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Making Sure of Arithmetic: Grades 1-6

ISSUE:  Spring 1995
Story problems were the worst: how many
quarts per hour flow through a tank
of X capacity and a slow leak? How long
will Paul and Jane, driving at constant speeds
in mismatched cars, stay in Ohio? I’d fuss
and whine; my patient father sketched out tanks
with drains, and one night made a siphon
with a rubber hose, drawing a sink of water
down into the tub to show me water
can travel by itself. He graphed its speed,
his voice flowed across my stubborn mind
as relentless as the lake that fills
itself and flows out through a thousand leaks
while the world’s water multiplies itself,
like the errors in my father’s blood
that sent him to the Clinic while we wrote
new problems for ourselves, not Jane and Paul.
How often can you see him if each time
it costs you fifty miles and one pure lie
repeated X times: “It’s better, better.”
Let X be the cup of soup and Y the bread
you coax down his blistered throat; how many loaves
will rot in him before his flesh says no?
The lake will freeze by Christmas, but the bread,
the miles, the lie will keep on running; let n
be any man’s capacity for pain—
a deep tank with a dime-sized leak and a thick
efficient hose that runs all night; n + 1
will fill it, overflowing


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