I smelled a rat.
Of course you don't tell your mother you smell a rat when she tells you to do something. I was in sixth grade; I had an English composition due. Mom had cleared the dining room table where I wouldn't be disturbed. She'd laid out a blotter, my composition paper and a pen. She sat me down in front of that scariest of inanimate objects - the blank page, and said.
"Now just apply yourself. Get something down on paper."
She left me alone in that room, renowned for Thanksgiving dinners and birthday cakes. It was a happy room - until it became a prison.
I grabbed the pen and stared at the paper. My brother was upstairs listening to the Moody Blues. I waved the pen, directing the orchestra bits.
"No," I said. "I have to apply myself!"
I started wondering where that phrase came from. Did it have anything to do with job applications?
"No!" I said audibly. "I have to apply myself."
The chair wobbled. I got up to look at it. The little nub on the bottom of one of the legs was missing. I checked all the other chairs in the room. Each one had all its nubs. How do you lose a chair nub? Did the factory forget to put it on, or were there insects that ate chair nubs? Maybe chair nubs were actually tiny space ships that docked on the bottom of dining room chairs because they knew they wouldn't be noticed coming or going... except on Thanksgiving or birthdays.
"What are you doing?"
Mom stood there holding a glass of Hi C, a drink I couldn't stand, but it was what I was supposed to like, so I drank it.
"Why are you looking under the table?"
I considered answering, but I didn't think that alien chair nubs was going to sound like I was working on my school essay.
"Let's see what you have," said Mom. She stepped over to my paper. "Headley! You haven't even started!"
"I was thinking."
"Think on paper," said Mom. "Sit down. Don't move until you have half a page. Apply yourself!"
I sat down. Mom put the Hi C on a coaster next to me and kissed the top of my head.
And I sat there, tapping my pen on the blotter and drinking a fruit drink that tasted like plastic sweetened by salty beet juice.
My essay was supposed to be 100 words. It ended up being 78, including the title: I Really, Really, Really, Really Have Nothing To Write About, by Headley Hauser.
The teacher gave me a D. At least it didn't hurt my average.
Now I write all the time. I might write about Thanksgiving dinners and birthday cakes, conducting the Moody Blues with a ball point pen, the origins of the word, 'apply yourself,' insects that eat furniture, tiny aliens that fly around in the nubs of dining room chairs, or crappy foods that Madison Avenue convinces kids they should like.
When I get stuck, I stand up. I wander around the room. I listen to what's going on around me, and I look at stuff.
If anyone asks me what I'm doing, I tell them I'm writing.
But I never, never, never, never say that I'm applying myself.
This would have worked much better on my last post