Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Dolt

Edgar was preparing to take the National Writers’ Examination, a five-hour fifty-minute examination, for his certificate. He was in his room, frightened. The prospect of taking the exam again put him in worlds of hurt. He had taken it twice before, with evil results. Now he was studying a book which contained not the actual questions from the examination but similar questions. “Barbara, if I don’t knock it for a loop this time I don’t know what we’ll do.” Barbara continued to address herself to the ironing board. Edgar though about saying something to his younger child, his two-year-old daughter, Rose, who was wearing a white terrycloth belted bathrobe and looked like a tiny fighter about to climb into the ring. They were all in the room while he was studying for the examination.

“The written part is where I fall down,” Edgar said morosely, to everyone in the room. “The oral part is where I do best.” He looked at the back of his wife which was pointed at him. “If I don’t kick it in the head this time I don’t know what we’re going to do,” he repeated. “Barb?” But she failed to respond to this implied question. She felt it was a false hope, taking this examination which he had already failed miserably twice and which always got him very worked up, black with fear, before he took it. Now she didn’t wish to witness the spectacle anymore so she gave him her back.

“The oral part,” Edgar continued encouragingly, “is A-okay. I can for instance give you a list of answers, I know it so well. Listen, here is an answer, can you tell me the question?” Barbara, who was very sexually attractive (that was what made Edgar tap on her for a date, many years before) but also deeply mean, said nothing. She put her mind on their silent child, Rose.

“Here is the answer,” Edgar said. “The answer is Julia Ward Howe. What is the question?”

The answer was too provocative for Barbara to resist long, because she knew the question. “Who wrote ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’?” she said. “There is not a grown person in the United States who doesn’t know that.”

-from Sixty Stories

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