art by Jonathan Westbrook
All or Nothing
by Nancy Fulda
Zero: the arithmetical symbol denoting the absence of all magnitude or quantity--symbol 0, first conceived and manipulated as an actual number in India c. 458 AD
"Tommy G. Jenkins, you ain't never gonna amount to nothing!"
Edna Peterson stood with her hands on her skirt and her feet planted in the dark, rumpled soil of the rutabaga patch. Her eyes scrunched into an expression of righteous fury exclusively reserved for seven-year-old girls. "You ain't never gonna win the lottery, and you ain't never gonna be president… you're just a big ol' stupid zero!"
Tommy jumped back as if he'd just gotten zapped by the electric fence at Crazy Fitzwilliam's place. A patch of dry grass caught his foot and he landed with a thump in the dirt.
He hadn't meant no harm. Granted, he'd just yanked on Edna's pigtail, and two days earlier he'd put a toad in her lunch box, so maybe she had a right to be mad. Mostly, he just liked watching her freckles move when she wrinkled her nose.
Folks said later he was born that way, but Tommy knew it started right then, between the footpath and the rutabagas, with Tommy on his rump and Edna stamping her foot and the hot June sun making her hair almost too bright to look at.
After that day, he couldn't hang on to two coins if he glued them inside his pocket. He never scored at dodge ball, and Miss Marcie got so used to marking his quizzes "0" that she stopped checking his answers. He hated school. But sometimes, when he had his head bent so far over his worksheet that his hair brushed his pencil, he caught Edna peeking at him with a little worried furrow between her eyebrows, like maybe she felt a bit sorry for what she'd said.
Three years later when the other boys started playing baseball, Tommy Jenkins borrowed his Dad's beat-up saw and cut scrap wood into building blocks. He built towers so high he had to stand on a chair to reach the top, with arches and buttresses and entire platforms spanning the length of the kitchen. "It won't fall down unless you push on it," he told Edna when her mother sent her over to borrow a cup of sugar. "All the forces are in equilibrium."
Edna scratched her elbow and didn't want to admit that she didn't know what "equilibrium" meant. She edged out the doorway without saying anything.
The bullies were a problem. Tommy was scrawny, and he wasn't good at sports. His striped cotton shirts ended every day smeared with dirt, and sometimes with other things.
"About that day by the rutabagas," Edna said when she knelt to help him pick his pencils out of a mud puddle. She checked to be sure the bullies were gone and used both hands to tuck her hair behind her ears. "I didn't mean it the way it turned out. I'm really sorry."
Tommy gave a shy smile. But her apology didn't change anything.
By the time they were twelve the whole town knew Tommy Jenkins was a Good-for-Nothing. He'd flunked out of every grade at school, and the only reason his teachers kept passing him to the next class was because nobody wanted to have to face his mother if they didn't. His Grandma stopped sending him birthday money after he misplaced the check for the sixth year in a row. And the one time he tried to run a paper route the Sunday Specials all ended up on the porches of people who hadn't ordered them. His parents resigned themselves to having Tommy live at home forever.
Then Edna turned fifteen and got a crush on Robbie Waterford, and Tom Jenkins realized a couple of things he hadn't before.
He stopped coming to school.
He borrowed more tools from his Dad and gutted a broken sewing machine and hammered and yelped and thumped and swore all winter long in the little empty room in his parents' basement. And on Edna's sixteenth birthday he brought her a perpetual motion machine. It was perfect. And it was beautiful; a frictionless assembly of water and metalwork that click-clacked on the dresser in her bedroom for years.
She liked it.
But she still started dating Robbie Waterford.