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Chapter 2 of About Face

Tony Thompson

2: GoodFare


Entering through the back door of the Arts and Administration Building, I resumed the less remarkable part of my split life. I was usually happy to go into the college, even more now I lived alone. But this abrupt change of roles always left some lingering tightness in my core.

   Andy hadn’t stopped all morning for a break at a Tim’s and there wasn’t time to make my usual noon-hour basketball scrimmage. I entrusted my lunch and health to the Grab & Gag cafeteria in the A&A building—officially the Grab & Go. I couldn’t tell how many hours the pizza had been sweating under the warming lamp. I hoped not long enough to confess its worst microbial sins to my olfactory police. I elected a mushroom and dried tomato veggie slice—self-smell-and-serve—with a small dark roast to smooth its way down.

   Looking for a comfortable space away from the gaggling students, I saw Robert Teasdale signalling discreetly from a quiet corner table. Should I pretend not to notice? Would he feign not being offended?

Feeling ensnared, I weaved in his direction through the leg and sneaker obstacle course. With a straggly white goatee, pale skin, a head of tightly curled, silver hair, and light-coloured eyes, everything above Robert’s neck practically disappeared when he stood in front of a white background. His beige shirt showcased his crimson tie, emblazoned with miniature College crests. Trying to be natty, as usual.

   Of all the faculty in the department, only Robert had voted against hiring me. Not that I was supposed to know, but that kind of information permeates the college like dust from the chalk boards we still used. Robert thought they should have brought in another American. Or one who knew how to dress properly. That was a decade ago. Even so, my feelings about Robert aren’t water under the bridge. They’re more orange, low-tide, Bay-of-Fundy mud, still viscous and gummy if you find yourself wading in. Resentments die hard.

   “Hey, Ian,” Robert greeted me with what he hoped would be taken as a friendly come-and-sit. “Anything new?”

   Vague generalities were all I owed him. “I just finished a stint on highway patrol. Not much happened,” I added in hopeful discouragement. My answer nudged his thinking only slightly to a follow-up I’d hoped not to hear.

   “You still doing that police thing? I thought you’d finished that years ago. Have you published anything yet?”

Robert was on the tenure and promotion committee, where he played the hard-nosed bad cop, one of those who kisses up and kicks down. His question had a disparaging edge I had to answer. “I use what I learn from my policing research all the time in my teaching. Stories add meat to the bones.”

   While I was delivering this takeaway, Robert’s gaze had flitted to a group of women crowded around a nearby table. According to the scuttlebutt, women students complained about his attentiveness to more than their grades. It’s no consolation being under the objectifying lens of the male leer to be told looking is safe because it substitutes for action. Too often it doesn’t.

   Robert’s gaze finally swivelled back to my eyebrows. He thought he’d been subtle, but according to Mary, my ex-wife, women always know. Even from behind. Even if they don’t show it.

   “One of our women students has been reported missing,” I told him.

   “I hope she’s not one of mine,” Robert said quickly before superciliously continuing with his own thread. “Nobody gets promoted just for teaching, Ian. It’s a popularity contest—you know, who’s the most entertaining in front of the class. Student evaluations are a joke.”

   The conversation was going to no galaxy where I wanted to hitchhike. “You hope she’s not one of your what, Robbie?”

   “One of my students, of course,” he replied with an edge, glaring at me while turning a shade more pink than white. He began stacking his disposable dishes and abruptly pushed back his chair.

   “Well,” I said, finishing what little of the slice I could, “I’ve got to prepare a new stand-up routine for today’s class.”

   Robert walked away without responding to my passive aggression.

   I took the stairs to the Social Sciences Department and my office refuge, thinking about how important humour is in a lecture. Most of mine is spur-of-the-moment, the riskiest type.

   Part of my annoyance with Robert was professional. My police observations are participatory. Cops are real people with peculiarities and points of view I’d learned to appreciate. The more people invite you into their world and reveal their prejudices and foibles, the deeper the implied trust and the more insidious any violation of their versions of self.

   What irritates me most during my semi-conscious sleeplessness is the fear of being inauthentic, that false imperative, as if you could ever be only a single, indivisible self instead of many selves depending on time, place, and who you’re with. Playing Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates must be impossible and terrifying, having to divide complex humanity into saved sheep and damned goats. Overly conscious of the multiple faces I project, I’m authentic only in my inauthenticity.

   Monday afternoon was a back-to-back teaching schedule. My introduction to human societies lecture was almost an hour away, followed by criminal justice. As I reviewed my yellowed, scribbled notes in my office, my stomach began complaining about the quantity and quality of its lunch.

