Saturday, December 16, 2006

P is for Pedophile

P is for Pedophile

I boarded the Number 7 AC Transit bus at 7:23am on Wednesday morning and slid into a seat next to the window close to the back door. The thin pad of the seat next to me silently told its recent history of violation: illegibly tagged with a permanent marker, then knife-slashed open to let the sparse innards poke out. The bus was relatively empty at this early hour; just a couple of drowsy regulars sprinkled about. I stared out the scratched and nearly opaque window as we barreled down Claremont Avenue. I scooted down in my seat and settled in for the twenty-minute journey. Now well into my freshman year at Berkeley High School, this bus route had been my morning and afternoon routine since the fourth grade. Other riders who took the pains to notice me might have guessed I was still on the way to grammar school, with my small, late-blooming body leaning unobtrusively away from any action. Throughout my entire public bus career, I had remained a quiet, intent observer. Riding Berkeley buses day by day heightened my senses to the boringly mundane and the quirky oddities of the world.

The bus skidded to a stop by the Claremont Hotel. Some chatty Chinese women boisterously hurried on to claim the seats closest to the driver. More students reluctantly entered, shifting towards the back section. For some odd reason, Parker Parsley was not among the straggling group. I had come to look forward each morning to his hottie swagger and confident voice. Over the years I had developed what I liked to think was a “minor” infatuation with Parker. I had chosen this seat specifically to be within earshot of his most-interesting conversations.

Parker was a member of a gang of mostly upper-middle class white boys. His gang lifestyle, however, hardly paralleled that of Tony in “Westside Story.” Their “crimes” were comprised only of tough talk and excessive graffiti. If a rival gang existed, it was unbeknownst to me, perhaps dominating another bus line. Despite his “bad-ass” reputation, Parker was normally quite a prompt and a regular rider on the 7:23.

The rickety bus rattled on. It made countless stops to relieve itself of some noisy passengers, only to gain another few rowdier ones. It seemed that the noise of my co-commuters grew proportionally to the brightening of the morning. I disembarked on Shattuck Avenue in front of the shuttered-forever doors of a very unsuccessful Eddie Bauer franchise. I followed the crowd of other students down Allston Street towards school. With my mind trying to focus on the drudgeries of the day ahead, I barely noticed the police cars and commotion at the school entrance. Sadly, at Berkeley High, this scene was not unusual.

“Another bomb threat or a pathetic attempt at arson?” I asked a girl standing next to me.

“I’ve only been here ten minutes, but some kids are saying there’s a dead guy at faculty parking,” she responded, sounding shockingly unfazed. I made my way through the crowds of whispering students. As I approached the old tennis courts, now used for faculty parking, police officers meandered through the swarm, yelling at us to “disperse and go to class.” The crime scene had been barricaded off and impossible to view even on my tiptoes.

“Pretty creepy huh?” my friend Emily asked as she slung her arm over my shoulder.

“Oh hi!” I startled, “yeah, hella creepy…”

“Who do you think it is? A homeless guy? Oh! Maybe it’s that ancient art teacher Ms. Hibbard. She always seems on the verge of keeling over,” she mused.

“You’re horrible!” We laughed as we made our way toward our first period English class.

The incident created a disjointed, weird mood the rest of the day. Many students proclaimed this event a valid excuse to ditch class, so there were actually enough wobbly desks per person. On a normal day, the back ledge of the classroom was lined with students balancing their notebooks on their laps. Today, the few remaining kids exchanged animated whispers with their neighbors throughout the period. The teachers seemed distracted as well, but ironically grumbled more about their difficulty parking this morning than “what the world is coming to.”

Before fifth period, I rammed my way through the overcrowded hallways in a desperate attempt to reach the third floor of the C building. Students greeted their friends loudly and rudely halted the flow of traffic. I grumbled to myself as I bounced between peers and lockers. This sea of students carried you with its tide, despite your desired destination. I exhaled as I finally reached the less populated haven of the third floor. Cigarette smoke seeped from underneath the bathroom door. This was the cleaner of the bathrooms, owing to the two flights of stairs necessary to reach it. The relative “cleanliness” label was earned by this bathroom’s retention of the majority of its stall doors and the minimal amount of graffiti and period blood smeared on the walls. I myself had trained my body to “hold it” until I could relieve myself at the Y during lunch.

My history teacher Mr. Fritch seemed remarkably undaunted by the day’s events.

