An extract from Peanuts Aren’t Nuts by Courtney Zoffness
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 on 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.
Courtney Zoffness won the 2017 Arts & Letters Creative Nonfiction Prize, the 2016 American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and was an Emerging Writing Fellowship from the Center for Fiction. She has received awards from the MacDowell Colony and the Bread of Loaf Writers’ Conference. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Southern Review, Indiana Review, Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere. Zoffness has taught at numerous institutions, including Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, Allegheny College and the University of Freiburg, where she was a writer-in-residence. She currently directs the Creative Writing Program at Drew University in New Jersey and lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York.