Robbie hated holidays and always had.
For Easter, Catherine insisted that he help her dye a dozen eggs, and before the morning church services, Robbie had to go looking through the house for the hidden eggs. He wanted to go back to bed but dutifully obeyed.
Church services ran long, because it was Easter, and half the town crammed inside the church on this holiest of holy days, making it feel slightly claustrophobic despite its size. The Reverend Hickory held forth in the pulpit for an especially long period of time, having apparently decided to make up in quantity what might lack in quality.
Once back home, Robbie swiped some of the dyed eggs and ate them in secret in his bedroom, thoroughly and efficiently ruining his supper. Alan sprawled out on the couch and fell asleep with the television on, while Catherine began cooking the traditional Easter meal of leg of lamb with mashed potatoes and various green vegetables. They ate at four o’clock sharp, just as they did every year, and it was the first time any of them had seen one of the other two since early that morning. Then, while Alan hid in the garage to avoid the stack of pots, pans, and fancy china overflowing in the kitchen and Catherine made a call to her mother back in the Northeast, Robbie sat in the living room and wrote.
“America: A Nation of Towns Like Mine,” he had named the essay. In addition to his parents, his minister, his principal, and his mayor, he also mentioned in his essay some of his more memorable schoolmates—Stacey, Cyndi Pinkerton, Joe Carmichael, the Weaver boys. He believed, with the passionate and unrelenting faith of the young, that what he had written was good. No, not that—well, not only that—he believed that what he’d written was Art.
On Monday, Robbie turned in his essay to Mr. Klein. Then he fell back into the routine of school and home. He and Stacey continued eating their lunches in Klein’s classroom, passing notes in Ms. Dempsey’s math class, and wandering through the mall on the weekends like human tumbleweeds.
Robbie learned a new chord on the guitar (C minor, which he considered a very sophisticated chord, far superior to a G or a D). Stacey introduced Suyin to a new show (Lamb Chop’s Play-Along, which her mother had loved as a little girl).
Meanwhile, Gerald Klein handed Robbie’s essay over to Principal Carmichael. Since it was the only essay for the contest he’d received, the decision had been an easy one to make. However, Robbie’s essay was not the only one in the school. Marie Polk, who taught sixth grade English, and Lorraine Gwinnett, who taught eighth, also each turned in an essay written by their students. Carmichael briefly read through the essays then called in each teacher to speak as to why his or her particular student’s essay should be selected to go to the state level.
Gerald Klein was called in last, mostly because Nick Carmichael didn’t really like the man all that much. Lorraine was all right, and Marie made up for a lack of personality with good lucks, but Gerald Klein was another matter.
“Okay, Gerry,” began Nick Carmichael, while Klein sat uncomfortably in a hard-backed chair on the other side of the principal’s desk, “tell me why this is the essay I should pick. Wow me.”
“It’s a winning essay, Nick. It’s intelligent, insightful. It’s got youth and originality.”
“You know, I’m not sure that I like the way it mentions me.”
Klein laughed, a laugh that was deliberately light and breezy. “Oh, come on. You’re not letting some kid’s writing get under your skin, are you?”
Carmichael put on his reading glasses and picked up the essay from his desk. He began reading aloud, in a voice just loud enough to be obnoxious, “The principal of a school is like a president of a country. They are both the ultimate authority in their own worlds.” He glanced up at Klein with one perfectly arched eyebrow. “But wait, there’s more, as they say in the infomercials. The principal at my school is not only in charge of the school but has great influence over the entire town. Today’s middle schoolers are very sadly misinformed about the state of the education profession, let me tell you. People listen to him. People respect him. Yet he doesn’t seem to even realize he has such power—or responsibility.”
“Well? He’s got a point.”
Nick Carmichael rolled his eyes up to the uncaring heavens. “Power? Influence? I can’t even get the district to approve funds to replace the nets to the damn basketball hoops.”
“Nick, you know better than anyone that you’ve always been a very devil-may-care kind of guy. There’s nothing wrong with that. Robert’s just describing.”
“What makes this kid think he knows so much, anyway?”
“He’s thirteen.” Klein smiled. “It comes part and parcel with the territory.”
Carmichael leaned back in his tall leather chair, and he sighed. “Yeah, I s’pose you’re right.” He picked the essay up from his desk again. His lips twitched as he reread it. “The spelling is all right enough. That’s always a plus. And he’s got a pretty decent vocabulary for a sixth-grader.”
