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Sorry, Sold Out
Underdog became a townie during the second week he lived in Jasper. His purpose for coming to town was to begin his freshman year at Jasper College. He and his parents arrived on campus in an overloaded Oldsmobile, squeezed into and wriggling amongst all the possessions required to appoint a comfortable dorm room: suitcases filled with brand-new clothes bought from Underdog's high school graduation money; a black-and-white portable TV; a stereo system whose components were split into five boxes; toiletries contained in a plastic bucket for carting to and from the communal bathroom; a few of Underdog's favorite books; a box filled with school supplies; another box whose sides bulged from holding a football, basketball, baseball glove and frisbee; backgammon, chess and Monopoly games; posters rolled up and rubber-banded together; and a Norfolk pine tree, a gift from his high school sweetheart, which Underdog held in his lap, its branches slapping his face the entire trip due to the breeze blowing in open windows. They parked in front of Barrett Hall, Underdog's new home, a dormitory he chose, despite its distance from most classrooms, because he wanted to try life in a high-rise after living all his life in a one-story ranch house. At check-in, the resident assistant informed him that his room would be on the second floor, not on the higher floors, much to Underdog's disappointment. Jostling with a hundred other students and their attendant families, Underdog and his dad managed to move his things into Room 212. As usual, his dad complained the whole time, about the line of people waiting for the elevators, and of the heat. Obese from a sit-down insurance agency job and a two-gallon-a-week ice cream habit, his dad sweat a lot; Underdog noticed that with each ride up the elevator, sweat stains on his dad's shirt became more pronounced, as did his chili pepper smell. Sick of his dad's complaints, he suggested that they take the stairs, since it was only one flight up. His dad said to hell with that idea, he had "to get up and go to work tomorrow and pay for all this." Underdog's mom stayed in the room, busying herself by exploring its storage capacity; she pulled open all the desk and bureau drawers and felt around inside them, opened up the closet and peered inside, and crouched on her knees to assess whether Underdog's empty stereo boxes would fit under his bed. By the time Underdog and his dad finished bringing everything up from the car, his mom had an efficient storage system figured out and directed where each item should be put. Once all of Underdog's things were stowed to his mom's satisfaction, his dad announced that he and his mom had to leave, so they would get home before it got dark. Never mind, thought both Underdog and his mom, that it was only three o'clock, that it wouldn't be dark for another four or five hours, and that his parents' house was up in Peru, a half-hour drive north. "Let's go," his dad insisted as his mom hastily kissed Underdog on the cheek and wiped her eyes, fighting off tears welling up. Before walking through the heavy, self-locking doors that led to the elevator lobby, his mom sniffled and turned to wave pitifully, and his father accusingly pointed his finger and said, "Make sure to call your mother." Leave it to his dad, thought Underdog, sitting on his bed and looking over the dorm room, to rush him and his mom through a big event in their lives. It reminded him of past occasions, like when his dad wanted to skip the reception after Underdog's induction into the National Honor Society, or when he was irritated by the little brothers and sisters of Underdog's classmates running around the park during the band's family picnic, then demanded that they leave right after they ate, causing Underdog to miss out on all the fun and games afterward. At least his mother acted like she would miss him; she even sat him down at the kitchen table several weeks before his move to Jasper and told him how she was glad to see him grow up, but sorry to see him move out of the house. Sensing that her son suspected that his father was glad for him to go, she added that his dad would miss him, too. "But he keeps telling me how he can't wait for me to move out so he can turn my bedroom into a TV room," Underdog said. "You know it's hard for your dad to show how he feels." "Well, he sure yells a lot. He doesn't have any trouble showing when he's mad at me. Which he's been all the time lately." "That's a sign he's torn about the idea of you going off to college. Deep down, he knows he'll be sorry when you're gone." "Has he told you that?" Underdog asked. "No, but I can tell he'll miss you." "I wish I could tell," he responded, then left his mom, who cried softly into a pot holder. He wanted to tell her that he'd miss her, too. But instead he shut himself in his room, put on headphones, and turned his stereo up loud to drown all of the sad thoughts suddenly swimming around inside his head. The sound of the door to his dorm room opening interrupted Underdog's reverie. In came a gangly individual wearing a seed corn baseball cap who was carrying a laundry basket full of folded shirts and blue jeans. He set the basket down on the other bed in the room, then introduced himself as John Schmutzer. Immediately after shaking Underdog's hand, he took off his shirt, saying, "It's hotter than a pig barn inside here." The hat, the pig barn crack and the classic farmer tan revealed to Underdog indicated that he had acquired a farm boy for a roommate. To get a feel for his new roommate, hoping he was of the cool farm boy variety _ like his friend Jeff, who threw beer and bonfire parties on his parents' farm outside Peru, and not the sick type that picked up kids who lived in town, beat them up and dumped them in corn fields far away from home _ he said, "Yeah. I wish I had a beer right now to cool me off." To Underdog's great relief, John said, "Me too," and then they talked about kicking in on a small refrigerator where they would store all