Here's an excerpt from a short story I've been trying to write for several months. I'm posting it here in the hopes that it will shame me into finishing it.

There are times when having a relativistic cosmologist as your best friend is extremely useful. Not many, to be sure, but having an expert on the more esoteric aspects of the nature and structure of the universe around is kind of like keeping an elephant gun in your garage. Chances are you'll never need it, but when you do need it, you're really glad you have it.

This thought, playing against the frantic background chatter in my head that had by this point reduced itself to mental white noise, crossed my mind as I took yet another tumble off the jungle gym onto the unforgiving sand below. This was real, grainy, industrial sand, the kind that turned your face into something resembling the surface of the moon when you impacted from six feet above. Years later it would be replaced by gentler foam rubber and I would have a second chance at sand-related nostalgia.

"Shit!" I yelled as my ten-year-old body crumpled to the ground.

"Language!" hissed Tom. "Remember where you are and what the rules are around here. You're not going to do yourself any good getting in trouble."

I stood up and dusted myself off, scrubbing at my hair to get the sand out of it, flapping my shirt to get the sand off of it, and finally giving up on the idea of getting sand off of myself. Tom looked down at me from the inner summit of the jungle gym, hanging deftly by his knees.

"Try again," he said. "You need to stop thinking so much. Try to grab the farthest bar you think you can reach. It needs to be intuitive. If you're wrong, you'll fall, and it'll help train your mind and body to remember their dimensions."

Exhausted after nearly nine minutes of recess, I trudged back to the base of the jungle gym and started scrambling up again, slowly and awkwardly. And sorely.

"Back before they kept written records of things they would have children witness major events, like land sales and weddings," Tom explained, swinging himself up to a nearby bar and almost -- but only almost -- missing it and tumbling into the grist. "They figured children would have the longest memories. At the key point in the transaction someone would kick the children." He made another lunge, this time misjudging himself, fell down, and landed hard on his shoulder. Somewhat stunned, he sat up and rubbed his side. "The theory was that painful experiences are more memorable."

In addition to being an expert on the universe, Tom knew things like this.

"The more you hurt yourself the better your mind will remember how long your arms are, and how much of an impulse it takes to move them in a particular way."

Tom was fond of saying that what he didn't know about biology could fill a phone book, but he certainly sounded credible. But, as I often tried to remind myself, Tom knew that he was the only stable data point in my life, and that this made me more prone to believe what he told me than I otherwise might have been. It was difficult for me to imagine, for example, getting into a heated argument with him about the finer points of quantum mechanics here on the playground, or in the classroom, or back in our cul-de-sac. At this point I would probably just take his word for the fact that a truck could drive through a solid brick wall without harming wall or truck.

I tried to ignore the soreness in my young muscles as I mounted the structure once again. The jungle gym was 100% metal, not yet replaced by the synthetic materials that the affluent school board would later deem more appropriate for their delicate children. For now, it was prone to rust, loose bolts, and the occasional random jagged edge, and as the summer approached the bars would get hot enough to burn skin.

As Tom stood below, gazing around the playground in the inquisitive and possibly wistful manner that he had recently developed, I took another shot at the maneuver that had sent me crashing down minutes earlier. This time I went for a closer bar and overshot it, hitting it with my wrist instead of my palm. In a series of motions that were probably more reflex than conscious choice, my arm corrected itself in time to grasp the bar before gravity took control, and I ended up dangling precariously by one hand. But I hadn't fallen.

Tom, no doubt prompted by my startled grunts from above, glanced up at me and grinned. "Better," he said.

At that point a small group of older (at least in context) boys approached from the blacktop. The leader (there was always a leader) stood a few inches away from Tom and demanded to know why we were playing on the jungle gym with the girls. He would have presumably preferred that we participate in a more respectable male-oriented endeavor, such as inept basketball or pushing each other around on the soccer field. The boy's dirty face was contorted into the kind of confrontational grimace that could only be worn by a small boy who had precisely zero fear for his own safety and the utmost confidence in the correctness of his position.

Tom thought for a moment and then said, with his small lips and tongue struggling somewhat with the acrobatics involved, "Because we don't ascribe to your retrogressive, heteronormative Weltanschauung."

The boy seemed visibly perplexed by Tom's choice of words, which was of course the point, and after a brief pause called Tom a "homo" and marched away with his toadies in tow.

I let go of the bar and stumbled into the sand, still not sure how much to allow my knees to bend to soften the blow. But I managed to stay on my feet, which was progress. Tom was looking at me, apparently seeking some sort of validation for the way he had handled the bullies. Tom knew a lot of things about a lot of things, but social interactions were not among them.

"Language," I said dryly. "Remember where you are."

From off in the distance a grating, metallic bell sounded throughout the playground, signaling that our state-sanctioned recreation period had come to an end. "Come on," Tom said. "I think we're doing the solar system in science today. Should be fun."


I think it's pretty obnoxious that you can law around AND marry a lovely smart woman AND procreate a handsome little devil AND write better prose than me.

I'm going to cite that thing about kicking child witnesses as if it were fact from now on, even though I'm pretty sure you made it up.

I seem to remember hearing about "kicking a child to make it remember" thing before.

Also, I claim inspiration rights on being a Tom who knows about quantum physics.

dido, that's one of the best compliments I've ever received.

I heard the kid-kicking thing in my freshman year psychology class, from the instructor. It could be apocryphal for all I know.

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This page contains a single entry by hb published on September 19, 2008 7:56 AM.

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