The Real Questionby Adrian Fogelin
For Fisher Brown, bearing the responsibility for the well-being and happiness of the people around him is a heavy burden. Under the strict supervision of his high school counselor father, he is jockeying for position at the top of his high school class. It's a challenging role, and one he has doubts about. So when Fisher meets Lonnie Traynor, whose rootless,
For Fisher Brown, bearing the responsibility for the well-being and happiness of the people around him is a heavy burden. Under the strict supervision of his high school counselor father, he is jockeying for position at the top of his high school class. It's a challenging role, and one he has doubts about. So when Fisher meets Lonnie Traynor, whose rootless, carefree existence is so markedly different from his own, he is drawn to his take-life-as-it-comes attitude. Lonnie easily cons him into accompanying him on a weekend outing that turns into an extended road trip. But Lonnie's footloose ways reveal a troubled man with a long history of letting down the people he loves. As Fisher becomes an unwitting participant in Lonnie's hapless adventure, he begins to rethink what it means to be responsible for other people.
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The Real Question
By Adrian Fogelin
PeachtreeCopyright © 2006 Adrian Fogelin
All rights reserved.
One second ago the brain was multitasking up a storm—processing questions, accessing formulas, monitoring the clock—not to mention calculating my chances of beating out the usual competition, Hofstra and Raleigh. The brain put away the easy questions first, standard procedure when test questions are equally weighted.
After a quick scan it passed on number three: old material. Leave it to Millikan to pull something from a couple of units back. Plus, it looked complex—not killer, but time consuming—lots of conversions.
Now I've finished the others and I'm back, staring at number three, my fist choking the pencil: A sample of dry gas weighing 2.1025 g is found to occupy 2.850 L at 82.0 degrees Fahrenheit and 740.0 mm Hg. How many moles of the gas are present? Time to dust off the old ideal gas law: PV = nRT. Millikan calls it "pivnert." But when I get to the conversions, I've got nothing. The value for R? The conversion to Kelvin? The brain can't shake the information loose. All I have is Millikan's stupid "pivnert." Pivnert ... pivnert ... the brain sputters. It's like facing the blue screen of death when your CPU dies—a complete brain crash.
I back up, read the problem again, but this time the words fail to register; is this thing even written in English?
I cross-check the one above it, the one below, problems I burned through minutes ago. Suddenly, they don't make sense either. What the hell is happening?
I knew all this crap last night. I knew it at five this morning. All those hours chained to my desk? I know this stuff. Why can't I access it?
Pencils scratch paper—no one else is having a problem. While the doom clock over Millikan's desk obliterates the final minutes, I wipe my sweaty palms on my jeans and try to breathe; all of a sudden it's hard.
God, I'm having a stroke!
Can a person have a stroke at sixteen?
I don't think so, not unless they're shooting hoops and have a bad heart valve or something.
Maybe I'm the first: Honors Student Strokes Out in Chemistry Exam.
Concentrate. Got to concentrate. As I stare at the question, my field of vision shrinks. Words break down to letters. I'm seeping through the spaces between them.
Hofstra shifts in the chair behind mine. His pencil hits the desk. He's done. One through twenty-five, inclusive—done.
From further down the row I hear a chair creak. Crap! Raleigh's done too.
Thirty seconds left. But now the letters are disintegrating, becoming quivering molecules of ink on paper. The pencil slips in my sweaty hand.
"Time," barks Millikan. "Pass your exams forward."
Hofstra flaps a stack of papers against my back. I take the tests, add mine, and pass them up; the stack moves along like some small hapless mammal being ingested by a snake.
We've got three minutes to kill before the bell. Millikan has no mercy. He could have given us those three minutes. It might have come back to me.
But when I close my eyes I see those ink molecules uncoupling, devolving into their constituent atoms. I'm scaring the shit out of myself.
All around the room the complaining begins. "Man, that sucked!" "Yeah, big time."
"How'd you guys do?" Raleigh's voice. The test isn't cold yet and Raleigh's checking the competition. "Fisher?"
"I tanked on number three."
