“Mr. Klein, do you have a son?”
Gerald Klein glanced up from the stack of papers on his desk. Robbie Banks stood before him, hands hanging limply at his sides, ravenous curiosity burning in his face.
“No,” said Klein, gently, with a slight shake of the head, “I haven’t had any children.”
It was another lunchtime. Robbie’s lunch bag sat upon a nearby student desk, and the boy sat down in front of it. Quietly he took out a sandwich and began eating. Klein watched him silently for a few moments before asking, “Any particular reason you asked?”
“No. Not really.”
Not true. Not true, not true, not true. But he didn’t want to push. It was better to let these sorts of things happen organically, in the natural flow of conversation. He let it drop. Robbie opened a bag of potato chips.
“Anyway,” said Gerald Klein, “where’s Stacey today?”
“She’s out sick,” Robbie replied with a mouth full of potato mush, which struck Klein as being charmingly little-boyish. “She has a cold.”
“Too bad. I missed seeing her in English class. She always participates in the discussion groups and has something interesting to offer.”
“Yeah. When she has an opinion, she isn’t shy about sharing it.”
“That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Self-confidence is a good thing, especially when you’re transitioning to a new school and new town.”
Robbie grunted noncommittally.
Mr. Klein stood up, stretched, and wandered over to the microwave and small mini-fridge he kept on a table tucked into the back corner of his classroom. He pulled out some Tupperware with five-day-old leftovers and set it in the microwave. Leaning against the table, waiting for his lunch to reheat, he looked back at Robbie. Robbie had moved on to his carrot sticks.
Klein crossed his arms over his chest, and he contemplated.
“Do you remember when the major came and talked about that essay contest?” he suddenly asked. Robbie looked up, frowning, and he nodded. “I was just wondering whether you were serious about it or not.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I am. Why?”
“I asked because there’s a little something the mayor didn’t mention. The contest organizers are only accepting one essay per school. Principal Carmichael has asked for one essay from each English class.”
Robbie sat up a little straighter. “And you want to give him mine?”
“Well—I want you to write one, since you’re so interested in the contest. I’ll have to see what the other students turn in before I can decide on one to send on to the principal.”
The microwave timer went off, and Klein took his food back to his desk. “So,” he said, in what he hoped was a casual sort of way, “just what is it that makes America the greatest nation on Earth?”
“I don’t know.” Robbie looked confused by the question. “I haven’t really thought about it.”
“Then why do you want to do an entire essay on the topic?”
“Because. I just do.”
Klein leaned his elbows on his desk. He fixed his eyes on his student. “You told the mayor you wanted to do something with the Cold War.”
“Yeah, well. I lied.” Immune to the outrageous nature of this confession, Robbie began to placidly drink his half-pint carton of milk.
Gerald Klein kept looking at his student, patiently, expectantly.
Robbie lowered his head, tucked his chin against his chest. Not meeting the older man’s eyes, he said, “There are things I want to say. There are things running around in my head, things inside of me. And they have to come out somehow. You know what I mean?”
“I think I do. Yes.”
“But I can’t say them. I want to, but then I don’t know what to say. Or I’m too scared to say them. I don’t know. So, anyway, I’m thinking maybe I can write them down. Maybe I can get stuff out that way.”
Klein nodded thoughtfully. “Quite possibly. You know, many excellent writers had a hard time with speaking.”
Robbie only shrugged in a grandiose display of indifference. He still wouldn’t look at his teacher, and his a splotchy flush spread across his face and neck.
Mercifully, Mr. Klein went back to grading papers. He did not speak to Robbie for the rest of lunch. He only watched the boy out of the corner of his eye and wondered what sort of essay Robbie might produce. Then, when the bell rang and Robbie began gathering his things, he said in a quiet voice, as if to himself, “I had a nephew. He wasn’t my son, but we were close. His name was Nathan.”
“He committed suicide.”
“Nobody knows for certain.” Klein did not ask how Robbie knew. “Nathan was alone when he died. But yes, most likely he committed suicide.”
“So am I.”
They shared a look for a moment, then the bell rang, signalling the end of the lunch period. Robbie packed up and left to go to his next class. Gerald Klein leaned back in his chair, closed his tired eyes, and sighed a deep sigh.
Leaving Klein’s classroom, Robbie went through the motions of computer science and pre-algebra. He sat attentively, and he nodded in all the right places, but his mind drifted continually back to the essay contest. The only thing to catch his attention during either class period was when Mrs. Lincoln caught Joe Carmichael trying to look up porn during computer science and sent him to the principal’s office.
Following a blessedly uneventful bus ride, Robbie arrived home and dumped his bookbag and coat in the front hallway. He was surprised to find Catherine in the kitchen, and she smiled as she pushed a plate of cookies toward him.
“Thank you,” he said, although he wasn’t really hungry.
“I decided to take a half-day today,” she explained happily, “and spend some quality time with my little boy. How was school today, sweetie?”
Robbie bit into a cookie. It was soft and warm and oozing chocolate, and he wolfed it down in three bites. “School was fine.”
“Anything interesting happen today?” Catherine prodded.
“Not much.” Robbie grinned. “Except that Joe Carmichael got caught trying to look up porn websites in computer class.”
Catherine frowned. “Joe Carmichael. The principal’s nephew?”
“Yeah. I mean, he’s related to the principal, and he doesn’t know that the school’s got all the porn sites blocked? He’s such an idiot.”
“Robbie. That wasn’t nice.”
“But it’s true.”
Catherine frowned severely. Her light blue eyes grew darker, and her thin lips nearly disappeared, swallowed up, as she pursed them.
“That wasn’t nice,” she repeated quietly, emphasizing each word. “It isn’t nice of you to make fun of others. It makes you look like you weren’t brought up right, like you weren’t brought up to respect others, which we both know isn’t true.”
Robbie hung his head. He started at the plate of cookies. He really wasn’t very hungry.
“I don’t want you saying mean things about that boy anymore. Do you understand?”
Catherine went to wash the bowls and pan in the sink, and Robbie left behind the cookies and the kitchen. He returned to the hall, picked up his coat and backpack, and carried them to his bedroom.
It was near to seven when the front door slammed open. Robbie shut his math book and peeked out into the hall. Alan was home. Catherine was waiting for him in the hallway, and Alan gave her a tired smile.
“Hi, honey. How was your day? Mine was hell. I had this ancient hunk of junk at the shop that needed a whole new motherboard, new memory, the works, and I had to—”
“Alan, where have you been? It’s almost seven o’clock.”
Alan’s smile froze in place. “I just told you.”
“You were at the shop until just now?” There was a calm yet savage fury in Catherine’s voice. Her entire body practically vibrated. “You didn’t stop anywhere on the way home?”
“Well.” Alan shifted his weight. “I did stop by the Weavers’. Teri asked if I could help do some troubleshooting on their entertainment center set-up.”
“I’m sure Teri did,” said Catherine. “Meanwhile, your son and I have been sitting here, waiting patiently for you to finally show up so we can have some dinner.”
Alan ran a thick-fingered hand through the wispy strands of sandy-colored hair on top of his head. The hairs stood straight up afterwards, creating something of an impression of a ridiculous, oversized rooster. “Look,” he said, “I can run out right now, grab a pizza or something. It’s not a big deal, Catherine.”
“No, no. You’re here now. I’ll make dinner.”
Quietly Robbie stepped back into his bedroom and shut the bedroom door. He didn’t care about dinner. He still wasn’t hungry.
While his parents’ voices drifted away, Robbie pulled out the essay contest paper that had been distributed the day the mayor had visited school. The crisp whiteness of the page beckoned to him. To win, to triumph, to go see to Washington, D.C. To get out of Middleton, if only for a little while. His parents’ voices suddenly grew louder, sharper, and Robbie heard his mother say something about his father’s “damned irresponsibility.”
Robbie Banks knew what he would write his essay on.