Fiction by Mike Heartz
If one were to actually take the time to pay attention, they would see that most adults engage in a tremendous amount of fake conversation that starts with the standard greeting that either leaves both of them, or at least one of them, immediately wishing that the run-in never took place. But conditioned as we are, we robotically go through the motions, answer the inane questions and try to throw in a witty remark to end the uncomfortable repartee. A conversational pulling of the plug, if you will. Unfortunately we’re programmed to greet; a horribly archaic tradition.
Fortunately, there are no fake conversations with a six-year old. If little Johnny really doesn’t care how you’re doing that day, he’s not going to ask.
It was soon to be Mother’s Day and my first graders were going to surprise their mothers with solitary marigolds in little clay pots magnificently painted with scores of bright colors, clearly and accurately portraying their blessed mothers cooking them dinner, taking them to Burger King, or just taking the time to read with them. At times like these, I truly feel like one of the lucky ones; I’m getting paid to play with dirt, I paint better than anyone in the room (I know my painting is poor, but still, they are six) and I can have some good old-fashioned conversation with someone I can really relate to.
Our normal buddy system had been thrown for a loop due to Ronald nursing a broken arm suffered during a horrendous accident on the gargantuan, curvy metal slide-o-death at the local city park the week before, compounded with Tasha’s recent bout with the croup. Since Terry didn’t have anyone to pair up with in the project corner, I was happy to eschew my teaching duties and take up the brush myself.
What would at first be an earnest attempt to create works of art worthy of time at any small, backwards towns’ local gallery, the bright colors inevitably mixed together, turning the little terra cotta pots into grey-black flower caskets for the doomed marigolds, which were already wilting under the stress of overeager little fingers.
So there I was on the floor, well aware of the decades old carpet lurking below me and trying to keep him from vigilantly (and I do believe it was a pre-emptive attack) coating the nasty carpet with paint like butter on a piece of toast. Terry must have misinterpreted my lowered, side-by-side seating as relinquishing my power, as he didn’t think twice about giving the carpet a healthy second coat right in front of me. My firm, but brief reprimand was bolstered by my argument that the provided old newspapers covered a space that made his act of first grade guerilla graffiti anything less than accidental.
Terry and I quickly forgot the last five semi-confrontational seconds, and we focused again on our respective duties, sharing the paints judiciously, although he did think I was hoarding the red tempera a little too much, a charge I denied vehemently. After the obligatory, always entertaining inquiries of what we both had for dinner the previous evening were over, we worked in silence, watching our first stick person emerge from our photographic minds onto our stubborn pots.
Terry was settling nicely into his ninth month of first grade, as the transition from the virtual bachelorhood of Kindergarten is always rough at the onset. It had been months and months since the introduction of the individual desk. Gone were the loose days of long, rectangular tables—the Play-Doh Bar where he and his friends would gather around at happy hour, downing shots of apple juice from Dixie cups with pretzels while waxing nostalgic over the previous day’s unfortunate glue incident before passing out on their cots for their mid-morning siesta.
He’d learned to read heroically, being partial to anything having to do with spiders or sharks. We’d had our laughs. He’d had his cries. We had our problem days, needing the surprise visit from his mom to show him I wasn’t playing around. And he took it like a man. Standing there rigid—at attention to the ass-reaming he was receiving, looking dead red into the eye of his mother who let him have it in front of the whole class.
He had tested me and he lost. Although I will freely admit to feeling more than a little bit sorry for him when, catching his brief attention from his mother’s hypnotic scolding, I gave him my most sympathetic, “It didn’t have to come to this!” look. With others, I may have used those precious few moments to give him my, “Did you think I was playing!” look, but I knew this would suffice for Terry. He was already getting two earfuls from his mother. I was trying to look like the rational one.
He was a good kid whom everyone liked and got along with. Everyone except “Crazy Carl,” a decision I secretly commended him for. A good listener, he followed directions at least ten times a day—anything more and it was a crapshoot. I was aware of his limits and respected them when I could.
We continued to work diligently, lightly congratulating each other on our depictions of the sun. He chose an orange sun sans rays—a large Florida orange floating mysteriously near the bottom of the pot—while I went with the classic tried and true yellow orb radiating its life-giving rays near the top of the pot. With each of our stolen glances, I got the feeling we were secretly envious of the design and sun-making abilities of the other.
In time, he became distracted, as he is accustomed to doing after three minutes of focusing on just one thing, and was again kneading the planting soil between his stubby fingers. I started to refocus him, but never got the chance.
“Mr. Thomas?” he questioned while trying to jam more dirt under his fingernails.
“Where does dirt come from?” he asked earnestly.
“From the ground.” I was more than willing to go the easy route on a Friday afternoon. “It comes from the ground, Terry. Underneath the rocks and grass and stuff.”
Wondering if this answer would be enough to quench the sponge-like mind of a suddenly curious six-year old, I asked if I could, perchance, procure the blue paint from him for my cloud landscape. He obliged, unenthusiastically, apparently remembering the accusation he placed upon me regarding the red paint not two minutes before.
“Dirt sure is dirty,” he summarized as only a first grader can. “The dirt makes it dirty.” Its truth is in its simplicity, never had a Zen master uttered a more true statement.
“Yes, Terry,” I concurred, smiling from ear to ear, satisfied with his astute observation, “it sure is.”
The silence enveloped us again, each of us content with our oversized paint brushes and egg carton-filled paints that never seemed to hold the paint, merely kept it in the general vicinity of where it was needed. Terry was once again focused on his pot, actually slowing his stroke speed down to capture the detail and quality of a true artisan.
This piqued my interest. I wanted to know what depiction of his mother was making him work so intently, what saintly act he was recreating for the entire world to see.
“Whatcha painting there, T?” We were on nickname basis. Or at least I was.
“Me playing my video game.”
I wasn’t sure if he remembered the basic tenets of the holiday and, more importantly, the project, so I reminded him. “You know you’re supposed to be painting a picture of something your mom does for you, remember?”
“But I like video games.”
Well-played, young man. I couldn’t, nor wanted, to pursue the matter any farther. I hid behind the thin veil of it being the thought that counts. She was getting a flower. And he was engrossed in his work. We all won.
As he cradled his paint-dirt terra cotta vessel, I complimented him on bringing texture to his work. Fingering the soil once again, I believed that even he knew his work would not end up as promising as he had hoped.
“But Mr. Thomas, where does the dirt come from in the ground?”
Realizing I wouldn’t be able to shrug this one off, I decided to answer his question with the answer as far as I knew.
“It actually comes from a star, T.”
“Yeah, a star.”
“You mean like up in the nighttime?”
“Yup. Just like the ones at night.”
Eyeing me suspiciously, as if I just told him that Santa Claus did not exist, he asked, “How’s it get down here?”
“It blows up,” I replied, realizing I had painted the lower part of my striped tie blue.
“What blows up?” He asked, stopping to stare at me upon hearing the magical words, blows up.
“Stars blow up?”
“Yup. Ours will too.”
“We have a star here?” he asked, painting the stem of his tortured marigold. “Where? In the principal’s office?”
“No, there is not a star in the principal’s office. You just painted it on your pot. Well, you did at the beginning.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did.”
“No I didn’t.”
It may have been childish, but these easy comebacks are often a release from the adult arguments that require me to think.
Plus, I knew I was right.
“Yes you did, T. Didn’t you paint the sun on your pot?”
“Well T, the sun is a star. The sun is our star.”
“The sun is a star?” He giggled and cackled; obviously thinking I was playing some sort of joke on him. His laugh, joyfully pure, was strong and righteously innocent; he thought I had no idea what I was talking about and in turn, was extremely confident in what he thought he knew to be true.
“It’s true, T. The sun is a star,” I explained over his growing laughter. “And there are a lot more out there, more than you can count.”
I could tell he was trying to remember the highest number he could think of. “More than one hundred?”
“More than two hundred?”
“More than one hundred hundred two hundred?”
“If that was a number, than yes.”
Knowing this could, and would go on for the better part of the afternoon, I had to halt this runaway train.
“T, there are more stars than anyone could possibly count. More than you could ever count.”
“I can count to one hundred.”
“I am quite aware of that T, and you can do it well. But still, there are too many to count.”
Ignoring my acknowledgment of his counting abilities, he proceeded to give me a demonstration, making it to twenty-four before giving in to the miracle of distraction and poking his thumb into his pot and pulling out his dirty digit to inspect it once more.
“But Mr. Thomas, why does the sun blow up?”
“You mean other stars?” A nod of his tiny noggin gave me the affirmation I was looking for. “Because T, it runs out of fuel.’
I could tell his silence betrayed his actual knowledge.
“Just less than fourteen billion years ago there was what amounted to a small spark. Now what started this spark, we don’t know yet. But from this spark came a huge explosion. An explosion that we can’t even comprehend or imagine.”
“What’s an esplojun?”
“Explosion. Ex-plosion. When something blows up.”
“Bigger than fireworks?
“Very big, Terry, now try and follow along.”
“For millions of years, there was nothing but this gas called hydrogen floating around, clumping together like…. like when you add snow to a snowman.”
“I built a snowman at Christmastime with my brother. It was big! It was this big.” He stood up and held his hands above his head, a full four feet off the ground.
“Wow T, that’s big. Now, after those clumps sped around at extremely high speeds they started to smack into each other—like when you guys are in the gym running around, and they started to form the first stars.”
“Not our sun just yet, that was much later on. As the hydrogen fused together with helium to fuel the stars, other elements eventually began to form, such as carbon, nitrogen, silicon, and iron. But billions of years later, those stars began to run out of hydrogen—or fuel, and then gravity took over.’
“Not gravy, T, gravity. Gravity is what makes thing fall to the ground. It also keeps our feet on the ground.”
“I like gravy on my mashed potatoes.”
“My shoes keep me on the ground, but I can jump real high. Watch how high.”
He obviously felt another demonstration was in order. He leapt like a frightened gazelle, displaying some fine four-inch vertical jumping ability. What this had to do with his shoes, I hadn’t a clue, but he was giving a perfect example of gravity whether he knew it or not.
“T, you’re doing a fine job, but you’re also doing an even better job of tracking dirt and paint all over the floor.”
Seven more jumps and he was convinced. Either that or he was just exhausted. His heavy breathing and sweaty brow convinced me of the latter.
“Are you done?”
He forced out an exhausted, “Yes.”
“Well good. Now, sit down and finish up your work.”
I figured I had at least another five minutes of focus time. We worked in earnest once again. I was resigned to the fact that my discourse on the beginnings of time had ceased, but after two minutes of silence, Terry surprisingly brought me back.
“What happens when it gets empty?”
“Gets empty? What are you talking about?”
“Gets empty…the star?” he repeated, obviously thinking elaboration was unnecessary.
“You mean when the star runs out of fuel?”
Yet another affirmative nod answered my query. With a seemingly eager audience, I forged on.
“Well, as the star runs out of fuel, or gets empty, it starts to cool at its core, which is the middle of it, and is made of molten—or liquid iron. The star begins to shrink and it collapses in on itself. After it collapses, it explodes outwardly. Keep in mind, T, this all takes place in a thousandth of a second. This process is called a supernova.
“A thousand seconds? I can count that high.”
“Not a thousand seconds. A thousandth of a second. A second split into a thousand pieces.
“Now all that stuff inside the star gets blasted out at tremendous speeds into space, in all different directions. And all those elements and star stuff clumps together and eventually some of it forms a big ball of space debris. Get that out of your nose T, because I’m not cleaning it up. Now, one of those big balls of debris eventually cooled down after billions of years and became our earth.”
“My uncle’s name is Dupree.”
“Not Dupree. Debris. De-bris. With a ‘b’.”
“What’s an earth?”
“It’s what we live on.”
“But we live on the ground, on the floor.”
“Yes, but the ground and the floor sit on the earth, the ground is the earth. Anyway, after even more billions of years the ocean and land were formed from all those leftover elements. And even we were formed from those leftover elements.”
“You mean the dirt made us?”
“Do you go to church, Terry?”
“No, but my granny do.”
“Okay….then yes, the dirt made us. But if your granny said God made you, just go along with it for right now. It’ll be easier on you and me.”
“Forget it. Now do you understand where dirt comes from?”
“From our sun, and Uncle Dupree.”
“Debris, T. Debris.”
“That’s what I said, Dupree.”
“Good enough. Thank god for Uncle Dupree.”
I wrote my name on the bottom of my pot for identification purposes later as I realized my pot had fallen back to the pack in terms of painting, creativity, and overall presentation. Terry was wrapping his work up also, looking as if he was thinking real hard, possibly trying to digest the information I had just offered.
“What’s up T? You all right? You look like something’s bothering you.” I was beginning to think that maybe he had a follow-up to ask, that maybe an explanation of what an ‘element’ was might be in order. Or possibly I had somehow sparked the scientific flint inside his growing cranium and he was wondering and questioning our very existence on this earth. A proper follow-up question if I had ever heard one. Maybe, just maybe I could begin to steer his mind into the journey of the unknown. “Terry, everybody at one tine or another in their life starts to wonder, perhaps even question…”
“Isn’t it time for recess?”
“Oh my god. You’re right. Hurry up and wash out your brush and your hands. No—no forget the brush! Get in line! Hurry, hurry!”