I’m in the mood to edit “Odor,” that short story I wrote about the anosmic dude who got an implant in his brain in order to be able to smell. When I wrote it back in 2013 I really just wrote it to write it, if that makes any sense. I’d been wanting to write about anosmia for a long time, but I had always approached it from a non-fiction standpoint and could never get anything written. But once I made it a fictional account, writing about it became ridiculously easy and free-flowing. I think I wrote the original story in about two hours, then edited only a few things afterward.
Thus, it’s not perfect. Far from it. But I want to edit it so that it can get closer to perfect, because it’s a very personal story and I just want it to be told right.
Anyway. I didn’t have anything else to blog about today, so you get that little snippet of thought.
So today I spent a lot of time packing for the move (when am I not packing for a move?) and I came across an old story I’d written in a journal in first grade. I’d like to share it with you because a) I want to demonstrate that my writing ability has in fact not improved since first grade and b) I have nothing else of interest today.
I remember we had to write a story about Halloween for this particular writing assignment, but other than that it was pretty open. My incredibly creative title for this thing was “The Poisonous Pumpkin.”
Once there was a boy named Jacob. His dad said, “Son, we are moving to Pennsylvania! But first we must buy some pumpkins, for it is getting close to Halloween.”
“Okay,” said Jacob. “Give me some money and I’ll got to the store and buy six pumpkins.”
“Okay,” said his dad. “Here’s six dollars, one for each pumpkin. Put on your coat.”
“Alright,” said Jacob. “Bye!”
Soon he got to the pumpkin selling place. “Here’s six dollars for six pumpkins!” said Jacob.
“Okay,” said the pumpkin seller. “Pick your pumpkins.”
So Jacob found the best six pumpkins. He was about to go home when he saw a pumpkin with a scary face and lips already carved out. He put back one of his pumpkins and took that one.
When he got home his dad had already packed. “Come on, son!” he said. “Put your bike and the pumpkins you bought in the back of the car. By the way, that’s a very strange pumpkin you bought.”
“I know,” said Jacob. “It was already carved. Can you believe it?”
“Now son, don’t start making up stories.”
“Now let’s go!”
So they got into the car and drove off. Finally they reached Pennsylvania. Jacob got out of the car. “What a house!” he said.
“Don’t forget the pumpkins,” his dad said.
“I won’t.” He opened the back door of the car…”Dad?” asked Jacob.
“The pumpkin with the face already carved out…”
“Yes?” said his dad.
“Is the window open?” asked his dad.
“Yes,” replied Jacob.
“Well, it probably fell out the window.”
“But we didn’t hit any bumps!” said Jacob.
“Yes we did,” said his dad. “The gravel road.”
“But those were just little bumps,” said Jacob. “Even I barely felt them.”
“Oh, let’s just forget about the pumpkin.”
The next day Jacob woke up. [best line in this whole damn story.]
“Come on Jacob!” Said his dad. “You don’t want to be late for the first day of school.” Jacob got up, got dressed, and went downstairs for breakfast. Jacob saw the old dry leaves out the window and remembered the crackling he heard that night. But before he could say anything to his dad, the school bus arrived.
“Hurry!” said his dad. Jacob got his backpack and ran outside. But the poisonous pumpkin was watching behind a bush. He knew that when Jacob got home he would have a friend with him, and that he could poison Jacob’s friend.
When Jacob did get home, he did have a friend named Andrew with him. Andrew was spending the night.
“Let’s go upstairs and play,” said Jacob.
“Okay,” replied Andrew.
They played until it was time for dinner. When Jacob and Andrew and his dad went to bed, the door opened.
“Did you hear that?” said Andrew.
“I sure did,” replied Jacob. “My dad’s asleep. Let’s go down and see!” They went downstairs, turned around, and looked out the door. There was the poisonous pumpkin with a can of pop and an ax in his vines.
“Run!” said Jacob. Jacob and Andrew ran as fast as they could, but the pumpkin came after them, waving its ax.
“Dad!” yelled Jacob. “The pumpkin’s alive!”
Suddenly, the as slipped from the vines and flew in front of Jacob. He quickly grabbed it. Then he ran after the poisonous pumpkin. The poisonous pumpkin was drinking his pop and spitting poison at Jacob. One shot almost hit him. After a long time of running, the pumpkin got tired. Soon, it collapsed. Jacob chopped him up and burned him. The poisonous pumpkin was never heard of again.
Riveting. Man, that plot skips around like a scratched CD and then just crashes and burns, doesn’t it? Also, I love how the pumpkin has to infuse pop with the poison in order for it to be effective. And that he needed an ax, too, like as a backup. Way to write a villain, Claudia.
There are indeed illustrations for this, but they’re even more embarrassing than the writing, so you don’t get those.
Do you like math?
Do you like fiction?
DO YOU LIKE THEM BOTH??
Go here! It’s a pretty comprehensive list of math-related fiction. If you so desire, you can search by keyword, genre, topic (calculus, chaos, fractals, statistics, etc.), motif, or rating in terms of literary value or math involvement.
Just a quick little blog today!
For our second long story in Fiction, we had the options of either writing something new or revising one of our old draft stories we did earlier in the semester. After screwing around with a nonsense cliché story, I made the decision to revise my “Odor” story (first draft posted here). There are actually two reasons I wanted to do so:
1. For a long while, I’ve wanted to write about my experience with anosmia. Apart from a blog about it every now and again, I’ve never been able to really formally write about it. I’m not sure why—it’s kind of a difficult thing to write about in a formal setting, I guess. But trying to make a fictional story that involved a character who had anosmia really made it easy to express a lot of the things I wanted to express about anosmia without having it be about me. So that meant a lot.
2. When we workshopped my draft of “Odor” way back at the beginning of the semester, someone asked, “being born without a sense of smell is a thing?” I think that’s all I need as my second reason.
I don’t know why I’m posting this. Why am I posting this? This is horrible. I dread Wednesday.
Carnival Mind (Alternate Title: Writer’s Block Sucks)
On Saturday, July 17, 2049, the world population hit nine billion and I fell asleep at my grandfather’s funeral. As someone who studies human population growth as a career, my excitement over the first fact (which I’d seen on the news as I’d gotten ready for the funeral that morning) should have prevented the second from ever happening. But as it was, nothing in the world was exciting enough to have kept me awake during the most boring funeral service imaginable.
My tiredness in the first place was due to staying up with Grandfather during his final days. Seeing as how he’d outlived all of his children, the rest of the family figured it would be best for one of the grandkids to take care of him as his health started to decline. So I, being geographically the closest, had packed a few things, left my apartment and cat in the care of my next door neighbor, and moved in with Grandfather for what we all thought would be a week at most.
That was back in May. During the three months I spent with him, he actually seemed no different than any of the previous times I’d come to visit. But as May turned into June and June turned into July, he began sleeping less and less and eventually not at all, until his exhausted body finally gave in and resigned to permanent stillness. During his last week, I managed to stay awake with him right up until the very end.
But once he was finally gone, my ability to sleep returned and I found myself unable to stay awake during even the most engaging activities. So one could imagine how well I would handle a funeral. One minute I was listening to the priest ramble on about God and the afterlife and the next minute I was being jarred awake by my step-sister’s elbow as she hissed vulgarities at me under her breath.
“Jesus, wake up, Victor,” she whispered, nodding her head in the direction of the back of the church. “The press is here.”
Of course the press was there. When the oldest man in the world dies, he automatically loses the privilege of an intimate, family-exclusive funeral. I looked back in the direction of her nod. It wasn’t just the press. The Guinness guys were there, too—no doubt to get an official photo of the funeral to publish in their annual book.
Guinness World Records had been tracking Grandfather for 40-some-odd years. In 2017, the oldest living person had died at age 120, leaving Grandfather (who was 119 at the time) as the current record holder. In 2025, he made the record books yet again on his 127th birthday as the oldest human being ever officially documented. And with each additional year he lived, he made that record harder and harder to break for the next 100-something destined to push the limits of human longevity.
I’d started working at the U.S. Census Bureau in 2040, when I was 26. Moving to Washington, D.C. for work put me in close proximity to Grandfather, who was 142 at the time but still living independently in Baltimore. Knowing that his last two surviving children were too old ever to visit and that most of the other grandkids were west of the Mississippi River, I decided that it would be good of me to start paying him regular visits. He had raised me after the death of my father, after all.
So every Sunday I’d drive the 100 miles to Richmond. I’d pick him up and we’d get ice cream to take to the park and watch the old chess players duke it out on the public boards. To my surprise, Grandfather took a keen interest in my job once he found out what it actually was that I did. We hadn’t really spoken since I graduated high school and I had to explain how I ended up working for the government. However, he seemed to ignore the “U.S.” part of “U.S. Census Bureau” and ended up always wanting to know about the state of the world’s population, not just the country’s, during my visits.
Every Sunday was the same conversation.
“What’s the score, Vic?” he’d ask.
I’d look it up on the population ticker on the Census Bureau website every Sunday morning so I could give him the most accurate value.
“When we gonna hit the big 9 billion?”
“Soon,” I’d say. As the years progressed, I gave him different estimates. May of 2045. December of 2047. Within the year.
Regardless of the estimate, he’d always shake his head. “Too many people,” he’d say. “Too many living too long. What’s the point of living if you can’t even remember that that’s what you’re doing?”
Once, he equated the growing population with the reason technology had stalled around 2020. “I may be from the 1800s,” he said, “but I’m not an idiot. I knew we’d never get flying cars or teleportation or any of that science fiction nonsense because people would be too busy inventing pacemakers for worn-out hearts and hearing aids for worn-out ears and adult diapers for worn-out pissers, and then re-inventing them so that they didn’t cause chafing during shuffleboard.”
I would look at him sitting there, still as spry and alert in his 14th decade of life as he’d been in his 4th, and try to explain that aging was not as easy for everyone else as it had been for him.
Grandfather had lived like he was part of time itself—untouchable and unchangeable by the events around him, but intimately involved in everything that happened. He had married his first wife just as the First World War began in 1914. His subsequent marriages—all seven of them—seemed to coincide with similarly significant events on the world stage. The reason for so many marriages was simple: he was never unfaithful, he never divorced—he just continued to live.
Over a span of 40 fertile years, Grandfather produced 23 children. The eldest was in her late 30s when the youngest was born in 1949. Of the 23, 22 managed to at least reach their 100th birthday. And it wasn’t just his kids who had shunned the conventional lifespan—his kid’s kids—his grandkids—showed a similar inclination towards prolonged finiteness. Some of the oldest ones, by the time Grandfather passed, already had their centennial birthdays behind them.
The whole family was a delightful genetic anomaly for age researchers. In 2014, the year I was born (my father had managed to produce me at age 65; I try not to visualize the night of my conception), some company paid the family a significant sum to allow a thorough exploration of their genes. The researchers had sampled Grandfather first and found that his unwillingness to submit to the reaper was likely due to the presence of two rare genetic mutations—one that slowed the deterioration of his genetic material, another that affected his chromosomes’ resistance to cancers. The odds of these two mutations occurring in the same person, the researchers told him, were lower than the odds of someone winning the Powerball twice in a row.
But they also told him that the likely reason his children were living so long was because he’d passed these miracle genes onto them. And indeed, the tests revealed that the mutations were the gift that kept on giving: 22 of his children were told that they, too, had won the genetic lottery. My father, the second youngest of the bunch, was the statistical anomaly within the statistical anomaly. He possessed neither mutation.
None of Grandfather’s children made it to his funeral. They’d lived long, of course, but none had lived long enough to see the death of the man that had gifted them with life back in the previous century. They waited for him, though—posed solemnly and unmoving next to their various mothers in the cemetery ground where we would all head once the in-church portion of the service concluded.
I made a mental note to myself as I sat in the pew, playing with the buttons on the front of my jacket to alleviate my boredom, to say hello to my father once we were down there. I did the subtraction in my head: 2049 – 2028. He’d been gone for 21 years.
It was only in July that Grandfather’s health had truly started to decline. He’d gradually been sleeping less and less, and by the middle of the month he was awake for upwards of 22 hours a day. His breathing grew labored and though he couldn’t sleep, he was too weak to get out of bed. I had tried to keep up a regimen of daily walks—at least one per every six hours—but the regimen had to be abandoned as even sitting up became too difficult an activity for Grandfather to carry out.
The fourth day before he died was the last day he slept at all. It was a Sunday. He was obviously too weak for an excursion to the park, so I brought a bowls of Rocky Road to his room and opened the window so we could hear the birds in the tree outside. Pulling a chair next to the bed, I joked about trying to find a televised chess game so that we could complete our usual Sunday experience.
His appetite had left him. He had no desire for the ice cream but asked me the same question he always did whenever we had our weekly get-togethers.
“What’s the score, Vic?”
“8,999,860,340.” So said the ticker that morning.
“Soon,” I replied. “Very soon. Next week, maybe.”
He wanted to say more, I think, but became racked with a wet cough that sounded like an engine trying to turn over in his lungs. Still, as he coughed he shook his head disapprovingly at the statistic I’d provided.
“Too many people?” I asked, assuming that was what he was thinking.
He nodded, the cough dissipating, and cleared his throat of the mucus before speaking again. “Too many. I want a flying car before I die.”
There were at least 320 people at the funeral, not counting the media. They were all relatives, most of them direct. I’d stood in the back and counted before the service began. Undoubtedly others had trickled in as the priest led the opening prayers. Perhaps others had snuck out due to how boring it all was. And as much as I wanted to leave—I could wait for Grandfather down at the cemetery with my aunts and uncles; surely they could provide me with at least as much liveliness as the priest—I was scheduled to give a short eulogy along with four of my other step-siblings once the priest had finished his blessings. At least, I hoped they would be short. Mine was.
I snuck another glance over my shoulder at the six or seven photographers and reporters, all who looked as bored as I felt. They had exhausted the polite amount of pre-procession photos and questions and were standing around picking their fingers and shifting their weight, waiting as the rest of us were for the priest to proclaim his final “Amen” and let us be mournful again rather than just bored.
