This is draft 10 of a novel prompted by my experiences as a debater in high school.  I started writing it after I made Beat, and the various drafts went on for a while.

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THE MASTER DEBATER 

by

Gary Walkow


     If you had told me that I was shy, I would have denied it.  I would have denied there were any characteristics that defined or limited me. 

     I wanted to be a genius, and not just any genius, but the greatest genius who had ever lived.  It was too late to be a child genius like Mozart.  Einstein was in his twenties when he came up with relativity; I had plenty of time left to do something Einstein-like.  After relativity, he spent the rest of his life working on something called the Unified Field Theory.  I planned to finish that up for old Albert, get it done well before I turned twenty.  I sent off to the Atomic Energy Commission for pamphlets on atomic energy and carefully filed them in manila folders. 

     But atomic power bored me; I turned to poetry to hedge my bets.  There were any number of young poetic geniuses.  How hard was it to come up with something like "I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear my trousers rolled"?  I wrote poems and sent them to "The New Yorker" and carefully filed the rejection notices.

     Then I got to Bellaire High and discovered debate. 

1969

Chapter 1

     Our house was like the white spaceship in "2001" and M was like HAL-9000.  Tonight, like all nights on board the mothership, dinner was at exactly six o'clock, white plastic place mats at the white Formica table in the white breakfast nook.  P's hairpiece was off, revealing the tan line at the top of his forehead where his pate went pale.  A black and white Zenith portable TV occupied a fourth place mat where a sibling might have sat.  We didn't talk at dinner but Walter Cronkite did.

     On my plate was brown ground cow meat topped with red Heinz tomato sauce.  Every Friday was meat loaf night, every Saturday salmon croquettes, every Sunday pot roast, every Monday tuna casserole, every Tuesday ground beef tacos, every Thursday Hebrew Union hot dogs stuffed with instant mashed potatoes and topped with Velveeta cheese.  Then back to meat loaf ad infinitum, ad nauseam.  

     "...General Westmoreland commended the joint military action in the Mekong Delta as proof that Vietnamization is working...."

     Tonight it was meat loaf and the Mekong Delta in the breakfast nook.

     Vietnam was part of this year's national debate topic and I was always hungry for evidence to quote, but Walter Cronkite was a newscaster, not a quotable expert, so what was the point of listening to him?  "Can I be excused?"

     "You haven't finished your meat loaf," M said.

     "It's not my meat loaf."

     "If it's on your plate then it's your responsibility to eat it."

     "But I didn't put it on my plate.  You gave me too much."

     "It's the same size portion that I always give you."

     "But since you are the equivalent of a governing body or regulatory agency determining the allotment of the meat loaf portion in question, I can't be held responsible for your misallocation of resources."

     "Instead of talking about your dinner, what about eating it?"

     "But you're accusing me of wasting meat loaf that you misappropriated without my advice or consent."

     "I suppose it's never too early to practice for Nationals."

     "Good one," I conceded.

     A commercial came on the TV.  See the USA in a Chevrolet....  P looked at the piece of meat loaf in question.  "Here, I'll eat the darn thing," he said and forked the meat from my plate and plopped it on his.

     "That is not the issue," M said.

     "No, the issue, in your own words, is food going to waste, and the food in question is no longer going to waste.  May I please be excused from the table?"

     M didn't say anything, her way of saying yes to something she didn't really want to say yes to.  I went to the sink, rinsed the granules of brown beef and red Heinz tomato sauce off my plate, put it in the white enamel dishwasher, wiped off my plastic place mat and returned it to its official drawer.   

     The sound of the CBS Nightly News echoed and faded as I retreated past the white brick fireplace, where no fire had ever been lit.  On the mantel were my debate trophies, precisely positioned, the brass goddesses of winged victory and chrome-plated public speakers polished daily by M.

     I closed my bedroom door.  Free to put on the headphones, free to drop the phonograph needle on "Are you Experienced?", free to listen to Jimi as loud as I liked, free to sit down at my desk and work, and it wasn't even "work" if it was what I wanted to do. 

     M came in, shrouded in smoke from her Salem, and lifted the headphones off of my head.  "I've been yelling for you to pick up the phone." 

     "Sorry."

     M left my bedroom door open as she walked away, her white cotton house shoes clip-clopping against her callused soles.  I closed the door and sat down at my desk before picking up the phone.  "Hello?"

     "Hi."  It was Mei Su. 

     Hearing that one word from her thrilled me.  I never expected her to call me, her voice asking for my voice.

     "I wanted to say good-bye."

     "I thought we already said good-bye when you said we shouldn't talk to each other." 

     "Don't be mean."

     I felt like arguing about that, protesting that I hadn't been mean, but I didn't. 

     "You're a great debater and you're going to have a great year."

     I'd rather be a great lover.

     "I hope you win Nationals."

     I hope to win you back.  "When are you leaving?"

     "Sunday morning at nine."

     Should I say that I'd miss her?  I didn't think that she wanted to hear that, after what we had and had not been through, that she had almost been my girlfriend, but not quite.  It already felt like a long time ago, even as I was speaking to her.

     "Still there?" Mei Su asked.

     "Still here.  I don't know what to say."

     "How about 'Good luck.'"

     "Good luck."

     She laughed. 

     "Do you want to get together before you go?" I recklessly asked.

     "I'm too busy packing. 

     "Oh.  Yes."  There must be something I could say that would sway her feelings, make her desperate to see me, some words that I could pull out of my head to persuade.  There must be some sequence of words in the English language that would win her heart.

     "Well, good-bye."

     No, not enough time to cobble together a miracle.  "Good-bye," I repeated back.

     Then I held the dead receiver in my hand.  Mei Su had called -- why?  Because she liked me?  Felt sorry for me?  Felt something?  I hadn't been thinking about her and now I was, and that wasn't a good thing, not if I felt bad like this.

     No good-bye kisses on the phone.  Not before Mei Su went off to Yale.  No good-bye kisses ever.  Only the temporary illusion that I almost had a girlfriend and now I didn't.

     What I did have was college applications and brochures stacked on my desk.  Fill in name, address, social security number.  Write an essay: "Why I want to attend ____________."  Each application a lottery ticket to freedom. 

     The Yale University application was on top.  Mei Su was going to Yale.  If I went to Yale too, then I could "accidentally" run into her -- hey, it was a free country, why shouldn't I go to Yale?

     I opened up the Yale brochure.  Ye Olde Ivy.  The Beautiful People, lolling on the green on a Spring afternoon, or, on the next page, having a deeply meaningful talk with a professor in his book-lined office.  I wished I had read every one of those books.  Cheering at a hockey game.  I had never been to a hockey game.  But what if Mei Su was at the hockey game and I felt weird seeing her and I had to avoid her, what if that ruined Yale, having Mei Su to worry about the whole time?  Yale was fucked.  Fuck Yale.

     I picked up the next brochure.  Wesleyan University.  Middletown, Connecticut.  Close to Yale, but not too close.  More Beautiful People, sledding down a hill in winter, playing Frisbee on the same hill in Spring.  A guy pouring chemicals into a beaker, his hair longer than P would ever let me grow mine.  I could be that guy.  I could be smart.  I could have long hair.  I could have a girlfriend, just like that girl in cut-offs on the quad.  And I could drop Mei Su a line, invite her up to visit me and my girlfriend, no big deal.  This time next year it could be me in that picture, I could finally be me, I could finally be free.


­chapter 2

     The debate shack was a thousand light years from "2001", a thousand light years from home.  It was beige metal, corrugated and rusty, and M had never set foot inside.

     Photographs of winning teams posing with trophies hung on the walls.  I was in three of the photos with my partner, Steve.  By the end of the debate season, the pictures of me would be taken down and I would be banished from the debate shack, persona non gratis, my name invoked by other debaters as a cautionary tale for the shame I had brought upon myself and the Bellaire debate squad.  But today I merely tortured myself staring at the photograph of Mei Su.

     Philip Velikow, a Novice Boy, five feet tall, albino pale, hovered nearby.  "There are only two debaters in three photographs.  If you get one more photo on the wall, then you'll be the only one in four.  Do you need help carrying your briefcase or anything?"

     "No, thanks, Velikow.  Good luck today."

     "Thanks!"  

     The debate squad was carpooling to the first debate tournament of the year.  As I carried my briefcase and quote drawers out the door, I promised myself not to mope.  Mei Su wasn't moping.  

     "Hi, Benjamin," Steffi said.  With Mei Su gone, Steffi was the top Senior Girl Debater. 

     "Hi."

     "I've been looking for you.  Do you have any evidence about Communist insurgency declining?"

     "I've got this quote from Arthur Schlesinger.  Out of one hundred and forty-nine insurgencies in the past eight years, only fifty-eight involve the Communists.  Something like that."

     "That would really help our affirmative case.  If I could borrow it for just a sec and make a copy, that would be a life saver."

     I reluctantly sat down on the shack's steps and opened my affirmative quote drawer.  Steffi crouched close beside me and I could feel her body heat.  She touched the plastic divider tabs.  "100.6 -- Communist Insurgency Pro?  100.7 -- Communist Insurgency Con?  What are those numbers?"

     "My own Dewey Decimal System."  I quickly plucked the desired quote from the thousand 4 X 6 cards in the drawer. 

     "You'll have to explain it to me some time.  Thanks for the loan of the quote."

     "Any time."  Except on a tournament day.  I hated loaning evidence when I might need it, and I just had.  

     I caught up with my partner, Steve, at the car.  He wore glasses and suit and tie and when I looked at him it was like I was looking at myself.

     "Where've you been?"

     "Steffi wanted to borrow a quote card."

     "Let her do her own research." 

     "Maybe we'll need to borrow evidence from her and David some time."

     "Doubtful.  It's my research too.  You don't just give it away." 

     While Steve and I were loading our briefcases and quote drawers into the trunk of his mom's black Electra, Diane, a Junior Girl, suddenly appeared.  Her hair was braided into a ponytail and she clutched a metal quote drawer to her chest.  What a bright blue dress, I thought, and wondered why I even noticed that.  She gave me this accusing look, that I was weird for staring at her breast, but I wasn't, I was staring at the part of the blue dress that happened to cover her breast, it was just an accident, but how could I explain that to her without it sounding extremely complicated, not to mention unbelievable?  

     "Can we ride with you?" Diane asked.  Her debate partner, Randi, stood close behind her.  

     "Sure."  I didn't know what else to say that wouldn't sound stupid.  It was too late to back up and clarify the whole matter of what had been a perfectly innocent, unpremeditated "stare."  But it was happening again.  Now I stared at the sheer, iridescent lip gloss on her lips.  Should I say something like: Nice lip gloss?  No moping, I'd promised myself, and no staring.  No distractions.  So no comment as I silently stood and watched Diane and Randi put their briefcases in the trunk.  Silence was safer.  Then I noticed there was sunlight highlighting Diane's brown hair.  The first debate round was in an hour; this was no time to be noticing sunlight or highlights or hair.

     "This is our first tournament as a team," Randi said.

     "We're nervous," Diane said.

     So was I.  Should I say I am too?  "Well...."  Each word I uttered to Diane felt like it came out of my mouth wrong.  Diane was a girl and girls made me nervous, made me want to say the right thing.  I wanted to say something, anything, but I was locked in a private frenzy of searching for the perfect -- or just appropriate, non-embarrassing -- word. "...don't be...."

     "I bet you're going to win," Diane said.  I heard you in the finals of Dallas Jesuit last year.  You were great."

     "No, that was a squeaker, a three-two decision."

     "You crushed that dufus in cross-ex.  You made him look like an idiot."

     Why did she remember something like that?  What did she want from me?  Some help with evidence?  She was beautiful and I wasn't and it was unfathomable that she would just want to talk me.  I wanted to get away from her so that I could take a moment to try and fathom that, to try and fathom her.

     "How did you do that?" she persisted.

     "Do what?"

     "He was asking the questions and you made him look like he didn't know the answers."

     "Sometimes you can tell what an opponent is after, what answers they want and they get so focused on that that they forget what the judge or anyone else is thinking, they get blind to the whole situation.  I mean, even if it's a yes or no question you're being asked, you can ask back a clarifying question, and before they know it, even though it's their cross-ex, you've taken control, you're asking back your own questions...."  She was smiling at me while I was going on and on with my dumb theories about cross-examination debate and I belatedly realized how wound-up I had gotten answering her question.  It was pathetic how I was prattling about such minutiae; I got embarrassed and quiet.  "...."

     "Amazing," she said. 

     I wondered what she really meant but was afraid to look her in the eye.  "Well...." 

     And because I didn't look at her, then I had to wonder even more.      

     Steve nodded an untroubled hello to the girls and we got into the Electra and drove away.  It didn't seem to bother him that Diane and Randi were in the back seat; as far as I could tell Steve never thought about girls. 

     But I did.

     "I typed up the Reischauer quotes, and that McNamara stuff about NATO.  They're in my affirmative drawer if you need it," Steve said.

     "What about the Congo?"

     "I've got some general stuff about Africa, pro, con whatever we need.  Name a country, I've got a quote, pro or con."

     "Boy, how do you do it?" Diane piped in.

     "Have to," Steve said.

     As Steve and I talked I tried to eavesdrop on Diane and Randi, to glean some knowledge of the secret workings of girls.  I wished Steve would quiet down so I could decode their whispers but he yakked about insurgency and military infrastructure all the way to Lamar High School.

     The parking lot was crowded with boxy yellow and black school buses from local schools and sleek gray Scenicruisers from distant ones.  Many arms lugged many briefcases into the auditorium.  Steve popped the trunk open.  Diane brushed against me as she picked up her quote box.  I felt tingly standing near her.

     "Good luck," she said to me.

     "Good luck," I repeated back. 

     We walked as a loose foursome quickly toward the ivy-covered school auditorium where the room assignments were posted.  Our trip together was over. 

     Inside the lobby, voices boomed off the yellow tile walls, a hundred public speakers, in public, speaking at once, all those words from all those mouths.  When I looked back Diane and Randi were gone.  I put down my briefcase and looked around at the other debaters -- the competition.

     Steve and I scanned the assignment posters, handwritten in black Marks-a-Lot and Scotch-taped to the tiles.

     "There's us, 23-A.  Affirmative against 16-B."

     "Who's 16-B?"

     "Memorial."

     "Let's go."

     We hurried out of the auditorium.  The stairwell smelled of Lysol; we climbed two steps at a time.  Grimly, quickly, huffing, puffing, we fast-walked down the deserted hallway and into the assigned room.  I turned on the lights and surveyed the field of battle.  The chalkboard had faded from black to gray and the room smelled of chalk dust and fresh floor wax.

     Our strategy was to get to the room first and set up our briefcases and quote drawers, the encampment from which we would sally forth to make our speeches. 

     I went to the blackboard and with great care wrote our names, team number, and the national debate topic:

     "Resolved: that Congress should prohibit Unilateral Military Intervention by the United States in foreign countries."

     Unilateral Military Intervention, UMI, was this year's national topic, and I would be for it and against it, affirmative and negative, hundreds of times.  Debating UMI would be the center of my life.  Because the chalk lettering of the debate topic and our team information matched, we now had the home field advantage. 

     In walked the negative team, Ralph and Freddie from Memorial High.  The protocol was to act friendly.  Ralph had a sweaty palm and a limp handshake, Freddie a slightly drier palm and a firmer grip and thought he was hot stuff in his hounds-tooth jacket.

     The judge arrived after the let's shake hands bit.  The trick was sizing him up without seeming to.  He was bald and old and wearing a gray flannel suit, the kind of guy you'd never notice except now, when what he thought mattered more than anything.  He said his hellos, very stiff upper lip, and began tapping his foot, impatient for the Memorial team to get set up.  I was nervous -- Memorial had a strong squad, it was the first debate of the year, and our affirmative case had not been battle tested.  

     The words began.  Steve's words first, as the first affirmative, presenting our case for prohibiting Unilateral Military Intervention.

     Then Freddie's words, as the first negative, attacking our words.  "...Dean Rusk noted how ineffectual the United Nations has been in ending warfare...."

     "Dean Rusk is pro-U.N., not con," Steve whispered urgently in my ear.  His fingers tickled through his quote cards and pulled exactly the Dean Rusk quote I would need for my speech.

     When Freddie finished his speech I walked to the front of the classroom to cross-examine him.  Freddie buttoned his sport coat.  The judge picked at his fingernail without looking up.  Coach Johnson slipped quietly into the back of the room, a lock of wavy brown hair falling across his eyes, a lit Parliament clamped between his lips.  Johnson was our new coach, and this would be the first time he would hear me debate.  That added pressure.

     I took a step back, to upstage Freddie, and force him to look back at me to answer.  I expected him to make a counter-move, to step back to stay side-by-side with me, but he didn't.  Was he playing some subtle mind game with me? 

     "Would you say that cooperation is a good thing?" I asked.

     "How do you mean?"

     "Well, is it better to be cooperative than to be uncooperative?"

     "Such as?"

     "Oh, such as someone being uncooperative in cross examination?"

     The judge laughed.  Freddie tugged at the sleeves of his hounds-tooth check jacket. 

     "Yes, I suppose that cooperation can be good."

     "Is NATO based on cooperation?"

     "Well, yes."

     "And has NATO been effective?"

     "That depends how you define effective."

     "What countries in Europe have gone Communist since 1947?"

     "I'm not sure."

     "Does none seem like the right number?"

     "Perhaps."

     "So perhaps the cooperative efforts of NATO have been effective?"

     "What about Vietnam?" Freddie asked.

     "You can ask me questions when it's your turn."

     The judge nodded, Johnson scribbled, Freddie fidgeted with a brass-plated coat button: I saw all this as I continued to ask Freddie questions, the details flowed in as words flowed out, one current crossing the other.  I had practiced and trained and it all happened so smoothly that I could speak fluently without thinking about speaking.  It was the best feeling in the world, standing inside and outside of myself at the same time, watching and being at the same time. 

     When the cross-examination ended, I went back to my seat for my quote cards, then returned to the podium.

     "The negative team quoted former Secretary of State Dean Rusk to the effect that the United Nations is ineffectual.  However, in his book 'The Quest for Peace,' 1965, Mr. Rusk wrote, 'In eighteen brief years, the United Nations has helped to deter or terminate warfare in Iran and Greece, in Kashmir and Korea, in the Congo and the Caribbean, and twice in the Middle East and in the western Pacific.'

     "Either the negative team accidentally added a "not" to the Dean Rusk's quotation they cited -- or Dean Rusk has changed his mind, in which case his opinions are changeable and unreliable.  In either case, the negative argument is unsubstantiated and...."

     As I continued my speech, Coach Johnson scribbled.  Was I somehow failing? 

     After the round was over, Steve went to find a bathroom and I went back to the auditorium.  In the lobby, Coach Johnson's back was to me as he talked to Coach Henderson.  Henderson had been the Bellaire High debate coach my first two years, but last May he had left Bellaire to coach debate at the University of Houston.  Coach Henderson had shot the black-and-white photographs of winning teams clutching their trophies that decorated the walls of the debate shack.

     "He's the best I've ever heard," Coach Johnson said.

     "Yep.  Benjamin's going to win Nationals this year," Coach Henderson said, and blew a puff of smoke from his Silva Thin up at the ceiling.  Then he saw me and smiled.  "Did you just feel your ears burn, Benjamin?  How are you?"

     We shook hands.  "Just fine, sir."

     "You look suitably pale."

     "Sir?"

     "From spending the summer in the library."

     "Oh.  Yes."  It made me nervous to talk to them after overhearing them talking about me; I started to leave.

     "Not so fast," Coach Johnson said.  "There's a very good chance you lost that round.

     I was shocked.  

     "Don't look so shocked."

     I tried to not look shocked.

     "International cooperation and the U.N. and peace-keeping forces might be well and good -- but not in Texas.  If there's one thing that any God-fearing Texan is sure of -- and let's assume that all of our judges are God-fearing -- it's that the Communist threat is very real and very terrible.  And you've got to answer that fear with whatever affirmative case you make."

     "What about our NATO argument?  That works."

     "If you were eighteen I'd take you to the bar down the street and we'd poll the patrons if they expect the French and the Germans to stop Brezhnev.  Hell, let's go into the judges' room and see who wants to put their lives in the hands of Willi Brandt and Charles DeGaulle."

     Felt like a fool, seduced by esoteric foreign policy arguments.  Fear was the essence of everything.  Fear of the Communists.  Fear of losing Vietnam.  Fear of losing debates.  Fear was truth and fear would set me free. 

     "Forget the United Nations, don't over-play NATO.  Richard Nixon is President, not Eugene McCarthy," Johnson said.

     "Maybe there's some way that prohibiting Unilateral Military Intervention would strengthen our fight against Moscow.  Like, what if we're losing the nuclear arms race because of all the money we have to put into conventional warfare?"

     "I told you he was a quick study," Coach Henderson said.

     "Commie threat, Commie threat, Commie threat," Coach Johnson chanted.

     "Yes, sir."

     "Chew on it." 

     As I continued into the auditorium There's a very good chance you lost and Commie threat echoed in my head, even as Benjamin's going to win Nationals counter-echoed.  If Coach Henderson said it, then it might be so; maybe I really could go all the way.  It scared me to think I would now disappoint him.  There was so much I didn't know -- for example, to cite a most recent case, that I should be arguing Commie threat and not that the U.N. was groovy.  As soon as Steve got back from the bathroom I would fill him in on Commie threat, Commie threat, Commie threat.

     The auditorium was where debaters hung out after the debate rounds, in Bedouin villages of briefcases and quote boxes.  Still buzzed from overhearing the coaches talk about me, expecting great things from me, I took my place with the Bellaire High debate tribe.

     "Here's your quote card," Steffi said, and handed it back to me, crumpled from two hours in her possession.  Perhaps she had pressed the quote card fervently to her breast.  If that quote card could talk.

     "Sorry I didn't get it back to you before the round.  Hope you didn't need it."

     "No...."  It was an unpardonable breach, not having that quote card during our first debate. 

     "It saved us.  Your research is so great.  We should go to the library together sometime," she said and hurried off. 

     "I heard you lost," David said, breezing past.  He was Steffi's debate partner.  He'd pinned a peace button to his lapel now that the first round was over and he could flaunt his beliefs without consequences.  I admired his sneaky duplicity.   

     "From who?"

     "The grapevine.  That's what you get for being a peacenik."

     "I'm not a peacenik."

     He flashed me the peace sign, tossed down his briefcase, and ambled toward the stage, where the drama crowd had congregated.  They were noisy and didn't wear ties and lacked discipline and we debaters kept our distance.  Except for David, who made a beeline for Shayne, the queen of Bellarama, the Bellaire High drama club.  Her frizzy black hair was tied into twin ponytails as wiry as Brillo pads.  She grabbed hold of David and started to tango. 

     Shayne saw me staring.  "You need to have more fun, Benjamin."

     "Okay."

     "I mean it."

     "And I really mean okay."

     She flashed me the peace sign with both hands, just like Tricky Dick, but she was missing the first two joints of her ring and middle finger on her right hand so it was a maimed peace sign.  I shot back a whole-fingered version of same.

     Then Diane's mint blue dress jumped out at me.  She hadn't asked me for quote cards and she might even say yes if I asked her out for pizza, if the offer was phrased carefully, casually, like it was no big deal if she said no.  But I needed some reason to walk over to her, I needed something to say that sounded better than hello. 

     Guess what, Coach Johnson thinks we lost the first round?  No. 

     Remember what we were talking about, back before we got in the car?  No. 

     How did your first debate go?  Yes.  Ask her a question she would most likely gladly answer.  I walked toward her.

     But I was five steps behind Eddie Zalta.  My moment of framing the perfect opening question had cost me dearly, had lost me the opportunity, because Zalta, the debate squad's ladies' man, swooped in front of me and gallantly took Diane's quote box from her.  No one knew that I had tried, that I was walking boldly toward Diane when the disaster of Zalta's Unilateral Male Intervention occurred.  Zalta threat, Zalta threat, Zalta threat.

     I inched over to the doorway and watched as Zalta led Diane out to his dad's white Coupe de Ville, shamelessly combing his hair while he chatted her up.   He opened the massive passenger door for her, and after she scooted inside, softly closed it.  The white Cadillac looked blue under the darkening twilight sky.  I saw him smirk; I heard the Cadillac purr to life, then glide past the yellow school buses and out of the parking lot, out into the night.  Why did I feel so lonely standing in that doorway?  Why couldn't Zalta feel lonely?

     I vowed not to worry about who drove off with who in what white Cadillac, or worry about what they did or didn't do after driving off.  After all, it was my mind.  I could tell it what to think.  But it was only a vow, easy to make, hard to keep.  I turned away from the dark parking lot. 

     Inside the auditorium it was bright and loud and swimming with voices.  I opened my mouth and became one of them.


chapter 3

      The phone rang and M yelled that it was for me.  

     "Hello?"

     "Hi, big boy."

     "Shayne?"

     "Who else?" 

     Shayne and I had joked around at tournaments last year, and we'd played charades on the bus back from Dallas Jesuit, but I was surprised that she had called out of the blue on a Sunday night.  I stared at the black and white keys of my Smith-Corona typewriter, as if I could conjure those letters into words to say into the telephone to her. 

     "Time to have fun."

     "What?"

     "Want to go out?"

     Did she mean a date?  Was she asking me out on a date?

     "Still there?"

     "Yeah."

     "We'll come pick you up."

     So, not a date.  "We?"

     "All your questions will be answered.  We'll be right over."  She hung up before I could find our what was up. 

     M was in the laundry room.  A blur of whites was spinning in the dryer and the air smelled of hot metal and lint.

     "That was Shayne.  We're going to go out."

     "Go out?"

     I needed M's permission, and permission was only granted for a reason. 

     "We need to go do some work for the next tournament."

     "Go where?" she asked as she sorted the darks from the lights.

     "The debate shack."

     "Tonight?"

     "Yes."

     "Shayne's not a debater."

     "Dramatic Interp is a competitive event."

     M said nothing as she measured a cup of Ivory Snow, clicked the dial with an engineer's precision and started the wash cycle; without missing a beat, she started polishing the top of the white Maytag washing machine. 

     Water gurgled and sloshed as the wash cycle started and I had to raise my voice.  "Shayne's in Magnet English with me.  She's a good student."

     "It's awfully last minute.  I don't know."

     "It's not something you plan a month in advance."  M said nothing. "I'm a senior, for chrissakes."

     "Don't swear."

     "We're Jewish.  Chrissakes isn't swearing."

     "I'll be the judge of that." 

     She folded her arms.  I folded my arms.  She neatly folded her cleaning towel.  "Okay.  But I want you home by nine o'clock."

     "Ten."

     "Nine-thirty, and that's final."

     I had survived her cross-ex with my affirmative case intact.

     Waiting outside, the air was cold and my khaki wind breaker was thin but I didn't dare go back inside for a heavier coat; M's fickle permission might be revoked.  A couple of stars twinkled in the Space City sky; it didn't take very long to count them.  After that I sat on the cold gray curb and tried to think of something else to count, but before I could, David drove up in his dad's blue Camaro, with Shayne in the bucket seat beside him.

     So David was the we.  He flashed me the peace sign.  "Greetings, peacenik."

     "Greetings, my fellow American," I replied. 

     Shayne flashed me her missing-finger peace sign.  Tonight she was a rainbow: lime blouse, Dreamsicle-orange stretch pants, crushed coral lipstick.  David opened the low-slung car door and slouched forward, and I saw Steve in the back seat.  He didn't flash the peace sign.  I had to angle my legs to wedge into the cramped space beside Steve, and then we were off.

     "Where's Steffi?"

     "Probably at home yakking on her Princess phone."  

     "So what are we doing?"  I asked as we drove away.

     "Yeah, what are we doing?" Steve asked, as puzzled as I was.    

     That cracked Shayne and David up. 

     "We've got a surprise," Shayne said.

     "Have you ever been experienced?" David asked and held up a hand-rolled cigarette. 

     A marijuana cigarette. 

     "Don't let peer pressure influence you," Shayne said.

     "Oh, I won't."

     I was very excited; I suspected other people of doing it, the longhairs at school.  Marijuana was like sex, something that happened to other people, but never to me.  Seeing that crinkly hand-rolled cigarette in David's hand, both ends twisted to a point, I was thrilled that something forbidden might finally happen.  There was no question of saying no.  But I saw Steve biting his lip, looking the opposite of excited.

     "Possession of marijuana is a felony," Steve said.

     "Only if you get caught," Shayne said.

     "Keep an open mind," David said.

     "What about brain damage?" Steve asked.

     "A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste."  With the glowing orange tip of the car lighter, David set fire to the crinkled white rolling paper; the smoke smelled sickeningly sweet as it curled toward the padded blue car roof. 

     "Hold the smoke in," David managed to squeak as he did exactly that, and passed the joint back to Shayne, who took a long drag on Puff the Magic Dragon and passed it back to me, the rolling paper stained with her crushed coral lipstick. 

     From her lips to mine I thought as I inhaled deeply.  And coughed violently, which amused David and Shayne to no end.  I passed the joint to Steve.  He just stared at it.

     "Don't let it go out," Shayne said in a raspy voice, trying to hold the smoke in while she talked.

     Steve frowned and took a puff. 

     I felt like Easy Rider.  My throat was still raw when the joint came back to me, but I didn't draw in quite so much smoke and managed to hold it in this time. 

     As we smoked David cruised the streets of Meyerland and Braes Bayou.  I thought I felt something odd, but I couldn't be sure.  In fact I wasn't sure what I should feel, even though I had read Aldous Huxley's "The Doors of Perception," but that book was about magic mushrooms.

     "Feeling anything strange, Benjamin?" Shayne asked and I saw exactly where the crushed coral lipstick was now missing from her lips.

     "Maybe."

     "Maybe means no."

     "No, maybe means maybe," I countered.

     "Think Benjamin is stoned?"

     "Maybe.  Maybe Benjamin gets more argumentative when he gets stoned," David said and pushed in a tape of "The Doors" into the eight-track player and cranked up the volume of "Light My Fire."  "You never know about peaceniks."

     "I'm not a peacenik."

     "Argumentative."

     "Dopenik."

     "What about you, Steve?"

     "This is weird."

     "It's supposed to be weird."

     I was jealous that Steve was stoned and I wasn't, that there was something wrong with me, that I was behind, that I would have to work extra hard to get properly stoned. 

      We smoked the first joint down to where it was burning our fingers when we passed it around.  David immediately lit another one.  I silently agreed with Steve about the felony thing -- I was paranoid about getting busted by the HPD, cruising around like this, the windows rolled up, the Camaro thick with sweet marijuana smoke.

     "How long have you been doing this?"

     "Since July," David said.

     "July?"  I felt left out.  It was September -- I was three months behind -- I needed to catch up.  "Why didn't you tell me?"

     "I'm telling you now."

     They were so far ahead of me.  I wanted to be stoned, I wanted to be the best at getting stoned.

     Then the music began sounding very intense, and not just loud, more than loud, better than loud.  I didn't have to think about whether or not I felt strange because everything was strange and Jim Morrison was singing people are strange when you're a stranger which was just perfect.  Perfectly strange.  And then Shayne turned around in her chrome-rimmed bucket seat and smiled strangely at me.

     "Benjamin's fucked up.  No maybe about it."

     I smiled back at her -- shyly, gladly -- like we were sharing a secret.

     "I think, therefore I am...stoned."

     "Cartesian dope logic.  Bullshit, preppie," David said.

     Bullshit, preppie was a dumb line straight out of "Love Story."  And David knew that I knew that.  And I knew that David knew.  A room full of laughing mirrors.

     I exhaled a lung full of smoke against the rear window.  "Dig the windows."

     "You mean The Doors."  Shayne said..

     "No, the windows -- lucky windows -- they're so stoned from all the smoke."

     "Steve?"

     "This......is......weird......"  Was I imagining those gaps between his words, or were they really there?

     "Does the music have to be so loud?" he asked.

     "Yes!" David said.

     I had been stoned for how long?  Forever?  But Jim Morrison was still singing "When You're Strange."  Stoned-time was infinitely stranger than straight-time.  Which got me to thinking about time in general.  And my thing -- mine -- about trying to understand time.  I remembered eighth grade, when I took the bus downtown to the Main Library and looked up every reference to time I could find, but the books were either about clocks or physics gobbly-gook that didn't tell you what time was, really was.  Amazing, that time was something that no one knew anything about.  I was thinking this and listening to the music and realizing how pretty Shayne was all at once, each single thought completely occupied my consciousness until that next, all-consuming thought pushed the old thought aside. 

     All this while David drove us downtown to Love Street Light Circus.  It was an incredible adventure, just parking the car and going inside.

     "Can you have a bad trip on grass?" Steve asked. 

     "You trip on acid, not grass," David said

     "It's called a 'bad acid trip,'" I added.

     "The instant expert," Shayne anointed.

     "A bad grass trip is a definitional impossibility," I amended.

     "This......feels......too......weird......"  Steve looked paranoid, or I felt paranoid looking at him, somehow there was paranoia somewhere between him and me, but this was too much fun for paranoia, couldn't Steve see that?

     Inside, the club was long and low-ceilinged with everyone sitting on the floor, and a San Francisco-style light show, blobs of emerald green and ruby red and diamond blue color oozing over the band as it played a long version of "Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida," the music so loud that the bass guitar made the wood-plank floor throb.  Terrible and great mixed up, inseparable.  Was it obvious to everyone that I was stoned? 

     Sat down cross-legged on the floor; we were the youngest guys there.  Wanted to scream out "I'm stoned!"  Everyone should be stoned.  Maybe everyone was stoned.  Looked over at Shayne and she looked really good -- better than she had ever looked.  Saw past -- through -- beyond her wiry black hair: she was flat-out pretty.  Looked down and saw David and Shayne holding hands -- wished I had thought of that before David.  Maybe I could hold Shayne's hand too.  Then it hit me, David and Shayne were boyfriend/girlfriend -- and how long had they been boyfriend/girlfriend?  And sitting on the floor right in front of me was a beautiful girl with long blonde hair and a purple Paisley blouse and vinyl boots -- so pretty -- why couldn't I just kiss her?  What was it about society's hang-ups and my hang-ups that kept me from kissing that beautiful girl?  Now I knew, really knew, why Dylan had sung But I would not feel so all alone, everybody must get stoned....  Forgot all about Steve -- until I remembered -- and there he was, sitting on the other side of me, head in hands, out of it, so far into his head that he was in another place.

     "I know what it's like," he said.

     "Yeah," I agreed.

     "I know what it's like!"

     And then -- instantly? -- we were back in the blue Camaro -- driving downtown and there was the Main Library -- I had been thinking about the library -- when? -- and there it was -- there was a clock on the library -- right, I had been thinking about the time I had gone to the library to research time, back in the days when I wanted to be the next Einstein, way back before debate -- wanted to tell David and Shayne and Steve all about this but there was too much to tell, and we were already past the library before I could speak.  David lit another joint -- passed it back -- I inhaled deeply without coughing -- "Get Back" on the radio -- hearing it deep and glorious.     

     Young Gods driving through the dark new blue sparkling city.  Traded in the old black and white set for the Wonderful World of Color.  Shayne slanted the rearview mirror her way and put on a fresh coat of crushed coral lipstick.

     "Benjamin likes dope," Shayne said.

     "I love dope."

     "Everyone thinks that you're so straight because you're such a fanatic about debate."

     Thought about speaking, but somewhere between my brain and my tongue it didn't happen, not in the usual way -- no word came out and no one but me seemed to notice.

     Shayne twisted around in the bucket seat -- held my face in her hands, stared into my eyes.  "You are a maniac." 

     "I am a maniac," I concurred.

     "Benjamin loves dope," Shayne let go of my face and -- blink -- her face was resting on David's shoulder.

     "Does Steve like dope?" she asked.

     Steve looked at Shayne as if seeing her for the first time.  "I know what it's like to be dead."

     "Do tell."

     "I know what it's like to be dead."

     ...get back, get back to where you once belonged....

     Somehow so soon, too soon, we were back in Meyerland, curving along Braes Bayou, four Bayou Jews in a blue canoe, and then it hit me that David was driving me back to Paisley Street.  Steve's seat was empty.  What had happened in the gap between the last then that I remembered and now?

     "Where's Steve?"

     "Steve knows what it's like to be dead."

     David pulled up to the curb that I had sat on earlier tonight, a lifetime ago; he shook black Sen-Sen out of a box and handed a couple to me.  They tasted terrible, like evil licorice.  He heated up the car lighter, pulled out a little tin box decorated with a blurry Taj Mahal and dumped some sandalwood incense on the glowing orange lighter tip.  The keening smoke made my eyes water.  "Why?"

     "To hide the smell."

     "But incense smells too."

     "A legal smell."

     Home.  Too soon I was home.  The last place in the world that I wanted to go was back into the white brick mothership, a scary white tonight.  "What time is it?"

     "Ten till eleven," David said.

     If M was awake, she would kill me for staying out too late. 

     I was trying to think of a reason to stay with David and Shayne -- I was trying to think of an excuse -- I was trying to think.

     David opened the door, slumped over the steering wheel, and pushed his bucket seat forward.  I grabbed onto the chrome seat edge, cold to the touch, and hoisted myself out of the cramped back seat.  "Get Back" thumped loudly now on Paisley Street.  Thumped toward M, I imagined, inside smoking a Salem and clucking her tongue at every guitar lick.

     "Wait."  What to say to keep them here?  What case to make?  

     "Benjamin, you look so wasted," Shayne said.

     "Let your freak flag fly, doctor," David said and closed the car door.  He had the Camaro and Shayne and music and dope.  He hit the gas and was gone. 

     Buzzing in my ears -- from all the loud music?  Or the cratering of the canyons of my mind?

     The porch light was on.  Unblinking.  Didn't want to move.  But did.  Blinked.

     Blinked my way back into the house.   

     Inside, the swoosh of the central air conditioning, hum of the white Frigidaire -- all those stray spaceship sounds.  My Keds squeaked on the white terrazzo -- took off shoes -- glided on white tennis socks.  Luckily, no M. 

     Fiercely hungry, quietly got a spoon out of silverware drawer, opened freezer, took out a half-gallon carton of Bluebelle Supreme Vanilla.  Stood in cold light of freezer, dug spoon into hard ice cream, felt the amazing freezing absolute sweetness of ice cream.  Delirious with joy.  All danger forgotten. 

     "Where have you been?" M asked, as scary as the Bride of Frankenstein in white quilted polyester robe and aluminum curlers.  An explosion of light as M flipped the light switch on.  Heart leaped into throat, choked on ice cream.  Had no plausible answer for anything. 

     "With David and Shayne and Steve."

     "Where?"

     Well...well...risk a familiar lie?  "The debate shack."

     "Until eleven?"

     Well...well....

     "And how long have you been eating ice cream like that?"

     Well.... "Just for a minute."

     "Not years?  Not months?"

     Well.... Had violated a basic Paisley food taboo, eating directly from a carton.  Had violated a good housekeeping taboo too, keeping the freezer open, causing dreaded frost to form.  Fumbled to put the carton of ice cream away, but fingers wouldn't work right; fingers were too stoned.

     "Are you having trouble answering me?" M persisted.

     "No.  I'm sorry."  Ice cream carton closed.  Freezer door closed.

     "Aren't you forgetting something?"

     "I said I was sorry."

     M put her Salem in her mouth and bustled me aside -- the ice cream carton sat melting on the counter.

     M put the carton in the freezer.  Then turned coldly to face me and blew cool gray menthol smoke at the ceiling.  "Have you been drinking?"

     "No.  I'm just tired."  M wanted questions answered: where I had been, what I done, list my alibis, etcetera.  Being stoned was now the worst feeling, the polar opposite of fun.  Retreated.  A good night kiss was expected.  But then M would smell my breath and wasn't Sen-Sen more suspicious than what it hid?

     "Where are you going, Benjamin?"

     "To the bathroom."  The only excuse for privacy that was unassailable. 

     There -- instantly? -- stared disbelievingly at my face in the bathroom mirror.  So odd to be seeing me.  Certainly there must be something I understood.  Safe for the moment in here.  But there would be more questions to answer in the morning.  Needed better answers next time.

     Bathroom seemed weird: the bowl of seashell soap (only for guests), the embroidered linen towels (also for ghostly guests, also verboten). 

     Stoned.

     Mirror, mirror on the wall: And people just get uglier and I have no sense of time....  Could I safely cross the hallway?  Had I waited long enough?  Or too long?  Couldn't tell. 

     Door bravely opened. 

     Tip-toed across terrazzo. 

     Happy end to the adventure, closed my bedroom door behind me.

     Laid down on top of the white bedspread and watched the ceiling breath and buckle and bow.  The ceiling like a white, swelling sea.  Sea of dreams.  Drifting.  Felt myself drifting to sleep. 

     Felt alive.

chapter 4

     When I saw Shayne the next day in Magnet English, I was glad and embarrassed.  Glad to see her, embarrassed that I had acted like a stoned fool last night.

     Magnet English was for students who were "falling short of their academic potential" and Shayne and I, without planning or premeditation, had both fallen into that category.  Mrs. Wiley was the High Priestess of Magnet English.  Her dress was short, just shy of mini, and her black hair was short, too, a coy pageboy.

     "Many dead brain cells?" Shayne asked.

     Huh, I wondered.

     "From the drug abuse."

     "Oh.  Yes.  Thousands dead.  Millions."

     "Or you're too fried to know you're fried.  What's your IQ?"

     "I don't know."

     "We're supposed to have high IQs to be in this class."

     We were halfway through an allotted ten minutes of silent reading and reflection.  I took another stab at the assigned reading, but I wasn't in the mood for descriptions of Dublin.

     "Well?" Shayne whispered in my ear, Juicy Fruit on her breath. 

     "Well what?"

     "Are you going to do it or what?"

     "Do what?"

     "Ask what our IQ's are."

     Mrs. Wiley lowered a well-thumbed copy of "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" and shot a menacing look my way. 

     I averted my eyes into my less well-thumbed copy of same, only to see a note slide into view.  Are you AFRAID to ask?

     As the silence dragged on, another note appeared.  MR. CROSS-EX???

     "Any questions?" Mrs. Wiley finally asked.

     I looked at Shayne.  She looked at me.  I raised my hand and was duly called on. 

     "What's my IQ?"

     "Why do you ask?"

     "Because you said we had to be "gifted but under-motivated" to be in this class.

     "That is correct."

     "Can you tell us how gifted?"

     "That's not germane to the discussion at hand."

     "Joyce is writing about what a genius he is.  Isn't it germane to consider that same issue in relation to the class in which we are studying Joyce's book?"

     "An IQ is confidential information."

     "You mean we can't even know our own IQ's?  You said the theme of this book was self-knowledge." 

     "Let's please get back to discussing James Joyce."

     "Did he have a high IQ?" 

     Shayne laughed.  Mrs. Wiley didn't.

     "We were discussing the symbolism of the beach where Joyce has his final epiphany...."

     Another note was passed my way.  Mr. high IQ -- want to get high?

     YES.

     Come to my boudoir after school.

     Boudoir, now there was an exciting word.  YES

     Knock on my bedroom window -- purple curtains.

     purple curtains = purple haze?  Couldn't wait for my date with purple haze.

     I plucked a grape.  Unlike M, Steve's mother didn't care about naked untidy grape twigs.  At Steve's house I could work on debate, eat great snacks, and not have to endure M's hegemony.  

     "What did you think about last night?" Steve asked.

     "It was great."

     "You actually liked it?  I hated that I couldn't think what I wanted to think.  It was like I wasn't me any longer."

     Which was exactly what I had liked.  And Steve phrased it so concisely.  "Maybe we should try pot again."

     "No, thanks.  Once was more than enough."

     ...Lucky windows, they're so stoned from all the smoke....  Hoped Steve didn't remember that particular quote.

     "You really liked it?"

     "Sort of, I mean, it was different."

     "Different isn't necessarily good."

     "No...."

     "Well, at least it's over."

     "Yeah."

     Steve pushed a quote card my way.  "Robert McNamara, on the Soviet threat to Western Europe, the importance of nuclear deterrence, as it relates to the Berlin Wall.  What do you think?"

     What did I think?  It was a great quote, Steve was always finding great quotes, but there were only so many minutes before I had to be home for dinner.  I imagined a brave new world waiting for me in Shayne's boudoir. 

     "Great stuff."  My head felt hollow and I knew just how I wanted to fill that hollowness up.  How soon could I discreetly leave? 

     "I've still got this horrible taste in my mouth."

     "Drink some more Dr. Pepper."

     "Wasn't it horrible?"

     "Mmmm."

     We sipped our Dr. Peppers in silence. 

     "Do you think David's a drug addict?"

     "No."

     "What about Shayne?"

     "I think lots of people smoke pot."

     "Think so?"

     "Yeah."

     "Idiots."

     "Yeah. "  Maybe he was right.  Maybe he was smarter than me.  Maybe I was about to get dumber.  Certainly he would think I was dumb for wanting so badly to go to Shayne's to try getting high again.  But I wasn't going to not do it just because of Steve.  "I need to get going."

     "Go where?"

     "Home," I lied.

chapter 5

     I ran all the way to Shayne's, worried I was too late.  The air conditioning compressor was my stepping-stone up to the fabled boudoir window.

     I was about to tap on the pane when, through the lilac curtains, in the flickering light of a joss stick, I saw Shayne (her blouse mellow yellow) and David (his pants striped purple and yellow) in each other's arms (her yellow tangled with his yellow) on her deep purple bedspread. 

     Kissing.

     Well, that's what a boudoir was for.  Just not for me.  Not meant to be. 

     I'd never seen them kissing.  I was jealous that David had a girlfriend, and that girlfriend was Shayne, the only girl it was easy for me to talk to.  Mei Su had never been easy to talk to, and I had never been in Mei Su's bedroom.  No, Mei Su had never been my girlfriend.  And now Shayne would never be.  The very idea of a girlfriend seemed like a delirious impossibility.

     The first problem with a girlfriend was simply getting one.  That was the first affirmative, so to speak.

     The second problem with a girlfriend was keeping it secret.  Or dealing with the fact that other people knew that I had a girlfriend.  Why was that so unbearable?  Because it opened me up to ridicule?  Because it showed M that I had feelings for someone else?  And feelings -- what were feelings -- how could I even think about feelings?  That was a contradiction in terms.  And when you're in a state of shock how much do you really think?  David and Shayne were kissing and that seemed much more exotic and forbidden than drugs.  And while I was thinking all this, Shayne saw me.

     "We've got a peeping Tom," she said.

     "No, a peeping Benjamin," David said.

     "Sorry," I mumbled, flustered.  Why weren't they flustered from me seeing them kissing?

     "Are you going to stand out there all day?" Shayne asked.  "Entréz vous."

     So through the bedroom window I entréz voued, parting the lilac curtains to climb inside.  "John Barleycorn" played on her stereo.  Lavender incense curled toward the ceiling, a sweet purple haze in Shayne's purple room.  Shayne's walls were covered with Bellarama posters: Shayne in Guys and Dolls, Shayne in Once Upon A Mattress, Shayne in The Music Man.  Her make-up table was cluttered with tubes of Yardley lipstick, from ice blue to hot pink.  Acid rock albums and lime-pink-lemon clothes were piled everywhere.  For me, coming from the white pall of Paisley Street, chaos like this was the ultimate form of freedom.  Let your freak flag fly, or let it fall to the floor and don't bother to pick it up.

     "Where's Steve?"

     "At his house."

     "Your partner didn't want to get high?"

     "No."

     "I know what it's like to be dead," Shayne said in a perfectly Steve-like way and I pretended to laugh along with them. 

     David flipped his black hair back from his eyes, pulled a baggie of dope out of his pants, and got busy rolling a joint, using a Monopoly board to clean the seeds from the grass.  David tilted the board and seeds rolled down to Marvin Gardens.  It drove me crazy how easily things came to David -- without seeming to do any work he scored 1540 on his SAT's, he scored dope, he scored Shayne.

     No sex for me, but drugs.  Drugs would make up for the lack of sex.  Drugs was more than I had had a day ago.  Maybe sex would follow from drugs, just not today.

     The door knob rattled and then there was a knock.  David instantly folded up the Monopoly board and the seeds rolled out of Jail and into the purple frills of the bedspread.

     "Who is it?" Shayne asked in her queenly Bellarama voice.

     "It's a bust."

     Shayne got up and unlocked the door.  I marveled that her parents actually let her lock her bedroom door. 

     Gary Peters came in with a cigarette in hand, looking like the Marlboro Man's demented younger brother.  He pulled a can of Lone Star Beer out of his blue jean jacket.  Gary did Bellarama's stage lighting; everyone said he was a genius -- an electrical genius, a math genius, a chemistry genius, an all-around genius.  Geniuses were supposed to act crazy and all-around geniuses were supposed to act all-around crazy. 

     Shayne locked the door again; David unfolded the Monopoly board.  I was thirsty for some smoke.

     Gary pointed the hot coal of his Marlboro and said, "Natural selection's gonna get you, David!  Natural selection's gonna get you!"  Gary was very big on Darwinism when he got drunk.

     David ignored Gary and licked the joint into serviceable shape. 

     "So what are you losers doing?"

     "Having fun," Shayne said.  She cracked her window open as David lit the joint and passed it to her; I couldn't wait for it to get to me.

     "You call this fun?  I'll show you fun."  Gary pulled the cord that turned on Shayne's ceiling fan, then he jumped up and grabbed onto one of the slowly rotating blades.

     "No -- it'll break!"

     Gary rode the blade for a quarter turn then it tore loose from the ceiling and Gary fell laughing in a heap of plaster on to Shayne's bed.

     "Asshole!"

     "Hey, it was an accident."

     "Your whole life is an accident."

     And the joint never got to me.

chapter 6 

     I was home and I wasn't high.  Monday night tuna casserole burbled in the oven.  I opened at the white Frigidaire and stared into its frosty depths.  I wanted ice cream, but was forbidden from eating it before dinner.  Instead, I lifted a cold orange carrot stalk from a plastic glass of peeled carrots and nibbled.

     "Frost is forming," M said, startling me, her dark eyes unblinking.  I let my eyes swim out of focus and M's white blouse and scarf blended into the white walls and white Formica counters -- only the dark parts of M were left.  "I said, frost is forming.  Please close those doors."

     I did as told and closed both doors of the monolithic Frigidaire. 

     "Get a plate for those carrots."

     "I don't need a plate."

     "A plate is neater."

     "Carrots don't leave crumbs."

     M got a plate for me. 

     "I said carrots don't leave crumbs."

     "All food leaves crumbs."

     I chomped defiantly, crumblessly.  "When have you seen a carrot crumb?  Do you see any crumbs now?"

     "That's not the issue."  M crossed her arms.

     "No, the issue is crumbs and whether or not they are inherent to eating carrots in general, and this carrot in particular.  And based on the prima facie evidence I would have to say that eating carrots without a plate does not endanger the hygienic integrity of the kitchen."  I finished the carrot with a vicious, decisive crunch.  "I rest my case."

     "If you want to eat another carrot, use a plate.  Period.  No debate."

     No judge, no rules of evidence, no debate.  I couldn't argue with M and win, so I put the glass of carrots back in the refrigerator and walked back to my room. 

     Headphones on, wanted Jimi's guitar to wash everything else away, but it wouldn't wash away, even with the volume pushed to "10", the ceiling and walls and door were still there and I was lying on my bed like The Stranger in his cell.

     CARROTS DO NOT LEAVE CRUMBS, I silently screamed.  And who gives a fuck about carrots anyway? 

     Not me.

CHAPTER 7

     No tournament on Saturday, so Steve and I went to the Rice University Library and staked out a cubicle.  He sat opposite me, typing.  My fingers sat poised on the keyboard of my portable Smith-Corona, on the verge of minting a blank index card into evidence.  But all I could think about was dope.  Did that make me a dope fiend? 

     Steve stopped typing.  "What do you think about this argument -- we need the draft to supply manpower for military intervention, but given it's political unpopularity, the draft is unreliable."

     "We could get sucked into arguing in favor of a volunteer army."

     "I hate volunteer army arguments."

     "So what do you think about the draft?"

     "It's a dicey argument."

     "No, I mean the real draft." 

     "Thank God for college deferments, that's what I think," Steve said and resumed typing.

     "I don't know what I'd do if I got a low lottery number."

     "You won't have to do anything.  You'll be in college."

     Through the cubicle window, I saw David wander down an aisle of books. 

     I hurried out of the cubicle as if on the trail of hot evidence.  Stared at the back of David's head as I followed him a safe distance behind, then veered into a parallel aisle, tracking the squeak of his desert boots on linoleum.   Intervention to acquire strategic resources.  Spy vs. Spy. 

     The squeaking stopped -- I stopped -- peeked through the gray metal book racks -- and was startled by David staring back at me.  Caught.  "Oh.  Hi."

     "Hi.  What's up?"

     "Who said anything was up?"  Weird talking to him through a hole in a shelf of books, as if in prison, which is where this should all logically lead, the moral of the story, the just consequences of dopedom.  Now or never.  "I was wondering...."

     "Yesss?"

     "I'd like to get some, you know...."

     David raised his eyebrows, lowered his voice, wiggled his fingers to simulate quotation marks.  "Quote cards?  Do you want your own quote cards?"

     "Quote cards?"

     "If you don't like my euphemism, pick another."

     "Right, quote cards.  Yes.  Where do you get them?"

     "Can't quote my source.  And it'll cost you -- ten dollars."

     I nodded agreeably, willing to agree to anything.  "How soon?"

     "Apparently not soon enough."

     Monday, 3:03 PM, in the debate shack, at the lockers, David appeared.  "I've got the quote card."

     "Quote card?"

     "Your quote card."

     "Oh.  Quote card.  Just a sec."

     Steve was across the street, behind the wheel of his mom's Buick Electra. 

     "I'm riding home with David."

     Steve saw David lurking.  "Why?"

     "He's got some quote cards."

     "You're borrowing quote cards from David?

     "It might be good evidence, you never know."

     "We were going to work."

     "We still are, just separately."

     Steve looked disappointed and suspicious. 

