Read an Excerpt
From Part One
Without fail they arrive every year. Dozens of men in black suits unfurl themselves from white panel vans parked in front of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Grade School. The mornings they arrive are usually overcast, sometimes rainy typical fall weather for this southwest Chicago suburb. There are five men to a van, and each man carries a heavy box into the school. Together, they wait in the lobby for the principal to greet them. These men are test administrators sent by the United States government, and they will spend the entire day here, distributing thick booklets and then, every half-hour or hour, imparting new information for yet another test. These tests, which will be evaluated at secret locations across the nation, will reveal critical information about the education of our country's children. How, for instance, does one state stack up against another state? How do entire regions of the country compare to other regions? How are our country's children doing this year compared to four years ago? This test is America's Report Card a massive, ongoing project that costs millions, if not billions, of dollars. What's at stake is the nation's future.
And this is exactly what Jainey O'Sullivan's third-grade teacher, Mrs. Rutkowski, has told her students: that if they don't do well on the test, the Russians will take over, and if not the Russians, then the Chinese. If they think life is tough now, just wait until the Chinese take over. When the Chinese take over, Mrs. Rutkowski says, there will be no more Art class, no more Music, nothing fun, and all of the boys will have to join the Army. "No more cheeseburgers," she says. "No more pizza." Furthermore, they will no longer be allowed to speak English. They will have to learn a new language or suffer the consequences. Have they ever heard Chinese or Russian spoken? It's no cakewalk, she tells them. It's no day in the park.
Jainey sits quietly at her desk, ten perfectly sharpened Number 2 pencils lined before her. Her palms are as moist as her tongue. Jainey watches a lot of reruns on TV with her father, and the men who come to her school remind her of the men on Dragnet. This year, the man assigned to her classroom, who looks like the man who came to her second-grade classroom last year (and who could very well be the same man, for all Jainey knows), heaves his heavy box onto Mrs. Rutkowski's desk. He tells the students that they should relax, that there are no winners or losers, but how can Jainey relax, knowing that if she gives the wrong answer, the Russians or the Chinese will bomb the country and take over? Furthermore, the man in the black suit doesn't look relaxed himself. Beads of sweat appear on his forehead, and Jainey can smell his sour breath each time he walks by.
Jainey is a good student not the best student but better than most so why is it that she doesn't understand most of the questions on the test? The reading passages are too long to read within the time permitted. The questions for each reading passage are even more troublesome. Often, every answer seems to be right. For other questions, none of the answers appears correct. She can't remember if leaving the answer blank is better than filling in a bubble for something she clearly doesn't know. The Math test is even harder. Nothing looks familiar except for the numbers themselves. Why are there tiny numbers sitting on the shoulders of larger numbers? Why are there letters where there should be numbers? Jainey is so angry at her Math teacher for not teaching her what she needs to know that she breaks the tip of her pencil while filling in one of the bubbles.
Not until near the end of the day does she realize that she made a mistake early in the morning and has been filling in the wrong bubbles throughout the test. For question number eight, she has filled in bubble number nine. For question number nine, bubble number ten. For ten, eleven. For eleven, twelve. And so on. By now, only thirty minutes before the end of the school day, she has incorrectly filled in hundreds of bubbles.
Jainey tries erasing her filled-in bubbles, but she realizes that this is a futile task, that this would mean retaking the entire test, which she began at eight-thirty this morning. She flips through the thick booklet, turning back to tests that she has been warned not to look at anymore. She needs to look at those sections, though, to see where she made her first mistake. Where? Where? The pressure inside her head builds, as if her eyes are being gently squeezed between forefingers and thumbs, but she manages to keep most of her tears at bay. Still, her vision blurs over, and her ability to concentrate surges, going in and out, everything swirling, a sensation not unlike being tossed head-first into the deep end of a pool on a moonless night.
She is not sure when they came over, but here they are, Mrs. Rutkowski and the test administrator, both staring down at her. Jainey's hands are smeared with lead. Her test booklet is open to the first test. Half of her pencils are on the floor. But all Jainey can think about are the Russians and Chinese, bombs whistling down from warplanes, life as she's known it coming to an end, everything new and awful about to begin, and all of it is her fault.
After finishing his master's degree, Charlie Wolf decided to remain in Iowa. Why not? He had no job, no prospects, nothing lined up. It wasn't uncommon in university towns to find such people students or visiting professors who arrive for what should be a finite period of time but then stay on an extra year, an extra two years, sometimes never leaving at all. Often, these were the same people who, upon their arrival from New York or San Francisco, found the locals too provincial, the selections of restaurants and bookstores frighteningly limited, the landscape flat, depressingly spare. But then something would happen. They'd fall into the rhythms of life in a small prairie town, slowly warming to it all, only to wake up one day and realize that fifteen years had come and gone, and here they still were: Iowa! Of all places!
Well, Charlie wasn't going to be one of them he wouldn't be here fifteen years from now but what was wrong with hanging out for a year? Or two? Besides, his girlfriend didn't have any plans, either. They could get part-time jobs. They could continue spending lazy afternoons on the couch watching B movies. They could do what they did best loaf. It would be a much-needed break a break from everything before diving back into the uncertain murk and sludge of real life. And what was wrong with that? At twenty-three years old, their entire lives were ahead of them.
Iowa City was a town full of large, drafty turn-of-the-century houses, and Charlie lived in a rambling Victorian that had been divided into twelve apartments. You could rent a room barely large enough for a futon and a coffee table, or you could rent a three-bedroom with bay windows and a roaring fireplace surrounded by a marble mantle. Charlie's apartment fell somewhere in between one bedroom but no fireplace, a small kitchen but no dishwasher, a claw-footed tub but no shower. He liked its shoddy charm, the pocked hardwood floors, the spiderwebbed cracks along the ceiling, the way the faucets creaked when he turned them on or off. It was exactly how he'd fantasized life would be in graduate school, a kind of shambling, just-above-the-poverty-line existence, a world where the life of the mind overshadowed everything else.
And Petra was exactly the sort of girlfriend he'd always hoped for. Some days he wondered if he had conjured her out of the muggy Iowa air, this pale, dark-haired daughter of Russian immigrants, this feisty and beautiful young woman who could quote Gorky without blinking, but who also knew verbatim entire episodes of Hogan's Heroes, who at parties smoked cigars and drank vodka straight from the bottle, glug-glugging two or three shots' worth, who had taught Charlie a thing or two in bed ("No, no, twist your hip to the right and put your left foot right there, yes, right there!"), and who, wearing her father's tall fur cap, the kind of cap that Siberian soldiers wear, inspired everyone in a bar or a restaurant or a movie theater to turn and smile, an entire room full of men and women falling instantly in love with this girl they'd never before seen. Petra Petrovich. It was as though she'd stepped from the pages of a thick Signet-edition classic, a Russian character in full bloom, smelling of cold, frosty air and, faintly, of brittle pages from a mildewing book. Petra Petrovich. He whispered her name into her ear, over and over, and on those nights she didn't spend with him, he whispered her name alone, again and again, until he fell headlong into the knotted fist of his own unconsciousness, into a sleep so strange and woolly, he often woke up sweating and out of breath, the too-bright sun punching through the mini-blinds, the new day already begun.
