“‘Which one of the letters does not belong in the following series? A – D – G – I – J – M – P – or – S’?”
“I have no idea. G?”
“No, I. It goes one letter on, then two off, then one on, then two off. A – b-c – D – e-f – G. Like that. Okay, how about ‘“If some Smaugs are Thors and some Thors are Thrains, then some Smaugs are definitely Thrains.” This statement is true, false, or neither’?”
“I’m gonna say neither.”
“But how do you know that?”
“The important word is ‘definitely.’ Maybe some Smaugs are Thrains—not definitely. It could be that the only Thors that are Thrains are the ones that aren’t Smaugs.”
“Okay. Fine. Are we almost done?”
“Actually, that’s it. The last question. So, let’s see, you got 28—plus one, two—thirty correct, which means your IQ is … 96. And that makes you … average.”
Kevin is barely friends with Shane Herald, and to be here at his house, in the weird incense of his family’s cooking, on the couch that preserves the curves and valleys of their bodies, is bizarre. Not half as bizarre, though, as quizzing his mom with the IQ test he bought at B. Dalton last week. In her eyes Kevin catches a waspy look, a quick slant of anger. And you know what? She’s right. The test is hard. He could swear that some of the questions have multiple correct answers. Take the one with the five pictures—no words, just illustrations—(a) a saw, (b) a knife, (c) a spoon, (d) a shovel, and (e) a screwdriver. And “Which one of the five is least like the other four?” At first Kevin guessed (e) the screwdriver, because it joins things together, while saws, knives, spoons, and shovels all take things apart, but the proper answer was (b) the knife, since “knife” starts with a k and the other four start with an s. But what if the knife was a steak knife—s? Or the saw was a handsaw—h? What if the issue was whether the object in the picture sloped this way or that way? Or whether it could be used as a murder weapon? It’s tricky, a question like that.
From the driveway comes a crackle of broken concrete. At a distance it sounds the way potato chips sound when you’re chewing. Mrs. Herald glances outside and says, “Well hey I think that’s gotta be your mom’s Subaru. And your bag’s right there in the corner. And don’t forget your poster boards.”
Shane lives in an area of Little Rock that Kevin has never visited before, a tiny hidden drawer of a place, so far from the hills and curves of Northwick Court that even the spacing between the trees seems strange. The grown-ups say their hellos on the front porch, pretending to laugh about the things that grown-ups pretend to laugh about. Then the car closes its doors, and the house closes its, and Shane and his mom vanish back into the bricks and the carpet, and Kevin and his mom drive away together, mazing through the side streets that never quite intersect with the highway.
Barely three weeks of school remain: the last week of April and the first two weeks of May, plus Friday—tomorrow—a clean little pocket of woodsy air waiting to rush like a deep breath into everyone’s lungs. The walkathon will start after lunch, the lock-in as soon as the final bell rings. But the centerpiece of the night will be the lip-synching contest. Kevin is practically sure of it. To win, he and Shane will need a gimmick, like that guy from Puttin’ on the Hits who split himself into Diana Ross and Lionel Richie, painting his face two different shades of black. “Hot for Teacher”: that will be their song, and they’re going to serenade the magic-marker drawing they made of Miss Vinson, all tall and hourglassy, with a red swimsuit, bunny ears, and criss-cross stockings.
The two of them used up the first part of the afternoon kneeling over a couple of poster boards, darkening her lines and then filling in the colors. They couldn’t remember whether her eyes were blue or green or some watercolory in-between shade, so they flipped a quarter to decide. The second part they spent in Shane’s backyard, listening to the song, then rewinding it and listening again. At first their moves were sloppy, embarrassing. Shane kept sawing around like Eddie Van Halen with his tennis-racket guitar, doing his impression of a virtuoso making the notes blur—DOWnannanaDOWnannanaNOW. Maddening. But Kevin insisted that they rehearse their choreography until they got it down pat: “Okay, I’ll go over here and sing, ‘I brought my pencil,’ and then you can go over there and sing, ‘Give me something to write on, man.’ Ready? Let’s try it.”
“Wait, so do I go right or left?”
Still, as late as seventh grade, Kevin can’t remember which is which. They should be immovable, he has always thought, like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. What was it Coach Daniel taught them about how to read a map? West is weft. Kevin envisioned the United States in midair. “Left,” he said.
“Gotcha.” Shane pierced the strings of his guitar with his index finger and gave it a wobbly spin. “Left.”
