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The home office of the Bright family in Madison, Wisconsin. A small room with thick carpet on the floors and filing cabinets along the walls. The whole space lives under an unconquerable cloud of dust, particles floating through the air and catching the sunlight from the room’s one window. In front of that window sits the computer that has revolutionized the Bright family, in particular its youngest child, BILL BRIGHT, 17 years old, who sits before it now. Beyond the computer screen a large window looks out into the backyard which through today’s scorching summer heat appears as a kind of haze, a flickering apparition of itself.
Bill gazes outside, drumming his fingers as Outlook loads. Finally the dial-up goes through and he sees the email he’s been waiting for all week. He opens it at once:
Your Housing Assignment for the 2003/2004 Academic Year
Eastover Office of Residential Life []
To:      BILL BRIGHT []
Dear Incoming Student, Congratulations from the Office of Residential Life on your upcoming freshman year! Your housing assignment is below. Please note that all freshmen are assigned to double or triple rooms -- single rooms are NOT available to students in their first year. Shared bathrooms are on every hallway, with an average of 1 shower for every 4 students.
But Bill knows all this; his eyes skip right to what he’s been waiting for:
Schenck. The far, ugly dorm; the one that sits off on its own on the campus map like the kid that no one wants to sit with in the cafeteria. The one his tour guide warned him about: “You’ll make friends here really easily -- unless you’re in Schenck.” Fuck. He deflates a little in his chair.
Suddenly his phone emits a loud BEEP -- he takes it from his pocket and flips it open:
Hey man sry i still have a lot of packing to do so i
dont think i can come 2 milwaukee tonite. Leaving day
after tomorrow so not sure if ill c u, good luck with
everything though man, enjoy college
Well, there’s the answer to Bill’s six-month-old question about whether or not they’d stay in touch. Fuck again. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Bill drives alone down the I-94 listening to The White Stripes’ Elephant. From the radio:
Don't you remember / you told me in December /
that a boy is not a man until he makes a stand /

well, I'm not a genius / but maybe you'll remember this /
I never said I ever wanted to be a man
Bill turns the music off and finds relief in the silence. The freeway, wide and brightly illuminated, rolls before him in such quiet, surrounded by such darkness, that he almost feels as though he’s alone in a room with a very high ceiling. He thinks of two nights ago when he actually was alone in a large, darkened room, the movie theater, which greeted him in drab but comforting fluorescence, just for him, until the lights finally dimmed and for an instant he sat facing only a blank projection on the screen, as though the movie had been replaced by its own purest essence. And then the commercials crackled in and then the trailers, and finally the movie, Thirteen, which seemed meant to stress him out but instead made him feel depleted and blank as the screen that had preceded it, and with the same hint of profundity as that blankness.
He takes his phone out and scrolls through his contacts, looking up periodically to check the road. But it’s a straight shot at a late-ish hour so he’s not worried about it. Without ceremony he finds her number and hits the green button on the left. He holds the phone up to his ear and hears it ringing, ringing...
And now quickly, as though breaking out of a trance, he snaps his phone shut. He promised her he wouldn’t. She promised him she wouldn’t. All he wants is to talk to her, but he desperately knows that he can’t.
A small airplane hangar with its garage-style door wide open. It’s filled with people -- around 800 in total, the vast majority of them white and many of them young, who stand crowded and chattering around a large stage. At the front of the stage is a podium; at the back is a massive American flag. The crowd chants uproariously:
And indeed, they wave signs in the air that reflect that. Bill stands in the middle, taking it all in. He’s glad to have forced himself out tonight, in spite of everything. Being here alone makes him feel like a journalist, attentive and private. The cheering of the crowd is picking up speed and volume, perhaps unsustainably, Bill thinks with a slight smile, imagining the chanting building up to warp speed, escalating in pitch until the audience becomes a crowd of frenzied Dean-supporting Chipmunks. They’re being egged from the stage by a line of people who reflect a much greater range of diversity than those in the audience; everyone is turning now to look toward stage right, and out walks -- it’s shocking in its simplicity, in its humbleness -- the future of the United States, wagging one finger, an assured smile on his face. This is GOVERNOR HOWARD DEAN OF VERMONT, 55. The chanting makes it to orgasm.
