Lora meets Derek at Measurement, Inc., a grading service for standardized tests. In a basement below the mall, tables of college graduates judge preteen thoughts on gun control and personal liberty. This job is considered better than temping. Should Smithtown build a park or a library? Support your argument with evidence. The Texas Project is a crucial assignment. The first batch of scores was contaminated; this is a retest. For five weeks 373 readers will assess 200,900 essays written by Texas ninth graders. The scores determine who moves up and who gets held back, the first sorting of the college bound from the cashiers. The topic: drunk driving.
Lora sits at a table with seven others, a stack of blue books at her side. The room is silent except for the swirl of artificial air and the scritch scritch of pencils. The air smells of old cardboard. The large black clock on the wall tells Lora she has been here one hour and fourteen minutes. Three hours and forty-six minutes until lunch. She stares at the clock and imagines federal agents in white hooded suits shoving contaminated blue books into plastic bags.
A small yellow sticky note appears on her blue book. The message in green ink reads:
Drunk driving is very bad. Like when you drink too many Budweisers and wreck your brand new truck and your father is mad at you and you can’t go out or do anything fun anymore.
His wavy, purplish-black hair curtains over one eye. There is something fluttery and striving there, like a trout. A few minutes later another sticky note appears.
Teenagers think they are indispensable and would undue their limit on alcohol.
Generally speaking, striving-eyed guys did not pass Lora sticky notes. Usually she got the mushroomy ones with skinny calves and weak chins.
Because DUI accidents holds up the traffic because of beer jams.
And is cut down on populations, she writes, but then crumples the note and hides it in her pocket.
Lora remembers the time in seventh grade when the mean girls told her Steve Cooper liked her, but it was only a joke. “Steve Cooper likes you,” the girls had said. “He likes you.” Then she thought of her last therapist, who after a year leaned forward in her chair, clutching her head with exasperation. “Why do you insist, Lora, in believing nothing good could ever happen? It’s as though you believe you’ve been cursed.” Fatalism could be Lora’s problem. She doesn’t [End Page 147] believe anything good could happen so nothing ever does. Lora sits straight and peels off a yellow stock note. This is nothing, she tells herself. Normal people flirt all the time.
These kids do not have enough of a maturity liver and young lives would be a steak.
With her first check Lora spends eighty-five dollars on a French saucepan. Built to last a lifetime, Le Creuset is cookware for the generations. The bottom is weighted, the sides thick and shiny. The long, tapered handle is soldered firmly. It feels smooth to the grip. The instructions come in four languages, including Japanese, and Lora doesn’t read any of them.
Lora brings her first adult purchase home, to her tiny apartment overrun with post-college knick-knacks and thrift store furniture. As friends left for graduate studies and trips abroad, they had insisted she take things. The chartreuse pleather sofa. The wall of cross-stitched owls. The amputee He-Man figurines. At college parties everyone loved to make She-Ra and Skeletor wrestle, fuck doggy-style, and debate, giving the apartment an air of kitschy chic. Now everything had reverted to its true state: junk.
Lora decides to make biryani. The recipe comes from a magazine that scientifically evaluates all preparation methods. While raisins can be substituted, the clinical font reads, we found black currants had the short burst of sweet flavor we craved. As promised, the chicken thighs are tender with juice seeping down the fork puncture, the basmati rice creamy. Saffron stains her fingers orange and adds...