Tristan and I drew creatures on index cards and colored them with crayon: a thousand-eye jellyfish, a dragon with tentacles, an iridescent purple bird whose every feather was a knife.
When the design of the creature was finished, we'd name it something fitting in jagged black, flip the card over, and pencil some information about it on the ruled side, such as how hard it hit, how well it could defend itself, and what attacks it could do. The attacks always had ridiculous names like Galaxy Beam or The Blast of Utter Destruction.
Lastly, we'd fold the card in half, stand the finished creature up like a tent on our desks, and start on another. They were pieces of a trading card game we were planning that never came to fruition, because when Tristan and I hung out--at his house, most times--we ended up playing with his extensive collection of toys instead. His toys all reeked of cigarettes because his mom smoked a lot--ashing into the kitchen sink and staring out the window. She'd be standing there when I arrived, and she'd still be there when I left.
I would smoke, too, if Tristan was my kid. He had ADHD, and was probably on the spectrum, tipping on the precipice of functional. Being his friend was entertaining, as he suggested a breezy, parentless outer life, treated strangers the same as he treated his friends, and didn't make anyone feel bad for laughing at him. At school, however, when he had to take his pill, he acted reserved and nervous, like a friendly ghost who didn't want anyone to dislike him for being dead. Tristan and I became best friends one day in third grade when he hid his bitter pill under his tongue and spit it out into the toilet when his mom wasn't looking. We were putting up our chairs at the end of the day, when he declared, "We're gonna be best friends!" From that moment on, "best friends," is what he insisted we were.
We made sure we both got Ms. Meyer's homeroom class in fourth grade, because according to my older brother, she was the best teacher of the few you could choose. She was in her early fifties, had short, serrated hair like shark teeth, and it only took one time of her wearing a white fur vest for someone to draw the comparison between her and Cruella De Vil from One Hundred and One Dalmatians. She was nicer than Cruella, but not the type of person elementary kids liked right away. She sat on a director's chair she called her throne, and insisted we call her a princess, not a queen, because being called queen made her feel old. Besides "The Classroom Market Project," her princess shtick was what I remember most about her class, because my time there was mostly spent crayoning creatures or fidgeting with Bakugan in the magnetic desk cubby.
Her lesson that day, as far as I could tell, was about checks, withdrawals, deposits, and a bunch of other things I knew I wouldn't have to deal with for another fifteen years, so I was completely checked-out.
That was until I heard her say, "Whoever makes the most will get this fifty-dollar bill." I looked up and saw the biggest bill I had ever laid my eyes on, hot from the teller, swinging between her bony fingers. The red, white, and blue of the flag glowed on it like spring flowers in a playing field of trampled grass. Ms. Meyer's words and the bearded man's expression on the bill seemed to be challenging me, but to do what, I didn't know, because I hadn't been paying attention.
The money had gotten Tristan's attention, too, and for the first time that period, we stopped drawing. We were no longer gods, but subjects.
I leaned toward Tristan and whispered, "What's the money for?"
"Shut up," he responded. "I'm listening." He popped his throat, one of his nervous tics.
Ms. Meyers said, "One of you will have to be the banker, which means you won't be able to have a store. Any volunteers?"
Tristan raised his hand. His aforementioned deference to his peers translated into a complete disregard for winning even the friendliest competitions. He never played kickball at recess or participated in chocolate bar fundraisers, and if he was beating me at a video game and sensed that I was growing frustrated, he'd often throw the match.
"You're sure you'd like to be the banker?" Ms. Meyers asked, reluctant to oblige another one of his sacrifices. "It requires a lot of math."
"I guess it's settled then." Ms. Meyers stood from her princess throne, grabbed a stack of manila envelopes from her desk, evened them out by letting them fall through her hands, and handed them to Julia to pass out. She personally gave Tristan an envelope sharpied, "BANKER," then sat back down and started lecturing again. Nobody paid her any attention because they were too busy looking at the contents of their envelopes.
When Julia gave me mine, I ripped it open right away. Inside, there was a fake checkbook, a chart on which to keep track of transactions, and a packet of assignment instructions topped with, "Meyersville – The Classroom Market Project."
