Wednesday, March 6, 2013

You are in Demand!

Inside the cover of the black-marbled, hard-backed notebook, the multiplication table glared at me in tiny black print.

Curled up on the soft gold sofa on a Saturday afternoon, I read the numbers over and over to myself. An Abbott and Costello movie played on the only UHF station with flawless reception. I also tucked a matchbook between the blank pages of the notebook

2 times 2 is 4.  2 times 4 is 8.  2 times 2 is 4.
And so it went. 2 times 4 is 8. And so it went.
It made my ten year-old head tighten; I kicked a leg and then flailed an arm as if irritating ants crawled onto me. 
4 times 4 is 16.
Harumphing whenever my mom lingered nearby, my scalp dampened on its own as a fatiguing, head-shrinking ache massaged my eyes towards Bud and Lou:
I got a job in a bakery.
Good! What are you doing there?
Turning my head back to the numbers, it was as if the space between my eyes and just above my brows contained a steel plate...

4 times 3 eyes scanned...45, 9, 36...12. 4 times 3 is 12...
...the longer I went, the worse it grew. I could not press the information through. So, I took a lot of breaks. Alternating between Bud and Lou:
You mean you need dough to loaf?Well sure, how could you loaf without dough?
I scrawled my name and address inside the red, white, and blue, matchbook. My heart was set on receiving the official art school test. 


I could draw any of their pictures--I just needed someone important to see it to save me from multiplication hell.

I could be an art student and never need math!

Just that morning I sketched the jaunty little turtle in the turtleneck and newsboy hat--I didn't even use a pencil. I used pen. In the past I sketched Bob Hope from the challenge in a Reader's Digest, a hard-browed woman, as well as a frowning pirate from the back of a comic book. 

Convinced that I could win the $375 scholarship to professional art school, my multiplication-table breaks filling out the essential information on the matchbook cover, while glancing at my flawless sketching of Tippy the Turtle, felt reasonable until my mother walked back into the room.

Flipping the notebook back, I started saying the numbers aloud to impress her: 

7 times 2 is 14. 7 times 3 is 21. 7 times 4 is 28.
I must be learning. She lit a cigarette with a lighter and then sprayed a film of white furniture polish onto the coffee table, wiping in large circles and glancing back at Bud and Lou. This was my chance to impress her. This was my chance to prove that I had learned something and then I could show her the matchbook offer and ask her to mail it for me. I could strike this deal! Confident, I closed the notebook on my lap and tried to recite the multiplication tables and earn my drawing pencils back from mother:

7 times 3 is 24.  7 times 4 is 33. 7 times 5 is 72.

She stopped wiping and frowned. Turning off the television which quickly faded from an icy black and white screen to small glowing green dot to a blank green screen, she walked back into the kitchen to shuffle silverware and open and close cabinets. A tube popped inside the television like it always did when it cooled down.I resorted to counting on my fingers, or using hand beats against my legs to help me remember the numbers. My confidence grew and so I counted by tapping my fingertips lightly against empty space. Working to be subtle and unnoticed, I knew there would be no way I would remember any of it without using my fingers.

The screen door screeched open, and my aunt entered. Carrying a brown bag of vegetables for dinner, she called to me to grab the rest of the bags from her car. She parked all the way down the block, closer to her house. I could see the trunk of her red Dodge yawning wide open. Resting, in the entranceway, she wheezed heavily, struggling with just the one bag.

After hearing about my finger-counting strategy against my leg over a frittata dinner--it's not cheating, right?--my aunt told my mom and me about a Chinese finger-counting method before I could bring up the art school test we had to mail a matchbook in order to receive. 
"It's like calculator fingers. Maybe that's what he needs!" she said to my mom.
 Loving the opportunity to assist my mom in raising me, my aunt ordered it and the Chinese Finger Method came in the mail very quickly. 

I lost the matchbook and by day I scoured the city sidewalks for discarded matchbooks covers and hunted Cosmopolitan magazines for another ad.

When my aunt presented the Chinese Finger Method system to me, she snapped her thumb against a light and brought the tip of a long thin brown cigarette to life. What my aunt handed me was nothing but a thin white pamphlet. I stared at all of the words and diagrams and unfolded it like a map through wide purls of smoke. Their words and numbers, arrows and sketches of hands, overwhelmed me. Everything was even smaller than the table in my notebook, and I openly complained that they mailed us a sign-language book by mistake.  I tried, but could not understand the basics after a pair tortuous minutes and dropped the Chinese finger method map onto the marble table top and laid on my belly on the floor to draw.

My aunt read the pamphlet, turning it like a great wheel every minute or so, and tried to demonstrate the methodology to me over lunch of sliced tomatoes on hard bread with a little olive oil. With her silver hair perched like a fluffy cloud on her head, she smiled proudly as she learned the first basic maneuvers. 

"Look Bri, pinkys are ten, thumbs are six the fingers next to your pinkys, the ring fingers, are nine, eh...(she looked back at the map)...the middle finger is eight, and look all the way down to six."
"Where's one?"
"There's no one."
"The Chinese start with six?"
"Nevermind that. Look, eight times six is four fingers down over here and on this hand this is two which makes the six, eh...the eight you need to get forty-eight."
Doing her best Donna Reed, her head swayed from side to side, pleased as punch, as she clipped off "8x6=48" as if it were music while bending and pounding jeweled fingers into the kitchen table.  Her cigarette burned and burned untouched. A long ash curled downward and and a thin ribbon of smoke ascended.

I was snared in between.

Trying to leave the table, she grabbed me by the wrist and then complained that she lost count.

In the end, the only thing I learned was that there weren't enough smokers in my family or neighborhood who used matchbooks.


  1. Delightful.
    Makes me want to smoke a cigarette or cry. I hated math, and loved to draw as well.

  2. What a great story! I love the intermittent descriptions of the cigarettes and smoke. Your boy-hood reminiscing made me giggle aloud!