Monday, May 9, 2011

Chapter One

Monday morning at school, after we won out third football game in a row, ass-kicking convincingly, I might add, Coach Maddox yanked me into his office in the boy's locker room.
It was near the end of third period.
He said, "You want to finish this football season or not?"
I let a smile break wide open across my face. In nearly every situation, a smile was my best weapon. Relax. Stay cool. Don't let stuff bother you—that had been my philosophy.
You'd be surprised at the number of problems I'd ducked like that, though I admit more and more lately things were starting to irritate me. Like my girlfriend Mindy and the school system's new eligibility policy for athletes.
But, still smiling, I settled my 195 pounds into the straight-back metal chair in front of Coach Maddox's desk and said, "Not to worry, Coach. I've got things taken care of."
"You understand the new eligibility policy?" he said. He picked up a pencil and tapped the pointed end on his desktop. Tappety-tap-tap. He's fifty-five, well built. His craggy face twisted into a scowl as he sat across from me.
"Got to have a C average to play," I said.
"No F's." Tappety-tap-tap. "Even if you've got a C average, but you've got a F thrown in, you can't play." Tappety-tap-tap.
"That's right," I said, and gave a big grin. I was keeping a little secret from him.
He dropped the pencil on his desk and peered at me. "Wipe that smirk off your face and tell me why, after three weeks of school, when I go around this morning to visit your teachers, why does Ms. Oberhaus tell me you are failing American lit?" He smacked the desk with an open palm, and the coffee cup next to his desk calendar jumped. "Tell me!"
I shrugged.
"She doesn't like me," I said. "And she's got this German accent, I can't understand her."
"Hell no, you can't understand her. Not when you sleep in class. She tells me you are doing the same thing in her class this year you did last year—when you failed. NOTHING!"
"Take it easy, Coach."
"Stony, last year the Tigers were a good team. Six-three. That isn't bad. This year we can do better. Conference champs, maybe."
"No doubt."
"State tournament berth, maybe."
"You bet."
"It's been eight years since we've been in the playoffs. The key is defense."
"We won our first three games," I reminded him, "and have given up only two touchdowns."
"And you've been spectacular. Averaging two sacks a game and ten tackles from your linebacker spot."
"I get lots of help."
"You've blocked four punts and two extra points. Caused four fumbles. Recovered two. Not bad."
I shifted my weight in the chair. I felt funny, the coach complimenting me like this, a very rare thing. "You got nothing to worry about," I told him.
"What happens to the defense when you're not eligible? Tell me that. Mid-quarter reports are out in two and a half weeks. You need at least a D in American Lit. Sixty percent."
"I can handle that."
"But Ms. Oberhaus says your average is thirty-eight percent. You don't read the assignments, write the journal entries, hand in your written work, or study for the tests. You don't do anything, Stony."
"I don't like that stuff, Coach."
"You think I like teaching co-ed PE? Hell no. But I do it. You understand what I'm saying?"
I shrugged.
"You're lazy, Stony. You got all kinds of potential, but you're lazy. You like math, don't you?"
"It's all right."
"You got an A in math. And you like Creative Foods."
"We get to eat the things we cook."
"History: D-plus."
"Geography: C-minus. Damn near a D."
I finally said, "You don't have to worry about me and American lit. I'm getting a tutor."
"I know. Ms. Oberhaus told me."
I blinked. I was a little disappointed. My surprise was no surprise at all. "A peer tutor," I said. "It's the HELP program—kids helping other kids learn. Ms. Oberhaus said I should try it."
"That doesn't mean you don't have to work, Stony. You still got to stay awake in class. Read your assignments. Hand in your papers. Pass your quizzes and tests."
"That's true," I said. "But listen, Coach. I'm supposed to meet this girl—Robyn Knight—in the library every day, seventh period, and she's going to help me."
"You still got to get your ass in gear."
"I'll get her to do my work for me," I said. "I won't have any problems at all."
"That isn't how it works, Stony."
But I smiled and said, "Wait and see."
With that I ducked out of Coach Maddox's office. He's a great coach, but he's a worrier, and he gets too emotional, especially on the sidelines during a game, whether we're winning or losing, pacing in front of the bench, yelling and screaming, pounding the air with his fists. Had he relaxed a little, he would have seen that I was perfectly capable of handling my American lit grade.
"I can't believe this!" Mindy said. Wide-set in an oval face, her eyes were large and dark. "Everybody's always trying to screw things up for us."
"I can't help it," I said. "If I don't get tutored I'm going to fail American lit. Then I can't play football."
We were standing in the crowded hall in front of my locker, just after I'd come from Maddox's office. Kids were whipping locker doors open and digging for books, notebooks, pens, pencils.
Mindy had nearly backed me into my open locker. Only an inch away from me, looking up into my face, she stood with her hands balled into fists on her hips. She was wearing faded jeans and a loose yellow T-shirt.
We'd been going together two years, and I didn't know how to tell her I thought we both needed a change.
"What about our plans for seventh period?" she demanded. Though she's dark complexioned, her face was turning red.
"Don't get excited."
She smelled of cigarette smoke and of the spicy perfume I'd bought for her birthday.
I said, "I'll meet this girl the first couple of times, get her to do my homework. Then maybe I'll see her once or twice a week. We can still skip seventh period a few times."
The thing is, Mindy worked practically every night after school at McDonald's, and I had football practice. This meant we didn't have much time for each other during the week. Unless we could skip seventh period and grab a few minutes to make out.
Lockers banged shut up and down the hallways as kids cleared out, diving into classrooms.
I shifted my books in my arms. "We're going to be late."
"What's this tutor's name?"
"Robyn Knight. Know her?"
Mindy shook her head of reddish-brown hair, and her lips turned pouty. "She better be ugly."

Chapter Two

After lunch, I was sleeping comfortably in fifth period study hall in the cafeteria, head in the crook of my arm on the table—I loved an after-lunch nap—when I felt someone pulling at my shoulder.
"Mr. Duval wants to see you." Mrs. Larsen, one of the study hall monitors, was shaking me awake.
I rubbed my blurry eyes with my left hand. Shook my right arm. It always went numb when I slept on it and tingled. "What?"
Mrs. Larsen said, "Mr. Duval wants to see you?"
"Who?" I said.
"Your counselor. Remember him?" Then Mrs. Larsen gave me a wry grin and said, "Imagine, you won't get a chance to drool on the tabletop today."
"Ms. Oberhaus tell you we have a tutor ready for you?" Mr. Duval said, as I sank into the chair in front of his desk, a padded chair with a maroon seat and back, matching his swivel chair.
I nodded and yawned. Brushed my hand through my short blond hair, bristly on top, a six-inch pigtail curling at the base of my skull. I'd never see it, but Mindy said it looked cool and kept it braided for me and decorated it with tiny colorful beads.
"Robyn Knight." Mr. Duval leaned back in his chair, swiveling back and forth. He's heavyset. Bald. Wears a white shirt and dark tie every day. "Great girl. Brilliant. She wants to be a journalist someday."
I was wondering if she was hot.    
"The point is, if you use half your brain, she'll be able to help you. But you can't sit around and do nothing. You understand that?"
I nodded. Yawned again. Still sleepy.
"You can't smile your way through this like you do everything else. You get a failing report at mid-quarter, you can kiss your football season good-bye. Chances are you won't be eligible for the playoffs, either. You understand what I'm saying?"
"I understand."
Mr. Duval scooted his chair closer to his desk. He always speaks in a calm voice, a bit low. You get the impression he knows a lot, and he chooses his words carefully to make sure he gets them right.
"There's something even more important than football involved here," he said. "What are you going to do with the rest of your life, Wendell?"
I winched, my jaw twisting. Wendell is my real name. Wendell Stoneking. But everyone calls me Stony. They call my dad Stony, too. Wendell was my grandpa's first name, my mom's dad. It's an okay name, but it's not one you hang on kids nowadays. When Mr. Duval starts calling me Wendell, I know he's getting serious.
"Tell me," he repeated. "What are you going to do with the rest of your life?"
I shrugged. It was a question he'd asked before, but I still didn't have an answer, mainly because I hadn't given the problem much thought. My future would take care of itself.
"You're a senior," he said. "You could be a good student, if you wanted. Ever think about that?"
I shrugged.
"You're a great football player. There will be scholarships out there for your asking. I've told you this a million times."
Another shrug.
"Look at your buddy Brian Hall. He's applied himself in the classroom and on the football field. He's not got the physical abilities you have, but he's committed on and off the field. He'll play somewhere."
"Good for him."
Duval said, "I've known your mom and dad since we were kids. We all went to school here. I knew your grandpa. You can work in the gravel pits, too, if you want, a heavy equipment operator, like your grandpa."
"I think I'd like that."
"Maybe a foreman someday, like your dad. There's nothing wrong with that."
"The money's okay."
"But you should realize there's something different out there for you. If you want it. Do you understand that?"
"Yes, sir."
"You worked in the quarry last summer. You've had a taste of it. Is that what you want?"
Duval was making me uncomfortable. I shifted my weight in the padded chair and tried to smile my way through this.
"It's all right," I said.
"Well, now's the time to make up your mind. If you don't do something with your grades this quarter, right now, you'll blow your chance for a football scholarship, probably your only ticket to college."
"But I don't know about college."
"Your dad had the same chance. He was a hell of a high school football player, too, and he ended up in the quarry."
"He's always had a job."
"Nothing wrong with that," Mr. Duval said again, holding up a hand. "Don't get me wrong. But if you want something different in life, now's the time to make your move. Got it?"
"Got it," I said. "Can I go now?"
"Yes, sir?"
"If you decided to make a change, you can start by staying awake in study halls and in American lit, by cooperating with Robyn Knight, and by getting an A in lit. In history and geography, too. Take your SATs this spring. You didn't even show up last year."
"Sorry about that."
He said, "Life is about setting goals and making smart choices, Wendell. It's about time you start doing both."
I hustled out of Mr. Duval's office.
I'd never in my life set any goals or made any important choices. I mean, like, who my parents are, where I was born and go to school, what courses I've been taking. All those choices have been made for me. Not even Mindy or football was a conscious goal of mine. Both just happened to me. I didn't set a goal and say to myself I'm going to be a great football player or I'm going to lay Mindy Hillman whenever I can. All that just happened. Life just happens. You take the good with the bad and try not to sweat anything too much. Especially the bad stuff. It'll drive you crazy. Keep smiling.
At first glance, I couldn't decide if Robyn Knight was ugly or not.
Tall and thin, dressed in a black long-sleeved blouse and black flared jeans and combat boots, she strode to the back of the library where I'd been waiting for her. She plunked down the pile of books and folders she was clutching to her chest and pulled out a chair.
We were meeting in a little alcove behind the fiction section where students are allowed to work together quietly. The only one at the table, I slouched in a chair, my arm slung over its back. I was smiling at her. "Hi."
"Hi," she said. "I'm Robyn Knight."
Soft voice. No return smile, though. No offer of a handshake. Hardly any boobs. Not like Mindy.
Remaining slouched, relaxed, actually, I broadened my smile until my dimples popped into view. I can't feel them, but I know they punctuate my cheeks—I've seen them in a mirror. And once in tenth grade, before I met Mindy, a preppy girl I liked said my smile was "positively disarming." I looked disarming up in a dictionary. It means winning.
I said, "You're the tutor?"
"That's right. You're Wendell Stoneking?"
I kept smiling. "Everybody calls me Stony."
She nodded.
Her face was thin with high cheekbones. Her long, straight, pitch-black hair, parted in the middle, hung to her shoulders. As she sat down, she tucked the hair on the right side behind her ear. A long silver earring swung from her earlobe like a pendulum.
"I see you have your book," she said. "But where's your notebook? Do you have a pencil or pen?"