     But I was free, just me and David in the Camaro.  And a joint, ignited by the glowing orange car lighter.  My second time getting high -- held the smoke down, didn't cough.  Are you experienced? Jimi asked.  Yes, I am experienced.

     David parked the Camaro on Paisley, dug into his pants.  A red Trojan packet fell out of his corduroys.  Unembarrassed, he repocketed it and pulled a baggie of dope out.  "Keep it in your underwear, no red-blooded cop'll look in there."  He passed the baggie over, warm to the touch, and I gladly, gratefully held what had been nestling in his pubis since when?  Homeroom? 

     "Ten dollars, professor, and this fine lid is yours."

     "Where do I get rolling papers?"

     "Here, on the house."  He tossed me a dented pack of Zig-Zags.

     "Want to come in?"

     "No, I've got plans."

     Shayne plans?

     Ten dollars later, stoned and alone with my very own lid on the mothership.  M & P gone until dinner.  Roamed the white Arctic wasteland.  Had the means in hand to elevate my high to a higher frequency.

     Opened the baggie.  Savored the warm green cocoa butter smell of all that grass just waiting to seep into my lungs, into my head.  So much dope, could one ounce be so bounteous? 

     Stoned fingers fumbled, stems poked holes in tissue-thin rolling paper, green seeds fell into white carpet. 

     Took my corkscrew-shaped joint outside.  Burn, baby, burn.  Smell drifting over fence?  Neighbor's watching through curtains?  M's Le Sabre pulling into driveway?  No.  Didn't need any more smoke.  Stubbed out joint on sole of desert boot, stashed roach in shirt pocket.

     Back onboard mothership, back at desk, admired baggie of dope.  All mine.  Ow -- fuck! -- what the fuck?! -- roach was still burning in pocket -- flipped it onto the ink blotter -- crushed out the orange coal with a quote card.  Brown stain on the blotter, ragged burn hole in polka dot shirt.  Quick covert action: turned ink blotter over, hid damaged shirt, put on clean T-shirt, hid dope baggie in the gap behind bottom desk drawer, below M's radar.

     Safely high.  Nothing to it.  Sit back, relax, float downstream.  So many songs to chose from, which one to play in my head?  Alone, only me to worry about, and who was me, chase that thought down.  Me chasing me.  All this before dinner, all these mutations before immutable Monday night tuna casserole.

     The next day, Steve came home with me, sat at my desk typing evidence.  I was comforted by the presence of the marijuana hidden behind the bottom desk drawer, something I dare not talk to Steve about as I culled quotes from "Congressional Record," a boring litany of where as and wherefores and there as and therefores, dead dry crumbly words on pulpy paper, my fingers grimy with printer's ink. 

     Maybe debate work wouldn't seem like such a drudge with some music.  Picked side one of "Electric Ladyland."  Lowered the volume from righteous "nine" to discreet "three."  Instantly comforted by the timpani and stretchy backwards voices on track one, I settled back to work.

     Steve stopped typing. "Ugh.  What is that?"

     "Jimi Hendrix.  It'll grow on you."

     "Like fungus."

     "Give it a chance."

     "It's stupid.  Did you like this stuff before?"

     "Before what?"

     "Before you started using narcotics."

     "I haven't started anything."

     "Have you tried marijuana again?"

     "No."  I turned off the music and counter attacked.  "Have you tried it again?"

     "Of course not."

     Maybe Steve was right.  Maybe it was a narcotic.  Maybe I was narcotized.  Maybe marijuana had already made my mind into a hall of mirrors because it felt so convoluted, just him and me in my bedroom.

     His typing resumed.  The music didn't.

chapter 8

     Finals, Westchester High School Tournament.  Linda, the first affirmative from Lafayette, finished her speech and stood waiting for my cross-exam. 

     "Burden of proof," Steve whispered in my ear.

     "I know, I know," I whispered back.

     "Make them promise evidence."      

     I walked to the podium and stood a half-step behind her.  She gave me a knowing smile and took a half-step back to keep me from upstaging her.  Standing so close, she smelled good.  But I couldn't let that distract me from the task at hand, destroying the affirmative case.

     "You contend that Unilateral Military Intervention causes the U.S. to be militarily over-extended, correct?"

     "Correct."

     "Is Vietnam typical of our military interventions?"

     "Yes."

     "And we are militarily over-extended in Vietnam?"

     "Yes."

     "And what is the harm of being over-extended?"

     "It limits our military and foreign policy options.  It prevents us from responding to another crisis."

     "In other words, we can't intervene?"

     "Well, yes."

     "So the harm of intervention is that we can't undertake the 'harmful policy of intervention' more often?"

     "It impairs our national security."

     "But what is the harm of not being able to undertake a policy that you contend is harmful?"

     She looked to her colleague for help.  "It impairs our national security," she quietly repeated.

     "Thank you." 

     Back at my desk, Steve had already pulled the perfect set of quote cards to substantiate my speech.  I knew I had taken a cheap shot in cross-ex, but she had let me.   

     Well-armed with quote cards, I returned to the podium.  When I looked up to make eye contact with the judges, I noticed Diane in the audience, wearing a midnight blue dress that I saw even when I wasn't looking at it, a patch of blue that was always in my field of vision.  I couldn't help thinking about her while I was speaking, not that I was stumbling over my words, but a little part of me was always aware of Diane.  And after the debate, while the judge with the Colonel Sanders mustache filled out his ballot and Steve and I re-filed our quote cards, Diane came over.  What if the judge thought that Diane was my girlfriend?  Maybe he didn't approve of her dress (it was cut rather low) and he might transfer that negative reaction to his ballot (guilt by association).  Whatever my personal feelings about Diane or her dress, I didn't like having the results of an important round put in jeopardy by such carelessness.  But the judge finished writing up his ballot and left the room before any real damage could be done.  "That was great," she whispered, so close that Patchouli perfumed her words.

     I walked out of the auditorium carrying the trophy, Steve one step behind.  Wanted to get high to celebrate.  If I'd had the foresight to roll a joint.  If Steve smoked dope.  But we couldn't even talk about dope.  What could we talk about?  Deterrence?  Détente?  Domino Theory? 

     Saw the David and Shayne getting into the Camaro.  David had foresight.  David undoubtedly had dope.  "I'm going to ride with David and Shayne to the party."

     "Why?" 

     "To listen to some music."

     "The Electra's got AM-FM."

     "David's got an eight-track."

     Steve looked skeptical but that didn't stop me from hurrying across the parking lot.  Shayne saw me and rolled down her window.  "Can I bum a ride?" 

     She opened the door, I crawled in the back seat of the Camaro, and we were off.  When I glanced back, Steve was still staring at me.  David shoved in an eight-track tape, "Light My Fire," The Doors, deja vu all over again.

     She turned around, trophy in hand.  We clinked trophies.

     "How about a victory toast?" I asked.

     "Toast?"

     "A libation."

     "Fire it up."

     "Forgot to bring mine along."

     "Me too.  We could stop by your house," David suggested.

     He knew so little of the tyranny of the mothership.  Was embarrassed to educate him.  "We could stop at your house," I counter-suggested.

     "After we stop at the party."

     "Why after?"

     "A debate party's a natural high."

     Shayne laughed.  I pretended to.

     Steve's mom's Electra was parked in front when we got to Steffi's.  How had he beaten us? 

     I carried the trophy into the house.  Steve had changed into a suede charcoal gray sweater and brought along his Broadway cast album of "Camelot."  When he saw me come in with Shayne and David, he gave me this look -- I know you're stoned, you forsook me for drugs.  No point in protesting my genuine, if inadvertent, innocence. 

     But I should say something.  Make some kind of apology that didn't sound, well, too apologetic.  Took off my jacket and tie, unbuttoned the collar of my mint green shirt.

     Steve crouched at the black lacquered stereo console, cued up his favorite tune from "Camelot," and nodded in time to the tepid music.  And he dared disparaged Jimi Hendrix?    "What's this?" David asked.

     "The most popular musical of our time."

     "According to who?"

     "According to 'The New York Times.'  Millions of people like this music."

     David stopped the turntable.  "Millions more hate it," he said and deposed "Camelot" in favor of "The White Album." 

     Steve went off to sulk and David wandered off to Shayne and I found myself alone in the den with the trophies the squad had won today.

     The First Place, Senior Cross-Examination Debate trophy stood shepherd over a flock of identical but smaller trophies on the maroon lacquered coffee table, the trophies' chrome-plating covered with fingerprints.  Besides Shayne's victory in Dramatic Interp, Steffi had won Girls Extemp, and Velikow placed second in Novice Boys Debate.  All the trophies had the same chrome-plated guy on top, standing behind a chrome-plated podium, pointing a chrome-plated finger as he made a chrome-plated argument.

     "Congratulations," Velikow said.  The win had puffed him up a couple of inches.  "A technical question.  Those gestures you make with your left hand -- would they be as effective right-handed?"

     "That's a technical question?"

     "Technique."

     "What gestures?"

     Velikow's left hand sliced through the air.  "You make this chopping motion when you make your main arguments, and then you bring both hands together, like this, as you draw conclusions."

     It was spooky watching him imitate me, spooky that he had been studying me so closely.  I couldn't do me as well as he.  "See, left hand, both hands, left hand.  Now what about this variation -- left hand, both hands, right hand?  Think that works as well?"

     "You should go ask Steve."

     "Think so?"

     "Definitely."

     "Thanks."  He patted my trophy.  "You and Steve, photograph number four.  History was made today," he said and left.

     Now there was only one of me in the room, alone with the trophies.

     Zalta wasn't there; he had hot date, no doubt.  And I didn't see Diane.  Maybe Diane was in the back seat of Zalta's Coupe de Ville as he performed the coup de grace.  I liked being at the party until I started thinking about the other places I could be, and the other people who were lucky enough to be in those places, and then I felt jealousy, speculative jealousy.

     In the dining room, Steve demonstrated hand gestures to an admiring Velikow.  He still looked hurt that we hadn't driven to the party together.  I resented the implication of having to explain my innocence to him.  "Have you seen David?"

     Steve gestured dramatically, his right hand slicing through the air, as if delivering the Gettysburg Address.  "In the kitchen."

     The kitchen was empty, the backdoor ajar.  Went outside.  Heard a car rumble to life and hurried around to the front yard, just in time to see the Camaro pull away.  And did I smell something sweet, something forbidden, had David been holding out on me?

     "HEY!"  I chased.  "Hey!" I tried.  "Hey...." I spluttered to a stop.  Too late.  Why hadn't David and Shayne waited for me?

     I plodded back into the den.  From the living room came a chorus of debaters' that Steffi regimented into a game of charades.  I stood in the den, listening to the floating voices.

     "Category...."

     "Music...."

     "A song...."

     Alone, eavesdropping, I went over to the chrome-plated trophies and aligned them into a perfect row.  This was just what M would have done, and that made me angry, that her ghost haunted me. 

     "Caught you," Diane said, surprising me.  So Diane had come to the party after all.  She'd changed out of her tournament dress into wore blue jeans and a Mexican wedding blouse with electric blue embroidery.  We were the only ones not playing charades.  "Caught you admiring your prize."

     What could I say, what wouldn't sound obvious, what--

      "I knew you guys would win." 

     "On a bad decision."  Did that sound stupid....   

     "Bad decision?" 

     "That contradiction she admitted in cross-ex?  That was no contradiction.  She should have said that being militarily over-extended limited our ability to participate in multilateral interventions and that it compromised our ability to defend against acts of aggression aimed directly against the United States."  ...or honest?

     "I still think you were great today, but...."

     But?

     "...do you really believe the Domino Theory?"

     That was easy.  "No."

     "I have trouble saying stuff I don't really believe."

     Diane was a debater.  Safe to talk about debate.  "But debate's not about what you really believe, it's about persuasion.  That's the whole point of arguing affirmative and negative all year long."

     "I hate it so much when my dad talks like a hawk and I don't want to sound like him just to win a debate.  Do you ever worry about stuff like that?"

     Act "sensitive?"  Or act like a debater?  Stick with the affirmative plan -- debater talk, not boy-girl talk.  "I just worry about persuading the judge."

     She smiled.  "That's why you win."

     "The Communists help me win, so I love the Communists."

     She smiled again.  I liked making her smile.  I'd done it twice but that was just luck.  Making her smile wasn't a skill that I had spent years practicing. 

     "To the victor goes the spoils," she said.

     "A trophy isn't much of a spoil."

     "What is?"

     "I don't know."

     "When you say 'I don't know' I'm not convinced.  What victory spoils would you like?  Wine, women and song?"

     Was Diane to be the woman part of the equation?  Or, as usual, was I making too big of a deal out of a couple of innocent words?  What did she really want?  What secret agenda was I failing to fathom?

     "Certainly you can think of something.  I saw you do lots of thinking on your feet today."

     "How's this for thinking on my feet?"  I plopped down on the couch.  Without thinking.  "Bring on the wine, women, and song."

     "We've already got the song," Diane said.  "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?" was playing.  If Diane was really listening to the words, like I was, it was embarrassing, to be together like this with Lennon singing about doing it.

     "Where's the wine?"

      Diane picked a cluster of green grapes from the ravaged bowl of fruit on the coffee table and sat down next to me on the rust-orange couch.  I noted there was about an inch separating us, and wondered whether or not that was a good sign.  And while I was wondering how to interpret that inch, that gap, I felt Diane's hand tugging at my shoulder.

     "A poor substitute, master," she explained in this "I Dream of Jeannie" voice.

     She pulled my head down to rest in her lap and loomed above me, a Patchouli-perfumed goddess of Meyerland myth, a Jewish goddess in a Mexican blouse.  We were just kidding around, weren't we?  I'd never kidded around with a girl, except for Shayne, and even with Shayne we never did this kind of kidding around.  Was this a ploy?  Concentrated on how Diane's lap felt against the back of my head, how my medulla oblongata nestled in the soft V formed by her thighs.  A green grape descending from the heavens, and with the momentary brush of her thumb and index finger against my lips she released the grape, to be devoured.  

     Steffi appeared above me, her eyebrows compressed into a question that she did not ask (What's your head doing in Diane's lap?).  "Your dad's here."

     "Oh," was all I could manage to squeak out, too shocked to say anything as I lifted my head from Diane's lap and felt that soft V-shaped pillow vanish into instant distant shimmery memory.

     I slinked through the foyer, past the living room and the charades game, a jury of my peers watching me walk from the Lady to the Tiger. 

     P was on the front porch, wearing his hairpiece, white Banlon tennis shirt, powder blue Sans-a-Belt pants, white loafers.  I could just see him putting on his hairpiece and sporty clothes to come roust me from the best moment of my life.  "Do you know what time it is?"

     I looked at my stainless steel Accutron watch.  "Nine thirty."

     "We thought you were coming home right after the tournament."

     "There's always a party afterwards, you know that."

     "Your mother and I expected you to come home."

     "I'll be home in a little while."

     "What kind of party is this anyway?"

     "It's just a debate party, for chrissakes."

     "Don't say chrissakes.  We expected you home."

     I hadn't had the foresight to close the Colonial-style front door behind me and now I worried that the charading debaters were eavesdropping, listening to me plead my case for staying out past nine-thirty on Saturday night.  I couldn't believe that P was getting so wiggy about this.  Also, he'd gotten his hairpiece just last spring and his sudden lack of baldness was still embarrassing.

     "You should have told us you were going to a party.  We didn't know.  We had to call over to Steve's to find you."

     "I'm sorry.  Okay?"

     "No, it is not okay.  Not after the worry you've put your mother and me through."

     "Worry?"

     "Yes, worry.  Let's go."

     "You can't be serious."

     "I am completely serious."

     I thought about arguing, but I didn't see how I could win, and the longer I fought the worse it would be.  I dreaded going back inside to explain to Diane, but what would I explain?  That I was a wuss?  That my dad could drag me home at nine thirty on a Saturday night? 

     "Let me get my trophy."

     "I'll be in the car," P said but did not step toward his white Chrysler Imperial, parked by the front curb.  I walked from the toupéed Tiger back to the Lady.

     Diane was still sitting on the couch, grapes in hand, legs together, waiting for my return, specifically, the return of my head to her lap.  The teasing or temptation or trickery, whatever was happening, had happened.  Paradise Lost.

     "I've got to go."

     "Anything wrong?"

     "My parents."

     "Is someone sick?"

     "Mentally."

     She smiled.  There, I had done it again.

     "See you," I said and felt stupid.  Of course I would see her, it was inevitable, we were in debate class together.  Not a hero's welcome, an anti-hero's lame good-bye.  See you.

     "See you," she said and she didn't sound stupid.  And there might have even been another smile but I was hurrying outside with my trophy, afraid to look back, afraid of what I must look like to her, leaving like that.

     I rode away in silence in P's Chrysler Imperial, Orpheus being ferried back to the underworld.  A silent return to an air-conditioned nightmare, silent except for AM All-News radio.  P listened to All-News all the time, even Saturday night, when what passed for the news was a lame interview with General Something-Or-Other talking about how great things were going in Vietnam.  P silently accepted whatever was said.  And was I also silently guilty of accepting same?  But I hadn't volunteered to ride in this car, hadn't turned on All-News radio.

     "So you won," P said.

     Depends on how you define winning, I didn't say. 

chapter 9

     I saw Gary Peters smoking a Marlboro outside the debate shack, on the wrong side of the chain link fence, to prove that he could, to prove he was an incorrigible genius.

     "So you weasels are debating Vietnam?"

     The tardy bell rang.  If it didn't matter to Gary, then it shouldn't matter to me.

     "Technically we're debating Unilateral Military Intervention."

     "Which technically is what the fuck we're doing in Vietnam."

     "You would know."

     "Barry sure as shit does." 

     Barry was Gary's older brother.  If crazier meant smarter, Barry was Einstein.  If Einstein were in the Marine Corps.

     "Hey, I'm against the war." 

     "Barry's not.  He says where else can he get paid to kill?"

     Oh, I could think of where else, but Gary had to have the last word, so might as well let him have this one.

     Stepped into the debate shack, late for practice.  Desks had been pulled every which way as teams huddled at work.  I didn't see Diane and I didn't know what to say to her about Saturday night, about anything. 

     Coach Johnson's voice and the haze of his Parliament smoke drifted over the row of lockers that partitioned his office from the classroom.  Next to the lockers, Velikow was practicing hand gestures.  Steve was in the corner, right hand cradling brow while left hand wrote furiously on a legal pad.  He didn't say hello to me or smile, so vice versa, neither did I.  Neither of us said a word about winning the tournament or the victory party or our separate rides to same.  Maybe we were both thinking about the same thing we weren't saying.  At least I was.

     He silently slid me a quote card from Dean Rusk.  "What do you think?"

     Not a more pertinent D-word, such as Diane or dope, but Dean Rusk.  "I think Dean Rusk is a weird name.  What makes Dean Rusk an expert?"

     "He was Secretary of State."

     "So he was in charge of screwing up the Vietnam War, that's what makes him an expert?"

     "What do you think of the quote?" Steve persisted.

     "But what makes someone an expert?"

     "That's obvious."

     "Not to me."

     "Credibility."

     "So anyone with a title?"

     "Yes."

     "And what's that got to do with the truth?"

     "It's about logic.  Evidence in support of argumentation."

     "But logic about what?"

     "Logic about the arguments."

     "But what about the arguments themselves?"

     "That's beside the point.  What's gotten into you?"

     "Nothing."

     Steve held index finger and thumb to mouth and made a sucking sound, his Dramatic Interp of me smoking pot.

     "No."  Plausible denial, spoken with proper umbrage.

     "We're not working hard enough."

     Did my Dramatic Interp of a cold-eyed stare.

     Steve blinked. 

     Resumed the pantomime of playing partners. 

     "Here's Melvin Laird saying that we can't cut the defense budget after Vietnam, that we need the money for national security." 

     He handed me the quote card.  Dead dry words.  "So?"

     "So it's a good piece of evidence."

     "It's shit.  The Secretary of Defense is never going to advocate cutting the defense budget.  It's against his self-interest."

     "Hmmm...."

     "Question authority." 

     "Great argument," Steve said and rapidly annotated the quote card.

     All I had to do was direct my rancor toward Mel Laird and his ilk and Steve was happy.  I could do this all day; I could do it in my sleep.  According to my Accutron watch I had to do it for thirty-three more minutes. 

     And then I saw Diane looking at me, a lightning bolt I was unprepared to deal with.  My head in her lap, my embarrassing exit, the chance of a lifetime squandered -- how could I ever talk to her again?  In a panic I quickly looked back down at the quote card in front of me, my eyes locked on the words of Dean Rusk, afraid to look back up -- if I sat very still and looked very busy, Diane would think I was thinking deep thoughts. 

     I heard the babble of other teams planning, plotting, gossiping.  I tried to act look alone in thought, alone in mind, alone in deed.  My mind wandered.  My mind had a mind of its own.

     "Hi."  Diane stood beside my desk.  She wore a white T-shirt with an day-glo green peace symbol -- did angels wear peace symbols? 

     The mind/body dilemma.  My mind, her body: there the dilemma began.  Her mind, her body: there the dilemma deepened into perplexity.  She stood over me, golden brown hair falling down to touch my quote drawers, like Rapunzel's love ladder.  Around her neck, a thin gold necklace with a mysterious lump hidden beneath the neckline of her T-shirt; that hidden charm was like the snatch of indecipherable Beatles lyric at the end of "I Am The Walrus" -- maybe it held the answer to everything. 

     "Hi," I said.

     "Hi," she said again.  "How's the mental illness?"

     Am I that obviously nuts?

     "Your dad -- or your mom -- that's what you said Saturday."

     "I did?"

     "It was funny."

     "It was?"

     "Yes."

     She was waiting for something and I wished she would explain what it was.    

     "Had any grapes lately?" she asked.

     "No, I haven't had any grapes."  But I'd like toI'd like you to feed me grapes, I'd like you to love me, I'd love you to love me.  "And you?"

     "No, I haven't had any grapes, not since ancient Roman times, not since Saturday night."

     I wanted to ask her if she was busy Friday night -- or Saturday -- and if she wasn't, maybe she would go out on a date with me -- for example, to eat pizza -- but I didn't want to call it a date -- and it felt weird asking something like that in the debate shack where everyone was listening -- and all I could do was think about speaking and --

     "Well...." she said.

     "Well...." I said. 

     "I should let you get back to work," she said.  I saw Steve nodding yes and I nodded a vague yes because I was too pretzel-twisted to say anything.  Diane went back to sit with her partner Randi.  I went back to staring at quote cards, worried what would it be like after class -- how could I get back to her question of grapes and the pizza question I hadn't been brave enough to ask?

     After an eternity, class ended and as I kept staring into my quote cards, endeavoring to look busy, I heard the shuffle of shoes, the scrape of desk legs, the metal clang of lockers, the squeak and bump of the shack door opening and closing, feverishly wondering what to say when Diane came back over to my desk.   

     I hoped to smell Patchouli but didn't, hoped to hear her voice but didn't, and when I finally looked up she was gone. 

chapter 10

     "Baby, you can drive my car."

     What?

     Shayne yanked on my sleeve, stopped me from going through the door into Magnet English where today Mrs. Wiley would be dissecting "Crime and Punishment."   She was wearing bright psychedelic colors -- purple granny glasses, flower power blouse, Pink-A-Pade lipstick.      

     "Yes, I'm going to be a star."

     Now I recognized the lyrics.  "'Drive My Car'?" 

     "Yeah, baby, want to drive my car?"

     "Sure, that beats car pool."

     "Not after school.  Now, with this twisty little thing."  Shayne fished into the her macramé purse and held up a joint.

     "We're going to be tardy."

     The tardy bell rang.

     "We are tardy."  The hallway was empty, except for us.  "Let's skip school, you and me."

     "And do what?"

     "Skip school with me and find out."

     Shayne and me, doing something forbidden, together.

     "I dare you."

     I was boring Shayne, I wasn't keeping up. 

     "I double dare you."

     Are you trying to seduce me, Mrs. Robinson?  

     "You're not saying anything."

     "I'm thinking."

     "Is that what you call it?"

     I looked at how Shayne was looking at me, and if I wanted her to keep looking at me like that, with a smile, then there was only one answer, I had to chose freedom by choosing what she wanted me to do.  "Okay."

     "Your place or mine?"

     "Yours?"

     "Wrong answer."

     As if pondering a very weird affirmative case, I got lost in analyzing the extremely weird moment I was now in.  The weirdness began with the joint in my hand, said hand in bright sunlight in the backyard of the mothership, in the middle of the school day.  Passed the joint to Shayne, who should have been sitting next to me in Magnet English, but we were sitting in the backyard with our knees almost touching.  Sitting in grass, smoking grass.  Illicit, forbidden, anything could happen.  Anything was happening.

     "I'm absolutely starving."

     "Yeah," I agreed, because agreeing had led me here, alone with Shayne, so maybe agreeing would lead to some more extreme form of illicit thing.  Like Mrs. Wiley had said about nihilism in Dostoesvky, everything was permitted.

     Shayne went through the air lock, into the mothership, without even knowing it was a mothership.  Maybe because there was no mother currently onboard the mothership.  Weird watching Shayne inside the house, opening the refrigerator door, just like she lived here.  What if we lived here together, just her and me, everyday between eight and three, she looked so at home taking out the white box of M's leftover birthday cake.

     Oh.

     No.

     Oh no.

     I hurried inside.  There were chocolate crumbs dotting Shayne's Pink-A-Pade lipstick.  "It's amazing chocolate, try some."

     She held out a finger full of cake.  Real cake crumbs, not imaginary carrot crumbs, everywhere.  "Try some."

     "No thanks.  You should use a knife, it's neater."  I got a knife out of the drawer.  She put her fingers to my lips; I had no choice but to swallow. 

     "Seig heil."

     "What?"

     "Seig heil to Nazi German chocolate cake."

     I'd show M, defy her wrathful shadow.  I cut another sliver of cake for Shayne, neatening up the edge, and cut another sliver for myself -- mmmms and ahhhs -- so I cut another pair of sweet sugary slivers, the cake declining from an obtuse angle to acute, then to very acute, today's sugary geometry lesson, until just a tiny sliver remained -- where had it all gone so fast?   I closed the white cake box.

     "Why?"

     "M will know if--"

     "M?"

     "Mom."

     "M.  I like that."

     "I can't leave the box empty.  She'll know we were, well, here."

     "'M' would notice?"

     "Yeah."

     "Amazing."

     I was equally amazed that Shayne's mother wouldn't.

     "Clever boy.  Where's your room?"

     She didn't wait for an answer.

     "Wait."  

     But she wandered off to parts unknown to do things unseen, leaving me behind with the mess.  Licked the knife clean, polished the stainless steel Gerber blade on my paisley shirt tail, put the box back in the cold white monolith.  Picked up the bigger crumbs with my finger and ate them, shined the counter with my shirt tail.  Searched the white counter and floor for telltale crumbs, incriminating evidence overlooked at the crime scene.  Hard to keep my mind on cleaning with Shayne in my bedroom.  On my bed?  Waiting?  What would happen? 

     "If you could just get your mind together, then come on across to me" -- Hendrix blasted from the stereo, loud enough to hear outside. 

     Ran to the bedroom -- record albums spread across the floor, Shayne at the closet door mirror, applying a fresh coat of lipstick.  Mouth round and glistening, she caught my eye in the mirror.  "All you've got is Hendrix."

     "No, the Beatles and--"

     "It's all Hendrix on top.  What about your famous filing system?"  Happy with her lips, she snagged a pile of quote cards from the desk and sat down cross-legged on my bed. 

     I guess that meant I should sit on the bed too.  After all, it was my bed.  Wasn't there significance to her presence here, more than significance, willingness?  Had she come into my bedroom for a bed-roomy reason?  The room looked and felt totally different with Shayne in it, and not just the albums and quote cards spread around.  Life had leaked beyond headphones and was bouncing off the walls and it was imperative that I act nonchalant while I figured out The Situation.  Turning down the music would be the death knell to whatever wild thing might happen.  I sat down next to her on the bed, our knees just shy of touching, close enough to smell her Krishna Musk perfume.

     Shayne read a quote card.  "You typed these?"

     "Yes." 

     She fanned the deck.  "All of them?"

     "I typed the even numbered ones.  My secretary typed the odd ones.  We have an arrangement."

     "I would have expected you to type the odd ones."

     She carelessly scattered the cards.  I wanted to put them back in their place on the desk but I didn't.  I had to prove that I was unbothered by such trivial concerns.

     Shayne looked at me.  "So what are we going to do?"

     Okay.  The big decision.  Maybe my life would divide at exactly this moment from mundane to mysterious.

     "Let's do something," she said.

     I wondered if the something was up to me.

     "Let's go to Playhouse Toys.  Wouldn't that be perfect?"

     Relieved that I hadn't done anything cataclysmic, such as trying to kiss her, glad to leave decisions and cataclysms for later.  "Yes."

     Shayne uncrossed her legs, picked up her purse and was out the door, done with my bedroom. 

     As I hurried to pick up the albums, quote cards, smooth the bedspread, I heard the front door open.  "What's taking you so long?" Shayne yelled from the front door.  What crucial detail had I overlooked, what damning detail that M would see at a glance?  But I couldn't see anything except Shayne in my mind's eye.  Had to keep up with Shayne.  Which meant leaving my room, hopefully in the same state as she had found it.

     Shayne drove us to Meyerland Plaza in her Rocket 88 and led the way into Playhouse Toys.  "Let's buy each other presents." 

     "Why?"

     "To celebrate our secret freaky love.  You can't spend more than fifty cents."

     She tied her hair into two wiry ponytails, took off her granny glasses, played innocent.

     Followed her down the aisle of board games.  Shayne was a girl -- she was a friend -- could that ever add up to girlfriend?  Did she want it to?  Why did she make it so complicated -- or did I? -- how complicated could goofing off in a toy store be?

     "Who said you could follow me?"

     "Who said I couldn't?"

     "Don't expect any clues.  Pick my present wisely."  

     Wandered down the doll aisle, past all that flesh-colored plastic, until I saw Hippie Ken & Barbie.  "Guruvy Formal" Ken in bright red Nehru jacket and shiny white pants, "Maxi 'N Mini" Barbie in striped miniskirt, pink Mylar boots.  The Go-Go boot accessory cost fifty-nine cents.  Maybe break the fifty cents rule, maybe that's what Shayne was testing. 

     Ran into her at the end of the doll aisle and she acted like she didn't know me.  Sneaked a peek -- she didn't have a toy in hand.

     Outside, the day had turned overcast and gray.  Yellow  plastic curlers in a lady's hair.  A whiny baby in white bunny rabbit pajamas.  The smell of hot asphalt.  The ordinary world inching by, second by second.   

     "What did you buy me, freak?"

     Held out the pink water pistol I'd bought for her.

     "How sweet, how romantic."

     "In Texas guns are a sign of affection.  Where's my present?"

     "Who said I bought you a present?"

     She poked my stomach with one of her whole fingers, then let that finger stray down my paisley shirt.  I felt my Jockey shorts tighten from the touch of a single finger.  Maybe this was how a boyfriend and a girlfriend talked and teased.  Maybe this was how she talked and teased David.  Maybe this was how she tempted me to taste that Pink-A-Pade lipstick.  "Don't look so disappointed," she said.

     "I'm not disappointed, anything but," I lied. 

     She fished in her black macramé purse and handed me a water pistol, just like the one I had bought her, but blue. 

     "Maybe we're soul-mates."  She pointed the pink pistol at me and touched the "Hoover Sucks" button pinned on my shirt.  "Is that a hint?"

     "What?"

     "About sucking."

     What kind of answer to give to what kind of teasing? 

     "Why aren't you kids in school?" this weird looking man in a muddy brown sport coat asked us.  

     Shayne looked at me, scared for a second, then not.

     "Vee ver buying de presents ver little mutti," Shayne said in a Swedish accent.

     "Right," the man said, his breath like stale baloney.  "I'm Officer Stanslaw with HISD, and you kids are truant."

     Visions of M, visions of doom.

     "Oh, no, vee are exchange students vith Mister Johnson at the Hoch School-a, ja," Shayne said.  "I am Heidi and this is Hans.  Hans de English is not so güt as me."

     "Ja, Ich bin Hans."  I hoped my second year German could pass for Swedish. 

     "Well, we'll just see about that."

     "Oh, ja?  We go back to Hoch School-a now?" Shayne said with this Hans Christian Anderson smile. 

     "And what do you have to say for yourself, Hans?  What does that mean?"  He tapped the "Hoover Sucks" button with a yellow-stained finger.  He mistakenly thought "Hoover Sucks" was anti-FBI rather than anti-M.

     "De American vacuuming cleaner?  De Hoover?  Ja?"

     He looked unconvinced by my one moment of truth.   

     "Ist he crank in the gegangen?" I asked Shayne, risking Yiddish.

     "Oh, ja, mishugeneh, Hans."

     Officer Stanslaw carted us back to Bellaire High School in his gloomy gray Plymouth, which stank of ancient peanut butter.  He parked in front of school and Shayne made a beeline for the shacks.  "Hey, you -- girl! -- Heidi, no, back this way," Stanslaw's voice rising as he took off after her.  "Heidi, stop!  Heidi!  Stop!"

     Shayne disappeared into the debate shack followed by Stanslaw.  I hurried after, chasing disaster.

     It was fourth period, Beginning Debate.  The novices were working on their speeches and Coach Johnson was in the back, behind the partition of lockers, smoking, a copy of "Pax Americana" open on his lap, its spine broken.  "Mister Johnson, this man bothered us at market.  He not nice to me and Hans."

     Johnson drew in a languid puff of Parliament and let it feather into his nose as he stared at Shayne, Stanslaw, and me.  A large trapezoidal fleck of cigarette ash drifted down to his orange tie.

     "Ted Stanslaw, HISD."

     "May I see your ID, please?"

     "Yes, yes, certainly," he said and whipped out a cracked imitation-leather wallet. 

     Johnson's eyes narrowed; more smoke feathered into his nose.

     "I found these students at Meyerland Plaza during school hours, which is-"

     "But Mister Johnson said we go to American shopping center for social study, to learn America.  Hans and Heidi come from Sweden to learn."

     "Ja, Heidi."
     Johnson gave me a chilly, Nordic smile.  "Hans and Heidi are here for their senior year abroad and they had my permission to visit Meyerland Plaza during their elective class period on America Life.  Did you two lose your permission slip?"

     "They really are exchange students?"

     Shayne rooted through her purse and handed Officer Stanslaw the pink water pistol, a tube of Pink-A-Pade lipstick, a stick of Juicy Fruit, a Tampax.  "Ach.  I cannot find the slip of paper.  Always in America so many slips of paper." 

     "Shall I write them a new permission slip?  Would that make you happy?" Coach Johnson asked.

     "It's a little late for that."  With a baloney-scented sigh, he left the shack.  We'd gotten away with it.  Shayne deserved one of the trophies on Johnson's desk. 

     "Benjamin, that was the worst Swedish accent I have ever heard," Johnson said.  "And why Swedish?"

     "I had little Swedish meatballs for dinner last night," Shayne explained.

     "Better run along to drama class for a little Strindberg."

     After Shayne left, I felt weird, being stoned around Johnson for the first time, and inched toward the door.

     "Not so fast.  'Hoover Sucks'?"

     I smiled and shrugged.

     "Sit down.  I'm sure this is all very amusing to you."

     "No."

     "Yes."  He waited for me to contradict him.  Even stoned, I knew not to.  "You could have gotten expelled.  That's what Mr. Stanslaw does for a living, he gets students expelled.  And if that happened, you could kiss your college scholarship good-bye."

     "I don't have a scholarship."

     "Not yet.  But you will.  You're going to win Nationals."

     You're going to win Nationals.  That seemed so far-fetched, so unconnected to me -- when had Nationals stopped being my dream?  "You're prejudiced."

     "I am prejudiced, but that's what every other coach in the state thinks.  Shayne is very amusing, and I love her dearly, and I just went out on a limb to save her neck along with yours."  He paused to take a drag.

     "Thank you."

     He frowned and blew a jet of smoke at the ceiling.  "But Shayne has got a lot less to lose than you.  Benjamin, you are a superior talent.  Honor that.  Act accordingly."

     I didn't feel like such a superior talent.  "I am.  I will.  I mean, today was just, well, bad judgment."

     "Steve says you're not working hard enough."

     His words hit like a slap.  Steve says you're not working hard enough.  Betrayed.  Accused.  Accursed.  "What?"

     "You heard me."

     I wasn't working on debate, not like I used to, but thought that was my secret.  "We've been winning." 

     "Don't be deceived.  You can slide further on shit than on gravel."

     I nodded.  Felt like shit and gravel.  Felt sorry.  Not apologetic sorry but pathetic sorry.  The opposite of glory.

chapter 11

     No longer Heidi and Hans, Shayne and I sat side by side in Magnet English.  I didn't feel superior to her.  She had no problem being Shayne while I was doing a fucked up job trying to be Benjamin.   

     Mrs. Wiley sat at her desk and poured tea from a plaid thermos into a orange porcelain tea cup. 

     "I suspect that some of you haven't finished reading "L'Etranger,"  but unlike Camus' hero, you have a reprieve, because today we're going to pair off into teams of two to write a haiku.  Scoot your desks together." 

     "Be most honorable partner, Benjamin-san, to write most honorable haiku."  Shayne took the bands out of her twin ponytails, and ran her fingers through her thick hair until a fan of black hair rested on the collar of her flower power blouse.

     "Is being a JAP good training for being Japanese?"

     Shayne stuck out her tongue at me and blew a Juicy Fruit bubble.  She was more fun than Coach Johnson and she was a girl.  

     "Haiku have three lines, of five, seven, and five syllables.  The form dictates that there should be an epiphany at the end," Mrs. Wiley explained, idly caressing her jade eye pendant.

     "How many syllables for the epiphany?" I asked, knowing the question would amuse Shayne.

     Mrs. Wiley and her jade third eye stared at me.  "No more than five.  If the epiphany starts before the last line, you'll be marked down.  You've got ten minutes."

     "What about a water pistol haiku?" Shayne asked me.

     "What's the epiphany?"

     Her lips moved as she counted syllables on her eight complete and her two incomplete, half-fingers.

     "'A squirt of water.'  That's a five syllable epiphany."

     "'What is a haiku?  Is it anything like an IQ?'  How's that for a rhyme?"  I did a quick count.  "That's fourteen syllables."

     "I've got the perfect finish."  She wrote out the haiku, our haiku, then handed me the paper; I read it straight through, all seventeen syllables.

     "Your ending is brilliant!"

     "Your opening is brilliant!"

     "You're being disruptive," Mrs. Wiley said, looming over me, the scent of Jasmine tea on her breath, the jade eyeball swinging dangerously near my own.  "Why don't you share your brilliance with the class, Benjamin?"

     I walked to the front, conscripted into my first poetry recital. 

     "'What is a haiku?

     Is it anything like an

     IQ?  No, no, no.'"

     The haiku provoked four hand claps and three laughs and Mrs. Wiley's two lips pressed together.  "Are you mocking me?"

     "No, no, no."

     Back in the debate shack, Steve gave me a quick glance and then ignored me, favoring his attention on a quote card. 

     "You complained to Coach Johnson."

     He just kept annotating.

     "That I'm not working hard enough."

     "You're not."

     "Why didn't you talk to me first?" 

     "He's the coach."

     "We're partners.  You should have talked to me first."

     Steve gave me this look that said But we don't talk to each other, not about that kind of stuff.  And even if I was accurately interpreting his look -- was I capable of accurately interpreting anything lately? -- I didn't know how to talk about it.  So here we were not talking about talking.  Talk about absurdity.  Where was Camus when you needed him?

     "Let's talk about this," he said and waved a quote card.

     I wasn't in the mood, but I had a point to prove, that I was a reasonable, hard-working partner whom he had unreasonably undercut. 

     "Steffi was telling me about this new ecology case that's floating around."

     "Ecology?"

     "Intervention harms the ecology of the host country.  The example -- B-52 craters destroying the rice crop in Vietnam."

     "No inherency," I said.  "An affirmative team can't prove that B-52 bombing will be a standard intervention strategy in the future.  B-52s weren't used in Lebanon or the Dominican Republic.  So we're back to Vietnam is unique and the affirmative case falls apart."

     "Great argument."

     I was surprised that Steve agreed.  How easily we agreed on argumentative strategy.  We talked like that for a while, as if nothing was wrong.  Soon enough my abbreviated school day would be over and I could get high again and wash away whatever bad taste talking about B-52s left in my mouth.

     It was a Camus/haiku kind of day: The Stranger walked along the beach, I walked home along Braes Bayou, under a dark sky that smelled like rain. 

     M was in the kitchen, smoking a Salem while she kneaded meat loaf, her wedding ring a point of gold on the white Formica counter, its surface abraded from too much Comet rubbed too vigorously for too many years.  She massaged the meat, eight fingers speckled with pink granules of raw cow flesh; with her two clean fingers she extracted the Salem from her lips to blow a meditative puff of mentholated smoke.  She gave me one of her Silent Looks, silent except for the metallic tinkle of her steel double-loop earrings.  "Notice anything?"

     Such as incriminating evidence from today's escapade? 

     "No."

     "Look."

     I looked more closely at M's carnivorous hands, slathered with cow corpse.  Throw in some napalm and you had barbeque.

     "Raw meat?"

     "Not that."

     "What?"

     M nodded at the white cake box on the counter.  "Look inside."

     Which the prosecution would now like to enter into evidence.  Did as told, letting the ritual execution unfold as proscribed by the executioner.  Inside was the acute sliver of remaindered cake.

     "All day long I looked forward to eating a piece of German chocolate cake when I got home, so can imagine my disappointment."

     "I didn't realize there were restrictions on what I can and cannot eat from the refrigerator."

     "Don't get fresh with me.  Who said it was permissible to eat German chocolate cake for breakfast?"

     "But I didn't eat it for breakfast."  Stupid!  Now she knew that the cake was eaten later, when there wasn't supposed to be a later, when I was supposed to be in school.  And not just me later, but me and Shayne later.  Why do you think they call it dope?  I had become one.

     M silently smoked her Salem and gave me her witch trial stare.  "So now you're arguing about the definition of breakfast?"

     Luckily, she misconstrued my ill-advised admission as an argument. 

     "Sorry."

     "Sorry doesn't get the cake back."

     "I'll buy you another cake."

     "With what?  The allowance that you're not getting this week because you haven't done your chores?"

     "I'll go into my savings.  Anything to get you your goddamned piece of cake back."

     "WHAT DID YOU SAY?"

     "Sorry.  Sorry, sorry, sorry."

     M fumed.  And smoked.  I took the opportunity to steal away, as quietly as possible, rubber souls squeaking on the white terrazzo as I retreated.   

     Quietly closed the bedroom door.  Didn't want to be in this room or house or world or body.  Wanted to be very high, but that wasn't practical just this moment and the next best thing was headphones and those Castles Made of Sand.  But "Axis: Bold as Love" wasn't on top of the stack, wasn't in the stack. 

     Why? 

     Shayne. 

     Where?

     Not on the desk or under the bed.  Opened the closet door -- the shock of Pink-A-Pade lipstick on the door mirror:

You are SUCH a stud. 

That's all she wrote.

S.

     Mad at Shayne, then flattered.  Erased the legend from the mirror.  Found "Axis: Bold as Love" on the closet floor. 

Put it on the turntable, plugged in the headphones, laid down on the floor between the twin beds. 

     Piece of cake.

     That's what I should have said to M.  The perfect comeback.  

     Piece of cake.  

chapter 12

     "Dinner," M announced.

     Thanksgiving.

     Give thanks for being allowed to sit in the dining room.

     Mothership protocol, everything ready before we sat down: turkey carved, white meat on my plate, dark meat on P's, perfect dollops of cranberry sauce for everyone, three identical slices of lemon meringue pie on porcelain dessert china, no serving dishes on the table, just three white place mats for our three white plates.  Isn't it good Norwegian wood? 

     "Would you like to say the prayer?"

     "Not really."

     "Say the prayer."

     "Rub-a-dub-dub thank God for the grub."

     "You can't make a joke out of everything."

     "Sorry."

     "You're not sorry."

     "I said that I was."

     "Insincerely."

     I sipped milk as angrily as milk could be sipped.  But I would not feel so all alone, everybody must get stoned....  What would be like if M & P got stoned?  Would P dig Walter Cronkite as deeply as I dug Jimi?  Groovy, Walter, how many dead Viet Cong?  And M, the whining ecstasies of her Hoover: I didn't know how really white carpet could be....

     "Is the turkey really that good?"

     "What?"

     "That's quite a smile," M said.

     "I was just feeling...."  What was I feeling?

     "Yes?"

     "Thankful."  The perfect Thanksgiving lie.  Tried to keep smiling as I took another bite of white meat.

     After dark, went for a walk, alone.  Got stoned.  Empty sidewalk.  Empty head.  Blue light flickered on other people's curtains.  Wondered about life on the other side of all those windows.  Imagined everyone happy inside.  Or unhappy.  Imagined me happy outside, alone. 

chapter 13

     Sometimes I skipped school with Shayne, sometimes alone, but I never missed debate class.  I timed my arrival at school for precisely two o'clock, as if arriving fresh from fifth period.  I stepped through the door of the debate shack  and was assaulted by --

     Hawkish first strike

     vis-a-vis great society

     escalatory infiltration of

     Iron Curtain hamlets engaged in

     Domino Theory covert action....

     -- the blank poetry of double-think and bureaucratese. No one noticed me.  Diane and Randi huddled with Maureen and Beth, a critical mass of the prettiest girl debaters.  Philip Velikow fervently labeled a set of yellow plastic index tabs just like mine. 

     And Steffi whispered intently to Steve, their foreheads almost touching.  Maybe they were talking about me, how I was the obstacle, Steve and Steffi über alles.  Something was up, but my radar couldn't read through the self-imposed green fog, my early warning system was down, Steve and Steffi were amassing a First Strike capacity against me, my deterrent was ineffective.  I didn't like Steve, but I wouldn't let him get away with dumping me.  Steffi saw me first.  She looked guilty, like I had caught her hand in the quote drawer.  Steve gave me a quick glance and then leaned down to meticulously annotate a quote card.

     "Oh, Benjamin.  Hello," Steffi said.  The kind of hello that said Please go.

     "Hi."

     She gathered up some quote cards and left.  Now that the desk was mine, I didn't really want it, but I claimed my rightful place.  Hello's had been unofficially dropped from our team vocabulary.  Stared at Steve, then stared at myself up on the debate shack wall.  Photograph Number Four, smiling painfully beside Steve.  Had we actually won that trophy just last month?  A fluke, a miracle, couldn't imagine it happening again. 

     "What were you talking to Steffi about?"

     "Our new affirmative case."

     "Our?"

     "Mine.  I've got to talk to someone about it."

     "You're supposed to talk to me."

     "And we're supposed to be doing research.  District is in less than a month.

     The District Qualifying Tournament, gateway to Nationals.  Only the winner got to go.  Natural Selection.  "I know."

     "You don't act like you know."

     "I know."

     What was wrong with me?  Everything.  But how to break everything down into specific, definable, correctable characteristics?  Needed a mirror and Steve wasn't the mirror for me, not anymore.  Why couldn't debate be fun, not work, like it used to be?  Here in the debate shack couldn't I be like I used to be? 

     "I've been thinking about a new case," I rashly asserted.  "It's a definitional approach."  I waited for Stave to say continue and when he didn't I did anyway.  "The U.S. can't undertake Unilateral Military Intervention per se, but if it's to counter an act of aggression or a threat to our vital resources then that de facto is an act of war and we're not prohibiting acts of war."

     Steve unknotted his arms and lifted his head to regard me levelly.  "That's a squirrel case."

     "It's not a squirrel case."

     It had sounded better to me before I'd said it out loud, when I'd thought it up while listening to "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" in Shayne's bedroom.

     "No."

     "Squirrel case.  Pure sophistry.  We'd get laughed out of the room.  A new case means research, substantiation, logic, not some definitional trick."

     "Maybe it's definitional brilliance.  You know, insight.  Epiphany."

     "Epiphany?  That's Greek, right?  Derived from another Greek word, cannabis?  And when did you come up with this epiphany?  Sometime before three o'clock?  During your leisure time?"  He adjusted his horn-rimmed glasses as if focusing the sun through a magnifying glass, like frying the wings off a fly.  "I guess skipping school tends to make one brilliant."

     So my secret wasn't so secret.  "I was just trying."

     "Try harder."

     Whatever you say, Steve.  If speaking only made it so.

chapter 14

     Walked home alone, clouds like dead gray brain cells.  My head felt just like those clouds and we would share the same fate -- to drift into wispy non-existence or condense into rain and splatter into oblivion.  Debate practice had been miserable, but worse things were to come. 

     Flipped through the mail, hoping for a college admissions letter.  Instead, an ice white envelope embossed with the scarlet B for Bellaire, addressed to M & P.  Felt the white walls closing in as I hurried back to my room, hefted the fake green leather letter opener.  A spasm of panicked inspiration: took the letter into the laundry room and used the Black & Decker iron to steam the envelope open. 

     The soggy letter was from Mr. Ridley, Bellaire High's Vice Principal....

...regarding the twenty three days of school that Benjamin has missed this semester.  When absenteeism reaches this high a level, I want to talk to the parents and, if necessary, the doctor, if the medical issues are serious.  Please call me at your earliest convenience to set-up a meeting.  I look forward to your prompt reply.

     Sincerely yours,

     Bob Ridley, Vice-Principal

     Held my fate in my hands, a damp white sheet of twenty pound bond paper.  Heard M's Le Sabre pull into the driveway.  Ran back to my room, closed the door, hid the letter in my briefcase.  

     M opened my bedroom door without knocking and stood in silhouette in the white hallway, gold chevrons on the sleeves of her black military dress, brass belt buckle catching the hall light, her face lost in shadow. 

     "Could you knock?"

     "Please."

     "Could you knock please?"

     "Why do you need the door to your room closed when you're all alone in the house?"

     "Because I like privacy.  Don't you?"

     "No."

     "Well, I do."

     "When you grow up and live in your own house with your own children, then you can do as you please."

     "What about today?  I want privacy today."

     "It's not healthy to sit in the dark."  She flipped on the overhead light and walked away, leaving my bedroom door open, as if the opposing team just decided to stop debating after the cross-exam and left the room without saying another word.  And still won the round.

     Locked myself inside the guest bathroom door and rolled a joint to take with me to the debate party.  Looked in the guest mirror and told myself that I didn't really want or need to get high.  Some part of me was lying to some other part.  Took a walk on the wild side and used the guest seashell soap to wash my hands. 

     Pulled on my sheepskin coat, but couldn't take that first step toward the master bedroom to supplicate myself to M to borrow the Le Sabre. 

     "I'm going to the party now," I yelled down the hall.

     "Be back by ten," unseen M answered.

     "Eleven."

     "Ten."

     Didn't want to walk but I did.  

     When I got to Eddie Zalta's house saw party shadows on the curtains.  Didn't want to go inside but I did. 

     I looked around the den and didn't see David or Shayne or anyone I wanted to talk to.  Quite the opposite, there was Steve, his back to me, perched behind the wet bar nursing a Dr. Pepper, dispensing wisdom to Velikow and a gaggle of Novice Boys.  

     Put my hand in my trouser pocket and felt the reassuring presence of the reefer, my airlift out of there.  Set it on fire and suck in sweet smoke and things would be different in exactly the way I had come to love.  Lift that hand-rolled, Zig-Zag cigarette out of my pocket, strike a match and everyone would freak.  Just one little gesture. 

     I found myself standing next to Zalta, an "All You Need Is Love" button pinned to his purple mock turtleneck sweater.  He was combing his hair, always combing his hair.

     "The master debater," he said, as if that explained me.  "And there she is." 

     Diane appeared in the foyer, wearing a robin's egg blue sweater that looked so soft it blurred against her. 

     "The Bridgette Bardot of Bellaire," he whispered, as if that explained her.  Diane smiled our way and Zalta took her smile as meant for himself and quickly closed the distance to her.  Secretly defeated, I silently went into the kitchen, past the six-packs of Cokes and Dr. Peppers on the counter, moisture beads on the cold bottles.  I could leave by the back door, escape without notice.  I reached for the door knob.

     "There you are," Diane said.

     I thought so long about which words to say that there were none.

     "Hi."  Or next to none.

     "Are you avoiding me?"

     It seemed like she was teasing.  One could reasonably conclude that she was teasing me.  "No...I...."

     "Didn't you see me come in?"

     "Yes...I...."

     "Hello."

     "Hello."

     "I guess I've got to corner you at a party if I want to talk to you.  Remember the last one?"

     Etched in my brain with aching clarity -- the ecstasy of my head in her lap, the agony of P rousting me.  "Yes...."

     "And I thought you'd forgotten all about it.

     "No...."

     She smiled.  I didn't know what she wanted, or what she thought, or why she could conceivably be interested in me.

     "For a master debater it's hard to get you to talk."

     "Plant me in front of a podium and watch out."

     "Well, then, let's go find you a podium."  She held out her hand to take mine. 

     "What are you two up to?" Shayne said.

     A simple second later I would have been holding Diane's hand, but not now.  "Nothing."

     "You make a lovely couple."

     Diane smiled and threw an arm around me.  "Don't we?"

     "How long has this secret romance been going on?"

     "Oh, for ages," Diane said.

     "You sly dog."  Shayne poked me in the stomach with her maimed index finger.

     "There's nothing going on."

     "Methinks the lad doth protesteth too much."

     Diane's arm fell away -- reprieved from the scary unknown next thing I was supposed to say or do, disappointed about same. 

     "There you are!" Zalta said, cleaving the space between Diane and me.  "May I get you a drink?  Coffee, tea, or me?"

     Had I blown it again?  Crazy to think that there had been anything to blow.  But we had been alone, a scary moment, intense and uncertain, and now there was Shayne and Zalta and it was like I was looking at Diane across this vast distance of the tiny kitchen and she was smiling at Zalta's suave inanities, and it all felt complicated and claustrophobic and even if there wasn't anything between Diane and me it was unbearable to watch Zalta charming her again, I didn't know how to do that, wasn't trained, wasn't prepared, hadn't done the proper research, wasn't armed with the proper evidence, so I stepped back out of the kitchen.

     And bumped into Steve.

     "Any more epiphanies?" he asked.

     "Only about you."

     "Oh, I feel honored."

     He didn't say anything and I didn't say anything and that's the working definition of a conversation being over.

     Escaped through a sliding glass door and stood alone in the night.  Stared into the den window at all those debate faces -- talking, laughing -- the happy warm uncomplicated life inside.  Cupped the match to hide the flame, exhaled smoke up toward a scattering of stars over Space City.  Outside looking in was lonely and strange. 

     Circled around to peer into the night kitchen.  Diane leaned against the kitchen counter as Zalta leaned in to tell her some big-deal story.  Shayne mimicked Zalta and everyone laughed, including Zalta.  They were having fun a million miles away. 

     Remembered The Problem, forgot The Problem, remembered The Problem again.  Urgency and forgetfulness tangled together, a nightmare I could solve this very night.  A secret mission, under the cloak of night, and now.

     Heard "The Lawrence Welk Show" from the master bedroom, duly reported my return to the supine master of the mothership.  M-9000 logged me back onboard. 

     Detoured through P's study and purloined a sheet of tan Brown & Root stationery embossed with his name, along with a matching envelope.  Carried my Smith-Corona through the laundry room to the back bathroom, the room farthest away from the master bedroom.  Set the typewriter down on the closed toilet lid, knelt on the floor and flexed my fingers, not to write a speech, not to concoct another sophistic argument for/against the Vietnam War, but to draft a real letter to be sent out into the real world -- under an assumed name -- P's -- with a real consequence, my continued freedom.  This would be a cross between Oratory and Extemp, a crafted piece of persuasive rhetoric, but extemporized, by necessity. 

Dear Mr. Ridley:                                              Thank you for your letter.   Benjamin's high number of absences this term are due to a malarial infection he contracted when we visited Singapore this past summer.  But Benjamin's physician assures me that he is now healthy and the fevers will not return.  Benjamin, too, is grateful to have his health back and hopes that his attendance record for the remainder of the term will be perfect.  I'm sure you share my pride that Benjamin will represent Bellaire High School at the National Forensic League District Tournament, and with his health returned to 100% he will be able to give his usual 110% effort.

     If you need to contact me further in regard to this matter, please do not hesitate to write.  Because I will be taking a number of business trips next week, written communication will be more efficient than using the telephone.

     Thank you again for your concern.

     Sincerely yours,

     Forged P's name.

     Felt lightheaded with the giddy joy that the words had so fluently flowed out from my brain, down through my fingers, onto the paper.  Words that would again set me free.  And now.  Had to be free now.  And high, very high, to enjoy just how free I was.

     Sneaked out the back door, felt weightless, released from gravity.  Smoked a pipe full of weed as I walked down empty sidewalks too dead for dreaming, letter in hand.  Felt like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., on a mission. 

     Strode toward the squat blue mailbox at the corner of Braeswood Boulevard, pipe clamped between teeth, pulled open the metal chute, damp with dew, dropped the letter into the maw.    Tore up the letter from Mr. Ridley to M & P, threw it into Braes Bayou.  Watched little pieces of white paper scatter across dark water.  Re-lit pipe.  Congratulations on a job well done. 

     Unless it was a terrible idea.  Maybe it was terrible.  Yes, it was.  Terrible.  Stoned thoughts.  Second thoughts. 

     Ignore stoned thoughts. 

     But I'd dreamed all this up stoned, written the letter to Mr. Ridley stoned, decided the letter was brilliant stoned. 

     And now doubted it all stoned.  It was too late.  Why did it always feel like everything was too late? 

chapter 15

     At the beginning of fourth period a note summoned me to the Principal's office.  I had been a fool to forge that letter stoned, a stoned fool, and at hand was the fruition of that foolishness.   

     As I waited outside Principal Andrew's office, Gary Peters slouched in, a bloody handkerchief wrapped around a fist.

     "What happened?"

     "Smashed a mirror.  What are you doing here, master debater?"

     "Natural selection."

     "You don't know shit about natural selection."

     The office door opened.  "Benjamin, please come in."  I did as I was told.

     Principal Andrews had wavy gray hair and the good looks of an aging movie star.  With him was Vice Principal Ridley, who was bald and didn't have the good looks of an aging movie star.  Principal Andrews handed me my forgery.  As if it required further perusing.  "What were you thinking?"

     I was contritely silent.

     "Did you really think you could get away with this?"

     Of course I did.  I wasn't insane.  In fact, I was sane enough to contritely say, "No."

     "I could expel you for this."

     "You should expel him," Vice Principal Ridley said.  "I should expel him.  The letter he forged was addressed to me."

     "And if Benjamin weren't our top debater, maybe I would.  If someone told me that a young person of your caliber had lied about attendance and forged a letter such as this, I would have said no, impossible, and defended you with my last breath.  How do you explain this?"

     Principal Andrews expected words appropriate to a master debater who had behaved inappropriately.  Tell him what he wanted to hear but make it sound like something I wanted to say.  Even if I was no longer a young person of character.  "I don't know how to explain it.  The qualifying tournament for Nationals is in two weeks and I'm under enormous pressure because everyone expects me to win and there's so much work to do.  I understand if you have to expel me.  I brought this on myself, it's all my fault."

     "I've spoken to your mother and father and I'll entrust them with taking proper disciplinary action at home...."

     My mind wandered, conjured up fearsome images of M silent or screaming or scrubbing me to death with a scouring pad.

     "...and put this behind us."

     "Yes, sir."

     Mr. Ridley gave me a scowl that said Fuck up again and your ass is mine

     Yes, sir.

     Principal Andrews gave me a smile that said You've disappointed me, son, but you're a good boy, you won't disappoint me again, will you?

     No, sir. 

     "Let's shake hands on it, and you're free to go."

     I'd lied my ass off to save my ass and it wasn't the lies that saved my ass, it was debate, it was hypocrisy that had set me free.  As I walked out of the Principal's office feeling hateful and grateful, Gary Peters frowned, because I didn't look like someone that something bad had happened to.

     "In my office, Peters," Mr. Ridley said, and the naturally selected rebel did as he was told but with this smirk to prove that he was doing just as he pleased.  Me, I was going back to class, and then to face whatever horrors waited at home. 

     Free to go?  No.

chapter 16

     The Grand Inquisitor, P, sat behind his blonde wood desk, in white terry cloth robe, sans hairpiece, top of head paler than face, an oddly reversed tan line.  The Grand Inquisitress, M, stood beside him, arms folded, in black and white house cleaning clothes.

     "You lied to us," M said.

     "I didn't lie."

     "You lied!  Absent from school twenty-three days.  You lied to your father and me.  Twenty-three lies."

     "Forty-six if you count you and father separately."

     "Don't get smart with me!"

     "I didn't overtly lie."

     "Overt?  I'll show you overt."  P handed me a photocopy of the forged letter I had written in reply.

     "Well?"

     Lie Number forty-seven.

     M compressed her lips in white fury, eyelids drawn tight over the angry whites of her eyes, arms crossed, white knuckles gripping elbows, white toes clawing white house slippers.  Nothing I could say would make her happy, would uncoil her from that frightening white.  But I could make things worse by arguing. 

     "Your father and I are very upset.  And very disappointed.  We've always trusted you and you have betrayed that trust."

     "I'm sorry."

     "You don't sound sorry."

     "I'm really sorry."

     "Have you learned anything?"

     I'd been reading "The Portable Nietzsche."  The Übermensch wouldn't have gotten caught.  Malaria and Singapore as an excuse for absenteeism?  An Untermensch excuse.  Yes, I'd learned something -- don't commit a crucial forgery while stoned. 

     "We're waiting."

     "I'm really, really sorry."

     "You've already said that.  You haven't learned a thing."  M turned to P.  "He hasn't learned a thing."

     "Yes, I have."  No, maybe the forgery wasn't the underlying problem.  It was stupid to think that I could skip school twenty-three days and not get caught.  Instead, I should have smoked dope secretly in the morning, at lunch, whenever, wherever, however.  I could have discreetly stayed high all day.  No one would have known.  The whole skipping school scenario had been fallacious.  Yes, I saw that now.

     "You're very lucky that Principal Andrews is such an ardent supporter of debate. 

     "How could you work so hard all these years and throw it all away, just throw away your college scholarship?"

     "What college scholarship?  I don't even have an acceptance letter yet."

     "You just don't get it."

     "I do."

     "You don't."

     "I've been reading a lot of philosophy.  German philosophy."

     "What?"

     "What?"

     No, it wasn't the right moment to talk about Nietzsche.  I had to talk about something appropriate, something they would believe I had learned.

     "I've been under so much pressure.  Maybe it's the pressure."

     "What pressure?"

     "To win."

     "Then you should have talked to us about pressure.  You shouldn't have lied."

     "No."  Yes, I was fucked up, and they didn't know why.  I didn't know why.  The fucking mysteries of feeling fucked up.

     "You can only leave the house for school and debate events.  But not for any social events, including debate parties.  We think that's more than fair punishment.  Don't you?"

     My turn to speak.

     "Don't you?"

     "Yes," I squeaked.

     Back in my room.  With the door shut.  Alone.  Back in the white cell, the only sound the dull whoosh of central air, grounded aboard the mothership.

     Shayne got her own letter from Mr. Ridley.  Her parents talked to her about healthy vs. unhealthy rebellion, case closed, no punishment exacted.  In her bedroom it was back to business as usual with David and Gary Peters and whoever else got to have fun.

     But not me.  I was under house arrest.

     Technically, I could visit any part of the prison ship.  Maybe I could even visit the prison yard. 

     I preferred the self-imposed exile of my bedroom, voluntary solitary confinement, the white window shutters throwing bars of sunlight across my face as I sat at my desk, staring at the sea green Smith-Corona typewriter, studying the black and white keys, letting my eyes pick the six magic letters hidden in the disordered keyboard alphabet: D, I, A, N, E.  Could I type up a piece of evidence to win Diane? 

     In the Fall issue of the "Journal of Contemporary Love," Dr. Feelgood notes that "there are cogent and compelling reasons to both recognize and respond to expressions of romantic interest." 

     Such stolid, stoic, solitary reveries were punctuated by the angry clip-clop of M's cotton house slippers as she patrolled the white hallway, armed with a can of Lemon-Fresh Pledge, as effective as Mace in quelling Paisley Prison riots.

     I could go to school.

     I could go debate.

     I could go to hell.

     What if I had six brothers and we were all prisoners?  Then I could wear a button that said Free the Paisley Seven, because Free the Paisley One sounded awfully lame. 

chapter 17

     Sat in another yellow and brown classroom, in another beat-up desk, my name written in chalk on another dusty blackboard.  Lab tables, racks of empty Pyrex test tubes, a whiff of formaldehyde. 

     "The affirmative team has asserted that Unilateral Military Intervention encourages Communism.  But what they have failed to point out is that no country that we have intervened in has gone Communist...." 

     Against my will, I listened to Steve's first negative speech -- he was so good, he was almost making a believer out of me.  We weren't talking to each other, but we were coasting, all the way to the semi-finals at the District Qualifying Tournament. 

     "...not the Congo, not Lebanon, not Guatemala, not the Dominican Republic.  And if we have made a mistake in Vietnam -- which is far from certain -- weigh this against the preponderance of successful military actions in other nations.  Certainly our interventions did drive some people to the Communists, but we destroyed the organization and infra-structure of the Communist movements in the countries where we have so effectively intervened.  I quote from the most recent issue of 'Foreign Affairs'...."

     The somnolence of solemn arguments.  As my hand flow-charted the unfolding arguments, my mind wandered.  Didn't people die in military actions?  Shouldn't we really be talking about death? 

     Words. 

     And more words.  

     Then, I belatedly noticed, silence.

     The second affirmative speaker from St. Johns, had finished his speech and was waiting for me to walk to the podium and cross-examine him.

     Silence to the left of me, the gray blur of Steve in his charcoal suit.  I was disgusted with Steve's pursed lips, and disgusted with myself for arguing Commie threat, Commie threat, Commie threat.  But I was one and a half debates away from going to Nationals. 

     We were expected to win and we were winning.  By accident?  By pure, dumb luck?  By divine intervention?  By natural selection?   

     I was expected to stand and I stood. 

     Walking to the podium I got a good look at the three judges: the paunchy guy had an American flag button fastened to the lapel of his dark blue pinstripe suit; the lady in the beige dress had a spot of rose lipstick on her teeth; the bald guy in the double-breasted blazer fiddled with a Kennedy half-dollar tie clip.  The classroom was filled with debaters with legal pads flow-charting the round.  

     The second affirmative speaker was short and blonde and there was smirk on his face from beating us in the finals at Lafayette High two months ago. 

     "Your affirmative plan calls for Congress to prohibit Unilateral Military Intervention, correct?"

     "Correct."

     "And United States intervention in Vietnam is unilateral?"

     "Yes."

     "So with the adoption of your plan, the United States would withdraw its troops from Vietnam?"

     "Yes."

     His smirk widened as I reiterated the planks of his plan.

     "And this implementation would be immediate?"

     "Of course."

     "Thank you."

     I walked back to my desk.  His smirk vanished -- two of my three allotted minutes of cross-examination remained and he was flummoxed that I wasn't using them.

     I sat down, my briefcase and quote drawers no longer a comfort.  Steve looked at me for the first time all day, shocked that I had ended my cross-ex so early.  "What are you doing?" he hissed.

     "Give me that Kissinger quote that says there will be a blood bath after we withdraw from Vietnam."

     "Everyone's waiting."  He plucked the quote card from his drawer and angrily thrust it into my hand.  "Get up there, now!"

     I took my time returning to the podium. 

     "The affirmative plan calls for the immediate withdrawal of all our troops.  At issue is not the strategic importance of Vietnam or the deleterious effect of a North Vietnamese victory on American foreign policy, but the chaos and loss of life -- the lives of American soldiers -- that such a precipitous withdrawal would undoubtedly cause.  As Henry Kissinger noted in his book, 'The Troubled Partnership'...."

     I funneled the fear argument at all three judges, but particularly at the guy with the enameled flag on his lapel. 

     "That was great," Steve whispered when I sat down. 

     After the round Steve and I carried our briefcases to the auditorium in silence and drifted apart while waiting for the decision.  I was certain we had lost.  We deserved to lose.  At least we didn't deserve to win.  Coach Johnson blew smoke at the ceiling and gave me a wink from across the foyer.

     "Hi," Shayne said, dressed in black scarf, black dress, black opera gloves, black point d'esprit stockings, black patent leather shoes. 

     "You look like Morticia."

     "Ophelia.  A Third Place Ophelia."  Closer, I smelled Krishna Musk perfume.

     "Sorry."  Only the First Place winner in each event got to go to Nationals.  

     "Someone wants to say hello." 

     "Who?"

     "Come outside." 

     I wondered who it could be as I followed her.  It was dark and quiet and cold as she led me across a sidewalk to an oak sapling held up with splints; there was a marble bench, but we didn't sit down.

     "So who wants to say hello?"

     "Mary."

     "Mary who?"

     "Mary Jane."

     "Where's David?"

     She smiled but didn't answer.

     I suspected some complicated, unfathomable trick.  Shayne was a girl, and girls were complicated and unfathomable.  Even more than life was complicated and unfathomable.  Maybe because life was too big and vague to look at but girls weren't, and because life was general and all encompassing, but girls were specific.  Like Shayne. 

     She lit the joint.  It was a freaky thing to do at the District Qualifying Tournament.  She inhaled and offered me the reefer.  Her white face floated above her black dress, the red ember glowed against her black glove. 

     "No, thanks, Ophelia." 

     "Why?  You're a freak."

     "It feels too weird here."

     "Time to do freaky things."

     Well, why not?  Why not get stoned and argue that Vietnam was good?  Why not get stoned and argue that the Communists were bad?  I could do that stoned.  And we probably lost the last round anyway, my debate career was over, why not jump the gun, enjoy an end-of-the-era cocktail? 

     So I took a deep hit off the joint then passed it back to her black-gloved fingers.  Looking up, the sky above was yellow from street lights and mist hung in the air, trying to decide whether to become fog or give up the ghost and creep away on little cat's feet.

     "Shit!" Shayne hissed.  The red coal of the joint fluttered down into the dead brown crab grass at her feet. 

     I looked at what she was looking at: Coach Johnson stood on the steps outside tournament headquarters staring at us.  "Did he see the joint?"

     "I don't know.  Quick, come here." 

     Had we been busted?  I couldn't move -- I was as stoned as a stone statue, as stoned as that stone bench.  

     "Come here," she hissily insisted.  I took a tentative step toward her and she threw her arms around me and gave me a kiss.  "He'll think we came over here to make out," Shayne breathed in my ear then kissed me again, her mouth open, her lips warm in the cold night air.  Her tongue darted into my mouth.  I felt an erection growing that surely she felt as she pressed herself against me and I was embarrassed and tried to ease my body away from hers. 

     Shayne broke off the kiss, draped her black-gloved hands around my neck and peeked over my shoulder.  "Good job."

     My face must have been a question mark.

     "Of acting," she answered.

     That didn't seem to be all it was about.  I mean, why the tongue?  For authenticity?

     "He's still watching," she whispered and pecked me again. 

     A wreath of Parliament smoke hung where Coach Johnson had been.  But Diane now stood on the steps, her eyes wide open, mouth crooked -- I felt an electric moment of connection in the darkness between us.  She was feeling something and that something was connected to me.  Certainly she was reacting to The Kiss.  The Kiss that wasn't a kiss -- how could I explain that?  I wished I really understood, wished I knew what to truly make of the moment, but I was afraid and averted my eyes and Shayne's arms dropped away from my shoulders and I saw Diane hurry back into the auditorium.

     "You're blushing, Benjamin.  Are you worried about getting caught smoking or getting caught kissing?  Because you just got caught kissing by your girlfriend."

     "She's not my girlfriend." 

     "Maybe she thinks I'm your girlfriend."

     No, but now Diane must think I went around kissing David's girlfriend.  I didn't know what to think about what Diane was thinking, about what Shayne was thinking -- was getting stoned at District just an elaborate ploy to kiss me?  It was complicated enough kissing a girl without being stoned doing it.

     And Coach Johnson.  I had betrayed his trust, betrayed the Bellaire Debate Gods, betrayed myself.  Fuck.  It was almost worth losing because then I could just go home, back to my prison cell, and be alone.

     "We won!  A unanimous 3 - 0 decision!  We're in the finals!" Steve called from the steps. 

     Maybe Coach Johnson hadn't seen me -- us -- the dope.  Maybe.  Probably.  Not quite definitely. 

     And Diane.  This was no time to think about Diane.  Time to dig in.  Back to the practical, I patted my pockets.  "Do you have any Sen-Sen?"

     "Here, have a Lifesaver.  Cherry -- how appropriate."  Shayne made a big point about putting the Lifesaver right into my mouth.  I tasted her linty black glove as she released the pink sugar circle.  "Break a leg."

chapter 18

     Silence.

     Sat with my flow pad.

     Tapped my Bic pen.  Tap, tap, tap goes the raven.

     Stared at the marks on the paper, they must mean something, some secret thing.

     The second negative speaker finished, returned to his desk.

     Empty podium.

     Waiting for me.

     To stand.

     To walk to the podium.

     To speak.

     Felt the buzz in my head.

     Stoned.

     Dig it. 

     Dig in.

     I could do it. 

     I was doing it.

     The last affirmative rebuttal,

     One speech away from Nationals.

     Steve looked at me, waiting, nervous.

     Gathered up quote cards.  Robert McNamara, a quote from Robert fucking McNamara.  Forgive me, Jimi.

     A blink later, at the podium, laying out quote cards, looking out at the faces: Coach Johnson, Shayne, David, Zalta, Velikow.  Diane.  Was she looking at me in some new strange way?  No, just me, feeling stoned and strange. 

     Stoned.  Could win stoned.  Would win stoned. 

     Silent.

     Speechless. 

     Then words came tumbling out.  Easy.  Like a guitar solo.  Just let them flow.

     And watch the faces. 

     Coach Johnson...had he seen me smoking?

     Shayne...that kiss...those kisses....

     David...did he know?

     Diane...navy blue dress, white collar, ponytail falling across yellow legal pad, looking up to smile.  At me?  My words?  What was me, what was words? 

     Words pouring out of my mouth, didn't mean a thing....

     The old affirmative case, tired old friend, tiresome....

     An argument.

     An answer.

     A quote (name, date, publication).

     A quip.

     A quote (name, date, publication).

     A conclusion.

     A hand gesture.

     Eye contact.

     A slow sentence and then a fast one, mix it up.

     Careful not to look too much at Diane.

     Look at everyone else.

     Look at the judges.

     Smile.

     Another quote....

     the time clocking down....

     conclusion/concluding/collusion....

     smoothly....

     the timekeeper's fist....

     thirty seconds....

     closing....

     a last perfect sentence....

     ...we therefore urge you to vote affirmative.

     Silence.

     Confident eye contact. 

     With the judges. 

     With the audience. 

     With Diane.  Impossible not to look.

     Then back to my seat.  Not a word left.

     Finals.

     Done.

     Finally done.

     Carried my briefcase back to the auditorium and waited to hear the vote.  Teams always sat together, but Steve and I sat at opposite ends of the aisle.  Moment by moment I was becoming unstoned.

     Steffi and David had been beaten in semi-finals, and they were still sitting together.  Steffi's eyes looked red from crying.  David's eyes looked red from herbal refreshment.  Their debate careers were over.  My debate career would be dead in a minute or two.  After the loss was official, Steve's eyes would get red like Steffi's from tears and mine would get red like David's from grass.  Maybe we had been mismatched teams all along.  Maybe maybe maybe, a world of maybes.   

     The tournament director came out on stage.  The grim set of his jaw, that was just for me.  Foreshadowing.  I was sure we had lost.  What a fool I had been, not waiting a mere hour to get high.  He would announce the results and that would be the end of debate.

     "By a unanimous 5 - 0 decision, Bellaire High will represent the South Texas District at the National Forensic League Tournament.

     Stunned, I walked toward the stage.  Nationals.  It was a miracle, we were going to Nationals.   Walking up opposite aisles, Steve and I arrived up on stage at the same time.  The lights were so bright.  No, I wasn't unstoned, not yet.  The tournament director handed us identical trophies, squat chrome bowls.  

     Steve hoisted his trophy over his head.  "We're going to Nationals!"  He held out his hand and I had to shake it.  "It's going to be great!"  He thought we were instantly best friends again; all was right in his world.  "We need to work up a new affirmative case for Nationals," he couldn't help adding.  I couldn't help shrugging.

     A tap on my shoulder and I was face to face with Coach Johnson.  His eyes said we-need-to-talk while his mouth said, "Congratulations."  Other coaches came up to congratulate him and I slipped away.

     Philip Velikow gave my coat sleeve a tug.  In a dark green suit, cut from the same cloth as mine, he was a shorter, unjaded version of me.  "Your rebuttal speech was like silver, liquid silver.  And the way you planted the nuclear arsenal argument, it was just like the Trojan Horse."

     "Nuclear arsenal?" 

     "Building up against a Russian first strike."

     "Oh."  I acted like I remembered.  The Commie threat and the Iron Curtain were melting together as I slid down from the dope high into the buzz of winning.  A winner who couldn't remember how he'd won. 

     "You wheeled it in like a gift during cross-ex and then, just like in Troy, the hidden warriors attacked and killed during your rebuttal and--"   

     "Hey!"  Shayne and David interrupted.

     "Sic transit gloria!" Velikow saluted as David pulled me aside.

     "You are busted."

     "I told him the whole story of how you kissed me."

     "Busted."

     "But you kissed me, not vice versa."

     "Don't kiss her again."  David rattled his box of Sen-Sen.  I looked at Shayne; she gave back a deadpan stare. 

     "I didn't kiss her, I--"

     "Did your lips touch hers?"

     "I--"

     "Did your lips touch hers?"

     I said--"

     "Answer the question."

     Shayne giggled; she wouldn't help me.

     "Her lips touched mine but it was her idea...we had to because...." I lowered my voice, "Coach Johnson saw us smoking outside the auditorium and--"

     "Busted.  So how does it feel?" 

     "What?"

     "Going to Nationals."

     So that was why David was screwing with me, not because of the Shayne thing, but because I was the lucky one who had just won.  Didn't he know that being debate partners with Steve sucked? 

     Diane appeared.  "I've been looking for you."

     Me?  

     "Congratulations."

     Pondered and parsed repartee.  What to say?  Unlike David, she had seen The Kiss and she knew that I had seen her seeing me, so there was this very complicated unsaid thing between us, and why was it complicated?  I mean, what was there other than nothing between us?  Took too long to answer what hadn't even been a question.  "Thanks." 

     "We were just deciding how to celebrate," Shayne said.

     "We were?" I asked.

     "We're going to Galveston," Shayne announced.  "Want to come along?"

     Diane looked from Shayne to me.  "Sure." 

     Was Diane coming along because of me?  With me?  Was this the fabled second chance to make good on The Grape Incident? 

     "I can't," I said.

     "Can't what?"

     "Go to Galveston."

     "Why?"

     "I just can't."

     "Can't or won't?"

     Steve was back, all smiles.  "There's a party at my house."

     An unenthusiastic chorus:

     "Great."

     "Great"

     "Great."

     "I'm grounded."

     "Even tonight?"

     Shayne shook her head sadly.  "He's grounded."

     "Well, try, partner."

     Partner!  I was back to being partner.  "I'll try," I lied.

     Steve went off to spread the word of his dreary soiree.

     "Galveston," Shayne repeated.  An invitation.  A command.

     "Can't."

     "The fruits of victory," Diane said.

     "You're the master debater, you'll think of something to say."

     I felt blank.

     "Or don't say anything.  Sneak out.  You're good at sneaking out.  He sneaks over to my house all the time."    Diane crinkled her forehead, wondering what Shayne meant, exactly the effect Shayne wanted. 

     Shayne plucked the trophy from my hand.  "Ransom.  See you at my house."

     "I don't know if I can."

     "See you at my house.  Right?" she asked Diane.

     "See you there," Diane said.

chapter 19

     M & P were in the master bedroom watching TV. 

     "We won.  We qualified for Nationals."

     "Congratulations," P said, and shook my hand.

     "Where's your trophy?"

     Never too soon to polish a trophy.  "Steve has it."

     "Steve has your trophy?"

     "There's a party at his house, to celebrate.  Can I go?"

     "You're grounded."

     "I know, but we won."

     "You're grounded."

     "But Nationals."

     "I think maybe we can make an exception," P said.

     "I think Benjamin already made twenty-three exceptions and now he needs to learn that rules are rules, win or lose."

     I had promised myself to nod agreeably but was still surprised that I did.

     "It doesn't mean that we're not very proud of you," P said.

     "Want some champagne to celebrate?"

     "Champagne?"

     "Champagne music."  On TV Lawrence Welk, Mr. Champagne, goosed "Strangers In The Night" out of his wheezy squeeze-box.  "And get yourself a bowl of vanilla ice cream."  M waved her spoon.  Ice cream in bed, her idea of wild.

     "No, I'm going to bed."

