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A dad, a son, an eighth-grade science project. Stand back.

A dad, a son, an eighth-grade science project. Stand back.
Let's see, a carbon atom, or an atom of Pepto-Bismol? Or maybe something with a little more punch? (Joint Task Force One / Associated Press)

You can't see the answers because there is A.1. steak sauce all over his homework. Where his name should be, there is ketchup. Like Jackson Pollock, the little guy doesn't need to sign his work. Stylistically, it could be only his.

Hovering over this night, like a squadron of drunk and toxic wasps, is the deadline for his science project. Know how many times I have been through this? Know how many times I've been through the eighth grade?

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Well, there were my own two terms, then the stints of each of his three siblings. You'd think that by now I could assist with eighth-grade homework in my sleep, but I reserve slumber for pondering the great puzzles of our time – like whatever happened to sugar cubes, and what's with Hugh Grant's acting career? For a while, he was in everything, and now you barely see him. When I awaken from such nightmares, there is homework.

Posh is out of town for a few days, so the whole simmering pile of it falls to me. Fortunately, I embrace challenge, hug it till it hurts. In addition, I am now on my 17th cup of coffee for the day.

The biggest challenge of the night is this science project. I suggest the little guy do something on nondairy creamer and why it doesn't need to be refrigerated —  a milky liquid with a shelf life of 100 years.

"And we drink that stuff," I say.

"I don't," the little guy notes.

"Good for you," I say, "because once you start…"

The little guy points out that the assignment is actually for a 3-D rendering of an atom. I explain that I see life in just two dimensions: taste and temperature.

"Sure wish Mom were here," he says.

"Who?"

"Mom," he says.

It's already been a long day. Turns out that Posh gets up at 5:30 a.m. to get him off to school, leaving the house by 6:30, when it's still dark and the only people awake are doughnut makers and vice cops.

So I started the day a little angry. As you probably know, there are five traditional Irish toxins: anger, ennui, liquor, lust and languor. By 7 a.m., I'd already nailed four of them.

Now it's 12 hours later. Somehow, dinner happened, though Posh refuses to keep minced garlic in the fridge, requiring me to chop garlic with hard and powerful hands never intended for delicate work.

There are five traditional Irish toxins: anger, ennui, liquor, lust and languor. By 7 a.m., I’d already nailed four of them.


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Takes me two hours to make turkey tacos because Posh also doesn't believe in prepackaged taco mix. In short, I'm doing two projects at once: the 3-D atom and the turkey tacos.

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By 8 p.m., we still haven't decided which atom to render. The little guy insists on an atom of Pepto-Bismol, because "how cool would that look…all pink and everything?"

I explain that Pepto-Bismol is not really an atom, it's closer to a beverage or —  in our family —  an apeirtif. I prefer carbon atoms anyway, since they are very simple and require fewer foam balls to render.

On a fixed income, there are only so many foam balls I can afford.

"How about tin?" he says.

"Too many balls," I say.

"I wish Mom were here," he says again.

"Who?"

We are now at that point where we are trolling the Internet for original and striking science projects. I assure you that everyone in his class, and probably every eighth-grader in America, is at that moment trolling the Internet for original ideas.

Soon, we are asking Siri for help.

"Hey, Siri, how many neutrons in a carbon atom?"

"Hey, Siri, where does Posh hide the extra paper towels?"

Half an hour ago, we ran out of paper towels. Posh has been gone one day and we've already had to crack open the earthquake kit for Zoloft and nondairy creamer.

"Are you mad, Dad?" the little guy asks when we can't seem to find a project we can steal.

"Anger never solved anything," I lie.

Finally, on our own, we arrive at a baseball theme. An old batting helmet will represent the carbon atom's nucleus, which will be surrounded by baseballs representing neutrons —  or is it electrons? I'm not sure.

Overseeing all of it will be an image of Derek Jeter, who will represent heart, pluck, perseverance and God himself. To my mind, without divine intervention, this celestial-themed project, with hints of Catholicism and Michelangelo, may never be done by 6:30 in the morning.

"Game on!" I yell. "Hey, buddy, we're almost done!"

"Hey, buddy?"

Einstein is fast asleep.

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