Jainey O'Sullivan, seventeen years old and a senior at Reavis High School in the southwest Chicago suburb of Burbank, had been hearing about America's Report Card all year long, but what her teachers failed to understand was that none of her classmates gave two shits about the test. There was too much else going on in everyone's lives right now. In the past few years alone, Jainey's body had gotten hairier, she'd grown nearly a foot taller, her voice became weirder, more cartoonish, she was having to buy, along with her boxes of tampons, condoms at Walgreen's from the old guy with liver-spotted hands and a huge spongy nose, her shoes never fit anymore, she dyed her hair new colors, like purple and green, her body gave off odors that were sometimes interestingly foreign and sometimes outright revolting, pimples appeared on her face like thugs crouching in a dark alley, jumping out of nowhere and scaring the piss right out of her, her navel seemed eerily deeper as of late, she possessed too many creepy facts, like how many square feet of skin covered her body, she was no longer sure what she thought about God, she pierced herself places no one could see unless she took off her clothes, boys wanted to fuck her and she sometimes wanted to fuck them, she had started experimenting on herself with the handle of her hairbrush (whoa!), she knew the quadratic formula by heart but had no idea what the hell it meant or what it could be used for, and terrorists suspected terrorists, she reminded herself were not infrequently arrested at the 7-Eleven around the corner from her house. She had all of these new things to contend with, and more. The world as she knew it, the planet from which she couldn't escape, was splitting at the seams. So why the hell should she care about some stupid test? Why? She didn't care that was the problem and so she came to a clear and definitive decision on her own. She would quit going to school. She had been a good student, a model student, so who could possibly blame her for slipping up with only a month to go before graduation? No one, she thought. That's who.
On the first official day of her truancy, Jainey tooled around Burbank in her brother's piece of shit car. She called it the Turd. The tires were bald. The rearview mirror hung from the windshield like a limp wrist. The cloth interior drooped onto her head. There were so many speckles of rust on its body, the car looked as though it might be harboring some contagious disease. But the Turd still ran, so Jainey couldn't complain.
When Jainey finally came home, it was well after midnight. She padded softly through the dark house and, after touch-feeling her way into the kitchen, flipped on the light. There sat Ned, her brother, holding a penlight in one hand, a spoon full of Cheerios in the other. A thick book with gold-leaf edges lay open next to his cereal bowl.
Jainey's heart pounded so hard, she could hear the whoosh and thump of blood against her eardrums, but she tried acting nonchalant. She cleared her throat and said, "Mom's car is taking up too much of the driveway, so I parked the Turd on the street."
Ned lowered the spoon back into his cereal bowl. "You parked a what on the street?"
And then Jainey remembered that she hadn't told her brother she'd given his car a nickname, let alone started driving it. Ned was six years older than Jainey and lived in the attic. He never left the house anymore; in fact, he rarely emerged from his upstairs lair. Entire months slipped by without Jainey even laying eyes on him, and only when she heard groans of heavy metal music pulsing through the air ducts did she think, Oh yeah: he still lives here.
"What're you reading?" Jainey asked. "Looks like the frickin' Bible or something."
"It is the Bible," Ned said. "So what." He stared at her, his eyes milky from the low-grade fever he always complained about. He blinked a few times. He pointed to a letter on the table. "Mail," he said.
Jainey never got mail, nothing, not even junk mail. Dubiously, she tore it open. "Dear Jainey," it began.
I'm giving away some of my things, and I'd like for you to come over Friday night to see if there's anything you want. I hope this finds you in good spirits. Yours, Mrs. Grant.
Mrs. Grant had been Jainey's grade school art teacher, the only teacher ever to encourage Jainey to pursue anything. Jainey had had a knack for drawing, and Mrs. Grant had instantly recognized it. "If you have a talent, you need to do something with it," Mrs. Grant had said, and Jainey did. In fact, Jainey had recently begun a new comic strip her best yet called Lloyd the Freakazoid. Lloyd had bulging eyes and a tongue too big for his mouth. He groped girls half his age and drank vodka straight from a bottle. He yelled inappropriate things in public like, "Hubba-hubba!" and "Mama mia!" and his fly was never zipped. Each comic strip had its own subtitle, such as "Lloyd Rides a Girl's Bike for the First Time," or "Lloyd Discovers a Salt Lick."
It was in Mrs. Grant's class in the seventh grade that Jainey came to the conclusion that there existed two versions of every person: the real version and the cartoon version. Whenever she met someone, she pictured their cartoon version, and then she imagined what the cartoon version would say and do. With only one exception, the cartoon version was always more interesting than the real person. That exception was Mrs. Grant.
