The Topeka School

The Topeka School
Ben Lerner

For my brother, Matt

Darren pictured shattering the mirror with his metal chair. From TV he knew there might be people behind it in the dark, that they could see him. He believed he felt the pressure of their gazes on his face. In slow motion, a rain of glass, the presences revealed. He paused it, rewound, watched it fall again.

The man with the black mustache kept asking him if he wanted something to drink and finally Darren said hot water. The man left to get the drink and the other man, who didn’t have a mustache, asked Darren how he was holding up. Feel free to stretch your legs.

Darren was still. The man with the mustache returned with the steaming brown paper cup and a handful of red straws and little packages: Nescafé, Lipton, Sweet’n Low. Pick your poison, he said, but Darren knew that was a joke; they wouldn’t poison him. There was a poster on the wall:
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS, then fine print he couldn’t read. Otherwise there was nothing to stare at while the man without a mustache talked. The lights in the room were like the lights had been at school. Painfully bright on the rare occasions he was called on. (“Earth to Darren,” Mrs. Greiner’s voice. Then the familiar laughter of his peers.)

He looked down and saw initials and stars and ciphers scratched into the wood veneer. He traced them with his fingers, keeping his wrists together, as though they were still cuffed. When one of the men asked Darren to look at him, he did. First at his eyes (blue), then at his lips. Which instructed Darren to repeat the story. So he told them again how
he’d thrown the cue ball at the party, but the other man interrupted him, albeit gently: Darren, we need you to start at the beginning.

Although it burned his mouth a little, he sipped the water twice. People gathered behind the mirror in his mind: his mom, dad, Dr. Jonathan, Mandy. What Darren could not make them understand was that he would never have thrown it except he always had. Long before the freshman called him the customary names, before he’d taken it from the corner pocket, felt its weight, the cool and smoothness of the resin, before he’d hurled it into the crowded darkness—the cue ball was hanging in the air, rotating slowly. Like the moon, it had been there all his life.


They were drifting on her stepfather’s boat in the middle of an otherwise empty man-made lake encircled by large tract houses. It was early autumn and they were drinking Southern Comfort from the bottle. Adam was in the front of the boat watching a changeable blue light across the water that was probably a television seen through a window or glass door. He heard the scrape of her lighter, then saw smoke float over him, unravel. For a long time he had been speaking.

When he turned to see what effect his speech had had, she was gone, jeans and sweater in a little pile with the pipe and lighter.

He said her name, suddenly aware of the surrounding quiet, and put his hand in the water, which was cold. Unthinkingly, he lifted her white sweater and smelled the woodsmoke from earlier that evening at Clinton Lake, the synthetic lavender of what he knew to be her shower gel. He said her name again, louder now, then looked around. A few birds skimmed the undisturbed surface of the lake; no, those were bats. When did she dive or step off the boat and how could she have made no splash and what if she was drowned? He yelled now; a dog responded in the distance. From spinning around in search of her, he felt dizzy and sat down. Then he stood again and looked along the edges of the boat; maybe she was just beside it, stifling her laughter, but she wasn’t.

He would have to pilot the boat back to the dock, where she must be waiting. (There was a dock for every two or three subdivisions.) He thought he saw a firefly signal slowly from the shore, but it was too late in the year for that. He felt a wave of anger rising and he welcomed it, wanted it to overwhelm his panic. He hoped Amber had dived into the water before his rambling confession of feeling. He’d said they’d stay together once he left Topeka for school, but now he knew they wouldn’t; he was eager to demonstrate his indifference as soon as he found her safe on land.

See the outboard motor gleaming in the moonlight. For any of his friends, managing the boat would be easy; all of them, even the other Foundation kids, exhibited a basic Midwestern mechanical competence, could change their oil or clean a gun, whereas he couldn’t even drive stick. He located what he assumed was a starter rope, pulled it, nothing happened; he pushed what must have been the throttle to another position and tried again; nothing. He was beginning to wonder if he might have to swim—he wasn’t sure how well he swam—when he saw the key in the ignition; he turned it and the engine started up.

As slowly as possible he motored back to shore. When he approached the land, he turned the engine off, but failed to bring the boat in parallel with the dock; a loud crack when the fiberglass hit the wood, which silenced the nearby bullfrogs; nothing seemed damaged, not that he really looked. He rushed to throw the lines gathered in the boat around the cleats nailed to the dock, quickly improvised some knots, then pulled himself out of the boat; he prayed that no one was watching him from a window. Without taking the keys or her clothes or pipe or bottle, he sprinted up the incline through the wet grass toward her house; if the boat drifted back out on the water, that would be her fault.

The large glass doors facing the lake were always unlocked; he slid one open quietly and went in. Only now did he feel the cold sweat. He could make out her brother’s shape on the couch, pillow over his head, sleeping in the glow of the large television; the news was on mute. The room was otherwise dark. He thought of waking him, but instead removed his Timberland boots, which he assumed were muddy, and crept across the room to the white-carpeted stairs; he went up slowly.

