It wasn’t bragging if one wasn’t exaggerating, and so Elmer did not hesitate at calling himself a genius from time to time.
Making a telephone and hooking it into the Macdonald Hall wiring would not have been too arduous a process, though he would have had to run a line into the room somehow and in order to make that inconspicuous would have required some creative rug alterations, but it would have been too traceable. The school was still not the most affluent institution in Ontario despite Bruno Walton’s preposterous attempts to make it so, and the secretary was meticulous about checking which calls came from where.
Elmer did not want this particular exploit to turn up in the monthly telephone audit.
And so, he had to create an entire telephone network himself, one that would allow his home-built phone to connect to the existing Bell Canada lines surrounding the highway. In some ways, creating an earthquake machine (as the plebeians called it) was simpler, but this was much more gratifying.
Elmer was, in essence, creating something for the express purpose of breaking the rules, and not because of Bruno and one of his infamous Committees. This was all Elmer’s infraction; he felt quite heady. The sensation of bucking the status quo in order to satisfy one’s primal curiosities and not for some ubiquitous greater cause was at once terrifying and exhilarating.
This was the main reason Elmer was wearing his sunglasses indoors at ten at night.
“Here it is,” he whispered to the ants, “My moment of truth, as it were. Elmer Drimsdale is now officially a rebel!”
His hands trembled as he dialled the number, and he nearly dropped the receiver when the phone actually rang. “Marylou please,” Elmer said, attempting to keep his voice steady.
“Hello?” Marylou’s sweet voice came through the phone a few minutes later, and Elmer did an impromptu dance that nearly knocked over his flowering ficus cross-breed.
“Hello, my little ammonite, my gorgeous heteromorph.” Elmer had always kept his attempts at verbal wooing succinct and, frankly, not exactly oozing charisma. Someone was always likely to overhear and repeat the conversation in falsetto at breakfast. But now, with the guarantee of anonymity swaying tantalizingly over his head, Elmer could afford to be bold. Rakish, even.
He only hoped she would not faint from the force of his manly rhetoric.
“No, Edward’s doing great,” Boots O’Neal said, rolling his eyes at Bruno and making the ‘bla bla bla’ gesture with one hand while he held the receiver in the other. “He hasn’t been getting into trouble or anything. No, and he even –“
“—and that is why, my tenderest of coleoidea, I have flung caution to the wind and—“
That was Elmer’s voice. It took Boots a full ten seconds to realize this, but only one to wave Bruno over and hold the phone between both their ears. Within moments he clapped a hand over Bruno’s mouth to stop his friend from bursting into hysterical laughter, and had to lean his elbow on Bruno’s bent-over back to keep from falling over himself.
Walter Wizzle blinked at the telephone. One minute he had been speaking with Gloria’s parents, inviting them over to dinner on Sunday; the next, it seemed he had been mistakenly enrolled in a terrible, high-school-produced radio drama.
“You don’t need to say anything, my dearest trilobite,” said the voice that puberty forgot in a breathy attempt at a baritone. “I know how swept away you must be. You may even be wondering if it is someone else, infinitely more dangerous, impersonating me, but I assure you—“
Good heavens, this was embarrassing. Wizzle hesitated, wondering if he should hang up and if he would be charged for this, but instead found himself covering the mouthpiece and calling, “Gloria? Come listen to this!”
Sergeant Harold P. Featherstone was nodding off at his desk, poring through a pile of newspapers in search of the leader of a string of chinchilla kidnappings, when the telephone rang. He jumped, knocked over his three cups of coffee, and scrambled frantically for the receiver, terrified it would be his superior.
Featherstone was so tired that he actually said “Hello?” before picking up the phone, and therefore by the time it reached his ear, he had nothing to say. Fortunately, the voice at the other end did all the talking for him.
“And so you see, my sweet echinacea blossom, I am braving extradition, imprisonment, perhaps even academic probation, for this chance to speak to you, my begoniaceae, and impart upon you, in the strictest confidence—“
Featherstone sat up sharply, all traces of fatigue gone. A streak of luck! Who could worry about missing rodents when he had obviously stumbled onto a terrorist plot, cleverly concealed in code! And a real plot this time; nothing like that Fish business with those students. He chuckled quietly and reached for a pen.
Miss Scrimmage, settled down in bed with a fluffy duvet and an absolutely scandalous book of indulgent chocolate desserts, was distracted enough to knock her telephone off her dressing table when it rang.
