He looked back at the paper. His mind alternately ran in circles and stopped cold. This was not a good beginning. What's more, it needed to be the end. It was already evening and the assignment was due the next day.
He looked out the window. Sam's house was across the street. There was a light on in Sam's window. Maybe he could talk to Sam. Sam was good at this stuff.
Joey grabbed his notebook and pen and ran downstairs. His mother used to try to keep track of him. "Where you go? When you back?" she would bark in her old-world accent.
Joey always answered the same: "Out. Later," the slam of the door behind him cutting off further inquiry. Eventually his mother tired of asking, and now he came and went as he pleased.
He ran across the street and slipped into Sam's house. His mother had taught him to knock—more old-world custom—but the kids in the neighborhood passed freely among each other's houses, and neither the children nor the parents stood on that formality.
Joey entered Sam's room. They greeted each other with the studied indifference of adolescence.
"Have you done the English assignment?"
"Sure. Finished it last week."
Joey liked Sam, but Sam could be annoying. Always finishing his assignments before they were due was annoying.
"I can't make any sense out of it. How are we supposed to do this?"
"What's to make sense of? Just write like Hemingway."
Of course. Just write like Hemingway. Why hadn't he thought of that? Emulating world-class performers was probably a winning strategy in any field. Just hit like Mays. Just play like Stravinsky.
"Can I see yours?"
Sam pulled out a notebook; opened it to a page.
Joey looked at Sam's paper. It read like Hemingway. Short, choppy sentences. Stark description. Stupid people doing stupid things in remote locations.
In the end, the characters gained access to some insight: a moment of truth—so-called, Joey supposed, because a moment later they were usually dead.
Too bad they didn't gain access to the kind of truths that keep people alive. Truths simple enough to fit into a Hemingway sentence. "Carry more water." "Seek medical attention." "Stay clear of charging megafauna."
Whatever this insight was, it eluded Joey. The characters didn't explain it, and neither did Hemingway. Neither, for that matter, did Sam.
Maybe the whole thing was a joke: the kind of joke where there is no punch line, but being in on the joke means pretending that there is, so that you can feel superior to the people who aren't in on it. A joke worthy of the most disaffected adolescent.
Joey handed the notebook back to Sam. He still had to write the assignment.
Sam saw the pain in Joey's eyes. Or maybe he just wanted Joey out of his room, so he could get back to...to what? Another assignment that wasn't due for another week?
"Look, Joe, you can't stress about this stuff. It's just an English assignment."
"But why?" Joey's voice was choked with frustration. "Why are we doing this? What is the point?"
"It's a game. A system. You play the game; they make a place for you."
"A place for me," repeated Joey.
"A place. A path. School. College. Jobs. Money. A house in the suburbs. Whatever you want. But you have to play the game. You have to show them that you'll be part of the system."
Roger Waters' lyrics from The Dark Side of the Moon ran through Joey's head
"Listen, son," said the man with the gun,Maybe that was what it was all about. Obedient children being groomed to be obedient adults, in a system of power and authority, dominance and submission, all ultimately grounded in the violence of guns and bullets.
"There's room for you inside."
But there could be a place in the system for Joey. A path for him. School. College. Job. Wife. House. Children. Grandchildren. Retirement...
Each step on the path followed inevitably from the preceding one, one after another, telescoping across the years, to the very end, where Joey was afraid to look; and then he did look, and suddenly he was staring down both barrels, and as he looked he knew that he would always be staring down both barrels, all the way along the path.
So it wasn't a joke. There was a truth, and Joey didn't even have to go to Africa for it. And Joey saw that once you had this truth, it didn't matter if you hung on for another 50 or another 100 years, or only for a few more seconds: it was all the same in the end.
Joey stood in Sam's room for a long moment.
"Do you mind if I work here?"
Joey sat down cross-legged on the floor in the place where he had been standing. He opened his notebook, set it on his knee, and began writing.