The Tempter Comes

3) Problem Solving




3         Problem Solving


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 on his.

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 solutions.

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 voice.

“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 windows.”

“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.”

“Fabulous idea. 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 ancient pantyhose.”

“Oh stop that,” Danielle giggled.

Russell continued, “What about the nails?”

“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 smile.

“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 through tricycles.”

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.”

Copyright Bob La Forge 2011        email: