“So,” Stan George called as he searched for the mustard. What did they say about the car?”
Tim Shanken turned from the kitchen counter, and the book-bag he was exploring.
“I asked when your car would be ready.”
“They said it would be ready by tomorrow night, at the latest, but I’ll bet they don’t fix the problem. I’ve already brought it there twice for the same thing, and I’m beginning to doubt they have the brains to fix it.” He pulled one of the books from the bag and began to thumb through it.
Stan backed out of the refrigerator, loaded with an assortment of sandwich makings, closing the door with a nudge of his hip. “I know about that, it took me three trips to get the Ford fixed when the transmission went bad last month. If it wasn’t in warranty, I’d go some place else… Mustard okay?” I’ve got ketchup in the fridge if you want that.”
“Mustard’s fine,” Tim said with a shrug. He motioned toward the book he was holding. “Is this Mike’s? It’s been a lot of years since I read this.”
Stan cocked his head to line up with the printing on the cover, then laughed. “Moby Dick? It’s been a few beers over the lips since I had to swim through that one.” He laughed again. “That’s Mike’s all right, but I doubt he’ll get much out of it. He’s already pretty ticked off over the fact that he can’t find the movie in the video store. It’s always been checked out by one of the other kids when he bikes over there to get it. Since they don’t have a waiting list, it’s first come, first served.”
Tim slipped the book back on the bag and hitched himself up to sit on the tabletop, waving away Stan’s gestured invitation to start making his sandwich. “No, you go on. I’ll make mine after you finish.” He held out one palm in a request for more information as he said, “He’s not a reader?”
That brought another laugh. “You might say that. If it’s not on video, he doesn’t do a book report on it—unless it’s assigned reading, like this one was.” Stan shook his head and added, “I guess I can’t complain, since lots of the kids do that. When I was a kid, my best friend and I would only do book reports on things we could get in the Classic Comic series.”
That brought a chuckle, and, “Didn’t everybody? So what’s he going to do? Will he actually read this thing?” He pulled the book out again, hefting it. “This may be pretty heavy going for a modern kid. I read it a couple of times, and enjoyed it, too, but not until college when I had the background to understand it.”
Stan put down the knife he was using to slice his sandwich, apparently thinking over how to say it without making his son look stupid. Finally, with a cluck if the tongue, he said, “He’ll read it, I suppose. He’s good that way. They told him to read it, so he’ll read it—even if he does find the video for it—just because they told him he has to.” He bit his lip before waving his hands in uncertainty, adding, “I don’t know how to put this, Tim, but…. Mike’s a good kid; he really is. He just doesn’t have any…” In frustration, he spread his hands, finally settling for, “Damn, I’m making him sound stupid, or lazy, and he’s neither. He’s just…” He sighed. “I guess I can’t complain—he does get decent marks. It’s just that he sort of drifts, when it comes to schooling. Like I said, he’ll read it just because they told him to, but he won’t pay any real attention, and he won’t enjoy it. He’ll just… just read it. When it comes to something like that, it’s like the old ethnic joke, where the way to keep someone busy for hours is to give them a card that has both sides printed with, ‘Turn this card over and read the other side.’”
Tim shook his head. “I think you’re being a little hard on the boy, Stan. He’s a little better than that. He’s at least as smart as my Dan.”
Stan laid the sandwich he was finishing on a plate and turned to Tim, wiping his hands on a paper towel and moving to where the other man sat as he did. He tossed the towel toward the trash and reached for the book, taking it from Tim’s hand and holding it up.
“I’m serious. If I would put a note in the middle of this book telling him to start over from the beginning, he will, just because the note is there. The kid doesn’t think for himself. I dearly wish I could get him started doing that, but… Well, nothing I’ve tried so far has worked.”
“You that sure?” When Stan shrugged, Tim slid off the table and moved to the opposite side of the work counter. He dug in the bag for a roll, and began to slice it, his expression thoughtful.
“Okay, I’ll take that one,” he said, finally. “I can always use some easy money. Five bucks says he won’t do that.”
Stan hesitated for a moment before nodding and placing the book on the table. He flipped to a page near the middle, motioning Tim over to join him. “Done! But you have to come over here and write the note for me, so he doesn’t recognize the handwriting and catch on.” He fished in a drawer for a pen, bringing it to the table and holding it out to his friend.
“Here, just write, ‘Note to students: Stop at this point and return to the beginning.”