“Seventh-grader. Right.” The principal coughed. “Good vocabulary but sort of dry, don’t you think? Wouldn’t surprise me if he copied this off of Wikipedia or some place. But you know all those kids in the other forty-nine states went and did the same.” Carefully he set down the paper and gave Klein a look. “What’s this boy’s name again?”
“Okay. Okay, Gerry, I’ll think it over and let you know.”
Some three weeks after this meeting, Robbie arrived at school at the usual time and, head down, careful not to make eye contact with anyone, headed for his locker. Before he could reach it, however, there was a hand on his shoulder, large and heavy. Startled, Robbie looked up into the stern face of his English teacher.
Robbie’s palms sweated as he thought of all the possible reasons he might be in trouble. Maybe he’d asked too many questions about Nathan. Maybe he’d written a bad essay and Mr. Klein was going to tell him how awful it was.
“You won,” said Mr. Klein.
Robbie frowned. His brain churned, trying to make sense of what it was being told
“You won,” Klein repeated, his face suddenly breaking into a broad smile. “The principal picked your essay. It’s going on to the statewide competition.”
“You mean it? I really won?”
Klein chuckled. “Yes. You really won. And while I don’t want to dampen your spirits, I just want to remind you that this is only the first stage of the competition. It’s too soon to know whether you’ll be going to Washington or not.”
“Oh, I know, I know. But, wow, I really won.” Robbie allowed himself a small smile. “I’ve never won anything before.”
“Well, then.” Klein’s hand, still resting on Robbie’s shoulder, gave a squeeze. “You’ll have to celebrate with Stacey during lunch today.”
When Robbie told her the good news, Stacey shrieked and hugged him so hard that she nearly knocked him over. Gerald Klein, sitting at his desk, watched on with barely contained pride and pleasure. For the rest of the lunch period, Stacey expounded upon the glories of Washington, D.C.—the monuments, the museums, the unparalleled access to political power—while Robbie kept insisting that his essay probably wouldn’t get any farther than the state level.
Robbie told his parents the news that evening, over Alan’s dinner of undercooked green beans and overcooked meatloaf. Alan reacted with mild surprise, while Catherine was immediately suspicious as to why Robbie hadn’t even told her that he’d entered any such contest.
“I just don’t understand why you didn’t mention anything to us,” she said. “Not even once. And you’ve been working on this essay for just how many weeks, now?”
Robbie sighed. “I told you, I didn’t want to say anything unless I’d won. After all, if I had lost, there wouldn’t be much to tell, would there?”
Catherine’s eyes narrowed. She knew he was hiding something from her. She just wasn’t sure what it was. “You still haven’t told me what this essay’s about.”
“It’s about America, Mom. The name of the contest is ‘What Makes America the Greatest Nation on Earth.’”
Although Catherine’s last comment was obviously a question meant to be answered, Robbie ignored it and instead began wolfing down his meatloaf so that he wouldn’t have to say anything further. The three of them ate without conversation for a few more minutes before Catherine spoke up again.
“So, what is it you wrote about? How is America the ‘greatest nation on Earth’?”
“Oh, you know,” said Robbie vaguely. “I just kind of focused on right here. On Middleton.”
Pleased, Catherine smiled across the table at her son. “How about that? And to think you used to say you hated it here! I knew you’d come around.”
Which wasn’t exactly what had happened, but Robbie let the statement pass. The rest of dinner continued uneventfully. The next day, Catherine told everyone in her office how her brilliant son, the writer, had won his school’s little essay contest and just might win the state contest, as well. Her coworkers made the appropriate murmurs of approval and appreciation.
The next month went by without incident for the town of Middleton, except for the arrest and subsequent release of Jim Weaver on a Tuesday night for public drunkenness and disturbing the peace. The month after saw the arrival of Middleton Middle School’s annual formal, a pale imitation and unsettling harbinger of the high school’s senior prom. Robbie and Stacey had no intentions of going, but fate or, rather, their respective mothers, intervened.
Catherine Banks insisted that school dances must be attended. She herself had not attended a fall formal, her sophomore year of high school, and she’d regretted it ever since. She couldn’t bear the thought of her son, her only child, following down that same mistaken path and repeating her mistakes. Geena McIntire explained that a school dance would be good for her daughter’s social skills. After all, the only friend that Geena ever heard about was that strange, angry little Banks boy, and she wasn’t so sure that was entirely healthy. Besides, it would mean Geena could have the house to herself for a few hours, and she never got the house all to herself.
Both Geena and Catherine concluded that, all in all, attending the dance would be good for their children.
Despite the many enumerated benefits of school dances, there wasn’t much enthusiasm in Stacey’s voice when she said to Robbie the following day over lunch, “Hey, wanna go to the dance with me on Friday?”
Robbie choked on a potato chip. “The one they’re having here? You really wanna go to that thing?”
“Hell, no. But my mom’s convinced it will help my social skills.”
Robbie let out a long, sympathetic groan. “Sounds like your mom’s been talking to my mom.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me.” Stacey hunkered down in her chair and sulkily nibbled on a carrot stick. “But, anyway, will you go with me or what?”
“Well, when you put it that way … ”
“You think you’re cute and clever,” she sniffed, “but you’re not.”
He grinned at her. “Yeah, I am.”
She grinned back. “No, you’re not.”
Robbie leaned back in the chair of the desk he sat at, wondering what the dance would be like. He didn’t really know how to dance or what he was supposed to do. Were there rules? Did they yell at you if you didn’t dance at all? But maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, especially since Stacey would be there.
Glancing back over at Stacey, he said, “So, like, is this an official date? Do I have to bring flowers?”
“No, no, no, no. This is not a date.” Stacey fixed him with a steely look. “This is just two friends sharing their misery because moms are stupid.”
He couldn’t decide whether he was disappointed or relieved. Both, possibly.
“Great,” said Stacey, with a brisk, businesslike nod. “I’ll pick you up at seven. Or, well, I’ll get my brother to drive me to your house at seven.”
“So … you’re gonna wear a dress for me, right?”
Stacey’s only answer was to start throwing carrot sticks at his head.
However, when she showed up on the Banks’ doorstep that Friday evening, she indeed wore a dress is soft shades of yellow, along with a pair of low-heeled shoes. Robbie raised an eyebrow but dared not say a word. He himself was wearing dress slacks and a white button-up shirt. Catherine had tried, and failed, to get him to put on a tie.
Before they could even say hello to one another, Catherine barged in and ushered them into the living room so that she could take photographs of the happy couple. Alan beamed at them from his station on the sofa. Once Catherine had filled up the memory card on her camera, the two children escaped out the door to Ms. McIntire’s old SUV. Stacey’s older brother, whose name Robbie never could remember, sat behind the wheel. He was a large young man with coloring similar to Stacey’s, and he gave an amiable nod as the two middle-schoolers clambered into the vehicle.
When he dropped them off at the school, he looked at Stacey and winked. “Have fun with your little boyfriend. Be back in a few hours.”
Robbie blushed fiercely, but Stacey just rolled her eyes.
The Middleton Middle School gymnasium was decked out in pink and purple streamers when they arrived. A thirty-something and slightly bald disc jockey was playing dance music and R&B ballads from five years ago. Small clumps of dressed-up students stood around, whispering to one another and looking tremendously ill at ease, while the teachers and parents who were serving as chaperones gathered in a far corner with their paper cups of fruit punch. Absolutely no one was dancing.
Stacey led Robbie over to the refreshment table, and they both got some punch. While sipping their drinks, they crowd-watched a little. Cyndi Pinkerton was hiding near the stands, constantly shifting her weight from one foot to the other and nervously repositioning the straps on her black spaghetti-strap dress. Bill Weaver wandered the perimeter of the gym aimlessly, clad in a tie, sports coat, and faded blue jeans. A gray-suited, hair-gelled Joe Carmichael stood in the middle of a pack of boys, telling jokes.
“Cyndi looks even weirder in a dress than you do,” Robbie observed in a conversational tone. “No offense.”
“Oh, shut up.”
“How much hair gel do you think Joe Carmichael’s wearing? His head is so shiny. And crunchy. Doesn’t it look really crunchy?”
Stacey wrinkled her nose. “I bet it stinks. That much hair product, you know it’s gotta smell like something, and most of the stuff boys use smells awful.”
Robbie finished his punch and crushed the paper cup in his hand. “So, this sucks. A lot. How long is it ’til your brother gets back?”
“Not for at least two hours.” But Stacey was biting her lip, her eyes soft and unfocused under the dim lights of the gym. She was staring across the room. “I think Cyndi’s dress looks nice,” she said.
“I guess. She just never wears dresses in school.”
“So? You never see the guys wearing neckties, either, do you?”
Robbie stared at his friend. “Why are you getting mad?”
“I’m not getting mad,” Stacey hissed. “I just don’t understand why you’re always so mean to Cyndi Pinkerton.”
“Why do you even care? It’s just Cyndi Pinkerton!”
“I don’t! I don’t care!”
It was a long two hours before Stacey’s brother returned with the SUV.
A little under a month after the formal, in early May, an impromptu assembly was held in the same gym. The metal folding chairs were set up in neat, long rows, the trusty podium was erected on a small raised platform, and the scuff marks left behind on the floors by hundreds of pairs of sneakers were mopped up by the janitor. If any of the teachers knew the purpose for the assembly, they weren’t sharing that information with the students. Speculation ran rampant among the middle-schoolers. The most colorful set of theories, proposed by Aisha Richardson in hushed, excited whispers, was that the assembly was to announce the resignation of Principal Carmichael for something deeply scandalous—stealing money from the PTA fundraisers or helping his son Joe cheat on standardized tests or sexually harassing students or parking in the tow-away zone.
It was during what would have been second period that the student body filed into the gym for the assembly. They were chipper since they were missing classes, not to mention eager to learn what this mysterious assembly was about, especially when they saw the mayor sitting in a chair next to the podium. Once they had settled down to only a mild roar, Nick Carmichael stepped up to the podium with the air of a king about to address his subjects. He tapped on the microphone to get the students’ attention.
“Good morning, Middleton Middle,” he greeted them cheerfully.
“Good morning,” the students mumbled in reply.
“Today I have some great news to share with you. If you remember, at the beginning of the school year Mayor Dell told all of you about a national essay contest. Quite a few of you submitted essays—all of which were very well-written—and I had the difficult task of choosing one of those wonderful essays to send on to the state-level contest.” Carmichael paused for dramatic effect. “I chose an essay and, I am pleased to announce, that essay has been selected by the contest’s officials to be the state’s representative in the national competition”
Sitting in a chair in the second to last row, Robbie sucked in his breath. He felt strangely cold. Next to him, fairly vibrating with excitement, Stacey dug her nails into his arm.
Principal Carmichael smiled down upon all his students and continued, “That essay was written by Middleton Middle’s very own sixth-grader—” Mayor Dell quickly stood up and whispered something in Carmichael’s ear. “Excuse me, seventh-grader. Middleton Middle’s very own seventh-grader, Robert Banks.”
The muted echoes of half-hearted applause resounded throughout the gymnasium. Stacey bounced up and down in her seat, clapping enthusiastically. Then Simon Dell stood up again, straightened his necktie, and replaced Nick Carmichael at the podium. He fairly radiated exultation as he stood there before them all under the harsh fluorescent lights.
“Good morning, Middleton Middle!” he began, his booming baritone crackling through the speakers. “As the mayor of Middleton, it is my honor and privilege to present Robert J. Banks with this certificate of achievement and wish him the best of luck at the nationwide competition. Are you out there, Robert?”
Robbie remained in his chair. Stacey nudged him with her elbow, but he ignored her.
“Robert,” whispered Mr. Klein from the row ahead, turning around. He frowned at Robbie and nodded toward the stage.
Pale as wheat, Robbie got up from his seat and walked down the seemingly endless aisle to where the mayor stood holding a framed piece of paper. Mayor Dell handed him the certificate of achievement and gave his hand a firm shake. Robbie looked down at the certificate, looked out at the undistinguished mass of students, looked up at the mayor, and mumbled a dazed “thank you.” Then he fled back to his seat next to Stacey.
Carmichael retook the microphone after Robbie was again seated in the audience and concluded the assembly with a few mundane announcements—longtime science teacher Frank Herbert was retiring at the end of this school year and would be greatly missed, today’s lunch menu was sloppy joes with corn and red fruit gelatin, and there was to be no dawdling in the halls on the students’ way back to their classrooms.
After the students returned to their classes and the podium was put away until the next assembly, only Nick Carmichael and Simon Dell remained in the gym. Carmichael dropped tiredly into one of the metal chairs and waited for Simon to say what he’d been wanting to say all morning. The mayor didn’t disappoint.
“What’s that you said, Nick? About how dumb our students are?” Mayor Dell’s eyes twinkled in a strangely humorless sort of way. “Then—if I remember correctly—you laughed at me when I said we could win the contest. Didn’t you, Nick?”
Nick Carmichael shrugged good-naturedly and grinned. But it was a strained grin.