Four hours later his alarm clock woke him. Half-asleep, he showered and put on the black suit he’d bought with his mom at West Ridge. He tied one of his father’s two ties. He drove the short distance to Topeka High, pulling up beside his coaches, Spears and Mulroney, who were looking over an AAA map, their breath visible in the streetlight. The former was drinking coffee from his large thermos; the latter sipped, as ever, her Diet Coke. Other formally dressed adolescents wheeled large plastic tubs from the school and loaded them into the backs of two nearby vans. He did not condescend to move his own tub; an underclassman would take care of it. He saw his partner, Joanna, and nodded in greeting; they weren’t friends; their alliance was purely tactical. Once in the van, she wanted to talk strategy, but he leaned his head against the cool window, watched the rise and fall of telephone wires in the dark, and soon he was moving through tract housing in his dreams. He woke up when they pulled off the highway to stop for breakfast at McDonald’s, familiar contours of the molded seating.

Dawn was breaking as they arrived at Russell High School. He would normally have skipped such a small tournament, but because Russell was Bob Dole’s hometown, and because Bob Dole was running for president, the Russell Invitational would this year draw the best teams from across the state; the logic was unclear to him, but Mulroney had insisted they attend. From similar district- issued vans and buses, other awkwardly costumed adolescents were unloading their own tubs, hauling them across the cold parking lot to the school’s main entrance. When he and Joanna walked through the doors, their would-be competitors made way.

He found the high schools strangely altered on the weekends, the spaces transformed when emptied of students and teachers and severed from the rhythms of a normal day. The classrooms, with their hortatory posters, be the change you want to see, their rows of empty desks, equations or dates or stock phrases left on chalk- or dry-erase boards, made Adam think of abandoned theatrical sets or photographs of Chernobyl. He could occasionally pick up traces of Speed Stick or scented lip gloss or other floating signatures of a social order now suspended. As they walked down the main hall of Russell High he tried various combinations on the lockers. He touched a wrestling state-championship banner hanging in the foyer with the distance of an anthropologist or ghost.

They gathered for a brief welcome assembly in a fluorescently lit cafeteria that smelled of industrial-strength bleach. The host coach made announcements while they looked over their brackets. Then the teams dispersed, carts of evidence in tow, to the assigned classrooms where a judge and timekeeper awaited.

He let Joanna lead him to their room. The daughter of two Foundation neurologists, Joanna was a short, smart, Ivy-bound senior who scored, as she would let you know, a 1600 on the SAT. She compiled almost all of their research, having attended a ‘debate institute’ at the University of Michigan over the summer to get a head start on the competition. (The topic this year was whether the federal government should establish new policies to reduce juvenile crime; their plan argued that strengthening child-support enforcement would do so in various ways.) Adam’s contribution to prep work consisted of skimming The Economist during debate class. His strength was thinking on his feet, exposing fallacies; his cross-examinations were widely feared.

These early rounds were a formality; they dispatched low-ranked teams in front of lay judges, often the reluctant parents of other debaters. That weekend at Russell a couple of sophomores tried to surprise them by running a version of their own plan against them, having reconstructed it from notes taken during elimination rounds, which were open to spectators.

Adam rose, smoothing his father’s tie, to cross-examine the obviously nervous first affirmative speaker; his opponent resembled a waiter in his white shirt, black slacks. They stood facing a judge – competitors do not look at one another – who could barely fit into the combination chair and desk; he sat with his arms crossed, glasses resting atop his bald head, begrudgingly making notes on a legal pad.

‘Could you please repeat this year’s resolution?’

‘Repeat it?’

‘Yes, please.’

‘Resolved: that the government –’

‘The federal government,’ Adam says, as if he’s embarrassed to have to help him. ‘Take your time,’ he adds, knowing it will sound like politeness to the judge, and to his opponent, infuriating condescension.

‘Resolved: the federal government should establish a program to substantially reduce juvenile crime in the United States.’ There’s the slightest tremor in his voice.

‘Why was child support established?’

‘To support children, obviously’ – the origin of the sarcasm is anxiety – ‘after their parents get divorced.’

‘Actually, unmarried parents accrue the same child-support obligations in most states.’ Adam has no idea if what he’s said is true. He makes a subtle show of ignoring, of transcending, his opponent’s tone. ‘But let’s set that aside. It sounds like you agree the program you propose to strengthen was not primarily intended to substantially reduce juvenile crime.’

‘No, I mean, that was among its intentions.’


Two Poems