My grade school’s annual Science Fair presented me with a reality that I didn’t want to face – namely, that I had neither the interest nor the brain power to construct something as elaborate as a smoking volcano or a potato-powered clock. I wasn’t a dumb kid, but I was lazy. I was so lazy, I often borrowed my best friend’s homework so that I could copy it, not because I didn’t know how to do it but rather because the idea of doing it exhausted me. One time, my friend lost the homework that I had copied from him, so he borrowed mine, which was really his, so that he could copy it before it was to be turned in. When I saw our teacher walking down the aisle to see what we were up to, I turned away, and when the teacher saw Joe copying my homework and said, “Joe! What are you doing?” I turned toward Joe, feigned outrage, snatched back my homework, and said, “Joe! What are you doing?” So not only was I lazy, I was the worst imaginable friend, someone who would sell you down the river for a laugh.
But until seventh grade, my laziness had not registered on any of my teachers’ radars. The only person who had caught wind of it was my mother. Whenever I had a big project due, such as a portfolio on the country Colombia, I would wait until the very last moment and then, having waited, stay awake all night.
My mother, who had begun picking cotton at the age of three, left home at thirteen to take a full-time job, and had spent her work years on a factory assembly line, would look at me in horror in these instances, as though she had given birth to an actual sloth.
“Why do you do this to yourself, Johnny?” she would ask. “How long have you known about this?”
“I know,” I would say each time. “I know, I know, I know.”
“I know,” I would say, getting irritated, the already-limited time before me ticking away.
“Okay then,” my mother would say. “But you realize that you age yourself about ten years each time you do this.”
“Thanks,” I’d say.
And then my mother would wag her head and leave me alone.
But she was right. I did age. My breathing became labored as I ran out of time. The lack of sleep made my thinking muddy. I would eat an entire box of Ding Dongs and drink a dozen Diet Pepsis while I worked, only to feel intense gastronomical pain by morning. Why indeed had I done this to myself?
But none of my previous demonstrations of laziness compared to what was to come in the seventh grade. The Science Fair, which featured only seventh and eighth graders, was one of the highlights of the year, a time to wander the gymnasium after lunchbreak to witness the ingenuity of our own, and some of my classmates spent weeks, if not months, preparing their projects. They enlisted the help of their parents, who sometimes showed up to school during lunchtime to help assemble whatever insane display they had concocted. Wasn’t that cheating, I wondered. Nonetheless, there were years you might have thought the Manhattan Project was on display in the gymnasium of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Grade School, and that a mushroom cloud, produced by dozens of smoke bombs, might appear on the blacktop during recess, suggesting radioactivity. Who knew what my classmates’ were capable of?
I did not spend months on my project. I did not spend weeks. I did not spend a day or even an hour. I waited so long that the amount of time that I could dedicate to my project was the time I had remaining for my lunch hour – in short, an hour minus the time my mother spent picking me up and then dropping me off.
Instead of sacrificing time, I sacrificed food, which, likely, would have been a can of Spaghetti Oh’s. I loved Spaghetti Oh’s. I would eat all of the pasta and orange sauce, leaving the spongy but delicious meatballs for last, and then I would eat three of those at a time, hoping that the sum total of meatballs would be divisible by three, but, alas, it rarely was. But I did not eat Spaghetti Oh’s the day of the Science Fair, nor did I eat Chef Boy-r-Dee’s Beef Raviolis, another favorite, or a delicious grilled cheese sandwich. I ate nothing. And I resented it.
“Why do you do this to yourself, Johnny?” my mother asked. “How long have you known about this?”
“I know,” I said. “I know, I know, I know.”
“I know,” I said, irritated.
I had decided that morning, while sitting in my Reading class, that my project would be about the Loch Ness Monster. Did it cross my mind that the Loch Ness Monster had nothing to do with science? No, it did not. It was an animal, wasn’t it? And wasn’t an animal, whether real or imagined, some subset of Science? Why, of course it was. Wasn’t it?
And so I took some leftover clay from an art project, and I shaped it into what looked like the Loch Ness monster if the Loch Ness monster had no distinctive details whatsoever, which is to say what the Loch Ness monster would look like if it were an earthworm. Next, I typed out two paragraphs about the Loch Ness monster, which I had taken directly from a book titled The Mystery of the Loch Ness Monster by Jeanne Benedick. I placed the one-page tome in a clear plastic cover to give my presentation the air of professionalism. And then I asked my mother to give me a ride back to school.
