Palo Alto Weekly 24th Annual Short Story
Grover Cleveland Middle School.
During times of extreme stress -- of which there had been many during his thirteen years, up to and including the present moment -- Paul Nelson Andrews found making numbered lists to be a helpful distraction. It wasn't that he was particularly smitten with math, though he was in the top ten percent of the school; rather that the dependability of numbers anchored him during those dark nights (and mornings/evenings/afternoons) of the pre-adolescent soul.
Beautiful numbers. Always there in times of need, like the axe behind the fire glass or the hotline to the Batcave.
Numerically, Paul could describe himself as follows:
About the present moment...
Mrs. Harper, at her desk to his right, wore seven pieces of jewelry (two earrings, one wedding ring, one turquoise bracelet, one turquoise ring, one pendant with a stone of, yes, turquoise).
The room was quiet save for the buzz of the fluorescent light, the distant drone of a John Deere lawnmower, and some low-level giggling from a certain row of desks.
Twenty-eight desks in the room, one empty. (Samantha Wexler and her dyed black buzz cut had been expelled two months earlier, to the dismay of no one. Rumors abounded that she'd been caught sacrificing the principal's dog in some kind of ritual.)
Paul's left eye throbbed. He divided the audience into four segments.
Case in point: They once went en masse to a school dance (though ask any one of them whose idea it had been and you would likely get four different answers). Spencer had been the only one who actually asked a girl -- Amelia Himmel -- to, well, dance, but she couldn't hear him over the music (and likely wouldn't have said yes in any case). They spent the evening sitting on the bleachers and drinking punch and occasionally bouncing along with a song.
Mr. Buckland, the one cool chaperone, approached at one point and asked the key question: "Why did you guys come?" Not having an answer, they enacted a stealthy retreat during a slow song, reported to Paul's basement to play video games and talk about how lame the dance had been.
Sixteen posters around Mrs. Harper's room, most of them seemingly pitched to elementary school children (e.g., "Meet the Parts of Speech," "The Conjunction Wizard").
Paul's mouth was so dry he could feel the flecks of spittle clinging to the corners of his lower lip. He thought about asking to go get a drink but knew that if he left this position he might never get the nerve to return. (Possible escape plans: pull the fire alarm; pretend to faint in the hallway; flee campus and stage a fake kidnapping.)
Segment # 2: The largest segment -- 20 students -- were those to whom Paul was a beige couch. His parents had an old couch in the basement, somehow repeatedly spared from his dad's "purgings." One could be down there for hours, as Paul could attest, and never be aware of the couch's existence. (The most Paul had ever thought about it was the day Spencer speculated that, given its length of service in the Andrews household, maybe Paul had in fact been conceived on it.)
Though Paul had enjoyed some notoriety at school as the one who had to leave class to brush his teeth after lunch every day (orthodontist's orders), to most of his classmates, he was a beige couch.
Except of course during moments like this.
He felt like he might hyperventilate for the first time since the "Dr. Terror's Castle of Horrors" ride, and had that been a scene. At least it went down in front of strangers in a faraway state who didn't know him well enough to make fun of his stammering meltdown. To have it happen here would be so, so much worse, a potentially unrecoverable lapse that would leave him no choice but to insist on changing schools. (Changing cities, or even states, would be a preferable option, but there was a limit to his parents' tolerance for shameless begging that may or may not include tears.)
Forty-nine tiles on the classroom floor, swept nightly. How many had stood on these tiles, perhaps right where Paul now did? How many times had Mrs. Harper run this same spelling bee, in this same room? (There was speculation that she may be 80 years old!)
On cue from some reptilian center deep in the brain, Kirk flashed his notebook (wherein he'd scribbled a large cartoon penis wearing a pair of glasses) at Paul. Kirk and his cohorts turned crimson covering up their laughter. Mrs. Harper shot them her patented "Are you really the future of this country?" look.
Two large classroom windows showed the goings-on in the outside world.
