..."
"Your son rises," Qwai corrected, taking a sip from his paper cup, then wincing slightly as though he'd never before tasted a double-shot latte with peppermint flavoring and didn't exactly approve. "And opens perception's gates for dancing woman."
She paused in the midst of stuffing the newspaper into her bag. Is this actually about ME? No. Couldn't be.
Qwai recalled a mid-night conversation, a game, an aerial pirate called Darkboy finding his way to a hidden drop site, a signal light illuminating the darkness of a narrow canyon. "Will you," he asked, "befriend bold spirit who travels from darkness into light?"
"What are you talking about?"
Qwai smiled and tried once more to make himself understood. "In narrow strait, hardest choice opens widest horizons," he said, "And lonely heart tells the way."
"Oh, give me a break," she groaned. Swinging around to leave the table and get away from the loon, her purse knocked over her Starbucks cup, spilling sticky brown liquid across the table and onto her skirt. "Oh, darn. Darnit. Damn." She grabbed for a napkin and began ineffectually blotting at the mess dripping from her hem onto her nylons. At that moment, her cellphone began to bleat again.
Qwai stood and offered her a perfectly mundane tissue from his pocket. "Change strives to touch dancing woman," he noted.
Grabbing the tissue, blotting, she barked, "What on earth are you talking about? And can't you see I'm too busy for this kind of nonsense?"
Qwai shook his head ruefully. Sometimes it was hard, practicing true monkey-fu. "I'd check your cellphone if I were you," he sighed, reverting to his native Americanese. "You're awaiting an important message."
When she looked up from her dabbing and wiping, the strange young man was gone and the cellphone was cheerily chirping that yet another voice message demanded her attention. "Lord," she prayed silently, "for once let it be good news."
* * *
"Suspended? Suspended! Do you have any idea how it felt to get a call from your school telling me you'd been suspended???"
Charlotte's right hand snapped angrily toward Tonio as her white-knuckled left gripped the steering wheel. Tonio, slumped in the passenger seat, gazed out the window.
"Do you even begin to comprehend what an idiot I felt like, telling my boss I had to leave for the afternoon -- in the middle of his big project -- to pick up my son who was stirring up so much trouble his school couldn't put up with him any more?"
Tonio said nothing.
"Your sister, I might have expected trouble from. But you, Tonio. I thought I could rely on you. I thought you were the responsible one. How could you? How dare you do this to me ... to your teachers ... to the principal ... to ...?"
Tonio's fist clenched around the strap of his backpack. "What I did," he muttered, "was right. It's the school that's wrong."
Charlotte's face turned redder than before. For a moment she was at a loss for words. "Look," she finally muttered through clenched teeth. "I have had a crappy day. Everything went wrong at work. Some lunatic practically monopolized my whole lunch hour spouting incoherent nonsense at me. Then I discover I've got about six messages from your dean's office, telling me ..."
How did that lunatic know the phone messages were important? A little voice fluttered, trying to penetrate her anger. But for the moment Charlotte Carolina, mother on a mission, was in no mood to consider the implications of lunchtime lunacy. "What am I supposed to do with you for the next two weeks? If you think you're just going to sit around the house eating Doritos through your whole suspension, Tonio, you've got another think coming. I'm going to ... You're going to ..."
"Mom. I don't care. Whatever you want. Do whatever you want. Just leave me alone, okay?"
"... And when you go back to school," she insisted, ignoring him, "you are going to take that test. The school says you have to, and what the school tells you to do is the reasonable thing to do. They know better than you what's best for everyone. Do you understand?"
They drove homeward insulated by a large, heavy silence.
* * *
That night, tossing in a tangle of blankets and sheets at 2:00 a.m., Charlotte discovered that, among her host of troubling thoughts, she couldn't get her encounter with The Lunatic (as she was beginning to think of him, in capital letters) out of her mind. Of course he was just another crazy person. The world was full of them these days. But his strange phrases ran though her consciousness like an irritating pop song that wouldn't leave her alone.
She finally got up and wrote down every statement she could remember. Then she looked at what she'd scribbled: "learn to dance," "befriend ... travels from darkness into light," "lonely heart tells the way." Nonsense. Absolute nonsense. She flung the notepad disgustedly into the nightstand drawer and slammed the drawer shut.
Still, she thought as she laid back down for another attempt at sleep, that strange guy did seem to know something. Weird. She'd ask Tonio -- next time they were on speaking terms -- if he knew a sort of vaguely Chinese looking guy who talked funny. She eventually struggled back to sleep and dreamed the dreams of every single parent who's in over her head.
And the days went by.
* * *
The Toad entered yet another non-smoky, but still somehow covert-looking little bistro. He paused just inside the door, partly to let his eyes adjust, partly to ensure that he was seen by the kind of people you saw in places where the dinner tab for two was $600, and dinner was not the most costly thing to be purchased.
That, too, was the game. Nefarious purpose? Never mind. The kind of people who dined here were the kind for whom that was their world. Each had a little something on the other. Each dangled hints about his latest "compromises" -- which were also his latest boastful scores. But no one was at risk. Because people in this shadowy legislative world observed a kind of omerta the Mafia could hardly match.
Toad spotted The Representative of The Agri-Tech Industrial Coalition, rising respectfully from a table in the back, even giving a stiff little from-the-waist bow like the illegitimate son of a two-bit Continental prince. The man might make a pose of being, as they said in the olden days, "above his station." But he was ... useful (as the growing balance in Toad's new Austrian bank account showed).
So Toad was happy to report he in turn was being useful in herding the "Chip in Every Chicken" bill through the mazes of committee and through the minds of That Great Unthinking Herd known as Washington Correspondents -- who, after all, considered themselves too sophisticated to give close scrutiny to something as dreary and dull as a farm bill..
* * *
Certainly in record time, Toad's current favorite horse in the big legislative betting race was galloping out of the subcommittee gate.
And as the bill to put family farms out of business -- and spy on the few that might be left -- slid through the full Homeland Security Committee on greased skids, Tonio Carolina returned to school.
He returned on the very day the rescheduled ASVAB was to be given.
Thanks to the hard, diligent work he'd done on his two weeks off, this time more than half the senior class either stayed home or joined him and his friend Baron outside the school with picket signs. This time, with a little help from a grateful local reporter Heather Ames-Becker and the lure of a major free-speech confrontation, satellite trucks showed up.
And this time, Tonio got himself busted by cops and hauled summarily to jail, right in front of CNN, NPR, and Fox News, for demonstrating without a permit, disturbing the peace, and resisting arrest.
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB -- saving writers from themselves one typo at a time.
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