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Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?
"Let me off here," Camelia says suddenly.
Mom does not even move her foot the slightest distance closer to the brake. "The school's another block," the woman says.
"And I want to get off here," Camelia says firmly.
Mom shrugs. "It's your thirty bucks." With a small shake of her head she pulls Mom's Taxi over to the first open spot by the curb, a gap for a fire hydrant.
Camelia has been holding the thirty dollars in her hand for most of the trip, and she hands it over to the driver. After that, it takes her a minute to collect her suit bag, her backpack and her duffel, while Mom lights up a cigarette. The trip had been mercifully smoke-free, aside from the residue of gray smell imbuing every corner of the taxicab. Mom is a Gitanes smoker, a brand of French cigarettes closely related to mustard gas; from the looks of her, Mom spends all her cash on her imported tobacco fix.
"Thank you," Camelia says, closing the door.
"Any time, girlie," Mom says. The door is barely closed before she is back on the road again.
Camelia takes a deep breath. The time has come.
She is about half a block from the school, and all she can see between herself and the front door is a thick line of cars on either side of the driveway. Student parking, no doubt, or perhaps a setup for the latest issue of Car & Driver. BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, SUVs the size of Cleveland, PT Cruisers, Miatas, Porsches, the odd Volkswagen beetle owned, no doubt, by the non-conformists in the group. Closer to the door is a smattering of Honda Civics, Nissan Sentras, and Chevy Cavaliers: the faculty vehicles.
Camelia looks at her watch. She can't walk up to the school yet, out of fear that she might somehow get sucked into the machinery of Quilty Prep and get caught out. She has to wait until--
And there it is. A bus from the First Class Coach company, painted silver and dark blue, pulling up into the driveway. That's the one. And as it pulls up to the front door a batch of students comes strolling out of the building, and even from this distance Camelia can recognize Tom Abelard's long hair and tweed jacket, and Bob Cratch's overalls, and John Melvish's cane.
She grabs her stuff and walks up to join them. Tom Abelard is waiting for her beside the bus.
"Nice trip?" he asks, smiling.
"Piece of cake," she replies.
She joins the other students -- mostly a collection of Speechies unfamiliar to her -- in loading her things in the luggage compartment under the bus, then walks up to Abelard, who takes her hand and gives it a small squeeze.
"This is going to be fun," he says.
She squeezes his hand back.
They step up into the bus, and proceed to move straight to the back, past a faceless sea of Speechies, and past John Melvish, who looks up at Camelia with an expression of total disbelief. She gives him a slight nod, which he is too surprised to return.
For reasons that are unclear, the varsity LD group always takes over the rear of a vehicle, and one's status on the team is clearly denoted by how close one is sitting to the driver. Bob Cratch is sitting on one side of the very last seat, which stretches across the length of the bus, and Tom Abelard motions Camelia to sit on the other side. "I'll be back in a second," he says.
"Okay." She wiggles into the seat. Bob Cratch says hello to her as Abelard walks back up to the front.
"We're ready to go," Abelard says to the driver, a gray-haired man in a Mets jacket.
"There's no adult," the driver says. He is chewing gum, and he only half looks at Abelard out of the corner of his eye. He has specifically volunteered to take this trip. He has driven the Quilty team in the past. "Can't go anywhere without an adult."
"Our chaperone dropped at the last minute," Abelard says, reaching into his pocket.
"Rules are rules. I can't just go with a bunch of kids. "
"You know where we're going? I've got a map in my pocket."
"We're not going anywhere without--"
The driver stops talking as he looks down at Abelard's hand. The debater is holding two crisp new hundred dollar bills.
"I think we're going to Benjamin Franklin," Abelard says. "Maybe a couple of times."
The driver doesn't pause for a moment as he takes the two bills. "Benjamin Franklin two times," he repeats.
He has driven the Quilty team in the past.
"We're ready whenever you are," Abelard says.
"Take a seat and we're on our way."
Bus driver Bits Brennan knows his vehicle like a soldier knows his rifle. He is wise to every nut and bolt, to every drop of oil, to every thrust of its mighty pistons. Which is why, when he cracks the rear axle, he knows exactly what has happened.
So would anyone with at least one eye half open.
"What was that?" Jedarri D'Acques asks as the rear of the bus comes screeching down against the asphalt.
"End of the trip," Bits Brennan says, keeping the steering wheel steady as the vehicle comes to a messy halt in the middle of the parking lot.
The bus was traveling twenty-five miles an hour, turning into a rest area to service the urinary needs of the Seven Deadly Sins, each of whom seemed to be in dire need of a pit stop a mere two hours from home. Bits, whose bladder has been there and back, cannot believe that he has outlasted these young turks. A man Bits Brennan's age takes pleasure in the small victories of life.
Except now his victory has become a serious loss. The pothole into which the right rear wheel disappeared was approximately bottomless, and the tire never actually rose again. The wheel went so low that the bottom of the bus, and the axle, hit the ground, and as well-built as these big yellow taxis are, not much short of a Sherman tank can withstand that sort of punishment. The rubber has fallen through presumably to China, and there is nothing left on that part of the bus that is going anywhere.
"We've got to get to the tournament!" D'Acques exclaims.
"What we've got to do, and what we're going to do, are two different things," Bits says, opening the door and jockeying his weight out from behind the wheel. Jedarri D'Acques follows him outside, as do the Seven Deadly Sins. All nine of them come to a staring, incredulous halt at the right rear of the bus.
"Far out!" Avarice says, gaping.