their beer. That issue settled, John left to move the rest of his things into the room, and Underdog walked down the hall to take in his new surroundings. Hovering outside ten or twelve doorways there were his new floor mates, each looking him over expectantly, hoping to make a new friend. Underdog politely nodded to each, but saw nobody that he thought he could relate to, since nearly everybody, in their sleeveless Forty-Niner and Cowboy tee shirts, had that brawny, macho look of the jocks at his high school, whom he couldn't stand. To prevent any unwanted conversation, he ducked into the bathroom. Inside the bathroom, he was glad to find that there were a number of shower stalls, all of which had its own shower curtain to ensure privacy as residents washed. The thing that Underdog most hated about high school was showering in gym class; there were parts of his body that he simply didn't like washing in front of people. Upon his return to the room, he found a note taped to the door from John. It said that he was going out to buy books at the campus bookstore and promised that he would stop over at the home of a buddy, who was old enough to buy beer. At that moment, the door across the hall opened and out stepped a shaggy-haired guy wearing a faded Aerosmith tee shirt. To Underdog, this looked like a person he could maybe relate to. "Mark Reid," said the guy. "You can call me Underdog." "What are you, some kind of cartoon?" asked Reid. "Everybody calls me that. Ever since my second grade Halloween party, when I wore an Underdog costume." Seeing that his beer approach worked once already in breaking the ice, and hoping that Reid might himself have some beer to share while he waited for his roommate's return, Underdog said, "I wish I had a beer right now to cool me off." "That'd be good," said Reid. "But you know what I could really go for? A joint." Underdog laughed, for unbeknownst to his parents, he also had packed among his things a plastic baggie full of marijuana. "I've got some," he said. "I'll get my papers. Plus I've got a couple of beers." Reid went to his room and returned a moment later with a sweaty paper sack. Both of them furtively glanced up and down the hall, then slipped into Underdog's room. Underdog dug the baggie of weed from out of his school supply box, while Reid pulled a couple of cans of Budweiser from out of the paper sack. He also pulled out a can of spray deodorant. "What's that for?" asked Underdog, watching Reid open the door to the hall again. "Throws the R.A. off the scent," answered Reid, spraying a big, white cloud of deodorant into the hallway. When he shut the door, he said, "Best to put a towel under the door, too." "Is it safe to smoke in here?" "Well, you can get kicked out of the dorm if they catch you. But if you take a couple of precautions, you won't get caught." "Sounds like you're an old pro at this." "I'm a sophomore now. I guess that gives me pro status." After Underdog stuffed a towel from his toiletries bucket under the door and Reid rolled up a joint, they pulled chairs over to the window and proceeded to pass the joint back and forth. They took long drags, then blew the smoke through the screen, watching it disperse over a basketball court. As they smoked, they got acquainted. Reid was a sociology major from Iowa; he listened to bands like Aerosmith and Guns 'n Roses. Underdog informed Reid that he planned to pursue a program in business administration, and he preferred more straight-ahead rock and roll, but he could still appreciate the head-banger stuff. After they had smoked about three-quarters of the joint, the door swung open, and John walked in the room juggling a plastic shopping bag filled with books, a twelve pack of Miller beer, and a ten-pound bag of ice. "Join us?" asked Underdog, motioning John to hurry up and shut the door. "No, but you go ahead and start the beers without me," said John, a little startled. "I'll be back," he said, laying down his load on his desk, then exiting again. "You didn't tell me you got stuck with Schmutzer," said Reid. "We better put this out before he gets back." "He doesn't approve?" "No, man, he disapproves. Real bad." Underdog hastily put out the joint on the window ledge and pocketed the roach. For several minutes they both sat silently, anticipating John's return and feeling swarms of ants crawl up their legs, a paranoid sensation made doubly bad by marijuana. Then they heard a knock at the door, knuckles rapping hard and insistent. "I think we're busted," said Reid. "They know we're in here, so you better open up." Underdog opened the door, and there stood the resident assistant who checked him into the dorm earlier that afternoon. The R.A. spied around the room, raised his eyebrows in acknowledgment of Reid, sniffed the air a few times, then asked Underdog to follow him to his room. There he explained to Underdog that John had complained of his marijuana smoking, that as R.A. he must respond to the complaint by filling out an "incident report," and that Underdog would have to appear at a hearing before a college disciplinary board to determine if he should be removed from the dorm. What followed was a week where Underdog felt adrift in a river full of white water rapids. The routine of attending class buoyed him, giving him the impression that things were floating along nicely, that his head was still above water. But below the surface he sensed a nasty undertow which threatened to pull him under for good, with nothing, not a rock or branch, to cling to. The only lifeline anybody offered to throw was when the disciplinary board assigned his case to the school's ombudsman, a woman who would represent him at the board's hearing. She was not a lawyer like he hoped, however, but a math professor who, it was plain, would rather have been teaching class than serving her turn as ombudsman in the rotating system the school had devised. As Underdog sat in her office in the Sciences Building, explaining his side of the story, she barely listened; instead, she stared out the window at the twisted metal sculptures that dotted the college square, and twirled her bangs in her fingers, acting like all the bored girls he observed in high school study hall. All his experiences with her before the hearing pointed to the fact that they might as well have thrown him a sack of lead to catch, so he could sink to the river bottom and be done with it. At the hearing itself, Underdog felt certain he would be railroaded right out of the dorm when he looked over the three persons making up the disciplinary board. The first, the Director of Residence Halls, whose pained expression made Underdog think he hadn't had a bowel movement in weeks, declared his intention to "make this case send a clear signal at the start of the school term" about his policy of zero tolerance concerning drugs. The second, a senior business major who wore a navy blue three-piece suit with an American flag in its lapel, testified how drug parties prevented him from studying for final exams the previous semester. The third, a weasly-looking professor of ethics, expounded on how Jasper College had a mission to steer its students away from the "immoral fog of drugs" so that they could assume their places in society. Also present was John Schmutzer, whom Underdog had succeeded in having the entire dorm floor refer to by the nickname "Schmuckster" in response to his tattling on him. Underdog explained to everyone who inquired that he would have been perfectly happy to stop smoking pot if John had asked. Although many of the guys he talked to did not do drugs themselves, they nonetheless sympathized with Underdog, for John had violated an ancient schoolboy code by tattling. John recounted for the board how he walked in on Underdog, embellishing his story with out-and-out lies, like how the room was so thick with marijuana smoke he left coughing and choking. Absent was Underdog's partner in crime, Reid, who honorably refused to speak at the hearing. Earlier in the week, during one of those rare moments when he had the ombudsman's attention, he asked her why Reid was not facing the disciplinary board. She answered by saying that it was "a situation analogous to drunk driving." Only the drunk driver is held responsible, not his passengers, she explained; the offense in question occurred in Underdog's room, so Reid would not be held accountable. Since he was caught red-handed, Underdog's only defense was that he did not know that smoking marijuana resulted in getting kicked out of the dorm. Professor Morality responded by saying that "in all judicial systems, ignorance is not an excuse in breaking the law," adding that the towel under the door which tripped up John Schmutzer when he entered the room was evidence that Underdog knew he was committing an illegal act. After deliberating for only four minutes, the board ruled that Underdog had twenty-four hours to vacate his room, and the college would refund his room and board money less one week's stay. There was more bad news for Underdog, however. The constipated Director of Housing announced that he would also be expelled from the college. He admitted that he had no jurisdiction over off-campus housing, saying, "If students who live off-campus want to smoke dope and zone out on MTV, that's their business." But then he brought to everyone's attention the in loco parentis rule that required all freshman-level students who were registered at Jasper College to live on campus. Underdog could probably get away with attending class for another few weeks, but the Registrar's Office would eventually catch up with him. He advised Underdog to withdraw from school right then, so the college would refund more of his tuition than if he waited to be dropped from their records. Thus, a few hits of marijuana effectively ended Underdog's college career before it started. Until the final decision was made, Underdog did not inform his parents of the goings-on. But once the hearing before the board was over, he returned to the dorm to place the phone call. Ever since being turned in by Schmuckster, he spent a minimal amount of time in the room. Reid and his roommate were nice enough to let Underdog drag a mattress into the center of their room and sleep on the floor, and he spent most of his time outside of class in their room, fretting over his troubles and drinking beer in an effort to dilute them. He was sure that they wouldn't mind if he called long distance from their phone, but he decided to call from Schmuckster's phone and stick him with the cost. Upon Schmuckster's leaving for his Friday three o'clock class, Underdog entered the room to get on with the dirty deed. As could be understood, his parents were shocked that in a matter of a week their son was kicked out of both dorm and school; they were doubly shocked as to why, because, with the help of breath mints and eye drops, Underdog had succeeded in hiding his smoking habit from them for three years. They had never caught him smoking marijuana, they probably didn't even know what it smelled like. So when he proposed moving home and attending Peru Community College, his father refused. "You had your chance, young man, and you muffed it. I'll be goddamned if I have a drug addict living under my roof," he said. Moreover, he refused to have any further dealings with his son, telling Underdog before hanging up the phone that he was on his own and not to bother calling home again. Feeling sorry as a misbehaving dog abandoned miles from home, Underdog began to pack up his things. While fumbling with his cassette player and box, the phone rang. He decided to answer, hoping it was his father calling back after he had a half-hour to cool off. Instead, his mother was on the line. Her voice breaking, she told him that she and his father had talked it over and decided to let him keep the refunded tuition and room and board money to tide him over until he found a job. She would have loved for him to return home, she explained, but she couldn't go against his father's wishes. Then she hung up in a hurry, leaving Underdog only to imagine how tear-soaked the pot holders in her kitchen must be.