“Reuben, I’m busy.”
“Come look just one minute, Mama!”
“Sure. One minute, and then two, and then…”
“Four, and then sixteen, and then two hundred fifty-six, and then…”
“Reuben, why must you be such a bothersome child?”
“I’m worth the bother, Mama. Come and look!”
Just looking at Reuben’s room always tires her out more than a full day of housework does. Not because the room’s messy, it’s not. It’s just crowded — and not with little-boy stuff, but with plain and plug-ugly objects he has rescued from the dreary world and given a new purpose. Although the purpose is in such a roundabout way that just watching its turtle-like route unfold is a misery, especially to someone like herself whose greatest hunger is to see each long day done and over.
“All right!” she surrenders, and enters his door to watch whatever. She does hold her mop soldier-straight in front of her, to make it clear this is merely an interruption in her purpose and not some outing for entertainment like a movie or a play.
The actor in this production is a scruffy and undistinguished red rubber ball she could swear she saw yesterday in the possession of a little neighbor girl playing jacks on the landing below. But Reuben holds it up like a magician, holds it “with import,” which he has confided to her is the secret of any such feat, and she looked in the dictionary because she’d never heard that meaning of the word before, but he was right.
His importful hand goes high and launches the ball down toward the hard linoleum with almost nuclear force. It rebounds up as if to tattoo the ceiling but just kisses it instead, which is the first instant the viewer sees how the ball was angled so that it hits not on the floor but against the bowl-end of a tinplate spoon balanced atop the base of an upended spittoon engraved with the insignia of some long-dead railroad.
Inexplicably the red ball rests there but sends the cheap spoon flying, toward an open window where it perfectly pings the edge of a triangular stained-glass medallion hung from the sash on a cord, sets the colors a-spin in a beam of sunlight so that as the spoon caroms away into the great beyond of sidewalks below, the medallion climbs its cord by just enough millimeters to cast its flaming light across the room to a high shelf where a miniature Eiffel Tower made of #2 pencils holds aloft a square black photovoltaic cell the size of a postage stamp which, when infused with the spinning sun, creates just enough electricity to power the tiny motor and fan blade attached to the Tower’s struts — a fan whose simple wind proceeds to scatter one by one the dead brown leaves on a tree branch hung across the near wall, and the leaves’ passing reveals the sheet of butcher paper on the wallboard with its carefully daubed finger-painting of his mother, a flurry of colors he was particularly pleased with, down to the precise angle of the mop she perpetually holds as she glances toward the heavens vainly hoping for respite.
“That’s very nice, Reuben,” she says. One. Two. Three. “Now if you’ll excuse me, some people have work to do.”
The look he gives her as she leaves his room is the same as always: half hopeful, half crestfallen. Which gives her a twinge of guilt until she reminds herself this is the only reasonable attitude a child can have. Centered, in a way. Too much drift in one direction or the other, and he would either fall off the crest, or else… whatever.
That’s when a dull jingling sound from the pocket of her smock reminds her of the unfinished errand. “Oh…here,” she says, and holds out the misshapen bauble she’d happened upon the day before. As Reuben inspects the found object, she realizes what it reminds her of: an old-fashioned sleigh bell, though the clunky conical shape is not authentic and completely ruins the ringing tone.
Heaven only knows how such an oddity came to be lodged underneath the coal scuttle by the basement furnace. Sometimes she thinks her boy is an outright magnet for useless odds and ends.
“Thank you, Mama,” Reuben says.
Afterward, as she rinses and squeezes her dirty mop in the sink, she’s certain to remind herself as she always does that despite the trial of having Reuben he’s at heart a remarkable person, and the most intelligent she has ever known. He’s so gifted, in fact, she knows he’s fully capable of someday achieving what has become her worst nightmare.
Someday he’s likely to create an actual new world in there — one that he’ll be solely responsible for. And then won’t he be sorry?
Carroll Dale Short is a fiction writer, journalist, teacher, and multimedia producer who lives in northern Alabama.
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