Old Roads, New Stories: Summer Math Quiz, by Rob Carney

Summer Math Quiz

By Rob Carney

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Old Roads, New Stories: A Literary Series

Most of my summer jobs were jobs I got from teachers. I don’t mean they hired me, and I don’t mean jobs in education. I mean that they knew the ins-and-outs from doing it themselves. Their regular salaries weren’t enough. My dad, for instance. He spent his summers at the Safeway grocery: starting as a journeyman clerk, then promoted to cashier.

It isn’t much different these days either. My wife is a fifth-grade teacher. And when she went to co-sign for my stepson’s apartment, they told her no. They had a minimum formula, and “You don’t make enough money,” they said.

Now how do you like them numbers? _______. They’re more than math.


The summer I turned 16, it was my teachers who put in the word—first, with the grocery store manager, then later with Pyrodyne American, this fireworks distribution warehouse surrounded by smells: the sewage reclamation plant for Port of Tacoma, processing pork at the Hygrade factory, the Simpson Mill pluming up sulfur whichever way the wind…

Who knew that turning trees to paper had a smell like that? _______. Like a hellhound’s barking.


I got my Hazmat Endorsement. Got insured by the company to drive. So no more stuck-in-the-warehouse; I was out on the road. I’d drive around in a flatbed, putting fireworks stands together. Or in a U-Haul, delivering fireworks to everywhere with sky: Tumwater, Bellingham, Yakima, Clarkston, Couer d’Alene, Helena, Bozeman, wherever… and always rolling into overtime—not bad: from $5.75 to $8.60 an hour. But seasonal. Just seven weeks a year.

Not that the job was easy. It wasn’t: 8×8-foot sheet-metal panels in 100+ degrees. Because late June. Because it’s Clarkston. Because you’re doing this on parking lot asphalt. And yes, there’s a downslope view of the river, but you’re dealing with gusting updrafts, with 100-pound panels and a socket wrench, and sweat and blown bits of tumbleweed burning in your eyes.

And then it’s on to Lewiston—do it again—then Pullman and Colfax—do it again—and then Spokane, and that’s today’s route—six more to go. Yes, even on Sunday.


It wasn’t my teachers who tipped me to this one: graveyard shift at Farman’s Pickles. Just for three weeks, only for the harvest rush, and then a plantwide automatic layoff.

Maybe afterward, head to Wenatchee. Maybe get there in time for the apple season. And maybe get lucky with a cannery job since indoor work pays dollars-by-the-hour, and orchard jobs? Up on a ladder, pennies-by-the-crate.


I don’t mean me, of course. I would be back in college. I mean the women beside me on the line.

Vietnam. And maybe not citizens. Though who in their right mind would think about that? _______. Their country was gone. Napalmed. Machine-gunned. Let them stay with us forever.

They slotted the jars into packing boxes, passed them through the sealer, and I would stack: 5-by-5-by-5 on a pallet for the forklift hauling them away.


A Math Quiz to Keep Up Your Skills Over Summer:

1)   Six 16 oz. jars to a box x 125 boxes = 750 lbs. at assembly-line pace; meaning,
2)   stack 1 box every 4.3 seconds ÷
3)   OSHA regulations for the prevention of lower-back injuries =
4)   The loading of boxes onto pallets is a two-person job.

And this problem too:

1)   Nine minutes’ rest after nine minutes’ stacking was too much crushing boredom,
2)   so after that first night, I always brought a book:
3)   They Shoot Canoes, Don’t They? by Patrick McManus. Funny as hell.
4)   I’d load the pallet, read a few pages, laughing my ass off on an upturned bucket,
5)   then stack again, then read again, which led to some questions in the break room:
            “You brought a book?”
            “You like to read?”
            “What’s the title?”
            “What’s it about?”
            “Well, what kind of stories?”
            “Why are they funny?”
            “Can I see it next?”
6)   So our breaks became a happiness relay.
7)   The book became a laughter baton.

Compare that math to this now:

If Trump ate a sandwich back in 1988 (or little Ivanka did, or Don Junior) what are the chances the pickles inside it were ones we helped provide? _______.


Even worse, two quotes from the Warden-in-Chief about the immigrant crisis on our border: “Disaster,” he told us (about ending family separations); “It’s like Disneyland” (letting asylum seekers keep their kids). 

By June 5th, not 40 days later, he’d had enough: No more school time, no more soccer, no more helping them with legal aid. As if learning and playing and the law are undeserved, unearned, un-something. Anyway, luxuries the for-profit Detention Camps can’t afford.


It’s the summer-heat season at the southern border. It’s hotter there than in Clarkston. Imagine this country minus cruelty. _______. Picture it minus all the hellhound-barking at the top. _______.



Rob CarneyRob Carney’s new book The Book of Sharks is available now from Black Lawrence Press. Previous books include 88 Maps, Story Problems, and Weather Report.
Read poetry by Rob Carney appearing in Terrain.org: 6th Annual Contest Finalist, 4th Annual Contest Winner, and Issue 30. And listen to a new radio interview with Rob Carney, and here’s an older radio interview.

Header photo by Yuganov Konstantin, courtesy Shutterstock.

Saltworks, by Cherene Sherrard

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.