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The Practical Applications of Calculus
BY CATHERINE MOSIER-MILLS
Honorable Mention for the 2014 Adroit Prize for Prose
Judge: Wendy Rawlings
In the mornings, Té Melicha sits on the porch and holds the honey jar nearly horizontal, angling. When the honey reaches its ribbed cusp, her amber voice seeps into the morning air, counting the drops that land on the porch: one, two, three. Oyasin and I joke that her brown arms are sinusoidal curves draped over a tangent line held deftly in space, a line repeated in the ancient rocking chair she occupies in her nightdress as she rocks the honey awake. Bug-feeder of the Black Hills, you’d think she was crazy if you didn’t hear her speak in Sioux.
We’ve been watching her for a few minutes, from behind Caqi’s Impala parked on the cracked pavement in front of the house. Physics tells us that a chair carved from the cheap bark of a dying oak—a gift from an ancestor whose face appears on a tintype—should never support her heavy frame. But South Dakota is an odd pocket of the universe. Té rests her palms on the rocker’s gray sides and hums along to the eerie hymn of the beso-birds and whining mosquitoes. Most mornings, she sits in the rippling light and inhales the sweet nectar of her spilled honey until Caqi starts his car and dyes the air black with exhaust as the day begins. By then, Té’s honey has baptized the porch to make the Kangí proud.
On this particular morning, however, Caqi hasn’t yet prodded the gas pedal with one of his clumsy loafers. In the midst of her meditation, Té sees us and drops the jar, letting it roll around on the wood floor in its own spilled fluids. “Oyasin!” she screeches.
From his position behind the Impala’s exhaust pipe, Oyasin acknowledges her with a throaty grunt and an eye roll. “The best way to set water on fire is to pump it full of carbon dioxide and dish soap,” he says to me, his voice dry like sawdust as he squints at the differential equations he’s scribbled on a legal pad. The page is littered with a cosmic array of sinusoids and tangential slopes, which Oyasin says is all part of the magic. Catching Té’s gaze, he closes his fist around the box of Redhead matches I brought. “We’re essentially creating a reaction between two compounds.”
“Oyasin!” Té repeats, coming closer, down the porch steps.
“Amáyuštaŋ yo,” Oyasin responds indignantly. It’s one of the few Sioux sayings he uses: I already know.
“We’re not doing anything illegal,” I try, pocketing the car keys before I scoop up the sudsy water from the bucket and sprinkle it onto the thirsty grass.
“Don’t get the keys wet,” he mutters.
“Oyasin!” Té is standing over us.
“It’s just a little magic trick,” I reassure her. Of course the keys shouldn’t get wet. We’d be left stranded without transportation unless the BIA decided to give us a Triple-A service worth the tax money. After Papa’s accident, they nearly refused to tow him home, because everyone knows a drunk Indian is worse than a dead Indian.
Oyasin’s square-frame lenses reflect the patch of dead grass and the silvery morning mist. “Not a magictrick,” he says. “It’s more complex than that. It’s scientific. It has to do with chemistry and theoretical physics and chaos theory.”
“Chaos theory,” she echoes, raising an eyebrow. She scans the scene behind the Impala: metal tub, bucket of soapy water, bottle of Lemon Joy, oilcloths and a towel, green garden hose. Her shoulders—these massive bones engulfed in sixty years of fat from a diet of mostly bread—rise and fall slowly. “Looks chaos to me.”
“Yé. We’ll be done in a few minutes,” Oyasin says.
“Not good enough.” She pulls out a stray pin from her hair, which, despite her anger, has remained alarmingly in place. Oyasin once deemed her the biggest bundle of contradictions available in the western half of the Louisiana Purchase. She’s Lakota with a trace of Navajo and Mexican blood, and has a penchant for combining the languages of all three with some ugly phrases of broken English thrown in. She always smells faintly of lemons, which she claims is the lemongrass sprouting in used egg cartons above the kitchen sink and not the Lemon Joy in plastic bottles stored beneath it. But Té’s a tough woman. Tough enough to erase the suffocating memories of the Indian School where she grew up and to adopt Caqi’s Lakota customs with sacrosanct obedience. “You done now. Put car back now. Help me make breakfast, get your bags packed for school.” Then, as she slides the pin back up into her thick black strands, she says: “Lootah, you stay for breakfast?”
Oyasin grumbles something and turns his attention back to cleaning out the tub. He’s never been able to stomach her quixotic array of fruits and grains blessed by a dubious deity, choosing instead a Ho-Ho in a cellophane wrapper from the vending machine at school. I’m not particularly hungry either, so I change the subject.
