A story about a young man who would like to be left alone to write but must instead care for his ill sister.
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John woke, as he did all days, to a room covered in bare cement walls, a writing desk, chair, and a dresser. He lived alone but for his sick younger sister. Outside of his work and his writing, she was his constant concern. His parents had died some years earlier and he had inherited the burden of her sickness. On those days in which she was clear headed and coherent, John would be reminded of their lengthy childhood spent among trips to the country and plentiful Christmases; however, all this joy had come at an invisible cost to the children—a meagre inheritance.
John’s sister was not feeling well on this particular day. She was feverish and would need his constant attention. He exhaled and moved to the dresser to get dressed for the day. On the top shelf of his dresser was a service revolver and two medals which had been passed down to him from his father, who had enlisted as a volunteer in the War before the draft and shown bravery above and beyond the call of duty. John thought the medals ugly. He had only ever once meant to fire the revolver, but it had not been loaded. John’s hands had shaken too fiercely to attempt the shot again. John had also given service, though he had been drafted. “It is sometimes necessary to fight for one’s freedom,” his father had proudly said. He too had received medals but he thought them just as ugly and–unlike his father–had not once worn them. He could remember one thing and one thing only of the war (the rest he had put away): in the moments he had been left alone to write, he was happy.
John shut the dresser’s doors contemptuously and moved towards the kitchen. John’s sister was still sleeping and would need her breakfast immediately upon waking or else he would have to deal with her extreme, though only imagined, nausea. John opened the refrigerator to find there were no apples and no milk. John’s sister would need both of these things. “wretched,” he thought about nothing in particular and everything all at once. Additionally, there was no bread for dry toast and there were no longer any soda crackers for her mid-morning snack.
He would need to run to the grocer’s and purchase these things and return all before his sister’s waking. He would not write the list down as every scrap of paper in the small apartment was being dedicated to his novel, “Solus”. He could not afford to purchase paper for the things he could as easily commit to memory. As he grabbed his coat he began to repeat his list of priorities: apples, milk, bread, crackers. It was a simple enough list, but each item was essential or else all the other items would be useless and John’s sister would be as sick as if he had completely forgotten.
John left the apartment, nearly forgetting to lock the door. The brief moment he spent fumbling for his keys left him open to his neighbour, Mrs. Finkel. She would undoubtedly want to speak to him about nothing of importance. He took great pains on a number of occasions not to have to endure her pleasantries. He had more important things to worry about. He worked far too long so he could afford his survival. He didn’t need his valuable time eaten up by this vulture, who probably thought he was lonely and in need of conversation!
“Good morning,” She said in a far-too-chipper tone.
John smiled thinly and said quite briskly, “I am terribly sorry my dear Mrs. Finkel, but I must be off to the grocer’s in quite a hurry.” She would regard this as rude, there was no doubt. It did not matter that this hurry was to avoid the nausea of a young girl who had been barred from enjoying the fruits of her flowering beauty. She made an indeterminate sort of noise and entered her apartment. John waited for the door to close completely and broke into a near-run down the hallway.
The weather had remained the exact same from the day before. It was as dim and grey as the walls of his room. John did not mind this except that the cold that came along with this disposition necessitated a coat. This was one more expense, but of course it was entirely up to him to purchase one or not. Still, no respectable man walked around without a coat. “apples, milk, bread, crackers,” he repeated in his head.
“apples, milk, bread, cra…” he nearly finished the list again when he noticed a certain dampness in his feet. He looked down to see that he had forgotten to put his shoes on. His socks were a pale black colour and were tearing at the seams from wear. People on the street would think him a madman. They would refuse to meet his gaze. John knew it, he just knew it. They would hide their children and hold their women more tightly. A man needs a pair of shoes if he is to live among respectable people. John considered returning to his apartment, but then Mrs. Finkel would think him a liar or else a fool for returning for the reason he was returning. He could endure no more insults unsaid from that or any other woman.
He would carry on and complete his mission. He would feed his sister, and then he would lock himself in his room and go undisturbed until his sister required her medicine. “apples, milk, bread, crackers,” he thought, “Nothing will deter me.” Though his steps were slightly ginger, he moved with intent. It was only three blocks to the grocer’s and he meant to accomplish his task. He crossed one block without any further interruption, but then a sight most foul emerged on the horizon. Not half a block away were carollers preaching Christian love and charity. Did they not know that those who walked these streets had nothing to give? He was disgusted at their ignorance. “There are few things more loathsome,” he contemplated “than those who preach to the poor about the poor.” He thought it would be far more useful for such carollers to ask the goodly occupants of this street to place a list of tasks in their donation box, so that a woman decked in pearls and gold somewhere might have to do them.
The sidewalk was narrow and there was little alternative but to run like a mad dog straight into oncoming traffic. It would be necessary to face the carollers head on. He considered merely showing the carollers his dirty socks and speaking nonsense. Then maybe they would understand. This bit of mischief brought a smile to John’s face; a grave mistake. The carollers did not look at John’s feet and were instead won over by his warm smile. As he walked to them, their hideous song crowded him with requests and pleas on behalf of the needy and the poor.
