Uncle Tony’s Charter School: Part 24

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 24 of 25

Caroline’s was a disappointment, that’s what the Kid wrote in his journal.  And this wasn’t cause there was some tall guy in a leather coat watching them from a bench across the street, neither.  At this point, the Kid didn’t realize the guy was watching them, he didn’t make the connection until later, but I’ll get to that in a minute.  Anyways, Gina was in love wit Caroline’s, but only wit the way it looked, cause her and the Kid never even ate there before.  Actually, they had dessert there once—coffee and a slice a cherry cheesecake right before Christmas, sitting at a table right in front a this picturesque bay window—but that was it.  Course, the Kid couldn’t blame Gina for thinking the place was pretty, cause he guessed it was, in an old, Italian kinda way.  Everything inside was authentic and original, the hardwood floors, the high ceilings, the antique oak furniture.  There was lots a China, like in Dom’s grandma’s house, and real nice silverware, too.  It was whatdoyacallit, quaint, tucked away on a side street in a blue collar neighborhood in the heart a South Philly.

There was no parking, though, so Gina and the Kid hadda park Gina’s car in the Acme lot six friggin blocks away, and that’s what all the guests at their wedding would have to do—leave their cars in the lot and walk six blocks to the reception at Caroline’s.  It wasn’t that big a deal, the Kid wrote, but it was still a small minus in his mind . . . another reason to take Caroline’s off the list a possible places to have their reception.  Course, if the lack a parking was a small minus, than the service and the food was a big minus.  Now, you’d figure if you and your fiancé was eating at a restaurant that you was considering hiring for your wedding reception—possibly dropping $15,000, which was their budget—it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the food and the service to be, um, impeccable; that’s what you’d figure.  It wouldn’t be ridiculous to expect the owners to come out and chat you up and give you drinks on the house and maybe even dinner on the house, if they really wanted your business.

To Dom’s . . . what’s that word . . . charging, though, the 60-something Italian couple who owned Caroline’s did nothing a the sort.  After the Kid and Gina talked to the owners, Walt and Lorenza, for at least an hour in their office about prices an options for their wedding reception, Gina and the Kid went back into the dining room to eat dinner.  Gina got some chicken dish, and the Kid ordered the filet mignon, feeling good about things at this point; he was still open minded, he wrote, and really wanted to make Caroline’s work for Gina.  His mind began to close when they waited 45 minutes for their meal, wit no complimentary bread, not even crackers.  Their waiter—some tall effeminate young man who got on the Kid’s nerves—was a real spastic, too; he was in charge a serving the whole restaurant, and it seemed Dom and Gina ended up on his pay no mind list.  No biggie, though.  As long as Gina was happy, the Kid was happy.

When their dinner came, finally, Dom knew Caroline’s was outta the running for their reception.  His filet was a joke, a freakin joke.  It was tough and hard to cut, like the cafeteria meat Dom used to eat when he was away at college.  It didn’t taste much better—it had a hunk a fat and gristle—and after chewing this one bite for like ten friggin minutes, he actually hadda spit the piece out into his napkin, my hand on a stack a Bibles; Dom wrote that he’d prob’ly get a better piece a meat at Straight A’s, and said there was no whatdoyacallit—pun intended.  The most ridiculous thing, though, was the price a the filet.  On the menu the steak was listed at “market value,” and when Dom and Gina got their check, Dom learned that “market value” was $37.00.

The Kid was fuming, he wrote, but he didn’t wanna spoil Gina’s good time, so he didn’t make too big a deal over it.  Course, he hadda speak to Walt and Lorenza about it, so he told the spastic waiter to go get them so he could ask them a few questions.  That’s when the Kid saw the tall guy outside sitting on the bench in the leather coat watching them through the window.  It was past 10:00 p.m. and dark outside, so somebody just sitting on a street bench and not moving was kinda weird.  And come to think of it, that was the same guy sitting there when Dom and Gina first came into the restaurant over two hours ago.

“Can I help you?” Lorenza says to Dom, holding a stack a menus in her hand.  “Eric said you wanted to talk to me about something?”

“The filet,” Dom says, and explains that he doesn’t think it’s worth the $37.00, that it’s a bit pricy.  No, Lorenza says, the price is fair—market value.  Dom just nods and pays the check, asks Gina if she’s ready, and the two put on their jackets and leave.

