—I’m all for integrated schools, he said, but they’re full of class conflict.

—He’s secretly a Commie, she said, laughing.

—Is that so? the sheriff asked. —I didn’t know that about you, Frank.

—No, Missy’s full of shit, he said, I just want the world to be fair. And you know what? It’s not. Rich people don’t give a shit about poor people or their crappy schools, so poor people go and mug rich people so they don’t feel powerless.

—Oh boy, here we go again, she said.

—Heard this before, have you? the sheriff asked.

Mrs. Vos raised her eyebrow and nodded.

—Look, Mr. Vos continued, I’m just saying: rich people get scared, so they ask politicians to pass tougher laws for criminals, which they do because they want campaign contributions. So, petty criminals stay in prison until they become professional criminals, rich people build walls around their homes, install security cameras, and hire bodyguards. Meanwhile, poor students in crappy school districts have no professional mobility because their broken-down, militarized schools don’t prepare them for college so they deal drugs, work at gas stations, and steal cars instead. Then, rich people get new laws passed to keep poor people further away from their jewelry—all of this, just to make rich people feel safe, and rich people never feel safe. That’s the rub.

—That’s quite a history lesson, the sheriff said.

—I’m just saying Jim, a part of me, a big part of me, doesn’t give a damn about our kids—

—Our kids, or your kids?

—I mean all of our kids.

—Just checking.

—I could care less if our kids are stealing shit right now when we’re at the brink of a depression. I don’t blame them for wanting more than they got, the system’s made this way for a reason: to make us spend money.

—Is that so? the sheriff asked.

—Yeah. They’re the victims in an economic system we stuffed down their throats. If you want to blame anyone, blame us. Don’t blame the kids.

The sheriff nodded politely, shaking hands with the Voses before he handed them his card, just in case they saw anything suspicious in the future. Then he walked back to the police station, his mind now a thick muddle of words he vowed to google back at home.

 

The manager of the toy store didn’t find the second note (pinned on the floor underneath a magazine belt of Crayolas and naked Hollywood Kens) until the following day. The sheriff was drinking his second cup of coffee—cream, no sugar—when one of his deputies handed him the second note:

Mangent Are Back Killing Us Time A Is Get

The sheriff shook his head and sipped his working-class café au lait. The second ransom note was gibberish. What in God’s name was a mangent? Was this a misspelling of magnet? Or was it two words: man and gent? What the hell was a man-gent anyway? And what if the real secret of the two notes was just bad orthography? What was he supposed to do then, put a grammarian on the payroll?

The sheriff decided to call Mr. Vos. He was a trade union blowhard and probably a secret elitist, but at least as a union man he spoke conspiracy theory fluently. The sheriff felt like he was running out of time and ideas whereas Mr. Vos seemed to be drunk on both. The sheriff drove his shiny new cruiser to their house, shook hands with Mr. Vos, and accepted Lady Fingers and coffee from his wife. Once the two men were alone, the sheriff pulled out the second ransom note. Mr. Vos nodded his head like a Talmudic scholar as he scanned the words.

The sheriff bit one of Lady Fingers, powdered sugar exploding on his lap, and then shifted positions. —Have any idea what that is?

—It’s a manifesto.

—For what?

—For the abolishment of the 40-hour workweek.

—Huh. That’s what the Menckens said.

—The Menckens? Mr. Vos asked in horror, they’re a bunch of scripture nematodes.

The sheriff shrugged his shoulders.

At the front door, they shook hands quickly, but sadly too.

 

The security guard was counting his bad luck. First, he forgot his pistol, which became the biggest mistake of his life (his stepfather’s voice echoing through his head, from my cold dead hands), which made him feel like a dumbass. Then, the bank was getting heisted by kids in Catholic school uniforms and creepy masks, and they had real guns that could detonate your genitals or pin a piece of your lung to a bulletin board three hundred feet away. Kids weren’t supposed to have that kind of power: they’re too young to understand the value of life, the story behind every human subtraction. But even worse, even if the security guard had brought his tiny handgun, he still wouldn’t have stood a fucking chance against the Flaming Red Hot posse. The emasculation of his authority as the only adult in the lobby made him light-headed. At the twilight of his consciousness, he disconnected his walkie-talkie from his chest clip and slowly pulled it inside his pocket, stretching the coiled wire. He pretended to cough and pressed the red emergency button in a satisfying click that instigated his hope and salvation. Then, he passed out, the pain in his foot finally overwhelming him.