     Never had my room felt smaller.  Took off my coat and tie, put on a pair of tennis shoes, and held my ear to the door, listening.  What could they do, double ground me?  Was desperate to get to Shayne's room because Diane was there. 

     M & P would go to sleep in five minutes, precisely at nine o'clock, when "The Lawrence Welk Show" ended.  Those five minutes lasted hours.  I'd promised myself to wait an additional fifteen minutes so that they would fall deeply asleep before I sneaked out, but I cut that safety margin down to ten minutes.  Then to five, worried that I would arrive at Shayne's after Diane gave up on me.  Then to none. 

     Climbed out of my bedroom window during Lawrence Welk's closing credits and landed in the flower bed with a loud thud.  Several innocent pansies died.  Defoliation.  Every covert action has casualties.  Hurried away hearing echoes in my mind of M ordering me back home.

     Panicked when I saw a Coupe de Ville parked in front of Shayne's house, just behind David's Camaro.  Had Zalta nabbed Diane again?

     Sneaked around to Shayne's window expecting the worst, and through a crack in the curtains saw Shayne and David and Diane but no Zalta.  They were talking and laughing.  They didn't need me to have a good time.  Suddenly felt very shy about tap, tap, tapping on the window.  But I did.

     "Entréz vous."

     I entréz voued.  Plastic Ono Band's "Cold Turkey" on the stereo, Shayne's black Ophelia dress discarded on the floor, like the dark shape of a victim at a crime scene.  She now wore a tank top and blue jeans -- they were all wearing blue jeans while I was still in my debate suit.  They sat cross-legged on the bed; there wasn't room for me.

     "Don't worry, I explained everything," Shayne said.

     They all looked like they knew something I didn't.  But I often had that feeling.  "Explained what?"

     "How you had to kiss me so Johnson wouldn't know we were smoking dope."

     "Oh, that."

     "That."

     "I forgive you," David said.

     "I forgive you," Shayne said.

     "But it was your idea."

     "I forgive you," Diane said.  But what did she have to forgive?

     And they all laughed.

     "See, I told you he'd take it seriously," Shayne said.  And I tried to laugh along with them as if I had been in on the joke, even though I was the joke.      

     David opened a Monopoly board, took out his baggie of dope, started cleaning out seeds to roll a nice fat one. His black hair fell across his eyes as he bent to the task, and the seeds rolled down to Park Place and Jail.

     I stole a glance at Diane; she didn't look scandalized or even interested in the dope.  I sat down on the edge of the bed, near her, but not too near.  David steadied the Monopoly board as my weight shifted it. 

     "So dig this.  The affirmative team argues that even if we win in Vietnam, that won't stop the Communists, so why bother with UMI?  Then their plan is this foreign aid crap about strengthening the economy of developing nations.  And we lost."

     I nodded sympathetically. 

     "Domino Theory?  Soviet Aggression?  Have you ever lost with those arguments?"

     "Not yet."

     "Lucky bastard."

     I nodded again.  I was the lucky bastard who had won, and he was the lucky bastard with the ounce of Colombian.  Best not to antagonize.  Commiserate and get high.

     He finished rolling a joint and gave it a long wet lick.  "A libation to the great debater."

     "A libation to the great kisser," Shayne said.

     I wished she would stop talking about The Kiss in front of Diane and the best thing I could do was change the topic.  "Are we really going to Galveston?"

     David closed the Monopoly Board and Park Place and Jail folded into a dead black rectangle.  He stuffed the baggie of dope into his underpants.  "The sparkling waves are calling you to kiss their white faces," he quoted from Cream's "Tales of Brave Ulysses."

     Shayne rooted through the lipstick on her make-up table, deciding which color to wear, and Diane and I went outside.  

     We fell into step, side by side and she dangled keys, jangled them.  "I've got Daddy's Caddy.  Want to drive?" 

     "Yes." 

     The cold air and the moonlight breaking through the clouds and the Gulf waiting for us at the end of the road and the Cadillac and Diane -- especially Diane -- it was pure adventure -- I was finally living an adventure.  She handed me a gold-plated key chain and I fumbled the right one into the key hole and unlocked the passenger door.  I felt the heft of all that steel as I swung the door open for her.  Daddy's Caddy, not Zalta's.  Tonight I was holding a Cadillac door open for Diane.  As I walked around the car, she unlocked the driver's door for me, and I slid behind the wheel of that big strange luxury car, the white leather cold to the touch, the pull-down leather armrest between us. 

     Her blue jeans against the cold white leather: felt like a haiku of who cared how many syllables. 

     Diane turned on the heat and twiddled the radio dial. "Incense and Peppermints."  A good song to start with. 

     She saw me looking at her.  "What?"

     Think fast. 

     "What?" 

     "I like this song."

     "You're funny."

     "Why?"

     "You were looking so serious before you said that, I was expecting some profound comment."

     "Should I try and look less serious?  Or try and say something more profound?"

     "Definitely look less serious, and definitely say something more profound.  You've got a reputation to live up to."

     "A tarnished reputation."  Her Patchouli scented the warm safe world of the Caddy.

     "I can relate to tarnished."

     "How?"  A stupid question.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.

     "Haven't you heard all those rumors about me?"

     "No."

     "Don't lie."

     The only way to not say something wrong was to say nothing.

     "Well?" 

     "Okay, I've heard Zalta talk."

     She pressed her lips together.  "What did he say?"

     Her persistence was, well, so persistent.  What did I have to lose?  Her.  Of course: I had her to lose.  Not that she was mine. 

     "Well?"   

     "He said you were stacked."

     She blushed, then tried to smile.  "And what else did he say?"

     "That's all.  And no more badgering the witness."

     "Everybody thinks I'm a slut just because I've got big tits."

     I couldn't believe that she was talking to me about her tits.  It was like I was in a movie; it wasn't my normal life any longer.  "I don't think you're a slut." 

     "You're different." 

     I was afraid to say something because I might say something wrong.  But Shayne tapped on my window and I was spared.

     "It is my very great honor to present you with this loving cup," Shayne said and handed me tonight's trophy.  I had forgotten all about it.  I held the chrome bowl an inch from my face and stared at my convex, distorted reflection. My breath fogged my face into oblivion.  I put the trophy down on the white leather between Diane and me.

     David and Shayne climbed into the back seat.  He had the joint lit before I got the car started.  On the radio: Lay lady lay, lay across my big brass bed...Stay lady stay, stay while the night is still ahead -- exactly what I wanted, exactly what I was afraid to say -- was Diane listening to the lyrics as closely as I was?  It was embarrassing, those words in this car, now.   

     As I sped up the 610 on-ramp, Shayne's hand came over the front seat, a lit joint between the two remaining whole fingers of her right hand, and passed it to Diane, who took a drag.  So Diane got high.  Something else to think about.  She passed the joint along to me; I toked, then held the joint behind my head and David deftly took it away; we passed the smoking baton as smoothly as any track team.  When the joint found its way back to Diane's hand it had shrunk;

she moved the trophy out of the way, scooted close, held the joint to my lips, and when she passed the joint back to David she didn't scoot away but stayed next to me, her hip lightly touching mine.  And we weren't even on the Gulf Freeway yet.

     "Hey, Diane, you're not using your seat belt," Shayne said.

     "I didn't realize that you were so concerned about safety," I said.

     "I'm not.  I'm concerned with morals.  Someone has to chaperone you guys.  Diane doesn't know you like I do."

     Diane smiled and turned to glance back at Shayne.  "What should I know about Benjamin?"

     "Benjamin is not what he seems."

     I was always trying to find out more about myself, as if someone else had the answer that I could never find.  "And what am I?" I asked and immediately regretted floating the question.

     David noisily, greedily sucked in a full measure of smoke.

     "A virgin," Shayne said.

     Virgin reverberated in the climate controlled air; I was mortified.  David laughed and coughed.  I stared at the road ahead, afraid to check Diane's reaction.  I had to challenge Shayne's assertion, undermine it.  "How do you know that?"

     "I just know.  It's a feeling," Shayne said in her haughtiest drama queen voice.

     "Your assertion lacks substantiation."

     "The way you kissed me tonight, that's substantiation."

     "And I'm the aggrieved party," David said.  In the rearview mirror I caught glimpses of hands and tongues against white upholstery -- he and Shayne were touching each other everywhere; the back seat was what needed chaperoning.

     "Diane, do you think Benjamin's a virgin?"

     I kept my eyes on the road and the monotony of white stripes unwinding.  Didn't dare, couldn't bear to look over at her. 

     "That's an irrelevant question.  But does Benjamin think that I'm a virgin?" Diane asked.

     "Does anyone think that?" Shayne asked.

     "I don't know and I don't care," Diane said softly.  Call a guy a virgin and it's an insult; with girls it seemed more complicated. 

     "Virgin, virgin, virgin.  I can't think of a more boring topic," Shayne said.

     "You started it," David said and lit another joint. 

     Diane leaned even closer; I could feel her warm lips against my ear.  Her breath had the clean sweet green smell of a lime Lifesaver.  "Do they always give you such a hard time?" she whispered.

     "Just tonight," I whispered back to her.

     "Because you won?"

     And because of you.  But couldn't bring myself to say that. 

     I tilted the rear view mirror: David and Shayne had dropped out of sight.  Diane saw me looking in the mirror, sneaked a peek into the back seat, and smiled.  On the radio: Hello darkness my old friend, I've come to talk to you again....  Had I let too much time go by without talking?  Did she really like me?  It didn't seem like anyone should like me. 

     We rode like that for a while, listening to songs and not talking.  Diane took the blue plastic clip out of her hair, shook her ponytail loose, and her brown hair cascaded across her shoulders. 

     "Hey, Diane," I whispered.

     "Hey what?" she whispered back.

     "Do you think that Shayne's a virgin?"

     Diane laughed.  Loudly.

     "What?" Shayne said from the back seat darkness; saying her name always got her attention -- she hated to be left out.

     Diane just shrugged. 

     "What?" Shayne asked again.

     Diane put her head on my shoulder; no girl had ever done that.  Her brown her fell across me, entangling, oh what a delightful web we weave, as the Cadillac climbed the bridge and we left the mainland.

chapter 20

     I parked the Caddy at the top of the seawall and turned off the engine.  There were no other cars.  Diane lifted her head from my shoulder.  Her face was close; she was in no hurry to move away.  It might have been the right moment to kiss her: night, seawall, ocean, parked car.  Except that we weren't alone.  Shayne cuddled against David, but her eyes were on Diane and me.  She looked poised to say something sarcastic.  David looked half-asleep, trusty baggie in his lap, rolling another joint.

     "Let's go look at the ocean," Diane said to everyone, but it was my sleeve she tugged.  She got out of the car; I slid across the leather bench seat and followed after.

     She walked to the edge of the crummy gray concrete seawall and I stood next to her in the cold wind that blew off the water.  We looked out at the dark blue Gulf of Mexico and watched cumulus clouds blowing in, hiding the moon, hiding the stars, and breathed the salt and ozone smell of ocean. 

     "It's beautiful, isn't it?"

     "Yeah," I lied; the seawall was so dumpy it made the ocean look dumpy. 

     "Let's go down to the water."  She started down the crumbling steps to the beach and I followed. 

     It was colder by the water.  The wind roared in my ears, mingling with the crash and hiss of collapsing waves.  I will never hear surf music again, Jimi had sang.  Diane's honey-brown hair blew back into my face and the whiplashing strands tickled my cheek.  I didn't dare move out of harm's tickling way.  Diane hugged herself as she walked across the wet sand, trailing wet footprints from her tennis shoes.  I followed after, our squishy ephemeral footprints side-by-side in the sand.  The tide was going out, leaving behind dirty sea foam and the white shards of ten thousand tiny broken shells.

     I stood beside Diane at the surf's edge, maneuvered to again feel her hair blowing in my face.  Everything was more intense on the beach, five senses profused, confused: salt smell, rise and fall of waves, cold wind on my face, dim moonlight on ebbing tide, and her.  Diane was more intense, being with her, here.  I longed to exercise my sense of touch, to touch her with the cold cowardly fingers that I numbly, dumbly clutched against my pants legs.

     "What are you thinking?"

     I hated that kind of question -- too direct, too pointed at me.  But I didn't hate it when she asked me.  The Heisenberg Principle of Romance -- she changed the nature of the question by asking it. 

     "Something profound?" she teased.  She was still hugging herself.  I wished that I was hugging her.

     "Define profound."

     "That which is not trivial."

     Epiphany: Diane and me.  "Okay.  If we crawled out of the ocean to become people, why can't we crawl back into the ocean and become fish?"

     She laughed, which was much better than mere profundity, and stopped hugging herself. 

     To hug me.  She held open her turquoise reefer coat and gestured for me to join her inside.  Midnight blue bliss, her brown eyes so close and looking into mine.  The Short Happy Life of Francis McComber, The Short Happy Life of Me, Sisyphus' rock finally rolling to a stop. 

     "Always so serious," she said.

     I heard Shayne's faint laughter on the other side of the wind and looked up and saw her standing up on the seawall with David, staring down at us.

     "I wish we were alone right now," Diane whispered.  The situation seemed unbearably precarious: how to get back to Houston with this same wish intact?  I didn't know what to say.  And silence didn't feel safe either.

     "You're thinking again."  She touched my forehead with her pinkie finger and I noticed, for the first time, flaking mother of pearl nail polish.  So many things to notice for the first time.  "I can hear the gears spinning in there."

     There must be some perfect sentence I could say and while I was trying to think of it she laced her cold fingers through mine, slotted her fingers until the webbing of our two hands joined, and side by side we walked back across the sand and climbed back up those crumbling gray concrete steps to the top of the seawall.  Shayne and David slouched against the cold Cadillac.  Diane kept hold of my hand, which made me feel unreasonably proud, and bold, holding hands with her in front of Shayne and David.

     "How's the beach?" Shayne asked.

     "Cold," I answered.

     "Romantic?"

     "Extremely," Diane said.

     "Do you hear that, David?"

     "It's a lie."  David wetted a pristine joint with his lips.  "Why did we come here?"

     "Something to do."

     "Now we've done it."

     "We're ready to go home," I said.

     "I bet you are," Shayne said.  "I think Benjamin and Diane want to be alone."

     Headlights raked across us as a car parked right behind the Cadillac.

     The Galveston Police.

chapter 21

     "Shit."

     "Shit."

     "Shit."

     "Merde."

     David flicked the unlit joint over the seawall.

     A black-uniformed cop got out.  One of Galveston's finest, tan looking, even at night.  I memorized the name on his badge: Officer Pope.  Every detail was etched clear, as would be the next twenty years in jail. 

     "What are you kids doing here?"  Officer Pope hitched his belt, heavy with night stick, gun, handcuffs, mace.  I flashed on "Easy Rider."

     "We came down to see the Gulf," Shayne said with Jewish southern belle charm.  "We drove down from Bellaire."

     A blinding flashlight was pointed in my face.  I squinted as my retinas screamed for mercy.  "It's awfully late to be down at the beach.  How old are you kids?"

     "Eighteen," Shayne said.

     "Eighteen," David said.

     "Seventeen," I said.

     "Sixteen," Diane said.

     "Sixteen?  Whose car is this?"

     "Mine.  I mean, my daddy's."

     "Does daddy know that you drove his Coupe de Ville down to Galveston tonight?"

     "Yes, sir." 

     "Do y'all have drivers licenses?"

     David and I pulled out our wallets, Diane retrieved her blue vinyl purse, Shayne rooted through her black crocheted shoulder bag and we all offered up our drivers licenses for inspection. 

     I prayed that there were no roaches in the car ashtray.  If they hadn't seen David throw that joint away -- and if they didn't search his pants and find the baggie -- a big if -- we might escape disaster.  Might.

     "What's that?" Officer Pope asked.  His flashlight beam gleamed off the chrome bowl sitting on the front seat.

     "That's my trophy," I said.

     "Trophy?"

     "Benjamin won first place at the district debate tournament tonight," Shayne explained.

     "Do you mind?"

     We'd debated crime freshman year so I knew all about Miranda rights.  We shouldn't give a cop permission to look around inside the car.  But he opened the door and picked up the trophy without waiting for an answer.  Technically, he had just violated our rights, but this didn't seem like an opportune moment to start arguing. 

     "We were all at the district tournament today, over at Houston Baptist College," I said.  The tournament had been at Robert E. Lee High School, but I transposed it to Baptist College to make it sound more wholesome. 

     "It was the qualifying tournament for the national championship.  We're all awfully proud of Benjamin because the national championship is at the University of Houston this year, which makes it really special, being in our home town and all," Shayne said, picking up the torch of liberty. 

     "Is that so?"

     "Yes, sir," I said, "We go to speech tournaments all the time.  David is president of the debate club.  Diane is one of our best girl debaters.  And Shayne won Third Place in Dramatic Interpretation."

     "Where's your trophy?"

     "I didn't bring it, sir.  And it's just a medal for Third Place, not a trophy like Benjamin won for cross-examination."

     The cop slowly turned the trophy bowl in his hand, the flashlight beam bouncing off the chrome to illuminate the crime scene.  "First Place, NFL District Finals, Men's Cross-Examination Debate," he read.

     "Yes, sir, cross-examination debate.  It's a lot of work doing research at the library and writing speeches and such," the and such my down home touch.  "Ordinarily we wouldn't come down to the beach so late, but we wanted to do something special to celebrate." 

     "What's this?  What do we have here?"  Officer Pope's flashlight had found David's baggie, an ignominious ounce of evil weed resting on the back seat.  "What do we have here?" he repeated, his tone stiffening.  He held my debate trophy in one hand and David's baggie of green marijuana in the other, the yin and yang of our existence. 

     Had to save me, us, Diane, had to extemporize salvation.  "Oh, my God, do you think those guys left it?"

     "What?"

     "We picked up these two hitchhikers in La Marque when we were driving down." 

     "Hitchhikers?"

     "They seemed nice," Shayne joined in. 

     "Yeah, really nice.  This guy Chet and his cousin."  My palms were sweating, but my voice was as fluent as a second negative rebuttal.

     "The cousin's name was Albert," Diane added.  "They seemed very polite."  She pulled her hair back into a ponytail, the better to look like daddy's little girl.

     Officer Pope lifted the dope to his sun-blistered nose and sniffed the baggie that had spent many sweaty hours nestled in David's pubic hair.  "Marijuana."

     "I can't believe those guys were drug addicts!"

     "They didn't seem like drug addicts."

     "But their clothes were kind of dirty."

     We were all into it now, a do-or-die melodrama on the seawall.    

     "Don't you know that you should never pick up hitchhikers?"

     "Yes, but it's so cold tonight and we felt sorry for them."

     "A prize-winning debater should act a little smarter."

     "Yes, sir."

     He compared Shayne's license photo to her face.  "You can get robbed and killed on a cold night just as easy as a warm one."

     "Yes, sir, you're so right."  She tugged nervously on one of her wiry ponytails.

     "You've never seen this before?"  Officer Pope asked, waving the baggie.

     "No, sir."

     No sir we all solemnly nodded.  We were the most law abiding potheads you ever saw.

     "This is just awful.  To think that we had criminals in daddy's car."

     "Your daddy's lucky that I didn't have to call him up and tell him his little girl had been raped and killed tonight."

     "Yes, sir."

     "What did these men look like?"

     "Chet was a little older than us and he had blondish hair," I said.

     "And he walked with a limp."  David brushed his lank black hair off his forehead.

     "And the other guy was really old, way over thirty, and he had a mustache."

     "We dropped them off just this side of the bridge."

     The cop looked from Shayne to me. 

     "It was my fault.  I was driving."

     "No, we told you to stop."

     "But I was driving.  I shouldn't have listened."

     "Hey, you should blame me," Diane said.  "I was the one who wanted to come down here to see the ocean tonight.  If I hadn't wanted to come we never would have picked those drug addicts up and we wouldn't be in this mess."

     "Hey, kids, you're lucky that nothing bad happened."

     Like getting busted.  

     "Get on back home to Houston.  It's not smart to be out this late."  Officer Pope handed me back the trophy.  It was as if I had just won back my freedom.

chapter 22

     We got back in the Cadillac and I again held that big white steering wheel in my hands.  I glanced at the cop car in the rearview mirror as I fumbled with the key.  The radio blared to life -- "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head" --happiness had never sounded phonier -- Diane and I bumped hands hurrying to turn it off. 

     "We won that debate.  Good first affirmative, Ben," David said.

     "Shut up," Shayne told him.

     "What a waste.  That lid was brand new," David said.

     "You should have left it in your pants.  That and the other thing."

     I was careful to use the turn signal as I drove slowly away.  I expected the cop would follow me but he didn't.  No one said a word until we had crossed the bridge and were off Galveston Island.

     "You ver amazing, Hans," Shayne said Swedishly.

     "And you vould know, Heidi." 

     Diane didn't scoot close to me.  The trophy listed on its side on the white leather between us.  Figured that romance was dead for the moment.  Maybe longer.  Maybe forever.  Didn't blame her.  Blamed me. 

     We were all wide awake but no one was talking.  I was thinking about the Monopoly board David had rolled joints on, with the little square for Jail. 

     I turned the radio back on: Some pills make you larger and some pills make you small, and the ones that Mother gives you don't do anything at all....  I sang along out of key and Diane giggled.  That was the only good moment the whole trip back to Meyerland.  That and not wearing handcuffs.

     When we got back to Shayne's house I left the engine running.

     "We should do this more often," Shayne said as she opened her door.    

     "I've got the munchies," David said and got out of the other side of the car.  "You guys want to go to Alice's?"

     Diane looked at me uncertainly. 

     "No, thanks," I said and Diane looked relieved that I had answered for both of us, as if we were a couple. 

     "Have fun.  And don't do anything I wouldn't do.  Which is just about anything," Shayne said. 

     As I drove away it seemed like a very long time since Diane and I had been alone.  It was what I had wanted but it was also scary, just the two of us, nothing else, no one else.

     "I'm sorry."

     "For what?"

     "Almost getting you arrested."

     "It wasn't your dope."

     "I know, but still."   

     "Hey, it's the most exciting first date I've ever been on."

     So she regarded this as a first date.  "Really?"

     "Really."  She moved the trophy aside and scooted back next to me.  "And it wasn't just the cops."

     "No?"

     "No."  She stroked my arm and laid her head on my shoulder. 

     I knew where she lived even though I'd never been inside her house.  I parked the Cadillac in her circular driveway and killed the engine.  It was like we were back on the beach.  But quieter.  No wind, no waves.  Wherever I hoped to be hurrying to, I was there, I had arrived.  I could have sat beside her in the front seat forever. 

     "I'd invite you in, but it's late.  I guess I should drive you home."

     Did that mean the night, this night, our night, was over?  "No.  I can walk."

     "But it's so late."

     "That doesn't matter."

     "And it's cold."

     As we were talking -- as she was talking -- the words seemed to drop away, it wasn't about words, it was about the two of us sitting together, so close, it was everything other than words, it was about what wasn't said.

     Then she turned toward me and I turned toward her.  I was parked with Diane in a Cadillac and I was an idiot because I was merely thinking about kissing.  Now or never.  I was determined to kiss her.  Touched her arm.  She touched my arm.  Touched her neck.  Prelude to a Kiss.  Closer.  Steady now.  Past the fail safe point and...the porch light came on.  Just my luck.  We froze, un-coupled, not much of a couple to un from.

     Mr. Goodman stood on the front porch in red-and-black Karate-style pajamas.  Not my P this time, but hers. 

     "Daddy."

     Had Daddy seen us about to kiss?

     Diane slid away from me and we got out of the Coupe de Ville on opposite sides.

     "Daddy, this is Benjamin.  Benjamin, Daddy."

     "Where have you been?"

     "At the debate party."  She ducked into the car and showed him my trophy.  "Benjamin's going to Nationals."

     "Congratulations."  He made the word sound like its opposite.  "Inside, now."  And he went inside, to show Diane how it was done.

     "Call me."

     "Okay."

     "The second you wake up."

     "I will."

     She smiled and hurried through the door.  Like drawing in a toke of the very best weed, time froze, and I dissected her fleeting smile.  A Meyerland Mona Lisa smile -- mysterious, kind, haunting, and a thousand other adjectives triter than what I felt.  As she disappeared I felt something -- wanted to put a word on the feeling -- what? 

     Happiness.  I felt unbearably happy.  The clouds had fled from the sky, a scattering of stars twinkled, the full moon hung yellow on the horizon.  The air felt alive.  I felt alive standing in her driveway.  Exposed, every inch of my skin.

     Stood on the cold gray cracked sidewalk and looked at the dark yellow brick house.  What a magical house, because somewhere inside was Diane.  Every part of me tingled and not from the cold. 

     Saw a light go on.  Her bedroom. 

     Sneaked closer.  Through a crack in the curtains, saw the blue of her sweater and the pajama torso of Daddy.  Couldn't hear what they were saying.

     Time to go home.  A long, cold walk along Braes Bayou, carrying the trophy, tonight's loving cup.  So much distance between the streets, so much space between all the houses.  No cars.  No people.  Ain't no life nowhere.  So much to think about, and it was all Diane: lips, laugh, smile, smiling at me. 

     At me.

     I was going to Nationals.  I'd almost kissed Diane.  I didn't feel like sneaking back into my bedroom just yet.

chapter 23

     David's Camaro was parked in front of Alice's Diner.  Inside it was practically empty, a couple of geezers at the counter and Shayne in a back booth.  I put my trophy on the Formica table and sat down. 

     "Where's David?"

     "Outside having a toke."

     "I didn't see him."

     "Did you get lucky?"

     "She asked, changing the subject."

     "Did you?"

     "It's been a lucky night all around."

     "It didn't take you very long."

     What? I wondered.

     "To have your way with her."

     "I won't dignify that with a reply."

     "You just did."

     Gary Peters came in, carrying a radio and record-player combo in a wood-veneer case, sweating from the weight of it, but with his typical no-sweat smile.  He plopped the stereo down on the floor and scooted into the booth next to me.  His hair was greasy and he had a pimple in the center of his forehead, like a puss-filled third eye. 

     "You know, they do have a juke box here, Gary.  You don't have to bring your own," Shayne said.

     "I stole it."  He lit a Marlboro. 

     "Where?  From your parents' bedroom?"

     "I broke into Randi's house.  They went to Corpus Christi."

     "But you and Randi are dating," Shayne said.

     "We're balling each other.  That's not dating.  We don't go to the fucking soda shop and hold hands."

     "Are you crazy?"

     "I'm a predator.  Darwinian.  A hunter-gatherer."

     "Planning on stealing my stereo next?"

     Gary blew a series of smoke rings.  They radiated apart as they wafted toward Shayne's face.  "Hey, it was her parents' stereo.  I'm not a bad guy.  I'm a liberator."

     "So you might steal my dad's television set, but nothing from my room?"

     "Don't worry, Shayne, you're safe from natural selection." 

     "The police come here for coffee," I said.

     Gary flicked some ashes into the trophy.  "So?"

     "So why don't you park that stereo outside, Gary?"

     "Why don't you park yourself outside?" Gary snapped back.  "It's a free country."

     The waitress nearly tripped over the stereo and gave us a weird stare.  Shayne and I looked at each other.

     "We were just leaving," Shayne said.  "The check please."

