Cross-legged, engulfed in the oversized cushions of a library chair, Robbie Banks sat with a notebook in his lap and a pen in his hand. He was attempting to draft a good opening line for his essay. Mostly he was failing.
Alan had dropped him off at the town library about an hour ago, on this bleak Sunday afternoon, and was due to pick him up in about another hour. Alan had been concerned that this would be too long to be left there, but Robbie had assured his father that he required this much time to work on his school project. As of yet, he had not even thought of beginning the project.
He checked his watch. Cyndi Pinkerton was supposed to arrive soon, to work on their science project. Mr. Herbert had assigned him Cyndi—it had not been a choice. Robbie wondered, with little curiosity and even less concern, whether Cyndi would actually show up. Although she was notoriously scrupulous about her schoolwork, she also had made no efforts to hide how she felt about Robbie’s own work ethic. She would probably choose to do the project on her own time so that his supposed inadequacy would not contaminate it. But even as he was thinking this, Cyndi Pinkerton walked through the library’s double doors with a large bookbag slung over her shoulder.
“Hello,” she said. Her voice held the neutral tone of one about to undertake some distasteful yet necessary task. “What’s that?”
He took his notebook and shoved it into his backpack. “Just some paper. I was doing some writing, you know, just to pass time until you came.”
She threw her bag in the chair next to him and raised her eyebrows. “You should have been doing research already. Before I arrived.” She looked down at him. “Honestly, do I have to do this whole project myself?”
“No, you don’t,” he replied hotly, “because I’ve already done my share. I didn’t even have to come here today—it’s the weekend.”
“So you could have gotten someone like Joe Carmichael to work with, instead. How would you have liked that? He can barely spell his name.”
She turned away from Robbie, replying in a still-neutral voice, “At least he wouldn’t have spent the whole project arguing with me.”
They spent the next hour looking up information on invertebrates. It was incredibly boring. Robbie could not help asking himself why any of it mattered. Clams. Worms. Sponges. Who cared? None of it seemed to bear any relation to anything important in life: good, evil, love, thought, emotion. How was studying a sponge supposed to bring him closer to the realization of truth and beauty?
Finally, exasperated beyond the point of self-control, he muttered to himself, “What’s the point?”
Cyndi Pinkerton smiled slightly. “Some really fascinating research on pain is being done with worms. Medicine, and all other kinds of scientific stuff, comes out of this. Did you know, penicillin was discovered when a piece of bread was left out and got moldy?”
“No. I didn’t know that.”
Cyndi looked at him with something other than contempt. She looked at him with pity. “Your problem,” she said, “is that you don’t appreciate anything outside just one or two things. I love science, and science is my favorite class, but I can still appreciate a nice poem or a pretty painting, you know.”
For the remainder of the time Cyndi was at the library, Robbie stewed at his table, pouring over the invertebrate biology books and telling himself that a worm was nothing like a poem.
Then Cyndi left, finally, and he was left alone with his notebook and his pen. His father picked him up after that and drove him home. The Banks family ate a dinner of chicken with mashed potatoes and green beans, Robbie showered, and they all retired to their bedrooms at nine o’clock. Robbie stayed up to finish the homework he should have done Friday night, Catherine read a romance novel in bed, and Alan clipped his toenails.
The next day, during lunch, Robbie asked Mr. Klein whether he knew that penicillin was discovered when a piece of bread was left out and developed mold.
Klein laughed in surprise. “I did know that, actually,” he answered with an avuncular smile. “Did Mr. Herbert teach you that in class?”
“Oh … no. I just heard it from somewhere.”
Stacey burst forth with an impatient sigh. “So, are you going to tell Mr. Klein about your essay, or aren’t you?”
Stacey kicked him under the table they were seated at. “Don’t be a jerk. You know what I’m talking about.”
Robbie scowled and reached down to rub his shin. “Well, teachers always tell you to write about what you know,” he began, “so I’m going to write about Middleton.”
“Middleton!” said Stacey, brows furrowing intensely.
“Well, what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing,” cut in Mr. Klein before Stacey could. “I think that’s a wonderful topic.”
Robbie set down his sandwich. He looked at Stacey and then Mr. Klein. “I’m going to write about Middleton. I’m going to write about Mayor Dell and about Middleton Middle School and about Reverend Hillbilly and about everything.”
“You mean Hickory,” Klein corrected gently.
“No, I don’t! For once I’m gonna mean what I say. Or say what I mean.” For a brief moment, the boy looked confused, but after a resolute shake of the head, he continued, “And, you know what else? Nobody’s going to want to read my essay, and it’s never going to win, but I don’t care. Because it’ll be true—it’ll all be true, and that’s the only thing that matters.”
Infected by Robbie’s excitement, Stacey leaned forward, resting most of her weight on her forearms, her eyes shining and alert. “You know what you should write about? Women’s magazines. I mean, you ever read one of those? They’re all the same. You’ve got articles about make-up and losing weight and doing up your hair, all that useless crap that’s just to attract guys.”
“But they sell. People read them.” Robbie added, as an afterthought, “Shakespeare doesn’t sell.”
“My mom shows me those stupid magazines all the time. ‘Oh, wouldn’t your hair look so cute if you did it this way? You could be so pretty if you wore make-up like this.’” Stacey’s pale face darkened. “God, I hate those magazines. All they do is make you feel bad because you don’t look just the women in the pictures.”
“You know what I hate?” asked Robbie, not pausing before launching into the answer to his own question: “All those stupid sitcoms with laugh tracks. Most of them aren’t even funny. That’s why they have to tell you the parts you’re supposed to laugh at. But my dad laughs at them anyway, really loudly, too. Like it’s the funniest thing in the world.”
“And what about love songs?”
“Baby, I’ll love you forever.”
“Baby, I can’t say anything I love about you except you’re really pretty.”
Robbie slapped his hand down on the desk. “And school!”
“Yeah, yeah—and school. Sit down, and shut up.”
“Do as I say.”
“Not as I do.”
“Just do the worksheets. Don’t ask why it’s important. Don’t ask anything.”
“Yeah, and then there’s—”
The bell rang. Lunch was over.
Stacey and Robbie glanced at one another, startled. Their faces were flushed, as if some kind of exorcism had just been performed, and they both panted slightly.
Gerald Klein ran a hand through his hair. Letting out his breath in a long, slow sigh, he watched his students throw away their brown lunch bags and pick up their school books.
“But, seriously,” he said, “how do you really feel?”