It was a Tuesday afternoon. I was where I was every Tuesday afternoon – at least when I didn’t have detention. I was on the bus – furiously trying to do my homework. They can call it homework all they want, but I did everything in my power to ensure I didn’t actually have to do it AT home. After my DISASTROUS report on the Alamo, I had to do whatever it took to ensure I didn’t get another F… or get a lecture… or get grounded… or get laughed at by peers… or be forced to take sensitivity training. But it was hard to focus on anything with the copious amount of kids making noise. It’s like I was surrounded by dozens of clones of my obnoxious younger brother. Adding insult to injury was the fact that I was the only other person over 16. I was like a one man fortress against an army of these parasites. Further salting the wound was WHY I was the only 17 year old on the bus – all of my piers had their licenses. Granted, I have my license to kill, but that doesn’t get me to and from school.

One of the mongrels oozed his way over to me. “What’cha doin’?”
“I’m working on my history report. Now go away or I shall turn the rest of your life into a swirling whirlpool of misery and torment.”
“Aren’t you supposed to do homework at home?”
“I spend 40 hours a week in that hell hole, work out several hours to maintain my chiseled physique, practice hours for football tryouts, and I have to sleep. I don’t think having a little me time is too much to ask.” The kid must have trembled at the awesome might of my voice as he slowly crawled back into his hobbit hole. Look, I don’t mean to be antisocial. I don’t even hate kids. I just hate them in that context. But saying all that out loud got me thinking.
I toil and toil every day in that rotten classroom. I only had a few short days off in the week. And summer was a long way away. I think it was high time I took a cue from my hero Ferris Beuler and took a day off. There’s a whole big world out there, and it’s high time Robert Tolkien went exploring it. Of course, I’d be off in college in a few years and my career in the NFL was a foregone conclusion. But why wait for those to happen? I knew I had to do it. I couldn’t just make this some boring old skip day where I’d sit at home and watch TV. No, I’d hit the city – explore everything that was out there: the biggest parties, the nicest restaurants, all of the fun that was not to be found in the confines of school.
Of course, I had to bring my bosom buddy Simon along. After all, what kind of excellent day on the town would it be without my best friend? More importantly, he has a driver’s license. I approached him in the lunchroom the next day. He was eating his lunch. As I talked to him, he munched on his French fries without skipping a beat. “Simon, I’ve been thinking of taking a day off.”
“Have fun.”
“Mayhaps I should elaborate with a few more extra nouns and verbs. I think WE should play hooky.”
“Skipping school is one of those things you can do by yourself.”
“But I don’t just want to sit in my house and play video games. We need to do something fun – hit the city, visit the rock hall, see a movie, eat at a nice restaurant, be outdoors for a few minutes!”
“Sounds fun. Have a good day.”
“Dude, I don’t just want you to come. I need you to come.”
“Because I have a car and you don’t.”
“Yeah, that’s a factor…” I realized I was pinned against the wall. He may have been my best friend, but Simon sure had a stubborn streak in him. So I decided to wax a little philosophical with him. “Simon, we live for just these twenty years. Do we have to die for the fifty more?”
Simon stopped munching on those fries. I got him. “Okay, I’ll go.” I knew I’d get him somehow. If I could convince Mario Cuomo to watch The Godfather, I could convince anybody of anything. There was one caveat however.
That unmistakable helium, soaked voice intruded: “Can I come along?” Of course, it was one of the many things I would be trying to skip school so I could rid myself of – Carrie Reinhold. The prospect of Carrie Reinhold intruding on my day off was about as appealing as sawing my face off. At school, I usually had to put up with her fleetingly – at lunch or in class, or when she followed me to one of my sports tryouts. Instead of the small doses which I learned to tolerate, I faced with the threat of dealing with her all. Stinking. Day. I ran the risk of her getting her scent on me. This concerned me for two reasons: Like the bog of eternal stench, I was afraid it would never wash off. And more importantly, I think she might have some entitlement to me by that point. But I had one out.
“Simon, do you want Carrie to come along?”
“Fine by me.” He was chomping on those fries again. He wasn’t going to budge. Then again, even if I did find Carrie to be repulsive, a weird part of me kind of liked the idea of her coming along. Why should it just be me and Simon? Three’s the perfect number anyway. Ferris Beuler had two other people when he played hooky.
“Okay, Carrie – you can come along. After all, the more the merrier!” She was so excited when I said this. It was like telling a five year old she could have ice cream without even asking. So we set everything up so we could play hooky together. Now the question was how would I pull it off?
