Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Paper Towns - Chapter 14

Monday morning, an extraordinary event occurred. I was late, which was normal; and then my mom
dropped me off at school, which was normal; and then I stood outside talking with everyone for a while,
which was normal; and then Ben and I headed inside, which was normal. But as soon as we swung open
the steel door, Ben’s face became a mix of excitement and panic, like he’d just been picked out of a crowd
by a magician for the get-sawn-in-half trick. I followed his gaze down the hall.
Denim miniskirt. Tight white T-shirt. Scooped neck. Extraordinarily olive skin. Legs that make you
care about legs. Perfectly coiffed curly brown hair. A laminated button reading ME FOR PROM QUEEN.
Lacey Pemberton. Walking toward us. By the band room.
“Lacey Pemberton,” Ben whispered, even though she was about three steps from us and could clearly
hear him, and in fact flashed a faux-bashful smile upon hearing her name.
“Quentin,” she said to me, and more than anything else, I found it impossible that she knew my name.
She motioned with her head, and I followed her past the band room, over to a bank of lockers. Ben kept
pace with me.
“Hi, Lacey,” I said once she stopped walking. I could smell her perfume, and I remembered the smell
of it in her SUV, remembered the crunch of the catfish as Margo and I slammed her seat down.
“I hear you were with Margo.”
I just looked at her.
“That night, with the fish? In my car? And in Becca’s closet? And through Jase’s window?”
I kept looking. I wasn’t sure what to say. A man can live a long and adventurous life without ever
being spoken to by Lacey Pemberton, and when that rare opportunity does arise, one does not wish to
misspeak. So Ben spoke for me. “Yeah, they hung out,” Ben said, as if Margo and I were tight.
“Was she mad at me?” Lacey asked after a moment. She was looking down; I could see her brown eye
She spoke quietly then, the tiniest crack in her voice, and all at once Lacey Pemberton was not Lacey
Pemberton. She was just—like, a person. “Was she, you know, pissed at me about something?”
I thought about how to answer that for a while. “Uh, she was a little disappointed that you didn’t tell
her about Jase and Becca, but you know Margo. She’ll get over it.”
Lacey started walking down the hall. Ben and I let her go, but then she slowed down. She wanted us
to walk with her. Ben nudged me, and then we started walking together. “I didn’t even know about Jase
and Becca. That’s the thing. God, I hope I can explain that to her soon. For a while, I was really worried
that maybe she had like really left, but then I went into her locker ’cause I know her combination and she
still has all her pictures up and everything, and all her books are stacked there.”
“That’s good,” I said.
“Yeah, but it’s been like four days. That’s almost a record for her. And you know, this has really
sucked, because Craig knew, and I was so pissed at him for not telling me that I broke up with him, and
now I’m out a prom date, and my best friend is off wherever, in New York or whatever, thinking I did
something I would NEVER do.” I shot a look to Ben. Ben shot a look back to me.
“I have to run to class,” I said. “But why do you say she’s in New York?”
“I guess she told Jase like two days before she left that New York was the only place in America
where a person could actually live a halfway livable life. Maybe she was just saying it. I don’t know.”
“Okay, I gotta run,” I said.
I knew Ben would never convince Lacey to go to prom with him, but I figured he at least deserved
the opportunity. I jogged through the halls toward my locker, rubbing Radar’s head as I ran past him. He
was talking to Angela and a freshman girl in band. “Don’t thank me. Thank Q,” I heard him say to the
freshman, and she called out, “Thank you for my two hundred dollars!” Without looking back I shouted,
“Don’t thank me, thank Margo Roth Spiegelman!” because of course she’d given me the tools I needed.
I made it to my locker and grabbed my calc notebook, but then I just stayed, even after the second
bell rang, standing still in the middle of the hallway while people rushed past me in both directions, like
I was the median in their freeway. Another kid thanked me for his two hundred dollars. I smiled at him.
The school felt more mine than in all my four years there. We’d gotten a measure of justice for the bikeless
band geeks. Lacey Pemberton had spoken to me. Chuck Parson had apologized.
I knew these halls so well—and finally it was starting to feel like they knew me, too. I stood there
as the third bell rang and the crowds dwindled. Only then did I walk to calc, sitting down just after Mr.
Jiminez had started another interminable lecture.
I’d brought Margo’s copy of Leaves of Grass to school, and I started reading the highlighted parts
of “Song of Myself” again, under the desk while Mr. Jiminez scratched away at the blackboard. There
were no direct references to New York that I could see. I handed it to Radar after a few minutes, and he
looked at it for a while before writing on the corner of his notebook closest to me, The green highlighting
must mean something. Maybe she wants you to open the door of your mind? I shrugged, and wrote
back, Or maybe she just read the poem on two different days with two different highlighters.
A few minutes later, as I glanced toward the clock for only the thirty-seventh time, I saw Ben Starling
standing outside the classroom door, a hall pass in his hand, dancing a spastic jig.
When the bell rang for lunch, I raced to my locker, but somehow Ben had beaten me there, and somehow
he was talking to Lacey Pemberton. He was crowding her, slumping slightly so he could talk toward her
face. Talking to Ben could make me feel a little claustrophobic sometimes, and I wasn’t even a hot girl.
“Hey, guys,” I said when I got up to them.
“Hey,” Lacey answered, taking an obvious step back from Ben. “Ben was just bringing me up-todate
on Margo. No one ever went into her room, you know. She said her parents didn’t allow her to have
friends over.”
“Really?” Lacey nodded. “Did you know that Margo owns, like, a thousand records?”