   When the phone rang, I didn’t let it go to voice mail. The image of a missing young woman flitted in my head. I hoped it was Dobson with a better invitation than Andy’s.

   “Ian Wallace,” I announced into the receiver.

   “Hey! Can I get into that criminal law course next term the Registrar says is closed?”

   The query was muffled, as though the College didn’t pay enough money to the phone company. I understood the administration’s intent. Make students commit to returning next fall before the summer deinstitutionalizes them. It was all about numbers and money.

   But this call wasn’t from a student. I knew that voice. I pictured Lauren Martin’s dark, braided hair and expressive, hazel eyes, the features you notice first and can’t forget.

   “It’s going to stay closed to you,” I said. “The last thing I need in class is a bright Mountie who knows how the law actually works.”

   “You’ve had members in other courses,” she complained.

   “Yeah, and most of them passed despite my efforts. They’re not popular in class because their military haircuts are too obvious. Students think they’re narcs.”

   “And you think they aren’t? I’ve heard you once assigned an essay on, ‘Are Cops Pigs?’”

   It occurred to me they could be boars or sows. That’s not the way I saw Lauren. Far from it. “Once only, and that was the first time a member took the class. His answer was, ‘Sure, some cops are pigs, but not me.’”

   “They all say that. Listen, I have a file I need your help with.”

   “Can you say that again in case I misheard?”

   “Are you sure I said it the first time? Can you spare some time this afternoon? After your classes?”

   “I’m free now and it’s lunch time,” I said, hoping to go somewhere for an actual meal with Lauren.

   “Sorry. What I have in mind won’t be quick. We have a report about a missing young woman. I’m meeting with Sergeant Young next, then interviewing her parents. Oh, I have to go. Young is waving me in. See you about three-thirty, barring the unexpected.”

   I heard a dial tone buzzing in my ear. Lauren had hung up.

   “Damn!” I said aloud.

   Lauren must have been assigned to Dobson’s investigation into the missing 19-year-old, the subject of the police radio call. Definitely a student at the College.

I presumed no one had found a body lying where it shouldn’t be. Not yet. Death itself is seldom ambiguous, although the cause and circumstances can be, as thousands of crime novels suggest.

   Lauren had opened my way into the case. Spending more time with Lauren would be a major bonus. She’s the only woman I’ve casually dated since Mary made it both possible and necessary.

   With my mind on the missed lunch opportunity and my newly aroused appetite, I wanted something more sustaining than the Grab and Gag. GoodFare, the local organic food outlet on Main Street, was just the ticket.

   At the café door, I manoeuvred around Johnnie Walker, as he was known around town with more derision than affection. He’d told me his surname was Walton. When I tried to use it, he’d said with pride, ‘I’m Johnnie Walker now.’

   Every small town has an oddball character, conventionally either a sad but genuine fool or a Shakespearean one, wise under the wrinkles. You have to apply for the position with Town Council. Nova Scotia’s not like England, where they pump out eccentrics by the beer barrel.

   Johnnie was staring intently at the chalk menu on a sandwich board. It was placed to obstruct half the sidewalk in hopes of diverting traffic into the café. In his late fifties with thinning, grey hair, he wore coveralls and heavy work boots, although he had once told me he’d never done manual labour. He’d been a station clerk in Halstead when Nova Scotia had passenger trains. He still keeps an eye on the comings and goings of the townsfolk, usually while loitering around the Main Street Café, a less wholesome option than GoodFare.

   “Hi, Johnnie,” I said, navigating around both walkway obstacles. I’d offered the minimal politeness exhibited in a small town. It made me feel virtuous, although I hoped he hadn’t heard an invitation to chat. The air clinging to Johnnie was still mostly sober.

   Twin brothers who lived on the South Mountain owned the store. Not that you’d ever guess they were twins. They looked similar, but their personalities and presentations were California rain forest and Nova Scotia scrub. They took turns working the small café squeezed into a space at the back of the store along with a few tables scattered about. Soups, sandwiches, baked treats, and smoothies, all made from local produce, as advertised. The alternative community clientele made it a comfortable place for an occasional lunch.

   When it was my turn at the counter, Larry, the California twin, said, “Whatch’a in for, Ian?” His dark, reddish hair and beard flowed straight down, rivalling the length of his blue-checkered apron.

   “Hi, Larr. Crowded as usual, I see.”

   “Try coming back in an hour. There’ll be nobody here.”

   “Why come then? You don’t think I’m here for the food, do you?”

   “Ha. Maybe I’ll just skip you and serve Johnnie. He looks hungry.”

   “I’m not that hungry,” Johnnie piped up. “My doctor told me I better start eating healthy, so here I am.”

