by Nick Gallup
Miss McGee was my favorite teacher. She lived to help her students. I’d done well in Algebra One the year before. It was simple and posed relatively easy problems and puzzles I enjoyed solving. She was now teaching me Algebra Two, which was a totally different animal. The problems and puzzles were no longer easy and certainly no fun to solve. I was a solid B Algebra student before, but I was now on the cusp of descending into gentleman C territory. Miss McGee took note of my dilemma and graciously came to my rescue.
“Algebra One, Trevor,” she said one day, holding me back after class for a few minutes, “is simply the first phase of Algebra, an introduction to its basic concepts. Algebra Two and beyond teaches you how to practically apply those concepts in real life. Real-life problems can sometimes be very complex, and the algorithms for solving these problems must, of necessity, be complex as well. Many students transitioning into Algebra Two have the same mental block you presently have.”
She knew I’d been on the wrestling team for four years and was the reigning state champion in my weight class. “’All of your matches can’t be easy,” she said encouragingly. “What do you do when you know you’ll be wrestling an exceptionally good opponent in your next match? Do you say he’s too tough, I could never beat him? Do you give up?”
My competitive juices stirred. “No, Ma’am,” I firmly replied. ”I double-down. I train harder. I show up for the match better prepared than he is.”
“Exactly, and there’s your algorithm for defeating Algebra Two.”
She had to tell me what an algorithm was, but I got her point. Kick some Algebra ass, Trev.
I was grateful to Miss McGee for the life lesson.
My Algebra Two class was at one o’clock, or my first class after lunch. Miss McGee, I learned later, had skipped lunch that Friday to dash to the bank to withdraw $3,000 in cash to pay for having her lanai screened in that weekend. Being an expert in things mathematical, she knew that home-repair contractors often offered significant discounts if home improvements were paid for in cash. I won’t delve into the contractor’s motivation. That’s a matter for the IRS.
She’d just returned from the bank as we began filing into her classroom. We couldn’t help but notice her counting a significant wad of cash. She noticed our noticing and quickly returned the cash to a bank envelope. She shoved the envelope into her substantial purse and placed it in a bottom drawer on the right side of her desk. The drawer was hard to open and close, and she had to apply elbow grease to open and shut it. The door was made for heavy items, files and what-not, and I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, diagnosed the cause of the sticky drawer to be faulty roller bearings. She eventually got the drawer shut and locked it with a key attached to her car remote. She placed the remote in the center drawer of her desk.
She cleared her throat and we few, we happy few, we band of students, attacked Algebra Two.
Miss McGee stayed in her classroom, and the students came to her. So, we students were on the move all day. My class with her, her one o’clock Algebra Two class, had been the only class to see her handling her cash and where she hid it and the key to the sticky drawer.
She was school bus monitor later that day, which meant she had to oversee the uploading of students into their buses and parents’ cars. It was pretty much of a hands-on job, and the only item she brought out with her from her school room was her cell-phone.
It was the talk of the campus the next day. Miss McGee had left her car remote in her desk while she tended to her bus-monitoring duties. While she was doing so, someone had sneaked into her classroom, used the key on the remote to unlock the drawer containing her purse, and stolen her $3,000 . The police were called in, and they began an investigation.
The school had been there for twenty years, and there had never been an incident of anyone breaking into a teacher’s desk and stealing anything. Why bother? Our little town was an upper middle-class Florida suburb, and, given the fact teachers are grossly underpaid, it was unlikely they would have more than $20 or $30 on hand, a pittance for us elite suburban students.
Think like a cop, though. Somebody knew there was enough cash In that drawer to tempt even a spoiled upper middle-class kid. Who would’ve known about the cash being there, they asked Miss McGee, right after, of course, they delivered the mandatory lecture to her about leaving cash, or even her purse, in her desk? She tearfully told the cops that she’d been seen counting the money by some of us in her one o’clock Algebra Two class and no one else. So guess who the usual suspects were.
Our local cops didn’t do much more than write parking tickets and bust kids for buying beer with fake ID’s, so they made a federal case out of a $3,000 robbery. I was amazed the next day to see Miss McGee’s classroom cordoned off with police tape as they actually dusted her desk and handbag for fingerprints. There were 24 kids in her one o’clock class, 13 girls and 11 boys. They called our parents and obtained permission to take our fingerprints for comparison. All the parents eventually agreed, but only after they first made us swear on our hand-held electronic devices we hadn’t been the low-life who’d stolen the cash.
The cops didn’t believe a girl would commit a crime like this, so they zeroed in on us guys, especially the two blacks and the Latino among us. They took our prints and rotated playing good cop/bad cop to entice us into confessing. All to non-avail. They found some prints on Miss McGee’s desk drawer, but none matched any of us in her one o’clock class, including the girls.
There were 850 kids in the school, and they ruled out finger-printing the entire school. They beat up on the two janitors, of course, and even the security guard. Still nada.
Anyway, the weekend came, and a bunch of us seniors were having a party at the beach that Saturday. We had a beer source that, for a price, would deliver kegs to a wooded spot near the beach and ice them down for us. The deal was we had to bring our own containers, usually MacDonald’s or Circle K retreads. We’d slip into the woods, fill up our vessels, and then return to the party. If the cops showed, which they would if we got too loud or rowdy, the drill was to dump any weed or beer we might have post haste in the surf. We made it a point, though, to behave in a civilized manner and not draw attention to ourselves. Be good citizens, you know.
I was supposed to bring the weed that night. Unfortunately, Jake was the only source in our neck of the woods, and I was more than a little distraught when he gave me the bad news he was out of stock.
“Is this your subtle way of announcing a price increase?”
“A guy bought my entire stock,” he explained.
“Dealer/client privilege, dude. Unethical to tell you. I’ll have some more in a few days, though.”
“Oh, that’s just great. The damned party’s tonight.”
So I had to announce to thirty of my fellow seniors they’d have to go weedless that night.
That blew any chance I had of being voted Most Popular.
We’d made do on just beer on many occasions and survived, although a weed/beer hangover was preferable to a beer-only hangover. I have no science to back that up, just my personal opinion after having suffered through both. We can debate later what the weed does to your brain, but at eighteen that’s not something we thought too long and hard about.
Anyway, the party got going, and like an airport dog, I smelled weed. I traced it down to Benny, a sometime antagonist of mine. He cared naught for me, and I even less for him.
“Where’d you get the weed, Benny?”
“Where else? Jake.”
“You the one who bought him out?”
“Someone bought him out?”
“That’s what he said.”
“If I got his last, he didn’t say so.”
“Hey, guys,” a girl said. It was Nikki, Benny’s girlfriend. “What’s up?”
“I was just about to kick Benny’s ass for buying up all the weed in town.”
Nikki’s big browns took on an extra happy glow. “Way to go, Benneee!”
“Trev’s just pissed ‘cause I got the last of Jake’s stash.”
“True that, Trev?
“True that, Nikki.”
“I’ll let you have some, Trev. For the right price, of course,” he added.
“I’m supposed to be the guy bringing the weed, and I had the sad duty of telling everyone some greedy shit bought up all the weed in town. Then I show up smoking something I said wasn’t available? They’d water-board me in the surf. No thanks, Benny.”
“Your loss, Dude.”
I shook my head and walked away. My date and I strolled over to the woods and filled up our “Big Gulp” cups with beer. She noticed I seemed to be reflecting mightily upon something.
“I saw you talking to Nikki, Trev. You’d better be thinking about me and not her.”
“Actually, Janie, I was thinking about Benny.”
“You into guys now?”
“Doubles your chances on Saturday nights,” I, ever the wit, quipped.
I waited until two the next day before I drove over to Benny’s house. He didn’t look as hungover as I did, because I didn’t have any weed, thanks to him. He was standing behind a tree in his back-yard smoking some of the weed that should’ve been mine.
“You come over to bitch about the weed again?”
“You like Miss McGee?” I inquired. Non-sequiturs were a specialty of mine.
“She’s all right. Nothing special.”
“She’s my favorite teacher.”
“So I hated to see someone steal her money.”
He kind of looked away at that point. “Yeah, tough luck for her.”
“Good luck for you, though.”
After thinking about it all night, my working theory was Benny’d been the one who’d stolen Miss McGee’s money. It was still in the theory stage, though, until he jerked his head around and glared at me. His face looked just like one of those perp pictures they show on the 11 o’clock news.
“What the hell you talking about, Trev? You still drunk?”
“Who told you about Miss McGee’s money?”
“Screw you, dude.”
“Nikki’s in my one o’clock Algebra Two class. She mention to you she saw Miss McGee locking her money into a desk drawer and where she hid the key?”
“Nikki didn’t say shit to me.”
“Jake already told me you bought his entire stash,” I lied.
“So where’d you get the money?”
