February 19, 2007
“Bail!” Charlotte ranted. “You made me make bail for you! Never in my life did I think a respectable person like me would have to make bail for one of my own children. How could you do this to me?! Even your father wouldn’t have …”
As the door between the dismal jail and the only slightly more friendly county administration center swung shut behind them, Tonio tried to shut his mother’s harangue out of his head, which was already aching from the noise and cold and the disinfectant-over-vomit smell of the jail.
“I don’t want to hear any more about how my father was, okay?” Tonio snapped. “And I didn’t do anything to you. Will you cut it out? Please?”
They stepped out the courthouse door onto the street. At that moment, three reporters descended on them.
“Tonio, what made you decide to lead the protest?”
“Tonio, what will you do if a judge orders you to take the test?”
“Ms Carolina, as his mother, what do you think of the stand your son has taken?”
Tonio stopped and began a rapid-fire set of answers. About the test being voluntary. About Pentagon databases. About dishonest and abusive recruiting practices.
Charlotte stared at the reporters like a spotlighted deer. Then, panicking, she grabbed Tonio’s arm in both her fists and tried to drag him toward the car.
* * *
Even sitting at his office desk, Rep. “Toad” O’Day gave the impression of a man in motion. He was watching CNN with part of his attention, initialing a stack of memos with another, and with a third part of his mind, trying to figure out how to work this Internet thing on the computer his aides insisted he keep on his desk.
It’s pointless trying to understand technology. Of that he was sure. But this afternoon he felt motivated. At their first meeting, The Representative from Agri-Tech had given him a bank book for a numbered bearer account, a phone number in Austria, and something called a URL that supposedly would let him check on the amounts being added to that new bank account. The Toad was peering at all that URL gobbledygook, trying to figure out where the heck you were supposed to type whatever.
At that moment, a ruckus from the TV screen caught his attention.
He heard the words “Alexander Hamilton High School” and the name of a town in his own state and district — something that could always attract the good congressman’s attention. Still gripping the piece of paper with the incomprehensible tech-scribblings, he gave his full attention to the TV screen.
As he watched, he got mad. And madder. Challenging the Defense Department’s skills test. Going on about a few bad apples in the recruiting barrel as if they were typical. Those pipsqueak kids could threaten the whole in-school recruiting program if the noise they were making got out of hand. His in-school recruiting program. The compromise he worked so hard on. And naturally a protest like this was just the kind of thing a bunch of bleeding-heart journalists would sink their teeth into and not let go of. Damn.
Then … wait a second. A smart man could make lemonade out of this lemon. Maybe even give a little extra help to some generous donors, too, if he handled it right. Donors who would be very, very grateful for services performed. Wouldn’t hurt his public image any, either. Lemonade. Yeah …
His chief aide appeared at the side of his desk 10 seconds after The Toad mashed the buzzer with his broad thumb.
“Alexander Hamilton High School,” The Toad barked. He named the town. “Who do I know there?”
The aide consulted his remarkable mental Rolodex. “Principal. Warren, Alfred B. … Ah … your college classmate. Varsity football. Nickname was ‘Boots.'”
“Yeah. Yeah. Football team. Sure, I remember. Tackle?”
“Huh. Running back. Doesn’t ring any bells. Oh well, doesn’t matter. Now. Who do I know in the health department down there?”
“Doctor …” the aide began, consulting the cranial card-file again.
“Never mind. Never mind,” Toad barked. Just get good ol’ Boots, whoever the hell he is, on the line. Then set up a conference call — Boots, Doctor whatever-his-name-is, and me.”
A few minutes later, the aide patched the first call through to his boss’s office.
“Boots, baby!” grinned Toad O’Day, master of the game. “It’s your old buddy Ted. Yeah. Ted O’Day, the Tedster. Hometown boy made good. Nope, no. I ain’t joshin’ you. It’s really me, calling you straight from my desk here in DC, looking out over the Washington Monument. And even better. Alf, my old pal, I’m calling ’cause I think I can do you a little favor.” He put his feet up on the desk, enjoying himself hugely.
“You know that scrape you got going on right now? … Yeah, I know, one troublemaker can spoil the whole barrel … Well, I got an idea. How would you like some good PR to counter some of the crap you’re being handed? Yeah, it’s tough, isn’t it? But trust your pal here, like you did in the old days on the team. Remember those great running plays we two worked out together? I’ll never forget ’em. So. Here’s the plan I want us to run with …”
* * *
“I’m sure everybody here is patriotic,” The Toad began, as the applause quieted down and he gazed out over the two thousand students, teachers, and journalists in Hamilton High’s vast auditorium.
“Or at least everybody here imagines himself — or herself, no offense to you ladies — to be patriotic. For many years, in wartime and in peace, your government has provided, purely as a public service, with no selfish motive at all, a vocational skills test to enable you young men and women to make your best choices in life. Now some people, right here at this very school, think they know better than …”
The Toad could give this kind of speech with his brain on autopilot. As he went on about the country’s great traditions of military and public service, his eyes scanned the audience. He wondered how many of those troublemaking kids were here. He’d glimpsed a few outside, waving signs, as his limo pulled alongside the auditorium. But it seems ol’ “Boots” had done a good job of keeping them out of the building. Good ol’ Boots.
