Melissa Eisner’s Dream:
That Can Be Arranged
Ensconced in a library carrel. Wall in front of me, partition to my left, partition to my left. Good. I can set up my world. History book opened to page 156, The Truman Administration. Below it, the questions on the reading, answers to be found between pages 156 and 167. Three sharpened pencils stationed on the upper shelf of the carrel. My journal tucked into the corner, in case of sudden inspiration. On the floor, in priority order, three other books stacked: Trigonometry on top, Physics next, AP Language and Composition on the bottom. I begin. “What event led the Truman administration to expand the containment doctrine to include Asia?” Now to skim the text…
“You didn’t even text me. Why didn’t you text me?”
“I texted you. You must not’ve gotten it.”
“Oh, right, Robbie. Blame it on my phone. When have I not gotten a text?”
“I don’t know. I texted you. How should I know when you didn’t get a text?”
“Why don’t you just admit it? You didn’t text me because you didn’t want me to know what you were doing.”
I am, apparently, a magnet for stupid people. Try as I might to focus on Truman and his involvement in world affairs, the whispered argument behind me draws my attention like the inexorable drip of the leaky bathroom faucet at home, a faucet my father has promised to fix since I was in kindergarten but has never succeeded in accomplishing so I have been forced to turn on the fan, medium speed, even on the coldest nights if I hope to get any sleep at all.
Drips follow me. I know how to arrange my life. I know how it functions at highest efficiency, but the moment I get it set up--drip...drip...drip.
“Just forget it. You’re not going to tell the truth.”
“What do you mean, I’m not going to tell the truth? Jenna, I’m telling the truth.”
“I always tell you the truth. You’re the one who doesn’t tell the truth.”
“I’m not the one that forgets to text me when he says he’s going to.”
“I did text you.”
I turn to them. I do not know them. He is blond and pimply. She is dark-haired and busty. They are both, clearly, idiots. Idiots, who, like dripping faucets, are making my life difficult.
“Excuse me.” Pimples and Busty turn to look at me. “Give me your phones.”
“What?” asks Pimples.
“Before you two tackle the modern communication technology known as text messaging, you need to demonstrate your mastery of a much older method known as face-to-face conversation.”
“Wait a minute--who are you?” asks Busty.
“Call me The Arranger.” I’m tempted to say “The Lone Arranger,” but that would just be pearls before swine. Busty and Pimples look at one another, wondering, no doubt, if I have authority simply because I have a title. Before they mentally injure themselves, I snap, “Now!” They hand over their phones.
Pimples looks confused and says, “So we’re just supposed to…?”
“Talk. You say some words; she listens. She responds with some words; you listen. You take turns. And,” I add, “you do it all somewhere else.”
“But what about…?”
I hold up their precious phones. “You come back, show me you can have a productive conversation, and you can retrieve these. But not before you’re ready.”
The two walk away. I do not have high hopes for their progress, but at least they’re gone and I can have peace until my next class. An hour later, having finished my homework, made some debate notes in my journal, packed all of my paraphernalia into its appointed place in my backpack, I head to my AP Composition course. As I am passing through one of the double doorways on the way to class, two freshmen girls block my way. (I admit I’m assuming their rank in school on account of their freshman-like behavior, not based on hard data.) I am on the right side of the post that divides the double doorway. They, moronically, are trying to squeeze by me on that same side. I put my hands out to either side and say, “No.”
“What do you mean no?” asks one of them.
“I mean no as in the opposite of yes. I mean no as in you two are in my way; I am not in yours. I mean no as in you have violated a basic rule of walking in the hallway.”
Here I turn to address the full teeming mass around me, since this behavior is endemic. I shout, “People, listen up. Basic convention and safety require that you walk on the right. The right! When you violate this rule, you annoy and endanger intelligent people like myself, something you simply do not want to do. If you think you have a right to walk on the left because you have to get somewhere quickly or you forgot or you believe you are not subject to the norms that govern civilized society, you are wrong and you are idiotic. Right side, people! This is a public service announcement brought to you by me, the Arranger! Walk right; get it right! Right?”
The resounding response is “right!” which is very satisfying; the hall transforms quickly from a multi-directional mishmash to an orderly array of efficiently-moving lines. I proceed, unharried and unshoved, to AP English.