John wanted to show them his monthly expenses. He wanted to say, “Look! Don’t you see? I am a poor man who no one will leave alone! Not only have I no money, but I have no time either.” What he said instead was, “of course,” and withdrew a nickel from his pocket, which he could well afford to give and placed it in the donation box. He moved swiftly past them all. He would not linger long enough to see their reactions to his nominal donation. He had a simple task and he would accomplish it.
“Apples, milk, bread, crackers,” it was amazing he remembered the list at all with all these distractions. The grocer’s was in sight, however, and he saw no more obstacles in his way. As he made his way to the entrance, he noticed a ride for children; which, for a nickel, would offer minute-long amusement to any child with lungs large enough or eyes wide enough to extort the pleasure from their parents. He paused a brief moment and watched with envy as a care-free child laughed at the world. He may as well have been king, though his laugh was both freer and more sincere than a king’s.
The ride ended and the child’s mother hurried the boy along. After all, she had brought the child there for a reason. She too had a special mission, an essential task, which needed doing. John cursed himself for his momentary pause, as it had caused his socks to absorb the moisture beneath his feet and become heavy with the undignified street water. This was very uncomfortable and John could not afford to catch cold. There was too much to be done.He moved into the store and grabbed one of the tired old baskets. “apples, milk, bread, crackers,” he repeated in a lacklustre voice.
He moved to where the apples had always been. There, in place of the apples was a sign which read “New and Improved Apples”. The sign went on to list the benefits of this “new and improved” apple along with the commandment to “be better to yourself”. The apples were a strange shade of green and red and looked nearly fake. John knew his sister would never eat these. She was not accustomed to new things; her general condition made experimentation a risky thing. John hissed at this needless innovation and spent precious minutes searching for where the Old and Worse Apples had been moved. He found them and placed an ample number in the basket.
John moved to where he expected the milk to be. There, instead of the regular glass bottles of milk, sat “New and Improved Plastic Containers.” The sign went on to list the benefits of this new method of packaging and finished with an instruction to “do your part.” John had grown sick from all these recommendations, orders, injunctions, pleas, and instructions. He just wanted to be left alone so he could purchase groceries, so he could be alone again!
John came very close to picking up each and every milk carton, dropping each of them on the floor and individually stepping on each of them until all of the newness and improvement became just one more sorry puddle on the ground. John fantasized about this until he remembered that his feet were soggy enough. This made John furious and he moved towards the bread and the crackers with the agility of a man screaming for help on a deserted island. Finally, he made his way to the cash register where there was an unusually long line up.
In front of the register were a series of items he couldn’t in a million years ever need. He resented these because they seemed to reaffirm the hold on this world that those with money to spare had. After too long a time, he advanced to the front of the line. The cashier was a young girl with a kind, but largely apathetic look on her face. She began with a chipper, “Hello,” and moved to a “would you like to donate just a portion of your groceries today to your local church food bank?” Each item of the list was absolutely necessary. No one even began to attempt to understand his situation. He could not handle much more of this.
In a rather uneven tone, John responded, “no, not today.”
The young lady glanced down at his feet, saw his soaked and torn socks, looked up and nodded a nod of understanding. John followed her eyes as she did this. As her head completed this subtle societal waltz, he could take no more. “That’s it! You look at my socks and judge me to be some sort of madman or rabble. You decide this is enough to exempt me from any expectation of a food donation as if my free will were not enough. You tell me of all the good things there are for me without once asking what it is I want.” He was no longer looking at the cashier. With his first angry words, he had put her in a frozen state of shock. He was addressing the world now. “You ask me for money as if I had money to give and condescend if I do not. I just want to be left alone to write in peace. You will talk to me all about the weather and the television all carefully ignoring how my sister is doing. You do not request any details of my military service which I served for you and not myself because I could not care less if our country is occupied by one government or another. You, who purchase things in front of the cash register because you can. I am a human being and you crowd me like vultures. I am a human being!”
There was a stunned moment of silence all across the store as all eyes fell upon him, half in wonder half in accusation. What was it this shoeless man was talking about? Was he calling me a vulture? Such questions made the air in the grocer’s thick. The woman with the child spoke in a quiet and calm voice, “You speak as if you care how your own sister was doing, but if you did you would not keep her shut in her room alone, away from the world like you do, preferring the company of your dead paper and dying ink to your own flesh and blood! The world has no time for little boys who want to be left on their rides. You speak of the war as if you served for anyone at all, but you were dragged like a corpse. Perhaps you are a human being, but perhaps not.”
All eyes were on him as the words settled into the fabric of the store. The whole building seemed to inhale the very nature of the woman’s accusation. John became as pale as a man who has seen his noose. John began to breathe quite quickly and unevenly. He placed money on the counter, gathered up his groceries and ran out of the store without once looking back. He ran to the apartment and made breakfast for his sister.
She woke to a loud “bang!” The breakfast lay ready on the kitchen table just as it did every morning. She sat down to eat. Although she did not like these foods, her brother worked terribly hard and so she felt obliged.