Jainey tucked the letter into her back pocket, filched a granola bar, and walked out of the kitchen.
"The light!" Ned yelled. "Turn off the light!"
Jainey, already halfway up the stairs, pretended not to hear.
The day before graduation, as the town bloated with parents bearing gifts, Charlie received a phone call.
"Charlie Wolf?" a man said.
"Is this a solicitation?" Charlie asked, prepared to hang up.
The man laughed. "Oh, Christ, no," he said and then cleared his throat. "I mean, no." There was a pause. Then, "Actually, it's an opportunity. I'm calling on behalf of National Testing Center."
National Testing Center. Anyone who'd ever attended school had taken a standardized test that had been either created or evaluated by National Testing Center. Iowa City was their headquarters.
"And?" Charlie said.
"I see here that you're graduating."
"That's right," Charlie said coldly.
"Well then," the man said, "as you probably know, we do a lot of hiring this time of year. It looks here like you'd be a perfect fit for us. We could use someone with your educational background to help us score tests this season."
"What are you looking at?" Charlie asked.
"You said, 'It looks here . . .'"
"Ah-ha, you caught me. Nothing gets past you, does it?" He coughed into the mouthpiece an explosion of phlegm and technology. "I'm not looking at anything, really. Just a list of graduates. Fresh meat," he added and laughed again.
Charlie politely explained to the man that while he had other plans for the summer, he appreciated the call.
"Do you mind if I ask you just one more thing, Charlie Wolf?" the man said.
Charlie hung up. He walked over to the bay window in his living room. The streets were lined with everything the departing students didn't want anymore frayed couches, useless computer parts, curling irons, answering machines. Someone had stabbed a beanbag chair with a kitchen knife. The knife was still in it, pushed all the way to the hilt. The beanbag chair was concave at the point of impact, the way a man's stomach might give in under similar circumstances.
Charlie decided to go for a walk. He loved this time of year. There was no telling what he might see when he rounded a corner. For a few days, the city would be full of surprises, shopping bags begging to be dug through, boxes demanding to be searched. It was as though Christmas had arrived over seven months early. It was that much fun.
On the day after the graduation ceremony that neither of them attended, Petra Petrovich walked into Charlie Wolf's apartment with the gusto of a protagonist. It was May, but the temperature had dropped significantly, and the wind, clipping powerfully through town, rattled the Victorian's old bones. Petra, out of breath from battling the elements, shut the door behind her. She smiled and said, "Now what?"
"Now what what?"
"Our lives," Petra said. "Now what?"
"Do you want a pot pie?" Charlie asked.
Pot pie was code: it took about as long for a pot pie to cook as it did for them, on average, to have sex. Like most things, they had discovered this by accident, and so now, whenever Charlie asked if she wanted a pot pie, he meant it both literally and figuratively.
He took two Banquet turkey pot pies from his freezer, and while he moved through the motions of preparing them sawing a slit across the frozen crust, locating a clean cookie sheet to place them upon Petra unbuttoned her blouse, then reached behind her to unclasp her bra. It was this precise image (hands behind back, elbows pointing away from the body) that always succeeded in getting Charlie worked up, more so than the final revelation of flesh. For Charlie and he couldn't say why the anticipation of flesh, especially that split second before the actual revelation, did something profound to his inner chemistry. Such moments took him straight to the boiling point. The same held true when Petra stripped down to nothing but her panties with her thumbs hooked into the elastic and beginning to push down, but only after she'd pushed them down an inch, two inches at the most, and then Charlie's heart would start to thump, his lungs suddenly a poor organ for holding air. Sometimes he yelled, "Wait! Hold that!" and Petra would stand there impatiently. Once, she simply mooned him.
Today, by the time he'd slid the pot pies into the oven, Petra was already naked, everything off and piled on the floor, except for her socks. She liked keeping her socks on. This was about as decadent a life as Charlie could have hoped for, and he was grateful for it. He knew that his parents would never have spent their early afternoons doing anything like this, and so Charlie felt a degree of satisfaction that, in the long history of his own genealogy, the general trajectory of his sex life was heading in the right direction.