Shortly into the period, I need to again unleash my Arranger persona because Ms. Warren--who is a decent teacher but one who thinks that being an artistic, literary type gives her license to be scatter-brained in a way that she must perceive as quaint but I find extremely exasperating--has put us into groups. We are to analyze the rhetorical strategies in John F. Kennedy’s speech to the steel industry. The groups are completely wrong. There are such people as AP slackers, and they have no business working with those with serious academic aspirations. I stand and tell Ms. Warren that she has misallocated the groups and she asks me if I think I can do better. I reply in the affirmative. She turns to the class and asks them if they think I can do better. They reply in the affirmative. Ms. Warren says well, then I guess she should. So I do and the class runs, to borrow the cliché, like a well-oiled machine.
By day’s end, I have re-organized the cafeteria’s food distribution system, instructed my U.S. History teacher about how he should unclutter his website, confiscated 13 electronic devices that have threatened to provide various distractions to myself and others, and written out a complete wooing schedule for Jon Farrell, a boy who has expressed interest in me but hasn’t proven himself organized enough to methodically win my affections. Jon stands in the hallway, as per my instructions, takes my hand and pays me the perfect compliment: “All the world really needs, Melissa, is for you to set it straight.”
And how. Tonight I will fix that damned faucet.
Reality Check: Dream 38
ü First item on Melissa Eisner’s 30-item list, presented to her parents, entitled “Why I Should Be Homeschooled.”: You know I am extremely well organized and could be trusted to create my own rich curriculum that would be superior to the one I now endure in public school.
ü Last item on above list: I could devote study to such things as plumbing and make home repairs.
Jon Farrell’s Dream:
“Did you hear about the new app?” Tom Peters asks.
“What new app?”
“They’ve already come out with, like, ten fortunes. Meg Dwinell is gonna be dead before she even gets out of college! Yeah, suicide. And Phil Edwards, Mr. Stud of the Century? Skid row alcoholic--he’ll lose everything!”
Tom’s phone chimes in a way I’ve never heard before, with this very deep bell tone. The sound echoes from several different places in the hallway. I look around to see at least half of the kids eagerly taking out their phones. “Dude, you’ve got to download this app,” Tom says. “Holy crap! This one’s about my cousin Bekah. She’s gonna be making 300k a year when she’s 25! How in the hell is she gonna do that?”
“Tom, do me a favor,” I tell him. “Stop talking until you tell me what you’re talking about, okay?”
“Get out your phone, man!”
“It died on me and I lost the charger.”
That’s a lie. My dad sat us all down a week ago and said we were going to have to enter an “austerity period” as a family. He lost his accounting job last year and hasn’t been able to find anything else except a little part-time tax stuff. Unemployment benefits might be running out soon, depending what the government decides. Dad said we’ll get through it somehow. We won’t starve, but we’ll have to tighten our belts. The camper’s up for sale, no more dance lessons for my sister, we got rid of cable. And Dad’s the only one keeping a cell.
I get it. Times are tough; we all have to pitch in as a family and all that other happy horseshit. I’ll eat the bag lunches, but not having my iPhone--that sucks big time. Not to mention I’m a junior and the college talk is starting to buzz all around me--SATs, college visits, kids even talking about getting a start on some of their applications this summer.
We used to have those college conversations in our family. Not lately. I see my parents huddled together over the bills, talking low so me and my sisters don’t get worried. Dad was bringing me to school the other day, playing NPR on the radio. I usually tune out that drone, but this one comment hit me: “For the first time in U.S. history, parents cannot expect their children to be as financially successful as they are, never mind hope that their children’s wealth will surpass theirs.” Talk about pulling the rug out from under me. My dad was an accountant, the most boring thing in the world. Depending on the month, I was going to be a star of the NHL, a hugely successful film-maker, and/or a high paid lawyer. But hockey got too expensive, my camera broke and we can’t replace it, and I have no idea how I would pay for the eight-plus years of a law degree.
So when Tom says, “Get out your phone, Man!”, it hurts.
“Dude, get the ‘rents to buy you a new charger,” Tom says. “Anyway, check out this app. It only costs, like, ten bucks, but it’s so cool.” I look at Tom’s phone. The screen shows a roulette wheel. As it spins, different kids’ photographs from the school pop forward and then recede, like they’re all riding on the wheel.
“How does it work?”
“It’s this awesome game--Futulette!” Tom says. “The wheel spins, right, and you push enter when somebody comes up you want to know about. There I am! Did you see me?”
“Well, why didn’t you hit enter?”
