The Old Man walked behind me and looked over my shoulder at the stack of pages filled with multiplication and long division problems I’d set in to do. I had come in from school, gone straight to the kitchen table, pulled out pencil and paper and started to work.

“I’m impressed,” he said. “Usually I know you’d have put that off until the last minute.”

“Uh,” I said.

“Here it is not even dark yet on Thursday and you’re getting your homework done,” he said.

“Uh,” I said.

“When is that due, anyway?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, “it was due today but the teacher said I could get it in tomorrow.”

He looked at the stack of papers before me.

“That seems like a lot of stuff to be due on one day,” he said. “Is that a week’s worth?”

“Well,” I admitted, “it’s actually the whole semester’s worth. We were supposed to be doing five pages a week since January, but I forgot.”

“You forgot?” he said doubtfully. “She never reminded you?”

“Seems like she might have said something once or twice a week since then,” I said. There was no point in trying to lie, I figured. He went to church with my math teacher, anyway, and I didn’t want to think about the two of them comparing stories and discovering I’d tried to cover up. My general motto had always been, “Never put off until tomorrow work that can be put off even longer than that.” Finally, it had caught up with me.

The Old Man pinched one edge of the homework stack and riffled it through with his thumb.

“That’ll keep you busy for a while,” he said. “Looks like we’ll have to go to the waterway tonight without you.”

I looked at him in amazed disappointment.

“Y’all are going tonight?” I asked.

“Yep,” he said. “We’re doing an overnight campout on the pontoon boat, fishing under the Bull Mountain bridge.”

I looked at the math papers in heartbreak, trying to calculate how many pages I’d have to finish in the next two hours to make the trip. It was obvious there was no way it was going to happen. I’d have said I could put the work off longer, but I had already admitted it was late. I was trapped. In sullen resignation, I ground away on my pages while the Old Man puttered around, making ready to leave.

Before he went out the door, he stopped by where I sat to put an exclamation point on the end of the lecture.

“Sometimes work looks like a burden,” he said. “Sometimes it looks like an opportunity. Right now it’d be hard for you to see it that way, but later on you’ll know what I mean. The thing is, the same bit of work can look like either one, depending on how you’re situated when it arrives. If you’ve put things off until there’s no chance to enjoy life, work will be a burden that falls on you every day. Keep up with things, though, and you’ll be able to enjoy it.”

“I doubt I’d ever enjoy this,” I said, staring ruefully at the unmarked pages of problems yet to be done.

“No, but it’s keeping you from an opportunity you would enjoy, though,” he said, pushing the screen door open to leave. “Next time you think about letting work pile up, think about what a little bit of laziness might cost later on.”

“I didn’t know it would cost me this,” I said.

“No, I guess you didn’t,” he said. “That’s what makes some lessons harder to forget.”

Kevin Tate is a freelance writer. Email

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