Encyclopedia Britannica

Encyclopedia Britannica charcoal drawing
Encyclopedia Britannica short story illustration. Charcoal drawing by author.

Encyclopedia Britannica

It is the summer before the boy enters the first grade. There are no electronics in the house other than his mother’s radio and the television set.  The television only picks up one channel, and it is too fuzzy to watch for very long. The boy spends most of his indoor time looking at the minnows he kept in a mayonnaise jar and flipping through his book.

The book is from a set of children’s science encyclopedias, the volume devoted to animals.  It was given to the boy by his kindergarten teacher Mrs. Smith as going away present for the summer.

The boy cannot read yet, but the book is filled with pictures of animals of all types.  There are pictures of crawfish and snails and minnows and other things he has caught in the ditch, but there are all these other things he has never seen before, not even on television, weird starfish and things that lived in the ocean. There all also turtles and frogs like he knew, or thought he knew, but with weird colors and bright stripes.

The boy spends hours laying in the floor of his room looking at the pictures of the strange animals, memorizing them.  That is what he is doing when Mrs. Smith’s son comes over to sell his mother a set of children’s encyclopedias.

His mother makes him come in and say hello to the strange man in the Sunday suit, but he doesn’t have to stay long.  They talk a bit about how much the boy loves Mrs. Smith and how much he loves the book she gave him, but then his mother lets him go back to his room.

The boy doesn’t go back to his room.  Instead, he takes his book into the living room and lays down on the rug beside the recliner.

He flips the book open to one of the early chapters before the chapters on dinosaurs.  It is the chapter with the pictures of the weird fishes and all the big bug things like crawfish.  The boy likes these animals even more than the dinosaurs.  They are stranger.

The boy hears his father come in and say hello to the man loud and friendly. Then they are talking about grown-up stuff, and the boy doesn’t listen anymore.

When the boy hears their voices again, they are getting loud.  The salesman has stopped trying to talk, except for saying, “Perhaps I should go” and “I should probably just go.”  But the boy’s mother doesn’t want him to give up the argument just yet.  She keeps asking his father, “Did you not hear what the man just said?”

She keeps asking him until he slaps his hand down on the table like thunder and says he damn well does.  “And I’ll tell you a little more about what I know.  If you don’t stop running up and down the road to town and spending all that money, he’ll be goin to school with the niggers this fall.  You want that?”

“Well, he says if he don’t start keeping books around him, he won’t be–”

“Awe Hell No!  He can look at them books down at the school house!  I bet you cash money they got the goddamn Encyclopedia Britannica in that library there.  You think they don’t got the Encyclopedia Britannica in the goddamn school library?”

“He don’t need the Encyclopedia Britannica.  He’s five.  It’s what he looks at now when it’s early is what counts.  Can’t you understand anything?”

“Naw! I done made my mind up.  It’ll be the goddamn Encyclopedia Britannica we’ll get one day or it won’t be nothin!”

The fight gets louder and louder, and the boy squeezes between the recliner and the wall not wanting to hear it any more or be there in the house.  He hides himself just in time because he is still tucking in his knees when the salesman leads them all into the living room.

His mother and father are following the salesman and yelling at each other.  They aren’t paying any attention to the salesman anymore.  They haven’t even noticed that he has fled toward the side door, which is locked and never used.

The salesman has his hand on the door knob but it won’t turn.  He sees the boy flattened against the wall like a rat behind the recliner.  The boy is terrified that the man has seen him.  He is afraid he will have to give the book back to him now that his parents are fighting.

But there is no time for anything like that. The boy’s father is on a roll. He has already started saying things like “and that’s what’s wrong with this world” and “I’ll tell you another thing about the goddamn Jews and the eye-talians.”

Fortunately the boy’s mother notices that the salesman is trying to get out the door, and she leads him back to the door into the carport and he is gone.

The fight continues without a pause. Now his father is back on the subject of his mother’s spending.  His mother is still trying to discuss the children’s encyclopedias, but his father has too much to say about the goddamn niggers and how they ain’t gone be learnin a goddamn thing at the Greenville high school no more and how he didn’t have any money left after the tuition for that goddamn doctor-lawyer school.

The boy is relieved when they go back into the kitchen, and he can slip back to his room.  There he hides under his bed with the book held tightly to his chest.

short story by Joe Riverson Smith