Your father’s in the backyard again, severing roots with a bush machete, tearing clear a path underfoot for new pipes. Your father, terry cloth hanging out of waistband, lanyard threaded around wrist, shirtless and cleaving; and when the bush machete misses its mark, breaking up not a cluster of roots but splitting his foot in half instead, you’re a minute later on the phone with Debbie from Emergency Care, asking could she please send over an ambulance?
They come for your father as they did your mother not a day earlier, your mother who’d drank from the kitchen faucet, ignorant yet of the change in the city’s water, afterwards off to McLaren to flush her body of lead. Father mutilated, Mother poisoned, you are left alone for the rest of April.
Not an hour parentless you’re out lying in the driveway drawing on the cement with chalk from your chalk pail, composing crime scene outlines numbered with construction paper creased down the middle. Crime scene chalk-drawing is what you’re doing when a yellow passenger van pulls up to your house, the kind of van your mother says she’ll never own because she doesn’t want any more children. The woman who gets out and kneels over where you are lying and drawing your own outline for the twenty-somethingth time says to you, Hello, I’m Julie from Babysitters of America. Your parents sent me over to look after you while they’re away.
You are not sure what to make of this Julie from Babysitters of America. You connect the rest of your outline, and taking a nub of purple chalk, you draw a line from one end of the sidewalk to the other, as though to say, This is your side, this is my side. Stay on your side.
With the chalk pail swinging next to your knees, you step up onto the front porch of your house and thumb open the screen door. Inside, there’s the mason jar of money your father puts his tips in, a far-reaching place above the kitchen cupboards. There’s the patio out back behind your house where the Flint River flows flat at night and fast when you catch it in the daytime. From the refrigerator you grab a Coca Cola and turn for the living room to watch cartoons, where you find Julie from Babysitters of America, who has not stayed on her side of the sidewalk, sitting on the couch flipping through your mother’s magazines.
Okay, you think, there are ways to combat this.
Julie goes about her babysitter duties. She sets up a Jenga tower on the living room carpet and pours you a dinner of Rice Krispies and asks if you’d like you go outside later, maybe play some kickball or jump rope, possibly hopscotch, she’s seen you with the chalk. You send blocks flying when you knock over the Jenga tower with your fist and you let the Rice Krispies snap, crackle, and pop in the kitchen sink uneaten and when you go outside later you turn on the spigot and thumb-spray Julie from Babysitters of America with a garden hose. You hear her call her boss as she slips over the wet lawn on her way to the yellow passenger van, Julie saying, I love children and I love my job but that child is a spawn of Satan.
Babysitters of America sends all kinds of babysitters. The rest of April is a week long and many sitters deep. The sitters that are sent come in cashmere and corduroys, from colleges to high schools to near Jesus in nursing homes. Most are women but there are men who don’t last an hour. Your father calls one evening in a morphine-drip voice and tells you to cut the shit, he’s paying good money to have you looked after. You say, Dad, I’m ten, I don’t need a babysitter. The connection to the call ends but the sitters do not.
For Chrissakes, you are ten and do not need a babysitter. You’re out burning ant hills in the front yard with your father’s BIC thinking you have succeeded, Babysitters of America has run out of sitters to send, when a woman pedals up your driveway on a two-speed. She leans it against the fence that separates your house and the neighbor’s, and she walks right past you, no Hello or This is who I am, and sits on your front porch and watches you burn ants and you are already thinking how you should go about getting rid of her.
The first thing you do is turn the spigot full blast to wash this woman into a storm drain. The gardening hose never fails. You put your thumb over the hose nozzle like your father showed you when he first got you to wash his car. When the spray hits her she does not get washed away and she does not get on her bike to leave but rather stands and jumps around the lawn shouting, Yes! Yes! Water fight! Yes!
This is discouraging. You turn off the hose and go inside. The woman follows you into the house, trailing water where she walks. She doesn’t ask what you want for dinner, doesn’t wonder if you want to play Monopoly or Jenga. You turn on the TV to Law & Order and watch Olivia Benson solve cases, fight crime, what you one day want to do yourself, enter the Police Academy and kick ass. The new sitter who has not spoken a word other than Yes! Yes! Water fight! Yes! sits on the couch next to you, a puddle pooling at her feet. You watch TV with this woman until after dark, thinking up ways you will get rid of her tomorrow, the sound of crime lulling the both of you to sleep.
In the morning you wake to a voice that is not Olivia Benson. The woman of yesterday is on the living room floor eating a bagel and reading what you see is A Beginner’s Guide to the English Language. She is sounding out Leaf, leaf. Through the fanlight light and daylight dawning through the windows you can better see this woman with her charcoal skin, looking young, high-school young, wearing parachute pants with beads tied into her hair. You get up off the couch and pull out a box of Golden Grahams from the pantry while listening to Leaf, leaf.
When the bagel-eating woman who is English-learning sees you pouring milk into your Grahams, she takes a seat on a stool at the counter, setting the book of English in front of her.
My name was Mabel, she says.
You’re not about to correct her.
I fly in from foreign, she says, taking community college here. Sitting for money extra. What do is it you want to do today?
Well, you say, what do is it I want to do is go down to Banana Boat Ice Cream and get a gummy worm flurry, sour. What do is it I want to do is bike ride all the way up to Huckleberry Railroad and lie on the tracks. How do that do sound? you say.
The plan was good, Mabel says.
While you eat, Mabel plurally sounds out Leaves, leaves, which is what you two do after you rinse your bowl with brown water from the tap, leaving and riding bikes with Mabel on your mother’s down Riverside, a left onto Davison, ice cream bound. It is a long bike ride and during it you’re thinking maybe you’re okay with having this sitter around, somebody who won’t bother you with words and goes along with most of all that you want.
When you get to Banana Boat Ice Cream they are closed. It’s April, you say, on a Friday, they should be open. You bike with Mabel towards Huckleberry Railroad, jangling pennies in your pockets that you’ll have the trains split like your father’s foot. The next street over, you and Mabel are stopped by a parade, men and women holding signs in protest of your city’s water.
You ease on your brakes, Mabel stops next to you, you watch them pass. After they’ve marched on to another block, Mabel suggests, Maybe we buy water from store? and that’s where you go instead of the railroad, biking to the local market where, when you get there, there is no more water on the shelves. We come back tomorrow, Mabel says.
When you make it home after a waterless day there are two voicemails on the answering machine, one from your father and the other from your mother. Your father says, I sent over one of my coworker’s daughters to look after you, they’re new in town so please show her some respect. The docs here have stitched me up good and I’m looking at another couple days in recovery. Your mother’s message says, Don’t drink the water.
Before you and Mabel leave at seven in the morning, you empty the kitchen cupboards of cups and bowls and set them out on the back porch to catch the raindrops slapping against the shingles. Wearing raincoats, you bike down to the market, but when you get there the entrance is blocked off by yesterday’s crowd, surrounding the trucks parked out front that are handing out cases of Aquafina. As you loop a bike lock cable around a telephone pole and through your spokes on the sidewalk, a man in the bed of one of the trucks calls out, One case per family! You and Mabel stand in line for an hour, and when you make it to the front the man handing out water gives you your case. As Mabel leads you through the crowd, a man in line steps forward and takes hold of the case-handing man’s legs, ripping them out from under him. You drop your case on the sidewalk, thinking this is it, your first opportunity to kick ass. You go to diffuse the situation along with officers who are already in motion, but rather than helping, you get an elbow to the eye by an officer. From the cement you watch the rest of what goes on through your good eye, many in the crowd joining the fight for water, officers battering them back with batons, and here you are on the ground, thinking maybe you don’t want to be a police officer after all.
When you get back from the market, Mabel’s in the bathroom pulling down pill bottles and deodorant and spare toothbrushes from behind the mirror and under the sink. You’re standing in the doorway leaning against the jam, and every now and then Mabel turns to you, looks at your eye and says, I am so fire, I am so fire. She finds a bottle of rubbing alcohol and holds it in her hand, reading the label. You know how bad it stings––you bolt and lock yourself in your bedroom.
Mabel coaxes you out with the promise of a mud shore day and Oreos, so long as you let her take a look at the cut that runs around it purple and blue. In the bathroom she leans your head over the sink and pours the rubbing alcohol, burning, flowing down your cheek and careening off the side of your face, dripping into the unstoppered drain. Mabel has you sit on the vanity top as she wipes and dabs at your eye with a hand towel, Mabel singing a song that begins, You are sunshine, only sunshine… this foreign girl, knowing and not knowing an American song, you know not how.
Where’d you learn that? you ask.
Sunshine song? Mabel says. Learned from old American boyfriend, him a love for music. Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash. No more now. Came here for him, but him leaving soon as I arrive. You believe it?
I’m sorry, you say, to hear that.
No worry. Was large ass.
Once Mabel cleans you up the two of you walk across the dirt road of Riverside Drive, stepping over the guardrail with your emptied chalk pail to the shore that slopes down into a gravel bed on the Flint River. Cross-legged, you scoop dirt and mud and rocks into your pail and make mud castles all morning. Mabel lays down a towel and bathes in the sun. For lunch you have saltines and turkey roll-ups, a bottle of water. You bring bubbles with you from the house and blow them big and circling over the river until Mabel by accident kicks the bottle over, spilling rainbow slick into the river’s waters. The two of you watch as the colors, purple, green, yellow, orange, mix with the waterway brown, knowing it won’t make a difference anyway, but still wondering who might end up drinking your waste.
You’re in the living room helping Mabel with A Beginner’s Guide to the English Language. It is the evening of the end of April and you are saying, No Mabel, plague, say it with me, plague. It’s a lot like vague, say it like that except with a P and an L. Plague.
Play-GUH, says Mabel.
Close enough, you say.
You are no longer sure of Olivia Benson, so instead of Law & Order on the TV you’ve got the newsman on channel four. The newsman on channel four talks a lot about your town and who messed up where, who is suing who and why, who is going to fix what, but right now nobody’s sure of anything. Everyone’s still blaming someone, fingers pointed.
Before you can move on from plague, your mother walks in the front door. Her face is drooping, sloughed off to one side. She looks down at you like she’s forgotten your name and pulls out a wad of cash from her purse, and without counting it hands it wordlessly to Mabel. Your mother shuffles away and shuts herself in her bedroom, going to bed for the rest of the day.
Though she’s been paid, Mabel stays throughout the afternoon and all that night, making you breakfast in the morning, Golden Grahams. You open the fridge and find a thumb of water left in the bottom of a gallon. All there’s left to do now is wait for your father to come home from the hospital, and for the water in this town to run clean.
James Braun’s work has appeared and is forthcoming in the Minnesota Review, failbetter, Zone 3, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. His short story “Clay” won the 2020 Herbert L. Hughes Short Story Award and is published in The Rectangle. James lives in Port Huron, Michigan.