Uncle Tony’s Charter School: Part 17

Illustration by Sean Wang

a satire by Christopher Paslay

When beloved high school principal Dominic Rossetti is forced to open a charter school so his uncle Tony, an organized crime boss, can embezzle the money to fund a strip club, Dom is thrown into a humorous yet tragic situation: he is compelled to run his uncle’s bogus charter school while trying to educate Philadelphia’s children.

Part 17 of 25

Course, when the Kid was wit Gina and Ashley, he rarely thought about Tamarra.  The Kid spent Thanksgiving at Gina’s parents’ house in Central Jersey, where Gina grew up, and although Dom wrote that the mood was kinda somber cause they just put Gina’s mother’s mother away into the Alzheimer’s home last month—and everyone was missing her except Gina’s father—they all still had a pretty good time.  The rule at Gina’s parents’ house during Thanksgiving was simple: you was allowed to eat and drink anything you wanted, and if you was on any kinda diet and counting those whatdoyacallits . . . those points, today it didn’t count.  Plus, you was allowed to wear anything you wanted so you could be as comfortable as possible, even sweatpants, and that’s just what both Mr. and Mrs. Grasso was wearing, sweatpants and sweatshirts.  Gina and Ashley was twins and wearing almost identical outfits—jeans, big fuzzy turtleneck sweaters, and black boots; Ashley had her casts off for a few weeks now.  And the Kid, well, he was immaculately dressed as usual, wit black loafers, gray tweed pants, and a crisp blue dress shirt; the thing he was most self conscious about, he wrote, was his blue argyle socks, which Mr. Grasso, um, sarcastically complimented him on.

The Kid made small talk wit Gina’s parents . . . he was a department store manager at the mall, and she worked from home, doing some kinda Internet sales thing on her laptop computer.  Gina was the baby a the famb’ly, wit two older sisters who was living in Seattle and Florida, both on their second marriages, both doing their own thing; Gina wasn’t really close wit neither a them.  And speaking a marriages, Dom wrote that Gina’s parents, especially her father, was brutal, just brutal, on Gina’s ex-husband, who also happened to be little Ashley’s father.  Even though neither Gina nor Ashley had seen him in like five years, Mr. and Mrs. Grasso mentioned him twice, making real nasty digs about him.  His name was Andrew but Gina’s parents called him “What’s-His-Name,” like they couldn’t even bear to say his real name.

“So I wonder what What’s-His-Name is doing for Thanksgiving,” Mrs. Grasso was saying after dinner, eating her pie and coffee; Dom wrote the whole thing down in his journal, as usual.

“Who the hell cares,” Mr. Grasso says.  “He’s a deadbeat, so he’s probably in some line at a soup kitchen and—”

Daddy,” Gina cuts in, “can we not talk about this today.  Please.  Dom doesn’t wanna hear about this on Thanksgiving.”

“I don’t mind,” Dom says.

“No, no, it’s okay,” Gina says.  “We’ll talk about something else.”  Gina helped Ashley scoop some whip cream onto her pie.  “Daddy, did you know that Dominic’s the C.E.O. of a charter school?  He’s a principal in Philly, but he also opened this new school this year, called World Peace Charter.”

“Really?” Mr. Grasso says.  “A new school.  Whereabouts?”

“In Northeast Philadelphia.  Well, the building’s in Northeast, but the school is actually a cyber school.  The kids do most of their work online, over the Internet.”

“Really?” Mr. Grasso says.  “How about that.  I think I read something in the paper about cyber schools.  There was this one school, called ‘Success’ something or other, and they weren’t doing so well, actually.  They had real low state test scores, and the school board was going to shut them down.  And, wait a second, wasn’t the CEO stealing money from there, too?”

“I don’t know,” Gina says, “but not at Dom’s school.  World Peace Charter is the best.  Tell my dad about it, Dom.  Tell him about the article in Education World.”

“An article in the paper?” Gina’s mom says.  “Oh, wow!”

“It wasn’t that big a deal,” Dom says.

Gina kept going on about it, though.  “Oh yes it was, yes it was.  World Peace Charter is 100 percent green and helps the environment.  They also got this new way to teach math, called . . . what’s it called?”

“Egyptian Math,” Dom says.

“Yeah, Egyptian math.  It’s so cool.  I wanted to get Ashley in there, but there’s a waiting list.”  Gina nudged Dom under the table with her foot.  “Now, if only Dom could pull some strings and get Ashley in there . . .”