The gist of "The Classroom Market Project" was that we'd each run our own businesses and participate in an artificial economy by buying things from our classmates each class period for two days.
Ms. Meyers said, "The winner will be announced at the end of the second day, when all the money has been tallied up by the bank. Got it?" A lot of schools call this activity, "Market day," but our version lasted twice as long.
I saw in the books of destiny the way the week would go, and it filled me with red-hot defiance. We'd all start out optimistic, then Julia would show up with some luxury product that undercut everyone else. We'd realize we once again couldn't defeat her, give up, and spend all our time buying her gourmet pastries or prodigy doodads. She'd get the big bucks, smile that straight, white smile for the camera, and everything would return to normal. It had happened in third grade when she won the one-hundred dollars selling the most Otis Spunkmeyer cookie dough, and later that year--the same month she won the spelling bee--when she cashed in the most accelerated reader points, having read every Harry Potter book, and won a fifty dollar voucher for the Scholastic Book Fair. Sometimes these kids sneak into public schools and have a field day.
On parent-teacher conference day, Julia's parents seemed to come right off the press of a designer business fashion magazine. Her dad wore dry-cleaned button downs and pressed trousers, and had the nicest, fullest head of hair of any of the men his age. Her mother always wore the same sophisticated black dress and a necklace of pearls, and had a voice that was a mid-range, hypnotizing rollercoaster of consistent notes that floated in the air like the next generation of text-to-speech. You couldn't tell which of them was the CEO, and which was the CFO.
Second through fourth grade, my mother spent hours in the soap room before Parents' day putting on foundation, trying on her nicest clothes, and polishing her one good pair of flats, and still she came across as tacky and underdressed in the presence of Julia's parents. No amount of lip gloss could make her talk like them; no reflection on her shoes could command as much respect; no amount of concern in her eyes could make me as good a child as Julia.
I couldn't let Julia win again in "The Classroom Market Project," which was easy to say but almost impossible to accomplish with my scant toolbelt of a mind. I thought for hours about what business I could run that might beat Julia, and all I came up with were clay sculptures. That was, after all, the only thing I'd put a significant amount of energy into being good at, and I had been out of clay for a few weeks and the project was my first opportunity to acquire more of it. I was nervous to ask my mom to take me to the craft store, because I would often lie about needing art supplies for school projects so that I could re-up, and she had caught on.
After school, I went to Tristan's house. My dad was coming over that afternoon to grab some family photos he left behind, and my mom didn't want me to see him. I was disappointed. Not because I didn't get to see him, but because he was a doctor and could afford the brands of clay my mom couldn't, like Sculpey.
At Tristan's, we played with his collection of Godzilla figures for two hours--only long enough that I stopped noticing the stale scent of cigarettes and the dry, suffocating air--until my mother called and Tristan's mom took me home. I had many of these types of playdates growing up--the kind that were more for the parents than the kids.
When I got home, my mom was cooking mac & cheese and hot dogs in our little kitchen cubby. She seemed to be stirring the noodles with extra fervor, so I figured her time with my dad hadn't been pleasant.
When I asked her if she was okay, she said tartly, "I'm fine. I'm a bit concerned for your brother. We just got off the phone, and guess what he told me? He's flipping burgers at Five Guys."
"The one by the games store?"
She ignored me. "Guess that's what happens when you drop out of college." I didn't know why she was telling me this, unless the prestige of my brother was the only other thing besides my dad she could think of to complain about.
"He should go back to school and..." But I was already on my way to my bedroom and my mother's words had become muffled and unintelligible. I flicked on my lights and was about to take off my backpack and throw it on the bed, when I noticed the corner of a sage-colored envelope peeking out from under my Toy Story 2 pillow. I picked it up and saw it was a letter from my dad.