There was a subtle art to skipping school. Just not showing up would land in me in hot water from mom and school. If I lied and told mom I was going to school, then she’d probably get a call. I could try forging her signature on a note, but last time I tried that when I got an F on a paper, it backfired big time. I learned 2 lessons that day. Lesson 1: If you’re going to forge your mother’s signature, be sure to spell her name right. Lesson 2: Janet is spelled with only one “t.” Faking sick seemed to the best of both worlds: It would fool my mom thus getting that all-important call I needed which would cover me from school. Then again, that required convincing mom I was sick.
Growing up, I was rarely sick. I chalk it up to the fact that I constantly TRIED to get sick when I was a kid so I could – you know – skip school. I didn’t always wash my hands after going to the bathroom. After all, those signs at McDonalds say “Employees Must Wash Hands.” They say nothing about customers. And to quote George Carlin, when I drop food on the floor, I pick it up and eat it! Unless there’s cat hair on it. Then I make an exception. In fact, I have memories as a kid of deliberately dunking food onto the floor out of hopes of getting sick. Instead, the exact opposite happened, my immune system became a lean, mean fighting machine. When germs crossed my body, it was a suicide mission against the well-oiled machine that was my body.
It also wasn’t the first time I tried faking sick with my mother. When I was a wee lad, I frequently went to my grandpa’s house for the weekend. Sometimes I did not want to do that so I tried to convince my mother I had chicken pox. I spent a good half hour drawing up pox marks all over my body, but to no avail. I kind of forgot I already had the pox when I was an even wee-er lad. I spent a long time in the shower washing those dots off.
I briefly entertained the idea of making myself sick for real. I figured gorging on spicy food would give me a case of the runs with the added bonus of being able to gorge on spicy food. I quickly dismissed this idea when it dawned on me that having the poops would be counterintuitive as I’d be going to the bathroom all the time – thus ruining my day of hooky. I considered making myself upchuck, but I had a Jerry Seinfeld level streak of not vomiting. I had no intention of breaking that no matter how badly I wanted to skip school!
I didn’t have a lot of time since this was a spur of the moment idea, but I did what I could. The next morning came. My mother had a different alarm that morning. Instead of the one that went beep-beep-beep, she was awakened to the sound of her loving son moaning and whaling. My mother popped into my room, “Bobby, is something wrong?”
“My progeny is in agonizing pain.” I paused to fake cough so hard I really thought a lung was going to pop out “I think I’ve got sciatica!”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. If you’re not feeling well, I’ll call you off.”
Score! I can’t believe it was that easy! I really thought I’d have to lay it on a LOT thicker. Then again, I shouldn’t sell myself short. My performance was worthy of an Oscar! Still makes me wonder why they gave that part in The Notebook to Ryan Gosling instead of me… Then again, there was trouble in paradise.
“He’s totally faking it,” My sniveling brother Tim felt like interjecting.
“Tim, I feel like I’m dying. How can you say that?” I went back into full-blown moan mode.
“Tim, if Bobby says, he’s sick, then I believe him.” Thanks Mom!
“You mean like the time he got suspended from school, and he tried to tell you that he got a day off by taking a bullet for the Principal.” Hey, that happened, you punk!
“Tim, let’s talk.”
Mom stepped outside my room to talk to Tim, shutting the door behind her. I sat in suspense as I could vaguely hear Mom whispering to Tim. I heard it a lot clearer when Tim blurted, “That is so unfair!” I also heard it pretty clearly when Tim popped backed into my room and said, “Have fun you little faker!” He slammed the door in a huff. Tim left for school, and Mom called me off. I had to wait it out until she was gone. I was so bored but with the day I had in mind, lying around in bed would be worth it. Then again, it was better than sitting on that bus.
“Bye sweetie, I’m off to work. Try to feel better” Mother said from a distance. And just like that she was gone. Robert Tolkien’s day of freedom was about to begin. With the coast clear, I picked up the horn and gave Simon a ring. “Hey Simon, my mom’s gone. Why don’t you get on over here and we can go out?”
Simon croaked out in a grim, gravelly tone, “Dude, I’m sick.”
“Your mom’s still around, isn’t she? I guess I need to be quieter.”
“No man, I’m really sick.”
I was honestly at a loss of words. And for me that’s saying something. I stood silent for what must have felt like minutes, even though it was only a few seconds. “You are shitting me!”
“No, I’m really sick. I got strep throat.”
