The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman
At first glance, Duncan Dorfman, April Blunt, and Nate Saviano don't seem to have much in common. Duncan is trying to look after his single mom and adjust to life in a new town while managing his newfound Scrabble superpower - he can feel words and pictures beneath his fingers and tell what they are without looking. April is pining for a mystery boy she met years ago and striving to be seen as more than a nerd in her family of jocks. And homeschooled Nate is struggling to meet his father's high expectations for success.
When these three unique kids are brought together at the national Youth Scrabble Tournament, each with a very different drive to win, their paths cross and stories intertwine . . . and the journey is made extraordinary with a perfect touch of magic. Readers will fly through the pages, anxious to discover who will take home the grand prize, but there's much more at stake than winning and losing.
With shrewd observations, wry humor, and a touch of whimsy, bestselling author Meg Wolitzer's classic storytelling will delight readers of all ages.
LUNCH MEAT AND THE CHINAMAN
On the night before his first day at his new school, in the small, squirrel-colored living room of his great-aunt’s house, Duncan Dorfman’s mother warned him not to show anyone his power. “Whatever you do, Duncan, keep it to yourself,” she said. “If you don’t, I’m afraid something bad will happen.”
He had no idea why she was so worried. It wasn’t as if people ever paid that much attention to him. In his last school, Duncan hadn’t stood out in any way. He’d made a few friends, though no one who would particularly miss him now that he’d moved away. Besides, it wasn’t as if the thing he could do was even useful.
“It’s not a power,” Duncan told his mother as they sat in the living room that night. She was laying out his clothes for school, which embarrassed him because he was twelve, not five. “A power,” he said, “is when you can lift a car off a baby, or save the planet from destruction. That kind of thing.”
“Then what would you call it?” his mother asked. She smoothed the creases on the ugly mustard-yellow shirt she had bought for him with her employee discount at Thriftee Mike’s Warehouse.
“I don’t know.” What did you call the thing he could do? It didn’t have a name. But he didn’t want to upset her, so he promised that whatever the thing was, he would keep it to himself.
A week earlier, the two of them had gotten on a bus in Michigan with several suitcases and taped-up cartons, and then they had traveled for nine hours. At some point the bus stopped at a bad-smelling rest stop, and Duncan and his mother got out and bought French fries that seemed to have been cooked in oil left over from an ancient civilization. And then they got back on the bus and both gratefully closed their eyes, their heads knocking together occasionally in sleep.
Finally they arrived in Drilling Falls, Pennsylvania, the town where Duncan’s mother had grown up. There was nothing exciting about Drilling Falls, and she had said she didn’t have many happy memories of growing up there, but they had nowhere else to go. She had lost her job as the manager of a gift shop in Michigan, and when his great-aunt heard this, she had invited them to come live with her.
Aunt Djuna was a box-shaped old woman who wore a green sweater over her shoulders, and who, as she liked to tell people, never ate anything with a face. You would walk into her front hall and a yam or bean aroma would hit you, the same way that the smell of brownie mix or roast chicken would float your way in other houses.
His mother often said, “We should be very grateful to Aunt Djuna. We should kiss the ground she walks on. She gave us a home, and found me a job.”
Thanks to Aunt Djuna, Duncan’s mother now worked at Thriftee Mike’s Warehouse, a superstore with bins of random items like double-A batteries and pig-shaped staplers. Though very few people had spent any time with Thriftee Mike himself, he was a real, thirty-year-old man named Michael Scobee, who lived in the rich section of Drilling Falls. Duncan had heard him described as an eccentric millionaire who wore high-top sneakers and ate junky cocoa-and-marshmallow-flavored cereal for breakfast. No one really knew much else about him, because he only came to the store once in a while, very late at night, when no one was there except the security guards. He wasn’t supposed to be “good with people,” and so he stayed away during the day.
“That’s fine with me,” Duncan’s mother had said. “I don’t need to see him.”
The employees at Thriftee Mike’s wore red smocks with name tags that read, I’M THRIFTEE SUE or, I’M THRIFTEE PETE. Or, in Duncan’s mother’s case, I’M THRIFTEE CAROLINE. Caroline Dorfman was a nice person, pretty, blond-haired, and funny, but she worried all the time––mostly about Duncan. She’d raised him all by herself, because his father Joe Wright had died of a rare disease called panosis before Duncan was born.