I checked the door. The whirr of the spoon along the pot, and the resentful murmuring continued in the kitchen, so I knew I was safe, and opened it. No money, which was unusual, but welcome. My mom always confiscated gifts from my dad, in case a penny of it came from "that slut." The letter was just empty words of goodwill and two phone numbers--my dad's and my sister's. At the end of the letter, he had the nerve to write in the postscript, "And don't tell your mom about this!" As if he and I were in a conspiracy against her. My temples burned with indignant fury. I copied my sister's number onto a gum wrapper, stuck it between the pages of an issue of X-Men on my shelf, then ripped up the letter and threw it in the trash under some old homework.
I didn't tell my mom about the letter not because of my dad's postscript, but because I knew how bad it would upset her. Also, I didn't want my mom to know I had my sister's phone number. Even after a lifetime of being tossed around and betrayed by my dad, I don't think there's a single person my mother resents more than my sister. I can't blame her. Imagine--I mean really imagine, whatever gender you are--that the kid of your ex-husbands next marriage turned out to be a private-school valedictorian who won a full-ride to MIT with a thesis on machine learning. There'd be at least a bit of jealousy.
At the dinner table, I told my mom about the project and the sculpture business I wanted to run with the same conversational nonchalance I use to explain the great features of video games I wanted a month before Christmas. Halfway down my bowl, I sprung the question.
"Can you take me to the craft store tonight for new clay?"
She laughed. "Just as I expected when you started talking about clay. I thought that sounded suspicious."
"I'm not lying. It's for school." I heard my voice go up a few notes.
"Just like when you didn't lie about those ten-dollar paint markers being on your class list?" She remembered everything so fast. "Or when you didn't lie about needing a green poster board for a project, then you ended up using it as a greenscreen for YouTube videos?"
"I promise this is for a project."
"Bring me the handout. I can't trust your word anymore." She stirred some salt into the noodles.
My throat burned as I ran to my room to get my backpack. Didn't parents want their kids to be creative? I knew why my mom didn't want me to pursue the arts--she wanted me to be academically successful, like my sister, and not another minimum-wage burnout with an easel and a dream, like my brother. But if I sprung that topic, there was no way I would get my clay.
I grabbed the instructions from my backpack then brought them back to my mom, my throat still burning. She skeptically eyed the instructions. The indignance that should have come and overpowered my nerves was left behind with the scraps of my dad's letter.
Finally, she said, "I'll take you to Michael's after dinner, but do you see what happens when you lie all the time?"
After we finished our bowls, we went to the craft store. I spent the whole time in the car looking out the window and scheming how I'd block her from seeing any cheaper clay than the luxury polymers in the front of the aisle. To do so, I had to ignore her repetitions about how we had to be fast because her feet hurt from working all day, and that she wouldn't spend more than ten dollars no matter how much I begged, and that if I begged even a little bit, I'd come home with nothing. When we got there and were walking toward the building's brick facade, I knew it wouldn't be a matter of concealing, but rather of convincing her, without begging, that the polymer clay was the only way I could win the competition.
The crafts store was my favorite place to go as a kid. Every shelf was a mosaic of possibilities, from acrylic paint to watercolors, to wooden chests reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda, to blank T-Shirts meant to be covered with patches, stickers, and glitter glue. Luxury markers glimmered in rainbows of neon behind locked glass cabinets, and there were canvases along the far wall bigger than bears on their hind legs. As we passed the beads aisle, I saw my mom's eyes brighten with a sort of sad wonder.
When we reached the clays, I right away started browsing the rack of polymers, but as soon as my mother rounded the corner, she picked one of the little bars of yellow off the shelf and dismissed all my dreams with a scoff and a sentence.
"Four dollars just for this one little thing?" It was $3.39, but it was my mom's habit to round up when she wanted to make a point.
"It's really nice clay."
"Filet Mignon is nice too," she said, "but we can't afford to eat it every night. Is there anything cheaper?"
I wanted to say I needed the good stuff to win her money back, but my mom was already walking toward the Crayola logo, looking for value alternatives. Before she got to the really cheap stuff at the end of the aisle, I stopped her.