The tall guy in the leather coat was still sitting on the bench, watching them.  Dom tried not to make eye contact, but the guy stayed in Dom’s, um peripheral vision the whole time.  In fact, Dom wrote he couldn’t get the guy outta his freakin peripheral vision—he was stuck there, watching him, like one a those creepy paintings where the eyes a the person follow you all over the room.  Dom starts talking a little louder to Gina, having a conversation wit her he’s not even paying attention to, hoping the guy on the bench will think Dom doesn’t see him, isn’t aware of him.  Course Dom is aware of him, that’s all he’s aware of now, and Dom really pretends to get into the conversation wit Gina, really hams it up so the guy on the bench doesn’t sense how scared Dom is, doesn’t smell his fear, but Dom knows it’s no use, cause the guy can read his every gesture, his every expression, can even monitor Dom’s thoughts.  Dom feels the panic start to come on now, the anxiety; in his journal, he underlined the word panic.

“. . . and we could have a destination wedding, like we talked about before,” Gina is saying.  “I think you’re right, Caroline’s is out.  My chicken wasn’t even that good, either.  The only thing about a destination wedding is, it costs a ton of money for people to go.  I think my parents could afford it, but what about your mom?  She’s got some money saved, right?”

“Um . . . yeah,” Dom says.

“I actually like the destination idea, come to think of it.  We should go somewhere warm, on a beach.  How awesome would that be to get married right on the beach in July?  To have everybody barefoot in their suits and tuxedos and dresses, standing on the beach with their toes in the sand. Oh my God, I love it.”

The guy on the bench gets up, starts to follow Dom and Gina.  He’s about a half block behind them, but getting closer.  The Acme parking lot where Gina’s car is is still a ways away . . . maybe two blocks, at least.  Dom and Gina is holding hands and so as the Kid starts walking faster to get away from the guy following them, he starts pulling Gina along wit him.

Dom,” Gina says.  “Come on, you’re pulling me, that hurts.  Why are you walking so fast?”

“I’m cold,” the Kid says.  “Buurr.  It’s cold out here.  Are you cold?”

“It’s 60 degrees.”

“Naw, it’s colder than that.”

“You’re nuts, you know that?” Gina says.  “Anyway, I think if we have a destination wedding, we shouldn’t bother inviting cousins, just aunts and uncles.  Keep it small, just Ashley, my parents, your mother, your uncle Manny . . .”

The guy in the leather coat in gaining on them—he’s maybe 10 feet behind them—and now Dom can’t help but take quick looks at him over his shoulder.  Gina keeps talking about the wedding, and doesn’t notice.  Dom notices, though, and his heart is banging like a friggin drum in his chest.  The Acme parking lot is coming up, about a block away now, and Dom starts walking faster.  Ashley walks faster, too, but is still talking, not paying no attention to the guy behind them.

“. . . Ashley will be the ring bearer, of course . . .”

The guy in the leather coat is close enough to grab them.  He reaches for something in his coat, and Dom stops and turns, and the guy pulls the something out, and he reaches forward in Gina’s direction—his hand in the air—and the Kid opens his mouth to shout at him when the Kid sees the car keys in the guy’s hand, sees the guy turn and bolt across the street to his car, open the door, get in, and speed away.

The Kid’s mouth is still open, still ready to . . . what?  The Kid didn’t know, he wrote in his journal.  Gina is still talking, only mildly startled by the guy who brushed past them and went to his car.

“. . . and we could just do the wedding favors ourselves, you know?  Buy little candles or key chains, and put our pictures on them.  How does that sound?  Just do the wedding favors ourselves?”

“Yes, Gina,” the Kid says, “absolutely.  We’ll do it ourselves.”

“Good, I think that’s the best bet.  It will save us money, too.”

They were at the car now, Dom and Gina was, and the Kid’s hands was shaking so bad, he could barely unlock the door.

_______

The Kid went into Eisenhower on Thursday, even though he took the week off.  Wit all the craziness that had been going on wit World Peace Charter lately, Dom had completely forgot about his meeting wit Tamarra, who had gotten accepted into Cheltenham Preparatory Academy for Girls the week before.  She showed Dom her acceptance letter the morning after she got it in the mail, barging right into his office and waving the letter and saying, I did it, Mista Rossetti!  I did it! and giving Dom a big hug that was so emotional, the Kid wrote in his journal, even his secretary was wiping her eye.  Course, that was only the first step in the process, and Tamarra understood this as well as the Kid did.  She still hadda pay to go to go to Cheltenham Academy, and this wasn’t gonna be easy; since January, her and the Kid had been applying for every scholarship under the sun, hoping to come up wit the $25,000 and change needed for the tuition and living expenses.