“It was very sad,” she would say quietly, but she didn’t like to say too much else about it. All Duncan knew was that his father had been young, and that he and Duncan’s mother hadn’t been married. That was about the extent of his knowledge.
Duncan’s mother got migraine headaches when she was under stress. Usually, right before the headache came on, her vision would be clouded with a silvery light she called an aura. The next thing Duncan knew, she would say, “Oh no, another aura. I’m sorry, Duncan, I’ll see you later, honey, okay? Make yourself a PBJ for lunch. And we have plums!” Then she’d go into her bedroom and lie in the dark until the migraine passed. Over the years, Duncan had brought up the subject of his father less and less often, because he knew it really upset her.
Just like now, when she asked Duncan not to show anyone his so-called power, he knew he should do what she wanted, or else she might get agitated. The only reason Duncan had shown it to her in the first place was that it had taken him by surprise. He had been in his new bedroom two days earlier, sitting on the bed flipping through an old book––something dumb about a kid named Jimmy who builds a rocket ship with his best friend, a gopher––when suddenly Duncan discovered that he could do the strangest thing.
It had shocked him, so he’d gone out into the hallway, where his mother was unpacking boxes from the move, and he’d said to her, “Mom, check this out.”
That was his first mistake.
She’d looked up, distracted, smiling, a mermaid lamp in one hand. He’d showed it to her, and in her astonishment she dropped the lamp to the floor, cracking off a piece of the mermaid’s tail.
“Oh my God, Duncan,” she’d finally whispered, “you have a power.”
“No I don’t,” he said. Duncan Dorfman wasn’t that kind of person. He wasn’t powerful in any way at all. He thought of himself as ordinary––less than ordinary. He was a little thick-chested, wavy-haired, and, these days, nerd-shirted. He wasn’t good at sports or science. He couldn’t tell a joke well. He didn’t know everything about every dinosaur that ever existed, or every rock.
He didn’t have any passions, let alone any powers.
“Well, I think you do,” she insisted. “And it’s the kind of thing that could get attention. That’s the last thing we need while we’re starting from scratch here in my old town. Please don’t show it to anyone else, okay, honey?”
“Okay,” Duncan said, though her fear didn’t make sense to him.
“No one,” said his mother.
“What shouldn’t Duncan show anyone?” Aunt Djuna asked as she came into the hallway with an armful of root vegetables that poked out like the snouts of strange little animals.
“Oh, nothing, Djuna,” said his mother, shooting him a keep-quiet look.
There were other secrets in this house, too, Duncan thought. Just the night before, when he was lying in bed, he had heard his mother and Aunt Djuna whispering together in the living room. As he fell asleep, he’d heard fragments of what they were saying:
“. . . I realize it’s not perfect,” his mother said.
And his great-aunt said, “He deserves better . . .”
“I know, I know,” said his mother.
In the morning at breakfast, when Duncan asked her what they had been talking about––what wasn’t perfect, and who deserved better––she said she couldn’t remember. “I’m sure it wasn’t anything important,” she said, and he let it drop.
And now here they were, at nine p.m. on the night before school was to begin, and secrecy was in the air again.
“Remember, keep it to yourself,” his mother said, handing him his stiff yellow shirt and green pants. From across the room, Aunt Djuna, now fast asleep in the big old recliner, made quiet yipping sounds. It was almost bedtime, and Duncan promised his mother again that he wouldn’t tell anyone.
Duncan tried. He seriously did. But sometimes your talent––your tiny, weird skill, or even yourpower––just has to get out.
For five more weeks, though, it stayed in. Not only that, but he almost forgot about it. During that time, Duncan Dorfman became just one of three hundred seventh graders in the Drilling Falls Middle School. Every morning, he walked through the halls in the overflowing crowd of kids, floating along like a leaf carried on a breeze. Then, after thumping his heavy backpack into locker #248, he headed for class. No one knew him, and no one cared.
And even though, that first day, the homeroom teacher had said to the class, “Listen up, people! Be sure to include our new students at lunchtime!” no one did.