“Look,” I say, “if you let me stay a little bit longer, I promise I’ll come back next week and help you fix the radiator. For free.” It’s the diplomatic tone we were taught to use at Kenley if one of the Saltines shouted a slur. I tried it once, when Billy Matwell was pulping up Oyasin outside the gym lockers, but I only got a broken nose and a smashed appendix, which the principal called a “fundamental lack of communication.” Papa was too drunk to care, but Mama and Té made sure Billy Matwell spent every remaining Saturday that year helping plant trees behind the reservation school. Later we found out Billy’s dad beat him, and even Oyasin felt kind of bad.
Té inhales sharply, eyes tilted towards the sky in a pensive gaze. I think she’s contemplating defeat, but Oyasin claims she thinks in Sioux and has to translate for us before speaking. I used to be fluent, because I spent so much time around her. But after Papa left, the words dissolved from my mind, and now it takes too much effort to pull them back. “Ayy, Lootah,” she begins slowly, working her versatile tongue over the syllables, the same way a derivative puzzles through a byzantine set of variables. “For you. Only you. How nice you treat your elders. You’re so quiet all the time.”
I can feel my cheeks get hot. “Uh, thanks, Té.”
For a moment, forgiveness seems to tug at the corners of her stubborn mind. Her mouth curves into a curious smile, and her neck muscles prepare for the inevitable nod. But then her bare foot touches the wet towel, which Oyasin swiped from her bathroom. Her spine stiffens like a jackrabbit caught in the flare of a hunter’s light, and she glares at Oyasin. “Owákaȟniǧe šni…and my towel, too! This boy…no mercy for him when I tell Papa what he done to his auto!” She stomps back up the porch steps, like a semicircular function that’s taken an unexpected turn back towards infinity. “I go in and telephone your papa right now! You steal from me!”
“Big deal,” says Oyasin. He watches her slam the screen door before he turns his attention back to cleaning out the tub. For him, her abrasive manner is nothing new.
The school psychologist at Kenley thought Oyasin was defiant because like me, he’d been mainstreamed into the white halls of Kenley in fifth grade, after we’d run through all the math courses at the reservation school. But Oyasin doesn’t care about being surrounded by white kids all the time. He just despises being Lakota. For years, he locked himself in his room without light, hoping the absence of Vitamin D would make him anemic, or that the melanin would somehow reverse production and turn him into a snowman. Then he cut his hair, which turned even the passive Caqi into a furious, unrelenting punisher. Each shaved lock seemed to taunt Té for the Lakota values she’d worked so hard to instill in her adopted son.
See, Té and Caqi had had bad luck procreating, and after nearly a decade of miscarriages and false conceptions, Té decided to drive the beaten-up Impala all the way to the Children’s Shelter in Pierre. She’d requested a purebred Lakota kid, and received a timid and scrawny and practically blind little boy named Oyasin. And after all the papers were collected, she’d driven him up to Pantuck Creek, a shady alcove a few miles up, and stood with him in the jimson weed and cattails, explaining why she’d taken him. She told him the poetic tale of Lakota creation, of the big ball of mud and the heroic turtle that permitted life to begin again on the desolate new formation. She informed him that he must never use profanities or murder her potted plants. But, like most intangible things, the wisdom she tried to give him wore off. And then his hair, the proudest feature a Lakota man could ever possess, had vanished that day in the bathroom, cut with Caqi’s forbidden razor.
“One day,” Oyasin says now, hope lacing every syllable, “I hope to make a model of the Big Bang and prove to Té that the Earth wasn’t formed by some old raven’s mud. Maybe then she’ll stop hounding me about respecting cultural boundaries and let me fucking go to MIT.”
I roll my eyes. Every day, this injustice seems to worm its way into the conversation. “Maybe she’s right. And don’t curse.”
“Aw, hell, you’re on her side, too?” He shakes his head. “Don’t tell me you’re still planning on going to State and buying into the legend of the Kangí. You’ll end up like Caqi, with a wife like Té Melicha.”
“You hate it at Kenley! What makes you think you’ll like Massachusetts and all the Pilgrims that are there with their weird religions?”
“It’s not all pilgrims,” he spits. “There’s intellectuals there.” He dunks a fresh oilcloth in the bucket and scrubs the inside of the tub until it’s impeccably white.
“There are intellectuals here.”
“What, like you? Admit it, you like leaving Ridge to learn multivariable calculus while your dad finishes another stint in rehab. You just want me to stay here to pity you and tell you what a good little Lakota boy you are.”
