He is good with knots.
Not tying words together, not putting them so they make sense, not connecting people, nothing figurative or important. But he’s good at knots and string. He makes loops, pulls string through, tightens.
Words come thick and fouled like retching molasses.
She is looking at him again, tapping her fingers. He knows she is going to call his name.
He makes another loop, grasps the string, feeds the end through, pulls it, tightens.
When he was young, he was the first to learn how to tie his shoes. He would tie all his classmates’ shoes for them until the teacher told him they had to learn on their own. When he was young, that was important.
But reading is difficult. And tying shoes isn’t important anymore.
Now, it’s all words, words, words. Words about numbers, about stories, about what you did on the weekend. Words written down all wibbly-wobbly, letters switching places.
His laces are stiff now. He can tie no more knots. He begins to tug them free, pushing and pinching. It’s not long before they’re smooth, worn and slightly frayed at the edges. He’s broken a few laces before, tied and untangled until the last thread snapped.
If only it was so easy to untie the knots in his stomach. They’re twisting, rolling, heaving. He feels the bile in his throat, coughs into a tissue. He needs to settle. Needs to calm down. Just ignore it. Don’t think. He’s no good at thinking anyway. If he was, this wouldn’t be a problem. It would be easy, he could just breathe the words out, like steam on a frosty day.
He needs to keep moving. Needs something to do.
“Idle hands are the devil’s playground.” His mother likes to say that. It’s a complicated saying and he doesn’t completely understand but he’s learned not to ask. It just makes him look more stupid. It usually involves her sending him to take the trash out or run the vacuum or wash dishes. But he does do better when he’s busy.
He needs his hands full, his fingers moving. It helps empty his head of the clenching thoughts.
His teachers found that out. They didn’t like his fidgeting, said it was distracting, that it was disrespectful, no wonder he kept getting these grades, if he’d only pay attention, work harder… He tried real hard to stay still. For two whole days. He didn’t like being yelled at. He doesn’t like the disapproval hanging on his shoulders. He doesn’t like failure. So, he kept his hands still. And then he threw up.
Now, they allow him, try to come up with projects for him so nobody thinks they’re going too easy on him. There are homework packets to staple, pencils to sharpen, things to cut out for them to laminate. He likes it when they bring in the kindergarten stuff, all bright colors, reminding him of a time when he thought he was smart because he could tie his shoes. He knows better now.
He’s good at origami. It’s simple, easy. Turn, fold, crease, unfold, turn again, fold, fold, done. His classmates’ cranes turn into crinkled papers and they throw them down in frustration. They never make it to a thousand. He made 547. It was only a fifth-grade project, they say. It’s not important.
She’s going through the list. Eventually, it’s going to be his turn. He ties one more knot, raises his hand, “I have to go to the office.”
He does the speech eventually, after a thousand knots with a flock of Post-It note cranes afterward.
He never does figure school out. Doesn’t make it into college. With his head, it would just be a waste of money and he’s got brothers that could use it. They’re real smart, could be doctors and lawyers if they want.
That’s why he never expected to come back here.
The bell rings. The principal makes a tinny announcement. Children gather, hands on hearts, before a flag. Some scurry from the cafeteria with brown paper breakfast bags. He gives a few fist bumps on their way out. Others run past, late slips flapping. He calls out for them to walk and watches them slow until they reach the corner. He just shakes his head. Then he shakes out the black garbage bag. Breakfast will be over soon. He needs to replace the trashcans.
There’s always something to do, especially with kindergarten in the building. There are accidents, spills, finger paint, paper scraps, and sticky shaving cream. He rubs his chin. He could do with a shave himself.
It’s still the first week and that’s only a little less crazy than Christmas. Kindergarteners keep leaving backpacks all over the hallway. They’ll learn. The first week’s always crazy.
One of the kindergartners is upset. It’s normal. The school goes through twice as many tissue boxes as normal the first month. Some of the kids have it harder than others.
He looks for the teacher but she is busy and this child is crying now. He’s not smart, but he’s good at solving problems.
He pushes the trashcan aside and settles down next to her, patting her shoulder awkwardly until it seems she has pushed all the sobs out.
She wants to go home. She wants her mommy. Her mommy always makes her feel better. Her sock has fallen down inside her shoe. It’s a sparkly shoe with unicorns and lights. He can see the red line on her heel. She’s been trying to reach in and pull it out but she is just a kindergartner and it’s all knotted up, quadruple knotted. Mom must be very paranoid. He wonders if she too heard the kindergarten myth about the teacher’s grandmother who tripped over her untied shoelaces and broke her arm and still had giant staples in her shoulder.
He pulls the loops out gently, persuading the laces to untangle. Pulls her pink sock up and ties them in perfectly symmetrical bows, before she smiles and runs- WALK- back to the classroom.
He was always good with knots.