Courtney Zoffness – Winner, 2016 Fiction Contest
From contest judge Merritt Tierce: “Peanuts Aren’t Nuts” deals so masterfully with the bridge between innocence and adulthood—that rotten bridge that falls away behind with every step across. Adolescence is, in this beautiful portrait, by nature a transition from inert to thwarted, a pursuit of even and perhaps especially those yearnings one knows will not—and most likely should not—be satisfied. This fine story, told in bright sentences that catch and thrum, has a clever heart that arouses hope and makes it wear a darkness. That is to say: it feels so true”
Peanuts Aren’t Nuts

It was a question with no right answer: Did anything happen? On the lips of her guidance counselor, the words were soft and feathery and accompanied by a hand on top of hers. “Did anything happen between you and Mr. Peebles?” The counselor nearly whispered it, as if to solicit a secret. The police officer was stiffer, the words typeset on his tongue. “Call me if you think of anything.” It was code for his disbelief; they both knew anything” wouldn’t just suddenly occur to Pam, like the location of a parked car.

And then there was her father. “Did anything—?”

“No,” Pam said, violated by the phrase alone. They were at the kitchen table where he’d summoned her to sit.

“All those times he was here in this goddamn house.” Her father clapped his palms together. “Did he touch—?”

“No,” she repeated, furious he was alluding to sex or sex acts or more specifically her private parts, furious that her own father imagined Mr. Peebles petting them. No. Nothing. Never. Not ever. Pam had never, not ever, touched anyone’s anything.

What did she do with Mr. Peebles? The man hired to help her prepare for the Biology SAT II, so she’d be admitted to a prominent college and acquire a prominent job and have a prominent life? Flow charts. Molecules. Membranes. Mr. Peebles with his woolly mammoth moustache and peppermint breath. Mr. Peebles, who knew answers to all her life questions. How it was possible that humans shared 60 percent of their DNA with a banana. Why some earthworms had ten hearts. He even knew the proper way to say legumes. Legg-youms. Until the word came out of his mouth, she’d thought it was pronounced Leg Gums. You have to learn your legg-youms, he said, after she’d failed to identify which item on the list was unlike the others: A. soybeans B. peas C. peanuts D. pistachios. (Answer: D. pistachios.)

“I don’t understand how peanuts aren’t nuts,” she had said.

“They grow in the ground,” said Mr. Peebles. “Nuts grow on trees.”

“But it’s called a pea-nut,” she protested. “How ridiculous.”

“More like nuts,” he said and tried to subdue his grin. His dimples dimpled. She rarely saw dimples up close but had learned from him that the dimple gene was dominant. She sucked the insides of her cheeks and wondered if there was any category in which she was dominant.

“Did you know,” said Mr. Peebles, knees bouncing, eyes blinking hard behind his frameless glasses, “that the average American child eats 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before they graduate from high school?”

“Eew,” she said. “I won’t.”

“You’re not the average child,” he replied.

It was the pause afterwards, the hasty eye contact and hastier looking away about which she didn’t tell her father. Nor did she tell him that she walked Mr. Peebles out after their last session and teased him about his cobalt Corvette convertible—“I thought they only made those in miniature”—or that to squash her apparent skepticism of sports cars, he suggested they go for a ride. And she agreed.

Mr. Peebles had let her pick what she wanted to listen to on the radio (“One” by U2) and crank up the volume until she could feel it in the middle of her ear (was that the cochlea?), and Pam, her hair a flapping flag, had sung into the wind because Bono’s crooning wholly swallowed up her own. Did I disappoint you? Or leave a bad taste in your mouth?

She didn’t tell her father about how they wheeled past the playground where the Rudnick sisters happened to be playing, or how Mr. Peebles greeted the girls with a friendly salute. Pam’s father, who always feared the worst. “What kind of idiot would drive a convertible?” he once scoffed. At the time, they were at a stoplight beside one. Pam had gawked at the so-called idiot behind the wheel, a thick-shouldered blonde examining her teeth in the rearview mirror. “Imagine,” her father had said, “what would happen if that car flipped over.” And Pam did just that: pictured the vehicle airborne and upside down, a whip of yellow hair and black mouth and the dizzy bloody crush of concrete plowing into bone.

When she and Mr. Peebles glided back in front of her house, volume lowered, skulls intact, Pam glared at the lifeless beige station wagon in the driveway, the one she would likely steer when she got her license.

“Hope it wasn’t as bad as you thought,” Mr. Peebles said. He placed his hand over the gearshift and gave it a squeeze. For whatever reason, Pam didn’t get out of the car.

 

News of Mr. Peebles’ arrest came just days before the junior prom to which Pam was asked last minute by a Japanese foreign exchange student. On a free period between math and history, she had trekked to the deli across the street for a soda only to find her tutor on display below the register. The Hillside Tribune. ALLEGED TEACHER-PREDATOR APPREHENDED. The photo was poor quality—a pixilated head amidst a flock of cops—but Pam knew what she knew, and she knew it with stomach-twisting certainty.

“Is that all?” said the cashier.

Wasn’