Written: November 17th, 2007, 11:27 (UTC) By: omer
Note: this post is part of an ongoing novel. You should probably start at the beginning here.
The novel continues here.
At school, Tom's easy success with Orr inspired him to try to convince as many of his friends as he could to join him in applying as well. As such, he had begun a massive, largely unnecessary, research project into famous Columbia alumni, as if their successes implied that Columbia was the only choice for an aspiring intellectual. He began with those who had excelled in the worlds of mathematics and technology, but slowly expanded to all scientific notables, and then, when his friends were not yet drooling over the prospect of attending such a mysterious and wonderful school, he would list off any notables in any field associated in any way with the university.
It began during the lunch on the day after Orr's fight with his tag-teaming parents, when Tom leaned into the table, with no precedent, and declared, "I have made a discovery."
Though Orr had made such claims throughout middle school, nobody had made (or even claimed to have made) any discoveries since then. So, of course, Orr, Toff, Arthur, Kelly, and the other five friends who happened to be within earshot, were intrigued. Tom looked at each one in the face in turn, not speaking.
Then, he continued, "It has long been well known that many of the brightest and most successful people in the world have thrived together in one paradise of thought." This claim, to Tom's apparent disappointment, lost several of the unnamed friends, and Kelly groaned. This fact was indeed well-known, for it had been made unsubstantiated daily for over a week, and occasionally twice or even three times for emphasis.
But, Tom ignored the waning interest, and stared still more-wide-eyed at his remaining audience, as if his enraptured wonder would morph their opinions and faces to match his, through the amazing power of osmosis.
He started again, more silently before, "But, I recently discovered through much excavation that none other than Louis Rossetto thrived in that wondrous place."
This was too much, apparently, for Kelly, and she said loudly, "Who?!"
Tom turned to her and smiled. "Though his name is not yet famous, he is. He is none other than the founder of Wired magazine," and suddenly his face lost its forced solemnity. "Wired!"
Though Tom's open excitement did keep his friends from antagonizing him, a reference to a magazine entrepreneur, no matter how popular or interesting the magazine, did not so shock and inspire them as to suddenly begin a crusade to travel to Columbia at all costs. But, Tom seemed to take the silence following his statement as an indication of relative success, because he soon brought out a pack of cards and asked if anyone was interested in a quick game of Erf. Everyone was.
But, despite the hushedly voiced hopes of his friends, Tom came the next day with another "discovery." This time it was Edwin Armstrong, who had invented the FM radio. And, after that, David Berlinski, a mathematician and writer of whom none of them had heard, but Tom said was "of great renown." Of course, in this case Tom was forced to concede, as the only piece they found by him online was a polemic article about evolution that, for the little sense they could make out of it, appeared entirely nonsensical. So, the next day, Tom had broadened his horizons. He dropped names of physicists who had won the Nobel Prize, and wouldn't you know it, but they went to Columbia, or taught at Columbia. Orr was surprised to have recognized one of the names (Enrico Fermi), but otherwise, the list of scientific Columbians was as arbitrary to the seventeen-year-olds as any other list, even with Tom's scientific-jargon-filled historical footnotes ("He discovered the tau lepton!" "He did groundbreaking research on neutrinos!" And so forth). And, even when Tom finally took his last extreme step and started naming any famous person who had set foot just once on Columbia's campus ("FDR!" "Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac!" "Langston Hughes!"), his friends retained their resolute indifference to his cause. Only Toff and Orr were willing to pay the application fees, and they had planned to do it even before Tom's rhetorical name-dropping. Kelly, Arthur, and most of Tom's other friends, still planned to stay in town and go to UNM, and those that did not had their own schools that they touted with as much confidence (if slightly less obvious rhetoric) as Tom pushed for Columbia.
But, Tom's Columbimania did have some unintended consequences, other than the lunchtime misery of his friends for two weeks. First, though Arthur was perhaps more irritated by Tom during this two-week period than anybody else, his years of gaming had given him the ability to see in any situation or event some sort of tool to help bring about a situation he desired. And, as it happens, he had been selected to direct the second-semester enactment of "Into The Woods" and was already devising strategies to stretch the play as far as he expected the school to allow. Tom's increasingly ridiculous, increasingly overblown statements of wonder at a new discovery, always delivered in complete seriousness, but Arthur in mind to get him to audition... whenever auditions were to be held.
Before approaching Tom about it, he ran the idea by Orr, Kelly, and Toff one day after school when Tom had left for the library to read up on the beat movement. They were, as usual, in the computer lab, playing hearts. And, they were passing left.
Arthur grinned at Orr to his left and said, "You're welcome." He had passed the two of clubs, the ace of clubs, and the queen of spades.
Orr grumbled, "Thanks..." and turned away, as though disgusted.
He grinned up at the group and saw Arthur still staring at him.
"Say," Athur said, "I was just thinking..."
Orr looked at him just as he began staring at his cards.
He said, "I wonder who has the two of clubs..." And, when Orr played, he continued, "I was thinking... Tom's not a bad actor."