     "Pussies," Gary said.  He stubbed out his cigarette in my trophy and lit another.  It was his last cigarette and he crushed the box. 

     Shayne slid out of the booth.  I couldn't climb out over Gary but the booth behind me was empty so I picked up my trophy and crawled over the banquette.  Gary just kept blowing smoke rings. 

     Outside, standing in the cold air again, it felt great.  W­­e had escaped.  We weren't going to be arrested, so it was another adventure, a story to tell.

­­­     "He was drunk," Shayne said.  "A total alcoholic, like his brother."

     "He didn't seem drunk."

     "Jesus, his breath -- when he was blowing those smoke rings in my face -- he could have done a fire-breathing act.  Looks like David went one toke over the line."  He was passed out in the Camaro.  "You drive."

     We maneuvered David into the passenger seat.  Shayne sat in his lap.  He groaned but didn't wake up. 

     I backed the Camaro out and started driving away when there was a bang on the hood.  Shayne yelped and David woke up.  "What the fuuu...."

     Gary jumped in front of the car.  "Give me a ride!"  He banged on the hood again, the stereo under his arm, his face red.

     "He's out of his mind.  Lock your door!" Shayne said.

     "Give me a fucking ride!"  He looked deranged enough to throw the stereo through the windshield.

     "No way!"  Shayne yelled at him, and right in my ear.

     "Benjamin, you asshole, let me in!"

     "Shit."  He was blocking my way.  The police station was only a couple of blocks down Beechnut.  I imagined a patrol car coming, roaches in David's ashtray, handcuffs, a trip to the station, the Domino Theory of disaster. 

     "Let me in!"

     "Get us out of here," Shayne said.

     But Gary wouldn't budge.  I tried inching the car forward but he wouldn't move, he just kept pounding on the hood.

     "Fine!  Run me over!  Fucking run me over!"  He heaved the stereo and it shattered on the pavement.   "My life is fucking shit so fucking run me over!"

     "Freak out," David said. 

     "You fucking assholes!" 

     The waitress stared out the diner window, and the two old guys.  Time had stopped and Gary was screaming.  And then he dropped out of sight.  "Hit the gas!  Hit the fucking gas, Benjamin, you fucking asshole!"

     I threw the car in reverse and backed up, revealing Gary, straight as a corpse, hands by his side, staring up at the sky.  "Shit, he's lying in the road." 

     "Do it!  Just do it!"

     I hit the gas -- but stayed in reverse -- and we raced away from Gary, backwards.  When Gary saw what has happening, that I wasn't backing up in order to run him over, but to drive away, he jumped to his feet and started running after us like a madman.  I drove backwards faster -- hit the brakes hard -- screeched to a stop -- shifted to forward and turned the car around, just like Steve McQueen.  For once, Shayne was too scared to say anything.  Gary caught up with us, while I was doing this about-face, and as I peeled away he managed to bang his fist on the trunk.  "You fuckers!  Natural selection's gonna get you!"

     A safe distance away I hit the brakes and rolled down my window.  I could smell burned rubber.  "Natural selection already got you, Gary!  You're just too fucking stupid to notice!" 

     That shut him up.  Then I hit the gas and watched in the rearview mirror as Gary shrank into fist-waving oblivion.

     "That was great," David said and rooted through the ashtray for a promising roach.

     "Great, Benjamin."

     Another great escape.

     Climbed out of the Camaro stone cold sober.  A nod and a wave and the Camaro eased away, David too tired to press the gas. 

     Back on Paisley.  The house looked asleep.  My bedroom window opened with a creak.  The trophy fell and thumped on the carpet.  Stepped on the trophy climbing in.  "Shit!"  Expected to get busted by M but was too tired to care. 

     Made it back to bed and the safety of my pajamas, uncaught, undetected.  More had happened than any other day of my life so far.  And between every flicker of adventure that flashed in my tired mind, behind closed eyes, there was Diane, and she was always smiling.  Smiling me to sleep. 

chapter 24

     "When did you get this?"

     M stood over me, the NFL District Finals trophy in her hand.  She wasn't smiling.

     Think fast.  Wake up and think fast.  "David brought it by."

     "When?"

     "Late."

     "Obviously.  Have you forgotten that you're grounded?"

     "No."

     "Grounded means no visitors."

     "Guess he forgot."

     "And what's this?"  She showed me the biggest of several dents.  The trophy had a lot of hard miles on it.

     "A dent."

     "I know it's a dent.  How did it get there?"

     "Don't know."

     "It doesn't bother you that your trophy is ruined?"

     "Deeply."

     "And this?  It looks like someone stubbed out a cigarette, for gosh sakes."

     "Yeah, it does," I said, feigning sleepy outrage at the stain Gary's Marlboro had left in the center of the bowl.

     "I can probably scrub it out."

     She walked out of my field of vision.  I didn't turn my head.  "You probably can," I muttered.

     "What?"

     Played dumb and didn't answer.

     Sat at my desk.  Sunlight cut through the white shutters, throwing bars of yellow light into my white cell.  Diane's name and phone number sizzled in purple mimeograph ink on the debate roster.  The Hoover hooved and I dialed and prayed that Diane would answer; I didn't have it in me to deal with another M or P.

     "Hello?"  Prayer answered, she answered.

     "Hi.  It's Benjamin."

     "I know.  Hi."

     "Hi."

     "Last night was, well, wow."

     "Yeah."

     "Do you want to come over?"

     "I can't.  I'm grounded."

     "I could come over there."

     Diane, here?  Under the cold eye of M?  Impossible.  Untenable.  Unbearable.  "No, that's not a good idea.  I mean, it is, but it isn't."

     "Oh."

     "I mean, it's complicated."

     "Sounds like it."

     "So."

     "So."

     "See you at school."

     "Yeah."

     "Bye."

     "Bye."

     Phone dead.  Felt dead.

chapter 25

     As I trudged down the covered walkway, lugging my briefcase back to debate shack after a practice round, the baseball team headed the opposite way, cleats clacking on asphalt. 

     "Hey, it's Perry Mason!"

     "Hey, Perry!"

     Wasn't carrying a baseball bat, a penis-shaped piece of wood, far more ridiculous than carrying a briefcase?  As they clacked off to the showers I heard Diane practicing her oration in one of the shacks:

     "...so instead of saying you are sincere, be sincere.  Instead of writing sincerely yours, be sincerely yours.  Don't say 'honestly, I don't know' unless you honestly don't know.  Don't say 'I sincerely hope so' unless you really and sincerely do hope so...."

     I stopped walking but didn't put my briefcase down as I watched her through the doorway.  She wore a lavender plaid jumper and even at a distance I smelled Patchouli.  What Diane was saying seemed so out of place in an oration, but maybe judges would go for a sincerity thing, especially from someone as pretty as Diane.  Sure, I could see it working for her.  That heartfelt stuff could be viable in Girls Oratory. 

     "...words like sincerity and honesty are easy to say, but hard to live by.  They honestly are," Diane concluded and nodded to an imaginary judge.  Then she saw me standing under the covered walkway.  "Oh.  Benjamin."  She looked embarrassed.  And hopeful.  Can you be embarrassed and hopeful at the same time?  She expected me to say something.

     And then I realized that I, too, was embarrassed and hopeful.  I didn't know exactly why I was embarrassed.  But I had theories.  I was embarrassed because I was attracted to her and that attraction was nakedly obvious.  And embarrassed that she had almost gotten arrested Saturday night.  And embarrassed that we had gotten caught kissing -- almost kissing.  The hopeful part, that was easier to deduce.  I was hopeful that she liked me, that she loved me, that she was the love of my life, and if she loved me then the path to ecstasy would be simple and direct.

     While I thought all this, I was again speechless.  If she liked mutes, then she would have to like me.  "Hi."

     "Hi," she said back.

     She knew that I had heard her speech and was expecting some comment and I didn't know what to say.  The safest path for this coward was to seem in a hurry, to continue down the walkway.  A stray piece of loose-leaf paper blown by the wind wrapped against my corduroy pants leg, then unwrapped and continued on its crumpled path to oblivion. 

     The practice rounds complete, the squad assembled in the debate shack.  Velikow now wore black horn-rimmed glasses identical to mine.  Zalta chatted up Randi -- did he know all-around genius Gary Peters was his rival suitor?  David and Steffi sat side by side, amiably working.  A quotidian moment, but in the fluorescent light of the metal shack I had what Mrs. Wiley would have called an epiphany: the squad was thirty-two mouths, and the bodies just carried those mouths, and the cars just drove those mouths to the tournaments, where those mouths moved, and trophies were awarded to honor meritorious mouth movement.  Maybe not a championship epiphany, but an honorable mention epiphany.

     I sat down at a desk and worried about what to do when Diane came into the shack.  There wasn't much time to plan.

     "Benjamin," Coach Johnson commanded and curled his index finger in summons.  I followed him behind the partition of lockers.  He sat down at his desk and pensively stroked the wrinkles out of his apricot plaid tie, waiting for me to speak.  I didn't. 

     "That was quite a performance Saturday night."

     "Thanks."

     "Both inside and outside the tournament."

     I knew that he wanted me to ask Outside? but I knew better than to ask a leading question, a question that would lead the wrong way.

     He picked up his red and white pack of Winstons and shook one loose. "Care for a smoke?"

     "No."

     "Don't you smoke?"

     "No." 

     "Funny, I thought I saw you smoking at the tournament."

     Ah.  Oh.  Yes.  So he had seen me smoking pot.  I knew it.  He knew it.  And he knew that I knew that he knew.  All this unspoken between said master debater and his speech coach.  "The occasional cigarette to calm my nerves."

     "You look nervous now."

     "It'll pass."

     "You should be careful about smoking.  Bad habit.  Even the occasional cigarette." 

     He looked at me and I looked back at him.  I blinked and looked down at his brown loafers, the instep scuffed where he tensely held his shoes together. 

     "Understand?"

     "I understand."  His unspoken warning.  Between the lines, between the lies.  Let my freak flag fall from the sky. 

     "Nationals," he said to the room.  I was the only person in the room.  "You need to get ready for Nationals."

     "Yes."

     No.  I needed to want to get ready for Nationals and I didn't but I nodded yes, a silent lie, so that I could walk back around the partition, where Steve now stood with Principal Andrews.  Steffi and Velikow and Zalta and Diane and Randi -- the entire debate squad -- was a tableaux vivant, all eyes on Principal Andrews. 

     "Congratulations, Benjamin."  He vigorously shook my hand.  "I knew you were going to win."

     "Yes, sir."

     "You've bestowed a great honor on the school and yourselves."

     Yes, massa.

     "And how lucky we are that the National Championship is being held at the University of Houston this year.  I'll be there rooting for you."

     Yes, massa.

     "That's great, Principal Andrews, just great," Steve gushed.

     The Principal laid a manicured hand on my shoulder.  "You re-focused on the essentials, young man, and you won.  I see great things ahead for you."

     Coach Johnson emerged from his smoky lair.

     "Aren't these boys something?"

     "Oh, they are," Coach agreed.

     "Anything you need, anything at all, let me know."

     Rolling papers?  Do you have some extra rolling papers?  I'm all out.

     "Benjamin and I have been working all year for this.  We spent a lot of Saturdays together at Rice Library and it's really paid off," Steve said and put his arm around me.  Were we buddy-buddy jocks now? 

     I stood there with Steve and Principal Andrews and Coach Johnson.  They were all smiling.  Pure hypocrisy.  Just because we had won.  And, fuck me, what was wrong with my lips, I'm be damned if they weren't twisted into a smile.  I wiped that contagious smile off my face.

     Diane was looking at me -- I looked quickly away, pretending that our eye contact had just been accidental.

     When Principal Andrews went behind the lockers to talk to Coach Johnson, Steve stepped even closer.  Was he planning to kiss me next?

     "We really need a new affirmative case."

     "Why?  We just won."

     "Our case is old.  Teams know how to argue against it."

     "We know how to argue for it."

     "There's no element of surprise.  I've got some great ideas for a new affirmative."

     "Great."

     "I've started an outline."

     "Great."

     "Want to see it?"

     "Later."

     "When later?"

     "Later later." 

     I managed to slip away from Steve and out of the shack.  I had never expected winning to feel so fucked.

     "Benjamin.  Hey, wait up."  Diane caught up with me in the walkway.

     "Hi."

     "I wanted to talk to you."

     "Sure." 

     "About my oration.  What did you think?"

     I wanted her to like me.  More than anything, I wanted her to like me.  "It was unusual."

     "Unusual?"

     "Different."

     "It's okay if you didn't like my speech.  I just want some honest comments."

     "Sincere comments," I said, picking up her theme.

     "Sincere comments to help me improve it.  Or tell me if it's too terrible to fix and if I should just junk it."

     She expected something from me, a definitive opinion.  I felt enormous pressure to say the right thing.  I had to say something.  "Your speech was very...personal."

     "And?"

     "I liked it, but people -- judges -- aren't used to orations being so personal.  Usually orations are about impersonal stuff, like riots or assassinations or the generation gap.  I never thought about sincerity as a topic for an oration.  I always thought about it more as an adjective, that an oration needed to sound sincere, as opposed to being about sincerity."

     "I picked a topic that meant something to me."  She fiddled with one of the buttons on her lavender jumper. 

     "That comes through loud and clear.  But you never know how people react to personal stuff."

     "Isn't that the truth," she said, as if I'd uttered the key to the universe. 

     Her universe?  My universe?  Our universe? 

     "The more I think about your speech, the better I like it," I said, stretching, scrambling for a higher perch to fall from.

     "Really?"  She smiled.  I had made her smile.

     "Really."

     "I know it can be better."

     We walked in silence.  Anything but silence.  Had to think of what to say.  What advice could I give her? 

     "Saturday was something," she said.

     "Yeah."  But which part of Saturday?  All of it?  The last part, the almost-kissing part?  Maybe not for someone like her, who'd had so many more kisses, so much more experience.

     "Well...there's my mom...."

     The Coupe de Ville had pulled to the curb, Mrs. Goodman, in curlers, behind the wheel.  The seconds were ticking down, the round was almost over.

     "I'm grounded indefinitely."  It wasn't like I was free to date.  It wasn't like I was Zalta.

     "You could sneak out again."

     "It's hard to do."

     "Mmmm.  I bet."

     Diane looked like she wanted to say something more.  Or she wanted me to say something more.  As the de Ville drove away I wanted to yell after: I'll try to sneak out to see you.  That is, if you want me to.... 

     "Hail to the master debater," David said.  His eyes were red and his breath reeked of Sen-Sen.  "Did you hear about Gary?  His brother, Barry, got killed in Vietnam."

     "Wow...." I remembered seeing Barry at the JCC pool.  He was two years older than Gary and wilder.  Wilder and deader.  "How?"

     "Stepped on a mine.  He was probably stoned."

     "What does that matter?"

     "Everyone gets stoned over there."

     Death.  I knew someone who was now a war statistic.  Natural selection.  Barry was dead and Gary was left with Fucking run me over!  Death was just outside, it was cancer hidden in the smoke we sucked down, death was just waiting to get in.

     "Freak out," David concluded.

     The negative rests its case.

chapter 26

     House arrest turned into a life sentence.  Got caught climbing out a window to rendezvous with David.  Claimed it was for debate.  Claim denied. 

     Saw Diane in debate class, didn't know what to say, didn't even say I'm sorry, I'd like to see you but....

     In support of my case, I quote Erich Segal, esteemed author of "Love Story" who cogently observed, "Love means never having to say you're sorry."

     Wasn't talking to Diane, wasn't talking to Steve, wasn't working on a new affirmative case. 

     One morning Gregor Samsa woke up and discovered that it was the first day of Nationals. 

     And not just any Nationals, but Hometown Nationals, at the University of Houston, where Henderson now coached.

     I stood out on the curb with my briefcases and waited for Steve to pick me up.  The sky looked too blue, nude of clouds, and the air was too still, a tropical depression that verged on suicidal.

     The black Electra pulled up, I got in, neither of us said hello.  Steve wore his gray pinstripe suit, his short hair still wet from showering.  He smelled of Old Spice Lime.  It depressed me to think about him putting on that aftershave before he came to pick me up.  He depressed me, period.

     "Hello."

     "Hi."

     Followed by an uncomfortable silence.  But if we had been talking, that would have been uncomfortable too.

     "Instant Karma" was on the radio.  I was thinking how much I liked the song when Steve switched stations.

     When we got to the campus, the parking lot was full.  On our long, silent march to Tournament Headquarters I tallied license plates: New York, Florida, Montana, Nebraska.  It felt like a church revival meeting, the way the crowd, dressed in their Sunday best, thickened as everyone headed toward Tournament Headquarters for the first day of the National Forensic League Tournament.  The sky seemed bluer, the air brighter, the heat hotter.  Everyone could still be a winner, there was a feeling of promise in the humid Houston air, because no one had lost yet.  Pure potentiality.  Even for me.  

     My shirt was sticking to my back as we carried our briefcases into the Liberal Arts Building, crowded with faces.  The lobby jangled with nervous energy, fifty states worth.  The stakes were as high as they would ever be.  And now I felt the dark side of hope, a cutthroat feeling -- for one person to win everyone else had to lose.

     Nationals.  The listing boards weren't handwritten but immaculate press-on letters.  Tournament officials wore embossed name tags.  And the noise level was higher than any other tournament, hundreds of voices ready to argue, ready to lie, ready to psych-out, ready to win.  So many faces, and I was one of those faces.  I was looking out at hundreds of variations of me. 

     "Hello, Benjamin.  Hail the conquering hero," Coach Henderson said as he stepped out of the crowd and shook my hand.  It felt like a lifetime since Lamar High School, the first tournament of the season, when I had last seen him.  "Are you going to win?"

      I remembered how it used to be, my old uncomplicated love for debate.  He made me want to be my old self again.  "I'm going to try."

     "That sounds too conditional.  You need total conviction."

     I wasn't feeling very sharp.  I had not picked a good day to not feel sharp. 

     "Rise to the challenge.  You've been cutting through the competition all year.  I hear you didn't lose to a Texas team all year."

     "But we lost to a couple of Louisiana teams."

     "Stop being so damn conditional.  The recipient of a compliment should not qualify or diminish said compliment.  Better to feign modesty and say a polite thank you."

     "Thank you."

     "Well done.  Spoken like the champion you are soon to be."

     He gave me another hail-met-hearty handshake, pressing his dry palm into my sweating one.  Maybe things weren't as bad as they felt this morning.  Maybe it really was just a matter of conviction: believe I was a winner, then I would be a winner.  Coach Henderson gave me a farewell pat on the back.

     Alone with hundreds of debaters -- the enemy -- alone with my thoughts -- alone with quotations --

     "Benjamin's going to win Nationals."

          --Coach Henderson 

     "Nationals. You need to get ready for Nationals."

          --Coach Johnson

     "I see great things for you."

          --Principal Andrews

     File all those quotes away in my unsharp brain.  Pull out the quote that wins the argument, wins the debate, wins the tournament.

     Steve returned from the posting boards.  "We're negative against Boston College Prep.  They're supposed to be good," he said.

     "We're supposed to be good."

     "Supposed to be."

     "We are good.  Rise to the challenge." 

     My burst of bravado caught him short.  "We haven't practiced since District.  We're not prepared."

     "Preparation is a state of mind."  Bluffing Steve was a suitable warm-up for bluffing Boston College.  

     We hoisted up our heavy briefcases, threaded our way past rival teams, past nervous but proud parents, and stepped back outside.  It was an hour later and ten degrees hotter.  The crowd was moving off to assigned rooms, and amidst the chatter and nervous laughter that filled the humid air, Steve and I walked across campus in silence.  An accusing, regretful, resentful, rueful silence.  A thousand kind of silences, all unpleasant, all rolled into one. 

     At the first round of any other tournament it was just the opposing team and the judge.  Not today.  In the Boston boys corner was their coach, a Jesuit priest.  Maybe I should have brought along a rabbi.  On the Bellaire side was Coach Johnson and Philip Velikow.  The classroom was filled with serious faces.  Everything felt more serious, even the room, as if the weight of scholarly things had stained the oak desks and chairs.  And instead of my careful but amateur penmanship, a tournament calligrapher had written the team names on the blackboard. 

     Unpracticed and unrehearsed, I rose to cross-exam the uncircumcised Jesuit debater.

     "You argued that military escalation is irrational?"

     "Yes.  Because it is politically motivated."

     "Escalation is irrational because it is politically motivated?"

     "Yes.  Because politics are irrational."

     "What if intervention is economically motivated?"

     "Politics supersede economics."

     "Can you separate politics from economics?"

     "Yes, of course."

     "So, according to the affirmative case, the United States had no economic reasons to intervene in the Dominican Republic?"

     "Yes."

     "Can you substantiate that in your next speech?"

     "Yes."

     "And we had no economic reason to intervene in Lebanon?"

     "Correct."

     "Does the US import a significant amount of oil from the Middle East?"

     "That depends how you define significant."

     "What's your definition of significant?"

     He had to think for a moment.  "Substantial."

     "Can you substantiate that in your next speech?"

     Two out of three judges laughed.

     "Good," Steve said in a surprised voice when I returned to my seat.

     Lucky-good or good-good?  I'd settle for lucky.

     Sat.

     Listened.

     Attention wavered.

     Vowed to listen harder.

     Returned to podium. 

     Second negative rebuttal, closing speech, last chance to shill the negative case.

     Passing sensations flooded in as words flooded out: Steve's eyes on his flow pad, avoiding mine, three pairs of judges' eyes, one bloodshot, two bespectacled, the second affirmative's thin ectomorph lips, the striped silk noose of my tightly knotted tie.

     A passing thought: most words were meaningless but a few words could change everything.

     "...which is the underlying fallacy of the affirmative argument...."

     it's all lies, motherfuckers

     "...let's turn then to the argument of inherency, which the affirmative team, through three speeches, has never properly addressed...."

     cocksucking lies

     "...there are, then, these four compelling arguments for rejecting the affirmative resolution...."

     don't take this fucking shit seriously

     "...for all these reasons then, Steve and I ask you to vote negative.  Thank you."

     fuck you, fuck you, fuck you

     Passing thoughts that would not pass.

     And with a humble smile and a thousand silent fuck you's I retired from the podium.

     "That was great," Steve said.  If he said it, then it must be so.  "We won.  I really think we won the round.  We can win it all."

     He was happy again.  He wanted me to be happy with him but I needed a better reason than Steve to be happy.

     I need my own reason.

chapter 27

     Twilight over Meyerland.  Twilight of the debate Gods.  Gotterdammerung.

     Steve slowed the black Electra to a stop in front of the house.  He said nothing, I said nothing.  I got out of the car. 

     "We debated well today, didn't we?" 

     "Sure."

     "It's all about attitude."

     "Sure."

     "Don't you think?"

     Didn't want to stand outside talking and didn't want to go inside.

     "We can win."

     "Sure."

     "Nationals.  This is so great.  We're in the middle of Nationals."  He reached out his hand, as if a handshake could solve it all.

     "I'll pick you up in the morning."  If I drove then I controlled the radio.  At least I could listen to some decent music.

     "Can we come listen tomorrow?" M asked.

     "Not after what happened last time."

     "That was last year.  I understand now that you have to debate both sides."

     "No, there's too much at stake."

     Topic dropped.  Tacit defeat. 

     Friday meat loaf for dinner.  Inevitable.  As was the conversation.  The usual questions, the usual answers.  Good.  Great.  Thanks.  No, thanks.  May I be excused?

     Stepped outside.  Night was warm.  Walked and wondered how do I feel?  how do I feel? how do I really feel? 

     If I asked myself that question enough times I might find an answer.  Didn't feel that great about debating at Nationals.  Certainly nowhere near as great as I had expected to feel.  This was it?  This was the peak moment?  Inside every house was flickering blue light -- on curtains, on blinds, seen through a glass darkly.   

     A horn honked -- I jumped -- the blue Camaro -- David and Shayne -- sweet green smoke curling out the window.

     "Care for a libation?"  David offered me a burning joint.

     "No thanks."

     "Why not?"

     I shrugged.  Didn't feel like getting high and I quietly marveled about that -- why?  Couldn't remember not wanting to get high. 

     "You won District stoned.  If you want to win Nationals, I suggest partaking, professor."

     "A sensible suggestion.  But I'm insensible."

     "Well...."

     "Well."

     "Good luck tomorrow."

     The Camaro rolled away.

     Wasn't high.  Wasn't worried about tomorrow.

     Could that be true?

     "Have you forgotten?" M asked when I came back in.

     "Forgotten what?"

     "That you're grounded."

     "Guess so."

     "You are expected to obey punishment.  What should we do about this?"

     "Pull me out of Nationals?"

     "Don't be flippant."

     "Just suggesting punishment."

     "Would it have killed you to ask?"

     "Would you have said yes?"

     "I might have."

     I don't think so I didn't say.

chapter 28

     A prisoner's breakfast: Tang, toast, scrambled eggs.  Scrambled brains.  Sat at the white Formica table and stared at the white plastic place mat.  The Silent Treatment from M as she scrubbed and polished trophies.

     "I told Steve that I'd drive today."

     "I didn't say you could borrow the car."

     "Fine, I won't borrow the car.  We won't go back to the tournament."

     The keys clanged down on the counter.  Glancing up, I saw M's black pedal-pushers retreat back into the den as she resumed polishing the trophies I had won for public speaking.  She loved those trophies, even the dented one.  And now I was supposed to eat breakfast and then go and open my mouth and say the right things to win another trophy, that I would bring home so she could polish it -- in silence.  Words were something I was supposed to say someplace else, not here.  A debater forced into a vow of silence.  Wasn't that what Mrs. Wiley would call irony?

     M's white Le Sabre smelled like a thousand dead Salems.  Drove in silence to pick up Steve.  Felt more alone when he got in the car. 

     "Hello," he said without looking at me.

     "Hello," I replied, eyes on the road. 

     "Yesterday went well."

     "Maybe."

     "Definitely."

     "If you say so."

     "Don't you think?"

     "Maybe."

     "Maybe it's good we didn't over-practice.  We didn't leave our fight in the locker room."

     "We definitely did not over-practice."  The one premise that was irrefutable.

     "We can win."

     The last day of Nationals, so this was The Last Pep Talk.  And after Steve's inspirational blather, no more words in the Le Sabre.  We were saving them for our speeches, those precious speeches.  Yes, we were paragons of communication, the nation's finest, silently riding to the National Championship.

     I made a bet with myself.  Could I make it all the way to my first speech without saying another word?  I didn't even turn the radio on.  

     But in the Liberal Arts lobby Coach Johnson said "Good luck" and I said "Thanks" back -- so I lost the silent bet I had made with myself.  And then I forgot all about the bet in the rush to get to the room and get set up.

     The debate began.  I would cross-examine, I would speak for my allotted minutes and then be cross-examined, I would rebut, and I would be quiet before, in between, and after.      Then wait for the decision. 

     Expect to lose. 

     Win.

     Speak.

     Wait.

     Win.

     Speak, wait, win. 

     Sleeptalking.

     Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.  What the hell did that song mean?  I didn't care about losing and I didn't feel free.  Guess that song was a lie.  Think for myself, don't think in songs.

     Sleeptalked all the way to finals.