“So are you ready? We need this thing to be perfect if we’re going to win. You’re not going to pull another Case-of-the-Missing-Miss-Vinson on me, are you?”
“No. Jeez. I’ll be there. How many times do I have to apologize?”
The power lines at the corner of Shane’s roof opened out over the grass, printing a bisected V onto the air. A miserable little collection of lifeless-looking birds had gathered there to watch the clouds blow through the sky. Occasionally their trance was interrupted by some high-pitched squeal or another—a burst of feedback from the boombox, or a car applying its brakes—and they would lift their feet as if to shake the stiffness from their knees, trading noises like CB chatter. Sometimes that’s how birds sound: electronic. Sometimes they sound like a swing set creaking against its chains. Sometimes they sound like water plinking into water. Kevin has always hated camping, hated the dirt and the smoke and the rooty ground, but once a month he sets off into the woods anyway with his Scout troop, and the birds wake him first thing in the morning, early enough that he has nothing to do but lie in his sleeping bag making comparisons while the tent gathers its soft orange light.
That one: rock salt grinding against a tire.
That one: an infant cooing for its mom.
That one: a pair of scissors shicking open.
It takes forever to drive home. The evening feels less like spring than summer—dry and insecty, neverendingly sunlit. Kevin spends it in his room with his stereo, his lips shaping their way through “Hot for Teacher.” Should he drop to his knees during the guitar solo? And when he says, “I brought my pencil,” should he flash a yellow #2 at the crowd, like that kid with the sunglasses does in the video? Nah. Kevin owns six or seven pencils, maybe as many as a dozen, but in second grade he had scores of them, hundreds, a giant collection he accumulated by thievery. Back then he believed that as soon as an object fell to the floor, it was lost, officially. Coins, pencils, beads, barrettes—all finders-keepers. One day several kids complained that they didn’t have a pencil to write with, and Jim Babb said, “That’s because Kevin stole them all,” and Miss Jordan made him open the pocket of his book bag, where they lay emitting their graphite smell. If only someone with a movie camera had been there to capture what her face did. For a long time it stayed poised at the edge of something, like dominoes just before they topple. Then Kevin explained that he would never have started collecting pencils in the first place if everyone else hadn’t kept losing them, and her eyes, her cheeks, her jaw, her mouth—down all at once they cascaded.
It is one of those nights like a locked room, when it is impossible to imagine that time will ever pass, but time always does, and before Kevin knows it, he is circling the track that rings the football field, watching grasshoppers fling themselves out of the brush.
He has already done the fundraising rounds, convincing his parents to make their friends, bosses, and coworkers pledge a quarter or a dollar per lap. The problem is that he doesn’t care about laps—not remotely. He cares about grades and merit badges and about the thought-beams he sends out the window to Stacey at night: I love you. Pay attention to me. He cares about Marvel and a little about DC. He cares about girls and making them laugh. That might be why he is having so much trouble monitoring his progress around the track: girls. He keeps bolting ahead to join one group, then dropping back to join another, sliding his way into the mix of a conversation for precisely as long as it takes him to pop off a joke. There are a thousand ways to be wanted, and this is his: to be amusing. Michele Regauld says that her cat helps her stay warm at night, and Kevin tells her she’s hot for creature. Was that three laps or four? Better say four. But four isn’t a round number, so five. A few minutes later, on the highway side of the football field, with a different set of girls, he repeats the Raggedy-Ann-and-Pinocchio riddle from Truly Tasteless Jokes, and Martha Campbell says, “Oh quit it you,” brushing his wrist with the tips of her fingers. How can so glancing a touch feel like a bite? It’s a mystery to him. He half-expects to find toothmarks on his skin. Surely he must be up to ten by now. Ten or twelve at least. He stops to tie his shoes, and Martha glides away with Cari, Karla, Jessica, and Tina, shrinking to half her size on the track’s conveyor belt of white dirt and gravel. Kevin falls into step with Amy Harris. Amy is easy: all he has to do is power up his Coach Daniel routine, and in an instant she’ll be struggling not to laugh. This time she keeps herself from cracking a smile, but just barely, coming so close that her lips go all sour-lemony with the effort. Maybe at the lock-in the tornado sirens will howl, and every inch of wall-space will be commandeered by other people, and the two of them will be forced to curl away together in the storage cabinet beneath the stage, wrapping themselves up in each other’s arms and legs, a tight little bow-knot of body parts. Okay. The last time he counted, he was at twelve or fifteen, and that was a few laps ago, so by now he must have reached eighteen, and eighteen might as well be twenty. Twenty-one. Let’s say twenty-five.
