|Where Do You Stop?
Chapter 8: The Smell of New Pencils
YOU CAN READ THE FIRST THIRD
YOU CAN BUY THE
PETER, how was it?” my father asked that evening, calling me from the bathroom
where he had been soaking his hands free of gasoline and grease from the
gas station where he worked. This procedure had fascinated me since
I had first seen it as a child. It produced iridescent swirls on
the surface of the water in the sink. My original thought had been
that this was its purpose, and that mistaken notion still interfered with
my attaining a conventional understanding of washing up. As far as
I was concerned, it was still playing with water.
I hesitated. What should I say? Confusing? Baffling? Scary?
My father dried his hands and started on his way out to the patio, where he was going to grill some pork chops.
“Exciting, I’ll bet,” he asserted. “Starting a new school year is always exciting.”
I was being invited to agree, I knew, but my father’s statement surprised me, because he had never been much of a student, and he had never hidden that fact from me. Something had gotten into him, and I was too young to know that it was nostalgia. He dumped charcoal into the grill, squirted lighter fluid onto it, and lit it. While it burned he grew reflective. From his distant, unfocused look, he might have been thinking of Ariane.
“The smell of new pencils,” he said eventually, as if something made him say it. “I always remember the smell of new pencils.”
He seemed to be choking up. He cleared his throat and wiped his eyes. He blew his nose.
“Damned smoke,” he said. He glanced at me to see if I accepted this explanation. I acted as if I did. “It’s funny—whenever I smell new pencils, I feel full of energy. I feel that I’m getting a new start.” He wore a wistful smile.
This was an awkward moment. I wasn’t accustomed to seeing emotion in my father. I didn’t know how to acknowledge it. I chose not to. It seemed best to say something, anything, so I started talking without thinking about what I was going to say. “In science—” I began, “I mean general science—we have—” I stopped. I had been going to say that we had a beautiful teacher, but I realized that it would be an inappropriate remark. My father, still wearing the wistful look induced by his memory of the odor of pencil shavings, was looking at me with unusual attention.
“Mm?” he said.
“—we have to answer the Big Questions,” I said, putting the capitals in as Miss Rheingold had.
“The big questions?” said my father. He seemed not to have heard the capitals.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m in the where-do-you-stop group. Although actually I don’t know who else is in my group yet.”
“The what group?” my father asked.
“The group that has to answer the question ‘Where do you stop?’” I said.
“What does that mean?” he asked. He seemed annoyed. The happy memory of pencil shavings seemed to have been blown away by this Big Question.
“That’s the first thing we have to figure out. No—first we have to figure out who’s in our group. But that’s the second thing we have to figure out.”
“What it means.”
“Is this something special, Peter?” he asked. “Or is it part of your regular work?”
“It’s—um—I guess it’s something special,” I said. “We have regular work, too.”
“Well, just make sure that this when-do-you-stop business doesn’t interfere too much with your regular work.”
“It’s where, not when.”
“Don’t get smart with me, Peter,” he said. “Where or when is not the point. Is it?”
“Well,” I said, “actually, I guess it is, or at least part of the point, because some of the other questions—”
“I mean that it is not the point of our little discussion here and now,” he said. “The most important thing is that you do the work that’s expected of you. You have a book to get through, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I said. “Adventures in General Science.”
“And you’re going to get regular assignments?”
“Well,” he said, pointing at me with the barbecue fork, “you just make sure you do your regular work before you work on something extra. Now that you’re out of grade school, teachers are going to start asking a lot more of you, Peter. Do you know what I mean?”
“The work will get harder?” I guessed.
“Yes,” he said. “But that’s not all. You see, they have your records. They know you’re pretty smart. They know you did well in grade school. They’re liable to use you to make them look good. You know what I mean now?”
I couldn’t imagine how Miss Rheingold could be made to look any better than she already did, but if there was a way that she could use me in such a noble undertaking, yea, though it use me up completely, leaving me a dry and lifeless husk, spent in the task, I was ready to answer the call.
“Not really,” I said, truthfully.
“If they give you some special project to do,” he said, “and you do a good job, they’ll look good. Get it?”
“Well,” I said, “I guess so.”
Would Miss Rheingold do such a thing? Was that what she wanted from me? Was that why she had crossed her legs?
THAT NIGHT, I got on the phone right after dinner. It took hours, but by the end of the evening I had identified at least some of the members of every group. A competition had developed when kids decided that anyone who succeeded in figuring out all the members of the groups would get on the good side of Miss Rheingold. As a result, there was a reluctance to give out information, and I was convinced that some of the information I had received was what is called today disinformation or misinformation, the kind of information that back then we called lies. However, by charting everything I was told and comparing it against what others told me, I was able to draw some reliable conclusions. By the time my father leaned over me, depressed the switch in the cradle of the phone, and said, “Peter, go to bed,” I was sure that I knew who three of the members of the where-do-you-stop group were, counting myself. The fourth was still in doubt, but I had a pretty good idea that it had to be one of the mysterious black kids who seemed to have come from elsewhere or nowhere. I couldn’t be sure, though, because I’d determined this only indirectly, by inference. I’d gotten my information from phone calls to my friends, and all the kids I knew were white. I didn’t know the phone numbers of any of the black kids. I wasn’t even really aware of their names. So, I didn’t know how to ask them which group they were in.
IN DARKNESS, I groped my way upstairs to my room. It was a new
thing of mine to leave the lights off when I got ready for bed. I’ve
forgotten now just why I did this. Was it modesty? Did I think
that someone was watching from the darkness? Did it have something
to do with training the mind or the senses to get by on less information—was
I already, unwittingly, anticipating the skills I would need for my game,
that game that would lead to my commemoration of a single moment in the
following summer, the same skills that I would need when Raskol and I finally
got around to slipping into the Purlieu Street School some night and changing
the combinations of the locks on the lockers? Or was it that I had
begun spending a little while each night scanning the windows of the house
across the street, where a girl I’d known for years as an annoyance was
ripening into an attraction? It was probably that.
Here are a couple of swell ideas from Eric Kraft's vivacious publicist, Candi Lee Manning:
Tip the author.
Add yourself to our e-mailing list.
Where Do You Stop? is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 1992 by Eric Kraft. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
Where Do You Stop? was first published in hardcover by Crown Publishers, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022. Member of the Crown Publishing Group.
For information about publication rights outside the U. S. A., audio rights, serial rights, screen rights, and so on, e-mail the author’s imaginary agent, Alec “Nick” Rafter.
The illustration at the top of the page is an adaptation of an illustration by Stewart Rouse that first appeared on the cover of the August 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The boy at the controls of the aerocycle doesn’t particularly resemble Peter Leroy—except, perhaps, for the smile.