There was one last scholarship, though, that Tamarra had yet to apply for, and that was the biggest of all a them.  I forget what the Kid said the name of it was, but it was a scholarship for kids who had a whatdoyacallit, a deceased parent, and it was good for $30,000 a year.  The deadline for this scholarship was Monday, April 14, 2013, four days away.  As long as the application was, um, postmarked by midnight a that day, Tamarra would still be eligible to receive it.  The trick was, helping Tamarra win it; the Kid knew the bigger the scholarship, the stiffer the competition.  Plus, it was a national scholarship, so kids from all over the country was trying for it.

“You think I got a shot, Mista Rossetti?” Tamarra says, sitting next to the Kid at his desk in his office, looking over his shoulder.

“Absolutely,” the Kid says, and it was true. The other parts a the application was already done, the letters a recommendation, the transcripts, and the background information on Tamarra’s famb’ly.  The essay was all that was left, and although it was a pretty tough essay question, Tamarra had a good a chance as anybody.  She had the Kid on her side, see, showing her all the writing tricks he had learned over the years as both a teacher and a student.  Stuff like how to brainstorm, an outline, and most importantly, how to rewrite, which is what imbeciles like me never did in school, ever.  He taught her how to say more in less space . . . if that makes any sense . . . and how to just say what she meant—not try to sound like somebody else, using fancy words that really didn’t fit.

The essay that Tamarra needed to write was supposed to be about helping somebody cope wit the loss of a parent—what kinda advice would you give them and whatnot.  Dom helped Tamarra organize her thoughts an outline the essay, which needed to be between 750 and 1,000 words.  She wrote a first draft, which Dom was reading now, and it talked about the lesson she learned from him the year before, the idear that what you resist, persists.  She even used Dom’s analogy about a little kid fighting against a migraine headache, crying and kicking his legs against the pain, and how when he did this, he ended up puking all over the place.  If only the little kid could accept the pain, she wrote, if only he could go with it, things would start to get better.

“How’s it sound, Mista Rossetti?”

“Good,” the Kid says.  “Seriously.  I’m impressed.”  And it was good.  So good, in fact, that Dom felt like Tamarra was actually giving him advice, advice that was somehow more powerful now, more, um, profound.  Maybe the words in her essay seemed so deep and moving cause they was written by a 16 year old girl who’d lost her mother to a murder-suicide, or maybe they seemed extra wise cause they was something that the Kid simply needed to hear at that very moment in his own life; somewhere, there was a truth he needed to stop resisting, a truth he needed to accept and tell.  Whatever it was, though, as he sat reading Tamarra’s essay, he couldn’t help thinking about his own situation, how frigged up it suddenly was.  He thought a the scare he had the night before at 3:00 a.m. at Gina’s house.  He was lying wide awake next to her in bed, like he’d been doing for prob’ly two weeks now . . . since those articles came out in the paper, at least . . . his mind racing, his stomach churning wit the panic that was always there like chronic indigestion, keeping him up.  He thought he heard a noise downstairs in the living room, see, or maybe it was right outside the house, he wasn’t sure.  It sounded like a paperclip in a lock, or maybe like a person trying to pick a lock.  It was loud, and the Kid could hear it from Gina’s bedroom, cause her house at night was pin-drop silent.  The Kid shook Gina and asked if she heard it, but Gina, still half asleep, groaned and told the Kid to leave her alone.  The noise didn’t go away—the sound of a paperclip jiggling in a lock—it was right in the goddamn living room, or right outside on the street in front a the house, the Kid was positive.

Well, enough was enough, the Kid thought; something funny was going on.  It wasn’t no mouse, cause they squeaked, squeaked and made scratching sounds in the wall, and that’s not what this was.  This was some asshole trying to pick a lock, and Dom was sure of it.  So he got outta bed and grabbed the baseball bat Gina kept in her closet and went downstairs.  He turned on the living room light and nothing was there, he wrote in his journal, but a second later the Kid heard a car door slam and an engine rev, and he ran to the front window and saw the back a what he thought was a Cadillac speeding down the street, but it was too dark to see, exactly; he couldn’t get the license plate, neither.