By the time she picked it up, the other side’s conversation was in full swing. It took a moment, but soon she realized that she was the recipient of an amorous stranger’s advances! Miss Scrimmage blushed and covered her mouth with her hand. What to say? This was so unprecedented!
“You still don’t have to say anything,” said the mysterious person, “Your very silence is more eloquent than volumes of the most prolific Nobel-winning physics discoveries. I look into your eyes and see pulsars, nay, quasars—“
Miss Scrimmage barely restrained a girlish giggle, absurd at her age! But most young men were bumbling, immature, awkward, and vulgar brutes, while this anonymous fellow was anything but, if oddly verbose. She sat back down, recipes forgotten for the evening.
At several points in his career, William Sturgeon felt himself with a hankering for retirement. Long, relaxing days without one exploding sink or purple-painted boys streaking across the football field; evenings spent with his wife’s good company and a thick book. He could even take the phone off the hook without worrying that he was turning his back on yet another emergency.
Mr. Sturgeon decided he had never felt the urge so keenly as he had at this moment. “Mildred, my dear,” he said in a strangled tone, holding the telephone away from his ear, “I do believe I have gone mad.”
“Don’t be silly,” Mildred said from the kitchen, appearing with a second serving of chocolate cake despite her husband’s earlier assertion that he was getting a little chunky ‘round the middle. “What seems to be the problem?”
He held the receiver up again and listened, just to be sure. “And although I have, my brachiopod, my perfect bivalve, hinted at the strength of my ardour, because of the awkwardness of our positions and the absolute perniciousness of our colleagues, I have found it impossible to truly express myself—“
“It seems,” Mr. Sturgeon said faintly, putting the phone down again, “that I am the unwitting recipient of one Elmer Drimsdale’s abysmally enthusiastic and scientifically disturbing affections. Either that, or he has dialled the wrong number and is so nervous he refuses to give himself time to pause for fear of losing his nerve, and hasn’t noticed.”
“Well, you do look sharp in that sweater I bought you,” Mildred said mildly, puttering around the table. “I did warn you what would happen if you wore it to that assembly.”
Mr. Sturgeon felt ill. “I do believe I will have that cake after all, Mildred,” he said.
“Goodbye, my effervescent neutrino. I will contact you again soon.”
Marylou stared at the phone long after Elmer hung up, unsure whether to collapse in peals of laughter or call the poison control centre and report the accidental consumption of an unknown substance. Aside from her name at the very beginning, Marylou hadn’t had the chance to say a word.
Elmer Drimsdale, it must be said, strutted down the hallways of Macdonald Hall.
Oh, yes. He, resident aficionado of all things scientific and the Hall’s most gynophobic heterosexual, ran from women no more. No longer did Elmer Drimsdale cower at the thought of conversing with a female, even one who returned his affections. Elmer Drimsdale lived on the edge. Elmer Drimsdale knew how to woo.
It seemed, he thought to himself as he entered the cafeteria, that his newfound confidence was causing an increased emission of manly pheromones. His classmates looked at him askance as he passed and whispered amongst themselves; even several teachers paused to watch him until he turned the corner.
This delusion, beautiful though it was, lasted until Elmer reached his customary table and found Bruno Walton deeply engrossed in serenading a humiliated-looking Melvin O’Neal.
“But soft!” Bruno said dramatically, falling to one knee and clasping his chest before thrusting one arm into the air. “What submarine particles through yonder telescope float? ‘Tis the benson burner, and Marylou is the plankton that photosynthesizes my heart!”
Elmer blanched and stopped mid-strut. Boots groaned and hit his head off the table. “Bruno, please,” he begged. “I’ve heard this already. I’ve heard this a million times already. I heard it a million times before lights out already! I heard it at three a.m. when I woke up and heard you giggling into your pillow.”
“I am the cuttlefish to your anemone,” Bruno said earnestly, pinning Boots’ hand to his chest. “You are the cream cheese to my exothermic reaction! If you rearrange the letters in our names, you get ‘A Molly Rum’!”
As he turned and fled, leaving his breakfast tray at the edge of the table and squarely in the way of a still-sleepy Sidney Rampulsky, Elmer was unable to decide what was the more mortifying: that his device had obviously malfunctioned, that the entire school would soon be mocking him, or that Bruno’s attempt at imitating Elmer’s clever scientific sonnetry was so egregiously incorrect.
And it had been “allure memory”, which Elmer still thought sounded dreadfully poetic.
By lunchtime, news of Elmer’s romantic exploits had reached the entire Hall. Elmer was convinced that nothing could be worse than Sidney laughing at him while a team of three custodians worked to extract the latter’s head from a toilet seat.