Tim took the pen, frowning. “Let me see if I’ve got this right. The bet is that Mike comes to the note and starts over; that he does this because he’s as dumb as the guy who jumped off a building and stopped to ask directions on the way down. Further, that he does this without asking either the teacher or anyone else if the note applies to him, right?
“You got it.”
Tim bent over the book and began to write. “Okay, Stan, but this is easy money. No one is that dumb.”
Tim pulled the throttle back to stop the engine, bringing the old mower to a halt, as he called. “Hey Mike! Got a minute?”
As he waited for his friend’s son to walk to the fence gate, Tim fished a plastic bag out of his back pocket and opened it, preparing to empty the grass-catcher. He laid the bag across the mower handle as the boy came through the gate.
“Yes, Mr. Shanken?”
Tim studied the boy with interest. Mike was a typical sixteen year-old, awkward with his sudden new size and always slouching in an attempt to keep his eyes at the height they were last year. He was a good kid, and though Tim didn’t know him too well, Mike was a friend to his own boy since they were toddlers.
“I noticed that you were reading Moby Dick, and I was wondering how you liked it.”
The boy shrugged. “It’s okay, I guess. I just wish I was finished with it. It’s pretty hard to read, with all that old fashioned language and all. Lots of what they do doesn’t make sense anymore, either.”
Mike shrugged again. “It’s sometimes hard to understand why they get upset over something that would be no big deal today.”
Tim’s respect for the boy went up a few points, and he decided that his father had underestimated his ability to absorb the story. Casually, he said, “So you’re finished?”
He shook his head. “No. I would be by now, but there was a note from the teacher, near the middle, telling me to go back and re-read the first part. I guess she wants us to understand it before we go on, and since I don’t, I’m re-reading it. It still doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I see things I missed the first time, so I guess there was a good reason for the note.”
As the boy walked away Tim reflected that technically he had lost the bet, but certainly not for the reasons his friend gave when the bet was made. He wondered if he had not done Mike a favor with the note. Certainly he would enjoy the story more.
Stan leaned back in his chair and shouted up the stairs to the kitchen. “Hey Mike, would you bring us some more beer?” He turned back to the men gathered around the card table. “One of the advantages of having children is service like this. When Mike complained that I was treating him like a servant, I told him he gets the chance to have one of his own when he has children.”
There was laughter as Mike came down the stairs carrying a six-pack from the refrigerator. He put it on the side table and was about to launch himself back up the stairs when Tim stopped him with a hand on the arm. “Did you ever finish that story, Mike?”
That brought a frown. “No, I didn’t. I’m on the fourth time around, and I still haven’t found what they want me to see, so I can’t go on.”
“Well maybe if you finished it you could see—”
“No,” Mike said, firmly, waving his hand in negation. “No, I can see a lot of things I missed, like the fact that the whale is actually symbolic, as is a lot of what is going on in the story, but I don’t think it’s that.” He thought a moment, then sighed. “I guess I’ll know it when I finally understand it, but it’s pretty tough.”
The boy sounded so troubled, and so sincere that Tim debated telling him of the hoax, but at this point could see no way to do so without hurting the boy.
“Maybe you should talk it over with the teacher?” He took a breath before saying, “Maybe someone else wrote the note—a student, maybe.” He spread his hands. “You do have to turn in the report, don’t you?”
The comment about the note being other than from his teacher only brought a stubborn look to the boy’s face, and, “Maybe… but if so, someone found something worth looking for, and I want to see if I can do it for myself. I did the book report on Great Expectations, rather than Moby Dick, since I couldn’t get through it. This is just for me.”
As Mike vanished up the stairs Tim frowned, then frowned again as Stan said, “That kid’s strange, sometimes.” Tim stared at the empty stair-well for a moment, then, with a shrug, shook himself back to the present. When he turned back to the table he found his friend’s hand extended.
“Which reminds me, Buddy. We have a bet, and you just lost. Pay up.”
Itt wasn’t worth arguing so he paid Stan the five dollars, but he looked thoughtfully at the stairs up which Mike had gone.
Tim pulled to a stop at the traffic light. He stretched the sleep out of his muscles, enjoying the early morning feel to the air. It was a perfect day for a round of golf. He glanced over at Stan, relaxing in the passenger seat, yawning himself awake. “So, Stan,” he said, with a laugh in his voice. “I hate to ask, but has Mike ever finished that stupid book, or is he endlessly cycling up to the note and back to the beginning? He seemed almost obsessed with it the last time I talked to him.”