“I did, but you can’t push enter when you see yourself or somebody else you’re after. By that time, it’s already gone by you. See, it sets up a pattern of the same people for about a minute, right? So you have to watch the pattern and try to anticipate when the person you want is going to come up...go! Missed again. I want to get Shemmy. Come on. Crap, no, I don’t care about her. Who the hell is that, anyway?”
A kid whose face is vaguely familiar shows up on the screen. The wheel stops. All we can see is the girl’s face--a little pimply, braces on her teeth. I think she might be in my gym class. The caption says Joy Estes.
“So what’s going on now?”
“Nobody wanted her, but just by chance a bunch of us punched her up at the same time, so now it’s doing her fortune. That’s how the app works. You try to get somebody you want, but sometimes you pick one of these losers by mistake.”
“Her fortune?” As if in answer, words scroll across Joy’s face: “Death of natural causes, age 146.” I laugh.
“What?” Tom says.
“Nobody lives to be 146. That’s stupid.”
“Dude, this is Google we’re talking about. It’s knows a hell of a lot more about the future than me and you do. Who says people won’t be living that long by then?”
The words reveal more about Joy’s future: she’ll marry at age 38; have three children, two girls and a boy; divorce at age 67; remarry; make a top salary of $88,000; suffer a stroke at 99. “Yeah, yeah, bore me some more, why don’t you? Come on--get back to the roll! I wanna see if I still come up.”
“There’s no way that’s accurate, Tom. Come on!”
“NSA much? Do you have any idea how much information is out there about us? You think that some computer can’t take all that information and feed it all into one database, crunch the numbers and the probabilities to come up with an accurate fortune? And even though the app just went public, the developers have been testing it for years. It works. It’s like 99% accurate! Oh, good, they’re finally done with her.” Tom has his phone practically plastered to his face. “Come on,” he’s urging it. “Pick me!”
I walk away, shaking my head. Lunch is half over and I haven’t even made it to the caf yet. As I walk, I see how crazy-popular Futulette has become. All around me, everybody has their cell out and is glued to the screen. “There I am!” “Hit it, hit it!” “Oh, so close!”
Walking into the cafeteria, as usual, I’m hit by a wall of noise. When the Futulette chime sounds, the volume suddenly drops to almost nothing as people read the latest fortune. I, cell-less, just walk to the front of the line, get my meal, and head out into the seating area.
Something strange is going on, though. As I pass by the tables, kids look up at me for a second, then back down at their phones, then at me again. I hear whispers: “It’s him.” “I can’t believe it.” “Who is he?” By the time I’ve found a place to sit down, everyone is staring at me, including my friend Bobby McAndrew.
“What?” I ask him.
“Jon, have you seen this?” Bobby holds up his phone.
“Yeah, I’ve seen the app. I don’t have my cell because…”
“It just did you.”
“Me?” Bobby holds his cell out to me. Over my face, the words read, “Projected age: Unlimited. Projected top income: $500,000,000 yearly. Married at age 35. Profession: Inventor/attorney/entrepreneur. Children: 3 natural, 300+ adopted.” The details start to blur together. What does this mean, projected age “unlimited”? And how many zeros are there after the five in my yearly income? This is crazy. This is impossible!
Bobby says, “What are you going to do, invent an immortality machine or something?”
“How should I know, Bobby?”
“It’s your future, Dude.”
Behind me, someone clears his throat. I turn around to see Mrs. Shreve from guidance. “Hello, Jon,” she says.
“Uh, hi,” I say.
“Jon, once you’re finished with your lunch, why don’t you come down to my office? We should talk.”
“But, what’s this about?”
“I assume you’ve seen your fortune on Futulette? I’ve been getting some calls.”
“Calls? Look, I didn’t have anything to do with...I mean, I didn’t make that stuff up. It wasn’t me!”
“You’re not in any trouble, Jon. Quite the opposite. The calls are from colleges, very prestigious ones. They’re extremely interested in a person like you, with such a promising future. Anyway, after lunch. Take your time.”
As Mrs. Shreve walks away, Bobby says, “Bro, ten minutes ago, you were, like, nobody, like, just normal. Now you’re the number one investment opportunity in the country! Must be nice.”
As a matter of fact, it is.
Reality Check: Dream 39
ü From the list of “Graduating Seniors’ Plans for Next Year”: Jon Farrell: Work/Gap Year.
Joy Estes’s Dream:
The N Word
I trace the N in the word Nothing. Over and over, darker and darker, I make the N. Pretty soon, if I keep tracing, I’ll scratch through the brown paper book cover and onto the front of my American History book.