"What about this?" I said, leaning over and pointing at a bucket of white Model Magic at the base of the shelf. Kids at my school loved Model Magic. Coloring it was easy--just a matter of adding marker ink to the white base--and the stuff air dried into what seemed like functional, albeit fragile toys, with a bouncy and felt-like texture. One time, my third-grade art teacher brought in a box filled with individual packs of white Model Magic for a project, and after the project, let us keep our diminutive portions. We each kept ours until they dirtied or dried up, and some even traded their Bakugan, Silly Bandz, and rare Yu-Gi-Oh cards for more (Ms. Meyers didn't know that before she even thought of "The Classroom Market Project," there was a trade economy of toys and fads in which the entire school partook). They would come to later regret it when the clay had run the length of its newness and turned a gross grey, when other kids stopped hounding them for a turn to knead it between their schmutzy fingers.
To my dismay, my mother took one look at the price and continued searching for cheaper options. She grabbed a round bucket of generic air-dry clay and examined the label. It was priced around eight dollars.
She turned to me and said, "Isn't this the one you usually get?"
"I think so, but I couldn't win the project with that."
She sighed and kept looking at the label. Her expression told me she didn't believe there was any chance I could win, but in order to align herself to some distant ideal of good parenting, she instead said, "Sure you could. It's not about how good your materials are, it's about how good your sculptures are. I've seen your sculptures, and they're good enough to beat anyone."
She only said that to save money, I'm sure, but her use of compliments was so sparing that when she finally did express approval, I felt high all day, washed over with self-confidence.
We left after buying the tub of cheap air-dry clay and I thanked her, though inside I was disappointed, more in myself than in the clay, as I hadn't gotten across how important winning the project was to me.
The figures I made with the cheap clay were hard, dry, and shed a white powder. The clay also didn't have that property Model Magic had where you could dye it with a bit of marker ink, so for color, I had to wait for the sculptures to dry and then paint them. I didn't have any good brushes, so the coats of paint were sheer, scratchy and segmented, lacking the uniform richness of dyed clay. But my mother's coupon of a compliment still rang in my head--if I made something good enough, it didn't matter what material I used--so I kept trying, and eventually made some sculptures I was proud of.
I started with my cheapest product--a cat I could make fast and in bulk. They were so basic, it didn't matter what material they were made of. The head was a ball of clay, the ears were two cones, and the whisker beds were two spots placed next to each other, topped with hairs I made by rolling specks of clay between my fingers. I finished them off with dots for the nose and eyes, then placed them on a sheet of foil to dry before they were ready to paint.
My other sculptures were more special and ambitious: Pokémon and other video game creatures, a rough approximation of a leviathan with a pinpoint-sized rider to demonstrate its immense scale, a Lovecraftian beast that ended up looking like a hairier version of the smog monster Hedorah when it dried, and many others of various scope. All grew obtuse and flattened by sitting out all night but returned somewhat to their conception when painted.
My mother came and showed me how to fix paint mistakes with acetone on a Q-tip; if she hadn't, all the sculptures would have looked like bleary messes. I was shocked she knew something about art I didn't know and wondered if she had been a painter in some lost era.
Monday morning, I made a spreadsheet for made-to-order sculptures, loaded all my finished products in a blue Tupperware container, and just like that, I was ready to compete in "The Classroom Market Project." On the ride to school, I sat in the backseat and repaired broken limbs with an excessive amount of Krazy Glue, worrying about what the other kids brought.
I met Tristan outside my first class, and his appearance caused me instant amusement. He was wearing a tuxedo t-shirt, black trousers, and he had a black top hat under his arm.
"I'll put this hat on before last period and look like the Monopoly Man," he joked, grinning with his pitiable orthopedic phenomenon of a mouth that sported a pinched upper lip and twin uvulas.
"Is that the hat you wore at Tim's New Year's party?" I said.
"Yeah. I spray-painted it, but you can still kind of see the 2008 if I hold it up to the light. What's in that container?"
"You'll see it last period," I replied. "They're clay sculptures I'm selling for the Meyersville project."
"I thought you'd sell pieces of our card game."
"I don't think I could win fifty dollars with those."