There was great media hoopla when grandfather turned 150 in 2048. His unprecedented age earned him unprecedented fame, which he responded to with quiet humility (“I’m just getting old,” he’d said. “Anyone can do that.”). CNN’s article about him was entitled, “The Oldest of the Oldest Old.” Huffington Post was a bit more humorous: “150 is the New 100.” But it was Time that scored an actual interview which ended up taking five pages in an edition that featured a well-lighted portrait of Grandfather on the cover and the words, “Man of the Century and a Half” printed below.
The interviewer asked him about his exceptionally long past. What was his earliest memory? (Playing with his next door neighbor Georgie during the summer of 1899.) His favorite decade? (The 1940s.) Most memorable political event? (Either JFK’s assassination in 1963 or the election of Koss, the first Gray Party President, in 2044.)
Then things got a bit more serious. She asked him what he knew about the genetic testing performed on him and his family, to which he replied that he knew very little. She asked about his kids, who he could still name perfectly as if he was reading from a roster, before zeroing in on my father and the fact that he lacked the genes that had kept his brothers and sisters going well past 100.
But Grandfather had refused to answer her question regarding his feelings about my father’s death in 2028 and her subsequent question about the impending fate of my father’s son (me), who also lacked the mutations that had given the rest of the family extended lives. The end of the printed article had undergone careful editing so as to still contain what had actually been said but to also mask the fact that Grandfather had walked out of the interview spewing profanity and ranting about invasion of privacy.
My father’s funeral had been held on a Friday afternoon, three days before what would have been his 80th birthday. It wasn’t a media sensation. It was quiet and family-only. He’d had had a stroke. It was quick and likely painless, according to his doctors. The suffering was reserved for those who outlived him.
I was 14. I’d shaved for the first time for the funeral. My deepening voice was starting to sound like Father’s. I was pubescent and I was mourning, and seeing Grandfather smiling over the open casket that morning incited both my hormones and my grief. It was the first time I’d ever truly yelled at anyone. It was the first time I’d ever cursed. I ran from the church and spent the rest of the burial service crying beneath the outside stairs.
Grandfather found me and apologized, but it was a long time before I publically forgave him. It was an even longer time before I let myself stop thinking about that smile every time I saw him.
By Wednesday, July 14th, Grandfather had been sleepless for nearly four days. So had I. Together we drifted within the dreamlike phase between consciousness and unconsciousness. His breathing sounded like the broken bellows of a music-less accordion, and when he talked it sounded like air was escaping somewhere within him, giving an eerie hollowness to his words.
All day he seemed like he was working up the strength to tell me something, but couldn’t get more than a word or two out at a time. But that night he requested a cold glass of water, which he drank with the voracity of someone who’d just finished a marathon. This seemed to give him the energy he needed to finally say what he wanted to say.
“Seven years ago,” he said, the loose rattle of mucus in his lungs forcing him to speak slowly, “I remember waking up one morning in this bed, laying here just like this. I remember closing my eyes and realizing that, in that moment, I could remember everything that had ever happened to me.” He held his hands out, palm facing upward, as if he was trying to channel his younger self.
“Every memory was there in the front of my head, all kind of melded together.” He gave a weak huff of laughter. “It was like a carnival—a big celebration or something. I could recall my first wife as clearly as I could my last. I could see you as a kid, as same age as Georgie, the kid I used to play with back when I was 10. It was all there, everything together. The memories were like people to me. I stayed in bed that whole morning just living with them.”
He paused to catch his breath, waiting for the rattling to abate before continuing again. “Seven years ago. You know what I think it was? I think it was my sweet spot. I think, at that point in my life, I had just enough memories. Everything fit with everything else.”
Another pause. He tried to fight through his labored breathing, the gaps between his sentences lengthening. “I never felt that way again. After a certain point, there were too many memories. Too many people. So the carnival stopped. People started packing up and going home, one by one. And things got quiet.”
Almost as if to emphasize his point, he held his lungs still for a moment and the rattling ceased, revealing a background of static silence in the dark, still bedroom.
“When things get quiet…that’s when you start to get tired. That’s when you start to wear out.” He turned his head towards me. It was the first time he’d looked directly at me in three days. “Your father and you…you’re lucky. The rest of this family, we don’t die like normal people. We don’t have strokes or get cancer. We don’t get Alzheimer’s. We don’t even get arthritis or bad knees. But 100 years, 150 years…it’s a long time. You get too many memories. You get tired and you wear out.” His breathing was rapid and raspy, but he somehow managed to roll onto his side so that he was directly facing me.
“That’s why I was so happy the day your father died. I was happy for him, Victor. He got to die. He didn’t have to just wear out.” He took a few labored, hollow breaths. “People deserve to die.”
His eyes looked as if he wanted to continue but was physically unable to. He rolled onto his back again and concentrated on his breathing. I realized that, as he’d been speaking, I’d placed my hand on a blanketed portion of his upper leg and was probably gripping him a little too tightly. I relaxed my grip but didn’t remove my hand. I didn’t say anything. What could I have said? I wiped my eyes. I kissed him gently.
The bellows of his lungs continued to pump with a hollow timbre throughout the night, the rhythm slowing, then quickening, then slowing again as if consistency was something for which they no longer had strength. However, by sunrise, even the shallowest pumping was too much of a strain for their owner, and with one last expulsion, they finally came to rest. On July 15, 2049, Grandfather died at 151 years old. Officially, as later verified by Guinness, he had lived a total of 151 years, 3 months, and 21 days.
The priest was finally done. He gave up his place at the front of the church after announcing to the audience that some of the members of the family wished to pay their respects with brief eulogies. I was first. As I made my way forward, I felt the faintest smile touch the edges of my lips. Grandfather may not have died the way he’d wanted to, but he had finally gotten there. He had finally gotten what he deserved.
I knew that wherever the afterlife took him, he was with my father again, the two sharing moments that had been lost to the time between a son dying in an instant and a father living well past his allotted years. And if the afterlife granted him any awareness of those who were still living, I knew that he would still be happy for me. He would be happy that I was destined to die rather than fade—that I would get to keep my carnival.
When it comes to fiction, I haven’t written anything of substance for quite some time. That bothers me. But I also have a bunch of ideas running around in my head, so that’s a good thing and something worth being optimistic about.
I’ve decided to do an exercise in writing pieces of short fiction. I found this list of themes awhile back and saved it, hoping to use it for a writing project sometime. I’ll utilize it now!
1) All themes must be written about.
2) The total words per story has to range between 50 and 1000 words.
3) At least one story per week must be written, starting the first week of June.
To make story length/themes chosen as objective as possible, I numbered the themes 1 – 131 in alphabetical order. Then I used R to create a list of 130 numbers, all between 50 and 1000. These numbers were matched up to the list of the alphabetized themes, and then THAT list was randomized to determine the order in which I’ll write about them.
It’ll be fun!
If anyone wants to do this with me, I’ll post my newly-created list here (I’ll actually post it anyway; it’s just not on the Flash drive I’ve got with me right now).
And I may or may not post the writings on here…depends on if they’re any good or not.
Yeah, it’s pretty much official: the only story I’ve ever written in which there is no character death is Prime. And that’s because the characters were numbers.
