Past episodes Reader's Guide to the Nostrum Universe Nostrum Correspondence Corner
Subscribe to Nostrum Home
(New to Nostrum? We recommend starting at the beginning.
Totally lost? Find out who's who in the Reader's Guide or track the "Ref #" links to the previous scene with those characters.)
Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?
The last bell has rung, and the last student has disappeared out of the classroom.
And not a moment too soon.
Lisa Torte sits back in her chair and lets out a long, loud breath of relief. Earlier in the day she was inspired with a idea that would both eliminate her having to run a Policy team meeting and at the same time make the Policians feel that they were doing something productive for their craft. She has given them one of the old Seth B. Obomash assignments, to do endless laps around the outdoor track while reciting poetry, in this case Edgar Allan Poe's "The Bells." Any minute now she expects to hear a distant combination of a herd of Nikes clopping along the path mixed with the chanting of the tintinabulations.
She is dressed today in her full peasant regalia, a batik tee over an ankle-length cotton skirt, with Doc Martins stubbily poking their toe noses out the bottom, a comfort outfit she pulls out of the closet in times of special need. And this is definitely a time of special need.
How often, after all, does one find oneself going certifiably insane?
At this very moment Invoice O'Connor is among the group changing at their gym lockers, parking baggy Levis and their mixed assortment of logo sweatshirts and switching into their running shorts and black Policy Rules tee shirts. The boys will momentarily remove the baseball caps that they treat as religiously as orthodox Jewish men do their yarmulkes, returning them to their heads at the first possible moment; it would be virtual heresy to allow their hair not to be covered in public. Some teachers maintain strict no-hat rules in their classrooms, but Lisa, having come up as part of the hat generation herself, barely notices their existence. She should consider them a tribal custom, a piece of zeitgeist flotsam with multileveled signification in its rise from fashion to fad to ubiquitous, but while deconstructing baseball caps would normally be right up Lisa's structuralist alley, lately her mind is so stuck in cause and effect that the obvious is completely obvious to her, which is the first step on the descent to post-modern damnation.
She stares at the Narrative Isn't mug on her desk.
But she has certainly applied more than her share of narrative to Invoice O'Connor. She has surrounded him with enough context to bring herself to the edge of almost hysterical paranoia.
She needs a really, really, really long vacation.
She looks over to the open doorway. It is Tara Petskin.
Lisa sits forward in her chair, involuntarily girding herself for whatever issues Tara intends to bring up with her. In her class, Tara always sits staring at her silently, those big eyes wide behind those big glasses, long hair framing her face in an almost sphinxlike fashion.
Tara has not attended a Policy meeting since Lisa's arrival, although Lisa knows that Tara is Invoice's former partner, and individually one of the acknowledged Masters of the Debate Universe. The O'Connor-Petskin team dissolved in the wake of the dismissal of Seth B. Obomash, so at least that was not Lisa's fault, so to speak, but she certainly has done nothing to repair the schism, preferring instead to convert Invoice to the ways of LD. Lisa has expected that sooner or later she would hear from Tara about some part of this, if only to see about rejoining the team. Debaters come and go, but the Masters of the Debate Universe are forever.
"Hello, Tara. What can I do for you?"
"I'd like you to sign me up for the Algren tournament, Miss Torte. It's not too late, is it?"
"I've already registered, but I can change it. I've got a lot of people going; I don't know if I can cover your judging, though."
"I can cover it," Tara says quickly.
Outside the window, the team is beginning its exercises. Hear the sledges with the bells -- Silver bells! What a world of merriment their melody foretells! Lisa looks at Tara curiously.
"I think we should talk," Lisa says.
Tara nods, and slips behind one of the desks. She is wearing a light jacket, and has a backpack over her shoulders. She removes the pack and places it on the desk in front of her.
"I've been expecting you to show up for a long time. You are the best debater on the team."
"Me and Invoice, you mean."
Lisa gulps. "You and Invoice."
"We broke up," Tara says dismissively.
"As a team, you mean."
"As a team, yes." Tara's eyes narrow behind her glasses. "How else?"
"I thought maybe there was more to it. It's none of my business, of course." Except it is very much her private business. Were Tara and Invoice more than Invoice has led Lisa to believe?
"You're right. It really is none of your business. Not to be antagonistic or anything."
Lisa shakes her head. "Not to be antagonistic."
It is as if they have said exactly what is on their minds. Lisa knows beyond any certainty that Tara is carrying a torch for Invoice. Lisa also knows beyond any certainty that Tara now suspects likewise of her.
Oh, this is wonderful. This is why we go into teaching in the first place, so that we can have the obsessive crushes we form on our students discovered by their former unrequited lovers.
Change the subject.
"So, who is your team for the Algren?" Lisa asks.
"Me and Haircut Puente. He's in your honors class."
"I know Haircut. I didn't know he was a debater, though. I think of him as Mr. Computer."
"He used to be my partner long ago. Before Invoice."
"I won't ask if there was more to it," Lisa says, lamely attempting some humor.
She can see from Tara's expression that lamely is definitely the operative word.
"So who's your judge, then?"
Tara hesitates for a moment. "Seth," she says finally.
"Judging for Veil of Ignorance?"
She nods again.
Lisa lets out a low whistle. To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells. "I don't know about that," she says. "I mean..."
"You mean what?"
"I don't understand." She pauses. "Or maybe I do. Have you and Haircut been working privately with Seth."
"Yes, we have," Tara admits. "So what? It's no secret that you're no great fan of Policy, so why shouldn't we work with someone who understands us."
"I have been doing my best to learn Policy. I am working with this team on their cases, on their logic, on everything."
"But you're no Seth Obomash," Tara says, a note of anger in her voice.
"No, I am no Seth Obomash, I will agree to that." Lisa takes a deep breath. "I cannot have Seth travel with the team. The school will never allow it."
"He'll travel on his own. The school will have nothing to do with it. They'll never know it. Unless you tell them."
"I think I have to tell them."
"I think you don't."
Tara stares hotly at Lisa, and Lisa wonders how much unspoken meaning is in that stare.
The mug is on the desk between them.
Lisa is the first to turn away. "I will think about it, and I'll let you know."
Tara too backs down. She rises, throwing her pack over her shoulder. "I'll talk to you tomorrow then."
"There's a meeting after school. I assume you'll be there?"
Tara shows a hint of a smile. "A Faustian bargain?"
"No bargain. A condition."
"The only condition?"
"Fair enough." She walks out the door.
Lisa sits quietly for a moment, then lets out a longer, louder breath than the one that began what was intended to be her afternoon respite. She really needed Invoice's old girlfriend and Seth B. Obomash back in her life again.
Oh, yes. She really needed this.
Hear the loud alarum bells -- Brazen bells!
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak, They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
Leaping higher, higher, higher, With a desperate desire,
And a resolute endeavor, Now- now to sit or never,
By the side of the pale-faced moon.
Oh, the bells, bells, bells! What a tale their terror tells
Of Despair! How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear it fully knows, By the twanging,
And the clanging, How the danger ebbs and flows:
Yet the ear distinctly tells, In the jangling,
And the wrangling, How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells-
Of the bells- Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells --
In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!
"You're sure this is all right?" Braun Saxon asks as they pull into the driveway.
"Of course it's all right," Cartier replies, downshifting the Miata and swinging the car around to the front door of the house.
"You live here?" Braun asks.
"No. I thought I'd bring you to the home of some complete strangers." As she stops the car she shakes her head, her blonde hair swishing back and forth once before falling back into place exactly where it belongs.
"This is some house."
"I never pretended to be poor, Braun."
"I guess not."
He squeezes out of the small sports car and pulls himself up to his full height; it always takes a moment to readjust after a trip in the Miata. If may be a fun car, but if you don't represent the Lollipop Guild, it's a tight fit. The house towers in front of him, not a place where normal people might live but a stage set, an enormous manor house that could stand in for half the residences in any Masterpiece Theatre episode. It is four stories high, built of light tan bricks, with the setting sun reflected in what seems like a hundred multi-paned windows. It stretches in front of him, seeming to be bigger than a football field.
"Just you and your parents live here?"
"My father and my stepmother. God knows where Mummy is."
"You don't know where your mother lives?"
"I know where she lives, silly. I just don't know where she is at the moment. The last time I talked to her, she was in Chad."
"What's in Chad?"
"Other than Mummy? Beats me." She walks up to the front door.
"You can't possibly live here alone, just three people," Braun insists.
"Well, there are the household people, but you can hardly count them."
"How many?" Braun asks.
"Six or seven, something like that. But they don't live here. They just keep the place clean, except for Mrs. Bridges. She's the cook."
"Mrs. Bridges," Braun repeats disbelievingly.
"She's not really married, I don't think. But she sure can cook."
Cartier unlocks the front door, and Braun follows her into the entranceway. They are standing in a foyer that faces a broad stairway leading up to the second floor. A crystal chandelier the size of Pluto hangs over their heads. The floors, which are of highly polished hardwood, are layed with a variety of oriental carpets. The paintings on the walls are of noble ancestors, although probably not Cartier's noble ancestors.
"So where are your father and stepmother?" Braun asks.
"Stuttgart," Cartier replies. "It's a business trip. They won't be back until next week. I really do wish you'd stay here with me rather than at that horrible motel."
"I''m tempted," Braun says. "I'm really tempted."
"No one will bother us," Cartier says, putting her arms around him and leaning her head against his neck. Her attitude is soft and cuddly. "You can't stay in that motel forever."
"I know that," he says, any resistance he might have felt melting against her warmth. "I was going to start looking for an apartment this weekend."
"I could help you find something." She pulls away. "We could go out looking on Sunday."
"What about Saturday?"
"The Blessed Moly is Saturday. I have to go to that. It's my last tournament."
"Oh." The mention of the tournament, and by inference, high school, acts as a brake to deaden Braun's growing romantic feelings.
"You promised you'd come with me, don't you remember?"
"I did?" Braun remembers no such thing.
"We talked about it. I know we did."
"I really don't--"
"Well, I'll explain it to you later. Why don't I show you around the house?"
"I was thinking of moving out of the motel and staying with my mother for a while, at least until I find something," Braun says as he follows her up the stairs. "But her place is nothing like this."
"I can't imagine you with a mother," Cartier says. She turns back to him as she reaches the top of the stairs.
"I really do have one," Braun replies. "In this country. In this state, even."
She puts her arms around him again, and this time there is nothing soft and cuddly about her, especially as she begins to kiss him. Before succumbing to his natural inclinations, Braun thinks for a moment about what she said about going to that tournament with her.
He is sure that he made no such promise.
But as he tastes the honey sweetness of Cartier's breath, he cannot imagine any promise he wouldn't make to her, or any promise that he wouldn't keep.
Will Lisa and Tara come to blows over Invoice O'Connor?
Will the Veil Policy team start chanting Annabel Lee next week?
Could that conceivably be the Mrs. Bridges?
Is there anything in Chad? Or in Stuttgart, for that matter?
Why didn't we bet on Charismatic?
You could be reading something useful instead of our next episode: "Beginner's Guide to Varmint Hunting, or, Who Exactly Gets To Define Varmint?"
Go to the next episode due May 12, 1999.