"You probably won't win anyway, with Julia in the class. Speaking of our game, I had this idea for a..." I had stopped listening. Dropping insults with nonchalance was one of Tristan's most annoying social quirks.
The whole day, I tiptoed around with my Tupperware container, waiting in nervous anticipation for last period. In art class, the teacher looked at my figurines and told me that the painting was a little messy but besides that they were impressive, which recharged some of the confidence Tristan had sapped from me earlier.
I saw Julia in the hallway. She wore a fleece sweater and a black skirt that dropped below her knees, and her hair was in a smart ponytail of straight, metallic hair held back by a classy headband you could imagine her mother picking out with a sparkle of pride. She carried a Tupperware container around as well, and I remember she had particularly bad posture that day, as if her neck had evolved over night to constantly lean over. The product of that leaning I assumed was in the container she held, which was clear, but lined with paper towels, so I couldn't see inside. She wasn't as careful with her container as I was, so I assumed it contained cupcakes or something, which distressed me to an absurd degree. What fourth grader is going to pick art over a cupcake? I thought about bumping into her before class so that the cupcakes would fall to the ground and turn to mush piles, but I knew she would snitch and get me disqualified, and I wasn't about to take that risk.
The day felt very long--perhaps dilated by my anticipation--but Meyersville finally crept into the present.
"Arrange the desks in a circle," said Ms. Meyers. "Make sure there are spaces between them so you can get out to the center to buy things. Then sit down and wait for further instructions."
The class worked together and made the desks the way Ms. Meyers wanted them, then Ms. Meyers stood in the big space in the middle of the room where you could spin around and see all the storefronts, and did that annoying teacher thing where they repeat themselves when everybody is already setting up.
"Class, listen up! Does everyone remember how to write a check out to the bank?" She pointed to a dark wood desk in the corner of the room. Tristan stood next to it with his stupid top hat on, holding his banker envelope like a glass of champagne.
"Remember to write your deposit checks out to the Meyersville bank, not to Tristan. Okay? That's very important." Everyone groaned that they understood. She did one last survey of the room to check if everything was in order, then announced, "Everything seems to be ready. You can set up your store fronts now."
I popped open my container. It made a little suck sound, and the sour scent of Krazy Glue wafted into my nose. Now that I had to show my figurines to people, my conceits about them were ripped away, and they seemed juvenile and sad. The paint job was slipshod, and the colors were diaphanous, as if they had been cried onto the clay, the cheapness of which was obvious through the hard, cracking, powdery surface plagued with eczemic folds and creases. The obvious amount of earnestness I had put into them made them look all the more pathetic. My art teacher's compliment was reframed into the perspective of pity, and though I had been excited to reveal my sculptures all day, I now wanted nothing more than to slink home and throw them in the trash.
I surveyed the room. Julia was writing something down in a notebook. I couldn't see what she brought yet, so I looked at the wares of the other kids: origami figures made of brightly colored paper; bookmarks made of streamer paper, and I wanted one of the Calvin and Hobbes ones; knitted potholders; mud cakes with gummy worms sticking out of them. Micah, a tall and rotund girl with an afro and dweeby glasses, brought soda and cupcakes.
Julia had unpacked her wares by the time I looked again, and I was in disbelief. She had brought clay sculptures. Little cats, spiders, dogs, dragons, and horses--and I bet you can guess what type of clay she used. I knew without a shred of a doubt that it was Sculpey, the same polymer brand my mom denied me, because she had some half-used packets lying out on her desk. At this point, I still hadn't unpacked my stuff. I looked in my container again and what I saw was so pathetic I wanted to cry. Ms. Meyers must have noticed, because she came over and asked why I hadn't put up my storefront.
"I'm scared. They're bad," I replied, with a quiet and ambivalent tone as if I was just saying something about the project, so that none of my classmates would know how I really felt. Ms. Meyers took my container from my hands and looked around in it, then started putting the sculptures out on my desk, one-by-one. I wanted to stop her but knew I couldn't. She laid my cat heads in a row on the front of the desk and put my big sculptures in the back to make them look more exclusive.