In searching for an old poem this evening, I came across this little short story. I remember writing this back in eighth grade during a soccer match I had to attend because I was in a sports medicine class. Yeah, yeah, I know, don’t ask me why I took sports med. I think I just wanted to learn the names of the bones and didn’t realize that the “sports” aspect of the class would involve six hours devoted to sitting on the sidelines at [insert random sport] and waiting for someone to sprain an ankle or break a toe or get heat stroke.
Party on, Moscow Junior High.
* * * * *
His name was Lars Robertson, but we never called him that. He was born with a hearing problem, and by the time he was six and I was seven, he was totally deaf. When he was seven and I was eight, he was in a bad car accident and lost both his arms: the left one just above the elbow and the right one in the middle of the upper arm. He didn’t seem to care. He just smiled from the hospital bed, pumping his bandaged stumps up and down as if he were trying to fly, and asked his mom to give him a candy bar. From then on, we called him Stumps. It’s not like he cared, he just smiled.
His parents didn’t understand why he was so happy. Sometimes at dinner they just stared at him in wonder.
“Why Lars?” his father asked.
His mother asked, “Why both his arms?”
And Stumps asked, “Could someone please pass the peas?”
I am surprised that Stumps can talk as well as he can. It’s always in the same tone, and sometimes he forgets a word and just mumbles incoherently as a substitute, but he’s pretty good for a deaf kid. He can’t use sign language, that’s for sure, and his parents can’t afford prosthetics right now, but Stumps has seemed to have adapted well to having no arms.
For instance, he’s a natural at soccer. He has socks put on his stubs to keep them warm, goes out on the field, and wins. He doesn’t just play, he wins. Our boys’ soccer team hasn’t lost a game since Stumps joined. Last season, we played for the championship. The other team made two goals. We made four. Stumps made three of them. After we won we lined up to shake hands with the losing team. The team captain went to congratulate Stumps; he stuck out his hand to shake. When he realized that Stumps had no hands, he took a step back, looked around nervously, and mumbled a hurried, “Good job.” Stumps smiled and flapped his empty jersey sleeves. He was a good lip reader.
Once, when I went to McDonald’s with Stumps and his parents, Stumps told them that he wanted to play soccer at the Olympics.
“You mean the Paralympics, dear,” his mother said.
“No,” Stumps said. “The Olympics.” His mother looked at his father. They looked so sad, like they didn’t want Stumps to be in the Olympics, but they didn’t say anything else.
Stumps looked at me. “The Olympics. Right, Louie?”
“Right,” I told him, and fed him his french-fries.
Stumps is really nice to me. Every time I make a goal he calls me Louie Kablooey and dances around. And I’m pretty much the only one who talks to him. There are these two bullies at school this year: Zack and Ricky. They’re both in the third grade, and they both pick on Stumps a lot. I try to help Stumps, but Ricky always corners me and if I try to get away he kicks me or throws rocks at me. One time Zack tripped Stumps and he fell flat on his face. Then Zack picked him up by the shirt and shook him. Then he brought Stumps over to me and held him right up close to me.
“Say ‘Stumps is an armless monkey-butt,” he told me.
“No,” I said.
Ricky was standing right beside me, and he told me to say it or else he’d beat my brains out. I wanted to be nice to Stumps, but I also wanted to keep my brains, so I said it quietly.
“Louder!” Zack commanded.
I yelled, “STUMPS IS AN ARMLESS MONKEY-BUTT!” and everyone turned and laughed and looked at Stumps. Zack dropped Stumps, Ricky threw me in the dirt, and they ran off, laughing. I got up and went over to Stumps. He had rolled onto his back and his nose was bleeding. He had tears on his cheeks, but he smiled when he saw me and flapped his arms, trying to sit up. I lifted him and carried him like a baby to the boys’ bathroom.
“I am sorry, Stumps,” I told him. “I don’t think you’re an armless monkey-butt.” Stumps smiled and said that it was okay as I turned on the sink water for him to wash the blood off his face.
On Stumps’ eighth birthday, I went over to his house to watch him open his presents and to have cake. Stumps was all dressed up. He had a black suit on, which had no sleeves to it, and fancy shoes. Everybody, even Stump’s older brother Michael, was wearing a party hat. It was weird to see Michael opening the presents even though it was Stump’s birthday, but Stumps just smiled. I gave him a new soccer ball.
“It’s got little blue circles in every white place,” I said. Stumps told me it was the best present he’d ever gotten. While Stumps fooled around with the soccer ball, Michael tore open another present and produced a pair of blue socks.
“I can use these,” Stumps stated, “for my stubs when I play soccer, now. They match my ball.”
“Those are for your feet, Lars,” his mother told him. “You use all of your socks for your stubs, but these are special socks. They’re for your feet only.”
Stumps’ smile disintegrated. “But all my other socks have holes in them,” he said. “They make my stubs cold.”
“Then maybe you should try something else for your stubs, son,” his father said. “Or not play so hard when it gets cold outside.” Stumps looked at his father as if he didn’t understand a word he was saying, while his mother removed Stumps’ shoes and old dirty socks and replaced them with the blue ones.
“These fit your feet so nicely,” his mother said to Stumps. “And look—no holes for your toes to poke out! Isn’t that nice?” Stumps examined his feet, and all he said was, “They match my ball.”
About a week later, I thought of the perfect present for Stumps, and brought it to school the next day.
“Hey Stumps,” I said. “I’ve got a present for you.” I pulled the lid off the shoebox and took out the toe socks. I had gotten them a few years ago from my grandma, but I never wore them because they itched my feet. I put one sock on each of Stumps’ stubs. “See?” I told him. “Now it’s like you have fingers.” Stumps smiled and told me it was the best present he’d ever gotten.
Stumps went around for the next three days wearing the toe socks. He showed them off to everybody and told them all that I had given them to him. He was just getting used to them when one day, he came to class without them.
“Stumps,” I asked him. “Where are your fingers?”
He scrunched up his face real tightly trying to remember the words to say, but came up with “mmmmm…” so I left him alone for awhile. If he was left alone, he could sometimes think of the words. This time, he didn’t.
It wasn’t until after school that day that I found out what happened to his fingers. I was walking out of the building when someone grabbed my backpack and swung me around. It startled me so much that it took me about 10 seconds to realize that it was Stumps’ mother. She demanded I tell her if I had really given Stumps the toe socks.
I stood there, shocked, then squeaked out, “Yes.” Then she got a real mean look on her face. Stumps’ mother had always been very relaxed and kind, even though she worried about Stumps a lot. But then, she gripped my shoulders really tight—I thought I would scream—and said, “Don’t you ever disrespect my son that way again. Just because Lars has no arms doesn’t mean you’re better than he is in any way, Louie. Do you understand?” I nodded. “You don’t make fun of people’s disabilities.” She looked hard into my eyes, then let go of me.
Slowly, I started walking home. I was crying. I didn’t understand Stumps’ mother. I wasn’t trying to make fun of Stumps, I just figured he’d want to have fingers. I told him this the next day, and he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “You weren’t making fun of me. I liked having fingers, anyway.”