By the time another hour has passed, Kevin has counted seventy-five laps. Most of his friends are already hiking up the trail to school. The class schedule is broken for once, irrelevant, and since nobody is hectoring them to go inside, they stop wherever they want, on the patio or at the unpaved end of the parking lot, like anyone would anywhere. This is how a school looks when no one has anything to do: a Fourth of July party on a sun-drenched afternoon, clusters of kids layered across the landscape like figures in a View-Master reel.
A few of the guys are hanging out where the asphalt meets the dirt, some in blue jeans and some in gym shorts. Kevin edges into the circle. Right away the tailgate of a pick-up begins toasting his legs. Each diamond of chrome spreads its own little thistle of light. Not until just now did it cross his mind that he should have worn his street clothes. With his shirt untucked and his shorts bagging around his thighs, he looks like he’s dressed for a nap.
“What about you, Kev?” Andrew asks. “How many laps did you finish?”
Kevin hopes he doesn’t sound like he’s bragging when he answers.
“Pffft,” Stephen Webb scoffs at him. “No way. There’s no fucking way on God’s green fucking earth you’ve done eighty-one laps. Four laps equals a mile. So what you’re basically saying is that you’ve run from here to Conway.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. That’s how high I got.”
“Man, you weren’t even running all that time. I saw you. You were walking.”
Kevin weasels a rock out of the dirt with his toe. He can feel the back of his neck reddening. How many laps did he finish? Everyone is waiting for him to answer. He ticks through his getaway options. An insult. A story. A joke. A change of subject. Nothing he can imagine would end this moment and begin another. It seems possible he will stand here prickling with self-consciousness until he dies.
“Well, how many laps did you do?” he asks Stephen.
Then Bastin says, “Twenty.”
And Allan. And Chad. And Andrew.
Sometimes Kevin wishes he could take time like an egg and crack it. A year ago, the six of them went to different CACs—Bastin, Stephen, and Kevin to Pleasant Valley and Allan, Andrew, and Chad to Sylvan Hills. Twenty miles of trees and pavement lay between them, full of Krogers and Burger Kings and the bending rope of the Arkansas River, green in the summer and brown in the fall, with four concrete bridges he had no earthly reason to cross. Kevin’s brain has always been a kind of banker, slotting the nickel into the nickel tray and the quarter into the quarter: Bastin and Stephen are old to him, Allan, Andrew, and Chad are new. Or: Bastin, Stephen, and Allan have pale lips, Kevin, Andrew, and Chad have red. Or: Allan, Andrew, and Chad have sisters, Kevin and Stephen have brothers. (Bastin is an only child.) Or: Stephen is the tallest of them, Chad the second tallest, Andrew, Bastin, Allan, and Kevin the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth. His mind won’t stop shuffling through the possibilities. But the only division that really matters is the first. Not so long ago he had never spoken to the Sylvan Hills kids, and neither had Stephen or Bastin. He’s thinking that there must be a version of the world where the discussion they’re having now happened back then, in sixth grade, before they actually met, a version where half of them stood around talking to the ghosts of half the others, and no one knew what was going on, and it was so confusing that it didn’t matter how many laps Kevin said he had run.
Suddenly 3:30 rings out over the parking lot. Though the bell is powerless this afternoon, it breaks the moment anyway. Thank God. Kevin slips out of the circle to change. The showers have been running nonstop. Their clamminess covers the locker room in a slick transparent film. The concrete floor glistens beneath the lights, gray like a bad tooth. Kevin has a hole in the knee of his blue jeans large enough to accept half his toes. The first time he tries to punch his leg through, his foot gets caught halfway down in the net of unraveling cotton. Even wearing socks, he can feel the threads flossing his toes. It’s a good thing he isn’t racing anyone.
“Dang it!” he complains, and someone repeats it from the other room, “Dang it!,” using an angry little squeak-voice that sounds the way he sounds to himself on tape. Some weeks go by as one long battle with anything he touches—every last cereal bowl, phone cord, and ballpoint pen. The entire world, it seems, is waiting to fall or break or tangle. Then one morning he wakes up and with no explanation he’s Mary Lou Retton.
He sits down and gives his jeans another try. The coolest jeans are black or acidwashed, followed by gray, followed by faded blue. Holes are cooler than no-holes, buttons are cooler than zippers, Levis are cooler than Lees, Lees are cooler than Wranglers, and Wranglers are cooler than Toughskins. It has taken him longer than average, but he is learning.
He has nothing to do after he dresses, and for a while he simply roams the halls of the building. He feels like a mouse taking a tour of its maze. Most of the school is quiet, with sparse groups of people in stairwells or open rooms producing sudden fanfares of laughter. He stops to stow his PE clothes in his locker. Behind the gym door hundreds of voices are boiling in conversation, but when he steps inside and surveys the court, he doesn’t see any of his friends, just a bunch of older kids. On a whim he ducks under the bleachers, picking his way through the cat’s cradle of metal reinforcements. Down here his footsteps, his coughing, his breathing, even his shirtsleeves brushing against his arms and his shoelaces tippeting over the floor, sound fuller than usual, rounder, like the echoes of other noises, great big distant booms of activity. He can hear two guys talking on the bleacher benches: “It was your fault anyway.” “Fuck you it was my fault.” “Well, it wasn’t my fault, and it sure as shit wasn’t Cordell’s.” He wonders if every building has a hiding place like this, some little pocket of space where you can listen in on people as they say whatever they say and do whatever they do. That would be totally awesome. If Kevin could vanish and reappear, if he could remain in the middle of things without anyone ever knowing, if that was his superpower and he could use it whenever he wanted, his life might be pretty good.
Hey, what if this was where he and Amy hid during the tornado. On second thought—no. The foxhole beneath the stage is better. Darker. A tighter fit.
Say say say what you want. Do what you do when you did what you did to me.
Eventually he ends up in the lunch room, where Eric and some of the others are sitting around with their butts planted flat on the tables. it’s the perfect gesture of freedom, since they are defying the rules, no question, but not so badly that they’ll get in trouble for it.
Kevin must have arrived in the middle of an argument about UFOs because “Here’s the deal,” Shane Lind is insisting. “Let me tell you what the Bible has to say about life on other planets: nothing. Nada.”
“Well,” Eric says, “no. What about Elijah’s chariot?”
“What about it?”
“Some people think it was a spaceship.”
“A spaceship! Dude, those were angels.”
“Angels are all over the Bible. Aliens from outer space aren’t anywhere. The Old Testament: not one word. The New Testament: not one word. Don’t you think God would have mentioned life on other planets if it existed?”
Kevin doesn’t, and he dives in with, “God doesn’t mention asteroids either. And what about dinosaurs? Automobiles, cigarettes, Indians, tacos. He doesn’t mention all sorts of things. It’s not like the Bible’s an encyclopedia.”
“Yeah, but what He does say is ‘God created the heavens and the earth.’ One earth. This earth.”
Eric is exasperated. “You can’t possibly know that. The other planets are part of the heavens, right? Well, maybe some of them are inhabited. I’d be willing to bet on it. Maybe they have their own Bibles, who are you to say?”
All day long Kevin has been feeling twinges of barbed wire in his stomach whenever he thinks about the lip-synching contest, and “Hey,” he asks all of a sudden, “has anyone seen Shane Herald?” He hasn’t forgotten last fall and the laryngitis incident. It would be just like Shane to get sick and go home without telling him.
No one has spoken to Shane since the bell rang. Kevin sets off to find him with a soldierly stride, his shoes announcing themselves up and down the hall, their hard slaps so forceful he thinks they should leave holes in the floor. He is prepared to march through every room of the school if he has to. But barely fifty feet away he sees Shane exiting the library, checking left and right as if for cars, with Miss Vinson stalking close behind him. And oh my God. She looks the way a mushroom looks after it rains, padded to the skin with herself, like something that was never meant to fit inside the space it was given.
Shane rasps out some sort of hello to fill the pause, and with his eyes he says to Kevin, It’s not my fault. “Um, we were just trying to find you.”
Miss Vinson crosses her arms and says, “I understand the two of you have prepared a song.”
“Uh-huh,” Kevin answers.
“And I’m involved somehow?”
“Yeah,” Kevin admits, and he fires a message back at Shane: It was supposed to be a surprise. Then he says it out loud: “We wanted it to be a surprise. Don’t worry, you’ll like it, though.”
“Yes. Well. I think I’ll need to make up my own mind about that.”
“Oh. Yeah. You bet.” Kevin leads the two of them to Mr. Gates’s room. The shades drawn over the windows aerosol the air with a fine orange haze. To Kevin’s eyes the desks and the trash can and the overhead projector appear to be hibernating. He could flip the switch and they would blink and stretch their limbs. He slips the poster boards from behind one of the cabinets, standing them upright on the makeshift prop of yardsticks and cardboard he has rigged to the back. Voilà.
Miss Vinson is so quiet he can hear her breath sissing through her nostrils. Her straight skirt buckles as she cocks a hip to the side. She examines the illustration. The teeny red costume that clings to her body. The stockings with their black lines windowscreening her legs. The bunny ears rising in two pink puffs from her hair. On the poster her face is all circles and curves, dotted with black eyelashes, green eyes, and red lips, but the real one looks so flat you could paste it to the wall.
She lets out a dry little nut of a laugh. “You cannot,” she says, “absolutely cannot use that thing.”
“What?” Kevin is incensed. “Why?”
“It’s not remotely appropriate for one.”
“But that’s not fair! Our routine doesn’t make any sense without it. We practiced!”
“So sing your song. Sing it posterless.”
“You can’t do ‘Hot for Teacher’ without the teacher.”
“Be that as it may,” she says, and nabs up the drawing.
He is sure she is going to carry it off with her, but at the last second she changes her mind and hands it over to him, firmly, like the baton in a relay race. No one has ever left a room more decisively.
He listens as her footsteps fade away, then spins around. “Shane!”
“Sorry, man. Someone told her.”
“What are we going to do?”
“Drop out, that’s what I say. We’ve got like half an hour until the contest starts.”
But dropping out isn’t the only alternative. It can’t be.
“No. Come with me. Get your boombox.”
In Kevin’s locker is the cassette tape containing “Hot for Teacher,” a copy he recorded from the radio. He owns five or six identical blue Kmart tapes and it’s possible this is the wrong one, but as soon as he fast-forwards past the final guitar licks of the song, past the crackle between tracks, and hears that staticky sound of wind and rain with those ah-ah-ahs hiccuping up from underneath, he knows immediately how he and Shane are going to win the competition. First comes the last thirty seconds of “Darling Nikki.” Then comes the same thirty seconds in reverse, spun by hand from Kevin’s Purple Rain album so that he could capture the backmasking: Prince is fine because he knows that the Lord is coming soon. And then comes their golden opportunity, “Let’s Go Crazy,” which Kevin transferred from the LP at 45 RPM, watching the needle whirlpool to the center of the turntable at double its normal speed, Prince and his helium-voice singing about elevators and the afterworld, purple bananas and Dr. Everything’ll be alright.
“Okay,” he says. “Here it is,” and he explains the plan.
Shane gives him a pins-and-needles look. It’s not his eyes—not exactly—that seem to buzz with lack of feeling, but whatever air-drawn imaginary nerves connect him to the rest of the world.
“Shane,” he says, and then again, “Shane,” and finally Shane sighs and says, “If you make me do this, we’ll look like total idiots.”
“That’s a yes, though, right? It’s a yes, isn’t it?”
It is, and hardly a minute seems to pass before the two of them are standing in the stage lights, Shane on the guitar and Kevin at the microphone, while “Let’s Go Crazy” races through its verses. The organ sounds like a tin whistle, the guitar like a chainsaw biting wood, the drums like a litter of stones rolling downhill in a barrel. Shane stands dazed at the curtain, strumming his tennis racket. Kevin bends out over the audience, chasing down faces. In the crowd he sees seniors, girls, teachers. Stephen and Bastin are there, and Todd and Keith. He wants them so badly to want to be him. Two years ago, in fifth grade, Bastin hosted a lip-synching contest at his Halloween party, and a week before, from out of nowhere, a rumor took hold of the class that Kevin was an expert lip-syncher, destined to win with his performance of “The Longest Time.” For the next few days he rehearsed like mad, perfecting every doom-bah-doo-wah and fingersnap until he almost believed it himself. No one was more disappointed than he was when he came in third. Whatever happened, he wants to know, to the hat he won at the party, with the yellow foam lightning bolts at the temples? What happened to spending the night with his friends, drinking Cokes and playing Pitfall until they passed out on the living room floor? What happened to the apartment where he and his mom lived on Sturbridge? To the house where he and his dad lived on Lakeshore? To the big brick Church of Christ building where he spent every day of his school life—in the sun when the sun was shining, in the rain when the rain was falling—with the turf-like sheets of carpet in the halls, and the metal freezer filled with cartons of orange drink, and the straight line of kindergartners walking duck by duck to the water fountain? Whatever happened to two years ago?
The song ends with a last little cat-growl. Kevin leaves the stage to a smattering of applause.
Eric lays a hand on his shoulder. “That,” he says, “was truly bizarre.”
Right then Kevin knows that they have lost, but when Principal McLaughlin counts down the winners, what he knows makes no difference, all that matters is what he wants, and he half-expects to hear his name called anyway. Third runner-up. Second. First. Only when the grand prize goes to someone else does the blood stop beating in his fingers. He shoves a hand in his pocket, fishing through the change for a Kleenex. “Well damn,” he says.
Eric sounds like a wise old man filled with his customary disappointment. “Perhaps the world simply isn’t ready for Fast-Forward Prince.”
And just like that, Kevin hardly cares that he lost. “Philistines.”
“Give them time, give them time.”
The two of them have been eating lunch together nearly every day, spending the night with each other nearly every weekend. Nothing is easier than for them to fill a few hours talking about girls and movies and comics. Colossus vs. Wolverine. Stacey vs. Alisha. Kevin buys a Sunkist and a Payday from the vending machines, Eric some Doritos and a Sprite, and they play a hunch that tonight, for once, they can roam the building eating and drinking and no one will give them a demerit. In some of the classrooms the overhead lights have been left burning. With the black sky hanging behind the windows and the floors gleaming up at the ceiling, the rows of desks and chairs seem fixed in a weird bright stillness, like trees emblazoned by lightning. Kevin zips his fingers down the fins of the lockers, creating a musical stumbling sound. The muscles in his legs, so loose at the ankles and so stiff everywhere else, make him feel like he has spent the day roller-skating. Everyone keeps calling him “eighty-one”—“Hey, eighty-one,” “What’s happening, eighty-one?”—and at first he has no idea why. Then all at once, in a silvery flash, he figures it out—eighty-one laps—and ugh. It is the wrong nickname if ever there was one. He hopes it doesn’t last.
An hour or so after sunset, a teenager comes drifting through the parking lot, testing the door-handles of cars. He is dressed in the blue pajamas and soft-soled slippers of a BridgeWay escapee. Kevin has never actually visited BridgeWay, and neither has Eric, but like everyone else they know it is out there, a jail-like building on the far side of the woods, filled with criminals and drug addicts, crazy people. An insane asylum.
Coach Daniel hears them say so and corrects them: “Psychiatric clinic. It’s a psychiatric clinic.”
“Yeah. Like Arkham,” Kevin says.
“Like the Holiday Inn, but for kids who need help.”
As usual one of the grown-ups phones the police, but by the time the car arrives, its blue lights flickering against the side of the school, the pajama-kid has climbed the chain-link fence behind the football field and picked his way across the interstate.
It is 11:30 before everyone is corralled back onto the basketball court, and midnight before they settle into their sleeping bags. The girls are given the home side, the boys the visitors’, and the teachers form a barricade along half-court. The weather is so nice that as soon as their voices die out they can hear the insects chirring through the walls, a vast sea of hopeful vibrations. Three-hundred pairs of ears, Kevin thinks, and all of them listening to the same song.
He is not yet asleep, but very nearly, when everything suddenly makes perfect sense. He feels himself sailing on some great wind of thought, his mind tacking across the open water, and both of them as silver as aluminum foil, and then, in an instant, he realizes that the planet is made up of squares, blocks, cartons, boxes. He could take every piece of it—all those cereal bowls and phone cords and ballpoint pens, plus the trees and the fields, the rivers and highways, the wrenches and fire hydrants and oranges and skyscrapers, the toy trucks and weather vanes and compasses and swans, the grain silos, the mattresses, the egg crates, the elephants, the binoculars—and stack them one on top of another. They would lock together like bricks in a wall. It is so hard to describe, but important, important, he is sure of it.
The secret neatness of the world.
The plans, the blueprints.
What happened today? someone might ask him.
This, he would say.
Kevin Brockmeier is the author of the novels The Illumination, The Brief History of the Dead, andThe Truth About Celia; the children’s novels City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery; and the story collections Things That Fall from the Sky and The View from the Seventh Layer. His eighth book, A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade, is forthcoming in April of 2014. His work has been translated into seventeen languages, and he has published his stories in such venues as The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Zoetrope, Tin House, The Oxford American, The Georgia Review, The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and New Stories from the South. He has received three O. Henry Awards (one, a first prize), the PEN USA Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an NEA Grant. Recently he was named one of Grantamagazine’s Best Young American Novelists. He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was raised.