Written: November 19th, 2007, 9:41 (UTC) By: omer
Note: this post is part of an ongoing novel. You should probably start at the beginning here.
The novel continues here.
That night, Orr's mother and father prepared a dinner of rice topped with a peanut curry sauce with gezer khai (peeled carrots sprinkled with honey and lemon juice) for dessert; both of these dishes held high positions on Orr's list of favorite dishes. And, afterwards, the family was set to spend a Trivial Pursuit night together, a game that the family had continuously played on every vacation and some of the longer weekends, and though they had only managed to complete three games during the entirety of family history (all won, as it happens, by Sarah), the fits of laughter in the early part of the game, as everybody realized that nobody in their family had any trivial knowledge whatsoever, left a pleasant recollection for them, and they were always excited to start a new game.
Such accommodations were not abnormal at the end of any important event in the life of a member of the Wazkowitz family, where the importance of the event was determined by Orr's mother and was based solely on the probability that the event would contribute to a child's going to college or an adult's getting a promotion. In other words, Orr's mother had an idealistic vision of the future for every person in her family, and whenever an event contributed to, or a chance event damaged, bringing that ideal into fruition, she would use whatever treats were in her power to give as congratulations or comfort.
So, it was of no surprise to Orr when he was called down for dinner that the sweet aroma of curry filled the air. What did surprise him was that, just as he arrived downstairs, the doorbell rang. His mother jumped too and hurried to the door. Visitors were such a rare occurrence at Orr's house that Orr's natural instinct was to run upstairs and return only when whatever the solicitor was selling had been suitably refused and the door had once more been suitably shut. But, as an almost-adult member of the family, he felt obligated to remain, in the background, along with his father, a fitting family (sans Tomer, who was still in his own room, presumably watching television). But, when Orr's mother opened the door, Orr saw a visage he recognized, if only vaguely and from an unknown event in his past. She was an elderly woman with silvering hair, a pair of slim glasses, and a oversized pink coat. Over her shoulder, a large purple purse swayed like a bloated pendulum.
Orr's mother said, "Joan! So glad you could make it..." but the name did not aid in Orr's attempted recollections.
The stranger, named Joan assumably, said, "Gili! You witch! You put a spell on me every time I see you!" She peered through the screen door, "Doron... a pleasure as always. And, Orr, what a young man you've become!"
Orr and his father both smiled and mumbled hellos.
Joan said, "Say, Gili. I hope I'm not prying here, but... there is a boy on a bicycle on your driveway." She looked directly at Orr, who fidgeted. "Are you expecting company?"
Obviously, she was not prying, and Orr could see his mother's back stiffen.
She called out uncertainly, "Hello?"
The reply, slightly distracted, slightly high-pitched, slightly tense, and entirely Tom's, was, "Oh, hello!"
Orr's mother's back relaxed again. "Tom? Is that you? Why are you in front of our house?"
Tom called, "Yes, yes. Oh, sorry." And with that entirely unenlightening explanation, he appeared, still seated on his bike. He was wearing a gray hoodie and looked, despite his glasses, a bit of a hoodlum.
Orr's mother said, "Well... umm... Hi, Tom. Why don't you come inside? It's the same price." Then, after a moment, she stiffened again, "Oh, and Joan, of course. I apologize for having not invited you in already. But, please." She opened the screen door, which Joan accepted with a smile and, on entering, offered to the dismounted Tom.
Tom grinned and raised both of his eyebrows at Orr as he entered. "Howdy, Orr!"
Orr's mother had regained her composure. She said, "If our two guests aren't adverse to it, please remove your shoes, and then, Orr, dinner will be a few minutes late today, so why don't you go upstairs with Tom, and Joan, Doron and I would be happy to entertain you in the kitchen, especially if we could offer you something to drink while we wait for dinner."
As Tom and Joan began obeying their orders, Orr's father, finally seeming to comprehended the gist of what had transpired until now, said, "Say, Tom. Does your family know you're here? And, have you eaten?"
Tom said, "No to both. I didn't think I'd be gone for very long." He looked at Orr and grinned again. "Obviously, I was mistaken."
Orr's father nodded and muttered something about calling. Tom and Orr, in the meantime, had begun their ascent of the stairs in silence.
When they reached the summit, Tom said, matter-of-factly, "Kind of funny, finding your friend on your driveway."
Orr said, "Yeah, I hear you."
Tom said, "Your mother took it rather well, I think."
Orr nodded and said, "Yeah."
They reached Orr's room, and Tom closed the door behind him.
He said, "I take it, then, that you haven't looked at Toff's note yet."
Orr had completely forgotten about the scrap in his pocket. He took it out now and read it. In a meticulous and almost illegible cursive, Toff had written: "Yang : buy a cab, own blank : this Sunday." After reading it, with the aid of his finger and a good deal of guesswork, he looked up at Tom, who was grinning at him, expectantly.
Orr said, "This explains... nothing."
Tom's crest fell. He said, "Really?"
Orr said, "Yeah. You want to see it?"
Tom said, "I suppose that's allowed."
