Take the Long Way Home
THIS IS THE STORY of two contests in which I competed in the fifth grade. One, probably the more important, was a competition for the love of Veronica McCall. This was a competition that I sponsored, but I was never a serious contender in it myself at all, which is probably as it should have been, since I didn’t really understand what prize was at stake, did not, to tell a truth that I would have been too embarrassed to tell at the time, even want to understand what prize was at stake, because I did understand that it was a variety of love for which I hadn’t yet developed an appetite.
In the manner of a chowder, which is a complex and subtle mixture of elemental foodstuffs, the emotion that we call love is a bewildering and varied concoction of more elemental emotions: lust, friendship, curiosity, guilt, and fear, among others. Tastes in chowders vary from person to person, from nation to nation, from region to region; one’s own taste in chowder changes over the course of one’s lifetime, and it may even shift from day to day. So it is with tastes in love. Some like theirs chock full of voluptuous scarlet tomatoes; others prefer something rarer, more exotic, heady with saffron; and still others like theirs bland and sturdy, with cream and potatoes.
My tastes and Veronica’s were different because I was two years younger than she, and at the time they were an especially important two years. Those two years represented the Gulf of Puberty, not so wide a gulf, but one where the waters can be treacherous, and where the fog is often so thick that one can’t see from one shore to the other. When I finally began to get a fuzzy notion of what Veronica wanted from a boyfriend (however fuzzy her desires might still have been) I began looking for someone who might be able to take the job away from me.
The other contest seemed much simpler on the surface, but I soon found that I had underestimated its demands. Not long after I had entered it, I found myself wishing that I could withdraw from this one too. It was the contest to name the new school.
Because of a rapid increase in Babbington’s population, a new upper-elementary school was being built at what was almost the geographical center of Babbington, and boys and girls from all over town would attend the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades there. The three small existing elementary schools — two old ones in the old town and one fairly new one in Babbington Heights — would be used only by children in the lower grades.
Work on the new school had begun the year before. During the summer, when it looked for a while as if the school might actually be completed before the fall, the announcement of the name-the-school contest appeared in the Babbington Reporter, and it sent a ripple of excitement through the upper-elementary-school population of Babbington.
“Did you see this?” I shouted when I arrived at Raskol’s with the paper.
“Yeah,” said Raskol. “Margot and Martha burst in here with it in the middle of breakfast. My father was just slipping a soft-boiled egg into his mouth with his soup spoon when they flew into the house, wham, bam, no knocking, no hellos, all squeals and excitement. God, his face got so red and swollen I thought his head was going to blow up — barroom! Egg yolk was dripping from the corners of his mouth. He grabbed that broom handle he keeps beside his plate and smacked it on the table, right on the edge of Little Ernie’s oatmeal bowl. There was oatmeal all over the table, all over Ariane’s slip, and all over me, too. My first thought was, Maybe I should call the cops, but then my second thought was, Maybe I should call an ambulance. But it all worked out all right because my father is such a pushover for those two. As soon as he saw them, he said, ‘Hey, how’re my girls?’ and he wiped his mouth on his sleeve, tossed the broom handle into a corner, and squatted down so that the two of them could jump into his arms. He’s out on the dock with them now, thinking up names. They’ve got about sixty entries already written out.”
“Sixty?” I exclaimed. I had imagined that I would enter one name, one top-notch name, one name that was the product of weeks of satisfying effort, the one name that survived after I had rejected hundreds of others as second-rate or worse, one name of such transcendent aptness that it couldn’t lose. It didn’t strike me as appropriate to send in every name that popped into my head. When I saw the stack of papers that Margot and Martha and Mr. Lodkochnikov had beside them I said as much, taking care to direct my criticisms at the Glynns only, suggesting indirectly but as clearly as I could that Mr. Lodkochnikov probably disapproved as strongly as I did, but was just indulging their childish impropriety because he was a kindly sort.
“No, Peter,” said Margot. “You’re wrong. Martha and I talked this over for a long time, and Mr. Lodkochnikov agrees with us, too, don’t you, Uncle Bunny?”
“Uncle Bunny?” I repeated, soundlessly.
“Well,” said Raskol’s father, shrugging, “I got some reservations — ”
“But you mostly agree with us, don’t you,” asserted Martha, “that what it comes down to is this — it’s not the name that pleases you or me that’s going to win; it’s the name that pleases the judges, whose decision is final.”
“There I agree with you,” said Mr. Lodkochnikov.
This was a shattering but indisputable truth. “You’re right,” I admitted.
“And the more names you send in,” said Martha, “the better chance you have of sending in one that they’ll all like.”
“You’re right about that too,” I said. I abandoned immediately the approach that I had intended to take and adopted theirs. Over the course of the next five or six weeks, we submitted, among the four of us (five, counting Mr. Lodkochnikov, whose names went in under Margot or Martha’s sponsorship), more than a thousand names for the school. Margot spent afternoons in the library hunting for ideas for names on old maps of Babbington (“Bolotomy Bay School,” “Musgrave Swamp School”); Martha was especially adept at deriving names from the names of animals and birds (“Herring Gull Elementary School,” “One-clawed Crab Elementary School”); Mr. Lodkochnikov contributed a few, but none of us thought they were likely winners (“Unfinished School,” “School of Hard Knocks”); and Raskol proved to have an uncanny knack for coming up with phrases that linked the school with aspects of everyday life in Babbington (“Slow Leak School,” “Foggy Day School”). Compared to theirs, my names were, well, lackluster. They had the virtue of accuracy, but one was much like another, and none, it seemed to me, offered anything that would make the judges sit up and take notice, nothing that would make them say, “That’s it! That’s the name we want!”