"What happened?" Sloth asks.
"What do you think happened?" their coach replies. "I thought you people had to go to the bathroom."
The Sins exchange glances, then walk off to the rest area building.
"Now what do we do?" Jedarri asks.
Bits Brennan is rubbing his stubbly chin. "I'll call back to the garage. Maybe they can send another bus to pick you up."
"You think they can?"
"Probably. It'll take them a couple of hours to get here though."
Jedarri D'Acques shakes her head. "We might miss the first round," she says. "Except I allowed plenty of time. And maybe we'll just forfeit the one. I mean, it's not as if we had a chance of winning or anything. Can you call them up now?"
"Got a cell phone in the bus," Bits Brennan says.
"What are we going to do for two hours while we wait?" coach D'Acques asks.
"This is a rest area," Brennan says. "You might as well just rest."
The Seven Deadly Sins are pouring out of the rest rooms.
"You could always sing 'Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer,'" the driver suggests.
"For two hours?"
"I've heard worse," he replies. "Lots worse. Got stuck in a flood-type rainstorm for four hours with thirty second-graders once. Couldn't even let 'em out of the bus."
"What did you do then?"
Jedarri D'Acques nods. She is already praying that the replacement bus will get here soon, now, any minute.
"Let's see who can remember the most bits from the South Park movie," Avarice says as he leads the group into the bus.
"Brilliant," says Sloth.
Soon. Now. Any minute.
Registration for a forensics tournament is a dicey business under the best of circumstances, because it makes one giant, unsupportable assumption, that the persons who signed up or your tournament will be identical to the persons who actually arrive. The reason this assumption is unsupportable is because all of those persons are high school students, and unlike your normal run of human beings, high school students are subject to a range of ailments, perceived or real, mental or physical, that are otherwise unknown to popular science. To begin with, they suffer a range of colds, flus, agues and bellyaches that adults either do not suffer from, or only suffer from slightly. The average high school student misses 48 days of school every year with one or another of these ailments, whereas the average adult goes to work every day with or without any ailments whatsoever, unless the patient is at the very least bleeding from multiple body cavities. So, if you do the math, 81% of your signed-up students will not show up because they're sick, or at least think they're sick. Additionally, high school students suffer a wide range of mental dysfunctions, including breaking up with boy slash girl friend, breaking up with Policy partner, becoming boy slash girl friend with Policy partner, switching Policy partner with Duo partner, general malaise, famine, potato blight, unaccountable depression, unaccountable depression carrier (similar to Typhoid Mary, in that they are the cause of depression in others) and logorrhea. According to the most recent statistics, another 12% of your original signers will not show up as a result of one of these mental problems. And, of course, another 4% simply miss the bus.
Forensics coaches are well aware of this series of conditions mitigating against 30% of their team's showing up, and they usually arm themselves with a waiting list of backups to cover for these invalids (except for the bus-missers, the replacement of which would require the creation of a subset of forensicians comparable to the common crow, living on the carrion of the rest of their team). So when a team shows up at the tournament venue, while the number of debaters may be equal to the number who were signed up, give or take 4%, the names are only vaguely reminiscent of the originals. (Whether the people who don't show up, and the people who replace them, are always the longest names that are the hardest to spell is open to discussion at a later date, but most tournament directors would indeed swear that this is true.) As a result, the registration process, which should comprise the walking up to the desk, saying that you're here, giving them your check and picking up your instruction packet, becomes instead walking up to the desk and immediately gumming up the works. On the other side of the table, if the tournament is running your normal tournament software, the process, while annoying, is straightforward enough. The original names are crossed off the printouts, and the new names written in. The printout is rushed to the computer operator for the input of the new information, the fees are recalculated, and everything moves along with relative if not complete ease.
In a forgotten corner of either New York or Pennsylvania, or perhaps New Jersey, registration for the Venerable Bede tournament is another matter altogether. Because there is no HAL 9000 behind the scenes, and because every piece of information is handwritten, with an accuracy rate of 72.71%, every change in the registration, with an expectation of approximately 30% of the whole being different from what's already in hand, leads to a confusion level of approximately 20%, and one fifth of all the final registrants noT, in fact, being the final registrants. The Bede registration takes place at the tournament hotel, a series of seats at a long table where different activities are registered at separate stations until the whole shebang is tallied at the end and a bill presented. Overseeing the operation is the young woman who is the captain of the team--the junior majoring in Political Science--although since there is money changing hands, a Jesuit sits at either end of the table reading his breviary, ready to intercede with any poor entrant who either challenges the total or, heaven forbid (literally), doesn't have the right amount on their check to cover the total. It is thought by some that Jesuits were conceived by St. Francis precisely for such a possibility, and such high points as the Inquisition were merely stepping stones on their way to this apotheosis.
One after another, at the slowest pace possible, the teams arrive at the registration table and sign up, accounting for their lost souls and losing their soulful accounting, with each change setting the poorly oiled wheels of change into dubious motion.
Will Melvish's heart break on the way to the Venerable Bede?
Will the replacement bus arrive on time to collect the Seven Deadly Sins?
Will the Bede registration even remotely resemble the reality of the people who have shown up?
Is is possible to get early admission to the electoral college, and if so, can we apply now for 2004 so that Hillary won't have to go through this stuff that we just went through when she runs against Dubya?
Is Jeb ready for 2008?
Watch "2001: A Space Odyssey" this Millennium Eve while pondering the future evolution of humanity in our next episode: "I am not Klink!"
Go to the next episode due Jan 10, 2001.