In an instant I actually considered egging him on to drive me out to Cleveland anyway, but I sure as hell didn’t want strep. I’m sure school or mom or someone would figure I cried wolf. There was another part of me that wanted to yell at Simon, but it wasn’t his fault. He didn’t want to be sick. I was angry, but at the situation – not at Simon. All my frustration at finding out my perfect day being flushed down the toilet came out in a sighed “Fine.”
I decided at the very least, I’d still try to salvage my day off and still have a fun day – at least as fun as I could have with Carrie Reinhold. I often lamented being born down in a dead man’s town as the Boss once put it, but living in such a dead neighborhood finally had an advantage. I could walk to the Reinhold homestead without drawing attention. I made it there and was greeted by Carrie. Judging by her rank odor, I had a feeling she didn’t have to struggle too hard to convince her parents she was ill. She asked where Simon was and I told her what happened. She wasn’t nearly as upset as I was. In fact, she seemed quite pleased with herself. Then again, I’d be excited about spending a day alone with me too. Oh wait, I DO spend every day with me – and it is quite a thrill! Carrie and I were walking off toward the city.
“So how did you get off?”
“Well, my aunt died, but my mom said I could still hang out with you.”
“No, I just faked a stomach ache.” I sat there with my mouth agape. “Come on, that was a joke!”
“Oh… Yeah, that was funny…”
We walked in silence. Carrie broke said silence: “So, what do you want to do?”
It was tempting to recreate the buzzard scene in The Jungle Book and repeatedly ask “I don’t know – what do you want to do?” Of course, temptation wasn’t too far from reality: “I don’t know! I thought we’d be able to drive somewhere fun!”
“There are fun things to do around here!”
“Like what?”
“We could go to the park.”
“I go to the park every day! It’s where I practice football!”
“What do you want to do?”
I tried to listen to my brain, but my stomach spoke up. To keep Mom convinced I was sick, I didn’t eat breakfast. And that was catching up on me. “I want to get something to eat.”
“That’s a good start. Where do you want to eat?”
“I’ve been wanting to go somewhere nice: Like Olive Garden.”
“The nearest Olive Garden is 10 miles away.”
“How about somewhere we can at least sit down – like Denny’s?”
“That’s even further away.”
“God, those places seem so close!”
“That’s because you drive!”
“What is around here?”
“There’s McDonald’s.” I scowled – nothing against McDonald’s, but that’s normal day food. This was a fun day. “You can sit down at McDonald’s.”
So there we were at McDonald’s. Okay, I didn’t think we’d be going to some fancy-schmancy restaurant where I would have to wear a tuxedo (Come to think of it, I don’t think there’s one of those in the tri-state area), but I thought at least I could sit down and make a battle plan for the day. Carrie and I sat in uncomfortable silence for a few moments. Also, I was surprised that none of the employees asked about me and Carrie being off school. I guess our money’s as good as anybody else’s money.
“You think you could have paid for my meal, Robert?” Carrie asked.
“Money’s been tight for me. I foolishly bet on the Undertaker beating Brock Lesnar.”
“Didn’t you once say you were going to end the Undertaker’s streak?”
“For crying out loud, Vince McMahon promised that once I could make my WWE debut, I could end the streak! And did he have to lose the streak to someone I once beat in an MMA match?”
“I’m sorry… But a gentleman always picks up the tab for a girl.”
I knew what Carrie was getting at. I didn’t care to go in that direction with her. But saying something was better than saying nothing: “I’ll keep that in mind…”
“So what do you want to do?”
“What I want to do is moot. I’ve only got what’s around here – and that ain’t much.”
“You want to go to the park?”
“You suggested that already!”
“Come on Robert, didn’t you make a backup plan in case Simon couldn’t make it?”
“I did not! Robert Tolkien flies without a net!”
“Since you have no safety net, what do you want to do?”
“We could go to the movies. Lake theater isn’t too far away. I’m sure they’re playing…”
“It’s not that far away if you DRIVE. We can’t drive anywhere!”
“I can walk really fast!”
“But I can’t.”
I drew a sigh – it’s not often that I admit defeat. “Let’s go to the park.”
Carrie and I wolfed down our burgers and in no time we were at the park. It was the same park I always went to, same trees, same lake, same grass. And I didn’t even have the old pigskin to throw around. (I’m tasteful enough not to make a joke about Carrie, thank you very much!) About the only thing that was different was the emptiness. Since the kids were in school and the adults were at work. Carrie and I had the park to ourselves. The problem was that there really wasn’t anything. This wasn’t quite Career Opportunities. And Carrie sure as HELL wasn’t Jennifer Connelly.