   “Okay,” I said to Larry. “I’m thinking a daily-special smoothie with an avocado and brie sandwich.” Everything came with sprouts, even the coffee, but I wondered which local farmer grew the avocado.

   I couldn’t see a spare seat. A lunch in solitude beckoned outside.

   Two picnic tables were jammed onto the small patch of mowed weeds next to the curb. The good weather was holding. Maybe we wouldn’t be thrown back into winter before March was through.

   Johnnie followed me out with soup and home-made bread. He headed for the other side of my table, within easy eavesdropping distance in case I started talking to myself. It looked as though he wanted to return more than my triple syllable greeting.

   At best, he and I carried on a give-and-take relationship. He was touchy, though. I had to be alert not to cross his ever-shifting line.

   “Saw you driving through town in that police car they think’s invisible,” he said. “Why don’t they just give ‘er up? Everybody knows what it really is.”

   “Yeah, but it works on the highway. The cops in Banff drive around in an unmarked car with a full rack of skis. Blending in with the tourists. Maybe here they should tie a deer on top.”

   “Only in season. Dead give-away otherwise. What did you do wrong this time?”

   “Failed one of their kids, as usual,” my standard reply. Some people took it seriously.

   “The cops never do much around here, you know,” Johnnie said.

   I could sense his weather vane switching direction. Maybe I’d misjudged the blood alcohol reading.

   “We’re payin’ for all this patrolling in their swanky, new cars and you still can’t sleep through all the racket. Kids yelling and screaming at two in the morning like somebody’s killin’ ’em.”

   “It’s a college town,” I explained, knowing Johnnie could sometimes be reasonable. “Comes with the territory and keeps businesses afloat. Students bring a lot of bread and butter with them.”

   “They bring a lot of other things, too.”

   “Oh?” I asked, despite knowing better.

   “You know what I mean. Young people nowadays bring trouble on themselves. You can’t act the way they do, in public no less, without somethin’ happening.”

   “They’re young,” I said, not quite ready to abandon the hope of less strident discourse. “You remember how that feels. You’ve told me about some of your wild times. Maybe they’re even in love, in their minds, anyway. Students hit town in the heat of their budding adulthood and discover it's Baptistville. A town-and-gown truce is the most we can hope for.”

   “Age got nothing to do with it,” Johnnie shot back. “There’s plain decency and there’s none of it. I’m just sayin’ they’re looking for trouble and gonna find it, too.”

His face turned deeper red. My misapplied diplomacy had wound him tighter.

   “The Lockharts are finding that out, all right,” he said. “All Sunday afternoon Georgina was nosing around town, tryin’ to find where her daughter was holed up. She wasn’t stayin’ behind in church, you can bet on that.”

   My brie and avocado turned into sprouts. Johnnie had provided a possible name and a face for the young woman reported missing. Melody Lockhart, a sophomore at the college, fit the reported description. She’s a student of mine, one of the bright ones who sits near the front and gets my jokes. Only tuned-in students understand them.

   I made a polite excuse to Johnnie and carried the remnants of my lunch inside, dumping what I could into the compost to rot in peace.

   I searched my retinal memory, wondering when I’d last seen Melody in class. I couldn’t be sure. She had seldom missed classes until a month or so ago. Lately, she’s been coming to about half of them.

   By the time I returned to the A&A, that blurry picture of her presence/absence had withdrawn behind my forehead.

   Forcing my mind into the lecture rut of intro soc, as the students called the subject, I assembled my carefully-numbered notes. I wanted to appear on time. If any prof doesn’t appear promptly within ten minutes students become fleeing geese alarmed by a starting pistol.

   The basic point of my introductory lecture that afternoon was that each person sharing an experience with others interprets it differently, depending on their individual circumstances and interests. Ultimately, we all live in distinct realities.

   The upcoming justice lecture asked whether the criminal system is designed to allow guilty people to go free, a quote from a judge I’d interviewed. He argued that setting the extraordinarily high standard of being proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt minimized the tragic conviction of the innocent. It didn’t always work out that way.

   After concluding my two performances, I waited impatiently in my office for Lauren to arrive.

   Melody had not attended the criminology class. I couldn’t remember whether she had been in my justice lecture last week. But the notes I took during last Thursday’s seminar indicated her absence.

   The only pattern I could see in her seminar record over the winter term was an increase in absenteeism and a gradual decline in grades. I didn’t know much else about her, not personally anyway, although she didn’t seem the type to get into trouble. Assuming there is a type.

   Experiencing time is never consistent with what the clock tells you. I looked at my watch so often it began to think it was under police surveillance.

When the phone did ring, it sounded like a 5 am alarm clock.

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