“Good thing my car was in the shop today,” he grunted. Mr. Fritch was a slightly stout, balding man in his mid-forties. But beneath his paunch and hairless head, I could tell that he had been attractive in his youth. I imagined that his gruff behavior derived from his annoyance over the toll that age and gravity had taken on his body. There was something definitely off about Mr. Fritch, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. The class as a whole tended to shift away from him toward the back of the room, leaving the front rows for the unlucky latecomers. He was one of those teachers who seemed to live at school; he popped unexpectedly out of corners and ate canned green beans from a massive stash under his desk. Mr. Fritch was completely unqualified for a history teaching position. He actually seemed completely unqualified for a teaching position in general. Nonetheless, the man dutifully mumbled his incomprehensible monologue to my World History class everyday for forty-five minutes.

The morning’s excitement flooded back to me as I traveled past the crime scene at the end of the day. The parking lot had been cleared of evidence, but still remained blocked off with caution tape. A couple of officials loitered around, chatting with each other. The crowd from this morning had dispersed and only a few rubberneckers slowed traffic as they drove by.

I scrambled onto the bus to retrace my route home. Students from multiple East Bay schools tightly packed the small interior of bus. I held on as we lurched forward. After a couple of stops, I had been shoved into the back. I nearly toppled onto the laps of Parker Parsley’s buddies. His best friend Matt Douglass, a short blonde kid sporting an excessively large Raiders jersey, was too distraught and irate to notice me.

“Who the fuck would do this? I bet it was Johnny and his gang! They’re hella shady dicks!” He loudly vented.

“Naw, they’re shady for sure, but they’re applying to college this year.” His baggy-pants friend responded.

“Yeah, I heard Johnny got in early to Stanford,” interjected another.

“Isn’t that some crazy shit? Then who would have murdered Parker?” Matt questioned sadly.

Parker? Murdered! The bus slammed to a stop and I almost toppled again onto Matt. I could not force my brain to process this new information. The bus suddenly seemed even more jammed than before. My breathing grew rapid and my body burned. I pushed myself off the bus and landed across the street from the UC Berkeley Clark Kerr dorms. I stood for a minute of two. Gravity seemed to have increased, making me unable to lift my legs. A cool breeze fluttered through the leaves and my hair. I slowly began the trip home.

By the time I passed by Star Market on Claremont Avenue, I had decided on my plan. My liberal Berkeley upbringing had instilled in me a complete distrust for the police and the legal system. I needed to solve Parker’s murder personally. As I turned onto Rockwell Street and could spot my home, the gears were turning and I had plotted my first course of action. I felt the urgency of my mission and knew that this investigation would have to start promptly tomorrow morning.

The next morning I woke up punctually to my alarm at 6:05am. I threw on my sister’s oversized “Berkeley High Tennis” sweatshirt and slipped into my well-worn Birkenstocks. I shuffled down the stairs and popped two Eggos into the toaster.

“What are you doing up and dressed so early? I didn’t have to drag you out of bed this morning,” my mother muttered over her first cup of coffee, which she appropriately dubbed “the Breath of Life.”

“I have to meet Jane early to finish our poster for our Spanish presentation.” I lied because I had no time for explanations.

“All of those damn poster boards,” my mom grumbled, “You’d think you were still in middle school.” I nodded in response as I sandwiched syrup in between my two waffles.

I grabbed my pre-made lunch from the fridge and stuffed it into my “The North Face” backpack. I dashed out the door and power-walked my way to the bus stop. This earlier bus was filled with adults and a couple of unlucky students stuck with a zero period. I sat impatiently and read the English and Spanish advertisements that ran along the edge of the bus’ ceiling. I pulled the wire and heard the satisfying “ding.” The back double doors pushed open easily as the Number 7 came to a screechy stop. I raced towards school and sprinted up the stairs to the second floor of the G Building. Mr. Stoops was reclining at his desk when I entered his room.

“Can I help you?” he asked pleasantly.

“Um, yeah. You’re the soccer coach also right?”

“Yes ma’am. Math and soccer are my specialties.”

“Parker Parsley played for you right?”

“Really tragic, huh?” Mr. Stoops massaged his brow with his large pointer and middle fingers. I nodded in agreement as he continued. “Would have been a great player if he didn’t wear his pants so damn low. Slowed him down. Answer me this: how can you run after a ball if you’re holding your pants up with one hand?” He chuckled, lost in memory. A slamming of another classroom door brought him back. “So what is it you want to know?”

“Was he at practice last Tuesday? Was he acting weird at all?”

“He was there. Kicked harder than I’ve ever seen before. Something seemed to be on his mind, but I’m not sure what. He kept muttering about school corruption or something. I’m not the kid’s therapist, you know, just his soccer coach.”

“Yeah, totally. Did you see him leave?” I asked hopefully.

“Nope, he hung around alone after I left. Not sure what he was doing. Too bad that it got him in trouble. Anything else?”

“No, thanks so much for your help.” I must have sounded a little disappointed, because he called after me as I was leaving.

“If there’s anything else I can answer, feel free to stop by.” I smile and thanked him as I pushed my way into the crowds flooding the hallway.

I collapsed into my English classroom at 8:00AM. I barely clued in when Ms. Torrance announced: “Please turn your grammar books to page 36. Raise your hand if you are missing page 36.” My state-provided book from the 70’s had only half of page 36. I lazily lifted my hand along with a third of the class. I tuned back out after she passed us the photocopies of the page.

The day dragged on with my mind focused exclusively on the murder of Parker. I had decided to disregard Johnny and his “academic gang” that were Parker and Company’s rivals. No one would sabotage his Stanford career over a little punk. Parker appeared to be loved by many and tolerated by most. To my secret dismay, he was dating Layla Duncan, the free-spirit beauty with nipple rings. She was one to lust after, but not to kill for.

I avoided my friends at lunch and decided to eat in the park next to campus. As I was searching for a spot, I stumbled across my sister, Tania, and her friends, smoking weed in a circle.

“Come chill with us!” She uncharacteristically yelled over to me. I took a seat and pulled out my PB&J. I nibbled my sandwich to avoid the crust. We were sitting a couple yards away from the “tree people,” appropriately named after the tree under which they hung out. They all had multi-colored hair, black clothing, and combat boots. They smoked epic amounts of weed and were fabled to hold massive orgies.

Tania and her friends giggled and loudly cracked inside jokes. Her best friend Rachel pulled me out of my reverie.

“What class do you have next?”

“Oh, um. History with Mr. Fritch.”

“Eww!! What a creep!” My sister exclaimed.

“Hella sketchy!” Rachel added.

“What do you mean? I know he’s weird, but…” I sat up and leaned in towards them.

“You know that he used to be the old tennis coach right?” My sister asked. I shook my head no. “Yeah, he was caught spying on girls in the locker room. He got fired and then rehired as a history teacher. Leave it to Berkeley High to do something ridiculous like that. He’s still on probation I think.”

“Are you serious? That’s beyond gross!” I screeched.

“Dead serious. Sucks to be you.” Tania lit another joint and the conversation shifted to the latest Real World episode.

This new information was truly disgusting and disturbing. I decided to skip my next classes. Attendance never mattered much. My parents had learned to disregard the nightly “Your son and/or daughter have missed one or more classes today. To excuse this absence, press one” automated calls. We went to class just often enough to earn straight A’s.

On my bus ride home, images of both Parker and Mr. Fritch spiraled through my head. A murder and a pedophile. Berkeley High seemed to be going down the drain. With buildings as tired and decrepit as the bus I road on, and with unqualified, sketchy teachers, my high school was in serious need of a facelift.

I exited the bus in front of Star Market, the small local grocery that employed many Berkeley High students, including Parker and his crew. I walked towards the back section to the ice cream freezer. While I decided between a Choco Taco and a Drumstick, Layla walked by and began restocking the cereal isle. Every slow movement emphasized her dejected, depressed demeanor. She had donned an Indian print skirt and a tight tank top that showed off her tattooed arms. Even in her current state, I envied Layla’s gracefulness and unselfconscious beauty. I’m not sure what possessed me, but I blurted out: “I’m sorry.”

She turned and stared into my eyes. I wanted to crawl and hide amongst the frozen fruit bars. Her eyes softened and she whispered: “Me too.” I turned back to my ice cream selection with intense concentration.

“It’s my fault, you know.” Layla whispered softly. I looked up at her. She seemed to be examining the cereal boxes as if the Honey Nut Cheerio maze would solve all her problems. I kept looking at her, hoping she would keep talking.

“It’s all my fault,” She repeated with a little more intensity and conviction. “I told him not to do anything. I told him it was just looking, not touching. It’s not like he raped me.” I stared at Layla in confusion. Tears began rolling down her cheeks. She caught some with her tongue and closed her eyes as she tasted the salty product of her misery. I was about to ask her gently to explain, but Layla had already continued angrily, her intensity growing with each word. “That sick fuck! I knew he was a pervert, but I would have never guessed he was a murderer! Mr. Fritch killed Parker!” The last statement, the accusation, was almost lost in her flood of tears. I stood and watched her, unable to formulate an appropriate reply. Layla cried into her hands and had obviously forgotten my presence. I slowly crept away and out the store.

