Fiction Issue 2012: "Teen Jeopardy" 

Having the right answers isn't everything

click to enlarge CHEMA SKNDL!

Robbie Guajardo had never worn makeup before. It felt wet and thick, but strangely soothing, as the makeup lady brushed it across his cheeks and forehead.

"Hold still, honey," she said. She was leaning over him, a pair of not-unpleasant sun-spotted breasts hanging in his face, her perfume something spicy like his older teachers wore. He thought of his uncles, Tio Rafael and Tio Luis, waiting in the audience on the other side of the greenroom and how, when he told them about this, they'd laugh and affectionately call him a homo.

While the lady took from her tray a big, fluffy brush and began to sift orange powder across the bridge of his nose, Robbie tried to ignore the ticklishness and began to list, in his mind, the names of all the bones in the human body. He made it from the cranium to the coccyx before she handed him a mirror. He held it up and considered himself: The makeup had brightened his face and obscured his pimples. The space between his newly plucked eyebrows made him look debonair and inquisitive. He glowed with youth and intellect and promise. In short, he looked like a champion.

Robbie's first plane ride had been the one out to Burbank two days earlier for a live taping of the Teen Jeopardy tournament. On it, he'd calmed his mother—who worked at O'Hare airport but had never been on an actual plane and had sat, pale and rigid, clutching her rose-perfumed rosary beads—by explaining to her the history of American aviation and the laws of physics and engineering that ensured they would stay afloat until they landed safely in California. Two rows back, his tios entertained themselves by ordering mini bottles of Jack Daniels and watching out the window the swirly jags of the Rocky Mountains.

They'd arrived in the vast confusion of LAX and everything had amazed them, especially the luggage wheel, which had magically dumped their bags onto the conveyor when the plane landed. Outside, the air was warm and dry, the airport rimmed with palm trees which, Robbie informed his impressed family, are the only flowering plant in the order monocot. He clutched the almanac in his pocket in the same way his mother clutched her perfumed rosary. Facts were his religion.

In the green room, Robbie met his competition. Angela, the girl, was from New Hampshire, and when she told Robbie she attended the Concord Academy, a prestigious boarding school with a price tag of over $40,000 per year, her clothing, which was all stiff cotton and pastel piping, and the fact that she had pronounced the word "homage" the way a French person might, began to make perfect sense.

The other boy, Robbie could tell, came from a background more similar to his own. Yun's parents were Korean and had accompanied him into the greenroom to fuss over him until his number was called. He saw the fear in Yun's eyes, the greatest fear of all for overachieving children of immigrants: disappointing their parents. It almost made him empathize with Yun, whose mother hadn't let him into the studio until she'd licked the palm of her hand and slicked his hair back with it.

Like athletes before the Super Bowl, each contestant had his or her own unique pregame ritual. Amanda sat in a corner wearing a giant pair of headphones. She hugged herself and rocked back and forth gently, mouthing along to a downloaded dictionary. Yun endured his mother's preening while his father read to him from the periodic table of elements. For his part, Robbie sat in a folding chair, twanged thoughtfully at a rubber band that stretched taut from a hook on his braces, and considered his chances. If Geography was a category, he would dominate. Most 16-year-old Americans couldn't find, say, Slovakia on a map. Robbie could not only find it, he could tell you its capital, major exports, GNP, and national bird. He could also sing the first four bars of its national anthem: "Lightning flashes over the Tatras, thunder pounds wildly / Let us pause brothers, they will surely disappear / The Slovaks will revive!"

He'd had his braces tightened right before he'd left for California, sitting with a gaping mouth as Dr. McCormick's hairy, muscled arms reached in and cranked tighter the infinity-shaped wire that was dragging together the gaps in his front incisors, and now it felt as if someone was pressing as hard as they could with the palm of their hand against his two front teeth. It was distracting, but the pain was still something that Robbie welcomed. Not only was he already seeing improvements to his smile—which at the beginning of his orthodontic journey was about as crooked as a row of broken tombstones—but the pain was a constant reminder of the backbreaking work his mother endured so that he could have a better life.

Maria Guajardo worked full-time cleaning bathrooms at O'Hare and worked weekends at a Lincoln Park late-night taqueria where drunken postcollegians congregated for burritos when the bars closed. She had taken this second job for the exclusive purpose of paying for Robbie's braces, because she believed that a set of straightened teeth the most tangible of class markers: it was what separated the first-generation immigrants—the cat-food eaters, the wrong-verb conjugators—from the second generation: the college-educated, the acrylic-nailed. Robbie's mother was the kind of grim, selfless woman with chapped hands and a nose threaded with broken capillaries who was content to suffer so that her son could live a more comfortable life, and it was this combination of factors—his mother's sacrifices; the pain of his braces; uncles who long ago gave up hope of distinguishing themselves in their own right in order to fold their dreams into those of their brilliant young nephew—that accounted for Robbie's early lead. He'd swept both the Russian Literature and the Six-Syllable Word categories, and at the end of the first round he was in the lead by almost $4,000. Best of all, it was clear that he'd gotten his hooks into his competitors' mental games. To his left, Amanda was breathing heavily, struggling not to cry. She had a score of -400; she'd buzzed in for two of the first four questions, answered them incorrectly with an audibly shaking voice, and then hadn't even attempted to answer a question for the rest of the round. During the commercial break, a producer had led her into the corner, given her a paper cone of water, and whispered encouragingly to her while she dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.

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