My mother looked over my three items – the indistinct clay worm, the plagiarized history, and the unread copy of The Mystery of the Loch Ness Monster – and then she looked up at me and shook her head. Whatever hope she’d held out for me, whatever dreams she’d been banking on, all of them swirled down the drain.
“I’m going to be late,” I told her.
“I don’t understand you, Johnny,” she said.
“Me neither,” I said.
At school, inside the gymnasium, I set up my three items on one of the lunch tables. On either side of me, my classmates set up their beakers, bottles of hydrogen peroxide and vinegar, boxes of baking soda, and other assorted essential Science Fair items. When I looked down at my clay worm, I felt the depth of my laziness, but I decided not to let my own acknowledgment of failure show in my demeanor, so I sat up straight and waited for the masses to file into the gym.
As expected, most of the younger kids gathered around the smoking volcano. A few kids paused to look at my clay sculpture, only to ask, “What is it?”
I would point to the title of the book and say, “It’s the Loch Ness Monster.”
And then they would move along. I might as well have said, “It’s Millard Fillmore.” Or, “It’s a whale penis.”
One by one, the teachers who knew me stopped, examined my project, then looked up at me, as dismayed as my mother, before walking away without a word. My gym teacher and science teacher, both of whom had been athletes and enjoyed heckling kids, stopped at my display. They looked at each other, then back down at the display.
“What the hell is this?” the gym teacher asked me.
The science teacher said, “McNally, McNally, McNally. What’s going to become of you?”
And then the two of them laughed and moved on.
Shortly before the fair was to end, a young teacher stopped at my table and closely examined all that I had to offer. I didn’t know her, which led me to believe she taught first or second grade, maybe third or fourth – grades I had toiled away at other schools. I could tell she took pity on me, and that her stopping was an act of kindness.
“This is very interesting,” she said, reading the purloined description. Then she looked at my clay sculpture, as though she were in a museum, squinting and nodding. I said nothing. When she finally looked up at me, a fat boy with curly red hair and prescription glasses that darkened in the sunlight, she said, “So tell me. Do you think the Loch Ness monster really exists? Or do you think it’s a hoax?”
I could have confessed that I didn’t know jack squat about the Loch Ness monster, that I had slapped the entire project together in about thirty minutes, which should have been as obvious to her as it clearly was to everyone else who had stopped to look at it. Or I could have transcended my own laziness and relished her with long, detailed histories of Loch Ness monster sightings, describing the Scottish landscape with such description she might have thought that I had transported her to a marshy bank as a thick, ominous fog rolled over her. But I did neither. I shrugged and grunted. I made a noise that sort of sounded like “I don’t know.” And then I pushed the book toward her, the only person that day who had shown me any kindness, and said, “You want to know more? Read this.”
As soon the words left my mouth, I realized that I had screwed up.
“I mean,” I began, fumbling for what I might possibly have meant, but it was too late.
The young teacher said, “No thanks,” pursed her lips, and walked away.
Well, I thought and, calling it a day, gathered up my stuff. I took the clay tube and tossed it in the trash along with the sheet I had typed up, but I kept the book with me, carrying it to my next class so that I could have something to flip through.
That book – the very copy I took to the Science Fair that day – is next to me as I type this. On its cover is a very old drawing of the monster attacking a ship. The red words “Loch Ness Monster” look three-dimensional against the green background. The book is water-damaged, as though it had been submerged in the Great Glen itself, home to the supposed beast. I have owned the book for almost 40 years now. I’ve moved it to ten states, packing it and unpacking it each time. Published in 1976 by Xerox Education Publications, it is 128 pages long. The contents are mostly drawings, charts, and photos. The font is large.
I still haven’t read it.
John McNally is author of eight books, most recently the Young Adult novel Lord of the Ralphs and Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction. His next book, The Boy Who Really, Really Wanted to Have Sex: The Memoir of a Fat Kid, will be published in 2017; it is his first book of personal essays and will include “On Being a Lazy Fuck.” A native of Chicago’s southwest side, John divides his time between North Carolina and Louisiana, where he is Writer-in-Residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.