Chapter Sixteen

THE RULES OF FRED

Swimming Pool’s fifth grade class did not have an ordinary hall pass.

The year before, Mrs. Ahearn, the fifth grade teacher, had used a long block of wood marked “HALL PASS” in big black letters.  Unfortunately kids were always leaving it behind in the lavatory or wherever.  Mrs. Ahearn gave countless lectures on accountability but the lectures never seemed to help that block of wood. 

This year, Mrs. Ahearn had a new plan.  She returned from a summer vacation in Maine with a big red plastic lobster.  On the first day of school, she said, “This is Fred” and held the lobster aloft.  “Fred is our hall pass.”

The kids looked at each other as though Mrs. Ahearn had lost her mind in Maine.  But Mrs. Ahearn was delighted with herself.  She placed Fred in an empty fish tank by the door and added enough water to fill the tank.  “Fred lives in salt water, not fresh,” she explained, adding a healthy dose of table-salt.  “If this was fresh water, Fred would drown.”  The kids shuddered at the thought of Fred drowning but then they remembered that Fred wasn’t real.  He was plastic.

At first it was strange, but soon the kids were totally into Fred.  After Mrs. Ahearn decided that the Student of the Week got to change the salt water in Fred’s tank, kids clamored for the title.  When Swimming Pool was Student of the Week, she tried to explain the big deal to her parents, but she gave up when they got stuck on the difference between a real lobster and a fake.

As it was, Principal Bridwell would finish the Pledge of Allegiance over the P.A. system every morning.  Then Mrs. Ahearn would instruct the fifth grade to turn from the flag toward the tank to deliver the Pledge to Fred.  The Pledge to Fred went something like this: 

I know that he’s plastic,

I know that he’s red.

Still I obey the Rules of Fred.

 

The Rules of Fred meant that students had to use the lobster instead of a hall pass.  Whenever students had to leave the classroom, they had to reach into the water, grab Fred and take the lobster along.  When students returned to the classroom, they had to plunk Fred back into the water.  Simple as that.

Mrs. Ahearn was mighty pleased with herself because the Rules of Fred worked so well for a while.  A kid couldn’t misplace Fred.  He went in his tank by the door.  It was unthinkable to forget Fred in the lavatory or the dean’s office or wherever.  Fred belonged back in the classroom in his tank.  He couldn’t be away from water for long.

Unfortunately, as early as October, the Rules of Fred began to break down.  It wasn’t the kids.  The kids had nothing to do with it.  The problem was that Fred started taking little field trips all by himself. 

Fred was in the cafeteria on Seafood Friday with his claws stuck in the coleslaw and pickles.  The whole school knew about Fred after that little stunt.  A week later, Fred was in the library, lying on top of the dictionary with a pair of eyeglasses like he was actually reading the definition of “crustacean.”

Sometimes, Fred got into trouble even when it wasn’t his fault.  During student elections, half the posters in the halls read: “Vote for Fred!”  Mrs. Ahearn threatened to expel Fred from the classroom.  “But Fred didn’t do it!” Ronjon argued, “Fred can’t write!”  He held up the lobster and wiggled its claw. 

“Fred can’t even hold a pen!” Swimming Pool added. 

 

Fred’s most notorious adventure occurred at a flagpole assembly.  It wasn’t an official holiday because they didn’t get the day off -- but it was one of those days when the entire school had to gather on the blacktop in the hot sun while the Safety Patrol formed a big circle around the flagpole.  Mr. Bridwell made a speech about patriotism.  The school band attacked a courageous and somewhat noisy rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever.”  After that, the Safety Patrol hooked the flag to the flagpole and yanked on the rope.

Up went the flag – and up went Fred.   

Mrs. Ahearn was decidedly not amused.  She gave another huge lecture on accountability but the class argued that Fred didn’t understand.  “Fred can’t listen!” said Ronjon, shaking the lobster and flinging drops of water.

“Fred doesn’t even have ears!” Swimming Pool added.

Mrs. Ahearn was all prepared to expel Fred from the classroom but for some reason she couldn’t bring herself to reach into the tank and do it.  It was easier, she decided, to let the plastic lobster “lie there and rot!” 

But Fred didn’t seem to have any intention of lying around his tank.  “No doubt about it,” Swimming Pool said, “that Fred is frisky.”  These days, it was not unlikely for Mrs. Ahearn to start any given school day with an exasperated, “Okay, has anybody seen Fred?” 

 

Swimming Pool’s hands were soaking wet because Fred was asleep in his tank that morning when she asked permission to use the lavatory.  Swimming Pool whistled down the hallway, elbowed her way into the girl’s room and propped Fred on the windowsill so he could enjoy the view and not disturb the other girls.  After Swimming Pool washed her hands, she grabbed Fred off the ledge, tucked him under her arm and pushed back into the hall. 

Swimming Pool decided to take the long loop back to class so that she could stop by the good water fountain.  For some reason, the fifth grade classroom was stuck with the bad water fountain where the water was chalky and warm.  The band room had the good water fountain where the water was always crystal clear and ice-cold.  Swimming Pool was convinced that the location of the good water fountain was one of the most important things she had learned in three years at Pembrook Middle School. 

