That Which Is Taught By Numbers

Ernest Gordon Taulbee

            Our dining room table was rarely used for meals. At suppertime, we took our plates from the kitchen and recessed to couches and bedrooms to eat in front of televisions. For occasional Thanksgivings, we surrounded the table for its intended purpose, but we skipped that some years. I didn’t mind. I loved eating, but being watched made me feel embarrassed.           

            The table became a catch-all for mail and served as a makeshift office for my parents’ home-based business. My father would install and fix pumps for wells in the hours after his factory job and sometimes on weekends. Now that I had my learner’s permit, he would stop and get me after work or take me on Saturday afternoons. I drove while he drank beer. Three DUI’s nearly cost him his license and his day job. It almost landed him in jail too.

            “That judge looked at me, son, and she said this is the last time you better come before me,” he told me one evening.

            He had to go out on his own tonight, despite it being our Friday night routine to go together. My brother would go out with his friends, and I would go to work with my dad.

            My brother was popular. He had broad shoulders and a mustache he kept neatly kempt. His car was a 1989 model, so it was only a few years old, despite being a salvage title. He could get any girl he wanted and was good at fighting.

             We’re at the dining room table – neither of us were eating, of course. We had our study guides in front of us instead, turning the dining room table into a classroom. We had to get up early tomorrow and take the ACT. It would be my brother’s first time taking it, but my second – despite him being a senior and me a junior.

            In truth, our dining room was little more than an alcove area off of the living room, where my mother sat in her rocking chair ebbing back and forth watching the muted television and listening to the crackling police scanner that sat on top of a doily-covered end table. The scanner was often more entertaining than the television. It picked up the channels for the police and emergency responders, but the more interesting content was from private parties. People drove around with their bag phones plugged into their cigarette lighters, discussing the most intimate details of their lives unaware they were being heard in living rooms across the county.

            “All emergency responders to mile marker 115 on the parkway,” the voice sizzled from the speaker. My mother listened and continued to rock. I knew she was keeping guard over my brother who she knew would be enticed to abandon his studies in favor of an evening out of the house. We sat quietly and continued to study.

            I first took the ACT in the seventh grade. It was part of the gifted and talented program at my school, not that I thought I was gifted or talented. I just really enjoyed reading and kept the things I read with me in my head. I didn’t spent much time around other kids starting at about that time. My test results were above the average high school graduate, even though I was only twelve.

            That was when puberty started and I developed gynecomastia. I became really upset about it, and my mother took me took the doctor to discuss it. He was from Pakistan. I remember how upset I was, but how I really enjoying his accent. It didn’t help anything that my name was Ashley, and the name’s androgynous nature was fodder for the bullies my brother punched in the face.

            I was so accustomed to only hearing the Eastern Kentucky accent or the flat mid-western from the television. Through his musical voice, he told me that it was a typical symptom of a growing adolescent male and should go away soon.

            I’m sixteen and a half now, and I still have them. I wear button downs over my t-shirts to help hide it. My brother tried to help me with it. He had me exercise with him and I lost weight in my belly and my face, but not in my chest. That made the gynecomastia even more obvious. He was disappointed when I stopped and began overeating, but I decided I would rather be made fun of for being fat than having breasts.

            “10-33 on the parkway. All units,” the voice from the scanner squawked.

            We paused and lifted our heads. My brother firmed his brow in concern. We kept a list of the police codes on the coffee table. My mother took the paper and searched for the translation.

            “That means emergency and ambulance needed,” she said.

            One of the various problems with the gynecomastia was that is seemed to get worse sometimes. Like I said, I slimmed down for a while, but then got myself good and fat. Now I’ve had it for years and it’s like they’re getting worse. They are tender sometimes and will feel even more swollen. When this happens I desperately want to avoid other people. I take solace in my favorite place: reading.

            Lots of kids are forced to read the classics in school, but I enjoy them. Sometimes when we are working, my dad will let me run into the bookstore in one of the neighboring counties. We don’t have a proper bookstore in ours, but luckily people in all the surrounding counties have to get their water from wells, which means we get to drive a lot. I get the books Dad tells me about.

            I like the minor characters in great books the best. I like the characters who only seem to pop up for a few pages, but influence the main character or the entire plot in a profound way, like the doctor at the end of A Farewell to Arms or Adam Trask’s mother. We all want to make history, but I know I won’t. My brother could: he’s handsome, strong, and masculine. He could be the hero protagonist in a great novel, so maybe I could be the awkward, bookish brother who dies in the first chapter yet seems to influence the hero all the way to the climax of the story.

            My brother hates school, and his frustration would launch schoolbooks at walls. That is why my mother paid such close attention to him when he studied. Now she cast her eyes at the paper with the police codes again after the static from the scanner made another statement, “10-50. Two vehicles. One DOA! All units.”

            “Ashley, baby, how many service calls did your daddy have tonight?”

            I found the appointment ledger on the dining room table.


            “Mom, it’s almost eight-thirty,” Sam said.

            She walked to the table where we sat and took the ledger from my hand, “They’re all close by too.”

            “Sometimes he likes to stop at Danny’s on the way home,” I said.

            She looked at me, “Call over there.”

            I went to the telephone on the wall and with my index finger turned the rotary waiting for the dial to click back into place after each number. We could have changed that long ago, but for some reason kept the pulse tone. My brother has a phone in his room with a keypad, and once you finish dialing a number, you can listen to it pulsing out the rhythm of each digit. Dad offered to put a phone in my room too, but I didn’t want one.

            Danny answered the phone on the fifth ring.

            “Danny, is my dad there?”

            “Who’s that now?” I could hear the slur immediately.

            “Samuel,” I said. “Danny, is Samuel there?”

            “No, Tracy, he ain’t here.”

            “It’s his son Ashley, not my mom. Was he there?”

            “Oh,” he said. “He was, but he left about an hour ago.”

            “Thank you,” I said and put down the receiver.

            “What did he say?” my brother asked.

            When I turned to them, I could see he and my mother were gathered in front of the police scanner. He had the codes in his hands and my mother’s expression was grave. It continued to bark spurts of furious and concerned language.

            “He said Dad left about an hour ago.”

            “Was he drinking, baby?”

            “I didn’t ask,” I said. “Danny was though. I could hear it in his voice.”

            “Oh God,” my mother sighed. I could see her gaze lock with my brother. “Go look.”

            “Come on, Ashley,” my brother said. “Get your glasses. You have to be my eyes.”

            “What’s wrong?” I asked.

            “They’re using the ten code 10-39,” he said. “That means there’s a drunk driver involved.”

            My brother liked to drive fast. I didn’t. I hated it. The gynecomastia made the seatbelt sit funny on my chest and there is no way to hide it no matter what I was wearing. Sometimes when I’m with my brother and someone approaches his parked car, I can tell the way the seatbelt rest on me grabbed their attention. I can see them stifle a smirk and a laugh.

            Outside of books, I liked studying science, especially biology and natural science. Math has always been my weakest subject. I struggled with Chemistry 101 and Introduction to Physics as well. When I’m faced with that which is taught by numbers, it takes me a while. I really have to stop and concentrate. I think I get that from my dad. Numbers take him a minute too. My mom keeps the books for their well pump business; she is really good with numbers. It took Dad almost losing his license and the possibility of going to jail before he seemed to realize the numbers were against him when it came to drunk driving.

            I thought about the water cycle I studied in my science class last year to keep my mind off how fast my brother was taking the curves as he drove the two miles to the parkway. The lights of the police, rescue squad, and other emergency vehicles hit us in the eyes when we reached the mouth of our road. He turned left towards them.

            His windows were darkly tinted, as were many of the windows of teenage drivers in our town. I liked tinted glass; it kept people from looking at me. He rolled his window down with the switch on the armrest.

            “Look, Ashley. You have to look close.”

            I squinted my eyes at the wreck. They were detouring traffic down a side road about one hundred feet from the accident.

            “I can’t see.”

            “Try, buddy, you have to try.”

            He drove through the slow traffic and I took an obvious, rubberneck posture, lifting my butt out of the seat. The seatbelt dug into my chest, and I am pretty sure the deputy directing traffic noticed the way it was affecting the gynecomastia.

            “I can’t make anything out,” I said.


            We were nearly past the line of sight, and making a turn down the detour road that would make any visibility impossible. I dropped back into my seat. My eyes were watering, but I don’t think it met my voice.

            “I’m sorry, Sam,” I said. “I tried. I promise I tried. I promise.”

            I was wrong. It had made its way into words. My brother grabbed my arm and whispered a comforting “it’s okay.” He wouldn’t have done that if I had kept the tears out of my words.

            Once he made a turn back towards our road, he accelerated. I thought about the water cycle again. My dad and I would talk about it sometimes. The water that is worked by the pumps he installs and repairs is the same water we’ve had throughout history. I liked the thought of the inorganic being a seamless necessity throughout all that is organic.

            When we arrived home, my mother was at the door.  The night air was still hot and muggy. I could feel the sweat working its way down my back and down through my chest.

            “John McCaleb’s boy was in the accident,” my mother said. “He’s dead.”

            “He owns Dad’s factory,” my brother said, though it almost sounded like a question.

            “What did you see?”

            “I–,” I started to say.

            “There were too many lights and vehicles, and they’re directing traffic away,” my brother said. “We couldn’t see anything.”

            Joe McCaleb was in the same grade as me. He drove a brand new sports car and wore really expensive clothes. He was more popular than my brother. He never had to worry about fighting or being picked on because of who his dad was.

            The three of us walked inside. We sat at the dining room table, listening to the police scanner. Once it locked onto a good signal it would stay there. The police and rescue squad’s statements were usually pretty short, and – once they stopped speaking – the scanner would look for another signal.

            It was locked on two women speaking, so we listened.

            “Killed that boy. Killed him. Can you believe it?” one said.

            “And him drunk as a skunk,” the other said. “But he’s always drunk, isn’t he?”

            “Oh, hell, he’s nothing but a drunk,” the first woman said.

            “I feel sorry for the families. Both families.”

            My brother walked to the scanner and hit the button to force the search for a new signal. It landed back on the first responders.

            “Coroner has left with the victim,” the rustling voice from earlier said.

            “What was the breathalyzer?” another official asked.

            “Breathalyzer wasn’t an option,” the voice said.

            “Why wouldn’t they be able to breathalyze?” I asked.

            “Because the person they wanted to test was passed out,” my mom said.

            “Or worse,” my brother said.

            “It’s been a long time,” I said. “I don’t think he would do it.”

            I looked at my study guide. Whenever I peered down, I could see a bit of the gynecomastia. I’m never really unaware of it. We’re supposed to be at the high school to check into our testing room by seven-thirty, and the exam started at eight. The test lasts about four hours, as I remember.

            “Go on to bed, boys.”

            “I can’t sleep,” my brother said.

            “I know,” she said. “But go.”

            “It’s been a really long time since it happened.”

            “I know, baby.”             I walked down the hallway to my room. My brother stopped to hug me, and I felt self-conscious as our fronts pushed together. I got into bed still wearing my clothes. I could hear the coffee pot and the smell worked its way through our house, as I laid in bed not knowing.

Ernest Gordon Taulbee has published stories in The Electric Rail, Molotov Cocktail, Centifictionist, Litbreak, and several others. One of his short stories was a finalist in Still: The Journal’s Fiction Category in 2017. He holds an MA in English from Eastern Kentucky University and lives in Louisville, KY. His Twitter handle is @gordtaul.

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