And of course, his speech was going to make Boots’ life easier — though this talk of the test wasn’t meant to be the meat of it.
“Let me tell you about some of the ways your government is keeping you safe right now …” So Ted’s autopilot said, as his mind continued to calculate audience reaction. And the audience … Man, look at the bazongas on that blonde in the front row. Bet she’s the bounciest cheerleader on the squad. He was certain she was giving him a “meet me in the baseball dugout after dark” look. He gave her back just a hint — so nobody else would notice — of his favorite studly smile. The one with the right eyebrow raised just a fraction.
“And your government is going to go right on keeping you safe, right into the future,” he orated. Now he gave the speech his full attention. He was getting to the parts that might result in some payback.
“I’m going to tell you about some new bills your leaders are considering. But first … let me tell you about a pig. Yep. That’s right. A pig. I want you to think about this filthy old pig. Laying in dirt. Laying in mud. Laying in some farmer’s yard out there in Middle America. Some yard that’s never been inspected by a single government agency. Some yard that isn’t licensed or subject to sensible health regulations. Some yard that could be harboring every disease known to man … diseases like mad cow that’ll rot your brain right out of your head.” He loved this sort of stuff.
“And that pig,” he continued, laying it on thick, “that pig out there in that stinking diseased mud — do you know where he’s going to end up? He’s going to end up right on your dinner table. I’m tellin’ ya, we need to stop that. Now of course I completely support the great American family farm. But it’s time to get our food animals into safe, government inspected, clean and scientifically run …”
Uh oh. Miscalculation his inner politician told him. Faces around the auditorium were going blank. They didn’t care about some pig out in flyover country. Well, so be it. He’d dropped his hint for the benefit of that particular group of benefactors. The Agri-Tech Coalition, promoters of the “Chip in Every Chicken” animal-registration bill, would be happy. Now he’d better get off this topic. Fast. “… and that’s why I’m a proud co-sponsor of the Food Health and Security Act,” he concluded, “which is now headed for the floor of Congress. But …”
“… that’s not why you came here today, is it? You didn’t come to hear about pigs. You came here to hear good news about your own health. I’m talking specifically to you young ladies now. And your parents. And you boys who will someday be husbands and fathers. I’m talking about …”
Toad O’Day milked the moment for all it was worth. Yep, he was the man who was personally going to save every young woman in this audience from a deadly fate.
* * *
“And I’m here to announce, in the name of your future health, and in the name of empowering you young people to make solid decisions, that I have arranged for Alexander Hamilton High School and Alexander Hamilton Middle School to be the first in the nation to be able to say that every girl — every, single last healthy girl here — has been vaccinated against the deadly, sexually transmitted HPV virus.
“Up to now, this vital vaccine has been costly and in short supply. Under the Young Women’s Health Protection Act, which just became law, your government is changing that. A federally funded program to vaccinate every girl in America from age nine up will go national within two years. But starting this month, you will have the honor and satisfaction of being the first …”
Charlotte pushed the remote button to change the channels. The smiling face of The Toad was replaced by a huckster, waving a gadget into the air. “Just $29.99!!!” flashed on the screen. She was glad she’d watched the coverage of Rep. O’Day’s speech. But enough, thank you.
That announcement, she thought, … about the girls being vaccinated against a sexually transmitted virus … well, that’s a little troubling. I mean, what about Jennifer?
Of course Jennifer wasn’t sexually active yet. At 14 that would be out of the question. So she simply didn’t need the shots. That wasn’t the big thing, though. Ever since she was a baby, Jen had been sickly with one thing after another. Auto-immune problems. And Charlotte knew from a mother’s own experience a fact that drug manufacturers’ studies somehow rarely showed: that every time foreign chemicals were injected into Jennifer’s veins, her health problems flared up dramatically, then settled back into a chronically worsening state.
Why take a vaccine she doesn’t need and could at least avoid for a few more years? Give her body time to condition itself. Give her mind some time to make decisions.
Of course, the school and the health department would have a form or something to get Jennifer out of the program. Just check the right box, sign it, and that situation would be taken care of.
Thank heaven. Charlotte sighed and let that particular worry go. After a whole lifetime of being one sort of trouble or another, for once Jennifer wasn’t going to be the one causing the flare-ups.
But then … then Charlotte knew she’d have to look herself in the mirror and figure out what to do about Tonio. Or rather with this strange, defiant boy who had suddenly replaced her Boy Scout of a son. Is he going to be expelled from school for good? Will he flunk? Will he end up serving a sentence? And all over some pointless stubbornness! It makes no sense at all.
He should just do what the school tells him. They’re experts. They know more than some 17-year-old boy.
All she knew was that she’d better solve Tonio’s problems for him pretty quick. The strain of dealing with them was taking a toll on her work. Her boss — never exactly her best friend — was noticing. The tensions were killing her. Tearing up her life. Hitting her nerves like hammers.
The phone rang. Again. She let the answering machine pick it up. “Ms Carolina? Marlise Abruzzio, Times Tribune. Is it true that your son …?”
Charlotte balled up her fists. She screamed in total frustration. Then she snatched up the phone and hurled it into the big mirror hanging over the couch. Cracks ran everywhere and shards of silvery glass rained down upon the upholstery.
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB — saving writers from themselves one typo at a time.