I collapsed onto the bench at the bus stop across the street. Cars sped noisily down Claremont Avenue in front of me. Buses came and left as I attempted to piece this information together. Could Layla’s accusations have been true? Mr. Fritch’s stature had sure plummeted today: weirdo to pervert to murderer. Tania and her friends’ rumors about him lined up with Layla’s allegation. If Mr. Fritch was indeed on probation, he couldn’t afford to have been caught peeping again. Layla must have told Parker earlier in the day and that was why Parker seemed disgruntled at soccer practice. He must have confronted Mr. Fritch later that night in the faculty parking lot.

As I began my short walk home, I remembered something Mr. Fritch had said the day of the murder. He had been pleased that his car was in the shop. He must have run over Parker late at night and brought his car to be fixed to get rid of the evidence. That’s why he had been so “lucky” not to drive on Wednesday. My walk turned into a sprint up Rockwell Street. I bolted up the stairs to my house. I unlocked the door and disabled the alarm. The house was empty.

I pulled out the Alameda County phonebook and flipped to the auto body section. Skimming down the page, I circled the ones closest to Berkeley High. He could have brought it anywhere, but I needed a place to start. If need be, I would call all of the auto repair shops within a 100-mile radius. I doubted that Mr. Fritch would want to drive a far with human blood on his car.

I began making calls and inquiring by his full name, Thomas Fritch, pretending to be his wife. I lucked out on the sixth call -- a repair shop at the intersection of Shattuck and Alcatraz Avenue had Fritch’s car. The mechanic began apologetically, “Your car’s still not ready ma’am.” It’s gonna be a couple more days or so. A wreck like that can’t be fixed in two days; he just brought it in yesterday morning. You’re husband sure did a whole lot of damage hitting that deer. I haven’t had to clean up blood like that in years.”

That was all that I needed to hear. I thanked him and slammed the phone down. I paced around the kitchen unsure of what to do. Police officers and courtrooms scared me, so I nixed the option of telling my story directly to the law. I’d watched enough Law and Order to fear the “Witness Protection Program.” I decided to call my friend who worked on The Jacket, our school newspaper. An issue came out every other Friday, so the next one was going to be published tomorrow. It seemed so ideal and fitting to expose Mr. Fritch in the place he must have thought of as his sanctuary, his home.

School was still in session, so she didn’t pick up her phone. I left an urgent message to call me back. I grabbed a pen and pad of paper and began scrawling everything I knew about the case and how I thought the events unfolded in the timeline between Layla talking to Parker and Mr. Fritch dropping his car at the garage. I described the murder, the motive, the cover-up. The account on this piece of paper would definitely send Mr. Fritch straight to San Quentin.

My journalist friend returned my call around 4:00 PM. I twisted the cord to our ancient kitchen telephone nervously around my finger. I told her that I had a ground-breaking story, but something prevented me from describing it over the phone. I suddenly became mute at the most exciting moment of my fifteen year old life. I wondered if other detectives ever found themselves speechless before showing their hand. Sensing my discomfort, or doubting my sanity, my friend told me to bring my account to the school tonight, since the Jacket writers worked into the late hours.

When I wasn’t pacing around the living room, the dining room, and our back garden, I sat nervously on our front door landing, waiting for the hours to pass before I could leave for school. Luckily my sister walked through the door around 5:45 P.M..

“Thank God you’re home!” I shouted, perhaps a little too loudly.

“Jeez, calm down.” She said, plugging her ears. “What’s up?” The story finally spilled out of my mouth. Tania gawked as the chronicle progressed.

“Are you sure?” She exclaimed.

“Positive! And they’re publishing it in tomorrow’s Jacket. You just have to drive me there.” We sprinted out the door and into our prehistoric Mercury Villager minivan. It sputtered but we rolled quickly back towards Berkeley High. It was dusk when we reached the campus. Tania double-parked in front and I jumped out.

My friend was on her cell phone near the gate. She hung up as I approached her. She read the story with a journalist’s sick mixture of disgust and excitement.

“You sure you want to give me the credit for this?” She asked with an undertone of anticipation, “This is groundbreaking! This is the story of the Century! This is a ticket straight to Harvard!”

“I’m more than sure. I want this dirty investigation out of my life.”

“Thanks! I owe you one.”

I waved away her gratitude and headed back to the car. I fell into the waiting van and slammed the door quickly behind me. A shudder jolted through my body as I locked the door. I sat for a minute and stared at the desolate Berkeley High campus. I felt both fear and exhilaration about the article that would plaster the school grounds tomorrow.

“You get it to them on time?” Tania asked.

“Yup.”

“We’re bringing that perv down!” She said, clapping my hand with a high-five that stung.

“We brought him down!” I yelled with conviction. We sailed down Martin Luther King Boulevard singing loudly to the radio.

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