She leaned over the fountain for a healthy slurp.  Then, feeling generous, she held the knob while Fred took a slurp.  Third period must have been the music hour because the band was rehearsing something next door.  Swimming Pool didn’t recognize the tune but that wasn’t unusual with school band.  As she listened, however, the music began to remind her of Christmas and ice and candy.

“That’s it,” thought Swimming Pool, snapping her fingers, “the snowflake song!”  Without realizing it, she was counting waltz-time under her breath, “One-two-three, one-two-three -- ”

At the time, Swimming Pool was alone in the hall.  The linoleum floor gave off a shiny gloss from a recent waxing.  She lifted Fred in one arm so he could hear the music and then she positioned other arm as Miss Ginger had instructed.  She closed her eyes and began marking a small box-step.  Left-right-left, right-left-right.  And before long, Swimming Pool and the lobster were taking a little waltz about the hall.  Her high-tops squeaked against the linoleum, more or less in rhythm.  But after a few more snowflakes, Swimming Pool heard a noise that shattered the moment.  She froze on the spot.  From the far end of the hallway, someone had cleared his throat.  Swimming Pool was totally busted. 

She looked up to find Ernie, smiling broadly and clapping his hands.  “The box-step,” said Ernie.  “I recognize that dance!  It’s the box-step!”

“Knock it off, Ernie,” Swimming said, balling up a fist for good measure.

Ernie came closer and bent over the water fountain for a slurp.  “Hey Fred,” said Ernie, wiping his mouth.  As usual, Fred didn’t answer.  “Hey Pool,” said Ernie.  “Long time no.”

Swimming Pool was tempted not to answer.  She was tempted to walk away without a word.  But instead she said, “I’m not talking to you, Ernie.”

Ernie grimaced.  “Okay,” he said, “be that way.  I’m not talking to you either.”

“So then what are you doing talking to me?” asked Swimming Pool. 

Ernie couldn’t argue with that logic.  He waved his hands and turned to walk away. 

But Swimming Pool couldn’t bear not dealing the subject while she had the chance.  So she went ahead and brought it up.  “I can’t believe you like me,” she said.

Ernie stopped in the hall and slowly turned around.  “I don’t like you,” he said.

“Well, I don’t like you either,” said Swimming Pool.  “But you told somebody you liked me.”

“I never told anybody I liked you,” Ernie protested.

“Then how come they say you like me?”

“How am I supposed to know?” Ernie threw his hands up in frustration.  It was as if a 400-pound gorilla was sitting between them holding a valentine that neither of them had ordered.

“Just so you know,” said Swimming Pool, going for the last word, “I never liked you.”

“Me neither,” said Ernie. 

       “Okay.”

       “So okay.”

       It was quiet between them for a moment.  Then Ernie asked, “You swear you didn’t write the note in glitter?”

“Ernie,” said Swimming Pool, “we did glitter in art class and I just about flunked!”

Both Ernie and Swimming Pool snickered about that.

“So are we still friends?” Ernie asked.

       Swimming Pool hesitated slightly.  “Who says we’re not friends?” she said.

Ernie was still confused.  “But it doesn’t make sense.  How do we stay friends and let everybody know we don’t like each other and still stay friends?”

“Wow,” said Swimming Pool.  “You’re too heavy for me.”

Ernie looked from left to right.  The hall was still empty.  They both still had hall passes and a little time to kill.  Ernie figured this was as good a time as any to bring up the subject of baseball.

“So you okay?” he asked.  “We miss you on the team.”

“Tell it to my mom,” said Swimming Pool.  “You were there.  I got thrown out of charm school.  Miss Ginger called me uncouth!”

“What’s ‘uncouth’?” said Ernie. 

“How am I supposed to know?” groused Swimming Pool.  “But it doesn’t sound like a gold star to me!” 

Ernie was reluctant to address the consequences of the charm school debacle but he figured it was now or never.  “So no more birthday party?” he ventured, “no baseball?”

“Think about it,” said Swimming Pool.  “I’ve got so much free time I’ll probably make straight A’s.” 

“I’m sorry, Swimming Pool,” said Ernie, “I’m really sorry.”  They stood in the hall for a moment without making a noise.  They didn’t fidget.  Even the linoleum was quiet.

Swimming Pool sighed and shook her head.  “I don’t know what to do,” she said.  She reached for Fred, ready to head back to class.

Ernie turned slowly as the idea brewed in his head.  “Hold up,” he said, “hold up a minute.”  He paced back and forth in the hall as he thought out loud.  “Your mom said no baseball and no birthday party unless you get through charm school.  Is that correct?”

“That’s what she said,” said Swimming Pool.

“Did she say it had to be a specific charm school?”

“Miss Ginger’s School of Tap & Tumbling,” Swimming Pool said with a shrug.  “Where else is there?” 

Ernie didn’t answer at first.  But he smiled.  It was the smile he used when he had just concocted a brilliant scheme.  “Uh-oh,” thought Swimming Pool, “what now?”

Ernie laid out his idea like he had opened up a box and was pulling out a string of pearls.  “Who’s to say,” he began, “we can’t start our own charm school?”

“Our own charm school?” Swimming Pool repeated, suddenly incredulous and shrill.  “Ernie, you’ll forgive me,” she said, “but I think of you and ‘charm’ isn’t the first word that comes to mind.”

“I got charm to spare,” Ernie replied.  “I am oozing with charm.”

“But where are we going to have it?”  Swimming Pool asked, challenging Ernie to get down to business. 

“What’s wrong with the Moose Lodge?” said Ernie.

“I thought that place was haunted.”

“It’s creepy but it’s nice.” 

“But who’s going to throw the party?” asked Swimming Pool.  “We’d have to have decorations and punch and-– .”

Swimming Pool didn’t even reach the word “cookie” before she saw where Ernie was headed.

“Dusty,” they said together. 

“Would Dusty do it?” Swimming Pool asked.

“Who knows?” said Ernie.  “Can’t hurt to ask.”

“He’ll do it for me,” said Swimming Pool.  “I’ll ask.”

“No, I’ll ask,” said Ernie.  “Dusty and me have unfinished business.”

“Suit yourself,” said Swimming Pool.  She knew about the unfinished business.  She was relieved that Ernie was prepared to sort it out.  “But what about music?  What about invitations?”

“So many questions,” said Ernie.  “It always works out!”

“And who are we going to invite?  Who’s going to attend?  All the girls I know go to Miss Ginger’s!  Why would anybody come to our charm school when they all go to Miss Ginger’s?”

“We’ll get boys,” said Ernie.  “We’ll tell them we got boys.” 

“Boys?”  Swimming Pool was dumbstruck.  She was shocked at such a good idea.  She was so shocked that it just about knocked the wind out of her.  “Oh, that’s good,” she said, “but where are we going to find boys?”

“Swimming Pool,” said Ernie, like she was really dense.  “Between you and me and the baseball team, we got boys.” 

Swimming Pool shook her head and chuckled.  She had to admit that was true.

“Besides,” Ernie continued, “people owe me favors and I know people owe you.”

This was true too.  Swimming Pool didn’t like to think that people owed her favors.  But she allowed that it was probably true.

“So okay Ernie,” she said.  “We throw this party and tell the girls we got boys.  That’s still not charm school!  That’s just a boy-girl party!  Who are we going to get to teach us about manners, charm and etiquette?  All that stuff!”

“Etiquette,” Ernie repeated.  “Grandma stuff, right?”

“Basically, but it’s tricky,” said Swimming Pool, “There are rules, rules, lots of rules.”

Ernie sighed.  He was stumped.  He tapped his foot.  He went for another drink of water but Fred was still hogging the fountain. 

“Fred!” Ernie thought.  The answer was staring him in the face.

“Fred!” Ernie cried out loud, grabbing the lobster in his hand.  “We’ll use Fred!  Kids love learning the Rules of Fred.”

“Fred!” cried Swimming Pool, suddenly reunited with a long lost friend.  “That’s perfect!”

“Except it won’t be etiquette anymore,” said Ernie, handing her the lobster.  “It’ll be Freddy-quette.”

Swimming Pool laughed.  “I don’t know, Ernie,” she said warily. “We still don’t have anybody to teach us to dance.  It isn’t charm school unless we make the kids dance.  And we can’t ask Miss Ginger.  I’m afraid of Miss Ginger.  Who do we know who can dance?” 

“Tony?” said Ernie.

“Not Tony,” said Swimming Pool.  “He’s too expensive.  And besides, I got my pride.”

Ernie smiled.  He had to admit though, that Swimming Pool had a point.  Without a dance teacher, they might as well give up on the idea.  They could throw a party, sure.  But it wouldn’t be charm school unless they could think of someone who knew how to dance.

And who did he know who could dance?

The answer should have been obvious but it still took Ernie by surprise.  In fact, when the answer came, he closed his eyes and smiled.  The answer was so obvious it had snuck up and whacked him in the head.   

“I got it,” said Ernie.  “Don’t worry, I got it.”

“Who?” said Swimming Pool.  “Not Miss Ginger.  I told you.  I’m afraid of Miss Ginger.”

“Don’t worry,” Ernie repeated.  “I’ll get us a dance teacher.  You can leave it to me.”

 

At that moment, Mr. Fowler, the school dean, growled “hey!” from the far end of the hall, sounding a lot meaner than both Swimming Pool and Ernie actually knew him to be.  “You kids better have a hall pass!”

“It’s okay, Mr. Fowler,” said Ernie, holding up his piece of wood.  Swimming Pool held up Fred and waved his little claw.  Mr. Fowler eyed the lobster and nodded okay. 

But it would be quite some time before that lobster would ever be seen again.

© 2003 Doug Cooney
Last Updated 22 Apr 2011
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