The paperclip noise stopped, so the Kid went back to bed, but still couldn’t sleep.  In the morning, after Gina and Ashley was outta the house, the Kid went out front and checked the lock on the door, checked the windows—feeling like a total paranoid mental case, he wrote—and found nothing wrong.  He checked the back lock, too, and all was normal there.  That’s when he thought a his car, his Porsche, which was actually parked on the sidewalk in front a Gina’s house, cause the streets in South Philly was so small.  It’s been moved, he thought, somebody messed wit it.  He got his keys and opened the door and yes, the stuff on his dash looked like it had been moved; somebody had been in there.  Course, there was nothing broke or stolen, so he couldn’t call the cops.

His cellphone rang then, and it was his secretary, reminding him about the meeting wit Tamarra.  Jesus Christ, the Kid had almost forgot.  He rushed inside and got ready, showered and got ready, and when he went back into his Porsche and put the key in the ignition, he froze, certain that when he turned the key it would explode—blow up in a freakin fiery ball.  He felt the panic coming, felt his arm going numb.  His right hand was on the key, but wouldn’t move.  Things inside the car started spinning, round and round, and then he forced hisself to breath deep, slow and deep, and closed his eyes and turned the key, and his candy apple red 911 Turbo S Porsche started—vroom—and there was no explosion.

“What you resist, persists,” the Kid says.

“Yeah,” Tamarra says.  “You taught me that, Mista Rossetti.  Is that a good thing to write about?”

And the Kid just nodded.

_______

The Kid didn’t sleep Thursday night, neither.  He was tossing and turning and keeping Gina up, so he said frig it and just went downstairs and put on the television.  At 6:15 a.m., he heard Gina’s alarm go off, so he went upstairs and climbed back into bed while she was in the shower.  He was starting to doze off when Gina came over and kissed him goodbye, and then he rolled over and some time later jerked awake, grabbing the mattress cause he felt like he was falling.  He got up and made some coffee in the kitchen, he wrote, and when he was sitting at the table eating his cereal, he heard something bang against the front door.  It was only the newspaper, he realized, cause the idiot delivery person was just making their route now, at 9:30 a.m., which was a friggin disgrace; no wonder the Philadelphia Post was going outta business.

He brought the newspaper inside, opened it at the kitchen table.  He paged through it quickly, skimming the articles, keeping an eye out for anything about World Peace Charter.  He got to the education section, and there it was, another goddamn story about him and Tony: Probe Uncovers Missing Funds at World Peace Charter.  There was new facts in this story, which talked about how the only money left in World Peace’s whatdoyacallit, coffers, was $1,000 and change, and how a more detailed audit of World Peace’s finances was soon to come, maybe by the School District or State, or even by the I.R.S; now it was clear that the feds was getting involved.  Well, that was it for the Kid; he was toast, he wrote in his journal.

The Kid would have to come clean, all the way clean.  No one was pulling any strings to make this one go away, and it seemed as if the Kid was just realizing this for the first time.  He had his journal, though.  In it, he wrote, At least I have this journal.  The truth was in there, at least.  Later that night he would end up photocopying it, photocopying it and giving it to me to give to the newspaper, in case anything happened to him.  Course, the Kid was gonna have to tell Gina, and this was the worst part, cause God only knew how she’d react.  There, at the kitchen table, he rehearsed the way he was gonna tell her . . . and he wrote out different, um, scenarios in his journal as well.  Writing in the journal helped his thoughts, I guess, cause God only knew he hadn’t been to an addiction meeting in weeks—maybe cause he was embarrassed.

After writing a buncha stuff down and scribbling it out, page after page of it, the Kid wrote that he’d finally figured out the best way to tell Gina: he’d take her to see me; that’s what he decided to do.  It made sense, cause I’d back the Kid’s story 100 percent, see.  I’d tell her everything, just like I’m telling you’s guys now.  Course, I don’t know why the Kid never came to me sooner—especially when he went to see Tony down at Straight A’s—cause I woulda did my best to help him out wit whatever I could.  I woulda tried to talk some sense into Tony at least, persuade him to leave the Kid alone.  It mighta done zero good, but who knows?  The Kid coulda given it a shot.

At 4:00 in the afternoon, the Kid wrote that he had a brand new worry:  Ashley wasn’t home from school yet, and she usually got home by 3:30 at the latest.  When there was no sign a her by 4:30, he called the school, but nobody answered; the secretary had prob’ly already gone home for the night.  Without hesitating he jumped into his Porsche and sped up to the school, searching the streets as he went, pulling over to talk to groups a students gathered on the corners, asking if they’d seen Ashley, Ashley Grasso.  Nobody had seen her, and the Kid’s mind wandered to vice grips and power drills, all the stuff he knew his uncle used to hurt people—and the loved ones a those people—who disrespected the famb’ly.

