The Actual Mess

by jkatejohnston

14 June 2015

Dear Max,

Enzo and I went camping at the zoo on Friday night. We were waiting in a line of cars to get in.

Me: “Let’s do times tables to pass the time.”

Enzo: “Mom.”

Me: “Seven times three.”

Enzo: “Mom. I am not gonna do that. But just to make things clear—just to keep sharp—the answer is twenty-one.”

A few minutes later he said something about the number thirteen. The cars were moving by now, so I have no notes for this, but it was something about thirteen being weird. I asked if Mr. Larson had told them about prime numbers, and he said no, so I explained and asked if he could think of any other primes. He came up with seventeen and then twenty-three.

Me: “What about nineteen?”

Enzo: (Pause) “Oh, yeah. Nineteen.” And then he was hunting for primes. Eventually he got to forty-three. I don’t know if he got all the primes in between.

Me: “How do you know that forty-three is prime?” I can’t remember what he said, maybe nothing. “Okay, how do you know that forty-two isn’t prime?”

Enzo: “Because twenty-one times two is forty-two.”

Afterward I was trying to figure out how I know that forty-three is prime and decided that it’s because I know my times tables, and forty-three isn’t the answer to any times tables. But Enzo doesn’t know his times tables. He’s learning them now. So he must be coming to each number and trying to figure out ways to divide it, and if he can’t then it’s prime.

I guess the trick to education (depressing word) is learning things by heart but still keeping up that sense of the hunt, pouncing on primes and then rapidly losing interest like the baby lions at the zoo. I’m trying to think of how all this applies to reading and writing, which I actually care about, and which he can hardly do at all. How to you keep up the liveliness and surprise of talk when writing is so slow and hard? How to learn that Beh-st Boo-Y is Best Buy, a discount chain where we have never been? How to go about learning things you’re not naturally good at?

But back to the zoo, still waiting to get in. He lost interest in the prime project and started tossing a T-shirt from hand to hand and keeping score, left hand against the right. The hand that dropped the shirt lost the point. And then, addressing his left hand on behalf of his right: “I’ll make it four out of five.”

When we got into the zoo and parked, he wanted to carry both sleeping bags and the tent and even the little bag of tent stakes by holding the drawstring in his mouth. I protested that I looked like a bad mother carrying nothing. “People probably think that if you drop anything, I’ll beat you. And that’s not good for your teeth.” I took the small bag from his mouth.

“Ah’m the dude that carries the bags. That’s what I enjoy. Muscle is useless unless you use it for something. I use my mouth and basically everything I’ve got.”

Later, as the campfire songs were starting, “Ah’m gonna head back to the tent and grab some shut-eye.”

The next day, in the afternoon (back home now) he got out his tackle box and a shoebox of extra fish stuff plus two small cardboard boxes that came in the mail, part of a fishing lure subscription that Teresa signed him up for. I walked into the kitchen, and fishing stuff was strewn all over the counter. Enzo was around the corner in the dining nook.

Me: “Wow. You really got it all out.”

Enzo: “That is not even the actual mess. This is the actual mess.” I rounded the corner. He was sitting at the table holding up a tangle of fishing line and lures and hooks and bobbers and weights. But tangle is hardly the word. It was a mass, a Chaos, a phenomenon. “I’ve got the scissors. Which is good.” He snipped away at the thing, and every now and then a lure or other part would come free and he’d set it on the table. After a while he said, “The only bad thing about this is—it is so tiresome. I’ve been doing it forever.”