There was another new kid that fall; his name was Andrew Tanizaki, and he had a face like a tired old man. People sometimes called Andrew “The Chinaman,” despite the fact that his grandparents were originally from Japan, and that Andrew and his parents were from New Jersey. Duncan Dorfman and Andrew Tanizaki sat together every day at lunch. No one else came to sit with them. It was just them, Duncan and The Chinaman, sitting across from each other in the cafeteria at 10:45 a.m. with their damp red trays.
If only Duncan liked Andrew Tanizaki more! But this was what the conversation between them at the lunch table was like:
Andrew: Do you play the video game Starpod Defenders: Team Zero?
Andrew: Well, I do, and I beat level twelve. Only two other players in North America have done that. One is five years old. The other one has no hands. He was born that way, you know.
Then there was an awkward silence, except for the chewing of food. The chewing went on and on.
One day, after sitting together awkwardly like this for a while, Duncan finally stood up to get himself a glass of apple juice, and as he walked across the cafeteria he felt something go slap against his back. He reached around, but didn’t feel anything, so he just got his juice and walked back to his seat. There was distant laughter, and the sounds of people shouting something, but Duncan paid no attention. As he reached his table, though, the shouting became harder to ignore.
“LUNCH MEAT!” people were calling out. “HEY, LUNCH MEAT!”
After a few seconds, Duncan Dorfman realized they were talking to him.
He stood still, his face growing pink, but he had no idea of why they were saying this, or what it meant. It was as if the kids at this school shouted strange, random words at new kids in order to freak them out. Maybe in previous years they had shouted at other new kids, “HEY, BLOWFISH!” OR, “HEY, MONKEY WRENCH!”
But then Andrew Tanizaki stood up and hurried over to Duncan. “Uh, Duncan? You have lunch meat on your back,” he whispered.
Duncan reached around himself again, feeling all over the places on his back that he could reach. This time, his hand found the edge of something cold and damp, and he pulled it off slowly and fearfully, as if taking off a Band-Aid.
Someone had flung a piece of baloney at his back, and it had just stayed there, sticking to his yellow shirt. And now, like Andrew Tanizaki, aka the Chinaman, Duncan Dorfman had a nickname, too: Lunch Meat.
Just as the lunch meat had stuck to his shirt, the name stuck to Duncan.
“Yo, Lunch Meat!” kids said to him every day at school. Even a little fifth-grade girl called him that one day, her face formed into a sneer.
After a few days, kids stopped calling out to Duncan as much; they seemed to lose interest in this new boy who was becoming not so new anymore. But still the name was there; he had been branded Lunch Meat. He eventually returned to his grim routine of mostly being ignored, except once in a while when someone called out the nickname for no particular reason.
Life was joyless––that was the best word for it. Duncan slogged through the days, and at night he couldn’t wait to go to sleep. He would lie in bed and listen to his mother and his great-aunt have one of their whispery conversations about whatever private thing it was they talked about when he wasn’t around, and then he would finally fall asleep. It might have gone on and on like this all year.
But inside him, it was all getting to be too much.
On a cold, slushy morning in October, five weeks after school began, sleet was pinging the windows outside the cafeteria, and someone across the room was calling out, “Hey, Lunch Meat!” and Andrew Tanizaki’s jaw was biting down squeakily on a hot dog. All of it––the depressing weather, the nickname, the sounds, the loneliness––finally became unbearable.
Duncan wondered if there was a way out. He could get on a bus and go somewhere . . . but where? He had no money. He had no father. He had no one and nothing other than a nice but overprotective, migraine-getting mother who worked long hours at Thriftee Mike’s. He thought about how much she had wanted him to hide his special ability from everyone.
That was when it hit him.
In order to have a decent future at Drilling Falls Middle School, he had to ignore what she wanted. Sorry, Mom, he said to himself. And then he sat up a little straighter and told Andrew Tanizaki, “I have a power.”
The words were forbidden, but it was almost as if he hadn’t said anything at all. Andrew barely looked up from his food. “Yeah, right,” he finally said.
Andrew took his pinky finger and reached deep into his own mouth, trying to loosen a tiny piece of hot-dog skin from between the tight clamps of his braces. Then he folded his arms across his chest and said to Duncan Dorfman, “Show me.”
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