Snazzy (albeit smaller) Nostrum Graphic
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?

Episode 131

Ralph Kramden, Ralph Kramden, wherefore art thou Ralph Kramden?

      The feeling of impending doom can be brought on a number of ways. It can arise from lack of preparation, as in sauntering into class and having the teacher announce a surprise quiz based on last night’s homework assignment, when you don’t even recall there having been any homework last night. It can arise from lack of control, as when you’re sitting on the patio commenting to your guru that you don’t recall any train tracks in the neighborhood so that sound of a freight train bearing down on you is hard to explain, until you look up and see a tornado picking up your Geo Prizm and depositing into the back bedroom. Perhaps worst of all, it can be brought on by fear of the unknown, a feeling analogous to watching a horror film and you know something terrible could happen at any moment, but you don’t know what and you don’t know when. It is a cold dripping of hitherto unrecognized body fluids into the pit of your stomach, waiting to rise up your throat and choke the life out of you.

      The fear of the unknown. That is the killer. That is the worst feeling of impending doom.

      As Nip Sazo, the coach of Algren-on-the-Beach, stares out the window of his bathroom, his mouth full of Crest toothpaste, he does not see a cold but clear day dawning. He does not see a perfect day for a debate tournament. As he wipes a little of the white foam from the edge of his mouth, he sees the unknown. He sees impending doom. He has done everything he can to prepare for the perfect tournament, and he has every aspect of the event under control, from the potato chips in the judges’ lounge to the extra ream of ballots in the library storage closet. He has run the Algren for two decades now, and never had a major disaster, and he knows deep down that this probably won’t be one either, but that does not alleviate that desperate dripping in the back of his stomach.

      Nip spits into the sink, and looks up at his reflection in the mirror. His red hair is disheveled, his green eyes seem pale and distant.

      The feeling of impending doom. If any coach about to host a tournament has not felt exactly the way Nip Sazo feels now, that coach has either never been to a tournament, is drunk, or is mentally impaired. Perhaps all three.

      Thirty-six hours from now, I’ll be a free man, Nip thinks. He reaches into the shower and switches on the water. Thirty-six hours.

      Piece of cake. In the meanwhile, Nip will wish he had never been to a tournament, will feel as if he is drunk, and will act as if he is mentally impaired.

      Welcome to Algren-on-the-Beach.


      Loading the Toulouse-Lautrec bus is no easy matter. It is not the passengers, but the cargo, that’s the problem.

      “The bottom of the bus is filled,” Fab Beeter, co-captain of the Policy team reports.

      Kush Behar, the other co-captain and Fab’s partner, is rolling four RubberMaid sheep coffins, AKA evidence tubs, on a dolly toward where Fab is standing. “We’ve got a lot more tubs,” he says.

      “Put them inside the bus,” Fab replies.


      Putting tubs inside the bus means opening the back emergency door and hoisting the tubs up, then squeezing them on to the seats, while the driver inevitably oversees the operation with comments like, “You can’t leave that there,” or, “That’s not going to last like that.” In the eyes of high school students, the bus driver is the captain of the ship roughly to the same degree that Captain Bligh was Mr. Nice Guy in the eyes of Fletcher Christian: they are willing to mutiny at any moment, but for the most part they more or less follow orders in aid of maintaining marginal discipline. Bus drivers on debate trips are more revered than those same drivers on their daily rounds, though, because the good graces of the driver means that he or she will stop wherever the kids request, either for food or snacks or a simple break in the monotony. While most drivers earn hourly overtime for weekend trips, and do their best to extend them as much as possible, students don’t always recognize this measure of self-concern on the part of their pilots, so they usually act a little nicer than they need to, which makes for a better trip for everyone all around.

      There are times, however, when students throw concern for the driver out the window and spend an entire seven-hour trip singing the Insane Clown Posse songbook, but those times are few and far between, and usually late enough at night to provide the driver with an undesirable but nonetheless successful tool for staying awake. No driver on record has ever drowsed off during a performance of the ICP songbook. The very mention that there is such a thing converts most drivers into chronic insomniacs.

      “How’s it going?” Dan Ryan asks.

      Fab Beeter shakes his head. “We’ve got another ten tubs to load,” he says.

      The coach sighs. “Get ‘em on, Fab. We’ve got to hit the road.”

      “Yes, sir,” Fab replies.

      Ryan walks up to the front of the bus, and climbs the stairs inside. As usual, Cornelius, the team’s stuffed monkey mascot, is grandly perched on the front seat. Dan Ryan ritually pats Cornelius on the head three times before sitting down next to him.

      “Hi, Mr. Ryan,” Had Fleece says, coming up from the middle of the bus.

      “Good morning, Had.” Ryan turns in his seat. “Are all the LDers here yet?”

      “All but Jimbo.”

      “All with Jimbo,” voice calls up from the stairwell, followed by the red top of Jimbo O’Brien’s head. The junior pats Cornelius’s head three times before making his way into the body of the bus.

      “You got enough bags?” Had says jokingly. Jimbo has a roll-away suitcase, a backpack and a briefcase. “It’s only a single overnight.”

      “I like to be prepared,” Jimbo replies.

      “If there’s a civil defense emergency, I’ll check in with you,” Dan Ryan says.

      Undeterred, Jimbo continues his trip into the bus. He is notorious for overpacking. He has been known to bring two suitcases to a one-day tournament.

      There seems to be a cessation of the hauling and lading of Policy tubs, and Dan Ryan leans over the back of his seat. “You people done back there?” he calls out.

      Fab Beeter appears on the stairs behind him. “It’s all on,” he says, patting Cornelius’s head.

      “All the Policians here?” Ryan asks, turning around.

      “To a man. And a woman.”

      “Then let’s rock and roll,” the coach says to the driver.

      The Toulouse-Lautrec Bistros are on their way.


      Jasmine Maru has barely sat down on the Nighten Day bus, and already she has her cases out and is going over them.

      Her sister, Camelia, sits on the seat across from her. “I really want to do well at this tournament,” she says.

      “You will,” Jasmine says without looking up.

      “It’s only the second time I’ve debated, and I’ve got to go JV.”

      “You won’t be the only novice in the pool. And you’re better than all of them, and most of the true JVers.”

      “You really think so?”

      “You’re better than I ever was.”

      “My stomach doesn’t feel very good.”

      “Wait till we get to Algren before you toss.”

      “I’m not going to toss.”

      Jasmine reaches into her backpack. “Eat these,” she says, holding out her hand.

      Camelia takes the package of Rolaids and opens it. “They work?”

      “Not much. But they’re better than nothing.”

      “Roll call!” Tarnish Jutmoll calls from the front of the bus.

      “We’re all here, Mr. Jutmoll,” Buglaroni calls back.

      “When I want your opinion, Mr. Buglaroni, I will ask for it. The rest of you might want to bring a camera, because you’ll be able to get a picture of hell freezing over when that day happens.”

      The coach goes down the list of attendees. Griot, Jasmine, Trat and Ellie, Buglaroni, the Tarleton Twins and the Maru sisters. Disney Davidson to judge. All present and accounted for.

      “We’re ready,” Jutmoll tells the driver.

      “You know how to get there?” the driver asks.

      “No problem,” Jutmoll says. “I’ll direct you once you get to Massachusetts.”

      “How do you get to Massachusetts?”

      “Let’s just take Route 84 to the Pike.”

      “How do you get to Route 84?”

      “Just turn left out of the driveway and there you are.”

      “Which way is left?”

      Tarnish Jutmoll bites his bottom lip. “That way,” he says, pointing, murmuring something about Natty Bumppo under his breath as the driver pushes the bus into gear.


       As the small school bus pulls on to Route 84, Amnea Nutmilk is beginning to believe that she really is a debate coach. There is a copy of the Algren registration in her briefcase, and a map of Massachusetts on her lap. She has spent the last few days rereading Mill’s On Liberty. Behind her, the team is chatting away about the topic, acting exactly the way a team ought to act.

      Chesney, of course, as eminence gris, is leading the discussion. Not surprisingly, Binko, looking spiffy in his charcoal suit, is the quickest to argue every point, or push the points to their logical conclusion. Wolf Padrewski looks back and forth between the two as if he’s having difficulty following the conversation, but he knows there is a conversation, and he’s going to conquer it if it kills him. Gloria Fudless, on the other hand, is drinking it in with a Cheshire cat expression on her face that Amnea cannot begin to interrupt. Amnea does not know what is what with the “new” Gloria, dressed today in a light gray dress, barely made up and looking bright-eyed and full of youth and life, instead of looking like Death eating a fig newton, but Amnea knows that she likes what she sees.

      Yes, this is Amnea’s debate team, the four kids for whom she has taken an unwonted day off for a weekend trip to the Massachusetts hinterlands. Algren-on-the-Beach. Shute-on-the-Beach she could understand. But Algren?

      Oh, well. Why not? Why is Kansas City in Missouri, how many Springfields does one country need, and why was Cole Porter born in an Indiana town pronounced pee’-rue?

      Algren-on-the-Beach, here we come.


      Like virtually every debate coach, Lisa Torte sits in the front right seat of the bus. Her job is to keep the driver awake, amused and on the right road. But she only devotes half her mind to the banal repartee that she and the driver are engaged in. So far they have discussed the weather, the ABA, Monsignor Lloyd’s sermons, Adam Sandler and why no one with an IQ above 48 has ever been known to play golf, and they haven’t gone six miles.

      It is going to be a long day.

      In the back of the bus, a buzzing hive of Policians is arguing and practicing and sounding generally inhuman. Tara Petskin and Haircut Puente, the team she has agreed to add on at the last minute, is sitting in the seat across from her, obviously more interested in their hormones than in their evidence. Directly behind her, Invoice O’Connor is reading Can You Forgive Her?, one of Lisa’s favorite novels.

      Of course he’s reading one of her favorite novels. Why can’t he read volume 88 of the Star Trek saga? Or his Social Studies textbook? Or even Stephen King?

      No, not Invoice. He has to read Trollope.

      The cad!

      Lisa Torte, who feels as if she hasn’t had a good night’s sleep or a decent meal since February, looks up at the rear view mirror of the bus. She can just see the front right edge of Seth B. Obomash’s taxi-yellow Hyundai. Seth, Tara’s and Haircut’s private coach/judge, is following in his own transportation, keeping a decent distance from the straight-and-narrow of the team from which he was suspended.

      Forgotten but not gone, Lisa thinks.

      Invoice chuckles over something he is reading.


      It is going to be a long day.

      Are we in Algren yet?

Will Sazo's impending doom become real?

Will Cornelius bring good luck to the Toulouse-Lautrec Bistros?

Will the Nighten Day driver find the gas pedal?

Will Amnea still feel like a coach at the other end of this weekend?

Will Lisa Torte swear off Anthony Trollope?

All this and, well, all this, in our next episode, quoting the immortal words of Bill Gates: "I'll give you a hundred dollars for Boardwalk, Park Place, Kentucky Avenue, the Reading, the Water Works and Pennsylvania Avenue, and just to make it even more appealing to you, I'll throw in this Get Out of Jail Free card and the eleventh upgrade of Windows 98. Otherwise, I'll make you do all your computing on this here Newton."

Go to the next episode, due Nov 17, 1999.