The wisest teacher is the one whose student surpasses him.
As usual, Russell was up earlier
than everyone else in his house. He really was not a morning person but he
cherished these times of tranquility. He could read, go into the basement and
do woodworking, or just sit on the porch of their very modest house and take in
the cool morning air and listen to the birds.
His little sister, mother, and
grandmother would get up at least an hour or two later. Then the worrying would
fill the air like smoke from a tire fire. Not from his grandmother who mostly stayed
in bed and certainly not from Danielle. Rather, his mother was a cognoscente of
anxiety and negativity. If there was one problem she could magically multiply
it into two problems. If it was a small problem she could quickly grow it into
a fat adulthood. It, therefore, does not take a mathematical prodigy to
calculate that one small squirrel in the attic in the morning would eventually
become two big gorillas in the living room by the end of the day.
This drove Russell and his sister
to untold and unnecessary grief.
But the most frustrating for
Russell was that she was always problem oriented and not solution oriented. If
he provided a solution to a dilemma then he would get five reasons in return as
to why it will not work.
His grandmother’s bedroom was on
the second floor. Once, Russell’s mother was fretting that her mother might
fall down the stairs in the dark. Russell, whose bedroom was
on the first floor, offered to switch rooms.
“That simply won’t work because she
likes to look out the window and the bottom of your window is blocked by a
bush. And besides, she’ll become disorientated in the unfamiliar area. We’d
have to switch all of the furniture in both of your bedrooms. We’d have to
paint the walls because she only likes white, and, anyway, she’s been in that
bedroom for years.”
It would be useless to point out
that they do not live across from a zoo and so nothing happens out there anyway
and, besides, there are always the living room windows. That if she is lucid
then she will figure out where she is and if she is not then what difference
does it make anyway? That the furniture is not nailed down nor is it made of
iron; it can be moved. Walls can be painted and people do move with no ill
emotional, spiritual, physical, moral, or psychological effects. Why would it
be useless? Because no matter how powerful the reasoning, how irrefutable the
logic, how brilliant the observation and presentation of the factual reality,
the response would always be, “You just don’t understand.” If he were lucky then
that would be the end of it—problem maintained.
But if he was not lucky then his
mother would play the familiar victim card, “You don’t know how hard it is.
Life isn’t easy, you know. I just can’t up and do things on a whim. There needs
to be considerations and planning. I just can’t go off doing what I darn well
please whenever I want. I have people to take care of, you know. Do you think
that things just get done on their own around here? And on and on and on.” Russell could mouth the words as if
from a written script. He never could understand why she did not just tape
record the speech and hit the play button whenever the situation begged for it.
It would certainly save a lot of hand wringing on her part and teeth grinding
So no problem was ever solved and
nothing ever did happen around that house because there were always too many
considerations and never any planning.
His biggest concern (we must not
say “worry” here) was that his sister, Danielle, would pick up these same
traits. He could already see the occasional, unnecessary, and slightly dramatic
apprehension like when she could not quickly figure out a homework problem and
she would bury her head in her hands and mumble, “I could spend three lifetimes
on this one and never get it.”
To battle this he would always try
to be positive with Danielle and patiently work with her to examine possible
A month ago his mother exhausted
everyone with the dilapidation of the living room carpet. “I can’t have anyone
over because I’m so ashamed of this rug.” Not that they ever had anyone over as
long as Russell could remember anyway. “It’s got to be full of germs and molds;
I’m surprised we’re not all sick with wheezings.
People will think that we’re poor and living on our last nickel.” Of course
since Russell’s father ran off ten years ago they have been rather poor, but
why let the neighbor’s know?
Russell made the mistake of
proposing a solution. “Why don’t we just replace the rug?”
“If we tear up the carpet it’ll
release all of the mold at once and we’ll all choke to
death. Or we’ll die months later of some horrible respiratory infection. We’ll
end our days coughing up black, horrible viles. And
besides, how will we get rid of it? If we put it out for garbage the neighbor’s
will see it and know how we live. The floor underneath is probably even more
disgusting than the carpet. You’ll hurt yourself on the nails. We can’t afford
a replacement anyway.” Somehow that response was predictable. The only surprise
was the order of the excuses. He would have bet his left thumb that the cost
would have been at the top. Russell just hung his head and walked off.
“That’s the last time I’ll ever do
that again,” he thought for the 18th time this month.
Later he took Danielle for a walk
to the chocolate shop and asked her what she would do regarding the carpet. She
hesitated and mulled as usual so he asked her, “Is there really a problem?”
“Well, the carpet is in pretty bad
shape. I bet that it’s older than grandma,” she said in her sweet, high-pitched
“Dirt isn’t older than grandma.”
“It could use replacing.”
“So will we all cough up green
spores and die if we pull it up?” Russell asked.
“Probably not, but grandma might
get sick. She is frail, you know.”
“Boy, do I know. We both hear about
it every day. OK, so how can we minimize that from happening?”
“Well, we could open up all of the
“Good. And what else?”
“We could open up the door and put
on some fans and blow everything out.”
“Excellent. And anything else?”
She thought for a while. “We could
wet the rug down first to keep the mold from flying up.”
“That would make the rug really
heavy and it sure would stink, don’t you think?”
“I guess that’s true,” replied
Danielle, “umm, I don’t know what else.”
“Your idea of keeping the mold from
flying around, if there is even any mold, is a good thought. Perhaps we could
lay newspapers or plastic all over and tape them to the rug. That would keep
everything contained. What do you think?”
“That’s a good idea.” Then she
added, “We can always put grandma out in the backyard while we were doing all
of this. A little sunlight might do her some good anyway.”
I wish that I had thought of that.”
Danielle seemed quite pleased. She
had come up with that idea without even any leading.
Russell added, “Although it’s been
so long since she’s been out in the sun I’d be concerned that her skin would
flake off and blow away in the wind and then eventually everything else would
flake off and we’d have nothing left but a pair of sensible shoes and a pile of
“Oh stop that,” Danielle giggled.
Russell continued, “What about the
“Well, we can always wear gloves.”
“Excellent. A simple,
straightforward problem solver you are.” He tapped her on the back. “And if the
floor underneath is bad?”
“We can clean it up.”
“And if it is really bad?”
“Umm, we can cover it with linoleum
or something like that.” She paused for a minute and slid her lips back and
forth as she thought. “Or cover it with another rug.”
“And if we can’t afford another rug
or linoleum? Then what? We can’t leave an ugly floor exposed. Then we’ll never
have people over.”
Danielle looked up at him and
giggled. “No. But maybe we can do some extra baby-sitting or yard work until we
can buy a new rug. It doesn’t have to be expensive, just decent.”
“Very good, very
good. So back to the original question. Can we
pull up the current rug without any major problems?”
Danielle quickly replied with a
little smile of confidence, “Yes.”
“And now for the biggest question
of all, will we tell Mom that?”
“No,” she said with an even bigger
“Will we then do it ourselves
behind her back and show her that it can be done?”
“Only if we want our throats slit,”
replied Danielle with mock anguish.
Russell patted her affectionately
on the head, “Good girl. When you get out of school the world’s problems had
better watch out because you are going to plow right through them like a tank
Danielle lowered her head slightly
and grinned broadly. Her shoulders seemed a little more square
and she picked up the pace.
At the chocolate shop they were
sitting at a window table contently sipping on their milkshakes. Danielle had a
mocha caramel shake while Russell was enjoying his favorite—double chocolate.
“This shake,” proclaimed Russell, “has five tablespoons of chocolate syrup in it.
Five tablespoons! Just say that out loud and let its magnitude sink in.” He
closed his eyes and took another long suck.
They unconsciously imitated each
other’s style. They would sip a little through the straw and then slowly eat a
small chunk of ice cream off of the spoon. These two steps alternated until
either the liquid or the ice cream was gone. If they were lucky and/or careful,
each part would finish at the same time.
“I tell you, this place makes the
best shakes in town,” Russell crowed.
“This place is the only place in
town that makes shakes at all,” Danielle responded.
“Well then, see, I’m right!”
Both returned to their ritual. They
were nursing their shakes and clearly enjoying every mouthful. Danielle was
reviewing in her mind how she solved the carpet dilemma when a tall,
dark-clothed man walked very slowly past the large front windows. He was
staring very intently into the shop. Both Russell and Danielle stopped drinking
and looked up at him with their mouths slightly open. But he was not just
peering into the shop in general; rather, his eyes were locked on Russell every
step of the way. Then as he was right in front of where Russell was seated the
man stopped and glared right into Russell’s eyes. Russell felt the hairs on his
neck go taut. He felt like wax that was melting under the intense glare of the
sun. The spoon slipped out of his hand and clanged on the table. No one
noticed. Then the man started walking again, but still remained locked on Russell.
When he passed the edge of the window he looked forward and picked up the pace.
Very slowly Russell and Danielle turned and looked at each other feeling all creeped out.
Without even looking at it, Russell
clawed at the spoon until he picked it up. Then they looked back down at their
shakes but neither moved. They stared for a long time into the glasses. Finally
Danielle looked at Russell with horror in her eyes. Russell was gingerly
lifting the spoon out of his glass. The shake was now a thick red fluid. It
dripped heavily off of his spoon and back into the glass. Danielle’s shake was
the same. She slowly stirred the thick liquid. Then they both stopped and
looked at each other. Russell cautiously leaned over and smelled it. He
grimaced and quickly sat back upright and rubbed his nose.
“Blood,” he frowned, “They’ve
turned into blood.”