Trojan Safety Officer
My educational philosophy shifted after the spoon my brother Leo and I crafted from gallium dissolved up to the handle in Mother’s tea, a classic metallurgical joke. “Are you sure this isn’t poisonous?” she said, peering into the cup.
“Totally safe,” Leo said.
I wasn’t so sure. She had instructed us to follow whatever passions motivated our pursuit of knowledge while she labored in the attic selling office products over the phone. Our scientific inquiries included dropping pumpkins filled with molten aluminum into dry ice baths to watch them explode. Gallium melts above thirty degrees Celsius, but we’d neglected to check its toxicity.
“Well I won’t stand in the way of your education,” she said.
Leo was three years my senior, but watching Mother drink the tea down to its coagulating metal lees suggested that age and wisdom might not be strongly correlated. I excused myself to consult Google, relieved to discover we hadn’t poisoned her, but wondering how to mitigate similar risks in the future.
I began a study of classic literature to better understand human experience, constructing a matchstick motte and bailey castle to enhance my reading of Ivanhoe. I returned from the chess club at the library to find Leo bombarding the castle with flaming gobbets of cotton wool launched by my tiny trebuchet, reducing the ramparts to a charred ruin.
“Think of it as a natural consequence for not including a miniature fire department,” he said.
I dragged the smoldering bean bag chair he had also ignited outside before the chemical fumes asphyxiated us all. Leo’s kinetic learning style reduced entomology to an ant nest and a magnifying glass, zoology to frogs and firecrackers. That fall, he taught himself to juggle knives and flaming torches while riding a unicycle while I chased down spot fires in the basement. I asked Mother if she didn’t think leaving us to our own devices might prove lethal.
“Authentic learning involves risk,” she said. “The best way to learn is to teach someone else.
From now on, you’re responsible for educating your brother on safety. I wish I had more time to be involved.”
Delegation had proved unsuccessful in the past. Leo had ignored every book I left out for him on physics or celestial navigation, dismissing math tutoring with a punch or stab. A more subtle plan was called for. Reading The Iliad inspired the construction of a near life-sized horse using matchsticks. “I don’t care if you fall on your unicycle and one of your knives gives you a lobotomy,” I told Leo using terms he might understand. “But if you torch my Trojan horse, I will kill you myself.”
“What’s my upside?” he said.
This language originated with our biological father, a failed day trader who now lived in another state and taught us about market psychology and return on educational investment over video conferencing. “Waiting means a bigger blaze,” I said. “You can incinerate it after the sack of Troy. Maybe it will teach you delayed gratification, like a marshmallow test.”
“I love marshmallows,” he said. “Especially when they’re burnt. I can’t wait.”
I swaddled the horse in metallic survival blankets during construction. One day, I came home to find an eviction notice posted on the front door. Mother retreated to the attic, her voice croaking for days. We ate beans and rice all winter and Leo discovered the flammability of human-produced methane.
The siege of Troy lifted on the vernal equinox, the equine statue winched from basement to backyard, fitting precisely through the door. I uttered a benediction in Greek and sprang the remote control latch on the cargo compartment, disgorging Odysseus GI Joe and his action figure company onto the gravel drive.
“Well that was lame,” Leo said. “My turn?”
“Go for it,” I said.
Leo circled on his unicycle juggling flaming torches, tossing them into the open belly of the horse. And then—nothing. It failed to ignite. I’d coated each match with fire retardant, but Leo’s reaction proved incendiary, as predicted. He demolished the horse with his unicycle. “Your corpses will burn on the pyre of my vengeance,” he proclaimed, storming into the house for his crossbow, swords, daggers, nunchucks and throwing stars, all of which I’d hidden in preparation.
Mother watched from the attic window, headset dangling from her ear, eyes the definition of dolorous. “This was not in the curriculum,” she said.
I had secured a part time job at the grocery store and consulted a specialist at the school who might better prepare Leo for his long and difficult voyage across the wine dark seas of adolescence. “I understand your concern,” I said. “But I think we need to discuss Leo’s education.”
Robert P. Kaye’s stories have appeared in New Letters, SmokeLong Quarterly, Gulf Stream, Penn Review and elsewhere, with details at www.RobertPKaye.com. He hosts the Works In Progress open mic at Hugo House in Seattle and is an editor at Pacifica Literary Review.
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