You Wouldn’t Understand
Fourteen over seventy. That was easy. Take the one and the four and- actually, it wasn’t so easy. Miss Haywood’s chalk looped and careened across the board.
She always drew a squiggly oval around the answer. Bobby waited for it. That oval was the only thing that mattered. To the right of the last equals sign was a clean, simple digit with no remainder. Five. She drew the squiggly oval in one swoop of the wrist to crown that five. Bobby was not sure how she did that, but it probably came with the territory of being able to extract five from those dizzying equations.
The fourteen and the seventy were at war with each other, their guts were splayed across the board, and five was their truce. It was called long division, and Bobby was pretty sure that if he mastered it, he could alter the fabric of things.
What would things look like—everyday things? Would a can opener still be a can opener when Bobby possessed the ability to do what Miss Haywood did with numbers? Would a rock on the beach still be a rock on the beach? A cup of water a cup of water? Would his hand still be made of skin, bones and muscle?
Magic was attainable. Yes, this was the case. There were unseen squiggly ovals out there on the playing field, in the stock market, in every square mile of adult life just waiting to be attained. It would all make sense to him in a few years. Others could help.
When Bobby turned ten, his best friend Rick gave him a green lunchbox. Bobby was evidently disappointed. Rick whispered, “Don’t look inside it.” Inside the lunchbox was an assortment of firecrackers. Some of them shot high up in the air and burst into flashes of bubblegum colors that bloated his eyes. Some of them just made a loud noise. Bobby was still disappointed.
His sister Julie was thirteen. The previous year she had given him an Indian burn for his birthday. The year prior to that her gift had been a wedgie. She had promised him a Fallopian Squeeze when he turned ten. Bobby had no idea what a Fallopian Squeeze was, and after three hundred and sixty three days of wondering, he was very excited to receive one. He had asked all his friends at school — even some of the lunch ladies — but nobody had ever heard of it (not even Rick’s older brother Jimmy who was in the seventh grade and had a dirt bike he bought with his own money) and all the while Julie had just grinned and said “you’ll see when you’re ten.”
After opening the last of his presents, his eyes came around to Julie who sat at the edge of the table with a sophisticated posture. She was not grinning. “My birthday present to you is knowledge,” she announced.
Mom and Dad glanced at each other. Mom was cutting the cake and Dad was washing dishes.
“Tonight I’ll come in your room and tell you things that will make you smarter.”
The night of his tenth birthday, Bobby snuck out with the green lunchbox to meet Rick in the field in front of Krizby Legion. They were to consecrate his ascendance into double-digit-dom with the detonation of illegal firecrackers. This was mandatory. Bobby tried to be enthralled with the bright flashes and his and Rick’s ownership of the sky for those instances, but all he wanted to do was hurry home to receive what wisdom Julie had to impart. Rick would never understand such things.
They had lit off six of the eleven morsels before Old Man Stevenson came out of his house on the other side of the field shouting. They closed the green lunchbox and ran, crouching low in the brush to evade the eyes of Old Man Stevenson.
Once back on the street, Rick said, while keeping a watchful eye for police cars, “That was almost as cool as when Matt Penny raced us down Suicide Hill on his Huffy and hit that jump. What do you think?”
Bobby thought about the two in comparison, but had no answer. His mind had been elsewhere the whole evening, and Rick noticed. Rick punched him in the meat of his forearm, with a potent pivoting of the fist. Bobby flinched but did not hit him back. Whenever he did hit back, Rick would effortlessly dodge the assault and deliver a limerick, something like missed me, you lose, now you get another bruise.
Rick was unable to compute Bobby’s disinclination to play, so he punched Bobby harder in the same spot, like trying to start a faulty lawnmower. “Dick weed.”
“Booger collector.” That was Bobby’s favorite retort of late. It was like tax collector.
Bobby snuck back into the house successfully and climbed quickly into bed, fearful that he had missed the visitation and would not be granted a second one. He drifted off slightly and swam through an outdoor classroom situated in the middle of a baseball diamond where Miss Haywood lectured about long division through a catcher’s mask. The ceiling snapped back into focus when the door creaked open and Julie sauntered in.
“I’m awake,” Bobby said softly.
“You have my birthday present?”
“No, I forgot it in my room.”
Bobby’s tongue backpedaled.
“Of course I have it, you dope. I already told you what it is.”
“Is it gonna hurt?”
She sat down on the edge of the bed and looked at him squarely. “Did last year’s present hurt?”
“Did the one before that hurt? But not as much as last year’s, did it, huh?”
“After, will you teach me so I can do it to other kids?”
She shook her head, looking upwards. She was shaking her head at the ceiling.