"One wrong is still a 96. How about the other twenty-four?"
"Think I did okay." Under my desk I press two fingers against my wrist. I usually have to run miles to make my pulse surge like this.
"Hofstra?" Raleigh asks.
Behind me I hear a dull thud. "I am so dead," Hofstra groans.
When I turn, his forehead is on the desk, the top vertebra in his neck sticking up.
Raleigh detects blood in the water. "Number three elude you too?" He hops up and squats on his chair.
"Three ... four ... five ..." Hofstra slams his head repeatedly, ramming the desk forward with each head bang. "Basically, all of them."
"No lie! All?" Even Raleigh's frizzy hair seems to perk up. "Define all."
"One through twenty-five. All. I totally zoned."
"Twenty-five percent of the final grade!" Raleigh crows.
"Quit gloating," I say quietly, watching him grin like a malevolent elf.
"Who's gloating?" he asks, still wearing his triumph like a Hawaiian shirt. "Okay, okay. I am. But think about it. A slide by Hofstra could affect the world order. I could move up. You could move up."
Hofstra mumbles something into the desktop.
"Quit talking to the desk," advises Raleigh.
Hofstra rotates his neck just enough so his forehead is no longer in contact with wood. "Consider the Just Man." Leave it to Hofstra to bring in one of the Great Dead Ones. "According to Socrates, the Just Man wants only to best the Unjust Man," he explains to Raleigh, who, perhaps wisely, has steered clear of Classics. "The Unjust Man wants to beat the crap out of everybody."
Raleigh shrugs. "There's a little bit of the Unjust Man in all of us, right, Fisher?"
Under cover of the ringing bell I ask, "Are you okay, Hofstra?" Unlike Raleigh, who is 95 percent petty annoyance, Hofstra's a friend.
"I'm fine." He throws his big, bony hands open. "It's no big deal, okay?"
"Only life or death," Raleigh points out as he follows us into the hall. "Among the three of us we have next year's valedictorian, salutatorian, and one guy who's going to wish he'd tried just a little harder. That lucky guy could be you, Hofstra—there goes your shot at becoming a nuclear physicist."
Hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched, Hofstra looks even skinnier and more bent than usual. "Think I'll become pope instead."
"You're not even Catholic," I point out.
He shrugs. "I could join. It would be fun to be infallible. We're not having fun now, that's for sure."
"Fun comes later." Raleigh jumps in front of Hofstra. Walking backwards down the hall, he cramps Hofstra's long, gangly strides. "You forget. We're working on the Deferred Gratification Model. The payoff is down the road when one of us walks into our twentieth reunion as the next Bill Gates."
"My money's on Hofstra," I say.
"Why him?" asks Raleigh.
"Come on. My brain is decent; yours is too. Hofstra's is scary."
"We keep up," he protests, getting trapped behind an open locker door.
"Only because we outwork him," I call back. Hofstra and I, both really tall, scout the thin spots in the herd. Raleigh disappears behind us as we move through the crowd. "So, what was your problem in there?" I ask. There's a chance we both got infected by some airborne pathogen—like Legionnaires' disease—only this one affects brain function.
"No sleep," he mumbles. Red creeps up his neck and across the acne battlefield of his face. "I met this girl online last night. A warrior babe named Xandra."
"You sure it's a girl?" Raleigh asks, suddenly reappearing between the shoulders of two Leon High T-shirts. "Online, Xandra could be anybody ... a guy, a dwarf, a nun—"
Hofstra whips around. "No, she's for real."
"As in corporeal, actual, verifiable, authentic?" Raleigh's got to be studying for the SAT Verbals—the guy never makes a bad academic move.
But neither do I. It's Hofstra who coasts. Smart as he is, he sublimates tests, gets lost in cyberspace, binge-drinks. He sabotages himself. I work my ass off.
So why was I the one who had total brain lock?
I bounce the point of my pencil on the library table. It's four-twenty and Annie's late. As usual. In her universe she's blowing off algebra. In mine she's standing me up.
