'The Optiontunist' is the first chapter from the novel 'All Flowers Die'
So There Books, ISBN 0967907306
Andrew K. Stone
On Veterans’ Day weekend, Dale invited me to sleep over at his house. During that weekend, I got an insight to where he had acquired his optiontunistity.
I found it strange that Dale was an only child. I had two older brothers and a sister and most of the other kids at school seemed to have large families as well. I was used to being in noisy houses, houses echoing with the sounds of crashes and destruction, crying children, panic-filled voices trying to quiet the crying kids, yelling parents - to me, these were normal-sounding homes. But Dale’s house was oddly quiet; Dale’s house was unnaturally peaceful.
But even more bizarre was the relationship Dale had with his parents. Like other kids, Dale demanded as much, if not more, attention from his parents. But unlike other parents, they gave it to him.
Everyone knows it’s common protocol for kids to shout questions all at once - “can I have a sandwich?” “will you tie my shoe?” “if Jenny can then why can’t I?” “what time are we going?” And of course, it’s also only natural for parents to answer in grunts - “no,” “yes,” “because,” and sometimes the always-confusing “when I say so” - while the face of every parent is waxed over with the same expression: the look of being too tired to answer kids. As children, we had unlimited energy; as parents they had unending weariness. But that’s how it had always been. That’s how it was supposed to be.
That’s what I thought until I met Mr. and Mrs. Tarleton.
Dale’s parents supplied answers with enough energy to equal his barrage of questions. His parents were never too tired for him. I thought this might be because Dale was an only child. That would undoubtedly explain their tremendous staying power - they could focus all their attention on him rather than spread it out amongst three or four kids. But there was more to it than concentrated energy. That Sunday evening, I witnessed something extremely foreign to me. Dale and his parents had a conversation - a conversation in which they spoke to him in complete sentences!
Before dinner, we had all watched The Miracle Worker on Channel 56. During a commercial, after going to the bathroom, I saw Mrs. Tarleton in the kitchen, cutting up potatoes and putting them into a pot of boiling water.
“What are you making?” I asked her.
I peered dubiously into the bubbling pot.
“Where’s the box?”
She looked at me and then gave a little nervous laugh as if I were putting her on. I wasn’t. Whenever my family had mashed potatoes, they started out as white flakes from a Hungry Man carton.
When we sat around the dinner table, Mrs. Tarleton announced we were to say grace. She bowed her head and I awkwardly followed the family through the “Bless Oh Lord this food...” grace, and felt guilty for not speaking louder. I didn’t know this blessing all the way through; my family used the old standby “God is Great, God is Good” blessing.
When we finally finished, I looked around to make sure nobody at the table thought any less of me and then turned my attention to the brown specks of potato skins dotting my white mountain. Dale swallowed a bit of his mountain and, after wiping his mouth, asked his father what he thought it would be like to have been Helen Keller.
Mr. Tarleton put down his fork, folded his hands and rubbed his thumbs together. At first, I thought he was going to answer the way the father in the TV commercial for the Boston Museum of Science answered his son’s questions about what makes the sky blue: “I don’t know, but I know where we can find out,” and the two go have a great time at the museum. I never liked that ad - whenever I saw it, I thought that was the kind of question I’d want my dad to be able to answer himself, even if he had to make something up. So I was relieved - and intrigued - when Mr. Tarleton said:
“In what way?”
“What do you think it felt like learning all the things Helen Keller did?”
“Give me an example, Dale.”
“Well..., like colors. The lady Anne Sullivan taught Helen Keller about colors. For red, she burned Helen’s hand to teach her that red is a ‘hot’ color.”
“That’s right, she did,” Mrs. Tarleton said, laughing nervously like a jammed machine gun. Mrs. Tarleton was a pretty woman but her nervous giggling sometimes made me forget just how pretty she was.
Dale took a drink of milk and then asked:
“How did she know that red can mean hot?”
Mr. and Mrs. Tarleton looked at each other for a moment, giving me a chance to jump in.
“Because she burned Helen’s hand.”
“But how did Anne know that Helen would put hot and red together?”
I thought about that before offering what I thought was a logical answer.
“Well. When a stove gets hot, the coils get red.”
“Do they?” asked Mr. Tarleton, catching me by surprise. I couldn’t think of anything to say except to tell him that they did on my mother’s stove.
“But how do you know they’re red, Kevin?” he asked. As I stumbled for an answer, I wondered if going to a museum wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
“Well, I’ve seen ’em,” and for support, I added, “and so have you, Dale!”
“But...,” and Dale paused before asking, “how do I know that red is the same for you as it is for me?”
Was this Dale’s own version of multiple guess? Red is red. I knew that much and I began to see things from my father’s point of view.
“Why would you think that, Dale?” Mrs. Tarleton asked through a stilted chuckle. It was the kind of laugh that suggested the family played this game every night - a nightly contest in which Dale could win extra Cool Whip.
“Well..., what color is this?” he asked, pointing to his napkin. “White,” his mother smiled.
“But how do you know?”
“Because this is what white is.”
“But who told you?”
“Dale, honey, nobody told me. I know it’s white because this is what white looks like.”
“But how do you know white looks like this?”
I must admit that I was now expecting a “because I say so.” I thought for sure that Mrs. Tarleton would have to revert to the parents’ rule book and get tired. But instead she said: “Well, it’s the same color as the refrigerator and that’s white. The salesman told me. So the napkin and the refrigerator are both white.”
“But Mom, how do I know that I’m seeing the same color you are?”
Mr. and Mrs. Tarleton looked at each other and now I was afraid for Dale. In my family, this would be considered overstepping a boundary. “Honor thy father and mother,” as my own father was fond of saying, usually before adding “never question your parents.” I was certain Dale would get yelled at for contradicting his mother, and because I hated when parents yelled at their kids in front of me, I made a show out of reaching for the mashed potatoes in hopes that the family hadn’t forgotten I was present. However, Mr. Tarleton merely smiled at his wife and said, “He’s got you there.” Then he turned to Dale. “Now what makes you think that you’re seeing something different from your mother?”
“Well, remember we saw The War of the Worlds last Saturday?”
“Remember when they got the eye from the Martian and hooked it up to that film projector thing?”
I’d seen the movie on TV as well and I thought back to the scene where the scientists gathered in a room to show how the Martians viewed the humans. By hooking up the eye of a captured alien to a machine like an overhead projector, the scientists demonstrated how the Martians saw the humans as being all fat and blobby-looking.
“But, we’re not Martians!” I interjected.
“No, we’re not,” he agreed.
“But nobody’s hooked up your eyeball to any film projector. And they haven’t hooked up mine, either. So how do we know we’re all seeing the same thing?”
I couldn’t answer him. Mr. Tarleton chuckled and ruffled his son’s hair. Mrs. Tarleton gave her little nervous laugh. But I sat there, looking from Dale to his parents to my mashed potatoes. Something was awkward. The Tarletons acted as if Dale had just won an award at school. But Dale just sat and smiled, looking very much like a boy who didn’t fully understand why he’d won.
That night, as I was lying in bed, I wondered if Mr. Tarleton’s business was responsible for the love of options in the family. After all, Dale’s father owned a large bakery which supplied cookies and cakes to all the big New England grocery stores. This seemed to me to be the kind of job where options - variety - were the most important ingredient. I assumed that the family trait stemmed from the business just as I thought my father, who was a chemist, influenced me.
My dad used to take me to his lab and show me the various beakers, scales and titrating devices. The exactitude of his work carried over in his appearance; my father had very neatly trimmed hair, wore pressed pants and shirts and carried the odor of the lab around with him every evening. The smell was not only consistent but also seemed an extension of him; not only did it follow him home and linger on his clothes, years later, it would jump out from letters he would write me or packages he’d send. My father’s influence on me was apparent in many ways, as was Dale’s.
In appearance, Mr. Tarleton was cut out to be a baker. A big man with chocolate brown hair and a frosted grey mustache, he looked like he was made of gingerbread. He had a wide, friendly smile, as happy as candy, and when he came home from work, he brought a warm, fresh-baked smell with him. Closing my eyes, I inhaled and imagined how wonderful it must have been to have that smell in the house all the time.
But it was Mr. Tarleton’s eyes which really gave away his optiontunistity. His gaze was slightly cloudy as if his eyes were cold windows covered by a film of condensation. No matter how many times you wiped the panes off, the film returned, keeping the coldness in. Today, when I think of Mr. Tarleton, I understand that the film over his eyes were walls separating him from outside intrusions, allowing him a special privacy in which to mull over all possibilities. Mr. Tarleton wasn’t like other parents with their one-word grunts; Mr. Tarleton’s walls gave him the chance he required to think of all the options. That’s why he didn’t get tired. He wasn’t in a constant state of chaos, trying to control a bunch of kids. And even if the Tarletons had had four or five kids, I’m pretty sure things would have been the same. However, I couldn’t help feeling that the film served some other purpose. Like Mrs. Tarleton’s nervous laugh, the film could be dense, like burnt soot on glass fireplace doors. The way he talked about Helen Keller, tentatively asking Dale what he meant, made me feel that the film protected him from something. In a way, it appeared to hold him back from asking too much.
That Monday was a holiday, so Mr. Tarleton worked only a half day so he could take Dale and me to the movies. The film we saw would become one of the most influential things in Dale’s life. Willy the Chocolate Factory.
After the machine spit out the three orange tickets, we walked past the velvet ropes into the main part of the lobby. Mr. Tarleton stopped at the concession stand.
“May we have three jumbo popcorns, three Cokes and one box of candy each,” he said to the girl wearing the red and white apron and matching hat. “We don’t want to run out in the middle of the movie, right guys?”
“Right!” Dale and I agreed, loading our hands with the loot.
We found three seats together, and I sank into one between Dale and his dad. The floor was sticky from spilled soda, and Mr. Tarleton joked that wasting Coke was a sin. As the lights went down and the cartoon started, I plunged my hand into the popcorn box, grabbing a fistful and stuffing it in my mouth so that my cheeks strained. Crunching away happily, I realized I had gone through almost half my box by the time the movie started. After the opening credits and the first two scenes, I’d eaten all but the hard, unpopped kernels. Then I stole a glance at Mr. Tarleton and Dale. To my surprise, I saw that they each had a mountain of popcorn in their boxes. They both ate one piece at a time as they sat mesmerized by the screen. I felt stupid for eating so quickly and wished I could hide the empty box.
I also wondered what had kept Dale and his father so entranced. Had I missed something while I was stuffing my face? I slowed down to the point where I was crunching one burned kernel at a time, trying to do so as quietly as possible so I wouldn’t give myself away.
The movie progressed with Charlie finding the fifth golden ticket and the kids lining up outside the chocolate factory as Willy Wonka limped out, got his cane stuck and, after a moment of breath-holding panic, somersaulted to the front gate. As we entered the factory, we got a glimpse of Willy Wonka’s secrets - the wonderful inventions and crazy recipes - and we also saw the greedy children prove themselves, one by one, to be unworthy heirs to Willy Wonka’s empire. None but Charlie cared about anyone else; the four other kids grabbed and ate as much as they could and were each, in turn, condemned for their selfishness. Dale and his dad watched carefully and ate methodically, crunching their popcorn like guilty verdicts - guillotine blades falling on the necks of the four unacceptable cast members.
The movie ended and I nonchalantly kicked my candy wrapper under the seats when I noticed Dale and his dad hadnâ€™t even opened their candy bars. On the drive home, they spoke excitedly about the film; it appeared they had memorized every bit.
“Charlie gave back the gobstopper,” Dale gushed. “So he was the only one who really deserved the chocolate factory.”
“Right. Everybody else was so greedy. And they were greedy too quickly.”
“You mean because they didn’t stop to think about what they really could do if they had the whole factory?”
“Exactly. What did you think of the movie, Kevin?”
I said I liked it fine and then went back to thinking about Mr. Tarleton. I could see he was a natural optiontunist. I just wondered where he got it from.
One day, during a math lesson, Dale raised his hand.
“Mrs. Philbrain, I found an old math book that used to be my cousin’s. I was reading it the other day and it talked about imaginary numbers.”
The color drained from Mrs. Philbrain’s face.
“How can a number be imaginary?” Dale asked.
Mrs. Philbrain tried to cut him off at the pass.
“Y-y-you d-d-don’t have t-t-to worry about that now, D-D-Dale.”
“B-b-because you’re not supposed t-t-to yet.”
Dale scratched his shock of black hair.
“Well...when are we supposed to worry about it?”
“When you g-g-get to high school.”
“When I get to high school?”
“But, Mrs. Philbrain, how will I know them?”
“In high school. How will I know when to worry about them if they’re imaginary?”
Mrs. Philbrain groaned heavily and put her hand across her chest. She opened her purse and found her dark bottle, which she took out and extracted one of the little yellow pills. After she stuck it under her tongue, she took a deep breath and waited a moment.
“D-d-dale, what are you t-t-talking about?”
“Well, if they’re imaginary numbers, how will I recognize them?”
“Because they’ll b-b-be in your math b-b-b-ook.”
“But how will I know which ones they’ll be?”
“No, really. I want to know. If there’s such a thing as an imaginary number, I want to know about it.”
“D-d-dale, do you want t-t-to go to the p-p-princip-p-pal’ s office?”
“Then, j-j-just stop this right now. Do you underst-st-stand me?”
“Yes, Mrs. Philbrain.”
The teacher popped another pill into her mouth.
At recess, however, Dale told me he didn’t understand. We were walking through a small thicket which led to the baseball diamond. It had been unseasonably cold and the path we took was littered by colored leaves which had been caught off guard by the surprise attack of an early winter. The cold air weighted down our lungs and we walked slowly.
“I think it’s some big secret.”
My words appeared as puffs of steam before my face when I questioned him. “What’s a secret?”
“These imaginary numbers. It’s a secret they don’t want to tell us.”
“Mrs. Philbrain...and the others.”
I didn’t ask him who the “others” were; he’d said it like he didn’t exactly know who they were but he was sure they were out there.
“They’ll probably tell us there are imaginary words, too.”
“Why would they do that?”
Dale stepped on a branch, crunching it under his foot. The sound reminded me of crunching popcorn.
“Probably for the same reason they have air raid drills but no air raids,” he answered.
REVIEW: The protagonist in the first chapter of 'All Flowers Die' ("The Optiontunist") is not as one might expect the first person narrator, Kevin, but his former schoolmate, Dale Tarleton. It is through his eyes we view the enquiring, Socratic mind of a boy who has been brought up to question the accepted 'truths' in his society. The narrator's encounter with Dale has evidently been a crucial event in his life. Kevin meets Dale at school and at Dale's home. The contrast between their conventional, straight-laced teacher, Mrs Philbrain (fill brain?) and Dale's open-minded parents confuses and excites Kevin. What effect this may have had on Kevin's later life, we do not know, but our appetite is whetted. This is a well-written introduction to a story that creates associations to Holden Caulfield in Salinger's 'The Catcher in the Rye'
REVIEW: Stone is surely the publisher's 'jewel' in waiting!
We read the first chapter and it soon became quite clear why the author has 'tasted the fruits of success', in having his first novel published. We thought the narrative conveyed his outstanding powers of observation regarding the human condition. Too often, writers take what initially appears to be trivia for granted and yet it is this focus on details which, when woven skilfully into the fabric of a story, helps us identify with the subject matter and spurs us on to read more. Undoubtedly, Stone has mastered this quality and we are confident he will have many more novels published in due course.