Word Problem

Jessica Handler

A train leaves the station at 40 mph. After 55 minutes, it passes a truck filled with watermelons. How many woodpeckers are in the pines?

A truck filled with watermelons crosses a railroad track. One watermelon falls out of the truck, breaking apart in the grass. Does the truck have three on the column or four on the floor?

How many woodpeckers are in the pines if two are actually catbirds and three are unidentified?

The answer appears to be ‘five.’

The answer will change to ‘six’ or ‘four’ depending on the circumstances.

The pines will remain pines. The broken watermelon will feed the birds.

If a Southern Railways freight train passes a neighborhood at 20 mph at eleven pm six nights a week for twelve years, how many years will pass before a grown daughter and her mother drive over the railroad tracks and the daughter says, “I remember falling asleep to the sound of the train.”

How many minutes will pass before the mother answers, “I never noticed there was a railroad crossing here.”

For how long will the mother rue the small details she missed?

If a group of teenagers skips school in the afternoon and follows the railroad tracks that rise from a vanishing point at the outskirts of the park, will one of them ultimately vanish?

Bonus question: Do a) drug overdose or b) removal to another school count?

Five eighth graders make a bet. Two take the challenge. In a week, the two eighth graders win the bet on a single bed in one of the eighth grader’s bedrooms. Two parents are at work. Thirty fingers cling to the bedroom windowsill. Ten fingers let go. One body crashes into a hedge.

How many eighth graders are outside the bedroom window?

Three little girls born to two parents equals one family. How many years will pass before two of the little girls go to early graves?

How many years will pass before medical science finds that the girls could have been cured?

Answer: Sister number two: twenty years, give or take ten percent. Sister number three: indeterminate.

Sister number one: depends on the circumstances.

A sister remains a sister.

Write on the blackboard fifty times I will not look ahead I will not look ahead.

Look ahead.

I will not look behind I will not look behind I will not look behind. Refuse to write that on the blackboard.

Three birds gather on a branch. A lover slices a watermelon in the sun.

Extra points: can you learn to remember the smallest details without sorrow?

Jessica Handler
Jessica Handler

Jessica Handler’s first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs, 2009) was named by the Georgia Center for the Book one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Atlanta Magazine called it the “Best Memoir of 2009.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Brevity.com, Newsweek, The Washington Post, More Magazine, and elsewhere. Honors include a 2011 residency at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a 2010 Emerging Writer Fellowship from The Writers Center, the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship for the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, and special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize. www.jessicahandler.com.