Kelly's head sprung up from her cards. She had been acting since middle school, and though Arthur had landed the part of the director, nobody in the school had acted in as many plays as she had. She said, "Oh, yeah?"
Arthur said, "Yeah... It's your turn, Kelly." It was. "I mean, don't get me wrong." He tossed his picked a card purposefully out of his hand and dropped it into the pile, grabbed it, and threw a diamond down. "He's annoying as Hell... But, he's not a bad actor."
Kelly grinned at him. "You little shit. You're already recruiting for Spring?"
Arthur said, "It's your turn again." It was. "Yeah, well, think about it this way." Kelly had taken the cards, and she led with a spade. Arthur winked at Orr. "Imagine if he wasn't writing his own lines!"
At this comment, Kelly laughed outright. "It would be a welcome change."
Arthur said, "My thinking exactly." He took the trick and played another spade, then turned to Orr, and raising an eyebrow, said, "What do you think?"
Orr played the last spade protecting his queen. "I don't know. He's got a lot going on as it is. Have you heard? He's applying to Columbia."
Toff grinned at him, but Kelly and Arthur were all business now. Kelly said, "But, he'll be done applying by then."
Arthur said, "Yep, he'll be longing for a new obsession."
Kelly had dropped a diamond, leaving Toff to take the spade trick with her king. She led club. She said, "He's never been in the market for obsessions before."
Arthur dropped a heart, winked at Orr again, and said, "Yeah, but... I just mean... you think he'd be interested? Think it'd be worth asking him?"
Orr had taken the clubs and led heart. He had no clubs left, but hardly expected to see them played now that Arthur had shown a void. The cause seemed lost. He sat in silence for an entire round, pretending to be thinking about Arthur's question but really trying to decide if there was any way to stave off taking with the queen. Finally, as Arthur took the hearts with a king, Orr said, "Yeah, sure, I mean... It can't hurt to ask, right?"
Arthur grinned back and played a low spade. "Your turn."
Orr sighed dramatically as he played his queen. He said, "Good job, Arthur." And, Kelly added "Nice!" as she dropped the ace of hearts.
But, after Orr's play, Arthur had stopped paying attention to him. He was reclining in his chair (the four or five degrees it would let him) and staring at Toff, his eyebrows raised in polite curiosity.
She stared back at him, scowling, and without looking at her cards, took the right-most one out of her hand, and let drop the ace of spades.
The second unexpected repercussion from Tom's flamboyant interest in anything-Columbia was that, for presumably the first time in his life, he read poetry for the fun of it. More specifically, he read Allen Ginsberg's "America." And then everything else by Allen Ginsberg, and then On the Road and Gasoline. He read some of the poems to Orr, and when he procured an audio recording of Ginsberg reading some of his poems, he and Orr spent an evening listening to them. But, poetry confused Orr, and he had little interest in its vague abstractions. Brought up with the concrete beauty of math and the concrete elegance of engineering, he had a hard time recognizing abstract beauty and elegance. He would ask Tom, "How do you distinguish between a beautiful and a bad one?" To which Tom would respond, absent-mindedly, "The beauty is in the layering of meaning" or "The beauty is in its relevance to our lives" or something similar. And, though Orr did not understand, he tried to see layers wherever he could and tried to feel the hurried desperation of the poets, but mostly, on Tom's more poetic nights, or would wait what he thought was an appropriate amount of time, and then suggest politely that they play on the computer.
And, this strategy worked between the two for another two weeks, until the weekend of October 12th, when he suggested that they start reading Naked Lunch out loud. The prospect of a large reading project that would take place over several more weekends triggered in Orr a desperation wild enough to bring about the most effective possible retort, which, when he hit upon it, stunned him with its elegant simplicity.
He said, "I don't know, Tom... That's quire a project, and we should really start studying for the SAT if we're taking it in two weeks."
Tom peered out from over one of the two copies of Naked Lunch he had brought to Orr's house. He started to slowly lower the book, but said nothing.
So, Orr pressed on. He said, "I mean, you might be able to get into Columbia without studying, but I definitely can't. Remember the PSAT?" When taking the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test, Orr had confused the words "synonym" and "antonym," and thus managed to get over half of the questions wrong. In fact, it was fortunate that his vocabulary was so small, for if it were any larger, he would have recognized more of the words and confidently chosen the opposite of his goal. As it was, he occasionally inadvertently chose the word that meant the opposite of what he thought it meant and thus got the question correct.
Tom had let Naked Lunch fall to his lap now, and he said, "Hey, I need to study as much as you do. You're right!" He piled the Naked Lunches next to the silver-cubed monster and said, "How about we go online and see if we can get some test prep stuff from there. Then, we can look for some real guides at the library tomorrow."
Though the prospect of a large project to learn words seemed to him almost as unappealing as a large project to read a book aloud, the infinitesimal difference was enough for him to thank his good luck and ingenuity. Plus, he thought, I have to study this stuff anyway, no matter where I end up going. So, he smiled resolutely at Tom, sighed dramatically as he got up and said, "We can skip 'synonym' and 'antonym' by the way. I think I have those down."
Tom grinned and led the way down to the computer room, where they waited silently for the computer to turn on.