The smell of diesel seeps in through the window with the first light of dawn. The engine huffs, blowing fumes through the cracks around my window. The five-a.m. bus is shuttling the first workers to the factories. I turn away, not ready to wake.
I stroke Sophie’s hair. It’s a pale yellow, like butter. Not that I remember what real butter looks like, but that’s what Grams says. Sophie breathes slowly, her thin chest rising and falling. Her brow is furrowed slightly; even in sleep she looks worried, which makes me worry. Always the fragile one of my two daughters, she’s had asthma since age two. Endless bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia twice in the past year alone, makes every cold a potential killer. Next to her, my youngest, Mia, snores like a bear. Not like a cub, but a full-grown grizzly. I wipe the shiny stream of drool off her chin, making her stir. She grumbles and rolls over. I inhale the faint sweet scent of soap lingering in her thick, tangled hair. A dark brown, like mine. I washed it two nights ago, and Sophie’s three nights ago. My own hair was greasy, plastered to my forehead. I only wash it once a week now in the winter; there’s just not enough hot water to spare.
The pain pulses in my lower jaw, throbbing in time with my heart beat. A foul taste coats the inside of my mouth from my rotten tooth. Not today, I tell myself. It will not hurt today. I bury my face in Mia’s hair, holding Sophie close with my other arm. Five more minutes.
Too soon I must leave our cozy nest for the hard, cold air and ice-slick streets. I must wrap myself in layers to board the 6:25 a.m. bus to the factory. I can’t be late.
As I climb out of bed, my body aches, hating to leave my precious girls. I kiss each precious head, trying not to wake them. But Sophie always wakes; “Don’t go, Mama,” she whimpers, pulling on my arm.
“I must go, sweet girl. Sleep a little longer before school. I love you.” I kiss her head again and tuck in the quilts around them.
I hurry to pee, then I splash cold water on my face and swish with Grams’ homemade mouthwash for just a moment. It’s nearly as toxic as battery acid and numbs my abscessed tooth, at least for a few minutes. I change out of Mac’s threadbare flannel pajamas and into his old work pants. I cinch them above my hips with a belt, then layer a cotton t-shirt, flannel, and my wool coat on top. He was always skinnier than me, but I’m so skinny now it’s almost a hazard to wear such loose clothes. But they make me feel warmer and safer than anything else. Mac and I never married, we couldn’t afford that, but he was my husband in every way that mattered.
“Morning,” Grams said; “You should eat a bite before you go.” Dressed in her worn blue robe, she stood over the hot plate, heating the oatmeal with water for herself. For the girls, she’d thicken it with powdered milk. Then she’d send Sophie down to get on the bus with the other kids lucky enough to go to school, while Mia would stay home and help Grams watch the littler kids that neighbors paid her to watch. And while the little ones napped, Mia played with the other kids who couldn’t go to school, roaming the hallways or playing in the alleyway.
“Not today. Love you,” I said, hugging her from the side, feeling her warmth and strength.
“At least take some mints,” she said; “Stay warm.”
I grab a peppermint candy from the tin by the door and hurried out into the world. I press the mint into my palm and stow my hands in my coat pockets as I brace myself for the blast of January air. I maneuver around the gray snow clumps on the sidewalk to my bus stop. My tongue carefully feels the throbbing abscess. I could hardly chew any more without pain shooting up through my jaw. The tooth is past saving. And if I didn’t pay someone to pull it soon, the rot would spread to my bones and my blood. Our old neighbor died of an infected, abscessed tooth because he didn’t have the money for a dentist or even a back alley “tooth specialist.” I’m better off, but barely. I have $340 saved up, which would be enough for the back alley, but barely half of what it will cost at the real clinic. And I want the clean tools, clean gauze, and the antibiotics. Grams offered to pull my tooth with plyers, only half joking. She has only five good teeth left herself.
I carefully peel my mint and plop it in—sweet relief for my dry mouth. I wedge myself into the bus, shoulder to shoulder, back to back, with everyone else. The relief from the biting cold soon becomes stifling hot misery. I loosen my scarf and fix my eyes on the yellow rail above me to quell the nausea in my empty stomach.
The list of needs marches its well-worn circle in my head. My tooth. Mia’s hand-me-down boots are too small and so worn that the right sole is paper thin and the left sole peeling off. Sophie will soon need a refill on her inhaler. Grams needs insulin. She’s 72 and is losing her vision, but she refuses my help, “Save your pennies for those girls. They’re all that matter now,” she tells me.
And they are. They’re why Grams and I only eat twice a day, if that. Why every other month I take the bus to the northside clinic to sell plasma for extra money. But still we barely survive. Sophie has to use her inhaler at least three times a day. We live with mold and God knows what else in this crumbling building. I dread the day of when another flu pandemic ravages the sixth ward like it did eight years ago, killing so many. Or tuberculosis, which took my Mom ten years ago. Sophie wouldn’t survive.
Grams once said I should send Mia to school, not Sophie, because Mia is healthier. Because she was tough—like me and Grams. Think of the future, she said. I do. And I told Grams why Sophie, not Mia. If Sophie sits around at home all day, she’ll wilt away and die young. But she blooms in the classroom – books are her only way out. Mia is smart too, but in a different way. Street smart, athletic, quick to think and act. She will survive no matter what. Grams never mentioned it again.
Mia’s old enough now to realize it’s not fair for her. Sophie knows it’s not fair either. Thankfully Sophie is sweet and patient, teaching Mia what she can herself, copying those worksheets for Mia. I hope it’s enough. I hope it’s enough so that when Sophie’s older and graduates, she’ll get out of here and somehow take Mia with her.
And then I can rest.
I join the crowd hurrying to the riverfront. Years ago, this was where all the shiny new refrigerators, washers and dryers would be loaded into containers, picked up by trucks or trains, and delivered across the country. But we didn’t make new appliances here anymore—we pulled apart old ones. Industrial scrapping and textile recycling—that’s how we survived now.
I follow the line into the locker room, glancing at the faded face of the clock on the wall. Six minutes until 7:00 a.m. I peel off my layers and hang them in my locker, retrieving my work gloves and my seam-ripping tool. Before going to the floor, I stop at the kitchen and drink a shot of the energy drink they pour each morning – a single shot of artificially caffeinated water instead of a 12-ounce cup of coffee means fewer bathroom breaks. It contains vitamin C, to keep us “healthy,” and tastes like orange aspirin, burning my throat and nostrils as I step onto the floor.
Grab, rip, split, throw. Repeat. Buttons in the bin to my right. Zippers and grommets in the bin to my left. Snaps behind me. Clothing remnants on the conveyor belt – denim on one side, all else on the other. I hate tearing through clothing that was still wearable. Beyond a brown stain or a few little holes, most things were fine. Far nicer than anything I’d ever worn. But people in the richer places could discard the old and buy the new.
It was deadening work. The only good part was the first of each month. When the shipments came, they let us take two pieces of clothing each from the bins straight off the trucks. That’s how we got clothes and shoes.
Lunch is 20 minutes for the bathroom, water, and instant noodles. One seasoning packet of salt and chicken flavor for each of us. We’re all still hungry an hour later, but it’s better than nothing. For me, dinner is usually potato flakes with powdered milk, or rice and a few canned green beans. We eat real canned chicken twice a week, if we’re lucky. Canned beans four times a week, with powdered milk once a day.
We’re all protein starved, Grams said, but not much to do when there’s no fresh meat in the city, not anywhere on the bus line at least. Canned beans and meat are too expensive to eat every day, and peanut butter is too expensive period. I still remembered the sticky sweetness of peanut butter, how it would stick to the roof of my mouth when I’d lick it straight off the spoon. We even had honey when I was little, before the last big crash. Peanut butter and honey together—what heaven.
I sighed and drank the rest of my noodle broth. My girls had never had either, which was just as well. They don’t know what they’re missing.
When they were babies, Mac used to talk about saving enough money to go west to North Dakota. We’d hitch a ride with a truck driver and go to the oil fields where they still needed men. They’d pay him so well that I wouldn’t even have to work – I could stay home with the girls in one of the “mini homes” that they gave all workers and their families. Based on the fliers I’d seen, the mini homes looked like nothing more than third-hand shipping containers halved in two, with tiny windows and a front door stuck on. But I didn’t say anything to dim the spark in his eyes; “As long as we can take Grams too,” I’d say.
I dreamed of the wilderness somewhere deep in Montana. A little clearing hidden by mountains and forest where we’d build a cabin from trees we felled ourselves. We’d drink water from a mountain stream and eat the deer we hunted and killed with bow and arrow. In the summer, we’d grow vegetables and can them for the winter.
But there was no free land left in this country. It had all been parceled and sold off to developers and rich men to create their private fiefdoms. What a foolish dream I’d had. Mac’s dream was less foolish, and it might have actually happened if he hadn’t gotten sick. Over just six months, his cheeks sunk inward as all the fat and muscle seemed to melt off him, leaving only bones and pallid skin.
He would hardly eat and when he did, he’d vomit most of it up. The free clinic was still open then. A doctor – pregnant and just a few years older than me – examined him and gave us no answers beyond malnourishment and anemia. She prescribed Mac more iron for anemia and gave him vitamins for free, “He needs iron and protein. Ideally meat,” the doctor said; “But I’m afraid I can’t give you that…I can’t afford any myself,” she said.
I suspected she found more than she told us. Her eyes widened when she looked at his blood test results, but she said his results were “inconclusive” and told us to return in two weeks for a follow-up. But soon after the clinic was overrun with the flu outbreak and the doctor had left on maternity leave. We tried the hospital once, but they just gave him anti-nausea medicine, ibuprofen, and sent us home with a $400 bill.
We did our best at home. Grams somehow found some stew bones from a butcher shop in the suburbs. She made bone broth for him with special herbs and garlic every day, but it wasn’t enough. He was wasting away. He vomited every day to the point he couldn’t hold down solid food, vitamins, medicine or anything except water and broth.
When he became too weak to work, they fired him, of course. I think that’s what killed him as much as the mystery illness – knowing he couldn’t take care of us anymore. He only survived three weeks after that. Days were bad but the nights were hell – fevers, chills, hallucinations. He was thirsty but could never hold down enough liquid to quench it. And I couldn’t make him better. Early one morning, I woke to the sounds of rasping breathe. He clutched my hand and died not an hour later.
I barely had time to mourn because Sophie’s asthma attacks started not long after that. Life doesn’t wait, it barrels onward. But I still think of him every day and I think of that pregnant doctor and what she knew but never told us. And I think of the hospital and wonder if they could’ve saved him had we pushed more, if we’d thrown more money at them, could they have saved him? I’ll never know.
Hours later, my shift was over. My hands were stiff and worn, my back aching, and my tooth throbbing. The foul taste is back, blood and saliva coating my swollen gums. I can’t let this go on much longer.
I counted my money in my head. I could pay half now at the clinic. If they let me pay the rest over the next six months, I could do it without sacrificing any medication for Sophie. But if they didn’t, or they charged interest, then I’d have to take my chances with the “tooth specialist” on 12th Street.
I’ll go tomorrow after work, I decided as I trudged upstairs. Then I heard the worst sound a mother could hear. Mia’s cries filled the stairwell.
I found her, clinging to Sophie as Grams cleaned the bloody wound on the bottom of her foot. A rusty nail had pierced the worn sole of Mia’s third-hand, too-small boot. Sophie had been vaccinated as a toddler, but not Mia. The free clinic had closed by then. I should’ve taken her elsewhere; I should’ve found a way.
Grams rinsed water over it again. “It’s deep, but not too deep. It should be OK” she said, but I could hear the doubt in her voice.
“It will,” I said and knelt down by Mia. I looked at the circular hole in her precious little foot and bit down my fear. Mia was watching me and my expression very closely. “It will be fine, Mia,” I said looking in her wide brown eyes; “But we should get it checked. Just in case.”
Tears streamed down Sophie’s pale cheeks. “What if it’s tetanus?”
A boy in Sophie’s class died from tetanus last year – an awful death too. He hadn’t been vaccinated and cut his arm when he fell off a dumpster, onto an old board.
“Don’t worry, Soph,” said Mia; “I’ll be fine. It’s just a little hole.” Sophie hugged her little sister. My heart swelled so much that I hardly noticed the throbbing in my jaw any more.
“You’ve done good for these girls,” Grams whispered; “Get yourself some pain meds while you’re there and schedule that tooth extraction. This should cover at least half.” She slipped a stack of bills into my hand. Twenties, tens, and even two fifties.
“Grams! How…” I gasped.
“Don’t you worry about it,” she said; “I have my ways…and neighbors who owed. So, I collected.”
That made me laugh out loud. A sound so foreign, Sophie and Mia whirled to look at me. Grams grinned too, an even rarer sight, “Thank you,” I said and hugged her tight. I picked Mia up and bundled her into her coat – Sophie’s old coat that I had salvaged from the recycle bin two years ago, with extra stuffing stolen from pillows and stitched in by Grams.
“I’m sorry, Mama,” Mia whispered into my neck as we braced against the biting wind outside.
“Don’t be sorry, my love. It’s not your fault someone left a rusty nail lying around. And it’s not your fault you don’t have new, sturdy boots to protect your feet.” I promised myself new shoes for Mia would be next, then my tooth. The list of needs in my head would keep marching.
But first, the hospital, “Come on, Mia, let’s catch the bus.”
Erica Steele is an editor by day and a writer by night. A Texas expat turned Oregonian, she loves gentle rain and strong coffee.