David is precocious. Sometimes quiet,
other times speaking with unpleasantly adult authority, his teachers mistake him
for a rude and spoiled boy, do not appreciate his jokes, send him to sit under
the clock in the office. Unfocused, his intelligence does not show itself until
he is ten or eleven. When it is too late. Sitting at his desk, hidden behind a
filing cabinet, withdrawn from the class if not the world, he has his own corner
of blackboard. Finds in a science fiction novel the time-dilation calculation,
writes it on the board with mixed red and yellow chalk, the colors of rocket
Two other children stand by his desk, amazed. David explains how fast he
would have to travel to go to a nearby star and be back before Christmas, his
"You would all be old guys, of course, by then."
One of the kids calls to the teacher, who is passing by.
"Do you understand it?"
"No," the teacher says without looking, a quick word over his
shoulder, coffee cup balanced at full as he skips by, going nowhere but here and
there about the room. In orbit around his own useless desk. David knows the
teacher assumes it is all just numbers and lines, a child's alchemy; also knows
that he would not have understood it. The teacher's limitations are transparent.
David once wrote a story with the word "laser" in it. The teacher
crossed it out, wrote "lazer" above it. Gave David a B.
"Mr. Earnest" -- a ridiculous misnomer. The children of the
sixth grade class think him tall, but he is only taller than them: five foot
six, with hair too long. He moves around the room constantly, seems always busy,
gets nothing done, teaches nothing to the children. Bad breath invades his
attempts at intimacy as he stops, for a moment, by a desk. A scar under his
chin, from throat to cleft, fascinates kids as he leans over them. Steve Rane,
who always speaks in obscenities and insults -- things heard from a father who
reclines on the couch, sempiternal beer in hand, shouting about kikes and taxes
-- Steve Rane said that it was probably a scar from Viet Nam, and that the
teacher had no doubt torched whole villages in revenge for it. David imagines
Mr. Earnest with a gun in hand, scurrying around in a dark jungle, never still,
never shooting anyone.
Late in the school year the teacher comes aside to the shielded corner where
David sits, crouches down in front of him, lays papers out on his desk, set his
coffee cup on them, leaving a dark ring on the next six years of David's life,
and explains with dank voice that David has the highest math scores in the
class, most likely the highest in the district -- easily high enough for David
to pursue an honors program when he gets to the seventh grade.
"But I don't think you will do the work," Mr. Earnest says.
"And so I don't think I will recommend you; you rebel against the little
assignments I give you in this class. In the honors program, you have to want to
do the work, not just be able to do it. Do you understand?"
David nods, says nothing. He does not understand, nor knows that it is his
place now to protest. Why should he do the work, anyways? He always gets all the
answers right. If they think he isn't good enough, then they must be stupid --
and thus is born the defense he will keep close forever. Anyone who dismisses
him must resent his intelligence, must be an idiot. As almost all people were.
Eleven years old, already fortified, already in retreat from the world.
And indeed there are people who resent his intelligence. Teachers who
hate being corrected, even teachers later in high school who will follow his
comments with a stare. Then make an example of him, asking "and did I get
this right?" after every claim, turning away from the board to face him and
wait. Making the whole class wait for his answer. Things slowed to a crawl, the
brutal plodding of the ignorant. David will be silent for months before he
speaks again sincerely. Will finally decide to say nothing. Will read science
fiction novels. Skip most homeworks. Ace exams. Watch the indifferent girls.
But first, the other children. American children, lithe and feral, completely
unforgiving, smell intelligence and hunt it down, persecute it, try to purge it
like an impurity with continual rituals of social darwinism. If they were left
alone, dropped on a deserted island and given clubs and knives, in ten
generations they would breed a new species of illiterate barbarians who were
masters at kickball, dodge ball, football. Lords of the field and gymnasium.
These the only worthy pursuits.
They call him brain, brainiac, nerd, Mr. Science. All names that affirm
David's defense, secretly please him. Finally, "Mr. Science" sticks,
stays with him after one day Mr. Earnest discovers him at his desk with a
microscope. The teacher takes it away from him, angry.
"You have to ask before you can take this, Mr. Science."
David nods. Says nothing. Judges.
At home, David's father leaves in a whirl of slammed doors and shouting.
David's mother stays by his side, holds his hand, hugs him into her old
bathrobe. On a Friday night she explains that they are getting divorced. The
father already out of the house. The next day his father is there when he
awakes. David's mother goes out for the afternoon. Leaves the two of them alone
in the kitchen, the space between them suddenly empty of her, the car backing
out of the driveway. David's father stands by the refrigerator, looking
"You understand that this doesn't mean I love you any less."
David nods. Always nods when someone begins, "you understand...."
"And we'll see each other all the time. We'll go out every weekend. I'm
just going to move someplace nearby."
David nods. His father turns to the refrigerator and makes a bologna
sandwich, holding the door open, laying pieces of bread and meat on the top
shelf, unwrapping slices of cheese and spreading mustard on them. Tosses the
knife into the sink, a loud clattering. Then goes and watches football on the
TV, shouting with excitement when there is a score. David hates sport
instinctively, knows the locker room as an anteroom to cruelty, associates
televised games with an absent father. He retreats to his bedroom, crouches in
the slot between his chest of drawers and the wall, stares at the radiator and
When his mother comes home two hours later, she finds things this way, his
father on a second game. She screams: "I can't believe you. I can't believe
you. I left you alone so you could be with him, spend the day with him."
At school, David's world falls apart, all his interests clouded and
retreating, as if he moved away from them at near the speed of light, his mind
moving now only slowly, slowly, relative to the realm of math and distant
wonders. But this is hardly noticeable to anyone else: he does just as little
work as before, does it just as well as before. Sits aside during class games.
Writes "HELP!" on the blackboard in huge letters. Tells himself that
it is funny.
Comes home one Friday to find his mother in a panic, calling a cab on the
phone. She is late for work, and the car is gone. His father has taken it. When
he left their home he said they could keep the house, the car. No alimony, but
he will pay of course for the son. Finds immediately a woman who lives in a low
income project with two fat boys. She fills his father with bile, a ready
vessel. He takes the car, starts court proceedings on the house. Stops paying
child support. Is not heard of for months at a time.
Eventually, the courts secure the house for his mother. An angry judge glares
down at David's father over polished walnut.
"You come in here again and I'll hit you with a harassment charge. You
are getting off easy. Hardly paying anything."
David's father stands silently. His girlfriend sits beside him, her face
narrow and sharp, a cheap perm in greasy hair. She hisses something. The judge
ignores it, has the support taken right from his paycheck: $37.50 a week.
To last until David is twenty-one: thirty seven, fifty. David knows the
number, will hear it in complaints for the rest of his life. Will eventually
understand that it is a piddling sum, the kind of money his father spends on
lift passes every winter weekend. Will eventually hate his father for it, hate
him far, far more than his father hates paying it. Will dream of paying it all
back, in one chunk, a final severing of ties: 10 years and 24 weeks = $20,400.
The kind of money most of David's generation will never see.
Two men court his mother. One a line man for the phone company where she is
an operator. Another owns a small grocery store where she shops. Both pleasant,
Italian, equally well off. One circles the house while the other is visiting.
They send flowers, chocolates, cards. Are nice to David: understand that this is
a package deal. They appreciate what had only been torment for his father: that
David's mother is strong, independent, demanding, beautiful.
Early one morning David stands in a corner of his classroom, the sky a dark
gray outside, the sun hardly above the horizon. Mr. Earnest in the teacher's
lounge with his coffee and a cigarette, working up his day's bad breath. David
trying to explain poker to Steve Rane before the first bell. Tom Jacks, a fat
boy with a pinched face, accidental child of the rich family of Jacks Heating
Oil Company, his siblings in college, he alone in a house with fifty year old
parents who get winded as they climb the stairs to their bedroom -- this Tom
Jacks marches to David, shouts, I have something to tell you, Mr. Science.
"Your mother is cheating on your father. We've been watching her,
The world sinks around David, leers to the side as if a black hole were
passing by, dragging matter askew. He runs for the exit, spilling his hand of
cards -- joker, queen, a red ace. Everyone else is moving slowly now, heads
turning in the slow, relaxed time of children, but David as always is moving at
a speed beyond his years, time dilating before him. He slams through the door,
crying, finds the hall and then the door to the outside and flees onto the
fields. Tom Jacks pursues him, half-heartedly shouting "I didn't
know": Rane has just told him that David's parents are divorced. David does
not look back, runs for the suburbs. Wanders the maple-lined streets for hours,
hiding whenever a car passes. Then makes his way home. Climbs into the space
above the garage which he calls "the fort." Weeps. Finds the cat and
sits petting it, listening to its purr. Reads from a science fiction novel. Only
enters the empty house after his usual time home.
That night his mother knows he is upset, watching him eat dinner, his
shoulders slumped and his face near the plate, pushing his peas from side to
side. David finally explains.
She calls the Jacks that night, late, after David is in bed.
"I don't care what you say about me. But don't ever think I'll let those
kinds of things be said to my son. You leave my son out of this. You should be
ashamed." And so on. Sure that the boy had heard his parents talking.
Mrs. Jacks listens, hangs up the phone, tired, corpulent, falls immediately
asleep. In the morning, she tells Tom to leave David alone. Too late. He has
already clipped Dear Abby from the morning paper, a distraught letter from a
woman wanting a divorce. He gives it to David during lunch, smirking as he
throws it onto his tray, waiting, while Mr. Science reads it, for a reaction.
David shows none. Throws it out. Eats lunch alone.
The sixth grade finishes. Mr. Earnest openly as happy about it as the
children, beaming in the doorway as they file past him for the last time. Then a
hot summer, the sun beating down so that most of every day seems like noon.
David's father marries the last week of July. Has already moved in with his
girlfriend, the two of them now making three times the upper limit for the low
income housing she rents. They have a honeymoon at the lake. Take her boys with
The father calls minutes after the wedding. Drunk. Threatens to leave the
state. David's mother blurts it out to David. Knows that she should protect him
from these things, but finds herself thinking aloud to the boy.
"Who cares?" David says. And means it, all the damage already done:
his father's infrequent phone calls are long, awkward pauses of silence. Nothing
heartfelt will ever be said between them now. Except someday anger. And David
does not know that they need the little bit of money, and would rather do
without it. Most of all would rather escape the forced meetings with his father
and his father's bitter new family just as Mr. Earnest had let him escape the
games of kickball and four square.
August nights, David slips from bed and watches the summer stars with
his telescope pointed out the window. Jupiter bounces out of view when trucks
pass, and the nearby city lights bleach Orion's nebula from the sky. Still,
there is no corner of space that does not reveal stars dense and diverse. Every
distant place in the universe filled with endless possibilities, actualized.
Someday, he will build a spaceship. He has already made a dozen designs: one
ship a perfect tetrahedron, another a long rocket, another a plane with short
wings, a saucer, a landing module, a flying city. He will travel to Betelgeuse,
travel on to Andromeda, become a cyborg on his way, live centuries with his
metal organs. From his perspective, if he were only able to see things on Earth
as he sped away at near light speed, it would appear all the while that time is
crawling there, life proceeding in slow motion. But when he returns millions of
years will have passed, mountains will have risen and fallen, oceans moved.
Everyone will be dead. The world populated with intelligent cats; men having
killed first the intelligent humans, then the average, till only the stupid
remained. He will nod as the cats explain their evolutionary history, how they
had found it necessary to eat the last of his species, fat children with pinched
faces. Finally, he will tell his own story, then return to the utter blackness
of space. Alone with pure, absolute freedom to explore infinity. Endless wonder
and adventure awaiting him. And all of time his own.
American mothers tell their children that they can grow up to be anything, do
anything. David believes it. He knows it must be true.