I sat up and flipped open my American lit book. Tucked in the center of the book were three sheets of folded notebook paper and a stub of pencil, the eraser worn to nothing.
"I'm ready," I said.
"Not quite." She reached for a notebook in the center of the stack of books she'd set on the table. Her fingers were long and thin, nails short, a ring of either silver or turquoise on practically every finger. Even her thumbs. She pulled out a worn spiral notebook with a green cover and held it up. "I took American lit last year—"
"Me, too," I said.
"—and passed."
I flinched.
"I know for a fact Ms. Oberhaus wants you to keep a notebook like this. Notes about the authors and historical events in the front of the book. A glossary of lit terms in the middle. Journal entries in back."
"Can—may I see that?" I held out my hand.
I grinned. This notebook would make things easy. But as I thumbed through its pages, my grin turned to a frown.
George Washington. War of 1812. World War I. The New Deal. Harry S. Truman.
"This isn't American lit." I slapped the book closed.
"My history notes from last year."
"Where's your lit notes? Did you save them, too?"
"Could I use them? Make things a lot simpler."
She shook her head and her hair spilled out from behind her ear. "You've got to keep your own notebook. I brought my history one to show you what Ms. Oberhaus means by a notebook. A thick one. Three hundred pages with dividers for different sections."
I frowned again.
This wasn't going to be as easy as I'd thought. Robyn Knight looked as if she was all business. Probably genius IQ, 150 or something. Efficient. Picky. I hated girls like that.
I shoved the notebook across the table to her.
"Where do we start?" I said.
"How far are you? What author?"
I shrugged.
She said, "Bradford, Bradstreet, Byrd, Edwards—are you still dealing with the Puritans?"
"I remember flunking that test. I think we're into Poe."
"Not the easiest writer." She leaned closer to me. "Let's see your book." For the first time I caught the delicate scent of her perfume. Her eyebrows were thick and dark, her eyelashes long. She flipped though the pages at the beginning of the text. "Here it is: 'The Masque of the Red Death.' Great story. Is that your assignment?"
For a second I couldn't take my eyes off her.
The long black hair, the colorful rings, the black blouse and jeans, the combat boots, plus all the brains she apparently had—she was a mystery.
"Is that your assignment?" she repeated firmly.
"Um...I think so." I looked at the page. "Yeah, I guess that's it."
"Hell," she said. "How do you expect to do well if you're not even sure what the assignments are?"
I felt sheepish.
She said, "First thing you've got to do is read the story. Then to get ready for Ms. Oberhaus's quiz, you've got to write out the answers to the study questions at the end of the story. I don't suppose you have Ms. Oberhaus's lecture notes about Poe."
I shook my head. "Fell asleep that day. I fall asleep every day in her class. The way she talks, I can't understand her."
"You can if you listen closely."
"Look," I said, "tell me what happened in the story. Then tell me the answers to the study questions. I've got a great memory. I'll pass the Poe quiz, no problem."
Robyn latched the hair on both sides of her head behind her ears. Her neck was long and thin. She studied me closely, her hazel eyes penetrating me. I suddenly felt unnerved and squirmed a bit.
"That's not what tutoring is all about," she said coolly. "If you want to pass this course, you're going to do your own work."
Give me a break!
"If you ask Ms. Oberhaus, she'll probably let you write the journal entries you've missed and hand them in late for at least partial credit."
"Only partial credit?"
"If you're lucky. And you'll have to take notes about the other writers you've missed in this unit—Irving, Cooper, and Bryant—so you can pass the next unit test. Then you'll have to stay on top of things for the rest of the semester."
I was starting to feel bewildered.
"For starters," Robyn said, "read Poe's story this class period. Then for homework—"
I felt my frown cutting deeper into my face.
"—write out the answers to the study questions. Bring them with you tomorrow when we meet."
"You're my tutor!" I protested. "What the hell are you going to do? You're making me do all the work."
Smiling sweetly, she said, "I'm not the lazy-fuck trying to stay eligible for football, Wendell."
In the boys' locker room, before football practice that afternoon, I plunked down next to Brian Hall on the wooden bench that stretched in front of a row of lockers. I was still smarting from my final exchange with Robyn Knight. What a witch.
The room was jammed with hooting, hollering guys dressing for practice, some fully dressed in pads, some in only a T-shirt or a jockstrap, others in school clothes, digging in their lockers for their smelly gear.
Brian and I'd been best friends in grade school and junior high. We'd grown up in the same little town of Hickory Ridge, Iowa, on the Mississippi River. Population six hundred. A couple of "Hicks from Hickory Ridge"—and proud of it—we now went to Thompsonville High.
There were some big differences between Brian and me, though. Brian's dad was the principal of the grade school we attended in Hickory Ridge. My dad worked in the quarry. Brian studied his ass off in school. I was a screwoff. Brian was the Tigers' offensive leader in football, while I led the defense.
But together we were a great one-two punch.
We didn't hang together much anymore. Mindy didn't like the preppy girls he dated, and his preppy girlfriends didn't like Mindy. Besides, Brain started developing friendships with guys he met in his accelerated class like chemistry and fourth-year French, friendships that didn't include me. Still, if I was in deep trouble, I knew I could count on Brian.
Already dressed in my muddy, stinking, grass-stained gear, I leaned over to tie my shoes and said to Brian, "How's the elbow?"
He adjusted his shoulder pads under his jersey. Tall, slender as a reed, he had gun for an arm, but lately, after every game, his elbow was turning up sore.
"The same." He rotated his right arm. Winced. "Stiff. Pain in the elbow that buzzes."
"You popping pain killers?"
That's what he did last summer during baseball season, when the arm bothered him so much.
"Over-the-counter stuff," he said. "Nothing to worry about."
"How many a day?"
He shrugged and swept his hand through his curly blond hair.
"You look pale," I said. "You should try eating more."
"Then I'd be ugly like you."
I smiled and said, "Tell Maddox the arm is bothering you. Maybe he'll give you a week off from practice."
"He'll bench me. If I'm going to play college ball, I need the stats. You know that. Who's going to recruit a six-four quarterback that weighs a hundred-fifty pounds if he doesn't have stats?"
 "What's going to happen," I said, "is you're going to end up not being able to throw at all."
He made a face. He didn't like that. "You taking care of your English grade?"
"I'm working on it. Still got your American lit notes from last year?"
"Might have."
"See if you can dig them up."
"Lit's not hard. All you've got to do is read the stuff. Do the assignments."
"Notes would help." I finally tied my other shoe.
"I'll see what I can do. Tried a tutor?"
"Got one."
"Robyn Knight."
Smiling, he leaned back against his locker door. "I work with her on the newspaper staff. She transferred here from out of state last year. Lives with her sister, I think."
"She smart?"
"She's so smart she's weird. She wrote a piece about girls who are abused by their boyfriends. A lot of them jocks. Won a national award."
Brain picked up his helmet from the floor and stood, ready to leave.
I said, "Look for your notes, will you?"
"Right. Probably got them somewhere." He squeezed his helmet onto his head and snapped the strap. "We need you on defense, Stony. You're the man. Don't screw up."
"And we need you on offense, dumbshit. Have someone look at that arm."
I pawed through the junk on the top shelf of my locker for my mouthpiece.
"One other thing about Robyn Knight," he said. "She's got a kid. Logan is his name, I think."
That announcement halted my hand in the middle of its search. A girl in high school having a baby isn't anything unusual. Happens all the time. But for some reason, Robyn Knight, with all her brains, didn't seem the type.
When I turned to ask Brain if he was kidding about the baby, he was already heading out of the locker room, jabbering with his offensive center, flexing his right arm, still trying to loosen up the elbow.
A very bright unwed mother was Robyn Knight. A no-nonsense qeek who probably hated jocks, she was my tutor. An eerie feeling crept over me. I knew I was going to have trouble with this skinny do-gooder.