She took out my Lovecraftian beast, examined it, and said, "This one is so creative! I wish I could buy it." I smiled. I was glad she was doing this for me. But then she took the last one out, and was about to put it on display, when I almost compulsively stopped her.
"Why not?" Ms. Meyers said, holding it in her palm.
"I don't like it."
"Suit yourself. I think it's cute."
She handed it back to me. It was a stubby self-portrait. I had stumpy legs, stumpy arms, and there was no distinction between my neck and head, save for the flattened dot that was my hair. My eyes were two uneven spots, and my mouth was a line of clay that was much too thick. The clay on me had flattened, folded, and cracked, and I was covered in Krazy Glue because all of my limbs had fallen off numerous times throughout the day. I landed in the freshly bagged trash can next to Ms. Meyer's desk and with a sharp metal twang, exploded into a pile of chunks and limbs.
As soon as I threw myself into the trash can, I regretted it. Some things are so pathetic, they become precious--like your oldest stuffed animal, with its sad, beady eyes and crusty fur. For the entire Meyersville period, I felt like I was that old stuffed animal, and that the kids who admired or even bought from me only did so because it made them feel guilty to do otherwise. This feeling seemed confirmed when I stood to visit Tristan at the bank and got a closer look at Julia's sculptures.
They were clean and simple, smooth as plastic, and the colors were rich. The figures she made weren't as imaginative, sure, but they were sounder. They actually looked like the thing they were meant to imitate without someone having to squint at them. I couldn't find a single reason other than brownie-points that somebody would buy my figures over hers unless they were into Lovecraft, and I don't think anybody in my fourth grade class had reached that unit in English class yet. Regardless, I managed to sell a few cat heads and a dragon, and the boy who bought the dragon also ordered a Pikachu I'd have to make that night before I went to bed. I had only made the Pokémon I cared about--the dragon-types and the cool-looking legendaries--and forgot to make Pikachus. You could call that artistic integrity, but I was disappointed with my market shortsightedness.
As for what I spent my money on: A syrupy Stars & Stripes cola, a yellow cupcake with way too much frosting, and finally, another cola. It seemed like Micah was getting the most business with her food stand, with Julia in second, but since Julia's stuff cost more than Micah's, there was still no telling who would win the project. By the end of class, however, I was sure it wouldn't be me. I didn't come in last--that would be the potholder girl, with only one sale all day, to Julia--but I'm still sure I was the most disappointed with my performance.
I suppose I had been foolish to think of myself as even second best. What Tristan said, I could only deny until I got to class: that things aren't as easy as wanting them a lot. You can want just one thing, all your life, and never get it.
At the end of the first day of the project, I deposited my money in the bank, packed up my figurines, helped rearrange the desks, and put my chair up--silent. Normally, I would walk to the car line with Tristan and hang out until his mom came to pick him up, but that day I wanted nothing more than to go to the school garden, sit on the bench in the hexagonal gazebo next to the mulberry patch, and read a comic book until my mom arrived.
My mom got out of work around 3:30 and showed up an hour after school ended every day. I was always the last one in the carline, which I liked a lot, because it gave me time to work on my creatures for the card game and sometimes I'd get to play wall-ball with the orchestra kids when they came outside during their practice break.
When I got to the gazebo, I put my comic book next to me on the bench, then put my Tupperware container on top of it and took off the lid. I had a compulsion to look at my sculptures while I was alone, as if that would be reassuring. It wasn't. My sculptures were forever resolved by their being unhidden. With them went the purity of my and Tristan's game. I took out the cards I drew with Tristan a few days before, and looked at them with burning bad faith, until it became too much, and I put them away.
I closed the lid on my sculptures and tried to read my comic book for a while, but it was impossible to concentrate. I packed up, left the garden, and walked laps around the school building. There were only a few kids left in the car line, and all the busses had left. After a few laps, I came back around to the carline and saw that the orchestra kids were on break in the yard. The boys were playing wall ball. I wanted to join them, but then I saw Julia, leaning against the brick wall with her violin case at her foot, drinking from a mini water bottle. She was with a circle of friends. When she saw me, she waved, and before I waved back, she started toward me.