“And you want to leave just because some random guy in a tie found you and stalks you just because you’re Indian.” Last week, Dartmouth sent him this glossy brochure that bragged about the college’s history educating Native Americans. It said that, as a poor Lakota kid from South Dakota who wants to be an engineer, he was incredibly desirable. That got Oyasin thinking. And now The Exploding Bathtub is his stepping stone to the “ingenious masterpiece” he’s convinced will get him a scholarship to MIT.
He scowls and dumps the cloth onto the pavement, then kicks it away with his shoe. “It’s not because I’m Indian,” he says. “You say that like it’s a bad thing. And what’s so bad about wanting to leave South Dakota?”
“What about all the war-cry jokes and headdress comments and asking us if we’re related to Sitting Bull?”
“That won’t happen in college,” he says quickly.
“Sure it won’t.” He’s deluded himself into thinking Kenley actually wants him there, not because he’s a pawn in their diversity game. Or because we’re the poster children for Indians who’ve escaped a life of alcoholism and who have a bright future off the reservation.
“Anyway,” he says, “the Exploding Bathtub is going to prove that I belong there. The next step is the theoretical physics, which will prove the infinite solutions of the flames, and their role in chaos theory. Trust me. It’ll all work out.”
“Funny. Té thinks we’re just two Indian boys messing around with car exhaust and bottles of Lemon Joy and weird calculus derivatives.”
“Té’s an idiot.” He takes a new oilcloth and begins to dry the inside of the tub. “She means well, but she’s an idiot.”
He’s said that to her face before. The last time I talked like that to Papa, he nearly pounded my skull in—so the Bureau called in the CPS and some milky-white ambassador from the city asked me if I’d ever tasted the stuff inside Papa’s bottles hidden all over the house. That was weeks before the accident. “Chaos theory doesn’t solve everything,” I argue. “And anyway, there are problems here that need fixing, too.”
“Like what?” he snaps, knocking over the bucket as he reaches for the hose.
The sudsy water laps at my shoes, the ones I taped together with duct tape during lunch yesterday. “Have you even been to rehab before?” I say. “I mean, it’s horrible. Like jail in the middle of the desert. I don’t know what to talk about, because every time I talk about school he says calculus is a waste of time. Gets to the point where I wonder if I’m even related to him. But I stay with him, because he’s my father.”
“Look,” Oyasin says, “I’m sorry that happened. But it really doesn’t have anything to do with this.”
“You just don’t want to hear it.”
“What, you think I’m not brave enough?”
I wish I didn’t remember the last time I met Papa, but like all things you wish you could shove into the nether regions of unexplored mental frontiers, it’s always there, vivid, in the front of my mind. Papa’s coal hair deflecting the beams of sun, his gaunt frame emulating a sheep carcass, as though he was too stupid to realize what he’d done, but acted guilty anyway. I knew I was supposed to love him the same way I was supposed to get good grades. But I’d always wondered what would happen if I didn’t do what I was supposed to do.
That day, we didn’t look at each other, but we both wanted to say one thing that would make it better. We never could, though. We talked for half an hour before I announced that I had homework to do. Papa just looked at me with his cryptic gaze as he scrutinized what, exactly, I was trying to escape. “Lakota magic,” he said finally, “is bullshit.”
“Why do we need to learn inequalities?” Oyasin asks me suddenly, staring at the empty tub and the hose in his hand. “Do you remember why Mr. Mann had us learn inequalities back in the third grade?”
I sigh. He never wants to linger on the subject of Papa for long. He acts all jittery and uncomfortable, and one time he even said I was lucky to still have my natural-born papa around and not some fake who never talks. Caqi has one of those lacerated faces that makes you wonder if he’s out to find someone who wronged him in his first life, and it’s said the only time he smiled was when Oyasin came home for the first time. But I don’t call Oyasin out for it. Instead, I repeat what our old math teacher, Mr. Mann, drilled into us: “They relegate boundaries that can’t be crossed on a graph.”
“Do you believe in infinity?” he asks, gripping the hose so hard his knuckles blanch. “Or is the limit nonexistent for life?”
“That’s a morbid thought,” I tell him.
Two divots appear beside his mouth. “I’m worried,” he says, putting the hose into the tub. “I’m worried that my life is like an unfolded circle—everything in front of me negative time that has already passed. And if I try to find any sort of meaning to it, I can only see a point and nothing else.”
“So I’m worried that if I don’t leave South Dakota now, I won’t ever. And I’m worried the same thing will happen to you.”
“But that’s wrong,” I say.
