The Case of the Missing Burns
A Short Story by Tim Josephs
Written using the suggestion "Binge"
Originally featured on 12-28-2006
As part of our series "Phases of a Holiday Meal"

No one was quite sure what happened to Larry’s sideburns. It was a small school so word spread faster than a case of mononucleosis and everyone had a theory. But whatever the real story was, Larry wasn’t spilling it.

Larry Thompson had had the best sideburns in the 10th grade. That was undisputed. What was disputed was whether or not he had the best burns in school. Some believed senior Randy Brewster owned the best pair; others thought Francine, one of the lunch ladies, was tops. It was a never-ending debate that people would bump gums about from the front entrance bike rack to the third floor band room and back again.

So when Larry showed up to school on a cold rainy day in late January, his face as smooth as the porcelain sink his burn-clippings undoubtedly had fallen into, it got folks talking.

You see, Larry’s burns were kind of a legend around school. Ever since one of them had caught on fire in science class freshman year, they were well renowned. I won’t bore you with the specifics but let me just say it involved a Bunsen burner and a careless lab partner. Anyway, after the fire was doused and Larry made a quick trip to the nurse, he returned to class unscathed; his reddish-blonde sideburn completely unaffected.

Since that day, the burns were celebrated. English classes waxed poetic about them; art classes painted pictures; math classes used them in word problems (if Larry’s right burn was on a train going 185 mph and his left burn was traveling on another train at 215 mph, when would they meet?). But Larry took it all in stride, his noodle never needing a new lid size.

So when he walked in to first period on that chilly winter morning, sans burns, you could imagine what people were thinking. Larry was grilled but, as was his nature, he wasn’t one to talk about himself or even talk much at all, so he clammed up.

But everyone had an opinion.

A lot of people thought it had to do with a dame. It was well known around the sophomore lockers that Larry was dizzy over a doll named Melissa Sanders. He had gotten her a big card with a teddy bear on it for her birthday and in a moment of wine cooler-fueled courage at a party at Greg Lopez’s house the weekend his parents were away, had actually asked her out for a cup of joe. Melissa was a sweet kid and politely declined the invitation and Larry kind of laughed it off but several witnesses described the scene as “awkward” and “embarrassing.”

The speculation was that he took a page from Van Gogh’s playbook and cut off one of his sideburns and gave it to her as a gift, and that he shaved the other one just to even them out. But after checking with Melissa whose exact words were “Ewww, that would have been gross,” that theory was quickly shot down.

Others thought that there might have been some foul play involved, that maybe the aforementioned Randy Brewster was tired of his burns playing second fiddle to Larry’s and perhaps had something to do with their disappearance.Some believed lunch lady Francine was somehow mixed up in it; that she wanted the sideburn crown all to herself and spiked Larry’s potato salad with something that caused the burns to fall out.

For a while the most popular theory was that Larry chose to shave them after watching a video in health class. The movie was an after school special from the 70’s called “The Urge to Binge and Purge,” and a doctor in the film, played by a young Tom Hanks, had huge mutton chops that really looked loony. The assumption was that Larry decided if a two-time Academy Award winner had shaved his cheek candy, than so should he.

But other theories just as quickly sprung up.

In French class one day, a skirt by the name of Judy Mavis told a few of her cronies that Larry had donated the burns to charity, to a group that provided sideburns to cancer-stricken hippies. The girls were instantly smitten and started attaching his last name to their first names all over their three-ring binders.

However, that story didn’t pan out as there was only one such joint and it was in San Francisco. When reached for comment, the group said they were no longer accepting sideburns; due to a recent closing of a local chapter of the Elvis Fan Club, they were lousy with them.

Junior Robbie Westin thought it had to be lice. But then again Robbie had been infested four times himself and assumed anytime anyone was sick or absent from school for any reason that they had to have lice. But when the screws were put to him about why it was just Larry’s sideburns and not the rest of his head that had been shaved, his answer of “special sideburn lice” didn’t hold water.

One day at lunch, with a mouthful of egg salad, a mug named Mike Hartman announced to a table full of his flunkies that the loss of Larry’s burns could only mean one thing: he was going bald. He believed that at the rate the hair was falling, Larry would resemble a cue ball within a month. Mike was always looking for someone to commiserate with though, as his hair had started thinning practically since the sixth grade.

Even the high pillows got in on the act.

Mr. Kaiser, the shop teacher, thought Larry did it to make himself more aerodynamically sound.

Mrs. Mayes, his guidance counselor, believed it was a cry for help.

Mr. Jenson, the gym teacher, thought he did it to make himself lighter so he’d finally be able to climb to the top of the rope.

And me, I didn’t know what to think, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to get involved. Sideburns could be a sticky business, as sticky as the large pink bubbles I saw Larry blowing with his Bubblicious a day before the burns went missing. And if Larry won’t tip his mitt then none of us may ever get wise.

But it’s all par for the course in the shadowy hallways of Samuel Spade High.

Read More By Tim Josephs

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Portland Fiction Project

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