The Idea Jar
                Fiction by Fraser Sutherland

      “I have a dream....”
      Noah slapped the buzzer.
      “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on August 28, 1963, in Washington, D.C.”
      “That is correct! Now, for 25 bonus points,
can you complete the
      “I have a dream . . . that this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning
of its creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created
      That put Noah’s team 85 points ahead.  They advanced to the finals.
      “That’s one bright youngster you got,” the grinning host of
Superkids told
Noah’s parents.  The contestants, teachers, and parents were shaking hands for
the cameras.
      “We know,” assented Noah’s mother, a well-groomed librarian in her
thirties.  Her husband Jim, a purchaser with a printing company, smiled politely.  
At the start they had been doubtful about throwing Noah into intense
competition: the extra coaching, the pressures of TV, the teams of “exceptional”
kids, child prodigies, fighting it out for a huge cash prize.  That the prize would
go to a charity of the winning team’s choice only added a synthetic, public
relations gloss.  They promised each other that if Noah showed the least signs
of nervous anxiety—nightmares, insomnia—they’d pull him out.
      But he didn’t.  He seemed to enjoy it.  The coach had assigned Modern
History (1800 to the Present) to him as his specialty but he’d leap for other
questions.  Jim and Meredith were pleased to discover that he hadn’t grown
conceited.  Even his clever teammates were a little awed by him, but not
resentful.  They could have been: nine years old, he was the youngest.  Did
people at home think he was a freak?  That the show was fixed?  Whatever,
the ratings were good.  And Jim and Meredith had to admit that it was exciting.
      “So, Noah, you like all this?” Jim asked his son.  Celebrating, the three of
them were eating fried chicken and French fries.  Noah’s taste in food was
normal enough, thank God.
      “Sure, it’s neat,” Noah said, smearing ketchup.  “But even if I didn’t like it,
we couldn’t back out now, could we?”
      Jim and Meredith exchanged glances.  Noah was right.  As he almost
always was.