Lacey threw up her hands. “No, that’s what Ben was saying! Margo never talked about music. I
mean, she would say she liked something on the radio or whatever. But—no. She’s so weird.”
I shrugged. Maybe she was weird, or maybe the rest of us were weird. Lacey kept talking. “But we
were just saying that Walt Whitman was from New York.”
“And according to Omnictionary, Woody Guthrie lived there for a long time, too,” Ben said.
I nodded. “I can totally see her in New York. I think we have to figure out the next clue, though. It
can’t end with the book. There must be some code in the highlighted lines or something.”
“Yeah, can I look at it during lunch?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Or I can make you a copy in the library if you want.”
“Nah, I can just read it. I mean, I don’t know crap about poetry. Oh, but anyway, I have a cousin in
college there, at NYU, and I sent her a flyer she could print. So I’m going to tell her to put them up in
record stores. I mean, I know there are a lot of record stores, but still.”
“Good idea,” I said. They started to walk to the cafeteria, and I followed them.
“Hey,” Ben asked Lacey, “what color is your dress?”
“Um, it’s kind of sapphire, why?”
“Just want to make sure my tux matches,” Ben said. I’d never seen Ben’s smile so giddy-ridiculous,
and that’s saying something, because he was a fairly giddy-ridiculous person.
Lacey nodded. “Well, but we don’t want to be too matchy-matchy. Maybe if you go traditional: black
tux and a black vest?”
“No cummerbund, you don’t think?”
“Well, they’re okay, but you don’t want to get one with really fat pleats, you know?”
They kept talking—apparently, the ideal level of pleat-fatness is a conversational topic to which
hours can be devoted—but I stopped listening as I waited in the Pizza Hut line. Ben had found his
prom date, and Lacey had found a boy who would happily talk prom for hours. Now everyone had a
date—except me, and I wasn’t going. The only girl I’d want to take was off tramping some kind of perpetual
journey or something.
When we sat down, Lacey started reading “Song of Myself,” and she agreed that none of it sounded
like anything and certainly none of it sounded like Margo. We still had no idea what, if anything, Margo
was trying to say. She gave the book back to me, and they started talking about prom again.
All afternoon, I kept feeling like it wasn’t doing any good to look at the highlighted quotes, but then I
would get bored and reach into my backpack and put the book on my lap and go back to it. I had English
at the end of the day, seventh period, and we were just starting to read Moby Dick, so Dr. Holden was
talking quite a lot about fishing in the nineteenth century. I kept Moby Dick on the desk and Whitman in
my lap, but even being in English class couldn’t help. For once, I went a few minutes without looking at
the clock, so I was surprised by the bell ringing, and took longer than everyone else to get my backpack
packed. As I slung it over one shoulder and started to leave, Dr. Holden smiled at me and said, “Walt
Whitman, huh?”
I nodded sheepishly.
“Good stuff,” she said. “So good that I’m almost okay with you reading it in class. But not quite.” I
mumbled sorry and then walked out to the senior parking lot.
While Ben and Radar banded, I sat in RHAPAW with the doors open, a slow husky breeze blowing
through. I read from The Federalist Papers to prepare for a quiz I had the next day in government,
but my mind kept returning to its continuous loop: Guthrie and Whitman and New York and Margo.
Had she gone to New York to immerse herself in folk music? Was there some secret folk music-loving
Margo I’d never known? Was she maybe staying in an apartment where one of them had once lived?
And why did she want to tell me about it?
I saw Ben and Radar approaching in the sideview mirror, Radar swinging his sax case as he walked
quickly toward RHAPAW. They hustled in through the already-open door, and Ben turned the key and
RHAPAW sputtered, and then we hoped, and then she sputtered again, and then we hoped some more,
and finally she gurgled to life. Ben raced out of the parking lot and turned off campus before saying to
me, “CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS SHIT!” He could hardly contain his glee.
He started hitting the car’s horn, but of course the horn didn’t work, so every time he hit it, he
Ben could hardly shut up the whole way home. “You know what did it? Aside from desperation? I
guess she and Becca Arrington are fighting because Becca’s, you know, a cheater, and I think she started
to feel bad about the whole Bloody Ben thing. She didn’t say that, but she sort of acted it. So in the end,
Bloody Ben is going to get me some puh-lay-hey.” I was happy for him and everything, but I wanted to
focus on the game of getting to Margo.
“Do you guys have any ideas at all?”
It was quiet for a moment, and then Radar looked at me through the rearview mirror and said, “That
doors thing is the only one marked different from the others, and it’s also the most random; I really think
that’s the one with the clue. What is it again?”
“‘Unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!’” I replied.
“Admittedly, Jefferson Park is not really the best place to unscrew the doors of closed-mindedness
from their jambs,” Radar allowed. “Maybe that’s what she’s saying. Like the paper town thing she said
about Orlando? Maybe she’s saying that’s why she left.”
Ben slowed for a stoplight and then turned around to look at Radar. “Bro,” he said, “I think you guys
are giving Margo Honey-bunny way too much credit.”
“How’s that?” I asked.
“Unscrew the locks from the doors,” he said. “Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs.”
“Yeah,” I said. The light turned green and Ben hit the gas. RHAPAW shuddered like she might disintegrate
but then began to move.
“It’s not poetry. It’s not metaphor. It’s instructions. We are supposed to go to Margo’s room and
unscrew the lock from the door and unscrew the door itself from its jamb.”
Radar looked at me in the rearview mirror, and I looked back at him. “Sometimes,” Radar said to
me, “he’s so retarded that he becomes kind of brilliant.”


Post a Comment