As it turned out, Jessie wasnt pregnant. She had an exotic strain of stomach flu, which shed eagerly confused with morning sickness. While we prepared for Harpsberg, now a week behind schedule, Jessie performed sad, sobbing monologues into our answering machine. The day we left, Dad found an envelope on the porch in front of the front door. He tried to hide it from me. Our last utilities bill, he said, because hed rather die than show me the hormonal ravings of a madwoman, which he himself had inspired. Six hours later, however, somewhere in Missouri, I stole the letter from the glove compartment when he stopped at a gas station to buy Tums.
Dad found love letters from a June Bug as monumental as an extraction of aluminum, but for me it was like coming across a vein of gold in quartz. Nowhere in the world was there a nugget of emotion more absolute.
I still have my collection, which tallies seventeen. I include below an excerpt from Jessies four-page Ode to Gareth: You mean the very world to me and Id go to the ends of the earth for you if you asked me. You didnt ask me though and I will accept that as a friend. I will miss you. Im sorry about that baby thing. I hope we keep in touch and that you will consider me a good friend in the future who you can relie on in thickness and thin. In lou of yesterdays phone call I am sorry I called you a pig. Gareth all I ask is to remember me not as I have been over the past couple days but as that happy woman you met in the parking lot of K-Mart. Peace be to you forever more. Most of the time, though, despite the occasional buzzing sounds reverberating through a quiet evening, it was always Dad and me, the way it was always George and Martha, Butch and Sundance, Fred and Ginger, Mary and Percy Bysshe.
On your average Friday night in Roman, New Jersey, you wouldnt find me in the darkened corner of the parking lot of Sunset Cinemas with the Tanned Sporto with Shiny Legs, puffing on American Spirits waiting for the Spoiled Pretender (in his fathers car) so we could speed down Atlantic Avenue, scale the chain-link fence surrounding long-out-of-business African Safari Minigolf, and drink lukewarm Budweiser on the tatty Astroturf of Hole 10.
Nor would you find me in the back of Burger King holding sweaty hands with the Kid Whose Mouthful of Braces Made Him Look Simian, or at a sleepover with the Goody Two-Shoes Whose Uptight Parents, Ted and Sue, Wished to Prevent Her Ascent into Adulthood as if It Were the Mumps and certainly not with the Cools or the Trendies.
Youd find me with Dad. Wed be in a rented two-bedroom house on an unremarkable street lined with bird mailboxes and oak trees. Wed be eating overcooked spaghetti covered in the sawdust of parmesan cheese, either reading books, grading papers or watching such classics as North by Northwest or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, after which, when I was finished with the dishes (and only if hed sunk into a Bourbon Mood), Dad could be entreated to perform his impression of Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone. Sometimes, if he was feeling especially inspired, hed even stick a piece of paper towel into his gums to re-create Vitos mature bulldog look. (Dad always pretended I was Michael.): Barzini will move against you first. Hell set up a meeting with someone you absolutely trust, guaranteeing your safety. And at that meeting youll be assassinated . . . its an old habit. Ive spent my entire life trying not to be careless. Dad said careless regretfully, and stared at his shoes. Women and children can be careless, but not men . . . Now listen. Dad raised his eyebrows and stared at me
Excerpted from Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Copyright (c) 2006 by Marisha Pessl. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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