Hofstra goes online to get girls (or dwarfs, or nuns); I get them with a business card printed on my Epson:
Geek for Hire.
Fisher Brown can teach math to your hamster.
(A passing grade guaranteed or your money back.)
All I learned when Annie Cagney called for tutoring was that she was a sophomore repeating Algebra IB. I didn't realize I was talking to the mystery blonde from the hall until she walked into the library for our first session. Yes! I thought. There is a god!
Before that I'd only seen her between second and third and at school events. Dez—my friend Desiree—invited me to one of her choir concerts. I went because I knew Annie the Beautiful would be standing on the riser below her. One voice soared over the others. It made the skin on my arms tingle. The voice belonged to Dez, but I was watching only Annie. I gave the voice to her. The other singers disappeared. Annie, all by herself, sang in Dez's beautiful voice as she glowed and kind of floated in her blue choir robe. Then, since this was my fantasy, I pictured her in something more MTV—I tried out various outfits.
Okay, it's lame. But I don't have much to work with. Our only one-on-one is actually a threesome: her, me, and algebra. I haven't made much progress on the romantic front. In fact, I haven't made much progress with her on any front. Her brain is a string of Christmas lights with an intermittent short. She seems to grasp a concept, but by the next time we meet—blink —it's gone. If she were anyone else I'd give up and say bring on the hamster, but I can't.
I need to be around Annie.
To graduate, Annie needs to pass Algebra IB.
Why am I here and she isn't?
Guess I need to be around her more than she needs to pass Algebra IB.
I resort to doing Latin homework.
"Hey," says a small, breathy voice. I look up and there she is. My heart races, but I try to keep my tone indifferent. "Not to state the obvious, but you're fifty minutes late."
She swoons into the chair next to mine and falls against me, crying.
"Hey, it's ... it's okay," I stutter. "What's a few minutes? Ask anyone, my time is worthless."
She snatches handfuls of my sweater and twists.
"Whoa, Annie, what's going on?" This is like a good dream gone bad.
Between sobs she explains she just had a blowout fight with her boyfriend.
Boyfriend? Of course a girl like her would have one. But between second and third when our paths cross in the hall, there's never a guy with her. Girlfriends, yes, but never a guy.
"Why is he like that?" she sobs. "All I said was, 'Ramos, how come you didn't call me last night?'"
"Ramos ... Ramos Cruz, the quarterback?"
She nods against my chest, her hair tickling my neck. "I didn't know you liked football," she sniffs.
Actually, she doesn't know anything about me, but she's making physical contact so I let it slide. "Ramos and I used to be tight."
"You and Ramos?" Crying her eyes out, she still manages to sound skeptical.
I shift subtly and her cheek is pressed against my sweater. "Best friends, as a matter of fact." I don't mention it only lasted a semester, and it was sixth grade. I have to admit, the fact that we were ever friends is staggering, even to me.
But at the time we seemed the same. Or maybe it was just that we were undifferentiated, like cells that hadn't yet specialized. When we did differentiate, I specialized in acing every class. Ramos specialized in throwing long.
Dez says I miss the important stuff while obsessing about the insignificant. Annie the Beautiful is pressed against me and what am I doing? Reliving sixth grade.
I close my eyes and fold my arms around her. Wow. It's like she hit the perfume counter and sampled everything.
If I smell her, does she smell me? Did I put on deodorant this morning? Of course, I did. It's part of the routine.
But is it still working? That's the critical question. I resist the urge to sniff a pit.
"Should I apologize to him?" she moans.
"No," I say. "Definitely not." My shoulder feels wet. Her tears have soaked through to my shirt. I hold her carefully, afraid she'll realize the algebra guy's arms are around her.
With a shuddery sigh she presses herself into my chest, and at that exact moment, through the thin fabric of her blouse, my fingers detect the fastener of her bra.
I stumble off the late bus. With only one degree of separation I touched Annie's bra—in fact, the part of the bra that facilitates removal. Hofstra would give major points. Too bad it was meaningless. Ten seconds later, while I sat staring at the book open to the quadratic formula, she was whimpering into her cell, "Please, Ramos, please?"
FYI: Ramos Cruz is number one on her speed dial. What are the odds that the Geek-for-Hire is even on the list?
I kick a rock and jog up the hill, fishing the key out of my pocket as I go. I let myself into the empty house. Taking the stairs three at a time, I sprint to my room. I change into my Nikes. As I toss my sweater over the back of my desk chair, I discover the latest index card taped to the windowsill: What is the real question? Sounds cosmic, but since it was put there by my guidance counselor dad, it's bound to be test related. He's advising me to identify the intent of the question before answering—or something like that. This card joins all the other subtle hints taped up around my room.
I've never caught him in the act. Dad is the tooth fairy of test preparation.
I throw on a sweatshirt and just happen to look out the window as a guy saunters out of the house across the street. The last few days, whenever I'm at my desk studying, he's been out there loitering at the end of Mr. Traynor's driveway. He's wearing the same frayed jeans, the same cowboy boots he has worn every other day. I assume he changes the shirt, but clean or dirty, a white T-shirt is always part of the outfit. Doesn't he have anywhere to go, anything to do?
When the guy reaches the end of the driveway, he squats on his heels, face turned up to the sun. Eyes closed, he reaches back and casually peels off his T-shirt.
Come on. Winters aren't that cold in Tallahassee, but today's not exactly sunbathing weather. Besides, the sun is going down.
He wads up the T-shirt for a pillow and stretches out on the strip of grass at the edge of the road, oblivious to what the local dogs use that grass for.
What is the real question? The index card on the windowsill suddenly seems like a caption for the scene outside. When it comes to identifying the real question I don't have a clue, but it's obvious that this guy and I are coming up with different answers.
All work and no play.
All play and no work.
Before starting to run I stand at the end of my driveway and watch the stranger in Mr. Traynor's yard. As his muscular chest rises and falls in deep, even breaths, a repulsive image pops into my brain. What would happen if he met Annie? Abort. Abort. I shut the simulation down. Isn't one muscular guy in her life enough?
Besides, the chances that they'll meet are infinitesimal. Like almost everything else, his presence across the street from my house at this precise moment can be explained by the math term Random Walk: a sequence of movements in which the direction of each successive movement is determined entirely at random.
I think about my own sequence of movements. What would have happened if I'd randomly walked a path more like Ramos's? I push up my sweatshirt sleeves and check out my spindly arms. Too late for that.
I take off running, flat out. As the houses flash by I feel looser, saner.
I started running because Dad insisted that to be a "complete package" I needed a sport. At one-sixty I'm too light for football. At six-foot-five you'd think I'd be a natural for basketball. Too bad I'm a complete spaz. Dad's friend, Coach Dickerson, suggested track, but I didn't make the cut. I expend more energy on vertical motion than horizontal when I run.
Last year I went out for cross-country—they take anyone who's still standing at the end of the distance. Cross-country is over for the year, but I keep running for the endorphin rush.
Me and my endorphin buddies tour the neighborhood. My eyeglasses bounce on the bridge of my nose, beating the same rhythm as my feet, only a nanosecond behind. I pass the sleeping guy twice.
I'm rounding the corner by my house for a third time when the guy yelps, "Holy crap!" and leaps to his feet. He swings the T-shirt that was balled up under his head, swatting his chest and back.
I rest my hands on my knees to catch my breath. "Fire ants?" I gasp, squinting at him through the sweat and sun.
"It sure-as-shit wasn't a bad dream." He flips the waistband of his jeans and picks a couple of ants out. "Actually," he says, one corner of his mouth going up, "the dream was pretty sweet." He ambles over and turns his back to me. "Mind checking me out, Snowflake?"
Reddish hair streaked with blond hangs long behind his ears. His surfer-tan back is crosshatched with the imprint of grass. He's half a foot shorter than I am, but ripped. Hispants ride so low I can see that ridge of muscle Greek sculptors were so crazy about.
Excerpted from The Real Question by Adrian Fogelin. Copyright © 2006 Adrian Fogelin. Excerpted by permission of Peachtree.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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