What Good Is Arithmetic?

by Ed Kyatt

Plumes of smoke mingled with gray clouds. They draped the foundations of the ruined buildings that stuck out of the ground like rotten teeth, an amalgam of dirty white and shades of black. André breathed in some ash and coughed.

Trudging over fallen bricks and debris, André stumbled upon deteriorated walls and fallen rafters. A woman lay under a bloodied blanket on the other side of some heaping rubble. She wheezed, clutching some rosary beads. The rumble of bombers faded overhead, and she glanced at André.

“Hello,” said André.

“André,” she said. “André Marchand.”

“Madame Bernard?” André asked.

“What on earth are you doing here?” she said, coughing.

André took off his hat and ran his hand through his greasy hair. His eyes opened wide. The blanket covering the woman was stained brown with blood and dirt. “Are you all right?” he said. “I’m going to find a doctor for you.”

“I will be fine,” she said. “What are you doing all the way out here?”

André clutched a piece of the rafters. “I’m not going to a shelter.”

Madame Bernard slid her rosary beads from one thumb to the other. “Where are your parents?”

André clenched his jaw. “They’re gone,” he said, shoving the charred rafter away. “So is my brother, Leo. They never made it to the shelter. Why should I? I’ll just wait here for a bomb.” He crossed his arms.

“I’m sorry, André,” said Madame Bernard. “Come. Sit beside me.”

André tiptoed over to her side and slumped onto a flat board of wood. He flinched at the din of a distant explosion, and pulled his knees up, hugging them tight.

Madame Bernard held her hand out. “Give me your hand.”

André clasped her lacerated palm.

“Would you like to review some arithmetic?” she asked.

“I hate arithmetic.”

“Why?” said Madame Bernard. “You used to love it.”

“It’s all worthless and stupid.”

“All right, André.” She shifted underneath the blanket and whimpered. “Is there anything you would like to talk about?”

“Leo,” he said. “I remember how we drew things together. Before everything turned gray, and the airplanes dropped bombs, we drew with crayons. But we griped at each other. ‘I draw better,’ Leo would say. But everyone knew I drew much better because I was older. And he always stole the blue crayon.”

“What did you do?” she asked.

“I hid it and told him he couldn’t use it anymore. But he kept complaining, so I beat him.” He ran his hands over his eyes and sniffled hard.

Madame Bernard nodded. The sky grew darker. “How many crayons did you have?”

André’s lips parted as he extended each finger in succession. “Twelve,” he said. “I think.”

“I see. You both shared one set?”

“Yes. One set of crayons.”

“It must have been stressful,” said Madame Bernard. “If you had two sets you would have had, what, twenty-six crayons to share?”

“Twenty-four,” said André. “But Mama and Papa had no money to spare for two sets. The one I had was a birthday present from Uncle Jacques before he got sick. He got Leo some toy soldiers from Paris. I was jealous, but I never stole any of them. I only took one after the bombs took him away.”

From his pocket, André fished out a toy soldier, standing stiff at attention, with a bayoneted musket propped against his right shoulder. André ran his thumbs over it. Machine gun fire echoed in the air. “Sometimes I miss him too much.”

Madame Bernard coughed up blood. “And the toy soldiers,” she said, wiping her chin with the back of her hand. “How many of those did Leo have?”

“Lots of them,” said André, putting the crayon and soldier back in his pocket. “Thirty.”

“More than enough for him to share.”

André began counting with his fingers.

“Don’t bother,” said Madame Bernard, raising her hand. “You would have had nineteen and he would had eleven if you split the thirty in half.”

“No,” said André, “we would have had fifteen each.”

Madame Bernard leered at him. “No,” she said, “you’re wrong.”

“No, I’m right. Two fifteens equal thirty.”

Madame Bernard coughed, spitting more blood. “Oh,” she said,“you are right. Bravo, André.”

“You taught me arithmetic,” said André, giggling. “How did you not know that?”

Her tears mingled with the blood on her lips. “I guess it slipped my mind. See, André? You’re very good at it. Maybe someday you’ll be an engineer.”

“What’s that?” said André.

“It’s someone who uses arithmetic to make all sorts of things. Houses, cars, trains, all of it.”

“You can do all of that with arithmetic?”

“Of course,” said Madame Bernard, coughing more heavily. “After arithmetic you’ll learn algebra and physics, and then you’ll be building houses and shelters for people.”

“I want to be an engineer,” said André, hopping to his feet. “I will build houses that are stronger than all the bombs in the world.”

“Then go back to the shelter,” said Madame Bernard. The air raid sirens moaned. “You can’t learn to be an engineer out here, silly boy.”

“All right, Madame Bernard,” said André, hopping away. “I’ll send someone for you as soon as I can.”

“No,” said Madame Bernard, closing her eyes. “Just go. I need to get some sleep. I am very tired.”

Copyright © 2016 by Ed Kyatt

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