Photo by Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos

The Exact Distance

By Ron Carlson
Sunday, February 11, 2007

AFTER THE FALL, ALLEN CAME TO SEE LUKE AND SIGN THE CAST. "That's not like you to climb a tree," Allen said. "What were you up to?"

"I don't know," Luke said. "What are the choices?" Luke's long right arm in the bright white cast lay on the kitchen table between them like a remarkable science fair project. Allen drew on it: a small tree and an arrow describing the trajectory. They were both 17.

"There are only two reasons," Allen said sagely and then, opening a finger with each: "Chased by feral hogs, or in love. Those are the only bona fide reasons a person climbs a tree."

"Okay," Luke said. He was looking for something bona fide. He laced his fingers carefully through the ones protruding from his cast.

"Which?" Allen said. "Did you come across the pigs in the greenbelt?"

"There are pigs there sometimes," Luke said.

LUKE HAD KNOWN THERE WAS NO ROOM for another new thing in his life. He had examined things, and he was certain. His life, such as it was, night and day, was jammed, spoken for, taken up. The days brimmed over, and sleep sopped up the rest. He studied hard, his grades bouncing above the B's, but the pressure was constant. About the time he'd get history on its way, chemistry would start to come in for a landing. He was left wing on junior varsity soccer, and he ran line to line, and he was still running when the whistle blew. His one-man landscaping business had 10 clients in the neighborhood, and then 12. He rarely ate sitting still with his folks. He cut his hair and figured he saved almost 10 minutes a week not combing. He changed clothes in the car. His time blocks grated, and the friction didn't always cool off when he slept. He looked at the world and the days, and he knew as an empirical fact, like a postulate in geometry, that there was no room for another thing, even something as wonderful as this girl.

World History was the Habsburgs and the Hohenzollerns, all those H's so long ago, and in the murky machinations of the Austrian Empire, there across the classroom in Row 1, Seat 3, was an astonishing clarity: Vicky Caruso.

"You are the sworn enemy of the unmown lawn," she said to him. "I've seen you trimming this town down to size."

Such a remark, a jest, unmoored him.

It wasn't as if she were a new girl in school, but there was something new in the world that contained this school, and he could not figure it out. Seeing her affected him, and talking to her affected him. He looked around to see if the way she changed his heart was visible to others, and he couldn't determine that. He watched to see if others were affected by her as he was, and he couldn't determine that, either. He had spent his life, such as it was, determining cause and effect, and now it seemed he was out beyond those reasons.

"Are you going to the fall dance?" Allen had asked him three weeks ago. Luke had already determined that it was amazing that Allen had stayed his friend since he didn't have any time for friends, unless they were changing shoes for soccer or eating lunch on the broad school steps. He didn't have time for the fall dance. He didn't have time for fall. He'd just figured out summer. Fall would have to proceed without his assistance.

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