First window: Serge, the gardener, riding his John Deere across the field. Whispers persisted about Serge being high every day, so one time during brunch Bryce had flat-out asked while the other three cowered at the snack bar. Serge's reply: "I'm high on Jesus, buddy. It's a great feeling."
Second window: Coach Meyer, gut threatening to bust out from under his polo shirt, jabbering on his cell phone (as uncommon a sight as Mrs. Harper wearing turquoise) while 30 tiny, uniformed sixth graders jog/walked laps around the track. Coach Meyer once wondered loudly to the other boys in P.E. -- as Paul trembled to finish his fifth pull-up -- if the reason for the difficulty was perhaps because Paul was "afraid to chip his nail polish."
Segment #4: One Michelle Summers, front row center. Yes, she warranted her own segment. Hair like the summer sun, tied back in a ponytail; atomic blue eyes; misting of freckles across her nose; teeth that could blind if looked at directly (though Paul had decided he'd happily be struck). Other than waiting in the lunch line, this was as close as Paul had ever been to her -- approximately five steps away.
Once upon a time -- in sixth grade -- Paul's class had a teacher named Sierra, who wore her hair in cornrows and had so many bracelets that they almost reached her elbows. Instead of seating everyone alphabetically, she'd placed them "holistically," which led to Paul sitting behind and to Michelle's left. (He was too fuzzy-headed during those weeks to perform any sort of numerical calculations, but the number of minutes he'd spent staring at and/or doodling her profile would not be insignificant.)
Sierra left midway through the school year -- they were never told why -- and the replacement teacher (Mr. McGinty) moved them back to the traditional layout; Paul would, as usual, be far across the room from Michelle, mostly blocked even from view.
He never sat near Michelle again.
Is a taste of honey worse than none at all?
Now, she was looking right at him -- but of course she was, he was on the spot, the center of attention. Where else would she be looking? Intellectually he knew this, but feeling her eyes on him gave him a warm feeling in his chest. Not nice warm, like the heating pad on his chest when he was sick (as common as Meyer's cell phone and Harper's turquoise) -- more like the warm after eating that jalapeno on a dare from Ted. He could only hope Michelle's gaze wouldn't make his face break out in hives like the pepper had.
He was suddenly a performer playing to an audience of one. He pictured himself alone, in a spotlight, like one of the old singers his mom listened to. Like Frank Santana, or whatever his name was.
The anti-perspirant in his Right Guard had long since been KO'd, but Paul held out the slimmest of hopes on the deodorant portion doing its job. He wanted to angle himself, to somehow steal a quick whiff of the armpit, but it was mission: impossible. He could only pray that perfect sense of smell wasn't one of the features with which Michelle was blessed.
Mrs. Harper cleared her throat for the 29th time that day, snapping Paul back to reality. It all came down to this moment -- everything he'd been (not much), everything he ever would be (debatable). He was one answer away from getting his name on the Harper "Wall Of Fame." One answer away from an actual identity beyond the tooth-brushing nerd in the Superman shirt. After all, a beige couch wouldn't win a spelling bee, right?
The feeling went from jalapeno to habanero. He almost groaned -- thought for one terrible moment he actually had. What did the smile mean? Just being polite? Was she rooting for him? Would he be some kind of hero to her if he won? Or would he be branded forever in her eyes as The Loser Who Won The Spelling Bee?
Maybe he should miss the last word, be the hero who came so close to victory only to have it snatched away at the end. Then Michelle could feel sorry for him. Maybe she'd even talk to him, offer condolences. Then again, if he got it right she might think
A muscle spasm broke out in his right forearm; he clutched his wrist to keep from visibly trembling. He needed a number, but what? What?!?!
"The final word," Mrs. Harper said, jowls wobbling, enunciating each syllable like she was reading the Declaration of Independence, "is 'pomegranate.'"
The author invites us to join him/her on a visit into the adolescent mind of the obsessive and self-conscious Paul Nelson Andrews. The insecure protagonist's focus on numbers gives the story a freshness and quirkiness that any reader who has ever been thirteen will recognize and applaud.