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’t it enough? Mr. Peebles, who drew maps of the food chain and arrows for energy flow, who showed her pictures of pythons and cheetahs and Great White sharks. Everything preys on something, he’d said. It’s how we survive.

That week, while her classmates talked corsages and party vans, Pam pored over news coverage, riveted by each new sordid detail. The online chat. The lewd language. The undercover agent who had posed as a 12-year-old girl. The meet-up plan: a Wendy’s. In Jersey. Off of Route 1. The promises. The pleas. The pornography. According to one report, Mr. Peebles hadn’t put up a fight, hadn’t tried to run, had even held out his hands to let them shackle him. Pam squinted at the inky face framed in the backseat of a squad car. She tried to decode his expression. Regret? Fear? The face was unfamiliar. That is not you, she said with her eyes. That cannot be you. Above him loomed the burger princess, all pigtails and youth and hideous joy.

 

Which of the following organisms can engage in asexual reproduction? A. starfish B. yeast C. hydra D. strawberries. (Answer: All of the above.)

“What do you think of that?” Mr. Peebles had asked her one winter afternoon. “Organisms that can create clones?”

“I think it’s weird,” she said. “Who wants to deal with several of themselves?”

Mr. Peebles had laughed in a way that made Pam laugh, too: head back, Adam’s apple bobbing. Nobody else thought she was so funny.

“I’m not even sure,” she continued, riding the wave of validation. “I can handle just me.”

“How are you so clever?” he said, fingering his moustache. “Tell me.”

They had talked about all kinds of sex, Pam and Mr. Peebles. Flower sex. Cell sex. Fertilization. Mutation. It was part of the curriculum.

“Sexual reproduction has more energy costs associated with it than asexual reproduction,” he said, a fact she jotted down in her notebook so she could read and reread it and attempt to understand it. Sex had costs. Some kinds of sex cost more than others. “Much of that energy is spent on finding a mate,” he continued, and Pam had that pushing sensation in her belly, the one she felt in the beauty aisle at CVS while scanning the creams and powders and sprays designed to make her smoother and shinier and sweet enough to eat.

Had she known the whole time? Had she seen signs?

She had told Mr. Peebles things. Not indecent, but personal things. About herself. Her life. How could she not? There they were in her house, in her den, elbow-to-elbow at her family table. To her left: the upright piano at which she’d taken lessons until her teacher quit, citing “personal issues.” (I think I was the person he had issues with, she’d told Mr. Peebles. Said he: not every pair’s a match.) To her right: a photo gallery of Pam and her brother as babies, as toddlers, as brace-faced pre-teens, photos in front of which Mr. Peebles paced while Pam retrieved his weekly payment from her father.

“Awful picture,” she said when she found him scrutinizing her bat mitzvah headshot, his nose inches from the glass. “That day sucked.”

“Oh?” he said, approaching. “Why’s that?”

“All that fake smiling,” she said. “I came home with sore cheeks.” Mr. Peebles folded the check she handed him. “Well, that confirms it,” he said, tucking it into his pocket.

“Confirms what?”

“You’ll never be a politician.”

Pam smiled—for real this time—and tipped onto her toes.

“You have to be a professional fake smiler to be in politics, didn’t you know?”

“Never,” said Pam, shaking her head. “I will never be a politician.” How did he always find the right retort?

“Senator Leffler?” he teased. “President Pam?”

She giggled as she walked him through the kitchen, past an oblong table where, that evening, she’d eat flavorless pea soup in silence with her family and where, in an attempt to do so quickly, she’d burn her tongue and shout “fuck” and get berated.

“By the way,” said Mr. Peebles, holding open the screen door, “it’s called a buccinator.”

“What?”

“The muscle you strained from all that smiling.” He stroked the middle of his cheek, slid his thumb from ear to chin and Pam did the same and for a moment they were simpatico, the two of them touching their own faces in the same way, at the same time. Her skin warmed under her palm.

“Buccinator,” she said, as he walked to his car, his stride wide and swift. Bucks-in-ay-tor. It sounded like a machine. A maker of bucks. One that printed enough bills to buy the energy for sexual reproduction.

 

That day in his convertible, Mr. Peebles scrunched his nose as though holding back a sneeze. “Thanks for taking a ride,” he said, shifting into park.

Pam stared at his bony knuckles and clean, trim nails. She wanted to put her hand on top of his. There was a tingling between her legs and a pulse beneath her tongue. Mr. Peebles was not a traditionally attractive man, but Pam, with her wide forehead and weak chin, was not a traditionally attractive girl.

“There’s something,” she started, but stopped, pushing a tuft of frizzy brown hair behind her ear, then changing her mind and shaking it free. “I think you’re a really good teacher.”

Mr. Peebles winked. The exam was a week away. It was their last-ever session. “Don’t forget to review chapter eighteen,” he said. “Viruses show up every year.”

Pam hated the anticlimax of their goodbye and how after she called out “Sayonara!” and closed the door, he didn’t disappear. Damn open-air convertible. She got to observe just how little their parting affected him. How he glanced at his watch and fiddled with the radio and rapped his thumbs against the wheel. She refused to think she was just another student in his roster. She refused to believe he took them all for a ride.

On her way up the driveway, she kicked the bumper of her father’s wagon. The sting of rejection was all around her.

 

Her father at the kitchen table, fists knocking each other: “They ought to fry him for what he did.”

Yes, she agreed. Let him burn.

“That bastard,” he said.

Bastard. Traitor. Beloved.

 

After her father’s rant, Pam hopped on her bike and pedaled to the middle school and sat in the courtyard and stared. Twelve-year-olds. In