Authors: Jessica Alcott
“So what did you guys think of the end?” Mr. Drummond held up his battered copy of
There was a pause. “I didn’t like it,” Sean said.
A couple of kids laughed nervously, but Mr. Drummond held a hand up for silence. “Why not, Sean?”
“Okay, I liked Doc Daneeka. He just, like, owns being a dick. But Yossarian’s supposed to be a hero and he’s actually a complete loser.” The class laughed again. “And like I needed to know that war is bad. It’s funny at first, I guess, but toward the end it’s just, like, well, life sucks and then you die.”
“Isn’t that kind of the point?” Lila said.
“How is that a point?” Sean asked.
“You don’t think that’s the entire point of the book?” Asha said. “That war is futile?”
“If it is, that’s a really dumb book.”
I looked to Mr. Drummond, feeling panicked. He was watching them with a placid expression. He glanced at me and I looked away again.
“Okay, Sean,” he said. “Do you have to agree with all of a book’s ideas to like it?”
“Uh,” Sean said. “Yes?”
“No?” Lila said. “Unless you’re a dumbass like Sean?”
That got another laugh. Sean stuck his middle finger up at Lila and she blew a kiss at him. Ugh.
“All right,” Mr. Drummond said. “Let’s keep the level of discourse above obscene gestures at least until we get to Jane Austen.” He paused. “So. Sean thinks the book is arguing that life is pointless, and that argument doesn’t convince him. Let’s take a step back. Why would a book make an argument like that?”
Sean shrugged. “Dunno.”
“Do you think it could encompass a larger argument? Like, say, one for atheism?”
I looked up sharply.
“Explain,” Lila said.
“Think,” Mr. Drummond said.
Lila grinned. I felt something turn in my stomach.
“What do we find out about the catch-22?” he said.
“It doesn’t actually exist?” Lila ventured. “But the powers that be tell them it does exist, so it kind of does.”
Mr. Drummond leaned forward and Lila did too. I suddenly noticed how low-cut her top was.
“And who does it benefit?” he said.
“The people in power.”
“It…keeps them in power?”
“The idea does?”
“So it’s an idea that benefits the status quo, keeps people afraid and complacent, and is almost impossible to disprove once it’s been established,” Mr. Drummond said. “That remind you of anything?”
I’d been distracted by Lila’s cleavage, but when he said that, I looked up at him in surprise. I could feel something inside my mind twist open. When he noticed me watching him, he raised his eyebrows at me. Again I looked away.
“So you’re implying that the book’s talking about…” Lila trailed off as if she would get in trouble if she continued. Her eyes looked luminous.
“You can say it,” Mr. Drummond said. “But keep in mind that I have a duty to report any seditious thoughts to Dr. Crowley.”
Lila was delighted. “Is it talking about God?”
“Let me get this straight,” Mr. Drummond said. “You think it’s saying God might not exist but we’ve been led by people in power to believe he does, for their own benefit.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Lila said.
Mr. Drummond leaned back and pointed to the door. “Get the fuck out,” he said with mock ferocity.
The class exploded into laughter with the sudden force of a balloon popping. Lila and Mr. Drummond grinned at each other. I stared at him. I felt unmoored, as if I were out at sea for the first time and everything was slightly off-kilter, shifting unsteadily when I tried to get a fix on it.
“This is just one
Mr. Drummond said, “but I don’t want you to be afraid to make intellectual leaps like that. If you feel like a text is leading you somewhere, don’t be afraid to go with it, no matter how odd your idea might seem.”
I looked at Mr. Drummond, and he looked back. I smiled.
He caught up to me as I was leaving after school. He was wearing a battered leather jacket and carrying an equally weather-beaten messenger bag the same dark brown as his hair. A hot shiver ran through me, as if dozens of needles were pricking me from the inside.
“You wanted to speak up today, didn’t you?” he asked. When I didn’t answer immediately, he said, “Sorry, that was a really presumptuous thing to say.”
I laughed; it came out sounding like a car trying to start. I wasn’t used to talking to him, especially alone. I wished Lila were there for backup. “Why was it presumptuous?”
“Maybe more condescending than presumptuous. I suspect you don’t need another teacher telling you that you should speak up more in class.”
“I do get that a lot,” I said.
“Well, in that case I will tell you to feel free to stay silent,” he said. “It just struck me that you might have had something you wanted to say.”
We had slowed down to an amble. Our steps fell into sync until I deliberately took a few short strides so he wouldn’t think I had done it on purpose.
“I did, I guess,” I said. “It wouldn’t have been anything helpful, though. It would have just been, how the hell did you think of that?”
“I doubt that,” he said. “But I know that not everyone gets comfortable at the same speed. Back when I was in school, whenever anyone told me to speak up, it just made me shyer.”
“You were shy?” I said. “I find that hard to believe somehow.” I was nervous about teasing him; I felt a blush spread on my face like a sunburn.
“You mean because I’m such an annoying loudmouth now?”
I looked at him; he smiled, inviting me to complete the joke. I noticed suddenly how blue his eyes were. “Yes,” I said.
He laughed. “Would you believe I’m actually less annoying than I used to be?”
“Fair enough,” he said. “But I mean it when I say we get plenty of noise from the usual bloviaters. It’s good to hear from people with fresh insights.”
“So you’re telling me to find a way to shut Lila up.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to do what I can see is clearly impossible.”
I laughed out of surprise. Was he just teasing about Lila? Or was he confiding in me? Even teachers I liked had never talked to me like that.
We stepped outside, into the newly chilly air. I was relieved that the seasons were finally changing. Autumn had always felt like the hinge of the year to me. Summer was stagnant—it was too hot to move or to think—but fall swept in with fresh air. There was always a chance that things would start over, better than they had been.
We walked a little way in silence. I wasn’t comfortable with pauses in conversation; I assumed they were my fault.
“It’s pretty out today,” I said, to say something.
“If you like sunshine and vivid colors and that sort of nonsense,” he said.
“You’d do well in England.”
“I do like being damp.” He stopped in front of a beat-up Volvo station wagon.
“Is this your car?” I asked.
“Afraid so.” He fished his keys out of his coat pocket. “I’d offer you a ride, but it has this funny quirk where none of the doors except the driver’s open.”
“Oh,” I said. “Oh, no, I—I have my dad’s— I’m fine.”
“Ah, good,” he said. He smiled again. He had dimples when he smiled.
“All the doors work, at least.”
“You’ve already got me beat.” He jiggled his keys in his hand. “See you tomorrow, then?”
I realized that he was trying to cue me to leave. “Oh,” I said. “Yes.”
I didn’t move.
His forehead creased. “Did you need something else, Charlie?”
“Um,” I said. “Just—thank you for the compliment. I’m going to try harder.”
“I look forward to it,” he said.
“All right,” I said to Lila that night. “I get it.”
“Ha!” she said. “Knew it.”
“So what was it? Nice outfit today.”
He’d been wearing a V-neck sweater and
some of his nicer clothes. “Since when do you get hot for sweaters?” I said.
“When he’s wearing them.”
I snorted. “Next it’ll be cardigans with elbow patches.”
“He would look good with a pipe. Come on, tell me.”
“It was the…” I felt stupid saying it had been sparked by the conversation in class and then fueled by our chat after school. I couldn’t tell her he’d sought me out privately. “He’s really smart.”
“You’d hope,” she said.
“You know what I mean,” I said. “You looked awfully interested when you were talking to him about atheism.”
“That was kind of hot, wasn’t it? He kept looking over at you, though.”
“No, he didn’t,” I said automatically.
“Charlie,” she said in a way that allowed no argument. “I told you, he likes you.”
“I thought you said he wasn’t a perv.”
“No, but he likes you.”
“I think he likes
Lila laughed. “I
giving him some serious eye sex.”
“Ew. I really don’t need to know where your eyes have been.”
“I’m just planting a seed.”
“Ugh, that’s even worse.”
“Speaking of seeds—I’m just going to tell you now that homecoming is in a few weeks. No pressure or anything, but I want to go.”
“You’ll go even if I don’t?”
“Yeah, of course, but I want you to be my date. I’m just telling you now because I know you need time to freak out about it first.”
“You’re a good friend.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” she said. “I’ve just been burned a few too many times. Oh, and no excuses that you need to help your dad. I know he does not need help on a freaking Friday night.”
I had a habit of agreeing to things and then backing out at the last minute. I said yes partly because it made Lila happy, and mostly because I didn’t want to make her angry by saying no. When I flaked, she was usually much angrier than she would have been otherwise.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll think about it. How was last period?”
“Fine. Papakostas is as riveting as ever. You know that girl Asha, the one from our English class?”
“Yeah, she’s in my gym class too. She’s okay. Why?”
“She just creeps me out a little. Why is she talking to me?”
“Because she’s trying to be friendly?”
“No, I don’t buy it. I think she wants to be friends with you and she knows
friends with you, so she’s trying to be nice to me.”
She said it sarcastically, but I wondered. Lila had had me to herself for as long as we’d known each other.