(into microphone)
We’re gonna win!
Cacophonous applause.
The president... The president is sleeping
soundly tonight in Crawford, Texas. But
we’re sleepless here in Milwaukee!
Everybody freaks out anew.
For those in the watching audience that don’t
know, we decided about three or four weeks ago
that when Vice President Cheney went down to
South Carolina to raise 300,000 dollars with
150 people giving 2 thousand dollars apiece,
that we would outraise him on the internet over
the weekend with about 5,000 people and we
raised 500,000 dollars. This week, President
Bush went to Portland, Oregon; he said hello
to the people who sent him two thousand dollar
checks and left. We went to Portland, Oregon,
we didn’t charge anybody money, we said hello
to over four thousand people, and you raised,
over the same weekend, the same amount he did
-- over a million dollars. Thank you very much.
The excitement in the audience is palpable -- there’s a spirit of unity, of possibility, of agency in the air.
And that — that is the way that we are
going to take back our country, is to give
back the 50% of people in this country who
have given up on politics a reason to vote
again, and you are the ones who are doing it,
and I thank you very, very much.
“Damn right,” Bill thinks. “That is what’s going to fix this country.” He shakes his head in admiring disbelief -- and they said it wasn’t possible.
What does it take to become great? Bill wonders as he watches. Is one born with a clarity of vision that never ceases, or does it happen later in life, out of some particular confluence of events? Does one simply rise to an occasion, detecting an opportunity, or are some people born to rise to the occasion and others not? He wants to meet Governor Dean after this, to shake his hand and ask him if he always expected to be doing what he’s doing. But when the speech ends Dean is instantly mobbed by adoring fans and has no time to answer questions. “It’s okay,” Bill thinks, though he sort of wanted a picture. Sometimes you don’t want to meet those people up close anyway.
Bill stands at the foot of the stairs looking into his favorite room of the house. It’s dark and dusty, lit only by two unadorned bulbs screwed into an unfinished ceiling. Atop a very worn down rug sits his drum set with its yellow finish, looking up at him like a dog waiting patiently to be petted. This is the hardest part about leaving -- well, the second hardest, but the first happened last week. He approaches the drum set gingerly, lifting his sticks from the stool and taking a tentative seat, pulsing his foot lightly against the foot pedal, casting out a few stray THUMPS from the floor tom. He begins a soft drumroll on the snare and watches his sticks, imagining that his view of them is slowly zooming out until he’s above his own head, now through the ceiling to the ground floor of the house, now the second floor, now above the roof completely, above his street, above all of Madison, way up in the clouds. His drumroll is beginning to intensify, readying itself to explode onto the rest of the kit, when:
It’s his dad. Bill stops playing and hears footsteps creaking down the stairs until finally DONALD BRIGHT, 50s, stands where Bill just was. He has the same relaxed stance as Bill, the same gentleness of expression. Right now his face says it all: it’s time. And it is.
Bill sits in the backseat of the family car, a Subaru station wagon, its trunk loaded up with his stuff. Given that he’s packed up what feels like his entire life (other than his drum set), it’s not that much: three large duffel bags and a backpack. That’s it. His father sits in the passenger seat beside his mother, CYNTHIA TAYLOR, 50s, with a long, black ponytail and an XXL thermos in hand, chugging for a long moment before she puts down her drink and starts the car.
Alrighty, boys. Long haul ahead. We’ve got
eight hours today and eight hours tomorrow
so we’ll just be an hour away Wednesday
“Sweet Jesus,” Bill thinks, looking back at his childhood home for a sustained but impassive moment as the car rolls away. Bill puts on his headphones and pops Sea Change into his walkman. As “Golden Age” plays:
The road out of Madison; the Illinois border; the nighttime view of Lake Michigan right outside of Gary, and now, the next day, of Lake Erie from Elyria; the sudden lush mountains of Pennsylvania; the evening storm in Bloomsberg; the New York border. Finally, by the light of the morning, the highway sign he’s been waiting for:
Next Exit - Riverloop
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