“Do I need to put out my hand or something? How does it work?”
Julie’s arms were folded. “Bobby, were you asleep when I came in?”
“Yeah, uh, kinda.”
“Really? How asleep were you? Asleep like paper or asleep like concrete?”
“That’s not very asleep. How come, Bobby? We brushed our teeth at eight. That was an hour ago. Were you just waiting for me for an hour?”
Bobby said nothing.
She lowered her voice. “I know where you were tonight.”
Bobby looked down.
“Tell me, since I already know. I want to hear you admit it.”
“You don’t know, you just want me to tell you.”
“You want your birthday present?”
“If you tell me all of it, I won’t tell Mom. If you fib-”
“Fine, Jeez. Rick and me lit off fire-pretzels in the park. Can I have my Fallopian Squeeze now?”
Julie contained a smile between her teeth. “Close your eyes and count to thirty.”
“One, two, three, four-”
Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Eleven.
“Wait a sec. Why do you want to know so bad?”
“’Cause you promised.”
“Did you promise Rick you’d set off fire pretzels tonight? I guess you wanted that badder.”
“No, I want to know-”
“Then why’d you sneak out tonight? I thought you’d be waiting for me in bed.”
Bobby’s eyes got cloudy. Julie could not persist after Bobby’s eyes got cloudy.
“Bobby, there’s no such thing as a Fallopian Squeeze.”
There was a suction in Bobby’s chest that made his teeth feel like levies against something that may have been tears and may have been something else.
“Do you feel smarter yet?”
Bobby’s voice teetered over an abyss. “But if you made it up, then you know what-”
She shook her head. “Learning is the best birthday present you can get.”
“No it isn’t.”
“I don’t mean school learning, I mean real learning.”
“You’re a liar.”
“Do you want to ask me any questions?”
“Anything I know. But just tonight. I lied on purpose, see, that way you know I’m telling the truth tonight because I owe you the truth. So you have to believe what I say.”
Bobby already knew what question to ask. “Swear on your left kidney?”
“I swear on my larynx.”
“What’s a lariks?”
“Never mind. I swear on my large intestine.”
“Swear on your belly button?”
“The belly button’s not an internal organ.”
“Oh, right. Swear on your ‘sophagus?”
“I swear on my uterus.”
They performed the ritual reverse handshake with palms facing outward, their fingers bent back and crisscrossed about each other to seal the pact.
Julie scooted her back against the wall and tucked her legs under the covers. “I’ll be smarter than mom in a few years,” she murmured.
“What’s a dill doctor?”
“Nah, that’s stupid, never mind.”
“Insults don’t have to mean anything, they just have to sound funny and bad, you know that. You won’t get this chance till next year, ask me something that matters.”
Bobby scratched his chin. “Is Miss Haywood smarter than the president?”
“Man, I thought you’d have better questions than this. I guess I’ll just go to sleep.”
“No! Wait. Can a boy get a girl pregnant if he licks her throat eleven times and really means it?”
Julie stood up. “You have one more chance to ask me an intelligent question or I’m saying good night.”
Bobby thought about it. He knew what he wanted to ask, but he wasn’t sure if the question—as his mind phrased it—made any sense. Still the question pounded on his ribcage from inside his body, reaching up into the back of his throat like a hand through prison bars.
“Take a deep breath. Don’t be nervous. What do you want to know from me?”
Bobby thought of the previous summer’s camping trip at Horse Creek when they split up for the day and Bobby and Dad went fishing and Julie and Mom went rafting. After the canoe capsized, Dad and Bobby had to hike back to the tent site at night, and that was when the flashlight bulb went out and there was no moon. Bobby was afraid to move forward. Dad told him to place one foot in front of the other and keep his weight on the foot that was already planted. One word in front of the other would get an answer.
Sticks crackled in slow disintegration, bending and splintering over the rim of rock masonry. Mom pushed the tentacles back into the campfire pit with her walking stick. It made Bobby think of spaghetti trespassing over the edge of the pot.
Dad laid one of the bigger logs across the top and stood back. He was still embarrassed about the canoe. “See that, son? Ancient people used to sit before the fire and ask it for answers. Isn’t that interesting?”
Julie stepped forward. Mom gently tried to hold her back from speaking, implying that Dad had endured enough humiliation for one day. “What was that, Daddy? Did you say ancient people? Ancient people?”
Dad laughed gutturally. “I forgot, your sister’s writing a research paper on alternative religions for Mister Lorrey. I’d better be careful what I say and who I offend.”
Mom took Dad’s hand and said in a playful tone, “I’m not offended.”
