The Times Tables Turned
A short story by Michael R. Lockridge
“Yes, Jeffy, your father is right.,” said Mrs. Schreeber. “Multiplication is somewhat magical. The way you can work with numbers will become so much more interesting when you learn to multiply.”
“Can’t you teach me to multiply right now, Teacher?” Jeffy asked urgently. The excitement was evident in his young face, which was turned attentively up to his teacher. His eagerness seemed to light him from within.
Mathematical magic! No one knew just how magical multiplication would be in these eager young hands.
“Well, I can’t teach it all to you right now,” said Mrs. Schreeber, “but I can show you one very magical thing that happens when you multiply.”
Mrs. Schreeber was catching a bit of the child’s excitement. It was refreshing to have a little one so anxious to learn. Though the class demanded her attention, she felt she had to divert for just a moment, if only to taste again the joy of learning through this anxious young man.
“Jeffy, we have only a moment.” she said in a conspiratorial tone. She looked around at the growing chaos, estimating that she only had two or three minutes before the deteriorating discipline became outright rebellion.
“I can only show you one little thing, right now.” Mrs. Schreeber said. She looked into the anxious little face, and regretted not having more time for such one-on-one teaching. She sighed, cast another glance at the room, and then turned toward the chalkboard.
“What happens when you add one to zero?” she asked Jeffy, as she wrote the simple problem on the board.
“You get one.” Jeffy replied. “The zero didn’t add nothing.”
“Doesn’t add anything.” the Teacher absently corrected. Mrs. Schreeber was nonetheless pleased. “And now, what happens when you multiply one times zero?”
Jeffy looked at the board, where the Teacher had written the new problem. He scratched his head, and placed his tongue in the corner of his mouth. He thought in this manner for a moment, and then ventured an answer.
“Don’t you still get one?” he asked, cautiously.
“Not this time.” replied Mrs. Schreeber. “That is one of the magical things about multiplication. Anything times zero will get you zero.”
Jeffy thought for a moment, and then his eyes lit up with understanding.
“You mean anything times nothing is nothing?” the little boy asked his teacher.
“Yes, Jeffy! Yes, indeed.” She responded. She sensed a profound understanding in the young mind before her. She little realized just what Jeffy understood, and was not aware of the price of such understanding. The demands of the class had begun to tug on her awareness.
“Now run back to your project table, Jeffy.” Said Mrs. Schreeber. “You and the other children need to finish your art projects.”
Her time with Jeffy slipped quietly into the back of her mind, as the boy ran back to his table. Mrs. Schreeber applied herself to the task of restoring order to the classroom. After several minutes of nearly unsupervised activity the class had begun the inevitable descent into chaos. The task of restoring order required all of Mrs. Schreeber’s attention.
Jeffy had returned to his project table, and was trying to concentrate on his work. He took up his crayon, and applied it with diligence to the picture he had been creating. It was supposed to be a cat from a popular cartoon series, but his concentration was broken by thoughts about what he had so recently learned.
“Anything times nothing is nothing” coursed repeatedly through his mind, as he plied first one color crayon, then another. The picture looked less and less like the character he was striving for. He finally dropped his crayon in frustration.
“Picture times nothing is nothing.” He said. No loud pop, no whoosh of air, no flash of light. Just an empty space on the table where the picture had been. The two crayons that had been lying on top of the picture simply dropped the thickness of a piece of paper. They didn’t even roll.
Jeffy stared at the blank space for a moment, then reached out and grabbed the two crayons. He put them away in the crayon caddy, and then looked around the room. The light in his eyes had taken on an ominous cast.
His friend Tommy was at another table, apparently having as little success at his painting as Jeffy had been having with his coloring. Tommy looked perplexed, and finally plunked his paintbrush into the cup of water at the end of his table. Tommy studied his painting, seeking just the right color to bring to life the image in his head.
He must have been inspired, for Tommy again reached for the brush he had so recently abandoned. It was not there. He looked all around the table, and didn’t find it. He finally crawled under the table, searching the floor. Jeffy just watched and smiled.
The frantic movement of his Teacher caught Jeffy’s eye, and drew his attention away from his young friend. Mrs. Schreeber was trying to extract one of the Henderson twins from the smock closet, where the young lady had hidden during an impromptu game of hide-and-seek.
“Teacher times nothing is nothing.” Jeffy said.
The Henderson girl fell backward into the smock closet.
Jeffy felt a pang of fear course through him. Would he be in trouble for making Teacher disappear? Minutes went by, and no adult authority pounced on him, asking for him to explain why he had made Teacher disappear. He couldn’t have answered such a question. It was not an act of malice. He had seen her there, and decided to make her not there. It seemed like a fun thing to do.
Tommy had abandoned his quest for the missing paintbrush, and was now engaged in a finger-paint fight with two other children. His fear of nameless authority fled, as Jeffy joined his classmates in colorful combat. The descent into chaos now went unchecked.
The increasing noise level finally drew the attention of Mr. Wilson. The vice-principal entered the room and began searching for Mrs. Schreeber. The room was a shamble. The children completely out of order. He intended to find out why. Unfortunately, it appeared that the teacher was out.
Mr. Wilson’s anger turned quickly to concern. He had known Mrs. Schreeber for many years, and such an unprofessional desertion of her post was not at all like her. He called the maintenance staff, and ordered them to search the school for the missing teacher. He then assumed the formidable task of regaining control of the classroom.
As his lack of progress progressed, Mr. Wilson dearly wished that the real principal were here to handle the growing disaster. Ms. Kalinda would know what to do. He had not been a particularly good teacher, and was even less competent as an administrator. His tenure depended solely upon political favors, at which he actually had some competence. Sadly, the decision fell upon him as to how to handle the growing chaos.
He finally resolved to move the class out to the playground. Having done so, he then had his secretary determine which students lived within walking distance of the school. As he had hoped, only a handful was in need of transportation. He immediately dismissed the local children to walk home, though his secretary (actually Ms. Kalinda’s secretary) protested that it violated policy. Mr. Wilson assured her that she could easily advise the parents by phone while the little ones were walking home. Not particularly convinced, she began this task, still protesting.
Jeffy’s journey home was not without further incident. Along with the items and person he had multiplied out of existence, he also eliminated the Henderson’s garbage can. They had left it in the middle of the sidewalk.
Jeffy also multiplied away two aggressive dogs, one rather unfriendly kitten, and an inconveniently placed hedge. He also used his newfound power to produce a suitably large gap in traffic when he needed to cross the road.
The little boy skipped along the sidewalk as his house came into view. He decided not to bother with the door, and in time with his skipping he pronounced his mathematical formula. The door ended its existence just as the bouncing boy skipped through the now open space.
Jeffy stopped in the hallway, and peaked into the living room. His mother was not there. He walked softly past the stairs, pretty sure that his mother was not in the upper part of the house. He wandered toward the kitchen, expecting that she would be there. Mom was almost always in the kitchen when he got home from school.
The kitchen was empty. His mother was not in the back yard. He checked the laundry room, but she was not there. She was not in his father’s study. He walked back to the stairway, and looked up. He began a slow assent.
He found the door to his parent’s room opened just enough for him to peak in. He could see his mother on the edge of the bed, getting dressed. The bed was rumpled. Though he had found his mother, something seemed terribly wrong. He longed to call out, to run to her, but he could not. The light in his eye went dark.
It was then that he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. A man was in the bathroom adjoining his parents’ bedroom. A man he did not know. The man was putting on his shirt. Without a conscious thought, Jeffy pronounced the mathematical litany. The man was no more.
He was finally able to move. He walked slowly into his mother’s room, and watched her as she continued to get dressed. She did not see him until she stood and turned to pick up her blouse from the end of the bed.
“Jeffy!” she exclaimed, with a voice that was both a whisper and a shriek. She cast a quick glance toward the bathroom, hoping that her son had not seen the man who had recently shared her bed.
“The man is not there.” Said Jeffy. The darkness in his eyes now had the depth of infinite nothingness.
“Let me explain, Jeffy.” Said his mother, as she cast about desperately in her mind for something to say. Half a dozen conflicting emotions coursed through her tortured thoughts. How could she explain to such a young boy the complex things in an adult life that lead to an affair?
She looked into her son’s eyes, and found there only darkness. The darkness screamed accusations and played against the guilt and frustration that were the cause and the result of her affair. The realization grew that she did not really understand these things herself.
The frustration peaked her anger. She sat down on the bed, as the anger distilled into what she would say. How dare her son intrude on her, coming home unexpected, seeing things that did not concern him!
“Jeffy, what are you doing home?” she asked in a loud, accusing voice. Perhaps he could be cowed into silence, bullied by her wrath. It had worked for her father, so many years ago. “Did you run away from school? Answer me, young man!”
Jeffy was not cowed. He simply looked at his mother with cold, dark eyes.
She drew a breath, preparing another attempt to dominate her son. She had to get control. He could ruin everything!
Before she spoke, Jeffy said, “The bed times nothing is nothing.” She hit the floor, hard. The shock to her body preceded the shock to her mind.
“ ‘The man is gone.’ You said ‘The man is gone.’” She mumbled. She looked toward the bathroom, wondering. Hoping.
“The bathroom times nothing is nothing.” Said Jeffy.
Not even a flash of light. One moment, the wall between the bathroom and the bedroom was there. Now, she could see the houses across the street through the gap that was once a well-appointed bathroom.
She turned, a tear slowly beading at the corner of one eye. The darkness in his eyes wrenched at her sanity.
“No.” she said, quietly. “Jeffy, no.” Hope left her.
“Anything times nothing is nothing, Mommy.” Said Jeffy.
“Mommy, everything times nothing is nothing.”