by Reid Laurence
"Dad, I’m hungry," I heard my daughter say from where she was sitting on the living room sofa. At four years old, she was nowhere near capable of preparing her own meals and so I saw to it that she got something nutritious and fun to eat while she sat watching her favorite programs on t.v.
Busy with my own work–writing home inspection reports—I wasn’t always sure exactly what it was that she busied herself with or what she watched. I just tried to keep her safe and occupied until her mom got home, thinking that her Barbie dolls and tiny porcelain tea sets would keep her busy until five-fifteen rolled around and Mary would finally arrive home. But today, when I walked in to answer her request for something to eat, I was shocked to find her sitting there on the couch, practically glued to a televised college course on advanced finite three-dimensional geometry.
While the teacher expounded on the virtues of live graphic 3D applets, I could see that she was fascinated by the complex wire-frame forms taking shape on the screen—revolving in different directions before her eyes—and had to wonder to myself just how much of this kind of information a child of four could possibly be absorbing.
"Ellie," I said, sitting down next to her. "Mom just got you a brand new Barbie car with room enough for Ken and the whole gang. Don’t you wanna take it for a spin around the living room? Sure looks like fun, doesn’t it?"
"I don’t understand, El. Why don’t I put all the dolls in it and give you a head start?"
"I don’t think so Dad. Not now. Besides, I’m hungry."
"Okay," I answered. "We got bologna and we got peanut butter. What’ll it be?"
"Bologna. But could you cut it into a shape?"
"You bet," I answered, feeling sure of myself. "I can do squares or triangles, take yer pick."
"Well, " she answered, after some deliberation. "I was really thinking more on the order of an Augmented Hexagonal Prism."
"It’s not as tough as it sounds," she explained. "The teacher just showed the class the pattern and I think I can remember it. I’ll help you with it."
"Are you sure Ellie? I mean, wouldn’t it be easier to just cut some triangles and let it go at that? I gotta get back to what I was do’in. I really don’t have much time."
"It’s okay," she answered, after some careful thought. "I can use my Play-Doh tools and cut it myself. Besides, the shape I really wanted to see was a Great Stellated Truncated Dodecahedron, but I didn’t wanna bother you with details."
"Don’t worry about me," I replied. "If that’s what’cha wanna do, then fine," thinking that she’d no sooner be able to create a form like that, than I could be nominated for the presidency of the United States. "I’ll get the bread and bologna and you go get your tools, and if you need me, I’ll be in the computer room finishing up my report. Fair enough?"
"That’s fine Dad," she said. And as she wandered off to look in her toy chest for her plastic Play-Doh tools, I had to wonder to myself just what in the world a child who was not yet even in kindergarten was doing even so much as contemplating such an incredibly complicated form—consisting of roughly one hundred complex surfaces—and approach the whole thing as if it were just a kind of interesting game to play while passing the time of day. As I walked back to my office, wondering what might have been responsible for putting such thoughts into her head in the first place, I remember thinking to myself simply. . . This, I gotta see.
Walking back to the kitchen while she was still getting her tools ready, I brought out a loaf of wheat bread and the bologna we’d talked about, and set them on the dining room table, accompanied by a glass of apple juice she’d been fond of drinking ever since she was a baby. "Have yerself a time, girl," I said, never dreaming that she might actually come through and create a shape even remotely similar to what she’d spoken of. But two hours later, after I’d finished writing out my report, I decided to have a look at what little Ellie had been so diligently working on and lo and behold, I swear for the life of me, I couldn’t believe what my eyes were telling me. There on the table in marvelous three-dimensional space sat the Great Stellated Truncated Dodecahedron in all its mathematical glory, carved completely out of wheat bread and bologna! "Ellie!" I exclaimed, "You’re a mathematical genius! The formulas for the side relationships for that thing are tough enough, but you’ve actually gone and built that monster. I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it."
"It’s just a pattern, Dad," she replied. "Once you get into it, it becomes repetitious."
"Sure it’s a pattern," I answered. "But an enormously difficult one. Too difficult, in fact, for most adults, and you’ve knocked this thing out as a kid, Ellie. That’s remarkable."
"So what now, Dad?" she asked, feeling the slight depression kick in of an artist who realizes that after the project is completed, the needs for self expression and the challenge to create something out of nothing become replaced by feelings of emptiness and loss. "I’m not sure," I replied. "What you’ve done is just fantastic, but I know one thing. If the newspapers get wind of this, people will never leave you alone. Reporters and newscasters will be bugging us constantly. The phone will be ringing off the hook, and your friends will treat you like you’re too different to hang around with. You won’t be one of the crowd anymore, that’s for sure."
"Near as I can see, the only thing we can do. We eat the evidence." And so, sadly, we began tearing off sections of the perfectly shaped, tasty Dodecahedron until –along with a big bag of potato chips and a bottle of cola—we’d consumed the entire work of genius. By the time my wife had come home, there was nothing left of it but crumbs and the powerful memory and imprint on my mind of what my small, innocent child was capable of.
"How was your day today?" asked Mary, as she took a hanger from the closet and hung up her coat. "Anything different happen, or did you two just bore yourselves?"
"Nuth’in much, Mary," I answered, still chewing on the last bits of wheat bread and bologna in my mouth. "Same old humdrum day. There is one thing though," I said, looking at Ellie and then back again at my wife.
"Oh, and what could that be?" asked Mary, on her way to the kitchen.
"Those educational shows on tv . . .they’re a lot more worthwhile than I ever realized."
"How so?" asked my wife, on her way to the bedroom.
"Let’s just say, they give you a lot of food for thought. Which reminds me . . . what’s for dinner?"
Reid Laurence is a writer and architect originally from Illinois. He and his wife now live in Springfield, Missouri. He's the author of A Matter of Money, Jack's Mess, and A Killing Rain and Other Stories.
Copyright © 2006. Do not reproduce without permission.