Read an Excerpt
One should not avoid one’s tests, although they are perhaps the most dangerous game one could play and are in the end tests which are taken before ourselves and before no other judge. (Beyond Good and Evil, section 41) —Introduction to the syllabus for Philosophy 322, Superman and Man: Nietzsche and Cobain (Professor Uzig) A rolled-up newspaper spun through the air, defining place. What kind of place? The kind of place often described as leafy or even idyllic, where a boy on a bicycle still tossed the paper onto lawns and porches, sometimes over actual picket fences, where the newspaper still brought news.
“Nat,” called a voice inside one of the houses, a simple 1950s roofed box, much like all the others.
“What is it, Mom?”
“This couldn’t be happening to a better boy,” said Mrs. Smith, the guidance counselor at Clear Creek High. “Or should I say young man?”
She raised her hand, pink and stubby. Was Mrs. Smith going to pinch his cheek? Nat tried not to flinch; he owed her a lot. At the last second, her hand veered away and settled for an upper-arm squeeze instead.
“What a question!” said Miss Brown, the school principal, regarding Mrs. Smith with annoyance. “Young man, of course, as should be perfectly obvious to anyone.” Mrs. Smith and Miss Brown were identical twin sisters, although easily distinguished: Miss Brown had hair the color of shiny pennies, Mrs. Smith’s was gray; Mrs. Smith shook when she laughed, Miss Brown didn’t shake, seldom laughed.
Hiss and pop: fatty juices dripped on open flames. Miss Brown turned to Nat’s mom, who was laying another row of patties on the grill. “And of all the young men I’ve encountered in my thirty-two years of education, some of them very fine young men indeed, this one is the—well, I won’t say it, comparisons—”
“—being odious,” said Mrs. Smith.
“I’ll finish my own sentences, if it’s all the same to you,” said Miss Brown in a low voice, but not so low that Nat didn’t hear.
Even though the comparison hadn’t been made, to Nat’s relief, and even though he suspected that the adage they’d used might be obscure to his mom, her face, already pink from the heat of midday and the glowing coals, went pinker still. “Thank you,” she said, wiping aside a damp wisp of hair—almost as gray now as Mrs. Smith’s, as Nat could see in the bright sunlight, despite her being so much younger—with the back of her wrist. Then she blinked, that single slow blink she always made when she was feeling shy but believed something was required from her anyway; at least, that was Nat’s interpretation. People didn’t understand how brave she was. “I’m obliged to the both of you,” she said, “for getting him into such a place.”
“Don’t thank us,” said Miss Brown.
“He earned it,” said Mrs. Smith.
“This golden opportunity,” said Miss Brown.
“And everything that’s going to come from it,” said Mrs. Smith. “His own doing, from A to Z.” For proof, she held up the County Register—the Fourth of July special edition, with the red-white-and-blue banner at the top of page one and the winning essay in the DAR’s $2,000 “What I Owe America” contest, open to graduating high-school seniors across the state, printed beneath it in fourteen-point letters. Old Glory, the prize essay, and a picture of the winner: Nat, in his yearbook photo, wearing a blazer borrowed from Mr. Beaman, his mom’s boss, tight across the shoulders. Mrs. Smith brandished the paper against the sky—like a weapon, Nat thought, as though defying an enemy.
But what enemy? There were no enemies here in this tiny backyard on the western edge of their little town, with the land stretching flat into the distance. The distance: where on some days, in some lights—like this day, this Fourth of July, in this light—the summits of the Rockies floated white and baseless in the sky, reminding him of . . . what? Some metaphor that didn’t quite come to mind.
Mr. Beaman himself arrived. Tugging off her apron, Nat’s mom hurried to him, drew him toward Nat. Mr. Beaman was a lawyer, the only one in town other than Mr. Beaman senior. Nat’s mom was his receptionist.
He shook Nat’s hand. “I hear congratulations are in order.”
“Well, I—” said Nat.
“Quite a sum of money,” said Mr. Beaman, giving Nat’s hand a good hard squeeze before letting go.
“A tidy sum,” said Miss Brown.
“Two big ones, Junior,” said Mrs. Smith. “Makes all the difference.”
The difference it made: at Mrs. Smith’s direction, Nat had applied to three colleges—Harvard, because it was number one on the U.S. News and World Report ranking of universities; Inverness, because it was number one on their list of small colleges; and Arapaho State, thirty miles away, in case something went wrong.