Orr offered him the slip of paper, and Tom went through the same process as Orr, using his finger and also mouthing words like "cab" and "blank." His face scrunched into a prunier and prunier look of confusion as he read. When he finished, he pulled a similar strip of paper out of his hoodie's pocket and compared the two. Orr stared at Tom, then at his feet, and finally at his desk, with its mess of papers on it from the previous night's studying.
Finally, Tom said, "Huh."
Orr said, "Huh?"
Tom said, "Huh... I can't understand it at all."
Orr said, "Oh..."
Tom said, "Want to see mine?" He offered it to Orr before the latter could respond, and Orr took it.
Tom's strip of paper, in the same meticulous illegible style, read, "Yin : a friend rode : 6:00pm."
Orr said, "Ahh..."
Tom said, "Now you see why I rode here at 6:00. I assumed your clue would lead you outside at the same time."
Orr raised his eyebrows, confused. He was slowly recovering from the surprise of seeing his friend so soon and in such an unexpected manner, but he thought that he could finally get out a full sentence, so he said, "You've been waiting here for half an hour?"
Tom grinned and said, "Well, I didn't want to disturb anybody."
Orr said, "And, your parents?"
Tom said, "... were gone. I only read the note at about 5:45, so I didn't have much time to think. I figured that I'd be back before they were."
Orr said, "Right..."
And, before they could discuss the topic in any more depth, a rattle at the door and an inaudible grunt from Orr's father marked that it was time for dinner.
So, the two friends washed their hands and descended, wordlessly. Orr's brain had finally finished processing the events and was now working feverishly to figure out Toff's riddle. "Yin" and "yang," in isolation, made sense: the two messages were related to each other, probably opposites. The rest was inscrutable. She hoped that Tom would ride to Orr's house at 6:30pm, and then that Orr would... buy a cab... on Sunday. And, if he did so, he would own something (presumably a cab). Yet, this interpretation, in its scatter and nonsensical conclusions, seemed suboptimal.
Two adjacent empty chairs waited for Tom and Orr, across from Tomer and Joan. The rest were filled with the other diners, most of whom had already served themselves some rice and curry. Tomer had also served himself gezer khai.
After the two boys sat down, Orr's father (to their left) offered them the rice pot and a potholder, and when they had finished with that, he gave them the curry sauce as well, which they both added with zest. The smell of curry was almost overwhelming, and Orr's hunger began to accelerate.
But, before they could begin eating, Orr's mother said, "So, Orr, I suppose I should tell you that Joan is a professor at UNM... She's in the math department there, right Joan?"
Joan, who was in the middle of a bite nodded vigorously and when she had finished eating said, "Indeed! It's a wonderful department, Orr. Very interesting research."
Orr had, during the break in speech, managed to shove a very large spoonful into his mouth, so he simply nodded and looked around for a pitcher of water, which he soon spotted next to Tom and nudged him for it.
Joan smiled politely at the spectacle, while, next to her, Orr's mother's scowl made the women look like distorted mirror images of each other.
Joan said, "I understand that you're matriculating next fall?"
A month prior, Orr would not have recognized the word, but he spent less than a second pridefully congratulating himself on the recognition of the word "matrix" inside of it, before the situation in its full complication dawned on him: his parents invite someone to talk to him about UNM. Normally, Orr would have accepted this situation broodingly, but with Tom next to him, he felt obligated to mention Columbia as another school to which he was applying. He realized also that he should have realized this fact as soon as his mother had mentioned Joan's affiliation with UNM, or even beforehand, at the unexpected invitation of a guest to a celebration dinner. Orr also noticed, and with a growing sense of helplessness, that several seconds of silence had elapsed in silence as he, apparently, attempted to answer a simple yes-or-no question.
In short, things were not very good. Orr tried to discover a solution to this dilemma, but as soon as he attempted to access the problem-solving section of his brain, the words "buy a cab!" flashed through his head, and after that, nothing.
Orr looked around him, at his mother's scowl and Tom's perplexed stare with, as always, a glint in his eye. Finally, and lamely, Orr said, "Yeah... Err... I mean... I want to... but... I'm also applying elsewhere." He glanced at his mother, but her scowl was unchanged.
To his surprise, Joan chuckled. She said, "It's funny how hard a simple-sounding question can be. As you'll learn if you pursue mathematics, this is usually the result of the poorness of the question, not the lack of intelligence of the answerer. So, I apologize. To which schools are you applying?" When she finished speaking, she grinned, showing yellowed and crooked teeth, then took a larger bite of rice than even Orr had.
Also to his surprise, Orr found himself enjoying the company of this strange woman and wishing that his friend were not present so that he could freely ask about and in turn consider attending UNM.
But, as things stood, another question had been posed to him, and no less troublesome than the first. He tried his usual tactic: "Well, I'm not sure. I'm still narrowing down choices." He took another large bite, now to buy himself some time for the question he knew to be coming next.
Joan said, "And which choices have thus far staved off elimination?"
There were three, the two obvious ones, and another rather different school of which Orr had never heard before receiving a letter from them consisting of nothing but a return envelope and a piece of paper with two giant, empty squares, one labeled "Who you are," the other labeled "Who you want to be," and a large arrow in between them labeled "Colorado College." He had filled out the form, mostly as an exercise to test his increasing vocabulary, and added the school to his queue he wanted to eventually research to see if they were worth application fees.