     The final debate was held in the law school amphitheater, twelve tiers, each with a sweeping curve of brown Formica desk that stretched the length of the room, with orange plastic chairs attached by brackets.  Metal baffles filtered the fluorescent light into a burnished glow.  Behind Steve I descended the freshly waxed linoleum steps, toting my briefcase, thinking of Dante, Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here

     At the bottom of the amphitheater, in the pit, was a lectern and two long courtroom-style tables.  On the defense table was a placard with my name and Steve's scribed in impeccable calligraphy.  Behind the lectern, on a table covered with green felt sat two trophies, tall and baroque, First Place gold, Second Place silver. 

     I opened my gray Samsonite briefcase, searched for my flow pad, found instead a Bic lighter in the bottom.  I could set fire to my quote drawers and watch all that absurd monastic labor go up in smoke, like the self-immolation of a Buddhist priest.  Instead, I asked Steve "Do you have an extra legal pad?"

     He adjusted his black horn-rimmed glasses and looked at me as if I were an insect.  "No."

     The amphitheater was filling fast.  I felt all those eyes on me, aware that everyone else was aware of me, other debaters wondering Why not me?  I deserve to be in finals, not him.  And they were right.  All of those debaters had legal pads and any one of them would have loaned me a couple of sheets of paper but I didn't want to ask a stranger.  Steve was another kind of stranger and I wouldn't ask him again.  I tried to act like no one was watching me as I huffed and puffed my way back to the top level, against the tide of all those suits and ties walking in.

     In the hallway I saw what I was secretly looking for -- a friendly face, and not just any friendly face, the friendly face -- Diane.

     She was wearing her mint blue A-line dress with the sailor collar.  I noticed that not because I noticed clothes, but because I noticed her, all kinds of things about her, it was all interesting, all essential, all those details to savor and sort through.  She had a yellow legal pad tucked in the crook of her tanned arm.

     "Hi."

     "Hi."

     How long had it been since out last set of hi's?

     "I've got an embarrassing question to ask."

     "Embarrassing for me or for you?"

     "Me.  Can I borrow your legal pad?  I can't find mine."

     "Sure, it's an honor."  As I reached for it, she snatched it back.  "But it'll cost you."

     Coach Johnson and Coach Henderson came past.  They both gave me this thumbs up smile, if a smile can have thumbs, thumbs up not to Diane but to winning.

     Henderson pulled me aside.  "You will win.  It is written," he quoted from "Lawrence of Arabia."

     "Of course," I said, to please him.

     "That's the spirit."

     "It's time, the judges are on their way, it wouldn't do to linger," Coach Johnson said as he and Coach Henderson went into the amphitheater.

     But Diane was a lot more than lingering and the debate couldn't start without me.  "I'll gladly pay."

     "But will you sincerely pay?"

     Sincerity, our private joke. 

     "And what are you thinking about now?  What profound thing?" she asked.

     "Time to say pleasing words.  The final time."

     "Yes."

     She tore loose a single sheet for herself then handed me the tablet, still warm from nestling against her.

     I again descended the amphitheater, packed with bodies and their attendant voices, felt all those eyes on me as I found my way back to the bottom, felt hundreds of eyes on the back of my head as I sat back in my seat, back in the pocket of silence. 

     Finals.  I had survived the Darwinian process, natural selection hadn't gotten me. 

     The National Forensic League President, funereal in his black suit, took the podium.  "Welcome to the final round of the 1970 National Forensic League Tournament.  Bellaire High School versus Toledo College Prep for the national championship in Men's Cross-Examination Debate.  Will the team captains please come to the podium for the coin toss to determine sides?"

     "You're the lucky one, you do the coin toss," Steve said.  The Toledo debater, a tall wasp with wispy blonde hair in a Nixon-blue suit, joined me at the podium.

     "Who wants to call it?" the President asked.

     Toledo deferred to me -- let it be on my head.

     The President flipped a Walking Liberty half-dollar high in the air.

     "Heads," I called.

     "Heads it is."

     "We elect to be negative."

     Velikow clapped.  No one else joined in and he stopped.

     I returned to my seat.  Steve shook my hand.

     The debate began.  I played the good debater and flow-charted the first affirmative speech on that tingly yellow legal pad.

     "...our plan calls for immediate implementation by Congress...."

     I saw the timekeeper knuckle his index finger in half: thirty seconds and I would stand up to go question the speaker.

     Why?

     Why not?

     Silence. 

     The affirmative speaker stood at the podium, waiting. 

     Steve looked at me, waiting.  Time to stand, to ask questions out loud, appropriate, clever questions. Now or never.  Moment of truth.

     I walked up to the podium and stood slightly behind my opponent, so that he would have to turn back to look at me. 

     My opponent took a half-step back to keep his place beside me. 

     I took another half-step back.  He matched my move.  He was good.  I gave him a moment to settle in and think that we had reached détente.

     The amphitheater was packed, standing room only, dead quiet.  Everyone waiting.  Familiar faces snapped into focus: Coach Henderson, rubbing his fingers as if conjuring a missing Silva Thin -- Coach Johnson whispering to Principal Andrews -- Diane, poised with the single sheet of yellow legal paper -- David and Shayne in the back row, bloodshot eyes, probably high -- Zalta, in a stupid red turtleneck -- Velikow in the front row, wearing his dark green suit that matched mine.  They were all expectant -- expecting me to win.  Had done it before.  Could do it now.  Knew just what to ask.  Felt like I was standing outside of myself, watching from a great distance.

     I took a quick step forward, back to the podium, a surprise counter-move, leaving the first affirmative speaker behind me as I looked up at the audience and asked, "When will your plan go into effect?"

     "As I said, our first plank calls for immediate implementation."  He took an awkward step forward to rejoin me at the podium.

     "Immediately?"

     "Yes, immediately." 

     "So, under your plan, we have to withdraw from Vietnam?"

     "Yes.  Of course."

     "Immediately?"

     "Yes, immediately."

     "Immediate withdrawal from Vietnam?"

     "Yes."

     I knew that I had him. 

     "Thank you," I said, and walked back to my desk. 

     He was stunned by the sudden end of my cross-exam.  "No more questions?"

     "Not unless you'd like to ask me something."

     A murmur erupted in the room, everyone shocked by the abruptness with which I had ended the questioning -- everyone except Coach Johnson and Steve.  Johnson smiled and leaned toward Principal Andrews to explain my stratagem.

     Back at my desk, I gathered up my quote cards.

     "You can kill him now," Steve gloated.

     I picked up a stack of quote cards and felt the weary sad hopeful labor of all that typing, the weight of every typed and spoken word that had gotten me to this room. 

     Withdrawing from Vietnam immediately was a great idea, it was the best thing that could possibly happen, and I was about to attack just that.

     But debate wasn't about ideas.  It was about arguing. 

     And after arguing, what was left of me?  This was it, last chance, win or lose, this was the ending, my ending.  The Lady or the Tiger.  Now or never.  Now and never.

     I stood, legal pad and quote cards in hand.  All I had to do was walk to the podium.  All I had to do was the normal thing, what was expected of me.

     One speech away from bringing home another trophy, the biggest trophy of all, for M to polish.

     I stood at the bottom of the law school amphitheater.  Debaters were expected to go to law school.  I was looking out at me, at my future, staring out at a version of my life, now and forever.  I could sit in some similar amphitheater with my legal pad and take notes and be a master law student and then a master lawyer.  I could get paid lots of money to argue.  I could be a master bastard.

     Faces were waiting.  Hands were poised above legal pads to notate and rate my arguments.

     Stood at the podium.  Felt the tension building.  Silently surveyed the room.  Master of the realm, for the moment.  My turn to speak.

     All those eyes.  All those mouths quiet, finally quiet, because it was my turn to speak.  All those ties wrapped around all those necks. 

     Why speak?

     To say something worth saying. 

     Last words.  It all came down to this.

     A cough.  A whisper.  Then another whisper.  It was all I could do to keep from smiling -- and why shouldn't I smile -- what rule book said Don't Smile?

     More whispers.  Coach Johnson's face scrunched into a silent question -- his silence questioning mine -- what was I doing? what was I waiting for? 

     I didn't feel like speaking.  I liked the idea of ending my debate career an hour early.  On my terms. 

     Or I could speak about all of these things I was thinking.  Veer off the topic.  Resolved: that Benjamin should say whatever the fuck he likes. 

     Lots of whispers now -- all those faces ringed above, staring at me -- strangers -- friends -- strange friends -- Diane.

     Everyone was wondering.  I was wondering.  Didn't have a plan.  Just didn't feel like speaking. 

     A murmur built.  More than whispers.  Crossed a line.  That first murmur was like the first troops landing in Vietnam.  No turning back.  Peace with honor.  Not speaking felt better and better.  Felt right.  Much better than winning that gold trophy.

     I was doing what I wanted to do.  Being myself.  Easy -- didn't have to do a thing, didn't have to say a word.  An Anti-Speech by an Anti-Hero, as Mrs. Wiley might explain it. 

     Stood at the bottom of the amphitheater looking up, couldn't help smiling as I scanned the audience, just as I would during a speech.  This was how I stepped back from the words while making a speech, as if the speaking was coming from a different part of myself, except this time the Anti-Speech was all of me, I didn't have to step back from anything.   

     Coach Johnson mouthed Speak, goddammit, speak! and Coach Henderson shook his head sadly, thinking Oh poor troubled soul, throwing it all away, and David wondered Is this really happening or am I too high to hear him?, and Coach Johnson tried to placate an apoplectic Principal Andrews.  Only Zalta smiled, nothing like someone else's fuck-up to make you feel good about yourself. 

     The room was getting louder and stranger.  I imagined what they were saying -- he's crazy -- nervous breakdown -- too many drugs -- let them say whatever they wanted, as long as I didn't have to say anything.

     Murmur grew to a roar.  Felt the floor under my feet as I rocked on my heels.  Coach Johnson raced down to the podium.  Steve jumped up from his chair. 

     "What in hell is wrong?" Johnson asked with stale cigarette breath.

     "Nothing."  Early retirement from being a trained seal. 

     "Then why aren't you making your speech?"

     "Don't want to."

     "Cut the shit."

     The National Forensic League President came to the podium, a Lifesaver clacking against his teeth.  It was like a pitcher's mound.  "There is a five minute time limit between speeches.  Shall we all sit down and continue?" he said, his words wintergreen scented.

     "It's okay to be nervous," Coach said and patted my shoulder.  "You'll do just fine."

     "I'm not nervous." 

     "Let's please continue," the President said.

     They went hopefully back to their seats.

     "Sympathy vote, right?" Steve said, the last to leave.

     I let my hands rest lightly on the podium.  At home, at peace.  Coach Johnson and the NFL President settled back in their seats.  The room quieted down.  Murmurs fell to whispers, then the whispers fell away and all I could hear was my own breathing.  All I could hear was me.  Did breathing count as speaking?  Everyone looked at me, all those extraneous eyes and mouths -- except Diane.  She was only one with me.  She smiled.  Better than a Mona Lisa smile.  A smile just for me.  I smiled back.

     "Five minutes are up!  The Bellaire team forfeits!" the NFL President snapped.

     "God darn you!" Steve screeched.

     A roar of words and leaping from seats, the team from Toledo elated. 

     what the

     who the

     you screwed me

     far fucking

     goddamn crazy

     weirdo

     threw it all away

     forget the scholarship

     finished

     Bottom of the pit, eye of the hurricane, tempest in a tea pot.

     Gathered up my quote cards and tapped them together.  Walked away from the lectern.  Abandon your briefcase all who enter here.  Benjamin this and Benjamin that, yap, yap, yap.  Voices tugged at me.  Velikow's hand on my sleeve, sad eyes of the acolyte.  Escaped up the center aisle, black loafers on brown linoleum, out of the pit, tier by tier.  The red exit sign, just ahead.

     Then out in the morning sun, surprised to see the quote cards still in hand.  Tossed the cards into the air, watched those useless white squares flutter down to dead brown grass. 

     Walked away. 

chapter 29

     Drove around.  Radio loud.  No Steve, no briefcase.  Just me. 

     Drove home, out of habit.  Home was a habit.

     Night.  All quiet back on the mothership. 

     A letter waiting on the kitchen table, SSS on the envelope, one S more than the Nazi SS, the Selective Service System.  Inside, my Draft Registration Card.  The accompanying letter said I was required by law to keep it in my wallet at all times.  There would be a lottery, and if my number was low enough I would have the honor of joining the honorable army to help achieve peace with honor in Vietnam.  Reality arrived in a white envelope, the perfect antidote to the unreality of white quote cards.  Here was an unwanted opportunity to find out just how unreal the Vietnam War really was.  As unreal as Gary Peters dead brother.  Turn me on, dead man.

     A free man's dinner: corned beef, Muenster cheese, dill pickles, rye bread, mustard.  Crumbs everywhere, a glorious mess.

     Saw the hallway light switch on, incandescent light reflected off polished white terrazzo, heard the stiff swish of polyester.  M appeared, robed in quilted white, followed by P in white pajamas.

     "Where have you been?"

     "Driving?"

     "Driving where?"

     "What does it matter?  I was driving and now I'm home."

     "I'll decide what matters."

     "I was driving in circles.  Do you want me to draw it for you on a map?"

     M eyed the crumbs.  "What's gotten into you?"

     "A sandwich.  A corned beef sandwich got into me."

     "We're extremely upset.  Everyone is extremely upset.  Steve's beside himself.  His mother wants to kill you.  I called Coach Johnson and he wouldn't even talk to me.  I'm sure that he never wants to talk to you again.  You walked out of the championship debate!"

     "I didn't walk out.  I just didn't say anything."

     "You didn't say anything -- in a debate?  Are you insane?"

     "Define insane."

     "Don't you dare debate me now!  You're acting crazy --  a crazy person disregards all the rules!"

     "I didn't disregard the rules.  I just didn't want to speak.  I accept the fact that we lost."

     "Well, Steve doesn't and Coach Johnson doesn't and I don't."

     "Freedom of speech."

     "What has this got to do with freedom of speech?"

     "I'm free not to speak."

     "Not in the National Championship!"

     "Hey, look on the bright side, we won second place."

     "I'm glad you find this so amusing."

     "Me too."

     "It's not amusing."

     "But you just said that it was."

     "I'm getting very upset."

     "But you already were very upset."

     "I'm getting more upset."

     "Sorry."

     "No, you're not."

     "No."

     "What about your scholarship?"

     "What about it?"

     "You think we're going to pay for college after this?"

     "I don't want to go to college."

     "Then you'll be drafted."

     "Ever heard of Canada?"

     "So now you're a draft dodger?"

     "Maybe -- depends on my lottery number."

     "That's what you think about this country?"

     "That's what I think about the Vietnam War."

     "Let's talk about what happened today, okay?  Because that is not okay."

     I looked at them.  There was nothing I could persuade them of.  And then it occurred to be that this was another debate I could walk out of.  And I did, scrunching sideways to get past M in her stiffly quilted white robe.

     "You can't just leave."

     "Oh, I can't?"

     "You can't just leave this mess." 

     Right.  This mess: the dirty white plate and brown bread crumbs and mustard stained knife and uncapped mustard bottle, all those violations of antiseptic white, all those crumbs ready to float weightless and clog the pristine machinery of the mothership.  "I can't leave this mess?  Watch me."

     I headed back to my room.  Somehow my briefcase had made it home.  I just couldn't get rid of the damn thing.  Maybe I was feeling sentimental, but I threw all the debate shit out of it and started cramming in whatever clothes would fit.

     "Where are you going?"

     "I don't know."

     "You're grounded."

     "Not any more."

     "That's not your decision to make."

     "But it is."

     Briefcase packed, debate shit scattered on the floor. 

     "This is outrageous."

     "Bye."

     "Don't you dare say good-bye."

     "Okay." 

     I squeezed past them.

     "If you walk out that door, don't come back."

     "Deal."

     "I forbid you to leave this house.  There will be consequences!  If you go out that door, there will be consequences!  Do you hear me?!"

     The bit about actions being louder than words -- there was something to that.  Yes, I had officially stopped debating.  I really felt that as my feet crossed the welcome mat, headed the opposite way, into the night, where to? I wondered, my conscious mind that is, because I was walking toward a destination, my feet knew it, my body knew it, and eventually my brain caught up, got with the program.  I was walking to Diane's.

chapter 30

     And then I felt free in the night, hero of a rock song that hadn't been written.  With my briefcase, a spy in the suburbs, on a mission.  My mission.

     At the end of the yellow brick road I stood outside Diane's yellow brick house.  Her window was dark.  Felt foolish and shy.  Maybe she would think I was crazy showing up in the middle of the night.  Everyone else thought I was crazy. 

     I touched the yellow bricks, then touched Diane's window to feel the reality of it.  The glass was cold and my moist fingerprints lingered on the pane. 

     Tapped on her window. 

     Waited. 

     Tapped again.  There, I'd tried.  Now I could leave, peace with honor.

     The curtains parted, startling me, a vision of Diane: brown hair spilling over baby blue peek-a-boo pajama.  She slid the window open.  "I was just thinking about you," she whispered.

     "Really?" I whispered back.  To think that she was thinking about me, that I was inside her head like that, it meant that I meant something to her. 

     "That was amazing, to just not speak.  At Nationals!"

     "That was my sincerity speech."

     "Sincerity speech?"

     "Not speaking."

     "Why the briefcase?"

     "Running away from home, I guess."

     She nodded thoughtfully.  "How did you know this was my bedroom?"

     "I watched the other time, after Galveston, when you went inside."

     "Spying on me."

     I nodded eagerly -- solemnly -- somewhere between the two.

     Diane leaned forward on the window sill.  "What did you have in mind?"

     I didn't expect that question -- I don't know what I expected -- maybe that whatever was going to happen would happen without questions.  She shivered.  "Just teasing.  Come on in."

     I handed her my briefcase, then scraped against the yellow bricks climbing in -- tore the left knee of my suit pants -- I wasn't a graceful Romeo but I managed to get inside.  Paradise Regained.  She shut the window.

     I suddenly felt shy looking at her; I looked around her room, hungry for details, clues about her: pale blue walls, a bookcase above her dresser crammed with Unilateral Military Intervention books, a big oak desk with an Olympia typewriter and a stack of "Congressional Records."  A debater's room.  On the wall in front of me was a poster for "Hair."  Another spasm of shyness.

     "Well...."

     "Well...."

     "I can't believe I'm here."

     "I can't believe you're here."

     "Where were we?" I said, trying to pick up the thread.  "Yes, where were we?"

     I felt incredibly corny.  She looked amused.  I hadn't thought this far ahead because I had never expected to get this far.  What was I waiting for?  Me -- I was waiting for me -- always waiting to solve the problem of me. 

     "I've never had a boy in my bedroom."

     "I've never had a girl in my bedroom."

     "But I've got a boy in my bedroom now."

     "You've got me there."

     "Yes, I've definitely got you there, or rather, here."

     And there we stood.  Our two bodies.  Somebody had to make a move.     

     A leap of faith across the chasm.  I kissed her.  Our first kiss.  Finally. 

     She tugged gently on the sleeve on my jacket and I took a chance and shrugged it off my shoulders and let it fall to a heap to the shag carpet.

     And there we stood.  In her bedroom, shouldn't it finally be easy?  But I remembered that she was experienced and I wasn't, not Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced? but back-seat-of-Zalta's-Cadillac experienced.

     "I keep expecting you to say something Benjamin-esque."

     "Something like if we crawled out of the sea why can't we crawl back in?"

     "If we were back on the beach."  She touched the top button of my shirt, but shyly, with tentative fingers.  "Help me," she said, her voice small and close and almost lost in the darkness and then my hands touched her hands and both our hands fumbled my top button open then unbuttoned the next one and the next one and in the swaying dark I felt like I had either four hands or none.  Then my shirt was off and I turned a bit sideways, embarrassed by my pale scrawny chest.       Her hands touched me, gently.  "You're very shy for a debater."

     "Am I still a debater?"

     "A silent debater."

     I lifted up her peek-a-boo pajama, to prove her wrong.  I had a point to prove about shyness.  A silent point made by a silent debater.  Diane smiled as she raised her arms and her smile disappeared under blue cotton and then the pajama top popped free of her arms and she was naked except for baby blue bikini briefs and a thin gold necklace with a small gold heart, the hidden charm I had once wondered about, now revealed.  Silent vision of a maiden at midnight.  She hopped into bed, patted the space next to her, beckoning me to join her under the sheets.

     I hopped into bed and boldly claimed the spot she offered.  I was afraid something would go wrong.  Daddy in his Karate-pajamas.  Or the Galveston Cops.  Or....

     "You're so weird."  That's the first thing she said, and I knew that I would never forget it because it was the first thing a girl ever said to me in bed.  It was like when I stepped back and listened to myself making a speech, I was in her bed narrating my history to myself as it was happening.  Her feet nudged mine.  "You didn't even take off your shoes."

     "I forgot.  In all the excitement."

     "You didn't forget to take all my clothes off."  She tugged at my pants.  "Are you still shy?"

     "Becoming less so."

     "So I noticed."

     I took off my shoes and my socks and my pants.  It was just us and our underwear.  And her parents and her two younger sisters somewhere very near.  "What if we get caught?"

     "That's easy.  I'll just say that you raped me."

     And then we kissed again.  The talking made the kissing easier.  I was too excited now to narrate, too excited to even realize that I had stopped narrating my life.  I hurtled head-first into the moment.  It felt great.  It felt better than thinking. 

     I opened my eyes and saw her eyes were closed as we kissed.  I got very curious about what was under her underwear and she helped me take them off.  And she helped me take mine off and then there was nothing left to take off.  There was nothing between us.  Just us.

     I thought it would be complicated, I would have to read books -- do research -- or take lessons -- but people have been doing it for thousands of years -- millions, actually -- join the club -- there was sex before books -- it was the one thing that didn't require research -- and why was I thinking about libraries, stacks of books, at a moment like this?  Was I weird to be thinking about weird stuff? 

     "Do you have something?"

     "What?"

     "Something.  Protection.  A rubber."

     "No.  But...I know a gas station where I can buy one."

     "That's okay, don't stop."

     I hadn't started yet.  But she wanted me to.  Then I was inside Diane.  Her eyes were open and staring into mine.

     "Just be careful?"

     "What?"

     "Withdraw in time."

     Withdraw?  From Vietnam?  No.  From her.

     Everything felt so good -- it was all true -- all true --- all -- I was about to -- for the first time not by my own hand -- by her -- with her -- she breathed into my ear, into my mouth.

     "Be careful."

     "Should I stop?"

     "No...."

     "I think I need to stop."

     "No, it's okay."

     "It's okay?"

     "It's okay."

     And then it happened -- I happened -- we happened.  I felt tangled together with her.  Close and faraway were tangled together too.   

     Diane gave me a different kind of kiss, quick and tender, and said, "I'll be right back."  She eased out of my arms and out of bed and turned her nightgown from inside out to outside out, pulled it back on, her body disappearing underneath, and then she disappeared out the door.  Wondered if that meant I should get dressed too.   Would she get pregnant?  Would I have to marry her?  That wouldn't be so bad.  Would we live happily ever after?  Or was tonight a fluke, just a beautiful fluke?  Maybe she wouldn't even want to see me tomorrow.  Maybe we'd studiously ignore each other next time we were in the debate shack together.  Except I wasn't ever going back to the debate shack.  What was I doing lying alone in Diane's room, naked in her bed?

     She was gone a long time. 

     Maybe she wasn't coming back.

     Yes, she wasn't coming back.   

     Sat up.  Hunted around for my underwear.  Decided that I should put my shirt on first, but kept the blue blanket pulled around me and leaned out of bed to snag my wrinkled white shirt from the floor.  Could have hopped out of bed and dressed faster but I didn't want her to see me half-naked and looking ridiculous if -- unlikely -- she ever came back. 

     "What are you doing?"  Diane.  Again.

     "Getting dressed."

     "Bored already?"  She climbed back into bed.

     "No, but you're dressed."

     "I had to wear my nightgown to the bathroom."  She pulled it back off.  "There.  Remember?"  She urged me out of my shirt.  Then we held each other, like before, but stiller now.

     "Is it okay?  I mean, what happened?"

     "I think it'll be okay," she said.  She kissed me again, slower, less urgently.  So many different kinds of kisses, all of them nice. 

     "Think so?"

     "Either that or you're a daddy."

     "And my first time...."  I wasn't supposed to let that slip.  Virginity was one of my great dark secrets, but so much had happened I wasn't properly keeping track of secrets just now.

     "Your first time?"

     I nodded, touched the little gold heart she wore on the thin gold chain around her neck, the metal warm from her skin.  Chain of my heart, chain of fools.

     "Your first time," she said again, impressed.  I could tell.  She laughed and I didn't mind.  "The master debater."

     "Not anymore."

     "What are you going to do now?"

     "Well...we just did it."

     Her left index finger strayed down my chest, bumped up and down tracing my ribs, teasing.  And with my own index finger I teased back.  And we blurred together in that blurry darkness, teasing, sincerely.

     Faint blue light in the window.  That was the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes again.  I couldn't believe that I had fallen asleep -- naked -- in Diane's bed -- with Diane, also naked.  I had slept in her arms, that were still around me.  I slowly tried to pull away but she clung to me, like a little girl hanging on to her favorite Barbie, rather, her favorite Guruvy Ken, and then she opened her eyes and realized it was me and it was dawn.

     "Oh, God," she said.

     I hurried to get dressed.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw Diane putting her pajama back on, disappearing underneath it, and that saddened me, that we were dressing, returning to the privacy of our separate bodies, our separate selves, that saddened me even as I hurried back into the wreck of my green debate suit: wrinkled, torn, never to be worn to another debate.

     In no time it seemed, after that initial panic of waking, we stood facing each other, dressed, just as we had stood when I'd first climbed into her room. 

     I picked up my briefcase.

     "Where are you going?"

     "Don't know yet."

     "You know which window to tap on."  She kissed me.  "Good night, or rather, good morning."

     "Good morning."  I crawled out the window and into the cold wet dawn air, like plunging into an icy swimming pool. 

     We had a last kiss as I stood in the dewy Bermuda grass and she leaned on the pale blue window sill.  Neither of us said a word.  Two of us, together, beyond, deeper than words. 

     As I walked across her yard I looked up at the Technicolor-blue sky, brightening second by second.  I looked back and Diane was still smiling at me, her head peeking through periwinkle blue curtains.  We waved to each other as I walked backwards, until she was out of sight.

     Ducked back for a last peek.  And she was still at the window, smiling.  We waved good-bye again.  And blew each other kisses.  I could have said good-bye like that forever. 

     And then I really did leave, and she really was gone and it was the morning of the world right here in Meyerland in Texas on planet earth. 

     Where would I go?  Home?  Step back through the airlock, back into the vacuum?

     No. 

     I had a key to the debate shack and it was Sunday.  I could go there, slouch on the couch.

     But I didn't have to go anywhere.  No timekeeper, no speech, no rebuttal.  Just me, walking along Braes Bayou, swinging my briefcase.  I could follow the bayou to the sea, follow my feet through the world. 

     I walked quickly through the cold dawn and feared nothing.  Everyone should have at least a couple of minutes when they fear nothing.