“Alright,” I said. “We’re at the park. What do we do now?”
“Wanna go on the swings?”
“Aren’t we a little old for swings?”
Carrie had a pretty astute point. I remember being really into swings when I was a kid. Growing up, the swings were THE playground feature. Though now that I’m a little higher off the ground myself, going up and down wasn’t quite the thrill it once was.
“Is this what you do when no one’s here?” I asked. “Just swing on the swings?”
“I don’t always have to be by myself.”
“You go on the swings even when there are people?”
“Not if there are, like, kids waiting in line. But sometimes it’s fun to swing.”
“I guess we all have fun our own way.”
“You’re not having fun?”
“No! Today was supposed to be an Excellent Adventure and it just turned into a Bogus Journey.”
“But look at it this way. At least we’re not in school.” Sometimes that just wasn’t good enough.
Carrie and I were swinging for a while. She eventually stopped and asked, “Robert, do you wear a watch?”
“No – I don’t need to know the time. I just go with the flow of the world. Besides, cell phones have clocks on them.”
“Have you thought about checking said cell phone clock?”
I whipped out my cell phone. (Cue music sting.) It was three o’clock. Since that statement means nothing out of context, I will elaborate. My mother got off work from the dentist’s office at four. So there was no way in H-E-double-hockey stick that Carrie and I would make it back to my place in time. Also, how in God’s holy name did Carrie and I spend that many hours at the park?
I stopped dead in my tracks in an attempt to cook up a plan. “Why don’t you tell her we were studying at my place?” Carrie pondered.
“I was sick, so I went over to study at your place?”
“Okay, you’re smart. You cured your own ailment and decided to treat yourself and your friends to a day on the town?”
“I’ll still be in the doghouse for making you skip!”
“You could say it was my idea!” I gave her a look. I think we both knew miss… is perfect the right for an odd ball like Carrie? Either way, Carrie was a straight… Okay, she wasn’t a straight A student, but she never had her homework late, played in band and got along with teachers. Then there was me – I got a Saturday because I did an impression of one of my teachers right in front of her.
“Come on, Robert! Think of something! This is what you do!”
“Let’s just go home. Maybe we can beat her.”
So Carrie and I made our way back home. It was a strange paradox. I wanted to hurry to be home before my mother, but I also wanted to pace myself because I didn’t want to face the consequences if she was there. Each step was bringing me closer to my fate. Carrie tried to grab my hand under the guise of comforting me. I always swayed my hands or did something.
We arrived at home. My mom’s car was in the driveway. Can’t blame a guy for trying…
“If you want me to face your mom with you I will,” Carrie pleaded. I think she just wanted to spend more time with me.
“No, I don’t think having you around will help my case. I got to do this alone,” I said obviously trying to get rid of Carrie.
As Carrie walked away I was actually sad to see her go. I guess I thought the longer I could have her around, the longer I could cling to the fantasy that this was my dream day off. Instead, it was time to face my density. I walked in. My mother was right there at her computer desk. I took a breath and stood firm.
“Mom, you’re probably wondering why I’m here. You see, I started feeling better and by sheer force of will…”
“Bobby, I knew you were faking.”
That comment stung in so many ways. I was tempted to ask how she could figure it out. But the answer was pretty obvious. I wasn’t on my game this morning. I guess that’s what happens when you act under pressure. So I decided to ask another legit question: “So if you knew I was faking, why’d you let me stay home?”
“I thought you’d want to know how I figured out how you were faking it.”
If that were anybody but my mother, I would seriously tell her to FO.
“Bobby, you’re getting older. I’m not always going to be there. Sooner or later you have to answer for your own actions.” And that’s all she wrote. No lecture, no yelling, no sentimental sitcom music.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized how my Mom really wasn’t shoving rules down my throat anymore. I mean, I didn’t have total freedom to whatever I wanted. Sure, I got yelled at for playing my music too loud while mom was trying to sleep, but she sure said nothing about staying up past my bed time. After years of having a one pop a day rule, I realized there were plenty of nights where I could sneak in a second Dr. Pepper without penalty. Though she did have a point: Sooner or later, I would have to face the world and make my own choices. But after stepping out into the world and finding out there wasn’t much to it, I was hoping it would be later rather than sooner.

Copyright 2014 Alex deCourville

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