He laughs hollowly and goes to turn on the water. “You just don’t think hard enough about it.”
“I think about it plenty.”
“You think about the wrong things.”
He turns on the faucet and the tub pools with clear water, surrounded by the spilled bucket’s muddy lake. Oyasin is silent, blinking, his eyes avoiding the dead grass and the landscape someone once called bucolic, to stare at the hose dangling over the rim of the tub. “Okay,” he says when the tub’s finally filled. “Turn the ignition when I say go, okay?”
I look up in surprise. “What?”
“Start the car, idiot. Do you have the keys?”
I pull the keys out of my pocket and check the front porch to make sure Té isn’t eyeing us from her usual perch. Then I open the car door and slide into the driver’s seat, and jam the keys into the ignition. I wait.
In the rearview, I see Oyasin grab the bottle of Lemon Joy and squeeze the astringent liquid into the tub. Then “Okay, go!” he shouts, and I start the car.
With a kick and a roar, the engine bursts forth, shooting carbon dioxide bubbles into the tub.
“Okay, stop!” he cries. I kill the engine and jump out of the car. I don’t want to miss it. “Watch,” he says, grinning as he strikes a match and crouches down to scoop a fistful of soapy water. I watch as Oyasin tosses the lighted match into the small pool he’s holding in his palm.
It’s like something I’ve only ever heard of in one of Té’s legends about the fire and apotheosis of the earliest creatures: Oyasin’s hand is suddenly engulfed in flames, but his face remains perfectly calm. Then, once the soapy water trickles through his fingertips and onto the pavement, the fire quickly extinguishes itself.
“Wow!” is all I can say.
“CO2 and acidic compounds,” he says, wiping his hand on his jeans, the pair with the hole in the crotch that Té would forbid him to wear if she could see well enough. “But we can call it “Dance of the Magic Fireballs,” so they’ll think an Indian made it up.”
I look down at the arcane instructions scribbled on the legal pad. “Looks like you’re well on your way to proving infinity, then,” I say. I try to pat his shoulder proudly, but it comes out mechanical and awkward. No one would ever guess Oyasin had the brains to do any of this. “Even if a graph oscillates, it still doesn’t stray from its origin,” I say, another mantra from Mr. Mann.
He forces a sad semi-smile that’s missing the under-eye crinkles that make a smile genuine.
“Well!” proclaims a voice from the porch.
We both glance up. Té has returned. From behind the shaded fortress of the screen door, her face shows a predictable combination of anger and disapproval. “You risk skin for a science experiment,” she says. She shakes her head twice, and then steps out next to the rocking chair and the spilled honey jar. “Caqi is going to give you punishment for it.”
“Mama—” Oyasin starts, but halfway through his argument, he sighs and tosses the car keys to her. “Whatever. We’ll go now.”
“Thank you, Oyasin,” she says with steely reserve. “Get your things ready for school now. Lootah—you, too. I telephone your mama and she is very angry. You lie. Twice.”
“Twice?” I ask.
Then I remember my fib for leaving early that morning: I told Mama that Oyasin was home sick and needed me to collect his homework. I could tell she was suspicious as she watched me shove a beaten-up box of matches into my backpack. But she handed me my lunch and just sort of half-waved until I’d made it out the door. “Sorry,” I murmur.
Té doesn’t look at me, but instead looks out at the strange landscape between the rest of civilization and us. “You’re smarter than this, Oyasin,” she says. “Why you do this to me? You like to watch me suffer?”
Oyasin smirks and hands her the box of Redheads. “Eh. I like to watch you react. I don’t like to watch you suffer.”
“And you, Lootah?” She tilts her head towards me, exposing a layer of wrinkled skin below her chin. “You know all these maths, why you lie to me?”
“I—I don’t know,” I stammer. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
I’d like to think that I’m smart enough to know the difference between what I hear and see, and what I can deduce from a set of equations when I’m given nothing. But when I look out at the Black Hills, I find nothing there but Té Melicha’s weathered palms caressing the entrance to a honey jar, as she feeds the bugs beneath the porch, day after day, until the Lakota from her blood has all dripped out.
Catherine Mosier-Mills is an undergraduate student at Pomona College. She recently graduated from Radnor High School in Pennsylvania, where she has served as Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper. She is a 2014 YoungArts Finalist for Short Story and a 2014 United States Presidential Scholar semi-finalist, and her work has been published in Apiary, Cleaver Magazine, and Philadelphia Stories, Jr., among others. This piece earned a 2014 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Gold Medal for Short Story, and has been reprinted with permission from the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.