“And why is she trying to be friends with me?”
“Far be it from me to guess at anyone’s reasons for being fascinated by the enigma of you. Is it your sparkling, bubbly personality? Your enthusiastic approach to sports? Your disdain for printed material?”
“I’m hanging up now.”
“For all I know, she’s just trying to get to Frida. And who could blame her?”
“Or your dad. Who is, may I point out, still hot.”
“I hate you.”
“Love you too.”
I’d had crushes before, but this was worse than anything I’d ever felt. It started in my stomach and soon it was everywhere, spreading outward like an infection; it swallowed my concentration, blotted out my other interests, consumed whole days I would have normally spent reading. I felt like a tuning fork perpetually vibrating at his frequency. It happened suddenly: one day I barely noticed it and the next it felt like it had always been there and I would never be able to shake it.
Some mornings I’d see him in the hallway before class and quickly look away before it took hold; other days he’d notice me and smile and for the next hour I’d ache inside. After a few weeks I knew his schedule, and some days I would take detours just so I had the chance to glimpse the back of his head.
In class I was still mostly quiet, but Lila talked enough for both of us, and now and then I’d roll my eyes at him while she was rambling. Lila said smart things, which I hoped cast a reflected glow on me, but she also just
like ordinary people did, whereas I, in my silence, contained mysteries. He looked at me often, gauging my reactions to things—more often, I was sure, than he looked at the others. He teased me like he teased everyone, but now I looked forward to it; I could usually get a laugh from the class with a well-timed expression.
No one seemed to notice except Lila; my mother was happy that I was working on the newspaper, and my dad was happy that I was happy. I hadn’t been happy at school in a long time.
I made up excuses to talk to him or seek him out. It wasn’t hard; we had lunch after English, and
got quiet if I hung around long enough after school. He usually left as late as the last student did, and I had been working up the nerve to stay last. I still preferred to talk to him with Lila buffering our conversations, but I was getting braver.
“Mr. Drummond?” I’d thought of something to ask him after English. It felt odd using his title; no one ever called him that. It was usually “Drummond” or, more often, “dude.”
He looked amused. “Yes, Chuck?”
“Sorry to bug you if you’re busy—”
“I’m never that busy,” he said, shoving his papers aside with a flourish. “What’s up?”
I hovered by his desk. “I just wanted to ask about the paper…”
“Sit down,” he said. “Make yourself comfortable.”
“Oh, okay.” I pulled a chair over and sat on the edge of it. “I wanted to ask about the favorite books thing.”
“Sure.” He picked up a tennis ball on his desk and tossed it into the air. “What about it?”
I cleared my throat. “You remember how I read
The Brothers Karamazov.
“Oh yes,” he said. “I may even remember it better than you do.”
I looked at him and he grinned and said, “Sorry,” but he didn’t look sorry at all.
“Right,” I said. “The thing is, I loved it so much that reading it once really wasn’t enough.”
“You didn’t get enough of the parts in Russia, you mean.”
you said as you finished a nine-hundred-page novel about Russia.
There just wasn’t enough Russia in that for me.
“Uh-huh. So I wondered if you would make an exception and allow me to, uh, reread it for my paper.”
“Well, what aspect of it were you hoping to get more insight into? Besides Russia.”
“The, uh…” I felt myself cracking. “The acrobats.”
“So what you took away from reading
The Brothers Karamazov
was that it in some way involved a circus.”
“At the turn of the century. Is that wrong?”
“Oh no,” he said. “Just like
is about a cow who wants to be human.”
I laughed; I couldn’t help it. That made him laugh too.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was nervous. I didn’t mean to lie.”
“You know, I’d expect this behavior from Lila, but not from you.”
“Lila doesn’t have the class to pretend to have read
The Brothers Karamazov.
He laughed at that, a low chuckle that made a shiver of pleasure run down my arms. “Fine, ‘reread’ it if you want, you glutton for punishment.”
“Thanks?” I said; it came out like a question.
“You’re welcome? But I hope, Charlie, that someday you write a novel about Russian carnies.”
“I’ll make a note,” I said.
“Do.” He leaned back and his chair screamed on its hinges. “Good Lord,” he said, and I started laughing helplessly, partly at his reaction and partly to let out what felt like helium in my lungs.
He smiled, looking baffled. “I’m glad my bumbling has given you such amusement.”
“You’re funny,” I said. “I like you.” As soon as I said it, I wished I could take it back, but his expression lightened and I realized I’d caught him off guard.
“I like you too, Charlie,” he said. “Even when you lie to me.”