“Why did they look at fire?” Bobby pressed.
Julie tended the fire, as Mom and Dad were no longer paying attention to it. “It’s called Pyromancy, the Shamanic art of fire gazing, and people practice it today, daddy.” The sentence was a whip and the word daddy was the spike on the end. She coughed and fanned smoke away from her eyes. “It’s really no different than sitting in a church pew and looking for answers that way. Fire has properties that can put you in a trance state, but it’s really not the fire, it’s your mind.” She roasted her first marshmallow as she continued. “How would you like it if some ignoramus told his kids that fishing is something ancient people did?”
“Hey Jules, you got a mosquito on your shoulder.” When she turned her head, Dad lifted the marshmallow stick from the fire with one finger and bit off the entire marshmallow in one swift motion.
“Hey!” Julie swatted at Dad with the stick. Mom and Bobby laughed hysterically.
Dad continued taunting while running in backwards circles around the fire pit and dodging Julies’ stick. “Sounds to me like your sister just enlisted in the church of crystal balls and flying saucers. Maybe if we’re nice to her and let her eat the last hot dog, later she’ll teach us how to levitate, whaddo you say, champ?”
Later that night, Bobby snuck out of the tent and practiced walking one foot in front of the other blindly, trusting only his previous step and where he stood presently. After one full lap around the campground, his eyes began to adjust. It was then that he felt the warmth of an unseen squiggly oval shape encompass his body.
Bobby’s question to Julie was “What’s real magic?” The answer was “Anything you want it to be.”
“You can ignore that.”
“That’s what I said.”
I find it difficult to ignore anything you say.
“Did I tell you to ignore what I say?”
You expect me to ignore everything you leave unsaid. It’s the same thing.
“Would it surprise you if I had high expectations of you?”
I should hope you do.
“Have I said anything to imply that you’re a shoe in?”
I should think my level of confidence is irrelevant. Less relevant still, you’re telling me, is wind resistance? Are we not overlooking the Pacific ocean from forty-thousand feet at this very moment from the window of a-
“Your antiquated thinking is adorable. Seriously, our technology has less to do with the Wright brothers than with microwave ovens. Forget everything you know about aviation. Work with me here.”
And ignore the medium through which we’re traveling at speeds far exceeding the propagation of the words that are coming out of my mouth and into your eardrum?
“You won’t begin to understand the physics of it until week three, and if you try, you’ll be awake all night and by daybreak you’ll have developed a very specific type of schizophrenia that’s a real pain in the ass to treat—twenty-six percent of our novices experience it, and three percent of them kill themselves. So for now, I know it’s easier said than done, but just try and suspend a little disbelief.”
Only if you can tell me in five words or less why I should accept the impertinence of drag. And feel free to talk to me like a child.
Because of astronomical speed and voltage-
“I already told you, Newton’s laws have no place in this conversation. Would you use Doctor Seuss analogies to explain Hamlet to a lit major? If you persist in this inanity, you’ll do irreparable psychological damage to yourself.”
But you said it’s negligible, that means it does have some effect.
“Pardon me, I see that I’m going to have to tailor my vernacular to your proclivities to render my analogies digestible to that limited learning curve of yours."
I find your fraternizing tone unprofessional.
"If you think these good-humored jabs are my way of fraternizing, you hardly know me."
And those who do know you, is knowing you something they would recommend?
"Depends what day it is."
I lack the energy to digress. You were about to rephrase-
"Forget I said negligible. To you the word obviously has connotations other than the scientific. Since your background is in conceptual mathematics, I'll say it’s infinitesimal."
Now that word is distracting to me.
The sensuality, how it sounds, how it feels on the tongue. Its dictionary definition is unimaginably small, the converse of infinity. But if I heard the word on the street divorced from context, I’d think it was, I don’t know, something…visceral. Carnal.
Do you think me that simple?
“I think it might do you good to sit down and stop gesticulating with your left wrist.”
That’s not a gesticulation, that’s an involuntary muscular contraction, and I thank you for bringing it to my awareness. Now I will stop.
“By conscious effort?”
The effort is negligible.
If a routine exhausts its regulatory purpose, its cessation is necessary, and therefore always within budget.
“Then why is your left hand still clenching and unclenching to the unheard beat of the popular Nineties’ Hip-Hop song 'Move This'?”
How can you possibly recognize a song by a nervous tic?
“Am I not permitted a sense of humor?”
You’re permitted to explain to me why the hell wind resistance is-
“If you still have interest in this program, you will not utter those two words again.”
Level with me, if you would. What is the likelihood of my being accepted?
“You already received your letter of invitation in October, don’t you recall?”