"Where do you want to go?" he asked, using his right foot to remove his left shoe.
Petra patted the kitchen table.
"Here?" Charlie asked. "Really?"
"Okay," Charlie said. "The table it is! But let me move the salt and pepper. And these bills," he said. "Let me get them out of the way. Oh, and the napkins . . ."
"Charlie," Petra said. "Stop it." She hoisted herself up onto the table. "Come here," she said. "Come here, and stop worrying." She was a lovely sight wearing only socks. How could Charlie possibly disobey?
After sex, Petra always did the same thing. She paced in front of Charlie's bookcases, head tilted sideways, silently reading the books' titles. Charlie could never decide if she read the titles critically, as if his selection of books, his taste, indicated the likelihood of their staying together, or if she was simply passing the time. Occasionally, Petra pulled a book from the shelf, turned it over, read the back cover, then returned it, pressing the spine flush with the others. Usually, she wore one of Charlie's button-downs and nothing else while doing this, but today she had put her clothes back on.
"Those pot pies aren't burning, are they?" she asked.
"Two more minutes," Charlie said.
Pot pies. Charlie had numerous eating idiosyncrasies, and when it came to pot pies, he had a ritual from which he never strayed. First, using a butter knife, he lopped off the entire top crust and then broke it into four equal sections. Next, he dipped each section into the pie's broth and ate the crust down to its burnt edges, which he set aside. Then came the innards, the broth and chicken and carrots, all of which he ate with a tablespoon, but only after fishing out the peas, setting each one next to the pile of burnt edges. The best part was the soft bottom crust, the crust that was shaped like the aluminum pie pan itself, and this he rolled up into a ball and, holding it as he would a sandwich, devoured it in three quick bites.
He knew that Petra watched him while he ate, the way an anthropologist, attempting to learn about an aboriginal culture, kept a watchful eye on her subject in order to write down the subject's behaviors later. Petra herself had no rituals when she ate. She dug in with a fork or spoon it didn't matter which and she ate until it was gone. For Petra, food was food.
"Okay," Charlie said after he'd collected the burnt edges and the peas, put them back into the empty aluminum bowl, and crumpled it closed. "Here's what I'm thinking." Charlie shook open a copy of the local newspaper and held it toward her, clasping it at the top with his index fingers and thumbs, like a magician about to perform a trick.
"What's this?" Petra asked, squinting.
"The classifieds," Charlie said. "Look!" He reached around, pointing to an advertisement.
SCORERS WANTED !!!
National Testing Center
Seeks college graduates
To score standardized tests
For national project.
Employment Fair: May 5
Across the street
From the Hy-Vee on Hawthorne
"Scoring?" Petra sounded unimpressed. This was precisely what Charlie loved about her: the ice-blue Siberian blood flowing through her veins. "What about your big summer plans?"
Petra said, "Running for city council? Doing something big?"
"Oh. That," Charlie said and snorted. "I was just talking."
"Talking?" Petra asked. "You didn't mean any of it?"
Charlie set the paper aside. For a good year, presidential candidates had flown in and out of Iowa, sharpening their stump speeches, either rising or falling in the polls. Iowa was the first place they had to prove themselves in the primaries, and so every week Charlie and Petra met up somewhere on campus to watch presidential hopefuls deliver their messages. The rallies were infectious. For a brief period, Charlie and Petra had thrown all their energies into grassroots campaigns for the Democrats. Charlie had even started feeling the itch to get involved in a more serious way on the local level, to participate in that noblest of community services politics.
One night, Charlie and Petra attended a meeting in the basement of what had once been a lodge. Moose? Elk? The lights were so dim, Charlie couldn't identify the animal on the wall.
"What is that?" Charlie whispered to Petra.
"Looks like a rat," she whispered in return. She squinted at it. "With horns," she added.