The results: admission to Harvard, making Nat the first student ever taken from Clear Creek High, and possibly from the whole county. But Harvard hadn’t offered enough money, not close. Admission to Inverness, also a first, with more money, but still not enough. Arapaho would pay the full shot. That was that: Arapaho. Until this morning. Now, with the $2,000 added to a home equity loan, the savings Nat would accumulate that summer at the mill, and an on-campus job at Inverness, they could swing it. Just. Nat and his mom had each done the figures, figures that covered two sheets of yellow-pad paper still lying on the kitchen table.
Mr. Beaman produced a bottle of pink wine. A ray of sunlight made it glow like a magic potion. A pink day: the wine, Mom’s face, Mrs. Smith’s hands. Pink—the color that separated girls from boys. Inverness was far away. “Glasses, Evie?” said Mr. Beaman.
The long slow blink. “Wineglasses, are you saying?”
“Whatever you’ve got, Evie. Paper cups will do.”
Mr. Beaman unscrewed the bottle, filled five cups. Nat knew almost nothing about wine, but suddenly had a strange thought: I might have to know, from now on. He checked the label, saw pink zinfandel in big letters, also read the serving suggestions—cold, on the rocks, with soda water, with a twist.
“To the big bucks,” said Mr. Beaman. His eyes met Nat’s. Nat couldn’t help recalling that his mother had asked for a raise—from $8.50 to $9.00 an hour—after the Inverness financial aid package had arrived, and been turned down. Mr. Beaman’s eyes slid away.
“To Nat,” said Miss Brown.
“To Nat,” said everyone.
“And four great years at Inverness.”
They drank. The wine was cold and sweet. Nat had tasted wine a few times before, but nothing as good as this. He memorized the name of the winery.
“So,” said Mr. Beaman, “what’s the story with this famous place? Tell you the truth, I’d never heard of it.”
“No?” said Nat’s mom; a little wine slopped over the side of her cup.
“Bosh,” said Mrs. Smith. She dug a copy of U.S. News and World Report from her purse, flipped through, thrust the relevant page under his nose. “See?” she said. “Inverness first, Williams second, Haverford third.”
“Elite,” said Miss Brown.
“Crème de la crème,” said Mrs. Smith. “Imagine the people he’s going to meet.”
“Just odd I hadn’t heard of it, that’s all,” said Mr. Beaman.
Miss Brown and Mrs. Smith both pursed their lips, as though keeping something inside. Miss Brown succeeded, Mrs. Smith did not. “You weren’t a bad student, Junior.”
“Not bad?” he said with irritation. “I graduated ninth in my class.”
“As high as that?” said Mrs. Smith. “Nat was first this year, as I probably needn’t mention.”
“But it’s not just a matter of grades and test scores nowadays,” said Miss Brown. “Nat had his basketball, and his coaching Little League, and the job at the mill.”
“The mill? That counts?”
“It all adds up,” said Miss Brown. “We’re talking about—”
“—the whole package,” said Mrs. Smith. Miss Brown narrowed her eyes at Mrs. Smith but said nothing.
Mr. Beaman drained his cup, studying Nat over its rim. It was very quiet for a moment, one of those small-town moments, with no sound at all but that of a jet plane, almost inaudible. Nat caught his mom studying him too, as though she were trying to figure out some stranger. He grinned at her and she grinned back. Her upper left front tooth was slightly chipped, just like his.
“Why don’t you fetch the brochure to show Mr. Beaman, Nat?” she said.
Nat went into the house, one of the neighbors patting him on the back as he mounted the porch stairs. “Go get ’em.”
The Inverness brochure lay on the kitchen table beside the sheets of calculations. The picture on the front showed well-dressed students and a professor sitting under a red-leafed tree. Nat gazed at it, a beautiful photograph, very clear. The professor had tassels on his loafers and so did two of the boys and one girl. He heard Mrs. Smith through the window screen: “. . . best boy ever came out of this town.” Nat left the brochure on the table, went out of the house by the front door.
He stood at the foul line in the driveway. The foul line itself was invisible, had faded away years ago, but his feet went to the right spot; the same way he could walk around the house in the dark. He picked up the ball, eyed the back of the rim hanging on the backboard over the garage door, shot. Missed. Bounced the ball a couple of times. Shot. Missed. Nat took one hundred free throws a day, every day. Shot. Missed. Even the day his father left. Shot. Missed. He had a good shot if open, and was not bad at getting open. He’d been the shooting guard for Clear Creek High since sophomore year. Shot. Hit. And made second-team all-star in the Tri-County League this year, and honorable mention in the region. Shot. Missed. Good enough to play for Arapaho State—the coach had already called. Probably good enough to play for Inverness as well: it was only Division III. He bounced the ball a few times; not looking at it, not really bouncing it anymore. The ball more or less bounced itself, almost shuttling on its own between his hand and the pavement. Now when Nat looked up, he was aware of an invisible current of air, tube-shaped, flowing up from his hand to the basket. All he had to do was bend his knees and boost the ball up into that current. Shoot. Hit. Shoot. Hit. Shoot. Hit. He was an 81 percent foul shooter in competition, and here in the driveway he had once made a hundred straight. Forgetting the cookout, the brochure, the essay, aware only of the invisible air current and the ball that had to be tossed into it, Nat hit shot after shot. Unconscious was what they called it. He became a cog in a machine consisting of ball, himself, air current, basket. The other parts of the machine did most of the work, leaving his mind free to wander. It wandered back to those baseless mountaintops in the sky, and suddenly he had his metaphor: they were like sails of ships whose hulls had sunk beneath the horizon. Not that Nat had ever seen sailing ships on the horizon—he’d laid eyes on the ocean only once, from a plane, when his mom’s sister, who lived in San Bernardino, was in the hospital—but he remembered a description of that effect from his reading.
Nat made twenty-five free throws in a row before emerging prematurely from unconsciousness, emerging the moment he remembered he wouldn’t be playing at Inverness even if he could make the team: he’d have to work after class. He missed the next six, then hit a few, missed one, hit some more, missed some more. The invisible current of air was gone, or flowing elsewhere. He made sixty-eight out of a hundred, the lowest in years, maybe ever. As he put up the last shot a quotation drifted into his mind: Ambition should be made of sterner stuff. Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral, act 3, scene 2. The ball rattled off the rim. Behind him a car door slammed.
He turned to the street, and there was Patti, climbing out of her father’s pickup. Her father beeped and drove away. Nat saw they already had an Arapaho State sticker on the back window; Patti was starting there in the fall. The ball rolled toward her down the driveway. She let it go, which wasn’t like her at all, maybe didn’t even see it; normally she’d have picked it up and tried to dribble around him.
Patti had the paper in her hand. She raised it, but only a little. It flapped back down at her side, as though very heavy. “Nat?”
“You’re in the paper.”
“You always were a good writer.”
“I don’t know about that.”
Nat heard Mrs. Smith laughing in the backyard. Patti’s face paled several shades.
“A good everything.”
“Hey, come on.”
“Sorry,” she said. Pause. “Nat?”
“Does . . . does this mean . . . ?”
“It looks like it,” Nat said.
Patti nodded. “Con . . . congra—” She started crying before she got the full word out.
Nat went to her, put his arms around her. “It’ll be all right,” he said.
She shook in his arms. “No, it won’t. You’ll forget all about me.”
“That will never happen.”
Patti cried. Over the top of her head, Nat saw the paperboy, now off duty, bicycling up the street, baseball glove hanging on the handlebar. Nat knew him, the second baseman on his Little League team, the smallest player and the best. The kid grinned, started to wave; then saw what was happening, looked alarmed, and pedaled off quickly, head down.
“You’ll meet all kinds of girls, prettier than me.”
“Prettier and smarter.”
Nat shook his head. Patti wet his shirt with tears. “And richer,” she said. “I hate Mrs. Smith.”
Nat held her close. His mind fed him a view from high above: he and Patti in the driveway, the basketball on the grass, the folks in the backyard, the town mostly hidden by its trees, everything tiny. He didn’t know what to say to her.
That night Patti went to bed with him for the first time. They’d come close before but she’d always held out, not quite ready. After—in her bedroom, her dad in Denver at his brother’s—she didn’t cry at all. She said: “What were we waiting on?” Nat almost told her he loved her then. It was probably the right thing to do, but he still wasn’t sure he really did. He ended up holding her tight instead.
There were plenty of tears in the weeks that followed.
* * *
One funny thing about that mental bird’s-eye view. At the end of the summer, when Nat flew out of Denver—second time on a plane—he looked out the window and saw his town, just as he’d imagined it on the Fourth of July. The mill, the high-school fields, the main street, even his street, even his house and the tiny backyard: he saw it all. No one in the backyard, of course. His mom, Patti, and Mrs. Smith would barely be out of the airport parking lot. Nat was thinking about what that drive would be like when, far below, a lake went by. There was no lake in his town. He’d been looking at someplace else.