He’d stayed over two or three times before when she’d told her parents he’d had too much to drink; they’d thought he’d slept in the guest room; they’d thought, correctly, that he’d called home. But the prospect of encountering anyone now—when he hadn’t even confirmed that she was present—horrified him. Her mom took sleeping pills, he’d seen the oversized prescription bottle, knew she mixed them nightly with her wine; her stepdad had slept through a brawl at a recent party; they’ll never wake up, he reassured himself, just don’t knock anything over; he was glad to be in his socks.

He reached the first floor and surveyed the dark, expansive living room before he climbed the next flight of stairs to where the bedrooms were. He could almost make out the large generic hunting scene on the far wall: dogs flushing game from the woods beside a lake at sunset. He could see the red light blinking on the panel for the alarm system they thankfully never armed. And a little light collected around the silver edges of the framed family photographs on the mantel: teenagers in sweaters posing on a leaf-strewn lawn, her brother holding a football. Something ticked and settled in the giant kitchen. He went upstairs.

Hers was the first open door on the right, and without turning on the light he could see from the doorway that Amber was in her bed, under the covers, breathing steadily. His shoulders relaxed; the relief was profound, and the relief made more room for anger; it also let him realize how badly he had to piss. He turned and crossed the hall into the bathroom and carefully shut the door and without turning on the light lifted the lid. On second thought, he lowered the seat again and sat down. A car passed slowly outside, its headlights illuminating the bathroom through an open venetian blind.

It wasn’t her bathroom. The electric toothbrush, the hair dryer, these particular soaps—these were not her toiletries. For an instant he thought, desperately hoped, that they might belong to her mother, but there were too many other discrepancies: the shower door was different, its glass frosted; now he smelled the lemon-scented gel beads in a jar atop the toilet; alien dried flowers hung from a purple sachet on the wall. In a single shudder of retrospection his impressions of the house were changed: Where was the piano (that nobody played)? Wouldn’t he have seen the electric chandelier? The carpet on the stairs—wasn’t the pile too thick, too dark in the dark to have been truly white?

Along with the sheer terror of finding himself in the wrong house, with his recognition of its difference, was a sense, because of the houses’ sameness, that he was in all the houses around the lake at once; the sublime of identical layouts. In each house she or someone like her was in her bed, sleeping or pretending to sleep; legal guardians were farther down the hall, large men snoring; the faces and poses in the family photographs on the mantel might change, but would all belong to the same grammar of faces and poses; the elements of the painted scenes might vary, but not the level of familiarity and flatness; if you opened any of the giant stainless-steel refrigerators or surveyed the faux-marble islands, you would encounter matching, modular products in slightly different configurations.

He was in all the houses but, precisely because he was no longer bound to a discrete body, he could also float above them; it was like looking at the miniature train set Klaus, his dad’s friend, had given him as a child; he didn’t care about the trains, could barely make them run, but he loved the scenery, the green static flocking spread over the board, the tiny yet towering pines and hardwoods. When he looked at the impossibly detailed trees, he occupied two vantages at once: he pictured himself beneath their branches and also considered them from above; he was looking up at himself looking down. Then he could toggle rapidly between these perspectives, these scales, in a relay that unfixed him from his body. Now he was frozen in fear in this particular bathroom and in all the bathrooms simultaneously; he looked down from a hundred windows at the little boat on the placid man-made lake. (Touches of white paint atop the dried acrylic add a sense of motion and of moonlight to the surface.)

He swam back into himself. He felt like a timer had started somewhere, that he had minutes, maybe only seconds, to flee the house into which he’d unintentionally broken before someone emptied a shotgun into his face or the cops arrived to find him hovering outside the bedroom of a sleeping girl. Fear made it difficult to breathe, but he told himself that he would press rewind, quietly walk back out the way he’d come, disturbing no one. That’s what he did, although now the little differences called out to him as he descended: there was a large L-shaped couch he hadn’t seen before; he could tell the coffee table here was glass and not dark wood like hers. At the bottom of the stairs, he hesitated: the front door was right there, beckoning; he’d be free, but his Timberlands were downstairs where he’d left them. To recover them he’d have to pass the sleeping stranger.

Despite his fear that he might at any moment be discovered, he decided he must go after his boots, less because they were evidence, could be traced to him, than because he felt that he’d be risking ridicule, humiliation, if he returned to her barefoot. He could intuit the shape of the story, could sense that it would spread—how she’d left him first to mishandle the boat and then to lose his fucking footwear in the midst of whatever misadventure. Hey, Gordon, you got your shoes tied on? Got your slippers? A memory from middle school of Sean McCabe, coming home in socks, in tears, after he’d been jumped for his Air Jordans, flared up before him; Sean still got shit about it and Sean could now bench three hundred pounds.