      Every two weeks Meredith had to work on a Saturday, and this was one
of them.  Jim had been out of town on a buying trip and wouldn’t be back till
evening.  She felt a little uncertain about leaving Noah alone.
      “You going to be all right, sweetheart?  What are you going to do all day?”
      “I don’t know.  It’s a problem,” Noah said thoughtfully.  Sometimes he
could be so serious!
      There was no point in suggesting homework: he’d done it.  Likewise, prep
for the next round of
Superkids.  Anyway, a child should have some carefree
time.  She tried to think of someone he could play with.  The trouble was, he
had no real pal.  When she and Jim became aware that they had a gifted child
on their hands, a psychologist had warned them that a child like Noah might
feel lonely, isolated.
      Noah broke into her thoughts.  “I know! I’ll get my idea jar.”
      “What’s that?”
      “Well, I know that sometimes I’ll get bored so I write down ideas on little
pieces of paper about what to do.  Then I put them in the jar.  So when I don’t
know what to do I just look in the jar.”
      Here was more proof how self-reliant, how organized, he could be.  He’d
never been a listless, cranky kid wandering around the house whining, “What
am I gonna do, what am I gonna do?”  Everyone at the library said he was a gem.
      “Okay.”  She ruffled his hair.  “I guess the jar will come up with something.”
      After his mother had left, Noah went to his room and shook out the jar, the
slips of paper fluttering.  He picked them up one by one.
      Turn on the TV and watch it for exactly half an hour.  Don’t leave
the room, don’t change channels even if there’s interference.
      Capture a kitten, torture and kill it.
      Bake peanut butter cookies.
      See if there’s some easy way to tinker with the steering on Dad’s car.
      Whistle the opening bars of Lohengrin until you get it right.
      Throw out something that mom and dad use every day.  Hair dryer?
      Buy a bag of sour cream ripple potato chips.  Keep looking till you find
it even if you have to go downtown.
      Phone three numbers at random from the book and (deepen your
voice) say there’s a parcel waiting at Postal Station “E.”
      How many dogs are there in the neighbourhood?  Do a census.
      The ideas were getting depleted.  He tore off a strip of paper from a sheet
and wrote:
      Make up some more ideas for the jar.
      There was nothing here that he wanted to do.  He put the pieces of paper
back in the jar.  Now that he’d passed on these, would the same thing happen
each time he looked, the ideas getting staler and staler?
      He stared out the window at the park across the street.  It was a warm
sunny day in early fall, the leaves starting to turn.  Far off, children were
swaying on the swings, and others played king-of-the-mountain on a hillock of
sand.  Two people were having a picnic on the grass.  A teenage girl cycled
along the circular path, her long brown hair tied with a bright ribbon.  Noah
watched her.  Then an idea filled his mind:
      Make her fall off.
      Astonishingly, she did.  Gliding around a curve, the girl suddenly tumbled
on the grass.  She sat up, shaking her head and staring at the bicycle a few feet
      Noah was excited.  This had never happened before.  He wondered if it
was connected with the idea jar.
      Impatient to learn more, he crossed to the park.  As if blaming the park,
the girl had pedalled down the street.  Anyway, it was better to try someone
else.  He also wanted to test whether he needed to be in the house.
      He watched the children on the swing, the picnic pair.  They seemed
unpromising.  He strolled the path that rimmed the park, passing an old couple
sitting on a bench.  They looked bored and discontented.  They weren’t even
feeding the squirrels or pigeons.  Noah tried not to stare at them.
      Make the old man get up.
      The old man clambered to his feet.  He looked surprised.
      “What’s the matter with you?” snapped the woman.  “You got ants in
your pants?”
      For a moment, her companion seemed at a loss.  Then he recovered
      “God A’mighty, if a man can’t stretch his legs after sittin’ around for
      Another coincidence?  Unlikely.  Noah walked several hundred feet
past them.  He looked back and saw that the old man had resumed his seat.
      Make the old woman get up.
      He saw the small female figure rise.  It was too far away to hear what
they were saying, but they seemed agitated.
      Noah went to a movie that afternoon, but he couldn’t keep his mind on
it.  His mother came home and made baked ham with pineapple slices.
      Jim was back in time to carve the ham.  “Well, Noah, did you find any
good ideas in the jar?”  Meredith had told him about it.
      “Not really,” said Noah, his mouth full.  “I think I’m not going to use the
jar much any more.”
      His parents laughed.

      In the next few weeks, Noah learned the limits of his power.  In a way it
was reassuring that there
were limits.  Although he didn’t need the money, he
tried—and failed—to materialize a $20 bill.  He attempted to make their next-
door neighbour’s dog, a Heinz 57, scratch one ear and then the other.  But
that didn’t work either.
      The school offered a wider compass for his experiments.  When
everyone settled down about 10 a.m., he willed that the fire alarm go off.  But
nothing happened.  It was now obvious that he could not create something
from nothing there had to be a human intermediary.  This was decisively
proved at lunch-break.
      He had turned a corner in the corridor when he saw Debbie, a
classmate, heading toward a row of lockers.  No one else was around.
      Make her switch on the fire alarm.
      Debbie reached out, grabbed the red-painted handle, and pulled.  
Instantly, a siren wailed.  She gasped, then saw Noah.  For a moment, she
stood open-mouthed, then raced down the hall.
      The students had done fire drill before.  Even as they trooped out the
nearest exit, they sensed that it was a false alarm.  Firemen roared up,
checked out the building, then climbed aboard their trucks to leave.  For
the kids the big regret was that the alarm hadn’t gone off during class.  Either
the alarm system had malfunctioned or someone was having fun.  Most of
the kids could think of a candidate.
      When school got out at three, Debbie hurried up to Noah.  He had
noticed her all afternoon looking pale and worried.
      “I didn’t mean to do it, I just couldn’t help myself,” she told him.  
“Please, please, don’t tell anybody.”
      He promised he wouldn’t.
      Afraid of wasting his strength, Noah made no one walk blindly into
traffic, though he almost had the principal’s secretary, a tiresomely officious
type, walk backward down the corridor.  The power was there, to be
respected and used sparingly.  He wasn’t interested in girls right now but in
a few years maybe he’d want a girl to kiss him.  She’d do it.

      Everyone except Noah was getting tense about the last
show.  The team had already exhausted the World Almanac, and, based on
his study of past patterns, the coach was taking his team through a long list
of obscure questions.  Mainly, it was a way of testing reflexes.  Noah only
missed one question, and that was because he’d been thinking of making
something happen.
      “Sorry.  I wasn’t paying attention,” Noah said.
got to,” said the teacher, a balding bachelor in elbow-
patched tweeds.  “You’ve got to be
up all the time.”
      He looked worried.  He knew better than anyone that Noah was
indispensable.  Noah nodded.
      Make him sing a song.
      The coach began to half-roar, half-chant:

                He’s got eyes of blue
                I never cared for eyes of blue
                But he’s got eyes of blue
                And that’s my weakness now!

      Noah kept a straight face, but the others giggled.  The coach said,
“Oh, God, I’m cracking up.  Let’s call it a day.  Here tomorrow, same time.”
      In the two weeks remaining till the final, Noah didn’t use his power.  
Whether that made it stronger he didn’t know.  He had a notion that he was
going to make something happen during
      By the time Jim, Meredith, and Noah arrived the coach was in a frenzy
lest his star fail to appear.  Actually, they were early.  Everyone was too
polite; there was much fidgety handshaking and well-wishing.  Either the
Hospital for Sick Children or the Association for Children with Learning
Disabilities (the choice of Noah’s team) would get a big cheque.
      The little red light above the camera winked.  They were on the air.  
Through thick glass, Jim and Meredith watched their son perform.
      The competition was tight.  Noah answered his share of questions, and
his teammates kept pace.  But the other team was brilliant, too; it had on its
side both a computer wizard and a geography whiz with prodigious recall.  
With a few seconds to go, Noah’s team was ahead—but only just.
      “Okay, teams,” said the host, leaning forward.  “You’re only 15 points
apart.  And we’re going into a free-for-all.  
For 25 points, could anyone
answer this question?  What is the origin of the cheer
      Everyone frantically exchanged glances, desperately willing that the other
speak.  Although it was hardly Modern History, Noah knew the answer.  He
looked at the buzzer near his hand, and at the opposing team.  No one else
knew, he could tell.  The overweight kid at the end—he hadn’t answered a
question all night.  Noah looked at him.
      Hip-hip-hip-hip hooray was a war cry the ancient Britons used to
defy the Roman invaders!
      The fat boy had blurted it.  His teammates looked at him, amazed.
      “That is correct!” the host cried out jubilantly.
      “And our time is up.  Great stuff, Glendale Superkids!  And Lightbourne
Superkids, what a battle you put up—leading till the last few seconds!  But
only one team can win.  And of course the good people down at the Hospital
for Sick Children, who’ll be getting a handsome cheque, you’re winners, too.
Congratulations everyone!  You’re all Superkids!”
      Theme music, uproar.  Noah’s coach, putting up a brave front, hugged
his team, shook hands vigorously with his rival.  Jim and Meredith embraced
      “You’re not too disappointed, are you?” Meredith asked.  It was a
question she was asking herself.
      “No, Mom, it’s only a game,” Noah said.
      “You’re the best,” his father said.
      Everyone—teams, parents, teachers, the show’s host and producer—
were rounded up by a couple of publicity people and taken off for dinner.  
All except the kid who’d won the contest for his team: he’d collapsed and
was now home in bed.
      They were tucking into sundaes and banana splits when Noah noticed
a black busboy struggling past their table, hugging to himself a huge plastic
carton of dirty dishes.
      Noah followed him with his eyes.
      By now, the busboy had reached the swinging door to the kitchen, the
dishes still tight against his chest.
      Make him drop the dishes.
      There was no sound of a crash.  There was nothing.  The busboy
vanished into the kitchen.
      Noah looked thoughtful.  But what was in his mind Jim and Meredith
couldn’t tell.


Fraser Sutherland is a Canadian writer who has published 14 books: nine
poetry, one short fiction, five nonfiction.

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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of Contemporary

ISSN 1931-3888

Volume 2, Number 2
(Fall 2007)

Copyright © 2007
by Leah Browning, Editor.  

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Valley Review
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