Such a Bright Boy
By Stephen Willson, 1981
Mrs. Phillips heard the front door slam. She knew it must be her only son, Harrison, and he wasn’t in a good mood. Something was always wrong with the boy whenever he slammed the door shut. Mrs. Phillips knew he expected her to go to him right away, but lately she had been having doubts about how much she should dote over him. He would soon be leaving home, not forever, but going off to graduate school, before returning to live with her. She was quite proud of Harrison. All on his own, Harrison had finished number one in his class his junior year and it looked like a repeat performance this year. He had scored in the 99th percentile of all college juniors on the Graduate Record Examination Special Test on Engineering. Her neighbors commented on what a bright boy he was.
Mrs. Phillips had wanted to be an engineer; that was one reason she had married the late Dr. Phillips: they both had a real interest in engineering problems. He had founded the Phillips Oil Search and Discovery Company in Houston, Texas. They had frequently talked over interesting engineering problems in the evening before retiring, and more than once, she felt, she had made a significant contribution to the advancement of the state of the art of oil discovery. The board of directors had talked her into selling after Dr. Phillips’ passing, “so she wouldn’t have to worry about money matters.” It was a decision she had regretted. But while the late Dr. Phillips had been alive, they had shared the adventure of solving problems together. She didn’t have that anymore. All she had was Harrison. But Harrison was fine boy.
Mrs. Phillips was more than little confused by Harrison’s behavior. She had expected him to be quite happy today. She let him stew a bit more and then went up to see him. She knocked quietly on the door.
“Harrison, honey, are you alright? May I come in, dear?”
She didn’t hear anything from inside so she opened the door anyway. Harrison was so moody.
The room was dark. Harrison was laid out flat on the bed, with his head sticking out over the edge of the mattress. He was staring at some papers spread out on the ground below him. One of the papers looked out of place; it was too colorful, but she couldn’t see enough of the paper to understand where it was from. The light from the hall made a distinct shadow that fell from Mrs. Phillips onto the boy. She hesitated a bit before moving the rest of the way into the bedroom. She knew without looking what the boy was wearing: he wore the same thing every day. He was so stubborn when it came to clothing; well, when it came to anything; and he had resisted her attempts to make his appearance just a little bit more palatable.
He was still wearing his blue tennis shoes with white socks and shoelaces that were too long. It was a miracle he didn’t trip over them every day: somehow he had adapted his way of walking. His pants, as usual, were too short, so that when his socks slipped down even a little bit, there was a band of flesh visible between the bottom of his pants and the top of his socks. His pants were always the same shade and weight of navy blue material, no matter what the weather. His belt had his calculator attached. His shirt was white with thin pale blue stripes evenly and vertically spaced around his torso. The material was so flimsy as to be see-through. Mrs. Phillips couldn’t see them but she knew there was an assortment of pens in his front shirt pocket. She was very familiar with those pens. Harrison was often putting a pen into his flimsy shirt pocket without the cap on the right end. As a result, he was frequently seen walking around with big colored splotches on his chest. If he put a red pen in wrong, then it looked like he had been shot in the heart and hadn’t noticed. This had confused more than one student that passed him by. Mrs. Phillips was in the process of sewing plastic liners into all of his pockets.
She went into the room and sat on the bed next to Harrison. Her son was tall, over six feet, and very thin. She could never get him to spend enough time eating! He would never be famous if he starved to death first!
The light from the hallway was all that illuminated the room.
“Harrison, dear, what happened?”
Harrison twisted his neck to look at her. She saw a tear was just then winning the battle to overflow and run down his face. Another tear broke through and flowed down his other cheek. He tried to open his mouth to talk, but only croaked. He tried again, and this time the words began to rush out in little bursts.
“I had it Mother, but I lost it. I had the Oppenheimer solution but not it’s gone. It’s … gone.”
Mrs. Phillips made some ‘shushing’ sounds to calm the boy. But Harrison kept going.