It was November and the soccer season was over, but it didn’t matter to Stumps. Even after it started to snow in December, Stumps would wait for the snowplow to clear their street, and then dribble the soccer ball I had given him for his birthday up and down the street for hours a day. He continued this until three days before Christmas when he got a bad case of pneumonia and his mother took away his soccer ball.
“No more soccer,” she told him “until the spring.”
I had tried to avoid Stumps’ mother since the day she yelled at me, so Michael called me that night and held the phone up so that Stumps could talk to me. “Louie, now what am I supposed to do?”
I was about to tell Michael to tell Stumps to try something like drawing or yo-yoing, but then I remembered that Stumps couldn’t do any of those. “Dance, Stumps,” I told Michael finally. “You can dance. You like to dance.”
I heard Michael repeat this to Stumps. “There’s no dancing in the Olympics,” he told me.
I thought he wouldn’t try it, but when we got back to school in January, we started square dancing in gym, and Stumps was better than all of us. The girls were afraid to dance with him, but Stumps didn’t care. He just stood alone in the corner, spinning in circles and pumping his stubs like a wild man and laughing the whole time. It didn’t seem to matter to him that he couldn’t hear the music. It also didn’t matter that he wasn’t square dancing—he was still better than all the rest of us.
The gym teacher held a competition for the whole school, and Stumps won. He even beat the sixth graders. He got applause and five dollars. His mother and father were very proud. I think they wanted him to quit soccer, but Stumps wouldn’t.
“But you’re such a good dancer,” his mother protested. “You could join a dance club after-school and perform for many people.”
“I like soccer better,” Stumps replied.
In March, Stumps began kicking the soccer ball around again, and his mother gave up all hope of ever getting Stumps to dance. I didn’t see Stumps at all that summer because we went to Maine to spend the summer with my grandma. Stumps’ brother wrote a letter for Stumps to send to me:
Dear Louie Kablooey,
Mom told me the Olympics wouldn’t take me without arms. I didn’t believe her, but she kept saying it. She told me there had
never been a person without arms in any Olympic sport, and I said that I would be the first. Michael told me about this
Jamaican Bobsled team. If Jamaicans learned to bobsled without snow, can’t I play soccer without arms? What do you
I answered him by saying that he should try for the Olympics no matter what his mother told him, but I also said he’d look good with arms. I even drew him a picture. I think he liked it, because he wrote back saying that he was looking for arms. I showed this letter to my mom.
She laughed. “I don’t think that little boy has any idea of how prosthetics cost. I’d like to see their family afford two arms.”
When we got back at the beginning of the school year, Stumps had already saved up $50. “I got twenty of it from dancing competitions,” he told me. “I didn’t think that you could get that much money for just dancing. My partner’s name is Brittany. She’s not afraid to dance with me. She says I’m a really good dancer.” It turned out that Brittany had to teach Stumps every single step and every single rhythm because Stumps could not hear the music. The other $30 Stumps had earned had been from his birthday money and donations from his mother’s friends.
“I hear Lars wants prosthetics,” one would say to her. “Give him these $5 and wish him good luck.”
She would try to tell them that there would be no way that Stumps could save up the $30,000 it would cost for both arms, but they gave it to her anyway. He didn’t collect candy on Halloween night; instead, he wore a sign on his shirt that asked for donations for prosthetic arms. He went around the town without socks on his stubs so he could show them to curious donators. Before Halloween, he had about $80. After Halloween, he had over $120.
His mother got curious about where Stumps was keeping all the money and asked me about it. This was the first time she’d spoken to me since she yelled at me about making fun of Stumps. I told her I had no idea where Stumps was keeping his money, but she kept pestering me for the answer.
“You started this madness,” she said to me “with those toe socks. You think this is going to make his life easier?”
“If he gets the arms it will,” I replied.
“Do you have any idea how much prosthetic arms cost?”
I guessed at around $500 for each arm. She just shook her head and walked away.
Stumps continued practicing soccer and dancing after school in his dance club with Brittany as well. When Stumps told her about his raising money for new arms, she was ecstatic.
“Then you can really twirl me!” she said.
Stumps got really sick in February—sick enough to have to stop going to both school and the dance club for awhile. We were in 4th grade, and Stumps missed all this important testing stuff, as well as the concert for the dance club. Brittany was upset because she had to dance with another partner, but because she was used to leading and he could twirl her for real, they won the $10 prize.
Brittany gave half of it to Stumps. “So you can dance with arms next year and be my partner!” she told him. By now, Stumps had over $200. But he was still very sick. His mother took him to the hospital to see what was wrong with him and why he wasn’t getting any better, and the doctors did a lot of tests. And when they did find out what it was, it wasn’t good. Stumps had stomach cancer.
The doctors thought that this cancer had been growing for about five years and had just started causing problems. I asked my mom if the cancer didn’t do anything bad to Stumps until it got big enough, kind of like a splinter in your foot wouldn’t hurt unless you stepped on it wrong, and she told me that cancer was a lot worse than any splinter. Also, we found out that Stumps’ cancer was inoperable, which meant that they couldn’t take it out. He had to stay in the hospital.
I asked if Stumps was going to die, and mom said, “Most likely, dear.”
From that point on, I tried to spend as much time with Stumps as I could. But his hospital room was scary—it was very white and there wasn’t even a window in it. He had a needle in his shoulder and a lot of monitors around his bed. But every time I came into the room, he’d smile and ask me to tell him stories or to play a simple game with him.
One day in early April, Stumps’ mom caught me outside of Stumps’ room and said she needed to talk to me. “The doctors say he’s only got about a month left to live,” she told me while we walked slowly down the hall.
“Does he know he’s going to die?” I asked her.
She sighed and put her arm around my shoulder. “Oh, he’s known that from day one,” she said. “Lars is a fighter. He’s strong—but not stronger than cancer.” Then we stopped walking and she put her hands on my shoulders, only this time she didn’t yell at me.
“What does he want?” she asked me. “What does he want more than anything else in the world?”
I thought. “He wants arms,” I told her. “But that’s not the thing he wants most.”
“What does he want most?” I paused. “He wants you to want him to be in the Olympics.” I paused again. I felt like Stumps, trying to think of the right words. “He wants your…approval,” I said at last.
She took her hands off my shoulders. “My approval. Out of all the things he could want in the world—even more than a pair of arms—he wants my approval. How could I be so stupid?” I started to tell her that she wasn’t stupid, but she interrupted me by saying that I could go see Stumps. I could tell she was crying, so I left her.
I wasn’t there when Stumps’ mother told him that she approved of him trying out for the Olympics, but Stumps later told me that it was the best day of his life. Then his mother did another good thing—she got Stumps his arms. The $400 Stumps had saved up, as well as another $1,000 was enough to persuade a prosthetic expert to give a dying boy his last wish.
It was May when Stumps was no longer Stumps. Even though he was in extreme pain, he was able to sit up and have the two prosthetic arms fitted onto his stubs. Everyone in the room clapped for him, and Stumps, for the first time in three years, was able to raise his arms up into the air. He made the ‘touchdown’ sign, and everyone laughed. It was like a birthday party—there were cards and teddy bears and balloons.
I said goodbye to him the next morning.