"Hey, Cam," she said. "I liked your figures."
"Thank you. I liked yours, too. I would have bought one, but I didn't eat much for lunch. That's why I bought food mostly." This was a lie. I spent all my money at the food stand because I was upset, and the sugar made me feel better.
"Then I trust you will tomorrow. You know, we artists need to support each other."
"Yeah, I plan to," I replied. I wanted to tell her she should buy one of mine too, but it felt presumptuous because I didn't know whether or not she would want one. But then again, hadn't she assumed I would want one of hers? I guess that's why she was a winner; she self-advocated at a level that would appear unseemly to somebody like me.
She said, "Great. Are you going to the talent show on Friday?"
"I forgot about that."
"You should come. I'm playing a violin solo."
"I'd love to go if my mom lets me. Good luck, either way."
"Thanks. I'll need it. See you later." She waved goodbye and went back to her friends. I looked at her teeth and remembered all the nights I hadn't brushed; I looked at her sweater and imagined my piling wardrobe of hand-me-downs; I looked at her violin case and regretted all the hours at night I had spent doing nothing. Here I was, trying to win the race, when there were already miles between us.
Last period the next day when the Meyersville festivities began, I realized with a sinking depression that I had forgotten to make the Pikachu. I waited in numb dread for the kid who had ordered it to come over. Eventually, he did.
"Sorry, dude. I don't know how I forgot."
"I knew I should have ordered it from Julia. Her figures looked nicer anyway."
"I'm really sorry."
He sighed with reluctant sympathy. "It's okay, but still, I need my money back."
As I wrote the check out to him, I looked up for a moment and saw Julia's business thriving. She deserved it. While she had probably spent all the previous night working on her orders, finishing her homework, and practicing her violin for the talent show, I spent all night pitying myself and playing Crash Team Racing on PlayStation.
"By the way," the boy added, "that dragon you sold me didn't survive the bus ride home."
"Sorry. Do you want a refund for that one, too?"
"No, that's fine. Just for the Pikachu." I ripped out the check and handed it to him. After a bit of silence, he said, "Sorry, dude."
"No, it's okay. I'm the one who should be sorry." I watched him take the check to the bank, cash it, and write a deposit check. He had to wait in line for a while because the project was ending and the amount in our accounts was how Ms. Meyers would tally up our profits. After he cashed his check, Ms. Meyers and Tristan worked together to finalize all of our accounts. Everyone watched them with anticipation. I could tell Tristan was growing woozy, and I figured it was either because it was late spring and he had a pollen allergy, or because of all the required math.
Finally, they finished, and Ms. Meyers, wearing her Cruella De Vil fur, went with Tristan and the bank sheet to the front of the room. I waved to Tristan, but he didn't wave back. He looked sick. Ms. Meyers held up the fifty dollars again, which succeeded to tip us all into giddy nervousness. My stomach felt empty, though I had just eaten one of Micah's cupcakes.
"You won't be happy to hear who gets the fifty dollars, but I think this is an important teaching opportunity," Ms. Meyers said flatly. "I hope you will all take this lesson and listen closer to my instructions in the future." She handed the bill to Tristan. The class erupted with gasps and protests.
Ms. Meyers had to talk over us. "First is Tristan, by a long shot. Second place is Julia, the only other person in the class who has a balance on her bank account higher than zero. I told you all to deposit your checks to the Meyersville bank, not to Tristan, and you didn't listen." Tristan held the bill limply at his side.
Julia spoke out, betraying her usual poised and proper attitude, "Why should I lose out on fifty dollars just because other people can't listen to instructions? Do I get a second-place prize?"
"But that isn't fair!"
"Regardless of what the project may have led you to believe, the market is not fair."
"But you have all the power here."
"Well, Julia, it's like that old phrase about how closing your eyes doesn't make you invisible. My job is to teach you the things you need to know whether or not they please you." Julia turned her vital glare to Tristan, whose glassed-over eyes were like a defense mechanism against an over-medicated shakiness.