The Kid just smiled, shook his head and smiled.  He wrote in his journal that it was then, right then, that the anxiety started coming on, that he couldn’t keep this secret from Gina no more, that it was too big, too much of a . . . burden.  He seen Ashley sitting across the table from him, playing wit her whip cream and pie, so gentle and beautiful, and he hadda excuse hisself from the table for a minute to go upstairs to use the bathroom.  He went in there and locked the door and went to the sink and splashed water on his face, trying to breathe deep, to get control a hisself again.  But he was terrified, terrified—he even underlined the word when he wrote it in his journal—of losing Gina and Ashley, who was now a big part a his life, a giant part a his life.  That’s what was at the heart of everything, of all his fear and anxiety: Gina and little Ashley, and the very real possibility a losing both a them over all a this.  It was not only possible, the Kid wrote, but probable, like the inevitable crash of a guy who rides a motorcycle: it wasn’t if, but when.  Everybody who rode a motorcycle crashed, you just hadda hope you was a smart enough rider to walk away from it and live to ride another day.  Was the Kid a smart enough rider?  I don’t know, but that’s what he wrote in his journal: Am I a smart enough rider?  Am I?

He thought about telling them right then, just getting it off his chest and going downstairs and telling them all right then, but that was ridiculous; Gina’s parents didn’t need to know about any a this.  He could tell Gina and Ashley on the hour ride home to their house, try his best to put the whole mess into words that they might understand, but that was impossible; I even knew this, and I dropped outta school in 9th grade.  Gina’s first reaction would be that Dom was a liar, that he wasn’t who she thought he was, and this would . . . what’s the word . . . shatter all the trust they had for each other.  What could the Kid say, seriously?  My uncle Tony made me do it?  He made me steal all the money from the poor children a Filthy-delphia and put it into a friggin strip club down in Baltimore for Christ’s friggin sake?  It was so ridiculous, the Kid wrote, that he couldn’t even say it out loud to hisself.

Course, there was also the very real matter a protecting Gina and little Ashley, of not telling them for their own good; God only knew what my manic brother would do to keep them quiet if he found out they knew.  This, Dom wrote, this was also part of his keeping silent about World Peace Charter.  He couldn’t tell them, and the way he wrote it in his journal was: I can’t tell them for their own good, even if I wanted to!

I guess the Kid musta had that revelation standing right there in the bathroom, cause he wrote that he felt a little better about things, at least he did then.  He washed his face and hands, gargled wit some mouthwash, combed his thick black hair.  He went back downstairs into the kitchen and they wasn’t talking about World Peace Charter no more, but about What’s-His-Name, how he was a deadbeat husband and father, how he was an all round jack-wad and douchebag.  When they saw Dom, though, they changed the subject, just to be polite.

“Everything come out okay?” Mr. Grasso says, loading the dishes into the dishwasher.

“All good,” Dom says.

“We thought you might have fallen into the toilet,” Mrs. Grasso says.

“Nope.  Just made a small deposit, that’s all.”  The Kid looked at his watch.  “So what’s the plan, Gina?  We still have to head over to my mother’s for a quick visit.  I told her we’d be there around seven . . .”

“Chew and screw,” Mr. Grasso says, laughing, breaking the Kid’s stones.

The Kid didn’t laugh, though.  He wasn’t in a laughing mood.

_______

During the State and School District walk through on the first day a school, Dr. Trowbridge told the Kid she was gonna bring some people down from Columbia’s Teachers College to do another observation of World Peace Charter, cause she was so impressed wit the teaching that was going on there.  She was gonna bring down a coupla professors and a dozen graduate students to meet all the kids and their teachers, take some pictures before heading back up to Harlem, New York, where they’d hold a conference and show all the pictures to all the other education professors and graduate students in the department who couldn’t go on the observation visit.  Well, like a week before the winter break, the Kid gets a call from Dr. Trowbridge and she asks if she can come visit World Peace Charter that Tuesday to do the observation, but says she can’t bring the crew from Columbia cause of a glitch in the schedule, but could she bring a crew down from the prestigious Baumgartner College of Arts and Humanities?  The Baumgartner folk was almost as important as the Columbia folk in terms a their, um, contributions to urban education, Dr. Trowbridge told the Kid, almost as important, but not quite.

Well, this wasn’t gonna work, the Kid told Trowbridge, sorry.  Bringing the Baumgartner people was fine, but that Tuesday wasn’t gonna work.  Could she come back in the New Year, when things at World Peace wasn’t so crazy?  No, she couldn’t come back then, actually, cause the Chair of the Baumgartner Education Department was gonna be in Bolivia on sabbatical studying . . . howdoyasayit, educational pluralism next semester, and she’d already committed to the visit at World Peace Charter, had already rearranged her classes and whatnot.

“But there’s not going to be any students in the building,” the Kid told Dr. Trowbridge, or something like that; I can’t remember his journal exactly.  “The students are only in school at the Northeast location every first Tuesday of the month.”

“Jeez, that’s right,” Dr. Trowbridge says.  “Well, that’s okay.  We’ll just take a tour of the building, meet some of the teachers, and sample the curriculum.  We’ve already spread the word about the Egyptian Math . . . good stuff, let me tell you . . . but what we’re really interested in now is the Israeli Science.  Oh, and the fact that World Peace Charter is 100 percent green.  How does that work, exactly?”

“Um, we get all our power from a wind farm,” the Kid says.

“Great to hear it.  Do you contract with CPGP?”

“Um . . . CPGP?”

“Clean Power, Green Power, Inc.?  I think Philadelphia is in their service area.”

“Oh, yeah, I didn’t know what you meant at first, right.  Yeah, CPGP, I think, but I’d have to double check, because Mr. Bradshaw, our principal, takes care of that.”

“Great investment.  It’s clean and renewable, and part of your bill helps fund progressive organizations, like the Green Justice Coalition, and Green Action America, and I think Big Green Revolution.”

“Hmm, interesting.”

“So yeah, a few education professors and about a dozen grad students from Baumgartner will be coming through with me next Tuesday, so I’m just giving you a heads up.”

“Actually,” the Kid says, “that’s no good.  Like I said, we’re really crazy right now . . .”

“Mr. Rossetti . . . this is a bit awkward . . . do you know who I am?  I’m an educational auditor from the State Department of Education.  Loose translation: your boss.  You don’t tell me what’s convenient for you, I tell you what’s convenient for me.”

“Right,” the Kid says, “I get it.  I apologize.  It’s just so busy here . . .”

“We’re all busy, Mr. Rossetti.”

“Yeah, absolutely.  My mistake.  Next Tuesday it is.  I’m marking it down in my calendar now.”

“Very good, so I’ll see you then.”

“Yes.  See you then.”

“Great.  Goodbye.”

So the Kid has the State coming back in for another visit in five days, and now they is bringing in these jackasses from some college to poke around and agitate everybody.  Course, there wasn’t gonna be no students in the building . . . so the Kid didn’t have to worry about paying another $12,000 to hire no actors . . . but he’d still need to have some teachers and faculty staff in there, and he’d also need to deal wit the electricity problem.  See, World Peace Charter not only didn’t have any green energy, they didn’t have no friggin energy at all.  To save money and keep from taking cash outta Eisenhower’s budget, the Kid stopped paying the whatchamacallits—the utility bills, and after three months, the power company finally came and shut off all the electricity.  Now, to fix this problem, the Kid would have to go down to the electric company in person wit a check for $1,216.77, the overdue bill and late charge . . . God only knew how it was this much, the Kid didn’t even turn on the friggin lights in three months . . . and also the $150 for the reconnection fee.

And like I says, he hadda go down to their office in person, between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.  Well, the Kid had no time to do this, see, cause he was still working fulltime running Eisenhower, and couldn’t leave in the middle a the day to go down town and fight all the traffic and wait in some friggin line for two hours to pay the stupid bill.  So he asks me to do it, says hey Uncle Manny, can ya do me a biggie, can ya go downtown and pay this freakin electric bill so I can get the power turned back on at World Peace, cause there is these State people and college professor dicks coming next Tuesday, and we can’t have them wandering around in the friggin dark.  So I says sure, kid, I’ll do it for ya, no problem.  See, Dominic was like a son to me, if I didn’t mention that already to you’s guys, and I’d do practically anything for him.  After I says yes, though, I realized there was a slight problem.  It was already Thursday night, and the electric company was closed, so I couldn’t do it then.  I couldn’t do it Friday, neither, cause I had this thing to take care a for Tony, and Tony wasn’t gonna wait.  I also had a thing to do for Tony on Monday, too, and I couldn’t change that, neither.

I was in a real pinch, let me tell ya.  I’d already told the Kid I’d do it, and I wasn’t gonna go back on my word, no way.  Now you’s guys prob’ly can guess what I did, who I asked to help me, and I don’t think it was that, um, complicated of a thing to ask.  I went and asked the Gorilla to go down to the electric company wit the $1,216.77 check and wait in the line and get the electricity turned back on for the Kid.  I made it real clear, too.  I says to the Gorilla, I says, “Now Petie, let’s go over this one more time.  You is gonna go down to the electric company wit the check, wait in the line there, give the check to the lady behind the desk, and have the electricity turned back on, understand?”

“Yeah Manny,” he says.  “I got it.”

“You sure, Petie?  You positive you understand?”

“Yeah Manny.  I understand.”

This was Friday morning, this was, and that’s the last I heard about it until Tuesday morning, when the Kid went to World Peace to get ready for the State people who would be there at 8:30 a.m.  And wouldn’t ya friggin believe it—the power still wasn’t on, not anywhere in the building, and believe me, the Kid checked, went around and flicked all the light switches on-and-off on both floors and nothing happened.  He called me up, at like five-friggin-thirty-in-the-morning, three hours before me and the Gorilla was supposed to be down there at the school to deal wit the State people, asking what the hell happened, why wasn’t there any power in the building, and didn’t I go and pay the bill like he’d asked me to do?  Course I paid it, I told him.  I gave the Gorilla a check for $1,216.77.

No,” the Kid says to me on the phone.  “No, Uncle Manny, you didn’t.”

“What, kid?  I had a thing to do for Tony, so I asked Petie.  Are you sure the power ain’t working?”

“No, Uncle Manny, it’s not.  I checked all the switches.”

“All of them?”

“All of them.”

“I’ll be right there.”

I hurry up and shower and get dressed and go grab the Gorilla.  The whole ride to the school I’m asking Petie what the frig happened, how did he frig this all up, and he keeps saying that he didn’t know what I was talking about, that he did what I told him to do.  We get to the school and park the car, and it’s just starting to get light out; I can see the Kid inside the main office a the school wit a flash light.  I get outta the car and that’s when I see Petie pointing to the roof a the school, pointing and saying that he was right and I was wrong.

“Holy friggin Jesus,” I says, and I can’t believe my freakin eyes: there was a gigantic aluminum windmill on the roof, one a those 20 foot windmills that famers used to pump air into ponds and whatnot.  It was really there, kinda wobbling a little in the wind, its blades spinning ever so slightly.  The Gorilla was still pointing at it, smiling all proud like he did a good thing.  I opened my mouth to say something, but no words came out.  Member when I said Petie had an IQ of 75?  Well, I take that back, it wasn’t that high.  It couldn’t a been.  How in the world could one person tell another person to go to the electric company wit a check so they could pay the bill, and that person think that what the other person really meant was for them to go buy a freakin 20 foot aluminum windmill and install it on the goddamn roof?  You’s guys tell me, how in Christ’s name does that happen?

“Wind energy,” Petie says.

“Huh?”

“I know what you told me Manny,” Petie says, “but I figured I’d kill two birds wit one stone, see.”

“Oh yeah?” I says.  “How’d ya figure that?”

“The State people is coming today, right?”

“Yeah, so?”

“And we needed power, right?  Wind energy?  Now we got both.”

“But we ain’t got no power, Petie.”

“What do ya mean?”

“What do I mean?  What the fig do I mean?  Are you a complete moron, Pete, or what, huh?  You gotta do more than just put the windmill up on the roof to make electricity!”

“Like what?”

“I don’t freakin know, but you gotta do other stuff, too.  You gotta hook shit up to the windmill and whatnot, hook up cables and hoses and shit like that.  So you can pump the wind into the electrical sockets.  Are you stupid, or what?”

“Don’t we got any hoses?  Maybe the kid’s got some.”

“Yeah, forgetaboutit.  That kinda stuff costs too much cash.”

The Kid sees me and the Gorilla from inside the office, and waves to us.  He comes running outside and asks Petie about going to the electric company wit the check, if he knew what happened.  Did he pay the bill?  Did they say when the power would be back on?  Nobody says nothing.  The Kid sees we’re looking at something up on the roof, and turns to see what it is.

“What’re you guys looking at?” he says, and then he sees what it is, and his jaw drops, and his eyes get real big and wide.

Part 18

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