He was, of course, well versed in the dangers of hyperbole, and sure enough, Larry Wilson jogged up to him with an apologetic expression on his face. “The Fish wants to see you,” Larry said, and mercifully did not make any other comments.
Elmer nodded curtly and headed to the office. Surely the Fish could have nothing to say about last night’s activities, whatever he had heard; Elmer had done nothing illegal. Improper, perhaps, but Elmer could not recall whether telephone calls to Miss Scrimmage’s residents were explicitly outlawed in Macdonald Hall’s rules and regulations. Perhaps, he thought morosely, they would be now.
Mr. Sturgeon looked grim as Ms. Davis ushered Elmer into the Headmaster's office. "Sit down," he said, nodding to the wooden bench and frowning at his secretary, who began to giggle uncontrollably as the door swung shut. Rather than choosing to sit, Elmer's knees gave out.
"Now, then. This morning I received an interesting series of calls from Bell Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Ontario Provincial Police regarding a certain telephone call which originated somewhere on this property and simultaneously connected to every device within the greater Toronto area. Now, I am not going to ask if you are at fault—“
Here Elmer squeaked in a manner most characteristic of Manchurian bush hamsters, and wished he had managed to create a portable wormhole generator just so he could use it at this moment.
Mr. Sturgeon continued, "—if only because the answer is obvious, the incident was not technically against the law or school rules, and, after the creative response from the student body today, official punishment would be redundant. However—“ Mr. Sturgeon looked at him overtop his sliced-in-half-moon spectacles— "Do try to keep such amorous advances more discreet, at least until after you've tested your inventions."
Elmer took that as his cue to leave, somehow finding the strength to stand, as opposed to melting into a puddle of shame and oozing his way under the crack in the door.
"Oh," Mr. Sturgeon remembered just as Elmer reached the door. "When the patent office and the police contact you about wanting to adapt your invention for the provincial emergency broadcast system, do try to use a normal receiver and phone line. It would be most unwise to publicize how much you receive for patents to your schoolmates, as the extortion rate, I imagine, would become immense, and I assume you would prefer to spend your money on further experiments."
When Elmer returned to his room, sadly missing his swagger, his pride, and his conviction in anything but his own ridiculousness, he did not expect to find Marylou Beakman sitting cross-legged on his bed.
Elmer yelped, and only some unknown force—perhaps the ineffable deities of taking pity on poor, hapless romantics thwarted mid-courtship—stopped him from tipping over his stand of laboratory equipment.
“So I have to congratulate you,” Marylou said mildly, patting the bedspread (the periodic table; even though Elmer had it memorized practically before the alphabet, it was a comfort). “I brought you a cake, even, brought to you by the grateful girls of Scrimmage’s.”
“In what respect are they grateful?” Elmer asked warily, his throat closing. He wasn’t sure whether his rapid descent from Elmer Drimsdale, love machine, to his usual terrified self was from the mocking or actually being in Marylou’s physical presence, but either way, he was unimpressed.
“It was supposed to be mid-term exams today,” Marylou continued, gesturing more forcefully for Elmer to join her. He did so, concentrating on his breathing. “But Miss Scrimmage was in such a good mood after receiving an anonymous love letter by phone that she announced everything was cancelled and we all got A’s.”
Elmer gaped at her, waiting for Cathy Burton and Diane Grant to jump up from behind his bed with a camera and a ‘fooled you!’ banner. At this point he would have welcomed the resultant heart attack over his current mortification. “Please tell me you’re joking,” he begged, though he knew Marylou and absurdist humour were not usually synonymous.
“I almost wish I was.” Marylou smiled and shook her head. “But no.”
Elmer Drimsdale, former romance connoisseur, realized with horror that he was about to cry. “I’m sorry,” he managed to squeak out. Marylou was definitely going to break up with him after this. If, that is, they were even dating; Elmer was no longer certain they were at all. It was possible he didn’t even have permission to speak to her. In fact, he was positive she was leaning over to hand him the restraining order she must have taken the day off to procure.
She most certainly was not.
Long after Marylou had slipped out the window with a small smile and a quick wave, Elmer was still staring, goggle-eyed, at the space she left behind. Finally, he stood up and, experimentally, walked over to the door.
Yes, indeed, his shoulders and hips jerked purposefully and unconsciously as he moved: the strut was back.
Elmer Drimsdale, amour astronaut, had returned. Two seconds later, he was running headlong to his adjoining bathroom to vomit joyously into the toilet.