“None of your business”
He said it tough-guy style, which didn’t work on me.
“Which one of your arms was it I sprained last year when you took a swing at me?”
He didn’t answer. I grabbed him and quickly pinned him on the grass. I held a fist threateningly over his surprised face.
“What the hell’s your problem, Trev?”
“How much you pay Jake?”
He didn’t want to answer, but he knew I was more than capable of spraining another arm.
“A grand,” he finally admitted.
“Where’s the rest of the money you stole?”
I really didn’t expect him to answer and was getting ready to subject him to black-site torture. He must’ve read the resolve in my eyes, because he quickly answered. “In my bedroom.”
I let him up. “Go get it and bring back all of the weed you got left.”
He hesitated, so I shoved him towards his house. He hesitated some more, so I shoved him really hard this time. He staggered back two or three feet and glared at me. He wanted to argue the point some more, but when I moved towards him, he quickly turned and headed towards his house. He came back a few minutes later carrying a large paper bag.
He and Nikki were a couple of weed-heads, and I guessed they had smoked about $50 worth of weed the night before. I held out my hand. “And now the rest of the money you stole.”
He dug into a pocket of his jeans and forked over the $2,000. I carefully counted it.
“What’re you gonna do with it?”
“Return it to Miss McGee. Now, pay me for the weed you and Nikki smoked last night. ”
“I only got $10.”
“Wallet,” I demanded.
He handed me his wallet. He had $30 in it. I took it all.
“I expect you’ll be hearing from Jake,” I said, as I headed back to my car.
“You’ll find out.”
I drove over to Jake’s. I honked the horn, and he came out.
“Told you yesterday, Trev. No stock. Capisce?”
“I’m here to replenish your stock. Get in the car.”
Nothing surprised a weed dealer, I suppose. He calmly opened the door and climbed in. I handed him the bag of weed. “Benny wants a refund on this, Jake. Give me the $1,000 he gave you.”
“All sales are final, Trev. Didn’t you see the sign on the wall?”
“There’s an exception.”
“Benny bought your weed with stolen money.”
Jake smiled. “I wondered where that creep got a grand. Not surprised to hear he stole it. Who’d he steal it from? Couldn’t be you. I know you ain’t got a grand.”
“He broke into a teacher’s desk at school. She taken out $3,000 to pay some guy to screen in her lanai. You know, cash deals get big discounts, plus no sales tax.”
“So you gonna rat out Benny and return the money?”
“I’m not planning on ratting anyone out, but, yeah, I’m gonna return the money.”
“I’m sympathetic, Trev, but I really don’t care where the money came from. Sorry, no refund.”
“Then I’ll rat out both Benny and you.”
That really surprised him. “You could be getting yourself in trouble, Trev.”
I had to laugh. “What, a Columbian Cartel’s gonna come put a necktie on me? Come on, Jake, as little weed as you deal, your source probably grows it in his basement.”
“There’s some guys…”
“Bring ‘em on. The wrestling team and I’ll take ‘em on. Of course, they’ll probably stop at your place first for being so dumb as to sell your whole stash to a high school kid with $1,000. You just admitted you wondered where a creep like Benny got a grand. You should’ve known he probably stole it somewhere.”
Jake was no gangster. Just a college drop-out who picked up spending money selling weed in small quantities. Hell, the cops probably knew about him already and didn’t give a shit so long as he kept his sales low. Some of them might even be customers. Recreational drugs. Cops need to recreate, too. Right?
I guess that thought, or something like it, ran through Jake’s mind. He probably had just enough college to realize that making an exception to his no-refund policy, if not the ethical thing to do, was probably in his long-term best interests.
He hefted the paper bag I’d handed him. “Little light.”
“I’d have to weigh it to be sure.”
“You do that, but I want $1,000 from you. Go knock on Benny’s door for what he and Nikki smoked last night. I’ve got to return the whole $3,000 to the teacher.”
“You just gonna walk up to her and hand her $3,000?”
I laughed again. “It’s football players who’re dumb, Jake, not wrestlers.”
He sighed, “Your logic is overwhelming, Trev. I’ll make a one-time exception. Back in a sec.”
He took the bag and walked back into his house. He returned in a few minutes and handed me the $1,000. “There’s a condition, though, dude.”
“You gotta let me know how you pulled off the return. Professional courtesy, you know.”
My dad was trying to train me to be fiscally responsible. He’d established a bank account for me, and, if I needed money, like to buy beer or weed, I had to write a check and cash it. If I needed more money, I had to review my expenditures with him and provide him compelling reasons why my account needed replenishment.