I don’t suppose I would remember that.
“That’s because I lied to you just now. Do you find it disconcerting, my ability to shapeshift your reality with a random utterance, and your readiness to allow it? Even after this admission, you will still cling to my cognition as you would a flotation device.”
What are you talking about?
"The fact that your hierarchy of perception places my words in a position superseding sensory input, both of the tactile and-"
What are you talking about?
“You trust me.”
Why would I trust you?
“If not because of the fact that we’ve just completed two point three complete circles around the Earth at high altitude in the span of this conversation, then because of the calm composure on my face.”
I think I get it now.
“Then let us switch seats and you explain it to me as if I am you.”
Well, it’s kind of like the Turbo Vap Racer, but instead-
“Care to tell me what a Turbo Vap Racer is? No, I’m not joking. I want to hear you describe an elementary, familiar concept first, so that I may calibrate your vocal cadences.”
It’s an aquatic vehicle with turbines that evaporate water into a local cloud of hydrogen and oxygen gas, a bubble twice the volume of the watercraft. The turbine blades create a pressure vacuum that translates to instantaneous forward pull. Viscosity completely leaves the equation.
“Now what’s that got to do with us?”
This vessel is replacing the air around it with an envelope of empty space.
“There’s no such thing as empty space.”
Because we’re occupying it now.
“Think of the classic example of the elevator in free fall. Now take gravity itself to be the medium being dissolved. The term falling no longer applies to the horizon manifold containing that elevator. But can it still be thought of as free?"
Are you ridiculing me?
"How do you think light travels?”
It doesn’t. That’s a myth. Matter travels. Light is stationary. Organisms on Earth are composed of both light and matter, that spells partially free.
“Which fails to explain why you’ve succeeded in pacifying those nervous convulsions of your left wrist. And based on the nonsense you’re spewing, I’d estimate your probability of admission into our program at near to zero, which is why I question your physical calm and that self-important smile on your face.”
You have yet to see what I can do.
“Why did you say just now that you think you understand the technology?”
When I was a toddler, I refused to be potty trained until my parents got out the toolbox and took apart the toilet to show me how every little part functioned. Same with driving a car. I just like to know how shit works.
“Do you remember what I said to you a few minutes ago when you first brought up the tedious subject of wind resistance?”
That you have high expectations of me?
“I also said that you won’t begin to understand the physics until week three of orientation. If I don’t expect you to understand it for another three weeks, and my expectations are high, and you accept both those statements, then you are being not only presumptuous, but unrealistic.”
Am I not permitted a sense of humor?
“Not until week four.”
Then I’m happy to be on board.
“Why are you here?”
If there’s a scripted answer to that, I won’t pretend to care what it is. If you really want to know, you're free to pretend that you never asked me, and allowed the answer to escape me organically at a later time.
"Your posture hints quite adequately at what I suspect is the answer."
If you mean to point out my tightly wound nature, I’m sure your recognition will bore me. I sit up straight because that is my conditioning, and I keep one forearm and the opposite calf muscle flexed at all times, as a matter of habit. Blood circulation has a polarity that one can manipulate by simple—and, I might add, inconspicuous—isometric exercises if one is so inclined, and thereby keep the intellect sharp.
"Whatever gave you that idea?"
"Does that mean you'll reject the moniker Coiled Steel Bastard? Condescending nicknames build community, as you know. You shall laugh when I tell you mine. In any case, how do you justify that ridiculous haircut? What is that, a ceramic helmet welded to your ears?"
Next I suppose you'll pick apart my style of dress. Let’s not discuss my appearance.
“Is there any way that I might accommodate your compulsion to luxuries? One of the goals of this program, as you know, is to furnish this cabin with low cost amenities for marketability."
Suffice it to say I could use a drink.
“Would you care for a tour of the Sugar Glass Galaxy? The mosquitoes sing quite exquisitely in the springtime. Of course mosquitoes and springtime are both vulgar stand-ins for concepts that do not translate.”
Is this cabin really equipped to leave Earth’s atmosphere?
“I’m joking, of course. There are zones and we lack permits for space travel. It is certainly no question of equipment—but I don’t have to tell you that.”
I would have thought political resistance to be neg- infinitesimal.
“Which is precisely why you’ve been admitted to our program. I advise you get some rest.”
Talking to himself beneath the bleachers held no margin of boredom. The sky fizzed lazily in white streaks that burned at the edges, curling off into purplish yellow yesterday.
Dinner would soon get cold.
His real education took place in the basement where his first-place ribbon from last year’s science fair hung above a pile of oblong circular shapes stenciled out of plywood that would, in due time, accelerate the course of history.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED