Kindergarten. That’s when I first noticed, when I first saw the emerging tints in the numbers. I’d blink, and they’d be there, hovering like faint wafts of steam. By the time I entered first grade, the tints had evolved, grown fuller and deeper. The digits were soaking in hues by the second and third, and when I’d reached the fourth grade, numbers had broken into multiple, permanent colors with two distinct moods: friendly and unfriendly.
0 is pale, shards of fresh ice. 1 is white, like cool candle wax. 4 is a shade of warm, amber honey, 5 looks like toast, and 6 is the color of golden sawdust, of fat, sappy trees split straight down the middle. Their colors are welcoming, soft when you touch them. These numbers are friendly.
2, on the other hand, looks like spat chewing tobacco. 3 is dusty, green moldy bread, and 7 and 8 are the colors of oily snakeskin. 9 takes the hue of slow-to-mend scabs, something infectious, struggling to heal. Their colors are brutal, and when I see them in the guise of the numbers, I have to cross to another side of my mind, down a long, mental street where I can’t see them coming. Because, unfriendly. These numbers are unfriendly.
It never occurs to me to attempt to explain it. Never occurs to me to describe out loud what I’m seeing. I only know that numbers like to stack up, and when I go beyond single digits, the results are a lottery. Two or more friendly numbers together is a pleasure: 11. 104. 6005. But the unfriendly numbers tend to have greater power, with their harsh, darker pigments. Often, to save myself from these numbers and the darkness they bring, I’m forced to alter their outcome. I know that 61 + 51 equals 112 on my math test, and that two 1‘s side by side make a color like winter, but then the 2 screws it up with its blistering coldness. So I write 111 and my answer is wrong. And look how my name “William” is 7 letters long, so I shorten it to “Will” because 4 is so pretty. But we’re supposed to put our full name at the top of our schoolwork. And I can’t help but count the letters in the words of every textbook I read, turn them all into numbers, and there’s so much ugly hiding, sneaking, lurking there in the sentences. So I don’t read the words, I don’t write the numbers. I don’t do the work.
Ms. Douglas, my teacher, phones my parents at home. A meeting is scheduled for the following Friday. Soon enough, I’m seated at a thin, plastic table at the back of her classroom, my mother and father on either side of me like cross-armed, unblinking bookends. Ms. Douglas, in her faded blue jeans and Garfield sweatshirt, tries to be gentle.
“He either doesn’t do the work, or he does the work wrong,” she says. “I’ll walk by his desk and see what page he’s on in his textbook. I’ll walk by 20 minutes later and he’s still on the same page. And I know he’s a strong reader. I know he can add and subtract, I know he can multiply and divide, but he just isn’t doing it.” She puts her hands on the table, interlacing her fingers. 10 fingers before her, and I see ice and cool wax. I sigh, glad to see something so nice, so friendly. Ms. Douglas takes a deep sigh herself, straightening herself in her chair. “Right now, I’m honestly not sure if he’ll pass the fourth grade.”
I conjure the 4 in 4th grade in my mind, and I smile. So warm, so kind.
“Did you hear that?” asks my mother. “Do you want to fail the fourth grade? Is that what you want?” She smells faintly like the cinnamon gum she’s chewing, her jaw roaring back and forth like a piston. My head drops, and I stare at the carpet. Some deep shade of tan embossed with ancient, fossilized stains. Just a deep shade of tan, so close to the color of 5, and again I get lost in a sigh.
“Why’re you staring at the floor?” My father, his camouflaged hunter’s cap screwed like a bolt to his head, slaps a calloused hand on the table. “What’re you staring at down there? Are there answers? Are there answers down there?” I keep my head down.
Maybe, I think. Maybe…just maybe…
Ms. Douglas wraps up the meeting by handing me two new, shiny textbooks. One is for Math, the other for Reading. “Introductory,” they say, in bright, bulbous letters. I don’t have to check my desk to know that my previous textbooks, both labeled “Advanced,” have grown feet and settled somewhere else in the world.
“Maybe something less challenging will help,” Ms. Douglas offers. “Something a little easier to handle.”
At home, my father and mother compete for the same thin blanket of parental frustration. The two of them pace back and forth in the narrow confines of our trailer home kitchen, Hamburger Helper bubbling away in a skillet. Someone’s to blame for my mounting stupidity. By the rising sour tones in their voices, I can tell which way the blame will be drifting.
“Do you want to be held back?” shouts my father. I can see sawdust from the mill he works at in his hair. “Is that what you want? Do you want to fail and do the whole God damned year over again?”
My mother’s approach is to hold a gun to my age. “We never should have let you start school so young,” she sighs, lamenting some five years before, when I started kindergarten an entire year early. “You never caught up with the rest of the kids. You’ve always just…I don’t know what. Struggled.” She nods to me and herself. “You’ve always just struggled.”
Both of them over me, my mother and father, and I still can’t explain it, I still can’t express it, and whatever can’t be explained or expressed is now spreading over the harsh lines of their features. I don’t see them as 1 father and 1 mother, a beautiful color. I see them combined by their outrage into a single, dark 2, a malignancy spreading from their skin like a shadow.
“Look at us when we’re talking to you,” says my dad, unaware of the number he’s a part of, unaware of his darkness. He stomps a grimy work boot on the floor. “Look. Look at us.”
The next Monday, Ms. Douglas pulls me aside as I head with the class out to lunch and recess. “Come to the library after recess is over. I have something I want to show you.”
Grimy with sweat and playground debris, I spot Ms. Douglas inside of the library, leaning against one of the stacks. She notices me as soon as I walk in and she smiles. Flecks of anxiety, like slight, burning embers, have been floating within the cage of my chest since she’d made her request. I can’t imagine what sort of trouble I’m in.
“Follow me over here,” she says, leading me to a small room within the back of the library. No art, no windows inside of the room. Just two wooden chairs, a clock on the wall, and a desk. On top of the desk, an old record player. Two chairs, a desk, a clock and one record player, I count. 5 altogether, and I see hues of bread baking gold. My anxiety recedes, a wave pulling back from a shore, but not quite enough. I notice there’s a record on the player already, making 6, and the golden tones become stronger, and the wave recedes further.
“This is mine,” says Ms. Douglas. She points at the player. “I brought it from home. I’ve had it for years. Had this, too.” She taps on the record set on the platter. “I want you to come in here every day, after lunch and recess are over. Sit in here for an hour and just listen to the record. Starting today. Can you do that for me?’
When I say yes, Ms. Douglas starts playing the record. A slow, easy guitar. A mild drumbeat. A man, and he’s singing. Singing about numbers.
“One times one is wuh-uhn…”
“Two times one is two-eww…”
“Three times one is three-eee…”
I visualize as he sings. Friendly. Unfriendly. Unfriendly. Friendly.
After the man finishes singing that one times ten is ten, Ms. Douglas turns off the player. “He sings the whole times table like that.” she says. “And I just want you to listen. Bring paper and draw if you want or put your head on the desk and relax. Just make sure you keep this playing. No one in the class needs to know why you’re in here, and you don’t have to tell them. We’ll just say you get an extra-long recess.” Ms. Douglas puts the arm of the player back to the start of the record. “I think we should try this for a while. See if this helps with your numbers. What do you think?”
Ms. Douglas nods. “Good. We’ll try it for a few weeks. And after that, we’ll see where you’re at. And remember, you don’t have to tell anyone.”
And I don’t. I tell no one in class. I tell no one at home.
Tuesday after lunch I come back to the library, to the small room in the back, to the record player waiting for me. I take a seat at the desk, count it as 1, then add the chairs, the table, the record and player. That’s 6. I take a deep breath, settle into my seat and turn on the record.
“One times one is wuh-uhnn…”
“One times two is two-eww…”
When the singer gets through the first ten multiplications of one, he dives headfirst into the twos.
“Two times one is two-eww…”
“Two times two is four-orr…”
And 2 is a brown oil slick. And though I see its foul color at just the sound of the number, hearing it sung somehow distills it a little, fresh water being poured into ink.
“Two times three is si-ixx…”
2 and 3 together is bleak, a sick combination, but again, less so when I hear the numbers as lyrics. Hearing them stretched, sprawled out across the length of a song, alters their tint. Stretch them enough and eventually, I suppose, no matter how dark or unfriendly they are, I’ll be able to see light shining through them.
I sing the lyrics to myself on the bus. I sing them as I kick through the gravel of our small trailer park, as I open the dented front door to my home. My parents inside, sitting still on the couch. There’s an envelope torn open on my mother’s lap. She hands me the letter she and my father have already read. It’s addressed to them, after all, from my school. I read the first sentence:
Because he’s failing both English and Mathematics, we regret to inform you that your son, William, is likely going to have to repeat the fourth grade…
“What did you think would happen if you didn’t do the work?” ask my mother. My father beside her, is wide-eyed, unblinking. I skip to the bottom of the letter, seeing it’s signed by our principal, Mr. Buhler. Its formality makes my dismal future seem certain. And my mother agrees. “It looks like it’s too late. It looks like you’ve failed.”
