In our misspent youth, The Observer had an unnatural fear of the Truant Officer. Thanks mostly to our mother — who, anytime we wanted to skip the schoolhouse, would intone: “The Truant Officer will be out looking for you” — he was second in our minds only to the boogeyman.
As we had never actually met a Truant Officer, the concoction of our imagination was worse than anything that might have come to our door — a cobbled-together Frankenstein’s monster, spawn of a hundred scenes from old black-and-white G-Man movies where the good guys always looked like they were carved from English oak. He was 10 feet tall, always dressed in a dove-gray suit and with a matching fedora big enough to fit a Halloween jack-o-lantern screwed down over a flat-top haircut. He was a night-skulker, a note taker, an Officer of the Law, with the scent of whiskey and hooky-playing children on his breath.
Fast forward to a recent afternoon in the Observer household. Junior is 6, and in kindergarten. Until recently, when he was felled by a nasty stomach bug that kept him out for a day, Junior had managed to get perfect attendance at school (a feat that recently earned him a free 59-cent taco from a local chain — we don’t want to speculate on the connection). As we said, however, he woke up pukey on a recent morn, and we kept him home — forgetting, as we had never done it before — to inform the school office of his absence.
A few days later, Junior right as rain, we were following our afternoon ritual of sorting through the various drawings and counting exercises he had done at school that day, deciding on what would grace the refrigerator, when we saw it, folded up amongst the flotsam and stapled shut. It only took a couple of sentences to chill The Observer’s yellow heart: Junior was TRUANT, the form letter said. His case had been turned over to the city attorney. THIS IS THE LAW! the note said, in block letters black as cell bars.
TRUANT. The Scarlet T. Though I knew for a fact he spent his day off from school drinking Sprite through a bendy straw and watching Cartoon Network, something about the word brought to mind a vision of Junior down by the docks, smoking and pitching nickels with dirty-faced Mickey Rooney clones, saying “youse guys” and keeping an eye out for the heat. Somewhere, we knew, The Truant Officer was cruising the streets in his blue sedan, face fixed in a scowl and storm-cloud eyes scanning the alleyways for Truant No. 46143-91: Observer, Junior.
We’ve got it all fixed at the school now, but we’re still on the lookout. Like the Terminator cyborg from the Ah-nuld movie, you can’t just turn the Truant Officer off. You might be able to talk your way out of trouble when dealing with some elementary school secretary, but not him. He’ll get you, Malcontent. Sooner or later.
The Observer attended an event last week with the editor of the Paris Express. (That’s not the L’Express, but the paper published up in Logan County.) He was on his cell phone, talking in the kind of anxious way an editor does when a story is breaking and he’s not there in the newsroom. There was a drug bust, he said, right in downtown Paris. What? Surely not, The Observer asked, surprised that dopers would choose the middle of town for a transaction.
Later in the day, we stopped in Paris for gas and asked the employee behind the counter about the bust. She had just heard about it herself and didn’t have the details. In walked another customer (Paris is such a high-crime city that you have to pay inside for gas inside after 4 p.m.), and the employee asked her for the skinny.
“It was Boney,” the customer drawled. “You know Boney?” she asked the employee, who nodded yes. (Both customer and employee appeared to be in their late teens or early 20s.)
What did he get busted for? The Observer asked. “Seeds and stems,” she said, “in back of T’zers.” That’s a hair salon down the street.
Laconic described the customer’s story-telling. Boney had been in trouble before. And yes, they all know one another in Paris.
The editor need not have worried.