Nate Perlmeter, a freshman at Princeton University, was the 12th-grade winner in the first Montclair Literary Festival contest for Montclair High students held last spring, for his story “Pretty Good.” The runner-up for that grade was Clare Hansell. The contest, which received 77 entries from Montclair High School students, was held to raise interest in writing and to support Succeed2gether, a nonprofit educational program serving students in the district and from Essex County.
With this story we wrap up publishing the winning poems and stories from the festival but we are not, we hope, done with publishing student writing. Teachers, parents and students, keep us informed about creative writing contests and projects and write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By NATE PERLMETER
They sat in a basement, Sean’s of course, for the speaker system and the specific way he had arranged the seats for maximum sonic potential. They complained a bit about school work, as is instinctive for a Friday afternoon, and then Sean pressed play. This was Joey’s first time through the album, so per Sean’s usual rules there would be no inebriation of any kind. The album was neo-rap-psychedelia, “the real political shit, anti-establishment ’60s throwbacks all over the lyrics” and Sean was in love and he was very much excited to get Joey’s “opinion.” They listened through the rousing opener “Tears on Bo Obama” all the way to the instrumental closing track (with ambient noise provided by the producer’s visit to a bee farm), “Seinfeld in Blue.” As usual they sat opposite each other and Sean stared unblinkingly at Joey who knew better than to check his phone for fear his mind miss an important modulation. The buzzing stopped.
“Well—” Sean put a finger to his mouth to postpone Joey’s review. Then very quietly, “It’s a fakeout.” True enough, it was ten minutes later that the track ended with an instrumental fanfare heretofore unseen on the album. Sean finally relaxed his posture into the beanbag chair. Here came the stump speech.
“You hear that? You hear the Bible references in those last few screams? That’s Anderson, by the way. The bassist. And these guys just put their hearts on the line, no concessions. This is what it’s all about. So, Joe, what do you think of the album?”
“I mean, it’s not really my thing, but I dug a couple songs. It’s pretty good.” Sean nodded. A bit slower.
“Pretty good? I understand getting a little bored ’round the middle set of songs, but I think that ending really ties the whole thing together. I’d say it’s a solid 8.5.”
“I don’t know, man, all those fakeouts, the incantation shit in the background, just kinda overkill. Nothing really grabbed me.”
“Oh. Alright then.”
Cheryl made up for her unfortunate name by having one of those awesome pairs of parents who just let parties happen. When Joey rolled up, he usually sat in the car for a minute or two before walking in, not just to glower at his zits in the rearview but to consider what circumstances could’ve let the Smithsons get like this, and whether it was best take advantage of them. Then he’d think about girls and consider it worth it. This was Cheryl’s sixth open-house of the year. She usually tried to map them to occasions (for colleges, she said) but Presidents’ Day was pushing it. Joey walked in and, being sober, sought out someone to ask an arbitrary homework question and talk to in a corner until he had better absorbed the feeling of the room. Alex would’ve been the first choice but he was talking to Lindsey so no. Brian waved from the bottom of a staircase. Brian and Joey had the same habits for the beginning of parties. Joey internally sighed, but walked over. Along the way, Sean walked past, saw Joey, and allowed a grimace to deepen. It had been three weeks, and at this point Joey didn’t try to say hi and allowed the full brunt of Sean’s violent push to hit him. Sean was small enough Joey wasn’t in fact knocked back at all, but he stumbled a bit on purpose to dignify his friend’s attempt. Whatever makes him happy.
It was only as Brian was rounding off an all-too-thorough explanation of trig identities that Joey realized there might be a problem. Out of the corner of his eye he’d watched Sean do table dives and his famous impression of Mr. Simpson, and flirt half-heartedly with whoever was in the vicinity.
And, yes, with every change of the music track to the next club hit, that plastered smile had dipped for a minute as Sean realized the caliber of what these damn kids consumed, but he’d always regained his composure. Over Joey and Brian’s math talk, this sequence of events had occurred five times. A sixth song began. The late-2000s synthesizer-bass thundered the Smithson living room. The throng of drunk Honor Roll members cheered the classic pick. Joey was back in Sean’s basement four years ago.
“Did you know this song was the top seller of the year, Joey? A whole year! I did the damn math. There’s two chords, fifty unique words in the lyrics, and 60% of what you hear is the title. How do these people justify themselves? There’s no—” Joey was back at the party, facing Sean, who may have to his credit gotten a smidge taller. He certainly appeared larger as he was grabbing Joey by the collar and staring at his face, inches away. He finished the speech he’d committed to memory years before.
“Substance! No content, Joey! How do you stomach this shit? It burns my ears.”
That year was coincidentally when Joey took AP World History. Later, he looked back and remembered sitting in that class in the wheelchair Sean had put him in and thinking how it was all the good ones who got the unplanned assassinations. Lincoln. Kennedy. Gandhi. Rabin. Because to kill another person, you’ve just gotta be a crazy, so it made sense it was always done by one of the bad guys. Sean wasn’t a bad guy, which is why Joey made up excuses for the injuries. And Sean wasn’t a crazy either. Joey liked to say he was just discerning to a morally unacceptable extent. He let in only the best. That’s why when they were kids he’d never suffered action sequels or episodic sitcoms, and it’s why at the age of twenty-one, let into the building to pursue a record deal off one of the best mix-tapes a white boy had put together in the last few years, he’d attempted to burn the Associated Records Corporation’s New York office to the ground.
After the fire department came in and everyone safely evacuated, the TV interview showed Sean looking stoic, handsome in his orange pajamas. It had been an act of anarcho-socialist protest, he explained. He aimed to bring down ARC’s billionaire CEO, a well-known donor to fossil-fuel interests and numerous Congressional campaigns. It was a very nice speech and got some nice reposts on social media and even a neat little protest Joey could see building on the green from his dorm.
But Joey rewinded the interview and looked at Sean’s eyes and knew he was just giving what he deemed the less embarrassing answer. Sean hadn’t attempted to murder Peter Marcu of Associated Records for his political involvement. He’d done it because Peter, in an earlier stage of his career, had written the five best-selling pop songs of the late-2000s, and Sean couldn’t get that cloying shit out of his head.
So, Joey recounted to himself, Sean wasn’t a terrorist, not even that crazy. He was just a guy adamant that the entertainment media he consumed be really, really good. There was a fair argument to be made that Sean’s more extreme tendencies were something that should’ve been more firmly in the open so fewer people would’ve ended up hurt. The TV psychologists certainly thought he could’ve done with counseling at least as early as high school. But they didn’t know Sean like Joey did. And some powder kegs are best left without a fuse attached. That’s how Joey felt anyway. So he went back and modified his answer a bit.
“So, Joe, what do you think of the album?”
“Dude. That was so good.”