Jim sat in a junior high school language arts class in Canterbury, New Jersey, stealing glances out the window at a promising spring afternoon and watching the clock. The teacher was running an exercise where students had to make little extemporaneous talks on randomly assigned topics. Each student had to write a topic on a scrap of paper and drop it into a paper bag; then the victim, at the front of the class, had to draw one of these topics from the bag and say something about it that sounded intelligent.
It was actually good training, since it seemed like every adult in Canterbury was either a doctor, a lawyer, an MBA, a CPA, or married to one, and the need to think on their feet, keep up a glib line of patter, and make quick excuses while still sounding like an expert would be valuable in the future careers of their children. On the other hand, Jim dreaded the prospect of what he’d be hearing for the next 40 minutes (in this, he was wise beyond his years). He had a not-fully-formed notion that the whole town was basically off its rocker, and he envisioned a lot of droning on subjects like the need to maintain a healthy body weight while avoiding eating disorders, or the challenge of climate change.
He did, however, notice that the teacher wasn’t monitoring very closely how the topics were being put in the paper bag as it passed around the room. When it reached him, he saw that she was preoccupied elsewhere, and he decided to take action. He quickly wrote several slips with topics that included “Dump Trucks” and “Kansas City, Missouri”, removed a number of previously deposited slips from the bag, and inserted his own. This, he thought, should improve the odds of having an interesting class.
Laurie Hinkle was the one who had to get up first and give am impromptu talk on one of the random subjects. Some would have said that she was a fine example of Canterbury’s rising generation: smart enough to get into an Ivy League school (as we shall see), natural blonde, medium height, a well-developed figure. Her face was attractive in a way not altogether insipid, and her clear blue eyes seemed almost sincere.
Laurie reached into the paper bag and drew out a slip. Her eyes widened a little bit. She read out the topic, but she dissolved in giggles as soon as she got the words out: “Dump Trucks”. She kept on giggling. She shook her head. She looked toward the teacher with a plea in her eyes. She had nothing, nothing whatever, to say on the subject of dump trucks.
”All right,” said the teacher. “Draw another one.”
She did. This time she read out, “Kansas City, Missouri.” It seemed the bag hadn’t been shaken as well as it might have been. Laurie couldn’t giggle this time; she’d used that one up. She still looked toward the teacher with a plea, but the teacher seemed not to notice. “Kansas City – Missouri?” she asked the ceiling. “I thought – I thought – it was in Kansas.” And that’s about all she was able to say. Perhaps for the first time, Jim noticed that Laurie’s eyes were tinged, just slightly, with disappointment – in fact, maybe not just disappointment, but something almost like tragedy.
Some would have said that Laurie was a fine example of Canterbury’s rising generation, but that opinion wasn’t universal. One afternoon not long after the class with the impromptu speeches, the phone rang at Jim’s house, and he picked it up. “This is Laurie Hinkle,” said the voice at the other end. It was very convincing, but in hindsight, the saccharine ingénue tone was overdone, and that should have been a warning. “I’m giving a party next Saturday, and you’re invited.” She went on to give the details.
In fact, the voice was that of Roberta “Chewie” Zimowski, and the party invitation was a prank concocted by the alpha girls of the eighth grade. It isn’t known how many people besides Jim were invited, and the fact that Jim was singled out at all suggests that he wasn’t any more popular among the alphas than Laurie. A day or two after the call, he saw her in school and thanked her for the invitation. “What?” she asked. “No – no – there isn’t any party.” The details of the plot emerged soon thereafter via the grapevine.
Whatever his earlier opinion of Laurie, and whatever other impressions he’d formed from her response to the impromptu topics, he felt a vague sympathy for her if all the right people in Canterbury – or at least, those of them who were in the eighth grade — made her the butt of jokes. After all, if the whole town was off its rocker, what was one to think of anyone the town itself thought in any way strange? But Jim noticed again in the wake of this episode that Laurie’s eyes were tinged, just slightly, with disappointment – in fact, maybe not just disappointment, but something almost like tragedy.
A couple of years later, Jim’s family moved away from Canterbury, or more accurately, they moved to a different town in a different state, but it was still basically Canterbury. Each such place sends a contingent of its high school graduates to the Ivy League every year, and Jim, a member of that town’s contingent, got to the Ivies and found many of the people he used to know in Canterbury there. One night, at a mixer, a blonde haired, blue-eyed lady came up to him. “Jim, do you remember me?” she asked. “I’m Laurie Hinkley.”
He did remember her. She hadn’t lost the saccharine ingénue tone of voice that Chewie Zimowski had so successfully imitated, and she hadn’t lost the hint of disappointment in her manner that was almost tinged with tragedy. But this renewed the question he’d been working on a few years earlier: in Canterbury’s view, she was different. And if Canterbury was crazy, was she sane, or at least sympathetic? More than that, crazy, sane, sympathetic, or none of those, she was at least good looking. So he chatted with her for a while at the mixer, and by the by, he got her contact information.
Jim had been discovering that the great unspoken subtext in Ivy dating centered on whether a guy had money, and failing that, whether he planned to become a doctor, lawyer, MBA, or CPA. Any other ambition, or lack of same, suggested he was gay, on drugs, or otherwise beyond the pale, though enough money could cancel any undesirable quality out. Whatever else might be said of Laurie Hinkle, in the chat he’d had with her, she didn’t seem to have that particular agenda.
So he invited her for a weekend. Mostly it turned out to be ordinary and unmemorable. On Saturday night, they went to a film, and when they got back to his room afterward, they started kissing. She seemed eager enough about it. But then, after a while, he put his hand on her boob, and that changed everything. She sat up, an expression of shock on her face. “I – I hadn’t expected that at all,” she said. Jim was nonplussed. All she actually had to do, after all, was tell him not to.
She got the look of disappointment tinged with tragedy on her face. This time, the tragedy won out. “I’m going to have to leave,” she said. “Can you take me to the bus station?”
”Are you sure there’s a bus back this time of night?” he asked.
”Yes. There’s one at eleven.” She’d checked the schedule already, it seemed. He took her to the bus station. There was nothing else to do. No matter how he looked at it in subsequent days, he couldn’t get around the idea that the whole town of Canterbury was off its rocker.
JOHN BRUCE’S writing has appeared recently, or will appear, in 13th Warrior Review, The Bare Root Review, Bound Off, Cantaraville, decomP, Diddledog, DOGZPLOT, Fiction at Work, Greenbeard, The Journal of Truth and Consequence, Long Story Short, Lyrical Ballads, Pank, Pear Noir!, Press 1, Short Story Library, Underground Voices, Why Vandalism?, and Word Riot. He has degrees in English from Dartmouth College and the University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles.