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“I need to make a number two pencil,” my son says from the back of our family car, a 1967 VW bug.
“What’s that, dear?” I say as I drive him home from school.
“I need to make a number two pencil.”
“You mean for class?” He’s only just started first grade, and I can’t imagine any of his classes, even art, would force him to take on such a difficult project.
“No,” Josh says, “I just need to do it, for myself.”
“Okay,” I say. This makes sense. His father fancies himself a woodworker and Josh takes after him, spending the whole weekend following Bill around, helping him with projects. Sometimes I feel like I only see him when I drop him off and pick him up from school.
But this time, Josh has told me about his project, and I think this is my chance to bond with him, to spend time together. I just need to plan it out, so I don’t have to ask Bill for help. I don’t want him taking over the thing.
This after-school traffic gives me a little time to plan. First, we’ll need wood. I figure Josh would prefer a natural looking pencil to one made from scrap lumber, which Bill has piles of in the garage. I imagine Josh and I going out into the yard, breaking off a small tree branch and cutting it to pencil length. Then I realize it has to be dried wood, not fresh. We’ll have to find a straight stick on the ground—maybe at the park. That’ll be nice. Plus, a thin stick won’t need to be cut. We can just break it off. Avoiding the saw is a good thing.
Bill is never conscious of child safety. Once, he had Josh repair an exposed wire on the extension cord with electrical tape, while the cord was still plugged in. “He has to learn about electricity one way or the other,” Bill said later after I yelled at him. “Better than in a lightning storm.” Another time, when they built the doghouse together, Bill had Josh hold the nails while he hammered. “What were you thinking?” I asked him. “Well, he’s not strong enough to wield the hammer,” Bill said, as though he were the paragon of parental judiciousness.
It’s my husband who insists on keeping this old VW, repairing and restoring it, though parts can now only be found on antique car websites. It needs so many repairs and he’s always behind on the work. Right now, only one blinker works and there’s a rust hole the size of a dinner plate on the rear floor. I told him that one day Josh is going to fall through it, but Bill just laughed. “Josh knows about the hole,” he said. “He throws nickels into it when we’re on the highway and watches them spark.” That was hardly comforting.
All this makes me feel fortunate that I’ll be doing this pencil project with Josh. I wonder where I can buy graphite, then realize I can just take some from the retractable pencils in the office. For the hole, I figure I’ll have to use a drill, which I’m sure I can figure out, though I wonder if Bill has a drill bit long enough for a pencil. I decide I’ll just have to drill from both ends and hope the holes meet. Maybe we’ll pick up a few sticks at the park, in case the first couple don’t work out. Of course, I’ll do the drilling, and only let Josh watch, if he wears goggles.
Yes, I think, this is coming along. All that’s left to figure out is how to get the lead in the hole without it breaking. I wait at a red light, puzzled. It suddenly seems miraculous, how a simple pencil is put together. No wonder Josh wants to make one!
When the light turns green, it comes to me, the perfect solution: I’ll drill the hole slightly bigger than the lead, then fill the hole with glue. The glue will help the lead slide in, and when it dries, it‘ll keep the lead in place.
I smile, feeling rather proud of myself. Perhaps I’ll start repairing things around the house myself. And Josh will become my assistant.
We’re just a few blocks from our house when I tell Josh, “I have it all figured out.”
When he says nothing in response, I glance in the rearview mirror and see he’s no longer in his child’s seat.
The hole! I think. He’s fallen through the fucking hole!
I whip my head around to look for any remnants of my son, and there he is on the floor, squatting over the rust hole with his pants down.
“What the hell are you doing?” I say, stopping the car.
“I’m making a number two, like I told you,” Josh says.
“Pencil,” I yell. “You said pencil!”
“Yah, that’s what Dad calls it,” Josh says, “‘number two pencil.’” He smiles as he poops effortlessly through the hole in the floor.
“Stop,” I yell. “You can’t do that in the car!”
“Dad lets me do it all the time,” Josh says.
I shake my head, understanding now that I’ve lost him completely to Bill.