“Thank you,” he said to me “for being my friend. And for teaching me how to dance. I would have never met Brittany or raised enough money for my arms.” He used what little strength he had in his left stub to raise the plastic arm. I grabbed the cold, fake fingers, and shook hands with Stumps.
“Goodbye, Louie,” he said, smiling.
Stumps passed away on the morning of May 5th, 2003. They were going to have an open casket service for him, and his mother asked me if he should be buried with the prosthetics attached.
“No,” I said. “He wouldn’t be Stumps without his stubs.”
“Stumps?” His mother had never known about his nickname.
“It’s what we all called him,” I said. I expected her to get mad at the thought of a nickname like ‘Stumps,’ but instead she just smiled.
“It’s cute,” she told me.
At the service, I was afraid. A lifeless Stumps was in the room with everybody looking at him and crying over him. I didn’t want to go at first, but my mom said it would be disrespectful to Stumps if I didn’t at least see him in his casket. I walked to the front of the church. Stumps looked like he was asleep; I felt as if I could reach out and shake his shoulder and he’d wake up and smile at me. But I didn’t; I knew it wouldn’t happen.
He was wearing the same suit that he had worn on his eighth birthday, but instead of the fancy dress shoes, he was wearing the shoes he always danced in. He had the blue socks on his stubs, and the prosthetics lying beside him. The soccer ball I had given him was down by his feet. Brittany was there and we said ‘hi’ to each other and stood looking at Stumps before we walked out of the church. But before we left his side, I turned back to look at him, and I could swear he was smiling.
I still visit Stumps’ grave every once and awhile. I put a soccer ball on his plot a few years ago, but some kids stole it, so ever since then, I’d put flowers or a poem there for him. But the best part is what’s written on his tombstone:
Lars ‘Stumps’ Robertson
The coldness reminded me of home, which wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t already been homesick. It was windier than it had been when we arrived that morning and the deluge of wet flakes had started as soon as we’d left the school (of course) so we stood in a group huddled like penguins, our dress clothes less than adequate in such wintry weather, waiting for our bus. I stood next to Jenny, the hem of my black skirt soaking up the moisture from the deepening snow underfoot. It was too cold to hold our umbrellas, so we stood with our hands shoved in our jacket pockets, bouncing on the balls of our feet to keep warm, leaning forward to prevent our umbrellas precariously balanced on one shoulder from tipping too far backwards.
The Prodigy stood on the outside of the crowd, talking to Jake Hullen. Jake appeared disinterested in what the flautist was saying; he shifted his trombone case from one hand to the other, the free hand going into his pocket to remain warm until his other grew too cold and he switched the trombone again. His breath plumed in front of him as he sighed, his eyes leading off to the left, looking for the bus.
We all felt as Jake did—tired, cold, uninterested in the rest of the world. We hadn’t been expecting such a high placing at the competition, and in all honesty we hadn’t been wishing for it, either. Our placement meant that the long bus ride home would be delayed even longer and our Saturday evening would be spent waiting in the band room of an unfamiliar school until we were scheduled to play a second time in the same school’s unfamiliar auditorium, the piece we’d brought from across the county to be judged by those much less forgiving than our parents and peers.
Our tall, colorful conductor’s excitement made up for its lacking in the rest of us, however. Mr. Spien, upon hearing of our placement, clapped his slender hands like an excited child and bounced on his heels, uttering a proud but still restrained, “good job, good job!” to all of us, dusting us with praise with his shaking hands. He moved toward The Prodigy, who stood in the back of the crowd, his flute in hand.
“Excellent job, young man, excellent! Your solo won the judges’ hearts for sure.” He patted the flautist on the back, drawing only a small smile as a reaction, but heated stares from many of the rest of us who happened to hear the praise. He’d only been at the academy for a few months, but already the amount of recognition he’d received from Mr. Spien had far surpassed our instructor’s complements to the rest of us. He’d even, in a manner of days, stolen the first flue chair away from the rest of us—something that immediately brought him several enemies.
Jake had moved inwards toward the rest of the crowd. The Prodigy was right on his heels, still discussing something of dire importance, his bright pink lips moving rapidly, his breath hitting the cold air with quick bursts of fog, wet curls of black hair bouncing as he used his free hand to rapidly rub his other arm, trying to generate warmth.
As soon as The Prodigy’s talent as a flautist had been unearthed by Mr. Spien, the nickname surfaced and spread with a speed only attainable by high school gossip. His real name was Maurice Malmeen, a name that left in my mouth the greasy taste of regurgitated vowels. For this reason alone I called him The Prodigy; I was one of the few who were indifferent to him rather than exceedingly jealous or exceedingly avoidant. He seemed unconcerned with his talents when he didn’t have his instrument to his lips, which was peculiar but wasn’t something I thought much about in my spare time. Only when he played did his gift emerge unconcealed, the high voice of his flute cutting like a diamond the air of whatever particular venue at which we were performing. When there existed any occasion for jealousy to arise in me, it was usually overthrown by the fact that I could never muster the courage to play solos myself and the fact that I was always encouraging of good flute players. The band needed more of us, anyway.
Lauren moved closer to me, her cheeks red from the biting wind, and nudged her chin in the direction of Jake.
“Look at the poor guy,” she said, smiling. “The Prodigy’ll talk his ear off.”
“Unless the cold freezes it off first.” I shivered under my formal clothing, the cotton shirt brushing against the inside of my coat. Even beneath my coat, the case of my flute felt like ice. Our salvation came, however, in the form of the transportation that had brought us half way across the county to the competition. “There’s the bus.”
“Finally.” Jenny tucked her chin further into the collar of her jacket and bent down to pick up her baritone. The sun was setting already behind the covered sky, the colors of its sunset hidden by the haze of the snow-bringing blanket of clouds. The early night light hovered like a haze, the drizzle from the sky blending with the gray of its origin. In less than an hour the world around us would be dark; I made a mental note to call my parents in the morning to tell them the news of our placement in the competition, excitedly anticipating my father’s long-distance praise.
We lined up like little ducklings in front of the bus door as it slid slowly to a stop in front of us, our snow-frozen feet in a hurry to get us into the warm cabin that would carry us home. Once inside we kicked off our uncomfortable dress shoes, unbuttoned our neck adornments, and requested that the driver crank up the heat and change the radio station to 97.5 FM. The soft piano playing of Chopin soon wafted through the bus speakers, and we all got to settling into our seats for the ride home.
Those of us with umbrellas briefly opened our windows, shook the moisture off of the water resistant fabric, then wound them up and hung them upside down by the wrist straps on the latches of the windows, like dripping multicolored bats wrapped in their wings.
We’d sat in these types of buses dozens of times—the 8’ televisions at angles only owls could watch without getting cricks in their necks, the semi-soft seats bleeding upholstery from broken seams in the brightly-dotted fabric, the overhead compartments that never quite closed and every once and awhile spat something we’d stored in them back at us during a particularly sharp turn or while we traveled over a rough road. Since coming to the academy I’d grown accustomed to traveling to performances in a bus rather than in a car with just my parents, as I had back home. I always felt that the bus drivers never took snowy roads as seriously as my mother had, but I tried not to think about it as we began our ride home.
Jenny and I shared pair of seats near the middle of the bus, spread out our things, and had our delayed dinners—sandwiches and chips—that we’d packed early that morning and brought with us. After we finished, Jenny sought out two open seats on which she could sprawl out and fall asleep.
“I’m tired from lugging that baritone around,” she said. “Are you sure you don’t mind?”
“I have to work on my math homework anyway,” I replied, glad for the chance to work without distraction and hopeful that math would take my mind off of how homesick I was feeling.
“Fun.” She packed up her things and moved to an empty pair of seats further back in the bus. I opened my trig book and got to work.
The light outside had changed from haze to a palette of blue, the dark branches of the trees we were passing standing out in sharp contrast to the cerulean snow-covered hills behind them. Large flakes of snow were falling now, grazing the window with their back-lit silhouettes, acting as a damper on the sounds of the world. The steady rumble of the bus tires on the road beneath us was growing quieter and further into the distance as if the earth were falling into a dream-filled sleep.
Nocturne, I thought. The aptly-named piece we’d played at the competition had fit this atmosphere so well. Meticulously, Mr. Spien had worked on our perfecting the mood of the short, 25-measure song. He spoke his commands only in whispers, forcing the room and all of us in it to fall still and remain quiet enough to hear his hushed words.
“You have to be able to hear everything, everyone,” he explained to us, his voice like air flowing out of the end of a rusted through pipe. “This is night. The world is asleep. You’re playing a dream, but not even a dream. The memory of a dream.” He got us to the point where we sat in silence a good minute or so before we played, basking in the silence of the room, to the point where someone’s raspy breathing would draw scowls of disapproval.
These practices went on for weeks until at last we sat in the large auditorium of the school on the other side of the county, their ceiling slanted downwards toward the stage where ours remained flat, their seats padded where ours remained plain steel, on their stands the words “North Elmwood High School” where ours read “St. Cecilia’s.”
We sat in our starch-pressed and itchy performance attire, our necks held stiff by the tight formal ribbons around our collars, our arms pressed close to our sides, camouflaging from the audience the nervous sweat stains ringing our armpits. Mr. Spien stood in front of us, looking unusually regal in his formal wear, his stance akin to a sprinter about to break from the starting position. His hands were raised in front of him, commanding our attention.
“Shhhh.” He let his call for silence trail off his lips until it was nothing. He stood poised as a statue, the baton tweezed lightly between his fingers, his eyes rolling about in their sockets until his pupils met each of ours to be sure we were ready.
“Like a memory,” he whispered. A slow upswing of the baton, a steady inhale, and we began to cast nightfall upon our audience.
“Hi Amelia.” I looked up from my math to see The Prodigy standing in the aisle next to Jenny’s open seat, his low, quiet voice bringing me back to the present. His hair had dried into a mess of curls the vague shape of a thunderhead, loose coils falling in front of his eyes as he bent his tall frame to speak to me. He held his backpack by a shoulder strap in one hand and had his flute clutched protectively in the other.
“Hi Maurice,” I replied warily. What did he want?
“Jake said he wanted to work on homework, so I figured I’d move. Mind if I sit here?” He smiled sheepishly, drawing his head slightly into his shoulders as if he were afraid of my rejection. I was a bit annoyed; my math book lay in plain sight on my lap and there were other seats open around us.
“I’d go further back in the bus,” he explained quickly, taking note of my hesitation, “but any further back and I start to get carsick.” He shrugged. “Bus sick, I guess.”
As much as I wanted to finish my math homework, I figured I should be nice to him.
“This is where Jenny was sitting,” I said, “but you can sit here until she comes back if you want.”
He smiled again. “Thanks.” He turned sideways and shimmied into the seat, his billowy blue coat sleeve, still cold and a little damp, brushing up against my bare forearm as he sat, sending goose bumps racing up my arm and across my neck and chest.
“Whatcha doing?” He glanced at my math book and I braced myself for a conversation that would rival in length his prior conversation with Jake.
“Oh.” He adjusted himself in the seat and pulled out his iPod. “Never understood that stuff.”
He said nothing more, to my surprise, but watched over my shoulder as I tried to concentrate on the problems. Mozart’s Requiem was now filtering through the bus’ speaker system, aiding my work, and I completed a few more problems before glancing back up at The Prodigy, who had pulled a sandwich out of his backpack and was eating it slowly. He wasn’t watching me anymore and was turned instead to the right, the blue mixture of scenery outside the window across the aisle holding his attention. Looking at his profile I noticed his nose was sharply pointed, like someone had pulled on the tip, warping it and the rest of his face so that it at all directions led to the point.
Through the buds shoved deep into his ear canals, the sound of drumming and heavy electric guitar could be heard over the Mozart playing through the bus speakers. I laughed to myself. He’d really be The Prodigy if he went deaf and could still rock the flute.
“What are you listening to?” I said it loud enough so that I thought he could hear me. He had just taken a bite from his sandwich and he turned with a look of surprise towards me as if he hadn’t expected me to talk to him, his cheeks bulging out like a chipmunk. He chewed a few more times before speaking through clenched teeth to avoid making a mess when he opened his mouth.
“Metallica.” He went back to chewing.
“You don’t like the Requiem?”
He shook his head as he swallowed. “Hate it. Much prefer James Hetfield to any choir.” I didn’t know who James Hetfield was, but I ascertained that he was anything but Mozart.
“Metal, huh?” I said. “Why don’t you play guitar or something, then, instead of the flute?”
He shook his head. “I can’t. I have to shut my eyes when I play, especially during solos. If I try to read the music—if I look at anything, really—I screw up.”
“I tried guitar a couple years ago and I had to keep looking down at the frets to place my fingers. I couldn’t play anything more than a couple notes at a time.”
I tried to visualize him standing in front of the judges today, performing with his eyes shut. His solo had been flawless; it was probably the component of Nocturne that had boosted us so high in the competition. We had approached the end of the piece delicately, barely touching our lips to our mouthpieces, tiptoeing across the notes as we climbed and descended the staff as vines climb and twist about garden posts, our collective volume swelling and falling away, until every sound but the subtle drone of a horn in back hung in the air.
Mr. Spien held us in a fermata as Maurice stood, his chair creaking softly. I sat behind him and never saw anything but his back when he played. I watched his shoulders rise as he took a preparatory breath, and from his flute he ushered the melody we had all heard before but that, as was the case each time he played, held us in awe, our breaths suspended until he finished. Each note sounded as if it described a lifetime, the tender tones hovering in the air, resembling the gentle humming of a wet finger running along the rim of a crystal wine glass. The solo was only five measures long, but the voice he gave it lasted for hours in our heads. His final b-flat rose, hung, and then slipped hauntingly away, absorbed by the air of the auditorium. The room was left in the quiet stun of the note’s presence and all that had preceded it and it remained quiet until the clapping finally rose out of the memory of the deceased song.
Mr. Spien stood aside and presented us to the audience with a wave of his arm, then specifically acknowledged Maurice. The applause grew louder, and as much jealousy existed on the stage, I’m sure all of us were at least secretly amazed by his performance.
I was watching him now as he sat next to me, his head bobbing lightly to the music coming from his ear buds, his hand lightly keeping beat against the case of his flute. I was curious as to why he chose me—aside from Jake—to talk to that evening. I liked the company, but I wanted to know why, I decided to be bold and ask him.
“So why’d you come sit back here?”
“Huh?” He pulled the ear buds out of his ears entirely.
“There are like five open seats. Why’d you come sit by me?”
He spoke as he turned off his iPod and rolled the headphones around it. “Well,” he said, “It’s because I can’t go further back on the bus without getting sick, like I said. Also,” he shifted as he put the iPod back into his coat pocket, “you’re one of the few people on this bus who’ll willingly talk to me. In all honesty, though, I hadn’t been expecting 20 questions.” He smiled at me jokingly, but I felt my cheeks get hot.
“No, hey, no worries. I like to talk. Like I said, not a lot of people talk to me willingly.”
“You were talking to Jake before we got on the bus,” I said, recalling earlier.
“Talking at, not to. He wasn’t interested, I think I annoy him.” He was quiet for a moment. “What is it you guys call me? The Savant?”
I was taken aback at is acknowledgement that he had a nickname. I figured we’d all kept it from him well enough so that he didn’t think he was known by anything other than Maurice Malmeen.
“The Prodigy,” I replied.
He laughed. “Yeah. A lot of people are jealous of me. Or are afraid of me, or something. I’m good at flute—that means I’ve got it made, according to them.”
“It’s a pretty impressive talent you’ve got,” I admitted. I tried to be truthful while trying to avoid stroking his ego.
“Thank you,” he replied. “But there’s a reason I’m in music and not in anything else.”
“Your parents?” His mother and father were a sinewy Yuppie couple from the northeast who always showed up to the concerts we held back at the academy. They sat in the front row and gave a standing ovation after every piece in which their son had a solo. Though my own parents hadn’t been exceedingly pushy about my pursuing music, I figured that his might have been.
“Nah. Well, they encouraged my flute playing when they saw what I could do, but they encouraged it even more after they saw that I was failing trig.”
“You’re failing?” Trig was difficult, but not that difficult. “How?”
“Let’s just say my abilities in music don’t apply to anything else.” He paused, hesitating over what else to say. “I have dyslexia,” he said finally. “Pretty bad. I mix words up most of the time. Numbers, too. That’s why classes like this—” he reached out and tapped my now closed trig book “—are such nightmares. But for some reason it doesn’t affect my ability to read music, so I do that. Also, once I know the song, I don’t need to look at the pages anymore.”
“I didn’t know you had dyslexia,” I responded, not knowing what else to say.
He shrugged. “It’s why I’m never in class. While you guys are going at a normal pace, my tutor works with me to help me even catch up. If I’m not practicing my flute, I’m trying to finish my homework.”
Our conversation ceased. We passed a rest stop to our left, the lonely streetlamp hovering over the pairing of bathrooms illuminating the glittering snow that was falling faster now than it had all day. A set of tire tracks slowly being filled in by the falling snow was the only trace of anyone having been there that day.
The scene brought me back to my days before St. Cecilia’s Academy, back when I was at home with my parents. I was younger but still heavily involved in music; every other day a practice, every weekend a recital. I had dressed in black and white—a modest skirt and a button-down top—even in the cold, snowy climate back home.
We would always be the last to leave recitals, my parents lingering to speak with the teacher or with other parents whose child, tired and wanting to go home as I did, would spend his or her time swinging from the banisters of the auditoriums in which the recitals were held or slowly removing, button by button, their uncomfortable dress clothes until their parents would notice and usher them away with the explanation that “we really ought to get this little one home.” My mother would kiss me as she buckled me into the backseat, promising me pancakes in the morning. My father, night-blind and therefore forced to relinquish the driving to my mother, would sit in the back with me, watching with reserved amusement as my head grew heavy with sleepiness, bobbing up and down until I finally would succumb to sleep. He would then remove his overcoat and drape it over my body, staving off the goosebumps that would, had I been left uncovered, arise beneath my less-than-warming concert attire. I would sleep beneath his coat until we reached home and I could be properly put in bed, a scenario that had played itself out nearly every weekend until I was sent to St. Cecilia’s.
“Hey, what’s the matter?” Maurice’s voice was full of concern as he saw me wipe away the beginnings of tears that the memory brought.
“Nothing.” I sniffled, trying not to look like I had to blow my nose. “I just kinda miss my parents.”
“Homesick, eh? That’s right, you’re not from around the academy, are you?” I shook my head. “That’s tough. How long have you been coming here?”
“Since ninth grade.”
“Your parents wanted you here?”
“Yeah, my dad especially. He’s a pianist. As soon as he saw I had an interest in music—” I shrugged “—I was going to St. Cecilia’s, come hell or high water. Not that he forced me or anything,” I quickly corrected. “I wanted to go. He wanted me to go, too.”
Maurice smiled softly at me. “Sounds like a good guy.”
“Yeah.” I tried to pull myself together a little better. “I don’t know what my problem is. I think all this snow reminds me of home and my parents.”
He nodded. “It’s a good memory to have.”
The whole bus was quiet now; the majority of the overhead lights had been switched off, the ones remaining had been left by people who had accidentally slipped into sleep. The soft yellowish light provided by these few bulbs was enough to be able to make out one’s immediate surroundings, but very little else—most of the bus was cast in black silhouette, the heads of my band mates poking up over the head rests, the few pairs of feet dangling in the aisles from those supine across two seats, sleeping.
I figured it was sometime past ten-thirty or so as I looked over at Maurice, who was quietly observing the same scene I was. I wondered if anybody on the bus knew as much about him as I did now, even after such a short conversation.
“I can help you with trig, if you want.” I said it after we sat in silence for a bit.
“What?” He turned toward me, the moistness of his eyeballs shining in the dull light, his features softly illuminated in yellow.
“I can help you with your trig. I mean, I know you said you already have a tutor, and I don’t know much about dyslexia, but I get this stuff, so I thought that would help.” I shrugged. “If you want.”
“Sure.” I saw him smile at me in the darkness, his teeth reflecting the light generated by the few bulbs still in use on the bus.
“That’d be awesome,” he replied quietly. It was dark enough outside now that I couldn’t tell the trees from the hills from the sky—all that was rushing past was blackness. The bus shook pleasantly as the tires carved their way through the freshly-fallen snow that no other cars had had the chance to break up. I could no longer prevent myself from drifting to sleep, the back of my head softly hitting the headrest as my consciousness began to slip. Slowly, the last threads of my awareness of the world faded away. I heard movement beside me, the crinkling of fabric the last sound hitting my ears, and as my eyelids fluttered open briefly before closing for the night, I saw the dull shine of the overhead lights reflecting off of Maurice’s blue coat as he draped it across my shoulders.
I was in a warm, familiar place again—beside my father in the car, riding home after a late-night recital, the lull of the car’s motion on the road shaking me soothingly to sleep. I felt my father’s overcoat across my chest, keeping me warm, and I could hear his soft breathing next to me as I drifted away, and though I was somehow aware that what I was experiencing was not reality, everything in my mind truly did exist in the moment, seen through a lens hazy and just slightly unclear—soft, happy, and delicate—like a memory.