Stan turned his head and gave Tim a sour look. “Let me tell you, Buddy, that is one weird kid.”
“And, I asked him about it last Monday. He said he was reading it for the tenth time, and that he had a real grasp of the motivations of the people now, and more importantly, the author. He told me he was making a detailed outline of where he thought the story was going, based on his interpretation of the intent of the author. He also told me how he thought it ended, and he was dead on. He claims that before he read it he had no idea of how story went, except that it was about a whale. That’s scary.”
“Yeah? I guess it is, if it’s true. He could have just forgotten he saw it as a cartoon, or something. You sound like there’s something else, though.” The light changed, and Tim charged forward to block a Toyota intent on jumping into his lane before adding, “You said this happened last Monday. I assume there’s more now.”
Stan looked even more sour, as he shook his head. “I don’t know if you’d call it more, or just craziness. He’s now into an analysis of the printing process in general. He spent almost an hour just explaining such things as sans-serif type and another on the history of ink pigments. The kid spends half his spare time doing research and half re-reading the first part of that damn book.” He threw up his hands in frustration. “I’ll tell you, Tim. I really don’t know what to do about it. I’m glad he’s learning something, but it’s starting to worry me.”
Tim drove in silence for a time, then ventured, “Have you thought of telling him who actually made the note?”
There was an equally long silence before Stan quietly said, “I did. He said it doesn’t matter.”
Tim reached for the phone, hurrying to answer it before it woke his wife. “Hello?”
“Hi, Tim, it’s Stan. Thelma said you called. What’s up?”
“Not much, it’s just that I happened to think about your son Mike today. What with the baby being sick and all, I haven’t heard a progress report for weeks. How’s he doing?”
There was the sound of a long sigh. “How’s he doing? I really wish I knew, Tim. He’s been almost living at the library, lately, and he’s got a whole room-full of books on things like communication theory and the structure of languages. It’s starting to scare the hell out of me, but he’s aced every test he’s taken in school since the start of this thing, so it’s hard to complain. We may have created a monster, or pushed him onto the path of becoming a great scientist; take your choice. I’d rather it be the scientist, but I’m afraid it might be the other.”
Tim hesitated before saying, “Is he acting strangely in other ways—skipping meals and such?”
There was a snort of laughter from the phone. “The human garbage disposal skip a meal? You’ve got to be kidding. No, he’s okay except for that. In fact, he’s a lot more fun to talk to now. He reads the paper, and thinks about it, where before he only read the comics. No, I really don’t think he’s going crazy, or anything like that. It’s just that he’s always so… busy.”
“Tim! Hey, Tim…up here!”
Tim searched for the source of the call, finally locating his friend Stan at a second floor window. His voice had been half whisper, half shout, and his face bore a look of urgency.
“Hi, Stan,” Tim called. “What’s up? You look like you’ve just caught Irma in bed with her grandfather again.”
Stan ignored the attempt at humor and motioned Tim closer to the house. As he approached, Stan pointed toward the porch, stage-whispering, “Front door’s open, come on up here… and hurry.”
Tim took the steps to the second floor two at a time, wondering what was going on, but afraid he knew.
“He’s been like this for the past hour. Watch him.”
Stan guided Tim to the door of his son’s room. Inside, Mike sat on the chair in front of his desk, staring at an open book, his body unmoving. He appeared to be looking at the book, but his eyes were staring—as unmoving as the rest of his body.
Tim turned his head to speak, but Stan stopped him with a hand on his arm, whispering, “Just watch.”
Tim did as he requested, and a few seconds later the boy reached out and turned the page, only to resume his motionless position. At Tim’s confused look, Stan motioned to the stair and headed in that direction. With a last look into the silent room, Tim followed.
“He’s reading? It sure doesn’t look like it to me.”
“Me either, Tim, but that’s what he claims to be doing. He says he’s teaching himself to take in the whole page in one single gestalt—of what is, and what was intended to be, and how it fits into the book and the world.”
“Gestalt? What the hell is that? It sounds like something he pulled out of a psyche book.”
Stan shrugged. “I’m not sure, but I looked it up, and it means the whole of a thing that cannot be derived from just the sum of its parts. I don’t know what the hell he means by it, though. He’s starting to really scare me and I don’t know what to do.” He looked at his friend, his expression hopeful. “Do you have any ideas? I’m fresh out.”
Tim blew out a long breath. “None. This thing has really gotten wild. Have you taken him to a doctor?” At Stan’s affirmative nod, he added, “A shrink?”
Stan looked glum. “A shrink, and a psychologist, and two other kinds of head doctors, too. They love him. They say he’s the most well balanced and intelligent kid they’ve seen in years. They think I’m crazy!” He held out his hands, as though seeking guidance, or at least a little reassurance. “I’m not, am I?”
Tim thought that over for a time, then asked, “How is he when he’s not doing the yoga thing?” He pointed in the direction of the second floor, indicating Mike’s present activity.
Stan deflated, leaning back in the chair and shaking his head in frustration. “That’s the hell of it, Tim. When he’s not like that, he’s great. He helps around the house, plays ball, and does all the things he always did; maybe even more. Hell, I’ve never seen him so full of energy.”
Tim was at a loss to suggest anything, but a question occurred. “Um… When he finishes with that… uh, reading?” He wasn’t happy with the word, but plowed on anyway. “When he puts the book away, has he actually read it—gotten anything out of it?”
Stan scratched his chin, thoughtfully. “Well, I can’t tell for sure, but he seems to. When he finishes a book, he can discuss what it was about, it just seems a weird way to read. He’d be a lot faster reading it the regular way.”
“Have you told him that?”
“Sure, but when I did he said he’s getting better and that he gets much more out of the book this way.”
Tim was silent for a long time, and when he spoke, his answer didn’t satisfy him. He just couldn’t think of anything else to say. “Well, if it doesn’t hurt him, and he’s okay in every way, I guess it makes him happy. Who knows, maybe he’ll come up with a new way of reading. I’d give it a little while, and keep an eye on him.”
It was obvious from the expression on Stan’s face that it was not an answer he was comfortable with, but there was little choice in the matter, and Mike’s energetic feet on the stair ended the conversation..
“Hi, Mr. Shaken. I haven’t seen you for a while. How are you?”
“Mmm?” Tim turned from polishing the car. “Oh, hi, Mike. I’m pretty fine. We’ve been at the lake house for three weeks.”
Tim studied the boy for a moment, before going on, noting that he seemed changed since the last time he had seen him. In some indefinable way he seemed more grown up. For one thing, he stood straight, and had a look of confidence Tim had never seen him wear before. There was more, though. Tim just couldn’t put his finger on what it was.
“Well, Mike,” he continued. “You look pretty happy this afternoon.”
“I am,” the boy enthused. “I finally broke through yesterday morning, and I have to thank you and my father for making it possible.”
“Broke through? I’m afraid I—”
“No, I guess you wouldn’t understand,” Mike said, with a smile, interrupting him. “What I mean is that I finally understand, and now it’s easy to learn.”
Tim put down the rag he had been using to polish the car, and held out his hands in a request for enlightenment. “Mike, I’m afraid I—”
“Still don’t understand,” Mike finished, interrupting him once again. He looked thoughtful for a moment, before saying, “It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t have it, but what I now understand is communication, and how it’s really done. It means that I can pretty much tell what you’re thinking by watching your face, and that I can read a page by just glancing at it.” He shrugged. “In fact, if it’s an opinion book, rather than an accumulation of facts, I can usually tell what the thing contains from the first few pages. Most people are far too wordy when they try to say something.”
Tim blinked rapidly for a few seconds, before Mike continued, speaking for him, and saying, “But that’s not possible, Mike, and you can’t know my thoughts.” He stopped, grinning at the expression Tim was unable to keep from his features, and there was laughter in his voice as he said, “Of course I can’t read minds, no one could do that, right?” He hesitated, still grinning, then went on more gently, moving away from the subject of mind-reading.
“Anyway, I really want to thank you for making it possible, even if you didn’t have this in mind when you put that note in the book.”
Tim just stared for a long moment, then tried again. “So—”
“What will I do now?” Mike put a hand on the Tim’s shoulder, saying, “I’m sorry, Mr. Shanken, I have to remember not to do that. It seems to upset people… Well, in answer to your question, I’ve read everything in the house, so I’m on my way downtown to read the library. Then, who knows? Maybe I’ll go swimming with the guys.”
Tim watched him go, and had the thought that he ought to go find Stan and ask for his five dollars back.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
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