"Don't you agree with me?" Julia said. "Why don't you give me the prize, since I earned it?"
Tristan held the bill out to Julia, but Ms. Meyers snatched it out of his hand and said, "No, Tristan. In fact, I'm going to follow you out to the car line and give the bill to your mother." I had never seen Julia so sour. Her expression was like a black hole that sucked up all the attention in the room. I wanted Ms. Meyers to concede and let Julia win, just so that it would stop, but at last the bell stopped it for me.
What Ms. Meyers said hadn't just been talk; she waited with Tristan in the carline and handed the money to his mom, and I wondered why she was so serious. What lesson was she teaching us that was so important? Maybe there was no lesson, and she was just being spiteful. Or else, spite was the inevitable byproduct of trying to teach a kid a truth their parents hid from them at home.
Friday came, and my mother and I went to the talent show. She spent all of what seemed like three hours putting on make-up and trying on clothes, and the end result was pretty, albeit very churchy. She wore a black dress, a silver necklace with a cross pendant, and that same pair of black flats she always wore to school events. She walked through the crowd of parents with an insecure gait--looking down at herself, walking sideways, and constantly adjusting her dress--but otherwise, she looked nice and put together. This time, when she and Julia's parents stood near each other, she wasn't eclipsed.
It was near the end of the show, and I was sitting between my mom and Tristan, who was doubly medicated that night and didn't have problems concentrating. On the program, it said that Julia was going next, to play one of Clara Schumann's Three Romances. A part of me felt bad for Julia, not only because of what had happened with the Meyersville project, but also because I forgot to keep my promise about buying one of her sculptures, as I'd been too wrapped up in self-pity. I wasn't planning on coming to the talent show before, but now I felt I owed it to Julia, though I knew she didn't care. As she and the piano player set up on stage, the crowd murmured loud enough that I felt comfortable whispering to Tristan for a while.
"Man, Julia was mad when you won."
"I was P.O'd about it too. Ms. Meyers threw me under the bus."
"What do you think went wrong?"
"The system Ms. Meyers set up. She should've understood it was likely to go wrong."
I nodded. "And have you noticed that in general the people with the most money at home tend to win stuff like that?"
"I don't know if that's fair. Micah sold a lot of that Dollar Tree coke."
"It's totally fair. If we could afford to buy the clay Julia used, I'd have won."
"No, I still would have won."
"But I would've come in second."
"There's no prize for second, though."
There was no point explaining myself to him, so I said, "Speaking of, how are you going to spend the fifty?"
"I already did."
"A real dinosaur bone," he said with a grin. "It's a fragment of a hadrosaur's foot."
"A fragment of a hadrosaur's foot?" I repeated.
"Yes, and it's awesome. Now shut up," Tristan said. "They're about to start." The pianist--Julia's father, wearing a tailored, dark-grey tuxedo--played a tuning pitch. Julia played the same note, then nodded curtly. Her father started with a twinkling flourish, and the piece began. It was leagues, no, lightyears ahead of the other performers. My mother teared up in my periphery, and I saw in her expression the holy union of being genuinely moved and debilitatingly jealous.
In the middle of the performance, Tristan leaned over to me and whispered, "To be fair, it's not like Ms. Meyers came up with that system." I wondered how his mind got to that. Whatever he meant, it seemed to excite him. He popped his throat three times.
The piece ended, and Julia and her father bowed to a standing ovation. There were other performers later that night--some impressive ones, even--but it would have been in terrible taste for the grand prize to go to anyone else. We all got to see Julia's straight, white smile again; the way her teeth gleamed in the camera flash--the way those pearls reflected in the gold paint of the plastic trophy--but there was something new and tragic in that smile I hadn't noticed on earlier occasions. I always focused on her teeth; never before on her temples, which were smooth from fatigue.
My mother was strangely tender after the talent show, and even promised to take me to the craft store later in the weekend. But when she kissed me on the forehead goodnight and turned off my lights, I knew, in the darkness, that her promise was empty. Had been emptied.