 

As the sheriff and his deputies made the rounds through Muncie, they accumulated a formidable stack of theories about the Conspiracy of Lemons jotted down on crumpled notepads and recorded in twenty types of penmanship. It was impossible to know where to start, but also easy too because all their leads were anecdotal, flawed, and specious—an insatiable matrix of circumstantial evidence to nowhere.

The Rodriguezes, for example, thought the problem was that American families didn’t spend enough time together, just look at the Menckens. With the O’Connors, the problem was affirmative action, just look at the Rodriguezes, who spent too much time with their kids. The Durants said the problem was the Iraq occupation, which was sending perfectly good fathers away to fight a bullshit war, leaving their mothers to play the role of both parents. The Clovers said the problem was the lack of patriotism, just look at those slithering traitors, the Durants, eating French fries every night. The Blackwells argued that the problem was America’s rugged individualism: too many drivers, not enough passengers. Just look at the gas-slut Clovers and their seven cars. Who could live like that? The Fincklesteins said the root of the issue was multiculturalism, which was ripping a hole in America’s soul: children didn’t know who they were anymore because people like the Blackwells told them they could be anyone they wanted. The theories kept piling on until the sheriff was buried in an avalanche of suspicion, shtick, and prejudice. Slowly, he looked at the conspiracy differently. He wasn’t condoning the heist— it was grand larceny after all—but he was starting to understand why it happened, and as an elected public official and promoter of the peace, empathy always got in the way of criminal prosecutions.

 

A week later, an insurance agent from Indianapolis stopped by to inspect the store window of Sweet Dreams and write out a check for the damage. The owner of Sweet Dreams was cleaning the countertop when he discovered the third ransom note hidden underneath pink fire hoses of bubblegum and a few crushed piano keys of milk chocolate. At first, he mistook it for something his son—what was that expression his teacher had used?, the slam poet—had written: all pruned and odd-sounding, the T’s crossed in the same way like a loop slashed with a razorblade. The words meant absolutely nothing to him, as much as he tried. He was an honest man, hardworking, but also completely immune to art. He knew he was holding onto cold hard evidence though and that fact alone piqued his interest:

De La Our Our This Art Is Silent Someone’s Over

He didn’t get it. Why was the word our repeated twice? And when wasn’t art silent? He drove to the police station and dropped off the note, wiping his hands of another teenage enigma.

 

The sheriff felt like he was trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with poetry and he wasn’t even sure the puzzle formed a coherent picture. Maybe the ransom notes were just a way of messing with adults who had rules, principles, and protocol. Kids were mischievous like that (not to mention hyperactive, impulsive, and cruel as all hell).

As a last resort, he called Mrs. Smith on her cell phone and asked her to stop by after her class. Don’t worry, he said, you’re not in any trouble. At quarter to five, Mrs. Smith was sitting in his office with a cup of tea on her lap.

—Thanks for coming down, he said.

—No problem, she said with a nervous hint in her voice.

—I wanted to ask you something.

—Jim, it’s just an occasional thing, I promise. One or two puffs at the most.

—What?

—Oh.

—What are you talking about?

—Isn’t that why I’m here?

—No, it’s not, so don’t say another word. I don’t want to know.

—Okay.

He shook his head.

—Sorry, she said, exhaling, so what can I do for you?

—Do you understand any of this? he asked, sliding the wrinkled ransom notes across the birch desk like a casino dealer.

She slipped on her glasses, the pink metal frames looking smart and vaguely European. She hunched over the desk to scrutinize the penmanship, tiny strands of blond hair falling down her profile, removing ten years in a flash of adolescence. Through the dusty blinds, her face looked radiant and soft. The sheriff thought about Junior High, back when he’d had a secret crush on her even though she was the class nerd and he was just a third-string defensive end. He looked at her with desperation, resurgent longing, and irrational hope.

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