"Maybe this isn't the right place," Charlie said, but he had no sooner spoken when a man wearing a "Save Democracy" T-shirt approached them. He was in his fifties and looked like a former drug-addled veteran who'd long since cleaned up his act. He was holding a bottle of Evian in his left hand, a clipboard in his right.
"Bosco," he said by way of introduction. "Welcome to the Soldiers of Democracy. Local Chapter 4141. I'm Chapter President." After tucking the clipboard under his arm and pumping their respective hands, he led Charlie and Petra to another room an antechamber full of people engaged in passionate conversations. In the center of the room there hung a piñata in the image of George W. Bush. A blindfolded man with a small bat swung wildly at it. Every time he missed, he yelled, "Fuck! Fuck! Where are you, you son of a bitch?"
A woman with dark, intense eyes appeared from behind Charlie and Petra, draping her arms over their shoulders and saying, "Welcome! Welcome!" Her name was Lola "Like the song," she said and she introduced them around. Soon, Charlie and Petra had fallen into one of the many discussions, and Charlie surprised himself at how much he had to say, how articulate he was, how each and every political scenario he presented to the group came to him in perfect clarity. He made hammering motions with the side of his fist when he spoke; he used his splayed fingers to good effect when expressing concern over the current political situation.
"Wow," he overheard Lola saying. "Look at him. He's a natural."
"And such a nice ass," the woman next to her said.
Petra, who must have overheard the women, nudged Charlie with her elbow.
Later that night, Charlie, blindfolded, hit the George W. Bush piñata with enough force to split him open. He lifted his blindfold in time to watch Bush's innards come tumbling out: hundreds of photos, each one of a U.S. soldier. They were fresh-faced and serious, and most of them were young. On the backs of the photos were the dates they were killed. K.I.A. June 6, 2003. K.I.A. January 17, 2004. Charlie's heart literally ached at the sight of the fallen soldiers surrounding his feet.
On their way out, Petra paused in front of a mirror to fix her hair. Charlie, suspecting that it was a two-way mirror, leaned toward the glass. Sure enough, a man on the other side was leaning toward him, peering into Charlie's eyes.
"Ah!" Charlie said and jumped back.
"Nothing. Let's go."
It was daylight when he and Petra finally emerged from the building. A few people were already heading to work. Petra, grinning, rested her palm on Charlie's back. Charlie didn't say a word on the way to his apartment. Something magical had taken place in the basement of the lodge, and he didn't want to spoil it.
For a while, it had seemed that Charlie and Petra were going to abandon their studies altogether. Something had to be done to stop George W. Bush from winning, and it was their duty as Americans who loved their country to participate in the political process. They talked about driving to small towns nearby Solon or Hills and going door to door, outlining Bush's disastrous policies and ill-chosen war. They rehearsed what they would say. But then a man named Howard Dean, the Democratic front-runner, squealed like a stuck pig during one of the Iowa rallies, and that was the beginning of the end: the image of Dean squealing was replayed a few million times, and by the next day, no one took him seriously anymore. It was as though a man with a big cigar had walked up to a child with a balloon and popped it with the cigar's red-hot tip. The circus was over. And that's what it all had been, hadn't it? One big circus. Charlie and Petra returned to their studies, shifting their energies toward finishing their master's theses. Neither brought up Charlie's summer political plans until today. But who had Charlie been fooling? He wasn't a politician. He barely cut it as a film major.
Charlie decided not to tell Petra about the phone call from NTC. He wanted her to think this had been solely his idea a calculated plan, an adventure. "Don't you see the beauty of scoring standardized tests? It's a stupid job. That's what we want for the year, isn't it? Something stupid? Something we really won't need to think about? Something we won't bring home with us at night?"
"Petra Petrovich. Professional Scorer."
"Exactly!" Charlie said. "And we won't be alone. It's what everyone in this town does when they stick around after graduation."
"That," Petra said, "is what I'm afraid of."
Copyright ©2006 by John McNally