Credit: CHema Skndl!

Robbie Guajardo had never worn makeup before. It felt wet and thick, but strangely soothing, as the makeup lady brushed it across his cheeks and forehead.

“Hold still, honey,” she said. She was leaning over him, a pair of not-unpleasant sun-spotted breasts hanging in his face, her perfume something spicy like his older teachers wore. He thought of his uncles, Tio Rafael and Tio Luis, waiting in the audience on the other side of the greenroom and how, when he told them about this, they’d laugh and affectionately call him a homo.

While the lady took from her tray a big, fluffy brush and began to sift orange powder across the bridge of his nose, Robbie tried to ignore the ticklishness and began to list, in his mind, the names of all the bones in the human body. He made it from the cranium to the coccyx before she handed him a mirror. He held it up and considered himself: The makeup had brightened his face and obscured his pimples. The space between his newly plucked eyebrows made him look debonair and inquisitive. He glowed with youth and intellect and promise. In short, he looked like a champion.

Robbie’s first plane ride had been the one out to Burbank two days earlier for a live taping of the Teen Jeopardy tournament. On it, he’d calmed his mother—who worked at O’Hare airport but had never been on an actual plane and had sat, pale and rigid, clutching her rose-perfumed rosary beads—by explaining to her the history of American aviation and the laws of physics and engineering that ensured they would stay afloat until they landed safely in California. Two rows back, his tios entertained themselves by ordering mini bottles of Jack Daniels and watching out the window the swirly jags of the Rocky Mountains.

They’d arrived in the vast confusion of LAX and everything had amazed them, especially the luggage wheel, which had magically dumped their bags onto the conveyor when the plane landed. Outside, the air was warm and dry, the airport rimmed with palm trees which, Robbie informed his impressed family, are the only flowering plant in the order monocot. He clutched the almanac in his pocket in the same way his mother clutched her perfumed rosary. Facts were his religion.

In the green room, Robbie met his competition. Angela, the girl, was from New Hampshire, and when she told Robbie she attended the Concord Academy, a prestigious boarding school with a price tag of over $40,000 per year, her clothing, which was all stiff cotton and pastel piping, and the fact that she had pronounced the word “homage” the way a French person might, began to make perfect sense.

The other boy, Robbie could tell, came from a background more similar to his own. Yun’s parents were Korean and had accompanied him into the greenroom to fuss over him until his number was called. He saw the fear in Yun’s eyes, the greatest fear of all for overachieving children of immigrants: disappointing their parents. It almost made him empathize with Yun, whose mother hadn’t let him into the studio until she’d licked the palm of her hand and slicked his hair back with it.

Like athletes before the Super Bowl, each contestant had his or her own unique pregame ritual. Amanda sat in a corner wearing a giant pair of headphones. She hugged herself and rocked back and forth gently, mouthing along to a downloaded dictionary. Yun endured his mother’s preening while his father read to him from the periodic table of elements. For his part, Robbie sat in a folding chair, twanged thoughtfully at a rubber band that stretched taut from a hook on his braces, and considered his chances. If Geography was a category, he would dominate. Most 16-year-old Americans couldn’t find, say, Slovakia on a map. Robbie could not only find it, he could tell you its capital, major exports, GNP, and national bird. He could also sing the first four bars of its national anthem: “Lightning flashes over the Tatras, thunder pounds wildly / Let us pause brothers, they will surely disappear / The Slovaks will revive!”

He’d had his braces tightened right before he’d left for California, sitting with a gaping mouth as Dr. McCormick’s hairy, muscled arms reached in and cranked tighter the infinity-shaped wire that was dragging together the gaps in his front incisors, and now it felt as if someone was pressing as hard as they could with the palm of their hand against his two front teeth. It was distracting, but the pain was still something that Robbie welcomed. Not only was he already seeing improvements to his smile—which at the beginning of his orthodontic journey was about as crooked as a row of broken tombstones—but the pain was a constant reminder of the backbreaking work his mother endured so that he could have a better life.

