(for a kid named Nicholas... and all the others)
The whiteness expands, obliterating everything around it. He has, of course, seen toilet paper before—hundreds of times by now—but for some reason, today, every scattered flicker of his 5-year-old subconscious has collected into a single toilet-paper-focused spotlight. He stands transfixed for several moments until his mother’s voice through the wall spins his head away from the reverie.
“Junior! Time to eat!”
He finishes his toilet quickly. Climbs up onto the battered plastic step to reach the faucet and wash his hands.
Today is Fun Food Friday, and his mom is making his favorite: stuffed hot dogs. This consists of franks split lengthwise and piled full of instant mashed potatoes with shredded cheese on top that becomes browned and bubbly under the toaster oven’s broiler. He can smell it all through the door—the apartment is small, and the bathroom butts up against the kitchen. Yet and Still and Despite All of This, he is drawn again to the glow of the toilet paper after drying his hands.
Junior reaches out and strokes the dangling end of the roll between his thumb and forefinger. It is a ragged single ply left separated from its other layer by whomever last visited. The toilet paper his mother buys never tears in straight lines the way it magically does in some other places he has been. Rather than being comprised of uniform squares, this kind seems to be one ceaseless white sheet stretching uninterrupted for all of eternity. To make use of it, you had to breach it violently, hence the ragged end.
The lone ply of paper feels rough between his fingers, its exposed surface being one of tiny braille-like dots that, combined with the matching dots on the other ply, presumably serve to hold the two surfaces together. Junior reaches out with his other hand, severs a shapeless leaf of the paper and, with No Further Ado or Preamble, places it directly into his mouth. Once there, it withers instantly into a soft wad that manages to be both saturated and dry at the same time. With the tip of his tongue, he pushes the wad back between his baby-teeth molars, gives it a few pleasurable chews, and ends the strange encounter with a satisfying swallow.
“Coming, Ma!” he calls. His voice reaches her easily through the thin wall. He tears another leaf from the roll and pushes it into his pocket. For later.
Numbers and dollar signs move instinctively through Joyce’s brain as she cooks, using only as much as is necessary for the meal. Save X amount of money here. Multiply the food. Carry the one. Always figuring ahead. She has measured the dried potato flakes and set them aside while the water seeks its boil. A little butter, a bit of milk, some seasoning. Cheese that she grates by hand rather than buying the shredded kind. In this way, a less than $2 pack of hot dogs can go farther and taste like love instead of struggle.
Upon completion, she neatly arranges the hot dogs onto the teacup saucers from her dish set because she has read that using a smaller plate makes the amount of food seem more substantial.
“Junior! Time to eat!” she calls, recognizing that she needn’t have yelled when she hears the toilet flush.
She moves quickly to the living room to set up tray tables in front of the sofa. There is still time to retrieve the food and utensils before he calls back, “Coming, Ma!” She notices this delay and a miniscule integer of concern enters her mind’s ciphering. He was sick the other day. Bathroom sick. It seemed as if it was over, though. Maybe just a passing bug.
He emerges and she confirms that he is okay, sees to it that he is comfortable. Food and some juice. “Paw Patrol” on the TV. He wiggle-dances as he eats, and the unconscious display of gratitude swells her heart. She quickly closes up shop in the kitchen, rinsing things and wiping the countertop, so that she can sit down and join him in their Friday ritual: as much “Paw Patrol” and “SpongeBob SquarePants” as he wants until he falls asleep, at which point she watches DVR’d episodes of “Scandal” and “Real Housewives of Atlanta.”
She tries not to follow his lead and doze off because to do so would deprive him of his bed. Some nights he complains when she wakes him to brush his teeth while she sets up the pull-out. “I can just sleep where I was,” he says, but she doesn’t want Not Sleeping in a Bed to become normal for him. She didn’t even want sleeping in a living room to become normal.
As he slumbers, she rubs the small bare foot lolling near her leg and shifts numbers around in her head for the umpteenth time. Finish the certification in the fall, apply for the new job, and a 5% raise would be enough to put a two-bedroom apartment in her reach in this same building. If nothing popped up or went wrong, an additional 10% could actually get her out of this district. Or the real dream: 15% or more. Whoosh…she could skate clean out of this shit city on that.
As women bicker on the unwatched screen before her, she muses about future amenities. A bathroom with a tub instead of just a shower. Pest control. Working elevators. When did basics become luxuries? A washer and dryer inside the apartment. She stacks her wishes methodically, like bricks, until the rhythm of the exercise lulls her to sleep.