From above, someone’s pen tip stops my pencil. I look up to see Margot Collins. She nods at what I’ve written and says, quietly, “It’s not true.”
“Whatever.” Margot sits down.
“No, not whatever. That’s just not true,” she says, putting her finger down where I’ve written “I am Nothing” with the N blacker and thicker than all the other letters. We’re in study hall in the cafeteria, last period of the day. What is Margot doing? She’s never said a word to me before.
Margot’s whispering. Ms. Warren doesn’t care what we do in here as long as we’re quiet. Last week Zander was doing a drug deal with Liz Cochrane over in the corner, but they were quiet about it so Ms. Warren never looked up.
“You don’t really believe that, do you?” Margot asks me, her finger on the writing.
“Just go away, okay?”
“You’re not nothing, Joy.” She knows my name. Wonders never cease.
“Prove it,” I say. I know what this is. She’s probably got some public service project she’s supposed to do, or maybe she wants my vote for student council. Margot can just go to hell. Or better yet, leave me alone and let me go.
She leans in close and starts to talk. Part of me doesn’t give a crap, but another part is curious. I move my ear closer to her mouth.
“In sixth grade, you remember that mouse we had in the science room?”
I nod. We named it Hagrid.
“Do you remember what happened to it?”
I know, but I’m not giving Margot anything. She’s the one that came up to me.
“Well, maybe you don’t, but I do. Mr. Goslin was letting me clean its cage.”
Another privilege reserved for the privileged, for the popular. I never got to do it.
“I dropped it, the whole cage, with the mouse in it. I killed it.”
Actually, not immediately. A rock in the cage must’ve landed on Hagrid’s head. I remember watching his legs spasm for a few seconds before he died.
“I was so upset. I mean, I knew it was an accident, but I was careless. I let the cage fall and I killed the mouse. We were all crowded around, and the mouse was dead, and I was crying.”
Except for the detail about how quickly Hagrid kicked the bucket, Margot’s memory agrees with mine. I remember joining the huddle around her. What’s the point, though?
“Everybody was trying to comfort me, trying to tell me it wasn’t my fault. You were there, Joy. Do you remember what you said to me?”
She’s got me here. I do have the pitiful picture in my head from sixth grade, but I have no idea what I told Margot back then. I should have said, “Nice going, Bitch. You killed Hagrid.” Truth is, I liked that mouse. We never got another one. It was the closest thing to a pet I ever had, even though it was shared with about 200 other kids. I remember spending a long time staring at that little white mouse shuffling around in its cage. Good old Hagrid.
“Joy, you said to me, ‘Hey, things die.’ Everyone around me was trying to be sweet and understanding. You were the only one being real. ‘Things die,’ you said. I appreciated that a lot.”
Margot’s voice sounds strange. I turn a little to look at her face. Damned if she isn’t crying. She keeps talking.
“Believe it or not, Joy, I’ve heard your voice in my head since then. When I’ve lost games and failed tests, even when my grandfather passed away, I see your calm face and hear your voice saying, ‘Hey, things die.’ You’ve helped me get through some very tough times.”
Margot places her hand on top of mine. I turn and look her in the face, see the tears still trailing down her cheeks. “I think...you’ve even saved me.” She takes her hand away and wipes her eyes. “So there’s your proof, that you’re not nothing. You’re something. You’re somebody--the somebody that told me ‘things die’ when I killed the mouse. You’re the somebody that...helped me a lot. So there.”
Margot stands and walks away. What that was about, I have no idea. She never asked for my vote, never had me sign something to say she’d done me some service. The thing is, I do remember everything she talked about, and me being all blunt and just saying, “Things die”—I hate to admit it, but that sounds about right. I probably did say it. The rest of her story, though, about me getting in her head, helping her through tough times? Yeah, right.
She was crying, though. Her voice did get choked up.
I look down at my words. I could keep scratching away at the N in Nothing until my pencil went through the brown paper, through the cover of the book, through all the pages. I just don’t feel like doing that anymore. I don’t feel much like doing any of the things I had planned to do, even the big event for the evening: getting my mother’s sleeping pills from her dresser drawer, downing them all with some big swigs of Jack Daniels from the liquor cabinet, and dying, like Hagrid.
No, that plan is out for the night. Maybe, just maybe, I’m not nothing.
Reality Check: Dream 40
ü Text from Corin Estes to her younger sister, Joy, as Joy was on the way to the liquor cabinet: “Hey, girl, just thinking of you. I’m coming over so we can hang out. Be ready!”