Maria Guajardo worked full-time cleaning bathrooms at O’Hare and worked weekends at a Lincoln Park late-night taqueria where drunken postcollegians congregated for burritos when the bars closed. She had taken this second job for the exclusive purpose of paying for Robbie’s braces, because she believed that a set of straightened teeth the most tangible of class markers: it was what separated the first-generation immigrants—the cat-food eaters, the wrong-verb conjugators—from the second generation: the college-educated, the acrylic-nailed. Robbie’s mother was the kind of grim, selfless woman with chapped hands and a nose threaded with broken capillaries who was content to suffer so that her son could live a more comfortable life, and it was this combination of factors—his mother’s sacrifices; the pain of his braces; uncles who long ago gave up hope of distinguishing themselves in their own right in order to fold their dreams into those of their brilliant young nephew—that accounted for Robbie’s early lead. He’d swept both the Russian Literature and the Six-Syllable Word categories, and at the end of the first round he was in the lead by almost $4,000. Best of all, it was clear that he’d gotten his hooks into his competitors’ mental games. To his left, Amanda was breathing heavily, struggling not to cry. She had a score of -400; she’d buzzed in for two of the first four questions, answered them incorrectly with an audibly shaking voice, and then hadn’t even attempted to answer a question for the rest of the round. During the commercial break, a producer had led her into the corner, given her a paper cone of water, and whispered encouragingly to her while she dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.

Yun, too, was losing his nerve. His mouth was set in a line as tight and straight as a shoelace, but his makeup was beginning to congeal and run with sweat, so that the entire surface of his face look like a pan of eggs just beginning to set.

“Let’s check out our categories for Double Jeopardy, players!” enthused Alex. “First we have: World Rivers!” Robbie’s heart leapt. He thought of all those quiet summers spent in the back table at the Chicago Public Library with a stack of anthologies and almanacs. All the other boys his age would be off at basketball clinics, football camps, swimming lessons. Robbie had no interest in sports. He didn’t like being jostled and tripped; he didn’t like spherical objects flying in the direction of his head, which housed 22 bones and contained a terrifyingly fragile network of neurons and folds and membranes. His mother was pleased. There was less chance of her only child being injured in a library than there was on a baseball diamond, and this was an important consideration for someone who did not have medical insurance.

“American Presidents!” Here, Robbie plucked triumphantly at his braces. He could name them in order from Washington to Obama.

“Chemistry!” Robbie could actually see, out of the corner of his eye, Yun stiffen with anticipation and squeeze his buzzer like a claw.

“Horses! Walt Disney! And finally, Sports and Fitness!” The twanging stopped momentarily. Of six categories, these three were beyond his expertise. Robbie experienced a disturbing, if fleeting, moment of self-doubt.

“Amanda,” said Alex, “seeing as you’re in third place, you’ll choose first for Double Jeopardy.”

“I’ll take Walt Disney? For 400?” she said. Her voice quivered so that everything she said sounded like a question.

“Walt Disney World, the nation’s largest theme park, is located in this American city!”

Robbie’s mind went blank. He’d never seen a Disney movie in his life. He’d been raised on strict diet of PBS, with the occasional mental break to watch his mother’s Mexican soap operas. They didn’t have cable growing up, they didn’t go to see movies, and Robbie had a distinct memory of going to kindergarten with a lunchbox shaped like the planet Saturn, while all the other kids had cartoon characters: pretty, giant-eyed girls with perky ponytails, and an androgynous-looking dark-skinned boy with puffy pants and curled shoes—Aladdin, was it?

“Orlando is the correct response, Amanda,” he heard Trebek saying. “Please pick again.”

Orlando! Orlando, Florida, population 200,000? Major producer of grapefruit, located in the central Florida lake region, indigenous home to the Seminole Indians? Robbie knew Orlando! He knew it! At least the things that mattered . . .

Amanda chose the same category for $400. Before Robbie could even process the question, she was already buzzing in: “What is the Mad Tea Party?” She won again for $600 and $800, and she won the Daily Double, on which she wagered all of her money. The correct answer was “Who is Goofy?”

Here Robbie realized that while his callous-handed, leathery forefathers had been plucking chickens and frying cornmeal on stone plates in Matamoros, Amanda’s ancestors had been sitting in comfortable, overstuffed chairs somewhere in New Hampshire, in houses that looked like wedding cakes. And in those wedding cake houses were large black-and-white televisions—his own grandparents having lived and died without ever seeing one—and on these televisions, Amanda’s grandparents had watched this Goofy and all of his friends, probably while eating egg-salad sandwiches with the crusts daintily trimmed, and they had passed down this cultural knowledge to their poplin-armored granddaughter so that one day she could appear on Teen Jeopardy and come back and win a scholarship for college that she didn’t even need.

Robbie looked over at Yun, whose makeup had bled off his sweating face and stained the blue collar of his shirt a dusky orange. His parents were watching him, still emanating that force field of perfection that promised, if Yun were to lose, a long, silent six-hour car ride back home to Mountain View, California. There would be no words of either reprimand or comfort, just the stunning Pacific to the west, as flinty and hard as sapphire, and Yun would gaze at it out the window for so long that it would sting his eyes until the tears came. Robbie wished suddenly that he had been friendlier to Yun in the greenroom.

Alex Trebek called for commercial, and Amanda looked out into the audience and found her parents, who nearly glowed with Waspy pride. Her father waved at her vigorously, the silver wristwatch winking on his thick, hairy wrist, and her mother, wearing a lemony cardigan the same color as her daughter’s hair, gave the thumbs-up sign. Robbie saw a tongue-colored thumbnail that matched exactly the color of her lipstick.

In contrast to Amanda’s parents, his own family looked faded and displaced, foreign in a way that even Yun’s parents didn’t. The three of them were holding hands, and oozing out from between the fingers of his mother and Tio Rafael were the beads of Robbie’s mother’s rosary. They wore matching T-shirts silk-screened with Robbie’s freshman-year photo that Tio Luis had gotten printed up at some kiosk in the Brickyard Mall food court. His uncles’ neck tattoos peeked out of their shirt collars like vines. It occurred to Robbie, looking at their ardent faces, that he might lose. What then? His uncles would squeeze his shoulders and tell him how proud they were, and his mom would wrap him in a long hug, but then he would hear her stirring from bed at 4:30 the next morning to get up for work and he would see that he had been unable to change anything for her. And at night, his tios would return to Kennedy’s to drink their rail liquor and, with quiet, heartsick voices, they would pick apart their nephew’s defeat in the same disbelieving way they dissected soccer matches. Robbie is the one, they would say, looking into the tepid surfaces of their glasses, who isn’t supposed to lose in this family. Us, sure. But never Robbie.

Their desperation frightened him, then angered him, and then he felt suddenly and fiercely ashamed of them all, most particularly his mother. Couldn’t she have done something with her hair? It was almost like she wanted to look like a woman who cleaned bathrooms for a living. Couldn’t she have bought a dress or something, maybe some high heels? Instead, she was wearing the T-shirt from the kiosk in the mall, which was so big on her that Robbie’s face across her chest was folded—he looked like a demon baby with freakishly close-set eyes. She waved and smiled at him with a face that loved him so honestly, and as he turned his back to her without returning her wave he saw the hurt on her face, and her hand fell back to her lap like a burned-out firework.

Robbie’s only chance at recovery, by this point, was World Rivers. But when Amanda finally turned her attentions to this category after closing out Walt Disney and Horses, and Alex read the first clue—”This Florentine river, when it flooded in 1966, destroyed many of the city’s artistic masterpieces”—Robbie buzzed in and answered, inexplicably, “What is the Tiber?” Even before he said it, he knew that he was wrong, but his brain had gone into panic mode. In the audience, he was aware of movement, the hands of his mother flying to cover her face while his uncles sagged in their seats.

Amanda picked up the cause, buzzing in and answering, with a voice that in no way resembled the trembling mouse of round one, “What is the Arno!” At that moment Robbie remembered her in the greenroom, talking casually to some of the other competitors about a classics tour she’d taken with her high school Latin class, how they’d travelled, with sturdy hiking boots and North Face backpacks, around the dusty crumbling whiteness of the Parthenon, picked their way among Roman ruins, then taken a train up to Florence, where the Duomo stands in the middle of the city, so huge, she said, that you can see it anywhere you go, blocking the ends of streets and rising between buildings like a red-tiled sun—a red-tiled sun, he’d thought; I’d like to see that—and that medieval city is cut through the middle by the Arno, whose waters Amanda had personally gazed down at from the middle of Ponte Vecchio. She’d been there, she’d seen it, but in all those years of memorizing cities and capitals and rivers and oceans, Robbie had never once dreamed that he might do the same, because the world outside Logan Square was populated not by human people but by demographics; a world not colored by sunsets or softened by rain or smelling of seaweed and pine sap but by average temperatures and yearly precipitation measurements. All his life he’d been a champion, but even now, he still dreamed like a peasant.

"Teen Jeopardy" author Jessie Morrison
“Teen Jeopardy” author Jessie Morrison

The plane ride back to Chicago was quiet. Robbie’s mother slept while his tios stared out the window. Rolled out mightily beneath them was the American west. Robbie had never seen so much of it all at once. It spread forever, its topography familiar to him from his books, with mountain ranges whose names he knew, whose tops he could measure. His braces were killing him. They tore up the soft insides of his mouth and they pulled so constantly at his front teeth he could feel the pain all the way up in the center of his forehead. Next to him, his mother stirred in her sleep, her hand groping and finding his. Under normal circumstances he would object to such maternal displays of affection. But here, with the mountains below and the patchworks of prairie fields, he relented to the warm pressure of her peeling fingers, and began to list the major exports of the countries he would one day take her to, once she got some time off work, and he had a little money in his pocket.

Next: “The Fall and Rise of ‘The Worst Commercial Ever Made'”