Again, side by side, my mother and father have merged into 2, and I want to back away from their pigment, this color that’s like sunshine in reverse, but I know I’m in enough trouble already.
On Wednesday, Ms. Douglas passes the class a freshly dittoed worksheet. A series of math problems in faint, purple numbers. The worksheets are still warm in our hands. Twenty questions to answer. Question one:
And I know it’s 42, and I know 2 is so dark as to encompass the 4, but I see less of the dark in the number since I hear so much song in the number, so much of a man singing “six times seven is forty-twooo…” So I write 42.
I’m back in the library the next day. And the day after that. One week, then two. Sitting and listening, sometimes drawing on loose sheets of paper, drawing circles and triangles and three-dimensional cubes, the only things I had any talent to draw. Sometimes with my head on the desk, hands under my cheeks for support, hearing the muted thud of my heartbeat. And always, day after day, listening to a song sung about numbers. And the unfriendly colors start to become something less. Still something unpleasant, but I no longer insist on keeping my distance. Day after day, in the back of the library. I sit, and I listen. And the less continues to become even less.
I start to look forward to Ms. Douglas’s warm, purple dittos.
It’s an unusually warm April afternoon and I come back to class from the library. Mrs. Douglas is perched on a stool at the front of the class, classroom lights dimmed, reading a story about a boy in the future who gets a robot for a present. Since my trips to the library began, I’ve returned every day to find her like that: reading a story, my classmates with their heads on their desks. No one seems to notice my comings and goings. I make my way to my desk and stop. Two textbooks, one for math, one for reading, are resting on top of my desk. By the slick of the gloss on my fingers, by way the books crack and yawn when they open, I know that they’re new. “Advanced” is stamped at the top of each one, in bright bulbous letters.
ADVANCED is 8 letters. I can’t help this time but to count them. And 8 is a slithering, dusty, cold color, is shedding, dead piles of reptile skin, but “eight times eight is sixty-four…” and I can sing my way through the coldness. Both shiny volumes before me, I open and close them over and over, flip through the pages, until I look up to see Ms. Douglas at her desk. She motions me over.
“I think you’re ready for these textbooks again. But only as long as you keep up the good work. You think you can do that?”
I nod, and she smiles. Sitting upright in her chair, nothing but the wall behind her, it’s easy to see her as a singular thing, as a 1. As soft, crystal light, something embracing and warm all around me. And for Ms. Douglas, it fits.
Ms. Douglas returns my nod with a nod. “Good. I think you can, too. And let’s do another week in the library. Maybe two. It really seems to be helping.”
I’m in the back of the library again, the record playing, but I’m up to my eyes in my glistening, new textbooks. I take them with me every day to that small room in the back. I take them with me when I go out to recess, when I head out to lunch, keep them planted on the top of my desk. I carry them and display them like trophies. Like something I’ve won. Finally, tucked under my arm, I take them home. I show them off to my parents. They’re seated on opposite ends of the couch.
“I don’t think this is a promise,” says my mother, turning the books over in her hands. “I don’t think this means you’re passing fourth grade.”
“Ms. Douglas said that I’m doing good work.”
“Good work for you,” my father replies. “She probably meant you’re doing good work for you.”
And I look at them both. On opposite sides of the couch from each other. 1 mother. 1 father. And I force myself to keep them that way. To see fine, placid white. Like organic starlight. But this time the light is stretched thin, and I can see something dark, something foul, breaking through from their words, their faces, every part of their bodies. Even as 1, something is swirling, dark and unfriendly. I close my eyes and I see it. I walk away, and I feel it. Starlight stretched thinner, something dark shining through. It reaches into my chest, makes its way up my throat, before finally spilling out from my eyes. Walking away, I start singing.
“One times one is wuh-uhnnn…”
Still getting thinner. Still something dark. I can’t help but see it. I start to sing louder.
“One times two is two-ewww…”
I conjure two chairs, a desk, a clock, a record and player. My head fills with 6.
“One times three is three-eee…”
And everything turns gold in that moment. Everything is a song being sung, everything is soft, is warm, everything is a friend. Everything, for a moment.