Last Saturday you took a sort of entrance examination for sixth grade. There were 70-some odd kids applying for about 15 spots. As part of your day of tests and participation, the kids were asked to come up with an invention, and explain how it would work.
“So what did you invent?” I asked.
“A transporter,” you responded. “So I wouldn’t have to get up early for school. I could just be transported in two minutes before the homeroom bell rings.”
“I don’t like getting up early,” you said matter-of-factly, a sentiment I sympathize with – I an not a notably early riser, myself.
“A transporter would be pretty handy,” I conceded.
“Only, it’s not really a transporter. It’s a Mystifier.”
I liked the sound of that, even better after you explained the etymology: “Because people would dissolve into a mist, then they are transported, and reappear like mist.”
But you weren’t done yet.
“It’s the Polka-Dotted Mistifyer, and each dot represents a place you can program it to go.”
At this pointI felt mildly guilty for already knowing about this invention you were telling me about. A concern had been voiced that your invention – more specifically, its reason for being – might be interpreted by the powers that be in charge of admissions to reflect a lack of motivation – or, at the least, an unacceptable commitment to staying in bed as long as possible – but we needn’t have worried. You don’t imagine things so much as engineer them, and whether it’s a picture you’ve drawn or a story you’re telling, there’s always a reason for everything you’ve put in the frame.
I’ve always liked that about your imagination – never reliant on someone else’s input or prompts. The stories you tell yourself unfold like a Dr. Seuss staircase, the kind that meanders up into the sky, seemingly all directions at once, with a twisting and turning, cheerfully accommodating kind of logic that is both fantastic and eminently sensical.
The conversation that followed reminded me how little we get right when we think we know the why of what children think, and say – mostly because we forget to suspend our disbelief, something that still comes as naturally to you, at age 10, as thinking itself.
“There won’t be any more airplanes so we won’t need any more gas to fly them, and the Polka-Dotted Mistifyer can be made from old airplane parts,” you explained.
“The airline pilots will do all the testing,” you added. “So they’ll still have jobs but even more fun ones.”
The thought of beta testing a transporter reminds me of a science fiction story I read – I think by Ray Bradbury – in which the narrator is the father of two, with a young son who is brilliant – the kind of math and science whiz kid that aces applications like the one you just completed. The family is in the waiting area much like an airport, but it’s for a new machine – a time travel machine. Not a Polka-Dotted Mistifyer, but close.
In the story, the father explains to his ever-curious son the history of how the time travel machine was built. He withholds some of the gruesome details of failed early versions of the machine – some really gross stuff happens to the testers, such as arriving at the destination inside-out, or drooling and unable to speak – until the inventor figures out that the transportees have to be unconscious.
Fast forward to the glorious future and people are time traveling by the thousands, with nothing more required than taking a light hit of laughing gas in Seattle in order to wake up a few seconds later in Nigeria, or the moon.
As is so often the case, telling a kid some of the truth while withholding important details didn’t work out so well. The son holds his breath during the administration of the gas so he can see what it’s like to time travel, and when the family wakes up at the destination, the kid has gone white-haired, and is quite mad, with a face gone ancient as a lizard’s, screaming “Longer than you think, dad! It’s longer than you think!” before clawing his own eyes out.
I decide not to mention the dangers of being a test pilot for the Polka-Dotted Mistifyer, at least, not until we have a working prototype.
“Will it be expensive?” I ask.
“Well, not for my family,” you say in a practical voice.
“But yes, it will have to be, because if you’re going to London, instead of twelve hours, it’s just two seconds.”
You paused. “But all the poor homeless people can go free, because after all, you only have to push a button. It’s not like I have to work more to send more people.” You nod at your own logic.
Can the whole family go together, or just one at a time? I ask.
Everything that fits into the Mistifyer can go, you say. You pause again, considering.
“You could lay all the luggage on the floor, and everyone can sit on top of it, since it’s about the size of an elevator.”
I remember in the movie The Fly (the Vincent Price version is better than the Jeff Goldblum version); the time travel machine that the scientist creates mixes up the DNA of the scientist with a fly that somehow found its way into the capsule. The scientist emerges with a fly head; weeks later, the bereaved wife hears a tiny voice in the garden; bending close to a spider web, she sees a tiny fly with her husband’s head – now very aged, screaming “Help meeeeeeee!” as the spider moves in for the kill.
Your time travel machine doesn’t evoke these fears, however — maybe because of the brand name you have chosen. Polka-Dotted inventions just sound safer, and the worst thing I can conjure is an elevator door opening to reveal people genetically jumbled up with one another and their belongings – a woman with a purse for a head, a boy with a portable dog kennel for a body, a man with a newspaper face, a stuffed animal with a little girl’s pigtails.
My teacher said that of all the inventions, mine is the one he’d buy first, you say shyly, and I have to agree – the Polka-Dotted Mistifyer is one of those ‘everyone must have’ things, for sure.
“Sign me up,” I say, and your answer is, again, a reminder of how little I understand about how much you understand.
“Sure!” you say. “But only after it’s tested.”