“I was on my way to school when I had, I don’t know, a sort of vision, you might say, right where you go around that corner near the weird building where the sun reflects into your eyes in the morning. I suddenly knew it! It was obvious! I knew it was right. There was no doubt. It made perfect sense – it was so obvious I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before. It just … came to me. I was on my way across the engineering plaza to write it down, really I was, I felt driven … when these kids… I guess, I don’t know, I don’t think they meant any harm, they just didn’t know how important it was for me to write it down! But these, uh, kids, you know, students, they grabbed me and forced me into one of the Engineering Week contests. Stupid stuff – why do they waste their time? I wanted to get away and write down the formula, but they grabbed my red pen and made crude remarks about it. I mean, it’s just a pen, but their tone was awful! The next thing I knew they shoved a paper into my hands, laughing, and then they left, and I was alone in the plaza. I took their piece of paper and my red pen and I tried to write down the formula before it was too late and I couldn’t remember the details that had seemed so clear before, but it was … too late. The idea was gone like it had never really existed. I tried for an hour to remember, but I couldn’t get a grasp on any good ideas. My brain had blanked. Harvey, you know Harvey, the one I talk to sometimes, he came by later and told me not to take it so hard, but he thought I was upset about the contest. He didn’t know anything about the formula.”
Mrs. Phillips sniffed back a tear. She picked up the brightly colored paper that was covered with Harrison’s scrawl. The boy had been so close. She read the printing on the brightly colored paper:
Written on a single blank line was Harrison’s name.
Mrs. Phillips gave Harrison’s neck a squeeze to relieve some of the tension and then she quietly left the room. She was alternately filled with rage and sadness for the boy. He had been so close. Things were finally about to get moving again for her and then this … contest … interfered. Why couldn’t the boy have simply remembered the formula? Why did these kids meddle? She doubted they felt any responsibility – probably had no idea what they had done. Now she had to take more risks. Damn! The Oppenheimer formula was one of the more famous outstanding problems in fluids engineering. If he figured it out he would become a famous engineer and he would bring other famous engineers home – to her house – for dinner and talking. It would be such an exciting time to have all of that intellectual energy in her house!
Mrs. Phillips went down the stairs, trying desperately to control her emotions. She walked stiffly into the kitchen. She took a deep breath, and then suddenly her movements became quick and precise. She reached into the back of the kitchen cabinet and removed a bottle of detergent. She poured a tiny bit into a bigger jar and filled the jar to the brim with water. Then she put the diluted mixture back into the cabinet and resumed her usual poise. She wanted everything normal for dinner.
She cooked a steak and warmed some frozen vegetables in the microwave; she precision-fried some French-fries (Harrison loved greasy foods – they were the only thing that kept him from starving); and then she rang the dinner bell and Harrison, as he had been trained to do, came down to eat. Harrison was still in “sulk mode,” and she knew there wouldn’t be much conversation tonight. After dinner they listened to the Gas Company’s evening concert on the local classical radio station, and then Harrison wandered off to bed.
When the boy was safely asleep she retrieved the mixture from under the kitchen cabinet and crept outside into the moonlight. She went to Harrison’s parked car and very carefully and subtly painted the Oppenheimer formula – inverted so it would look correct from the inside – onto the windshield of the car. She didn’t trust that the formula would still be visible from the building – the one by the corner where the sun hit you in the eyes in the morning – where she had painted it the night before. It was difficult painting precise mathematical shapes onto the windshield but she knew it didn’t have to be perfect. It had to be just good enough for Harrison to get the right idea. She took a quick look around to ensure no one had watched her. It wouldn’t do to have some silly neighbor interfere by asking what she had been doing to the car.
Mrs. Phillips reflected for a moment on how unfair life had been for her, but then smiled slightly to herself as she realized there was at least one woman on this earth who could take care of herself.
And the boy … he would be famous.
He was such a bright boy.