Ashley was smart, sure, but she was small for her age, small for 13; she wouldn’t be 14 for another four months.  People abducted young girls all the time; you was always hearing about that on the news and in the papers, how some young lady was reported missing, had just went and vanished into thin air.  Young folks was even abducted from school, right from their own schools.  Like that one time in that elementary school in Southwest Filthy-delphia, when that lady wearing a Muslim outfit wit the black sheet covering her face like a ninja just walked right into the main office a the school and said something like, Yeah, I’s hear to pick up such-and-such, I’s her momma’s friend, so can y’all just get her please, and the jack-knobs in the office actually went and got the little girl and, um, released her into the custody a the strange ninja lady.  The little girl was missing for a coupla days, and when they found her, she was half naked, crying, and prob’ly scarred for life.

Dom got to Penn’s Port High School and the main office was empty; it was almost 5:00 p.m., and everyone had gone home.  Luckily, though, the principal—Connie Ricks—was still there, sitting at her desk behind a stack a binders.  He went right up to her office and knocked on the open door, he wrote in his journal, startling her.  She looked up, putting a hand on her chest, and says, “Oh my God, you scared the be-Jesus outta me.”

“Ashley Grasso,” Dom says, “have you seen her?  Do you know where she is?”

“How did you get in here?” Mrs. Ricks says.  “The front entrance wasn’t locked?”

“It’s Philadelphia,” Dom says.  “Nothing works the way it’s supposed to.  I’m Dom Rossetti, the principal of Eisenhower High School.  We met at the last principal’s meeting, remember?”  He holds out his hand, but the woman hesitates.  “I was off today.  My step-daughter . . . well, she’s not my step-daughter officially . . . my fiancé’s daughter is Ashley Grasso, and she’s not home from school yet.  She’s normally home by 3:30, and I’m worried.  Have you seen her?  Do you know where she is?  Please tell me you know where she is.”

“Okay, I remember you.  Yes.  Dom Rossetti.  Who are you looking for, now?”

“Ashley Grasso.  She’s in ninth grade.  She just started here a few weeks ago.  She’s short, not even five feet, brown hair, real cute . . .”

“Ashley Grasso?”

“Yes.”

“She was on Home Bound for most of the year, right?”

“Yes, she had casts on her feet.”

“Right, yes.  No, I haven’t seen her.  I don’t recall her leaving early or being signed out, but I can check the log, if you want.  Here, let me see . . .”  Mrs. Ricks pages through the early dismissal book and then says, “No, she didn’t leave school early today.  She’s normally home by 3:30, you said?”

“Yes, and I’m worried.  I just have this feeling something happened.”

“Does she have many friends here at school?  Could she be over a friend’s house?”

“I don’t know, maybe.”

“Check with her friends.  See if she turns up with any of them.”

So the Kid does what Mrs. Ricks suggests, calls Tina, the girl wit the pool in her backyard, and calls Megan, too . . . their cellphone numbers was already programmed in his phone from before . . . and both girls say that they haven’t seen Ashley, and that they don’t know where she is.

“Any luck?” Mrs. Ricks says.

“Nope.  They haven’t seen her.  I’m calling the police.”

The Kid leaves, just bolts outta there without saying another word, so he can talk to the cops in private, let them know his situation wit Tony and everything.  As he’s dialing 911 a call comes through on his phone, a call from Gina.  The Kid ends the 911 call and answers.

“Gina?” he says.  “Gina, hello?”

“Dom?”

“Yeah.  Let me call you back.  Ashley’s not home yet.  I’m calling the police.”

“What?  Where is she?  She didn’t go to physical therapy tonight?”

“Physical therapy?”

“Yes, Physical therapy.  It’s Friday night, remember?”

“Oh shit, that’s right.”

“Dom?”

“Yeah?”

“Where’s Ashley, is she okay?  Is she at Physical therapy or not?”

“I . . .”

“Hello?  Dom?  Is she okay?”

“Um . . .”

Hey.  Earth to Dom Rossetti, hello?”

That’s when all the strength went outta the Kid’s legs, he wrote, and he just sat on the ground in Penn’s Port High’s parking lot, staring at the cracks in the cement.

The conclusion of Uncle Tony’s Charter School

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