I wrote a check for $20 and drove to the bank drive-through to cash it. The girl at the window gave me my money in an envelope. I happened to know, having seen Miss McGee there many times, that she and I shared the same bank. My game plan for returning the money required that I place her $3,000 in the same kind of envelope it’d been in when stolen. I stuffed the $3,000 into the replacement envelope.
I drove to school early the next morning. The doors had just been opened, and I was one of the first in. I went immediately to Miss McGee’s classroom. I knelt down by her desk and opened the sticky drawer I’d seen her put the money in. I put the envelope of cash in the drawer, behind her Kleenex and hand lotion, then shut it.
I beat it out of there. No one had seen me. Mission accomplished. Well, almost.
Miss McGee still looked a little despondent when we filed in for Algebra Two. Who knows how long she’d been saving up to have her lanai screened in? This was Florida, and there were tons of little insects eager to sample your blood, especially those little sadists, the no-seeums, as we affectionately called them. Her disappointment was, therefore, more than just mental anguish.
Class began, and I was unusually attentive. Miss McGee had occasion to use the sticky drawer several times during class. Each time it was a struggle.
I made it a point to comment the first time it happened.
“You’re gonna get muscles opening and shutting that drawer, Ma’am.”
Everyone laughed but her. She smiled a little.
I was the last to leave when the class ended. I stopped at her desk.
“Let me take a look at that drawer, Ma’am. See if I can figure out what’s wrong with it.”
“It’s okay, Trevor. I’ll put in a work order.”
“Bet you’ve done that already.”
Again a tight smile. “You’re right. This will be the third or fourth time.”
“Let me look at it. I fix things all the time at home.” Another lie. This time a whopper.
I knelt in the same spot I had earlier and jerked the drawer open. Her two-suiter handbag filled the drawer.
“Take your handbag out, Ma’am, so I can get a better look at the drawer.”
She did as I requested. I felt around inside and found the money at the back of the drawer. Evidently it slid backwards when the drawer was jerked open. I pulled the envelope towards the front and then moved my hand around as if I were inspecting the sliding mechanism.
“One of the rollers has broken,” I said as I stood up, trying to loo both innocent and professional. I glanced down and could easily see the envelope just behind the Kleenex and hand lotion. I couldn’t point it out to her. She’d have to find it herself to make my ruse believable. “I’ll ask Mr. Wallace over in Shop class to send someone over.”
“Thanks, Trevor. I’d appreciate it. You’d better get going though. You’ll be late for your next class,” she said gratefully. She sat down in her desk chair and leaned forward to return her handbag to the sticky drawer. I was a nervous wreck she wouldn’t see the envelope, but, despite her advanced age of 30, she had excellent vision. She saw the envelope as she was lowering the bag and gasped.
Although I was pretending to leave, I was watching intently. “Anything wrong, Ma’am?”
“It’s the envelope, Trevor.”
“What envelope, Ma’am?”
“The one with my money was in.”
“Here, in the drawer.”
“Oh, my God, Is the money still in it?” Academy Award performance. I even clutched my heart.
She quickly scooped the bank envelope up and hefted it. ”Feels like it,” she said excitedly. She took the money out and carefully counted it. Then she started to cry. “It’s all here, Trevor. Every last dollar. It was here all the time. It must have slid out of my purse when I shut the drawer. Oh, God, I feel so stupid. I even called the police. I should’ve know one of my students would never have stolen money from me.”
Other students were milling in for her next class. They saw her crying and rushed to her desk.
“She found the money she thought had been stolen,” I announced to them. “It’d been stuck in the stupid sticky drawer of hers all the time.”
All the girls hugged and congratulated her. The guys stood back and said “ Awesome, Dude.”
I was late for my next class and got 30-minutes detention. You do the crime, you do the time.
I kept the 30-bucks Benny had forked over to me. Screw him. Call it a theft tax. I bought weed with it for our next party at the beach. I guess he squared it with Jake, as I never heard anything else about it. I did tell Jake how I’d pulled the return off. Professional courtesy, you know.
Nick Gallup is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, where he majored In English and Creative Writing. He has had a number of short stories published in on-line magazines. He is currently trying to market a collection of his short stories, which he has modestly entitled “Holden Caulfield Does Walter Mitty”. He concedes the title may well be the best part of the book. Nick lives and writes in Cape Coral, Fl.