There are women arguing somewhere near him, and the world is on fire. The flames are engulfing his neck and his face and his nose, but a wrenching pain in his stomach keeps him paralyzed. The various regions of his body are at war. Overwhelmed, his mind strokes his forehead and covers his eyes, presses him further into slumber. For protection. In moments, though, his extremities retaliate, lurching his entire body into a stiff bridge then sending his limbs flailing in the throes of a private earthquake. The jostling bolts his mother awake and on sheer terrified instinct she snatches him upright. His throat unlocks immediately, and he covers her with vomit. He is unsure which of them is screaming.
She cannot close her eyes without the image of his small body choking itself to death replaying on the screens of her eyelids. She has no recollection of the time between the sofa and the hospital. Was there an ambulance? Did she drive them there? If so, where did she leave the car? She is delirious from lack of sleep but to close her eyes is to witness it again. And again.
He looks so tiny and frail on the bed and similarly exhausted though he is thirty years her junior. She strokes his tender arm with one finger, just below the gauze and needle and tubing. Above her, the IV bag drip-drips the life back into her son. Despite herself, she is counting the droplets, wondering how high the number will go.
When he opens his eyes, he doesn’t know where he is, but he isn’t alarmed because he hears his mother’s voice close by.
“…but he seemed fine yesterday,” she is saying. “He went to school. There was a whole day where he was fine.”
“If it were a virus or…the flu…that would be harder to reconcile with what you’re describing. But you should be glad, Miss Wilkins…it could be a lot worse diagnosis. So I’ll get you set up with this antibiotic and some instructions for the next couple of days and we’ll go ahead and discharge him after he finishes these fluids.”
There is a moment of silence.
“Unless you have any other questions…?”
“…Mrs.,” she says.
“I’m Mrs. Wilkins,” she says resolutely. “You’re not unmarried just because your husband dies.”
From her seat on the closed toilet, she becomes aware of the silence in the apartment. Junior isn’t running around. The television isn’t on. No music is playing. The only sound has been her crying, which she has muffled in case Junior wakes up. She reaches to tear off another ragged length of toilet paper, rolling it back a bit first. She blows her nose on the rough little swatch, rises, and re-routes her thoughts to the present. She should rouse Junior soon and get him to eat so he can take the medicine.
He will hate it. She knows this. No bubble gum pink coloring or orange-grape-cherry-berry-punch flavor has ever made this process go easily. Thick liquids always repulse him. She sets out to make a pitcher of Kool-Aid to help the medicine go down. All sugar. No nutrition. It’s a treat she offers rarely, a remnant from when his father was alive. He likes the blue one best.
She empties a single packet into the ancient Tupperware and turns the faucet handle. The tap issues a liquid tinged with color, as if the Kool-Aid were already made. Orange flavor.
This is the latest insult. She stacks another imaginary brick—clean tap water—onto her pile of dreams and begins the recently-developed routine of Waiting for the Water to Run Clear.
Fifteen percent, she muses as she extracts the bag of sugar from the refrigerator. That’s what she needs. With 15% more money, she could move to Troy, which isn’t even that far away. She fishes a large plastic spoon from the drawer. And if she really wants to get gone, fifteen percent would even be enough for Grand Rapids.
The spoon disrupts the clotted surface of the sugar, sending it scattering into startled clumps. Ann Arbor was probably pushing it, though. Probably need 20% for that. She drops sugar into the pitcher and a powdery cloud of scent rushes upwards from its depths. Either way, the dream is leaving Flint.
She inserts the pitcher under the faucet stream and, with a sigh, watches the dark powder stain the innocent sugar a deep inky shade. It occurs to her that none of this is Junior’s fault. Furthermore, it’s not even real Kool-Aid—it’s knock-off Kool-Aid that only cost one dollar for ten whole packs. She stops counting for the moment, grabs another packet and empties it into the container. For her son, who deserves to smile.
(Flint, MI) Seemingly out of nowhere, nine-year-old Nicholas Carr will become violently ill. His stomach will hurt and then he will vomit.
“The doctors said it’s not a virus, it’s not the flu,” said his mother Anika Anderson. “It’s never happened before.” Anderson blames it on Flint’s contaminated drinking water. She says this never happened before the city changed the source of its drinking water to the Flint River—before lead leached into the water supply. …Carr has had to miss numerous days of school when he is ill. But some days he is forced to go to school when he’s sick. “There are some days I can’t miss work,” Anderson said. “It makes me feel like a bad mother because I have had to send my son to school when he is sick, but I can’t miss another day of work.” –Dominic Adams, MLive.com (https://www.mlive.com/news/page/still_standing_flint_residents.html)
Jan Miles worked as a children’s book editor for several years. Her first book-length adult nonfiction volume, The Post-Racial Negro Green Book, is an examination of contemporary racial bias against African Americans. She is currently working on a second edition of this book as well as her first novel.